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My Brother's Keeper

Chapter Text

Simple living is my desperate cry
Been trading love with indifference
Yeah it suits me just fine
I try to hold on but I'm calloused to the bone
Maybe that's why I feel so alone

~Creed

Do you ever find yourself looking at your life, and wonder what went wrong? Why it hasn't turned out how you'd imagined it to be? Wonder what happened to all your dreams and hopes and desires? Do you sometimes look back to try and pin-point the exact moment where things changed? Where your future ended before it had begun?

I don't.

Because I know that moment. That exact moment, to the very day and hour. My life changed forever the moment my parents were murdered, and any childish plans and dreams I had were forgotten in that instant, consigned to a scrapheap in my mind. Ideas of a future that no longer exists. For eight years now it's been just me and my brother; us against the world. Sure, other people have dropped into our lives – we had the Thunder Academy for a while – but they've left again just as quickly.

Now it's all changed. There are others in our lives now that we have to work with, get along with, fight with. My brother is happy; he is back at school and has friends, and a new love interest. But I don't know these people; I don't trust them and I'm not entirely sure they trust me. Still, that's the least of my worries. I have far more mundane ones, much closer to home.

The bill's lying on the table, all pure and innocent looking on white paper. I glare at it murderously, almost hoping the sheer force of my will can cause it to wink out of existence. It doesn't so much as twitch. I'm tempted to throw a thunder bolt at it, but that'll only incinerate the paper, and wreck the table beneath it. It won't solve the problem. And we can't afford a new table.

The sound of the bathroom door opening catches my attention and I snatch up the piece of paper, shoving it roughly into my backpack just as my brother walks into the kitchen, towelling his damp hair.

"Hey bro, what's up?" he asks, draping the towel around his neck and grabbing a slice of unbuttered toast off a plate.

"Nothing", I say shortly, then instantly regret my tone as I see a flash of confusion in his eyes. Blake doesn't need to know about my worries; he has more important ones. "Are you ready? You're going to be late for school." I hope my brusqueness covers my earlier snappiness.

Blake pulls a face at me through a mouthful of toast and rolls his eyes.

"Tori's picking me up. I'm not going to be late." He must have read something in my face because he quickly swallows and adds, "Don't worry. I'm meeting her downstairs." I can hear the unspoken disapproval in his voice, aimed at my only real house-rule: no visitors. Not even them.

"I was wondering though…" I know what's coming; a rehashing of our old argument, but at that moment Blake's morpher lets out a couple of beeps. He sighs, "That's Tori. I'd better be off."

"Have fun," I say, forcing a smile.

Blake rolls his eyes at me again. "Have fun at work."

I snort, but as soon as my brother leaves my smile does too, my mind drawn back to the bill in my backpack. It really is time to go to work. I need to go and play nice with Kelly in the hope that she can give me some more hours. If that fails I have to hope the bar I work at will have some late shifts available. A real job's out of the question; even if the small fact of running off the save the world every now and again would get me fired before I'd worked a week, the reality is a real job… just isn't possible. Not for me.

I shake off those thoughts quickly. I'm pragmatic; I deal with what I have in front of me. There's no point looking back and wondering about what ifs. No, I have to deal with the present. And the present involves getting my butt down to Storm Chargers before I'm late.

It doesn't take long to get there. Our apartment is in a run down building in the bad part of town. Blake pretty much refuses to walk around there by himself, but it doesn't bother me that much. The walk is quiet, streets practically deserted apart from a few kids who should be school lurking on the corner of the block. They glare at me but I meet their eyes calmly. They blink first.

I reach Storm Chargers ten minutes later.

Kelly is just unlocking the back door as I arrive, trying to juggle the keys with a box of new stock and her handbag.

"Here, let me", I say as I reach past her to take the box. She grins at me and pushes the door open, walking into the office and throwing the keys on the desk as she passes it on the way to the small kitchen to make coffee. Kelly doesn't speak until she's had her morning caffeine fix.

While she's absent I make myself busy in the back room, sorting stock and other little tasks that need to be done before the store opens. I'm just reading through a list of motorcycle parts that need ordering for some guy's bike when Kelly returns, pressing a hot cup of coffee on me. I don't need it to wake up, but the fact she always does it for me brings a smile to my face. As bosses go, Kelly is probably the best I've had. She's friendly, but not overly familiar. She doesn't pry into my private life, though god knows she must want to given how often Blake, Dustin and I run off mid-shift, and she doesn't pretend to know me. All in all, she's alright.

Once the store's open time passes fairly quickly. There're not too many customers, but that's pretty normal for a week day morning. We have a good routine set up on the days I'm on the early shift; I look after the shop front while Kelly's in the back doing the accounts, then once she finishes I head into the workshop to start work on the bikes. I'm not officially a mechanic, but unless there is really no one else to mind the front, Kelly tries to keep me away from the customers. I'm a fairly tolerant person, just not very patient. I can't say I understand how I always manage to rub people up the wrong way, but I do. I think it's a knack. So Kelly keeps me out back with the bikes. It's less painful for everyone.

It's sad to admit it, but I get on better with machines than people.

I'm just finishing tuning up a customer's engine when Kelly sticks her head in to check how I'm doing. She's waving another cup of coffee at me so I grab an old rag to wipe the oil off my hands and join her, boosting myself onto the work bench.

"How's it going?" she says, indicating the bike.

"Nearly done." My reply is short, business-like. Kelly seems to appreciate it. We sit in companionable silence for a long moment, sipping our hot drinks gingerly. Finally, deciding now is as good a time as any to broach the subject of more hours with my boss, I hurriedly swallow the mouthful of coffee I've just taken and clear my throat,

"Kelly, I was wondering, I don't suppose there're any extra shifts going are there?" Before she can answer I press on with my rehearsed excuse. "It's just, it's Blake's birthday next month" – not exactly a lie – "and I was hoping for a little extra cash to put towards it."

I know Kelly's answer before she's even opened her mouth. There's a look of sympathy on her face, which is never a good sign. "Hunter, I'm sorry. You know I would if I could but I just don't have the money to spare for extra hours."

I settle my features into what I know is an easy grin, brushing off Kelly's response as if it doesn't matter, "Hey, no worries. As I said, it was just a thought. Blake'll have to make do." Kelly smiles back at me and pats me on the shoulder as she hops off the bench to serve a customer. I rub a hand over my face, feeling the grin fall away. It shouldn't be this easy to fool people into thinking you're someone you're not, but I guess I've had a lot of practice. Most of the time even Blake can't tell when I'm faking it. Sometimes I wonder where the real me actually is, if he exists at all. That makes me sound sort of depressed I know, but that's not true. Honestly. I'm not sad, or angry, or anything really. Feelings don't apply to me. I learnt a long time ago it was easier to survive if I didn't have them.

Unfortunately people don't seem to think that's natural, or healthy, so I put on a façade. I let people see what they want to see and they don't question me. It's best for everyone.

I lose myself in the bikes, concentrating on completely stripping a dirt bike engine. I'm not entirely sure what the owner's managed to do to it, so I have to take it apart and rebuild it from scratch. It's not that difficult; I've done it enough times that it's habit. Once the spark plugs are removed and the carburettors disconnected I can take the engine off the frame and set it on the floor to properly begin working on it. I'm so focused on the job at hand that I lose track of everything else, awash in a calm, almost meditative state.

"Hey bro."

The voice is unexpected and I look up to see Blake grinning at me over the counter.

"Why aren't you at school?" I growl, annoyance rising.

"Dude, it's four. School's over." Dustin's head joins Blake's and they both laugh. I must look a mess, sitting on the floor surrounded by bits of bike engine. There's probably oil on my face; it wouldn't be a surprise, it's everywhere else.

My suspicions are confirmed by a light, lilting feminine laugh joining the boys. "Oh Hunter, what do you look like?" Tori's blue eyes are sparkling with life, her joyous nature always a source of sunshine in a grey world. Blake's world, that is, not mine. Her perkiness can be down right irritating, especially when it's aimed at me. And she confuses me.

The others are far simpler. Easy-going, trusting Dustin doesn't seem to care anymore that we used him, treated him as dirt and almost got him killed. He says he's forgiven us, and is completely cool around us.

If only it was that easy.

Shane's the opposite. He doesn't trust us, and he certainly doesn't like us. Well, more specifically me. I don't blame him.

Cam tolerates us. He's not particularly friendly, but then he's not particularly friendly to the Wind Rangers either so at least he's treating us equally. I respect Cam; unlike Shane he doesn't pretend that we're friends, or could even be friends. He keeps things professional, even if Blake and I did kidnap his father, and I appreciate that.

But Tori… Tori is sneaky. Tori is manipulative. Tori is caring. I thought, I hoped, that with her and Blake hitting it off so well she wouldn't bother me. But no such luck. For some reason that I can't fathom see seems determined to include me in things, to be friends. I don't know why. I don't know what she sees in me. I guess it's because she wants to date Blake so figures it would be easier if we all just got along. I don't think she realises we'd get on a lot better if she'd just leave me alone.

"Hunter, you ok?"

It's Kelly's turn to interrupt my thoughts this time and I blink at her stupidly. She smiles, "You were miles away. Your shift's almost done but…" She pauses, checking Blake is out of hearing. "If you want to finish this bike this afternoon I can afford some overtime. Made a couple of big sales today."

"Kelly-"

"Don't mention it," she says with a wink, before glancing at the mess I've made. "Just clean up after yourself."

I nod and fix my attention back to the bike when the others appear again. "Bro, we're heading to the beach. You coming?"

I shake my head. "Nah, promised Kelly I'd get this bike done today. You go ahead. Have fun."

That should have been it. They should have gone and left me in peace, and would have done, if it wasn't for that meddling, conniving Tori, with her butter-wouldn't-melt innocent look, poking her head around Blake and reminding me, reminding everyone, about the pizza night around Shane's later on. Pizza night, team bonding night, pure torture… Whatever you wanted to call it, I was not impressed. I'd hoped they might have forgotten, or at least forgotten me but no chance. And I couldn't get out of it. The look on Blake's face alone tells me that my presence is more than just requested; it is required.

Just great.

I have nothing against the Wind Rangers; we just don't have anything in common. They're three seventeen year old high school students, who live at home with parents they get along with, to varying degrees, who have had a fairly sheltered upbringing by all accounts. Apart from the attack on the Wind Academy, and their recent experiences fighting Lothor, they've never truly experienced loss or hardship. Sometimes they even see fighting as a joke, as if the fate of the world isn't in their hands, as if Lothor isn't a murdering bastard but someone to be laughed at, or pitied. I realise I'm holding a wrench in a death-grip and sigh. Time to shut down those thoughts and pull my mind back to the job in hand.

It no longer surprises me how simple it is to do. Shut down, shut out the thoughts and memories and feelings and just be wonderfully, blissfully numb. I want to get the bike finished quickly; Kelly's paying me for the extra time but I'm not one to spin a job out, no matter how much I need the money.

Once I put my mind to it the engine is finished within the hour. All it needed was the piston replacing; a simple enough job. I find working with my hands soothing. I understand machines: bikes and, to a lesser degree, cars. They're… uncomplicated. They are logical. They can be fixed. Not like humans.

I clean up the mess I've made, putting tools back in their correct places. Systematic, organised, just how I like it. I wipe the worst of the oil and grease off me with an old rag, and then go and check out with Kelly. The shop is deserted by now and she waves me off with a smile.

I trudge home and drown myself in the shower. The water is icy. I can't remember the last time I had a hot shower. Blake and I can cope without. There's no point in heating the water; it's literally just burning money. I grab the bar of coarse soap and try to work it into a lather, but it just smears greasily across my skin. It doesn't agree with the cold. I rub my hands through my hair and then stand there for a long moment, just letting the water sluice over me. I enjoy a few minutes of peace, of shutting my mind off completely, no thoughts, nothing but the rushing of water in my ears.

Peace.

The sound of our apartment door opening brings me back to reality. I sigh and switch off the shower, turning the faucet a little rougher than I'd intended. Time to put on my mask and play nice.

It takes a good half hour to walk to Shane's, just on the outskirts of Blue Bay. Yes, walk. We can't ninja streak as it counts as 'personal use', not to mention the fact it's pretty impossible to streak unnoticed through busy streets, and we don't have a car. Dirt bikes are for racing only. We have to wait at the gate to be buzzed in. Did I mention Shane lives in a mansion? Well, a very large house anyway. Compared to mine and Blake's two room slum it's practically a palace. As we're admitted into the huge entrance hall I can feel my hackles rise already. Not a good start, especially when we're meant to be here to 'bond'. There's the clattering of feet on tiles and Dustin bursts into the hall from one of the corridors.

"Dudes! Finally. Tori and Shane wouldn't let us start until you arrived and I'm starving." Seemingly oblivious to the disapproving look he is getting from the housekeeper, he grabs Blake's arm. "Come on, they're waiting in the kitchen" he says as he propels him back the way he'd come.

I follow behind, down a long tastefully (I guess, not that I know anything about interior design) decorated corridor which opens up into a huge kitchen. I mean huge. Our apartment could easily fit in to it, no problem. But then again, our apartment could quite probably fit into the main room of Ninja Ops so it's not much of a comparison. Tori and Shane are standing at the central island. Shane is making dough. Actually making dough, for the pizza bases. Homemade pizza for pizza night, who knew? Dustin's showing Blake the selection of toppings and I can see my brother's enthusiasm grow. Real food, fresh vegetables, a proper meal instead of the cheap microwave things we've been living on.

My stomach growls appreciatively and I remember I've only had a couple of cups of coffee since breakfast.

"Do you need a hand?" I offer.

I'm always more comfortable when I'm making myself useful.

Shane shakes his head, concentrating on rolling the dough out. I feel a presence beside me and turn to see Tori grinning my way.

"We're not allowed to interfere. Pizza making is Shane's baby. His dads mum's Italian and taught him how to make real pizza. Not our poor American alternative."

There's a friendly teasing behind her words and I realise I've stumbled across an old argument.

"My nonna makes the best pizza," Shane says calmly. "But if you'd rather order take-away, phone's in the hall."

"No dude, don't say that. Take-away'll take forever to get here," Dustin chimes in, his voice muffled somewhat by the slice of pepperoni he's stuffed in his mouth.

Shane glares at him. "If you keep eating the toppings you're going to have a very plain pizza."

Dustin just sticks his tongue out at our nominal leader and reaches for another slice. Shane takes a swipe at him with the rolling pin but Dustin is quick. Surprisingly quick, snatching up another piece of pepperoni and dancing nimbly away before Shane can hit him. The taller man brandishes the wooden implement at Dustin.

"Don't make me ban you from the kitchen," he says, mock fiercely.

Dustin crosses his eyes and pokes his tongue out again, darting behind Blake as Shane dives at him. My brother laughs and ducks out of the way, yelling at Dustin not to get him involved, while sneaking some pepperoni into his own mouth. Tori giggles as Shane launches himself at both boys with a growl. Blake runs behind Tori, using her as a shield but it's Dustin who Shane focuses on, chasing him around the table a couple of times. Their antics are childish and carefree, but amusing to everyone in the room.

To everyone it seems, but me.

I realise I should be laughing, or smiling, or at least reacting. But I'm just standing here. I had, for the briefest of moments, forgotten who I was meant to be this evening. I quickly plaster a smile on my face, hoping no one's noticed. I catch Tori giving me a strange look, just for a second, and I wonder if she saw. But her gaze is drawn back to Dustin as he steals another slice of pepperoni from right under Shane's nose. Her laughter is like a clear, tinkling bell, and it's infectious; my brother's happy chuckle mingling with it. It's nice to hear Blake laugh properly again, and the smile that comes to my lips isn't quite as forced as before.

Shane turns his attention away from the grinning Dustin and back to the dough, rolling it to his satisfaction and then finally allowing us to put our own toppings on. I give Blake a warning look as he begins loading up his pizza, a silent admonition not to go overboard. We don't want to raise suspicions. He gives me a small smile in return; message received.

By the time the pizza's cooked I'm definitely ready for it. I suspect I'm hungrier than Dustin, though he's more vocal about it. We congregate in the movie room with our pizzas and soda. Soda, because I'm the only one old enough to drink alcohol. I could kill for a beer. But I'll have to make do with soda.

While the boys, Blake included, argue over what film to watch, I focus on not wolfing down the pizza. Bite, chew, swallow, repeat. A mindless, repetitive activity, just what I need. I see Blake giving me a concerned look and wonder if my mask's slipped, but then the opening music of the dvd grabs my attention and the reason for his worry is clear. The Great Escape. Ah.

It's ok. I can deal. It's ok. I'm fine. Shut down, shut down, shut down. I find myself repeating those words in my head, over and over and over again, like some sort of mantra. If I concentrate on the words I don't have to concentrate on the film, or the memor- No. I can deal. It's ok. I'm fine. It's…

"Anyone need a refill?" I stand up so suddenly I almost drop my cleared plate that I'd had balanced on my lap. Blake's worried look has returned and I wave my empty glass at him with a carefree grin.

It feels like I've nailed it to my face.

I head to the bathroom first, resisting the urge to kick something as I walk down the corridor. Only once the door's safely locked behind me do I let myself sink down against it, my hands trembling from the effort of suppressing the feelings that are currently hammering against the dam I've built up in my mind. All I need is a few minutes of blessed silence before the raging thoughts are still again.

I welcome the numbness like an old friend.

Calm once more, I get up and walk on tingling legs to the sink to splash water on my face, giving myself a quick once over in the mirror to check the mask's back in place. I look fine. I am fine. If I can't quite bring myself to meet my own gaze in the glass, well, that's just because I'm not vain.

Tori's in the kitchen when I wander in to get more soda. She looks at me expectantly, eyes searching my face as if she's looking for something. Perhaps she's waiting for me to speak first. I think it would be the polite thing to do, but I'm not sure. I'm no good at social situations, or at reading people. Especially not women. What is the social etiquette for being alone with your brother's girlfriend? Or sort-of girlfriend? I'm sure I should be speaking right now. Why isn't she saying anything? I cross the kitchen and open the fridge. I came in to refill my drink so that's what I'm going to do. I'm sure I should be saying something, but I don't. Instead I make sure I pour the perfect glass of soda, tilting the glass so the fizz doesn't rise up and spill over the top. I'm so concentrated on my task that when she does speak it makes me jump.

"Are you ok?"

My hand jerks, sending clear sparkling liquid all over the previously pristine work surface. Damn. I stare at the little bubbles rising to the surface of the pool, mesmerised by their popping and hissing.

"Hunter?"

She's suddenly beside me with kitchen roll, wiping up the mess I've made. I feel like a small child again.

"I'm sorry. I'm just really tired. It's been a long day." I even manage to make myself sound sleepy.

She smiles at me sympathetically, covering my hand with hers. "You should get some rest."

I pull back from her touch as if I've been burned. It's just… too familiar, too personal, too close.

"Sorry." Even to me my apology sounds empty. "I would leave but Blake's having fun."

"And you're not?"

I curse myself for my poor choice of words, and curse her for being too bloody perceptive.

"I don't like the movie." I say it off-hand, as if it doesn't matter to me. She doesn't say anything to that so I pick up my glass and head for the door, "We should get back in there."

"Hunter, you don't have to stay." I turn back to see her standing there with her arms crossed. What is she talking about? Of course I have to stay. It's expected. It's what teammates do; hang out together. Not to mention Blake'd kill me if I ran out on everyone.

But Tori doesn't see it that way apparently. "We won't mind, you know. If you're worried about Blake I can always drop him back when we're done."

So that's it. Now I understand. They want me here about as much as I want me to be here. Can't say I blame them. I'm really no fun. I know I was only invited along this evening because of Blake. Can't have one brother without the other; that would be rude. But I don't fit here. I don't fit with them. I never fit. They don't want me here. I don't want to be here.

I need to leave.

I put my soda back down on the side, the glass clinking sharply against the marble work surface. "Then I'll go."

"Hunter." Tori sounds exasperated. An emotion I can pick up on. I often seem to make people exasperated. "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant if you weren't enjoying yourself we're not going to force you to stay. You need sleep. Can't burn the candle at both ends you know."

Now I hear pity. I can't stand pity. But she's trying to be nice, even if she doesn't mean it. I'll give her that.

A wave of exhaustion washes over me. I am tired. Tired of pretending. I just want to go home, sleep, be alone. I'm not going to fight.

"Sorry Tori, I know what you meant. I'm just really tired. Will you give the others my apologies? And see Blake gets home safe?" My tone is conciliatory.

Just let me go.

"Ok Hunter," she says softly. "I'll see you tomorrow, at Ops?"

I nod and walk out. I want to run, but I have too much self control for that. Soon enough I'm out of the house into the cool fresh night air. Into the darkness.

Alone.

Chapter Text

Usually the queen of figuring out
Breaking down a man is no work out
But I have no clue
How to get through to you

~Katy Perry

I pride myself on my ability to read others.

It's a knack I've always had, being able to see underneath the surface, beyond the fronts people put up. See through the lies and half-truths to the people they really are. To the person they don't want to be seen as.

Everyone does it, whether they know it or not; present a face to the world that isn't really them, but rather the them they want people to believe they are. Their fronts put their best features first, and hide all their insecurities, flaws and petty jealousies. But personalities are a bit like a surfboard; you can put a sheet over it but you can still see what shape it is underneath.

Still, people try. Some hide more of themselves than others. Some are better at it than others.

I know my teammates do it.

And I can see what they don't want to be seen.

Shane likes to show the world his tough, capable, composed side. He definitely likes to think he's in control, but underneath he worries he's not cut out to lead us. He doesn't see his potential. He's insecure, thanks to his wonderfully overbearing father and golden boy brother. I've met Porter a couple of times, college-graduate and successful businessman, but not a whole lot of nice. Shane feels pressure to follow in his footsteps. He thinks he's not good enough as he is. But instead of focusing on his good points, which are many, he focuses on his flaws, his imperfections, seeing every mistake as a devastating personal blow. He thinks no one notices, he thinks we're blind to how he much he beats himself up, but I'm not.

Dustin always comes across as an airhead. Goofy, scatterbrained and woefully naive; people often assume he's careless, but he's actually incredibly caring. We've been best friends since kindergarten and I know he's not as stupid as he appears to be. He's cleverer than he looks; he just doesn't have as much common sense as he should have. It doesn't help that he's very trusting – too trusting – and he gets taken advantage of. Like when he befriended Blake and Hunter and they betrayed us all. I know he was hurt by that a lot more than he let on, but he's also wonderfully forgiving. He can bounce back from adversary in a way I'm genuinely jealous of. I wish I could let go of bad feelings the way he can.

Cam's almost the opposite of Dustin. He doesn't trust easily, and he forgives even less. He hides it well, always with calm professionalism, but underneath I know he's still annoyed that Shane, Dustin and I were given the Wind morphers. We haven't done too badly since then, but we've got a long way to go before we earn his respect. I can see his point of view; we weren't exactly model students before Lothor arrived, but I'd like to think we've acquitted ourselves well enough since then to show we do our positions proud. I actually get along pretty well with Cam. I think it helps I was the most responsible one out of our group before we became Rangers. He thinks I was held back by Shane and Dustin, and I'll admit there's probably some truth in that. But at the same time, I firmly believe that it's our friendship that makes us work well as a team.

As I said, everyone puts on a front, to varying degrees. Even me. I hide my fears for my friends and future behind a cheerful exterior which I know sometimes grates on people's nerves. I used to think Shane was the biggest culprit, but then I met him.

Hunter freaking Bradley.

Dark, brooding and mysterious. I find my abilities fail me when it comes to the newest addition to our team. He's the complete opposite of his brother. Blake's the most honest and open person I think I've ever met, which is strange when you consider the life he's had. Not that I know much about it. I'm sure Blake would tell me, but I haven't really brought myself to ask for details. It's not exactly something you can bring up in casual conversation.

Blake really seems to be trying with us. Not just because we're a team, but because he genuinely wants to be our friends. My friend. I know how upset he was when Lothor's deception was revealed, and not just because he'd been so close to the man who had killed his parents, but because of how he'd treated us. How he treated me. He's determined to make amends, to be part of the team and earn our trust. He's thrown himself whole-heartedly into his new life, not only as a Ranger, but also attending our High School and working at Storm Chargers.

He... fits. He's made the effort to fit.

But Hunter… Hunter extrudes this tough, brooding, bad-boy air, but I thought once we became teammates we'd scratch the surface and find a softer side to him. For a while I thought we had, but I'm beginning to realise 'nice' Hunter is just as much of an act. His cooperative, teammate-y side he puts up is just as fake as his tough, taciturn one.

I'm beginning to realise a lot of things about Hunter, like the fact he's not being friendly; he's being civil. He's not being nice; he's just not being mean. And when Blake broke Lothor's compulsion on the island and Hunter said we were his friends, what he actually meant was we weren't his enemies. It's quite a distinction. I keep trying to find what's underneath, but I don't even see hints. There's just nothing. And there can't just be nothing. The real Hunter is locked away behind walls that must be made of adamantium, to use a superhero reference (I'm blaming Dustin for that one). I can't break through. I keep trying, but he manages to rebuff my every attempt without even looking like he's trying to.

Tonight's a perfect example. He's pleasant enough when he turns up at Shane's, but it's politeness rather than genuine warmth. I caught myself watching him during Dustin's pizza antics and he was just standing there. There was no reaction, no flicker of humour or amusement, no response at all for a good few seconds. And then something seemed to click in his head and a smile instantly appeared on his face, as fake and as insincere as if he'd painted it onto a mask. It was almost as if he remembered he was meant to be nice Hunter tonight and began to act like it.

Act being the key thing here. It wasn't natural.

It's never natural with Hunter.

His smile never reaches his eyes and I realise I've never heard him laugh. Not really laugh. What I have heard from him is either sarcastic or bitter, or both.

Never real laughter.

I've finally come to the conclusion that nothing about Hunter is real. Everything is a show, a carefully considered front. He's going through the motions, showing us what he thinks we want to see when in fact he's not showing us anything at all.

So I'm surprised when he jumps up less than midway through the film, so suddenly it's as if he's been stung. He says he's just getting a refill, but the way he almost runs out of the room tells me this is a reaction to something. A real reaction. After a minute I decide to follow him. I don't know why, but I find I need to know who this guy really is.

Because it's not who he's pretending to be.

He's not in the kitchen so I wait around for a few minutes until he does arrive. He seems fine at a glance, but looking closer I notice there are faint bags under his eyes. He looks… tired.

As I watch him, I realise we've never really been alone together. I've hung out with him with the others but it's never just been the two of us and I wonder why. He stands there for a while, as if he's waiting for me so say something but I don't. I want him to speak first. He doesn't of course. Instead he ignores me and goes to get himself some soda.

Fine then, I'll go first.

"Are you ok?"

I figure my question is innocent enough. But I'm just as surprised as he is when he spills the drink; I didn't expect anything to be able to make him jump. He doesn't make any move to clean it up, just stands there staring.

"Hunter?" I'm worried now. It's not like him to phase out like this. It's more of a Dustin thing.

His eyes focus on me at last as I start mopping up the spilled liquid with some kitchen towel, and he mumbles some excuse about being tired. I'm not sure I believe him, but I tell him to get some rest, sympathetically covering his hand with mine. I don't even think about it, I just do it, but he jerks his hand away from me as if I'm on fire.

His apology is hollow, empty, but I think he's genuine when he says, "I would leave but Blake's having fun."

Ah. There's more in those words than he meant to say. Blake may be having fun, but Hunter… "And you're not?"

He comes up with some excuse about not liking the movie, and then quickly tries to deflect, to get us back into the room with the others, to get away from me and my prying. I sigh, but then I remember he's been working all day and if he doesn't want to hang out with us, then he shouldn't feel obliged to. I tell him that, and offer to drive Blake back, figuring the reason he hasn't left already is because doesn't want his brother walking home alone. I'm not expecting his reaction.

He doesn't quite slam his glass down on the side, but it's close. "Then I'll go."

His tone has an almost hurt quality to it, and I realise how he's taken my words. He thinks we don't want him here. Of all the stupid, pig-headed, idiotic thoughts to have… Can't he see we all just want to be friends with him? He's the one being difficult.

I can't keep the exasperation from my voice as I call his name, stopping him from walking away. But then something makes me pause.

He thinks we don't want him here.

That was the first thought his mind jumped to. Not 'I'm worried about you', not 'you need to take care of yourself' but 'we don't want you here'.

How… terribly sad. Not to mention insecure. I'd never have thought of the words 'Hunter' and 'insecure' in the same sentence, but now I find myself doing just that.

I guess I can't blame him, not really. We haven't exactly made the effort to include him in things. Blake yes; Hunter, not so much.

I find myself wanting to explain my words, "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant if you weren't enjoying yourself we're not going to force you to stay. You need sleep." I try and inject lightness into my tone, "Can't burn the candle at both ends you know."

There's a strange expression on his face, as if for a moment he wants to yell at me, but then he sighs, "Sorry Tori, I know what you meant. I'm just really tired. Will you give the others my apologies? And see Blake gets home safe?" His tone is gentle, submissive.

I think he's humouring me.

And I'm not impressed.

But I sense tonight isn't the time or place to push this, so I agree and let him go. When I go back in to the movie room sans Hunter I get three pairs of eyes giving me curious looks. Well, two curious and one concerned. You can guess who the concerned ones belong to. Blake. Sure enough, he's the one that opens his mouth to speak first, but I beat him to it.

"Hunter's gone home. He's exhausted." I address my next words to Blake, "I promised him I'd drive you home when you're done here. There's no rush and no arguments." I stick my tongue out at him and throw myself down on a beanbag next to him.

He grins back at me and offers his arm for a hug, which quickly turns into cuddling. When the movie ends it's time for us to leave. Dustin's pretty much asleep; his sugar high from too much soda gone, leaving him crashed out on the sofa. Shane's fine to leave him there. It's not the first time we've left him after a movie night. Shane has a spare blanket in the room that's practically Dustin's now, given the amount he's slept under it. It's not worth trying to manhandle him home; a sleepy Dustin is unhelpful and whiney. No one wants to deal with that.

Blake stares out the window at the passing houses as I drive him home. The silence isn't uncomfortable, but there's an elephant in the van with us. I wait. The one thing I have learned about the Bradley brothers is that they won't speak until they're ready. Or they won't speak at all.

I'm about ready to scream at him before he starts talking at last.

"Tori, Hunter didn't… I mean he wasn't…" He trails off glumly and I glance over at him. I think I know what he's trying to say but I'm interested to see how he'll do it. "He didn't say something nasty did he?"

There it is.

Blake seems to have a low opinion of his brother, or rather, of his brother behaving around us. I can see he's always on edge, as if he's waiting for Hunter to mess up or say something wrong or anger one of us. Things have been good recently, as far as I can tell. Hunter's been playing nice. Once him and Shane got over their 'I'm the real leader' phase things have quietened down.

Blake's voice cuts through my thoughts, "He did say something didn't he? Tori I'm sorry, I'll speak to him."

"It's ok," I say with a laugh. "Hunter didn't say anything to me. Nothing nasty, I promise. He just said he was tired and he didn't like the movie."

"He told you he didn't like the movie?" Blake sounds surprised.

"Yeah." I'm focused on driving, making sure I take the right turning, so his tone of voice takes a moment to filter through. "What's the matter?"

We pull up outside the Bradley's apartment block and I stare up at the shabby building. I know Blake's not going to want to go inside until I drive away, and I'm not going to drive away until he goes inside. Always the impasse.

Blake doesn't make a move to get out. He seems on the brink of telling me something, but is uncertain, hesitant. Finally he sighs, "Hunter doesn't hate that movie. But it probably is why he left."

"What do you mean?" Unlike Hunter, I know I can push Blake for information. He's more talkative, much more willing to make the effort to get to know us, to get to know me. I want to know more about them. With knowledge is understanding, and both are missing when it comes to the Bradleys.

"The Great Escape was Dad's favourite film. He and Hunter used to watch it religiously every weekend. They knew all the words, everything. It was their thing." There's sadness in his voice as he speaks. I can tell by the look on his face that he's adrift in a sea of memories. I can't help but reach out to squeeze his arm, comforting. He gives me a very small smile in response. "Hunter hasn't watched it since… "

Since they died. He doesn't need to finish the sentence. I realise this is the first truly personal thing about Hunter I know. And I had to hear it from his brother.

Blake clears his throat, shaking off the melancholy that had fallen over him and replaces it with worry, "Don't… don't tell Hunter I told you that. He doesn't do personal."

I wouldn't dream of it. I tell him so and then say goodnight. He kisses me on the cheek and stands awkwardly outside the entrance until I give in and drive away.

Men.

Still, tonight's been interesting. It's certainly been a night of realisations.

Information swims through my brain, but I'm at a loss as to what to make of it. Yet.

XxX

I love Saturday mornings. That feeling of waking up in bed and knowing you don't have to get up unless you want to. The wonderful sensation of stretching out luxuriously, the sun shining in through my bedroom curtains, the breeze from the open window catching them and sending beams of light dancing across my bed covers. I could lie here forever. Could… but something better calls to me.

The surf.

The sound of waves breaking against the shore, mere yards from my window, is my alarm clock. It drags me from my bed, irresistibly drawing me into its cool embrace. How can I lie in when my true love is calling? The feel of the board hard beneath my ribs, the smell of salt mingled with the sweet coconut scent of the wax old friends. The waves loom above me and I push down onto my board, sinking beneath the oncoming white water. I feel the wave roll over me, but safe underneath it all is dark and silent. I surface, the experience of bright sunlight and noise of thunderous crashing waves a shock compared the underwater world I'd just exited, and paddle hard, hoping to make it out back before the next set arrives but I'm not quick enough. I have to fight through the swirling white water that threatens to rip my board from me, struggling against the forces of nature, in a maelstrom of salty water and seething froth.

Suddenly all is calm. I've made it through the melee and now all is peaceful. I sit up, straddling my board, and gaze back to shore. The beach is still deserted but I know it won't be for long. I enjoy the silence while it lasts, savouring the sun's warmth on my face, the brisk swim out having removed the last vestiges of sleep from my body. I feel awake, invigorated, alive.

I'm in no hurry to catch a wave. I used to be, when I was younger, the rush the only thing I thought about, but now I love just being out in the ocean. It truly is my element. I never feel as complete and content as I do when I'm out on my board. Just me, surrounded by nothing but empty water.

I know people are intimidated, scared, by the ocean, by the nothing, but I've never felt that. It's always felt like home.

I track the sun as it rises higher and I can feel the rays' heat strengthen. It's going to be another glorious Californian day. I judge I've been out about an hour when the cars start turning up, filled with other surfers, and I know it's time for me to leave. My peace will soon be shattered.

I paddle back into the line up and wait for the perfect wave. It doesn't exist, but occasionally one comes close. I let a few pass beneath my board before a decent one rears its head. Not huge, only about four foot, but well formed. It'll do for today. I turn to face the shore and paddle hard; fast, sure, strong strokes, until I feel the tail of my board lift and I know I've caught it. In a smooth, well-practiced motion I pop up, feet landing beneath me in their familiar place. I ease my weight onto my front leg and I'm flying. I love the sensation of speed and the injection of adrenaline that rushes through me as I make the drop.

I could turn back up the face to prolong the ride, but a flash of colour on the beach catches my eye. Two figures in red and yellow shirts are watching me and I know it's time to go. I ride the wave back to the shore and run up the sand to meet them. Shane and Dustin grin at me; the fact they knew to come to the beach to find me this early on a Saturday morning shows I am a creature of habit.

It's only a short walk from the sea to my house, where the boys have breakfast pressed on them by my mother while I'm getting showered. My parents know about the whole ninja school thing. They were both water ninjas there when they were my age; it's how they met. Then my dad went off to medical school and my mum travelled the world as a pro surfer, but their paths led them back to each other eventually. Now my dad's a local GP and mom runs her own surf school and coaches the junior surf team in her spare time. It's not that unusual; most students have at least one parent who trained at a ninja school. Ninja powers are commonly hereditary; passed on from generation to generation.

But out of the three of us, I'm the only one whose entire family knows. It makes things a hell of a lot easier. Dustin learned about ninjas from his grandmother. His grandfather was an earth ninja but died before Dustin was born. Grandma Brooks recognised he'd inherited his grandfather's gift and used what he had told her to put Dustin in touch with Sensei Kanoi. Dustin's very close to his grandma, in part because she's the only one that knows.

Shane learned about the Wind Academy from his mother. She had a talent for air but left the school to go to college and have a career. She's now CEO of some big, multi-million dollar company, married to a successful corporate lawyer who has no idea that ninjas are real. When Shane began to show some signs of being an air ninja she encouraged him to join the Wind Academy to pursue it. But she's hardly at home, and no one else in his family knows his secret.

My parents also know about the Power Rangers. How could they not? Three spandex-clad superheroes saving their town on an almost, but thankfully not quite, daily basis is pretty hard to miss. They know they're from the Wind Academy; they just don't know one of them is me. It's the one secret I can't share. My parents would act cool with it, I'm sure. But I don't want to worry them.

This burden isn't theirs to bear.

The shower feels good; hot water washing the salt from my skin and hair. I stand there for a while, just enjoying the sensation of the water hammering down on me and the scent of my shampoo surrounding me. I love showers. I find them very soothing, almost meditative. I could stay here for a long time, but I finally drag myself out to get dressed and rescue the boys from my mother.

It's a pleasant walk from where I leave the van to the waterfall that hides the entrance to the Wind Academy. The heat of the sun hasn't quite penetrated the beneath the trees yet, so it's lovely and cool. The boys are in a good mood. No alien attacks yesterday and a solid night's sleep means they're rested and happy. My surf this morning has put me a good mood too, so it's with high spirits we make our way up to where our Academy used to stand.

Hunter's already at Ninja Ops when we arrive. It makes me feel like we're late. Which is silly because we're the only students and since the whole 'becoming Power Rangers' thing Sensei has been fairly lenient with our time keeping. I see Shane glowering at the older Bradley brother and I know I'm not the only one that feels like that. Shane feels threatened by Hunter. That much is obvious. Shane was insecure enough about being our leader before the Bradleys turned up and then suddenly there was Hunter. Cool, calm, collected and very much in charge. Hunter's not used to anyone arguing with his leadership, and Shane's unaccustomed to people following him without question, as Dustin and I will happily let him know when we disagree with him while Blake's happier to let the leader, well, lead. I guess there's always going to be tensions when two different teams have to work together, but especially so when they have a different ethos.

Speaking of the other Bradley, Blake's nowhere to be seen. I'm puzzled for all of about two seconds before I remember he has the early shift at Storm Chargers this morning. He'll be here in about an hour. We settle ourselves around the table in the main room, pulling out various textbooks and paper. Saturday mornings mean homework at Ninja Ops. Sensei is very strict on this. It's his way of saying that one day Lothor isn't going to be around and we need to focus on our futures without him. It's the clearest statement he could give of his faith in us, and I love him for it.

A comfortable peace falls on the room as we're all focused on our work. The only noise is the occasional rustling of papers and Cam tapping on his keyboard. I think he's working on the zords but I can never tell. Computers are not my strong suit. Only Hunter is restless, pacing for a while behind Cam until our technician loses his patience and tells him to go away. Cam doesn't have a great opinion of Hunter; he thinks he's only good for fixing bikes and fighting aliens.

I hope he's wrong.

I catch myself once again watching Hunter and have to give myself a quick mental shake. I'm meant to be doing homework; figuring out our broody crimson ranger is just going to have to wait. I'm about to turn back to my assigned reading for AP English, but at that moment Dustin groans and chucks his pen down in frustration, "Dude, I give in. This physics stuff is rubbish. I don't get it at all."

Shane looks over at his paper and shakes his head, "Sorry bro, can't help you there. I'm struggling on that question too."

They both glance at me and I shake my head, "Don't even go there. I'm not taking physics, remember? You two geniuses thought because the class schedule had the word 'mechanics' in it, it would all be about bikes and stuff." Dustin opens his mouth to protest and I raise an eyebrow at him, "I'm pretty much quoting what you said on the first day of school." He grins at me instead.

Shane doesn't, "I never said that. I'm considering engineering at college. If I can't get my head around fluid mechanics though I'm screwed."

He gives Cam a contemplating look and I know he's considering how much he'll get yelled at if he disturbs him. I brace myself for the lecture I know is coming should Shane ask, but instead our leader surprises me.

"Hey Hunter," he calls the blond over from where he's wedged himself unobtrusively in a corner of the room, reading one of Dustin's motocross magazines that are always left around.

Hunter uncurls himself and drops the magazine on the seat behind him before casually making his way over to join us. In my eyes, the casualness is unnatural. He's trying too hard; every single movement deliberate.

"Yes?" He stops just out of reach of the table, arms crossed over his chest, very defensive. His tone isn't flat out nasty, but it's not particularly warm either.

Shane hasn't noticed, "You must have done something like this at school, right? I don't suppose you could have a look at see if you can make sense of it at all?"

This could be interesting. I don't know what I expect Hunter's reaction to be, but I find myself surprised once again.

"No."

That's it, nothing else. No apology, no explanation, just a single, unfriendly word.

I find myself scanning his face, trying to see beneath his mask but his expression is unreadable, closed off, and there's iron behind his blue eyes.

Shane's suddenly standing and I can see his anger evident in his posture, barely contained. When it comes to Hunter, Shane's temper has a very short fuse.

"You're not even going to look?" he asks between gritted teeth.

Hunter stares at him stonily, his silence his only answer.

It only infuriates Shane more and he begins to square up to the taller man, "What is your problem?"

Hunter's only reply is an almost imperceptible shift in his stance which tells me he's ready to fight if Shane pushes it.

Dustin's looking between at them both in shock. He really doesn't like confrontation, and this has spiralled out of control very quickly. You can cut the tension in the room with a knife as the two male gorillas stare at each other. I'm just getting ready to jump up to separate them when Cam's voice slices through the air, "That's enough."

Oh great, they've disturbed Cam. Never a good idea.

"Am I needed here?" Hunter's voice is calm, disinterested. He's speaking to Cam, though his eyes never leave Shane.

"Clearly not." Cam's answer is as sarcastic as I'd suspected it would be.

The blonde just nods and walks out of Ninja Ops without a single word or backwards glance. The tension leaves as he does. Shane sits back down and pulls his physics textbook viciously towards him, knocking a couple of pens off the table as he does. He's fuming. Cam's already turned back to his computer and I expect the commotion is already gone from his mind. Dustin and I exchange looks, his worried and confused while mine is just… thoughtful.

What the hell just happened?

I have no idea. Another mystery to add to the enigma that is Hunter Bradley. As I turn back to my own work, I wonder who he is, what makes him so disagreeable, why the attitude?

And why am I so fascinated by him?

Chapter Text

I keep looking for a place to fit where I can speak my mind
I've been trying hard to find people that I won't leave behind

~The Beach Boys

"Dude, your brothers got a stick up his butt about something today," Dustin grumbles at me as soon as I walk down the stairs into Ninja Ops.

I groan. I'd left Hunter alone with them for less than an hour and he'd managed to annoy them. Normally it was just Shane I had to worry about, but the looks on Tori and Dustin's faces, and Dustin's words of greeting, tell me Hunter's outdone himself this time. I dump my bag of school books on the table and fling myself down next to Tori.

"What's he done now?" I try but fail to keep the resignation from my voice.

As I wait for their answer, wait for yet another tale of Hunter clashing with the team, another reason to be annoyed at my brother, I feel Tori's cool hand touch my arm, rubbing it in sympathy. I give her a small smile in return. Of all the rangers, she seems to understand mine and Hunter's relationship best.

"He wouldn't help with our physics homework," Dustin pouts.

"Yeah man, he was really rude about it too," Shane adds.

I can hear the simmering anger in his voice and I know the red ranger is still furious with my brother. I'd thought once the two of them had got their alpha-maleness out of the way they would perhaps get on better – Shane's a good guy and I just know he and Hunter could actually be friends if they wanted to be – but so far all they've managed is a sort of ceasefire.

Which Hunter has just broken if Shane's annoyed expression is anything to go by.

It takes a few seconds for their words to filter through, and I thought I might have misheard. But the look on their faces as I stare at them in shock tells me they're serious. Seriously pissed off. I can just see Hunter's reaction to their questions; no wonder he's absent and they're angry. I can't help it; I begin to laugh.

"You asked Hunter for homework help?"

I feel their surprise; baffled eyes staring back at me while all I can do is clutch my sides in mirth.

Shane's brow furrows in annoyance, "Well, we figured he must know something about it seeing as he's all Mr. grown-up-and-graduated. He's what, twenty-one? Surely high school wasn't that long ago. He must remember something."

My laughter stops abruptly at Shane's words, slowly beginning to understand. A hard lump settles in my stomach, "You guys thought Hunter's graduated?"

I can see from the confused looks on their faces that they genuinely had and I let out another groan. Of course, my big brother doesn't 'do' personal talk. And he is twenty-one; I guess it's perfectly reasonable for them to assume he'd finished high school.

I shake my head, "Hunter dropped out of school just after our parents died. He never graduated. He didn't make it past eighth grade."

And he couldn't have just explained that to them himself, no, that would be asking for too much. I feel my own anger at my brother begin to rise and I take a deep breath. I don't want to be angry at Hunter. I hate being angry at him, but lately I've found it becoming the default response to Hunter's relationship with the team. I release the air I'd sucked in slowly, letting go of the tension I'd felt building inside me.

I look up to find four pairs of eyes watching me – I've even caught Cam's attention – and an uncomfortable silence has descended on the room.

It's Dustin that speaks first, the yellow ranger running a hand through his brown curls, "He didn't graduate? Dude, that's..." he trails off and I can see him trying to work things out in his head, "Like, how come he wasn't made to finish? My parents would totally freak if I dropped out of school."

Parents...

I shrug off the twinge of pain that comes with knowing the only person I had – have – keeping an eye on me is Hunter. Sometimes he's right, when he says they don't understand. But unlike my brother, I want to try to get them to understand. Now is as good a time as any for a Bradley history lesson.

"It was just us two, on our own. Sensei Omino didn't find us for about four years. I guess we just sort of dropped off the radar. Hunter…"

The memories begin to surface and I trail off. I don't like thinking about the past too much, it's depressing if you let it, but at least I do think back occasionally, unlike my stubborn pig-headed older brother. And they need to know this. They need to know if they have any hope of ever understanding us. Of understanding Hunter.

"Hunter looked out for us both. I won't even ask if he's ever mentioned the night our parents died; he doesn't talk about it. Ever. Not even to me." I swallow hard, feeling hot tears pricking behind my eyes as I let the memories flood in. "We were in the house at the time. I think… I think they knew something bad was coming. They made us hide in the closet."

I can still see mom's face as she shut the white slated door on us, with whispered assurances and loving words. I can still see Hunter's face lit by streaks of light as he pulls me close, the dusty smell of the closet being replaced by the clean scent of soap and fabric softener.

"We couldn't really see much, but we could hear. It happened in the same room. I… Hunter covered my ears. He told me not to look and covered my ears. All I can remember is darkness and silence but Hunter…"

I find myself trailing off again as an image of a pale-faced boy rises in my mind, telling me to close my eyes as he leads me from our family home, and away from the bodies of the only parents we had known.

Tori gently squeezes my hand, pity etched on her face, "Hunter heard everything?" she whispers softly.

I nod, "I think so. But he's never spoken about it. I never could bring myself to ask him. After that it was just us two. He provided for us, worked, earned money so we could live. Not well, but better than nothing. He worked and I went to school."

Cam, frowning, breaks into the conversation for the first time, "What about the authorities? Why didn't you go to them?"

I bark a laugh, "You really think they'd have let us stay together?" There's a flash of annoyance on tech support's face but I clarify myself before he can speak again, "We're not brothers. Not in the eyes of the authorities, and they're the ones that count. Hunter knew that. That's why we ran."

My answer isn't enough for Cam, if his raised eyebrow is anything to go by. "The Thunder Academy?"

I shake my head. I honestly don't know why we never ran straight there. It's not as if we didn't know the way. But Hunter was in charge. I just followed where he led. Something I've been doing ever since.

"I wondered... but I didn't, Hunter didn't..." I trail off helplessly, unable to find the words to explain the inexplicable.

Seeing my dilemma, Shane interrupts with a simpler question. "How old was he?"

"Thirteen." My voice has dropped to a whisper. I can understand them being curious, but I'm losing the will to share. I guess I can empathize with Hunter when he says he doesn't want to bring up our past.

Answering one question always leads to a dozen more. Curiosity is understandable, but sometimes unwelcomed.

Dustin slaps Shane on the shoulder, "Dude, no wonder he didn't want to help us with work. We can't get fluid mechanics; he had no hope."

Shane nods and I can see him reconsidering Hunter's response in the light of this new information.

But something in Dustin's words gets to me, and despite my frustration at my brother's inability to make friends, I have a desperate need to defend him. "Hunter's not stupid. He's cleverer than I am. He was always better at school than me, always had his nose stuck in a book as a kid. I've never known anyone who can go through books as fast as him. He always helped me with my homework, especially after our parents died. He never thought my questions were stupid. He's got a brilliant way of explaining things…" I trail off, remembering what's led to this conversation. "At least, he did have," I finish lamely.

"What made him stop?" Bless Tori; she always seems to be able to read between the lines. Shane and Dustin look confused by her question, but she's cut straight to the heart of the issue, as always.

"I got to high school," I say quietly. "Hunter tried to help me out for a bit, but I think it was becoming harder for him. He tried to teach himself for a while, to keep up with me, but he had other things on his mind. By the time Sensei Omino found us he was seventeen and he wasn't interested. It was too late for him. He threw himself back into his ninja studies instead. I haven't seen him with a real book in years."

There's silence after my words and I wonder if I've said too much, shared too much. Hunter's always complaining I'm too free about our past with these strangers. But they're not strangers to me. They're my friends. They have to be, because I can't keep running forever. Hunter can, but that's not the life I want. I want friends, a family, a home, and here seems the best place I've found. I want to make this work. I am going to make this work. My brother's just going to have to find a way to deal with these people in our lives, because I'm going to make sure they are in our lives.

I suddenly sit up straighter and rub my hands across my face. "I'm sorry. That got kinda depressing." I hesitate. "Look, I trust you guys. And I know Hunter might not seem the most friendly person-" Understatement of the year "- but he is trying. It's just… going to take some time. It's been just the two of us for so long; he needs to remember to let other people in."

Shane snorts, "Remember? Sorry bro, don't you mean learn? With all respect to you, Hunter doesn't strike me as the type to let anyone in." He holds up his hands to ward off any angry response on my part. "I know he's your brother, and you'll defend him to the death, but even you gotta admit, Hunter has issues."

I can't deny that.

"They're none of yours," I say shortly. I try and replicate the tone Hunter uses to indicate the discussion is over.

I clearly don't have the same authority in my voice that my brother does because Shane goes to continue, but is stopped by Dustin exclaiming that he thinks he's solved the problem they were working on; a moment of rare perception or genuine brainwave I'm not sure, but it's enough to distract the red ranger from Hunter and his 'issues'.

As the two of them fall into a deep discussion about… fluid mechanics – really? – I pull my own textbooks from my bag and begin flicking through the homework I have to complete. Tori catches my eye and grins, pulling a face at Shane's bent head before turning back to whatever it was she was doing before my trip down memory lane. I smile back, feeling some of the tension leave my shoulders. Dragging my mind away from the lingering memories I can finally focus on more solvable problems.

Math.

Well, that's the theory anyway.

Two hours pass and I've made some headway. Math isn't my strong point and I make a mental note to ask Hunter to double check my answers when I see him later. Math is the one thing he can still do. Then my memory catches up with my brain and I sigh. Asking Hunter for homework help this evening probably isn't an option now.

Misinterpreting my sigh as boredom Dustin grins, "I hear you man. I think my brain's, like, had enough for today."

Shane nods, "I've had enough too. There's only so much I can do in one go. Think I'll call it a day and pick it up later."

Tori voices her agreement and we begin clearing up the litter of books, papers, and pens we've strewn across the table and most of the surrounding floor. Cam doesn't need us for anything and Sensei graciously says we can have the rest of the afternoon off to relax.

I'm in no rush to go home.

I don't particularly want to see Hunter right now, and I want to take advantage of the so far monster-free day. When I mention we should do something, Tori lights up and suggests she give us boys a surf lesson. She normally does. And it normally ends up being just her and me, as Shane and Dustin have zero interest in the water, unless beach games and BBQs are involved.

I don't mind spending time with Tori alone, but I have to admit surfing isn't my thing at all. I can't seem to get to grips with the balance – yeah, poor for a ninja – the salt water stings my eyes and I spend more time under the waves than on top of them. And even on a gorgeously hot and sunny day as today the thought of donning an uncomfortable, tight rash vest and braving the icy ocean just to make a fool of myself in front of Tori makes my stomach sink.

But then Dustin steps forward, "Dude, you promised me a go on your 250. If the offer's still open we could head to the track?"

A smile partially born of relief and partially of joy at the idea of spending more time on my bike breaks out on my face.

"Of course the offer's still there," I say and he grins back at me. I turn to Tori, putting on a suitably contrite expression, "Do you mind if I take a rain check on the surf?"

For a moment there's a flash of disappointment in her blue eyes, but then she's smiling, "No worries. The waves are meant to be good this afternoon so I'll actually get to surf them, 'stead of watching you fall off in the white water." Her tone is teasing, not annoyed, and I laugh.

"Don't blame the student; look at the teacher," I shoot back and Shane makes an 'ooh' noise from a safe distance.

Tori gives me a pretend glare and raises a fist threateningly, "I'll remember that next time I have to save your behind from an alien."

"You save me?" I splutter. "When?"

"How do I save thee? Let me count the ways," Tori says mockingly. "Let's start with the fish creature and work chronologically."

"Actually," I say in a haughty tone, "It was me who saved you from that fish creature."

She raises an eyebrow at me, "And who had to pull the suckers off you?"

"That would be me." Cam's voice breaks into the conversation. He's turned away from his computer and is massaging his temples wearily with one hand. "And if you're quite done with the arguing-slash-flirting then can you clear out and leave me to my work?"

Tori catches my eye, her own sparkling with mischief, and grins. I grin back and finish gathering my stuff. Time to hit the track.

XxX

The track races up to meet me, dirt flying, spinning out beneath my wheels as I skid around the final corner. Squeezing the accelerator I aim at the last jump, the sensation of speed, of the wind, of the air beneath my wheels followed by the bone-jarring thump as I land heavily on the other side. The bike gives a slight wobble but holds and then I'm across the finish line, Dustin running over to meet me as I hit the brakes and drift to a stop.

"Yo, dude, that was like super fast," he says, waving a stop watch at me.

I lift my visor to glance at the time and grin, "I can do better. One more lap and then it's your turn."

Dustin returns the grin, but I don't miss the flicker of apprehension that crosses his face. I pull my visor back down and rev the engine, speeding back onto the track.

I love racing. I love the speed. I love seeing how far I can push the bike. I love seeing how far I can push myself.

Hunter calls my racing reckless. I guess he has a point. But I prefer to think of my style as passionate, rather than my brother's logical, calculating approach.

He says I'm hot-headed.

I say he's cold.

It's not the first time we're opposites in something, and it won't be the last.

I'm back at the finish before I've really thought about it. I know this track too well now. I'm not unhappy about this; it's nice to have stayed somewhere long enough to get comfortable. I pull up next to Dustin and remove my helmet, the faint breeze cool on my sweat-soaked hair.

"Your turn," I say, swinging my leg behind me to dismount. He takes my place astride the bike, eyeing it warily. "It's not going to bite you."

My tone is teasing, but I regret it almost immediately. I'm still not entirely sure where the boundaries are with the other rangers, especially Dustin. Particularly after the whole "evil-ninja" episode. Episodes. Plural. Ok, so the second time wasn't really our fault – unless you count stupidity and a terrible taste in allies as a form of evilness – but the first time… Goofball… How wrong I was. I know I'm forgiven, but I still feel a twinge of shame and push it away, looking up at Dustin to see him grinning nervously at me.

I slap him on the back, "I'll give you the same words of wisdom my brother gave me when I moved up from the one-two-fives."

"Oh, and what's that?" Dustin's face is hopeful, waiting for me to impart some secret bike-riding knowledge.

I grin, "Don't close your eyes."

The yellow ranger scowls at me, "Thanks dude, real comforting."

I respond by shutting his visor and stepping out of the way as he tentatively gives the throttle an experimental twist. The bike shudders, then lurches forward, the suddenness causing Dustin to yelp.

"Gently, Dustin," I call over to him.

He doesn't reply, but follows my advice and twists the throttle far more gently. As I watch him slowly begin to move towards the track, I can't help but remember my first time on a 250; the unfamiliar weight on my arms, the butterflies in my stomach, and Hunter laughing at me. Actually, that's not entirely true.

He only laughed once.

After that it was all serious. He knew I'd want to follow him up to the bigger bikes before I was really ready for them. But he also knew if he'd tried to stop me I'd probably have just 'borrowed' his while he wasn't looking. Which would have ended in tears. So instead of banning me, as Sensei Omino wanted, he taught me instead.

I smile at the memories. It's nice to think back to the good times for once, rather than the bad.

And there were good times. It's just seems recently the bad memories are the loudest.

Dustin isn't half bad, I think as my eyes follow him around the track. With each lap he gains some more confidence and I think he could really get the hang of the 250s with time. If he wants to, that is. He says he wants to race, but I'm not convinced. I've seen the wistful looks he gives the freestylers.

I shake those thoughts away as a breathless Dustin pulls up beside me, visor raised, "Dude!" he exclaims. "That was awesome. You totally have to time me."

XxX

It's getting late by the time we leave the track. Dustin drops me back at the apartment before he drives the van and bikes back to Storm Chargers. Kelly lends us the van without even blinking. She is awesome. Sometimes I cannot believe how good she is to us, even going so far as to let me and Hunter keep our bikes in the shop, which saves us trying to sneak them up into our apartment every time we take them out. Neither of us would want to leave them outside our block. They wouldn't be there long.

I don't like to linger in the dank hallways of our apartment building. They smell like cheap cigarettes and mildew; the stale smoke and mould invades our apartment too, no matter how much we try to disguise it. It probably would be bad for our health, if it wasn't for our enhanced healing abilities, courtesy of our Ranger powers. But no matter how good our immune system, a cold, damp apartment and poor diet will start taking their toll sooner or later. I'm sure of it. I think Hunter knows it too.

But I don't know what we're supposed to do about it.

Sure, the apartment is bad, but it's a roof over our heads. The only one we can afford. And we're pushing things at the moment, we must be. Hunter doesn't let me see our bills, but the food gets worse and worse each month and I know. I know we're struggling. Not that my brother will admit to it.

I feel the muscles in my jaw clench. Damn Hunter and his damn pride.

I realise I'm standing outside my apartment staring daggers at the closed door. A couple walking down the corridor give me an odd glance as they pass and I give myself a mental shake, trying to push down the anger that's begun to flood through me. I mustn't face Hunter when angry. Anger… clouds my judgement, makes me illogical. And Hunter's all about logic. A messed up, screwed up, Hunter-brand of logic to be sure, but more logical than I can be.

I give the couple a small smile and pull my keys from my pocket, struggling only a little with the lock. It tends to stick.

It drives Hunter mad – he keeps threatening to kick it in the next time it denies him entry – but in this area anything that makes getting into our apartment harder is fine by me. Not that we have anything worth stealing.

There's no sign of Hunter when I get in, but the sound of rushing water tells me he's in the shower. I trail glumly into the kitchen and grab a drink, settling down at the table to wait. I hear the water stop abruptly, and then the muffled sound of movement before my brother makes an appearance. From his clothes – dark jeans and black t-shirt – I can see he's getting ready for work.

"Shower's free," he says, breezing past me to pick up his wallet from the counter. "How was the track?" I stare at him stupidly for a moment, brain trying to catch up to his two seemingly unconnected comments.

Hunter smiles and points to his cheek. I raise a hand to my own and flakes of dried mud brush off. Ah. I'd forgotten. No wonder the couple in the hallway gave me a strange look. His eyes flick to the clock, checking the time, and I take a deep breath, feeling my hands tighten around my glass.

"Don't start, Blake."

I look up from the table to find Hunter watching me intently. The warning in his voice is normally enough to shut me up, but not now. Now I'm mad.

"Start? You're the only one who's starting things today. I mean, seriously? You just had to wind Shane up didn't you?"

"Hey, I'm not the one who was pushing for a fight. That was our dear leader."

Dear leader. That's what the others call Shane. But somehow in Hunter's mouth the words are twisted, sarcastic, mocking.

I slam my drink down on the table angrily, ignoring the liquid that sloshes over the side of the glass, spilling across the surface, "Why couldn't you have just told them Hunter? Why does every little thing about you have to be some big secret? Why does everything about your past have to turn into a drama with them? They're our teammates now, like it or not. Can't you at least try to make friends?"

Hunter doesn't answer me at first. He just stares at me with those infuriatingly calm blue eyes of his, waiting for me to finish yelling. Finally he speaks, "You done?"

He manages to make it sound like I'm a small child having a temper tantrum, that I'm the one with the problem.

I glare at him in response but he doesn't seem to notice. "I'm off to work. I'll be late back so don't wait up. See you in the morning."

His tone implies I'll have calmed down by then.

By the time I can think up a suitable comeback he's already left.

Chapter Text

No one knows what it's like
To be the bad man, to be the sad man
Behind blue eyes
And no one knows what it's like to be hated
To be fated
To telling only lies

~The Who

I know Blake's disappointed in me. I can see it in his eyes as soon as I get out of the bathroom. I let him yell. If nothing else it might make him feel better.

I know what I should do; I know what a normal person would do. I should apologise, promise it won't happen again, reassure him that I won't mess this up for him. But I can't.

I'm not normal.

So I just stand there, waiting for him to finish, and then I leave. I tell myself I need to go or I'll be late for work, but I know better. I know I'm almost certainly going to upset the others again. Everything they want to know about me, every piece of information they receive from me, will have to be fought for. Because each time they learn a little more, they get a little closer to me, and I can't have that.

I won't let them. I don't want to let them.

I use the walk to the bar to clear my head. The night air has barely cooled from the day's heat and the streets are thronged with people, families, enjoying the evening.

I know I behaved badly today. There are a bazillion ways I could have handled the situation which would have resulted in a better outcome. I could have just looked at the question and told them I didn't get it either. I could have said I didn't take physics for AP. Neither would have been a lie. I could have even told them the truth; that I hadn't finished high school, but I didn't.

Instead I reverted to my default, closed off state, and was pretty damn rude in the process. I was also very close to goading Shane into a fight. I wouldn't have thrown the first punch, but I'd definitely have thrown the second. I know I annoy Shane. I know he sees my very presence as a personal threat, which is ridiculous, but I don't do anything to allay his fears. I don't know why. I just can't bring myself to engender trust and friendship. The most I can muster is politeness.

Which admittedly I failed on today. Big time.

I think I'm broken but I can't even figure out how. Or how I could be any different.

There was a time when I could have been someone else, but-

But that was then, and this is now. I know it's my own choices that have brought me to where I am, and I don't regret anything. Everything I've done I've done for Blake, to make sure he has a life and a chance even if I don't. We both lost our parents, but only one of us needs to lose our future. I am resigned to my role.

No, that's not quite right. Resigned sounds like I'm sad about it, or bitter, but I'm really not. Maybe accepting is the better word here. Though again that's not strictly true. I haven't accepted anything, I just am. This is me. This is my life. There is nothing else.

And I don't care.

My thoughts stop when I reach the bar, pushing open the creaky wooden door and putting on my work face. Josh is supervising the shift this evening and my smile is almost natural as I greet him, hands clasping each other's wrist. Josh is a surfer who just recently retired from the pro tour, very chilled out and fairly amusing. He's full of stories but despite his laid back attitude he runs a tight ship. I like him. He's a damn sight better than my other supervisor, who unfortunately also happens to own the bar.

The bar itself is nothing special. Just off the main street, not too far from the beach, it tends to attract a strange mix of customers. Half bikers, with all the stereotypical tattoos, beards, and leather that comes with gang membership; half surfers, a lot of Josh's old friends. I'm employed officially as a barman, but double as a bouncer when the occasion arises, which is fairly often. Despite that, the customers are a good bunch; friendly, funny and they always remember to tip. They only get rowdy when they've had one too many; or when I think they've had one too many and cut them off.

The night passes without incident and three a.m. finds the bar emptied and me mopping spilled beer off the wooden floor. I'm finishing up when Josh reappears from cashing up the evenings takings, talking about the next surf trip he's planning with his friends.

"I tell you, mate; nothing but white sands, clear water and sa-weet waves," he says as I stash the bucket and mop.

An image of Tori surfaces in my mind, "I have a friend who'd like that."

"Oh really? He surfs?" Josh passes me a beer and boosts himself up onto the bar.

I crack the top off and join him. "She. And yes, she does."

"Any good?"

"I'd say." The smile that creeps across my face as I think of the first time I saw the petite blonde surfing isn't faked.

Josh laughs and slaps my shoulder, "Like that, eh? What's her name?"

Like what? I don't understand what he's getting at, so stick to answering the question I do understand, "Tori."

The shorter man raises an eyebrow, "Hanson? Yay high-" He gestures with his hand. "- blonde, blue eyed?"

"Yeah," I say, taking a sip of my beer. "You know her?"

He laughs, "Nah, not really. But I've helped her mom out with her surf school a few times. She's a good kid. How do you know her?"

There's a strange tone to his voice and I realise how it must look. Here's me, a twenty-something guy working in a bar knowing a high school girl. Questions will be asked. I play it safe.

"She's knows my little brother. High school. They're, uh, sort of dating. I think." I take another sip of beer as Josh grins at me.

"High school, eh? Gods, I'm glad that's over. Too much drama."

I fake a laugh to agree with him, and then turn the conversation to safer topics. I don't want to talk about high school, especially not after this morning, and for some reason I find Tori an uncomfortable subject. I don't know why. I feel all my nerves on edge when she's around, and even now she's not. Just talking about her makes me… defensive. I guess that's the right word. She confuses me.

I don't like feeling confused.

We finish our beers and lock up, parting ways outside with Josh promising to look at the rotas and see if he can find me some extra hours. Blake's asleep by the time I get home, which is good because otherwise we'd have had words about him not getting enough rest.

Yeah, that's totally why I'm glad.

I drop down onto my mattress, the beer making me warm and drowsy, and I barely manage to undress before the dark arms of sleep claim me.

It doesn't last long.

I wake suddenly, sitting bolt upright, eyes wide and staring, breathing ragged. From the sheets tangled around my legs and the pounding of my heart I know it's happened again. Another nightmare. I try to remember the details, but trying to hold on to them is like trying to grasp a butterfly with an outstretched hand; they drain from my mind like sand between fingers.

Yes, definitely a nightmare.

My thoughts are scattered, whirling. I'm coming up with analogies involving butterflies for crying out loud. I am not in my right mind.

I take a few deep steadying breaths and then ease myself up off my mattress. Silently I stick my head around my brother's bedroom door, to check I haven't woken him. He's is snoring lightly and I smile, leaving before my presence disturbs him. I'm wide awake now, and I know there's no more sleep to be had. Instead I find a pair of running shorts and an old t-shirt randomly scattered on the floor and pull them on. Grabbing my trainers I pad as quietly as I can across the living room and softly softly unlatch the door. I slip quickly through and gently shut it behind me, releasing a breath I didn't know I'd been holding. I lean back against the door for a long moment, trying to gather my thoughts. The narrow corridors oppressively close in on me from all sides. I need to get out of here. I need to be outside, in the open. Right now everything is too hot, too claustrophobic.

I have to go.

The night air is refreshingly cool on my clammy skin and I gratefully gasp in a deep lungful. It is sweet and fresh and calming. The world is shrouded in the eerie, semi-light of pre dawn; that strange grey time between night and day, between sleeping and waking. I set off on a jog down the deserted streets; the only sounds my feet pounding the pavement and my steady, controlled breathing.

I need to run.

I need to push the last uneasy remnants of this dream from my mind. I don't need to know the details to know what it was about. I've had nightmares as long as I can remember. Twisted, messed up dreams of a life a young boy should never have experienced. But I did live it, and if nightmares are the price for my sanity, then I can deal with them.

This one though… this nightmare stems from more recent events.

The island.

I feel my hands ball up into fists at the memories. I know what happened there. I know what I did; I know what I could have done. It scares me how easy it was for me to take them out. All of them, even my brother. Sure, I was under an evil spell at the time, but that didn't make me physically stronger; it just removed my self-imposed limits.

I know what I'm capable of. I know my mind, my thoughts, my control is what stops me, what holds me back when we spar. I remember first fighting the Winds and laughing with Blake about how weak they were. They're stronger now.

But are they strong enough?

No.

I don't know.

No.

I don't want to find out.

Just one more reason to not let them get close. Don't want to hurt them – don't want to get hurt – They think the spell is to blame for the island. They say they've forgiven me. They say they trust me.

They shouldn't.

The only thing I'm scared of is myself.

I could have killed them all.

Stop it. Don't think about what ifs. But sometimes I can't help it.

Run.

Just run. Run away. Get away.

I run faster. Forget about control; now I just need to not feel. Just run and run and run until all I can focus on is my heart thumping in my ears and my breath panting raggedly from my lips.

I keep running.

Faster and faster, further and further, until my lungs burn and my vision blurs. I stumble sideways as my foot catches on an uneven paving stone and my ankle twists beneath me. I fall heavily, knees grazing against the rough stone, the breath knocked from my lungs. Winded.

I try to push myself up, but a wave of dizziness washes over me and I instead slide back down against a shop wall, the coarse brick digging uncomfortably into my skin but I don't care. I draw my knees up to my chest and grab fistfuls of my hair, pulling my head down. I'm trembling, but I know that's the adrenaline still pumping through my system from my run. Well, mad dash.

I sit up a little straighter, and bang the back of my head against the wall. Not hard, just enough to try and knock some sense into me. My heart rate is slowing and my vision has cleared at last, finally allowing me to take notice of where I am. Muscles protesting I drag myself to my feet, using the wall for support and gingerly testing my ankle. It twinges, but the pain is already receding. The cuts on my knees sting but they'll heal soon enough. No serious damage done.

The town is still deserted, the street lights going off one by one as dawn approaches in earnest, the grey fading into pale colour. I make my way across the road to the promenade above the beach, leaning on the railing to gaze out at the expanse of empty sand and the waves breaking on the shore. The sun is beginning its ascent from the east, beams falling with strengthening warmth on my face. The sea air is fresh and salty, and I smile as the breeze ruffles my hair. I'm calm again for now. Peaceful.

I'm not sure how long I've been standing here – the sun is far higher now – when movement on the beach catches my eye. A blonde girl dressed in blue walking down the sands towards the water, surfboard under arm. Even at this distance Tori is unmistakable.

And apparently so am I, as she waves at me in greeting. I hesitantly raise an arm in return and I know she's smiling at me as she heads into the surf.

Time to go.

But I find myself reluctant to leave, watching Tori battle waves that seem to tower over her. Only when she's safely out beyond the white water, a distant figure floating serenely out in the ocean, do I at last turn and take a relaxed jog back to the apartment.

Blake is nowhere to be seen when I let myself in, and I remember he has the early shift again at Storm Chargers. I frown; this means he won't have had a chance to sleep in all weekend and Blake can get irritable when he's sleep-deprived. I might have to check with Kelly and make sure he's on at least one later shift next weekend.

The things I do for my little brother. Guess that's what big brothers are for.

I suppose I really should head up to Ninja Ops to report in for training, but I'm in no rush to face Shane this morning. Instead I shower and force myself to eat at least a couple of slices of dry toast. Each mouthful sticks in my throat, but I know I need to eat. Only once the toast is gone and I'm in clean, well, mostly clean, clothes do I at last leave, taking a leisurely walk to Storm Chargers to check Blake got there safely.

The shop is surprisingly busy for a Sunday morning and I wait patiently, watching Blake serve a customer. I have to confess, I sometimes envy the easy way my brother seems to have with people. He's friendly and open, which I've ragged on him about especially when it comes to being too open with the others about our past, but if the truth be told I'm a little jealous. The others have accepted him almost without question. In fact, I have a feeling the only question mark they have on him is me.

The customer leaves with a grin and a handshake and I finally make my presence known.

"I'm still mad at you," he says in welcome.

I widen my eyes sorrowfully at him, "Don't be like that." I hesitate, then figure I should tell him what he wants to hear. It can't hurt. "I know, bro. It-"

"Don't say it won't happen again. Because we both know better." There's resignation in his tone.

Great. He really is annoyed this time. Can't say I blame him.

I sigh, "I am trying."

Lies

He glares at me for a moment and then his expression softens, "I know. Just… play nice today ok?"

"I will," I promise, even if I don't mean it.

Blake takes my words at face value, as always, and grins at me.

"Cool, bro." He pauses, "Leanne left a message for us, well, me."

I start in surprise at the name. Leanne. Thunder Academy graduate. Blake's friend. My- No. Nothing to me.

"How'd she know where to find you?"

Blake looks uncomfortable. "I, uh, phoned her. When we decided to stay in Blue Bay. Look," he drops his voice so no one but I can hear him, "Sensei Omino gave me the Thunder Blade, remember? I'm not exactly an expert." I snort at the truth in his words. "I think, I think one day I might need it. Leanne offered to help. She said she'd drop by next weekend."

He watches me carefully. I think he's waiting for me to get angry but I'm past that.

Don't care anymore.

Takes too much energy to care.

"Does Tori know?"

He looks confused. "No-o," he says slowly; the tone in his voice wondering what Tori has to do with this.

I flash him a grin, "She might get jealous. You meeting a woman in secret and all."

Blake rolls his eyes and pulls a face, "Shouldn't you be off up to Ninja Ops to bug Cam? Or to train?" I shrug my shoulders and he gives me a mock-angry look, "Get out of here. Leave me alone. One of us has gotta work today."

I take a swipe at him, trying to wipe the cocky grin off his face, but he just ducks and laughs. Sticking his tongue out at me he disappears out back, calling out to Dustin as he does so.

I shake my head. We're good now. I'm glad. With a slightly improved mood I head for Ninja Ops.

Only Cam is there when I arrive, which is no surprise. Sitting at his computer, he barely acknowledges my presence. I know he's seen me arrive on the sensors. I made sure I walked past a couple on my way in.

I always do.

I guess it's my way of trying to show him I'm no longer a threat. I certainly don't want to sneak up on him. Despite appearances the tech packs quite a right hook. I can't tell if he's noticed my attempts; Cam doesn't miss much but he makes no comment on it either. I'm not one to ask. Kidnapping his father was a mistake. I still curse myself for being so naïve as to believe that Sensei Kanoi could possibly have been responsible for the death of my parents. I'd like to blame it all on Lothor, say that the dark ninja was particularly convincing, but that'd be a lie. If the truth be told, I wanted revenge, and I didn't look too closely at the details when the opportunity arose.

I'll pay back for that mistake one day.

Somehow.

I clunk into the main room, footsteps deliberately heavy, trying to attract Cam's attention.

The tech sighs. "Hunter, I know you're here. I'd really rather you didn't imitate a herd of elephants when I'm working."

Working. Cam's always working. Thinking about it, I've never seen him do anything other than sit at his computer, or repair sensors, or service the zords. It's his efforts that have saved the team, saved my brother, on more than one occasion. Not that anyone thanks him. I wonder if the others ever realise how much he does for them. Do they appreciate it? I'm not so sure. I wander over and lean against the wall, fixing him with a stare.

He glares up at me. "What?"

"Don't you do anything for fun?" I keep my tone light, inquisitive.

"Yes, Hunter. I play the didgeridoo and ballroom dance on the weekends."

"…Really?" I can never when Cam is being sarcastic or serious. He has dry humour down to an art form.

Cam sighs. "No. Don't you have something you should be doing?"

I know a dismissal when I hear one. Conversation over.

I shrug. "Don't know. Is there anything you need me to do? Check sensors? Test new kit? Wash the zords?"

He blinks at me behind his glasses, seemingly taken back by my offer of help. "I don't… No, there isn't."

"So I should…?"

He flicks a hand at me irritably. "Go train or something. I don't care, as long as you're not bothering me."

I nod, still with a smile on my face, and do as the tech requested; leave him alone.

I'm content to be sent to train by myself. The dojo is spacious with a large matted area for sparring, one wall covered with weapon racks filled with every conceivable ninja accessory, and a weight section on another wall, complete with punching bags. It's not as big or as well laid out as the ones at the Thunder Acad- I stop myself. I can't really compare the two. This is the best we have right now. The Thunder Academy no longer exists. I push down the melancholy that threatens and move into the middle of the room, intending to warm up with some katas.

I normally love katas. Moving meditation, the only type I can actually do. Sitting still, breathing, with only my thoughts for company really doesn't appeal to me. But focusing on physical movement, flowing effortlessly from stance to stance, punch to block, block to kick, helps me shut out all the thoughts that may be running through my head. For a short time at least I find peace.

But today I find it difficult to lose myself in the movements. The feelings the dream evoked are still simmering under the surface and Blake's not-so-casual mention of Leanne visiting is, as much as I hate to admit it, grating on me. She brings back memories of things I'd rather forget.

I give up on the kata and turn instead to the punching bag. When calm and controlled fails, physical exertion and violence can dull the emotions even better. The punching bag is an innocent victim who just happens to be on the receiving end of my ire.

Jab. Jab. Hook.

It's so easy to lose myself in the motions.

Jab. Jab. Hook.

Forget everything; focus on nothing.

Jab. Jab. Upper cut.

Nothing, but the feel of my fists striking into the soft leather of the bag, again and again. Over and over.

Jab. Duck. Jab.

Sweat beads on my brow and begins trickling down the back of my neck. I ignore it.

Jab. Jab. Hook.

I strike the bag harder, faster; heart rate beginning to increase and breath panting from my lips.

Jab. Jab. Upper cut.

The silence in my mind is a blessed relief.

Jab. Jab. Hook.

I suddenly sense eyes on me and I spin around, chest heaving, to find Tori leaning against the wall, watching with a slight smile on her face.

"Can I help you?" I keep the annoyance from my voice and turn back to the punch bag, throwing a couple of heavy blows into it for good measure. Can't she see I'm busy?

Apparently not, as she appears beside the bag, holding it steady for me. I ignore her and keep hitting it, perhaps a little harder than I should be. She doesn't flinch, just steadies her stance to absorb the force. I'm actually impressed; she's a lot tougher than she looks. I give her a nod of grudging respect and in return she flashes me one of her brilliant grins. Strangely, her silence is beginning to get on my nerves and I find myself in the odd position of being the one to instigate the conversation, as she seems in no rush to.

I let my hands drop and take a few, deep breaths to get my heart rate back down to a normal level.

"Tori, you didn't come in here to hold a punch bag for me." Even I'm surprised by the lack of ice in my words. "Is there something I can help you with?"

Well don't I sound almost friendly?

She bites her lip and drops her gaze, wrapping a strand of her hair round and round a finger. She seems… nervous.

"Blake told me, about you not finishing school." I can feel myself closing off instantly, automatically. She must have sensed my reaction because she presses on hurriedly, "He also said you used to like reading."

Oh did he? I'm going to kill my little brother when I see him. She pauses, returning her gaze to my face, searching for something. I'm not sure what she's looking for, and I have no idea where she's trying to go with this conversation. I shrug noncommittally. She must see I'm not going to actively engage with her on this but she carries on regardless.

"Look, Hunter, this sounds really stupid but I have an English class assignment due the week after next and I'm really struggling to get my head around the book. I was wondering if you could help out? I mean... if you read the book too and then we could… talk about it?"

I stare at her in surprise. Of all the things I was expecting, this hadn't even crossed my mind. I can only think of one response, "Shouldn't you be speaking to the others about this? Blake or Shane…"

"It's for AP English," she says as way of explanation. "I'm the only one of us taking it. Plus they all have their own work to be getting on with. I don't want to bother them."

"What about your classmates?" I feel cornered.

She doesn't appear surprised by my question, "I don't know them. I don't hang out with them. And when I'm running off every few minutes to deal with Lothor they're hardly going to want to work with me."

She's thought this through.

Damn her.

She blinks large blue eyes at me, pleadingly, "Please Hunter. I can't afford to fail this class."

I can feel myself crumbling. Would it really be so bad if I did this? It would make Blake happy, happy that I was getting along with people, getting involved. Ah, involved. That's the real snub isn't it? The heart of the issue. I don't want to be involved, but Tori is watching with me with those stupid eyes of hers and I know, I know I'm going to say yes.

"What book is it?" There's resignation in my voice.

She's won.

She knows it too. Her smile has a self-satisfied glimmer behind it, "Catch Twenty Two by Joseph Heller. You know it?" I shake my head and she grins, "Me neither. I have a spare copy in my bag. I'll go get it for you." And with that she's gone, leaving me staring after her.

Damn.

Damn.

Damn.

I take my frustration out on the punch bag. Jab. Jab. Hook. Switch stance. Jab. Jab... I throw in some roundhouse kicks for good measure. They leave dents in the side of the bag and I smile bitterly.

I'm going to regret this.

I just know I am.

Chapter Text

Who's to say what's impossible
Well they forgot this world keeps spinning
And with each new day
I can feel a change in everything
And as the surface breaks reflections fade
But in some ways they remain the same
And as mind begins to spread its wings
There's no stopping curiosity

~Jack Johnson

"Who is he and what have you done with my brother?" Blake asks as I turn up at Storm Chargers after my post-school surf.

I follow the movement of Blake's waving arm to see Hunter sitting contentedly on the sofa in the corner of the shop, knees drawn up to his chest, eyes fixed firmly on the pages of the book he's reading. I can't help but smile with satisfaction causing the Bradley brother next to me to give me a playful swat on the shoulder.

"He's been like that all week. When he's not working, or sleeping, he's had his nose stuck in that damned book. He didn't even want to go racing last night." He puts on a hurt expression but I can tell he's secretly delighted to see his brother taking an interest in something.

His face turns serious. "Thank you, Tori. I don't know how you managed it but I owe you."

I give him a brilliant smile and shake my head. "It's nothing. I needed help with my AP English class and Hunter gallantly came to my rescue. That's all."

Blake snorts, possibly at the idea of his brother being a knight in shining armour, though more than likely because he knows Hunter would never have just volunteered to help.

The laughter dies from his eyes though as he looks at me. "Whatever you say Tori. Just… it's nice to see him reading again. I owe you," he repeats.

I sigh. "Fine, you can get the popcorn tomorrow ok?"

His face lights up at the mention of our, well, I'd say date but I'm not convinced. I know Blake sees it as that but I… don't know. I guess I'm worrying about being in two places at once, as Shane's certain I'm going to be at his skate demo also.

I can't believe I've gotten myself into such a mess. This is what I get for being unable to let people down.

Blake gives me an awkward grin. "I'd, uh, better get back to work," he says and, for a second, I think he's going to lean in for a kiss but then thinks twice and just squeezes my shoulder before heading over to help a customer.

I sigh again. Blake is such a… such a gentleman. Which is very sweet but it's getting a little frustrating.

I push those thoughts aside; if I'm going to be at this Martial Arts Film thing tomorrow I need to work on my essay tonight. I make my way over to where Hunter is sitting, but I'm loathe to disturb him, and find myself watching him instead. Bright blue eyes shining and avidly consuming each word, one hand poised to turn the page while balancing the book on his knees with utmost care. His dirty blond hair falls messily about his face which has a look of total absorption in what he's reading. I have a sudden urge to brush his hair from his eyes.

I can't help but smile as I watch him. He looks… strangely happy, and happy is a word I'd never thought to use to describe Hunter Bradley.

As lost as he appears to be in the book, he must have sensed my presence because he suddenly turns his piercing gaze onto me. It's like a lightning bolt has struck me in the chest; my heart gives a sort of double-flip, like it misses a beat, but as quickly as the sensation arrived it's already gone and I'm left wondering if it really happened at all.

What the hell was that?

I swallow hard, ignoring my unexpectedly dry mouth, and quickly plaster a smile on my face, desperate to hide my discomfort.

"How's it going?" I ask, eyes flicking to the book in his hands. Despite Blake saying Hunter had been reading for days, I can't stop my heart sinking somewhat as I see how little progress he seems to have made.

Seeing my smile falter Hunter waves the book at me. "I'm on my third read through," he says casually and I stare at him in shock.

"Th…third?" My tone is disbelieving.

He nods in confirmation. "First time I just sort of powered though it." He looks a little abashed, running a hand through his hair. "I haven't read in so long… It was nice just to get lost in a story again. I didn't really pay attention to the details; I just wanted to see what happened next. When I'd finished I figured I should reread it and actually take notice of things properly, otherwise I wouldn't be much help…" He trails off as he sees my smile widen.

I think that's the longest speech I've heard Hunter make.

Which is quite sad.

"Did you like it?" I ask, dropping onto the sofa beside him without waiting for an invitation. I sit close to him, but not close enough to freak him out. I've noticed Hunter is overly protective of his personal space, so I tread carefully.

The smile I get from him in return is unexpected; shy but real. "Very much," he admits.

Before I can quiz him further, Shane and Dustin appear, arguing loudly over something that sounds suspiciously like which television show car they would rather own.

I pull a face at Hunter. "Hey, you want to get out of here?" He hesitates and I groan, "Look, I need to work on this essay tonight, and these two clowns-" I glare at Shane and Dustin who are oblivious, still deep in 'discussion', "-aren't going to give us any peace here."

There's a long pause in which Hunter looks at me, face inscrutable. "Where did you have in mind?"

I think for a second, and then grin happily. "I know the perfect place. Come on." And before I realise what I'm doing I've grabbed Hunter's wrist and pulled him up off the sofa. His arm tenses, but he's letting me drag him to his feet. I'm under no allusions of my strength; if he didn't want to come I know there's no way I'd be able to manhandle him like this.

I think he's as surprised as I am that he's let me touch him because as soon as he's on his feet he carefully extracts his arm from my grasp and stands awkwardly.

"You should let Blake know where we're going," he says quietly and I nod in understanding.

Can't be seen running off with his brother's girl. Not that I am actually Blake's girl yet. Or ever. I don't know.

Blake's cool with Hunter and I disappearing. If anything he's more worried about the possibility of Hunter upsetting me than us making out. To be fair, the chance of that is much more likely.

Hunter follows me silently out of Storm Chargers and through the busy streets towards the beach. Seems the whole of Blue Bay Harbour is out and about, but luckily the place I'm taking Hunter is a little more out of the way.

The late afternoon air is warm but not sticky and I find myself enjoying the walk. The lack of conversation is a refreshing change of pace; Hunter a silent ghost at my left shoulder. A faint sea breeze ruffles my hair as we stroll along the promenade next to the beach. I remember seeing Hunter here last Sunday morning and I turn to him, smiling. "I thought I was the only one crazy enough to get up early at the weekends."

He blinks at me, then seems to notice where we are for the first time and catches my drift. "Oh. Yeah. I was awake."

He makes it sound like an explanation.

I shake my head and sigh, but he's already looking away from me, blue eyes shadowed. Those are the only words spoken until we reach our destination, a little café with great sea views which, as I predicted, is quiet, filled with only a few elderly couples enjoying a late tea.

"Vanilla latte please," I say to the woman as we reach the counter and I grin at Hunter. "What're you having?"

His eyes flick to the menu on the wall. "Just a black coffee for me, please."

The fact he's chosen the cheapest item doesn't pass my notice. Neither does the crumpled state of the few bills he drags from his pocket. He's still fishing around for some loose change when the lady returns with our drinks. I hand over a note with a smile, paying for both coffees before Hunter realises what's happening.

"Tori-"

"Where do you want to sit," I say brightly, picking up my mug.

"Tori-"

"This table looks good." I choose one slightly away from the other customers, near the window so I can see the ocean. I scoot onto the chair, dumping my bag on the floor beside me and setting my coffee gently down on the table.

Hunter stands next to me, glaring. "Tori."

"Yes Hunter?" I look up with a grin to see him holding out a few tattered bills, a stony expression on his face.

I ignore them.

"Sit down," I say with a sigh. When he doesn't move I fix him with a Look.

I'm quite proud of my Look. It's taken years of practice to get just right, but hanging around with Shane and Dustin all this time has given me plenty of opportunities to perfect it. It's my "don't-mess-with-me-or-I'll-hit-you-really-hard" look. And the boys know it's true. Hunter hasn't been around as long but even he's seen the effect it has on the others.

It doesn't seem to work on him though.

He's not intimidated by me.

His only reaction is to shift his weight slightly, as a threat or just because he's uncomfortable I'm not sure. But I'm determined he's not going to win this one. He is not.

"Sit down, Hunter." The ice in my voice is unmistakable.

He drops heavily into the chair, blue eyes fierce, and pushes the money at me, "Tori, I can buy my own drinks."

I roll my eyes at him. I know what this is about. Pride. Stupid men and their stupid egos.

"I'm not taking your money," I tell him.

"Then it can stay on the table because I'm not having it," he says stubbornly.

I shove it back at him. "Stop being stupid. No, I mean it. I invited you here. Besides, you're helping me with my homework."

"So?" He pushes the bills back across and I can see us going round in circles.

"Hunter, shut up," I tell him firmly, balling the notes up and throwing them at him. They bounce harmlessly off his chest. He stares at me, shocked, and I give him a wicked grin. "Just say thank you and no more grumbling. It's the twenty first century you know; a girl can buy her guy friends a coffee."

He lets out a huff and reluctantly pockets the money. "Fine." I catch his eye and he smiles at last, "Thank you, Tori."

"You're very welcome Hunter," I reply mischievously and then pull out my copy of Catch-22. "So… AP English. You said you liked it?" He nods. "Ok, but did you understand it? Because I've read it twice now and I'm still a little bemused."

"By what part?"

"Timing. Order of events. Catch twenty two."

Not complete lies.

I want Hunter to explain things. I'm not lying; I'm just not going to mention the fact I already have an essay plan written up at home.

"Like, what the hell does catch twenty two even mean? I've heard it said tons, even before I'd heard of the book. But, well…" I trail off, wanting to see his reaction, wanting him to connect with me on this.

"It's a paradox," he says, taking the bait, "Circular logic." I raise an eyebrow at him and he grins, "Ok, so the only way for these guys to get out of flying missions is to be declared insane right? And to be declared insane they have to request the evaluation?" I nod. "But only insane men would want to fly missions so by asking to get out of doing it they actually prove they are sane. So they have to fly."

"Oh. Well I understood that." I pause. "Mostly. I just… it's the title of the novel so I thought there'd be more to it than that."

"Well that's just the main example," he says lightly, taking a sip of his coffee. "But it's like a…a… theme running through the book. The main one's about flying the missions, but then there's the whole 'rule that's illegal to be read' and the idea that the people in charge have a right to do anything that they can't be stopped doing. And Yossarian's final decision is one too."

I'm quietly impressed. Hunter seems to have grasped the book better than I did the first time I read it. Plus I read the CliffsNotes and I'm pretty sure he hasn't.

"Alright clever clogs," I say with a smile. "What's your take on Yossarian?"

"I like him," he replies, returning my grin.

"Really? I found him selfish and immoral."

Hunter stares at me, an odd expression on his face. "I found him the opposite." His voice is soft.

That confuses me. "He only cares about his own life."

"Sure. But in his world life is undervalued so the only moral stance is to preserve life; his own life. Self-preservation becomes heroic. And the choice he's faced with at the end is a catch twenty two precisely because he does actually care about others."

Well I'll be damned.

I grab my bag and rifle through it, pulling out my notebook. "Wait, wait, let me write this down. I hadn't thought of it that way..." He quirks a grin at me as I jot down a few words. I bite my lip and shake my head. "So you didn't find him pessimistic then? I mean, he's obsessed with death."

Hunter shakes his head, a strange expression settling on his face. "No. I mean, he's just aware of the inevitability of death. It gives him a sense of how precious life really is."

He averts his eyes from mine then, pulling his copy of the book towards him and flicking through the pages. I bow my head and start sketching out a few new ideas. I'm secretly ecstatic; this plan to get Hunter involved has worked better than I thought. Not only has he read the book and actively engaged with me – I mean, we're having a serious, wordy discussion, like, full sentences – but he actually understands the book on my level. He's given me a completely different perspective on it.

I pause in writing to sneak another look at Hunter through my lowered eyelashes. He seems unaware of my scrutiny and I allow myself to take in his features; serious, solemn, brooding. Before this afternoon I wouldn't have compared him to the Yossarian of Catch-22, and in most respects they're nothing alike. But it strikes me that Hunter too has seen the… the fragility of life and now, like Yossarian, fights hard to preserve it. But while Yossarian fought to preserve his own, Hunter fights for his brother, for others, instead.

My gut twists with a sort of excitement. I'm close to understanding something about Hunter, some important, fundamental thing that makes him… him. I'm so sure of it.

Family.

That reminds me…

"Hunter?" I ask softly, drawing his attention away from the book. "Are you… are you ok with me coming along tomorrow?"

His blue eyes are surprised. "Of course I am. Why would you ask that?"

I shrug. "I just wanted to make sure I wasn't butting in on brother time." Not to mention you haven't exactly been much of a team-outing guy.

Hunter shakes his head. "Naw, Blake and I live together remember? Sometimes we have too much brother time. Besides, Blake bought the tickets…" There's a strange edge to those words that I can't place. "…and he wants you there."

"And you?" I ask, determined to get an answer out of him about my attendance. I don't know why, but I need to know he's ok with me being there. I want him to want me to be there.

He gives me a sort of lopsided smile, "I suppose I can put up with your company for a couple of hours."

I realise he's joking with me.

Hunter Bradley can joke? Who knew?

I cover my surprise with a laugh. "Surely I'm not that bad?"

His smile widens. "Nah, it's Blake's behaviour when you're around that I have to put up with."

That comment brings me back down to earth with a bump. Blake's behaviour… because he like likes me. I laugh again to hide my sudden discomfort and steer the conversation back to safer topics.

"Ok… so what do you think about Milo?"

He pulls a face and I laugh, "My sentiments exactly."

The next couple of hours seem to fly by, and it's with shock that I look up to see darkness falling. Hunter also seems surprised at the time and we part ways with a promise to meet at the cinema tomorrow. I feel a strange tug of sadness as I watch him disappear into the still-busy streets; an odd feeling that I can't place. Shaking my head slightly I turn for home. Bed is calling.

My sleep that night is uneasy; still trying to work through the details of being at both the cinema and Shane's skate demo. It's with a mixture of apprehension and relief that I greet the rising sun.

"Ok, let's get this show on the road," I mutter as I dress.

After all, how bad can today really be?

XxX

"Well that could have gone better." Hunter's remark is accompanied by a damp squelching sound as the brothers make their way over to us, covered in something yellow and slimy which looks at bit like…

"Is that butter?" The look of disgust on Shane's face as we demorph mirrors my own. I catch a flash of something else in his expression as we take in the state of the Bradleys; hair plastered to their heads, t-shirts soaked and clinging, lumps of gunk sliding down their arms and necks. It looks suspiciously like smugness, at their predicament.

"Artificial butter flavouring," Blake corrects him drily, running a hand through his hair and shaking drops off oil off his fingers.

"Dude, that's gross," Dustin says, wrinkling his nose at them.

Hunter shrugs, the movement dislodging a few chunks that splat messily on the ground at his feet. "It had its benefits." His eyes flick to the remains of the kelzaks strewn around the floor and a self-satisfied smirk crosses his face as he surveys his handiwork.

"How come it's always you two that end up dirty?" I say, hands on my hips. "Wait, don't answer that. I'm not sure I want to know."

"Aw Tori, do you feel left out?" There's mock-sympathy in Blake's voice and before I can even think of stopping him he envelops me in a huge, oily hug.

I let out an uncharacteristically girly shriek and hit him until he breaks away; grinning broadly at the traces of popcorn flavouring he's left on me. I glare at him and I'm just about to launch into a rant about what sort of hugs are acceptable, and just how far down the list butter-covered ones are, when a sound I've never heard before stops me.

Laughter; deep, rich and joyful makes me turn to see Hunter, blue eyes suddenly sparkling with life, laughing at me. I'm dumbfounded.

Hunter is laughing.

Hunter is laughing.

Laughing.

It's one of the most lovely, wonderful noises I've heard in my life.

It ends all too soon, with Hunter pulling Blake away with the idea that they really need to shower, especially if they want to try again to catch the movie this evening. But I can't help think that progress has been made. Ok, so mine and Blake's 'date' was a disaster, the Bradley's got trapped by an alien (Again? Seriously, they must have some sort of target pinned to their backs), and I'm in trouble with Sensei, but somehow it now seems all worth it, just to have heard Hunter laugh.

Sure, there's still a long way to go; his smile still doesn't completely reach his eyes and the shadows, walls and 'no touching' rule all combine to leave the overall impression that he's holding back, keeping us out.

But that laughter was real. I'm so sure of it.

I realise I'd do almost anything to hear Hunter laugh again.

XxX

I turn up at Storm Chargers the next morning to find almost the whole gang there; Dustin working on the bikes out back, Blake manning the cash register and Shane doing… something… with his skateboard on the sofas. Don't ask me what; I'm more clueless about skateboards than I am about dirt bikes. Only Hunter is missing; conspicuous in his absence.

Well, Cam's not here either, but then again I wouldn't expect him to be.

I wasn't looking for Cam.

Not that I'm looking for Hunter.

Not at all.

Blake's face lights up at my approach. "Hey, how did the mopping go?"

I smile back. "I got home before midnight at least. How was the film?"

"Would have been better with you there."

It's just an off-hand comment, innocent, but I feel my smile freeze. The awkwardness I'd felt last night at Ninja Ops rises again and I know Blake can sense it too. He thinks it's because he's bad at dates –at least, I think he does; it's the comment that caused things to be weird before he left for the movie with Sensei – but I know it's because I'm still not sure about us actually dating.

But those are thoughts for another time.

"Where's your brother?" I ask casually, attempting to change the subject while satisfying my curiosity about where the broodier of the two Bradleys is.

"Sleeping," he answers and his discomfort seems to deepen. I must look confused because he mutters vaguely about Hunter having had a late night. I know Blake well enough by now to notice he's hiding something. Admittedly it doesn't take much to see; Blake is an awful liar. To this day I still don't know how he managed not to give the game away when they first arrived in Blue Bay. I suppose trying to kill the man who murdered your parents is a good incentive to lie well. Not to mention he had his brother there to coach him every step of the way. If there were prizes for the best liar I'm convinced Hunter would win without blinking.

I'm just about to try pushing for a bit more information when the door opens with a tinkle. Blake grins at the newcomer and I assume it's Hunter… until I turn around to find myself face to face with a slim, pretty Asian woman.

"Leanne!" Blake greets her enthusiastically and moves out from behind the counter.

She breezes straight past me to give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Is it just my imagination or does she hug him for longer than what could be considered friendly? I feel a flame of jealously begin to burn in the pit of my stomach as they both turn to face me, the woman- Leanne's arm still around Blake's shoulders.

My not-quite-boyfriend has a huge smile on his face as he says, "Leanne this is Tori. Tori, Leanne." His voice drops as he adds, "Leanne's a Thunder Academy graduate. Tori's…" He pauses and looks at me expectantly.

I force a smile. "I'm a… friend. From the Wind Academy."

Just then Shane and Dustin wander up, probably to check out the girl because, well, she's pretty and boys always check out pretty girls. But I'm glad of their presence; it means I can deflect the attention from me to them as it suddenly just got awkward. Again.

"This is Shane and Dustin," I say waving an arm at them. "Other… students."

The Asian woman flashes them a brilliant smile. "Leanne. Thunder Academy."

Shane steps forward, a familiar grin on his face and I feel my heart sink. I know that look. "Thunder Academy? Surely you're too good-looking to have gone there. I mean, compared to your two classmates."

"Hey!" Blake protests but Leanne gives a tinkling laugh which instantly grates on my nerves.

"And I heard all Wind Academy students were lame, but appearances can be deceiving."

Was that meant to be flattering?

Shane's still grinning, though I can tell he's picked up on the comment too. "Well, you know what they say about first impressions." He keeps his tone light and friendly and is just about to say something else when a new voice from behind us speaks.

"Don't waste your breath on her, Shane. Appearances are deceiving."

We turn to see Hunter standing just inside the door, arms crossed over his chest, whole posture screaming 'defensive'.

"Well if it isn't the broodier brother. Hey Hunter." Leanne gives him the same smile she'd given Blake and Shane. My stomach twists again, but Hunter doesn't even blink.

"Leanne."

His tone is cold, emotionless, and I'm shocked by the look in his eyes. It's definitely not friendly, but it's not angry or nasty either. It's just… empty. Blank.

I never want that look turned on me.

Shane and Dustin look perplexed; this is bad behaviour, even for Hunter. Blake seems to have been expecting it though and hides his discomfort well. The smile on Leanne's face doesn't flicker. It doesn't take a genius to realise there's history going on here.

"Dude, is there something we're missing?"

Like I said before, the atmosphere is pretty hard to miss.

When Hunter doesn't make a move to answer Dustin, Blake opens his mouth. But Leanne beats him to it. "Oh don't mind my ex-boyfriend. He's always been an antisocial grump. Some things never change."

"And you've always been a viper." Hunter's tone is almost pleasant. Almost, but not quite.

Leanne just smiles back at him.

Now that Hunter's mentioned it, her smile does sort of remind me of a snake, tight-lipped and somehow mean. She turns to Blake, "As much as I'd just love to hang around and trade insults with your brother, we really should get going. I can't stay long."

His eyes light up again and, with promises to see us all later, they head out. I can't help but notice Leanne holding Blake's wrist, fingers curled around it lightly but retaining contact. Blake doesn't pull away.

As soon as the door shuts behind them Shane turns to Hunter. "Wow, awkward much. What's the deal between you two?"

His question is friendly, harmless. I know he's trying to make things work between him and Hunter.

The blond gives Shane a flat look. "Is this a team matter?"

The darker teen looks confused. "No-o."

"Well then, it's none of your business." Hunter hasn't raised his voice, or gotten angry, but there's an edge of finality in his tone.

Shane looks surprised, then hurt. "Seriously bro, is it me you have an issue with or people in general?"

Hunter looks for a moment like he's going to say something snappish in reply and I prepare myself for the argument looming. Instead he says quietly, "I don't have an issue with you Shane."

I breathe a sigh of relief, and Shane relaxes. Tension gone. Disaster averted.

Until Hunter opens his mouth again.

"You're the one with the issues."

"Hunter!" My exclamation is both shocked and disapproving.

A flash of what I think is guilt crosses his face and just as I'm sure he's about to apologise, it's Shane's turn to speak.

I expect him to yell, but he doesn't. I would be impressed by his control, for keeping the anger simmering under the surface rather than exploding out, if it wasn't for what he says.

"You know what? You're not worth it. Be the bitter, moody loner if you like. I don't care. None of us do. As long as you turn up for training and battles I couldn't care less. As far as I'm concerned the sooner we defeat Lothor the better; as soon as he's gone you're not my responsibility at all."

If someone had said that to me, I'd probably have burst into tears, right after punching them very hard, but Hunter doesn't even flinch, Shane's words just washing over him.

Worse, he smiles. It's not a happy smile. "Don't worry Shane. As soon as Lothor's gone so am I."

His tone is detached, unaffected, and he walks out of Storm Chargers without another word or sideways glance.

I'm fuming, at both of them, and torn between laying into Shane and running after Hunter. My mind's made up by Dustin.

"Dude, that was harsh." There's a frown on his normally happy countenance and he's glaring at the boy in red. I turn away from the door to focus my attention on them both. Hunter can wait.

We need a word with our dear leader.

Chapter Text

I wanna be drunk when I wake up
On the right side of the wrong bed
And every excuse I made up
Tell you the truth I hate
What didn't kill me, it never made me stronger at all

~Ed Sheeran

I shouldn't have gone to Storm Chargers this morning.

I should have gone straight to Ninja Ops as I'd originally planned.

But for some reason when I woke up this morning – late, as my bar shift didn't finish until three a.m. (again) – my thoughts were filled with Tori and our book chat, and I realised I'd actually enjoyed her conversation, and her company. I think I'd had some vague idea of catching a lift with her so I could find out how her essay was going. That's what I'd hoped anyway.

I clearly haven't learnt my lesson about hope yet.

Instead of having a pleasant walk up to Ops by myself, or even a pleasant drive with interesting talk, I'm now tramping through the woods in a bad mood after another fight with Shane. It wasn't his fault, not completely. I shouldn't have let Leanne get to me. And I shouldn't have taken it out on him.

Tori's annoyed with me too.

I growl and kick at a tree root in irritation. Me and my big mouth.

At least I got Shane to admit his true feelings. We won't have to pretend to be friends anymore. I don't know why that thought is bothering me. It shouldn't bother me. We were never friends.

I never tried to be friends.

Friendship takes two though. And he-

He tried.

Ok, so this was totally my fault.

I pick up a stray pinecone and throw it morosely into the forest, where it bounces of something with a dull thunk. Something Shane said echoes in my head; "be the bitter, moody loner if you like".

Bitter.

I'd never considered myself bitter but, where Leanne's concerned, maybe (as much as I hate to admit it); just maybe he has a point. Not that I'll ever let him know that.

You see, Blake's always been the one girls have fallen for. Sure, I can act cocky, and I've talked a girl into bed on more than one occasion, but it was always just sex. A brief, physical encounter that was, in most respects, meaningless. My brother is the quiet one. The cute one. I was the bad boy one-night-stand while Blake's the guy girls want to date, take home to meet their parents, fall in love with. And I was happy with that.

Until Leanne.

She made me realise there was more, more than what I'd had, more than what I'd been content with, but as soon as I stopped fighting her – gave in – she took it all away.

Now I don't want anything.

My boots touch the edge of a deep, clear pool and I look to find myself at the waterfall, feet working on automatic to bring me here. It's actually more than slightly disconcerting how quickly it has become habit.

I'm staring at the waterfall now, transfixed by the falling water splashing onto the rocks, rainbows shimmering and dancing where the sunlight catches it.

I don't want to go to Ninja Ops.

I'm not surprised by this realisation.

I know I should go. But I'm tired. Tired of doing what I'm told. Tired of doing what's expected.

One day.

One day of not being there, of not being with them. It's not too much to ask?

One day won't hurt.

It's not like they want me there anyway.

So I turn my back on the waterfall and strike out into the woods again. I know just the place to go to be alone.

XxX

The forest clearing is my sanctuary. It's deep enough into the woods that no one will stumble on it by accident, yet within short walking distance. The trees are a good shield from the outside world and as I sit on the large rock that must have rolled down from the slope above, I revel in the peace, the solitude. Alone at last, with no one to bother me, no one to yell at me, no one to ask irritating questions. Just me.

I take a breath of the crisp morning air.

Just me, and whatever it is that's trying to sneak up on me.

Trying being the key word here. They're not doing a very good job of it, but better than Lothor's creations normally do. I wait, staring absently into the distance, looking for all the world that I'm totally oblivious when beneath my relaxed exterior every muscle is primed, ears listening intently, following the creature's movements as they approach. Time slows around me, measured in heartbeats not minutes.

They're at the edge of the clearing.

Beat.

Five feet away.

Beat.

Three feet.

Beat.

Behind me.

I jump into action, standing and spinning in one fluid motion, years of training coalescing into effortless, thoughtless movement. Breathing controlled, weight shifted, elbows bent and close to sides, chin tucked slightly, eyes on target, eyes on target and stri-

"Woah, woah, Hunter it's me, Tori."

I stare at her stupidly, hands still raised in fists, adrenaline pumping through my system, still expecting to fight. She watches me carefully for a moment as I struggle to regain control and then, when the tension eases from my shoulders, she smiles, waving her empty hands at me, "I come in peace."

"How did you find me?" I ask. My voice has a slight wobble in it, but I don't think she's noticed.

She grins at me teasingly. "A ninja never reveals her secrets."

I sigh. "You had Cam track my morpher." It's not a question.

Tori pauses for a second. "Yes?" I notice she's blushing, cheeks coloured pink, and she babbles, "But if it makes you feel better, Cam can only get the general area. I still had to find you myself."

So much for solitude.

When I don't reply she drops her eyes. I find myself watching her, curiously unbothered by her presence here. I should be, this is my place, but I'm not. She's standing close to me, but I notice not as close as she stands to the others. I realise this is intentional, like she's noticed my personal bubble and is doing nothing to threaten it, or me. I feel a sort of quiet gratitude towards her, though it's tempered with a slight unease that she seems to have read me so easily.

I become conscious of the fact that I'm still staring, and I hope she hasn't noticed. Trying to cover my sudden awkwardness I say roughly, "What do you want?"

I'm expecting her to yell at me about Shane. But that's not the answer I get.

"Leanne." Her voice has dropped to a whisper, so quiet I almost miss what she says. She finally raises her eyes to meet mine, twisting a strand of blonde hair around her finger. "I, uh, you… you knew her?"

"I knew her," I say evenly. It's hardly a secret.

"So her and Blake…"

Understanding dawns.

"Are just friends," I tell her in what I hope is a reassuring tone.

I'd thought my brother would have warned her about Leanne visiting, but clearly he didn't; probably slipped his mind in between school and this week's monster attacks.

"Her mother was a cousin to Blake's; to his real mom, I think." I can feel myself relaxing slightly now she doesn't appear to be ready to shout at me. Which is why her next question seems to come out of thin air.

"And you and her?"

I shoot her a sharp look to find her watching me carefully. Was this what she really came here for? Was the whole 'jealous girlfriend' thing just an act? Tori's never struck me as the jealous type but surely seeing her boyfriend being friendly with another woman is bound to raise questions. Questions that she isn't asking.

No, she's asking about me. Asking about something much, much harder to express in words.

Sneaky, manipulative, evil woman.

As my eyes meet hers my stomach lurches, but the feeling isn't unpleasant. It's more like… No. Uh uh. No way.

I am not feeling… this.

I am not.

Her blue eyes are intent, waiting for me to answer. I recognise the expression on her face that's warning me not to mess with her. I'm coming to know it well. I can feel myself pulling back, defences up.

"We dated. It ended. That's it," I say shortly.

She's quiet for a moment, then her gaze softens. "You let her in."

She's not asking. Damn her and her perceptiveness.

"Yes." My reply slips out before I realise what I'm doing. My voice is barely above a whisper, but in the silence of the forest it's as clear as a bell.

For a while the only noise is birds calling to each other and the faint sound of waves crashing on the rocks below the cliffs. Finally Tori clears her throat. "You know Shane didn't mean what he said," she tells me lightly, changing the subject.

Yes he did. But I keep quiet. My scepticism must show though because she glares at me.

"He didn't mean it, Hunter. He was angry, and possibly with good reason. You were out of order."

I stare at her sullenly and she rolls her eyes.

"Oh come on, you know it too. You knew it as soon as you'd done it. You're as bad as each other." When I don't reply she sighs. "So… what are your plans once Lothor's defeated? Because we both know you're not leaving here as long as Blake's still in school."

She's got me there.

What's with the sudden topic changes? I find myself blinking stupidly at her, "After..? I don't know. I guess I haven't thought that far ahead."

I try to think of something to say that she might like, but I'm struggling to comprehend a world in which Lothor and all that he represents doesn't exist. Survival has been my only concern for the last eight years; I've made no plans.

I shrug, "I guess keep on doing what I'm doing. Until Blake finishes high school I'm the only one really earning. Between Storm Chargers and the-" I was about to mention the bar but somehow I don't think Tori'll approve.

Why do I care what she thinks?

I correct myself nonetheless, "-saving the world I haven't really thought of anything else."

I think I've said something wrong anyway because she's frowning at me. "Hunter." There's a strange quality in her voice and she's looking at me intently. "You know you're far too clever to work in Storm Chargers forever."

I feel my heart sink. She thinks I'm only working in the shop because it's the only job that doesn't mind me disappearing. Damn.

"I like Storm Chargers," I say casually, hoping she'll drop the subject. I should know Tori better than that by now.

She presses on, "Seriously Hunter. You're smart. Intelligent. You don't want to work as a bike mechanic for the rest of your life do you?"

I shrug again. Don't reply. Don't engage with her on this and she might leave it alone.

She doesn't.

"There must be something you want to do. Dream job?" Her eyes widen as if she's just remembered something. "I mean, you could go back to high school, get your diploma."

"Wouldn't do any good," I mutter bitterly, and then instantly regret my words.

"What do you mean?" She looks confused.

Shit.

I've said too much.

"Nothing." I mutter, and turn to look speculatively at the trees. How easy would it be to lose her in there?

"Hunter." Her voice stops me from walking away.

Why?

I want to leave now. I don't want to talk about this. I don't want to talk about this to her.

She moves closer to me and I can tell she's resisting reaching out to me, resisting touching me. She keeps touching me. I don't understand.

What does she see in me?

Am I just some pity project? Help the damaged orphan? If she knew the truth, she'd have a very different opinion of me. That's why I won't – can't – tell her.

"Hunter, what is it? What are you not saying?"

Everything.

"Look, whatever it is, you can trust me."

I want to. Strange as it is, I really do want to trust her. She's not like anyone I've met before. She's not like Leanne. But the truth?

They say the truth will set you free, but not in my case. The truth will alienate; the truth will condemn.

Words.

It's all just words. Jumble them together and spit them out in any order. They don't matter. They can be put any way you want. Say anything you want. You have control over the words.

Truth. Lies. All just words. Lies. I should lie. Can't tell her the truth.

Why does she care?

Her hand touches mine and I pull away immediately. It's a reflex, an instinct. Don't let her get close.

Why not?

Treacherous voice.

I can still feel the ghost touch of her hand on mine, and my stomach lurches again; a strange tingling sensation running through me. I don't want to pull away from her. I find myself wanting to feel her warmth again.

Is that so wrong?

She's awakening something inside of me that I haven't felt in- No. Impossible. She's Blake's girlfriend. My brother's girlfriend. I can't…

Not Blake's girlfriend. Sort-of girlfriend.

What the hell does that matter?

Enough. She's off limits.

"Hunter?" Her voice is concerned, worried, and I know I'm "spacing out" as the kids say these days.

Too many thoughts in my head. Too many possible answers. I think maybe I'm mad. But then if I think I'm mad I'm sane enough to know what mad is so I can't possibly be mad. Catch-22 right?

I want to laugh. Laugh at the absurdity of it all, at the ridiculousness of me even contemplating falling for my brother's girl, falling for anyone, but the sane part of my mind refuses.

Tori is here. Tori is watching. Tori is always watching.

Why the hell is she still here?

I should answer her question. I open my mouth to speak, to lie, but the words choke me. I've spent over half my life telling lies. They come as naturally to me as breathing, but not with her. I can't lie to Tori. I don't want to. If I tell her the truth, she won't want me. She shouldn't want me. She doesn't want me. This is all in my mind. I don't want her to want me.

Lie.

This can't happen.

Lie.

I owe her the truth.

Lie.

I feel trapped. Trapped inside my own mind, in a prison of my own making.

I open my mouth to lie, but the truth falls out instead.

"I have a criminal record."

Such a plain statement, almost innocent in its simplicity, but it's anything but.

She waits and I fall silent. Surely that's all the answer she needs?

No, she wants more. Of course she does. She's Tori.

"What did you do?" Her tone is neutral, not judging. Yet. I wouldn't answer, but there's steel in her blue eyes that wasn't there before. Besides, I started this. I have to answer her.

See, this is why I shouldn't talk.

But I guess… I guess she has a right to know. She's on my team, dating my brother – friend – she should know who I am. Even if it earns me her disdain.

I shift uncomfortably under her gaze. "Drugs," I mumble.

She raises an eyebrow. "You took drugs?" A chill has crept into her voice.

"No." My denial is vehement and she looks taken back. I temper my tone. "No, I've never taken drugs. But-" I see her about to speak "-I sold them."

There's shock on her face, and I think I detect a hint of disgust. I don't want her to hate me. My next words come out in a rush, a desperation to defend my actions causing me to babble.

"I had no choice. I needed to do it, for Blake. After our parents died I tried to get honest work, I did. But I was thirteen. No one hires thirteen year olds. But the gangs… age didn't matter. They paid well. Enough. And they didn't ask questions. Didn't care. We had somewhere to live, food to eat, Blake could go to school. It wasn't legal. It wasn't right, but it was the right thing to do at the time. The only thing I could do."

I pause, waiting for the argument, waiting for the anger. When it doesn't come I continue, "I was seventeen when the cops caught me. Undercover operation. In one night I was facing jail and Blake was facing foster care."

The memory still makes me feel sick. I had been so close to losing everything. For the third time.

"But you didn't go to jail?" I can't detect the emotion in her voice. Disappointment? Or pity?

"No," I say softly. "Sensei Omino found me. They must have contacted him once they knew who I was. I don't know what he did, but he got me out on the condition me and Blake return to the Thunder Academy with him. He couldn't wipe my record though."

Tori is quiet for a moment, biting her lip as if deep in thought. At last she does speak, "Hunter, why didn't you go straight to the Thunder Academy? They'd have taken you in; looked after you both."

Spared me. That's what she means. Saved me from my life of crime.

I bite down on the memories that begin to rise; memories of that night.

"Tori, my parents were ninjas." The words are a struggle to get out. "They were killed by a ninja, because they were ninjas."

Mostly the truth. The voice of their murderer – Lothor's voice – echoes in my mind. I heard everything; every word, every sound, every screa- Shut. It. Out.

"I didn't want Blake to have anything to do with ninjas. I didn't want that life for him. Ninjas are trouble." The bitterness has crept back in and I give a humourless laugh. "Look how well that idea turned out." I look at Tori to see sadness on her face. I don't want her pity. "You know, I'd have gone to jail willingly if it meant Blake wouldn't have had to go to the Thunder Academy. But Sensei Omino was our legal guardian; he'd have ended up there with or without me. I'd rather have been there for him."

Protect your brother.

The whispered words echo in my mind.

This time Tori does touch me, her hand squeezing my arm in sympathy. I let it rest there; allow it, feeling her warmth seep into my skin, ignoring the voice in my head that's screaming at me to pull away. I don't want to.

"Surely the Thunder Academy wasn't that bad?" she asks tentatively.

I manage a real smile. "No, the Thunder Academy was great." Ignoring Leanne. "Sensei Omino became like a grandfather to us. I should have just taken us there first." But I was scared.

I won't admit that though.

"Blake doesn't know, does he?" Her voice is soft.

I know what she means and shake my head. "He knows most of it; the events anyway. Drugs; jail; Sensei Omino saving us… He just doesn't know the why. Why we ran." What I wanted for him.

I almost ask her not to say anything to Blake, but stop myself. I can't ask her to lie to my brother, to her boyfriend.

But something must show on my face because she tightens her grip on my arm. "I won't tell him, Hunter." She injects a note of lightness adding, "Your secret is safe with me."

She lets her hand fall away from me then, breaking contact. There's a twinge of regret in the pit of my stomach when she does. Even so, I step back, furthering the distance between us. The silence that falls isn't awkward or uncomfortable but… companionable, filled by the sounds of the forest. I let my eyes drift to the trees, their leaves rustled by a faint breeze, to the sky and to Tori, to find her watching me again, a strange half-smile on her lips.

It's Tori that breaks our silence.

"I really should head back. I take it you're not coming to Ops today?"

Do I detect a flash of disappointment on her face when I give a negative response?

No. Imagination.

"Ok. Well… I'll see you later?" I give a curt nod and then she's gone, disappearing back into the forest and is soon lost to my eyes.

The clearing seems lonelier and somehow emptier with her gone, the silence more oppressive. I sit down heavily on the rock and drop my head into my hands.

Alone again. Just me and my thoughts. What I wanted, right?

Even in the privacy of my mind I lack conviction.

XxX

Late afternoon sees me back at work in Storm Chargers. I'm in the workshop again, by myself. I'd have thought the others would have stopped by after training, but it seems they've made different plans. It's not like their lives revolve around me; I shouldn't take this personally, not after the way I behaved this morning. I'm not taking this personally. I didn't want to see them anyway.

Not all of them.

I catch my thumb on a jagged bit of metal and let out a curse, jamming it into my mouth. There's the coppery taste of blood on my tongue and I swear again, glad my brother and Dustin aren't around to chide me on my language.

"Bad day?"

I hadn't realised Kelly had returned and I look up to see her standing in the doorway, her mass of red hair escaping the rough bun she'd twisted it into.

I nod, acknowledging her comment. Yes, I can safely say today has been less than ideal.

"Catch."

An object comes flying across the room towards me and I snatch it from the air without thinking, hand closing around the cold, smooth glass of a beer bottle, slightly damp with condensation.

"Good reflexes," Kelly says, twisting the top off her own and taking a long drink. I raise a questioning eyebrow at her as she settles down on the floor nearby, resting her back against the work bench.

"Bad day," she says by way of explanation.

She doesn't elaborate, and I don't ask. It's not my place, or my nature, to pry. A not-uncomfortable silence falls as I continue to work on the bike. Kelly watches me, sipping her beer. Minutes pass and I lose myself in the motions of repair.

"So… ex girlfriend?" I turn at the sudden noise to look at my boss and she gives me a small smile. "Sorry, I just saw that woman with Blake this morning. I didn't mean to stick my nose in."

She goes to take another sip of beer and I notice her bottle is almost finished already. I take a closer look at her, noticing she looks sort of pale and her eyes are tinged with red, as if she's been crying.

I hope she doesn't plan on starting again.

I am not the person to go to for a heart-to-heart.

There's a faint twinge of guilt at that thought. I am horrible. Kelly is a good boss – person – and unlike the team I've never felt forced to get along with her. She's helped me and Blake out more times that she knows; more times than anyone, including Blake, knows. So I figure I owe her. Least I can do is listen.

As long as she doesn't cry. Because that would be awkward.

I put down the wrench and pick up my beer, easing myself onto the floor beside her, back against the bench, self-consciously mimicking her posture. Close, but still far enough away that neither of us feel threatened.

"Wanna trade?" I ask, taking a swig of the bitter liquid. "I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours."

She looks at me for a long moment, considering. "Ok, but I'll need something stronger than beer." She jumps up, glancing at her watch. "I should lock up first too."

Her eyes drift to the state I've made of the workshop and I grimace. "I'll tidy here."

She gives a nod of assent and leaves me to my mess, and my beer. Neither takes long to finish and I return to the main store to find a comfortable perch in the alcove where the others normally hang out. Kelly joins me, dropping onto the sofa opposite and setting a bottle down on the table between us. Whiskey.

I raise an eyebrow and she shrugs. "I said I needed something stronger." She unscrews the top and takes a drink, pulling a face as she hands it to me.

I take a sip, the whiskey burning the back of my throat and lighting a fire in my belly.

Kelly fixes me with a knowing gaze. "So… the ex?" she asks as I hand back the bottle.

"Leanne." Strange how alien the name seems on my tongue. "It was a long time ago."

Three years.

It feels longer. So much has happened. So much has changed. I realise I've been looking down at my hands and I raise my head to see Kelly watching me.

"You loved her?" she asks, and I can read sympathy on her face.

I shrug. "I don't know."

It's the only real answer I can give. I have no idea if I loved her. I'm not even sure I know what love is. I do know that the cheesy, horrendously romanticised notion of love that Hollywood pushes on us all through movies and television and books is a myth. That love doesn't exist. Real love, whatever it is, real love… that I don't know. But real love is for other people. Normal people. People that aren't me. I drag my focus back to Kelly to find her also lost in thought.

As if she feels my attention on her she whispers, "I thought I loved Martin." Her eyes are watery, but thankfully the tears don't fall. "My… ex," she clarifies when I don't respond.

"You broke up?" I ask uncertainly, and get a bitter laugh in reply.

"He dumped me," she says, taking swig from the bottle before passing it to me. "By phone."

"Oh."

Is that really all I can say?

I wrack my brain trying to come up with something, well, comforting I guess, but this is way outside my area of expertise.

Give me something to fight or fix, I'm your man. But bring emotions into the mix, feelings… I can barely deal with my own, let alone other people's. In fact, I don't deal with my own. I shut them down, lock them away, don't have them.

"At least he told you," I finally manage and she gives me a sharp look. It's my turn to take a drink of whiskey, the alcohol is a spreading warmth, the only feeling I focus on; the only one I have. No emotions. "I found Leanne in bed with another man."

There's another silence, and then Kelly says a single word. "Bitch."

I don't know if it's the alcohol or tiredness or the stress of the day catching up with me, but I start laughing. I can't help it.

Kelly blinks at me for a moment, then joins in the laughter. "It's times like this you find out who your real friends are." The laughter fades as she says, surprisingly seriously, "Hunter, we… we are friends right? I'm sorry, I just… I can't tell with you."

Are we?

I don't have to think for long. "Yes."

As horrible and as awful as it sounds, Kelly is a safe friend to have. Because I know she will never get close enough to hurt me.

She smiles at me then, taking back the whiskey. "So while we're on the subject of relationships, you have anyone special?" she asks, a sudden twinkle in her eye.

I shake my head. "No."

The redhead gives me an incredulous look. "No? Oh come on Hunter, surely there must be someone."

I'm about to say no again when a memory of earlier today comes unbidden into my mind; of Tori in the clearing, smiling at me, her hand on my arm. I can almost still feel her touch.

Kelly catches my hesitation and grins triumphantly. "There is! I knew it! Do I know her?"

I feel my cheeks heat; embarrassment, unease and guilt all worming their way onto my face. I want to deny it, but Kelly is smiling again and for some reason I haven't the heart to tell her she's wrong.

"I… am not nearly drunk enough for this conversation," I tell her teasingly and she thrusts the whiskey at me in response.

"Well then, drink up."

XxX

I'm laughing again. No, scratch that; I, Hunter Bradley, am currently giggling like a kid. What was so funny? I can't remember but Kelly's laughing too so it must be hilarious. I think… I'm having fun. I haven't had this much fun in a long whil- Wait! The other afternoon with Tori was fun. Mebbe that's just the whiskey talking – I didn't even think I liked whiskey but we've drunk almost the whole bottle. How much of that was me? I squint at it, and then at Kelly. I think she's drunk more.

I feel… happy. Happy happy happy.

"What are you so pleased about?" Kelly says, words slightly slurring together.

"This is nice," I reply, gesturing to the room, the alcohol and her with my arm. "Fun."

She grins back, echoing my words in agreement, "Definitely fun."

Fun… oh yeah; the café with Tori was fun. Nice. Talking. Good talking, not the personal stuff, which she seems way too keen on, but interesting talking. About books. That was fun. Tori is fun.

"Shame Tori isn't here."

"Huh?" Kelly's blinking at me. Oh, I said that last bit out loud.

"Tori," I explain, "Is fun. We are having fun. But fun plus fun people equals lots of fun."

"…Because that makes sense," she says after a pause, and then, "O-oh is it Tori you like?" She looks more alert now, back straighter, eyes intent.

I scoff at her. "Now you're being stupid. Tori is with Blake. Or will be, when my brother mans up. Everyone knows that."

It's true.

But I can feel a niggle of… something… twist inside of me at those words. I think I'm lying again.

I reach for the whiskey.

"You didn't answer my question." There's suspicion in her voice.

I smile at her. "Yeah, I did."

Kelly takes the bottle back off me. "Ok, Hunter."

I'm not sure if she believes me. I'm not sure if I believe me, but that could be the alcohol again. Thinking goes fuzzy. I should probably stop talking now. Talking about Tori anyway. I claim the whiskey and raise it to my lips, but nothing appears.

Huh.

I peer into the bottle to find it empty and stare at Kelly accusingly.

She giggles and says "All gone" in a singsong voice.

Yeah, she is definitely drunker than me. As if to prove my point, she slumps sideways on the sofa, eyelids beginning to droop. I'm getting sleepy too and have to stifle a yawn. Maybe it's time to call it a night.

I stand gingerly, testing my balance. A little unsteady but I can walk. I make my way over to Kelly's sofa.

"Come on," I say, pulling her to her feet. "I'll take you home."

"You just want to get me in bed," she says and I freeze.

This is not happening.

No. No. Nononono.

Kelly cackles at the scandalised expression on my face. "Don't panic. I am not… I am not trying to hit on you. Though I am now a little hurt." She pouts then waves a finger in front of my nose. "I do not sleep with my friends. That is ba…ba…bad. Bah-duh. And you said that we were friends earlier so I'm holding you to that." She frowns. "You did say we were friends right?"

"Yup," I say brightly. "Can't get rid of me now."

Which is the right answer apparently, as Kelly pulls me into a hug. I try to duck out, but in our inebriated – hah, good word – states we collapse to the floor in a heap. Kelly rolls off me and lies there, laughing like a small child.

I pull a face at her. "You're drunk."

"Am not."

"Are too. D-r-u-n-k. Drunk."

"I. Am not. Drunk," she says, enunciating every word precisely. "You would not dare call me drunk if I was sober."

I look at her, attempting to adopt a stern expression but fail miserably, descending into giggles.

Kelly grins at me. "If 'm drunk then so are you."

"True." A thought crosses my mind. "But I'm not the one who has to open the shop in the morning."

"…Crap." She flops back onto the floor, covering her eyes theatrically with one arm.

I stand and take hold of her hands. "Ok, home time," and once again pull her to her feet.

We stumble out into the street and I note with surprise the sky lightening in the east. Is it really that late? Or early? The night air is cold and refreshing. Sobering. I can feel the alcoholic fog beginning to lift as we set off down the deserted road, the artificial euphoria fading.

Kelly trips, knocking into me and would have fallen had I not managed to catch us both.

"Uh, feel sick," she mutters, leaning heavily against me. "Don't wanna walk."

"I'm not carrying you," I tell her, wrapping an arm around her waist and holding hers draped around my shoulders to support her. "And don't you dare throw up on me."

Awkward and unsteady we head in the vague direction of Kelly's apartment block, weaving and zig-zagging as we do so. It takes a lot longer to get there than it should.

Eventually, with some trouble with the main door, the stairs and Kelly's front door, I find myself in her apartment. I haven't been to many people's homes in Blue Bay, only Shane's. And Cam's if you count Ninja Ops. Hers is… nice.

As soon as we're in Kelly bolts for the bathroom and I hear a damp splashing sound. I steady myself with the wall and follow her slowly, trailing my hand along the uneven paint. I slink into the small bathroom to find the redhead gripping the toilet seat tightly with both hands, trembling as she empties her stomach of the best half of a bottle of whiskey.

I want to join her, but I somehow hold off. See, this is why I don't drink to excess. Head spinning, balance definitely off, coherent thoughts… incoherent. Lack of control. Don't like not being in control.

I slide down the wall with a groan, cool tiles against my back, and I find my hands pressing on the floor, bracing myself in a poor attempt to stop the room turning.

Kelly twists her head to look at me and giggles. "You look awful."

"This from the woman with her head over the toilet," I reply sourly, then shut my eyes as the room gives another stomach-churning lurch. I drop my head onto my knees, but that just makes the dizziness worse, so I try tilting it back, pushing on the cold ceramic.

"Touché," Kelly manages before retching again.

I give her an awkward but sympathetic pat on the back. "I'll get you some water."

When I return, glass in hand, it's to find Kelly passed out, head still resting on the toilet seat, arms dangling down. I shake her softly on the shoulder. "Kelly? Kelly?" She groans but doesn't open her eyes. "You can't sleep here."

"Leave 'lone," she mumbles. "Here is good. Comfy."

"Nope, here is bad. Come on Kelly, you need to move," I say, giving her another shake.

"Nu uh." She turns her head away from me, red hair falling messily about her shoulders. "Lemme die in peace."

I roll my eyes at the back of her head. "You're not going to die. Not tonight. Tomorrow though… tomorrow you're going to feel really bad."

As am I.

She turns her head back, cracking one eye open to glare at me. "You're evil."

"Yeah, not the first time I've been called that," I say as I slide my arms around her and lift her up, trying to set her on her feet. "Up you get."

No sooner are we up than Kelly shakes her head.

"Sick," she gulps and then pulls out of my arms, spinning around surprisingly gracefully and resuming her position of head over the toilet.

I feel my own knees begging to collapse and as the room starts tilting again I give in, sinking back down against the reassuringly solid wall.

Kelly looks at me as if she's just remembered something. "You know," she says in a damp voice. "If you like Tori you should tell her."

I don't reply; just let my head fall back against the pleasantly cool tiles and focus instead on taking deep breaths to try and still the turmoil in my stomach.

In. Out. In. Out.

Hopefully Kelly won't remember any of this in the morning.

In. Out.

Hopefully I won't remember this in the morning.

Chapter Text

It's such a tired game
Will it ever stop?
How will all this play out?
Out of sight, out of mind
By now we should know
How to communicate instead of coming to blows

~Jack Johnson

I'm eating breakfast when the apartment door opens and Hunter stumbles in, blond hair dishevelled, clothing rumpled, and dark bags under his eyes. I can smell the aroma of stale alcohol immediately.

"What the hell happened to you?" I ask, feeling a grin spread across my face.

He glares at me. "Our darling boss happened, that's what."

I stare at him in amazement. "You and Kelly? Wow bro, that's…" Unexpected? Out of the blue? More than a little weird? "… Just wow."

Hunter looks confused for a moment, then I see his eyes widen the tiniest bit as he gets my meaning. His scowl deepens.

"No." Then again, more annoyed, "No. Blake… no."

He sinks down into the chair opposite mine and rests his head on the table. It's my turn to look confused.

"So what then?"

"Her boyfriend broke up with her," he says into the table, voice muffled. "She decided to drown her sorrows in whiskey and I, for some completely unknown, totally idiotic reason, thought it would be a good idea to join her. Whiskey, Blake, whiskey. I don't drink whiskey." There's a faint hint of horror in his voice.

I can't help myself.

"Clearly you drank enough of it last night," I point out to him and he raises his head to give me an evil look.

"Just wait until you're hung over, then we'll see who's laughing."

I stick my tongue out at him and say tartly, "First off, I don't drink. And secondly… shouldn't you be telling me not to get drunk, like ever? You're meant to be the responsible one! Huh, some role model you are. If in ten years I've turned into an alcoholic grouch I can point a finger at you and say 'look who I had to follow'. What hope do I have?" I put a hand over my heart. "Oh woe is me."

Hunter responds by throwing the nearest object to hand. The hand towel doesn't even come close to hitting me, and flops harmlessly onto the floor. I burst out laughing and Hunter drops his head back on the table with a loud thud.

"Beware the wrath of the mighty Crimson Ranger and his Hand Towel of Doom," I say, enjoying this way too much. It's not often I can get one over on my older brother so I'm going to make the most of it.

Hunter knows it too. "Why aren't you at school? Go be all awkward and tongue-tied around Tori instead."

"Nice try, bro. I'll have you know I am the picture of cool around chicks. It's the mysterious newcomer thang I got going on."

"Ugh, on that disturbing note I'm going to bed." He pushes himself unsteadily to his feet and is halfway across the room before he turns and adds, "I'll let Tori know you called her a chick. You know how much she loves that."

I wince. "Bro, that's low. Even for you."

He snorts and drops face down onto his mattress. "That'll teach you to pick on the sick then, won't it?" he mumbles into his pillow.

I'm just about to answer back, wondering how far I can push Hunter this morning, when my morpher lets out a couple of beeps. Tori. My brother groans and claps his hands over his ears at the shrill noise.

"I'm off. See you later," I say in a louder-than-necessary voice and slam the door as I leave the apartment. I'm rewarded by a curse from Hunter that I can hear from the corridor and laugh. I'm still grinning when I reach Tori's van.

"You're looking pleased with yourself," Shane remarks from the front seat as I climb into the back. His turn for riding shotgun today. Tori got fed up with us bickering so she makes us take turns. 'Cos she's clever like that.

"Just in a good mood," I say brightly, buckling my seatbelt with a smile for Tori.

Dustin stares at me blearily. "Dude, it's Monday morning and we're off to school… How the hell are you in a good mood?"

I shrug and grin in reply. "Kelly got Hunter drunk last night," I announce gleefully.

Shane frowns for a moment and then his face lights up in younger-brother-understanding. "You made the most of it I trust?"

I give him a 'duh' look. "Of course."

He grins.

"Wait, Kelly and Hunter?" I only catch a glimpse of Tori's face in the rear-view mirror but she has an… odd expression. It's gone in an instant.

Shane and Dustin make gagging noises and I pull a face. "Nah. Definitely not. Hunter was fairly adamant about that."

"Thank god for that," Shane breathes and then turns to gives me a wicked look. "Although…" I recognise the tone in his voice.

"Dude, if you say Hunter needs to get laid I swear I will punch you in the back of the head. I do not, I repeat, do not need that mental image."

Shane cackles, "Bro, did you see Leanne? There is no way those two dated and didn't... you know." He waggles his eyebrows suggestively and then ducks forward as I try to take a swipe at him.

At that point Tori joins in, saying sweetly, "But Shane, Porter's engaged. He's definitely slept with Sarah. Maybe even in your house."

Shane turns green and glares at the petite blonde. "Thanks Tor. Way to make me throw up."

"Any time," she says, catching my eye in the mirror and giving me a wink.

I can feel myself relaxing, letting their laughter wash over me. This all feels so right, so comfortable, so familiar. It feels like home.

The feeling lasts right up until we pull into the school and go our separate ways, with the usual promise to meet up again at lunch.

XxX

The final class before lunch is math, with Shane. I find myself clock-watching, counting away the minutes until I'm free of Mr. Li and his linear equations. Shane's scribbling away busily next to me and I sigh, but quietly. Shane's good at math. He needs to be; he wants to go to college. I don't. I know what I want to do; ride professionally for a factory team. But Hunter insists I… what's the phrase he uses? Oh, yeah… cultivate other options.

Sometimes my brother sounds so much like Cam it's scary. If those two ever decided to team up and take over the world we'd be in trouble. Cam would be the brains for sure, the one with the ideas, because my bro is not that smart – I've never met anyone as smart as our tech – but Hunter would understand his plans, and make them work. Hunter has a stubborn streak at the best of times, never mind when he's actually decided to do something.

Luckily for us, that would involve them having a conversation, with real words and everything, and I don't see that happening any time soon. World is safe for now.

From them, at least.

The bell cuts through my daydream, making me jump.

Shane laughs at me. "You were miles away. On the track again?"

I feel my cheeks heat a little. "Not this time." I'm becoming known for daydreaming. "Dude, do you think we'd survive if Cam ever went evil and tried to take over the world?"

Shane blinks at me, and then groans as he packs away his stuff. "You've been spending way too much time with Dustin."

I take that as a compliment.

I'm still amazed at how easily I've come to fit in, how quickly everything's become natural. Sometimes I'm scared I'm going to wake up to find this all a dream and that I'm still on Lothor's ship, or at the Thunder Academy, or, worse, before the Thunder Academy.

I focus back on Shane who's talking about some new dvd he's bought, but before I can reveal I haven't heard a word he's said, we arrive at the cafeteria to see Dustin waving at us from where he's saved us a table. Shane raises an arm in acknowledgement before heading off to grab some lunch.

I join Dustin, pulling a sandwich from my bag. I don't buy food at school. Hunter says why bother when we have bread and stuff already. I know it's really because we can't afford to. I've never pushed Hunter on this. He gave me enough grief about 'wasting' money on those film festival tickets that I know things are going to be tight this month. Again. Probably didn't help that I bought Tori one too.

At least he seems to have warmed up to Tori now.

It's nice to see him getting along with someone. Ok, so I'm surprised it's her; I'd have pegged Dustin to be the first but I'll take what I can get. Hunter's always sort of avoided women after Leanne. Though don't ask me what happened there. Neither of them speak about it. Or each other. It's not any of my business anyways.

Speaking of Tori, the blonde chooses this moment to arrive, smiling that smile, the one that always makes my stomach fluttery. She slides into the chair next to me. "How was math?"

I pull a disgusted face. "Same as usual."

"In other words he slept through most of it." Shane returns with his tray full of food and throws me a chocolate bar. Something else that has become normal.

I'm not sure how or why this started – maybe it's pity, maybe it's because he's seen my poor excuse for a lunch and is worried, or maybe it's his way of showing friendship; I don't know – but I don't tell Hunter. And I don't try to buy Shane anything in return because he practically threw it back at me the last time I did.

"So I got that 'Real Steel' movie I was telling you guys about," Shane says to the table.

"Oh dude, yes!" Dustin grins enthusiastically. "Can we watch it tonight? Please, please, please?" He blinks large brown eyes at Shane and I can see our leader give in, as he often does. Who can resist Dustin in pleading mode? Not even Cam.

If he ever uses his powers for evil, then we'll definitely be in a world of trouble.

"Sure we can-oh." The red guy's face falls. "We can't use my house tonight. Dad's got a work thing on. Tori?"

She shakes her head. "Mom's got some girlfriends over this evening. You boys really don't want to be around."

Dustin huffs, "And we can't use my house either. I'm still on a friend ban from the last time."

I shift guiltily. "Hey, I didn't know putting mentos in coke would really explode so… violently."

"Or loudly," Shane adds. "Has your Gran forgiven us yet?"

"Gran's fine; it's my mom you have to watch out for. There's still a stain on the kitchen ceiling." Dustin looks at me and his face suddenly lights up. Uh oh. "Dude! Why don't we just watch it round yours? Hunter won't mind right? Not if we bring snacks." Pause. "And no mentos."

No, no, no.

All three of them are looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to say yes, like a friend should – would – but I can't. Hunter's banned visitors. Even our teammates. Especially our teammates. I don't know why but I can't budge him on this. Dustin and his puppy-dog eyes wouldn't even budge him on this. Plus we don't actually own a tv. Or dvd player. Or a phone; I had to use Storm Chargers phone to call Leanne.

But the thought of admitting that to my friends makes my stomach clench. Guess some of my brother's stupid pride has rubbed off on me.

"We can't. I'm sorry," I say in a quiet voice. "Hunter doesn't like having people over."

"Not even us?" Dustin looks hurt.

"I don't think it's anything personal," I assure him hurriedly. "He just doesn't like his space being invaded."

"You mean he just doesn't like us." Shane doesn't sound angry, more tired.

Tori gives him a Look. "Shane…" There's warning in her voice.

Our leader sighs. "I've said I'll apologise and I will. But he did start it."

My heart sinks at his words. "What's this?"

What's my brother done now?

Tori and Shane exchange glances. "Nothing," he says. "Don't worry about it."

Now I really am worried.

But Dustin pulls the conversation back on-topic. "Couldn't you just ask him? For us?" he wheedles.

I smile. "Alright, alright, I'll ask again. But no promises. It won't be tonight though." And by tomorrow hopefully they'll have forgotten about it and found somewhere else to watch the film.

That seems to be good enough for Dustin and talk drifts away onto other, safer, things. The rest of lunch passes without incident, and after the guys head off to their Physics class I corner Tori.

"What did Hunter do?"

She frowns at me. "Does it matter?"

"Well, yeah, it kinda does. He's my brother, Tori. If he's upset people, upset you guys, I need to know."

"You're not his minder you know. You don't have to clean up his messes all the time." When I don't reply she throws her hands up in defeat. "Fine. Shane asked Hunter about Leanne. Hunter obviously didn't want to answer and was fairly rude in the process. Hunter was wound up by Leanne and took it out on Shane; Shane was wound up by Hunter. Words were exchanged. They both said things they didn't mean. I'm working on them. Now, can we drop it?"

I'm taken back by how… how well she seems to have got my brother's character. It all sounds very Hunter.

"You're working on them?"

She nods. "You might know Hunter best, but I know Shane. Just… let me fix this ok?" She's got that Look in her eyes again and I almost feel sorry for my brother.

Almost.

"Ok Tori," I say gently. "But… if Hunter does anything… mean, you let me know right?"

She laughs, flicking her hair off her shoulder. "So you can defend my honour?" I flush and her face instantly softens. "Sorry. I will, I promise." She pauses before asking, carefully, "When did Hunter start shutting people out?"

I'm confused. "What do you mean?"

Tori looks awkward. "You know, building his walls. Keeping everything to himself."

Walls?

"Nope, I'm still lost. What walls?"

She raises an eyebrow, surprised. "You haven't noticed?"

Noticed what? This is getting surreal.

"Tori, Hunter doesn't have walls and okay, I know he's not, like, the most social of people but he's not deliberately keeping people out. He just-" has trust issues "- takes his time to warm up to people. But he will, honest."

She doesn't look convinced, but then the moment passes and she's smiling again. "Okay Blake. Well, I have to run to class so… see you later?"

I nod and she hesitates before giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. Our eyes meet for a brief second and then she's looking away, blushing, and hurrying off down the busy corridor.

She kissed me.

I feel a stupid grin start spreading across my face.

Tori kissed me!

XxX

I stick my nose into Storm Chargers on the way home from school to pick up mine and Hunter's schedules for the next few weeks. Dustin is already manning the tills when I arrive and gives me a conspiratorial whisper as I approach.

"Dude, I think your brother broke Kelly."

Remembering the state Hunter was in this morning I have a sneaking suspicion that it was Kelly that did the breaking, and tell Dustin so. He laughs and I go out back to find Kelly slumped at her desk, nursing a very large cup of coffee, and a very large hangover to match.

I greet her with a bright grin. "Hey Kell, good night last night?"

She groans and glares at me. "You are far too damn cheerful. Ugh, my head is killing me. Where's that stupid brother of yours? I'd punch him for getting me that drunk but I actually think it was my fault."

"If it's any consolation," I tell her. "Hunter looked terrible this morning. What did you do to him?"

She shakes her head, then winces. "I have no idea. We were drinking beer and then… something else."

"Whiskey," I supply helpfully and she stares at me, a look of horror settling over her face.

"Whiskey? I don't drink whiskey."

I crack up. "That's just what Hunter said this morning. Sounds like you both had an awesome time," I get out in between my laughs.

"Well hopefully he can remember more than me, and can explain a few things. Like why the hell did I wake up with my head on the toilet seat and a blanket draped over me? I'm going to assume that was your brother." If it's possible her face pales further. "God, I hope it was your brother."

I give her a cheeky grin. "Well at least you were dressed." I freeze suddenly – maybe Hunter was lying – and it's my turn to look horrified. "Please please please tell me you were wearing clothes."

It's Kelly's turn to laugh. "Yes Blake, I was fully clothed thank you and no, I'm like ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure I did not take advantage of your brother." She pulls a strand of red hair out of her eyes and sighs, "Right, you didn't come all this way to torment me; what was it you wanted?"

"Our work schedules."

She flicks through a stack of papers on her desk and thrusts two at me. "There you are. Now go and let me die in peace."

I go.

XxX

I'm still happy when I get home to find Hunter already making dinner. He looks about a hundred percent better than he did this morning; eyes alert, hair tamed, skin no longer a sickly shade of green. He smiles absently at me as I dump my schoolbag on the kitchen table.

"Hey, so Josh asked me to open the bar this evening. I'm going to have to leave early. Food'll be ready in ten but you can just reheat it when you're hungry."

It looks like some kind of stew, thrown together from whatever we had left in the fridge. Waste not, want not. Knowing Hunter, it'll probably taste great. Though to be honest, anything not cooked in the microwave is a rare treat.

He glances over at me. "You're cheerful for a Monday afternoon."

I realise I've got a smile on my face again and shrug. "Had a good day."

My mood sours slightly as I remember the conversation with Tori at lunch. I'm half-tempted to mention I know about his fight with Shane, but catch myself. I don't want to argue with Hunter tonight. Besides, Tori's already on it. Tori – who kissed me – is going to fix it.

If anyone can fix this it'll be her.

So I keep quiet about it, instead asking my brother what time he'll be back.

"Late" is his reply, warning me not to wait up for him. Not a chance; I like my sleep.

Hunter wolfs down his dinner while I settle down at the table to do my homework. My brother sees the despairing look I give one of my books and grins. "Math?"

I nod. "It sucks."

"Hey, keep at it ok?" he says, eyes suddenly serious. "You've only got a year left."

"One year 'til freedom."

He snorts, but I see a flash of something pass over his face. It's gone so quickly I can't tell what it is.

Walls

I watch my brother as he swallows the last mouthful of stew and grabs his keys, ruffling my hair as he heads for the door. "Enjoy math."

I stick my tongue out at him and he smiles back before leaving me alone in the apartment.

No walls there. Just Hunter.

I still have no idea what Tori was talking about.

XxX

I've just completed the last of my homework when there's a knock at the door. I'm confused for a second – we never get visitors – and then figure it must be the landlord so jump up to open it.

To find Shane, Tori and Dustin standing outside.

My mind freezes; a thudding, dull panic hammering in my chest. Why are they here? How did they find us? And, Hunter is going to kill me. Before I can think to stop them, they walk straight past me into the apartment.

"Wh… what's going on?" I stutter, confused.

Tori flashes me her stunning smile. "Well, we figured Hunter couldn't kick us out if we just turned up. So… movie night?" She holds up a bag of toffee popcorn with a flirtatious wink, knowing it's my favourite.

"Speaking of Mr. Dark-and-Broody, where is he?" Shane asks, obviously not having heard an explosion from my older brother at the invasion of our home.

"He's out," I mutter lamely, deliberately vague, but before I can get the nth degree from either of them to Hunter's whereabouts everyone's attention is drawn by Dustin's exclamation.

"Dude, where's your tv?"

Shane and Tori finally take in their surroundings; the lack of tv, the single moth-eaten couch, the tiny kitchenette with its broken cupboards and rusty taps, the peeling paint, damp walls and dirty carpet. We've tried to clean it up, but there's only so much bleach and soapy water can do. It needs time and money spent on it, and we have neither. Hunter's fixed the worst of the damage, repaired what he could. It isn't great, but it's all we have.

In that moment though, seeing the looks on their faces, I understand why Hunter hadn't wanted anyone to visit us.

This isn't normal.

Normal people do not live like this.

This isn't Tori's lovely little house near the beach with her loving parents. This isn't Dustin's messy but homely one-story which he shares with his sisters, mother and grandmother. This certainly isn't Shane's big mansion where he can escape his quarrelling parents in a myriad of rooms. This is not a home.

I feel something inside me snap and the words tumble out before I can stop them, angry and bitter, "So it's not a palace, but you know what? This is all three hundred dollars a month gets you. Shall I give you the grand tour? My room." I gesture to the open door that leads to the only bedroom. "Hunter's room." My waving arm indicates the pathetic mattress in the corner of the living room where Hunter sleeps. "Bathroom and kitchen. I'm sorry about the tv. Unfortunately we've had more important things to spend our money on recently. Like food, and rent, and bills, and all those things that you guys don't have to worry about because you have parents who do all that for you."

"Blake-" Tori's voice is gentle; the touch on my arm reassuring, comforting.

"Don't you dare pity me," I choke out. "I don't want your pity. This is fine; we are fine."

Hunter was right.

An uncomfortable silence falls, which is only broken by the sudden beeping of Shane's morpher.

"Go for Shane", the red ranger answers it; his voice calmer than I thought it would be.

"We have an alien attack. Downtown." Cam's voice cracks from the communicator.

"We're on it," Shane responds, answering for all of us. He looks at me. "You better call Hunter."

My stomach rolls. "No." I see the anger flash in Shane's dark eyes and feel my own rise up again. "I can't. Hunter's at work. He can't run out on this job or he'll lose it. We can't afford to lose it."

I hate how pathetic those last words sound.

Then Shane surprises me. The anger I'd seen behind his eyes vanishes, replaced by concern. "Ok then. We'll manage without him. Are you good for this?"

I know what he's asking; have I calmed down?

I nod yes, pulling my mind back into the game. "Let's do it."


XxX

Afterwards, after the alien is gone and the adrenaline is slowly beginning to fade, I turn to the others. They've all got that light in their eyes, the one they get after they demorph. I'm sure I have it too. It's like, the remains of the power, shining, letting everyone know they've been touched by it. I honestly don't know how people miss it; miss how different we all are. But I guess people only ever really see what they expect to see. And no one would expect the saviours of the world to be four sports-mad high school students and a shop mechanic.

Tori looks at me, grinning, clearly still on a high from the battle, but her smile falters and I know she's remembering how I snapped at her before.

"I'm sorry," I say to her quietly and she reaches out to squeeze my hand, letting me know it's ok. In a louder voice, so Shane and Dustin know I'm talking to them too, I continue, "Look can we… Is there any way we can not mention this to Hunter?"

"Which bit?" Shane asks, running a hand over his short hair. "The alien? Or us coming to your apartment?"

"Uh, both," I whisper, eyes suddenly really interested in the floor.

I jump at the arm slung around my shoulders. Dustin. "Sure bro. That's not a problem because…" He glances at the other two. "Because it's not." Even Shane's nodding.

I relax.

This will all be fine.

Hunter's not in when I get back and he's fast asleep by the time I get up for school. I'm relieved; the longer I can avoid him for the less chance there is of him asking how last night went, so I won't have to lie to him. He can tell when I'm lying.

After our pre-lunch math class (or nap, if you listen to Shane) the taller guy takes me aside, concern etched across his face.

"Look, about yesterday," he begins, shifting uncomfortably. "If there's anything I can do anything to help out, I will. I didn't want to say in front of the others but if you and Hunter are ever in trouble, money-wise or no, you know I'll help. You just have to ask."

I feel my face heat in embarrassment. "It's not as bad as it looks," I try to reassure him; reassure myself. "Last night… I guess I was just upset. I'm sorry. Truth is we probably could afford a better apartment but Hunter says why bother when we hardly spend any time there." The lie is ugly; awkward and obvious. Shane knows it too but doesn't call me on it. I suppose he knows what pride is like, with his dad and brother and all.

He just nods. "Ok, but the offer's always open."

I grab his arm as he goes to move off. "Shane-"

"I know, I know, don't tell Hunter. I get it, I do. Why do you think I made the offer to you and not him?" He quirks a grin. "Even if we did manage to have a conversation long enough for me to get the chance to ask him, he'd bite my head off as soon as 'help' was out of my mouth. I can be stupid, but I'm not suicidal." I think I must still look worried though because he says seriously, "I promise, not a word to Hunter. Now, let's get lunch. I'm starving."


XxX

Hunter catches up with me just as I'm walking down the stairs into Ops that afternoon. "So… anything interesting happen last night?"

From the look he gives me I know he knows… about the alien or the others visiting I'm not quite sure. I shouldn't even try to lie to him but I do, in the vain hope that I'm wrong.

"… No?" My tone is halfway between hopeful and fearful.

"No?" My brother stops just outside the main room and blocks my way with an outstretched arm. He turns to face me, one eyebrow raised. "So another of Lothor's aliens being defeated downtown by the Power Rangers isn't interesting? Oh, you didn't hear about it? It made all the papers. I find it very interesting. Strange I wasn't invited to the party. I'm a little hurt, bro."

Uh oh, sarcasm. I am in so much trouble.

He gives me a level stare, waiting for me to explain. He doesn't seem too angry, yet, but he definitely isn't happy. He's got that "I'll-wait-for-you-to-speak-and-then-get-mad-at-you" look on his face.

I shuffle my feet, staring intently at the worn stone floor. "You were at work," I mumble. "I figured if you ran out on the bar they'd fire you for sure and it's your job." I don't mention how much we need the money; Hunter knows what I mean.

"Yeah, it's a job," Hunter says calmly. "But that's all it is: a job. I can always get another one. I can't get another brother. Your life is more important than money, you know." There's friendly affection under the seriousness of his words. And he's still not visibly angry. I'm relieved. He runs a hand through his hair and I realise he was worried.

Because it's not like I can't take care of myself or anything.

"It was fine, honest," I hear myself say. "Shane was cool with it, but if things had got really out of hand we'd have beeped you."

"Shane?" Hunter's face has darkened. "You told Shane I was at work?"

"Well… yes? He asked me to beep you when he got the call. I, um, wouldn't. But he was cool with it, once I explained." Something is telling me to shut up, stop talking, but it's too late.

Hunter's looking at me, as if trying to work things out. "You were with Shane when you got the call? You never said you were going out-" He stops as if struck by a thought. "Toffee popcorn… Blake where were you last night?"

I say the first thing that comes to mind, "Around Shane's, for movie night."

"And that explains the bag of toffee popcorn on our couch how?"

Oops.

Tori must have left it there when we bailed to fight the alien.

"I… bought it home with me?" It's lame, and Hunter sees straight through it.

"Blake, what is pretty much the only house rule?" His voice is low, dangerous.

"… Don't leave dirty underwear in the bathroom?" I try to lighten the mood, deflect. Hunter glares at me and I cringe. Bad idea. "So they saw our place, big deal. They were cool with it." I ignore the memory of how they'd looked when they saw it. "I don't know what you were expecting but it's not like they're going to judge us just 'cos our apartment's crap. Why are you making this into a big thing?"

"Because you disobeyed me, Blake." Hunter's really angry now. I can hear it in the undercurrent of his voice. He's trying not to shout; we used to have the worst screaming matches when we were kids but now he tends to do scary-calm-anger instead.

Which is possibly worse.

I should be impressed I've managed to push him far enough to get this mad, but I'm getting annoyed too.

Hunter's still doing his not-quite-yelling, "You might not like it, but I'm your legal guardian now; I'm responsible for you. I'm in charge, so what I say goes."

"Why?" I snap back, letting my brother see just how angry I am. "Don't you care what I want? I want my friends to come and visit, like normal people do. I want to be normal." I've never really challenged Hunter on his decisions before. I've always followed, always gone along with him on everything, even if it came back to bite us in the ass. "I didn't want to go with Lothor, remember? But I never argued with you and went anyway. And you know how well that turned out. You were wrong on that, and you're wrong on this. Just admit it. It's only your stupid pride that's trying to keep them away." I know I'm pushing a lot more than I should, but I don't care. "Why don't I get a say in anything?"

"When you're eighteen you can do what you like." Hunter's voice is cold. "Until then, follow my rules." He turns to leave; argument over.

"You are not my father."

My loud, angry words echo into a sudden silence. I know as soon as they're out of my mouth I've gone too far. Hunter freezes and I feel my heart leap into my throat. Way too far. I brace myself, waiting for the explosion, the smart, stinging rebuke, for the thunder.

It doesn't come.

Instead I see Hunter's shoulders slump slightly, one hand resting on the stone wall as if for support, head bowed. His voice, when he finally speaks after a long painful moment, is strangely empty. "I know."

Before I can say anything – say sorry – he squares his shoulders and strides away into the main room of Ninja Ops, leaving me standing there, alone; guilt slowly snaking its way through me.

I didn't mean it.

Hunter's done so much for me. I know he's trying to make this work and I… was out of line. I took it too far. Like, the bit about the others… I'm glad that's been said. It needed to be said; I needed to say it. Though there was probably a time and place for it – never a good time – and this wasn't it. But the other bit… the last bit… I shouldn't have said that. Hunter's been a brother and father to me. And a mother too if I think about it. I was wrong. As soon as training's over I'll let him know, apologise, make it up to him somehow. If he'll listen.

Oh, yeah, training.

I'm feeling thoroughly miserable by the time I actually enter the room. Hunter's already started sparring with Shane (Sensei's orders, I'll bet), and Tori and Dustin are half-heartedly going through some moves together. They break off as soon as I appear and I can tell just by looking that they heard everything. They don't get a chance to speak though because suddenly Sensei's there, making me partner Dustin while Tori gets to train with Cam. I sneak a look at my brother, hoping he'll look at me, hoping he'll give me a look that says it's ok, that he knows I didn't mean it. But he doesn't. He's insanely focused on Shane, being the perfect sparring partner, and I know he's ignoring me.

The lump in my throat moves down, settling in my stomach, and I try to concentrate on Dustin but all I can think is I'm sorry.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

Chapter Text

You're keeping yourself tied up
So you won't let me down
Didn't you ever think just maybe
I'll understand you if you just give me the chance to

~The Wanted

The atmosphere in Ninja Ops is uncomfortable. We all heard the Bradley's arguing and the tension in the room is palpable. The brothers never argue. At least, not in front of us. And from what was said, it sounded like things had been simmering for a while. Blake is clearly upset; he thinks he's hiding it well but even Dustin, who he's currently sparring with, has noticed. I see him trying to give Blake subtle hints that he understands, but the younger teen is oblivious.

Hunter is once again the opposite of Blake. He seems, on the surface at least, completely unaffected by the tension in the room, apparently focused on training with Shane. From my position, curled up on some cushions to one side, relegated to a spectator after Cam bailed to fix a sensor, I can see he's faking it. He's distracted; punches aren't quite on target, movements not as sharp. It's subtle, so subtle I doubt anyone could even tell; I wouldn't have been able to tell, not if I've hadn't been studying Hunter for a while. I can just about notice this.

Even so, Shane is having to work hard to keep up.

I confess I love watching the boys spar, especially Shane and Hunter. Sometimes, rarely at first but becoming more common now, something just seems to click and they flow effortlessly into a seamless dance of offence and defence, of punch and block and counter. It works. Blake and Dustin do it too; Dustin, solid like the earth of his element, is a perfect foil to Blake's lightning speed. Shane's lighter, graceful moves complement everyone's, but combined with Hunter's thunderous power the result can be breath-taking.

But not today.

As I watch, Shane sends a quick, sharp jab towards Hunter's face. He knows he can be faster – harder – against the blond than with the rest of us because Hunter will move. He will block. He-

He doesn't.

His hands are a fraction lower than they should be; his reaction delayed a split second longer than normal, his block far slower than usual. He's turning his head but… too late. Shane's fist connects solidly beneath Hunter's eye, snapping his head back. For a moment the mask falls away; shock and pain registering on his face.

I'm on my feet before I know it but Shane, his own shock being replaced by horror, is already there, already reaching out to him. "Hunter, man, are you okay? I am so so sorry. I don't-"

Hunter shakes him off roughly, straightening, and for a second I think he'll strike Shane in return, but it passes.

"It's fine." His voice is clipped as he regains his fighting stance. The site of impact is red and already beginning to swell.

"Bro you should-"

"I said it's fine," he says, calmer, more controlled, the mask back in place. He gestures for Shane to take up position.

I'm about to jump in, protest, but Sensei appears between them, somersaulting onto Shane's shoulder. "Hunter you must put ice on that, otherwise the swelling will get worse."

When he looks like he's about to argue with Sensei I do jump in. "Come on, I'll show you where the kitchen is. Cam keeps ice packs in the freezer."

I take his arm firmly, not giving him a chance to complain and tug him towards the door. At first he doesn't budge, but when I glare at him he finally sighs and lets me pull him away. I glance back over my shoulder to see the boys giving me worried looks and I smile, mouthing the words "I'll talk to him".

Shane nods in understanding while Blake manages a weak smile; misery and guilt clear on his face. It doesn't take much to see he realises he went too far and is devastated.

I lead Hunter through the maze of corridors that make up Ninja Ops proper to the small-but-well-stocked kitchen hidden away. Once there, Hunter leans back against the counter, arms again crossed defensively over his chest, watching me warily. I pull an ice pack from the freezer and move in front of him to put it on the swelling, but he jerks his head back, away from me.

I give him a stern look. "Hunter."

There's warning in my voice.

"I don't need it." He sounds almost sulky and I glare at him again. "Fine," he huffs and this time when I press the ice to his cheek he makes no attempt to pull away, just winces slightly. He raises his hand to take the compress from me, brushing his fingers against mine as he does so. There's a strange sensation in my stomach at the contact, as if a hundred butterflies have taken flight in there at once, and I feel suddenly hot.

Hope I'm not getting sick.

I shake the feeling away, swallowing hard before deciding to deal with the Thunder ninja straight on.

"Blake loves you, you know."

Hunter blinks at me; a "where-did-that-come-from" expression on his face. "I know."

"Then you know he's really upset right now for saying… what he said."

I'm not going to repeat it. Blake spoke in anger, without thinking. But knowing what I do now, about what he wanted for his brother, I know those words struck Hunter hard.

"I didn't want Blake to have anything to do with ninjas. I didn't want that life for him."

If I didn't know for a fact he would seriously freak out I'd hug him right now. I find physical contact the best way to offer comfort, but Hunter won't accept that, denies himself that. So I have to make do with words. And sometimes… sometimes I don't think words are enough. For either of us.

He answers me with a non-committal "Yeah".

I sigh. The sort-of understanding I thought we'd reached the other day seems to be forgotten. Hunter's reverted to his usual grumpy self.

"He was right though, about us not judging you on your apartment. You don't have to be ashamed or anything." Impulsively I stick my tongue out at him. "It's you guys we like, not your home."

He does smile at that, and then flinches as the movement twinges his injured cheek.

I give him a sympathetic look in return. "So Shane finally got one over on you then?"

My tone is teasing but his face darkens instantly.

"I was distracted," he mutters.

I stare at him for a moment and then I see it, in the slight flush in his ears and neck, in how he's suddenly avoiding my gaze…

A dawning realisation crosses my mind.

"You're embarrassed!" I exclaim.

He shifts uncomfortably, the blush deepening, becoming clearer. "… Am not."

"Yes, yes you are. Hunter Bradley is embarrassed." I'm giddy with a sort of childish delight. "You got hit by Shane and now you're all 'oh noe's my male pride is damaged; I actually got hit in training, my reputation is ruined'. See, you are human after all." I wink at him to let him know I'm not serious.

"Alright, alright," he says, sounding annoyed but I can see the corners of his lips twitching and there's amusement, not anger, in his eyes. "You don't have to rub it in." Then he frowns. "I suppose he'll think it was deserved, after the other day."

I shake my head. "He won't think that at all." Hunter snorts, clearly disbelieving. "Shane's been trying to apologise; you just haven't made it easy so far."

"Apologise..?" The frown returns. He's quiet for a time and I wait patiently. When he does speak his voice is far-away. "He doesn't have anything to apologise for. I started it."

I grin and give him a joking prod on the arm. "Oh so you know that do you? Good. That's one less thing I have to yell at you for. I think you owe Shane an apology." When he doesn't answer I wave a finger mock-threateningly under his nose. "Hey, that's how things work round here. You did bad, you say sorry, everyone gets over it and walks away happy." He still doesn't respond, and is ducking my gaze. I purse my lips and sigh in exasperation. "You know, you and Shane are just too damn similar for your own good; you can both be stubborn idiots sometimes. One of you needs to just suck it up and make peace. You never know, you might actually, heaven forbid, find out that you have things in common."

Hunter is staring at me now, face inscrutable, awfully blank. "Tori stop it."

He sounds… strange. Odd. I can't place the emotion.

"Stop what?" I'm confused.

"This; stop thinking you know me. Stop pretending that you care. Because you don't. I know you're doing this for Blake but you don't have to. I'm fine; I'm fine if you just leave me alone." There's pain in his voice, raw and honest.

I reach out for him. "Hunter-"

"No." He once again pulls away from me, ice pack forgotten, discarded, hands up defensively, whole posture screaming at me to back off. "Don't. You don't understand me. You don't understand anything about me. None of you do. You don't…"

Understand what he's been through.

The words stand unspoken between us, an invisible barrier in the air.

I get it now. He thinks we're all just stupid young kids, that we've all lived such sheltered lives, happy lives, that we can't possibly comprehend what he's had to go through.

He's not entirely wrong, but he's not right either. He's not the only one with issues. And I need to make him see that. See that we can understand, if we're given the chance to.

I fix Hunter with a Look.

"Shane's mother works in the City," I begin abruptly. The blond blinks at me, startled by the sudden topic change. "He hardly sees her. His father thinks he's a drop out and he thinks he can't live up to his older brother. They rarely talk."

"Huh?" He falls silent as I glare at him.

Ignoring his interruption I continue, "Cam's mother died when he was little. He grew up surrounded by ninjas but was never allowed to train, to be a part of the academy. You know Sensei's only just started letting him train with us." Since you and Blake broke in. "Dustin's parents split up five years ago. It wasn't pretty. Now his father lives on the other side of the country and Dustin only gets to see him a couple of times a year."

Hunter sighs. "Tori, why are you telling-"

"My sister was four years younger than me. We fought like cats and dogs but I loved her." My voice is quiet now, steady, but it silences him. I have Hunter's full attention. "She had cancer. She was eleven when she died."

Two years… seems like yesterday.

There's a long silence after my words. At last Hunter speaks, "Tori, I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"No, you didn't," I say, a glimmer of triumph rising behind the sadness. "You didn't know because you've never asked. When was the last time you actually had a conversation with one of us?" The flush returns to his neck as my words finally seem to sink in. I press my point home. "Hunter, we all have our problems in life. You might think we're all immature teenagers but we've all suffered. We've all lost. We've all hurt. You're not the only one. I know; I know you've been through things you think we can't comprehend, and you're probably right, but we can empathise. You've lost so much… But you still have your life. You are alive, Hunter; you've just got to remember to live. And you have to realise you still have people who care about you. Who care about you."

He opens his mouth to speak, but I'm not letting him stop me from saying what I have to say. I cross the final distance between us swiftly, pressing my hand over his mouth, his lips against my fingers, my thumb tucked under his chin. I force our eyes to meet.

"I'm not talking about Blake. We care about you. Not just as teammates but as friends. You just have to let us." His blue eyes are unconvinced and my voice drops to a whisper, "I care about you, Hunter."

I realise then just how close we are. I'm looking up into his eyes and can see flecks of yellow and grey mixed in with the blue. There's the faintest of lines on his brow and his breath is warm on my hand. So, so close… If I stretched up just a little, if I bought my face an inch closer to his, if I-

"If you're quite done." Cam's voice cuts through the sudden tension in the room and I jump guiltily, dropping my hand away from Hunter.

There's no emotion on the blond man's face and the iron is back behind his gaze, but perhaps there's a flicker of... something. Blink and you miss it. I have to drag my eyes away from him and turn my head to look at Cam. He's standing in the doorway, arms crossed and a faint expression of disapproval on his face.

His voice is like ice as he says, "Hunter, my father would like to see you in the main room. Now."

Without a word Hunter stalks past him out of the kitchen, head held high, the redness beneath his eye already beginning to colour. I make to follow him but Cam bars my way, the frown on his face deepening.

"Tori, what are you doing?"

I give him my brightest grin. "My turn to spar with Shane," I say lightly, but Cam doesn't budge from the doorway.

Instead, he purses his lips and shakes his head. "Don't play stupid with me. You know exactly what I mean."

Do I?

I open my mouth to protest but he beats me to it. "I saw you; you and Hunter." His eyes flick to the surveillance camera on the wall above. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing," I say, trying to understand what he is alluding to. He can't mean... "I'm just being nice. Is there something wrong with that?"

Cam sighs. "Tori, there's being nice and then there's being too nice."

Oh gods, he does mean...

My cheeks heat. "Cam, if you're trying to suggest there's something... something inappropriate going on between me and Hunter you're mistaken. I'm just trying to be friends with him." I can feel my embarrassment being pushed aside by anger. "I seem to be the only one actually trying to get to know him. And it's not exactly the easiest thing to do either but someone needs to. Like it or not, Hunter is our teammate now, just like his brother. Everyone's accepted Blake. No one questions Blake. Yet none of you has made the same effort with Hunter." I don't know where the words are coming from – annoyance and irritation that has been building for a while at last unleashed – but they pour out of my mouth in a rush. "Shane doesn't like him. Dustin's wary of him. You can't stand him. One of us needs to reach out to him. Why not me?"

"Hunter is different," Cam says slowly.

"Okay, so he's antisocial." Dysfunctional. "Not evil."

"Not presently."

I can't tell if Cam is being serious or funny, but I'm not amused. I find myself struggling to keep my anger in check. I'm not normally full of such negative emotions, and I almost never shout at anyone, but sometimes things need to be said. And if this is about Hunter kidnapping Sensei…

"Really? You're still holding that against him? One mistake, Cam? One error of judgement? We've all made mistakes. Surely he's proven himself trustworthy now. He wasn't alone, remember. Blake is forgiven yet Hunter remains a what? A threat? An enemy? You don't know him."

"And you do?"

I ignore Cam's sarcastic comment, pushing away a furious response and instead focus on the issue at hand. "You haven't even tried to get to know him. He's not the person you seem to think he is."

Cam raises an eyebrow at that. "Oh? And just who is he then?"

I deflate, the anger dissipating as quickly as it arrived.

"I don't know," I say in a small voice. "But I'm trying to find out. Someone needs to, dammit. For the good of the team if nothing else."

The Asian man looks at me for a long moment, as if attempting to read something in my expression. Finally he lets out another sigh. "Okay. As long as you know what you're doing."

"Trust me," I say, brightness returning.

Cam grabs my arm as I make to walk away. "I mean this, Tori. Be careful. I really hope you're right about Hunter. I do." His tone says he thinks otherwise. "Just..."

He hesitates. I've never seen Cam uncertain before and it's unnerving. I have a sudden premonition that I'm not going to like what he's about to say.

I'm proved right.

"Don't fall in love with him."

Of all the things I was expecting, these words were not it. I stare at him, mouth falling open in shock.

"Cam! I'm not... I wouldn't... I..." I flounder, words sticking in my throat. "I'm trying to be his friend, not his lover," I finally spit at him, the anger returning in a flash and I yank my arm from his grasp, glaring.

Cam stares at me coolly, unaffected. "Remember that," he says calmly before walking away.

I stare after him; feeling like a bucket of cold water has been dumped over me.

Did that really just happen?

How did that conversation get away from me so quickly? Why was Cam watching us? What was he watching? There was nothing… I did nothing… We were just talking… I gave Hunter an ice pack…

And thought about kissing him.

"Did not," I whisper to myself, whether to prove Cam wrong or to banish the memory of Hunter's lips against my fingers I'm not entirely sure.

I give myself a mental shake; enough. I'm being stupid. This is all just worrying about Cam's words; they're making me paranoid. Making me second-guess myself. Nothing happened. Nothing would have happened. I wouldn't even be thinking this if Sensei's son hadn't said anything.

Why did he say it? I must have made him suspicious when I got him to track Hunter's morpher the other day. But he hadn't said anything at the time, hadn't questioned me. I'd been too preoccupied with finding Hunter, making sure he was ok after his argument at Storm Chargers and worrying about how he'd react to me imposing on his solitude. And yes, I'll admit my first intentions with finding him had been purely selfish. Leanne's easy manner with Blake had brought uncomfortable feelings to life in me, feelings that resembled jealousy a little too much for my liking. An irrational jealousy, as it turns out, but I hadn't known that then.

Hunter's quiet assurance that Blake and Leanne's relationship was purely plutonic hadn't got rid of the jealousy as quickly as the other tone in his voice, the one that told me she had hurt him, badly. I almost missed it; he hides pain so well, but it was there. And that knowledge made me forget all about Blake and start a conversation with Hunter that took a direction I never expected…

Stop thinking about him.

I need to get back to training; it is my turn to spar with Shane after all. Returning to the main room I find Hunter tucked away in a corner with Sensei. I can't hear what's being said, and the Thunder ninja has the same, closed-off expression he always does, whether he's being told off or praised.

He didn't have that expression with me

I drag my mind away from Hunter, trying to focus instead on my own training. Cam has pulled Blake away from the others and by the looks of it has asked the younger guy to run him through some katas. As annoyed as I am at him, I can't help feeling grateful to the tech. A distraction is just what Blake needs right now.

Shane and Dustin are messing around with some non-Academy moves while Sensei's attention is elsewhere. I think they've been watching the UFC again. Ever since my dad got them into it they've been pretty hooked. I don't feel the slightest bit guilty interrupting them and pulling Shane away to work with me.

I like sparring with the Air ninja. The other guys tend to go easy on me, which winds me up no end. I know I'm a girl and guys have issues with hitting girls (which under any other circumstances would be a good thing) but the kelzaks and Lothor's "alien-of-the-day" certainly don't give me the same courtesy. If I'm going to improve, if I'm going to protect myself and my team, the guys are going to need to trust in my abilities enough to try to, oh I don't know, actually hit me. They may think they're being gentlemanly but that's no good in a life-or-death situation.

And it's actually quite insulting.

Dustin and Cam are bad. Blake's the worst. Hunter… I've never really sparred with Hunter.

Shane may still hold back, but his strikes are at least on target, accurate, and have enough force and speed behind them to test me. To not allow room for mistakes.

Ten minutes later I'm sweating, moisture beading on my brow and temples, and I can feel droplets trickling down between my shoulder blades. People don't seem to realise just how physically and mentally demanding sparring can be. Constant movement and constant concentration. My breathing is still controlled, but it's tight and I'm resisting the urge to pant. My ribs are smarting where a strong roundhouse kick from Shane caught me out, but I refuse to let him see pain on my face, because he'd be mortified. And I need him to hit harder, not softer.

We circle each other warily, Shane treating me a bit more respectfully since one of my jabs got through his defence. I pulled it before it could connect fully, but it struck with enough power to give him a shock. Good. I drop my weight, trying to relax some of the tension from my shoulders, and wait for his next attack.

Instead, Shane stops, holding up a hand. "Tor, I need a breather."

I grin; pleased I've outlasted him, although I've been dying to stop for the last few minutes.

"I wouldn't say no to a drink," I tell him lightly, trying to keep my tiredness showing.

"Here."

We both turn at the unexpected voice to find Hunter standing nearby, offering two bottles of water.

"Thank you." The confusion is clear on Shane's face as he takes the water.

I echo Shane's thanks, watching Hunter carefully.

He avoids my gaze, focusing instead on the red ranger. "Shane, I wanted to apologise for the other day," he says softly, still not looking at me. Shane gapes at him, surprised. "I was out of line. I wasn't angry at you. I was just…" he trails off.

"… Wound up by Leanne?" Shane supplies, recovering from his initial amazement at Hunter's words.

The blond nods. "Yeah. Sorry. I shouldn't have done it."

He doesn't promise it won't happen again.

Our leader looks at him for a long moment, then sighs. "I said some things I didn't mean too, and they were pretty nasty so… I'm sorry as well. We're cool?" He holds out a hand.

For a second I'm not sure Hunter's going to take it, but at last he does. It's a brief, awkward handshake, but it's something. As he turns away, Hunter finally gives me a quick sideways glance. It's shy and wary, as if he doesn't know what to expect from me. I smile at him, but he's already looking away. I see him make his way over to Blake and Cam, see his brother's face light up with hope as Hunter leads him away. My eyes follow them as they leave Ninja Ops together and I'm pleased.

Hunter seems to have taken my words on board. Or Sensei said something. Either way, he's apologised to Shane and now he's hopefully going to fix things with Blake. It's a good start.

But Cam's words start niggling at me again, and a small, awful part of me can't help wondering if Hunter is doing this because he is genuinely sorry about his behaviour and wants to make amends… Or because he wants to please me.

I take a sip of my water, trying to drown out those thoughts.

He's wrong; Cam's wrong.

Everyone's wrong about Hunter. I'm so sure of it. Why can't my friends see in him what I see?

I try to picture him from their point of view: Hunter in training sessions, business-like and focused, no room for messing around; Hunter in battle, determined, controlling, unbending; Hunter in social situations, quiet, mood and stand-offish… But I can't reconcile this distant, unfriendly, unemotional image of Hunter with the Hunter I've begun to see glimpses of recently.

Because the Thunder ninja I'm coming to know is smart, funny (when he wants to be), reserved yes, rather than unfriendly and above all he is not unemotional. He does have feelings. He just… keeps everything locked inside, doesn't show as much as the rest of us. Hides behind his walls.

I wish he didn't. I know now why he does; he's been hurt, betrayed and seen things he should never have seen. Locking things away has been his way of surviving. But I wish he could let the barriers down a little more, let us in a little more.

Let me in.

The other day in the woods was a start. The knowledge of what he'd had to do to survive clenches at my stomach. The fact neither brother has spoken of that part of their past, that Blake hasn't mentioned it, speaks volumes of how they feel about it. Drugs… If I'd known about that before I'd known him I confess I'd have judged him much more harshly. But I've never been in that situation. I can't categorically say what I would and wouldn't do to survive, and my heart aches for the childhood Hunter's lost.

I can't change what's happened to him in the past, but I am determined to bring Hunter, the real Hunter I keep getting flashes of, out.

Somehow.

I can't explain why this is so important to me. I don't know why I'm drawn to him, why I want to fix him. I told Cam it was for the good of the team, to make things better for everyone, but I don't think I believe that. Not really. My reasoning is getting more confused, more unclear, the closer I get, the more I learn. There's so much I'm unsure of. But there is one thing I can say for certain, I am not falling in love with Hunter Bradley.

I am not.

Chapter Text

See I've been worrying
That my time here's a little unclear
I've been worrying
That I'm losing the ones I hold dear
I've been worrying
That we all live our lives in the confines of fear

I will become what I deserve
And I will become what I deserve

~Ben Howard

I can see what's happening between Tori and Hunter, even if she can't. Or perhaps won't.

Tori isn't stupid. It's why I like her. But she might be naive.

The look of shock on her face when I tell her not to fall in love with Hunter is genuine. I don't think she realises what she's getting herself into. She says she's just trying to be his friend, and I don't doubt her intentions for a second.

It's not her I don't trust.

I should have twigged what was going on with them sooner. Her asking me to track Hunter's morpher the other day should have been a huge warning sign, but I didn't think anything of it at the time. It was only today when I saw them on the surveillance cameras that it clicked there might be something more going on between them. She doesn't seem to see it, but from where I'm standing, looking in from the outside, her actions towards him were more than just friendly. And he… he wasn't pushing her away.

That worries me more.

If Hunter's feelings towards Tori are less-than-innocent then I'm worried she'll get hurt. I don't want to see her hurt. Not to mention the rift it would cause in the team. I may not be an active ranger, but I have a personal interest in seeing they function and operate to the best of their abilities.

Not to mention I do, actually, like some of them. Most of them.

I sigh.

I wasn't prepared for this… this responsibility.

I was a freshly-graduated college student taking a well-deserved break at home before deciding whether to return to academia or brave the world of real employment – I'd had offers for both – when Lothor attacked the school. I wasn't prepared to suddenly find myself as the technical support for the only thing standing between Evil and Earth. None of us were prepared for our roles in this battle.

Well, the Bradley's may have been. They were certainly more prepared than the rest of us. I'd only met Sensei Omino on a couple of occasions but my father always spoke highly of him, despite our academy's traditional rivalry. He came across as an intelligent, thoughtful, and above all considered man. Sensei Omino chose them, Hunter and Blake, to receive the morphers. Admittedly it was in the heat of battle but the head of the Thunder Academy never struck me as rash. Like us, he probably already had a shortlist of students he believed would be appropriate guardians of the power, should it ever be needed. Unlike us, however, it seems Sensei Omino got to enact his plan.

Which should allay some of my fears about the older Bradley brother, but it doesn't.

For the Wind Academy, well…

Suffice to say, Shane and Dustin's names were not on our list, and probably never would have been. Tori's name wasn't either, but she showed promise. Though in all probability she'd never have made it; she was too loyal to Shane and Dustin.

Strange how the one thing that made them unsuitable to be considered for the morphers – their loyalty to each other – is almost certainly the one thing that's made them such good rangers.

And yes, I did say "good".

Perhaps not at first, but they've learned. They've matured. Grown into their roles.

I won't say it out loud, but I'm pleased with them.

Shane's settled into the role of leader now. It took time, but he had a harder job of it than the other two. More was expected of him. In some ways, having Hunter around has been good for him; it's kept him grounded and given him a challenge. Shane tends to hold back when sparring against the others but with the crimson ranger at least he has someone who can truly test him, who gives back as good if not better than he gets, who – today's incident aside – has an answer for everything thrown at him.

Dustin still has a tendency towards impulsiveness and his enthusiasm can be a little extreme at times, but he's tempered it now with real dedication and moments of rare but brilliant insight.

Tori… Up until today Tori was the ranger I had the least concerns about. She's calm, logical and brings some oft-needed common sense to the team. But this… thing… with Hunter…

I don't know why I have such an issue with this; with him. I've always thought that, on the surface at least, Hunter and I should have a lot in common. We're both older than the others; we both don't quite fit in. But whereas Hunter is unbothered by that position, even welcoming of it, I am not.

I push those – other – thoughts aside; it does no good to dwell on them.

Age and group status notwithstanding, that's where the similarities between Hunter and me end. We've never had a proper conversation. I'm not even sure we could. We have nothing really to talk about. Call it clichéd but we come from very different backgrounds.

I grew up in a Ninja Academy but wasn't allowed to be trained as a ninja, escaping to college when I was seventeen to enjoy a freedom I'd never imagined; the freedom to choose my own path in life. I did dabble in various martial arts there, but never committed to any one. None felt right and to be honest I was a little jaded by my time in the Academy. Having watched true masters at work my entire life, the clubs at college seemed… amateur. Not to belittle them; they were just not what I was used to. Different. Laid back.

Hunter, well, I had until recently presumed Hunter had been brought up at the Thunder Academy after his parents were murdered. It would have been a different experience to mine. The fact he was not only furthers the distance between us (a Sensei as a father-figure I could empathise with; no father-figure at all is something, thankfully, alien to me) and makes his achievements to date that bit more impressive.

There is no doubt in my mind, whatever my personal feelings towards the crimson ranger may be, that Hunter is an accomplished fighter, best on the team. Perhaps better than many senior students and even Sensei's I have seen. That he has become so good with a four-year break in training speaks volumes.

He is also one of the few people truly in tune with their elements. Tori is another; using their powers seems to come as naturally as breathing. While the others, Shane and Dustin (even Blake falls into this category to an extent) are in touch with their elements and able to use them adequately (and are improving) they don't seem as… connected… as the other two. A natural affinity for a certain element is not the same as natural ability.

And I don't even have an element.

Hunter is a bike mechanic who didn't finish high school; I am a Wind Sensei's son who barely knows the first kata. We have nothing in common.

But uncommonality in itself is no reason for dislike. At the best, it's politeness. At the worst, ambivalence.

"You can't stand him."

Tori may have been angry, but she might have had a point. I seem to harbour an intense dislike for the older Bradley brother, a dislike that isn't extended to his sibling. Blake's just sort of slotted into place, working well with everyone and acting as a mediator between the Winds and his brother. I trust Blake; even go so far to say I like him. I can't explain why. Why do I like him but not Hunter?

I know I should give this further consideration, think about it logically because at the moment I'm not making any rational sense, but I have to stifle a yawn.

It's late now. The teenagers – rangers – were sent home hours ago and my father has retired to his bed. Well, habitat. I push away the twinge of sadness that rises in my chest as I glance at the guinea-pig enclosure I had to buy for him after Lothor's attack. I can still recall the looks of surprise on Shane, Dustin and Tori's faces when they saw him for the first time.

I have to chuckle at the memories. It's either that or cry, and I know which one is more productive.

Productive… I can feel my eyelids drooping. Productivity stopped about an hour ago. I need sleep.

Work, and this Hunter-Tori dilemma, can wait until morning.

XxX

I'm sitting in my usual place in front of the main computer when loud footsteps on the stairs signal Hunter's arrival. I've already seen him on the sensor he always walks past to get here. I know he does it on purpose, to not sneak up on me. I think he thinks he's being non-threatening, but it just makes me more wary. I can't help it. Just because he does the same thing every day… I am not going to get used to it. Because when I do he'll…

He'll what?

We've established it was Lothor and not my father that murdered his parents. So unless he finds himself under an evil spell again he has no reason to do anything.

And while evidence thus far may point to Hunter having a predisposition to ending up under evil spells, statistically speaking the likelihood of it being him next time (and that there will be a next time goes without saying; it's just one danger that comes with the job description) is no greater than it being, say, Shane. Or Dustin.

Or Blake.

Blake, who has fought against the Wind Rangers just as often as his brother.

Tori was right again when she said none of us have a problem with Blake. I don't have a problem with Blake, even though he was Hunter's willing partner in the kidnapping of my father. So why do I have a problem with Hunter?

Because he beat you; beat your sensors, your technology.

Blake may have found the entrance to Ninja Ops but it was Hunter that found a way in, found the holes I hadn't thought I'd left. And then, when I'd tried to swing a (admittedly shamefully sluggish and weak) punch at him in defence, the crimson figure had just brushed it aside, brushed me aside, as if I were no more than a child.

The embarrassment of that still stings.

I suppose… logically… Hunter scared me. Not just because he was faster and stronger than me, but because of the intelligence displayed in the attack.

The intelligence that I can still see behind his blue eyes as he greets me, crossing the short distance from the entrance to come and stand nearby. Close, but still distinctly isolated from me.

"What're you up to?" His tone is inquisitive, curious, as he peers at the computer screen where I've got Shane's Hawkzord schematics displayed.

The bruising on his cheek from the red ranger's strike yesterday is lurid and purple, but already aging around the edges. I know soon it will look days old thanks to the healing powers imbued by their ranger abilities.

It's irrational and ridiculous but I hit the power button, turning the screen black and swivel my chair to meet Hunter's gaze.

"What are you doing here?" I ask, wincing at the sharpness of my words.

He doesn't look phased by my rudeness, but takes a step back, face blank. "Day off," he says with a careless shrug. "Thought I'd come here. Did you need a hand with anything?"

I pause. He's taken to offering his help every time he sees me. He's the only one who really does.

"No," I say, trying to loosen the tightness in my throat. "No, thank you. Why don't you go train?"

He nods, as if that was the answer he'd been expecting – but had asked me anyway – and heads for the passageway that leads to the dojo. As Hunter walks away, it suddenly occurs to me that of all the places he could have gone on his day off, he's chosen to come here.

And then I realise there are no other places for him to go. The others are at school and he's not working so there's no reason for him to be at Storm Chargers, and he's not with his brother so he won't go to the track – I've never seen Hunter race if Blake's not there. Unless he wants to sit by himself in his apartment (which by all accounts, read: Dustin and Shane's, is in a pretty poor state) here is the only choice he has for company.

Company meaning me.

Company that has just sent him away to be alone. Again.

I'm getting the impression that Hunter spends too much of his time alone.

I sigh, removing my glasses and rubbing my temple wearily. "Hunter." The blond stops and turns to look at me, the faintest expression of surprise on his face. I let out another sigh. "I need a break. Come with me."

It's almost a question.

He follows me without query, through the cold stone passageways until we come to a halt outside of a door that has been, until now, off-limits to the rangers. Hunter gives me a puzzled look.

"You asked me what I did for fun," I say, opening the door and gesturing him inside. "Here's your answer."

I watch as he steps carefully inside, expressionless eyes taking in the scene; the large flat screen tv that dominates one wall surrounded by speakers and games consoles; the shelves down the far wall filled with all the games and dvds that I've collected over the years; the worn but comfy sofa arranged for optimum viewing of the tv. He wanders around the room, passed the sofa and over to the shelves, looking but not touching. I can't tell if he's impressed or bored, as he makes no comment.

"So, what do you reckon?" I say at last.

Hunter finally smiles. "I think you shouldn't let Shane and Dustin see this place, or not ever Lothor'd get them out again."

I snort. "Actually I was going to have a games night one evening if you think they'd be keen." I move over to the X-Box and chuck him a controller. He stares at it as if it's some alien that might attack at any moment.

"Wrong way," I inform him and he turns his gaze to me, confused. "You're holding it upside down," I explain. "You never played X-Box before?"

He shakes he head. "Nah, never had one. Blake and I were meant to get a Playstation as a joint Christmas present but that was the year our parents died so… never happened."

I blink at him. Did Hunter Bradley, the very epitome of taciturn, just volunteer some personal information? He said it so casually. If it wasn't for the fact I know my hearing is almost perfect and I trust my ears explicitly, I'd have thought I'd misheard.

Hunter doesn't seem to have registered my surprise, returning instead to intently studying the controller. If this is Tori's influence on him (and it has the Water ninja's signature all over it), I'm impressed.

"You'll pick it up fast," I tell him, selecting a game from the multitude arranged neatly on the shelves. It's a first-person shooter which I hope the crimson ranger will enjoy.

I honestly couldn't have predicted the result.

Hunter is a good mechanic. I've heard Dustin rave about his abilities with engines on numerous occasions. It never occurred to me that someone who seems so deft and nimble with his hands could be so terrible at something as simple (in my mind) as a video game. But halfway through the "mission", when he's supposed to be proving cover fire, I glance over at his screen to find the view dominated by blue sky.

"Sorry," he mumbles, giving the controller a dirty look. "I just can't work the view angles at all. How did you get so good?"

"Misspent college years," I reply dryly, a fond smile forming at the memories. My eyes fall on an adaptor for the Wii controllers and my smile broadens. "How about we try something different? I think you'll like it better." I switch the consoles and click the remotes into their holders. What I hand to Hunter is, for all intents and purposes, a replica gun.

"What do I do with this one?" he asks, turning it over in his hands.

"What do you think?" I can't help myself. Sarcasm is just second nature to me. I'm sure some therapists would call it a defence mechanism; I just call it my twisted sense of humour. There's a time and place for it though, and I'm guessing today isn't it.

I temper my tone.

"Point and shoot," I clarify. At his quizzical look I add, "That's it, I promise. Point at the screen, pull the trigger, get points for your kills."

He's already holding the controller much more confidently now. "And what are we killing?"

"Zombies."

"Zombies?" he repeats in a flat voice. "… Okay then."

We clear the first level with relative ease, Hunter seeming more at home with this new controller than the previous one. I wasn't joking when I said it was simply point-and-shoot, and one thing Hunter does know is how to handle a weapon.

It's with some surprise that I realise I'm having a good time. I normally enjoy playing these games fine by myself, but it's the sort of enjoyment that comes from being able to disengage with reality for a time, stress relief rather than genuine pleasure. But Hunter's company is… not as bad as I thought it would be. I may even go as far as saying it's nice. Different, but I could do with some good different in my life.

Hunter seems to be getting to grips with the subtleties of the game now, his score coming close to rivalling mine. He's an adequate wingman.

Ok, ok, he's actually a pretty decent wingman.

This is the most relaxed I've ever seen the Thunder ninja. His back isn't quite as rigid, posture a little less awkward, a little more comfortable. The smile he gives me doesn't seem as forced as before, and he even occasionally joins me in the "shouting-at-the-tv" routine I tend towards when playing these games.

The mission ends with a win for us and Hunter's grinning, pleased.

"That was good," he says, sounding almost exuberant. Well, as exuberant as I've ever heard him get. "Can we play again?" There's a falter, a pause, as he catches himself. "But you probably have work you want to be doing. I don't want to bother you any more."

I think. Yes, there is work I could be doing – should be doing – but none of it urgent. I haven't taken proper time off in a while; I'm almost certainly permitted another few minutes. Besides, what I'm doing now, this "bonding" with Hunter, is probably more important than giving myself another headache trying to work out issues with the zord engines.

And, ok, I'll admit it, I'm having fun.

"Don't worry. I've got time for another round."

XxX

"Yeah!" Hunter's exclamation as we complete the mission makes me laugh. As our scores flash up I notice he's improved again. If he keeps this up, he'll be giving me a run for my money.

Good. I like a challenge.

The blond sets the controller down and runs a hand through his hair. "Thanks Cam. That was… I, uh, I liked that game." He looks away and I can see the rigidity returning to his posture, lines hardening, shields up. "I should leave you to get back to work now," he says, seeming suddenly uncomfortable, almost – and if I hadn't have thought it possible for Hunter – shy. Unsure.

Shy

Could that be it? Blake's always been the more out-going of the two, that much is certain. But could Hunter's unfriendliness just be a cover for his awkwardness? Antisocial, that's what Tori called him. But perhaps it's not antisocial, just socially inept. Not knowing how to behave in group situations, not knowing how to behave around other people, finding them difficult and uncomfortable.

Huh.

Looks like Hunter and I may have something in common after all.

He takes my hesitation for confirmation and stands to depart. A thought from earlier comes to the forefront of my mind; mechanic… Struck by inspiration I call out to him just as he reaches the door, "Hey, how similar are zord engines to the ones you work with?"

He turns back to me, considering. "Not too different. I had to do some work on mine and Blake's before we joined you guys."

When they were with Lothor.

Lothor who turned my father into a guinea-pig.

Water under the bridge.

I nod. "You might actually be able to help me then." That came out a lot more condescending than I'd intended. "I majored in computers, not engineering. I could do with hearing the opinion of someone who knows a bit more about mechanics than me. Practically anyway; I know the theory."

And that sounded no better than what I said previously; potentially worse. I really need to work on my interpersonal skills. I'll have add it to my "to do" list I guess.

Hunter brushes my comments off. "Sure, what do you need?"

"This may take a while," I warn him, and he gives me a lopsided grin.

"I've got nothing else to do today."

His choice of words does not go unnoticed. Nothing else to do… Not "nothing better" but "nothing else". I realise I've never asked Hunter what he does for fun.

In fact, I don't believe I've ever asked him anything personal.

"I don't know about you, but all that zombie-killing has made me thirsty," I say to him. "Let me grab us a drink and then I'll show you the schematics."

I'm feeling remarkably relaxed as I make my way to the kitchen. I've been alone in Hunter's company for over an hour and he hasn't tried to kill, maim or kidnap me at all. We haven't even argued. Admittedly we haven't really spoken, but the man I've left behind in my games room is a very different person to the arrogant, unpleasant person that clashes with Shane. This Hunter is… not softer because he's still as hard as iron, but just somehow less.

Less arrogant, less unpleasant, less confidant. More human.

I grab two sodas from the fridge, returning to the room to find Hunter standing staring at a framed photograph on the wall. It's of a waterfall, taken with a slow-shutter speed so the water appears as mist flowing down the rocks and swirling into the pool. The greens and blues of the image fade into each other, the leaves of the plants standing out in sharp contrast to the eddies of the water, giving the whole picture a dream-like quality.

I don't think he's heard my approach, but he doesn't so much as twitch when I speak. "You like it?" I move to stand next to him, handing him one of the cans.

He takes it with a quiet thanks and then answers me, "Yeah, it's really surreal, but in a good way." He pauses. "It's of your waterfall, isn't it?"

My waterfall..? I know what he means.

I can hear the implied question in his words. "My mother took it. She was a photographer."

"She was good."

"So they tell me." Hunter gives me a searching look. I have to swallow hard before explaining, "She died when I was two. I don't… I don't really remember her much."

"I'm sorry," Hunter says, and I'm surprised by the honest emotion in his voice. Now sympathy from Hunter Bradley? This day just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

"Blake said you were thirteen when your parents died?" There's a flicker of surprise in his eyes but he nods. I attempt to smile. "At least you have the memories."

He shrugs non-committedly and the faint smile dies on my lips.

Memories… Hunter has a lot of memories.

"I don't know what's worse sometimes: knowing them and losing them – knowing what you've lost – or not knowing them at all," I say gently, trying to gauge his reaction. I'm finding it strange how easy, how natural, it seems talking to Hunter about this. I guess it's because we've both lost someone.

"Both are pretty shitty," he replies evenly, and I know he's speaking from experience. I tend to forget that the Bradleys were his adoptive parents; that he must have dealt with loss before them.

But I can't bring myself to ask him about it.

It's highly doubtful Hunter would answer me anyway and I don't want to break this fragile peace, this mutual understanding, we seem to have reached this morning. There's also a part of me that doesn't want to know, because with every new revelation, every actual conversation, I'm finding it harder and harder to dislike Hunter. And as illogical and irrational as it is, I'm not quite ready to forgive and forget; to be friends. Not just yet. But maybe… maybe I'm close. Closer than I thought.

His gaze has returned to the photograph and I have a brain wave. If Hunter needs a hobby

"Have you ever tried photography?"

Before he's finished shaking his head "no" I'm already moving, rifling through a cupboard and digging out a digital SLR camera.

"Here." I offer it to Hunter and he takes it carefully, holding it as if it might break at any moment. "I thought I'd take it up at college but I wasn't very good," I say, crossing to the bookshelf and searching through the titles. "All the gear but no idea. I've got lenses, filters and – ahah! – ..." I pluck the book from its place and hold it up so Hunter can see the title. "… Photography manuals. If you want to try you're more than welcome to borrow it."

Hunter looks down at the camera he's still holding gingerly and then shakes his head. "I couldn't…"

"Sure you can," I tell him. "It's only sitting around gathering dust here. Someone may as well get some use out of it. Take it to the woods next time you go."

He understands then that I'm giving him a valid reason to be alone. No one's going to go chasing after him if he's actually doing something. It's an artifice I employ on a regular basis.

"Thank you, Cam," he says, adding uncertainly, "But I'd have to leave it here. It wouldn't be… I'd worry… Uh, our apartment isn't the most secure." He drops his gaze back down to the camera and I notice the faintest tinge of redness at the tips of his ears and around his neck. This must be as close as Hunter gets to showing embarrassment.

"That's fine."

I take the camera off him and wave for him to follow me back to the main room. There's a small bookcase just beside the main entrance which the boys – Shane and Dustin – seem to have commandeered for any stuff they want to leave here (or can't be bothered to take home; same difference I guess). There's even a small, neat pile of surf magazines that belong to Tori. I clear the bottom shelf, moving Dustin's things up beside Tori's.

"There you go," I say, putting the SLR and instruction book down on it. "You and Blake can leave whatever you want here. The others do; you may as well too."

I don't know what I was expecting – pleasure, gratitude, something like that – but the look on Hunter's face was not it. He looks like I've given him a priceless gift; stunned and a little overwhelmed. The moment is fleeting, gone in an instant, and he's once again expressionless, stoic.

He thanks me again, sounding strange. Sounding… not quite like Hunter. Not the Hunter I thought I knew.

And then I get it. What my simple, unthinking gesture actually means. I've given him and his brother a place; put them alongside Shane and Dustin and Tori; given them somewhere to belong. This realisation is accompanied by a mix of emotions: joy that such a little thing means so much more; sadness that it does because it speaks volumes of the life Hunter's lived up to now; and guilt, that I did not do this sooner.

"Don't worry about it," I manage. "If you can help me with these engine issues that'll be more than enough thanks."

I have to turn away then, walking over to the computer and calling up the zord schematics in order to hide my own expression from Hunter.

Such a little thing

XxX

At 2pm I make us lunch. I thought I'd been over-generous with the amounts as I'm so used to only having to cook for one, but Hunter eats every bite.

XxX

We're still working when Shane, Dustin and Blake arrive; both sitting by my computer, zord schematics taking up the screen. They've come straight from school by the looks of it and manage to hide their surprise at Hunter's presence and proximity to the computer, and to me, with varying degrees of success.

The blond gives them a cursory greeting before returning his attention to the blueprints of Dustin's Lionzord. Is it just my imagination or was there the barest trace of disappointment on his face when he saw it was just the boys, no Tori? Knowing her she's gone surfing. And may or may not be avoiding me after yesterday.

It's so hard to get a read on Hunter. Today has been the most expressive I've ever seen him. My fears come flooding back as I once again consider the possibility that the Thunder ninja's feelings towards Tori may not be quite as innocent as she seems to think.

But the fear is not as strong as it was yesterday, dampened by a day spent in Hunter's company. Maybe, given this new evidence from observation, maybe I can concede to Tori's interpretation of the situation, that none of us have really extended the hand of friendship to Hunter, that none of us have made the effort. We can complain all we want about the older Bradley's aloofness and hostility, but it takes two people to make a friendship work. We are just as culpable, just as guilty, as him in this failure.

That needs to change.

We all need to address this issue, not just Tori.

An exclamation from Dustin draws my attention to the trio who've made themselves at home around the low table in the centre of the room.

"Dude, yes! Definitely yes. Camping would be awesome. When can we go?"

Shane laughs at the curly-haired teen's enthusiasm. "Hold on. We'll need to organise things first. And make sure Sensei's okay with us going."

His eyes flick to me and I sigh. "What are you planning now?"

There's resignation in my voice, as I know whatever it is, I'll be more than likely dragged into it.

"We were thinking of going camping for a weekend," Shane replies. "Like, a guys' trip. Assuming Sensei doesn't want us for training or anything like that." Pause. "Hey, do you want to come?"

I find three pairs of eyes watching me expectantly, but I'm thankfully saved from answering by my father.

"A rest from training would be a good idea," he says solemnly. "Time spent together will only strengthen your bonds as a team. I shall check the training schedule and see when would be an appropriate weekend for you. Do not worry; it will not be too far away."

I resist rolling my eyes at the excited chatter that breaks out following my father's words. Instantly they're getting into the details, Shane announcing he has a tent that'll comfortably sleep four and Dustin already talking about barbeques and bonfires, my lack of answer seemingly forgotten.

I turn back to the computer to find Hunter watching the three teens with his usual, unreadable expression and it occurs to me that, while Shane invited me along, it is just taken for granted that the older Bradley will be there too.

"Would you want go camping?" I ask him quietly.

Hunter snorts and, with a pointed glance at Blake, replies, "Do you really think I'd have a choice?"

I follow his gaze to see his younger brother grinning, gesturing wildly to Dustin about the importance of campfire marshmallows.

"We haven't been camping since we were kids." Hunter's voice is barely audible and he switches his attention abruptly from the guys back to the zord schematics.

"Is this what you were meaning?" He indicates a section of engine and I nod, pulling my focus back to the work at hand.

As I do, I can't help wondering how much of what he does is actually for himself… and how much is for his brother.

XxX

When the boys decide they want to head to Storm Chargers to see what Kelly has in the way of camping gear, Hunter elects to go with them. I saw him checking the time surreptitiously as we were working and I'm almost convinced he has his other job – the one Shane mentioned – to get ready for.

I have to admit, I was initially annoyed when Hunter didn't show for the fight the other evening as, job or no job, saving the world comes first. Hunter's a ranger first and foremost; I never thought I'd be questioning his dedication. Some people would envy his position – some people do envy his position – so for him to be lax in his duty was not only out of character but also infuriating.

But then the red ranger had come back to Ninja Ops after the battle was won (and it was the red ranger, the leader, that was speaking) and explained the situation to me and my father. Shane's worried about the brothers, and I guess I am too. With everything that's happened since they arrived, I'd never stopped to consider how they were actually managing to live. It's stupid, but I'd always just thought of them working in the same way I thought about Dustin working; for fun and a bit of pocket money.

The Bradleys need more than pocket money to survive. They seem to be managing but, as I should have already learned, appearances can be deceiving. I remember Hunter's appetite at lunch and vow to keep an eye on them, and try to figure out some kind of back-up plan just in case… Well, just in case.

"You're good for me to leave?" Hunter's voice cuts into my musings.

I see him glance at the schematics again and I smile. "Yeah it's fine. I've got it from here. You've been really helpful, thanks."

"No worries," he says calmly and makes to join the others who are waiting by the exit. I think I can detect a hint of disappointment in his tone.

"Hey," I call him back. "At some point I could do with a crash course in the Thunder zords. Figure you know them best so…" I leave the offer hanging.

Hunter imperceptibly brightens. "Sure. My next proper day off isn't until next week though."

I wave his concern away. "That's fine. No rush. I have enough to be getting on with anyway. Oh, and don't forget you've got the camera to try out too."

He smiles and his goodbye seems slightly warmer than before. I think I've done something good today, made a good decision.

I hope I have at least. Fears aside, I'll trust Hunter… for now.

But as the boys depart for Storm Chargers a different feeling rises within me. The green hand of jealousy clenches my heart; an almost physical pain, a yearning for something unobtainable. It's not because I want to go with them (I'll be the first to acknowledge I know next to nothing about the extreme sports they're all into and am not particularly interested in learning any of them, nor do I have any desire to join the camping expedition. Getting back to nature is not my thing); it's not even because they're altogether and I'm being left alone.

It's more than that.

It's because they're a part of something bigger than themselves; they share a special bond that cannot be replicated. Even Hunter – Hunter who probably wishes he wasn't – is a part of it. Part of a team. Chosen by the power. And no matter how hard I try to integrate myself with them and no matter how much they (read: Tori) try to get me involved, I will never – can never – be a part of it. No matter how much I want to be. I'll always be the outsider.

Just as I was at the Wind Academy before I went to college. Only somehow, this seems worse.

I give myself a mental shake. Brooding? Seriously? I must have been spending too much time around Hunter.

Ok, so I'll never be a Power Ranger, but I can still be useful. So I better go and be useful.

Chapter Text

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wiggle yeah
Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle, wig-yeah, yeah
Do the wiggle man
I do the wiggle man
I'm sexy and I know it…
Ayyy, yeah

~LMFAO

I'm tired.

Like, way freakin' tired.

Like I've just done the Dakar Rally on a bicycle. Or tried to cross the Pacific on a paddle boat. Or an evil alien has zapped all my energy.

Oh, wait. That last one's not a joke.

This was totally not how my Saturday was meant to go.

We were meant to do the boring homework-y stuff and then do the super-cool ninja stuff – and be awesome at it – and then I was going to go to the track and try doing the sickest backflip, which I also would have rocked. And try to get my lap times down too I guess. But the backflip would've come first.

Instead we did the homework-y stuff (and it was boring) but the super-cool ninja stuff that we were meant to be awesome at turned out to be a lot harder than it looked and we were… less than awesome.

But then Cam did it which was wow but he got mad when we were mean and Tori had to go speak to him and Sensei spoke to us about the stupid promise he'd made Cam's mom, which is totally whack because Cam would be amazing as a ranger and it isn't fair. Like, even Shane and Hunter agreed about that and they never agree on anything so yeah, we're right and Cam should be a ranger.

I was feeling kinda bummed out for Cam but there was still the track to look forward to and maybe, just maybe, we'd have been able to drag Cam along. And then we could have bought him an ice cream to say sorry. Everyone loves ice cream.

But Mr. "I'm-an-evil-space-ninja-who-loves-ruining-your-fun" Lothor had other ideas and sent a stupid alien which of course we had to go and fight but the jerk-face stole our ranger energy and then continued attacking the city. Which is cheating. Definitely cheating.

And then Shane said he was going to fight anyway, which of course meant we 'cos there's no way in hell we'd leave some stupid alien loose in Blue Bay. Cam did something to our morphers – I vote magic but then I don't get half of what he does normally anyway – so we felt better but then we ended up in a bizzaro dimension thingy and just attacked each other. Or rather, Tori and me attacked Shane and Hunter which worked out oh-so-well. I actually feel sorry for any kelzaks that gets hit by Hunter now because his thunder staff hurts.

Long story short, Shane figured it out, the alien got big (no surprise there; Lothor really needs some new tricks), we got zords but that failed and we were just about to be crushed into ranger jelly when poof! we're back at Ninja Ops.

And now… now Cam's gone on some secret mission which involves time travel and danger by himself and he didn't even say goodbye and we're all stuck here 'cos the whole world's sorta frozen which would be cool 'cept it's creepy and I'm worried about Cam and also so, so, so tired.

I just don't want to move.

Lemme sleep.

We all want to sleep. Shane is asleep.

Hey if the red dude can sleep so I can right? Aren't those the rules?

Blake's asleep too. Maybe Tori. Or maybe she just likes snuggling Blake.

Ugh I am sleeeeeepy.

Only Hunter's awake. Don't know how he's doing it. He's in Cam's chair. I think I saw him press a button on the computer. Cam's going to be so mad when he returns. M-A-D. If he returns.

No, when. It's Cam. Cam is clever. He'll be back. He has to be.

He didn't say goodbye.

How is Hunter still awake? Dude must have energiser batteries. Heh, Hunter's an energiser bunny.

I am so tired.

Did I mention that?

Eyes drooping now, head nodding forward, fuzzy… Wait, movement!

Tori's awake. I see her watching Hunter with a weird look on her face, glancing between the blond and Blake, who's sleeping on her shoulder. She seems indecisive, which is totally not like Tori at all. What's going on?

Biting her lip, she moves Blake's head off her and lets him slump onto the table. She's being super-careful not to wake him, getting up so quietly I doubt even Sensei could have heard her. And he has guinea-pig hearing now which I reckon must be pretty good. He always manages to hear my awesomely-funny-and-clever comments anyway (though he never seems as impressed by them as I am and he totally should be).

She rests a hand on Hunter's shoulder and he totally tenses up. Dude seriously has a thing about touching. As in, don't touch him. I'm waiting for him to shake her off, glare at her, but I'm surprised when he doesn't. He looks up and actually smiles when he sees it's her, relaxing, like actually relaxing. Her hand is still on him and he's letting it stay there. This is new.

And I'm not sure I should be watching.

Should sleep.

But Tori's like a sister to me. Maybe even closer than my real sisters. They don't know about ninjas. And they don't let me talk about comic books. Tori is way cooler.

We've known each other since kindergarten, when two mean older kids tried to kick me out of the sandpit and this tiny little blonde girl came storming up, hands on hips and started yelling at them. So they tried to hit her which was a big mistake as it turns out her dad was already giving her ninja lessons. Result? One kid on the ground holding his… well… his boys' bits and the other kid running to the teacher with a nosebleed. And Tori blinking large blue innocent eyes at everyone got away with it all. Because really, who would believe a small four-year old girl could kick that much butt?

I offered her a shovel and we've been pretty much joined at the hip ever since. We've done everything together; all the important stuff, like moving up grades and starting high school and dealing with first crushes and break-ups and all the teenage-y stuff. Oh, and joining the Wind Academy together. The ninja stuff is kinda important too. And meeting Shane. That was definitely important. 'S when our two became three.

And now we're a five.

Mostly a five. Well, sometimes a five.

Actually, we're more of a four-and-a-half. Four and a "if-I'm-not-being-a-grumpy-pants-we'll-be-a-five". And yeah, I'm talking about Hunter.

Speaking of Mr-Dark-and-Broody (Shane's nickname, not mine) I kinda feel like I'm prying just by watching him with Tori, which is silly. Just, seeing the two of them together, it looks like a really private moment, even though there's no reason for it to be. I think it's the strange expression he got when he saw it was her. I say strange; I mean not angry. Normal. Friendly.

Like, I thought Hunter and Cam suddenly hanging out was weird, but Hunter and Tori?

I can't hear what she's saying to him, but he shakes his head at her.

O-oh, I get it now. Like when she made him put ice on his eye after Shane hit him (which surprised everyone, 'specially Shane). She's doing her mom thing again. Probably trying to make him sleep as well.

Sleep.

She worries about everyone; I've been on the receiving end of her mom-ness many times. I kinda feel sorry for Hunter. Once Tori's got her mind set on something there's no stopping her.

Don't change the fact that Hunter's still letting her hand rest on him.

As Hunter's attention is drawn back to the screen, Tori gives him another one of those weird looks. It's not an expression I've ever seen on her face before and it confuses me. Yeah I know I'm meant to be the dumb yellow guy but I'm not that stupid. I have a short attention span and tend to get distracted easily. Kinda like the dog from 'Up'; you know, "hi there my name is Doug. My master made me this collar so I can talk-SQUIRREL!"

That dog is awesome. I want a dog that can talk. Ooh, ooh, I wonder if Cam could make a talking-dog-collar. He's super-smart. I bet he could. I'll have to ask him when he gets back.

If he gets back.

How long's he been gone now? It's hard to tell. Can you even tell the time when time's frozen? Like, do we all live shorter now than everyone else 'cos we're unfrozen and they're not? Or does, like, everyone lose this time but only we know about it? I'd ask Cam but… Yeah, back on the Cam's-not-here thoughts.

Oh, other thoughts! Easily distracted. Oops.

Right, that might be true, but I'm not stupid. I think my mind just works slightly differently to other people's. My thoughts move from A to B to C to D but what comes out of my mouth tends to skip the middle bits and people only hear me go from A to D with none of the in-between. Makes sense to me though.

I'm not very good at reading people. Like, I always give people the benefit of the doubt; gave Hunter and Blake the benefit of the doubt. Look what happened there. But it's all cool now. I mean, Blake is friends with everyone now; he even let me ride his 250 which was awesome, and scary, but mostly awesome. And Hunter… is cool… with everyone. Cool as in the not-hot sense. It's kinda like he tolerates us, but hasn't warmed up to us. Not yet.

So this is why I'm confused by Hunter and Tori. When did they become friends? I hadn't even noticed them hanging out. Not that it's a bad thing.

Hunter acts all tough and scary but I reckon he's just pretending. He's probably all smooshy underneath.

Well… perhaps not. But I don't think he's happy. No one can be alone all the time and be happy. Tori is good with people. She can be sneaky and clever, but she can also be tough and scary; just like Hunter. It would do him good to have her as a friend.

Yawn.

I make up my mind to speak to her about this. Not now though. When I'm more awake. When I'm not worried about Cam. When-

Sleep

XxX

Dude there is a green ranger. There is a green ranger staring right at me. One minute we were just about to be crushed (again; lazy-ass Scroll of Time just had to return us to certain death didn't it?) and the next there's an actual helicopter zord zooming in to save the day, all 'Black Hawk Down' style, and there's this new ranger-

Since when did we have a green ranger?

I'd have thought I was seeing things, 'cept the others can see it too. Group hallucination seems a little far-fetched, even for us, but I mention it anyway. Just in case.

Everyone looks confused. Everyone but Tori, who has an annoying knowing smile on her face, like she's in on the secret and we're not.

Did I say there was a freaking green ranger standing in front of us?

Oh gods, I hope it's not another evil ranger. Hunter and Blake were bad enough. If it's evil I'll-

"You're not hallucinating Dustin."

I know that voice. And it knows me.

"Cam!"

The suit vanishes to reveal our tech grinning at us, black hair mussed from the helmet, glasses slightly askew, but almost glowing with happiness.

Cam's a ranger.

This is so awesome.

I don't get a chance to let everyone know just how awesome this is because suddenly Lothor is here – yeah, freaking Lothor himself, along with those two annoying dumb-but-kinda-scary girls that call him 'Uncle' – and they're firing at us and we can't morph and since when could Lothor fly?

Run.

Through a freakin' river so now I'm all wet too. This is Tori's element; there's a very good reason I'm not a Water ninja. Water is cold. And wet. And I'm still super-tired.

Tori

She didn't sleep earlier. She must be suffering more than me. I find myself turning to see if she's ok, need to make sure she's keeping up.

Panic, when I don't see her at first and then I see Hunter. The crimson ranger has his arm around the shorter blonde, half supporting her, half dragging her along, using his body to shield her as best he can from the explosions around us. Explosions that keep sending dirty water splashing over us. Yuck. We're so going to get sick from this. And I am not going to be happy.

Being sick sucks.

But the bad guys are closing in on us and Shane's trying to support Blake but they're both so tired – all so tired – and they're suddenly falling and I can't grab them but then Hunter's there pulling Shane up and Tori… is next to me… and we're surrounded which is so not good…

Nephew?

Wait… rewind…

Lothor is Cam's uncle? Sensei's brother?

What.

The.

Hell?

I try to focus on what's being said but my brain just can't take this in. Is Lothor actually trying to offer Cam a job? Clearly he does not know him. Like, at all. Of course Cam refuses and then they aim at us and we're so going to die. This is it. This is… not how I imagined I would die. If anything I thought it would be a blaze of glory, doing something stupid and reckless, not in a stinking river surrounded by goons.

I don't want to die.

I can see their fingers on the triggers.

At least I'm with my friends. I close my eyes, feeling Cam and Tori's presence strangely reassuring on either side of me. At least-

Bang.

Solid floor. I've just landed on my ass on a solid floor. A solid, very hard floor. A floor that isn't the muddy bottom of the river.

I'm alive! We're alive, and back in Ninja Ops. Yay! And also…

"Owch."

Because we might be alive but that hurt. Better than being dead I guess. Considerably better.

Of course, I'm still freaking exhausted because all our ranger-energy-stuff is still trapped inside the stupid ball and apparently we need something greater than the power of five rangers to open it…

Wait…

More than five.

More than five is…

"How about six rangers?"

Hah, I knew math would come in useful for something one day. Cam telling me he thinks I'm right is like, one of the best things ever.

Beaten by it actually, you know, working.

Woo, I rock!

Dude, I can't believe it actually worked. I am a genius! Okay, maybe not a Cam-level genius but hey, I can be pretty smart too sometimes. Plus I feel so much better. I have a happy little warm-glowy feeling inside. I think this is called pride. Or maybe it's just our ranger whatevers, but still. It feels good.

Also… six rangers? Our little family has grown again. Not like Cam wasn't family before, but like, he's a proper part of it now. He's a ranger.

Speaking of family… I can't believe Lothor is Sensei's brother. Or, used to be. Dude, whatever they say I think they're still brothers. You can't just wave your hand and pretend you're not related anymore. Like, no matter how much my sisters annoy me sometimes they're still my family. I might not get along with them sometimes but I still love them.

And sure, being an evil space ninja is very different. I mean, my sisters just laugh about my comic books and giggle whenever Shane's around for some reason – girls – and tease me about my hair; they've never tried to take over the world, or turn me into a guinea-pig (well, Gabriela might have tried to turn me into a frog once, when she got a Harry Potter wand for Christmas) so yeah, Sensei probably really doesn't like his brother very much.

But I think, deep down, he probably still loves him. At least, he probably still loves Kia. Like, the guy his brother used to be before he went all evil-dark-ninja-crazy on everyone.

I reckon Lothor's ears must've been burning 'cos no sooner has Sensei finished telling us his story than all the alarms go off again and there's many aliens for us to fight which is just mean. Gah!

Here we go again.

XxX

Finally, finally we're on our way home. Today has been too long. We had to split up to beat the many aliens and Cam got all buggy which was gross but luckily it's all cool now. Plus he saved us, for like the second time today. We really need to say thank you. Not sure how… Ooh hey, maybe we could, like, get him a uniform. 'Cos he's one of us now so we should totally let him know that.

Huh, I'll ask Sensei about it tomorrow. He'll know all about the uniforms. Like, what on earth does a Samurai uniform look like? Something green – duh.

But first… Home time.

We've all squeezed into Tori's van but 'cos I live closest to her I get dropped off last, which means I get to ride shotgun instead of squishing in the back. Hah.

"Man, seriously, can't you keep your elbows to yourself?" Shane grumbles at Blake, who's been forced into the middle as he's the smallest. I can hear the red guy shifting in discomfort.

Normally there're only two people in the back which is fine. Three… three is cosy. 'Specially when it's filled with three large guys. Well, two large guys and one not-so-large. Shane and Hunter would probably be just about comfortable if it was just the two of them. Well, physically comfortable at least. They'd probably be doing the angry faces at each other. Blake might be little, but he pushes them into the realm of closer-than-I-ever-wanted-to-be-to-my-teammates.

And I get the front seat.

I am not smug about this at all. No sir, not me. Not at- Heh, What am I saying? I am totally loving this.

"I'm trying," Blake replies sleepily. "But my bro is taking up a lot of space. Hey Hunter, can't you budge over a bit? …Hunter?"

There's no response from our crimson ranger and I hear barely stifled laughter from the two guys in the back. Muscles protesting (dude, I am so going ache in the morning) I twist round to see what's so funny. And then join in the laughter. Because Hunter has given in to the tiredness we've all felt, batteries ran out at last, and is now sleeping soundly, head resting on the window, whole body relaxed in a way I've never seen when he's awake. He looks… much less scary when asleep. Younger.

I see Tori glance in the rear-view mirror and a smile softens her face. She gets that expression again, the one I can't place.

We drop Shane off first, then the Bradleys; Blake having to shake his brother awake. He comes to much faster than I would have. Right now, I could sleep for days. Dude… still so tired. Even getting my ranger mojo back (well, energy; Cam didn't like me calling it mojo but I reckon I can call it whatever I want seeing it was my idea that unlocked the ball-thing. Score one for the yellow dude!) has only made me slightly less sleepy. I can't believe it's still, like, only afternoon. It should totally be bedtime already.

Tori waits until the guys get into their apartment (and I'm with her on this one; this area is not nice. Their apartment is not nice. Like, I'd never say it to their faces but it was major sucky. Makes me glad dad left my mom our house, 'cos it could have easily have been us living in a place like that after their divorce) then drives off, heading for my house. With just the two of us in her van I figure now is as good a time as any to bring up the whole Hunter-needs-a-friend thing.

Ok, how to start this? Shane's been giving me lectures on actually starting conversations, not just jumping into the middle of one and expecting everyone to be on the same wavelength. 'Kay, here it goes…

"So you and Hunter-"

"Not you too." Tori slams on the brakes, bringing the van to a halt, two pink spots appearing on her cheeks.

Huh. So not the way to begin.

Tori never yells at me. Like, ever. She knows it too because her expression is already softening.

"Dustin, I'm sorry." She rubs a hand over her face, "It's been a long day."

I grimace in sympathy. "Yeah, I'm way tired."

She makes no move to pull off again, just sits there looking at me. What's she waiting for? Oh, yeah, I was talking. About her and Hunter.

Not you too

So I'm not the only one to notice. Who? Not Shane; we'd have all heard the fight if it had been Shane. Sensei? But Tori's angry. Not Sensei then; no one gets mad at him. Then it strikes me. Cam.

Dude is really perceptive (hah, take that 'Word of the Day' calendar!). He can also be frustratingly logical and impossibly right, like, all the time. He could probably make a seal angry. Which I think'd be real hard to do as they always look so happy.

Tori takes a breath and starts speaking quickly, "Look, I know me and Hunter have been hanging out a lot recently, but we're just friends." – I know that, but she sounds like she's trying to convince herself more than me – "I just want us all to be friends. There's no harm in that. I'm being friendly. It's not wrong."

What did Cam say to her to get this response? She's so… defensive.

"Hunter's a good guy," I venture.

She blinks at me, confused. Wow, I confused Tori. I think she was waiting for me to disagree. Argue. But I like Hunter. I don't hang with him as much as Blake and I guess I should fix that, but Hunter doesn't ever seem to want to be around us. Maybe he still feels bad about kidnapping Sensei.

Wait!

Lightbulb moment!

Of course he does. He's Hunter. Honour and loyalty and all that. He's old-school comic-book hero. Like Batman. He's got the suit and the twisted backstory and everything. Hah, he's even got a sidekick.

Hmm, how much would Blake kill me if I started calling him Robin?

Probably, like, a lot.

Speaking of Blake, Hunter has less to feel bad about than he does. Sure he used us to get to Sensei, and almost killed us a couple of times, but he didn't really try to be our friends. Blake did. Blake pretended. Blake lied.

Blake used Tori.

I'm still grrr about that. Just a little. Do what you like to me, but hurt my friends and beware the wrath of the yellow dude; his Earth powers are immense!

Um… yeah.

Anyway, Hunter was definitely the leader, but I'm pretty sure he didn't order Blake to do that. Hunter's many things but he's not mean. Not really. Not that sort of mean at least.

Actually, the more I think about it, the more I'm sure Hunter had nothing to do with the 'flirt with Tori' plan. That was all Blake.

Blake was worse than Hunter. But we're better friends with Blake now.

Huh. I wonder what Shane would say if I pointed that out to him.

Also, Hunter said he was sorry to us. Not in like, words. He likes speaking as much as he does touching – not at all. Which is sad because everyone can use a hug. Everyone should like hugs. Hugs are awesome.

But he has said sorry, by his actions; by always having our backs in a fight; by helping out during shifts at Storm Chargers when he doesn't have to; by not treading on toes and pushing boundaries. Well, he still pushes Shane's boundaries I guess. But that's more they keep rubbing each other up the wrong way than him being deliberately anti-Shane. I hope he's not anti-Shane anyway. Maybe they just need to… I don't know… I'd say kiss and make up but that'd just be wrong.

"Dustin?"

Aw dude, I'd forgotten Tori sitting next to me. She's got that look on her face; half amusement, half worry. I've spaced out, again. Oops.

I'm blaming the many thoughts.

At least these ones are important. I can space out if I'm thinking about important stuff.

"Hunter's lonely," I blurt out and she's staring at me again.

I grin and blush, running a hand through my hair. Ok Dustin, explain yourself.

So I try.

"Like, we're all friends with Blake now but we're not really with Hunter. And Blake has all of us and Hunter doesn't have anyone. He must be lonely. He needs a friend. You're, like, perfect 'cos you can get him to do stuff. Like you got Cam to do stuff." Because he seriously didn't want to hang with us when we first became rangers. "Plus, Hunter likes you."

She's still staring at me and I feel awkward. Have I said something wrong?

"…Hunter likes me?" Tori sounds unsure.

I pull a face. "Well duh!"

It's obvious. Doesn't she see it?

No, she's got her confused look on.

"He lets you touch him," I explain.

She's quiet for a while and I'd be worried 'cept there's a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. She finally grins at me and reaches over to squeeze my arm. "Thank you, Dustin." As we pull back on to the road she adds, "You know, you can be friends with him too."

I grin. "Dude, I am friends with him. You just need to, like, ease him into the idea that he is friends with me."

Tori laughs at that. I like her laugh. It always makes me laugh too.

She's still smiling when she drops me off at home, as if she's relieved about something. I'm glad that something I've said has made her happy, got rid of some of her worry, though I have no idea what I'm meant to have said to make things good. Girls, right? I'm not sure we guys are meant to understand them. The world might end if we do.

Like, it's not as if I was suggesting she date Hunteroh.

Big 'oh'.

Another lightbulb.

That's what Cam must've thought. And told her not to. But that's silly, 'cos Tori's with Blake.

Then I remember, back in Ninja Ops, before Cam returned with his shiny new Samurai powers, the look on Tori's face as she was watching Hunter and… Uh oh.

I'm not sure she even realises it.

But still… uh oh.

Not that I'd mind if she dated Hunter. As long as he treated her right and she was happy I'd be happy. Plus if anyone could deal with his issues it'd be Tori. Rather her than me.

But there's Blake.

Blake likes Tori.

And Tori likes Blake.

A cloud passes across the sun and I shiver. What's that word Cam uses when he senses trouble? Oh, yeah, foreboding.

Now I know what he means.

I'm sure it'll be fine. Tori is clever. She must know she can't have both boys. That'd be greedy. She'd have to choose between them. And everyone knows Blake'd win hands down.

Because… well… because it's Tori-and-Blake

Right?

Chapter Text

Love, where is your fire? I've been sitting here smoking away
Making signals with sticks and odd ends and bits
But there's still no sign of a flame
Imposters have been passing, offering a good-feeling glow
But I'm holding out for what you are about: an inferno that burns to the bone

~Brooke Fraser

It was Kelly that told us about Blake's birthday. Both the Bradley brothers had kept mum on the whole thing, but their boss let the cat out of the bag as we were spending some down time in the alcove.

"So what's the plan for Thursday?" she'd asked, looking around first to see Blake helping Hunter carry some new stock in.

"Thursday?" Shane's confusion spoke for us all.

The redhead had frowned at that. "Yeah, Thursday. Blake's birthday? Don't tell me you guys have forgotten?"

Forgot? We hadn't known. Kelly had found out through her employee records and seemed as shocked as we were that we hadn't been told. I'd have expected the secrets from Hunter, but not from Blake.

I confess I was a little annoyed, but pushed those feelings aside. As Shane pointed out, the Bradleys probably hadn't really bothered with birthdays after their parents had died. From what they've told us, well, what Blake told us and Hunter told me, it didn't sound like there'd been much cause to celebrate.

But this year is different. This year Blake has us. They both have us.

So that's why once school was over Thursday afternoon we were pestering Cam to let us hold a surprise party for Blake in Ninja Ops. Or rather, I was asking him, with Shane and Dusting hovering over my shoulder with hopeful-slash-pleading looks on their faces.

The boys had volunteered me, arguing that Cam liked me best (which might have been true up until our little chat soured things), and, in Dustin's words, "You can totally use your secret womanly ways on him".

"Besides," Shane had added. "Blake's your boyfriend."

I'm not convinced my 'womanly ways' are going to charm Cam, who by now is pretty much a big brother to me, but I can't resist Dustin's enthusiasm. And I didn't have the heart to try and correct Shane. Mine and Blake's relationship is… complicated. More than friends, but definitely not on boyfriend-girlfriend terms yet.

As it turns out, Cam doesn't need much persuading to agree to our plan. He has a soft spot for Blake, I'm sure of it. It's the whole innocent little-brother-thing Blake has going for him.

As soon as we have our yes things happen quickly; Dustin is despatched to Storm Chargers to stall Blake while Shane and a surprisingly helpful Cam unload the party supplies from my van. While they do the heavy lifting I set about decorating the main room with streamers and banners, trying to make it look less, well, 'secret hideout' and more 'party place'.

I'm just raiding the kitchen for some cutlery when Cam appears with the cake box.

"Did you want this in here or in the main room?"

I smile at him, but I'm instantly super-aware that we haven't really been alone together since before he became a ranger; not since that conversation.

Ok, so there was the time when he stormed out of Ninja Ops in a rare show of emotion, just before the Madtropolis incident kicked off, but he was upset. The least I could do was offer some truthful words of comfort. Hunter wasn't even mentioned.

I find myself standing awkwardly. "Um, in the main room please. Thank you Cam."

I turn back to the drawer quickly to hide my discomfort, but Cam makes no move to leave. Instead he clears his throat and I fancy that, just for a second, he sounds nervous.

"Did you tell Hunter-" he begins, but I slam the drawer shut, cutting him off as I turn to face him abruptly.

"No, I didn't tell Hunter about our little chat. There's been enough bad feeling in the team without me adding something new." I don't bother trying to keep the anger out of my voice.

Cam looks nonplussed. "I was going to ask if you'd informed Hunter about the party. Blake is his brother after all; he might have wanted some say in it," he says mildly and I feel my face flush.

"Oh. No. I hadn't. I sort of figured Dustin would bring him along with Blake." I pause, wondering how Cam will interpret my next words. "I didn't want to give him a chance to back out."

He looks at me and then sighs. "He's still not keen on team activities then?"

"You could say that," I reply drily.

A party in Ninja Ops for his brother with all of us there just might have freaked Hunter out. And not-freaking Hunter out seems to be a constant feature on my list of priorities at the moment.

Cam nods thoughtfully, as if digesting the information. "You made the right call," he says at last. As if I need his approval. "Hunter needs to be more involved."

"O-kay." My response belies my confusion. What's made him change his tune?

I have a sudden sneaking suspicion that Cam's decided everyone needs to make the effort with Hunter, if only to stop me making the effort. I push down a twinge of annoyance; now is not the time for this.

"Come on," I say, walking past Cam to the door. "I'll show you where to put the cake."

XxX

"Happy Birthday!"

The look on Blake's face says it all; shock mingled with surprise that soon spreads into a joyful grin. Blake is easy to read. Happiness radiates from him as he mutters the usual protests people voice at parties;"You shouldn't have". But he's pleased and when he thanks us, I know he's genuinely touched.

Hunter is another matter.

I was worried about how he'd react to this, worried that by tricking him and organising his brother's birthday without him we'd be crossing some line.

I watch him carefully. He didn't explode at us when he saw what was going on and he doesn't look particularly unhappy right now, but he's standing apart from everyone, not getting involved.

I'm about to go over to him when someone else beats me to it. Someone in a green t-shirt and glasses. I see the Samurai hand Hunter a soda and lean casually against the wall next to the blond. I'm surprised by the smile Hunter gives Cam, and even more surprised that he doesn't try to back away. As they chat quietly, I realise something has changed between them. The boys had mentioned Hunter was helping Cam out with the zords, but I hadn't expected the two of them to become friends. I should be pleased, be happy that the Thunder ninja is beginning to connect with other members of the team, be glad that Cam has found someone he can get on with, but instead there is a dull twinge of jealousy in the pit of my stomach.

What is wrong with me?

I'm acting stupid.

I pull my gaze away from them and disappear to the kitchen under the pretence of getting more soda. I can't explain why I'm being so… irrational. Perhaps I'm scared; scared that if Hunter starts hanging out with the others he won't want to spend time with me anymore. Not that we've actually spent much time together. Not really. We're barely friends. So why does this matter?

The answer is simple, I know. If I'm honest with myself, I enjoy spending time in Hunter's company. He's someone completely different when it's just the two of us. And I don't want to share my-Hunter with anyone.

Which is ridiculous, not to mention selfish and petty.

Besides, it's not like Hunter has exactly seemed thrilled to be hanging out with me. I haven't really given him any choice in it. I'm the one that's been chasing after him. Pushing him. A glum feeling settles over me as I realise it's been me that's been doing all the work for this… whatever the hell this thing is between me and the older Bradley.

He probably wishes I'd just leave him alone.

"Hunter likes you."

Dustin's words come back to me then, strangely comforting, and I feel myself relax. Shaking off the weirdness, I'm just grabbing a bottle of pop from the fridge when a voice calls out to me.

"Hey."

I spin to see Blake standing in the doorway, brown eyes watching me with a smile.

"Hey," I reply. "What are you doing back here? You should be in the main room enjoying your party."

He grins. "Came to see you. Wanted to say thank you, for doing this. You didn't have to."

"First off," I say with a laugh. "It wasn't all me. Shane and Dustin did most of the work, and you're going to have to blame Kelly for telling us because someone-" I wave a finger at him "- kept quiet about it. And secondly, we didn't have to do this, we wanted to do it. You're our friend now. Can't escape us." I walk over to join him by the door. "Come on, you've still got cake and presents waiting for you."

He stops me leaving, taking my hand in his. "No, Tori. I really mean it. Thank you. You're just… You're the best."

I find myself staring into his eyes. Unlike Hunter, I don't have to look up at Blake; we're of a similar height. He leans in, one hand still holding mine, the other coming up to rest gently on my shoulder and he tentatively presses his lips to mine. I freeze, brain trying to catch up to this sudden change in events.

Blake is kissing me!

My other arm drops to my side, the soda bottle banging against my leg, as my mind struggles to catch up. Blake's lips are warm and soft but he's still holding back, his body angled away from me, our only points of contact being his fingers that are lightly holding mine and his hand on my shoulder, and our lips.

The kiss is… well, nice. Gentle and warm and sort of… disappointing. Ok, so I wasn't expecting fireworks but I was expecting something I guess. Something more than nice. Though nice is good.

It's only as Blake breaks away that I realise I should have been kissing him back.

I open my eyes to see him smiling at me nervously and I smile back, feeling my cheeks colour in spite of my misapprehensions.

"That was… Um… That… Yeah so I should, uh… We should get back to the party." He's flushed and I can see the pink spreading across his face. "Here, let me take the soda." He almost snatches it out of my hands and practically runs back to the main room.

I follow at a slower pace, shaking my head with a smile. Blake's a good guy; a sweet guy. He wouldn't hurt me.

He already has.

Ok, he wouldn't hurt me again. He's funny and kind and… safe. And he seems to adore me. I'd be stupid not to love him.

So why does this not feel right?

I'm so confused. But I can't think about this now. I don't want to think about this now. It's Blake's birthday. His first birthday with all of us, with his team, his friends, his family. I can't deny him one kiss.

And I do like him. Of course I do. I just… love…

What the hell even is love? I'm seventeen; I'm not meant to be worrying about this sort of thing. It's not as if I don't have enough on my mind as it is. More than most teenagers; mix graduating high school with saving the world… Let's leave stupid things like love out of it. Can't think about love when I have survival to worry about.

But at that moment a memory from the other day rises in my mind, of a mad dash through a river, of tiredness so overwhelming I could feel it in my very bones, and of the strong arms that guided me, supported me, even though their owner could only be feeling as exhausted as I was.

Yet Hunter hadn't faltered, not once. And that thought does strange things to my stomach that I can't explain.

That I don't want to explain.

Because if I'm being honest, if I really sit down and think about the explanation, I'm scared I won't like where that road will lead.

Or perhaps I'm more scared I will like it.

As I enter the main room my eyes fall on the two older guys still quietly chatting, exactly where they were before I left. I feel a prick of annoyance as I watch them. Cam's acting all friendly but I'm secretly worried. Sure, he might just have pushed the past aside and genuinely wants to be Hunter's friend, but there is a part of me that thinks it's all too sudden, too convenient. And if Cam is just pretending to befriend him, if he's just doing it to placate me, then that isn't right. I don't think Cam's the sort to do that, but the idea has taken root in my mind and I need to make sure that isn't happening. Because if Cam is faking friendship, then Hunter's going to get hurt. And the thought of Hunter being hurt again, by one of us, one of his team, is unbearable.

I wait until the Thunder ninja finally wanders away to talk to his brother and, making sure we are out of earshot, I corner Cam.

"What are you doing with Hunter?"

He blinks at me behind his glasses. "I'm taking a leaf from your book and trying to be friends." He makes it sound like the most obvious thing in the world. "Isn't that what you wanted?"

"It is." I keep my voice even but as he goes to leave I grab his arm, holding it firmly. He gives me a confused look. In a low tone I continue, "You gave me a warning about Hunter; now I'm returning the favour. Whatever it is you're doing, you better mean it."

"Tori-"

"Hunter's been hurt too many times." I cut Cam off. "He's gone through stuff we can't imagine and he has every reason to keep his distance, to shut everyone out. But finally, finally he's beginning to trust us and if you do anything to break that trust, Samurai or not, I will hurt you. So if you're only pretending to be his friend because you think you're protecting me… Don't. Mean it, or leave him alone."

I don't give him a chance to counter, to answer back, instead walking away leaving him standing there, as he'd done to me. I join the others at the table, plastering a smile onto my face.

"Who wants cake?" I say brightly and laugh at the enthusiasm that greets my question. I'm still smiling as I hand out slices to the boys, though it falters slightly as I give Cam his. I won't meet his eyes and his "thank you" is stiff and formal. I don't think the others have noticed thankfully; Shane and Dustin are too busy eating cake and trying to get Blake to guess what we've bought him, and Hunter…

"What did he do?"

The blond has appeared next to me without making a sound, a camera slung across his shoulder, and I jump at his voice.

"Seriously, Hunter. Didn't anyone ever tell you it's rude to sneak up on people?" I give him a mock-angry scowl.

He smirks at me. "I am ninja. Sneaking is what we do."

"Well do it to me again and there'll be trouble," I tell him tartly. "I am not above making you wear a bell or something."

Hunter snorts at that and I smile up at him, a surge of happiness flooding through me. He takes the cake I offer him then fixes his blue eyes on me. "So… what did he do?"

I frown. "Who?"

"Cam," he explains patiently, as if speaking to a small child, gesturing vaguely in the Samurai's direction before switching his focus back to me. "And don't tell me nothing because you're angry at him. You two are close. Friends. You're never normally this awkward around each other. What's he done?"

He's noticed.

He's observed enough about us already to see what is 'normal' and what isn't. I thought I was doing a good job pretending everything was fine, but clearly he's seen through me. But more than that, he's taking an interest; he's getting involved.

"Aw so you do care," I reply teasingly and I'm rewarded by the faint blush that says I've embarrassed him. "Don't worry, I won't tell. Your dark and brooding reputation is still intact."

He laughs again and I feel my heart lift. I'm beginning to love making Hunter laugh. He does it so rarely it makes each one somehow precious.

His face turns solemn. "Seriously though, Tor. Is everything okay?" I'm stunned not only by the concern, but by the familiarity in his voice. "If Cam's upset you…"

"Don't you go all big brother on me too," I say with a smile. "I get enough of the over-protective act from Shane and Dustin. It can get a little much."

He seems to consider my words for a long moment, then gives a nod. "Okay." He gives me a sort of half-smile. "But if you start dating my little bro I get all the big brother privileges. You know that right?"

I freeze; the smile still on my face but the humour behind it gone in a cold flash. Hunter stares at me in shock, knowing instantly that all is not right.

"Tori what is it? Did I say something wrong?"

"No, no you're fine," I manage. The last thing I want is for Hunter to think he's hurt or offended me. "It's just… Blake and I…"

I struggle to explain. I'm not even sure I understand. But for some unknown reason I want Hunter to know that me and Blake aren't even close to dating. "I'm not-"

"Dudes! Present time."

Dustin appears between us, slinging his arms around our shoulders. Mine and Hunter's. The blond tenses, but only slightly, and doesn't try to shake the Earth ninja off. As he steers us towards the table the dark-haired teen gives me a wink. I can see the unspoken sentiment behind it; progress

I stand back, doing my best to make my smile as natural as possible as we watch Blake open his present. We'd all clubbed together to get him the motocross helmet he'd been eying up ever since it'd come into Storm Chargers and the look on his face is priceless, eyes widening, mouth dropping open in shock.

"Dudes…" he breathes, a huge grin spreading across his face, bouncing on the balls of his feet in excitement. Turning to the nearest person, he pulls Dustin into a hug. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." He releases Dustin only to grab Shane and then Cam. The Samurai pats him awkwardly on the back, clearly uncomfortable by the younger man's exuberance, especially when he'd had nothing to do with organising the gift, but at the same time I can see he's pleased to have been included in the celebrations.

And then Blake's in front of me, eyes shining and locked on my face. For one, long, nervous moment I think's about to kiss me again in front of everyone, but he just holds out his arms for a hug.

I oblige. What else can I do?

Looking over Blake's shoulder, my eyes flick to Hunter to see him eyeing up the helmet with one of his stupid unreadable expressions on his face. Once again I can't tell if he's pleased or annoyed. As his brother steps away from me and returns to examine his present, I see Hunter open his mouth and I feel my heart sink.

This is it.

This is the moment I'd feared since we decided to throw this party. This is his refusal, his rejection, of our efforts on his brother's behalf. This is the argument that's been brewing.

And it had all been going so well.

I steel myself for the anger.

"Thank you." The words are soft but clear, his eyes on the floor. "For making a deal out of this." He gives Blake a sideways glance and the navy ranger nods in agreement. "We haven't really celebrated birthdays in a while so, yeah, thank you for reminding us what it should be like."

He raises his head, blue eyes suddenly meeting mine and bang; it's as if I've been punched in the chest, air knocked from my lungs, body frozen in place, pinned by his gaze .

It's only when he looks away that I feel I can breathe again.

I mumble some excuse and head up the stairs out of Ninja Ops, feeling unexpectedly lightheaded. The strong breeze is refreshingly cool on my strangely warm skin and I sit on a pile of rubble that used to be part of the Academy, trying to calm my racing heart.

Footsteps behind me make me turn to see Cam emerging from the dark passageway and thread his way through the broken bricks and mortar to reach me. "Are you okay?"

There's genuine concern in his voice and I smile. No matter how badly we've argued, and whatever his personal views are on Hunter, I know he does worry about me.

"I'm fine," I answer, possibly a little too quickly and he frowns. I give him my best reassuring look. "I am fine now Cam. I just felt a little weird and needed some air. That's all."

He nods, but I don't know if he's accepted my explanation because he believes me, or because he doesn't want to get into another fight.

The Samurai clears his throat.

"I'm not pretending," he says abruptly and I shoot him a puzzled glance. He pushes his glasses up his nose, a sure sign he's feeling ill at ease. "You were right, about Hunter. He has every reason to be wary of us. I promise you, Tori, I'm not pretending to be his friend. I do mean what I'm doing. I'm… I'm going to try okay? I can't promise we're going to be best buddies, but I do want us to be more than just civil. And I'm not doing it for you; I'm doing it because I want to. I'm sorry if I gave you the wrong impression; if you thought that my actions were anything other than honest."

I let out a sigh of relief and he smiles at me.

"We're good?"

I nod; feeling like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. "Yeah, we are."

Both of us know there is no need to use the word sorry. Implying it is enough.

He goes to leave, and then hesitates again. "At the risk of undoing that apology though, I just… You and Hunter… I don't want you to get hurt. And if you continue down this path I think you're heading down, people are going to get hurt. You, Hunter… Blake…"

I bite down on the anger this time, resigning myself to the fact that nothing I say will change Cam's mind on this. Besides, I'm no longer so sure that he's wrong.

"I know," I say softly and something in my tone must convince him I mean it because he gives my shoulder a comforting squeeze.

"I'm not saying don't. I'm just saying be careful, okay?"

I nod again, my throat suddenly too tight to speak, and he disappears back down into Ninja Ops leaving me alone with my thoughts. When did my life get so complicated?

Freaking men.

No, correction; freaking Bradleys.

XxX

When I return to the main room, Sensei politely reminds us of the time, with a subtle hint that we should leave after cleaning up the debris from the party. It is a school night after all. So we do; getting Ninja Ops back to its usual, pristine condition before everyone piles into my van so I can drop the boys off at their respective houses (seriously, I should start charging for this. It's like I'm running a freaking taxi service!) before making my own way home.

My mom is in the kitchen when I get in and greets me with a smile. "Hey hon, how was the party? Did Blake like his present?"

"It was good," I reply, dropping my van keys onto the counter. "You should have seen Blake's face when he saw the helmet. I thought he might faint."

She laughs but then must read something on my face because she asks me softly, "Is everything okay?"

I pause. "I'm not sure." She gives me a worried look and I swallow. My mom and I are really close, more best friends than mother-and-daughter. Ever since Lily died… I can speak to her about anything. I pull a strand of my hair forward, wrapping around my finger nervously. "Mom… the first time you kissed dad, what did it feel like?"

"Amazing." Her eyes drift closed as she remembers. "Took me completely by surprise; there was heat, sparks, the whole shebang. Left me dizzy. I never thought a kiss could be so… incredible. I can't ever forget it."

"Oh," I say quietly, an uncomfortable hardness settling in my stomach.

My mother's eyes snap open, staring at me accusingly. "Victoria Hanson, just who have you been kissing?"

I feel myself turn bright red. "Blake kinda, uh, he might have kissed me," I mumble.

"And?"

I let out a huff of air. "And it was nice. I guess. I just… I think I was expecting more. Something like you said."

There's a look of understanding on her face as she squeezes my hand. "How do you feel about Blake?"

I shrug. "I don't know. I feel like… I should like him. I do like him. But… in more than the friend way? I just… Ah, I don't know," I finish helplessly. "I can't explain it."

"Well first off, let me remind you you're not old enough for love young lady," my mom says, eyes twinkling. "Of course, that didn't stop me falling head-over-heels for your father when I was your age and look how that turned out." Her expression turns serious. "And you know, love is… complicated. Sometimes it hits you completely unawares, like a tsunami. Other times it's like the rising tide, creeping up on you slowly and by the time you realise what's happening it's too late, you're in too deep."

"Which was you and dad?" I ask, already suspecting the answer.

She grins at me. "Definitely the creeping tide. I couldn't stand him when we first met. I thought he was cocky and arrogant as hell. But then we started training together and when I finally realised I didn't despise him quite as much as I used to I was already in love. Just took me a bit longer to work that out."

"And dad?"

"Oh he claims it was love at first fight. Apparently I was the only girl who'd ever stood up to him," she says with a laugh and I join in. I'm often told I have my mother's temperament and if I'm even half as feisty as she is I'll be happy. Her eyes fall on the clock and she adds, "Isn't it a school night?"

I groan. "Yeah."

"Then off to bed with you. Have sweet dreams about Blake and those lovely brown eyes of his."

"Mom!" I swat her arm and then pull her into a hug. "Thank you," I whisper quietly.

She ruffles my hair. "Night sweetie. Love you."

"Love you too."

XxX

I do dream that night, but the eyes that haunt them are blue.

Chapter Text

There's a place I go when I'm alone
Do anything I want, be anyone I wanna be
But it is us I see
And I cannot believe I'm fallin'
That's where I'm goin'
Where are you goin'
Hold it close won't let this go

Dream catch me, yeah
Dream catch me when I fall
Or else I won't come back at all

~Newton Faulkner

"That was nice," I say to Blake as we get back into the apartment after the party at Ninja Ops, which had been as much as a surprise to me as it had been for him.

When Dustin kept stalling us at Storm Chargers I hadn't thought much of it. Just Dustin being Dustin. No wonder they sent him as distraction; you don't suspect him because he's always doing strange things. This time there was a purpose, a method to the madness, and I hadn't even noticed.

I'm impressed. My estimation of the Earth ninja has increased immensely. He can pull of sneaky with aplomb.

Of course the others would have wanted to celebrate Blake's birthday, but I hadn't realised they'd actually known it was today. It wasn't like either of us had been deliberately hiding that information; we'd have told them if they'd asked. But they hadn't. So I, and I think Blake too, had just assumed they didn't know.

I got a feeling from Tori that she'd been apprehensive about my reaction to it all, but it's not like we'd had plans for today. We did the whole birthday-celebration thing the year after our parents' deaths, but it had felt forced and only really succeeded in reminding us what we'd lost. We hadn't tried again. Instead, birthdays passed with little acknowledgement and to be honest, I never felt like we were missing out.

But this party… this party was nice.

In many ways it was a recognition of just how fond of Blake the others have become, and I know he reciprocates those feelings. I hadn't quite appreciated the strength of their relationship until the other day though, when I found he'd gone against my wishes and let them come over to the apartment. I don't know what it says about our relationship that he'd never gone behind my back before now. Challenged me, sure, but never actually disobeyed me. We'd both handled the resulting fallout worse than we should have.

This party showed that, for Blake at least, the others have become a sort-of family who do really seem to care about him, who want to be a part of his life. They've given him a better day than I could.

And I guess… I guess perhaps we're ready to start celebrating things again.

"Yeah." Blake's agreement is a little slow in coming, as if his mind is somewhere else.

I know where.

"You're going to have to wait a bit for your present from me." I watch my brother carefully as he gently places the helmet the others bought him down on the kitchen table. "There was a… delay."

Bills to pay.

He smiles at me. "It's cool, bro. Don't sweat it." He waves a finger in my general direction. "You'll just have to get me something doubly awesome next year."

Next year

"The big eighteen," I say with a teasing grin. "Shame you'll still be the height of a twelve year old."

He shoots me a mock-angry glare but then laughs. I see him trace the lines of the design on his helmet with a fingertip, laughter fading, smile slipping from his face. I know what's coming.

"They should be here."

His voice is barely a whisper, brown eyes wet. He turns his head away from me, blinking furiously, but I'm already moving, arms wrapping around him, pulling him close.

"It's not fair," he sobs, turning into my chest, hands clutching my shirt. "Gods, I miss them so much."

"I know, I know," I whisper as soothingly as I can. I carefully steer him to the sofa, sitting us down and letting him curl up into me. As I've done every year since our parents died.

One breakdown a year, one evening to mourn what was lost, what was stolen. I don't begrudge him this. Sometimes I wish I could do the same, but I never can.

Normally I just have to let him cry, offer meaningless words of comfort, but this year is different. It's hard to believe that twelve months ago we were both students at the Thunder Academy, oblivious to the very existence of Power Rangers and barely a thought spared for the Wind Academy. So much has changed in such a short time. I shouldn't be surprised; if there's one thing my life has taught me is that change can happen in an instant; everything you think you know can be turned upside down in a moment.

One horrific act of violence can destroy your safe little world.

This year is different though. This year we have knowledge – the truth – and we have power. This year I can offer my brother much more than empty words; I can offer him vengeance.

"We'll get him, Blake," I whisper. "Lothor. We'll make him pay for what he did to them; what he did to us."

"It won't bring them back," he chokes.

"No it won't," I agree, tightening my arms around him. "But it will give them justice."

And maybe give my brother some closure. Some peace.

He nods his head into my chest and I can feel his sobs subsiding, his body stilling. His breathing evens out and I can feel his weight resting on me. Looking down I see his eyes have closed, tears drying on his cheeks as he begins to drift to sleep.

"Hey, hey," I say softly, giving him a gentle shake. "Let's get you to bed. You've got school tomorrow."

He mumbles incomprehensibly and then groans as I stand, dragging him to his feet with me. I lead him to his room where he promptly collapses backwards onto his bed, fully clothed and eyes already shut. Ignoring his protests, I dig him in the ribs until he shifts enough to allow me to yank his sheet out from beneath him and cover him with it. But as I move to leave he jerks awake, reaching out for me.

"Hunter!"

There's a note of panic in his voice and I drop onto the bed beside him, taking his hand in mine. "I'm here," I say softly in answer to his unspoken plea. "I'm not going anywhere."

His eyes drift shut once more and I sit quietly in the darkness, the only illumination a swath of light from the main room cutting across the floor. Silence reigns for a time so I'm surprised when Blake speaks again, voice laden with sleep.

"I kissed Tori."

I look down at him to see a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth and a peaceful countenance settling on his face. I'm glad for the darkness because something twists deep inside me at those words and I'm not sure I could have kept my expression neutral.

"Good for you," I manage, trying to sound teasing but failing. Luckily Blake is practically asleep and doesn't appear to notice the falseness in my tone.

"Was nice," he mumbles through a yawn, snuggling deeper into his pillow.

Silence falls again, but inside I'm far from calm; adrenaline pumping, heart thudding loudly in my chest and there's a roaring in my ears. It's the sort of feeling I get just before battle, only there's nothing here for me to fight. So what the hell is up with me?

Blake kissed Tori.

Why does this matter to me?

Simple answer: it doesn't. It shouldn't.

… And it looks like we're back to the lies.

I sit with Blake long after he's fallen asleep, immobile, just listening to the sound of my brother's breathing and the steady beat of my own heart.

No emotions

It's the only way to survive, right?

XxX

I keep a careful eye on Blake at breakfast. He looks tired, with dark lines under his eyes, and is quieter than usual, but aside from that ok. Well, as ok as can be expected. I see him off to school and then make an attempt at doing some chores – cleaning and tidying – but I'm restless, unfocused.

This agitation lasts all through my midday shift at Storm Chargers and I know I'm being obvious when Kelly asks me if everything is alright. Nothing's wrong; I just feel on edge, but I can't really explain that to my boss. I tell her I'm fine, just not feeling one hundred percent, and instantly regret it as I see the concern in her eyes.

"Hey, if you want to knock off early that's okay," she says, sympathy in her voice.

"No it's alright. Honestly, Kel, I'm good," I reassure her.

"Well, take it easy at least."

Now I feel guilty for lying.

When my shift ends I head for the woods. I briefly entertain the idea of fetching the camera from Ninja Ops but that would mean seeing Cam, which would be bad for a number of reasons; the main one being I don't want to see anybody right now.

Instead I make directly for my clearing, to the rock in the centre, and to my secret concealed underneath it. The remnants of the Gem of Souls sparkle with a green light in the sun as I tip them into my palm, but it's an illusion; the power it once contained – the power to speak to the dead – gone. Destroyed by Lothor.

Just like my parents.

I know they were not my birth parents, but that doesn't matter; they were my real parents. They wanted me, they raised me and my birth parents… To be honest, I've rarely thought of them. The Bradleys were all that I cared about.

"They should be here."

They should have been here last night; they should have been the ones to comfort Blake, not me. It should never have been me.

"You are not my father."

Blake's angry words had stung and, though he didn't mean it exactly the way it came out, he wasn't wrong. I'm not his father. I can never be his father. Hell, I don't want to be his father.

For the first time in a long time I allow some of the barriers in my mind to fall down, force myself to confront some of the feelings I've had for years but never faced; never have let myself face. I can acknowledge the truth; that it should never have been my job to raise my brother. I was thirteen. I should have been playing with other kids, skinning my knees and getting into mischief, going to school, not looking after a traumatised nine-year-old. I should have been annoying him, not providing for him. That should all have been them, our parents.

It's our parents that should have organised birthday parties and Christmas, should have attended parents' evenings at school and sports days. My dad should have bought me my first beer when I turned twenty-one. My mom should have cried at my graduation. I should have had a graduation.

Parents are the ones you turn to for advice, the ones who will answer any question no matter how stupid or embarrassing. Puberty. Sex. Relationships. School. Career. Hell, even what to wear. They're your guide in life; they can't choose your path for you, but they can try to make sure you don't stray too badly. And if it does go wrong, if your life crumbles around you, they're the ones you can rely on to pick up the pieces. They're the ones whose love you never have to earn, don't need to deserve.

My life crumbled the day they died, and I had no one to put it back together again.

Broken.

Instead, I was the one trying to fix Blake. And all that advice, all those questions, I had to figure them out on my own, then somehow guide my brother using that knowledge.

I don't resent Blake for being the youngest. Never have. And I'm not angry at my parents for leaving us, not anymore. I was for a long time, but it was a child's anger. I know now they would never have left us willingly, that they fought against Lothor even as I do now. That they died so we might live.

Doesn't make me miss them any less.

And I do miss them. I may not show it like Blake, but of course I do. I miss their smiles. I miss my dad's sage advice and I miss my mom's hugs.

More than anything I want someone to talk to. My dad would love discussing tactics and fighting; my mom would tease Blake about Tori.

Could speak to them about Tori.

I know though, that if they were alive we might not be rangers. We might never have met the Winds. If you'd asked me a month ago, I'd probably have said that was a good thing but now… Now I'm not so certain.

I don't believe everything happens for a reason. Call me jaded, but that's all a little too trite and neat for me. A nice thought and a convenient excuse, but ultimately false.

Instead, I firmly believe that things just 'happen', no reason, no plan, but what matters is how we react and deal with these events. We're all products of our experiences. Everything that we've been through, all the good and the bad, shapes and moulds us, creates who we are, creates us.

Without what I've been through I wouldn't be me. And for the first time in a long time I can't imagine being anyone else.

I just… I wish I could speak to them.

I look down at the pieces of the gem in my hand and curl my fingers around them. "Mom? Dad?" My voice is barely audible. "I could really do with some guidance right now." Pause. "We need you."

Silence.

"I need you," I whisper, but there's no answer.

There never is.

I clench my fist, feeling the gem shards bite into my palm. I want to cry. I want to scream, but when I look inside, try to find the hurt and pain I know should be there, I find nothing. I'm just… empty. Hollow. I've been pushing all these thoughts aside for so long I think I've forgotten what I'm supposed to be feeling, forgotten how to feel, how to grieve.

A dull numbness seeps through me as I stare out at the forest with unfocused eyes. Slowly, carefully, I begin rebuilding the barriers, pushing all those old thoughts back behind fresh walls. And with each new layer of defence the emptiness recedes, falling into memory and then fading completely.

I sit quietly, letting my mind drift, concentrating on nothing but my surroundings. The late afternoon air is stiflingly hot, not even a hint of a breeze. I don't need to see the clouds slowly moving in from the Pacific, purple and swollen, to know a thunderstorm is approaching. I can feel it. The very air seems to be alive with electricity, my skin prickling with energy, every nerve in my body calling out to my element.

To the thunder.

XxX

"Storm's coming."

I've been listening to Tori's approach for the past few minutes, following her progress from beyond the clearing. She's made no attempt to disguise her presence and this time I'd known it was her straight away. Who else would it be?

I turn my head to smile at her, glad the gem is once again safely hidden away. It's stupid to keep it I know, but it's the last link to my parents and I haven't brought myself to cast it into the sea where it belongs.

"Kelly said you weren't feeling well. Figured I might find you here. Are you okay?" She's straight to the point today, no games, and I appreciate her bluntness.

"I'm fine," I tell her with a wave to indicate the incoming thunder. "I always get a bit angsty before a big storm. Elemental stuff. Haven't had one since we became rangers. Just feel a bit… off. But I'm okay."

Her expression clears. "I always forget you and Blake aren't constantly surrounded by your elements. Guess it's a bit different. Explains why Blake was quiet at school today." She settles down on the grass beside me, back to the rock, sitting closer than she's been previously. I don't mind.

I nod as if in agreement, but keep the real reason for Blake's quietness to myself. Best if they think it's a Thunder thing.

"So how are things with you and Cam?" I ask innocently and get a flat look in return.

"We're not going there," she replies with a finality to her voice that lets me know it's not open for debate.

Cam's upset her, which is strange in itself, but the fact she won't tell me why suggests it has something to do with me. Hence the second reason I didn't go up to Ninja Ops earlier. I'd found the Samurai's sudden friendliness the other day disconcerting at first – unbalancing – but then I'd begun to actually enjoy his company. In our own way we're both outsiders. I now find myself suspicious of his motives, which is a shame because I'd liked helping him with the zords. And in a strange way I find I can relate to him. He's lost someone too.

We fall into that companionable silence that's becoming strangely familiar; the sort of silence where we're not ignoring each other, or struggling to find something to say to fill an awkward void. There's just no need to talk. The sort of silence I only feel around my brother, and her. We sit leaning against the rock, watching the clouds roll in from the ocean, lightning standing out in stark contrast to the purple-black backdrop. The wind has picked up, bringing with it the acrid scent of ozone and the first faint rumblings of thunder.

The storm front is almost upon us, a premature night beginning to fall, when Tori finally sighs.

"I should be off. Don't want to be up here when that hits." She turns her blue eyes on me, a warning dancing behind them.

"I'll walk you down," I say, pre-empting her. As much as I love thunderstorms, it probably wouldn't be the smartest move to stay up amongst the trees for this one. Besides, Blake'll be worrying if I'm not home soon.

I stand first and hold out a hand to help her up. She looks from it to me, before taking it with a barely-concealed expression of surprise. Her hand is small in mine; tiny and delicate but her grip is strong, skin roughened from surfing and ninja training. There's softness there too, our hands palm-to-palm as I pull her to her feet.

I hold it longer than strictly necessary and I have to force myself to break the contact, allowing my hand to drop back to my side.

"We should hurry," I say, just as a gust of hot wind, now heavy with moisture, roars in from the ocean, whipping her blonde hair about her face.

She drags the flyaway locks back, clearing her vision enough to grimace at me. "You don't say." I smile at the sarcasm evident in her tone and Tori casts a wary glance back to the approaching rain. "Reckon we'll make it before the rain?"

"Sure." I inject confidence into my voice and she rolls her eyes at me, unconvinced.

Under the trees the darkness is more immediate but they are a welcome buffer from the fierce wind. The heat is oppressive and my skin is tingling once again with the building electricity, hairs standing on end. The restlessness is back; I'm on edge, waiting for the storm to break.

Tori's pessimism proves to be well-founded. We're less than halfway down the mountain when a large crack of thunder shakes the forest and, almost as if it was a signal, the angry clouds finally split, heavy drops of rain beginning to patter through the leaves. Slowly at first, but within minutes the downpour begins in earnest, quickly soaking us to the skin. I feel like I'm standing under a shower with the faucet turned on full.

We try to hurry, but the leaves beneath the trees are slippery and we're skidding in the mud that's churned up by the deluge. I didn't think it was physically possible but somehow the rain worsens, blocking our vision and turning the world into a wet, grey blur. Lightning flashes, the trees being lit in stark contrast to the deepening shadows.

Scrap what I said earlier; a shower would be drier than this.

We've been making slow progress for what feel like ages when there's a flash of blue between the trees. Tori's van. I glance down at her at the same time she looks up at me, blinking water from her eyes. Unspoken agreement passes between us and we break into a run, slipping and sliding our way down the slope towards salvation. The trees thin out but as we leave their relative shelter the wind catches us, pressing my cold, wet shirt against my skin and causing me to shiver.

I don't need to look across to know Tori is matching my pace and I'm strongly reminded of our unfortunate river run the day Cam became a Samurai. I'm about as wet. Probably wetter. But rather than the overwhelming, bone-chilling tiredness I felt that day, I feel more alive than ever; blood coursing through my veins, senses heightened, Tori a discernible presence at my side. I'm finding it difficult to concentrate on where I'm putting my feet and I almost slip on a patch of leaves.

The van finally comes into full view and we sprint the last few hundred metres to shelter. As we reach the passenger side, Tori stumbles sideways into me and I catch her, steadying us both against the van door. We're out of breath, gasping, and drenched to the skin, hair plastered to our heads and water running in rivulets down our face and arms. But we're both laughing. The absurdity of the situation, of one Water ninja and one Thunder ninja caught out in a storm and looking half-drowned, just adds to the humour.

Tori pulls a sodden skein of hair off her face and looks up at me, breathless but giggling. At that moment I suddenly take note of our position; my back against the van and Tori pressed against me, my arms encircling her waist and her hands resting on my chest. Our eyes meet, my laughter fading and a sudden urge to reach down and kiss her comes over me. It's so forceful, so instinctive, that I'm leaning forward before I realise what I'm doing.

No.

I have to physically catch myself, pulling my head back before I'd really moved at all.

Stop this.

I take a breath. The desire is still there, but pushed down, under control. For now.

Tori has a strange expression on her face and I realise I'm still holding her. We're just standing there in the pouring rain, a frozen tableau of indecision and mistakes waiting to happen.

Of mistakes that can't happen.

Feeling awkward I let my arms fall away from her. "We should go," I manage, throat tight.

The Water ninja gives me another long glance, eyes searching my face as if trying to read something in my expression. But I know I have my mask on again. She won't find anything.

Finally she drops her gaze, searching her pockets. Faint panic crosses her face and she looks back up at me, eyes wide.

I feel my heart sink. "Please tell me you haven't lost the keys."

Her face is serious for about two seconds before breaking into a large grin, dangling the keys in front of my face, teasing expression slightly marred by the water dripping off her nose.

"Your face," she cackles, reaching past me to unlock the door. "I'd say try and keep the seat clean but I think that's a lost battle."

As she runs around to the driver's door I drop gingerly into the seat, water dripping from my hair and clothes and instantly soaking into the material covering. Tori climbs in next to me, still grinning. Somehow. Her cheerfulness seems to know no bounds.

"I needed a shower," she says brightly, squeezing water out of her hair. I just groan in response, letting my head fall back against the rest as she starts the engine and pulls out onto the main road.

The drive back into town is slightly surreal, Tori concentrating hard, trying to see through the sheets of water lashing at her windscreen. I can catch glimpses of trees being whipped around by the gale, leaves blowing across the highway and lightning burning bright white lines on the now-black sky.

I find myself watching her once again, studying her; the way she's biting her lip as she focuses on driving, the way her fingers drum against the steering wheel in time to some unheard music, the way her t-shirt clings to her-

Stop it.

This is wrong.

She glances over and I turn away quickly, staring out the window and trying to ignore the heat in my cheeks. When I dare to look back at her I see a small smile playing around the corners of her mouth. There's a faint hint of tension in the van and I have a sudden need to disguise my awkwardness with conversation.

"So…" I begin, having to raise my voice slightly to be heard over the rain hammering against the windows. "How's the English assignment coming?"

We stop at traffic lights, the light drenching us in an eerie red glow. "Essay's finished. We've moved on… to poetry." She pulls a face, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

"Poetry's not that bad," I say with a gentle smile.

Tori risks another glance at me just as the light turns to green, disbelief clear in her expression. "That's alright for you to say. You're not the one studying it." She lets out a huff. "I just find it so dull, and depressing."

I grin at her. "You obviously haven't read the right ones."

"Uh huh." She doesn't sound convinced. "Alright then Mr. Clever-Clogs, name me one poem that isn't dull or depressing." Her tone is that light, playful teasing that's becoming a permanent feature in our conversations. The one I don't like to dwell on.

A long-forgotten memory comes back to me in that moment; old words burned into my mind that I haven't spoken in years, and without thinking I start reciting them to Tori.

"'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogroves, and the mome raths outgrabe."

"Huh?" Tori's confusion makes me grin and an unusual desire to be silly, to let go of my control just a little, comes over me. I launch into the next verse enthusiastically.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!" I exclaim dramatically. "The jaws that bite, the claws that catch. Beware the Jubjub bird and shun, the frumious Bandersnatch!"

The blonde's laughing properly now, her giggles temporarily drowning out the rain. "What on earth was that?" she gasps, one hand coming up to cover her mouth, amusement sparkling in her eyes.

I adopt a scandalised expression. "You've never read 'The Jabberwocky'? You're missing out."

Tori shakes her head, sending droplets of water flying, causing us both to laugh.

As the giggles subside, I find myself offering an explanation, "My parents used to take turns reading to us before bedtime. Mostly silly poems but sometimes short stories too. My dad always did 'The Jabberwocky'. He was brilliant at voices."

The words are natural, unforced but I'm no longer surprised at how easy it is to talk about these things with Tori. This must be what having a friend feels like.

"I can only remember those two verses though," I confess, returning my gaze to the storm outside. "They were-" all my father read the night Lothor attacked "-my favourites."

A touch on my hand makes me jump and I look down to see her small hand covering mine. Glancing over to Tori, she gives me a smile filled with reassurance, almost as if she's read my mind. I let myself enjoy the sensation of the contact for a long moment before slowly, reluctantly extracting my hand. Regret vies with guilt in my mind.

This is not a path I want to go down.

I turn the conversation back onto safer topics, asking about the latest World Tour surfing competition I know Tori had been watching, and allow her chatter to wash over me, distracting me from the unwelcome thoughts that are fighting to be heard.

We reach the apartment block not long after and she drops me off as close to the main door as possible, with a promise to see me tomorrow at training. There's a warmth to her voice that I'd never dared acknowledge and when she's gone the wind and rain seem colder than before, more threatening.

The dash to the apartment only serves to soak me further; hair plastered to my skull and clothing once again clinging uncomfortably to my skin. Blake's making dinner when I get in. Well, he's about to put two ready-meals into the microwave. It's almost the end of the month – rent'll be due soon – so we're down to scraps. I have a little cash stashed away for emergencies, enough for some groceries, but I'm loath to use it just yet.

My brother laughs when he sees me. "Bro, please don't tell me you were out brooding in this?"

His comment is punctuated by a loud rumble of thunder, indicating the storm is only just getting started. I pull a face, stripping off my drenched t-shirt and chucking it at him in response.

"Looks like I got back just in time to save us from another burnt meal," I say, taking the plastic trays off him. "Do you even bother to read the instructions on these things?"

"Nah, stick 'em in for ten minutes and we're good," he replies with humour and I shake my head at him in despair, fishing the outer packaging from the trash and double-checking the timings.

"Seven minutes," I tell him and he rolls his eyes, throwing my top back at me.

"I got it. You go and get changed or you'll catch your death of cold." His voice mimics Sensei Kanoi's and he waves a finger at me to emphasise his point. I look down to see water pooling at my feet and sigh. I hate it when my brother's right.

By the time I return, dry-clothed and running a towel over my damp hair, the food is ready and my stomach growls in spite of its unappetising appearance. Once again I realise I've survived the day with only Kelly's coffee to sate my hunger. That's probably not a good thing. We're just finishing eating when there's a loud crack of thunder, followed by a brilliant flash of lightning, and we're plunged into darkness.

Power cut. Awesome.

"Guess that's a hint for bed." Blake's voice echoes from somewhere in front of me and as my eyes adjust to the darkness I can just make out his silhouette, a slightly deeper patch of black in the night.

I have to agree and soon I'm lying on my mattress, watching the white flashes of lightning bounce off the walls. I'm lulled into the arms of sleep by the comforting rumbles of thunder surrounding me, finding a strange peace amongst the raging storm.

XxX

Hands.

Hands holding me down.

I can feel pressure on my shoulders and chest, restraining me. Someone is screaming, the sounds ringing in my ears loud and unending. Can't move. Can't breathe.

Can't breathe.

I struggle against my unseen attacker, vaguely aware that I'm still asleep. I need to wake up.

Wake up.

Wake up.

My eyes snap open, lungs drawing a deep, gasping breath but the screaming stays with me as I'm pulled into consciousness, only fading as I hear a different voice yelling. I try to concentrate on the words, fighting the tide of panic that's washing over me.

"Hunter. Hunter. For godsakes Hunter!"

It takes me a few moments to realise the arms waking me – holding me down – belong to my brother. In the dim, half-light of dawn I see his eyes are wide, scared. He's shaking; I can feel the tremors in his hands on my shoulders. As my eyes finally focus on his face he sits back on his haunches, taking a few deep breaths. My own is still coming out in pants, chest heaving and heart thudding painfully in my chest. The shorts I'm wearing cling to my legs, a cold sweat drenching my skin. There's wetness on my cheeks and my throat is raw, feeling like a thousand knives have been stabbed into my flesh.

I realise it was me who had been screaming.

"Hunter. Shit, you scared me," Blake says quietly. Then, "Are you okay?"

He fumbles to switch on the little light I keep beside my bed. At some point the power must have been restored because we're suddenly bathed in a soft yellow glow.

I raise a hand to wipe the dampness of my face but stop when I see I too am shaking like a leaf.

"I..." I have to swallow hard, licking my cracked lips to try and get some moisture back into my parched mouth. "I'm okay," I say, my voice like sandpaper, barely above a whisper.

But Blake isn't listening. Instead his attention has been drawn to my hand, still frozen midway to my face.

I turn it over to see my palm covered in small cuts and slowly, hesitantly look down to see the other is in similar condition. Blake's already moving, getting our emergency first aid kit from a kitchen cupboard. The box is well stocked. It's the only thing in our kitchen which is.

I don't resist as Blake pulls my hands into his lap and begins cleaning them gently with an alcohol wipe. The small part of my brain that is fully conscious tells me this should be stinging, but I feel nothing. Numb. When I look down again I see four crescent-shaped cuts in each palm. Nail marks. Nausea rolls my stomach; I'd been clenching my fists so tightly I'd dug my nails deep into my hands.

"You want to talk about it?" Blake asks, calmly wiping the last of the blood from my palms. The cuts are scabbing over already, weeping still but not actually bleeding anymore. Gotta love enhanced healing. One perk at least of being a ranger.

"No." My voice is raspy, but stronger.

"Hunter-"

"No." I push myself up, searching around my mattress for a t-shirt.

Have to get out of here.

Too many walls. Too close. Can't breathe.

Get out. Get out. Get out.

Blake yanks the shirt from my hands and my attempt to grab it back is easily thwarted. I don't try again.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he snaps as I pull on my trainers, anger flashing in his brown eyes.

"Going for a run," I mumble, making it unsteadily to my feet. Blake drops the shirt but I make no effort to reclaim it, focusing all my energy on reaching the door. My hand closes around the handle just as my brother's hand closes around my wrist.

"Hunter..."

Get out.

I shake his arm off roughly and wrench the door open, ignoring the hurt expression on Blake's face. The door slams behind me, leaving me standing alone in the dingy, deserted hall. He doesn't come after me, but the look of… of disappointment in his eyes follows me all the way down the stairs and out into the storm-battered street.

I just need to run.

I set off on a steady jog, no real destination in mind as I run down the deserted streets. The storm seems to have almost passed; a faint drizzle and grey sky the only remnants. I let my thoughts wander, focusing on nothing in particular, just listening to my breathing and the sound of my trainers striking the sidewalk. It's only when I begin to notice some familiar shops that I realise where my feet are taking me.

It's daylight proper by the time I reach the beach; the water a dark, angry grey churning with white-tipped waves that are being whipped up by the still-strong wind. The sand is strewn with driftwood, seaweed and other flotsam tossed up by the fierce weather and I lean against the railing, the light rain pleasantly cool against my skin.

There's no sign of Tori. No sign of anyone and, while a large part of me is glad she hasn't tried braving the stormy sea, there's another part of me that is disappointed to not see her here.

Is that what I came here for?

I just wanted to… What?

Talk to her? About..? I wouldn't have told her about the dream. Not that I can recall much about it, except the overwhelming sense of panic and… otherness there was to it; far different than anything I've dreamed before. I can't put it into words in my own head, let alone try to articulate it aloud.

But I needn't have actually mentioned it. She'd have understood, known there was something wrong without pressing me and just… being with her makes things better. Not in a clichéd, my-life-is-perfect-when-she's-near way, because it's far from it. I still have all the same worries and fears and, well, I'd call them quirks but others would say issues. Baggage. But Tori makes them seem… less. She reminds me of a more innocent, carefree time and gives me a hope that things could be different. That I could be different. And I haven't felt that since, well, ever.

I know why my stomach twists when she's around. I know why I reacted the way I did when Blake told me he'd kissed her. I know why I let her touch me.

I know why I came to the beach this morning.

I just didn't want to acknowledge it. But I have to face the truth. Lying to myself isn't working anymore.

I've fallen for her.

Fuck.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Now what?

Now… nothing.

This changes nothing. Not how I behave. Not what I say. Not what I do. I can't… No one can know. Tori can't know. I'm not stupid enough to think she might actually return my feelings.

We are friends and nothing more.

I ignore the little voice that tries to tell me otherwise. Because if I follow that road, if I accept the impossible, that the Water ninja could, in some small way, like me back, then I am opening myself to that which I'd sworn never to do; the chance of being hurt. And of hurting others. Hurting Blake.

And that is unacceptable.

I run a hand tiredly through my damp hair, enjoying the strong breeze on my face and the crisp chillness of the morning. Everything feels fresh and vibrant, the storm clearing the stuffiness from the air and the dust from the sidewalks.

Blake

I need to make it up to him. Apologise for my behaviour this morning and for… this thing… with Tori. Not that he knows about it. Not that he ever will know about it, because as I said, nothing's going to happen. But I still feel guilty. I remember the emergency money I have saved and smile. We haven't had a proper home-cooked meal in a while; I think the money will stretch to that. And saying sorry is important. I'll go shopping later.

Right now I still need to run.

So I turn away from the beach and begin a steady jog, heading out of town up along the road towards the forest. I'm less than a mile out of the city when I find my way blocked by some unwelcome visitors.

Kelzaks.

Of course.

It's going to be one of those days, isn't it?

I stop shy of them, quickly assessing the situation. Six kelzaks, and an alien. And one me. I'm confident in my abilities but I'm not stupid enough to get into a fight without back-up. Without taking my eyes of the creatures, I hit the alert button on my morpher and wait for Cam's response.

The alien's eyes light up when it see me. "Well, well, well; a lone ranger."

I glare at it, but am spared having to engage it in conversation by Cam's voice echoing from my morpher. "This better be good, Hunter." The Samurai sounds half-asleep.

"Morning Cam," I say, injecting false cheerfulness into my voice. "Turns out kelzaks are early-risers too. Who knew?"

"… Have you never heard of a lie-in?" Cam grumbles just as the alien levels its weapon at me.

I feel a manic grin spreading across my face. "You know what they say, you can sleep when you're dead," I reply and then have to dive to the side of the road as a blast of energy comes roaring at me.

"Oof." I hit the ground harder than planned, the impact knocking the air from my lungs.

I can hear the tech's sigh from here. "I'm contacting the others now. Just… hold on."

"Gee, thanks," I mutter, getting to my feet and brushing dirt off my knees. They're grazed and starting to sting unpleasantly. Oh yeah, this is just perfect.

The alien laughs. "Looks like you're all alone, little ninja." His tone grates on my nerves. And I haven't got many left to be grated.

I'm tired. Worn down by the emotional wrangling I've put myself through. I'm restless, still suffering the effects the storm's had on my element. And I'm angry. At myself for being so stupid; at my feelings; at Lothor, and now at these damn aliens.

Well you know what they say; exercise is good at getting rid of pent-up aggression. From my experience, so is beating on kelzaks.

I smile without humour, dropping into a fighting stance. "You have chosen the wrong time to pick on me," I growl. "Bring it."

Chapter Text

And I could hear the thunder and see the lightning crack
And all around the world was waking, I could never go back
'Cause all the walls of dreaming, they were torn wide open
And it finally seemed that the spell was broken

~Florence and the Machine

When did Hunter get so distant?

So... disconnected?

The door slams shut practically in my face. Like seriously, if I'd been an inch closer my nose would be squished against it right now. In the movies this would be the moment where I throw a glass at the closed door or scream in frustration or punch a wall, but I don't. Because this isn't the movies, this is real life and in real life it's far too early in the morning for me to be dealing with Hunter's freaking issues.

I'm going back to bed.

Bed, where I would have been happily, blissfully asleep if I hadn't been rudely awoken by my brother screaming as if he was being murdered. Which, I'd just like to say, want to make it known, is a freaking awful way to wake up. I honestly thought Hunter was being killed and almost broken my own neck jumping out of bed only to run and find he was dreaming. I'd have laughed if I hadn't been so terrified. I was even more scared when I couldn't wake him.

And then he started fighting back.

With him flailing around and shutting the door in my face I'm luckily to have escaped without an injury.

What the hell has gotten into Hunter? He's… different. When he first woke up his eyes were wild and it was like he didn't recognise me at all. And then he calmed down, sort of, and things were fine again. For all of ten minutes, 'til I asked him if he wanted to talk (because hey, I get it, bad dreams suck, I've had my fair share too and they're damn scary until you try and explain them to someone else and then you wonder why the hell you were so upset). But no, no talking; just a freaking iron curtain slamming across his face and shutting me out.

And now I know what Tori means by 'walls'.

Was it just this morning? Was this just a post-nightmare thing, or has it been going on longer? Have I been completely oblivious?

I retreat to my room and stick my head under the pillow in an attempt to block out the daylight creeping in from the window. This is my weekend dammit and I want to sleep in.

Sleep doesn't come back though. After tossing and turning for what seems like hours I finally give in and check my alarm clock. It's been forty minutes since Hunter stormed out. Maybe he'll have calmed down by now. Not for the first time I wish we had cell phones, but given my brother's abrupt departure he probably wouldn't have taken one with him anyway.

There is one sure-fire way to contact him though.

I glance down at my morpher and wonder how much sarcasm Cam will aim in my direction should he find out I'm using it for non-emergency chatter. I think I'll risk it.

Hoping I'm just speaking to my brother and not to everyone (which is a thing; this happens. Dustin does it way too often. Guess we're still getting to grips with the tech) I raise it to my mouth, "Blake to Hunter?"

No answer.

"Hunter?"

I pause for a second. There's nothing.

"Dammit Hunter, speak to me!"

Silence.

"Gah!" Frustrated by my brother's lack of reply I yank my morpher off my wrist and chuck it angrily away from me before curling back up into a ball on my bed. I hate it when we part mad, always worry irrationally when he goes off alone. I know I should be used to it now, but old habits die hard.

Damn Hunter and his stupid… stupidness.

Ok, so it might not be entirely stupid. Like, he's had nightmares for as long as I can remember. Even before… our parents, I can remember mom having to calm him many times late at night. She was better at it than me. I've lost track of the nights I woke up to see Hunter tossing and turning, his eyes moving rapidly beneath closed lids. He never spoke about them, but I knew what was happening. I thought he'd got better, that the nightmares had eased off, but that was only true when we were sharing a room at the Thunder Academy. Since we've been living here, we've been in different rooms and just 'cos I haven't known about them doesn't mean they haven't come back.

I don't remember him ever screaming like that though.

I shiver and pull my sheet tighter around me. It's still early. There should definitely only ever be one six 'o'clock in my day. I snuggle down, letting my eyes drift shut. Yup, far too early…

The beeping of my morpher wakes me with a jump and I scramble off the bed to reclaim it from the pile of dirty clothes it'd luckily tumbled into (Luckily, 'cos if I broke it both Cam and Hunter would kill me). The washing puts up a greater fight than expected, but finally I hit the 'reply' button, tossing a sock behind me as I make my way back to the bed.

"Hun-"

"Does your brother never sleep?" Cam's voice cuts me off and I grin at the irritation in the Samurai's voice.

So that's where Hunter's gone.

I feel one of the knots of tension in my stomach loosening, relief that my idiotic brother is safe.

And annoying Cam.

Really?

Only my brother would decide going to Ninja Ops this early in the morning and deliberately winding up Cam was a good idea. The rest of us have a healthy respect (read: fear) of the tech and his deadly sarcasm. He can be very… tetchy, especially when he hasn't had his caffeine in the morning.

"He probably wants some of your coffee; it's better than the stuff he gets here. Doesn't come with grumpy little brothers yelling at him for disturbing their sleep," I say, my smile bleeding into my words.

"Oh Hunter's not here," Cam replies and there's a tightness to his voice. "If he was I'd be punching him about now. He's busy making friends with some kelzaks instead."

My stomach plummets at Cam's words and I'm suddenly back in one of the many tiny rooms we used to rent before Sensei Omino found us, huddled on a lumpy mattress alone, waiting up for Hunter and hoping he was coming back in one piece. Hoping he was coming back at all.

"Blake, are you still there?" the Samurai's calm voice cuts through my rising panic and brings me back to earth.

"Yeah," I croak, throat dry. "Where is he?" I'm moving now, yanking on a t-shirt and trying not to fall as I hop around my room pulling my jeans on. Shoes… I need shoes.

"About a mile up the road to Ops. Shane's already on his way; I had him contact the others so we'll see you there."

I'm barely listening to him as I run out of the apartment, trying not to slam the door shut ('cos our neighbours hate that) but a vague part of me is reassured knowing help is already on its way to Hunter. Once I'm out of my building all it takes is a quick glance to see that the street is clear – empty; well it is stupid 'o'clock on a Saturday morning – and then I'm off, ninja streaking towards my brother's location.

It takes no time at all to reach the outskirts of town. I bring my streak to a sudden, skidding halt as I reach the scene of battle. Shane and Dustin are here already, attacking the kelzaks with grim determination. I can't see my brother anywhere. I'm just about to join the battle when Dustin gets caught by a kick and is sent flying back, landing in a heap at my feet.

"Yo dude," he says sounded winded. "Time to suit up."

I reach down and catch him under his arm to help him to his feet. "Good plan."

Shane appears at my left shoulder and within moments we're morphing; the power surging through my body, making me forget my worry for one brilliant second. As we do so, a pale blue flash of light streaks in to engage the nearest kelzaks.

Tori.

Already in morph, she throws herself into the fight. She's got a grace, a fluidity, in battle that never fails to amaze. She's just so-

At that moment a couple of kelzaks decide I really should be involved and my thoughts are pulled straight back into the now.

I'm aware of the others fighting next to me, flashes of colour in my peripheral vision. And then there's Hunter, already morphed and going toe-to-toe with one of Lothor's aliens. As I watch the crimson figure darting out of the way of a wild swing of the creature's arm I can tell from my brother's posture and movements that he's enjoying this.

Typical.

I've been worried sick and he's having fun. Oh yeah, that's my brother all right.

Cam arrives on the scene and soon after the battle falls into its usual pattern; we shoot the alien, it seems to be destroyed but then the scroll thing happens, and then the alien-getting-huge happens so we do the zord thing. Nothing new here, 'cept a lack of snide comments from Hunter while we're piloting our zord. In fact, the only words that pass between us are questions and instructions. Finally, finally there's an explosion that sends creature bits flying all over the place, dissolving into smoke as they hit the ground. Which is lucky, 'cos otherwise there would be a helluva mess for us to clear up afterwards.

We drop down from the zords and demorph, Hunter running a hand through his hair and giving my shoulder a quick squeeze.

"Give my apologies to the others, bro, but I'm going to be late for work if I don't go now." He pauses for a second and I hope he's going to say something else, but he doesn't, just turns and streaks away.

Resisting the urge to swear after him I make my way over to join the guys, reaching them the same time that Tori appears next to us, blond hair mussed from her helmet and a breathless grin on her face. "Well that's one way to wake up," she says brightly and then gives us a confused look as we all avert our eyes. "What? What's the matter?"

"Dude, you're in your pyjamas," Dustin points out, blushing. Unlike us guys, Tori clearly hadn't bothered to get dressed before running to join the battle.

She rolls her eyes in exasperation. "Oh honestly. It's not like I'm naked."

The Earth ninja turns even redder, gesturing vaguely but emphatically. "Yeah but… underneath… you're naked- Owch!"

He rubs the back of his head where Tori swatted him and manages a glare at the shorter woman, but Dustin's 'glares' are about as threatening as a paper knife and it fades when Tori gives him a sweet smile in return.

"Okay boys, who wants a ride home?"

"You drove here?" Shane gives her a pointed look. "What, forget we have ninja powers?"

Tori sticks her tongue out at him. "Of course not. But my house is only just down the road; no one needs to risk streaking through town again and upsetting Sensei. You don't want him to go all twitchy-nose on you."

Cam raises an eyebrow at that and then shrugs.

We all know it's true. It's amazing how much disapproval a guinea-pig can display with a single nose-twitch.

"I could use a lift," I say hopefully. "Hunter's already gone to work and you know what my area's like. Don't really want to walk there alone. One fight's enough for me this morning."

Tori smiles at me and for a long moment it's just the two of us; I barely hear Shane and Dustin declining her offer, opting instead to go back to Ninja Ops with Cam. And then we're walking away, heading down the hill towards her house and I feel the good mood that comes with the win slowly leaking away as memories of this morning return.

I'm so preoccupied with the whole Hunter-being-stupid thing that I don't realise Tori hasn't said anything to me until she stops suddenly, turning to me with a serious expression on her face. I try to pull my mind away from Hunter to focus on her.

"Blake, we need to ta- Is everything okay?"

Damn. Clearly my nothing-is-wrong face needs work. Should start taking lessons from my brother.

"Yeah," I try to say, but she already knows I'm lying.

I should know better than to try to fool her by now. I swear, it's like she's got some inbuilt lie-detector or something.

She says my name again, firmly, as if I'm a naughty child. Her hands are on her hips and she's got that expression on her face, the one she normally only uses on Shane and Dustin. And recently Hunter. The serious effect she's going for is spoiled somewhat by her pyjamas and bare feet.

I feel my heart sink. I don't want to lie to her, but how can I explain this without letting her know about Hunter's nightmares? He puts up with me babbling to the others about, well, pretty much everything now, bar the drug stuff (which I will never tell the others because it's not something they need to know. Especially Shane, 'cos it's not like he needs any more reasons not to trust/like my brother, though I have to admit things have been better recently) and we've managed to sort out the visiting thing without bloodshed, but I know for a fact he would kill me if I even so much as hinted he had a weakness to anyone else. To anyone not family.

'Cos that's what he sees them as, a weakness.

"Me and Hunter had a fight," I mumble, carrying on towards her house. "This morning. It's why he was out so early."

Tori's face instantly softens as she comes up to walk beside me. "Oh no. Before breakfast?"

She's got a twinkle in her eyes and a smile's tugging at the corners of her mouth. I know she's trying to make me feel better. It's what Tori does; it's why I lo- like her.

I try to smile back, but it's not really happening. She knows that too.

"What happened? Ah wait..." We've reached her house now and Tori looks anxiously at the front door. "I should uh, put some clothes on first," she says, cheeks suddenly turning pink. "Otherwise mom might get the wrong idea. Hold that thought and I'll be right back." With that she vanishes around the back of the house, leaving me standing awkwardly in the driveway.

I don't think I should be holding the thought I got when she said she needed to get dressed. That's… not appropriate.

She's back far quicker than I was expecting, fully clothed in shorts and a t-shirt and is twisting her hair up into a ponytail as she crosses the gravel to her van. I follow, clambering in the passenger side after she reaches across to undo the lock. While Tori's fussing with keys and mirrors and stuff I debate how best to continue the conversation.

"I know what you mean by the wall," I say quietly, looking resolutely down at my hands. I feel Tori still beside me.

Then she sighs, starting the engine and pulling out onto the main road.

"What happened?" she repeats, seeming to know instinctively that there's stuff I'm not saying.

"It wasn't a fight exactly. I can't… That part doesn't matter," I gloss over the details, hoping she won't press for more. "It's more how he reacted. One moment he was Hunter, and the next bam! Wall. Like, he was this stranger I didn't recognise. And when I tried to find out what was wrong he ran out on me; almost shut the door on my face."

"Oh Blake, he was probably just having a bad moment," she tries to reassure me. "You know what your brother's like, better than anyone. He might have just wanted some alone time."

I give her a sceptical look. "Tori, he slammed the door in my face." I cannot emphasise this point enough.

Her lips are twitching again, trying to hold back a smile. "You know Hunter'd never deliberately hurt you; he cares about you."

"Yeah, well I just wish he'd show it. Slamming a door in my face is not showing it." As soon as the words are out of mouth I realise how childish I sound.

Oh yeah, real attractive Blake. Just what every girl wants to hear from a guy who's sweet on them – whining.

I'm not surprised by the incredulous look Tori's giving me. "Blake, Hunter has done so much for you; given up so much for you. He almost went to jail for you."

She thinks I don't know this? Of course I know it. I can't forget it; I feel guilty every time I try to fight him on something because I'm so painfully aware of just how much Hunter's given up for me. And as for the jail thin- Wait… what? How the hell does she know that?

"How the hell do you know that?"

She shifts slightly in her seat and a flash of guilt crosses her face. "Hunter told me," she says softly, eyes fixed on the road.

"When?" I demand, hearing the shock in my own voice. Hunter doesn't do personal; why would he tell Tori, well, pretty much one of the most personal bits of his life. Of our lives. Even I hadn't…

Tori sighs. "The day you went off with Leanne and he had that fight with Shane. I went to talk to him and… he told me. Well, I sort of made him tell me."

I find that hard to believe. I know my brother; if he didn't want her to know, she wouldn't know. Which raises the question since when did Hunter come to trust Tori enough with that knowledge? And also, why had Hunter not mentioned anything to me about their talk?

She must misread the expression on my face because she adds hurriedly, "I'm not going to judge him for that, Blake. It's not my place. He did what he thought was the right thing at the time and I'm not going to criticise a decision made in a situation I've never had to face. Besides-" She reaches over to give my hand a quick squeeze. "-if he hadn't have done that, you two might not be here. And we'd be in a lot more trouble." She risks another glance at me, taking her eyes off the road for barely a second. "Hunter does care about you Blake. Maybe more than you know."

She seems to realise she's said too much, shaking her head slightly as she falls silent, attention returning to navigating the streets of Blue Bay.

I know Hunter cares about me. This isn't about caring; this is about something else entirely.

"He's changed, Tor," I find myself confessing. "I don't… I can't explain it. Like, he's always been serious. Well, not always but y'know, since after… But he could still be fun and goofy and… and laughing. There was laughing, Tori, and I don't know when it stopped. If it was at the Academy, or after Leanne, or when we met Lothor… I don't know. It stopped and I didn't even notice."

"Have you tried speaking to him? Asking him about this?" she asks gently.

"Of course I have!"

I have, haven't I? I must've done. Like, this is a big thing. We'd have talked about this. I'd have said something, right?

Except, I'm beginning to think I haven't. That I've just accepted Hunter's mood swings and grumpiness and slow pulling away from everyone and not even tried to find out why.

"… I'm a bad brother."

Tori's voice is like cool water, soothing my outburst. "No, you're not. You both just need to work on your communication skills."

I shrug, feeling distinctly uneasy. "I guess. So, uh, what was it you wanted to talk about?" I ask in a sudden bid to change the subject.

It's clumsy and awkward and obvious, and Tori knows it. But she goes along with it anyway, my question seeming to distract her completely.

"Oh that," she murmurs, looking uncomfortable. "It's um, just… We need to… I think we should ta-" Just then we pull up outside my apartment block and Tori frowns, coming to some sort of decision. "You know what, it's nothing. I have to go and help mom. I promised her I'd lend a hand with the kids at the surf school." She rolls her eyes. "Couple of hours of making sure they don't drown."

I laugh. "Rather you than me."

As I go to get out of the van, Tori grabs my arm.

"Blake…" Her blue eyes give me a searching look. "Don't give up on him," she says softly. "Hunter's still in there."

She sounds so sure. I wish I could feel the same.

I watch her drive away before trudging up the dirty damp staircase to our floor. I kick the apartment door shut behind me and lean against it dully. I have a couple of hours before I need to head to Storm Chargers and I don't know what to do with myself. It's not like I can just crash out in front of the tv and chill out. I probably should do some homework but as I look around our apartment I realise what a state it's got into. What with school and work and training and aliens and general not-really-being-around it's got really dirty. Really dirty.

I groan. Well, I did want something to do…

XxX

I hate cleaning.

Like, hate it with a passion. It's so boring and mind-numbing but it really did need to happen. And to be honest, it doesn't take that long to get the kitchen back into something resembling clean; dirty dishes washed, dried and put back in the cupboard, table and sides wiped down and the floor swept.

But I am glad to be busy, glad to be doing something, but as I move my super-cleaning-skills into the living room the niggling in the back of my mind gets stronger, demanding to be heard, to be considered.

What's the deal with Hunter and Tori?

I don't get it. I don't get them. Somehow they've become close friends and the 'when' and the 'why' and the 'how-the-hell' seems to have completely passed me by. She said she was working on him and Shane, I know that. And it's true things have been better between those two recently. Hunter seems to have been trying with people, getting along with the others, especially Cam. Which kinda, well, it's got Tori written all over it. And I'm glad. Glad he's making the effort, interacting with people again in a way that isn't all grr and arguments and fights.

But Hunter telling her things, opening up to her… that I wasn't expecting.

And it makes me suspicious. In a way that I don't like being. Don't want to be. I trust my brother implicitly, and Tori too if I really think about it, so I don't think there's anything, well, anything romantic going on. It's just… horrible, sneaking thoughts creeping in and I hate myself for even considering them.

I'm being stupid. There is nothing, nothing going on between Hunter and Tori, nothing more than friendship.

They are just friends.

That's it. End of story. There's nothing else to it. Nothing-

I yank some clothes roughly off the sofa, pulling a lot harder than intended 'cos I manage to dislodge Hunter's backpack in the process. It falls to the floor, papers spilling out of its unzipped side and scattering across the carpet. A curse slips from my lips before I can stop it and I'm really glad Hunter isn't around to call me out on it. I keep ragging on at him about his language so he'd be merciless with his teasing if he caught me using one of his choice words.

I scramble to pick up the papers – bills, I note with disinterest. Hunter deals with all those. I'm just about to shove them back into the bag when a flash of colour catches my eye.

Red.

Some of these bills are written in red ink.

I don't know much about this sort of thing, but red ink is bad right? Like, red means you haven't paid. Or you're late in paying. Red is trouble. Bills shouldn't be red. Why the hell are our bills red? Hunter's been paying them… hasn't he?

I hardly register the fact that I've sunk to the floor, back coming to rest against the sofa, as I try to make sense of what I'm reading. I knew things like gas and electricity cost money but I never realised just how expensive they were. We have a system to cover it all; half Hunter's wages and half of mine, then we take it in turns to do the food shopping. Simple, but it works. At least, I thought it was working. Hunter hadn't said it wasn't.

As the (add finger quotations here) "responsible adult", Hunter's in charge of the paying part so admittedly I've never actually seen our bills before today but I knew things weren't cheap. These amounts though… How the hell has Hunter been paying this? This has to be more money going out than he earns a month, even with my contribution.

For one horrible moment I wonder if Hunter's gone back to working with the gangs again for extra money but I quickly reject that thought. The bills are red; Hunter hasn't been paying them. Or at the very least, he's missed a couple of payments. And he'd never go back to the illegal stuff, ever. He's learnt his lesson there. We both have.

I pull my gaze away from the bills and gnaw my lip in thought. Hunter's kept this from me, probably for some reason known only to him, but now I need to figure out what to do. A quick glance at the clock tells me I'm going to be late for my shift if I don't leave soon but indecision grips me.

What do I do about this?

I don't have the time to think about it right now. I jump up and shove the incriminating bills into my own backpack before finishing straightening out the living room. I don't think Hunter's likely to want them this afternoon but I can't risk him moving his backpack and hiding the evidence. I give the room a once over – yep, looks much cleaner now – and then head out to work, taking my backpack with me.

XxX

The Saturday afternoon shift is hell. It always is.

I only see Hunter briefly when I check in. He looks relieved to be escaping and wishes me luck before Kelly yells at me to get my butt inside. The store's filled with people, everything from screaming kids to excitable teenagers to harassed looking parents and I'm rushed off my feet, splitting my time between ringing up items on the register and finding stock out back.

For once I'm glad for the chaos; it gives me less chance to think. But the rolling in my stomach is still there, worsening every time I remember the hidden bills, their red ink dancing in front of my eyes and distracting me from what I'm meant to be doing.

I'm in the storeroom looking for a pair of motorcycle gloves for a customer when a voice makes me jump. "Blake is everything okay?" I look up to see Kelly watching me with a concerned expression on her face.

"Yeah, why?" I ask, rummaging around in one of the boxes trying to find the size the guy wanted.

She chooses her words carefully. "You seem preoccupied, like your mind is somewhere else today. And you're not your usual cheery self. What's up?"

"It's nothing," I tell her lightly, shrugging off her worry. I pull out the correct size with a flourish and then pause. "Kel… how many hours is Hunter working?"

If my question surprises her she doesn't show it. "I don't know off the top of my head, sorry. At a guess? Maybe five, six shifts a week. Why?"

"No reason," I say, forcing a smile. "I should get back to work." I wave the gloves at her and she nods, moving out of my way to let me return to the mayhem of the main store.

It's going to be a long shift.

XxX

By the time I get back to the apartment I'm exhausted, wanting nothing more than some food and my bed, but I still have to face my brother. I'm greeted by the unfamiliar but very welcome smell of home cooking as I finally get the key to work in the lock and shove the door open. Hunter bounces into view, looking pleased with himself. There's flour smudged on his cheek and dusting his hands.

"I went shopping," he says grinning. "Hope you're hungry; I'm making pie."

Before I can respond he's ducked back into the kitchen and I stare after him for a moment, trying to get my head around this complete three-sixty his attitude appears to have undergone. He seems happy, back to normal. As if this morning hadn't happened at all. Happy Hunter is a good person to be around. It's a side of him I haven't seen in a while and I've missed it. Missed him.

I can feel the weight of the bills in my backpack; the red ink burning a hole in my back. Do I really want to start another argument? 'Cos that's what's going to happen when I let on to Hunter that I've seen these. No more happy Hunter.

I could put them back.

Act as if everything's ok, as if nothing's wrong. Be like Hunter.

But I can't. I know I can't. Because ignoring this won't make it go away and Hunter trying to cope on his own isn't right. It isn't fair. We're in this together. When we're fighting we're a team; no one works better together than us two. That's just a fact. We know each other so well we don't even have to think. Or at least, I thought we knew each other well. But maybe our partnership hasn't extended into our 'real' life as much as it should have done. I grumble that Hunter's always in charge, always making the decisions, but I haven't done much to support him. Not really. Not where it matters. When it's come to food and rent and bills I've just let him get on with it. Never even thought to try and get involved. I guess I'd sort of assumed that if we were really in trouble Hunter would let me know. Well, you know what they say; assumptions are the mother of all cock-ups.

Plus I should know by now to never underestimate my brother's pig-headedness.

I mean, really.

Decision made; time to get this fight started.

Pushing down the sickness I feel in my stomach, I walk into the kitchen and set the bills down on the table. Hunter turns to say something to me, but his grin vanishes as he sees what I have.

"Blake-"

"Don't get mad," I say quickly, before he can get another word in. Best way to deal with Hunter? Go on the offensive early. "I wasn't snooping, honest. I just found them by accident when cleaning."

Cleaning, that's gotta earn me some brownie points surely?

Hunter's frown deepens so I press on hurriedly, trying to keep my voice light and not-angry. "Wanna explain?"

"Explain what? They're just bills, Blake. We pay them every month."

He goes to pick them up but I yank them away. "But we haven't been paying them, have we? That's what red ink means." Hunter doesn't answer, just crosses his arms and glares at me. Well two can play at that game. I glare back, mimicking his posture. "Red ink, Hunter. I'm not stupid. Why didn't you tell me?"

Hunter turns away with an exasperated sigh. "Blake, not now."

Strangely this doesn't make me angry. It might have done earlier, but I guess I realise getting mad and yelling isn't the way to deal with this. It'll just make Hunter defensive. And defensive Hunter is bitch to talk to. As in, there is no talking to him. And I'm really not angry. I was when I first saw the bills, but now… Now I'm sad. Sad that Hunter didn't tell me, didn't feel like he could, sad that I never asked, sad that he's been dealing with this by himself.

Kinda explains some of his moody behaviour lately. The more-moody-than-normal bits anyway.

"I'm sorry," I say quietly and Hunter jerks his head in surprise. "I'm sorry I haven't been very supportive recently. Or like, at all. I guess I just got caught up in all the new stuff in my life and never really stopped to see how you were doing. I'm sorry I haven't taken a proper interest in us, in the bills and things. I'm sorry I've just taken it for granted that you'll deal with everything because it isn't fair. We both live here; we should both deal with it and I haven't. I've put it all on you. And I'm sorry that you've thought you can't talk to me about it, that you've felt you've had to cope on your own. I'm sorry you haven't trusted me with this."

Hunter's still staring at me, but his expression has turned guilty. "It's not that I don't trust you…"

"So why didn't you tell me?" I ask again, bills clutched to my chest almost as a protective shield.

I see various emotions flit across his face, evidence of the internal war waging in his head. Finally he drops heavily into a chair, resignation winning. "So we're doing this now then?"

He sounds like he's hoping I'll change my mind, but I won't. My only answer is to keep staring at him. I figure he should have the message by now.

He sighs and rubs a hand over his face. "… I didn't want to worry you."

I should have guessed. I know I'm lucky to have him, but sometimes I want to throttle him for this freaking over-protectiveness-thing he keeps pulling.

"Do I need to be worried?" I keep my voice calm, though I'm sorely tempted to reach over and punch him. I've never hit my brother in anger before, but then he's never really kept something like this from me either.

"No you don't," he snaps at me, then lets out a huff of air. "Blake you're in high school. You have more important things to be worrying about; senior year, essays, assignments, dare I say it, college applications? Bills and money should not even feature on that list." He hesitates, then adds, "I just wanted what you want; for you to be, y'know, normal."

I ignore the not-so-subtle dig at my lack of desire to go to college – like we'd be able to afford it anyway – and start to laugh, the tension dropping from my shoulders. Hunter pulls a "what-the-hell-is-so-funny" face which only makes me laugh more. It's a relieved, everything-will-be-ok sort of laughter, the type we normally all end up with after a particularly bad battle.

"Bro, we are far from normal."

My brother gives me a weak smile. "I guess. I just didn't think there was any harm in trying."

As his smile fades I feel my humour fading with it. Once again I'm reminded painfully of how not-normal we are. I shake those thoughts off; now isn't the time for moping. "So the bills?"

"I have a system," he says defensively, though unconvincingly. When I raise an eyebrow at him he pulls a face. "I pay whichever one's been overdue the longest," he mutters, looking slightly ashamed. "It's been working. Kinda. They haven't cut us off yet anyway."

"Yet." I wave one of the pieces of paper at him from the pile. He obviously knows exactly what letter it is as he doesn't look at it, just stares down at the table, picking morosely at a bump in its surface. I sigh. "How exactly were you going to explain our electricity being cut off? I think I'd definitely have noticed a lack of microwave for starters."

Hunter lifts one shoulder in a half-hearted shrug. "… You underestimate my powers of deceit." The joke is a weak one and he knows it.

"Right," I say, getting up decisively to grab a notebook and pen from my backpack. "We're working this out. What you earn, what I earn, what we owe… Work it out properly. Figure it out." Fix this.

Hunter's watching me with an expression halfway between dismay and baffled amusement as I return to my seat. "You hate math," he says, his subtle attempt at protesting.

I grin and push the notebook across the table to him. "That's why you're doing it."

He rolls his eyes at me but doesn't argue, just holds his hand out for the pen. "Okay. But can we at least have dinner first?" He looks mournfully at the pie in the oven. "I was making it special."

As an apology, I know is what he's not saying. Now I'm concentrating on it, the smell of cooking pastry and meat reminds me that I'm starving and my stomach growls in spite of my attempts to ignore it while I deal with Hunter.

"Is it chicken?" The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them, my stomach speaking for me.

Traitor.

Hunter raises an eyebrow. "You need to ask?" He knows it's my favourite.

I give in to the demands my stomach is making. "Fine," I say, trying to sound grudging. "But afterwards we're going to do the money thing. Promise?"

"Like I have a choice," Hunter retorts, but he's smiling now and I know I've won. "I promise Blake," he adds softly and I can see he's trying to decide whether or not to say something further. Just as I think he might, the oven timer goes off and he's jumping up to check dinner; whatever he was about to say lost in steaming pie and burned fingers.

The food tastes as good as it smells and I tell Hunter so, getting my words out around a mouthful of pie.

Hunter grins at me. "You doubted my skills?" As I laugh he waves his hand at the kitchen in general. "Good job on the cleaning, by the way. I had noticed."

He's playing nice, I know, but it's not enough to make me forget about the bills. As soon as our plates are empty I'm nudging the notebook back towards Hunter and give him an expectant look. He doesn't put up a fight, just picks up the pen with a very small sigh. Biting his lip in concentration, he writes down his hours for the month and then asks me what my contribution is. I pause and then rub a hand over my face, making a decision I should have done when we first got this apartment.

"Put down all my shifts," I tell my brother and he looks up at me, expression unreadable.

"Our system's fifty-fifty," he points out, as if I need to be reminded.

"Yeah? And how's that working when you're clearly putting in, like, all your wages and we're still in debt?" He doesn't answer and I give him a smug look. "Thought so. So just do it, please."

Hunter shakes his head but doesn't offer any further arguments. Now I know it's bad. I get up so I can lean over his shoulder to see how we're doing. Even with my loathing of math (I still maintain it's mutual; math hates me back, honest), I can see the flaw in the calculations.

"Wait, but even with what I'm earning from Storm Chargers and everything you're earning from the bar, we're still going to be short on rent. Not to mention food."

"It's fine," Hunter says confidently, jotting down some more numbers. "Josh is away next week so I'm covering his supervisor shifts. That should just about cover the rent and leaves our Storm Chargers money for the bills and food. That's if you're still okay with putting in more-" I give him a flat look that lets him know that discussion's over. He holds up his hands in defeat. "Right. Fine. Well, we'll be able to break even at least. This month anyways."

I glance down at the figures Hunter's written down on the paper. "What about next month?" I ask seriously.

My brother shrugs, looking away from me. "Guess we take it as it comes."

A hard lump slowly settles in my stomach. "We're in trouble aren't we?" I say quietly and see Hunter's jaw tighten.

Finally he looks up at me, the smile on his faced forced and unnatural lightness in his voice. "Nah, we'll figure something out." He stands and ruffles my hair. "It's going to be fine Blake. We're going to be fine."

As he starts clearing the dishes I find myself looking back down at the piece of paper, numbers dancing in front of my eyes. I really hope he's right, that we'll sort something out, be ok.

Because otherwise I have no idea what we're going to do.

Chapter Text

When your lips touch mine
It’s the kiss of life
I know, I know that it’s a little bit frightening
We might as well be playing with lightning

~The Wanted

The sound of water lapping under my surfboard is a familiar and soothing friend. The sun is barely up and I’m already out at sea, despite the lack of real waves; a gentle swell the only blemish on the otherwise flat surface.

It’s stupidly early.

I should still be in bed but sleep has been elusive, even after yesterday morning’s rude and unpleasant wake up. You’d have thought my body would have jumped at the chance to sleep in, but my mind had other ideas. Very active and sleep-depriving ideas with thoughts running around and around and around, gnawing at me, refusing to let me rest properly.

Ever since Blake’s birthday.

Ever since that kiss.

What do I do?

More importantly, how do I feel about him? About us?

The kiss threw me completely, but it’s not like I can say I didn’t see it coming. It’s been on the cards for a while now; had to happen sometime. And I can’t say we’ve moved too fast, because only a few weeks ago I was frustrated that Blake hadn’t made a move, getting irritated with all the dancing around each other we were doing, annoyed with the waiting. And sure, I could have made the first move I guess. But boys are meant to take the lead right? They’re the ones that are meant to do the asking and the chasing.

But even as those thoughts cross my mind I realise how so not-true they are. My mom would kill me if she heard me saying something like that. It’s not how she raised me to think and she sure as hell didn’t follow it. And I don’t think like that. Right now, it’s just a convenient excuse. It’s easier to believe that I was waiting for Blake to make the first move rather than acknowledge the real truth; that I could have done it but hadn’t.

I’d held back and told myself everything was fine when it wasn’t. But deep down, I know that if I’d really wanted there to be an us, I would have done something. So long as neither of us did anything, I didn’t have to really think about my real feelings.

And now that Blake has…

I think I knew, from the moment he made it real, what my feelings actually were towards him. But I didn’t want to admit it, because I know what I have to do in response. I have to end it, whatever this ‘it’, this thing we have, is. I don’t love him, not in the way he loves me, not in the way that matters. So I have to… break up with him?

Is it really breaking up when we’re not really dating? We haven’t dated. We’ve had, like, one date and that went oh-so-well thanks to Lothor and fake butter popcorn. And we’ve had one kiss. That’s not dating. That’s… I don’t know what you call it but I’m sure it doesn’t count as a relationship.

I tried talking to him yesterday, before I got distracted by another Bradley Domestic Drama. I really need to evaluate the whole “the-brothers-never-argue” thing because honestly? It seems to be happening more and more. I was all set up and prepared for ‘The Talk’ but… It was just that Blake was so focused on his argument with Hunter that the timing wasn’t right.

Will it ever be?

And I guess if I’m being honest with myself, I’m being a coward. I just… I don’t want to hurt him.

I let my hand trail in the ocean, feeling the cool liquid brush between my fingers, drawing strength from the water flowing beneath my board.

Pretending we have a chance will hurt him more.

I know that. It’s best to stop this now. Better for everyone. It’s not like I’m ending it because there’s someone else. I’m ending it because we’re just friends.

Because of Hunter.

Wait- what? No!

The thought is unbidden, unwanted, and totally untrue. Stupid subconscious. This has nothing to do with Hunter. I’m not ending things with Blake just so I can jump into bed with his brother. That’s just… Even the idea of it is… Completely ridiculous.

And did I say untrue? I want to be clear here. It’s totally untrue. I don’t like Hunter in that way and even if I did, he doesn’t like me.

Well, ok, maybe he does like me, but not in a more-than-friends way.

What about Friday?

I feel a smile ghost across my lips as I remember that afternoon and our impromptu storm-drenching. Raising my hand above the surface I watch the water drops form on the tips of my fingers. As one falls I draw on my element, holding it suspended, floating and shimmering in the sunshine before letting it continue its fall back into the ocean. There’s a strange sense of peace surrounding me now. Wayward thoughts calmed for the moment.

I don’t know why I’d sought Hunter out Friday afternoon, tracked him down again, but I had. There had been something at school, I think, that had sent me to Storm Chargers to find him, but on discovering his absence I’d driven up out of town and then hiked a good couple of miles through the woods with the threat of rain on the off-chance I’d find him in his clearing. That isn’t normal behaviour. Not for me.

Maybe it was the thought of him brooding alone or just general worry (because it’s totally not like him to show some sign of weakness in front of Kelly) that had driven me to do it, but whatever my reasons the results were unexpected. We hadn’t really spoken but sitting there in silence was… I don’t know. It was nice. But ‘nice’ seems like such a poor descriptor. It was more than nice; it was natural and comfortable and familiar and all those sorts of words.

I’d felt happy.

And then the storm had arrived, all rushing wind and pelting rain and a mad, dangerous dash back through mud and trees. Drenched to the skin and freezing cold. Then came that moment; Hunter holding me against my van, his strong arms supporting me, my hands pressed against his chest, feeling his heart beating under my palms… That moment of calmness; of just the two of us, oblivious to the surrounding storm. That moment when laughter died on his face and I thought for one stupid little second that he was going to kiss me. That moment when I’d wanted him to kiss me-

Stop it.

These are not thoughts I should be having. Especially not when I’m kinda dating his brother.

Not dating. About to break up with.

No.

I don’t like this part of me that keeps rearing its head. She’s ugly and selfish and mean and isn’t me.

But worryingly, I’m beginning to think she is…

I’m not liking these thoughts at all; I need a distraction and the waves just aren’t playing nice this morning. They’re meant to get better this afternoon (not that I keep an eye on the forecast at all; of course not) so maybe I’ll have time to surf later. Training will have to suffice until then. Judging by the sun it’s almost a decent hour so I head back to shore for breakfast and a hot shower before starting the routine round-up of the boys in my van.

It’s Dustin’s turn to ride shotgun and I let him distract me with his chatter even as I cast a glance at the Bradleys in my rear view mirror. Blake looks happier today, more relaxed, and I figure they’ve sorted whatever issue it was they’d been fighting about. Hunter, as usual, looks completely unruffled.

Once at Ninja Ops the boys pile around the table, setting up text books to catch up with homework as yesterday’s alien attack meant our usual Saturday study time hadn’t happened. Hunter disappears pretty much immediately, probably to the dojo to hit the punching bag. Cam’s by his computer as usual and he gives me a small smile in greeting which I return, glad we’re getting back to friendly footing. 

I move over to join the boys at the table and notice they’ve taken up their customary places; Shane and Dustin on one side, Blake on the other and a space for me beside him. I find myself hesitating for the briefest of moments before dropping next to him, pulling out my own books and doing my best to act normal. I wonder if the awkwardness I’m feeling towards the navy ranger is just in my mind, or if he’s picked up on it too.

He doesn’t seem to have noticed, currently engrossed in some sports marketing book. I try to draw my mind back to the poetry I’m meant to be studying but concentration is difficult. I can’t lose myself in my work as I normally can, perhaps because I dislike the poems I’m meant to be reading.

Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

I have to stifle the smile that pulls my lips as I recall Hunter’s enthusiastic rendition of some nonsense poem I’d never heard of. It’d made me laugh and caught my interest enough to look up the rest of it once I’d dried myself off that night. I’d even printed a copy to give to him…

Damn. I need to stop this, this constant thinking about Hunter. It isn’t good, or right. And I don’t understand why. I’m thankful when Sensei calls an end to homework time and splits us up into sparring pairs. I’m glad I’m with Dustin; he always seems to have a read on my emotions, knows when I need to talk and when I just need to be distracted, and I’m able to forget my worries, just focus on training. It helps that the others seem content with their pairings too; Shane with Blake and Hunter with Cam.

The relative calm lasts for all of half an hour.

Perhaps less, though I only notice the discord when Dustin and I pause to grab a mouthful of water. I look over to see Hunter dancing just out of Cam’s reach, hands lower than they should be, posture casual, refusing to engage properly with the green ranger before abruptly going on the offensive, pushing the other man back. His strikes come within a hairs-breath of Cam’s face before he dances back out of reach once more, behaviour unpredictable and infuriating to be on the end of. It’s obvious to me that Hunter’s being deliberately provocative; for whatever reason he’s trying to wind Cam up, test him, and I can see the Samurai’s irritation. It’s well-hidden and seemingly under control, but it is there.

Cam isn’t stupid; he knows what Hunter’s doing too, knows he’s being pushed, and I wonder how long it’ll be before he decides to push back.

We don’t need this.

Everyone is finally starting to get along, to mesh and work together as a team. The last thing we need is a full-on fight between our two older (and, in theory, wiser) members. If they blow up at each other, sides will be drawn and I know where loyalties lie. It would be the Bradleys versus the rest of the boys all over again. That can’t happen.

I feel Sensei’s eyes on me, and I’m sure he’s aware of what I’m about to do before I’ve even fully made up my mind. I take his lack of interference as acceptance and, with a quick apology to Dustin, storm over to insert myself between the two men.

“That’s enough,” I snap, my voice commanding their attention.

Two pairs of eyes fix themselves on me; one brown and surprised, and the other cool blue, calm but with a flicker of… curiosity?

“This is stupid. Cam, please train with Dustin. You can help him with his kick defences.” I turn my scowl on the older Bradley brother. “Hunter, you’re coming with me.”

“Where?” He crosses his arms, not quite meeting my gaze.

“Out,” I say firmly, pointing to the exit. For a moment it looks like he’s about to protest but I wave my finger at him in as menacing a way as I can manage. “Out,” I repeat, letting him know with my tone of voice that there’s no room for arguments.

He stares at me for a second, some unreadable emotion flickering across his face, but finally he stalks across the room to wait at the bottom of the stairs.

The brief exchange has drawn the notice of Shane and Blake and I can feel their gaze as well as Cam’s on me as I join Hunter in heading for the exit. Shane seems confused but Dustin mutters something in his ear and his face slides into an expression of cautiously-pleased. Cam just looks disapproving and Blake… I try not to look at the younger Bradley but a quick glance shows he seems outwardly unmoved by events but there’s a hint, the barest flicker in his eyes that I think is suspicion but I can’t be sure and I don’t want to be sure about because if there is I know it’ll stay with me, haunt me, the whole time I’m with his brother and I don’t want that... whatever that feeling is.

Guilt…

I stride past Hunter, a faint niggling at the back of my mind whispering if I’m doing the right thing in going off with the crimson ranger again, Cam’s voice in my head asking if I know what I’m doing… I walk up the cold stone steps and emerge out of the gloom in to brilliant sunlight, blinking as my eyes take a few seconds to adjust and in that moment Hunter is beside me, a smirk on his face.

I glare at him, the Samurai’s warnings draining from my mind like water in the light of day.

“You can be a real ass, you know.” He blinks at me, looking slightly hurt, and I shake my head. “Don’t play innocent. I know exactly what you were doing with Cam and enough is enough.”

“He started it.” Hunter sounds almost sulky.

“Oh, really?” By upsetting me, is the implication but I’m not planning on starting an argument with the Thunder ninja. “Well you don’t have to continue it. Whatever was going on between me and Cam is firstly none of your business and secondly over with. I don’t need you stirring things up.”

He stares at me, blue eyes shadowed, baleful. “So what now?”

“Honestly Hunter? I don’t care. I just needed you to not be around Cam. Way I see it, you have two choices: you can go off by yourself and mope, or you can come with me and get rid of some of that attitude you’re carrying around. Your choice. Decide.” And with that I set off down the mountain, leaving him standing alone.

I’m through the portal and almost back at my van when I hear footsteps coming after me and a satisfied smile crosses my face. Hunter materialises as a silent shadow at my heels, but I refuse to speak or even acknowledge him first.

Finally as we reach my van he gives in. “So… where are we going?”

I open the driver’s door and grin at him through the passenger window. “Surfing,” I say, flicking the lock so he can clamber in next to me.

He seems bemused by my answer. “Surfing?”

I flash him my brightest smile. “Yup.” My tone is cheerful and carefree. “I think you have some issues to work out.” As do I. “Surfing is the best cure, trust me.”

He mutters something under his breath, which I can’t quite make out, but he catches my eye and gives me a shy half-smile. “Okay, okay. You win.”

“Oh Hunter, I always do,” I say cockily, a surge of happiness flooding through me as I start the engine and pull out onto the main road.

For some reason I want to laugh, but restrain myself, and I notice Hunter giving me a strange sideways glance. I don’t care. With the sunlight dappling down from between the leaves, the warm wind blowing in from the open window and this enigma of a man beside me, everything suddenly feels sort of right.

XxX

I can’t help but giggle as Hunter emerges from the changing room, self-consciously pulling at the rash vest he’d borrowed. It doesn’t fit; too tight across the chest and riding up at his waist, revealing tanned skin and taut muscle above his low-slung boardies.

Hunter catches my eyes on him and puts his hands on his hips, giving me an incredulous look. “Tori Hanson! Are you checking me out?” His tone is confidant, teasing, but despite that there’s also a hint of reticence behind it, as if he’s not sure how I’ll take his words.

I feel my cheeks flush and I hope to cover my embarrassment of being caught with a laugh.

“In your dreams.” I make my voice as derisive as possible. But as I walk past I can’t resist remarking, “Loving the outfit.”

He snorts and pads after me to get the boards from my van. I grab my own short board and give him my old mini mal which is perfect for beginners. The waves aren’t great; bigger than this morning but messy and blown out by the steady on-shore wind. But it doesn’t really matter. This isn’t about surfing; this is about giving Hunter a way to release some of the pent up aggression, anger, emotions I’m almost certain he has building up inside. It’s about me dealing with him, and if I’m to do that I want to do it in a place where I have control. And nowhere is better than where I’m surrounded by my element.

We reach the water’s edge but instead of running straight in I lay my board down, pressing the fins into the sand and gesture for Hunter to do the same. He raises an eyebrow questioningly at me but does as I do.

I give him a sweet smile. “If we’re doing this, we’re doing it properly. And properly means first learning how to pop up correctly.”

When he doesn’t argue, I lie down on my board and demonstrate the correct technique for catching a wave and then getting to your feet; a smooth, well-practiced motion that I do without thinking. I find myself having to consciously slow down and talk through each movement. It’s tricky; I’ve been doing it so long the ‘why’ has been lost; this is just natural. But I drag through my memories and remember the things my mom tells her kids at the surf club. Why you put your foot here; why your weight should be just so; why your arms should be like that. I run through it a couple of times, Hunter watching me intently, nodding at my explanations.

“Okay, your turn,” I say as I step off my board.

He lies down on his immediately, with not even an eye roll or sigh of protest, and mimics my movements; three strong strokes and then his hands come to rest under his chest, pushing his body up and bringing his feet forward to land beneath him.

Not bad.

“Hold it,” I call before he can move and gently use my hands to correct his stance.

As my fingers first brush against him he tenses up instantly. I wonder if he even knows he’s doing it. But then he seems to make a conscious effort to relax, unclenching his muscles and allowing me to physically readjust his balance, centre of gravity and foot placement.

“Like this,” I tell him, jumping back onto my own board to demonstrate where his feet should be.

He studies me carefully and I suddenly feel exposed, awkward, under his gaze. Feeling my cheeks heat I mumble at him to “Get on with it” and then turn away, pretending to watch the waves when all I want to do is hide my face for no good reason. When I do turn back to Hunter it’s to see him still practicing his pop ups. He has the most adorable look of concentration on his face and it dawns on me that he’s taking this seriously.

I have to admit I’m surprised and more than a little pleased. Neither Shane or Dustin have ever shown the slightest interest in my sport and Blake’s always seemed to do it to humour me, rather than because he has any real desire to learn.

I grab my board and touch him on the shoulder, once again initiating contact. “Enough practice, let’s get in there,” I tell him with a grin. We wrap the velcro straps of the leash around our ankles and wade out until the water reaches waist deep. Standing in the white water, I wait for one of the sets to roll past and then turn to Hunter, slapping his board with my palm. “Hop on.”

He does so, laying precariously on the surfboard as I steady it for him, letting my own float off; the gentle tugging on my ankle assuring me of its presence.

“Right,” I say, keeping my eye on the incoming waves. “When I tell you, I want you to start paddling. The white water’s going to take the board and when you feel that I want you to pop up just like you practiced.” At that moment a wave collapses down behind us, foam roaring and I grin. “Start paddling.”

He does just as instructed and I watch his progress as the bubbling water surrounds me. I see him pop to his feet, shakily and awkward but he’s up and he stays up. Admittedly it’s far from pretty and lasts all of about fifteen seconds but for a first go it’s good. Suspiciously good.

“You’ve surfed before,” I accuse him, not angrily, as he wades back out re-join me, a large grin adorning his face.

He shakes his head at me, droplets of water flying out from his wet hair. “No, honestly Tor. I haven’t. This is my first time.” I raise an eyebrow sceptically and his grin widens. “Must be all that ninja training paying off.”

“Well at least it’s coming in useful for something,” I say, sticking my tongue out at him childishly.

Hunter laughs; another deep, rich, vibrant laugh that lightens my heart. “I am just that awesome,” he says boastfully.

I laugh too and swat him playfully on his arm. “Okay then Kelly Slater, let’s get out back and see how good you really are.”

He turns to look apprehensively at the breaking waves. “Out past all that lot?”

“Sure. Big strong man like you should have no problem paddling out.”

And with that I turn my own board to begin paddling towards the walls of water. Hunter follows me, copying my actions. As the first wave reaches us, on the cusp of breaking onto our heads, I push down and duck dive safely out of the way. I surface on the other side and turn in time to see Hunter’s board being thrashed about in the turbulent foam, and I know he’s somewhere underneath the mass being dragged back towards shore. Finally he surfaces, coughing and spluttering with hair hanging limply over his face; a drowned rat in a too-tight rash vest.

I can’t help but laugh and I can feel him glaring at me from here. Yanking on his leash to pull the board back into range he jumps back on and begins paddling again… only to be hit by another incoming set with a similar effect. After his third attempt also fails I can see frustration starting to show and he scowls in my direction, calling out to me, “Any tips, Sensei?”

His tone is the opposite of his expression; amused and filled with good humour.

“Paddle harder,” I yell back, fighting to keep a straight face and failing.

In the end I give in and manoeuvre myself back into the impact zone to lend a hand, his larger board more unwieldy in getting past the breaking waves until I teach him to turtle roll; flipping the board over and allowing the wave to pass easily overhead. As last we both make it beyond the chaos and out into the calmer water.

Hunter lies face down on his board, arms dangling into the water. “That,” he mumbles, “Is far harder than it looks.”

I sit straddling my board and smile in sympathy at his words. I sometimes forget how difficult I found the simple things when I first learnt, and I tell Hunter so. “Trust me, it gets easier. I’ll make a surfer out of you yet.”

He mutters something muffled in response and while he continues to lie draped across his board I look back at the shore, watching the people on the beach and being glad I’m not among them. It’s not that I mind crowds, or other people, but I never feel the same way with others as I do when I’m out at sea, on my own. This feeling hasn’t been diminished by Hunter’s presence; in fact, in an odd way the sense of peace I get out here has only been increased by the Thunder ninja being with me.

And then I realise I’ve been subconsciously drawing on my element again.

I turn back to my silent companion to find he has recovered somewhat and has copied me in straddling his board. He’s watching me with a strange expression on his face and I raise an eyebrow at him questionably. “What?”

He shrugs at me. “You look… different.”

“Jeez Hunter, way to make a girl feel special,” I tease, and his cheeks colour.

“That’s not what I meant,” he says with a frown. “You’re… I don’t know… I’d say happier but that’s not right.” He’s struggling to explain himself, but I think I know what he’s getting at. I’m proved right when he continues, “It’s like you’re part of the water, of the ocean. You’re not just surrounded by your element; you are your element. But… not.” He shrugs helplessly, clearly frustrated by his inability to articulate what he wants to say. “I’m no good with words.”

“I know what you mean,” I reply softly, comfortingly. And I do. Though I am surprised he’s picked up on it. Only Sensei and Dustin have ever really understood what the ocean means to me. “Being out here; it’s more than just surfing.” I let my gaze drift across the expanse of water, feeling the calm strength seep into me. “I feel secure here. Safe, in a way I rarely feel anywhere else. I guess I can’t explain it very well either. But the ocean always feels like home.”

 “Home… I’ve forgotten what that feels like.”

He speaks so quietly I almost don’t hear his words amongst the noise of the waves and the cry of seabirds. Looking at him I sense his mood change; the shadows behind his eyes darkening and his smile slipping. For the first time I see real sadness cross his face, true emotion. But then it’s gone, replaced by that mask he always wears; the mask I hate because it isn’t him, it isn’t my Hunter.

I quickly change the subject. “Okay mister; let’s see how good you really are.”

I indicate the incoming set and Hunter quirks a grin at me, bravado returning.

He doesn’t quite manage to stand on the green waves, getting close a few times but soon the cold Pacific waters begin to bite, leaving us both shivering. Our eyes meet and unspoken agreement passes between us. We turn our boards for shore.

Once safe on dry land, Hunter lets his board fall to the sand and drops down to join it. “Whoever says surfing isn’t a sport is a damn liar,” he mumbles lying back, hands linked behind his head.

I sit down beside him, mindful of the distance between us, and watch the sun begin its descent into the ocean; the gathering dusk sending dark purple shadows stretching across the ground. The peace I’d felt in the ocean has remained with me and I’m happy, content, to just sit.

But Hunter seems restless; I see him beginning to eye the setting sun and I shoot him a questioning look.

“I should be getting back,” he says, sounding almost apologetic. “Blake’s on the late shift at Storm Chargers and I said I’d get dinner ready before I go to work.”

Oh yeah, I’d forgotten Hunter has a mysterious other job. He doesn’t say what it is but I take the fact he even mentioned it to me as a positive sign.

“I’ll drive you,” I tell him and there’s a warm sensation my stomach when he doesn’t argue with me.

The drive across town to the Bradley’s apartment takes barely minutes and as I swing the van into the car park I’m struck by a sudden thought; the memory from school on Friday that had made me want to see Hunter that afternoon.

“That’s what I was going to ask you,” I begin, pulling into a parking space. “They’ve been asking at school for yearbook pictures and I was hoping to find some silly ones of Blake. I’ve already got some good ones of the boys; Shane’s housekeeper gave me some in revenge for years of Dustin and Dustin’s sisters were more than happy to dig out some of him but…” I almost say I wasn’t sure if Blake had any childhood photos, given everything the brothers have been through, but I catch myself. “… I was wondering if you had any that might be suitable. Or unsuitable.” I wink at him and he laughs.

“Sure, I might have one or two. You want to come up and have a look?”

He says it so casually I’m almost giving him a teasing (and certainly inappropriate) reply, something about him inviting me up to his place, before my brain properly engages but thankfully the words dry in my throat as I suddenly understand what he’s asking; he’s inviting me in.

“Okay Hunter,” I say softly, turning the engine off and removing the keys.

We don’t speak again until we reach his apartment. Our silence is punctuated by the sounds of the other people in his block; here a dog barking, there a woman yelling, a baby crying and a man shouting a stream of unrepeatable abuse at someone. The corridors are dark and I find myself keeping as close to Hunter as possible. I hadn’t really noticed how nasty this place was when I came with Shane and Dustin, probably because we were talking loudly and concentrating on finding the Bradley’s number, and hoping Hunter wouldn’t take our invasion of their home too badly. Hunter’s jaw is set and I know he’s aware of every noise that filters in to the corridor, and he’s aware I am too. I am relieved when we at last stop at his door and he unlocks it, giving it a shove as the key sticks slightly in the lock. He holds it open and gestures me inside.

The apartment looks as bad as it did before; run down and poorly furnished. Hunter watches me carefully as I allow my eyes to roam over the tiny kitchenette, peeling paint, broken cupboards, and the miserable-looking mattress in the corner of the living room where I know Hunter sleeps. The bed, if it can be called that, is unmade, sheets knotted in a heap in the centre and the pathetic excuse for a pillow dented and flattened.

I return my gaze to Hunter and he stares at me challengingly, almost daring me to say something. When I don’t, he drops his eyes, suddenly awkward. Striding across the room, he pulls a battered shoebox out from one of the untidy piles of clothes scattered around his mattress and thrusts it at me.

“Have a rummage through that,” he tells me gruffly. “Not sure if any’ll be good though. They’re mostly from when we were small, maybe a couple from the Thunder Academy and that’s about it. You want a drink?”

The last question is abrupt – a change of subject – and I give a distracted “Yes” as I sit down gingerly on the grubby-looking sofa. Hunter busies himself in the kitchen as I gently lift the lid of the box. It looks old and has clearly been through a lot, as have its contents if the torn edges and slight creases in some of photos are anything to go by. Carefully I draw out a stack of pictures and begin looking through them just as Hunter returns, setting two glasses of juice down on the table before dropping onto the other end of the sofa, close enough to see what I’m doing but far enough away to satisfy all his ‘personal space’ issues.

I’m struck by how normal the photos are. Ok, so I hadn’t been expecting images of flying kids and lightening and ninjas but I guess I thought there’d be something, something to suggest they were anything other than ordinary. Maybe a sign of what lay ahead for them.

But of course there isn’t. Just the usual family photos and candid moments; dinners times and play times and trips to the park. Just a mom, a dad and two small children. They act as a stark reminder of just how much the Bradleys have lost, and how much we take our own families for granted. A photo of two boys covered in mud makes me snort and I look up to see Hunter’s blue eyes on me.

“What is it?”

I wave the picture at him. “Dare I ask?”

In response he scoots over a little to get a better look and then grins, taking it from my hand. “Oh yeah, that was the day we gave the dog a bath.”

“… In mud?!”

Hunter laughs, shaking his head. “No, the dog ended up sparkling as I remember. Mom went mad though, ‘specially when Blake tracked the mud across the living room carpet. It was white… Up ‘til then anyway.”

I join in his laughter, still giggling as I pull out a yellowing envelope and two photographs, older than the others, drop out into my lap. I pick them up carefully, feeling inexplicably like I’m prying but Hunter’s still looking at the last photo, seemingly lost in memories, so I turn them over. The first is one of those formal, staged pictures people get taken at studios, showing a pretty Asian woman cradling a new born baby with a man standing proudly beside them, beaming. I know instantly he must be Blake’s father – his real father – as they have the same dark eyes and short-but-solid builds. The second photo…

I find myself frowning at it, confused. There’s no child in this picture, it’s not posed, rather it’s a snapshot of a young couple caught in an unguarded moment. A young man staring at a blonde woman with a cheeky grin on his face, almost as if he’d just made some joke he’d found hilarious. She’s smiling back, more reserved than him but their eyes… The love they have for each other just seems to shine out and I feel like I’m intruding on some deeply private, intimate moment. I drag my eyes away from the photograph to find Hunter staring at it too, a strange expression on his face.

 “Who are they?” I ask, throat unaccountably dry.

Hunter raises his eyes to mine and I feel my heart sink, knowing he’s not going to give me an answer, waiting for him to brush my question aside.

I’m surprised when he doesn’t.

“My parents.”

His soft admission makes me take a harder look at the photo. Although it was clearly taken many years ago the two people bear very little resemblance to the man and woman we all saw in cave with the Gem of Souls.

The confusion must be showing on my face because Hunter smiles and says, “My real parents, not my adoptive ones.”  

I look from the blond man beside me to the two in the picture, studying them both intently. I’m about to say I don’t see it, but then I do, in the sparkle in the man’s blue eyes and the softness of the woman’s, in her nose and the man’s stance; his posture so resemblant of Hunter’s, even his carefree grin is the mirror-image of the one I see so rarely on the Thunder ninja’s face. It’s probably why I didn’t see the similarities immediately.

There’s sadness behind Hunter’s smile, causing me to temper my tone as I ask, “Who were they?”

He gestures for me to turn the picture over and I find faded works inked onto the back, written in a neat hand. Dean and Hanna.

“That’s all I know,” he says, voice not as calm as before.

I touch his arm gently, testing, and he doesn’t pull away. “What happened to them?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.” For a moment I think that’s all he’s going to say, but he continues abruptly, “Has Blake ever told you how he came to be with us?”

I shake my head. I’ve never been able to bring myself to ask him.

“I was seven when my parents brought him home,” Hunter begins softly. “He was the smallest, scaredest three year old you’ve ever seen.” A smile tugs the corners of his mouth but it’s gone again before it’s really there. “His parents were killed in a car crash. They had some connection to the Thunder Academy and Sensei Omino knew my parents were looking for a little brother or sister for me for me so they managed to adopt him. My parents never hid the fact I was adopted from me, but they used to say they loved me even more because they got to choose me. I never really thought about my real parents until Blake started asking about his, and then I wanted to know about mine.” His eyes cloud over with memories. “They wouldn’t tell me.”

I start in surprise, finding myself echoing his words. “Wouldn’t?”

Hunter shrugs. “At first they said they didn’t know, but for some reason I was never convinced. I dunno, there was this hesitation, discomfort, there, whenever I asked about them. Even a kid could pick up on it. Besides, I was… quite a stubborn child. Persistent.”

“I never would have guessed.” The snarky comment is out of my mouth before my brain engages, but he just gives me a wry smile.

“Yeah I know; what a shocker. Anyway I don’t know whether it was out of sheer frustration or because I threatened to ask Sensei Omino but my mom finally took me aside one evening and swore me to secrecy. Only after I promised to stop badgering her and not to tell anyone else did she give me that photo. She said that was all she knew but I’m pretty sure she was still lying. She’s about as good at is as Blake is,” he finishes with a fond smile, which fades as he realises his mistake. “Was. She was,” he amends and I see the sorrow return.

Desperate to turn the subject back to happier things I look back down into the box and pull out another photograph, laughing at a cake-smeared Blake.

“Care to tell me the story behind this one?”

Hunter looks over, a grin stealing across his face as he sees what’s in my hand. “Now that brings back memories…” He reaches over to take the photo from me, fingers brushing against mine as he does so.

It’s such a small thing; tiny, almost insignificant, the briefest of touches. It should be meaningless, innocent, but it isn’t. I’m suddenly super-aware of the man beside me, every nerve tingling, on edge for some unknown reason. I can hear the faint sounds of his breathing, feel the warmth radiating from his body and smell the saltwater on his skin.

As if sensing my shifting discomfort, the blond glances from the photo to my face and our eyes lock. I freeze, my heart beating so loudly in my chest I’m sure he can hear it and the blood rushes to my face.

I see concern flicker in his eyes. “Tori…”

I don’t know if he says my name as a warning but his voice makes me shiver and I just… I can’t pull away. I can’t move. I can’t speak. I can’t think. And Hunter…

Is leaning towards me-

Or am I leaning into him-

I don’t-

-can’t do this-

-want to do this-

…oh hell.

And then his lips are on mine, hands pulling me tight into him and Hunter is the only thing I can think about, my every sense filled with him, with his scent, his taste, his warmth. The photo slips from my fingers, box tumbling to the floor but I barely register either event. There’s just Hunter; fire and sparks and life behind his kiss. How different to Blake’s tender, chaste ones. This is passionate, filled with longing and I can’t help but respond in kind, arms reaching up to encircle his neck, body pressed against his as I let the sensations envelop me; fierce, tingling and desperate.

Somewhere deep down, in the little ever-shrinking part of me that’s still managing to think, my subconscious nudges at me, tells me this is wrong but it can’t be wrong. This doesn’t feel wrong. Hunter’s lips stray down my neck and trail kisses across my collar bone. This feels… amazing. His hands are on my waist, fingers sliding beneath the hem of my top, brushing against my skin and sending shivers running through me. I gasp at the contact and then…

Hunter is pulling back, away from me, and I don’t understand, can’t seem to think straight; head is spinning, dazed and I don’t want him to stop. But the lust in his eyes is already swept away by the familiar iron curtain and an expression of horror settles onto his face as he jumps up off the sofa. Pacing the floor, he runs a hand through his hair, distress clear.

“God, Tor, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

I’m not.

“It’s okay,” I reply breathlessly, following him to my feet and trying to reach out for him, but he’s already turning away.

“It’s not,” he whispers hoarsely. “I don’t… I didn’t… Blake…”

In that instant it hits me; all the hints, all the things I’ve observed and thought about Hunter coalesce into one moment of perfect clarity. I understand.

Everything he’s done since his parents died, and I mean everything, he’s done for his brother. I knew he’d given up a lot but I hadn’t realised the actual extent of his devotion, desire to protect, until now.

Drug dealing, the Thunder Academy, work, joining us… All done for Blake. To look after Blake. To give Blake a life. To make Blake happy. Without any consideration of his own wants and needs. The thought of anyone being that… that selfless scares me. It’s beyond normal. And it certainly isn’t healthy.

But in spite of all that, kissing me just might have been the first thing Hunter’s done for himself in a long time.

And he feels guilty about it. Guilty because for once in his life he’s been selfish; he’s put what he wants first-

He wants me.

“You can let yourself be happy, Hunter.”

The words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. By the stiffening of Hunter’s spine and the clenching of his fists down by his sides I see they’ve struck a nerve.

 “Get out.”

His words are stiff, forced out between bared teeth, anger bubbling beneath his usual calm, his mask beginning to crumble. I ignore the threat implicit in his tone and posture. I don’t know why, but something pulls me towards him. The same thing that’s been drawing me closer to him for weeks now. Hunter kissed me and I… I have to let him know that it’s ok. Well not ok, because Blake- but ok with me. He hasn’t offended me, or taken advantage, or… done anything I didn’t want him to.

“No,” I say, voice firm. “You can’t push me away. I won’t let you. I care about you, Hunter. And I’m pretty sure you care about me. It’s not wrong to care. It’s not wrong to feel.

At that he spins to face me, eyes blazing with such fury I take an involuntary step back.

 “That’s what you think this is about? You think I… I like you? That I’m in love with you?” His voice is suddenly cold, disdain and scorn dripping off every word. “You think that’s why I kissed you? I’m sorry but that wasn’t about love; it was about Blake. I had to know… I wondered what the hell he saw in you. Why you were so special. And you know, I still have no idea. I thought you were different but you’re not. You’re just like any other girl; fickle and unfaithful.”

There’s a painful twang within me as he speaks, a dull shock rippling through my body as his words, like barbed arrows, strike my core.

Lies.

Hunter lies.

I hold on to that thought like drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood, refusing to hear what he’s saying, knowing he’s upset, that he doesn’t really mean these words coming out of his mouth. That he’s just lying to protect himself.

And then I’m reaching out for him again without thinking, ignoring every sign that’s telling me to leave him alone, to not push him any further; sure that if I can just touch him all will be fine. He’ll stop lying. We’ll sort everything out. It will be fine; I just need to reach out.

“Tori- Don’t- Please.” He pulls away from me defensively, as if I’m trying to physically hurt him, everything about his posture warning me to back off.

But I don’t. I won’t. Not this time. We’re so close to something, I know we are. I can see his walls crumbling and behind them-

The sharp crack as his hand connects with my outstretched one, swatting it away from him, echoes round the now-silent room.

The sudden shock of the contact – so unexpected – causes tears to spring to my eyes as I stare at him in horror.

I can’t cry over this. It’s stupid, barely a sting; I’ve been hit far harder in sparring let alone in battle but this is Hunter. Hunter who I’ve started to trust, who I’ve started to care about, who I thought cared for me in return. Who I’d put so much into.

And I can’t- I’m not going to cry in front of him; won’t give him the satisfaction of knowing just how much he’s hurt me, so I swallow hard, holding back the tears and the awful twisting in my stomach and channel them instead into anger. One burst is all I can manage before I know my façade will dissolve so I put all the venom and ferocity I can into my next words.

“Fuck you, Hunter.”

His expression seems to clear, as if reality breaks through to him at last but it’s too late; I’m gone, running out of the apartment, down the dank and dirty corridors and out into the humid night air. I have to get away.

I’m in my van and out onto the main road out of town before I’m aware of myself again; my body operating entirely on autopilot and a bone-chilling numbness seeping through me, dampening the surge of emotions I can feel pulsing below my skin.

You think I… I like you? That I’m in love with you?”

Hunter’s words finally hit me, ripping apart the fragile cocoon of denial I’d tried to build around myself.

You think that’s why I kissed you?”

My hands are trembling on the steering wheel and a watery haze settles across my vision, turning the road ahead into blurs of bright light. I drag the pads of my fingers over my eyes in an attempt to stop the impending flood, but to no avail.

That wasn’t about love.”

Suddenly there’s two white lights in front of me and the unending wail of a car horn. I wretch the steering wheel viciously to pull my van back onto my side of the road just in time; the other driver roaring safely past with another blast of his horn and an angry yell lost to the wind.

Shaking, I bring my van to a halt safely at the side of the road and give in, allowing myself to dissolve into tears, chest heaving and sobs escaping from my lips. I haven’t cried like this since Lily died.

There’s a physical pain in my chest, like someone’s stabbed a knife into my heart and is twisting it; like Hunter’s stabbed a knife into me. And I don’t know why. Why am I reacting like this? It was just a kiss. It was just words. Hell, it was just Hunter. Did I honestly think he held anything other than contempt for me? Am I stupid for believing he could have possibly liked me? I pride myself on my ability to read others. How could I have got him so wrong?

I don’t know why I’m still crying. This shouldn’t matter this much.

But beneath it all, beneath the pain and the hurt is a black pit, a deep well of emptiness that I feel I’m teetering on the edge of; a sickening, overwhelming feeling of loss.

I’ve lost something tonight.

But I don’t know what. I can’t explain it, but I know with every fibre of my being that I’ve lost something precious, something important. I’m mourning for something I never really had.

This must be what it feels like to have your heart broken.

Chapter Text


What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end
And you could have it all; my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

~Johnny Cash

The faintest of brushes as our fingers meet, the most insignificant of touches sending sensations I haven't felt in years running through me, settling in my stomach, and lower… Tori's blue eyes, fixed on mine. That moment when sense deserts me and desire takes over. One moment of pure, wonderful selfishness; of giving in, surrendering to those feelings and emotions that have been pushing at the walls in my mind for days now. One moment of happiness…

..X..

The cold, harsh light of reality pushes through the blinding heat, clearing the fog from my mind as quickly as if I'd been dunked in a bucket of ice water. Lust is replaced by panic and I do what I always when do when feelings are involved – withdraw. Run. Retreat. I need distance, space, between us and I pace the room, babbling my apologies and unable to meet her eyes. Tori's talking; I think she's trying to tell me it's ok but I can barely hear her through the rushing in my ears. She's wrong anyway – it's not ok.

What have I done?

I turn away, running a hand through my hair as I struggle to calm my racing thoughts. I need to think, figure this out, fix this.

Then her voice cuts through the blinding panic, sharp and clear and unmistakable. "You can let yourself be happy, Hunter."

Happy?

I haven't thought about being happy for a while. Not that I'm unhappy I just… never think about it. But there's a sentiment beneath her words that I don't know she really means; a confession on her part that she didn't object to the kiss, that she knows I like her, that she likes me…

The panic returns in full force, heart racing and drumming in ears. This afternoon has gone horribly wrong. I can't- There's no time to deal with this. She can't be here. I don't want her near me. I can feel my spine stiffening; tension seeping into every muscle.

"Get out."

I need her to get away from me. I don't want to hurt her. I don't want to hurt anyone. She needs to go now.

But of course she doesn't. She speaking again and her words… "You can't push me away. I won't let you. I care about you, Hunter. And I'm pretty sure you care about me. It's not wrong to care. It's not wrong to feel."

There's so much honesty in her voice, I believe her. I don't want to, but I do. I close my eyes, fighting and failing to ignore the feelings that are igniting in me. A burning hope and desperate, pathetic yearning for this to be ok; to just give in and tell her that I-

Blake.

A dagger twists in my gut as an image of my brother rises before me, chattering about how pretty Tori is, how well they get along, how much he likes her. A memory of the other night pushes itself forward, my tearful baby brother brought comfort by his own recollections; "I kissed Tori."

I can't do this. We can't do this. It would destroy Blake and I couldn't bear that. He's lost so much; I can't take this – take Tori – away from him too. I can't bear to see my brother in pain. If I- if we carry on this path, there's no future where it ends in happiness for anyone. I've got to stop it before it goes any further. Whatever she thinks this is, whatever idea she's got into her head about us, she's wrong. I know what I'm about to do will hurt her – hurt me – but it's for the best. If I don't, worse will happen.

So I lie.

I tell her that she's not special, that the kiss means nothing; that I don't care about her. Even as the words leave my mouth I want to scream that I don't mean them, but I swallow the urge.

This is the right thing to do.

I don't want to look at her, don't want to see the effect my words are having but I make myself. This is just another role I'm playing, another mask I have to wear. But this pretence isn't for me.

Then Tori's reaching for me again. Still, after everything I've done, after what I've just said, she's still reaching out. I pull back, begging her to leave it, to leave me alone. She can't touch me. I can't let her touch me because if she does I know I'm going to give in. I can feel my resolve slipping, cracks spreading across all my defences, panic rising from the pit my stomach and blood rushing, making my head spin.

"…Please."

But she's still stretching out her arm, fingers a hairsbreadth from mine and I react without thinking, slapping her hand away and pulling back into a defensive stance.

I know straight away it was the wrong thing to do. I feel my heart tighten as her eyes fill with tears and-oh-crap I've messed up. I have to apologise but the words die on my lips as she curses at me and I know if she walks out now it will turn a mistake into a disaster and break something in a way that I'm not sure I'll ever be able to fix. Break something I don't want to break. I shouldn't let her leave, but I do.

And now… now I'm left standing alone in the middle of my suddenly very empty apartment, the front door hanging ajar and Tori's presence still felt on my skin, on my lips…

I want to scream, yell, not sure whether chase after her or punch something – I have the urge to do both. I just want to react, let it out. Let everything out.

The glass on the table catches my eye and I'm seized by an urge to pick it up and throw it against the wall. I want to hear the crash, see the sparkling shards tumble and fall, see it shatter... It should be so easy. The glass is suddenly in my hand; all I need to do is let go. Let it fly. Release it.

But I don't. I never do.

Instead I set it back down carefully onto the cheap wooden surface and give a slow exhale. I do what I always do; keep everything in. Let nothing show. Survive.

I've fucked up. I have made a huge mistake and I don't even know where it began. Or maybe I do, and I just don't want to admit it.

I think I started it, when I started things with Cam this morning.

..X..

Cam in front of me; the faintest signs of irritation beginning to show on the Samurai's normally stoic face as my antics start to wear thin. I mentally steel myself for the anger I know is coming, preparing for the fight to start in earnest, for Cam to strike back. I'm not prepared for the petite water ninja who forces herself between us, all fierceness and fury, commanding our attention and demanding I leave with her.

I wasn't expecting that – wasn't expecting her – so I just… follow.

..X..

If I'm being honest, I don't know what I was really doing with Cam. He'd upset Tori and I think I wanted to goad him into a proper fight so I could, I dunno, defend her honour? I said I was stupid right? It's not like I gave it any thought; it just sort of happened. Sometimes I don't have a plan.

I should probably stick to a script in the future.

It was probably a good thing that Tori stepped in when she did. Splitting me and Cam up before things got nasty was best for everyone and a part of me knew that so I didn't put up a fight. And I confess, the idea of spending more time with her was tempting.

It's been a while since I actually found myself enjoying someone's company. I knew I shouldn't be. I knew I should be keeping my distance, but they were my feelings and if I'm good at anything it's at hiding them, keeping them locked down. Not acting on them.

It's not as if I believed she liked me in that way. I was so sure she didn't, up until the point I wasn't.

She kissed me back.

It wasn't just the kiss though. There other things, other warning signs, that I should have noticed. That I did notice but didn't believe.

..X..

Sunlight and shade. A cool breeze ruffling my hair and blowing away my anger. Tori beside me, just the two of us in her van heading for the beach. A strange sensation of freedom. Something's changed. I don't know what – can't really explain – but there's something in the way she's looking at me; a sideways glance as she takes her eyes of the road for bare seconds, but in those seconds there's a softness in her gaze and a… alightness to her smile that makes me wonder…

And wondering lights that flicker of treacherous, dangerous hope in my chest, a hope that maybe what she feels for me goes beyond friendship too…

..X..

Whether Tori's feelings towards me did or didn't go beyond friendship is inconsequential now. I've hurt her and destroyed whatever relationship we had. She realises now that I'm not a good friend to have. That I'm no good for her. And hopefully any thoughts she might have had about there being something between us have been well and truly erased. Now she can go back to Blake without ever having to give me another thought. They can focus on each other and I- I'll just- Go back to being-

Then it hits me, a tidal wave so strong it sends me to my knees, wrenching apart and pulling down all my carefully constructed walls and barriers; ripping and tearing, exposing every inch of me until there's nothing left but raw nerves and sandpaper air. I can't breathe. My heart is pounding in my chest, palms sweaty and everything is suddenly too hot, too tight, too close. Too real.

It takes every fibre of my being to resist the urge to curl up into a ball and just hide. Hide from the world, from everything, from this wave of feelings; of hurt, of pain and horrible, gut-wrenching, all-consumingloss.

I drop back to rest against the sofa, struggling and failing to stop the onslaught of emotion. I'm forced to acknowledge the truth; the time I've spent with Tori these past few weeks has been the closest I've come to happiness in a long time. And after today… Well, it's not going to happen anymore.

I ruined it. I fucked up. I made a mistake.

But deep down I know it wasn't in kissing Tori; it was telling her it meant nothing.

XxX

Somehow I manage to compose myself enough to leave a note and a microwave meal for Blake. I'm too wound up to eat anything before I head to work; my stomach rolling horribly as I fluctuate between anger (at Tori, at myself, at nothing in particular) and guilt. The walls that were torn down have been rebuilt, but they're fragile, temporary things. My mood isn't improved by the fact that Josh isn't supervising the shift this evening. He's headed off to Nicaragua already for ten days surfing so instead I'm faced with eight hours in the company of one of my least favourite people.

Peter Reed, proprietor and namesake of Reed's Bar, is a tall, thin man of middling years with tobacco-stained hands and a severe dislike of me. The sentiment is mutual. I don't normally work shifts with him. It was Josh that hired me and Peter was distinctly unhappy with them taking on 'a criminal', discovered after running a background check on me. It was only Josh pointing out that a) as my conviction wasn't related to the job they couldn't legally refuse to hire me and b) I'd proved the most competent for the role and as he was going to be the one working with me he didn't have any problems that Peter begrudgingly agreed to employ me.

The fact Peter even felt the need to run a background check on a barman says everything you need to know about the man.

I don't genuinely know how Josh has managed to work for him for so long, the two are mirror opposites. While Josh is laid back, relaxed and willing to let me get on with my job as I please, Peter is exacting, strict and overbearing. Suffice to say, we don't get along. Not helped by, y'know, my issues with authority figures and all that crap. At least that's what he'd say. I maintain it's because he's a dick. But I can (much to Shane's shock, should he ever find out) swallow my pride and get on with my job. It's money. Not much money, but Blake and I need every cent.

So I put on an indifferent expression and go about my work, ignoring Peter as best I can.

XxX

It's getting towards the end of the night when things go wrong.

As soon as they enter the bar I know they'll be trouble. Three men, smartly dressed in suits and shiny shoes, looking for all the world like they've stepped straight out of a business meeting. But on closer inspection I notice their ties are askew, shirts crumpled and they've got that slightly glassy look in their eyes that tells me they've been drinking for a while. They're far from this bar's usual clientele, probably stumbling in from the more upper class establishments in the centre of town which tend to close around midnight; it's only little dive bars like Peter's that stay open into the early hours, catering for the more serious and dedicated drinkers.

This late on a Sunday night the bar is fairly empty; a few regulars – harmless bikers for the most part – and a couple of guys I don't recognise but who don't strike me as troublemakers. I'm not expecting trouble tonight anyway. And it goes without saying I'm hoping for a peaceful shift. I try and keep busy, working hard so I can avoid thinking of Tori and attempt to strengthen my walls. But I'm finding it harder than normal; harder than it should be. I don't feel as raw anymore but the resulting structures remain weak, flimsy things, liable to crack without warning. There's still a maelstrom of emotions whirling underneath, throwing stray thoughts up to the surface when I least expect it, flutters of almost physical pain running through me. And it's exhausting.

Peter hasn't exactly helped but luckily he's mostly ignored me, aside from his usual, barely-pleasant demeanour. As it's quiet, he's spent the majority of the evening in the office, out of the bar and out of my way. Which has probably been best for both of us.

I said I was hoping for a peaceful night. As soon as I see the three men I know the chances of that have all but evaporated. Surely I should have learned about the futility of hope by now?

The men are loud, brash and garrulous, full of alcohol-fuelled energy. As they approach, I hear one remark to the others about what a dump this place is. Although "overhear" is probably the wrong word, as he says it so loudly I wouldn't have been surprised if someone standing a street away heard.

Reaching the bar the loudmouth slaps his hand down on the wooden surface firmly. "Three bears," he demands, barely a glance at me, too busy grinning at his friends.

I comply, keeping my mouth shut. I know my state right now and I don't trust myself not to say something snarky in reply.

They take their beers and find themselves a table where they carry on with no regard for any of the other patrons. One beer each turns into many, but aside from being obnoxiously loud and a bit rowdy, they don't appear to be looking to cause conflict. The situation doesn't remain stable for long.

I'm not entirely sure how or why it starts. I'm out clearing glasses when suddenly there's a commotion behind me and I turn to see one of the men – the loudmouth – standing and squaring up to one of the regulars, David, a biker who I know lives only a few doors down the street.

I set the glasses I've collected down on a nearby table and hurry across the room to intervene.

"Hey, hey, hey. What's going on here?" I ask, inserting myself between them, putting a hand flat against their chests to break them apart.

The man in the suit ignores me, acting for all the word like I'm invisible. "I was just having a joke, bro. Don't be so touchy."

David scowls right back at him, beard practically bristling with ire. "Well don't appreciate being referred to as a 'deadbeat', nor do I like complete strangers making assumptions about my personal life just because I'm having a quiet beer here." He turns to me, tempering his tone. "I'm sorry Hunter, but the guy's being a dick."

I sigh and shoot the biker an apologetic look before fixing my attention onto the three men, adopting a mollifying tone. "Why don't you guys just sit down and have a quiet drink. No one wants any trouble, okay?"

David's already moving away, heading towards the bar and I silently promise myself I'll spot him a free beer.

"Hey bro, you're the barman right?" the loudmouth says with a smirk to the other two men. "So why don't you just keep your opinions to yourself and go get us another round."

He turns his back to me, signalling the conversation is over. I glance around the bar and catch David's eye. He grins at me, knowing what's coming. Reed's Bar might not have many rules, but disrespecting the guy that serves the drinks is a big no-no. I reach out and tap the leader on his shoulder.

"I'm going to have to ask you to leave," I tell him, fighting to keep my voice calm.

The guy spins to face me, the others also rising from their seats to display a united front. I'm not intimidated.

"Look bro, I don't know what sorta power trip you've got going on here but you listen to me. We're not going to be pushed around by some jumped up littl-ah-"

He's jabbing a finger in to my chest as he speaks and something in me snaps. I reach up to snag his wrist, grabbing and twisting it into a lock. The man gives a yelp as the pain causes him to fall to his knees at my feet.

"Seriously 'bro', do not mess with me tonight," I hiss at him, leaning forward so he can hear me clearly. "Now you listen to me. You're going to get up, get your friends and get out. Do you understand?"

He nods, wincing as I increase the torque on his wrist to make my point. "Yes, yes, I get it. Okay."

I hold eye contact for a moment longer, before releasing him. He draws his arm back into his chest, cradling his wrist in one hand and massaging it with the other in an attempt to rid himself of any lingering pain. The look he shoots my way as he makes his way to his feet is one of pure venom.

But then his friends are there, helping him up and the tension seems to leave him, arms dropping to his sides in apparent defeat. I assume that's it, trouble over. But I'm wrong.

I've overheard customers discussing the kelzaks and how much they'd hate to fight them. I can see their point; kelzaks are strong, powerful and solid. And there's normally never just one. They're formidable opponents, if you don't know them. But they're also wonderfully unimaginative and woefully inadaptable; if one attack fails you can guarantee they'll just try the same thing again. Too stupid to be duplicitous I'd take fighting kelzaks over a person any day. Because humans… Humans can be all of the above and more. They can be rash, devious and most of all unpredictable.

Unpredictable is dangerous.

Which is why I don't see the punch coming until it's too late to block.

I'm jerking my head back but the man's first connects beneath my eye, in almost the same place that Shane caught me the other day, the bruise from that encounter only just having faded. The pain barely registers before I feel my body moving, shifting automatically into fight mode, stance lowering, so when the second punch comes in I'm ready.

It's a slow, wild haymaker, laughably easy to block and I do so, knocking his arm aside and jabbing straight and true into the loudmouth's face. I catch him squarely on the nose and just have time to see his eyes tear up at the contact before his two friends rush in to join the fight.

There's not much time to think after that, just react. Each blow met by a block and followed by a counter strike, constantly moving, adjusting my weight and shifting my feet to adapt to each new attack. Feeling the flow, the dance of combat, always on the defensive, holding myself back enough to not seriously damage them but letting go some of the control I normally maintain when sparring. Blood is pumping through my veins; adrenaline singing and I feel strangely alive. There's a yelp to my right and out of the corner of my eye I see one of the guys bent over, wind knocked out of him by a probable punch to the stomach from David, who's come to my aid.

There's movement to my left and I spin to face the loudmouth, hands raised, our eyes meeting and I see there's a wariness behind his anger now; the alcohol-rage fading somewhat as he begins to realise he's not facing 'just' a barman. I grin at him, centering myself and catching a breath as I wait for his next attack. The man starts moving, approach more slow and steady and then-

"What the fuck is going on here?"

The furious voice makes us freeze and with a sinking heart I turn to see Peter has returned to the bar.

Red-faced and tight-lipped he strides across the floor towards us. Putting himself between me and the three men he fixes his eyes firmly on me, to him the obvious source of the disturbance. "Well? I'm waiting for an answer?"

The loudmouth runs his fingers under his nose and I feel a little bit satisfied to see them come away red with blood. "Your barman attacked us," he accuses, glaring at me from behind Peter's shoulder.

"Hunter didn't start it. He was just finishing it," David the biker interjects, a touch of pride and approval in his voice as he give me a supportive nod.

The bar owner massages his temples wearily. "I'm really not interested in who started it. It stops, now." He turns to me angrily. "You'll apologise and get these men another drink, on the house." His tone brooks no room for debate.

Behind him, the three men start grinning, one of them waving his empty beer bottle at me tauntingly.

I'm furious and so, so close to turning round and punching Peter right now, but luckily there's a small, sane part of my brain that is still functioning which screams at me that would be a bad idea. I need to calm down, but as I only had a tenuous grasp on my emotions coming into the bar this evening it's a struggle I'm not going to win. With Peter right here in front of me, and the idiots three grinning at me from the sidelines, I just can't take it anymore.

"No."

Peter stares at me, shock apparent on his face as my words register, which gives way to black fury. "If you still want a job, you'll do as you're told," he growls at me

That really is the last straw. I don't think about the implications of my decision, I just react.

"You know what? Screw you. You can take your stupid job and shove it for all I care," I snap and before anyone can say another word, before Peter says something that really will make me strike him, I turn on my heel and storm out, the bar door slamming shut behind me with finality, leaving me standing alone in the darkness of the street.

My breathing is heavy and the faintest of tremors start in my hands as the adrenaline begins to seep away. I need some space, some air and head off down the poorly lit streets, no clear direction in mind.

It soon becomes clear that I haven't left the bar alone.

I am aware that the tread of footsteps behind me have been following for about two blocks now. I pick up my pace, sure it's the guy or one of his friends coming after me. I take a sharp right and stop suddenly, back against the wall, to wait for my stalker. If he wants payback he can have it here and now.

The footsteps speed up, obviously trying to catch up with me before I can disappear. As they round the corner I step out to confront them, hands raised in fists.

It's not the guy from the bar.

At least, it's not the loudmouth or his friends. Instead it's a well-dressed man in perhaps his early thirties; one of the strangers I hadn't recognised. Cropped dark hair, showing the first traces of grey, shorter than me in stature, though heavier; signs of a previous athleticism now lost to age and lack of exercise. He doesn't seem that surprised to find me standing in front of him but he still backs off carefully, hands out in a placating manner.

"I don't want trouble." His voice is soft, but there's no fear in his tone.

"So why are you following me?" I demand aggressively. After everything that's happened to me so far today it's fair to say my temper is more than just frayed.

"I saw what happened in the bar," he says evenly. "I think you might be looking for work."

"And you have a job for me?" I can't keep the sceptical tone from my voice and I take a closer look at this stranger. Cheap suit and even cheaper gold jewellery. I know where this is going. I've known men like this. "I'm not interested," I say sharply and turn to walk away.

"Wait, you don't know what I'm offering yet." The man catches my arm and I glare at him, knowing anger is flooding from my eyes. He removes his hand as quickly as he'd grabbed me.

"I don't need to hear you out," I say from between gritted teeth. "Cocaine, heroin, marijuana… whatever the hell it is you want me to sell. Been there, done that, got the rap sheet. I'm not interested."

His reaction is unexpected and I find myself standing there in surprise as he begins to laugh.

"I don't do drugs, kid," he says, slapping me on the shoulder. He may be oblivious to my irritation, but my patience has now worn through.

"What the hell do you want?" I don't quite yell, but my tone is cold and definitely unfriendly.

He surveys me for a long moment, giving me the once over, and I feel like I'm being measured in some way. I shift uncomfortably under his scrutiny.

Finally he speaks, "Let's get a beer and talk. I'm buying," he adds, as if remembering what's just happened.

I cross my arms across my chest and give him a look. "Is it legal?"

There's probably a million things I should be asking this man right now, but that's all I can manage.

"Strictly speaking no. But it's more legal than selling drugs. And the pay is decent." He sounds honest at least, though my track record shows I am such a great judge of character. But my resolve is crumbling and he seems to know that as he continues, "Look, one beer and you can walk away. No commitment required. I promise."

I sigh, but my will power tonight – this morning; whatever godforsaken hour this is – is pretty much non-existent. The events of the past hour are beginning to sink in and it's starting to look like I do need a new job, and I really could use a beer.

"Fine, just the one," I hear myself say, pushing down the misgivings my overly-active brain is trying to throw up at me.

Ten minutes later I find myself sitting in a bar that's smaller and shabbier that Reed's, ensconced in a booth slightly away from the other equally shabby-looking patrons. The stranger joins me, placing himself on the other side of the table and pushes over a bottle of beer. He raises his in salute but I ignore him and instead take a long drink from mine. The chilled beer feels refreshing and a soothing glow begins to spread from my stomach.

I feel my anger dampen and in a far more cooperative voice say, "So, what's this job?"

The man doesn't respond immediately, rather sips at his beer, savouring it. Swallowing another mouthful he reaches in to his wallet and pulls out a business card, sliding it across the table towards me. Withdrawing his hand he gestures for me to take it.

I push down the irritation I can again feel growing inside me and pick up the card. It simply says 'Frank Williams: Fight Promoter'.

I raise an eyebrow. "I'm not sure I understand."

The man – Frank – smiles at me. "I saw you fight. You're not bad. A bit rough around the edges but with a bit of training you could do well. Maybe even make it to the big leagues."

TrainingBig leagues? "What are you talking about?"

"Son, you ever heard of mixed martial arts? UFC?"

I nod slowly. Sure, I'm aware of them. We watched one of the live events as a team recently, and it degenerated into Shane, Blake and Dustin arguing over which techniques would be effective against one of Lothor's aliens and whether Shane could take out Anderson Silva (Shane and Dustin said yes, Blake said no and Tori backed him up… It ended in an impasse as I had no opinion either way). I've been fairly ambivalent to the whole thing, and I still don't see where this conversation is going.

The confusion is showing on my face, my usual mask long lost after the events of the day, because he doesn't wait for me to answer. "I set up fights. Small time stuff, mostly in bars. There's one next week and one of my regulars cancelled. I need a fighter and I think you just might do."

I find myself gaping at him. This was not what I'd been expecting at all. I mean, I knew guys fought for money as amateurs but I'd never even given it a passing thought as being something I could – or would – do. I know I should probably just walk away now; Sensei Kanoi would not condone this course of action for certain but curiosity gets the better of me.

"When is it?" I ask, taking another sip of beer as I wait for his answer.

Frank gives me a considering look. "Friday night," he replies eventually.

"I work Friday nights," I tell him and he snorts in response.

"You just got fired," he points out before taking a swing of his own drink.

I correct him, keeping my tone light, "I walked out, remember? Who's to say I won't go back?"

The man smiles at me and shakes his head. "You seem a smart kid, so don't play stupid with me. We both know you're not going back after that. And even if you did, Peter won't have you. You defied him; stood up to him. He'd want you to beg for your job back and you don't seem like the type."

I'm secretly impressed by Frank's astute grasp of the situation and my opinion of the man improves somewhat. He's not entirely right though; if I thought it would get my job back I would swallow my pride and beg. But-

"I doubt even begging would help," I mutter. It's Frank's turn to look confused and I explain, "He doesn't like me. He only took me on 'cos they needed the staff." I pause and debate my next words before saying carefully, "He had issues with hiring someone who's got a criminal record."

I wait for Frank's response and am pleasantly surprised when he seems to take it in his stride. "Everyone's got a history kid. As long as you're not still involved with anything illegal now I don't care."

A surge of gratitude towards the man's casual declaration is halted by something he'd said earlier jumping into my mind. "You said this wasn't strictly legal."

He shrugs. "Your part is fine. The fight's sanctioned and the premises are licensed but there'll be illegal betting going on. There always is. The cops tend to turn a blind eye to it though. There's always a risk, I won't deny that, but it wouldn't be to you."

"And the pay?"

Frank grins at me. I think he senses I'm close to caving in. "Hundred dollars for showing up." I frown at that but he ignores me. "Five hundred if you win."

Five hundred bucks. That would support Blake and I for the month and alongside our Storm Chargers money give us a sort of, financial buffer for the coming weeks. The temptation to say yes right now is almost overwhelming. Almost, but I'm not that stupid. If something's too good to be true, it normally is.

"I need to think about this," I manage to say.

Frank nods at his business card I'm still holding. "My number's on the back. Call me." He drains the rest of his beer in one fluid motion and stands. "But I need to know soon. If I don't hear from you in the next couple of days I'll be looking elsewhere."

With that he walks out, leaving me with his card, a half-drunk beer, and a big decision to make.

Thoughts whirl through my head as I sit there, slowly finishing my beer. Once it's gone I head out into the night. I'm so unsure right now it's unsettling, my mind wildly swinging from 'don't-be-so-stupid-don't-do-it' to 'but-we-need-the-money'. I don't know. I just don't know, which is incredibly unlike me. For better or worse, indecisiveness is not part of my nature. I make a decision and I stick to it.

But the only thing I'm certain of right now is I don't want to go home.

I have an urge to run. Run anywhere, run away… but I don't act on it. I let the feelings wash over me and let them fade away. The alcoholic warmth brought by the beer has deadened some of the strength of my emotions, but not nearly as much as I'd have liked. My cheek is beginning to swell where the loudmouth hit me and I can feel it pulsing beneath my eye. It's going to bruise and I wonder how I'm going to explain it to the others.

My aimless wanderings lead me to the beach. I walk down the uneven sand towards the sound of the waves. All is dark and devoid of human noise. Silent, apart from the waves, and the crunch of sand beneath my feet. A faint breeze tickles my neck, pleasantly cool compared to the stuffiness of the night air. The sand changes from dry powder to more solid, compacted, and I know I'm close to the water's edge. I can just about make out the faint white outlines of waves breaking on to the shore in front of me. My legs buckle and I drop onto the damp sand letting my thoughts and emotions ebb and flow. I feel like a bystander in my own mind; watching but not engaging, not actively thinking.

There is a pale light in the east, a barely perceptible brightening of the sky that tells me dawn isn't too far away. I have no idea how long I've been sitting here but I can't find it within me to care.

I lost my job tonight. It was my own stupid fault. I let someone get to me, someone get close, and I lashed out. Lashed out at them and then some random stranger. I don't know why.

Not true.

I ignore the little voice and focus on my other worries. If I have any hope of seeing Blake and me through the month I need cash. Frank's offering me cash to fight. Tori won't like that. Sensei won't like that. My teammates…

No one has to know.

I don't like that little voice, the one that throws up all the thoughts and desires that should remain unspoken. It's dangerous. Normally I ignore it but today… I've listened to it once today already and look what happened. I should ignore it now but I'm too exhausted to put up much resistance. Five hundred dollars is money I can't afford to turn down. Five hundred dollars if I win.

Losing isn't an option.

The little voice is not entirely right; someone has to know. I have to tell Blake. I promised my brother no more lies and strangely this time I meant it. Our conversation the other night made me realise just how dependent on untruths I've become. Somewhere along the way lying has become my reality; I'm more comfortable with untruths than I am with honesty and that doesn't sit well with me. Not anymore. That's not a person I want to be.

So, time to change. Time to try something new; honesty, with Blake.

Though there is one truth he doesn't need to hear; one thing that I will never – can never – tell him. He can never know of my betrayal.

I'll make it up to him. I'll protect him. But I won't hurt him.

My mind is made up.

I watch the sun rise. Tendrils of gold stretching out across the sky, turning the grey world into a riot of colour. Body feeling stiff and numb I make my way back up the sands to the phone booth in the parking lot. Fumbling in my pockets for spare change I drop in a quarter and dial the number on the card.

After the fifth ring a groggy but recognisable voice answers, "Yes?"

"It's Hunter; the guy from the bar."

"What do you want?" He sounds a little more alert now, but not much.

I wrap the telephone cord around my finger and lean wearily against the side of the booth, staring out at the beach but seeing nothing. "The fight on Friday?"

What am I getting myself in to?

"I'm in."

Chapter Text

You said it’s not meant to be
That it’s not you, it’s me
You’re leaving now for my own good

~Train

I wasn’t expecting to see Hunter this morning.

I figured with him working late he’d have already crashed out and I’d have to make an effort to be super-quiet about getting ready for school so I didn’t disturb him. Tired-Hunter is a grumpy Hunter and unpleasant to be around. He tends to throw things and, even sleep-deprived, his accuracy is unnerving.

I didn’t particularly want to see him either; when Tori had dragged him out of training yesterday that tiny, horrible, suspicious part of me had raised its head again and I’d found myself distracted for the rest of the session and all through my shift at Storm Chargers, wondering what they were up to.

Jealousy. I realise it’s jealously; she’s been spending so much time with him and they’ve been talking. Like real, proper, deep talking. Hunter’s been talking and somewhere along the way he’s found it in him to trust her. And I… I guess I feel left out. Which is stupid because I see Tori all the time and I shouldn’t begrudge my brother for finally finding a friend but the feeling is there all the same.

I don’t mistrust either of them, I don’t; it’s just… Since when did Hunter trust someone else with his- with our past?

My alarm goes off for the fourth time. I’ve already hit the snooze three times this morning and I know I can’t put off getting up any longer, so I drag myself out of bed and into some clothes.

When I eventually creep into the kitchen I’m surprised to see Hunter sitting at the table, head resting on his arms. At first I think he’s asleep, not even making it to bed after getting in from work, but as I try and sneak in quietly to grab some breakfast he raises his head, eyes bleary and heavy with sleep.

“Morning,” I say brightly, but my smile freezes as I catch a clear glimpse of Hunter’s face. My heart sinks. 

“What happened to you?” I gasp, taking in the lurid red-and-purple bruise spreading across his cheek. I flick my gaze to his hands and I see his knuckles are scrapped and swollen; a sure sign he’s been in a fight.

Hunter drops his eyes from mine, fixing them firmly on the table in front of him and running a thumb across the back of his hand. I hurry to dig an icepack out of the freezer, waiting for him to speak.

 “We need to talk,” he says, voice rough.

I feel chilly hands settle around my heart at the seriousness in his tone as I reach his side, dropping into the chair next to him. “What happened, Hunter?”

He takes the ice pack from me and winces as he holds it over his cheek and eye. “I’m not going back to the bar.”

His words are quiet, solemn and leave me in no doubt that his pronouncement is not up for debate.  

Which doesn’t stop me trying. My initial shock is followed swiftly by suspicion. “What? Why not? What did you do?”

“I walked out.”

There’s the barest hint of shame behind his words, hidden beneath a thin veneer of pride.

I stare at him stupidly, mouth hanging open as I try to take in what he’s telling me. It’s a struggle, because it sounds horribly like he’s saying he’s lost his job; the job we were relying on to see us through the month.

There’s anger behind my words as I snap at him. “Why would you do that? You know we need the money.”

Hunter waves his empty hand at me, dismissing my concerns. “Peter’s a jerk. I just… I’d had enough.”

So?” My anger is heightened by fear as the implications of his words begin to sink in.

I take a breath, trying not to start yelling at him because we’ve been actually doing well with the whole ‘communication’ thing. There’s a part of me that recognises Hunter talking to me about this is progress. He could have lied. He could have hidden the truth from me but he hasn’t. The least I should be able to do is have a calm conversation with him about what’s happened. And what we’re going to do.

Even so, it sounds very much like I’m whining when I say, “But we were relying on that money.”

Hunter lets out a sigh, rubbing a hand through his hair and I notice for the first time how tired he looks, pale beneath his tan with worn lines under his eyes and around his mouth that make him look so much older than he is.

“I spoke to Jerry. He’s giving us more time to pay the rent. Again.”

I frown at that. Jerry’s our building manager; he’s a good guy but what does Hunter mean by ‘again’? When I ask him, my brother’s gaze skitters away from mine, hints of shame and discomfort behind the calmness of his façade.

He clears his throat awkwardly before answering. “He’s let rent slide on a few occasions now, given us… me longer to scrape the money together.” His eyes dart back to mine and he presses on before I can speak, “I know, I know, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you but I-”

“-Didn’t want to worry me. I know bro.” I sigh, running a hand across my face. I feel… old. Like, way older than seventeen right now. But I guess not many seventeen year olds have to worry about paying rent and stuff. “So… how long do we have?”

“Another week,” Hunter replies casually, as if it’s all the time in the world.

There’s something about his attitude, his flippancy, that instantly grates on my nerves. Like he doesn’t care. Like us losing our apartment isn’t a big deal. And I’m so grateful to Jerry for bending the rules for us, I really am, but Hunter shouldn’t be asking him to do it. He shouldn’t have to ask. We should be able to pay. We were meant to be able to pay.

Besides, what’s a week going to do?

I push my chair back from the table, anger flooding back, and I stand abruptly, glaring down at my brother, furious at his attitude and his lack of concern for our worsening situation.

“That’s great, but a week’s not going to help us come up with the money, even if you manage to find a job.”

I wince at my own words; ‘if you manage to find a job’, like it’s all on my brother. But he’s the one that’s messed up this time.

Hunter shifts uncomfortably, resolutely not looking at me. “I, uh, might have a job.”

 I recognise the expression on his face, telling me he’s not sure he should be doing something, that it’s not right, and my stomach plummets.

No.”

My brother flicks his eyes up at me in shock, seemingly taken back at the vehemence in my voice. “You don’t know what it is yet.” He sounds reproving. 

“You’re not… getting back into that. I don’t… I can’t. Not again Hunter.”

I can feel a sudden panic in my chest, memories of the past surging through me, bile rising in my throat. Memories of fear, of pain, of violent men and darkness. The violence was never aimed at me, but I lost track of the times Hunter would appear, battered and bleeding, sometimes telling me we had to run again, other times hiding the injuries, trying to pretend nothing was wrong, but I always knew. And it terrified me. I was never scared of monsters under the bed when I was young; I knew they were just my imagination. It was the real ones that could hurt me – could hurt my brother – and I don’t want to live with that fear ever again.

“You’re not- You can’t-” I clutch the edge of the table for support, knuckles white, but while I’m freaking out, Hunter looks genuinely confused. Up until I finally manage to get a full sentence out of my mouth.  “You can’t do anything illegal. Please.”

 Blue eyes widen in understanding. “No, it’s not- It’s not the same, Blake. I promise.” His voice is strangely gentle, soothing, knowing what I’m scared of.

I let my legs fold, dropping back into my chair and tempering my tone as I ask, “So what is it then?”

He shifts the icepack against his face, wincing as it catches a tender spot. “It’s… uh… fighting, I guess.” He glances at me warily and when I don’t speak he continues, “I met a guy – Frank… something; I have his card somewhere. He’s like a fight promoter for some amateur UFC-type thing and wants me for an event this Friday. Apparently one of his usual guys dropped out last minute. Blake, it’s a hundred dollars just for showing up and if I win… It’s more. Much more. Enough to take the pressure off for a month or so at least. I’ve said I’ll do it…”

He trails off, watching me closely. I know he’s waiting for me to object, but instead I laugh out of sheer relief.

“That’s actually pretty awesome,” I breathe, feeling giddy with the release of tension.

Hunter looks surprised. “You don’t mind?” he asks uncertainly.

“Nah, it’s cool,” I say lightly, my mouth finally remembering how to smile.  “And y’know, it kinda makes sense. I think you’ll enjoy it. Just don’t let Sensei know. Or Shane. Or any of the others, really.” I pause, an idea forming. “Hey, you think I could do it too? Could be more money.”

Hunter snorts and reaches over to ruffle my hair. “Sorry kiddo, over twenty-one’s only. It’s in a bar, remember.” He tilts his head back, making a show of giving me a once-over. “And yup, you definitely couldn’t pass.”

I’m about to come back with some super-clever retort when my morpher lets out a beep and I groan.

“Tori?” My brother’s face goes carefully blank and if I had time to spare, to process his expression, I would have questioned it but my mind is already focused on the day ahead.

“Yup,” I reply, jumping up and dashing into my room to grab my backpack. I stick my nose back into the kitchen to say goodbye but Hunter’s up and chucking a hastily put-together lunchbox at me.

“Breakfast,” he says sternly and I grin at him, shoving it into my bag with the promise to eat it on the way before I rush out of the door.

The blue van is waiting outside and it’s my turn to ride shotgun, which is normally the highlight of my morning but today I know something isn’t right the moment I slide into the front seat. Tori is quiet, barely acknowledging my arrival and her smile is wan, the tiniest curve upward of her lips that fades almost immediately. She’s pale, blonde hair hanging limply down her shoulders and the area beneath her eyes is slightly red and puffy as if she hasn’t slept… or has been crying.

I open my mouth to ask what’s wrong, but I catch sight of Shane’s face in the rear view mirror, a warning in his eyes and he shakes his head at me, advising me to leave it. Clearly Dustin and him have already tried to find out, and been shot down or something.

The ride to school is practically silent; a deep, uncomfortable, pervasive silence that even Dustin doesn’t attempt to break. I can see the earth ninja shifting uneasily in the back seat. Dustin hates silences, especially ones like these. I think we’re all relieved when we reach school.

Tori parks the van and heads to class straight away; a muttered, “See you later guys,” is all we get from her before she’s gone.

We’re left standing together outside the school, a morose little huddle exchanging equally worried looks.

“Is she okay?” I address my question to our leader, knowing he’ll already have tried to pry.

“Honestly bro, I have no idea.” Shane looks troubled. “We were meant to meet up yesterday evening but she didn’t show. Her mom said she’d gone to bed when I phoned her house. I could barely get two words out of her this morning. Something’s happened but I don’t know what. She was fine last time I saw her.”

Last time I saw her… was at training early yesterday afternoon, before she went off with Hunter…

There’s a sinking sensation in my stomach as the look on my brother’s face when I mentioned her name comes back to me with full force. Did something happen between them after she dragged him out of Ninja Ops? They were alone together for hours, plenty of time for my brother to… What? What could he have done to upset her this badly? What would he have done?

Shane seems to be thinking along similar lines. “Did Hunter say what they got up to yesterday?” His tone is casual, but I can hear the protective undertones clearly.

If my brother has done something to hurt Tori, he’s going to be faced with a very annoyed red ranger.

Great, just what we need right now; more team drama.

I shake my head at Shane’s question. “No, I didn’t see him at all last night. He’d already left for work by the time I got home.”

“Dude, your brother wouldn’t have done anything to upset Tori,” Dustin asserts, sounding surprisingly confident.

I frown at him, unwilling to actually disagree with him aloud. I still feel slightly on edge around Dustin. I know the boundaries better now, I know I’m allowed to tease him as long as it’s not mean, but I don’t want to argue with him.

Shane has no such qualms (in fairness, he’s never pretended to be Dustin’s friend just so he can kidnap and almost murder his sensei- No, stop it, it’s in the past) and gives the yellow ranger a sceptical look. “And you know that how?”

Dustin just shakes his head, an infuriating, knowing grin on his face. “I just know, dude,” he repeats stubbornly.

Shane glares at him but before he can push for more information, the bell rings for class. With reluctance – at least on my part – we head into the building.

Dustin’s right, I tell myself firmly as I grab my books from my locker; whatever’s wrong with Tori has nothing to do with Hunter.

Now I just have to work on believing that.

My morning classes pass relatively painlessly. For once I have managed to complete all my homework so there’s no disappointed looks or threats of detention from my teachers, which is a nice change. Lunch time rolls around faster than I was expecting it to, the bell startling me from my work. Yeah, I was actually working in class. It kept my mind off thinking (worrying) over Tori and Hunter.

Huh, who’d have thought if you actually did what you were meant to in class it made the time go faster?

As I leave class I catch sight of a familiar blonde head making their way down the corridor and I jog to catch up with her, dodging around the crowds of other students.

“Hey,” I greet her as I reach her side, a bright grin on my face. I’m met by a pair of startled blue eyes.

“Oh, it’s you,” Tori says distractedly. “Sorry, I was miles away.” She raises a hand to gesture lamely before letting it fall back down, mind somewhere else.  

I’m surprised; I’ve never managed to sneak up on Tori before, not since… well, that wasn’t exactly sneaking up on her, and the less said about that whole incident the better.

I want to ask her what’s wrong, to try and help her with whatever it is, but I resist the urge to pry. Tori wouldn’t speak to Shane or Dustin about it and they’re her best friends. We care about each other, but I know I’m not at their level, not that close to her. Not yet. Some things have got to be earned over a long time.

So I don’t ask. Instead I decide to try and cheer her up, suggesting we hang out after school (barring any Lothor-interruptions; I swear that man has the worst – or the best, depending on your viewpoint – timing ever). I even volunteer to go surfing with her, willing to brave the icy Pacific waters if it’ll bring a smile to her face.

It doesn’t.

Instead, there’s a strange expression on her face and her voice sounds oddly choked as she says, “I can’t.”

I figure she already has plans, probably with her parents, and I wonder vaguely if that’s what she’s upset about. “Oh, hey, that’s okay. If you’re busy or whatever, maybe we could do something tomorrow?”

I grin at her, trying to reassure her that I’m ok with not spending time together this evening, that it’s cool, not wanting to add guilt to… whatever it is she’s upset about.

She stops suddenly, staring at me with wide blue eyes, a look bordering on terror on her face. “No Blake, I can’t.”

There’s a hitch in her voice now, an inflection that I can’t place and I frown, not seeing where she’s going with this. Not understanding what she’s trying to say.

“I said it’s okay.”

She’s shaking her head, avoiding looking at me; gaze on the floor, walls, at the passing students… anywhere but me. “This isn’t working- We’re not working.”

And then I do understand.

“Are you…” I have to swallow to get moisture back into my suddenly dry throat. “Are you breaking up with me?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers and I’m horrified to see her eyes are wet with unshed tears.

Tori doesn’t cry.  She gets mad or dangerously quiet or practical… She doesn’t cry. The tears alone are enough to tell me this is serious, that this is real.  

“I don’t understand. Did I… Did I do something wrong?”

It comes out a lot shakier than I was hoping and I curl one of my hands into a fist, feeling my nails dig into my palm as I try to keep the fog of panic from descending.

“No-”

 She gives a small laugh but it comes out as a sob, choked off midway through as she fights to calm herself.

“No, Blake,” she tries again, voice steadier and gentle. “It’s just… We’re friends and I love you like a friend. Like Shane and Dustin but there’s… there’s nothing else between us. I don’t- I’ve tried Blake. I really have because I thought there should be; after everything I thought there should be more and if I looked hard enough I’d find it but I can’t . And I can’t pretend anymore because it isn’t fair. It isn’t fair on you and I don’t want to hurt you, because being hurt by the people- the person you care about sucks.”

A single tear escapes from the corner of her eye and I watch it make its way down her cheek. It’s easier, to focus on that rather than on her; on what she’s saying. There’s a rushing in my ears, a ringing, and I feel light-headed, disconnected.

Tori’s voice sounds faraway as she continues, “It’s not you-”

I know exactly what she’s about to say and I cut in before she can finish the sentence.

“Don’t you dare-” I take a quick, sharp inhale, trying to loosen the sudden tension in my throat. “Don’t you say that to me. It’s… it’s meaningless; it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not you. How could it be you? You’re the one breaking up with me.”

“I’m sorry,” she whispers again, arms hugging herself tightly, body angled away from mine. She bites her lip, giving me a quick glance before dropping her eyes back to the floor.

“I don’t understand; I thought everything was fine, that we were good. You never said…”

anything was wrong. But I can’t bring myself to finish the sentence.

“I know.” Her voice is soft and empty, offering me nothing.

“Can you at least tell me why? I mean, after everything, why now? Why-” I can feel the stares of people walking by; students curious to see what’s happening and I feel very exposed. “What changed?”

Tori shakes her head, hand coming up to cover her mouth and she shuts her eyes, another tear escaping to run down her cheek. “Nothing changed Blake; that’s… that’s what happened. I kept waiting and waiting and…”

She trails off into silence, the end of the sentence dropping into the void that seems to have opened up between us. When she doesn’t continue I can’t help but push. I need an answer. I need to know. “Waiting for what?”

She shrugs helplessly, eyes watery and lips set in a line. When her words finally come, they are heart-breaking. “To fall in love.”

I feel the air leave my lungs in a rush, as if I’ve been punched in the stomach. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them again Tori is blinking furiously, still not looking at me.

 I don’t know why I say it. I wasn’t planning on it, but the words slip out before I have a chance to censor myself. “Does this have anything to do with Hunter?”

The blonde takes a step back in shock, as if I’ve slapped her. There’s a beat of silence and then her eyes harden, tears turning to anger. Suddenly she’s Tori again, the Tori I know and fell for; all fierce energy and incredible strength.

“You know, I can make my own decisions perfectly well without one or the other of you being involved,” she snaps at me and I take a step back at the ferocity in her tone. “Blake, I’m breaking up with you because it’s the right thing to do. I’m sorry. I never wanted to hurt you but I can’t- I won’t lie to you. I won’t pretend we’re okay when we’re not. When I’m not. I. Me. No one else is involved.”

“… So this has nothing to do with the fact you’ve been spending time with my brother behind my back?”

I know instantly it was the wrong thing to say, a step too far but I don’t care right now. I’m hurt; not just ‘cos Tori’s breaking up with me but because I can tell she isn’t being completely honest. She isn’t lying; every word she’s just said has been the truth. I have no doubt of that. But there’s something else, something more to it than she’s telling me.

Tori freezes; a weird blank expression crossing her face before she pulls herself up straight. “Go to hell,” she hisses, voice cold. “You and your brother can just… go to hell.”

And then she’s turning, spinning away from me; the glimmer of tears on her cheeks and she’s running down the corridor and I’m left standing alone, trembling, hands clenched in fists and adrenaline pumping through me.

A hand on my shoulder startles me and I block instinctively, dropping into a fighting stance and coming face-to-face with a startled Dustin, Shane hovering at his side.

“Woah, dude. It’s just us,” the yellow ranger says, holding his hands up, empty palms facing me to show there is no threat here.  

The air ninja shoots me a sharp look.  “What’s going on?”

“I think Tori just broke up with me.”

There’s a beat of silence, twin looks of shock on both the boys’ faces. Were it not for the fact I’m struggling to understand what has just happened to me it would be funny. The two of them exchange an indecipherable look. Indecipherable to me at least; years of friendship means they understand each other – and Tori – perfectly. They have the sort of friendship that, up until recently, I’d only ever dreamed of. It’s a painful reminder that in some ways I’m still an outsider to their group, and probably always will be. They have something with each other that they don’t really have with me; history.

“I’ll go after her,” Dustin says and before Shane can give any sign of agreement the earth ninja is already haring down the corridor after the blonde.

The red ranger shrugs and then turns to me, taking a long look at my face. “Come on, we’re getting out of here,” he tells me at last and I give him a blank stare in response.

“Huh?” Then it dawns on me what he’s saying. “We can’t. We have class- Math. We have math.”

“Blake.” Shane’s voice is gentle, his hand coming to rest lightly on my arm, the warmth from his palm bringing my mind back into the present. “Class can wait. It’s not like you’d be focusing on it anyway.” He jerks his head in the direction of the exit, a touch of red ranger in his tone, an order, as he says, “Let’s go.”

We end up at the skate park. I’m not entirely sure how or why, but we do. There’s only a couple of people out at this time, a couple of guys and a girl taking turns to use the ramp. We watch them for a while, the red ranger following their moves with understanding while I just appreciate the skill.

“What happened?” Shane asks finally, breaking the silence we’ve fallen into.

I keep my gaze focused on the boarder in a blue shirt skating around the park. He’s good. Perhaps not as good as Shane, but then again, what do I really know about it?

“Tori broke up with me, that’s what happened.” I try to keep the sadness from my voice but I doubt I’m successful.  “Well, that’s what it felt like but I dunno, can it really count as breaking up when we never actually dated? We had like, one date. That’s not a relationship, is it? Not really. I don’t… Why does it feel like more? Though I suppose if we had to have a break-up talk then in some ways we were seeing it other right? Like it was real and not just wishful thinking?”

There’s a hint of desperation in my tone that I can’t hide because I want confirmation from Shane; I want to know that this thing between us has been between us, that it wasn’t all just me, that Tori had been involved too.

There’s a long moment of nothing, and then… “You know you’re not the first guy Tori’s dated,” Shane begins abruptly. “But you were the first one I thought had a chance.” He pauses, as if revising his words. “First one I didn’t object to at least.”

I raise an eyebrow at that, silently remembering his less-than-enthusiastic welcoming of me onto the team. If he didn’t really want to fight alongside me, I’m damn sure he didn’t want me dating his best friend. His best friend who I’d already hurt…

Shane’s solemn expression is replaced by a grin. “Okay, I’ll be honest. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of you two dating at first. But bro, Tori’s like a sister and after everything with, y’know, evil rangers and stuff I didn’t want to see her get hurt. Again. But people prove you wrong. You have. Your brother… well he’s proved me right about a lot of things but I’ll admit he’s surprised me on a few occasions. And he hasn’t tried to kill me.”

I snort at that, remembering a couple of my brother’s rants about the red ranger just after we joined the team.

Shane’s smile fades back into seriousness. “But you two were good for each other. I thought-” He cuts himself off, considering what he’s about to say. “Tori didn’t act like there was anything wrong between you. Did something happen?” When I shake my head he asks the question I’d been dreading. “So did she say why?”

I shrug and kick the toe of my sneaker against the floor, noting with disinterest the frayed laces and worn material. “I guess. I’m not… sure. She said it wasn’t working between us and she was sorry. She said she kept waiting to fall in love.” I keep my replies short and to the point, like I was reporting on the events of a mission, not my personal life. Maybe if I think about it like that I can hold reality off a little bit longer. A memory of words almost spoken comes back to me and I feel anger flare up inside my chest. “She tried to say it wasn’t me, that it was her. Can you believe that? Like someone would actually use that… that crap?”

“And then she ran off?”

I shift awkwardly, swallowing hard as I recall the conversation turning into a fight. “No, I…”

“You what, Blake?” the dark-haired man prompts me when I falter.

I duck my head, not wanting to look at the other teen. “I asked her if it had anything to do with Hunter. That’s when she got mad. Said not every decision she made about one of us had anything to do with the other.” I jump up from the bench, moving about restlessly, filled with nervous energy. “But she was fine yesterday before they went off together. We were fine and they’ve been spending so much time together, alone, like more than I realised and suddenly we’re not fine and I hate that I’m even thinking these things but I don’t- it’s not making any sense.”

The words are jumbled, falling from my mouth in a rush as I release all my fears, all my worries, unloading them on Shane.

The red ranger is unfazed by my outburst, instead looking thoughtful. “Do you really think your brother would have done something?”

There’s a sceptical note to his voice, apparently suspending his usual mistrust of Hunter for the time being and making me suddenly feel guilty for even thinking, even considering, the idea that somehow Hunter’s behind all the events of today; that it’s his fault Tori’s upset, his fault she’s broken up with me, his fault we might lose our apartment-

Ok, so I might be a little mad at him right now.

I stop pacing, allowing some of the anger that’s sustaining me to subside as I really consider Shane’s question. Would Hunter have deliberately tried to sabotage my relationship with Tori? The answer is obvious.

“No,” I say quietly, sinking back down onto the bench. “At least, not on purpose. If he has done something it would be by accident.”

I think.

“You really trust him that little?” Shane sounds half-surprised, half-disapproving.

The forced smile I give him is tinged with sadness. “This isn’t about trust. I know my brother. To say he has issues is an understatement.”

The red ranger sighs, running a hand across his short hair. “Look,” he begins after a breath. “I wouldn’t be surprised if your brother has upset Tori somehow. I’ll admit I still don’t have the most faith in his people skills, but I am surprised it’s taken this long for him to do it. I thought they were actually getting along fairly well so it… doesn’t make sense. And if he has done something, whatever it is, would it really have been bad enough to make her break up with you? You know Hunter would never do anything to hurt you. You’re the only one I know he gives a damn about.”

I give a bitter, half-laugh. “That’s what everyone keeps telling me.”

“You know you’re lucky to have a brother who cares about you,” Shane says softly, brown eyes suddenly sad and sort of, wistful. “Not everyone has family like that.”

There’s a hint of pain behind his words and even though I don’t know much about his family life I can tell there’s bad memories there. Or maybe not even memories, just reality. Shane seems good at hiding it, but years of reading people – of needing to read people ‘cos sometimes it’s only the tiniest signs, changes in expression or tone of voice, that let you know things are going to get really bad really quickly – have made me… hypersensitive, Hunter says, to changes in people’s moods.

I don’t know how to respond to Shane but then, as if realising the melancholy he’s projecting, he plasters a bright grin onto his face. “But hey, friends are the family you chose right?”

“Yeah,” I say in vague agreement and then I’m struck with a random thought. “So, uh, how did you guys meet?” Guys, as in the three of them. I realise I’ve never actually asked this before and then I realise I’ve never spoke to Shane properly. Like, we’ve talked but not properly, not real talking, about serious stuff outside of ranger business. “Like, I know Tori and Dustin have been best friends since ever but I don’t… Where do you come in?”

Shane smiles; if he senses my need to change the topic he doesn’t mention it.

“We were in the same class in middle school,” he begins, launching into their story. “We weren’t friends though; we hung around in different circles I guess. I knew Tori, vaguely. But then everyone knew Tori. She was the sporty girl that won local surf competitions. In middle school that’s practically celebrity status.”

It’s strangely soothing, hearing him speak. It gives me something else to focus on, something other than the events of this afternoon. I let his words wash over me, listening intently.

“Things changed when I got paired with Dustin for a science project. We had, like, nothing in common but I don’t know… we just got along. Dustin was… odd. Different. Well, you know, he’s Dustin and there’snothing wrong with him but middle school can be tough when you’re different.”

“You’re telling me,” I mutter, experience shining through the sentiment. Shane gives me a puzzled look and I sigh, explaining briefly, “There’s only so often you can make friends when you know you’re going to be leaving in a month or so. In the end, I just sort of… gave up. There wasn’t any point.”

“Why did you change so often?” he asks, curious.

 I wave a hand, dismissing the seriousness of his question. “Oh, y’know,” I say lightly. “Things happened. The authorities got too close or the school got suspicious or Hunter changed jobs. There was always a reason to leave.” I turn the focus back to him, wondering aloud how the three fairly mismatched kids actually became friends.

As Shane returns to his story – something about a fight and the Principal getting involved – my thoughts drift back to my own distant memories. I guess it’s funny, in some ways, how people react differently to being the odd one in school. Dustin became outgoing and goofy and fun, the sort of guy everyone likes. I became a ghost. Invisible, unseen.

“Blake? Blake?” I realise I’ve zoned out and have drag my mind back to the present. Shane is looking at me with renewed concern and I manage a weak smile to try and assure him I’m actually in the moment.

The darker man sighs. “Look, I have to head home but are you… Are you going to be okay?”

I flash him my best, fake grin. “I’ll be fine, Shane. It’s not like it’s the first time someone’s broken up with me.”

The red ranger doesn’t look convinced but another glance at his watch seems to make his mind up. “I better be off. If you need… anything… you know where I am.”

He gives my shoulder a squeeze and I give him a grateful look in return. This is what friendship should be, and I’m so glad to have people I can rely on.

Once Shane has left I remain where I am, sitting alone in the skate park. It’s slowly getting busier as people trickle in after school and work, and it isn’t my scene, but I don’t go home. Not straight away. I know Hunter’s going to be there and I just… I can’t face him. It’s a horrible feeling and I hate it. My brother’s always been the only constant in my life, the one person I can always rely on, who I can trust.

I’ve never doubted him until now.

I remember the water ninja’s furious and hurt reaction to my accusation that Hunter had anything to do with her decision to break up with me, and Shane’s words come back to me.

You know Hunter would never do anything to hurt you. You’re the only one I know he gives a damn about.”

I groan and rub my hands across my face, a wave of tiredness hitting me.

Did Tori react badly to me because I’d got it all wrong?

Or because I’d got it right?

XxX

Hunter’s working on his bike engine when I get home, old newspapers spread across the living room floor to keep the dirt and oil from the carpet. Not that it’d really be noticed against the grime that already coats it but effort is there all the same. He grins up at me as I walk in, black smudges across his cheeks and forehead where he’s rubbed his face with dirty hands, streaks of oil standing out starkly against the blond of his hair.

“Hey bro, how was school?” he asks absently, searching around himself for something to wipe his hands on.

I spot the oily rag draped over the back of the sofa and chuck it at him as I sink heavily down onto the lumpy cushions. I don’t answer him immediately and I see him take a harder look at me.

“What’s happened?” he says seriously, coming over to sit beside me with concern etched across his features.

I know I’m not as good at hiding my emotions as Hunter is, but I’m better than most. Not around my brother though, and sometimes I really hate the fact he can read me so well.

I tell him the truth, keeping it short. “Tori broke up with me.”

Hunter looks taken back, shock in his voice clear when he says, “What? Why?”

 “She just said we weren’t working.” I don’t really want to go into the details with him right now but I have to ask; I have to know. “Bro, she was really upset this morning. Did… did anything happen yesterday?”

When my brother doesn’t respond immediately, there’s a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach; cold fingers wrapping themselves around my heart as my suspicions are realised. Hunter shifts guiltily, twisting away from me slightly, one arm coming up to rub his other shoulder; the gesture defensive, damning.

“Something did happen, didn’t it? Hunter, what did you do?” I can hear the tone of my voice rising, caught somewhere between fear and anger.

“Something stupid,” he mutters and I hear him curse under his breath, one hand curling into a fist, knuckles white with tension.

“What?” I press, needing to know what happened between them.

Hunter shakes his head, still not looking at me. “It doesn’t matter what but I’ll speak to her. I’ll fix this. Promise. I’m so sorry bro.”

As if it could be that easy.

There’s a faint stirring of anger within me, but then Hunter’s up and pacing the room, running a hand distractedly through his hair. I take a closer look at my brother and can see there’s an almost stricken expression on his face. Any annoyance I feel is lost for the moment, hidden beneath the realisation that Hunter is really, really upset. This isn’t just my brother being protective over me; this is my brother torn with… guilt? Because he’s hurt Tori. He’s done something to hurt her and he’s sorry. He’s… worried about someone else. He cares about someone else.

There’s a sort of strange relief bubbling up inside of me. I know I should be suspicious. I know I should be angry, but in this moment I’m just weirdly pleased that Hunter’s finally made a friend. ‘Cos you’re only upset about hurting someone you care about.

As Hunter paces close to me I reach out and grab his wrist. He looks down and I can see he’s expecting me to yell, to get mad, and then he’s apologising again and again. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I hear myself say, mouth operating on autopilot. “I know you didn’t mean it. Whatever it was, you didn’t- I know you’re trying. With Tori. And you might have hurt her but I don’t… I don’t think you’re why she broke up with me.” Hunter looks like he’s going to protest but I shake my head, forcing my voice to be steady. “I asked her.”

His blue eyes widen, first in surprise and then with understanding. “Blake, there’s nothing… me and Tori… it isn’t…”

“I know,” I tell him as reassuringly as possible, even if I don’t really know if I believe it myself. “I know. She said it had nothing to do with you and she was telling the truth.” Mostly. “We just weren’t working.”

As I repeat Tori’s words there’s a painful clenching in my chest, a tightening of the muscles in my throat, and Hunter drops onto the sofa beside me, one arm slung around my shoulders comfortingly.

But I don’t cry.

I want to, but the tears don’t come. We sit in silence for a long while before I finally shrug myself free of Hunter’s arm and stand, stretching out the kinks stillness has brought.

“I should go to bed,” I say, my voice sounding strange even to my ears.

Hunter looks up at me, concern and sadness warring for a place on his face. “Are you okay?” he asks softly.

I should tell him I’m fine, that I’ll be okay, that he doesn’t need to worry. He worries far too much about me as it is, and we have far more important things to be concerned about than the girl I wasn’t really dating ending our not-quite-a-relationship, but I can’t summon up the energy to lie.

“No.”

The word is barely audible and I can’t bring myself to look at my brother; I just walk straight into my room, shutting the door and allowing the darkness to wash over me.

Shedding my clothes on the way to my bed, I drop face down onto the sheets, feeling oddly disconnected from reality. Like the events of today are happening to someone else. Like they’re just figments of a nightmare I’ll wake up from soon. I want to wake up.

But I can’t, ‘cos this is all horribly, horribly real.

I’m not stupid. I didn’t believe Tori was “The One” or anything like that. It was too early. And we’re too young. It’s not like Tori’s the first girl I’ve ever dated either. But there was something… special about her. Something about the way she made me feel. I guess I had – have – fallen for her pretty hard and it was nice, to be normal for a little while at least.

Well, pretend to be normal anyway.

Nice to do the usual, teenage things of going to high school and being with friends and falling in love-

Love.

The word clenches my chest. It’s not something I really considered before but that churning in my stomach when I’d see the blonde, that flutter of my heart when she smiled at me, the sweating of my palms and the way she made my thinking fuzzy, words sometimes incoherent from just being around her… Just wanting to be around her… That had to be pretty close to what love felt like, right?

And now I’m being painfully reminded of what loss feels like.

Not like I really need reminding. Both Hunter and I are really well acquainted with this feeling, but how we deal with it… I think that’s the biggest difference between us. He won’t admit it, but my brother sucks at dealing with losing the people he cares about. In fact, he doesn’t deal with it. Instead he pushes everyone else away, won’t let anyone get close so he can’t be hurt again. He doesn’t care about anyone except me.

And now, maybe, so it seems, Tori.

I’m not like that. I can’t be like that. I… I want what I lost. I want a family one day. I want love and affection and not just from my brother. I love him, I do, but that can’t be my whole life. And it sure as hell shouldn’t be his.

I guess I can admit it now, though it’s too late; I thought I’d found a lot of what I wanted with the surfer. I’d allowed myself to hope for a future with her and though this hurts right now, I’m not going to give up on that hope. If not with her, then with someone else.

I want it all. Hunter wants to forget it all.

I don’t know which of us is doing better anymore.

I feel sick, nauseous, and so very alone. I roll onto my side, drawing my knees up to my chest and curling into a small as ball as possible. A hot tear slides out from beneath my closed eyelids and I bury my face into my pillow, the material slowly becoming damp as I let my sorrow out.

What is it they say? Your first love breaks your heart?

Yeah, that seems right about now. 

Chapter Text


And how would you know?
When everything around you’s bruised and battered
Like the cold night storm.
And who would you turn to?
Or hide a ghost, a shadow at the most, would you tell me so?
Cause I, I adore you so
When it all comes clear, the wind is settled, I’ll be here, you know.

~Ben Howard

I don’t like mornings. Especially not Monday mornings.

Mondays are the worst days now I’m a Power Ranger (and dude, I will never get sick of saying that!).

I mean, not that Mondays weren’t bad before, ‘cos they totally were. Y’know what I’m talking about; you have a really awesome weekend and your body is just getting used to all the nice extra-long sleeping you have and then bang! It’s Monday again and you have to get up early and you always have the most boring lessons on Mondays and it just isn’t fun. But now… We’re lucky if our weekends only have one monster attack, and the times we’re not running around saving the world we’re training and trying to do homework and working and still trying to have a, y’know, normal life.

If we do get a chance to rest, it isn’t much and then Monday rolls around again and we have to add school and actually trying to graduate this year onto all the other stuff.

Like, dude, don’t get me wrong; being a Power Ranger is still freaking amazing; I just never really thought about the sucky stuff that goes with being Defenders of Earth. Mondays kinda remind me about all that sucky stuff when I’d rather just concentrate on being awesome.

Besides, nothing good ever happens on a Monday. 

And that’s not just me; it’s a fact. It’s scientific. Like, even Cam would agree with me.

… Maybe. If he looked at the evidence.

Like, ok, did you know Wikipedia has fourteen – fourteen – entries for “Black Monday”? Dude, that’s a lot of really bad Mondays.

According to Tori (and her super-awesome AP English knowledge), Romeo and Juliet got married on a Monday morning and by Monday afternoon Romeo’s best friend had been killed and he’d murdered Tybalt. Talk about a bad Monday.

Harvey Milk and John Lennon were both shot on a Monday.

Bombing of Hiroshima?

Yup, a Monday.

Day most likely to have a heart-attack on?

You got it; Monday.

Dad left Mom on a Monday.

In other words, Monday’s suck.

So it wasn’t like I had the best expectations for today. The most I could hope for was that Lothor disliked Mondays just as much, or maybe had like, studied history and realised Mondays are not a good day to launch an attack. Just ask Lord Nelson from my European History class.

Actually, you can’t ask him (he’s dead), but at least his side won the battle. So, uh- would things still be bad if Lothor won but died?

Okay, bad analogy. Let’s not go down that road.

So yeah, no fighting for us today. That would be good enough.

But my hopes are dashed before I’m even out of bed; my attempts at pretending it isn’t really morning ruined by my sisters having another loud and stupid argument. Gah, twelve-year olds. Seriously, I was never that annoying, I swear.

Evey’s  voice is shrill, and loud. Freaking hell is she loud. “Mom, Gabbi’s being mean to me again.”

“No I’m not; you started it!” Gabriela yells back, just as boisterous and irritatingly. “Mom, tell her to stop it.”

Ugh, why did they have to be twins? Like, it totally isn’t fair. Vovó (my grandmother; she’s Brazilian and Vovó totally isn’t her real name but she kinda insists we call her what the kids ‘back home’ would’ve called her) says maybe if they weren’t twins they wouldn’t be so similar and maybe they wouldn’t fight so much. But I dunno; I think they just like fighting.

And then my mom’s yelling at them both, telling them to get dressed, before banging open my bedroom door and demanding I get up too. I stick my head under my pillow with a groan, trying to grab a few precious extra minutes of sleep before facing the day.

“Dustin!”

Dammit.

Mom’s using her mom-voice, the one that cannot be ignored. Even with my head under the pillow. Gah.

I roll over, sliding off the mattress and landing on the floor in a wonderfully elegant heap. Hey, can’t expect the most grace from me first thing in the morning. ‘Specially not on a Monday.

I make it into the shower, ignoring my reflection in the mirror ‘cos dude, even I don’t need to see that. The hot water lasts all of two minutes, slowing fading into some lukewarm, tepid dribble which sucks. Though, admittedly, it’s totally my fault for not getting up half an hour earlier. When icy spikes start cutting through the stream I give up and drip my way into some clothes.

I’m just shoving some books into my backpack when there’s a beep on my morpher and I dash into the kitchen, grabbing some toast from the table and am heading for the door when a little female voice reminds me I’ve forgot a notebook on the table. I grin at Evey in thanks, ruffling her hair which I know she just loves; her indignant yelps following me out into the hallway where I pull on my shoes.

“Have a good day, sweetie,” mom calls after me as I yank open the front door and I wave my toast in response.

Maybe today won’t be as bad as I think…

And then I get in Tori’s van and I know evil Mondays have stuck again.

I’m in the back seat, waiting for the cheery greeting I’m always met with, the joy reminding me that mornings aren’t so terrible.

Except instead there’s almost nothing; a quiet “Hi” with like, zero eye-contact, barely acknowledging my presence.

Something’s wrong.

I take a closer look at the blonde, from what I can see of her from the back seat. Tori seems… less bright, less vivid; like all her colours have faded and that burning, dancing spark that’s normally behind her eyes has dulled and she’s just… sad. Ghost-like.

Insubstantial.

 (Woop for yesterday’s ‘Word of the Day’!)

I don’t know what to say so I don’t say anything. But it’s really, really weird and I don’t like it.

We stop at Shane’s first and I am like, so relieved to see him ‘cos this whole situation is screaming ‘Situation’ at me and when things get bad we need a leader, which is Shane, whether he likes it or not.

Plus I need back-up and the Air ninja is my usual partner-in-crime so he can just suck it up and deal with Tori.

He slides in next to me and I can see confusion followed by the realisation that something isn’t right sprint across his face. He takes a hard look at the Water ninja, and I know he’s totally taking in her slightly red eyes and paleness and just… not-Tori-ness.

“What’s wrong?” he asks right out, not even sugar-coating it. When she doesn’t answer after, like, thirty seconds, he tries again, “Tori-”

“Nothing,” she says abruptly, staring firmly out the front window, like she’s really concentrating on where we’re going but I know she isn’t. We drive this route every day; she could do it with her eyes shut but she’s pretending she has to focus on the road so she doesn’t have to look at us.

Shane knows it too. “Tor-”

“Nothing’s wrong, Shane; drop it.” I see her gaze flick up to glance at our leader in the rear-view mirror, brow furrowed, warning dancing behind her eyes like she’ll kick him out of the van if he says anything else.

Well, kick him somewhere at least.  

Shane drops it.

I mean, not literally. He wasn’t holding anything to drop. But he shuts up, lapsing into a thoughtful silence.

So much for the leader sorting this out.

To be honest, I don’t blame him. Tori seems different.

Though that’s, like, definitely an understatement.

We pick Blake up next; the navy guy getting into the front seat and turning to Tori with a grin that fades immediately when he gets a proper look at the blonde. I see him open his mouth to say something but Shane’s giving him a look in the mirror and his mouth shuts again firmly, confusion showing in his brown eyes, but taking our leader’s advice and keeping quiet.

After that there’s nothing but the noise of the engine and the van’s tyres on the road.

I hate silences like this. The unhappy, can-cut-the-tension-with-a-knife silences that were pretty much the extent of my parents’ relationship, ‘specially towards the end. I want to say something, but I remember the look Tori shot Shane and bite my tongue. I can feel the awkwardness lying across us all like a heavy (and totally not warm-and-fluffy) blanket and I can’t help shifting uneasily; the pressure to keep quiet making me uncomfortable.

For the first time in like, ever, I’m actually glad to reach school. I feel like I can breathe again once we’re all out of the van. 

“See you later guys,” Tori mumbles at us and then she’s gone. It happens so quickly I’m not totally convinced she didn’t sneak some ninja speed in there to help her getaway.

I shove my hands into my pockets and glance at the other two, none of us speaking straight away. I think the silence from the van has kinda made us forget we can talk. At least, that’s how I feel, like the not-speaking has made my tongue heavy and stiff.

It’s Blake that recovers first, turning to Shane with a super-worried look on his face. “Is she okay?”

 “Honestly bro, I have no idea,” Shane tells him, his expression mirroring Blake’s worry.  “We were meant to meet up yesterday evening but she didn’t show. Her mom said she’d gone to bed when I phoned her house. I could barely get two words out of her this morning. Something’s happened but I don’t know what. She was fine last time I saw her.”

There’s another pause, as if they’re both remembering the last time they saw her. Wait, when was the last time I saw her? Yesterday, right? At training and then… she left… with Hunter…

Uh oh.

There’s a sinking sensation in my stomach as I see them coming to the same conclusion as me.

Shane’s totally sending out all his big-brother/no-one-hurts-my-team vibes when he asks Blake, “Did Hunter say what they got up to yesterday?”

He’s going for casual but failing.  

I think Blake picks up on it too, but it’s hard to tell with the Bradleys.

 “No, I didn’t see him at all last night,” the Thunder ninja replies, shaking his head. He has a weird expression on his face, like he’s thought of something, some memory, that he isn’t sharing. “He’d already left for work by the time I got home.”

“Dude, your brother wouldn’t have done anything to upset Tori,” I say firmly, remembering the touching and the smiling and the way he supported her in our horrible river-run, how he didn’t argue with her yesterday, just followed her out of Ops… Tori’s the only one of us he might actually like being around. Well, ‘cept Blake but he doesn’t count. Hunter’s not going to hurt Tori.  

The younger Bradley has the frowny face he gets when he disagrees with me but is like, not wanting to disagree.

Shane disagrees with me too (well, duh, we’re talking about Hunter), but he’s totally cool about letting me know. “And you know that how?”

I haven’t told Shane about the talk I had with Tori about Hunter. And I definitely haven’t said anything about her maybe-liking Hunter more than friends ‘cos that’s totally no one’s business but hers. And maybe Blake’s but he’s here and I’m saying nothing.

So I just grin at the red ranger – the grin he really hates when I know something he doesn’t (which hardly ever happens). “I just know, dude.”

Shane glares at me and I resist the urge to stick my tongue out at him because I am totally not being childish. Not right now, anyway. I can see him readying himself to protest, to demand I share my knowledge and I brace myself for a… not argument, ‘cos us two don’t really ever argue… a debate, maybe?

Just try it red guy; super-Earth-ninja is saying nothing.

 He opens his mouth and-

Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing

Saved by the bell!

And also, damn; this means class-time.

Yeah, today is not going to be a good day.

XxX

My last class before lunch is Physics with Shane and dude, am I glad I have him with me. Tori was totally right when she said I only took it ‘cos I thought it would be about bikes and stuff. But, like, why put ‘mechanics’ in the description when it’s not about that at all? Lies, sneaky lies.

I’m not too bad at it though. I reckon without Shane I’d get a solid C, but with him here I’m definitely averaging a B. Sometimes even an A. He has a really clear way of explaining stuff. Guess that’s why he’s the red ranger. Or one of the reasons.

Today’s class isn’t great, mainly ‘cos I left my homework at, well, home and Ms. Mason has been giving me glare-y faces for the past hour. Not to mention the not-so-subtle hints from the Air ninja letting me know he hasn’t forgotten my comments about Tori and Hunter. I’m going to have to talk to him about it sooner or later. Hopefully it’ll be later.

I’m so glad when the bell rings for lunch so I can get out of there. And not just ‘cos of teacher-disapproval; I’m starving. All this thinking on top of ninja metabo-whatsit that Cam’s always going on about means I can eat tons now. Which is totally fine by me. I like food.

As we’re walking towards the cafeteria Shane tries to start The Conversation but thankfully at that moment I see the crowds splitting around a couple standing in the hallway, having some kind of argument. I nudge Shane in the ribs to drag his attention away from grilling me, but whatever I was about to say dies on my lips as I get a good look at the two blue-clad figures.

It’s Blake and Tori.

Oh no.

This isn’t good. In fact, it’s probably really bad.

Even with our super-ninja-hearing we can’t make out what they’re saying, but their body language is both screaming ‘mega-fight’.

We’ve almost reached them when Tori steps back from Blake, a furious look on her face.

“-go to hell.”

We definitely hear those words. I’m pretty sure the whole corridor heard them.

Tori turns and runs, a glimmer on her cheeks which might be tears but I’m not certain. Yeah, this is Bad. With the capital letter.

Blake’s got his back to us, head bowed and hand balled up into fists at his side. Without thinking I reach out to put a hand on his shoulder, offer him some comfort ‘cos, clearly, something not-good has just occurred. But I barely make contact before he’s spinning to face me, knocking my arm away with his and dropping into a fighting stance.

Note to self: don’t sneak up on the navy guy.

“Woah, dude. It’s just us,” I say quickly, holding my hands out towards him.

Look, no threat here, Blake. Just your friends.

Recognition flashes across his face and to my immense relief he relaxes, the fight melting from him like ice cream in the sun. Ok, so he’s not quite a puddle of goo on the floor but he’s definitely more relaxed. Less going-to-kill-me-ish.

Shane speaks then, using his Leader voice, “What’s going on?”

Blake looks ashen, sorta grey and pale and really shaken and I just know I was right when I thought something Bad had happened.

“I think Tori just broke up with me.”

… Aaaaaand that would be the really bad thing. Owch.

I can feel Shane still beside me and I know he’s as shocked as I am. Maybe even more shocked, ‘cos I knew there was something up with Tori. I wonder if this has anything to do with Hunter.

There’s a moment of pause and then I look at Shane. I know he knows what I’m going to do ‘cos he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t need to; we’ve known each other so long now he doesn’t even need to nod. The look in his eyes says everything.

– You deal with Tori; I’ll handle Blake –

That look is all I need to leap into action.

“I’ll go after her,” I say, mainly for Blake’s benefit so he totally doesn’t think I’m running away from him, and then I run off, heading in the direction Tori went.

Which takes me out of the school where there’s no sign of her. Her van is still parked where she left it this morning, but that doesn’t mean anything. Not now when we can ninja streak pretty much anywhere.

Luckily, I know exactly where she’ll be.

XxX

The beach is pretty empty at this time of day. Which is good ‘cos it means it doesn’t take long for me to see Tori, just where I thought she’d be; at the far end of the beach away from where the few families are playing. I’m glad her end is deserted; it’ll make talking to her soooooo much easier. No one likes an audience.  

She’s standing right at the water’s edge, where the ocean meets the sand; shoes discarded, the waves lapping at her ankles. Her whole body is rigid, tight, hands in fists at her side and the steady wind blowing in from the open sea tugging her hair away from her face.

I tread carefully, sneakers in hand (‘cos I really don’t want to get them soaked in saltwater. That would be bye-bye sneakers), not really wanting to disturb her but also trying to make just enough noise so that she knows I’m coming. I definitely don’t  want to sneak up on Tori. Even on a good day that isn’t the best idea and today… well, I’m not going to risk it. Almost being attacked by Blake is way more than enough teammate-violence for one day.

She doesn’t respond to my approach, though I totally know she knows I’m here. I come to a halt a little way back from her, away from the waves washing up the beach, my sneakers bumping against my leg, the laces tight against my fingers. I just stand there, knowing she’ll actually acknowledge me when she’s ready.

There’s a long minute of nothing, just the swish of water on sand, the faint rustle of tiny grains being thrown about together; millions of small collisions happening every second that go unnoticed; immaterial, insignificant.

I hear Tori take a breath, shoulders rising and then falling, the teeniest shift in her posture and I know, I just know, she’s about to turn around.

When she does finally look at me, her eyes are wide and sad and completely un-Tori-like.

“Dustin?” she whispers and I can see she’s about to tell me leave her alone, not wanting to talk to me in case she cries again, readying herself to argue with whatever I’m about to say. So I don’t say anything.

Instead I hold my arms open for a hug.

‘Cos – as I’ve said – hugs are awesome. Hugs… might not make everything better, or make all your worries disappear, but they give you a chance to regroup, to know that you are not alone, that someone is there.

For one, really worrying moment I think she might refuse and then I would have, like, no idea what to do ‘cos she’s never not-hugged me before, but then she’s tumbling into my arms and I’m pulling her away from the water, up the beach a little until we can drop to ground without a wave drowning us.

The sand is firm and wet beneath me; I can feel the dampness soaking through my jeans and making my underwear soggy but I don’t care ‘cos Tori is in my arms and Tori is crying.

Tori hardly ever cries.

She is the strongest person I know. Not, like, physically strong (though don’t let her petite-ness fool you; her punches hurt) but emotionally strong; stable. I still remember the last time I saw her cry; Lily had died and she only cried a little bit. Ok, once really badly but then she kinda got a grip on herself and took charge of her mom and dad, lending them her calmness to get through those really bad months.

I dig my toes into the sand, earthing myself, as I rub Tori’s back comfortingly. Lots of Earth ninjas think sand is weak, that it’s damaged and fragmented and broken, but they’re wrong. Sand wasn’t always sand; it was rocks and cliffs and mountains once. And it remembers; remembers being solid, being powerful, being whole. It remembers what being strong is. And its memory is energy.

I draw in the strength from the sand, tightening my arms around Tori and just trying to will some of the energy into her. I don’t know if it’s working but she stills against me, still crying but not as hard as before.

I forget how small Tori is. Like she always seems so big, so serene, so in control and fierce when provoked. I forget how fragile she can be, but right now, in my arms, she’s tiny and hurting and… getting my shirt damp. Dude, I totally should have brought tissues with me.

Wet shirt, wet pants… might as well have just jumped in the sea when I got here. Might have made Tori laugh.

We’ve been sitting like this for a while; I’m not sure how long but long enough for one of my legs to fall asleep and I just know waking it up is going to hurt. I decide now is probably a good time to speak. Maybe. I play it safe just to be certain.

“Are you okay?”

I figure that’s innocent enough. Stupid, ‘cos Tori clearly isn’t alright, what with tears and running away from school and breaking up with Blake and did I mention the tears? But at least it’s a… conversation starter. Let’s Tori know it’s ok to talk; that I’m here to listen if she needs me to.

She shakes her head into my chest and I can just make out a muffled, “No,” mumbled miserably.

Ooh hey, alliteration. Look at that.

“You want to talk?” Still safe. Easy. No pressure.

The blonde pushes herself back from my arms, letting out a shaky breath. “Maybe. I don’t… I don’t know where to start.”

She moves to sit beside me, our shoulders touching and I know she’s seeking comfort, reassurance, in the contact.

“You broke up with Blake,” I say, ‘cos dude, that seems like the place to begin to me. She nods, drawing a strand of hair off her face and twisting it around her finger.

 “Everything got messed up,” she whispers, staring out across the water.

“With you and Blake?”

“No.” The Water ninja keeps her gaze fixed on the ocean and I know she is totally watching the waves, probably wishing she had her surfboard with her. One hand plays absently with the sand; fingers digging in, tracing lines and letting the grains run between them. “With me and Hunter.”

Wait, what? Now I’m like, super-confused ‘cos I thought we were talking about the younger Bradley. The less-grumpy one. But then Tori’s talking again so I don’t say anything, just try to listen, to make sense of what she’s saying.

“I was wrong about him. He’s… exactly what Shane thinks he is. He’s what Cam warned me about. I should have listened but I thought I knew better and dammit why was I so stupid? Cam knew. He told me to be careful but I was so sure… How could I have got someone so… so wrong?”

“Something happened? Between you and Hunter?” I ask uncertainly which, y’know, is a freaking dumb thing to ask ‘cos obviously something’s happened. Tori gives a small laugh that’s somehow cold and bitter and I’ve never heard her sound like this. “What did he do?”

I figure as she’s the one upset – not that I’ve seen the crimson ranger today and not that I’d be able to tell if he was, like, sad or anything anyway – he must be, like, the cause. He must have done something. And then I feel guilty ‘cos I’m being like Shane, and Cam; putting the blame on Hunter before we actually know what’s happened. Which is totally not fair.

Tori doesn’t speak for what feels like years. I can see her mouth trying to form words but nothing comes out. I don’t know if she just can’t find the right words, or if she can’t decide whether to tell me or not. 

“He kissed me,” she says at last, glancing away to the side.

“Huh?” I stare at her in surprise ‘cos that doesn’t seem… right. Or possible. Not something Hunter would do. Like, I can’t imagine the crimson ranger ever kissing anyone. He’s… not a kissy person. “You mean like on the cheek?”

She shakes her head, biting her lip as if to stop from smiling at me. “No I mean like… a kiss kiss. On the, uh, lips.”

And she’s blushing, cheeks flushed and awkward, as if it’s more than just admitting it that’s causing her discomfort; as if the memory is… oh. Right, duh, Dustin. That sort of kiss. A non-friends sorta kiss. Which, wow. And also, wow. I was so not expecting that.

But there’s no sadness in her words and I figure there’s more to this than just a kiss. “And then?”

Tori pulls a face and I can see moisture gathering at the corners of her eyes again.

“And then the bastard told me he only kissed me to see what Blake saw in me. He said he didn’t lov- like me; that he couldn’t see why Blake did. That I wasn’t special.” She takes a sharp breath, one hand coming up to dash away the tears that have dared to fall again; like she’s angry at them for escaping. “I thought he was just trying to stop himself feeling guilty for liking me but he was so cold, Dustin. Like I didn’t matter at all. Like everything I thought I knew about him was wrong; the warm and kind Hunter I kept seeing was just another mask. A trick; a lie.”

That doesn’t sound like Hunter. Not at all. I know he’s all grumpy and grr and issues, but he isn’t mean. I’m sure he isn’t mean. I try and tell Tori this, but she cuts me off sharply. Almost angrily.

“Don’t, Dustin. Don’t- Don’t defend him. Please.” She rubs a hand across her eyes, as if tired. “Please don’t. He doesn’t deserve your trust. He hasn’t earned it.”

I want to disagree; tell her that the blond has earned my trust. He earned it when he didn’t kill Sensei and when he didn’t kill us on the island. He earned it when he joined us and every time he’s saved my life since then. And sure, I’ve saved his life back; it’s no big deal. Happens at least half a dozen times each battle but that’s what teammates are for.

Somehow though, I don’t think now is the right time. I drop the words I was about to say, switching instead to an obvious reason for Hunter’s behaviour. “D’you think he’s under a spell or something?”

Which, dude, just how much does that say about how so-very-far-from-normal our lives have become? That a valid and logical explanation for one of us doing something odd or hurtful is ‘Lothor made me do it’?!

Tori shakes her head, saying in a horribly empty voice that she’s quite sure the Thunder ninja hasn’t been brainwashed again. Which is good, I guess. Though actually maybe not in this case. At least if he’d been under a spell or something Tori could forgive him and take out her anger on Lothor. Or his minions.

Heh, minions. I like minions. It’s a good word. A nice-sounding word, like ‘sherbet’ or ‘abominable’. Min-ion; it just kinda rolls of the tongue.

Probably shouldn’t call the kelzaks ‘minions’ though; it makes them sound cute and fluffy and they’re really not.

Oops, back to Tori. Focus, Dustin.

“So you broke up with Blake ‘cos Hunter kissed you?” I ask, trying to understand. That makes sense. That’s logical, right?

Apparently not, as Tori’s shaking her head. “No.”

Aaaand back to being confused.

I think my not-understanding is showing all over my face ‘cos Tori gives me a small smile, taking pity on me by explaining herself.

“I broke up with Blake because it was wrong to keep pretending when I knew I didn’t love him.” She lets out a breath and I see her lower lip tremble, shaky fingers coming up to wipe her eyes again. I slide my arm around her shoulder, letting her lean against me. “You know, my mom said sometimes love is like the creeping tide, growing slowly. I kept waiting and waiting for it to reach me with Blake but it didn’t.”

And I’m suddenly aware of stuff that isn’t-being-said.

“But it did with Hunter?” I keep my voice calm, kinda hazarding a guess but I know I’m totally right two seconds later when she’s staring at me in shock.

“Wha… What are you talking about?”

“You’re not upset about Hunter kissing you.” I’m not convinced her confusion is genuine. Tori is smart; I’m like, pretty sure she knows what I mean but I explain anyway. “You’re upset about afterwards.”

She’s still staring at me, eyes wide, and then her expression softens, the smallest of smiles tugging up the corners of her mouth.

“Look who’s the smart one now,” she says fondly, but then her face crumples, tears spilling from her eyes and rolling down her cheeks. “I messed up.” Her voice is croaky, broken, as she continues, “I’ve been so stupid. I just… What do I do Dustin?”   

Aw hell. Why’s she asking me? I’m definitely no expert on relationships; everyone normally asks Tori for advice about this sort of thing.

But Tori’s here, asking me so… What would I do?

“You could, uh, try talking to him.”

I’m sure there’s been like, a miscommunication or something. There’s been a mistake, like Hunter didn’t say something right and Tori’s taken it to the worst possible meaning ‘cos there’s feelings involved here and it’s always messy and jumbled up when there’s feelings involved so maybe if they just kinda, tried explaining things to each other it’ll all be sorted out and they can go back to being friends. Friends who kiss each other…  

“No.” Tori’s shaking her head furiously. “No, I don’t want to see him, let alone speak to him. I don’t want to be near him. I got him so wrong, Dustin. He’s cruel and cold and calculated; he knew what he was doing with me and I… I fell for it.”

Again I’m struck with a feeling of wrongness; this picture Tori’s painting of Hunter clashing horribly with the image of the blond I’ve come to know in the past few months. But how much do I know of him? How much do any of us – Blake excluded – know about him?

There’s a sinking sensation in my stomach, a feeling of irrational disappointment that I can’t quite place.

“Do you really believe that?” I ask and wow, does my voice sound wobbly.

“Yes!” Tori exclaims, angry and hurt. Then, “Yes.”

Her voice is suddenly soft, unsure, and I don’t know who she’s trying to convince more; me or herself. She bites her lip, gaze returning to the ocean. “I just… It hurts, D. He hurt me and I… don’t want to think about him anymore.”

“Okay,” I say quietly, giving her another squeeze around the shoulders.

We fall into silence but there’s still something bugging me. Well, alright, there’s a few things bugging me but Tori doesn’t want to talk about Hunter anymore and I’m not sure she’s in like, the right frame of mind to properly think about this now.

She’s hurting and upset and that sucks, but it also means she’ll react immediately to things, with anger and pain ‘stead of actually thinking them through. Passion over reason, isn’t that what they say? Whoever ‘they’ are.  

So yeah, the other thing that’s bugging me… “What about Blake?”

Her brow furrows as she looks back at me. “What about Blake?”

I shift awkwardly, the hand that isn’t still draped over her shoulders coming up to brush a curl out of my eyes. Maybe my mom’s right; I need a haircut.

“What happens with the two of you now?”

She lets out a sigh, eyes dropping to the sand, finger still drawing absent patterns. “I want us to be friends. I want us to go back to the way things were before we started dating.” Her eyes snap up to mine. “Is that really selfish of me? To want his friendship after rejecting him?” I shake my head and she lets out a small laugh. “He probably hates me now.”

Her voice is small and sad, filled with regret, but her eyes are dry.

“Nu-uh,” I tell her firmly, onto safer ground now, less out-of-my-depth. “Blake could never hate you. He’s upset, but Shane’s with him now. He’ll help and then the two of you… You’ll sort this out. But-” I cut myself off before my mouth comes out with something that’ll make Tori cry again.

She doesn’t let it pass though; sounding much more normal as she asks, “What Dustin? What is it?”

“Are you going to tell him about Hunter?”

Oops, that came out a lot blunter than I’d meant it to, but Tori doesn’t even flinch. I think she’s getting herself under control, calming down, regaining her centre. I dunno if it’s the strength I’m trying to channel from the sand finally kicking in, or if she’s pulling in stuff from the nearby waves, or if she’s just becoming Tori again, but it’s good to see.

“No, I’m not,” she says evenly, running a hand over her face. “And you’re not either,” she adds, fixing me with a Look. “Hunter’s his family; the only family he has and this would be- this is a betrayal and he can’t ever find out. I don’t want to be the thing that comes between them.”

Dude, she’ll get no arguments from me about that. I’m just glad to see Tori back; even her very-terrifying Look is welcome here.

“My lips are sealed,” I reply, pulling my fingers across them and making a zipping noise just to emphasise my point.

Tori’s face breaks into a smile and it’s almost like a light has come on behind her eyes. She pulls me into a hug before kissing me on the cheek.

“Thanks D; you’re the best,” she says, pressing my hand quickly, the sorrow draining from her as she rebuilds her composure. “Come on,” she continues, standing and stretching out some of the kinks caused by sitting on damp sand for this long. “If we streak back we can still make to our last class.”

“Aw, dude.”

XxX

It’s just me Tori drops off at home once school finally finishes. Shane and Blake are nowhere to be seen and I just know they’ve ditched school the rest of the day. Or Blake’s taking longer to be sort-of-ok than Tori.

… I’m pretty sure they’ve just ditched.

Lucky jerks.  

The rest of the day was, like, total torture. Not to mention I’m absolutely starving (still!) as guess who didn’t get lunch in the end? Yup, yours truly.

How much does that suck?

Tori looks a little better though, so I guess our chat helped.

Mom’s taken Gabriela and Evey shopping with Vovó so I get the house to myself for a bit after school. Yay for peace and quiet. And dude, I never thought I’d ever look forward to just crashing out on the sofa – I always thought it was so boring – but a chance to sit and be still for a bit has become like gold dust and is not to be turned down.

I grab some leftover pizza from the fridge and spend a minute just flicking through channels on the tv until some cartoon comes on and I leave it there, because food.

Oh dude… how good does this pizza taste?

I munch on it happily, half an ear on the tv as my mind returns to the Hunter-Tori Problem.

And yeah, those capitals are justified. This is a big problem.

But I have no idea where to even start. There’s just so much… It’s so messed up, like Tori said.

Ok Dustin, think.

Ugh, I hate thinking about difficult stuff. I normally leave the really tricky things to Cam. Cam’s the smart one.

Wait, Cam knows things. I can’t ask him (‘cos Tori told me about the kiss in confidence. Like, she never said don’t tell but I know not to tell) but maybe I should think about this like he would think about this.

How would Cam think about this?

Facts. Everything starts with the facts. 

So, what are the facts?

Ok, this is what I know…

One: Hunter kissed Tori. Though it might not have all been Hunter. At the very least she didn’t object to the kiss. Maybe.

Fine, there was kissing. Kiss happened.

Two: Tori likes Hunter. Like, likes him.

Three (which is kinda the biggie): Hunter told Tori the kiss meant nothing but that’s whack ‘cos I’m so sure Hunter likes her. There’s touching and smiling and-

What if Hunter like likes her?  And he kissed her and then… Blake. Hunter thinks she likes Blake and he knows Blake likes Tori so… He kissed her and he’d probably be like, oh-noes-what-have-I-done so he’d… lie. Hunter would lie. ‘Cept the lie’s kinda backfired ‘cos Tori’s really upset and…

He wouldn’t think she really likes him.

Hunter can barely accept I like him, as a friend. He’s not going believe Tori might actually really like him.

He doesn’t think he deserves love.

Which is sad and kinda depressing when you think about it. Everyone deserves love. At least a chance at love.

Or I’m totally wrong and Tori’s version of events is really what happened. But I don’t want to be wrong. Not about this. Not about Hunter. Like, I can’t properly explain it but it’s really, really important that he isn’t the person Tori thinks he is right now. That there’s been some horrible error or Hunter’s done something bad to try not to hurt her but he’s been stupid and didn’t mean what he said.

He can’t have meant what Tori said he said, ‘cos if he did it means Hunter’s fooled us all. Like, ok, I get it; I’m not the best judge of character and I know Shane thinks I’m too trusting and maybe I was, like, a little when I first met the Bradleys but I’ve actually been proved right ‘cos they weren’t really bad or evil, just stupid (which yes, they were ‘cos believing anything Lothor says is stupid, though I guess I can’t blame them. It wasn’t my parents that were murdered).

So, yeah, I’m not the best at figuring out people but Tori is (mostly) and Sensei definitely is, and there’s no way Sensei would have let Hunter on the team if he was mean.

So if Hunter is mean, then he’s pretended not to be so well that even Sensei thinks he isn’t. And Blake too. As in, Hunter’s fooled Blake, not that Blake is also pretending ‘cos he was really upset earlier and that wasn’t not-real.

And if Hunter has fooled everyone then he can’t be trusted and he can’t be on the team. We have to be able to trust people; trust each other. We have to. We have to trust that everyone has everyone’s backs, at, like, the minimum.

And a team without Hunter wouldn’t be a team.

Ok, so sure Shane would like, almost definitely disagree but I’m certain even the red dude (who isn’t Shane, not exactly. Like, Shane is the red guy – the leader – but he’s also Shane. In the same way Bruce Banner is The Hulk but they’re also kinda… separate. Red guy makes decisions. Red guy knows we have to work with the Bradleys and try to get along with the crimson ranger, even if Shane doesn’t like Hunter) will admit we need Hunter. Well, crimson. We need the strongest team possible if we want to save the world, which, yeah, we do; no arguments about that. Saving the world is kind the most important thing in the world, ‘cos if we don’t there won’t be any other ‘things’ in the world. And the crimson dude is strong.

Plus, I like Hunter. 

Maybe I’m being what Shane always calls me; naïve. But Hunter’s been different lately. Less… well, just less everything. And I know that’s ‘cos of Tori and maybe it was all an act but… it felt real.

I don’t think Hunter was pretending.

I’m struck by a sense of certainty; this was real for Hunter too.

So… what do I do?

Like, normally I’d throw myself into doing something stupid to solve an argument between friends which, sure, usually ends up with both of them being annoyed at me but then they can bond over mutual ‘Dustin-is-so-annoying’ stuff. Which they never say but that must be what happens.

Or else I am just super-awesome at bringing people together.

Huh, maybe I am. It is kinda my fault Tori and I became proper friends with Shane AND I totally found the Bradleys so…

Yup, I am awesome.

But this is different. And not just ‘cos it’s the two members of the team who you don’t ever want to cross (which they are. Everyone knows it. Hunter is broody and thunder and yeah, not getting on his bad side but Tori can be a force of nature too; a strong ocean or a rising tide, fierce and powerful and terrifying).  Nuh uh, I’m not having both of them annoyed at me at the same time. Dude, I value my life.

But something needs to be done. This needs to be fixed and if they’re both too stubborn to fix it then I’ll…

I’ll give it a week.

One week.

And then…

Then I’ll speak to Hunter.

Just gotta hope he’ll listen. And not kill me.

 

Not-killing me would be good.

Chapter Text

What doesn’t kill ya
What doesn’t hurt
Sometimes you feel you’re up against the world
What doesn’t kill ya
What doesn’t break
This life it seems to bring you to your knees
You try, you bleed, then finally you breathe

~Jake Bugg

This week hasn’t been the best week of my life.

It hasn’t been the worst. In fact, objectively speaking, it’s been far from it. That there have been far worse weeks than this is an undeniable fact. I mean, compared to seeing your parents murdered, or running away from armed gang-members, or having your safe place destroyed by a Dark Ninja, or finding out said Dark Ninja was the one who killed your family and you’d been working for him- Compared to all that and more, a week of feeling guilty and miserable after arguing with a teammate shouldn’t come close. It shouldn’t even break into the top ten.

But this knowledge does little to dissipate the emotions battering against my still-fragile barriers.

Not just an argument; not just a teammate…

Tori hasn’t spoken to me in days.

Ok, so admittedly I have been avoiding her. Sort of. I’ve spent most of my down time up in the forest, in the clearing overlooking the ocean. Finding solitude is the argument I’d use but that isn’t true. I haven’t found any peace up there. Every moment I’m there my ears are straining to hear footsteps, my body waiting for the sound of her voice, skin eager for a soft and gentle touch… which doesn’t come. She doesn’t come.

At first I try to believe I’m not waiting for her. That I’m not feeling like this because of her- because I messed up. Because I fell for her, I kissed her, and I hurt her.

But as the week wears on and I remain alone, I’m forced to acknowledge all of the above and-

Dammit.

I’m filled by a restless energy, torn between running to her and telling her I was wrong, and the urge to hide completely from everyone. Even Blake.

Especially Blake.

I promised my brother I’d fix this, but I don’t know how.

I’m not even sure I should.

Maybe hurting her was the right thing to do. It’s not like there was ever a chance for us, no matter what I feel about her. She deserves more than me, so much more. If we tried… she’d soon realise I can’t give her everything and then she’d leave.

Just like Leanne.

I hurt her, but it will be better for her, in the end. And for me. I should have learnt by now; letting people in only leads to pain. This whole situation is a reminder of that. A reminder I shouldn’t have needed. How much this has hurt… It’s better to leave it. It doesn’t need to be fixed. It – she – has to be left alone. It’s better for us both.

Now I just need to figure out how I’m going to live with that.

In the meantime, I’m on edge, agitated and impatient. There hasn’t been an alien attack either, and while I’m glad for the lack of threat to Earth’s safety, I could have done with the work out.

Friday evening – and the fight –can’t come soon enough.

XxX

I wait for Frank outside the bar we had our single beer in last Sunday. This early in the evening the place seems deserted, the windows still shuttered and the red bricks glowing in the dying light of the setting sun.

I’m lounging against the wall, enjoying the warmth on my skin, when a sleek black Mustang pulls up alongside; Frank leaning across the passenger seat to unlatch the door for me.

“You showed,” he says as I slide in, a trace of something that could be surprise in his tone but I’m not sure.

“You doubted me?” I ask distractedly, my focus almost solely on the car he’s turned up in. I have to admit, I’m mildly impressed.

Frank grunts, pulling away from the curb; the roar of the engine bringing a smile to my face. “Couldn’t be certain.”

I wait for him to say something more, but he doesn’t and we lapse into an awkward and uncomfortable silence. I’m on edge, uncertain, unsure what to say, if I should be saying anything, and I wrack my brain desperately to find something – anything – to say to fill the increasingly-oppressive quiet but I keep drawing a blank. I realise my fingers are drumming a nervous tattoo on my knee and I force them to be still, keeping my gaze firmly out of the window at the buildings passing by.

But my eyes keep being drawn to the car, to its smooth lines and well-kept interior. It is clearly a prized possession.

Beside me, Frank shifts in his seat and I see him shoot me a quick glance. Then his shoulders relax, a small smile sliding over his features. “You like her?”

It takes me a moment to realise he’s talking about the car.

“Yeah she’s beautiful. Sixty-nine, right?”

The older man nods, running a hand affectionately over the steering wheel. “Yup, restored her myself,” he tells me and I can hear the pride in his voice. He gives me another sideways look. “You know much about cars?”

“A little,” I admit, then figure it can’t hurt to add, “I’m a mechanic, kinda. I work on bikes, dirt bikes mostly, but I know my way around a car engine.”

Frank nods in response, eyes back on the road, and then he’s telling me all about the restoration process, where he found the right parts and all the effort he put into ensuring it was authentic, every detail correct. I let his words wash over me, sinking back into the soft leather of the seat.

Then, “We’re here,” Frank announces as we swing off the main road and pull into the parking lot of a small building set back from the road, low and squat against the ground. It’s… not what I was expecting.

I don’t know exactly what it was I was expecting, but the bar appears perfectly ordinary, clean-looking, with fresh paint on the doors and window frames. The lot is almost full and a stream of completely normal-looking people are heading for the main entrance.

I follow Frank into the roadhouse, allowing my curiosity to get the better of me as I consider the people that have come to watch the fights.

The scene is incongruous; the well-dressed and smiling patrons clashing horribly with the image I’d built up in my mind, which was more reminiscent of an audience baying for blood in a gladiatorial arena than a Friday night theatre show which is what the reality is putting me in mind of.

The main room itself is larger than it looked from the outside, with a long bar – already busy – down one wall and a raised structure erected in the centre. There are spotlights flooding the sort-of caged-in-ring, leaving the rest of the room bathed in an eerie half-light.

Frank leads me to a door next to the bar. “Changing room, kid,” he tells me over the loud music blaring from the sound system. “Go get ready and get warm, whatever you need to do. I’ll come find you when it’s time.”

And then he’s gone, disappearing into the crowd and leaving me to push open the door and enter the little room on the other side by myself. There’s about half a dozen men already inside, none of which spare me a second glance as I take in the surroundings. The L-shaped room has mats down at the intersection where a couple of guys are warming up, a row of lockers down one wall and a narrow bench on the wall opposite, and what looks like a bathroom tucked around the corner.

I ease my way further into the room, finding a clear spot on the bench to change out of my jeans and into my running kit; the only clothes I thought might even be close to suitable to fight in. My eyes keep straying to the other fighters in the room, wondering who my opponent will be, but they are all focused on their own preparations so I keep to myself, huddling as unobtrusively as I can at the edge of the room.

I’ve just found an empty locker to stash my rucksack – morpher carefully hidden at the bottom – when Frank comes to find me, giving me a quick glance then shaking his head. “You can’t wear that,” he says, indicating my t-shirt and I frown, but Frank only says, “It’s the rules, kid.”

It’s with some reluctance I draw the soft material off over my head, the cool air ghosting over my skin and making me even more self-conscious than I was earlier. I have to resist the urge to cross my arms over my chest, but if the older man notices my discomfort he doesn’t comment on it.

“Here.” Frank hands me a small box which I take with curiosity. “Mouthguard,” he explains with a smile as I pull out the clear plastic mould. “I didn’t think you’d have the kit and we’ve always got a supply of new stuff at the gym. Get a lot of it free from our sponsors.” He sounds like he’s trying to reassure me, to let me know he’s giving me it and not asking me to pay for it without actually saying it out loud. “You got, uh, other protection?” he adds gruffly as I slide the guard over my upper teeth. When I don’t answer he thrusts something into at my hands.

“Seriously?” I attempt to say, the words sticking on the mouthguard, coming out muffled and slurred. I raise an eyebrow to emphasise my point, staring distastefully at the object I’m now holding.

Frank scowls. “Rules are rules. Besides, if you get kicked in the groin you’ll be glad to be wearing it. It’s a new one, so don’t be pulling faces at me. Go put it on.”

I don’t have an answer for that and instead disappear into a bathroom to do as I’m told. When I return, shifting awkwardly against the unfamiliar and uncomfortable addition to my attire, Frank pulls out some strange, fingerless, kinda-padded-but-kinda-not gloves which I’m about to slide straight onto my hands when the older man pulls them back, waving a roll of white tape at me.

“Need to strap your wrists up first. Stops ‘em breaking,” he tells me, beginning to peel off a length.

“I don’t need-” I bite the words off before I can finish the sentiment and just hold out my hands for Frank, ignoring the look he gives me before he starts carefully wrapping my hands and wrists with the slightly-elasticated tape. 

Normal… I have to remember to be normal.

I’ve spent so much time just around the other rangers that I’m forgetting what ‘normal’ means.

Normal means having to tape up your wrists to stop them breaking when you hit your opponent. Normal means having to consider protection as your body can injure and tire. Normal… means a lot of things that I am not.

I allow my thoughts to drift, feeling the heaviness of the tape lending support to the bones in my wrist. Then Frank’s helping me with the gloves before tapping them with a smile. “There, all set.”

I follow the older man out of the changing rooms and we’re just making our way through the crowd when a thought strikes me. “So, uh, what actually are the rules?” I manage to twist the words out from around the plastic coating my top teeth.

Frank stops short, staring at me. “You’re serious? And you didn’t think to ask me earlier?”

I shrug, glancing off to the side and fiddling with the edge of the gloves, fingers feeling stuff and unwieldy as they adjust to the new sensations.

The greying man lets out a sigh that seems part-exasperated, part-amazed. Gesturing for us to continue walking, he gives me a brief run-down on the rules as we approach the imposing-looking ring set up in the centre of the room. No, not ring. Cage.

“Fight is three five-minute rounds. You win by knock out or submission. No eye gouging or kicks to groin. No knees to head when your opponent is on the floor. No strikes to back of the head. Do what the ref says.”

“Is that all?”

Frank scoffs. “No, but it’ll do for now.” Hand on my elbow, he steers me towards a guy standing beside the steps that lead to the entrance to the cage. “Spence, this is Hunter. It’s his first time so be gentle.”

The guy – Spence – just grunts and grabs my hands, turning them over to check my gloves and binding before running his fingers over my shoulders and chest. “Mouthguard?” he barks at me and I bare my teeth, showing him the clear plastic protector. His eyes flick lower. “Cup?”

I nod and the next thing he’s dipped his fingers in a tub and is smearing some sticky, jelly-like substance across my eyebrows. I jerk my head away but Frank’s voice stops me.

“It’s just Vaseline,” he says calmly, with a nod to the other man to continue. “Means you don’t get cut as easily.”

“You’re good to go,” Spence barks and then he’s shoving me up the steps and into the caged ring, the chain-link fence reaching up to my head height.

The floor is solid beneath my feet; the canvas-covered boards providing only a little give as I move to the spot I’ve been directed to. There’s a feeling of claustrophobia beating in my chest, palms suddenly clammy underneath the gloves and tape, mouth dry. This space is too small – my ranger powers are protesting – it’s too small, it’s a trap, I can’t fight in here, it’s so… enclosed. I shut my eyes briefly, forcing down the flight instinct that is thrumming through me, and take a deep, calming breath. 

When I open my eyes again, Frank is smiling at me from outside. “Welcome to the octagon,” he says.

I manage a smile back at him just as a guy in a smart black suit complete with crisp, white shirt crosses over to me. “Name?” he demands briskly.

“Uh, Hunter.”

He seems less-than-impressed, letting out a small breath that might just be a sigh of exasperation, as if he’s been dealing with idiots all night. “Hunter..?”

“Bra-” I pause, panic flashing across my mind of any of this getting back to the others. “-own,” I finish, the man in the suit giving me a strange look. “Hunter Brown.”

“Whatever, kid,” he says, turning abruptly away from me with an expression on his face that says he isn’t completely buying it.

I watch him cross to the centre of the ring- octagon wielding a battered looking microphone. A hush of expectation falls across the room, everyone’s attention on the man in the middle – the announcer, I realise belatedly.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, our third fight of the evening is about to begin. Introducing first… Fighting out of the red corner, a mixed martial artist hailing from Seattle, Washington… I give you Mike Stratton!”

My eyes are instantly drawn to the other man – my opponent. A little shorter than me but around my build, muscular and well-defined without being overly bulky; dark skin and deep brown, almost black eyes that seem to be watching me with a calm humour. Catching my gaze upon him, he grins, teeth flashing a brilliant white. As his name is announced he turns and gives the crowd a practiced, languid wave and I know he’s done this before.

I barely hear my introduction, so focused on blocking out the sounds of the crowd and taking deep, slow breaths to release some of the tension I’m carrying.

Tension is useless in a fight.

It hardens the muscles, makes your reactions slower, breathing more difficult, your movements jerky and sluggish. You have to be relaxed, because then you can be fast; speed a far, far greater ally than pure strength.

I let out a long exhale, feeling my shoulders ease, the muscles unknotting and loosening with my breath. Then the referee is calling us to the centre, telling us to keep it clean and making us touch gloves before sending us back to our respective sides. There’s a ‘ding!’ of a bell and by the way Mike is edging his way towards me I know the fight has begun.

I mirror his movements, shadowing each step he takes; the two of us warily circling as we try to get the measure of each other, neither of us seemingly willing to be the one to engage.

It’s Mike that moves first; a burst of speed propelling him forward, two swift jabs aimed at my face before following with a quick, solid front kick at my stomach. I avoid the attacks with relative ease, stepping back to just out of range in a way I know is particularly irritating for my opponent – Blake absolutely hates it when I do it to him – but it gives me a good chance to observe, to test, and to annoy.

After all, an angry opponent is a reckless one.

But Mike seems to take it in his stride, following up with another couple of jabs which I try and step back from only to feel the cool vinyl-coated metal of the cage on my back and I have to twist to the side, ducking to avoid another fast punch as I escape from the dead-end I’d almost got myself into.

He’s quick; movements smooth and flowing, footwork solid, weight low. Practiced, just like his wave.

He’s good. Very good; more than I was expecting. But I have to be better.

Now it’s my turn to go on the offensive, throwing a couple of quick jabs of my own to gain some distance from the other fighter. I’m suddenly, painfully aware of my ranger strength, of my muscles crying out for me to release the power I know they hold but I don’t. I can’t, because Mike is human, not a kelzak or alien. I need to be careful, to hold back enough to make sure I don’t cause him permanent damage.

Or kill him.

I try to aim for the same level of control I’d had when fighting those jerks in the bar: harder and faster than when I’m sparring; not enough to seriously hurt.

Mike is pushing back now and the dance begins in earnest; the blood singing in my veins, drowning out the calls of the crowd until there is nothing but my opponent, nothing but strikes and counter-strikes and constant, shifting movement; the fight ebbing and flowing smoothly between offence and defence, give and take, always searching for that opening, for that one chance to end it, for any error the other man might make and-

There it is

Mike’s left hand drops as he fires out a jab with his right, leaving his face open, defenceless. I slip past his arm to the inside, throwing a sharp, hooking punch of my own, aiming for his jaw. For the knockout.

As soon as my fist connects I know I’ve misjudged it. I’ve held back too much; it isn’t a drunk at a bar I’m against now, it’s a trained fighter. The punch is solid, strong, but not quite enough to cause the damage I need. Strong enough to daze but not to knockout.

Even so, it seems to take Mike by surprise as he stumbles back, knees buckling until they hit the canvas and I pause, taking a breath as I wait for him to regain his balance. The noise of the crowd that has been only a dull roar in my ears until this moment seems to double, but whatever they’re yelling is lost to me, my attention focused fully on the man getting shakily to his feet in front of me.

He looks confused, baffled even, in a way that has little to do with the blow to the jaw he’s just received, but then his eyes clear, body dropping back into a fighting stance with a small shake of his head and he’s moving forward again, hands raised. The fight is back on.

I try and push my slim advantage, throwing a fast series of punches towards the other man but Mike presses back with a couple of swift kicks that force me to keep my distance and then he’s on the offensive again and I find my back once more against the chain-link fence, Mike’s elbow catching me as I spin away, clipping my face. The coppery taste of blood bursts into my mouth, metallic and bitter. There’s no time for me to focus on the injury as the other man is turning with me, following up with a kick that catches me in the stomach, the air escaping my mouth in a gasp but it’s ok, I’m still ok. I duck the next flurry of blows and drive my fist into his ribs, hearing the sharp exhale of breath which accompanies the sudden pain I know he’ll be feeling and-

Ding!

The bell cuts through the red-tinted haze of battle and I manage to pull back the follow-up punch I’d just thrown as the referee forces himself between us, signalling the end of the round.

Mike’s breathing heavily, the area under one eye beginning to swell, a trickle of blood oozing out of a cut on his brow. I did that. He’s still grinning at me though, amusement and respect dancing in his dark eyes and I find myself smiling back at him, returning the sentiment.

We return to the sides we’d started from – corners, the ref says – and Frank appears at my side, draping a towel over the back of my neck. I drop down onto the low stool that’s been placed on the canvas, pulling the plastic guard from my mouth and running my tongue absently over my top teeth.

“You okay?” Frank asks, handing me a bottle of water which I use to rinse the blood from my mouth and the saliva from the mouthguard. 

My bottom lip already feels thick, swollen, and when I smile up at him, pink liquid dripping from my chin, I can feel the edges of the cut pulling.

“I’m good,” I tell him, taking another swig of water which I swallow this time.

He looks faintly surprised and I’m not sure why, until I follow his glance over to Mike in his corner, sweat beading on the other fighter’s brow and his chest heaving as he lets go control over his breathing in the few minutes of respite before the next round.

My own breathing is easy, barely above normal, and I recognise my mistake. I take a couple of deeper breaths, trying to fake the gasp that comes with a need for oxygen and force the smile to stay locked on my face as I say lightly, “I’m a runner; my cardio is awesome.”

Frank just grunts, the hint of suspicion still in his eyes, but he drops the subject, instead reaching over to dab some more Vaseline carefully on my face.

“Why didn’t you finish it?” he asks me casually, smearing the petroleum jelly over my eyebrows.

I squint up at him, momentarily dazzled by the bright lights behind him, puzzled. “What do you mean? When?”

“You almost had him,” Frank says, jerking his head at Mike. “But you let him back up. Why didn’t you end it?”

I realise he’s talking about Mike’s stumble and I shrug carelessly. “Didn’t feel right to hit someone when they were down.”

Frank stares at me for a long minute and then sighs, giving a small shake of his head. “Next time you hit him, kid, you follow and keep going ‘til the ref tells you to stop.  That’s… allowed. That’s what you’re meant to do, to win.”

He looks like he’s waiting for me to agree with him, but his words curl my stomach. The thought of violence for violence’s sake, of beating on someone who isn’t defending themselves… It doesn’t sit right with me.

I guess I’ve been on the other end of it too many times.

But then, this is what I’ve got myself into. And I have to win…

I give Frank the smallest of nods just as the ref indicates time is up. I stand; the older man giving my shoulder a quick squeeze before he leaves, the octagon door swinging shut behind him and I slide the guard back into my mouth just as the bell chimes to signal the beginning of round two.

I move forward with purpose, knowing I have the measure of the other fighter now. Mike seems much warier of me, shadowing my movements this time and we resume our previous circling.

I’m just about to move into a series of strikes of my own – go on the offensive – when out of nowhere he suddenly springs forward, arms wrapping around my legs and I’m falling backwards, landing on the canvas with a jolt that knocks the air from my lungs. Mike’s on top of me, straddling my stomach and begins raining down punches towards my head.

I raise my arms instinctively to shield myself , mind working overtime as I desperately try to figure out how the hell to get this guy off me. I can’t say it’s a situation I’ve ever been in – kelzaks aren’t much for ground fighting – but a vague memory of Shane and Dustin messing around in training comes back to me and I slide my leg up behind him, knee bent, foot braced against the canvas. Bucking my hips, I manage to dislodge the other fighter for a moment and use that brief opportunity to twist from under him, getting my hands and feet beneath me, back towards him.

Which, in retrospect, was a fucking stupid thing to do.

One arm slips around my throat, pulling me back against his chest, his other arm locking my head in place as he tightens the choke.

Can’tbreathe

I struggle desperately, mind whirring as the first black patches appear at the edges of my vision, a rushing in my ears.

Can’tbreathe

“Hey, tap out,” Mike whispers in my ear, his voice low and rough from exertion.

I want to shake my head, tell him no, but the words are jammed, stuck, and my world is closing in on me.

I have to get out of this. I have to win. I have to-

……

.

“Hunter? Lad? Can you hear me?”

The voice is indistinct and I blink my eyes, a face swimming into view. It’s a man’s face, rugged and worn and… familiar?

“I know you,” I say, or at least try to, my words coming out hoarse as I attempt to sit up. I raise a hand to my neck, wincing at the tenderness of the skin around my throat.

The man gives me a concerned look. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

I squint at his hand, feeling strange. Woozy and disconnected, drenched in a cold sweat. I’ve been unconscious, that much I know. These sensations are old friends now.

“… Four?” I hazard a guess, knowing my ranger-healing is already busy working away, repairing whatever damage I’ve suffered.

“Close enough,” the man – Frank; it’s Frank – grunts. “You okay to stand?” He doesn’t wait for me to answer, instead yelling across to another man, “AJ, give me a hand here.”

The other man turns out to be a teenager, a kid with red hair that looks even younger than Blake. He slides a steadying arm around my waist as Frank lifts me to my feet, draping my arm over his broad shoulders. Between the two of them they get me out of the octagon and into a chair. Frank sends AJ off for some more water and waves over another man – the medic – who shines a light in my eyes and asks a couple of questions before pronouncing me to be ok. Despite that, I catch Frank still watching me with a concerned expression on his face and I struggle to clear the last remnants of the fog from my brain, forcing myself to sit up straight.

The teenager, AJ, drops into the empty seat across from me, grinning. “Dude,” he breathes, staring at me with wide eyes and an awed look. “Those were some crazy skills you pulled. Thought Mike was going down in round one for sure.”

I feel the blood rush to my cheeks, unsure what I’m meant to say to his almost-reverential words, and all I can do is offer a feeble smile in response.

“Mike almost did go down in round one” a new voice breaks into the conversation, saving me from answering, and the guy I was just fighting appears; the left side of his face already swollen and starting to bruise. He holds out a hand to me with a grin and I take it warily. But despite the firmness of his grip, the gesture is warm and friendly, traits that shine through in his voice as he says, “You are one tough sonnabitch. Crazy too; most people tap out once they’re in a choke.”

“They do?” I say lamely, the embarrassment still clenching my stomach. A choke… I didn’t even know what the hell it was. Let alone how I was meant to deal with it. And I lost…

Shit.

Mike’s shaking his head at me, but his next words are addressed to Frank. “Jesus, F. Talk about throwing a rookie into the ring. Coulda least let the guy train with us first. Here-” He turns his attention back to me “-Lemme buy you a beer. Can’t say you haven’t earned it.” 

He doesn’t wait for my answer, disappearing and reappearing in what feels like seconds but given how dazed I still am it is probably closer to ten minutes, carrying three bottles of beer, handing one to me and Frank.

“None for me?” the red-haired teen asks with a mock-pout and Mike laughs, reaching over to ruffle his hair teasingly.

“When you’re twenty-one maybe,” he replies, sliding into the seat next to me.

Over the table, Frank rolls his eyes and grins, raising his beer to us both in a salute. “Here’s to a few more fights like that one.”

Some other guys join us at that point – guys obviously known to the other men – and the conversation drifts to debating the next fight, discussing the merits of the two fighters who they seem to know as well. The group seems quite tight-knit and I quietly ask Mike how they all know each other.

“We train at Frank’s gym,” he happily explains to me, then his expression turns considering. “Y’know, you should come along sometime.”

As if I have time for that. But the offer is nice, nonetheless. I mutter a vague response and then switch the subject. “Seattle?” I ask the darker man, remembering his introduction. “You’re a long way from home.”

“Yeah, no, I’m studying at Blue Bay University,” he says casually, taking a long draught of his beer. “Third year Poli Sci major. Got sick of all the cold winters and headed south for some sunshine.”

College? So he’s smart. I wonder what the hell he’s doing fighting in a bar, but when I voice that question Mike just smiles at me.

“I’ve been fighting since I was a kid. Dad got me into boxing and then I discovered martial arts. I’d love to fight professionally someday, but I wanted to get college out the way before I try to make it properly. In the meantime, fighting at things like this gives me practice and money. So it’s all win-win.”

At that moment the announcer takes to the microphone again, introducing the next fight, and everyone’s attention is drawn to the centre of the room. I let my mind drift, sipping on my beer which I find renewed by one of the other guys without me saying anything. I focus on the warmth spreading through me, letting myself float on a rosy glow. It’s better than thinking.

A hand on my shoulder brings my awareness back to the present and I look up, bleary-eyed, to see Frank smiling down at me. “Come on son, let’s get you home.”

I stand carefully, the liquid sloshing uncomfortably in my stomach, and I remember I need to collect my rucksack from the changing room. Frank nods when I mention this and tells me to meet him in the parking lot before vanishing once more.

I make my way into the now-deserted room, retrieving my belongings from the locker and gently sliding my t-shirt back over my battered head and body. I feel tender, bruised and stiff, as if I’ve gone ten rounds with one of Lothor’s creatures instead of the one-and-a-half I actually managed against Mike.

Talk about a miscalculation.

I’m heading out toward the parking lot, bag slung over my shoulder and morpher once again strapped securely to my wrist, when a guy reaches out to grab my arm as I pass, stopping me in my tracks.

“Good fight,” he says with a wide smile, revealing a missing tooth.

“Uh, thanks,” I say, suddenly wary. There’s something about his demeanour that instantly puts me on edge. Perhaps it’s the way his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, or maybe it’s the way he’s looking at me, cold and calculating, that raises the hackles on the back of my neck. I make a move to continue my way, but his fingers slide down to wrap themselves around my wrist.

“Hunter, isn’t it? You’re new here right? I haven’t seen you fight before.”

I glance down at his hand, wondering how I can politely extract myself from his grasp and be on my way.

“Leave him alone, Tee.” Frank reappears beside me and I’m surprised by the undercurrent of hostility in his voice.

The man, Tee, steps back, releasing my wrist and holding his hands up placatingly, a small smile on his face as he says, “Woah there Frankie; I was just being friendly. Didn’t realise he was one of your cubs.” His head turns back to me. “Nice to meet you, Hunter. See you around.”

It sounds vaguely like a threat.

It’s not until we’re in the Mustang and heading back into Blue Bay that Frank gives me a serious look. “Stay away from Tee, kid,” he tells me, no trace of humour in his tone. “He’s bad news.” At my puzzled expression he expands, “All that illegal stuff you thought I was involved in? Well he really is. Drugs, gambling, racketeering… You name it, he’s there. You don’t want any of that.”

“No, I don’t,” I agree with him and, seemingly content by that, Frank lapses into silence, which – this time – I welcome; allowing my head to rest against the window and let the roar of the engine soothe the worried thoughts that keep buffeting against the back of my mind.

The older man doesn’t speak again until we near the centre of Blue Bay, asking where I want to be dropped off. I throw caution to the wind and give him the address of our apartment block, offering to give him directions but he just snorts and tells me shortly, “I know where it is.”

We pull up into the parking lot and I mutter a thank you to him, and am about to jump out of the car but Frank stops me. “Here.” He hands me a plain white envelope which I turn over to find is sealed. “Hundred dollars for showing up, as promised. And here.” He slides a scrap of paper on top of the envelope. “Address of the gym, if you ever want to train. You’d be more than welcome.”

I fake a smile of thanks at him, feeling my stomach twist unpleasantly at the lightness of the offering. It should be more, I should have won, I needed to win…

Frank’s calm grey eyes are still on me as he asks, “Is there someone else there?” He nods up towards the apartment block, an expression of what looks distinctly like displeasure behind his gaze. I must look confused because he follows it up with, “Someone else needs to be there. You were unconscious, kid. You shouldn’t be on your own.”

I’m surprised by the genuine concern behind his words and I wonder briefly what he’d do if I said no. The thought is fleeting, gone before it was ever truly there and then I’m replying with the truth.

“Yeah there is.” Frank’s face turns doubtful, clearly not trusting my assertion so I add reassuringly, “Honest. I won’t be alone. Thanks for the ride. Night.”

I jump out of the car before he has a chance to respond, the door slamming behind me. I think I hear him call after me, but I’m already inside the main doors, feet moving on automatic to get me up to the apartment and straight into bed, falling into an exhausted slumber.     

XxX

It’s a loud banging that finally breaks through my sleep and I lie still for a long moment, disorientated, before realising the noise is someone knocking at our door.

Stumbling from my bed I groan as pain explodes behind my eyes; beers on an empty stomach straight after the fight were definitely not the best idea. I’m still in the clothes I’d come home in last night, my t-shirt crumpled from where I’ve twisted about during the night. I make my way gingerly over to the door, rubbing the sleep from my eyes before throwing it open to find Jerry, the building manager, gaping at me.

“Jeez kid, are you okay? What happened to your face?” he asks and I bring my hand up instinctively, wincing as my fingertips come into contact with my bottom lip. It feels swollen and I run my tongue over it, tasting blood.

Crap.

I force a hopefully-causal grin and try not to flinch as the movement pulls on healing skin. “You should see the other guy,” I say lightly and then curse myself as Jerry’s expression darkens. “I’m joking,” I add quickly, in reassurance. “I had a bad fall on the track. Wasn’t wearing a helmet so, you know, totally my own fault.”

Jerry’s face clears and he mutters something about idiots not wearing proper protection and how I need to be more careful but I’m not listening, memories from the night before slamming home and I feel my stomach roll with a nausea that has nothing to do with my mild hangover. I know why Jerry’s here; for the rent. The rent I don’t have.

Because I lost.

There’s an awkward pause until I realise Jerry is watching me closely.

“Uh, what was it you wanted?” I ask, going for ignorance.

Jerry looks suddenly uncomfortable. “You, uh, said you’d have the rent for me. By yesterday.”

I gape at him, doing my best to fake forgetfulness and slap my palm to my forehead – a universal gesture of ‘oops’. “I’m so sorry, Jer; I completely forgot.” Lie. “I’ll need to go to the bank.” Lie; as if I have an account. “Give me a couple of days.” Please. “You’ll have it, I promise.”

Jerry gives me a look that is halfway between exasperation and pity. “Hunter-”

Please, Jerry. A couple more days?” The desperation leaking into my tone is far from fake.

He sighs, pulling his blue cap off his head to run a hand across his balding pate. “You have it?” I nod, hoping he doesn’t notice my split-second of hesitation. He lets out another long exhale. “A couple of days, okay? But you better. Or the higher-ups’ll have my head. They think you’re risky. Bad business.”

“I’m sorry,” I say quietly. “I… I’m trying.”

I can’t keep the treacherous tremble from my voice and the building manager gives me a sad smile in return.

“I know you are.” He returns the cap back onto his head and shoves his hands into his pockets. “Couple of days, Hunter.”

I nod again in agreement and he turns to leave, but I lunge out to catch his arm. “Don’t mention this to my brother.”

His eyes are understanding when he promises he won’t. I do my best to give him a smile of thanks, not daring to trust my ability to speak at the moment, and then he’s ambling off down the corridor, leaving me staring after him.

I close the door, feeling drained and small. Peeling off my clothes from the night before, I drag my aching body into the shower to wash away the stale smell of sweat, beer and cigarettes that is lingering. The icy water stings my skin at first but then the flashes of pain fade into numb indifference the longer I stand beneath the sluggish spray. When shivers start running through my body, I finally decide I’m clean enough; rubbing my skin dry with a towel until its warm again.

When I exit the bathroom Blake has returned from his morning shift and is clattering about, raiding the kitchen for lunch. His gaze is drawn immediately to my lip as I lean against the doorframe and he winces. “Owch, bro.”

“Owch,” I agree with him, my tongue once again worrying at the cut and I have to force myself to leave it alone. My mom’s voice echoes in my head, It won’t heal if you keep picking at it.

Blake’s looking at me with a suddenly-expectant expression on his face. “So..?” I stare at my brother blankly, trying to figure out what he’s on about. He gives an exasperated sigh. “The fight, bro. How’d it go? Did you win?”

My stomach clenches with a mixture of fear, disgrace and – yes, I admit it – embarrassment. I lost… Rangers aren’t meant to lose. Thunder ninjas aren’t meant to lose.

How can I tell my brother I lost?

I can’t.

Panic leads me to adopt a brash, confident tone of voice, turning the question back onto him. “What do you think?”

Blake’s mouth quirks upwards in a brief attempt at a smile. “So we’re good?”

“We’re good,” I echo; the lie slipping easily from my lips.

This is the last time; the last lie, I silently promise him. I’ll fix this. I will. Everything will be fine. And then… no more lies.

I change the subject abruptly, not wanting my brother to press for details I can’t provide. “How was training?”

Blake shrugs. “It was training,” he says shortly and I don’t ask for more information. If anything’s been mentioned about my absence the past week, my brother isn’t letting me know. He turns his brown eyes on me, but his tone is lacking curiosity as he asks, “You coming tomorrow morning?”

“No, I’d have to explain this,” I reply, gesturing vaguely to my split lip.

It isn’t the only reason. By tomorrow it’ll be pretty much healed; the skin knitting together and the bruise fading until there’s not even a scar visible. I wish all my wounds could heal so seamlessly. But Tori’ll be at training tomorrow too and I… I’m not ready to face her. To see the hurt and anger in her eyes and know it’s all my fault.

Blake knows it too, but gives me the dignity of going along with the pretence. “Yeah, fair point.”

We haven’t spoken about Tori since Monday.

I promised him I’d fix this.

There’s a moment of awkward silence, of discomfort as neither of us seem to know what to say. There’s this void between us now, where once there was none. And I… I don’t know what to do about it.

It’s my brother that breaks the disquiet with a glance at the clock. “Shouldn’t you be heading to Storm Chargers about now? Kelly won’t be impressed if you’re late.”

I nod, running a hand through my still-damp hair, mind already working out the lie I’m going to have to tell our red-haired boss to explain my injury.

As if reading my mind, Blake offers a small smile. “Tell Kel I had to hit you to get you out of bed on time.”

I chuckle, giving his shoulder a quick squeeze as I head for the door. “I might just do that, bro.”

XxX

The apology I get from Kelly when she turns down my request for more hours is heartfelt, but ultimately useless to me. My stomach twists in anxiety as the precariousness of my- our, Blake’s and mine, situation begins to dawn on me. I feel sick, bile rising in my throat but I do my best to keep my emotions from reaching my face.

Something must slip through my defences though, because the red-head shoots me a concerned look. “Hunter… are you in trouble?” she asks quietly, biting her bottom lip in worry.

I have a sudden, desperate urge to confess the truth, but I force myself to resist. It’s not as if she could help anyway. “No,” I tell her, my words sounding empty to my ears. “No, everything is fine.”

XxX

I’m thankful Blake is at training on Sunday morning so I don’t have to keep up the pretence that everything’s ok in his absence. I can pace the apartment in agitation without him questioning me, thoughts running unchecked through my mind, my problems billowing in my chest, leaving my throat dry and my head dizzy.

I don’t know what I’m going to do…

Losing the fight; not having the rent; not having any idea how I’m going to find the money I need; Tori…

My pacing turns into cleaning; a need to be productive, to be doing something, driving me with a fevered passion. Tidying up the apartment won’t help solve my problems, but it eases some of the panic from my head and lets me catch my breath.

I’m just sorting out some dirty clothes for laundry when I find it; a modicum of hope.

My hand closes around a scrap of paper tucked into the pocket of the shorts I was wearing Friday night. Drawing it out, I realise it’s the address for that gym Frank’d given me and I stare at the inked words standing out sharply from the white of the paper, an idea forming in my mind.

Every Friday night, that’s when he said there were fights. So what if I fought again this week? What if I won? I know what to expect now; I know what I have to do to win and five hundred dollars would fix this… this mess I’ve gotten us into.

Tomorrow. I’ll go to this gym tomorrow and find him and… even if I have to beg, I will get another fight. I will win.

There’s a curling sensation of relief running through me as I carefully fold the address and put it into the pocket of my jeans. I have a plan now; a course of action. 

I may still be clueless about the -other- situation, but this is the more pressing of the two. Once we’re sorted with rent, make sure we still have somewhere to live… then I might be able to try and figure out what to do about her. Deal with one thing at a time. And this problem? Has a solution.

XxX

I glance from the scrap of paper to the battered wooden door with ‘11’ chalked onto it and then back to the paper again.

‘11’

An abandoned industrial estate doesn’t really look the place to find any sort of gym, let alone a reputable one, and the whole building has an air of disuse to it, from the rusted bars on the windows to the dirty panes and cracked plaster walls. But there’s a couple of cars in the lot and the address matches the one Frank gave me so I take a deep breath and push the door open.

As I step inside my ears are assaulted by noise; the chink of weights, the smack of punch bags and kick shields, and sounds of exertion mixed with the low rumble of male voices. The smell is the next thing to hit me, all stale sweat and unwashed bodies. I stand in the doorway, trying to take it all in as my eyes adjust to the gloom. The room is larger than I expected, one corner dominated by a full-size ring (and it is a ring, like an old-school boxing one rather than an enclosed octagon), the areas around it dedicated to weights, punching bags and a matted area where a couple of guys are wrestling. There’s maybe a dozen people dotted around the room – I note their locations instinctively; mostly male, but there are a couple of women sparring together in one corner – and a few look up as I enter, then it seems all eyes are on me.

There’s no sign of Frank and I feel suddenly awkward, exposed. I did not think this through. New people… how the hell am I meant to act around them? Friendly? Tough? I see one guy dig another in the ribs and say something in a quiet voice to his friend, who stares at me with heightened interest.

Oh hell…

One of the younger men detaches himself from a kick shield and starts making his way over to me.

“Can I help you?” he asks, his tone not unfriendly but not exactly warm either.

“I, uh… Frank gave me this address,” I manage, resisting the urge to leg it out the door. What am I doing here?

The man looks sceptical and I’m just about to make my excuses and leave when a voice hails to me from across the room.

“Hunter! Hey, Hunter.” A face I recognise from last Friday jogs over, grinning. “It is Hunter, right?” I nod dumbly and he thrusts a hand out at me. I take it warily. “It’s AJ. We did meet, but you were kinda out of it.” The teenager doesn’t give me a chance to respond, turning instead to the older man and saying excitedly, “Liam, this is the guy I was telling you about. Frank said he hoped you’d drop by. How’s the throat?”

It takes me a second to realise he’s talking to me again and I unconsciously raise a hand to my neck as I answer, “Yeah, not bad.”

“You here to train?” AJ looks excited by the prospect and I’m actually sorry to disappoint him.

“I was looking for Frank-”

AJ’s already shaking his head before I’ve finished speaking. “Frank won’t be in ‘til lunch; he’s teaching a class downtown. You might as well wait for him here. I know Mike wanted to quiz you more about some of that stuff you pulled on him.” He’s already taken me by the arm and is propelling me forward into the gym, further into the view of the other people training. I can feel their scrutiny, the weight of their eyes on me and I have to resist the urge to shrink in on myself, instead forcing myself to stand up tall, back straight and proud, and follow the teen towards the sparring mats.

Now my initial panic is fading, I can see Mike is there too; the darker man stretching out while appearing to throw comments at the two women who have resumed sparring.

AJ keeps on chattering quickly in a manner that strongly reminds me of Dustin, his words tumbling over each other, his enthusiasm unbounded. “Dude, you’ve got some moves. Don’t recognise the style though. What is it? It’s definitely Japanese, right? Like a mix of aikido and maybe karate? With, like, street fighting thrown in? Some new fusion? Like Shorinji Kempo?”

I’m not sure how to respond, still a little overwhelmed by the rush of words aimed in my direction. And honestly? I’ve never been asked what I do, or had to explain it before. The only people I’ve ever really sparred with have been Thunder ninjas and the rangers.

I mutter, “Something like that,” to AJ and hope he doesn’t press for more information. Luckily at that moment we reach the matted area and Mike looks up, his demeanour brightening perceptibly. The bruise under his eye is a deep purple and I’m glad I still have the remains of my injury on my face too. Otherwise awkward questions might be asked.

“Hey, good to see you man,” he says with a grin and a warm handshake, then echoes AJ’s question as he asks if I’m here to train.

When I tell him I’d actually come to see Frank, he repeats the teen’s assertion that he won’t be around for a few hours yet before adding with a hopeful look, “If you’ve got some time kill, I’d love to run some drills with you?”

I run a hand through my hair, debating whether or not to take him up on his offer. Then I shrug, figuring it can’t hurt. “Sure. I’ll have to do it in my jeans though. Didn’t come prepared.” A smile finds its way onto my face. “Maybe you can teach me that, uh, thing you pulled on me in the octagon?”

“Sure, man.” Mike looks actually excited by the prospect, and I find myself struggling to remember the last time someone looked this pleased to spar with me.

Normal; remember to act normal… I find I’m cautioning myself as I remove my shoes and socks, carefully tucking my morpher deep inside the toe of one of them. It’s a dangerous line I’m treading here, training and fighting with these guys. On paper I have the advantage; ninja speed, ranger strength, enhanced stamina and healing…

Look how well that worked out on Friday.

Mike’s a good fighter, competent, and he’s had to work at it. He knows things I don’t, and I can learn from that.

I make a brief show of warming up, stretching out the few lingering aches I have and then stretch some more, working into muscles that don’t need any preparation. Another, welcomed benefit of being a Power Ranger; we are always set for a fight, not having to worry about readying our bodies for strenuous exercise with things like muscle strains and small tears healing almost as soon as they form.

“Ready?” Mike asks as I bring my show to a close and cross over to join him in the middle of the mats. When I say yes, he smiles. “So, that ‘thing’ I pulled on you is called a takedown…”

XxX

I’m just running through one of the punch-kick combinations I’d used on Friday night with Mike, AJ watching avidly from the side, when Frank turns up.

I don’t actually notice him immediately, my attention on Mike who, despite his protests that he “isn’t much of a striker”, is keeping me on my toes. I catch a glimpse of Frank’s stocky frame out of the corner of my eye, and then am forced to dodge quickly as Mike takes advantage of my momentary distraction to launch an attack. We’re not going fast though, less than half the speed and power of the other night, and I block his attack before throwing a loose, long roundhouse kick in his direction, gaining distance between us.

“He’s seen you,” Mike says, using the pause to catch his breath. “Give him a moment; he’ll be over.”

We continue sparring, but I keep a watch on Frank, see him talk to the guy who’d originally greeted me – “Liam, he’s the manager,” Mike explains – before spending time chatting to the other people training, exchanging words and handshakes and smiles as he makes his way slowly towards us.

I watch the reactions of the other people with some curiosity, trying to get a better gauge on this perfect stranger who’s shown an interest in me by seeing how they respond to him.

All I see is respect and affection, which loosens some of the suspicion that’s wrapped itself around my insides.

Finally Frank reaches us, crossing the mat to clasp hands warmly with Mike. “How’s it going? See the face is healing well.”

The darker man grins. “Takes more than a bruise to ruin these good looks.”

They both laugh, then Frank turns to me, still smiling. “Hunter, good to see you. I was hoping you’d drop in. I wanted to run a couple of things by you but I didn’t have your phone number, or an apartment number.” He pauses before adding with a smile, “Or even your real name. Makes you kind of hard to track down.”

I feel my cheeks heat as I realise he’d seen through my, admittedly poor, attempt at giving a false surname.

“It is Hunter,” I say softly, figuring a little trust won’t hurt. Not if I want him to give me another fight. “Hunter Bradley. And I, uh, don’t have a phone,” I finish awkwardly and the look I receive in return is strangely knowing, rather than puzzled.

 “You don’t have a phone?” AJ cuts into the conversation, adding with all the amazement a teenager can muster, “Dude, who doesn’t have a phone?”

Frank saves me from answering, jumping in with, “AJ, why aren’t you at school?” The tone is weary rather than accusing; sounding as if this is a question he asks a lot.

The redhead grins at him cheekily. “No classes for me this morning, bossman. Honest.”

“And this afternoon?”

AJ shifts under the weight of Frank’s stare, skin flushing a deep red. “Might have one or two,” he mutters.

“Then shouldn’t you be heading there now?” he says sternly and AJ rolls his eyes, already heading for the door.

“Whatever you say, boss.”

Frank watches the young man go with a faint smile and a shake of his head before turning back to me and Mike. “Teenagers, eh? So, are you guys hungry? I believe it’s lunchtime.”

“Aw, shoot,” my sparring partner exclaims, eyes darting to the clock on the wall. “I got my own classes to get to.” He pauses, looking back at me. “I’ll be here Thursday morning if you want to train again?”

There’s a hopeful note to his tone and I only have to think for a second before agreeing. “I’m not working ‘til after lunch so, yeah, I’d like that.”

“Cool, see you then,” Mike says, gathering his belongings and bidding Frank goodbye.

“Looks like it’s just us two, kid,” Frank remarks as we’re left alone. “Come on,” he adds, clapping me on the shoulder. “I know a great place nearby.”

And before I can protest he’s disappeared into what must be the gym office and I yank my shoes on, ensuring my morpher is once again on my wrist, just as he walks back out. I have to hurry to catch up with him as we walk a block to this ‘place’ he knows.

It’s a diner, busy but a waitress greets Frank with a familiar smile and finds us a table near the window without any trouble, handing him a couple of menus before bustling off. The greying man offers one to me, but I wave him off with a mutter about not being hungry, despite the smell of food surrounding us which makes my mouth water and my stomach insist that I’m actually ravenous.

Downside to being a Power Ranger? Aside from the saving the world gig? Really, really fast metabolism. Awesome if you like food; less-than-awesome if you’re on a budget and food is scarce.

Frank is glowering at me, waving the menu adamantly. “I’m buying,” he says roughly but I shake my head, equally as firmly.

I can’t accept any more charity from this man. I barely know him, and I’m here to ask him for a favour.

This man, it soon appears, has other ideas, fixing me with a severe gaze and saying in the stern tone he’d used on AJ, “When was the last time you had a decent meal?”

I cast my mind back, remembering the pie I’d made for Blake, and I’m shocked to realise it was over a week ago. I’ve had nothing but microwave meals since then, but I won’t tell Frank that.

Instead I shrug, picking at a mark on the table with my thumb.

Frank nods to himself, reading something in my silence, and shoves the menu across the surface and into my hands. “That’s what I thought. Order what you want but-” He grins “-the burgers here are the best in Blue Bay.”

I take him at his word, ordering the same as him when the waitress returns.

Frank’s grin widens, then he starts searching through the pockets of his jacket as if he’s just remembered something. “Oh, here; before I forget…”

He passes across something small and black. It isn’t particularly heavy, but the weight of it sitting on my palm is more than just physical.

“What’s this?” I ask, hearing the sharpness in my tone.

Frank’s smile doesn’t waiver. “You said you didn’t have a phone. This one’s been knocking around the office for a while; it might as well go to a good home. I think it’s still got a little credit on it, but you’ll have to put more on when it runs out.”

I stare at the slim object, feeling the anger building in my chest, cursing myself for being so stupid. This is how it starts; friendship and gifts followed by requests for favours. Sure, they’ll start off small and innocuous but that won’t last long. That never lasts long.

“Keep it; I’m not interested.”

I set the phone down on the table with a click before standing abruptly, ready to walk out of there, but Frank grabs my arm.

“Kid, this isn’t what you think. I don’t want anything-”

“That’s what they all say,” I spit out, glaring at the weathered hand that’s still holding my wrist in a surprisingly strong grip.

Frank’s eyes never leave my face, looking as if he’s trying to see… something. Whatever it is he appears to find it as he releases my arm. He sighs, brushing a hand across the top of his head. “Look, just give me a chance to explain. Have some food. Seriously, kid; you look half-starved as it is and you’ve been training this morning. Eat something and let me talk. Nothing else. I promise.”

The tone in his voice gives me pause. I’m not convinced I should be doing this but at that moment my stomach lets out a growl and I’m caught in a war between my stomach and my head. Hunger wins, in the end. I sit down slowly, warily, gazed fixed on the older man, searching for anything that might warn me of what’s coming.  Frank doesn’t look angry, or calculating; just a tired and worn man but with eyes that are sharp and bright and... friendly, radiating nothing but calm patience. Even after my outburst and obvious mistrust.

Just as he appears to be about to speak, the server arrives with our order and Frank thanks her before tucking into his meal with enthusiasm.

I stare blankly at the plate of food in front of me for a while, unmoving, until the deep rumble of the other man’s voice cuts in.

“You know,” he says around a mouthful of burger. “It tastes better if you eat it while it’s hot.”

My stomach grumbles at me again and I take a tentative bite of my own burger.

Frank’s right; it’s good. Really good; tender, juicy and hot. It could just be that I’ve had nothing but pre-packaged meals for a while, but I can’t remember the last time I had a burger this tasty. Maybe when Dad did that barbeque…

“Good, eh?” my companion asks with a knowing smile. “Told you this place did the best burgers in the whole of Blue Bay.” 

I nod, but as I swallow a lump settles down into my stomach too, reminding me that this man in front of me is not my friend. I set the burger down carefully, ignoring my stomach, and I turn my attention onto him. “So… talk.”

Frank sighs, putting his own food aside. “Okay then. There once was a guy-”

“A story?” I let my scepticism seep out into my tone but Frank pays me no heed.

“If you like,” he says calmly, refusing to rise to my bait. “So, there was this guy. Not more than a kid really. Your age.” He shoots me another look. “Maybe. Possibly a bit older. Didn’t have the best start in life. Dad ran out on him when he was small; mom was an alcoholic, a drunk. He pretty much had to raise his younger sister on his own and times were tough. He fell in with the wrong crowd – a local gang – to earn money; drug dealing, armed robbery, that sort of thing. Still barely made ends meet. One night, he sees a young man walking by himself and decides to mug him. Must’ve thought he’d be an easy target; don’t think he was expecting the other man to fight back but he did. There was a struggle and he ends up stabbing the young man. Whether it was an accident or not is debatable but kinda besides the point. His victim bled out before help could arrive and now the guy’s doing jail time for life.”

A sense of disquiet falls across me and I push a fry around my plate absently. The tale is familiar; I knew many men that could tell an almost-identical one. And it could have so easily been me.

I have to swallow hard before I can ask, “How’d you know him?”

“The young man he killed? Was my son.”

I freeze, heart beating loudly in my chest and echoing in my ears. He said it so calmly, so matter-of-fact, without a trace of anger or pain but even so I feel his words tearing at my own scars, images of my own loss rising unbidden in my mind, images that I’ve tried so very hard to forget pushing forward and leaving me dizzy and nauseous. I have to force them down, slam barriers up between memory and conscious mind otherwise…

Otherwise I’ll break.

If Frank notices my reaction, he doesn’t acknowledge it, instead continuing gently, “You’re too young to be this wary of folk. Suggests to me there’s been a good reason. I get that. I do. But kid, I’m not one of the bad guys. I don’t…” He rubs a hand across his face, as if exhausted by the direction our conversation has taken. “I do a lot of work with lads in similar situations. After James- I didn’t want any other family to have to go through what we went through. So I started teaching classes in the some of the local schools, moved out into some of the rougher areas of Blue Bay.” He pauses and then adds with a faint smile. “The area where you live for starters. And then I heard that James’ old gym was up for sale; probably going to be redeveloped into a storage warehouse or something. It was like his second home and I couldn’t bear the thought of it being lost. I saw the difference it had made so I quit my job and put everything into it. Seven years later… here we are.”

“What do you teach?” I finally get my voice working again and this is the only safe thing I can think to say.

“Self-defence, martial arts, boxing, that sort of thing.” He watches for me for a moment and then a wry smile crosses his face. He waves a fry at me. “You know, most people flinch away or complain when I say I’m teaching street kids how to fight. They tell me I’m just encouraging violence.” 

“No, I get it,” I say softly. “You’re not teaching them how to fight. You’re teaching them discipline, structure, respect; giving them an outlet for anger…”

I trail off when I see Frank watching me closely. I realise he is the first person who might just understand where I’ve come from.

Do I trust him?

Strangely, the answer seems to be ‘yes’, as I find myself telling him in a subdued tone, “My parents were murdered.” 

“How old were you?” Frank replies without any inflection.

“Thirteen.” I pause, gauging the older man’s response, weighing his genuineness, before taking a breath and adding quietly, “My brother was nine.”

Frank nods knowingly, as if he’d surmised those facts already. “Foster home?”

“No.”

That seems to illicit a flicker of surprise deep within his grey eyes but he doesn’t say anything, just watches me with a sad sort of curiosity.

“It was just us two, for four years. Then an old friend of our parents found us and things got better, for a while. He’s the one who taught us martial arts but he… he’s not around anymore. Now it’s just me and Blake again. I’ve got a job-” Pride dictates I say this. “-But sometimes things are tight.”

Like now.

Not that I’ll tell ever say that out loud. But now seems a good as time as any to broach the real reason I sought out Frank today and, before my nerve deserts me, I blurt out, “I wanted to ask… the fights on Fridays…”

“You want another one.” It isn’t a question.

I nod, lowering my eyes to the table. I can feel my cheeks burning as I hear myself say, “I could really do with the extra cash.”

If Frank suspects there’s more to my words than I’m letting on, he doesn’t call me on it. Instead, he surprises me. “Good, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind fighting again. I meant to ask you on Friday but you ran off so fast…” I shrug and he just smiles. “Guy you stood in for’s not interested anymore. He was meant to fight this week too; you up for it? Same deal as before.”

“Yes,” I blurt out immediately, ego be damned. “Yes, please.”

The smile Frank gives me is kind, non-judgemental. “Well, that’s sorted then.” With a twinkle in his eyes he adds, “Now… are you going to finish your burger?”

XxX

It’s late afternoon by the time I get back to the apartment and I’ve just dropped down onto the sofa, a wave of weariness washing over me, when there’s a knock at the door.

It’s hesitant, wary, as if the person on the other side of the door doesn’t want to be here, or maybe isn’t sure who’s in. If anyone’s in.

I stand, muscles protesting faintly from my earlier sparring session with Mike as I cross the room to see who today’s visitor is. I’m met by a pair of large brown eyes and curly, unkempt hair and I relax, adopting a carefully-casual smile. “Blake’s not here; his shift at Storm Chargers doesn’t finish ‘til six.”

“I know, dude,” Dustin chirps at me, a slight tension in his shoulders and a lack of his usual, wide grin belying hidden apprehension. “I came to see you.”

See me? Why- oh, Tori. This is about Tori.

The Water and Earth ninjas have been best friends forever, from what Blake’s told me, so it shouldn’t surprise me that he’s here. But it does. I’d have expected Shane, Cam even, but Dustin…

Dustin doesn’t seek out confrontation, doesn’t pick fights and hates arguments.

I’m curious to see how Dustin will handle this, wondering how this is going to play out. How he’s going to broach the subject and what tack he’ll take with me. I’m expecting disappointment, perhaps an appeal to my better side. There’s definitely going to be puppy-dog eyes and pleading involved.

I’m not expecting him to look up at me with those doe-like brown eyes and ask quietly, “Are you okay?”

His words take me by surprise and I flounder, unable to think of an appropriate response. Dustin seems to take my silence as permission to continue speaking, his words coming out in a rush, sounding almost rehearsed as they race over each other.

“Tori isn’t okay and Blake isn’t and we know that, but I don’t think anyone’s asked about you. And you seem okay but you always seem okay and, you know, it’s fine to be not-okay. I just, I thought if you weren’t okay you might want someone to notice and you know, if you want to talk or… anything… I’m like, totally here for you.”

He takes a breath and looks at me expectantly, waiting for me to… I don’t know. I’m not sure what he wants, so I say what I think he wants to hear.

“I’m fine.”

It comes out a lot shorter than I’d intended. There’s a flicker on Dustin’s face, hurt or disappointment or… like he’s been proved wrong and is unhappy to be.

“Oh,” he says quietly, and that’s it. Nothing else. Just a deafening and somehow final silence falling, leaving us staring at each other for an indeterminable time.

It’s the dark-haired man who moves first.

“Well, I’ll uh, I’ll just go then,” he mumbles and turns to leave, footsteps soft as he heads for the door.

Suddenly every fibre of my being is screaming at me, yelling that I’ve made a mistake, a big one, and I call out to stop him.

“Dustin!”

Two months ago I would have laughed in his face, made some cruel comment, done something – anything – to hide my weakness, to push him away. One month ago I’d have let him leave.

But now… If I lash out at Dustin it’ll only hurt Tori more. And Dustin doesn’t deserve it either.

And if I let him leave…

One week.

It’s been one week since I’ve seen any of them. One week and Dustin’s the first to seek me out. He’s the only one that’s shown any sort of concern – care – for me.

I shouldn’t- I shouldn’t throw that away.

Damn Tori. Damn her for making me care.

Dustin’s turned back and is now looking at me curiously, waiting.

“Thank you,” I say lamely. “I… Thanks.”

We end up staring at each other again for a long, increasingly-awkward moment. I’m not sure exactly what to say, what the right thing to say is, but a thought from earlier makes itself known once again.

Dustin and Tori have been friends forever.

Dustin’s good at fixing things- people. Dustin’s good with people. Maybe-

“If you’d, uh, done something and it had hurt someone, how would you… change it?”

I run a hand through my hair, glancing down at the floor to try and disguise my awkwardness. When I allow my eyes to come back to Dustin, he’s grinning at me, almost triumphantly, as if my admission has somehow vindicated him.

“Have you tried saying you’re sorry?”

I can’t hide the scepticism from my face at Dustin’s simple solution. I’m not sure ‘sorry’ is going to cut it, but I don’t want to dampen his enthusiasm so I let him continue unchallenged.

“I’m all about the grand gestures but-” He must misread my expression as he hurriedly adds, “-that’s totally not your thing. I know.”

He isn’t entirely wrong. Grand gestures really aren’t my thing, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never tried doing something stupid to apologise before. Not for a while though. The last time it… it backfired horribly.

I remember it vividly. To be honest, it’s practically impossible to forget. Arguing with Leanne about- well, that bit doesn’t matter. We’d fought and I’d felt bad. I knew I was hurting her but I thought we cared about each other. I thought she understood.

After the angry words had faded and I found myself alone I thought maybe if I did something nice for her – made a gesture – then we’d be okay. That she’d forgive me my choices and everything would be good again.

So I bought us tickets to go see some band – one that she loved but I hated – and even a bunch of flowers and I skipped class that afternoon for the first time ever to surprise her and-

It was me that got the surprise.

Catching her with one of the guys from her year pretty much ended whatever it was that had been between us. The anger and the hurt I’d felt at that time finds me even now, even this long after; sharp and constricting.

“Dude, are you okay?” Dustin’s voice cuts through the memory and I blink at him, seeing sincere concern on his face. Again.

“… Why does she hang with a goof like Dustin?”

Dustin cares. After everything I’ve said and done and haven’t done, he is worried about me.

Have you tried saying sorry?

                                                - No.

“I never apologised to you.”

The words escape from my lips suddenly, abruptly, and confusion floods the Earth ninja’s face for a moment before he appears to get my meaning.

His expression clears, dismissing my words with a flick of his hand. “The island? Dude, that totally wasn’t your fault. Evil brainwashing, remember? Well-” He looks suddenly awkward. “I don’t mean remember-remember, ‘cos that’s like… not good. That’s not what I-”

“It’s okay, Dustin,” I cut in gently. The others think I don’t know what happened while I was under Lothor’s mind-control, that I don’t know what I did, how close I came to- that I don’t know, but that isn’t true.

I remember.

But I’m not talking about that. I take a breath before continuing, “I meant, sorry for… before.” I swallow carefully, feeling my cheeks heat under the Earth ninja’s scrutiny. “For when we first met. I was… I wasn’t nice. I judged you before I really knew you and I was wrong.”

“Dude, lots of people do.”

I fix Dustin with a firm gaze, my voice strengthening as I tell him seriously, “Just because lots of people do it doesn’t make it right. I shouldn’t have and I am sorry.”

“Apology totally accepted,” he says immediately. I must look surprised as Dustin continues happily, “That’s what friends do y’know; forgive each other.”

I give a small laugh that could be mistaken as bitter or sceptical. “Friends… You’re about the only one I have right now. Sure you want to strap yourself to a sinking ship?”

“What about Blake?”

“Blake’s my brother; he doesn’t have a choice.” 

Dustin laughs at that and, after a second, I join him. It’s a relieved laughter, the sort that comes with a release of pressure, a lightening of the mood, and I feel myself relax. Now the hard part of the conversation is over-

“Do you like her?” Dustin bursts out, looking faintly surprised at himself.

“What?”

“Tori… Do you, uh, like her?” He runs a hand through his brown curls in a gesture I’m coming to recognise as nervousness.

My heart sinks. If Dustin thinks there may be something more going on between me and Tori than just friends, no wonder Blake was suspicious.

I’m amazed at how calm I manage to keep my voice as I tell him, “Dustin, Tori and I… we’re just friends.”

The Earth ninja flushes a deep red. “Dude, I know,” he replies quickly; so quickly I’m not entirely sure I believe him but I’m not going to press the matter. “I meant friend-like,” he continues hurriedly. “Of course I meant friends unless-” He looks like he’s attempting a cunning expression. “-you meant some other sort of like which I totally don’t know what other likes there are.”

It’s my turn to look confused, before I just repeat his phrase, “Friend-like.”

I watch a flash of something that might be disappointment pass across his face and there’s a pause before the yellow ranger can re-gather his thoughts. “If you like her – friend-like her – then dude, you should say sorry. I mean, I don’t think you meant whatever it was you said to her and I think she knows that too but she’s sad and hurting and when people are hurting they lash out but they don’t mean it. Not really. And okay, so no grand gestures ‘cos to be honest she’d probably kill you but you could start by saying sorry in like, little ways and then she might start believing you.”

I hardly hear the rest of Dustin’s words; my attention drawn immediately to the “she’s sad and hurting”… The thought of Tori being upset, being in pain, clenches my heart.

I knew I’d hurt her, of course I knew, but to hear it from Dustin, to hear it confirmed…

Guilt twists a dagger into my chest.

I did that; I hurt her.

We can’t be anything more than friends. I know that. But friends… is a good place to be. Good enough. More than enough. More than I deserve.

Friends apologise when they’ve fucked up. And I really fucked up. It wasn’t just the kiss; it was the horrible things I said, the way I lashed out.

I lashed out

“Fuck,” I breathe and glance up to see a shocked expression on Dustin’s face. “Sorry,” I say, a little shakily. “It’s just… You’re right. I need- I owe her an apology. I’ll make this right, somehow. If she’ll let me.”

“She’ll let you,” Dustin asserts, then re-evaluates. “We-ell, maybe not like immediately. She might get angry first but eventually. You could try tomorrow,” he adds, expression brightening. “We have training.”

“You think us two training together would be a good idea?” The cynicism leaks into my tone before I can check myself.

Dustin grins. “She does like hitting people.” I nod absently, but the Earth ninja seems to think I’m giving serious consideration to his words as he adds emphatically, “Dude, I’m joking. That was a joke. But she’ll be there and you can maybe say sorry.”

I can’t tell if his last words are a statement or a question, so I give a non-committal grunt, which is, of course, not enough for Dustin.

“So you’ll be at training tomorrow?” the yellow ranger presses, hope shining in his eyes.

I haven’t got the heart to disappoint him and maybe, just maybe, Dustin is right. I need to say I’m sorry and tomorrow… is another day.

“Yes,” I tell him softly and his smile lets me know he thinks I’ve made the right choice.

I won’t let him down.

I need to fix this.

 

Chapter Text


And I’m sorry young man I cannot be your friend
I don’t believe in a fairytale end.
I don’t keep my head up all of the time,
I find it dull when my heart meets my mind.
And I hardly know you I think I can tell
These are the reasons I think that we’re ill.

~Laura Marling

This week has been one of the worst weeks of my life.

I say that with the certainty that comes from having lived a thankfully pain-free existence, able to count the bad experiences on the fingers of one hand.

It isn’t as bad as my worst week, when Lily died and took a part me and my parents with her, but it’s pretty damn close.

I feel like I’ve lost another part of myself; that Hunter has taken something small but vital and I can’t get it back. Like a wound that’s not healing and is never going to heal.

And I hate it.

It’s worse than when the Wind Academy was destroyed; that stomach-churning fear is actually preferable to what I’m feeling now.

It’s worse – far worse – than when I realised Blake had used me to get to Sensei so the Bradleys could try and murder him.

That feeling of betrayal, of hurt and pain, was dulled by the sense of purpose I’d had in that moment; a desire to get my sensei back safe and sound meant my actions in those moments had meaning, allowing me to channel my emotions into something productive. And afterwards, the sting of Blake’s behaviour had been cooled by the soft balm of knowledge, of the reasons behind what he had done, his justification, and his sincere apology.

But this… there is nothing I can do. My actions have no meaning. There is no purpose I can throw myself into to remove this pain, not even an alien attack this week to rid myself of pent-up emotions. There’s been nothing but the ordinary; just school and training on dull repeat, even the waves have fallen flat and I’m… I don’t know. I’m hurting and angry and numb and restless and there’s a pit in my stomach that aches and sometimes I’m fine and then a stray word or thought will bring everything rushing back, knocking the air from my lungs and icy fingers wrapping around my heart leaving me dizzy, eyes filling up with unending saltwater and it’s all I can do to keep my head up and pretend to the others, to Sensei and my parents and everyone that I’m ok. That there’s nothing wrong. That there’s nothing missing-

I haven’t seen Hunter in over a week…

I keep telling myself that means nothing; it’s Hunter not wanting to face the others because he knows someone will have words with him (personally, I’m impressed Shane hasn’t sought him out already) and the blond is avoiding further confrontation. I try telling myself I’m glad I haven’t seen him, that I don’t want to see him but that isn’t true, not completely. I have to acknowledge the part of me that does because I miss him. That’s the reality; I miss the times, few as they were, that we spent together because I was happy. Being with him made me happy in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and now… it hurts.

At first I only notice the pain, but my talk with Dustin had eased it somewhat, allowing me to focus on the other emotions trying to make themselves known; on how much I hate that I fell for him, on how I hate myself for stupidly believing he cared for me, but mostly how I hate him, for how it – whatever ‘it’ was – ended. For how he ended it all, for how he played me and for how cold and cruel he was.

And the memory of that evening brings the anger back and I cling to it, hold onto it and nurture it because the hot fury coursing through my veins is far, far better than the icy pain that is its replacement. Anger keeps me grounded, otherwise I’d be lost, and I won’t give him the satisfaction of hurting me anymore.

I throw my anger up like a barrier; shielding me from the agony I know lingers on the outside. Inside my bubble I am safe, I am ok. I am ok.

I can breathe again.

I can go to school and act normal around my friends. I can go to training and not flinch every time someone walks in, just in case it’s him. I can train with Shane and Dustin and Cam and keep my self-control.

I can see how much I’ve hurt Blake.

I can see it, and acknowledge it, and know I need to say something, anything to him to try and make amends. Because when I look into his eyes I can see the pain his brother caused me being reflected right back and that sucks.

It still takes until the next Monday – a week to the day that I broke up with him – for me to work up the courage to face him.

I decide to do it on the way home from school, knowing I’ll be dropping him off last for his shift at Storm Chargers so at least we’ll be alone.

I hadn’t been sure, last week, that Blake would accept my rides to school anymore, but on Tuesday morning Shane had simply said, “He still needs you,” and that had been it. The only difference had been Shane using his morpher to let the Thunder ninja know we were outside instead of me. It was still pretty awkward, but there was a small measure of relief in the fact Blake hadn’t pushed me away completely. And if there is any chance of remaining friends, of salvaging something from the broken remnants of our not-quite-relationship, I have to take it.

Shane’s the first out of the van that afternoon, a meaningful look in my direction as he leaves telling me the red ranger has an idea of what I’m up to.

Dustin’s the next to be dropped off; on the main street of Blue Bay instead of at home as he said he had some errands to run. Or maybe just one errand, I’m not sure. There’s something odd about the way he says it, his behaviour strange- well, stranger than usual. But my mind is already fully focused on the conversation I’m going to try and have with Blake to pay any real heed to the Earth ninja’s antics.

If it comes back to bite us, I’ll deal with it then.

Once Dustin’s gone, Blake moves up to sit in the front beside me, but without the yellow ranger’s constant chatter silence descends like a cloth over the two of us as I pull away from the curb and continue onto Storm Chargers.

I sneak a quick peek at Blake to find him doing the same to me, both of us looking away again quickly. There’s an awkward, uncomfortable sort of pause between us – as if we’re each waiting for the other to speak – that has become the extent of our interaction now.

I need- I want to change this, but every time I steel myself to talk the words dry up, refusing to be vocalised.

I pull up into the lot at the side of Storm Chargers, killing the engine, fingers wrapping tightly around my keys as if they’re a totem I can draw strength from.

I turn my head to look at Blake just as he glances my way and I know I have to speak. I have to say something before he gets out of the van otherwise I’ll never fix this. I can feel the pressure of expectation surrounding us, the atmosphere thickening. I open my mouth, words finally forming on my lips, and-

“I’m sorry.”

Our voices chime as one, the apologies mixing and mingling in the air as we both stare at each other in surprise.

Blake’s finally meeting my eyes again, the thinnest of smiles on his face, that awkward pause falling again briefly before he motions for me to go first.

I take a breath. “I’m sorry for, well, everything,” I say in a small voice. “I’m sorry for how I… For yelling and I’m sorry for hurting you. I never wanted to hurt you. I can’t… I’m not sorry for breaking up with you because it was the right thing to do, but I am sorry for how I did it. I should have… I should have done it differently and I’m so, so sorry.” The words escape my mouth in a rush, my desperation to explain, for Blake to understand, lending urgency to my speech. I pause to take a breath before I finish by repeating my earlier sentiment; “Hurting you was the last thing I wanted.”

 “I know,” Blake replies after a moment, his dark eyes watching me carefully. “And I’m sorry too. I said some things I shouldn’t have and that wasn’t fair.”

His choice of words isn’t lost on me. Wasn’t fair… Not that he was wrong. Not that he was mistaken, just that he shouldn’t have said them. I have to school my face into a neutral expression, hoping against hope he doesn’t really believe there’s something going on between me and Hunter.

There isn’t now.

There wasn’t before, I try telling myself, but this week has proven otherwise, for me at least.

But ending it with Blake… I know that didn’t really – not entirely – have anything to do with his brother and I need to make him see that. As I told Dustin, I am not going to be the thing that comes between them.

“You know, I did mean what I said about it not being you,” I say haltingly. “I know it’s horribly clichéd but it’s true. You’re one of my best friends and I… I really tried to fall in love with you. I wished I could’ve. I just…” I wave a hand helplessly, trailing off with a miserable and less-than-satisfactory, “Couldn’t.”

There’s another beat of silence and then, so quietly I barely hear it, Blake mumbles, “I wished you could too.”

His quiet sentiment knocks the air from my lungs, a dark well of guilt swirling in the pit of my stomach.

“So… where do we go from here?” I manage, my words sticking in my throat. “I mean,” I press on hurriedly as the Thunder ninja lifts his head; fear loosening my tongue and giving me courage, courage to voice the hopes I still have for us. “I’d like us to be friends but I know that’s horribly, horribly selfish of me.” When you wanted more.

I don’t dare look at him, waiting with baited breath for his answer. It takes a long time in coming.

“I don’t know, Tori,” he says quietly. “I don’t know if we can just be friends. We can’t go back to before, because it’s always been more than just friendship, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?”

There’s a pleading note in his tone, as if he’s looking for validation; acknowledgement that there was something between us, that it wasn’t just in his mind.

“Yes.”

I can give him this much.

Blake nods, a flash of relief passing over his features, and then says simply, “I don’t know if I can be friends with you.”

Though I appreciate his honesty, his words hit me like a physical blow to the chest. I feel moisture well up in my eyes, but before I can tell him I respect his decision, he’s talking once more.

“I don’t know what being friends with you is like, but-” He takes a breath and I realise I’m holding my own. “I’m willing to try. Maybe… Maybe not right away. I need time. We need time, to not be an ‘us’. To… to figure out what we want. Is that… Does that make sense?”

I nod, relief surging through me and I have to blink furiously to banish the tears that’ve gathered in my eyes. There’s another moment of hesitation and then I cough slightly to clear my throat. “Are you going to be at Shane’s tonight?”

His lips quirk upwards in a good approximation of a smile. “I think a certain Earth ninja would have strong words for me if I wasn’t.”

“True,” I respond with a tentative smile of my own. I waver a moment before adding lightly, “Speaking of Earth ninja’s… I’m picking Dustin up at seven. I could swing by yours and get you too, if you want?”

Blake’s brown eyes consider me carefully, as if debating the sincerity of my offer. Then he replies softly, “Yeah, I’d like that.”

There’s a hint of the awkward silence from before, but then Blake runs a hand over his face, sounding far more normal as he says, “So I should, uh, go. My shift’s about to start. See you later?”

“See you.” My voice scarcely rises above a whisper, but it’s enough.

He jumps down from the van, the door closing with a bang behind him, and I’m alone again. But as I watch him disappear into Storm Chargers, some of the dark fog I’ve been shrouded in lifts. I can feel the sun behind the clouds, trying to break through, trying to find the cracks in my sorrow, and the hint of a smile becomes more solid, more real. It’s a step forward.

A small one, yes, but an important one.

XxX

This lighter, happier mood persists, staying with me all through the evening and school the next day. It’s buoyed by the sense of normalcy that strikes me as I’m driving us all from school up towards the Academy that afternoon, Shane in the seat beside me, Dustin and Blake chatting away in the back. There’s none of the tension that’s been ever-present in journeys over the past week, no awkward uncomfortable silences that Dustin’s felt the urge to fill with pointless prattle; just a relaxing of the knots in my shoulders and a feeling of rightness.

As Blake explains some obscure racing rule to the Earth ninja, I see Shane grinning at me.

“What?” I ask, keeping my voice low so as not to disturb the other two.

He shakes his head. “Nothing. It’s just nice to see you looking more… like you.”

He doesn’t elaborate, but the look he’s giving me is approving, and I know our leader is relieved that the inter-team issue has been resolved.

Well, one of them anyway.

No, no, no. I am not going to let negative thoughts ruin my mood. Not today.

Upon reaching the main room of Ninja Ops, we find Sensei and Cam huddled around the computer console, deep in conversation, line of what I guess is computer code scrolling down the screen. They hardly acknowledge our presence so, knowing better than to interrupt the tech when he’s busy, the four of us congregate around the low, central table with the intention of getting a head start on this week’s homework.

Yup, it exists. And it’s still only Tuesday.

As I empty my school books onto the table, one catches Dustin’s eye and he seizes it enthusiastically, waving it in my direction as he asks, “Lewis Carroll?”

Oh. It’s the one I’d used to look up the poem Hunter had recited.

“It’s for class,” I say hurriedly, a sideways glance at Blake showing a faint, wistful look cross his face, and I wonder if he too remembers the verses his parents told him.

Of course he does.

But he says nothing.

Dustin’s turning the pages quickly, as if looking for something in particular and I’m momentarily puzzled as the yellow ranger has never gave any indication of reading poetry. “You know Lewis Carroll?”

“Sure, he’s some old, dead British dude right? Vovó reads to Gabbi and Evey sometimes- Ah here.” He’s finished flicking through and is grinning excitedly. “This one’s my favourite.” My heart skips a beat, steeling myself for – expecting it to be – the Jabberwocky and then he’s off, quoting one I haven’t got around to reading yet, curls bouncing as he recites, “Twinkle, twinkle little bat; how I wonder what you’re at. Up above the world you fly; like a tea tray in the sky.”

Dustin’s laughing now, pure joy at a nonsense rhyme and it shouldn’t be funny – it shouldn’t – but he’s so pleased and so amused by it that the humour is infectious and we’re all giggling; a precious, shared moment of happiness that it’s even worth the faint annoyance on Cam’s face as we distract him from whatever it is he’s trying to do.

I’m still laughing when a flash of crimson at the edge of my vision catches my attention. I twist around to see Hunter has slunk unnoticed into the room and is standing a few feet away from us, hands in pockets and  a strange expression on his face. If I didn’t know him better, I’d say it was a mix of wariness and shame, but neither emotion ever really applies to the blond.

He’s looking straight at me.

And it’s like the ground beneath my feet has fallen away.

I knew I’d have to see him at some point, I knew it wouldn’t be easy when I did, but I’m not prepared for the onslaught of emotions the sight of those blue eyes unleash on me.

My smile is frozen on my face, stomach flip-flopping horribly, palms inexplicably clammy and throat dry.

I can’t be here.

“I have to go,” I say, taking the book back off Dustin and standing so suddenly I feel the blood rush to my head. I fumble to put my things back in my bag, head bowed as I struggle to redo the straps, studiously ignoring the confusion on the boy’s faces.

Shane catches my arm as I straighten up, brown eyes worried. “We haven’t started training yet,” our leader points out but I slip easily from his unresisting grip, shrugging my bag onto one shoulder.

“I’m sorry. I forgot I have a… I promised mom.” My hand’s still clutching the strap of my bag, arm crossed defensively over my chest, and I turn away from them all, aiming as quickly as I can for the exit.

“Tori.”

Sensei’s voice halts me before I’ve even taken two steps. I don’t dare turn around, just stand with my face hidden from view, waiting. There’s the faintest sound, only the smallest of warning, before something small but dense lands lightly on my shoulder.

“I would like some fresh air,” our mentor says, whiskers tickling my neck. “Will you oblige?”

I know it isn’t a request.

“Okay,” I agree softly, resolutely not looking at any of the others, even though I can feel their eyes on my back; everyone’s, but most especially his.

I know I’m being irrational, emotional, and I can almost hear their amazement. Because I’m never the one who runs away from their problems, who fights with teammates and never even tries to make things right, who lets their feelings cloud their judgment. I’m meant to be the peace-maker, the calming influence, the soothing presence.

Only today I’m not.

I can’t be and dammit- I’m allowed to not be ok right now. I’m allowed to have my weaknesses and emotions and I don’t have to be strong all the time, do I? I’m tired of being the strong one, the dependable one.

So I don’t even try; walking out of Ninja Ops without another word. Sensei is still on my shoulder; a silent companion as I leave the musty darkness of the passageway and emerge into the bright, sunlit ruins of the Academy.

I move away from the opening, wandering aimlessly between the hunks of broken stone and twisted metal that litter the clearing, hand absently running over the rough surfaces, anticipating the speech I know is coming.

Sensei waits for me to come to a halt, fingertips resting lightly on the waist-high rubble beside me, before jumping from my shoulder to land atop the pile at my hip. I glance down to the side to look at him, keeping my body angled away, grip still tight on my backpack.

“You and Hunter have fallen out,” Sensei begins, paws clasped together thoughtfully.

His choice of words almost makes me laugh. A falling out… It’s such an enormous understatement for what’s happened. It makes it sound so innocent, so easy to fix…

“I guess,” I mumble, noting with disinterest the fresh green stems and mossy patches that have already begun to clamber over the remains of the Academy. Nature reclaiming what was once ours.

There’s a trace of humour in his voice when he says, “And not talking to him is going to solve the situation? This is very unlike you, Tori.”

The amusement ignites my anger. I know Sensei doesn’t know what happened. I know he doesn’t know how much Hunter hurt me. I know he thinks it’s just a silly argument between teammates, and that he thinks it can be solved by a simple conversation, but I can’t stop the annoyance slipping from my lips.

“I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t want to be in the same room as him. I couldn’t care less if I never saw him again,” I snap and for the first time ever I see Sensei Watanabe look genuinely surprised. I turn away from him, arms crossed over my chest, embarrassment and anger burning my cheeks.

“What happened, Tori?” His voice is kind, fatherly concern the overriding emotion.

I shake my head; the thought of explaining the kiss to Sensei closing my throat. “It doesn’t matter,” I tell him tightly, body rigid, and I hope that’s enough for him to press no further.

“Tori-”

“I said it doesn’t matter. I don’t- I don’t want to talk about it. Please.” It’s almost a beg.

Don’t make me do this.

“Tori, look at me.” The tone isn’t angry, nor does he raise his voice, but the command is there all the same.

I bite my lip, closing my eyes for a split-second and forcing the stale air from my lungs before finally turning around to find him watching me carefully. Then his stern expression softens, understanding settling on his normally impassive features.

“It wasn’t just an argument?” he asks gently, and even though I know it is more of a statement than a question, I shake my head in confirmation.

Sensei lets out a deep sigh. “Hunter… is not the easiest individual to get along with. But I have seen a real change in him in recent weeks. A willingness to engage with you all on a more social and agreeable level than previously.” His dark eyes never leave my face as he speaks, words deliberate. “Harmony within the team has been much improved and I know this has been through your influence. I suppose it would be presumptuous of me to ask you to give him an opportunity to make amends, but surely, after everything you have been through together, Hunter deserves a second chance?

“He’s already had a second chance. And a third,” I exclaim. “And he’s still messed up. He’s still lied and hurt people. How many times do we let him do this? How many-” I take a sharp inhale, forcing the air around the lump that’s risen in my throat. “How many chances does someone get before we accept they’re never going to change? How many times must we let them hurt us?”

My chest is heaving; breath painful in my burning lungs as Sensei fixes me with a look that I know is the guinea-pig equivalent of disappointed. Then he shakes his head, hopping from the top of the rubble to a perch nearer the ground, motioning for me to join him. I drop onto the tightly packed dirt, bag lying beside me, back resting against the sun-warmed stone, ignoring the sharp edges pressing into my spine.

“You know,” the headmaster begins once we’re settled. “I once asked that very same question. How many chances does someone get? And Tori, I do not have an answer. Not one you will find satisfactory. It depends on the circumstance and it depends on the person. Weigh up their actions, and weigh up their worth.”

He looks away from me, gaze turned to the past, and I wrap a strand of hair around my fingers awkwardly, waiting for him to continue.

“You know I have forgiven my brother?”

It’s phrased as a question, but it’s clear Sensei is stating a fact. I think he’s waiting for me to argue, to list Lothor’s many sins as evidence of why he shouldn’t have, but I feel a lesson is coming so I hold my tongue. There’s a hint of approval on Sensei’s face before he speaks again.

“I forgave him when he was banished from the Academy. I forgave him many years ago, the first time he returned to try and take control of Earth. I have even forgiven him for my… current predicament.” He accompanies his speech with a wry smile, glancing down at his small, furred body.

“But you’re still fighting him.” I can’t keep quiet any longer, not really understanding what Sensei is saying. “You still want him kill- destroyed.”

That last word sticks in my throat. I’m not naïve; I know where this road leads. Lothor is not going to give up and run away; he’s in it until the end, whatever that end may be.  

His death, or ours…

“Yes,” Sensei replies simply, a sadness looming behind that single, somehow final answer. “I forgave my brother for what he did to me. But what Lothor has done to others… that I cannot forgive. I do not have the power, or the right. It is for those actions he must be brought to justice.” He fixes his black eyes on me, the full weight of his gaze boring into mine. “Tori, I cannot tell you to forgive Hunter. Only you can decide to do that. But whatever he has done-” Sensei holds up a paw before I can speak “-and I’m not asking you to tell me if you do not wish to, but whatever it was, I think you will find he is sorry for it.”

I snort at that, mumbling, “I doubt it.”

The bitterness is back, creeping into my tone before I can stop it, insidious and unintentional and I hate it. This isn’t me. And I find myself hating Hunter more for turning me into this person I barely recognise.

“Besides,” I press on before Sensei can chastise me for my previous comment. “Hunter lies. Why should I believe him even if he does apologise?”

A suddenly inscrutable expression settles across his guinea-pig features. “Yes, Hunter lies,” he says, evenly. “But you know why. You know his history.” His gaze and then his tone sharpens. “You know more than the others. Perhaps even more than Blake. Surely this knowledge explains his proclivity towards falsehoods, rather than expose himself by telling the truth?”

I don’t ask Sensei why he assumes Hunter’s told me things; he has a habit of just knowing things, sometimes things you yourself don’t yet know. I suppose that means I should pay attention to what he is trying to tell me, to accept his wisdom but to do that would mean entertaining possibilities that I can’t. So I say nothing.   

Sensei lets out another sigh at my lack of reply, and I know I’m disappointing him all over again. “This is the first time you have seen Hunter since your falling out?” he asks, and I nod, not trusting my voice in this moment. “Does his absence not tell you something about his feelings towards the situation?”

“Yeah, he doesn’t care. He’s made that really clear,” I manage, my voice cracking and breaking.

I know I’m behaving childishly but I can’t find it in me to care.

Sensei is already shaking his head. “Mind what people do, not just what they say, for it is actions that betray their true intentions.”  

It sounds suspiciously like a quote so I hazard a guess. “Sensei Minoru?” I ask, naming the previous Headmaster who was in charge during my parent’s time at the Wind Academy.

Cam’s father laughs. “No, Tori. A fantasy novelist instead. But-” He holds up a paw, cautioning silence, tone becoming serious once more “-just because something is fiction does not mean there isn’t a grain of truth in it. If Hunter truly did not care about the effects of his actions, would he have acted thus?”

I don’t have an answer to his question, ignoring the niggling sensation at the back of my mind that’s telling me to listen, and instead bowing my head, hair dropping across my face like a curtain, hiding my expression from Sensei.

The Ninja Master falls silent, the faint rustle of leaves the only sound surrounding us, the breeze the barest touch on the back of my neck. Even up here in the mountains the day is hot, but I don’t know if the stifling of the breath in my throat is due to the weather or to the direction our conversation has taken.

“Will you speak with him?” Sensei’s words are quiet, but they still manage to startle me.

I shrug one shoulder, staring blankly at the blonde threads still obscuring my vision. “I don’t know,” I mutter before adding petulantly, “It was speaking to him that caused all this in the first place.”

The guinea-pig gives a soft hum, waiting a moment then saying, “Sometimes when people are scared, they lash out at those they care for the most.”

His words are slow and deliberate; I can feel his eyes still on me, as if trying to gauge my reaction.

“Hunter? Scared?” My tone is sceptical, attention focused on the first part of Sensei’s statement, rather than the other part because- no, Hunter doesn’t care for me at all.  

“Everyone is scared of something, Tori,” Sensei says, manner once more bordering on the disapproving. I’m again amazed by his patience, his tolerance, because instead of chiding me further he continues in an instructional tone, as if we were discussing some Water kata or specific defence instead. “Whether it’s something physical, something real, or something more abstract, everyone has their own demons inside of them. Sometimes the fear comes from being scared of letting people see who they really are, or perhaps scared of letting someone close enough to hurt them. And often it’s those who seem fearless who are the most afraid.”

I bite my lip, a vision of pained blue eyes rising up in front of me, chocked out words echoing in my ears.

…“You don’t understand me. You don’t understand anything about me”…

Sensei’s words have the ring of truth to them and there’s a little voice in my mind whispering I should accept what he’s trying to tell me, but the sting of rejection is too fresh, too raw, for me to pay either any heed and instead I concentrate on Sensei’s apparent determination to excuse Hunter.

I finally raise my chin to refocus my gaze on our mentor. “Why are you going out of your way to defend him? After everything?”

After he tried to kill you. After he thought you capable of murder.

There’s a solemn look on Sensei’s guinea-pig face as he replies, almost sorrowfully, “Because it appears I am the only one who is willing to.”

“And doesn’t that tell you something about him?” I burst out incredulously, tone rising. “That none of us, none of his team – hell, not even his brother – are leaping to his defence?”

“It does,” Sense replies calmly, ignoring the emotion in my voice. “But not, I think, the same as it does to you.”

The heaviness of his stare forces me to drop my eyes again, to focus instead on the plant life emerging from the cracks in the rubble.

We lapse once more into silence, a meadowlark swooping across the clearing with a flute-like warble before vanishing between the trees. Then- “So will you speak with him?”

I sigh, running a hand through my hair, drawing it back from my face as I make my decision. “Yes,” I say heavily. “Only- Not today.” I’m not ready. “I just… I can’t today.” Please, don’t make me.

As if hearing my unspoken pleas, Sensei nods. “Tomorrow then.”

There’s a brisk practicality to his words that brooks no room for debate.

“Okay,” I acquiesce, relief flooding through me at the respite I’ve been given. “But I really do have to go now. I promised mom I’d give her a hand with her surf classes this afternoon.”

This time it isn’t completely a lie. Mom had asked me at breakfast and I’d brushed her off with “I have training.” But now I want nothing more than to run to her, join her at the beach and help teach kids how to surf because anything is better than being here at this moment. It’s strange; the one place I thought I’d always be able to run to, a place of safety and peace, has in an instant become the one place I can’t wait to get away from.

And it’s all thanks to Hunter.

“Very well, Tori,” Sensei says and I manage a smile of gratitude at him before standing in one fluid motion, legs cramping slightly as the blood returns. I stoop to pick up my bag before bowing to the Headmaster. Then, formalities completed, I turn and walk away; steps slow and measured until I’m through the portal, out of sight, then I let myself run. And I don’t stop running until I reach my van.

XxX

I pull up at the beach and take a long moment to just sit in stillness and quiet in the driving seat, enjoying the sun streaming in through the windshield. I shut my eyes briefly, blood bright behind my closed lids, and feel the warmth on my face chase away the lingering chills from my conversation with Sensei.

A sudden rapping on the window makes me jump, the world coming back in shades of blue as my eyes readjust to see my mom standing beside the van, grinning.

“You made it,” she says, stepping back to let me open my door and clamber out. “I thought you had training?”

There’s curiosity in her tone, gaze measured behind her smile as I move around to grab my surfboard from the back of the van.

‘Did something happen?’ is the unvoiced sentiment.

I can see faint worry in the lines around her mouth, and I know she’s wondering if I’ve skipped it because of Blake. I think she senses there’s more to the break-up than I’m letting on, but I can’t bring myself to explain Hunter.

 “Sensei gave me the afternoon off,” I tell her, dissuading that notion. It’s mostly the truth. Almost entirely the truth in fact; mom just doesn’t need to know the real reason I’m not at the Academy today. “And you said you wanted help.”

“Nnada gave you the afternoon off?” There’s mock amazement in mom’s voice, blue eyes sparkling wickedly as she adds, “She must be losing her edge in her old age.”

I feel my stomach clench unpleasantly at her mention of Sensei Nnada. The senior Water sensei at the Academy, Nnada had been spirited away with the rest of the staff and students during Lothor’s attack. I hope fervently that the serene, silver-haired lady is ok but I haven’t – I can’t – let mom know that she isn’t the one training me at the moment.

But there’s a subtle difference between lying and being creative with the truth, and I always try to stick to the latter as much as possible.

“Sensei Watanabe was taking the class,” I say lightly, reaching back into the van to retrieve my board wax in an effort to hide my expression. “He’s doing some individual assessments at the moment and I was first up today. Didn’t take long, then- freedom!”

I make a show of searching for the wax, studiously keeping my head out of sight as I craft the explanation. I hate lying. I never tried to hide things from my parents – from anyone – before and now it’s become huge part of my life. Lie about where Sensei Nnada is, lie about how the school’s doing, lie about where I run off to…

Lie about why Blake and I broke up; lie about why I was so upset…

 Keep everything pretty much a secret. And I hate how easy the excuses come, how good I’ve gotten – how good we’ve all gotten, even Dustin – at making up stories; the untruths slipping from our lips without the mind even having to engage. I hate that there’s not even a twinge of guilt in my chest when I tell my parents another falsehood.

Lying has become the norm and I’m scared I’m never going to be able to go back.

My fingers close around the stub of wax, particles of sand coating its sticky surface, and I plaster a hopefully-casual smile on my face as I turn back to my mom.

“So… I’m all yours this afternoon. What’s the plan?”

She returns my smile brightly with not a flicker of suspicion, so I know she’s bought it. Pulling her hair, a shade darker than mine but peppered with brilliant blonde streaks, back into a rough ponytail she begins outlining her plans for the surf lessons. I follow her down onto the sand, allowing myself to focus solely on her words and the sensation of soft grains between my toes, breathing easily once more.

XxX

“Hey Tori!”

I glance up from where I’m lying in the sand demonstrating pop-ups to seven young kids to see a guy with sun-bleached hair and an easy grin making his way towards me. I acknowledge him with a wave before returning my attention to my class, but when I send them off, whooping and jumping with excitement, into the waves I’m surprised to find him still onshore, standing as if waiting for me.

“Noisy lot today,” the surfer remarks, lips twitching with a mischievous smile.

I roll my eyes at him, keeping a careful watch on the kids in the white water as I ask, “Didn’t fancy giving us a hand this afternoon then Josh? Don’t tell me the bar’s been keeping you that busy.”

Josh laughs. “Nah, dude. I’m wiped. Only got back from Hawaii the other day and I got into work last night to find my douche of a boss has gone too far this time. I only went away for a week and it’s like the whole place has gone to shi- oops.”

He bites off the curse-word, wincing as my mom appears next to him, a scowl on her face at his choice of language.

“Sorry Marie,” he apologises as she swats his arm lightly.

There’s a fondness behind her frown as she chides him. “What would Tammy say if she heard you?”

“She’d say ‘invite Marie and Richard to dinner to say sorry’,” the blond says with a wink at me. “Which, y’know, is one of the reasons I’m here. Apart from watching Vicky drown small, annoying kids of course!”

Vicky… Ugh.

It’s my turn to glare at him, hitting him lightly (for a ranger) on his other arm, which he clutches in mock-pain, all the while sporting a large grin.

I’ve known Josh since forever. One of mom’s first students, before I was even born, he used to be a pro surfer travelling the world, but settled back down in Blue Bay Harbour when he retired last year. He always used to help mom out with lessons when he wasn’t competing and he’s the one who pushed me into my first green wave when I was six. He’s been a sort of older brother/young uncle figure to me; challenging me, pushing me to push myself, laughing at my wipe outs and picking me up when I need it most. I adore him, even if he can be as infuriating as hell at times. Just like real family, I guess.

Mom has joined in the laughter too, knowing how much I hate that nickname.

Traitor.

I turn away from them both with a huff, gaze returning to the ocean to ensure, despite Josh’s prediction, none of the children have drowned.

Behind me, my ranger-enhanced hearing listens absently to the two of them arranging dinner plans for Saturday night; their voices mixing and fading into the gentle wash of the waves as I pull my mind back to the lesson.

I’m surprised a few minutes later when Josh reappears, moving to stand beside me and shielding his eyes with a tanned, beach-weathered hand to look out to sea.

“Still here?” I ask, a smile slipping easily onto my face as I nudge my shoulder into his. “What’s up? You can’t just be staying to annoy me, can you?”

“Well, now you mention it…” Josh replies with a laugh, and then his demeanour turns more serious. “Actually Tor, I was hoping you’d be here. There’s a guy at work- well, used to be at work ‘til Peter fired him, but that’s a long and tragic tale so anyway, I’m trying to get hold of him and I think you know how I can find him. You know him. Least, I think you know his little brother.”

He’s got a smirk on his face, the one he gets when he thinks he’s being funny and trying to embarrass me. I feel the good mood I’ve been cultivating sour. I have a feeling I know exactly who he’s talking about.

The person I’d come here to forget.

“Blake and I broke up,” I say abruptly, not even going along with the pretence and deciding to end this line of conversation now before it goes any further. I quickly look down at my sand-covered toes, avoiding Josh’s gaze.  

“Aw shit, Tor. I’m sorry,” the surfer exclaims, not even pausing before pulling me into a rough embrace, the familiar smells of board wax, salt and coconut – his favourite shower gel – engulfing me. “Are you okay?”

I allow myself to relax into the contact for a time, then I step away, lifting my head and giving him my best fake smile. “Yeah, it’s fine. I’m fine. We’re still friends. I just… things are a little weird at the moment.”

“I get it. Honest,” he replies, concern still hovering in his eyes. “And y’know, if you ever need someone to vent to…”

He leaves the offer hanging and I force my grin to remain. “I’ll go see Tammy,” I tell him, knowing his fiancée would have more practical suggestions for me than him. “Might get some advice that doesn’t involve getting into punch-ups in the water or putting lizards in people’s beds.”

The blond takes a step back, one hand covering his heart as if I’d wounded him. “Owch. I haven’t been in a fight with anyone in... at least three months.”

“I bet Tammy’s so proud,” I reply teasingly and then hesitate. I suddenly have to know. “This guy… How’d he get fired?”

Josh rubs a hand over his face, exasperation leaking into his voice as he says, “Apparently he pulled a me and got into a fight, only with a customer and not some idiot in the line-up. Like, an actual fight and not just an argument. Which is crazy ‘cos Hunter’s a good guy. Definitely not one to do something stupid. ‘Least not without provocation.”

There’s a cold hand clenching my stomach and, even though I’m not sure I want to know the answer, I ask anyway, “When- When was this?”

“Week last Sunday.”

My fears are realised at Josh’s response and it’s a struggle to school my expression into one of nonchalance, forcing myself to focus on what Josh is saying now, and not on the implications of these events.

Hunter got into a fight…

“Look, I know it’s rough when two people break up, but…” Josh hesitates only a moment before plunging on. “Hunter is Blake’s brother, right? And you know where he is? Can you- Will you let him know I’m looking for him? I finally got the bank to give me a loan and I’m setting up my own place. Down on the beach.” His mood has shifted abruptly; all bright eyes, enthusiasm and hope. “Need a bar manager to help get things running smooth and I know I can get along with Hunter. Dude’s competent and trustworthy, which is more than I can say for some I’ve worked with. ‘Sides, he’ll be looking for work.”

He’s watching me with expectation and I hate- I can’t disappoint him. I can’t let him down.

“Sure,” I hear myself say. “I’ll let him know.”

Josh gives me an impulsive, one-armed hug, pressing a kiss to my head. “Thanks ‘babe’; you’re the best.”

I squirm out of his grip with a muttered, “Don’t call me babe”; digging my elbow into his side to emphasis my point.

The blond only laughs, calling out his farewells across the beach to mom and then he’s gone. I have to drag my attention back to the children, calling them out of the water to run through some pointers before the lesson ends, ignoring the thoughts swirling around in my head that are demanding attention.

Hunter got fired. The night we kissed…

No, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just… coincidence.

Actions betray true intentions.

No .

I slam down on that line of thought, reminding myself that Hunter hurt me. That he doesn’t care about me.

But now I have another reason to speak with him. A promise to two people, and I always try to keep my promises.

Tomorrow, I tell myself, plastering a smile on my face as I give praise to the class. I have to face Hunter at training anyway, so I may as well let him know about Josh tomorrow.

XxX

Tomorrow’s training session arrives all too soon, before I’m anywhere near ready for it; the school day passing in the blink of an eye, the drive up to the Academy over so quickly I’m not convinced Cam hasn’t upgraded my van with ninja-speed or something. Before I know it, I’m poised on the top of the steps that lead down the dark passageway into Ops and I’m suddenly frozen, torn with a mix of fear and a feeling of inexorable doom.

I can hear Shane and Dustin’s voices fading, Blake’s soft footsteps disappearing until all that’s left is the sound of the birds, the chirp of the cicadas, and me. I know I should be following them, but I can’t seem to make my feet move.

Hunter’s down there. I know it.

And I have to speak to him.

I’m nauseous, heart thumping loudly in my chest, each beat resonating through me. I consider feigning illness; there’s been a persistent prickle in my throat and a pressure behind my eyes since this morning that’s hinting it wouldn’t be too far from the truth anyway. As much as I hate being sick, I’m comforted by the idea of spending a day alone in bed, wallowing in self-pity and resolutely continuing my avoidance of Hunter.

But the mature, sensible part of me is raising her voice, telling me I’m being absurd, that I need to deal with the blond at some point, for the sake of the team – and the protection of Earth – if for nothing else. I haven’t got the luxury of loathing him from afar, of ignoring him completely. As much as I dislike it, and as hurt as I am by him, the crimson ranger is my teammate and we have to get along. Work together. Besides, I promised Sensei. I promised Josh.

So I take a breath and set my shoulders, lifting my chin and marching down the stairs before I can falter once more.

I’d wondered how Sensei would play this, if he would send Hunter and I out alone – to talk or under the pretence of a teambuilding exercise, I hadn’t decided – but as soon as I enter the room and see the others already partnered up, Shane with Cam and Dustin with Blake, I have my answer.

It’s Sensei’s favourite technique for when teammates fall out; spar together.

I am surprised. It’s not a method he’s ever used on me and I’m hardly ever – practically never – paired with Hunter.

But today I am.

I sigh, dropping my backpack down by the computer console and stretching out the kinks I’ve gathered from a day spent sitting at a school desk, playing for extra time to collect myself. I focus on deepening my breath, pulling the air into the lower part of my lungs and feeling my belly rise and fall.

In. Out.

I draw more air in, into my ribs also; the muscles between my bones expanding with each inhale.

In. Out.

Finally I let the breath up into my chest, the movement smooth and unforced; the three-part yogic exercise clears my mind, soothing the snakes of anxiety wriggling in my stomach.

In. Out.

I feel calm, centred, lost in meditation, thoughts wonderfully empty. There’s only my breathing.

In. Out. In. Out-

“Tori.”

My eyes snap open at Sensei’s voice. I hadn’t even realised I’d closed them. He hadn’t spoken loudly, or sharply, but it gets my attention nonetheless, bringing me back into the present with a jarring bump. I take one last, deep inhale, trying desperately to hold onto my peace, but it’s already gone, like water through outstretched fingers. Letting out a sigh, I give the guinea-pig a small nod, but am unable to muster a smile as I cross the room to where Hunter is waiting patiently for me.

I can’t tell if the look in his eyes is one of chagrin or disinterest, but I don’t meet his gaze long enough to decide. It doesn’t matter either way.

I drop into a fighting stance, weight slightly back in case I need to move quickly, awareness focused on a point on Hunter’s jaw, waiting for him to make his move. I sense, more than see, him readjust his balance and I ready myself for his attack.

An attack which doesn’t come.

Instead, he simply takes a couple of steps to the side, careful and cautious. I track his movement, mirroring his position in my own posture. His hesitation is palpable, an unwillingness to engage tangible in the air between us and-

Screw it.

I’m not in the mood for his games.

Before he can take another wary, circling step I launch my attack, jabbing forward with my right fist then following up with an arching kick from my left, holding nothing back, allowing some of my fury and frustration to seep out.

I expect an immediate counter, but when it fails to materialise I press forward, forcing Hunter to defend himself. I’m close enough to see the Thunder ninja’s blue eyes widen just a fraction in surprise at the probably unexpected strength behind my strikes, and then his expression clears, realisation I’m not going to play nice dawning. There’s not a trace of hesitation remaining as he pushes back, going on the offensive and I’m forced to dart away, out of range of the attacks he throws.

I block a punch, his fist passing a hairsbreadth from my face and there’s a dull thud in my chest as I realise he’s trying. He isn’t holding back, or deliberately aiming away from me. There’s still control, but the strikes are solid, firm and fast. Real. As real as if he was against any of the boys. As if he was against Shane.

And he’s having to work to avoid my attacks.

A thrill rushes through me as we move almost in tandem, gaining momentum with each attack and counter. There’s a flow, a rhythm, to the fight that I’ve never experienced before, and a synchronicity too, of prescience; of knowing every move Hunter’s about to make just as he seems to know what I’m about to do. And then there’s no more thoughts, no conscious decisions, nothing but beautiful, effortless movement.

I can feel my element beating beneath my skin, dancing in time to my pulse, and there’s the faint sensation of static and moisture in the air. The atmosphere feels… charged. Alive. And yet at the same time close and suffocating.

Thunder and water… Water and thunder…

I block a kick, spinning to his inside just as he regains his balance, stepping forward and suddenly we’re in close, my face inches from his chest; so close I can feel the warmth radiating from his skin, see the sweat glistening on his collarbone and my gaze travels up, our eyes meeting properly for the first time since the fight began – since we kissed – and there’s a moment of pressure, a texture in the fabric of the air and then, just for a second, I see Hunter’s concentration slip, just a fraction but it’s enough of an opening. My body moves on automatic, hands and feet adjusting for weight, fingers closing around his wrist and then I’m turning and Hunter’s landing on the floor at my feet; a textbook perfect throw, just like I’d practiced, only this time my partner wasn’t expecting it.

This time my partner was Hunter

My breath is coming out in ragged gasps, the exertion of the fight finally making itself known, sweat beading on my temples and trickling down between my breasts. My vision expands outwards, the rest of the room coming back into focus, and I’m suddenly aware of the presence of the others, who have at some point stopped their own sparring to watch us.

I’m still holding Hunter’s wrist

I drop his arm, stepping back, feeling conscious of every move I make. My already-hot face feels on fire with embarrassment and as I see the looks on the boy’s faces – surprise, awe and confusion – I’m seized by blinding panic and I do the only thing that seems right in that moment.

I run.

I run away from the stares, their eyes burning into my back; run away from whatever the hell that fight was; run away from him. I barely feel the rock steps beneath my feet as I fly up them, bursting out into the bright sunshine of the world above.

I’m shaking, heart pounding against my ribs, chest heaving, lungs crying for oxygen but there’s a lump in my throat that’s restricting the air and-

I have to calm down.

I pace restlessly between the ruins, edging away from the entrance to Ops but reluctant to leave the clearing completely. I’m filled with an anxious energy, the adrenaline of the earlier fight still thrumming through me, my hands shaking, trembling, and I have a desperate urge to keep moving. I yank the tie free from my damp hair, running both hands through it, fingers snagging on knots and tangles that have formed, as I struggle to get my breathing back under control.

In. Out.

But the sense of panic is still there, mingled with an inexplicable feeling of shame and I… I don’t know what to do.

It’s the faintest of sounds that gets my attention; the scuff of a foot against stone and I whirl around to see who’s followed me.

I expect to see Shane, or Cam. I’d hoped for Dustin.

Instead it’s Hunter standing there, posture revealing his discomfort as he keeps a respectful distance.

“Look, can we talk?” he asks, running a hand through his hair in a very good imitation of agitation. “I know you don’t like me very much right now. I don’t very much like myself. And if you never want to talk to me again after this then I won’t ask you to. I just… Will you listen?”

My promise to Sensei – “Will you speak with him?” – echoes in my mind, but I can’t bring myself to agree out loud, instead keeping my gaze fixed on a point far to his left. My silence doesn’t seem to matter to Hunter, for when I don’t say anything he takes it as an invitation to continue anyway.

I hear him take a breath, as if steeling himself to say something he doesn’t want to. Or something that I’m not going to like.

“Please don’t take my actions out on my brother.”

I jerk my head around in shock, staring at him for a long moment, mind whirring as the meaning of his words sink in.

I’d considered how this would go, played out scenarios in my head, imagining all the things he might say, all the things I might say to try and make things right between us or, at the minimum, find some closure.

Sometimes I’d be angry. Sometimes I’d be cold. In some – few – cases I’d be forgiving. But they all had one thing in common; they all involved an apology. From him. Of varying degrees of sincerity, sure, but still an apology.

Not this.

I see it so clearly now, a blinding lightning-flash of realisation. Hunter isn’t here to say sorry. Of course he isn’t. He’s only here because his actions have, in his mind, hurt his brother. He doesn’t care that he hurt me; he doesn’t care about me. It’s about Blake. It’s always about Blake.

Laughter, cynical and bitter, bubbles up from my chest and I push my hair back from my eyes, shaking my head in disbelief. Unbelievable. Just when I thought this whole situation couldn’t get any worse, or more absurd, Hunter has proven me wrong. Again.

The blond ignores my reaction as he says, “Blake cares about you-”

My laughter stops; anger returning in a white-hot flare, solidifying around me, acting as both a well of strength and a shield against the man in front of me, all promises forgotten.

“Oh my god, how arrogant can you be?” I shout, words loud in the peace of the clearing. It’s Hunter’s turn to stare at me shock, looking taken back by the ferocity in my tone. “The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know? Not everything in my life is about you. Hell, not everything in your brother’s life is about you. My decision to break up with Blake had absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with me – what I wanted. Why can’t people get that?”

 “Tori-”

“No. Don’t. Just… don’t. You don’t get it. I broke up with Blake because it was the right thing to do; it’s what’s best for me. And him, even if he doesn’t realise it now. Don’t you dare, for one second, think you had any impact on that at all. What happened between us-  last week had nothing to do with it. Not that you care about that.”

I gasp in a breath, chest heaving as I wait for Hunter to say something to correct me, to apologise and say he was wrong, but he just stands there, letting me yell, and I realise then he isn’t going to. He isn’t going to defend himself or his actions because he doesn’t think he needs to. He doesn’t think he was wrong.

There’s a calm pool of acceptance forming beneath the anger, tinged with a vindictiveness – a desire to hurt him, to hurt him as he hurt me – that would have once turned my stomach.

“You know, I don’t blame you for what happened,” I say, voice cold and suddenly empty. Drained. I’m not going to fight for himanymore. I’m not going to try and see what isn’t there. I give up. “I knew exactly what you were like. I knew you were manipulative and duplicitous but thought I could change you. I was stupid. Stupid to try. Stupid to think you could be changed.”

An image of the Samurai comes back to me then; a friend’s concern bought to life.

 

“You don’t know him.”

“And you do?”

“Cam was right” I whisper, voice laden with bitterness. “I put my trust in you when everyone told me not to and they were right.  I thought… I thought I saw something in you that was worth caring about but I was wrong.”

I finally raise my chin, at last daring to meet his eyes. I don’t- I need to look at him. I need to see what effect my words’ll have, if any. I need to see, to know that I’m right. I take a breath, trying to keep myself level.

“I don’t… I won’t let this ruin the team,” I tell him and his blue eyes keep regarding me with the same cool, unaffected gaze. “I won’t let this – us – endanger the unity of the rangers. I- We can’t. We’re not normal people and I can’t just never see you again. No matter much-”

–I hate you. But I choke off the sentiment, refusing to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. I’d rather he thought I felt nothing, than know he can still stir emotions in me. I exhale slowly, feeling the knots in my chest and throat loosen, allowing me to continue-

“Not when we have to save the Earth. And I won’t make it weird for the others. I won’t make them pick sides or leave you out of things. I’ll be in the same room as you. I’ll train with you and fight alongside you and even do team-building evenings and hanging out with everyone else but we won’t be friends.”

And there… The first real sign of emotion I’ve seen on Hunter’s face since he followed me. Subtle and easily missed, but it is there; an almost visible flinch as my words strike him. There’s hurt in his eyes now, a flicker in the iron façade that’s gone so quickly I’m not sure it was there- No, I am sure. I know Hunter well enough by now.

Part of me wants to stop myself, guilt for causing him pain – more pain – running through me, but the other part that is angry and hurting and vengeful just wants to throw that back at him. Throw back every time he made me smile and laugh; every touch, every truth he told me, every time I thought he’d let me in a little bit further, get a little bit closer… Everything.

“We’re not friends. We’re teammates, and nothing more.”

There’s a long moment of silence; of the soft breeze ruffling my hair and caressing my skin with tentative touches of warmth; of expectation; of me waiting for him to join in the argument, to come back with some snide retort about how we were never friends, or reiterate that he doesn’t care but there’s only a deep, aching void.  

“Okay, Tori,” Hunter says at last, very quietly, and then turns away from me; head bowed, shoulders stooped, and something somehow defeated about his posture. He pauses for a second, hands loose and empty at his sides, before he walks away, back towards the entrance to Ops without a backward glance.

I know then, in an instant of ice-cold realisation, that I’ve hurt him. Really, truly hurt him. But instead of feeling satisfied, vindicated even, I feel an overarching wave of sorrow.

…“Hunter likes you. He lets you touch him”…

 I open my mouth to call him back but the words die on my tongue and then it’s too late. He’s gone and I’m standing in the sun-drenched clearing alone, feeling a chill creeping through me in spite of the afternoon’s heat.

“If Hunter truly did not care about the effects of his actions, would he have acted thus?”

“Hunter lies.”

“Hunter’s lonely.”

Memories swirl around me, everything Hunter’s ever said and done, everything I’ve learned, everything people have told me about him, every word I’ve ever spoken to him rushing through my mind, paper pages in the wind.

“We care about you. Not just as teammates but as friends. You just have to let us.”

“I care about you, Hunter”

I feel sick, disgust at myself and my actions leaving me nauseous. The pressure I’d felt behind my eyes earlier intensifies; a dull throbbing in my head that makes me want to hide under a blanket until it’s gone.

“God, Tor, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

My bubble of rage has dissipated, leaving me with nothing but the cold, harsh light of reality.

What have I done?

One image rises up, pushing its way to the forefront of my thoughts, demanding to be seen, acknowledged; the way he kissed me, fierce and desperate and longing.

Fire and sparks.

His lips on mine, the warmth of his body on my skin… and the hurt – real, true hurt – that I saw on his face when I told him we weren’t friends. The only emotions I have seen from him that I really, honestly think are unfeigned. Glimpses behind the mask.

Something stirs deep within me, something I thought- something I wanted to be dead, or at least buried, far beneath all the pain and sadness rippling through me. But no, it lifts its head, deadly and dangerous. I should ignore it, I know I should, because it will only lead to trouble.

But like a phoenix, rising from the ashes, it refuses to be silent.

Hope .

 

Chapter Text

I love the way you hear the words unspoken
It’s like you read between the minds
You know before the silence has been broken
Well, at least most of the time
But I don’t know what you’re going through
It must be something I didn’t say to you

~Jack Savoretti

“…I thought I saw something in you that was worth caring about, but I was wrong.”

Tori’s words are quiet, falling into the stillness of the clearing, but the hurt and bitterness in them is unmistakable. I feel numb, unable to offer any defence to her accusations, all my willpower focused on staying where I am, on not running away even though every fibre of my being wants to be as far from here – as far from her – as possible. Far away from the truth.

Because the truth… the truth is I’ve hurt her, badly. And I knew that, I did, but seeing it for myself is unbearable. She is hurt and she is angry and the worst part is, I don’t know what I can say to fix it. I have no excuse for my behaviour, no justification for what I did. I can’t admit how much the kiss meant, or how much her presence affects me, even now. Even during our fight, that moment when our eyes met and memories of our kiss were the only thing I could think of, the only thing on my mind until my back hit the mat. I can’t tell her any of that.

All I can do is stand before her in silence. Keep quiet and allow her to believe the worst in me, telling myself it’s for the best.

And if her yelling at me, saying everything she has been wanting to say since we last met, helps her, brings her some closure and some peace, then I will take it. I will stand here among the ruins of their Academy –the bright sunshine an antithesis to the sombre reminders of our battle against Lothor that surround us – and let her vent, even if her words fall as almost physical blows, battering my still-fragile shell.

I’m glad Tori isn’t looking at me when she says those words though, because as much as I’m trying to keep my face blank, unmoved, I’m not sure I can keep the mask upfor much longer.

And then she does look up, blue eyes burning with anger and beneath it, hurt and something I recognise as betrayal. I meet her gaze and, as she speaks again, I don’t look away; forcing myself to see the damage I’ve done, the pain I’ve caused. This is my punishment.

“I don’t… I won’t let this ruin the team. I won’t let this – us – endanger the unity of the rangers. I- We can’t. We’re not normal people and I can’t just never see you again. No matter how much-” she cuts herself off, hesitating for the briefest of moments, and when she continues, I know she isn’t saying what she was originally going to.

“Not when we have to save the Earth. And I won’t make it weird for the others. I won’t make them pick sides or leave you out of things. I’ll be in the same room as you. I’ll train with you and fight alongside you and even do team-building evenings and hanging out with everyone else but we won’t be friends.”

I feel the cracks in my mask widening, the edges jagged and torn. I’m convinced some of how I’m feeling must be showing on my face, some trace of the hurt her words have caused leaking out, but Tori either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, as she spits out one last barb.

“We’re not friends. We’re teammates, and nothing more.”

Nothing. We’re nothing.

That thought cuts through me and, even after everything I've felt and done, every lie I’ve told her – and myself – I'm still not prepared for how much this realisation hurts. The realisation of just how much her friendship meant to me, and now she's withdrawing it-

Of how much I let her in...

And I did, let her in. I tried not to. I pretended I was still holding back, locking everything away behind walls of steel and rock but the truth, the reality... those walls were only paper-thin.

It's like Leanne all over again. Only worse.

Worse, because I can't use misplaced anger as a shield, as a defence.

Worse, because I can't be the victim this time.

Worse, because it's my fault. All my fault. Always my fault…

Everyone always leaves- No.

I push everyone away. I break it. I’m broken.

“Okay, Tori.”

My voice is steady, far steadier than I was expecting it to be. Her rejection hurts, yes, but I don’t blame her for what she’s said. I don’t blame her for any of this. I’d hate me too, in her place. And I don’t want her to know she’s hurting me, because Tori is nice. Tori is good, and when the anger leaves I want her to know she was right. She is right. And I don’t want her to feel guilty for causing me pain, when I have wounded her far worse.

I turn to leave, but some subconscious urge makes me pause; I guess still hoping she’ll say something else, call me back, forgive me

It’s a vain hope. I take a breath, working the oxygen past the lump in my throat before forcing myself to move, to walk away and not look back. I don’t dare look back, instead keeping my focus on weaving my way through the rubble as I head back towards the entrance to Ninja Ops.

I come to a halt at the top of the staircase, one foot poised over the edge, hanging in midair, knowing I should return to the training session happening below. But the numbness seeping through my veins, a thick and heavy dam against the river of emotions I know is waiting to be released, stops me taking that step. As much as I could pretend I was fine, keep my face blank and the truth buried deep, it would only take one careless word, one misplaced gesture, for it all to come rushing to the surface and make a bad situation a whole lot worse. To make me snap and channel my emotions into anger at some innocent bystander. At one of the team.

And maybe before I’d have risked that. Wouldn’t have cared. But I guess now I do.

So I withdraw my foot and keep walking, out past the ruins and into the woods, taking a slow, roundabout route to get to the portal and then continuing on foot down the hillside back towards Blue Bay. The forest is silent and still in the close heat of the late afternoon; motes of dust dancing and shimmering in the sunbeams, streaks of golden light illuminating the shade. No sound but my footsteps over the tinder-dry earth and my own breath echoing in my ears.  

It takes me about an hour to reach the outskirts of town, leaving the crepuscular world of the forest behind and hiking down the side of road back into Blue Bay – not the main road, because the last thing I want is the others passing me in Tori’s van – in bright, uninterrupted sunshine. By the time I near the apartment a sticky sweat coats my arms and brow, dampening my hair and tracking down my face, and I’m getting strange looks from passers-by as they scurry from one air-conditioned sanctuary to the next. Even by California standards, today is hot. I’m glad for probably the first time ever to reach the dankness of our block’s stairwell and the relative cool it offers.

I pause outside the door to our place; sure my brother will already be home and bracing myself for his disapproval, before turning the key in the lock and stepping inside.

The apartment is empty, warm and stuffy from the sun pouring in the closed windows. No air-conditioning here.

I heave a sigh of relief, wondering where Blake could be, then remembering he has a shift at Storm Chargers after training so I have a little longer to wallow in my self-imposed solitude. I head for the bathroom, shedding clothing en route, and dump myself under the for-once blissful ice cold shower.

XxX

Evening falls, but it brings with it no respite from the heat. I find myself lying listlessly on my mattress, staring up at the ceiling without really seeing anything. A moth flutters up around the light and my eyes lazily follow it. I don’t know how long I’ve been here, how much time has passed, but I can’t work up the energy to care.

There's the sound of a key in the lock, signalling Blake's return from work, but I don’t want to see him right now. Don’t want to explain my sudden departure from training or face his suspicions. So I take the coward’s way out, closing my eyes and feigning sleep. I hear his footsteps approach my bed, my body tensed against a whisper that doesn't come. Instead I hear the soft pad of feet departing, the click of the light-switch, and the gentle closing of his bedroom door. I’m left alone in the darkness.

Alone, save for the thoughts rushing around in my head; memories of this afternoon playing on a loop. Tori's voice, filled with pain and sorrow, saying the same words over and over.

We’re not friends. Not friends.

Like an old record-player where the needle has stuck.

I sit up abruptly, unable to lie still any longer, knowing that sleep will not find me, not so long as my mind’s adrift on stormy seas.

A quick glance at Blake’s closed door shows faint yellow light creeping out from underneath it, so I move with exaggerated carefulness, collecting my shoes silently and easing the front door shut behind me. I lean my back against it, taking a moment in the dim corridor – the dying strip light flickering and blinking in the emptiness – before I make my way outside.

There’s still a warmth to the night air, a stickiness from the daytime lingering on, surrounding me in a bubble of humidity as I set off in a slow jog. I don’t have a route or destination in mind, but my feet start taking me down a familiar path and I have to force myself to turn around, to run in the opposite direction, deliberately taking any and all roads that will lead me as far away from the beach – and my thoughts – as I can.

It isn’t very late and there are still people out on the streets, but they barely give me a second look. As my meandering course takes me away from the centre of town, the number of strangers begins to dwindle until it’s just me, running alone down unfamiliar streets, lit by the harsh orange glow from the intermittent lamps along the way.

When the pools of light become further and further apart, I finally start to take notice of where I am. At first I’m thrown, not sure of where I’ve ended up, in a part of town I don’t recognise, but then a building I think I recall from my walk to Frank’s gym materialises on a corner and I pause there, an internal debate raging as to which road I take. I’m so very tempted to head towards the gym but… Would it be even open at this time?

For reasons I don’t know – or refuse to dwell on – I turn down the narrow street anyway and find myself making my way back to the run-down industrial estate where I’d been the other day, seeking out the non-descript building that houses the gym.

It’s closed; the barred windows dark and the door secured by a single padlock. I’m filled with a strange sense of disappointment, not entirely sure what I’d been hoping to achieve by coming here but knowing I’d failed nonetheless. As I go to leave, my foot knocks against a discarded scrap of metal wire lying on the ground, the tinkle it makes loud in the silence of the night.

I don’t know why I do it. I can’t explain my reasoning for bending down and scooping up the wire, nor why I – using barely remembered skills – twist it into a small hook and use it to pick the lock. It takes only a couple of goes before it’s lying open in my palm, a solid, heavy weight against my skin. Letting the wire slip from my fingers, I cautiously push the door open. It creaks horrifically; metal scraping against metal, but no alarm accompanies it as I softly creep inside.

The deserted gym is a different creature from the one of the day. Lit only by the muted glow from the street light outside, it takes my eyes a moment to adjust; shadows taking form, vague patches of darkness coalescing into recognisable objects. It’s still, unnaturally so, making me feel as if everything has been frozen at a moment in time.

It’s like I’m trespassing in a tomb and I hardly dare to breathe the dusky and stale air. 

But then my ninja-heightened vision focuses on the punching bag hanging motionless from the ceiling, its very presence calling out to me, beckoning me over and I go to it, dropping the lock on the reception desk and flicking one of the light switches on as I pass. A warm yellow light douses the room, soft though it takes my eyes another second to readjust to the sudden brightness.

I need a workout, the run having done little to halt the thoughts still swirling just below the surface of my conscious mind. And besides, it’s not as if anyone will find me here. Not this late.

At least, that’s what I think when I wrap up my hands and focus on losing myself in the simple repetition of punch, punch, and punch again.

XxX

“Who is she?”

The quiet voice from behind makes me jump, a curse slipping from my lips as I spin around to see Frank standing a few feet away, eyes watching me with a smile. I hadn’t heard him enter the gym; I hadn’t even heard a sound from outside, which says a good deal more about my current state of mind than it does about him. I’m preoccupied, and preoccupation can get you killed.

The shock of his sudden appearance dissipating, my brain finally latches on to what he’s said and I blink at him stupidly. “She?”

Frank’s lips quirk up into a smile. “The girl that’s upset you.”

I frown, thrown even more by his answer and I can feel myself on edge, suspicion creeping forward from the recesses I’d tried to banish it to; one thought rising above all else: How does he know?

Unless...

All my fears about this man are suddenly brought flooding to the fore, cursing myself for trusting him so easily. Despite all my carefully constructed defences, I still was fooled by an old man showing me an ounce of kindness. Too good to be true...

Of course he's a bad guy. Pretty much everyone we’ve met in this stupid town – who isn’t a ranger, or Kelly – is. And now it seems he’s been watching me, or has been given information about me. It stands to reason he'd be working for Lothor. I glance to where I've left my morpher tucked into my shoe at the side of the matted area, gauging the distance and wondering how fast I can reach it should Frank attack. Or turn into some sort of Space Ninja-esque creature.

“Why do you think it's a girl?” I ask casually, trying to subtly work my way closer to where I've left my belongings, eyes never leaving Frank's face, preparing myself for the worst. But the man’s next words throw me off-guard, so ingenuous and normal that I pause, no longer as certain of Frank’s allegiance as I was seconds ago.

“Son, in my experience there’s only ever one reason to hit a punch bag like that. So who is she?”

That… isn’t something one of Lothor’s men would say.

I open my mouth to protest, to argue against his assumption, but he beats me to it. “You answer that question honestly, and I won’t ask how you got in here.”

“… Door was open,” I mutter, the lie ungainly and obvious.

“No it wasn’t,” Frank replies easily, tone friendly and casual, but there’s iron beneath it as he continues, “I closed up myself this evening; know for a fact that this place was shut up tight. Only came back ‘cos I forgot my own house-keys. So… which question do you want to answer truthfully?”

His speech and manner is enough to cause a shift in my perspective. Suddenly he’s not a bad guy; instead just a man who’s found some kid he barely knows in a place he shouldn’t be. Something Sensei Omino once said whispers in my ears, “Always so suspicious, Hunter…” I let out a sigh, dragging my fingers through my sweat-dampened hair, tension seeping from my shoulders as I find myself biting back the automatic denial that springs to my lips.

Frank isn’t wrong, about either premise. I’m loathe to admit to picking the lock, not after all the blind trust he’s put in me and if I’m being honest with myself (which seem to be the thing to do now), I’m lost. I have no idea what I’m doing with her, how to fix what I’ve broken, I don’t know what to do. I don’t. This whole situation is new and confusing and totally alien to me. After Leanne, I swore I’d never put myself in a similar position and now I’m tangled up in something far worse. I could do with some advice.

Advice from someone who doesn’t know any of us, someone unbiased, totally disconnected, impartial. Someone like Frank.

But do I trust him enough? At all? Only moments ago I was ready to believe he was one of Lothor's creations, albeit a very clever and unusual ruse for the crazed Space Ninja to attempt.

I huff out a laugh, mouth answering for me before my brain can catch up, “You ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t’ve?”

There’s a beat of silence and then Frank’s shaking his head. “Conversations this serious call for a drink.” He meets my gaze, eyes twinkling. “And I have just the thing. Come on.”

He pulls a set of keys out of his pocket and unlocks the door to the darkened office, snapping on the light as he enters. I trail after him bemused, as he roots about under the desk for a moment. I’m half expecting him to pull out a bottle of alcohol or something but instead he straightens, holding a small tin. “Cocoa!” he announces, grinning at me, before busying himself at the small kitchenette in the corner. 

I stand awkwardly in the doorway, unsure of where to put myself, still feeling unbalanced and edgy.

“Sit down,” Frank grunts at me abruptly, jerking his head in the direction of a spare chair. “Makes me nervous, you hovering like that.”

I do as I’m told, dropping onto the seat and hooking my feet around the front legs, wariness slowly being replaced by the embarrassment of being caught here.

The older man shoots me a glance before saying, almost off-hand, “There should be some cookies here if you’d like. Second drawer down.” He waves an arm, pointing me towards the desk before turning to fill the kettle with water. He chuckles to himself, adding, “Unless AJ’s eaten them all, of course.”

I find a half-empty packet in the drawer Frank’d indicated, taking one before setting the rest carefully down beside me. I find myself rolling it absently between my fingers, my apprehension returning the longer the silence drags on.

The faint hiss of the kettle does little to break the quiet and I try to fill the empty space as best I can, asking, “So how do you know AJ?”

The other man pauses a moment, his hands halting in spooning the dark brown powder into two mugs. “You’re wondering what I’m doing letting a teenager hang around a bar on Friday nights?”

His tone is light but there's a defensiveness there that even I can pick up on. Too late I realise how my question may have come across.

“No, no, not… not exactly. It was more...” I flounder, trying to put into words exactly what it was I was asking. There was something very natural, normal in their interactions.An ease of communication, of trust, between them that I’ve only ever seen from families. Or teammates. “He listens to you,” I finish lamely, tugging at the strapping around my hand.

Frank’s shoulders relax as he grasps my meaning. “AJ was one of the first kids I ended up teaching. He’s a good kid, but he has... issues. A rough time at home.” He drops into the chair opposite me, a seriousness gracing his features. “His mom’s an addict. Drugs, alcohol and all the associated crap that comes with. Father walked out on them when he was small. I’m not ever sure AJ knows when, exactly, and the only parenting he’s had has come from various transient men or his mom's more lucid moments. He used to hang out with a local gang. More of a tag-along than an actual member, hadn't got into any real trouble but it was only a matter of time.” Frank shakes his head. “Sad thing is, thems the guys kids like AJ look up to and respect.”

He gives me a quick glance and I can tell he's trying to gauge my reaction to his tale. Testing me. I school my face into blankness, but the picture he's painting is not new to me.

“Anyways, AJ turned up at one of my classes and he took to martial arts like a duckling takes to water.” He pauses, then grins, adding, “Awkwardly, but full of potential. Wasn't long before he started hanging around here and I ended up letting him stay 'cos at least here he wasn't going to get himself into anything he wouldn't be able to get out of. And as for the bars... You saw for yourself. I don't let him drink and neither do any of the guys. I'd rather he was out with us where we can keep an eye on him than out and about by himself.”

Before I can come up with a suitable reply, the kettle – which has been bubbling loudly throughout Frank’s speech – suddenly shakes violently before clicking off. The older man eases himself out of his chair to continue making the cocoa and I’m glad for the distraction because there’s a thought niggling in my mind. I try to push it away but it’s insidious, refusing to be silent.

What if

What if someone like Frank had found me and Blake? What if we’d had the support of some kind stranger, someone to turn to before things went wrong, to give us advice and care from a safe distance, to give us another option; a different life? What would our lives now be? Who would I be?

It’s stupid and unreasonable, but I can’t help the faint twinge that accompanies that thought, contracting in the pit of my stomach. I recognise the feeling for what it is, and feel ashamed. But it’s there nonetheless.

Jealousy.

The sensation is fleeting; a moment of irrationality before reason finds me again. Maybe there had been someone like Frank. For all I know, there might have been hundreds of people like him, willing to give two street kids a chance, and it wouldn’t have made a difference. I wouldn’t have trusted them. Hell, I took us away from Sensei Omino and the safety he offered. If a complete stranger had come along… I’d have been hostile, wary; always looking for the catch-

Just like I keep finding myself doing with Frank now. 

The older man sets a steaming mug down in front of me with a smile that is all kindness. “Anyway, you’re not here to talk about AJ. You were telling me about this person you’ve fallen in love with, who you shouldn’t have.”

I watch his face closely, looking for… I genuinely don’t know what, anymore. Some hint he’ll betray me? An inclination of what he really wants from me? But there’s nothing but honesty showing and all the distrust, all the second-guessing and caution is making me weary; exhaustion weighing heavily on me, turning my bones to lead.

Mistaking my hesitation for embarrassment, Frank adds gently, “I’m not sure love is too concerned with should and should-not’s. So… who is she? Or he?”

I feel like I'm poised on the edge of a chasm, toes curled over the lip and muscles braced for a jump I'm not sure I can make. Can I cross that final divide into the unknown, into putting something real, some part of my current life, into the hands of this stranger?

All these thoughts cross my mind with lightning speed, indecision tearing through me, the older man watching with calm grey eyes. There's a moment of weightlessness, and then-

I take the leap.

“My brother’s girlfriend,” I say quietly and Frank gives a knowing ‘ah’.  I pause for a moment as the events of the past ten days catch up with me and I amend my statement, “Well, ex-girlfriend now.”

The greying man raises an eyebrow and I find myself telling him all about the kiss and the aftermath, about how I’d lied to her, about the week of not-speaking, about her breaking up with Blake and then this afternoon.

“…I wanted to apologise, to explain myself, but I’ve just ended up making everything worse.” There’s a pressure in my chest as I add, “She doesn’t want anything to do with me now.”

 Teammates, and nothing more.

“And did you?”

Frank’s question comes out as a non sequitur and I blink at the older man, confused. “Did I what?”

“Apologise.”

 “Yes!” I exclaim immediately, but then my mind realises what I’ve declared and how it lies at odds with actual events. I pause briefly before saying, “Well, no, not exactly.” Frank waits as I run a hand across my face before admitting just how I’d started our conversation. “…I asked her not to take my actions out on my brother.”

The older man lets out a sigh that’s almost despairing and I feel my cheeks heat. With a shake of his head he says, “You assume she broke up with him because of you?”

“Yeah. I mean, I thought that’s what’d happened but…” I drag my fingers through my hair, agitation making me restless. “Blake- my brother, adored her. They were like, the world’s most inevitable couple. From the moment they first met Tori was all he wanted to talk about and we had to watch them dance around each other for weeks. It was painful. But it was also kinda worth it. Seeing Blake so happy…” I allow a trace of wistfulnessinto my tone as I continue, “After everything he's gone through, after everything he's lost, to see him smiling again – really smiling – it made everything I've done, done for him, somehow worth it. Like, nothing really mattered because he was happy again and I couldn't make him that happy but she could-” I stop abruptly, not trusting myself to continue, focusing instead on carefully removing the wraps from my hands. .

My host lets out a non-committal hum. “And what about this girl? What did she think of him?”

I’m about to say ‘the same', that Tori adored my brother, that she was always happiest when they were together, but a memory makes me falter.

Her expression at Blake’s birthday party, when I’d jokingly told her I got all the big brother privileges if the two of them started dating; the look of… shock? uncertainty? dismay? on her face that had been followed by breathless words. “No, no you’re fine. It’s just… Blake and I…”

I’d never found out exactly what she’d been about to say about her and Blake as Dustin had chosen that moment to appear, all enthusiasm and guileless charm.

“I’m not sure,” I answer truthfully, reaching out to carefully cradle the mug of cocoa with both hands. “I thought they were good together but… I’m probably not the best judge of people’s intentions.” I give Frank a sideways glance, expecting him to laugh at that admission, but he doesn’t, just nods sagely. I’d noticed, I think is his implication. I take a breath before continuing, “I thought she liked him as much as he liked her, but now...”

“My decision to split up with Blake had absolutely nothing to do with you and everything to do with me – what I wanted.”

“…She said breaking up with him was the right thing to do. That it was best for her but I don't understand why. If it had nothing to do with me, why did she do it? Why did she choose this moment to do it? I just... It doesn't make sense.”

A sudden grin lightens my companion’s face, tone gently teasing as he says, “You know kid, the world doesn't always revolve around you. Sometimes people make decisions not based on your actions.”

Frank's words mimic Tori's and I tell him so with a wry laugh.

The other man chuckles. “She sounds like a smart girl.”            

I can’t help the smile that slips onto my face as I reply, “She is.” I pause to take a sip of my cocoa and when I look back up, Frank's watching me with a strange, half-smile that is somehow expectant.

“Well?” he asks with a raised eyebrow.

I feel my face flush even though I'm not sure why. “Well what?” I mumble, returning my focus to my drink.

“What makes this girl so special?”

I open my mouth to give a glib response but I catch myself, shaking my head. “It sounds so clichéd, but I don't think I've ever met anyone like her before. She's had me off-balance from the moment we met, which...” I shoot Frank a quick look “... isn't an easy thing to do but- I won't say she gets me, or she understands me, but she tries to. She makes the effort and she's so damn intuitive it's like she's in my head sometimes, knowing exactly what I mean, or what I'm not saying, and even though she knows about the... less-than-white parts of my past she's still tried to get close. She knows more about me than almost anyone and she’s never once judged me. She didn't give up on me. Not until I made her.”

My final words erase the warm sensations I'd felt trying to put into words just what I thought about the blonde surfer and instead allow the cold, harsh light of reality to shine through. My eyes drop to my hands still tightly wrapped around the mug, as if I can draw in strength from the heat seeping through the porcelain.

“You know,” I start again, voice flat and small. “I think maybe this is for the best. If she had any sort of feelings for me, they’re gone now and that’s not a bad thing. I’m no good for her. In fact, I’d probably be the worst thing in the world for her. She’s far too smart, too clever, to be with someone like me. I’m damaged, messed up. She deserves so much more than a guy like me could give her.” My eyes slide to the floor as I finish, almost inaudibly, “She has her whole life ahead of her.”

There’s a long silence, then Frank lets out what sounds suspiciously like a snort. “And you don’t, old man?”

I realise what it sounds like, but a subdued melancholy has surrounded me, dulling my senses and sapping my energy. I shrug one shoulder, staring deeply into my mug of cocoa. “Not a future I can imagine.”

My words are quiet, more to myself than actually answering Frank, but they earn his disapproval nonetheless.

“Is that what your parents would have wanted?”

It’s a low blow and Frank knows it, but as I raise my head he meets my gaze, unrepentant. I think he’s expecting me to get angry at him and I would’ve, once. But now there’s just a lethargy where there used to be rage.

“I don’t know,” I say evenly, managing to keep the bitterness from my voice as I add, “And I won’t ever know.”

“Never pegged you one for self-pity.” I glare at him but the fight promoter shakes his head. “No don’t give me that look. I don’t need to tell you, life sucks. Sometimes bad things happen-”

 “Don’t you dare say ‘for a reason’.” I feel a faint flare of anger in the pit of my stomach, an ember glowing brighter at the platitude I’m sure is about to follow.

Frank returns my gaze levelly, expression neutral. “No, they just happen. An’ when they do, you get a choice. You can let it define you and control you, always be the victim, always blame whatever it was for how you are.”

The older man is watching me closely and I feel the air suddenly thicken in my lungs, a terrible sense of inevitability engulfing me.

There has to be more than this...

“Or?”

I’m aiming for nonchalance, but my throat is dry and single word has an undercurrent of desperation to it.

There’s an understanding glinting in Frank’s grey eyes, and a kindness, as he answers me, “Or you can move on, refuse to let it rule you, and live your life. Which you only get one shot at, y’know.”

I huff out a laugh, the pressure in my chest easing as I manage. “I thought you were going to say ‘yolo’ for a second there.”

The tension that has been slowly building throughout our conversation is shattered, Frank letting out a deep chuckle at my words. “No; I haven’t been hanging around AJ that long yet.”

The laughter is warm and familial, trailing off into a silence that is a little less uncomfortable than previously, an accord between the two of us. I take another small sip of my drink; the chocolate slightly bitter on my tongue but the warmth travels all the way down into my stomach.

“So what are you going to do about this Tori?” Frank breaks the quiet after drinking from his own mug, wiping the residue from his lips with the back of his hand.

“I don’t know,” I say with a sigh. “I hurt her. Badly. And I wish I hadn’t. But worse than that, I let her think I didn’t care when actually…”

“You care a lot.”

“Too much.” My admission is quiet, but it’s the first time I’ve spoken the sentiment aloud. The first time I’ve admitted I do like Tori to anyone other than myself. Not that it means anything now. “But I can’t- we can’t be anything other than friends. And not just because I messed up,” I say quickly, before Frank can chime in. “There’s other reasons.”

“Your brother?”

“That’s one,” I agree. Not to mention aliens, saving the world, and how fucked up I am. “But even friendship’s off the table now.”

The despondence I'd felt earlier is back and I scratch a fingernail morosely over the rim of the mug, trying to distract myself from my own words.

“You know there’s a magic word you could use to try and fix that.” Even as I allow puzzlement to flood my face, Frank’s lips quirk up in a smile, amusement leaking out from behind his serious façade. “’Sorry’. Works wonders when you mean it.”

Dustin’s words from the other day come flooding back to me; “Have you tried saying you’re sorry?”

My frown deepens. “I’ve already tried apologising, I told you. It didn’t end well.”

Tori practically told me she never wants to see me again. And if it wasn't for the fact that we're Rangers and on the same team, I have a strong feeling we wouldn't.

Frank’s already shaking his head at me. “You didn’t actually say sorry, at any point in that conversation did you?” The silence he receives from me as a response seems to be answer enough, already knowing that I didn't. He leans forward, bracing himself with his hands on his knees as he tells me, “Hunter, you have to try again. If it- if she means a lot to you, don’t throw it away. She sounds like a lovely girl, and if her friendship is that important to you – and we both know it is – at least give it another go. You’re not a quitter.” The smile has returned, relieving some of the seriousness of his tone. “You don’t quit even when you’re being choked out so you won’t quit on this. On her.”

There’s a quiet confidence in his voice – a confidence in me – that is strangely reassuring and I find myself smiling back at him, a positivity seeping through me and giving me strength.

Maybe it's not too late...

One more shot; a chance to actually apologise and then-

Then I respect her decision.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to be with her in the more-than-friends way, but that isn’t at stake here. It’s her friendship, and her friendship alone, I covet. I would rather have that than any chance of us being a thing.

Frank and Dustin are right; I have to at least tell her I’m sorry. I have to say the words. I’ll never forgive myself if I don’t.

 “Thank you,” I say quietly, genuine sincerity colouring my tone.

Frank’s face crinkles into a soft smile. “It’s fine, Hunter.” He nods at the mug still in my hands. “You should finish your cocoa before it gets cold.”

XxX

I sleep late the next day, a blissful, wonderful dreamless sleep that my body has been craving without me knowing it. It was almost dawn by the time I got back to the apartment, our conversation drifting to the fight Frank’s actually booked for me on Friday, letting me know who my opponent is.

“Guy’s called Julian. He’s been around a few years so though he’s got experience on his side, you’ll have age. And cardio,” he’d added with a faint smile. “Get Mike to run some basics by you and you’ll be fine.”

I hadn’t been worried about the upcoming fight, but Frank’s words soothed some of the apprehension that may have been niggling at me.

By the time we’d parted ways, the sky was lightening in the east, the texture of the night fading, but with no work and no sign of Lothor there was no good reason for me to wake early. I’ve only been out of bed an hour or so when Blake returns to the apartment.

“Hey,” I greet him from where I’m sitting at the kitchen table. “How was school?”

He pulls a face. “It was school,” he says simply, then, “Are you ready? I told Shane I’d grab my stuff and we’d meet them at Ops. Apparently ninja streaking’s allowed when the other option is a ride with your ex.”

Not to mention Shane probably wants to keep as Tori and I as far apart as possible.

The red ranger isn’t stupid and after yesterday’s training session, I don’t blame him for wanting some distance between the two of us.

There’s no undercurrent of bitterness to Blake’s words and – though I know he must still be feeling raw from recent events – no trace of it shows in either his tone or his actions.

I don’t know if I should be reassured or worried by this.

Hiding emotions behind a mask has always been my thing, not Blake’s, and I’m hardly the poster child for ‘well-adjusted and sane’.

He doesn’t wait for my reply, just walks away to, I assume, get his things together. I know I should be doing the same, but it takes me a moment to move; the echoes of his voice still resonating. I’m just about to push my chair back from the table to go dig out my training uniform when my brother reappears in the kitchen, an unusual expression on his face.

“Let’s go to the track,” he says abruptly, dropping his rucksack on the floor and leaning back against the counter.

I watch him carefully, trying to gauge the sudden change in his mood. “What about training?”

He shrugs one shoulder carelessly. “After yesterday… Would it really hurt for us to miss one? Let’s just… live a little.”

I give him a considering look. He doesn’t seem angry, or sad, or even resigned. He seems like Blake. Like my brother. A shade quieter perhaps; sorrow still present in his brown eyes, but it’s not as pronounced as it has been. And his words… They seem familiar, though it takes me a moment to place them.

“Last time you said that to me you wanted help in sneaking a chicken into the staff room at the Thunder Academy,” I say evenly. “You were convinced we wouldn’t get caught. I remember you scrubbing floors for a month after that.”

The corners of my mouth twitch with the memory and my brother rolls his eyes at me.

“Well if you had helped me, maybe I wouldn’t have got caught.”

I snort. “More likely I’d have been the one doing all the cleaning for leading my little brother astray.”

The smile I get from him is a little stronger than before, more natural. He looks at me expectantly and I allow some of the tension in my shoulders to ease, a trickle of relief working its way through the guilt that still clenches at my stomach when I remember last Sunday and-

No, not thinking about it.

Not now. Now is about making things right with my brother. And while I know we should be at training, and I should be using it as an opportunity to tell Tori how sorry I am, I’ve spent hardly any time with Blake since this whole disaster started. And no matter how much I care for the blonde ranger, my relationship with my brother comes first. It has to.   

 “Okay,” I say with a sharp nod, decision suddenly made. “The track it is.”

From the flicker of surprise on Blake's face I realise he hadn't truly expected me to agree to his suggestion. My heart sinks a little as I try to remember the last time we did anything together that wasn’t eating, training, working, or hanging out with the others and I find that I can’t.

Guilt of a different shade bubbles up and I silently vow to myself that I will make sure we have some brother time every week. Without fail.

I force a bright grin onto my face, saying teasingly, “Let’s see just how far behind me you’ll be.”

“In your dreams,” Blake replies, voice indignant. “You’re going to be eating my dirt.”

My grin becomes less forced as my brother snarks right back at me, optimism slowly returning with the familiar banter. This is good. This is healthy and normal and-

We’re going to be okay.

We are going to be okay.

XxX

Three mud-splattered hours later and we’re securing the bikes back at Storm Chargers – bickering happily as we rehash the track session, debating who did what and, more importantly, who ‘won’ – when Kelly’s redhead pokes around the door of the store room.

“Hunter, there’s a guy to see you.” She nods in the direction of the main shop before disappearing off into the office.

Blake and I exchange equally puzzled looks – I’m not expecting any visitors – and I drop the cloth I was using to remove some of the dirt from my wheels to go see who it is.

There’s only a few people around when I arrive in the main store, a couple of guys I vaguely recognise from the track, a skater girl that I’ve seen Shane speaking to a couple of times; familiar faces, but none who would be asking for me.

And then I see him; the man who’d grabbed me last Friday night, the man Frank had warned me about, standing by the motorcycle boots display, looking as out of place as Marah and Kapri do on a battlefield. I meet his gaze, eyes a pale, washed-out blue, and I’m instantly alert, apprehension slowly creeping through me. There was something about him that made me uneasy at the bar and seeing him again I realise what it is. He reminds me of men from my past, cold and calculating, puffed up with ideas of their own power, surrounded by lackeys and yes-men, but often weak when directly faced with any real threat. Oh yes, I’ve known men like him.

Tee”- Frank had called him Tee.

With a glance behind to check Blake hasn’t followed me, I fix him with a blank look. “What do you want?”

It’s not the first thing I want to ask him. ‘How the hell did you find me?’ is the thought that leaps to the forefront of my mind and I have to clamp down on the urge to yell that at him. But I school my face into blankness, not willing to let him know I’m thrown by his presence, refusing to give him the upper hand.

The man called Tee smiles. “The fight this Friday? I have a... proposal you really should consider.”

Another quick check lets me know my brother is still out back, but I can’t risk this ‘Tee’ seeing him, let alone Blake seeing me with him. I don’t want to have to explain this away. So I walk out of the store without a word, only stopping when I’m out of sight of Storm Chargers and wait for the other man to catch up.

“You have ten minutes,” I tell him coldly when he reappears at my side, crossing my arms to create a barrier between me and him.

For his part, Tee looks unfazed by my behaviour, hands shoved into his pocket as he asks, “So how’d Frank recruit you?” The underlying tone is bored rather than curious.

His words from the other night come back to me, ‘…one of your cubs… ’ and I feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise in warning.

“Nine minutes. What the hell do you want?”

I don’t have time for niceties. I don't know how Tee found me, but I don’t want to spend any longer in his presence than I absolutely have to.

If Tee’s offended by my attitude, he doesn’t show it, instead beginning by answering a question I haven’t asked. “I run a business. Businesses flourish on certainties, on knowing how something is going to play out. Fights can be… unpredictable. Which is risky. My investors aren't so keen on risk. So it helps to have a little… future knowledge on my side.”

My stomach sinks as the meaning of his words becomes clear. Even though I know the answer, I have to ask the question, “What’s that got to do with me?”

The look I get in return is almost disappointed. “I’m asking if you’ll provide me with some future knowledge.” There’s a pause then he clarifies, “Throw the fight.”

“No.”

The word is out of my mouth before he’s finished speaking. I wasn’t lying to Frank when I said I didn’t want to get caught up in anything, and this is the sort of anything that leads to trouble.

Tee’s shaking his head. “Let me at least give you the terms. Hear me out before you reject me.” I don't answer, but he presses on anyway. “You get, what, five hundred dollars if you win, right?” I nod. “But there’s no guarantee that’ll happen. Not dissing your abilities, bro, but I know Julian; he’s a solid fighter. Experienced. He don't often lose. You survive one round with him, keep face, yeah? Then maybe take a coupla good hits at the start of the second. Midway through you jus’ get knocked down and don’t get up. No shame in that. I pay you four hundred dollars, straight up. My investors get some good return. You get a guaranteed payout. Win-win. Waddaya say?”

There's the faintest tug of temptation at his offer; the knowledge I could do with the money at the forefront of my mind. But an image of AJ excitedly chatting at me, Mike’s enthusiasm when training with me, and Frank’s calm, over-arching presence rise up in front of my vision, accompanied by a strange rush of emotions. It's with a dull thud I realise I care about what these people – these strangers – think of me. For perhaps the first time ever, I feel accepted, not because of who my parents were or because someone important took me in, or because I’ve lied to gain their trust, but because of who I am, and I... I don't want to disappoint them. Frank's taken a chance on me and I'm not going to give him cause to regret that choice.

“I'm sorry,” I say, attention returning to the man in front of me. “I won't rig the fight for you. I'm not your guy. Your 'investors' are just going to have to put up with a little more risk.” I give him a humourless smile. “That's why they call it gambling, right?”

The man’s gaze narrows but I’m already turning to walk away when he speaks again. “Sure you don’t want to talk it over with your little bro. What’s his name? Blake?” He gives me a gap-toothed grin that has scant humour in it.

Icy tendrils slide around my heart at the sound of my brother’s name in this man’s mouth.

How does he know?

Seemingly ignorant of my shock, he continues slyly, “How would Blake feel about you turning down all that money?” Tee’s pale-eyed stare sharpens. “Be a shame for something bad to happen to you two, just ‘cos you think you have a bit of honour.”

His tone has become harsh and unfriendly, leaving me in no doubt of the intentions beneath his words. I feel the anger rise up, a white-hot ball simmering in my chest.

I grab Tee and shove him backwards into an alleyway, away from prying eyes, and slam him against the wall, my fingers twisting in the material of his shirt at his shoulder, forearm barred across his throat. His pupils widen with fear and I feel a glimmer of satisfaction. My original assumption was correct; Tee is a coward.

“You do not threaten my family,” I growl at him. “You do not harm them, you do not speak to them, you do not go near them or I will find you and make you regret having ever met me. Are we clear?” When Tee does not respond immediately, I press in harder, voice low as I repeat, “Are. We. Clear?”

“Ye… Yeah,” he croaks out and I hold him a moment longer, eyes locked on his until I’m sure of his sincerity, before I release his grip.

As I step away from him, he slumps back against the wall with a gasp, one hand coming up to massage his throat, watching me with baleful eyes.

“Don’t come round here again,” I tell him curtly, turning and walking away before he can say anything else.

It’s only once I’m out of sight that the trembling starts, adrenaline rushing through me as my body finally catches up with events. I ball my hands into fists, taking a couple of hard, deep breaths before I can return to Storm Chargers, a forced a smile on my face and no mention who my visitor was to my brother. I ignore the churning in my stomach and concentrate instead on answering to Blake’s questions about dinner.

XxX

There's an undercurrent of anger still present when I wake the next morning but I push it aside, for once focusing on the positives the day ahead has in store; training with Mike, my shift at Storm Chargers, and planning a proper apology for Tori.

I stroll into the kitchen to find Blake has made it from his bed to the table, still in the t-shirt and shorts he’d gone to bed in the night before, head resting on folded arms as if he can grab a few extra minutes sleep in the kitchen and I won’t notice.

I clatter about loudly, finding some coffee lurking at the back of a cupboard and busy myself making us some before I dare try and make actual conversation with my brother.

“Hey, dopey.” I rap my knuckles against his head. “No amount of beauty sleep is going to change that face so give up now.”

My brother manages to pull his head from his hands long enough to glare at me. “Stop being so… so chirpy,” he moans, as I slide a mug of coffee under his nose. “Just because you’re awake doesn't mean you have to be so awake around me.”

“Shut up, drink your coffee and go learn stuff,” I tell him with a grin.

He rolls his eyes at me, grabbing the mug and trudging back towards his room to – I hope – actually get dressed. I make myself useful, putting together a sandwich for him so at least he’ll have some sort of food for lunch, if he only manages to have coffee for breakfast.

“Bro, your jacket's beeping.” Blake returns to the kitchen in a shirt that is a little less creased than the one he was wearing a moment ago, chucking the offending article of clothing at me.

I fumble in the pocket to see what's making the noise, drawing out a dark, oblong object. The phone Frank gave me.

There's a small green light flashing on the top and I press a button experimentally. Nothing happens.

“Dude, when did you get a phone?”

My attention partially returns to my brother and the suspicious look he's giving me, while I try another button. This time the screen lights up in a sickly green; eight-bit characters telling me I have a new message.

“Frank lent it to me,” I reply to Blake absently, opening the text to see that it's from Mike, double-checking I'm still coming to train this morning. Frank must've given him my number.

There's a strange feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach that I don't have time to analyse because Blake is still giving me a look that's half-worried, half-wary.

“Lent it you?” he repeats, scepticism shining through, along with barely-veiled hostility. “Did he just text you too?”

I frown at his tone, but then I notice the hint of fear in his brown eyes and I remember. I could kick myself for forgetting. The last time someone gave me a phone it wasn't out of kindness, and Blake knows how that ended up. We both do.

“It's fine,” I tell him, doing my best to inject reassurance in my voice. “It's in case I need to get hold of him, for the fights. It's not like before, I promise. Frank... He's a good guy, Blake. Honestly. And this text-” I turn the phone around to show him the glowing screen “-Mike's one of the guys at the gym. The guy I fought on Friday actually. We're training together.” I can still see the concern hasn't been completely diminished from my brother's posture and I hate that we're both so mistrusting. Even of each other. “Look,” I say suddenly, walking over to the kitchen counter. “When I'm at home or not using it, I'll leave it here. You can check, if you're worried.” If you think I'm lying to you. “But I don’t want to keep things from you, Blake. I mean it when I say no more lies.”

Not about this anyway.

My brother lets out a breath, a smile working its way back onto his face. “Okay bro. It's- I trust you.” His morpher lets out a beep and he sighs. “That's my ride. See you later,” and then he's dashing for the door, leaving me standing alone, fingers closed around the solid plastic object and a bitter taste in my mouth.

I trust you...

Sometimes I don’t think he should.

XxX

Mike's not at the gym when I arrive, but a quick glance at the clock tells me I'm early so I find a space on the mats to run through some katas. My motions are slow and precise but flowing, working into my muscles, stretching and warming up while keeping control. Moving through treacle, Sensei Omino used to say. I allow my eyes to close, shutting out the murmur of voices, the clink of metal against metal, even the smell of staleness fading until I could almost pretend I was back at the Thunder Academy; the mat beneath my feet tatami instead of foam, the faint scent of jasmine flowers being carried to me on a mountain breeze, and my parent's voices whispering in my ears...

My eyes slowly open to find I have acquired an audience; Mike standing on the edge of the mat watching me with smile.

“Hey, don’t stop on my account.” There’s open curiosity on his face and I’m already expecting the question when he asks, “What was that? Some form of martial arts meditation thing?”

I shake off the embarrassment colouring my cheeks, and mutter, “Kind of.” I’m not willing to go into more detail; there is no way of explaining it without going into my past, and even an edited version is full of complications normal people just do not understand.

Instead, I abruptly change the subject, remembering Frank’s advice from the other night, “So… you were going to show me how to defend against a take-down?”

XxX

My back hits the mat with an audible thump, Mike’s body weight landing on top of me and I let out a sigh, flinging an arm over my eyes.

“Sorry dude,” the dark haired man says as he pushes himself off me. “It’s a little tricky for me to see where you’re going wrong when I’m attacking you. You want another go?”

I glance out from underneath my arm to see him standing, a hand held out to help me up. I take it, allowing him to guide me to my feet.

“It’s fine,” I say, even though I’m beginning to feel the faintest twinges of frustration building.

What Mike’s trying to teach me… it’s a different style and completely different technique to everything I’ve ever learnt at the Academies. While Wind and Thunder may be different schools, they’re both branches of the same tree and the basics underpinning the disciplines are the same. So training with the Winds, with Sensei Kanoi, hasn’t required too much mental readjustment. But this… This is new.

It’s hard learning something when you’ve never done anything like it before; it’s harder when you are proficient in something that is similar, but different enough to force you to change your way of thinking and moving. Bodies trained for years in one way require a lot more concentration to adapt to a new approach. 

 It’s being hindered by the fact that Mike has been doing this a while. Long enough that it’s become second nature to him and the fine subtleties that are the difference between the success and failure of the technique are proving tricky for him to explain.

I take a breath, rolling my shoulders to relieve an ache. “Let’s try again?”

Mike smiles, dropping into a fighting stance and then shooting forward. Just as he gets his arms wrapped around my legs, a voice calls out to us, “Stop. Too late.”

We break apart and I look around to see the guy who’d greeted me the other day walking across the mat, his blond hair close-cropped and black ink winding its way up his arms in a tribal pattern.

“You let him get a grip; that’s too late,” the man continues. “When you sprawl, you want to send your legs out back, away from your opponent. Get your hips low but your body needs to drop over their upper back. Watch.”

He turns to Mike, indicating for him to attack, and proceeds to demonstrate what to me at least looks like a textbook-perfect sprawl. He then talks me through it a couple of times before watching as I run it with Mike, each time correcting something different until, finally, as Mike lunges forward, my legs shoot back, pushing the other man downwards and ruining his takedown. My technique may be messy and unrefined, but it worked. And honestly? That’s the best I can hope for before the fight on Friday.

The tattooed man seems to approve as he says, “That’s it, you got it. Now you just need to get it feeling natural.”

I straighten up, a grin stealing across my face that I don’t even try to hide. There’s a sense of achievement that comes with getting a new technique right, a feeling of pride that has been absent in my practice lately.

This is what training should be…

“Thanks man,” I say sincerely, realising belatedly I’m not sure of this guy’s name. L… something.

“Yeah, thanks Liam,” Mike echoes my sentiment, grinning at the other man over my shoulder and saving me from having to ask who he is.

Green eyes hold my gaze for a moment, making me feel as if I’m being assessed somehow, before he gives a brisk nod. “Anytime. Hunter, right? You should come along to a group class sometime.”

I’m about to reply I’ll think about it, but his attention is drawn by a small figure in an over-sized hoodie slinking through the gym.

 “Hey, hey, hey.” Liam reaches out to snag AJ’s arm as the boy passes, the tone in his voice catching Mike and mine’s notice. “What happened to you?”

The kid ducks his head, trying to shake free of the bigger man’s grasp but Liam holds firm, disapproval vying with concern on his face as he uses his free hand to pull the hood down off the kid’s head. AJ glances our way briefly, but it’s enough for me to see a large bruise discolouring the skin beneath his right eye; purple and blue standing out starkly against his pale skin. From the way Mike tenses beside me, I know he’s seen it too.

“It’s nothing,” the boy says, finally tugging his arm free. “I walked into a door. Honest, Lee. Would I lie to you?”

Liam’s frown deepens. “Yeah, you would,” he answers, just as Mike leaves my side and joins them. I see the darker man gently put his hand on AJ’s chin and tilt the boy’s head so he can get a better look.

“Who hit you?” he asks at last, bringing AJ’s eyes up to meet his own. “And don’t say ‘no one’; we all know what bruise a punch to the face looks like.”

There’s a long pause and then…

“One of the guys in my class said something about my mom,” AJ mumbles, wilting under the combined glares of Mike and Liam. As Mike’s hand falls away from his face, his eyes dart down to the ground and I see the two men exchange glances over his bowed head. I recognise the expression on their faces – somewhere midway between exasperation and pity – as one worn often on the faces of the adults Blake and I encountered. Whenever we were in trouble, mentioning our dead parents would elicit sympathy, along with the annoyance that we’d chosen that particular way to express our emotions.

“AJ-” Liam begins, pinching the bridge of his nose with one hand. From the slump in his shoulders, I get the feeling that this is far from the first time something like this has happened. The blond shakes his head. “Go wait in the office for Frank. He’s going to want to hear all about this. There’s ice packs in the freezer; you know where they are.” As the red haired teen trudges off to do what he’s told, Liam turns to us with a sigh. “Teenagers, eh?”

XxX

I leave training buoyed with new knowledge and a promise to hang out with some of the other guys after my fight on Friday. The good vibes continue into my shift at Storm Chargers, a new customer bringing in a bike to get fixed and Kelly handing it straight over to me, letting me work on it ‘til closing time. Sure, it means I missed training (again), but I’m not turning down extra hours. Not when I’ve been asking for more shifts for the past few weeks.

And it’s nice to have a project I can get really involved with, to focus on. That combined with my morning at Frank’s leaves me in a much better mood than I have been in which, after recent events, makes a pleasant change. Sure, my situation is far from perfect, but I’m beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s late evening by the time I get back to the apartment. Blake’s already back from training and I find my brother in the kitchen, sitting at the table with school books strewn everywhere, including – amazingly – the floor. I lean against the doorframe and watch him until he finally looks up, pen hanging out of his mouth.

“Wha?” he grunts at me. I raise an eyebrow at him and he removes the pen. “Yes, I’m doing homework. Don’t look so shocked. We have a test coming up so figured I should actually study.”

I open my mouth to give him some sort of snarky reply, but I’m cut off by a knock at the door. Blake’s eyes meet mine and he shakes his head briefly, indicating he isn’t expecting anyone, and then makes no further movement, attention returning to his work.

Guess I’ll get it then

Although, I probably should just be glad he’s studying and not ruin a good thing by interrupting him. I still sigh, just a little, enough to let Blake know I’m answering under protest – now that the others know where we live it’s far more likely to be for him – but head for the door anyway, pulling it open to see who our visitor is.

Of all the people I was expecting to see standing outside, Shane’s presence comes as a complete surprise.

 

Chapter Text

And on that day, when you need your brothers and sisters to care;
I'll be right here

Citizen soldiers;
Holding the light for the ones that we guide from the dark of despair;
Standing on guard for the ones that we've sheltered;
We'll always be ready because we will always be there

~ 3 Doors Down 

“Dude, we have to do something. It’s gotten, like, ridiculous.”

I pause in serving my lunch, spoon of pasta hovering in mid-air as I give Dustin a level stare before speaking. “Remember the conversation we had about, you know, conversations? Like how you start one and don’t just jump into the middle?” He nods, if a little uncertainly. “Well this is one of those times.” 

An abashed look settles on the brunette’s face as I return to dumping food onto my plate, shifting my tray along the line towards the cashier.

“Hunter and Tori,” he explains after a moment’s consideration, chucking an apple absently between his hands as he waits for me to pay. “They’re still not talking.” 

I hum an acknowledgement, thanking the lady at the cash register and shoving the change in my jean pocket before collecting my tray. I had noticed. The crimson ranger had been conspicuous last week in his absence, and the less said about Tuesday’s altercation the better (although the memory of Tori putting the blond on his ass still brings me a guilty amount of joy, even now). Both Bradley brothers then skipping training last night had not gone unnoticed either, and I can feel the frayed threads that have so far held the team – my team – together slowly unravelling. 

As we walk through the cafeteria looking for a free table, the Earth ninja repeats his earlier assessment. “Dude, we have to do something. It’s totally messed up. And it really, really shouldn’t be. All they need to do is talk to each other and I’m sure it’s all some big misunderstanding.”

Keeping an eye out for Blake and Tori, I give Dustin a suspicious look, dropping into a chair at an empty table. “You know what happened.”

I manage to keep an accusing tone out of my voice, but only just. I’m pretty sure Tori’s told the brunette about whatever it is that went wrong between her and Hunter, and a part of me is slightly annoyed she hasn’t spoken to me about it. I’m meant to be the leader of our just-about-functioning team, and surely that should mean I’m the one people come to with problems, but if anything, I’m one of the last to know. I dunno why, but there’s the faintest distance between me and the others now that I’m sure wasn’t there before.

Or maybe I’m just being paranoid, whatever.

Dustin pulls a face, looking slightly awkward, the way he normally does when he’s given a choice between lying or revealing something he promised he wouldn’t.

“Dude, no,” he begins, then his frown deepens. “Not really. I mean, I spoke to Tori and like, I know what she thinks happened, but I don’t think what happened means what she thinks it means. Like, the actions probably are right but maybe the reasons behind them aren’t and she was angry and upset so I don’t think she was really thinking. And I think Hunter meant the first thing but not the second; he just had like a freak out and thought he’d make it better but actually he just made it all worse and Tori thinks the second part is actually the real bit so she is super-mad and sad and like, those would be the real feelings if he actually had meant… what she said he said. And I spoke to Hunter and he said he was going to say sorry and I made him promise to come back to training, which he totally did but then something else happened and I don’t know what because Tori wouldn’t tell me, even though I tried everything she seemed like, totally distracted. And how can anyone make something worse by saying sorry? Unless he didn’t, but he said he would and Hunter isn’t mean and I don’t understand.”

He trails off with a wail and I hold up a hand to halt the babble before he can start again, a faint tension headache building as I try to deconstruct the facts beneath the onslaught of words. There’s something there, something Dustin isn’t saying, but I’m not going to press him on this, or make him betray either Tori or Hunter’s confidence.

Well, if it was just Hunter I might press the issue, but Tori’s involved, which makes this whole situation infinitely more confusing and worrying. I’ve never really had to worry about the Water ninja before; she’s always taken care of herself just fine. And her judgement has never been questioned.

“Bro, it’s fine. I’ll just… I’ll speak to Tori.”

Dustin’s face lights up with a mixture of relief and hope, and I feel my heart sink a little at the display of total and utter trust from the yellow ranger. While my team may not always bring their problems to me, they still expect me to fix them once I do know. As if I have a magic wand or something. We’re ninjas, not wizards, and I’ve had about as much life experience as they have. Less, if I consider Cam and Hunter (and Blake too, I guess. I mean, sure he’s younger than me age-wise, but he’s been through a hell of a lot more).

I’m about to open my mouth again to ask the Earth ninja exactly when he’d spoken to Hunter, trying to put together a timetable of events in my head, but at that moment we’re interrupted by the arrival of one of the subjects of our discussion; blonde hair straggling across her face as she drops into the chair beside me, mouth turned downwards in a frown.

“Everything okay?” I ask, concern colouring my tone at the unusualness of her expression.

“Yeah, just starting to feel a bit ill,” she replies, voice an octave deeper than usual, croaky and rasping. “I think I’ve got a cold. My throat is killing me. I sound like someone who’s been smoking for forty years.”

I pat her arm comfortingly, about to offer some (probably useless) words of sympathy, when across the table, Dustin has other (read: better) ways to cheer her up.

“Naw, you sound more like one of those old movie actresses… Y’know, like Lauren Bacall.” The brunette pitches his voice higher, adopting a husky tone as he quotes, “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve.”

His impression draws a laugh out of me, and makes Tori smile, her face softening as she watches him fondly.

Sensing a receptive audience, the yellow ranger flutters his eyelashes in what I think he thinks is a fetching way and continues in his faux-feminine voice, “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.” He accompanies the last word with pouted lips, blowing a kiss across the table at us both, ruining the moment less than a second later by dissolving into giggles.  I’m chuckling along with him not long after.

“What’s going on?” Blake’s arrival is punctuated by him tossing a plastic-wrapped package of sandwiches down on the table, sad and squished-looking after a morning spent shoved in the bottom of his backpack. He glances between the three of us, our expressions ranging from quiet amusement (Tori) to all-out gleeful (Dustin).

“Classic film impersonations, by the looks of it,” I say drily, fighting back my laughter at the yellow ranger’s dramatic attempts.

“Oh yeah? What, like...” Blake pauses before deepening his voice, drawling out in old-school New Yorker, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Dustin lets out a whoop. “Casablanca, nice one dude. Shane?”

I’m startled out of my surprise at the navy ranger’s more-than-passable Humphrey Bogart to find big brown eyes fixed on me, expectation dancing behind them. “Huh?”

“C’mon dude; your turn,” Dustin enthuses, and I find my eyes flicking automatically to Blake and Tori for back up.

Only there doesn’t appear to be any; Blake’s grinning along with Dustin and the blonde just purses her lips at me, smiling. Humour him, seems to be the underlying sentiment here and I sigh, wracking my brain for a suitable rejoinder to the conversation.

Feeling absurdly self-conscious, I lower my voice, injecting as much gravel into it as possible as I say, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”

There’s a beat of silence, and I wonder if I’ve astounded them with my so far unknown acting prowess, but then-

“Oh dude, no,” the brunette exclaims, just as his current partner-in-crime makes an equally disgusted noise.

“What?” I respond indignantly. I couldn’t have been that bad? No worse than Dustin’s Lauren Bacall attempt at any rate.

Blake’s already shaking his head. “Bro, first off… Dirty Harry? Really?” The black-haired teen’s raised eyebrow speaks volumes to his levels of unimpressedness.

“Hey, it’s a classic!” I protest, but the Thunder ninja just waves me off.

Secondly,” he continues, unabated. “You got the quote wrong. What he saysis: ‘You’ve got to ask yourself a question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?’ Bro, you just fell into one of the classic movie mistakes.”

He looks strangely smug about it all. Perhaps he’s glad it’s not him being shown up with his lack of knowledge about current popular culture. Finding out that the Bradley’s don’t own a tv certainly explains more than a few things about their combined ignorance of all things super-modern.

A quick glance shows Dustin nodding along in wholehearted agreement, so I turn to my last bastion of sanity for support, but Tori just shakes her head at me.

“He is right, you know,” she whispers, clearly trying not to aggravate her throat any more than she needs to.

I throw my hands up in the air in mock exasperation. “Traitors, all of you. I should have you done for mutiny, or insubordination, or something,” I grumble.

But I join in the laughter that follows nonetheless, revelling in this small, brief moment of normality.  Even the weird, not-quite-tension that has been present between Blake and Tori since they broke up has eased somewhat. I enjoy it while it lasts.

Because in our line of work, we never know when everything might implode. And given the state of our team dynamics recently, it might be a whole lot sooner than we’d like.

XxX

Tori drives us up to Ninja Ops straight after school for training. Well, not right up to the Academy (obviously), but to a track off the main road where she can leave her van and we can get to the waterfall-portal with only a short hike.

The blonde really doesn’t look well by the time we park, there’s a slowness to her movements and her voice is no longer a pleasant huskiness but a barely-there croak. I keep an eye on her during our hike and by the time we reach Ops, I’ve made up my mind.

“Tor-” I catch her arm just as we enter the main room. “I think you should sit out this afternoon,” I say quietly, trying to spare her the embarrassment of admitting a weakness in front of the others. Mostly, because I know how much I’d hate it.

The look I get back from her is withering. “I’m fine, Shane. Besides,” she tries to add breezily, but it comes out as cracked and painful-sounding. I can see her trying to hide a wince. “I promised Dustin I’d run through some of the meditative katas with him today.”

“You know that can wait,” I say patiently as we cross the floor.

“Shane, I’m fine- ey-ah-CHOO,” she sneezes, grasping for a tissue and ducking her head away from me.

I stop, crossing my arms and giving her my best unimpressed look as she turns back to me. “You’re not fine.”

“Dude, I’d rather wait ‘til you’re well,” Dustin chimes in, at the same time as Blake adds, “Tor, you really don’t look that great.”

So much for not doing this in front of the others. But I am glad for their back-up.

“I can train,” she protests and I’m about to object when a quiet, solemn voice interjects.

“No Tori, I think what is best for you today is rest.” Sensei appears in the midst of us, silencing the argument with his usual modulated tone. The blonde’s shoulder’s sink at his involvement, already knowing she has lost the discussion (if that’s what this was). The fight fades from her eyes, leaving tiredness in its wake. Sensei sees this too and gentles his voice as he continues, “I find tea a great comfort when I am unwell. There is a particularly wonderful blend in the kitchen at the moment if you would like?”    

Although phrased as a suggestion, the instruction is implicit and Tori bobs her head in acquiescence, managing a quick bow to Sensei before heading slowly off down the corridor that leads to the kitchen.

The most immediate trouble sorted, I can extend my focus to the rest of the group, and find we’re one short yet again. I have to bite down a sigh before I sidle up to Blake, faint determination stirring within me as I vow to get to the bottom of this sooner rather than later.

 “Where’s your brother?” I ask him, aiming for casual but I’m pretty sure it still comes out as confrontational.

“Not here,” the shorter teen replies insouciantly and I glare at him, not appreciating the attempt at humour. If that’s what he’d intended. There’s a moment of terse silence, our eyes locked on each other’s, and then Blake sighs, shoulders slumping in apparent defeat. “He has work. And you know…” He trails off, brown eyes wide, doing a very good impression of one of Dustin’s pleading puppy-dog looks. I wonder if they’ve been exchanging notes.

“… You guys need the money. Yeah, got it,” I finish for him, biting back the frustration I feel lurking beneath my words.

I do get it, mostly. Okay, so I don’t actually know what it must be like to worry about – to paraphrase Blake – food, and rent, and bills, and all those things that our parents take care of, but I’m not heartless. I can sympathise, even if I can’t quite empathise.

Not that either of those emotions are welcomed by the Bradleys.

Our navy ranger gives me a small smile, perhaps offering me some empathy in return (because he’s had years of dealing with his brother; if anyone can understand how exasperating the blond can be, it’s him), then wanders off to start training with Dustin. End of the conversation, apparently. I shake my head; surely this level of disrespect in any ‘real’ military organisation wouldn’t be tolerated? But we’re not military, and that isn’t a bad thing.

I glance to where Cam is typing away at the computer, considering. It’s always difficult to tell if the tech is busy-busy (ie. with super-important, ‘if-I-don’t-do-this-right-now-Lothor-will-win’ stuff) or working on non-essential things that he really should take a break from doing. If it’s the latter, I can drag him away to spar with me for bit, but if it’s the really important work, even breathing around him is a major no-no.

But computer code just looks like computer code – unfathomable, to my untrained eyes anyway.

I’m about to risk it when the Samurai’s shoulders stiffen.

“Busy, Shane.” Cam’s voice is even, with just the barest undercurrent of irritation palpable.

How did he even-?

“I can feel you thinking from here.” Sensei’s son spins his chair around to face me, a faint smile crinkling the corners of his eyes as he pulls off his glasses to give them an absent wipe on his shirt. The humour fades from his expression slightly as he looks off in the direction Tori had gone. “You should go speak to her,” he suggests, nodding his head towards the passageway. Our eyes meet a moment, silent communication revealing the green ranger’s concern for the blonde, before he adds quietly, “She might actually listen to you.” As he turns back to the console, glasses firmly replaced on his nose, I hear him mutter, “Anything I say will just be an ‘I told you so’.”

I let out a sigh, wishing – not for the first time – that Cam had bought his concerns to me earlier, not when it was too late for me to do anything about them. Not that I actually think I could have done anything in this case, but if our eldest team member’d had worries (and clearly, given what’s happened, they were well-founded), it would have been nice to be told. To be aware of them, at the very least. Our entire conversation about Tori and Hunter had occurred after one training session last week, when the crimson ranger had first pulled his vanishing act and the Water ninja was distracted and distant. All the Samurai had said was that he didn’t think Tori had truly understood what she was getting herself into when she’d reached out to the broodier Bradley brother, and that he’d warned her a couple of weeks ago to be careful.

She obviously hadn’t heeded Cam’s advice.

I suppose in some ways we should have foreseen this- I wouldn’t call it a break-down, because that would imply there was something there to break, but more like a lack of communication.  When a group of fiercely independent and self-reliant people (which, in our ways we all are, even Dustin – being made the man of house when his father walked out took its own toll) are thrown together to form a team, it’s going to take a long time before they start realising they don’t have to do everything by themselves.

That there are other people to rely on.

I knew, as soon as they’d agreed to join us, that we’d probably have these issues with Blake and Hunter. It was going to take more than a tentative alliance to break through the years of co-dependency. I was expecting that.

I wasn’t expecting to have to deal with the same sort of thing from my other teammates. It’s annoying as hell, but I can’t do much about it now. I can only deal with what’s happened.

Not that I know that, either.

I’m tempted to quiz Cam some more, clarify exactly what it is he’s seen. Or heard. Or, y’know, generally thought. But our tech is already firmly engrossed in whatever it is he’s doing and I am the leader. I should be able to speak to a member of my team without being prodded into action.

More than that, Tori is family. I should be able to talk to her.

She should be able to talk to me.

So I follow her path deeper into Ninja Ops, heading for the kitchen where Sensei had sent her, arriving in time to see her carefully transferring the tea from its jar. Just as her hand nears the small, wrought-iron teapot, she’s suddenly wracked by a series of sneezes; the crinkled browny-green leaves scattering all over the surface of the counter, shaken free from the spoon as her body spasms.

 “Goddammit!” she bursts out, annoyance and frustration apparent, and I find myself staring at her in surprise.

Tori never curses. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve heard anything worse than ’shoot’ come out of her mouth and I frown, wondering where this has come from. I have my suspicions, as there’s only one member of the team that regularly uses non-PG rated language, and she’s spent a lot of time with him recently.

I move up towards her, gently nudging her aside. “Here, let me,” I say, scooping the spilt leaves off the worktop and chucking them in the trash.

The Water ninja steps back, allowing me room to manoeuvre in a rare display of accepting help, fumbling in her pockets for a tissue. While I spoon some fresh tea into the pot, she sags back against the fridge, flimsy white paper held over her nose, and groans.

“Ugh. This sucks.” 

I make vague sympathetic noises in agreement (being sick is undeniably one of the suckiest things even us rangers have to deal with) while I finish pouring the boiling water over the tea leaves and replace the lid to allow them to infuse, then turn back to the blonde with a serious expression. I figure I should just try and get this her-and-Hunter talk over with. Or started, at the very least.

“Tori-”

“Please don’t, Shane,” she interrupts, hands pressing against her eyes. “I’m tired and I’m sick and I don’t want to have this conversation with you right now. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I just… I can’t.”

Her voices breaks just a little on that last word, and I can’t help but reach out to her, my hand coming to rest on her shoulder to offer what comfort I can. 

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” I tell her, trying to put as much reassurance into my voice as possible. “Look, I don’t know what’s gone on between you and Hunter, but don’t take it to heart. We all know Mr. Tall, Blond, and Moody isn’t going to win prizes for ‘most agreeable teammate’ anytime soon. His issues have issues so… whatever it was it probably wasn’t personal.” Probably, but it’s so hard to tell with the Thunder ninja. “And yeah, he’s more than a bit of a dick, like, all of the time, but you have us and whatever’s happened, whatever he’s done, we’re still here for you. Me and Dustin, and even Cam – if you can drag him away from the computer long enough.” I try and inject some humour into my tone. “So don’t let him get to you and if he does… You can just put him on his ass again. Teach him not to mess with you, right?”

Tori pulls away from me before I finish that last sentence; my hand falling back down to my side as she huddles in on herself, arms wrapping around her chest almost defensively. She suddenly looks very young and very vulnerable, in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen her look before. I find myself silently cursing Hunter for hurting her so badly, for causing this.

There’s a long moment of quiet before she speaks.

“You’ve got it wrong, Shane. This whole situation… It wasn’t completely his fault.” Her voice is low, eyes dropping to the floor as she continues, “I’m to blame too. I pushed him too far. I wanted to get close to him but Hunter… I don’t think he’ll ever let me. And we both did something stupid. I think he realised that right away, way before I did, and he… he did what he thought was the right thing, at the time.” She appears to hesitate for a moment before adding, barely above a whisper, “Even if it wasn’t the right thing for me.”  

I wanted to get close to him… I’m not sure I like what she’s implying with those words. Or with any of this, to be honest. I hope I’m reading too much into things, over-exaggerating it all because I don’t know what happened. Imagination is always worse than reality, right? In fact, I only know one concrete thing about this whole situation, one undeniable truth…

“He hurt you,” I say simply, not understanding why she’s suddenly defending him again. I didn’t understand really why she started defending him before, but I guess even I can admit the crimson ranger has been a slightly (ever so slightly) better person to be around recently. And if that was after only a month or so of Tori’s influence… I wonder what she’s seen in him, that none of the rest of us (bar Blake) have.

Tori looks back up at me, blue eyes sad. “Yeah, he did,” she says softly. “But I… I’ve made things worse.” There’s a faint crack in her voice, though that might be from her cold and not emotion. She pushes a strand of hair off her face and sighs. “I think he might have been trying to apologise, the other day when he came after me, but he was all… all Hunter about it and I just got angry.”

That sounds about right for the blond. Dustin did say he was sure Hunter was going to try and say sorry, but it figures that the Thunder ninja would have messed it up somehow. I don’t think now is the moment to mention that though, so I turn away from Tori to grab some cups off the drying rack and pour the tea instead; the faint smell of jasmine rising up with the steam.  

“I said some pretty terrible things to him, Shane,” she says from behind me, sounding almost like a confession.

I shrug, not really seeing where she’s going with this. “People lash out when they’re angry.” As I know very well. I set the fragile Japanese teacups on the breakfast bar next to me and turn around, intending to reassure her. “It’s a thing; it happens.”

Which clearly is the wrong thing to say as Tori’s already shaking her head at me. “No, Shane. You don’t understand.”

It’s the hint of desperation in her tone, the barely concealed pleading note that catches my attention, almost as if she’s begging me to listen without actually wanting me to notice. I pause, re-evaluating the situation. She’s really upset by this. And it isn’t aimed at Hunter. Personal dislike of the blond aside, I know Tori well enough by now to see where her frustrations are aimed.

She’s upset at herself. At something she’s done, some action she’s taken, that she is now regretting. I sense she wants to talk it through with someone, in need of reassurance that she hasn’t done something awful. Personally, I think Hunter’s had something like this coming to him for a while, but even I wasn’t expecting Tori to be the other team member involved.

I take her hand and guide her to one of the tall seats at the counter, gentling my tone as I sit beside her. “So talk to me, Tor. I can’t help you if you don’t talk to me. What happened on Tuesday?” 

I was going to ask what had happened between them, but I’m pretty sure she still won’t tell me. And I’m not entirely sure I want to know the answer now. I’m beginning to suspect things, things I really wish I wasn’t, about her and Hunter’s relationship. I think, if I really tried pressing her on this, she would admit her feelings for Hunter run deeper than any of us ever expected they could.

And I… I don’t need to hear that.

Some things are better left unsaid.

She bites her lip, worry creasing her brow. “So Hunter told me some stuff… stuff about his past and… it was personal and he didn’t have to but I guess, for some reason, he trusted me enough to tell me. He trusted me, Shane. You know what he’s like. It was- It is a big deal. But then I was so angry and hurt and I just…”

She trails off, reaching out with her free hand to run a finger absently around the rim of her cup. There’s a long moment of quiet, of just our breathing filling the converted cavern.

“…I wanted to hurt him,” she admits, sotto voce. “So much. I’m not… You know me; I’m not mean. I never thought I was mean but I just… I threw it all back at him. No, worse than that; I used it against him. I wanted to hurt him like he hurt me, because I thought he didn’t care.” She finally looks back up at me, sniffling slightly. “But I think he does care and I… I’ve made a horrible mistake.” There’s another pause as she dabs at her nose with the tissue, crumpling it into a ball between her fingers as the hand I’m still holding tightens its grip, seeking familial comfort through the contact. “And if what I think is correct… I don’t know what that means or how I feel, because it- It would cause a lot of complications.”

And there… There’s that hint, that confirmation that I wasn’t looking for, that I’m right about her feelings towards the blond but I can’t- I don’t want to focus on the implications of her words because this isn’t something Tori and I have ever shared. Relationships and things… She’s my sister and I want her to be happy, but we’ve never spoken about love and that stuff, aside from the teasing around Blake.

Blake…

I don’t need to hear about her feelings for Hunter. About her feelings for a man I- don’t actively dislike, not really, but who I wouldn’t want someone I cared about to date. About her feelings for the brother of someone who has rapidly become one of my best friends. 

After all of this, I still want to be able to look Blake in the eyes.

So instead I concentrate all my attention on the main gist of her explanation and not on the last part. I can pretend I never heard that part.

“You’re right Tor. I do know you and I know you’re not a mean person. We all know that. Even Hunter.” Perhaps especially Hunter. “And you were upset and angry, not thinking straight, and maybe you had every right to be-”

“But I hurt him, Shane,” Tori bursts out. “You weren’t there; you didn’t see the look in his eyes when I- When I told him we weren’t friends. After everything he’s shared with me, after the trust he put in me… I told him we weren’t anything. That we’re nothing.”

Her blue eyes are suspiciously damp and I release her hand, under the pretence of running it across my hair, to give her the freedom to wipe her face if she needs to, as subtly as she can.

“Look,” I sigh, trying to find the right words for this situation, trying to be the leader. “You can apologise to him if you want. Tell him you’re sorry and that you didn’t mean what you said. If you think he deserves it.” Perhaps he does. I make sure she’s looking at me as I continue, “But here’s the thing; he hurt you first and he has to apologise to you. Doesn’t matter if he did or didn’t mean to do… whatever it was he did. Fact is, he did something and you got hurt. You’re still hurting from it; I can see it. And I hate that he did that and I don’t like that you seem so ready to forgive him for it, but I don’t know what happened and it’s your choice-”

“Yes it is,” she cuts in, and I can hear familiar steel in her tone. It fills me with relief, to hear her sounding so much more like herself. 

“And that’s fine,” I say quickly, before she mistakes my words. “If you want to, that’s completely up to you. But he needs to make things right with you too. You shouldn’t accept anything less than an apology from him, Tori, because no one – not even Hunter – has the right to hurt you. Never let a man make you feel like shit.”

“Shane Clark!” the Water ninja exclaims, her turn to be surprised by an unexpected curse word. She hits me lightly on the knee, but there’s a smile playing around her lips now and the glint is back in her eye. The same as it was when we first met.

Well, first met officially. It’s like I told Blake; everyone at middle school knew who Tori Hanson was. With her sun-bleached blonde hair, natural athletic-ness and intelligence, she was pretty much the poster child for an all-American Girl. But despite her more-than-adequate credentials, she never hung out with the ‘cool kids’; it was her and Dustin and no one really knew why. And then one year they were split up for some classes and Dustin ended up with me for science. The guy I’d sat next to the year before had also been moved, so we were put together as lab partners, working together on the usual science projects, growing beans in jars and making batteries out of lemons. We had nothing in common – I was into skating, by myself or with friends, and he was into comics and biking with his dad – yet somehow we got along. There was something between us that just worked, and still does. And I’m so very grateful for that.

But in spite of our burgeoning friendship, stretching as far as hanging out together after school some days, I didn’t get to know Tori at all. I didn’t even meet her. Not right away. Dustin was – and maybe still is – real good at keeping his life compartmentalised.

It was just before summer break, one of the last days of the school year, when Dustin’s two worlds collided. I was walking past where the brunette was waiting for Tori outside a classroom at lunch just as some of the more popular kids – the one’s you just know are going to end up as either jocks or drop-outs – started picking on him. Dustin was different, and being different at school is to be considered fair game for those guys.

There was no reason for me to step in, to get involved. I don’t even think Dustin would’ve blamed me if I’d just walked away, but I guess even back then I had very adamant ideas about what was right and what was wrong, and probably even less self-preservation instincts than I do now, so when one of the guys went to throw a punch, I found myself pushing between them without thinking. 

I’d like to think I tried to defuse the situation with words, but I have a strong feeling it was mostly just incoherent yelling along the lines of ‘Leave him alone’, and then ‘Well you’re going to have to go through me’, followed immediately by the first time I got punched in the face.

Which freakin’ hurt.

And then… Then everything exploded in a melee of limbs and there was a flash of blonde hair as what I can only describe as a force of nature joined the struggle; Tori having seen my defence of Dustin and jumped straight in to protect her brother. Three of us against six of them…

It was the first time we fought together.

I can still remember clearly sitting outside the Principal’s office later, the fight having been swiftly broken up by the arrival of teachers, my heart in my throat as I waited for the inevitable “We’ve phoned your parents…”, when Tori turned to me, one eye already blackened and beginning to swell, and just grinned; blue eyes alight with that spark, the one that’s so totally the Water ninja that it’s painfully obvious when it’s not there.

Hi, I’m Tori,” were the first words she said to me, but it was the actions beforehand that sealed our friendship (my defence of Dustin earning her unwavering approval).  

The three of us have been pretty much inseparable ever since.

“Hey.” I nudge her with my foot. “I might be the red guy and the leader and you might think that’s how I’m going to treat every situation while we have this gig… But we’re family. You, me and Dustin, and that comes before anything – and anyone else. You’re my sister and I will always have your back so just… talk to me in future?”

Her face is soft, smile still present as she says, “I know, Shane. I know and I’m sorry. Things got messed up and I guess I just got trapped in my head a bit.” She slides off her stool and closes the gap between us, sliding her arms around my waist. I wrap my own tightly about her in return, my chin coming to rest on top of her head as she whispers, “Thank you.”

“Any time,” I reply, just as gently, a quiet relief washing over me. As long as we have each other, everything will be fine. It will be fine.

XxX

I don’t really know the thought processes that end with me standing outside the Bradley’s apartment later that evening. I just know that I’d been distracted all through dinner, fragments of my conversation with Tori bubbling around my subconscious.

I knew the only way to curb my restlessness and stop all of this from preying on my mind was just to face Hunter and be done with it. So I’d borrowed my mom’s car with a carefully constructed lie about needing a book Blake had so I could complete my homework (a justified deceit, given I’m only allowed to use her vehicle in special circumstances and I didn’t want to have to walk through that part of town this late into the evening) and driven across Blue Bay Harbour to their block, locking the car door securely and walking up to the main entrance before I have a chance to second-guess myself.

It’s stupidly easy to gain access to the apartment complex. The door is rusted and worn, with barely any trace of the security measures that used to be in place. The intercoms are broken, buttons missing and wires hanging loose from the box, and the door itself opens when I give it a push, stiff metal hinges squealing as it grinds open. I slip inside, half expecting to be challenged as I make my way up the stairs, footsteps echoing loudly in the silence, but no one does. I only meet one other person on route, hood up and pants hanging low around his thighs, who skulks past me without a word.    

And then I’m outside the Bradley’s apartment, staring at the battered door, number only visible because as the paint has peeled away its revealed clean wood amidst the grime, a sort of reverse shadow effect going on and why am I noticing all this?

Because now that I’m here, I’m starting to doubt myself- which is stupid, so I rap my knuckles against the door before I can psych myself out of having this conversation, and then step back to wait. There’s the sound of voices from inside, then the sound of a chain being unlatched and I brace myself, unsure who to expect on the other side.

The door’s opened by Hunter. If the blond is surprised at my presence, he doesn’t show it. Or if he does, I can’t tell. I know Tori is good at reading people; Dustin too, though he doesn’t think he is. Although maybe that’s not so much reading people as integrating himself with them until they drop their guard; he’s sneaky like that.

But I’m not. Not really. I mean, I can read Dustin and Tori well but that’s because I’ve know them for so long. I’ve spent years with them, learning their tells and moods and emotions. I know what they’re thinking- perhaps even before they actually think it themselves. And they know me just the same.

The others?

Well, Cam was difficult. Still is difficult, if I’m being honest. The age thing played a part definitely (not to mention his barely-hidden disapproval of the three of us, and looking back, I understand it perfectly. We were far-from-ideal students) but I have a better read on him now. I guess us proving to him we’re not as useless as he’d feared, combined with his acceptance onto the team, has meant a lot of the barriers between us have been erased. Mutual understanding has been reached. Weirdly, I think the arrival of the Bradley brothers expedited things; bonding against the unfamiliar and the vaguely threatening.

As for the Bradley’s themselves… Blake is very open with us - for the most part - which is incredible really, when you consider just what he’s been through. He doesn’t talk about their past much, but he isn’t deliberately obtuse about it when it does come up.  Although, on reflection, he was wary of us to begin with, elusive and politely distant. Then it was like he made a decision – all or nothing – and dropped all of his pretences and visible walls. With the team, at any rate. I’ve noticed he still keeps apart from the other people in class, the non-rangers, but with us he’s fine. I can usually tell his emotional state pretty accurately.

And there isn’t really a need to mention Hunter’s general lack of affability, nor does it come as any surprise that I never know what is going through the blond’s head, or even what he’s going to do at any given moment. Mostly, I just have to trust in the fact that Lothor killed his parents and (as he’s already proved) he’ll stop at nothing for revenge.

I drag my thoughts away and refocus on the pair of blue eyes that are watching me calmly.

“We need to talk,” I tell him, slipping into what Dustin refers to as my ‘Leader Mode’ without having to think. It’s getting easier, this whole being-in-charge thing. Practice really does make perfect. Or at the minimum, makes it less strange.  “Is now a good time?” The tone in my voice is deliberate, letting Hunter know he doesn’t really have a choice.

The crimson ranger shrugs, glancing inside to where Blake obviously is, before stepping out and partially closing the door behind him. I follow him a little way down the corridor, far enough away that his brother can’t hear us, unless things get really heated, where he stops and turns to face me, arms folded across his chest, almost defensively.  He doesn’t say anything, just raises one eyebrow expectantly, waiting for me to begin. 

So where do I begin?

I hadn’t really thought through exactly what I was going to say to him, or how this conversation was going to go. All I know is that this whole situation has gone on far too long and as the leader I should be doing something about it. I spoke to Tori earlier, but she isn’t the instigator in this, of that I’m certain.

Hunter is, and I’m about to demand an explanation from the blond, let him know that he’s behaved appallingly, and that if he wants to remain in the team’s good graces he better apologise to Tori and quickly, when I see it.

The tiniest tensing of his jaw, the setting of his shoulders, almost as if he was preparing himself for a fight but not quite; more as if he’s bracing himself for my anger without planning to retaliate, like a child who’s knows he’s done something wrong and is waiting to be told off. Waiting to be yelled at.

And ok, sure, I guess I hadn’t ruled out yelling at him. If I’m being perfectly honest, there would be only one outcome to the course of action I’d considered above, and that would be me getting mad and, yes, shouting at him. But now I can see he’s expecting it, I also know, from past experiences, that it’s not going to work. If this had been any other situation, I could easily see the older Bradley brother getting defensive - snarky probably - and pushing back against me. Resisting my attempt to lead him. But this time… I don’t see that happening.

Instead I can see Hunter standing here and letting me vent, not giving me anything back, because now that I’m looking at him – really looking at him – I can see guilt extruding from him, in his posture, on his face and in his eyes. And telling him he’s done something wrong when he already knows it is pointless.

He knows he’s hurt Tori.

And yet, I don’t think he truly understands how that’s affected the team. So I change tactics.

“I don’t know what’s going on between you and Tori, and I don’t particularly care. I'm not here to demand an explanation,” I begin bluntly, keeping my tone even and professional, sort of like I’ve heard my dad and brother do when they’re on the phone to junior members of their staff. No emotion, no drama; just some facts and an ‘I-expect-you-to-listen-and-then-do-as-I-say’ attitude. "I'm not even here to demand you two make up and play nice, although the whole team really rather you would. I’m actually here to remind you that there's more at stake than petty inter-team dramas.”

"You think I don't know that?" the blond’s tone is incredulous, mocking even, and I have to bite down my smile because this is right where I wanted the conversation to lead.

"No, I know full well you do. Which is why I'm even more disappointed in your behaviour." Wow, and wouldn't my parent's be proud to hear me parroting sentiments they've expressed to me on a regular basis. Actually, scrap that, they probably wouldn't be. "You disappeared for a week. No training with us, no nothing. I didn't chase you then because I figured you had some things to work through. Issues, whatever. I figured once you'd got your head straight you'd be back and perhaps things would get back to normal. I haven't gotten involved with whatever has happened with you and Tori because it isn't any of my business."

"Damn right," Hunter growls, uncrossing his arms and standing up straighter, staring me down; blue eyes flashing dangerously.

I refuse to rise to the bait, which is what that very much is. Hunter is deliberately provoking me, and I’m pretty sure it’s not because he’s spoiling for a fight, but rather wanting (if that’s even the right descriptor) someone to scream at him and tell him how bad he's been. But I'm not going to do that.

"When it starts affecting the team though," I continue as if I hadn't heard him, keeping our eye-contact as non-threatening as possible. "Then it becomes my business. I know you probably haven’t even realised it’s been affecting us, perhaps think it’s just between you-and-Tori, or maybe that whatever happens we’ll always side with Tori because we’ve known her longer or whatever, and you may be right. But that doesn’t mean the team isn’t impacted by your actions. You might not be able to see it, but I can. I’m the one who has to deal with the fallout. And there has been fallout, Hunter.”

I pause for a moment, trying to see if anything I’m saying is having any effect on the blond, but the stony face remains unchanged.

“You not being there... It’s been noticed. And not just in a ‘isn’t that weird’ sort of way, but in a ‘the team isn’t working so well’ kinda way. Cam’s annoyed and Dustin’s confused and Blake’s-” I was about to say sad but something tells me to change that to “-distracted and you not being there has meant I’m focusing on all this instead of what I should be focusing on, which is strategy and training goals and team-building so we can, y’know, save the world. And you’re not the leader, Hunter, but you are my second in command. I know we’ve never said anything official about it but we shouldn’t have to. I see what you do; you’re the one who knows exactly which areas each team member needs to work on and you train with them on it. If Dustin’s not getting a certain block, or if Cam’s too tense, you’re the one that gets them up to speed. Which leaves me free to focus on the bigger picture; I can focus on the bigger picture because I know you have the details.”

I’m not sure where I’m dragging up this information from, but as soon as I say it I know it’s the truth.

“Look,” I say, exasperation colouring my tone, but I’m on firmer ground now. “We can cope with you and Tori being on the outs. We cannot cope without you being at training. We’re a team, and when one member is missing it throws the whole balance of that team off. I know you probably think we don’t care about you as a person, but please believe me Hunter when I tell you you’re wrong. We care, and your absence is affecting us all. What I’m basically saying is we need you back at training. We need our team to be complete if we are to have any hope of surviving this. Because, unfortunately, what’s important has to come before what’s personal.”

There’s a long moment of silence following my words, and I can see the Thunder ninja considering them, the anger draining from his eyes as he seems to grasp what I’m saying. Then his shoulders slump, one hand coming up to run through his hair.

“I’m sorry, Shane,” he says, for once unprompted, and I actually think he means it. There’s sincerity in his tone, and I’m shocked into silence when the next thing out of his mouth is something I never thought I’d hear from him; “You’re right. I’ll be at training on Saturday morning, I promise.”

He doesn’t shy away from my gaze and I think he’s genuinely telling me the truth.

“Okay then,” I say with finality, letting him know that as far as I’m concerned, the discussion is over. I’ve said what I wanted to say, and I have his word that he’ll be back at training. Asking for anything more would be pushing things.

There’s a brief pause and then Hunter clears his throat. “You know-” he begins, then cuts himself off with a shake of his head. “Nothing,” he mumbles, but I have a strong sense of what he was going to say.

“You were expecting to be yelled at, right?” I say lightly and the blond gives me a wry smile.

“Well... yeah, I was,” he admits.

I take a breath, allowing some of the tension I’d been carrying in my shoulders to escape when I tell him, “Well, you don’t always get what you deserve.”   

There’s another, pregnant moment of silence as I wonder how Hunter will take my words, spoken before my brain had time to catch up with events, and then the blond nods. Just the once, but it’s enough for me to see that he’s acknowledged what I’ve said, and not found it to be untrue.

Deciding the conversation really is over, Hunter turns and makes to walk away, to head back to that little, dirty apartment him and his brother call home; such a stark difference to my home, or Tori and Dustin’s homes that I can’t help but be reminded how much our lives contrast and yet, here we are, fighting alongside each other for the same cause.

Even if we don’t always see eye-to-eye on things, we’ve still got the same end-goal in mind; protect the Earth, defeat Lothor, don’t die in the process.

I’m suddenly reminded of the first time our favourite evil Space Ninja sent an alien for us to fight after the Bradleys had officially joined the team. We were at Ops, training (although that was mostly still trying to deal with the fallout from The Island, and yes, the capital letter is fully justified there. That whole experience was brutal), when the sensors went off. My team had looked to me while Blake had looked to Hunter and something had risen in me then, something petty and vindictive and totally not appropriate for a red ranger, but I’d ran with it and told the brothers we could handle this. I don’t know if it was just because I could forbid them, or because I still wasn’t certain about their allegiance and a part of me feared they were still going to turn around and stab us in the back.

I think maybe after all the crap that’d gone down, everything they’d put us through – how easily they’d beaten us in battle – I wanted to prove something to them. Prove we weren’t as useless as they clearly thought.

Sensei hadn’t intervened, and my other two teammates had said nothing, but I’m pretty sure they were disappointed in me.

If I’d felt any guilt for it at the time, I hadn’t let it bother me.

During the battle I found myself going one-on-one with the Alien of the Day, Tori and Dustin dealing with a horde of kelzacs and, well, even now I don’t know exactly how it happened but I found myself flying back through the air, bouncing off a rock and, once my breath returned, staring up at the creature’s fist swinging towards me, thinking, ‘This is gonna hurt.’

But it never reached me.

Instead there was a flash of crimson; the streak of light putting itself between me and the alien, shielding me from the blow that would have certainly made contact. And then Hunter was standing over me, pulling me to my feet without any apparent effort on his part. As we stood there, the battle still raging around us, his mask had snapped up and those cold blue eyes glared at me; “Next time, you don’t leave us behind.”

Those words, and the ice dripping from them, had stayed with me for days afterwards and had in no small way contributed to the hostility and (dare I say it) inadequacies I felt in the weeks that followed, leading up to us embarrassing ourselves while training for Total Trek.

I’d been smarting after that, yes, yet looking back, the rest of that battle had gone far, far more smoothly than I’d imagined; the Thunder rangers slotted seamlessly into the team; all the issues we’d had in training and personal life were forgotten, at least until the alien was destroyed.

And now here he is apologising to me, telling me I’m right about something… That says a lot about just how much our dynamic has changed.

Something in that memory makes me re-consider the current situation. I hadn’t trusted him during that first battle, and I don’t think I trust him now, with Tori. But he proved me wrong then and maybe I need to give him the chance to do the same here.

“Peanut Butter Cups,” I say to his departing back.

The open confusion on his face as he turns to face me is almost comical, and I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing aloud.

“Tori’s favourite candy; peanut butter cups,” I clarify, moving to stand beside him once more; the last traces of my anger draining away. “If you want to apologise to her, candy might help sweeten things. She probably won’t throw them in your face, at least.”

Hunter watches me cautiously for a moment, gauging the information I’ve given him, and then his lips quirk upwards. The smile is strained and tenuous, as if he’s trying but the muscles don’t seem able to remember how. “I… Thank you,” he says awkwardly, and I see his cheeks tinged with something that could be considered a blush.

“It’s fine,” I reply casually. “That’s what teammate’s are for.” I almost reach out to clasp his shoulder, as I would do with Dustin or Blake, but catch myself in time. There’s progress, yes. But I don’t think we’re at that level of familiarity right now. Instead I just give him a reassuring smile before I walk past him, starting to head off down the corridor in the direction of the stairwell.

I’ve only gone a few feet when I’m stopped by Hunter’s voice. “Shane-”

I glance over my shoulder in time to see a strange expression cross the blond’s face. It’s gone in a flash so I can’t be sure, but it looked suspiciously like uncertainty. Which comes as a surprise to me, because he always seems so self-confident in every argument we’ve ever had. The idea that Hunter might not be as sure as he seems is a new and unsettling one.

He appears to waver a little as I turn to face him, before saying, “Just so you know, whatever problems you think I have with you-" I raise an eyebrow at him and he quickly amends his sentence,"-Whatever problems I have with you... It's not personal. I mean, it isn't you." He shoves his hands deep into his pockets, discomfort radiating from his posture as he continues, "It's always been just the two of us and I've had to be the responsible one for so long... It's difficult to give some of that up, y'know? To put a bit of our lives and our safety in someone else's hands isn’t an easy thing to do." His eyes come up to meet mine, their usual, indecipherable blue, and I’m struck by the weight of his gaze. "But Blake trusts you, and you haven't let us down."

Yet

It’s unspoken but implicit, and his words settle the cloak of responsibility that much heavier on my shoulders.

They must have been difficult for him to say, but the effort means all the more. I’m left at a sudden loss, unsure how I should reply to him, and find my throat is inexplicably dry. What is the appropriate response to someone basically admitting their life – and, more importantly, the life of someone they love – is in your hands?

What’s more disconcerting is that it’s Hunter saying it.

Hunter, who is Mr. Self-Reliant incarnate. Hunter, who challenged my leadership at every chance he got, and resisted all efforts to work together until Sensei forced us to compete together in Total Trek. Hunter, who even now treats my leadership at times with barely-disguised disdain.

Okay, that’s a little unfair. I didn’t exactly react well to the elder Bradley brother to begin with either. Still don’t, in fact. And as much I like to believe that my initial rivalry with the crimson ranger wasn’t because I was jealous of him, or threatened by him, pretend that it was because he was an arrogant ass (which, yes, I still think he is at times), looking back now I realise I was more than a little threatened by the Thunder ninja’s arrival. And not just in an alpha-male sort of way.

We both may be [shades of] red, but we’re neither one a stereotypical macho man.

It’s just… I guess I saw in Hunter the leader I should be. The leader I was supposed to be, and wasn’t. Hunter is a lot of things I’m not, and wish I was. He always seems to be so calm and collected in battle, so confidant in his assertions. He can take charge without blinking, and I’ve never known him to (visibly, at any rate) suffer from the same doubts and fears that haunt me.

But maybe, just maybe, he isn’t as self-confidant as he’s led us all to believe. Maybe he’s just better at hiding his fears and weaknesses, smothering them under cold aloofness. Which would make sense because he was actually trained for this.

It still smarts knowing that Hunter and Blake were chosen to be rangers. Chosen, as in their Sensei had sought them out during the attack on the Thunder Academy with the express aim of giving them the morphers. They were their Academy’s number one choice for rangers.

As for us?

I’m under no allusions; Tori, Dustin and I would never have even been considered for the position if there had been any other options, whatever Sensei says about ‘fate’. I know the three of us are accidental rangers, while Blake and Hunter… are far from unplanned. And it shows.

It’s like when we’re talking about strategy; even Cam pays attention to Hunter about certain things. It’s not just that he’s more vocal in his dissent, but he actually knows what he’s talking about. The first time he referred to some abstract text on old military strategy, Cam’d done a double-take. If I hadn’t been sulking because the blond’s response had just nixed my idea, it would have been hilarious. Turns out, Hunter has had lessons on it. Under the pretence of learning Thunder Academy history to be fair, but the point is, he’s studied this sort of thing. Preparation, by Sensei Omino, for the possibility of him ever having to pick up the morpher, even if Hunter didn’t know what he was being prepared for. Or that he was being prepared at all.

While me? I’ve had to learn on-the-job. And so far my training has not covered anything close to this situation.  It’s not like I have a user manual on ‘How to be a red ranger’.

So I end up not saying anything; just give Hunter what I hope is an understanding nod: message received, bro.

It seems to suffice, because the next minute the Thunder ninja is gone, his apartment door shutting with a slam, and I’m left standing in the corridor, alone once more.

Well… that went better than I’d expected.

As I head back down the stairs, a smug sort of self-pride fills my chest. Could it be that this leader-business is starting to click at last?

XxX

“Shane! School!” My mom’s voice echoes around the house, bouncing off the marble floors and reverberating through the empty spaces, loud enough to wake even the deepest sleeper.

But I’m not asleep. I’m not even in bed, having woken with the dawn a couple of hours ago and used the time to finish the homework I hadn’t managed to do after training yesterday. I’ve noticed since becoming a ranger I don’t need as much sleep as I used to, preferring now to get up and be active instead of lying in bed doing nothing.

I hear the front door slam and the crunch of tyres on our gravel drive as mom heads out for work, and I pad across the soft carpet of my room to peek out the window, double checking that my father’s car is also gone. Then and only then do I venture out of my room to get breakfast.

It might be silly and it might be petty, but avoidance is the best tactic I can come up with at the moment to deal with my family. I’d rather stay in my room - out of the way - and have my parents think I’m lazy, than have to endure the awkward silences at breakfast where none of us know what to say to each other anymore. Nothing that isn’t some form of criticism anyway. And seven a.m. is really not the time to sit and have all your (numerous, heinous) faults listed and dissected, especially when I can’t even offer an explanation for most of them. Late for school? Missed classes again? Forgot to hand in a piece of homework? All dreadful sins in my father’s eyes, but what can I say?

I was late because Lothor seems to think eight-thirty in the morning is a perfectly reasonable time of day to start a new world-domination attempt? Well, at least he’s a morning person.

I skipped class again because evil also seems to work nine-to-five hours (there must be some sort of alien-henchmen employment laws right? Maybe the kelzaks have a union)?

And that one piece of homework? Must’ve slipped my mind in-between training with my team, saving the world and making sure I’m still an almost straight-A student. 

But I can’t tell my parents any of that. So it’s best not to be there, and keep our interaction to a minimum until… Well, until I figure out a better way.

I find breakfast left for me on the table, sunlight streaming in from the large windows, and feel my spirits lift. I refuse to let myself dwell on the dysfunctional parts of my life for long. That sort of thing can make a person bitter and I actually have a lot of good things going on; friends who are more like my family than anything else, food and shelter, and a secret life that comes with a whole heap of benefits. I’m a real, straight-from-a-comic-book super-hero (and Air-Bender too, if it comes to it). I can’t complain about that. 

In many ways I’m blessed, and I’m grateful for that.

I’m also not completely blind to my parents’ point of view; they’ve both worked incredibly hard to get to the top of their professions, and they’ve faced a hell of a lot of opposition while doing it. My father’s parents are Samoan; after training with the marines stationed there in the 1940s, my grandfather worked as a ship repairman during World War II. He was barely fifteen.

I never thought I’d understand how terrifying that must have been for him, but I think I have a good idea now.

Choosing to move to America in the 1960s with two small children was an incredibly brave thing for both my father’s parents, but they wanted a better life and I guess it worked because they managed to put my father through college where he met an equally determined and driven young law student who he later married. He started his own business and now, thirty years later, it’s one of the biggest companies in California. That’s the American Dream, right?

As for my mom… Being an African-American woman in a white, male dominated profession can’t have been easy. She got the double whammy of racism and sexism and yet still fought her way to becoming one of the best criminal defence lawyers in the state.

Everything in their lives has been planned down to the last detail, from their careers to their investments to the number of children they had. Everything, except me. I’m the anomaly. It isn’t much of a secret; my two siblings are much, much older than me. Porter was almost in high school when I was born and both he and my sister Malie left for college when I was really young, which left my parents with me, at a time in their lives they’d thought they’d be over the whole ‘kids’ thing.

And I get that. I also get that they grew up in a very different time and they faced a whole heap of abuse and discrimination that I’ve never had to. But that still isn’t a reason for me to follow the path they want me to, which is to go to Harvard and study business like my father and brother, and one day take up a senior management position in the firm (though not, of course, anything too important – that’s for Porter).

But that isn’t me.

It’s never going to be me. And I haven’t actually told them that.

So in their eyes, I’m currently rebelling by slacking off, and it’s not their fault they think that because I’m not being truthful with them. And while I tell myself that’s because Sensei said not to, and I’m doing for their own protection, honestly? It’s because I don’t think they’d get it. Get why it has to be me. Why I have to be one of the ones to save the world.

If I’m being really honest, I don’t get it either.

But- No, I’m not dwelling.

It’s just then that my morpher beeps, letting me know Tori is waiting outside. I appreciate the timing. Moping is not a healthy start to the day, not anyone’s standards.

I wonder how Tori’s feeling today, but that question is answered as soon as I see her. The blonde looks miserable, nose red and eyes dulled by her cold; the smile she gives me as I approach not reaching them fully.

“Hi,” she croaks at me as I slide into the back seat.

I shake my head at her.  “You sound terrible. Shouldn’t you like, be in bed?”

She shrugs, one hand fumbling around to find the tissue tucked under her leg. “Have a test today,” she tells me, then gives her nose a firm blow, balling the tissue back up before pulling out of my drive back onto the road.

Dustin and Blake are duly collected, the brunette receiving a flick on his arm for telling Tori, “You look really awful, dude”, and we’re only two hundred feet or so from the school gate when my morpher starts shrieking a familiar alarm.

“Go for Shane,” I say, eyes meeting Dustin’s with a barely bitten back sigh.

“We have an alien situation. By the old quarry.” Cam’s voice is calm as always, no nonsense and wholly factual.

Tori  jerks the steering wheel to the right, a sharp turn that takes us away from school and up onto the road leading out of Blue Bay. There’s no expression on her face, though perhaps a hint of resignation in the set of her shoulders appears as she responds immediately to the Samurai’s words.

“Of course we do,” I reply drily. Because what else could we possibly want at eight-thirty on a Friday morning? “On route now. See you there.”

Cam doesn’t reply. I don’t expect him too; he’s probably already contacting Hunter to have the blond meet us at the quarry. I shoot another look at the Water ninja, still too pale for my liking.  I open my mouth to suggest perhaps she sit this one out when-

“I’m fine, Shane. Let’s just get this over with,” she tells me sharply, not even sparing me a glance in the rear-view mirror.

I bite back a sigh, but I have to trust that Tori knows her own limits better than we do, and that if she really wasn’t up to fighting, she wouldn’t put the rest of us in danger by pushing herself further than she should.

That debate settled (well, settled for me at any rate), I turn my focus inwards, trying to mentally prepare myself for the upcoming battle. Which is always super-difficult to do when we never know what to expect. Although I’m always slightly relieved when Lothor’s attack centres on the old quarry. It always seemed weird before, that he’d choose an uninhabited scrap of land to fight us on, but we never complained ‘cos it was deserted; not having civilians to worry over meant we could focus all of our attentions on defeating the Monster of the Day instead of herding bystanders (also, who stands around with their phone videoing said Monster rather than running the hell away? Seriously, bro? Put it away).

It was Blake that figured it out (kinda, his theory is the best one we have); quarry-aliens are never Lothor’s best work. They’re prototypes, not intended to actually defeat us – although they do usually give us a good workout. Experiments. He’s normally using them to test some new idea he’s had, or test us; our responses to certain attacks or poisons or whatever-the-hell his warped brain/generals have come up with that day. I get the feeling he’s making notes, and that creeps me out big time.

Besides,” Blake had added, bitterly. “If he’s going to kill us, he’ll want an audience.”

Lothor is a Drama Queen, this we do know.

Somehow, that thought was far from comforting.

The sudden jolt as smooth tarmac gives way to gravel track shakes me from my thoughts; we’re here

We bundle out of the van, muscles tense and ready as we survey the scene. One alien, as per Cam’s communication, and a whole bunch of kelzaks. The Samurai himself steps out from wherever he’s been lurking, keeping an eye on things, as we line up along the ridgeline, one hand absently playing with the amulet at his chest.

“Looks like they’re waiting for us,” the green ranger remarks, confirming my suspicions that our not-so-friendly neighbourhood Megalomaniac just wants to play with us today.

Just as Lothor’s henchmen spot us (quickly for them; they must’ve had their caffeine fix this morning), a flash of crimson appears beside me. Hunter, blond hair dishevelled, looking like he’s just got out of bed, his mouth set in a hard line as he too takes in this morning’s opponents.

“Plan?” he asks shortly, eyes flicking briefly from the approaching kelzaks to me.

I cast a glance down the line, seeing the looks of grim determination on my team’s faces, and give the order I know they’re expecting.

“Time to suit up.”

XxX

I turn away from the disintegrating remains of the kelzak I’d been fighting and pause to catch my breath, looking over at the battle to see how the others are doing.

I find myself pleasantly surprised to see Hunter and Cam working in tandem, flashes of crimson and green as they take on today’s Big Bad. Despite their on-going personal issues, and how annoyed at the blond I know the Samurai is, they are carrying out a textbook perfect double attack on the alien, no trace of awkwardness or distance in their movements. Seeing their ability to work together and forget about all the stuff happening in our non-ranger lives gives me hope that we can get through this, that it’s all temporary, and we might just be able to hold it together as a team long enough to defeat Lothor.

As green and crimson are batted away at last, yellow and aqua step up to their defence, giving them space to breathe as they launch their own attacks.

Blake chooses that moment to appear at my side, Thunder Staff held casually in his hand. I can almost feel him grinning under his helmet.

“Better than math, right bro?”

I roll my eyes at him, visor shielding my reaction from the navy ranger. “Sure you wouldn’t rather be in class?” I reply, just as the last standing kelzak launches a sideways attack on us.

Blake steps forward, staff twirling, and within moments there’s nothing left but a slightly twitching red-and-black bundle on the ground at his feet. “Nope,” he says airily, with a smug satisfaction. “This is the only sort of subtraction I like.” 

I groan at his terrible (and y’know, a little disturbing) attempt at a joke, and then the main alien is suddenly upon us.  My mind is taken up completely with Fight! Punch! Block! Survive! to think of anything else but the task at hand.

XxX

One brief-but-fairly-taxing zord battle later and we’re done; finally done- hopefully done for today (please-oh-please).

We meet back up at Tori’s van, morphs dropping as one, but as we relinquish the power I see Tori stumble, one hand coming out to steady herself against the side of the blue VW, colour leeching from her face and leaving her with a decidedly unhealthy grey tinge.

I move instinctively towards her, but Dustin is already there, one hand gently pressing against her forehead, the other carefully cupping her elbow in a sly attempt to support her should she need it.

“Dude, you are like, burning hot,” he announces, nose screwing up with concern as he slides an arm about her, giving up on the pretence and giving her someone to lean on whether she wants it or not.   

My eyes flick to Cam; the tech is watching Tori closely, worry furrowing his brow. “Tori, I think you need to go home and sleep this off,” he says. “Your ranger powers have sustained you this far, but even they require your body to actually rest so they can heal you.”

That settles it for me.

“I guess we leave the van here-” I start, but am instantly cut off by the blue ranger protesting that she can drive. I glare right back at her until she stutters into silence and then I sigh, gentling my tone. “Tor, you’re not getting behind the wheel. Cam’s right, you need sleep. We just need to figure out the best way to get you home.” I raise my gaze, drawing the others into the conversation. “Can one of us carry her maybe? I don’t think she should try streaking alone.”

“I’m not sure she should be streaking at all,” Cam interjects. “Her ninja powers have been trying to fight off the illness, but I’m not sure there’s much left.” He eyes her critically and she scowls right back at him.

“Guys, I am right here.”

Tori’s complaint is lost beneath the debate that breaks out around her. Even I take my attention off the blonde, leaving her to Dustin as we contemplate the best way to get her home and the rest of us to school, without the possibility of a long walk or having to use our ninja powers in downtown Blue Bay Harbour in the middle of the morning (sneaky, that would not be). It’s not like those of us who’ve passed our road test (Cam and me) can drive the van; I’m on my parent’s policy so am only allowed to use mom’s car, and Cam doesn’t have insurance at all so we’re pretty much stranded.

“I can take her home.”

The words are quietly spoken, but full of assuredness, cutting through our chatter immediately. We turn as one to see Hunter standing a little way back from the group, a trace of something that could be concern in his eyes, but I’m not sure.

“I have my driver’s licence. And Kelly’s got me on some special business insurance so I can drive customer’s vehicles; I can take you guys back to school and drive Tori home in her van,” the blond clarifies, stepping forward tentatively, almost warily.   

“Guys, this isn’t necessary.” Tori tries to shake Dustin off, but her speech is slightly slurred, exhaustion well and truly setting in, and the brunette is tenacious, merely readjusting his arm around her waist so she’s nestled in a protective embrace.

I give the crimson ranger a considering look, trying to gauge his intentions, but his expression is typically inscrutable and I’m none the wiser to whatever thoughts are going on behind that mask.

My gaze travels to the faces of my companions to find them all looking to me, waiting for me to make a decision.

No- They’re waiting for their leader to make a decision.

I take a breath, mind made up.

Time for a little trust…

 “Okay.”

 

Chapter Text

Stranger than your sympathy
And this is my apology
I killed myself from the inside out
And all my fears have pushed you out
And I wished for things that I don’t need
And what I chased won’t set me free

~Goo Goo Dolls

My energy disappears with my morph; exhaustion a sudden, leaden weight on my shoulders as my suit fragments around me.

While the battle had been raging I’d felt fine, the power from wherever-the-hell-it-comes-from sustaining me, allowing me to ignore my blocked nose, achy body and the razor blades stabbing the back of my throat. But with it gone, everything comes rushing back in one immense tidal wave of strength-sapping illness.

Without the suit I feel weak and drained, legs turning to jelly, and I have to brace myself against the side of my van to stop myself crumpling under the onslaught of ick; pain exploding behind my eyes and my stomach rolling horribly at the abrupt change in situation, a faint feeling of nausea making me regret demorphing so quickly. Maybe if I’d stayed connected to the power longer…

Dustin’s at my side almost instantly, offering me subtle support as he presses a hand against my forehead, his palm a pleasant coolness to my feverish skin.

“Dude, you are like, burning hot,” he says loudly, including the whole team in his announcement, causing me to stifle a groan. I’d hoped to at least make it back to school without the others noticing there was anything wrong with me – anything worse wrong with me at least – but I forget how observant Dustin can be, especially when we don’t want him to. Or perhaps being ill has sent all my sense of subtlety off.

Probably a mix of both, I’m forced to concede as the Earth ninja slips an arm around my waist, not even trying to be subtle with his support now. I find myself slumping against him in spite of myself, glad for the comfort. 

Then Cam is speaking, telling me I need sleep so my ranger powers can heal me and Shane straightens at that, eyes flicking between me and the Samurai, concern etching deep lines on his brow. I brace myself for the lecture I know is imminent; readying my defences against the arguments I know are coming, and then our leader is suggesting we leave my van behind and hell no.

“I can drive,” I cut in adamantly.

I love my team, but this over-protectiveness stuff they’re pulling right now is ridiculous. And there is no way I am leaving my van here for Lothor’s goons to do something to it. I open my mouth to continue my protests, but Shane is glaring at me with his Leader look, the one he seems to have perfected over these past few months, and I lapse into silence, all my protestations dying on my lips, withering under the weight of his gaze.

“Tor, you’re not getting behind the wheel,” the Air ninja tells me gently, no heat to his words; nothing but a firm practicality. “Cam’s right, you need sleep. We just need to figure out the best way to get you home.” His gaze scans the others, drawing them into the discussion. “Can one of us carry her maybe? I don’t think she should try streaking alone.”

Cam’s the first to voice an opinion, breaking into Shane’s musings with, “I’m not sure she should be streaking at all. Her ninja powers have been trying to fight off the illness but I’m not sure there’s much left.”

Snitch.

He’s looking at me with that infuriating expression he has; all calm and self-assured and almost smug, and I find myself glowering right back at him, not afraid of showing him my displeasure. It goes unheeded.

Babble erupts around me after the green ranger’s pronouncement, everyone starting to talk at once, all with their own views on how to handle the ‘situation’. The ‘situation’ in question being me.

Well this is just great.

“Guys, I am right here.”

But my words are lost beneath the debate that flows around me, ideas and suggestions surging between my teammates without even a glance in my direction. Even Blake is involved, albeit tentatively, offering comment on the other’s ideas rather than putting forward his own.

Ignored, frustrated, and feeling utterly horrendous, I know I’m beaten (and probably should remain that way), but I’ve spent most of my life proving to men that my gender doesn’t make me any weaker or more useless than them – have had to assert myself forcefully in the line-up just to get a little respect and a few waves to myself without some surfer dude dropping in on me – so there’s pride at stake here, dammit, and I won’t be pushed around. Not even by my team.

I’m just preparing myself to interject, to make myself heard, summoning up the last reserves of my strength when-

“I can take her home.”

The voice is familiar, calm yet authoritative, and it silences everyone.

No, no, no.

This is the last thing I want to deal with today.

He is the last thing I want to deal with today.

I hadn’t even noticed his presence until now; the crimson ranger having held back from our group, lurking around the edges, as disregarded as I have been but clearly following the debate.

Hunter continues to speak but I barely register the words, faint stirrings of something I recognise as panic gripping hold of me. I try and extract myself from Dustin’s hold, telling them all this isn’t necessary – I don’t need anyone to help – but once again no one is paying me any attention; all eyes are on the blond. The yellow ranger barely even acknowledges my struggle, just readjusts his grip around my waist, pulling me closer to him in over-familiar concern. If I was able to, I’d have pushed him away, but the harsh truth is I need his support in this moment, because I’m not convinced I can stand by myself.

So I give up for now in order to regain some of my strength and as I try to draw my focus away from the ‘I feel sick, frick this hurts, I want to die’ litany running through my mind, I can feel the tension in the air as everyone turns to Shane, waiting for our leader to make a decision.  I can almost see the cogs of thought turning behind Shane’s eyes; the red ranger trying to gauge Hunter’s intentions.

Shane won’t allow this; he doesn’t like Hunter, and he sure as hell doesn’t trust him.

“Okay.”

That one word is unexpected and wholly unwelcomed, and I find myself gaping at Shane in shock, mind going numb for one long moment, unable to believe that he’s just agreed with Hunter.

And then I am moving, breaking free from Dustin’s supporting hold and pulling myself up straight as I insert myself firmly into the centre of the group, refusing to remain unheard any longer.

“No, no,” I hiss, but my voice isn’t as strong as it should be, and the looks I’m getting from my teammates are a mix of confused and disapproving all at once.

Shane’s shaking his head at me, adopting a chiding, almost patronising tone as he begins, “Tori-”

No. I don’t want- I can’t-” I break off, chest heaving as I take in the blank expressions on my teammates’ faces. I want to explain myself, but the words stick in my throat. They don’t understand why, why I don’t want Hunter to drive me home. I don’t fully understand it myself, but after Tuesday – after everything – he is the last person I want looking after me.

He hurt me…

… and I hurt him.

I don’t want to deal with this now.  I just want sleep. But then Hunter’s in front of me, face inscrutably blank, then his expression softens; some of the hardness fading and his tone is almost kind as he demands, “Keys. Give.”

The blond holds out his hand and I glance around at the others, searching for back up. But today there is none; nothing between me and the steely glint in his blue eyes that tells me not to mess with him, and I’m too tired and too ill to argue any further. I yank my van keys from my pocket and slam them down onto his upturned palm, turning my back to him in a final act of defiance.

It’s childish and probably irrational- No wait, definitely irrational if the disappointed looks on Dustin and Shane’s faces are anything to go by, but I refuse to care.

As the boys pile into the back, I’m relegated to the passenger seat of my own van, but I don’t give voice to the complaints seething under my tongue; there’s no point and I guess I have to concede defeat. Besides, my pounding head is beginning to drown out all conscious thought, my stomach giving another horrible roll, the nausea becoming more pronounced. I take a couple of long inhales, eyes firmly fixed on a point out of the window as Hunter finishes adjusting the driver’s seat and pulls away from the quarry.

Please don’t let me throw up; please don’t let me throw up… I repeat the words over and over again in my head, begging my body to actually listen. I hate being sick.

By the time we reach Blue Bay Harbour, my eyes are closed against the movement of the vehicle and I’m concentrating on taking deep breaths to try and keep the nausea at bay. I barely register the goodbyes of the boys as Hunter drops them back at school. I can pretend it’s because I’m mad at them – the traitors – for abandoning me with the older Bradley brother, but the truth is much more mundane; I’m trying desperately not to vomit and/or cry. Either. Both.

It’s ridiculous; headaches, sore throats, coughs and sneezes – pretty much any other lovely fluey symptoms – I can deal with fine. I can keep going and sure I might feel rough but they don’t affect my life too much. As soon as I start to feel sick? Like, right now? I become a pathetic wreck, and all I want to do is curl up into a ball and cry.

The van stops again and Hunter’s voice breaks in to my self-pity. “I’ve just got to run in and let Kelly know I’m not going to be in for my shift. Won’t be long, promise.”

“Mm ’kay,” I mutter and start in surprise as he squeezes my arm in what I guess is an attempt at sympathy. Who knew Mr. Tall, Blond and Moody (to steal Shane’s words) had it in him?

I hear the door open and close behind him and I lean my head weakly against the window, the glass shockingly cool on my burning brow.

Hunter is barely gone five minutes before he returns, sliding into the driver’s seat and turning the key in the ignition, but to me it feels like hours.

I just want to be home.

There’s a second of pause before we resume our journey and I can feel the blond’s eyes on me, as if he was about to say something but decided against it. He doesn’t speak the whole way back to my house and I’m relieved, for once actually appreciating his taciturn nature. I’m not in the mood for chatty. I’m not in the mood for any sort of conversation, or anything that requires any sort of thought on my part. All I want to do is sleep.

I hear rather than see us arrive; the sound of the wheels on the road changing from a comforting drone to the harsh crack of gravel. I have to force my eyes to open, not daring to look at the man beside me in case he takes it as an invitation to begin a conversation I don’t want to have right now.

In case I see the wounds I’m sure I’ve caused him.

Instead, I just give him a quiet, “Thanks,” as I fumble for the door handle, planning on escaping his presence as quickly as possible and curling up in the sanctuary of my room, but the sudden movement causes my stomach to give another lurch, bile rising in my throat, and I gag. I don’t throw up, but the feeling is horrendous.

An unintended whimper escapes my lipsand I can feel hot tears pricking my eyes. Hunter is out of the driver’s seat in an instant, opening my door and gently lifting me out of the van. Before I know what’s happened, I’m cradled in his arms, the door kicked shut behind us, and he’s heading towards my house.

“What are you doing?” I croak, and he frowns down at me.

“If you think I’m leaving you like this, you have another thing coming,” he tells me, and by the tone of his voice I know he’s not going to pay any heed to my protests.

Great. Stubborn Hunter. Just what I need.

I don’t want him here.

I don’t want him to be anywhere near me. The sickness is causing my thinking to become fuzzy, dark patches at the edges of my vision and the words I’ve been holding at bay – words that have been screaming to be said – slip from my tongue even as he crunches over the loose pebbles of the driveway.

“You hurt me,” I whisper, head lolling against his chest, and I feel him still, body tensing as he stops dead. Motionless. A statue.

“I know,” he replies at last, beginning to move once more.

He continues to speak as he walks, his voice vibrating through his chest and ending as low rumble in my ears, but I can’t focus on what he’s saying. Everything is distant and insubstantial, as waves breaking on a faraway shore. 

“I know, Tor. And I’m so, so sorry.”

Something about his words tries to pull me back into consciousness – there’s something important there, something that’s trying desperately to make itself known to me – but I’m being pulled down into swirling blackness, limbs leaden and eyelids weighted. I don’t want to struggle against it anymore, so I give in, surrender to the tiredness engulfing me at last.

I vaguely register the jangle of keys as Hunter somehow manages to unlock the door without jostling me and he’s speaking again but sleep has already dragged me down into its dark embrace, leaving his words mere murmurs against the blanket of night.

There’s suddenly something soft under me and I feel Hunter withdraw his arms. No longer nestled against him, the air is horrifically chilled, causing me to shiver – which is weird because it wasn’t cold earlier and I was so very hot a moment ago – and I make an involuntarily mewl of protest.

His hand is warm against my brow, fingers gently brushing hair away from my forehead and he says something to me, but I’ve given up trying to make sense of the sounds. The tone though is comforting; soothing, and kind. He breaks the contact with me and I feel his presence at my side vanish, and huff a little sigh of relief.

He’s gone.

I find myself relaxing into the padding beneath me, sinking, floating

I’m just about to drift away entirely when there’s a sensation of heaviness above me, and then warmth; something thick and soft and familiar smelling – my comforter – is being tucked around me, gently and carefully and strangely tenderly and once again there’s a prickling of my conscious telling me this is important; this means something, but it’s all… so far away…   

XxX

I wake slowly, gradually, emerging from wonderful, blissful nothingness bit by bit. Warmth is the first thing I’m aware of; warmth and softness surrounding me, and then a gentle breeze dances over me, feather-light touches against my face and hair.

I allow my eyes to drift open, blinking up at the ceiling, dust motes swirling in bright sunlight. I’m completely disorientated for a moment before I realise I’m in my living room, lying on the sofa, my comforter piled on top of me.

A faint sound catches my attention – a strange rustle – and I turn my head to see Hunter curled up in an armchair nearby, engrossed in a book, blond hair haloed by the sun streaming in from the windows. There’s an odd expression on his face, one I haven’t seen before, and I can’t place the emotion as he turns another page – the source of the rustling that had caught my notice.

He didn’t leave me

As if sensing my eyes on him, he looks up from the book at me and a smile slides onto his lips. “Welcome back.”

“You still here?” I attempt to respond, but my voice comes out raspy and dry. Hunter’s beside me with a glass of water almost immediately, one hand gently supporting the back of my head as he guides it to my lips.

I manage to get my arms out from beneath the duvet, struggling into a sitting position on my own and taking the glass from him. His hands instantly fall away from me and he sits back on his haunches, watching me blandly.

“You seemed pretty sick,” he says by way of reply as I sip at the water. “I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

There’s something behind his words, something I should be focusing on, a care and concern that he’s never shown any sign of before that’s seeping out now and- I push those thoughts away before they can become tangible, before they can become real, and instead ask, “How long have I been asleep?”

“Not too long. Only an hour or so,” he answers me, getting back to his feet. “How are you feeling? If you’d be up for eating something, I saw there’s some soup in the kitchen.” I find myself staring at him, unsure what expression is on my face. Hunter must think he’s said something wrong because he says hurriedly, “I hope you don’t mind; I had a look around while you were sleeping just in case you were hungry when you woke up. Being ill really takes it out of you,” he adds with a crooked smile that is somehow shy and sympathetic all at once.

And all I can do is continue staring at him numbly, still-fogged brain struggling to process this strange shift in his character, this new side to Hunter that I’d yet to see and of course this would be the perfect time for him to reveal something else… Something good.

“So, did you want-” He trails off as my face crumples. He’s being so nice, after I was so mean. “Tori, what’s the matter?”

The concern in his voice is too much; he is too much. I don’t deserve his sympathy and I certainly don’t deserve his kindness.

I never considered myself a horrible person, but ever since Tuesday, ever since our argument in the clearing, the cruel and nasty things I said to Hunter keep playing and replaying in my head and I feel so guilty.

I thought I saw something in you that was worth caring about, but I was wrong.

And now… Everything is all so overwhelming; my illness, the guilt, his kindness…

I burst into tears.

And not neat, lady-like tears either, like the sort you see in Hollywood movies where the woman continues to look beautiful. And not one perfect tear, glistening artfully on my cheek, but full on sobs that shake my body and cause me to gasp noisily for breath in between. My nose is streaming and I can’t even begin to imagine how awful I look right now. I turn my head away from Hunter, not wanting to face him like this, but a tentative hand on my shoulder makes me glance back at him despite my reticence.

The expression on his face is priceless; at once worried, awkward and deeply uncomfortable. He clearly has never had to deal with a crying woman before.

I find the idea of Mr. Cool, Calm and Collected being thrown off-balance by me and my tears absurdly hilarious. I begin to laugh.

But I still have tears streaming down my cheeks and as Hunter’s expression changes to shock all I can do is laugh harder. I can’t breathe; my throat constricts and my chest heaves as I try to fight for air in between the sobs and laughter.

Oh my god; I’m hysterical.     

I struggle to calm down, to pull myself together, but every time the laughter subsides I risk a glance at Hunter and it starts all over again. I think I’ve really worried him now, because he sits down next to me, one hand rubbing gentle circles on my back. It’s strangely soothing and finally, finally, I get myself under control. I’m trembling now, lungs still burning and I hiccup loudly, making both me and Hunter jump.

“Are you okay?” His blue eyes are soft, worry tracing lines around his mouth as he self-consciously removes his hand from my shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, twisting a section of the duvet around my fingers.

“Don’t be stupid. It’s fine,” he says, and I detect a hint of relief in his voice.

But I’m not apologising for my histrionics, and as he makes to stand – to move away from me – I grab his arm, pulling him back down onto the sofa.

“I meant I’m sorry for what I said, on Tuesday.” My voice is thick and I can feel the tears welling up in my eyes again. I twist my body around to face him, my fingers still wrapped around his wrist. I can feel his pulse fluttering beneath his skin, a rhythmic beating that strangely eases some of my anxiety and loosens my tongue, allowing me to give voice to the words I want him to hear. “I’m so, so sorry. I never meant any of it. I don’t mean any of it. I was upset, and angry, and hurt-” Rejected “-and I just took it out on you.” 

“Tori it’s-” Hunter tries to speak as I pause for a breath, but I know what he’s going to say. I know what I have to say. What I need to say, and what he needs to hear.

“It’s not okay!” I exclaim, furiously dashing away the dampness on my cheeks with my free hand. Dammit, this is what being sick does to me. “Don’t you dare say it’s okay, because it isn’t. Hunter, you’re my friend. I had no right to say things like that to you. It was cruel and nasty and I didn’t mean a word of it. And I’d totally understand if you hate me. But I am sorry. I just… I want us to be friends again,” I finish miserably. I don’t look at Hunter, don’t dare to, just bow my head and watch the tears drip onto my comforter.

But Hunter has other ideas, gently cupping my cheek with his hand, thumb wiping away some of the moisture still leaking from my eyes. He has a strange expression on his face as he says quietly, “I never stopped being your friend.”

“I know,” I reply, equally as quietly.

That’s the worst part

There’s a long moment of silence, his fingers lingering on my cheek, and then Hunter’s moving away, regaining some distance, his wrist sliding from my grasp and his gaze averted, staring off out of the window.

“Tori-” he begins and then cuts himself off. He takes a breath, back straightening and shoulders tensing, as if he’s bracing himself, stealing himself to say something I might not like, before his eyes return to my face. “I know you didn’t mean what you said. I know you were upset, and that’s my fault. And your apology, it means a lot, but you… You don’t have anything to say sorry for.” He holds up a hand to stop me as I open my mouth. “No please, hear me out. I hurt you first. I started this and I’m sorry. For everything. I kissed you and then I lied to you about why. I made it about something it wasn’t and I hurt you because of that. And then I made it worse by pushing you away, by striking you. And I am so, so sorry for all of it. For everything – especially lashing out at you. It’s unforgivable.”

He’s looking away from me now, head turned so I can only see the side of his face, and I notice a slight tremble in his hands; real, true emotion. As if realising it himself, his fingers curl up tightly, jaw tensed and mouth set in a hard line.

I reach out to him, for once giving in to my desire for contact; one hand sliding over his closed fist and my other stretching up to touch his cheek, gently trying to turn him back to face me.

“It isn’t unforgivable,” I say softly. “No, Hunter,” I add at the frown now furrowing his brow. “I have to take some of the blame for that too. For… all of it. For the kiss and for the after. You didn’t want me near you; you told me not to.” I could see it in his whole posture, as clear as day, everything about him had been telling me to back off and- “And I still pushed you. I didn’t respect your boundaries, and that was wrong of me too.”

Hunter’s shaking his head at me, his free hand coming up to cover mine, dragging it away from his face and his words tumbling out before the echoes of mine have died away. “I still should never have struck you. That- That is never right. Don’t try to justify my actions and never excuse violence against you, Tori, please. It’s not your fault, and no one ever deserves it.”

I’m about to barrel into a speech on why I think he’s being stupid– dismiss his concerns – but something in his tone gives me pause. Violence against you… I wonder if he’s speaking from experience, from his time on the streets, and that thought sends cold shivers running through me. I have a feeling he won’t let go of this easily, but I need to make him see that I have forgiven him for it. I have now, at least.

“You’re right,” I tell him, fighting to keep an even tone of voice. “But you’re not like them.” I wave a hand vaguely, trying to express myself clearly but struggling to put into words exactly what it is I’m trying to say. The last thing I want is for this to go all Twilight. I understand what he’s saying, but I also know there’s a big difference between someone deliberately hurting me – no matter how much they swear it was otherwise – and what happened between us that night. “You’re not a bad person, Hunter. You didn’t strike out because you were angry at me, or because you could. You did it-”

Out of fear, is what I want to say, Sensei Kanoi’s words in the clearing coming back to me with full force; “Sometimes when people are scared, they lash out at those they care for the most.” I know Sensei was speaking metaphorically, talking about words rather than physically attacking someone, but the sentiment remains the same nonetheless. And Hunter’s right when he says I shouldn’t excuse violence against me, but what happened… it wasn’t against me; it was to defend him. And I know it seems a fine distinction, but it’s an importantone.

“-To protect yourself,” I say carefully, hoping the blond understands. “You’re not a violent man, Hunter. And it’s not like you’re going to do it again, are you?”

“No, never.” Hunter’s reply is immediate and vehement. He’s looking at me intensely, nothing but honesty in his tone as he adds, “I never wanted to hurt you, Tori.”

But you did

I know I should probably just leave it alone, accept his apology and move on, but there’s this thing between us, the metaphorical elephant-in-the-room that we haven’t addressed. That neither of us has mentioned but that needs to be voiced. Because the thing that hurt me most? It wasn’t the pushing away of my hand; it was the pushing away of me.

And I have to know.

“Why did you do it? Why did you kiss me?”

“I don’t know.” His eyes skitter once again away from mine, tone shifting; a change so slight it’s barely perceptible but it is there. It’s that tiny, insignificant, almost unnoticeable cadence in his voice that lets me know he isn’t being truthful with me now.

That he’s lying. Again.

The anger that I’d have felt at this in the past is muted, tempered by understanding – the realisation that lying is as much of Hunter’s character as the blue of his eyes and the blond of his hair; his nature, that is so difficult to change – not to mention my current exhausted state.

Getting angry is part of what got us into this mess in the first place, and our reconciliation, our peace, is a fragile thing; an early spring flower risking a late frost.

“Don’t, Hunter. Please don’t.” My voice is weary, tired of all the falsehoods and half-truths. “Please don’t lie to me anymore. If nothing else, can there at least be honesty between us now? You can’t kiss me and push me away and tell me you don’t know why. You do know. The reason you kissed me, the reason you- you got into a fight at work, the reason you lost your job and avoided training for over a week; you avoided me… All that means something, so can we just stop pretending? Will you be honest with me?” I tighten my grip on his hand, suddenly terrified he’s going to run. “Do you- Do you care about me, Hunter?”

The words are out of my mouth before I have a chance to fully realise what it is I’m asking, and then it’s too late; they’re hovering in the air between us, tangible and real.

I’m painfully aware that what I’m actually asking him is, “Do you have feelings for me?

“Yes.”

Hunter’s response is so quiet I almost miss it; a breath rather than a complete sound and I jerk my head up in shock.

I never actually expected him to answer.

When I meet his eyes, I find him mirroring my look of surprise, as if he’s only just realised what it was he’d admitted. There’s a long moment where I’m just staring at him, our eyes locked and there’s that hint of tension, a hitch in my breathing and a part of me – a part I thought had disappeared under the wave of pain that had followed our fight  – wants to feel the sparks again. The lightening. His lips on mine

But then Hunter’s glancing down, extracting his arm from my grasp and moving away from me once more, yet again creating distance, space.

I’m expecting him to clarify himself; to say of course he cares for me because we’re friends. Something – anything – to defuse the bomb of revelation he’s let slip. But he doesn’t.

“Yes, I care about you Tori,” he says quietly, gaze fixed firmly on his hands resting in his lap. “More than- More than I should. More than is right. But it doesn’t matter. I mean, it does matter but it doesn’t change anything. We can’t- Not that you would- But there’s nothing- Fuck, I’m getting this all wrong.” He scrubs his hands over his face, taking a sharp breath, frustration at his lack of coherence clear to see. “I’m not a good person, Tori. I’m messed up. Damaged.” He glances back up at me, letting out a shaky laugh. “Hell, even my baggage has baggage. And then there’s Blake…” He trails off, blue eyes radiating worry. “Tor, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t be putting this on you. I know you don’t care about me in this way and I know you broke up with Blake because it was what you wanted, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling responsible in some way.” Guilty, I know is what he’s not saying. “And I know I should probably just keep quiet but- You asked me to be honest with you Tori, and I want to be. I’m trying to be, because it was my stupid lies that caused this mess in the first place. Or made it worse, at the very least. And you deserve honestly, Tor.” He takes another breath, shifting awkwardly in place, as if he wants to look away from me but is forcing himself to remain here, to keep eye-contact. “So yes, I care about you. But I don’t want anything from you. I just… I am your friend before anything else. That’s all I want. And… I will understand if you choose not to be now. If you choose to be teammates and nothing more, because I haveno right to put this on you.”

The silence that follows his speech is deafening, all-encompassing, and I’m painfully aware of my own words – words I’d rather forget – contained within the blond’s. I swallow hard, trying to work some moisture back into my suddenly-dry mouth so I can reply to him.

“You’re wrong,” I begin, and then instantly amend myself as his eyes darken. “Wrong about some of it. You’re not the reason I broke up with your brother. That isn’t your fault. It isn’t. The timing… might not have been the best and maybe I didn’t do it in the best way- As if there is a best way to break up with someone. But it wasn’t because of you. Or because of the kiss or anything. It was all on me. And I’m sorry if I made either of you think otherwise. But-” I pause for a moment, briefly debating the wisdom of what I’m about to say and then decide that honesty is the right thing to do here. “I did care about you. I mean, I do care about you now, as a friend, but before… Iwanted to kiss you too. That wasn’t all you and now… Now I don’t know what I feel.” I try to focus, to search through my emotions, to find some clarity, but- “Everything’s all jumbled up, like a ball of yarn, and I think if I could only find the right thread to pull on, everything will become clear and I’ll know. I’ll figure it out…” The words fade away into nothingness as I realise I’ve been speaking them aloud.

“Don’t, Tor.” Hunter’s staring at me now, blue eyes wide; his voice hoarse and somehow broken. “Please, don’t even try. We can’t- There can’t be an ‘us’. It would hurt him and I can’t- I can’t hurt him.”

I don’t need to ask who ‘he’ is.

I think I’ve always known this, even before that moment after our kiss, before that single flash of comprehension where I realised the sheer depth of his desire to protect his brother… Deep down I knew it didn’t matter what we felt for each other, or how real the kiss was, because Blake would always come first. His little brother will always be Hunter’s first concern and there isn’t a place for anyone else there. 

There’s a dull twisting in my stomach; a hint of distantly-remembered pain flaring up again at this… sensation of loss. If you can ever lose something that was never yours. Or mourn the loss of possibilities…

“I don’t want to hurt him either,” I say seriously, dragging my mind back to the man in front of me.

Not any more than I already have.

I recognise Hunter’s admission as an exercise of trust. Of him putting something important – something that could damage his relationship with his brother – in my hands. And that is not something I can take lightly.

“Gah!” I exclaim, a wave of frustration sweeping over me at the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. I feel helpless, overwhelmed and exhausted by the weight of the truths revealed. I sink back into the sofa, crossing my arms over my chest morosely. “This is all so stupid. Up until… then… everything was really good. We messed up,” I finish lamely, not needing to elaborate on the ‘then’, pretty sure Hunter will get my meaning.

The blond confirms my assumption; instead of pressing for an explanation, he just asks simply, “Do you want to forget it happened?”

There’s no emotion to his voice; none that I can place at any rate.

My initial urge is to say ‘yes’ – to create a pretence between us, create a world in which the events of the last couple of weeks could be erased – but I stop myself.

Because it wasn’t just the kiss. It was the weeks before it too; the surfing, the poetry and stories, the revelations about his past, the thunderstorm…

Where exactly did the mistake begin?

Can I even call it a mistake?

Pretending the kiss didn’t happen would be to pretend none of this happened and I… I can’t do that. I don’t want to do that. And-

We both wanted it.

That knowledge sways my decision.

“No,” I say at last, shaking my head, resolve hardening. “No, we can’t forget it happened, Hunter, because it did. And ignoring it won’t change that. Won’t make this all just go away.” I see his shoulders slump; a rare display of defeat being allowed through his defences. I let the smallest of smiles tug up the corners on my mouth, my voice strengthening as I continue, “But- We can move on. Leave it behind and, I don’t know… Start over?”

Hunter’s watching me closely, blue eyes guarded, but then a grin steals onto his face, expression lightening. He holds out a hand to me. “Hi, I’m Hunter Bradley; stupid ass.”

I laugh, relief bubbling through me and I take the proffered hand, his palm warm and calloused. “Tori Hanson. Equally stupid; occasionally an ass.”

The blond’s eyes crinkle, humour shining through as he begins to chuckle, laughter deepening as it joins with mine; relieved and, if not happy, at least more joyful than previously.

The giggles take a while to subside, but when they do, Hunter still has a smile playing around his lips, his whole body far more relaxed than before, tension gone from his posture.

“How are you feeling?” he asks, a subtle change of subject.

I pause, taking the time to refocus on my body now that the worst of our conversation seems to be out of the way. The pounding in my head has faded, thankfully, as has the nausea. My throat still feels raw – though that might be from all the talking and not just the cold – and there’s still a leaden exhaustion sitting in my bones. Oh, and my nose is streaming which is oh-so-attractive. I absently wipe it on the back of my hand as I reply to the Thunder ninja in a pathetic sort of voice, “Rotten. I feel like I’ve just gone twenty rounds with that boxing kangaroo thing.”

The blond reaches out to lay his fingers on my forehead, his touch light and careful. I pull a face beneath his hand, causing him to smile. “Your fever’s broken at least. Do you think you could eat something?”

I consider his question, debating whether I want food or not, when my stomach lets out a gurgle.

“I guess that means ‘yes’.” Hunter is openly grinning at me as I nod, feeling a blush colour my cheeks in spite of myself.

He jumps off the sofa, disappearing into the kitchen and I hear him clattering around. Making soup, I assume. 

Suddenly his head pokes back out of the doorway, a confused expression adorning his face and a questioning note to his voice. “… How do you know I lost my job?”

I blink at him, briefly thrown by the seemingly randomness of the subject, but then I remember my earlier outbust – “the reason you lost your job” – and recollection dawns.

“I saw Josh the other day; he’s a family friend and- oh-my-god-I-forgot-to-tell-you,” I exhale in a rush. “He’s opening his own bar and is looking for a manager and I told him I’d get you to contact him because he didn’t have your number and he knew I knew you and I should have said on Tuesday but I didn’t and I’m sorry.”

I have to pause to catch my breath and the blond is laughing at me now, hands held up in surrender against my onslaught of words. “It’s okay, Tor. Thank you, for letting me know.”

He seems stupidly calm for someone who’s just been offered a job – for someone I’m pretty sure desperately needs a job – and I press on with, “I can give you his number, if you’d like?”

“Please. I’d really appreciate that.” The shy smile is back and the difference it makes to the Thunder ninja’s demeanour is a marked one. I find myself wishing he would wear it more often.

“So, will you do it?” I ask, more for my own curiosity, but Hunter’s attention is drawn to something happening in the kitchen behind him and his back is turned to me, my question falling into an empty space. Unheard and unanswered. 

Left alone, I take the opportunity to disappear to the bathroom to make myself more comfortable. As I wash my hands in the basin, I catch sight of myself in the mirror; face pale and wan, hair tangled (and not in the sexy, bed-head way, but the pulled-through-a-hedge-backwards look), eyes tired, slightly red and puffy from all the crying I’ve been doing. I splash some cold water on my face to wash away the worst of the tearstains and drag my hair up into a rough ponytail, making myself half-presentable again.

When I return to the living room, there’s a bowl of soup waiting for me on the low table next to where I was sitting. I rearrange myself on the couch, tucking my legs up under me and spreading the comforter over my knees before settling the bowl on my lap and tucking in. Tomato, my favourite.

Hunter appears with his own soup and for a moment he stands there, looking torn between joining me on the sofa or sitting by himself in the armchair. I flick the comforter up slightly in an invitation for him to join me. It might not be appropriate, but I don’t know what is appropriate about our relationship anymore and right now I can’t say I particularly care. He hesitates briefly, and then slides onto the sofa, although I note he has strategically placed himself as far away from me as is physically possible without ending up draped over the arm.

Silence reigns as we both focus on eating; a companionable, comfortable silence that is warm and familiar and easy. This, being here with him, is easy.

I set the empty bowl aside with a happy sigh, glancing up to see Hunter give me an approving look.

“Better?”

“I almost feel human again,” I tell him, stretching my arms up to rid myself of the kinks I’ve gathered while sleeping on the sofa. “I can’t believe I was so ill; I thought our super-dooper enhanced healing that comes with being saviours-of-the-world was meant to stop us getting sick.”

Hunter snorts. “Doesn’t work like that, sadly,” he says around a mouthful of soup. Swallowing hard he adds, “Not according to Cam anyway. Apparently it only helps us get better quickly, gets us over flu and colds in like, a couple of days. Compresses all the symptoms into one short little blast of blurgh, but they don’t prevent anything.”

“Well it should,” I grumble.

His smile is kind as he replies, “Your recovery should be quick. Now the fever’s gone… maybe a couple of hours or so? Sleep helps.”

He seems so sure. Too sure, and I eye him suspiciously. “How would you know? And why were you talking about healing powers with Cam?” I see him shift uncomfortably, that faint blush colouring his cheeks that I’m beginning to recognise as embarrassment. “Hunter Bradley, you were sick?!”

He huffs out a breath, making a show of placing his bowl to the side while conveniently avoiding eye contact. “… Maybe,” he concedes.

I pull myself up into a straighter sitting position, glee bubbling up in me. “When?”

“Just after the island. It was… a tickle in my throat. Nothing more.” He crosses his arms defensively, but meets my eyes, as if daring me to continue the teasing.

I am more than happy to take up that invitation.  “Well, that explains a lot of the grump then,” I say, stretching my arm out to poke him on the shoulder, as I would with Shane or Dustin.

“Grump?” Hunter gives me a look that manages to be both indignant and wounded all at once. “When I am ever grumpy?”

My smile turns wicked. “I forgot Mr. Perfect; grumpiness is only something that happens around you, not to you-”

 “Tori?”

The sound of my mom’s voice as the front door opens causes me to start guiltily, shattering our little moment of playful mocking.

I look away from Hunter just as she walks into the living room carrying some shopping bags, brow furrowed. “What are you doing home this earl-” She stops when she sees I’m not alone. “What’s going on?”

Her frown deepens as her gaze travels between the two of us, the silence stretching out for a painfully long, awkward moment. Then Hunter jumps up, offering her his hand.

“Hi Mrs Hanson. I’m Hunter, one of Tori’s friends from-” He pauses. I think he was going to say school but decides against it.

“Hunter? Blake’s brother?”

The slightest widening of Hunter’s eyes tells me he’s surprised she knows who he is, but mom’s heard Shane bitch about the blond enough times now to recognise his name. Not that Hunter knows that of course.

“Yes ma’am,” Hunter replies politely, then glances at the bags in her hands. “Did you need a hand carrying anything in?”

Mom looks at him, and I can see her considering him, before throwing over her car keys. “Please. The rest is in the trunk.”

Hunter shoots me a quick glance and then leaves. The faint tension I’d felt building recedes somewhat as my mother turns to look at me, arms crossed, waiting for my explanation.

“I was sick,” I say lamely. She raises an eyebrow sceptically and I push on, “No, honest. I drove the boys to school but by first period I was feeling really rough. Like I was going to throw up. Blake didn’t want me to drive myself so he called his brother. Hunter drove me home, then stayed to keep an eye on me.”

She comes to sit next to me, pressing a cool hand to my forehead. “You are a little warm… How are you feeling now?”

I smile. “Much better actually. I slept and then Hunter made us lunch.”

“Really?” My mother looks contemplatively at the way the blond has gone. “So that’s Shane’s nemesis eh? He’s not what I was expecting.”

I pull a face. “Blake and Hunter are adopted, remember?”

Mom laughs. “I know that. No, I meant I was expecting someone a lot less agreeable. He seems… nice.” There’s a hint of surprise in her voice, which is understandable really when I realise the only time she’s probably heard the blond’s name is from Shane, normally whenever Hunter’s upset the red ranger. And while Shane is restrained enough not to mention the specifics of any argument, his general annoyance often seeps out.

“Hunter’s not as bad as Shane makes out,” I say, gently offering a defence of the Thunder ninja, just as Hunter returns, curtailing any response mom was about to make.

“Where would you like these, Mrs. Hanson?” he asks, hovering awkwardly in the doorway, laden with shopping bags.

My mother flashes him one her brilliant smiles, the sort I’m often told I’ve inherited from her. “In the kitchen please, Hunter dear. And it’s Marie, not Mrs. Hanson. That’s what all of Tori’s other friends call me so don’t you go throwing ‘Mrs’ around. I’ll start feeling old.”   

The Thunder ninja gives her a startled look, thrown off-balance, before he nods and heads for the kitchen, plastic rustling around his legs as he does so. Seeing him so unsettled brings a smile to my face as I watch him leave. It’s a side to him not too often seen.

The sound of my mom clearing her throat brings my attention back to her, and I turn to see her giving me a strange look.

“What?” I ask, brow furrowing.

 She shakes her head, mouth opening as if to reply to me, but just then Hunter stalks back into the room, trying to look nonchalant.

 “Well Mrs- uh, Marie; I was just staying to make sure Tori was okay,” he says, running a hand through his hair. “I can leave you both in peace now.”

I roll my eyes at him, knowing my mother’s not going to have any of that. And sure enough, as the blond heads for the door, she jumps up to stop him.

“Nonsense. You’re not in the way in the slightest. Besides, I have surf classes to teach this afternoon so you may as well stay and keep Tori company. And you’re staying for dinner. Least I can do for looking after my little girl,” she adds, glancing back at me with a twinkle in her eye.

Mom!” I exclaim, a rush of blood colouring my face.

But she is unrepentant, laughing and giving me a kiss on the cheek. “I’ll see you later, honey. Feel better.”

And then she’s gone, a whirlwind of energy departing, the door slamming shut on her back, leaving us alone once more. Hunter’s still standing in the middle of the room, a faint expression of confusion colouring his features, and I have to bite the inside of my cheek to keep from laughing. 

“So… that’s my mom,” I say, somewhat redundantly. I hope the apologetic note to my voice puts him at ease but as I watch him, the confusion slides back into familiar awkwardness.

“Do you mind if I stay?”

I reach out to grab his wrist once again, tugging him back down next to me. “Do you have somewhere you need to be?” I ask, and he shakes his head. “Then… I’d like you to stay. If you want to. I mean-” I take a breath to halt my babbling “-the company would be nice.”

 Those blue eyes are watching me – once again guarded – before a smile finally cracks his façade.

“I’d like that,” he replies, beginning to regain some of his composure as he relaxes back into the cushions. Or relaxes as much as he ever seems to allow himself to.

“So… did you want to watch tv or something?” I find the remote tucked down beside me and waive it at him vaguely.

“Sure, although…” he continues, a tad uneasily. “I probably won’t know anything that’s on. I don’t, uh- I haven’t seen much tv.”

I jab the power button and as the screen fizzles to life I tell him, “Y’know, that’s not a bad thing.”

I flick down the channels, wading through trashy daytime soap operas and game shows in the hope of finding something I’m happy to watch, that the blond would be okay to follow with no previous knowledge required.

“Wait… was that X-Men?”

Hunter’s eyes have lit up and I dutifully switch back to see that he was right; the early 1990s cartoon is playing, a blue-and-yellow spandex clad Wolverine roving across the screen.

“Thinking of changing your costume?” I ask jokingly, but I trail off as I see the blond’s expression has turned somewhat wistful, a hint of sadness and… longing? Maybe. It’s gone before it truly settles, and I’m not sure it was what I thought it was.

“I saw the first couple of series when I was a kid,” he explains, all at once, without any prompting. “I had to stop watching after my parent’s died. No tv and all that.”

It’s very matter-of-fact, no trace of emotion or faint tremble in intonation that would give any indication he was talking about anything as terrible as losing his parents. I don’t know how he does it. I certainly can’t when I talk about Lily- I distract myself from that line of thinking by bringing up the TV guide. 

“Well, it’s your lucky day,” I tell the blond with a grin. “Looks like they’re having an X-Men marathon so…” I drop the controller to the floor and twist around, lying back to rest my head on the armrest and stretching my legs out over Hunter’s lap “… get comfy; it’s going to be a long afternoon.”

XxX

Remember, careful with the civilians!” cartoon Cyclops shouts from the tv and Hunter lets out a snort, hands resting casually over my legs that are still thrown across his lap.

“Well that sounds familiar,” he remarks. I give him a curious look and his smile widens. “I’m getting flashbacks of our dear leader.”

I blink, trying to superimpose an image of the Air ninja over the visor-ed character on screen. “Shane as Cyclops? Huh,” is all I can think so say in response.

“Sure,” the blond continues with a smirk. “He’s the poor guy in charge of a bunch people thrown together to save the world. And he’s got the personality to match-” He cuts himself off abruptly, his brain appearing to catch up with his mouth because what he says next is not what I think he was going to originally. “- Serious and leader-y.” He pauses again, as if reviewing his words. “Although he has eased up a bit recently.”

There’s a moment of quiet, where I’m unsure if I should prod at Hunter’s estimation of Shane or just let things lie. Deciding it’s better just to get on board with this us-as-superheroes thing he’s started, I offer, “Dustin… is Gambit.” 

“I don’t get it.” The blond frowns at me. “Gambit is all smooth, and charming, and good with the ladies. Don’t get me wrong,” he adds hurriedly, as if worried I’m going to take offence on my brother’s behalf. “Dustin is a cool guy, but unless I’ve missed something, I can’t see him being a charmer of the opposite sex… Is he?”

There’s a pause as we both appear to consider Dustin’s approach to women.

“No,” we say as one, and I am more than happy to dismiss that mental image in the laughter that follows.

When our chuckles die away, Hunter’s looking at me with a raised eyebrow, confusion faint but noticeable and I grin, taking pity on him by explaining, “Okay, so he isn’t exactly like Gambit, but stuff does tend to explode when he’s around.” Normally when he’s around Cam’s stuff, if we’re being pedantic. I’m not sure whether that reflects worse on the Earth ninja or the Samurai, to be honest. Cam was less-than-impressed by the last incident, so I think we’re all hoping he’ll look at making any future tech Dustin-proof. For everyone’s sanity. Speaking of our green ranger… “Cam would be Beast,” I assert.

The blond’s eyes light up. “Oh god, yes. Especially when you get on his bad side.”

I lean forward to punch him gently on the shoulder, brow furrowing in a mock frown. “That’s not what I meant and you know it,” I say tartly, but Hunter just sticks his tongue out at me childishly and I don’t have the heart to chide him further.

Whatever issues still remain between the older Bradley and the Samurai – not to mention to the rest of team – can be dealt with another day.

Another day, not today.

This afternoon I just want to be us. To be about us. I lie back against the pillows propping up my head, eyes drawn not to the tv but to the man beside me; the man currently grinning at the screen, taking a joy from it that is somehow child-like and innocent. My own smile softens, a faint tug of fondness stirring, but then I’m brought rudely back into the present by my companion suddenly sitting upright.

“Blake’s Jubilee!” Hunter snaps his fingers as the idea comes to him. “Short and sparky. With fabulous hair.”

I stare from his ridiculously-pleased expression to the woman on-screen, about to object (mostly because the blond looks far too happy with himself), but then I see it too and burst out laughing.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed as much as I have this afternoon. It’s been somehow cathartic; a release of emotions and pressure, leaving me relaxed and contented.

“Okay mister know-it-all, what about me?” I ask teasingly. “Wait- You’re going to say Storm right? It’s the water/weather thing, I know.”

I wait expectantly for his answer, but it’s a while in coming. I can’t tell if it’s because he’s really thinking it over, or if he isn’t sure he wants to say what he’s thinking out loud.

Finally he speaks, “Storm rocks, but I kinda see you more as Jean Grey.”

“What?” I’m taken back, surprised by his response. “But she always dies!” I protest.

“She always comes back too,” Hunter points out reasonably. “Honestly, Tor? It’s because you’re so damn intuitive sometimes you might as well be telepathic and-” He hesitates momentarily before adding, almost kindly, “You’re the heart of the team. You know we’re only really holding together because of you sometimes.”

I feel my face heat at the compliment and find myself wanting to deflect, to pull attention away from my discomfort so I glare at him, forcing a fake-suspicious note into my voice. “You just want to be Storm yourself.”

Everyone wants to be Storm,” Hunter replies in genial agreement. “But I’m more Wolverine.”

“Oh really?” I raise an eyebrow at him, allowing scepticism to flood my face.

The blond’s grin widens. “You got a problem with that, bub?” he growls.

I hold my hands up in surrender, shaking my head with a smile. “No sir.”

Placated, the Thunder ninja leans back into the sofa, gaze switching back to the tv, but my own remains on him a little longer, considering. I guess I can see why he’d want to associate with Wolverine. I can certainly see similarities in their personalities; broody loners who are more than a little rough around the edges. And Wolverine is a survivor; he’s been to hell and back (literally), lost friends and lovers, but still comes out fighting. I understand why Hunter would want to relate to that.

Or maybe he wishes he could erase his memories of the past…

Personally, I can see some of Rogue in him too. He’s certainly got more of her leadership style than Wolverine’s (mostly). If we’re being philosophical and serious about all of this, Hunter’s aversion to people getting close to him is as much a fear of him hurting them as them hurting him, and although he does a very good job of acting aloof and uncaring about physical contact, I think he does miss it. Miss people. How could he not?

I don’t mention any of this to the blond though, knowing it wouldn’t achieve anything and besides, I’m still not completely well. All this thinking is going to make my brain hurt again and I just want to enjoy the rest of this afternoon without more deep-and-meaningful conversations.

I settle back down onto my pillows, attention returning to the cartoon, our conversation gradually fading until a comment I make goes unanswered. Glancing over at the blond I see his eyes are closed, head lolling back against the cushions, his arms resting solidly across my legs, face relaxed and free of the cares he normally carries.

I find my own eyes begin to drift shut; the warmth of the afternoon sun combining with the familiar voices from the tv to create a soporific effect. As my body starts to feel leaden, I once again give in to the heaviness of my eyelids and I allow myself to sleep.

XxX

“Hey, Tor?”

I jerk awake abruptly, almost knocking my head against Dustin’s as I haul myself into a sitting position, heart thudding against my ribcage as adrenaline floods my system. Disturbed by my sudden movement, Hunter’s eyes snap open, instantly alert, but with a lot less flailing. 

“Hgnh?” I ask, eloquently, eyes moving from Dustin’s grin to the amused face of Shane standing behind him. 

The red-clad teen moves up beside the Earth ninja, still smiling but I can see the hint of concern beneath the humour. “Hey Sleeping Beauty. We thought we’d come check on you. See how you were doing and-”

“-Make sure you hadn’t killed Hunter,” Dustin chirps up, winking at the blond who’s watching them both with calm indifference. Shane gives the brunette a flat look, unimpressed, but the yellow ranger is unrepentant. “Dude, she gets grumpy when she’s ill.”

Turning back to me with the very faintest of sighs, our leader continues as if the interruption hadn’t happened, “-how you’re feeling.”

“I’m good,” I tell them both with a reassuring smile. “A hundred percent better than this morning. Sleep has really helped and-” I turn my gaze on the Thunder ninja, affectionately “-Hunter has been a good nurse.”

The blond scowls back at me, but his cheeks have that hint of pink to them so I know he’s embarrassed, not annoyed.

“She’s an awful patient,” he announces, stretching his arms above his head carelessly.

I choose to ignore him, instead wondering aloud how the boys got into my house.

“Your dad let us in,” Dustin explains with a grin. “No B-and-E required.” The ‘this time’ is left hanging in the air.

A quick glance out the window shows me the sun already hanging low in the sky, the first streaks of gold creeping across the blue, and I realise it’s a lot later than I thought. We must have been asleep for hours.

“Your mom’s insisted we all stay for dinner.” Shane’s statement is accompanied by a small eye-roll, letting me know he didn’t even think about protesting. Dustin and him both know her too well to even attempt arguing.

Mom’s home too…

Somehow it seems both Hunter and I have slept right through my parent’s arrival. Which is weird. But before I can process that, another voice breaks into the conversation.

“I can’t.”

I twist to see Blake leaning against the doorway into the kitchen, arms crossed over his chest and a strange expression on his face as he glances between me and Hunter. I hadn’t realised he was here.

Hunter doesn’t look surprised to see him – I figure he clocked his brother’s arrival as soon as his eyes opened – just raises an eyebrow in his direction.

Blake unfolds his arms, moving further into the room – into our direct line of sight – but he seems subdued somehow. “I’m meeting up with Leanne,” the younger Bradley says, answering his brother’s unspoken question. “I just came to see how Tori was doing.”

I wasn’t expecting to see you here” seems to be implicit in his voice, but I’m not certain and I wonder if I’m reading more into this that I should be. If I’m being irrational because I’m feeling… guilty? Yes, there is a hint of guilt here and I’m not sure why. Hunter and I weren’t doing anything. Nothing I wouldn’t do with any of the other’s at any rate.

Yet it’s there nonetheless.

My own words to Cam come back to me, “…if you’re trying to suggest there’s something... something inappropriate going on between me and Hunter you’re mistaken. I’m just trying to be friends with him”. It feels so long ago, but it’s been only a couple of weeks. So much has happened since then and yet… the sentiment remains unchanged.

I am just trying to be friends with him.

Doesn’t explain the sinking feeling in my stomach when I see the expression on Blake’s face though, lying somewhere between confusion and distrust.

I’m not given any time to dwell on it as my mom appears moments later, letting us know food is on the table and starting to shoo us in the direction of the kitchen. I take the opportunity to disappear off to the bathroom once more and by the time I return, Blake has already left. There’s a faint sensation in my chest, almost an exhale of a breath I didn't know I’d been holding when I realise he’s gone. Then there’s a sense of shame when I recognise the emotion for what it is: relief.  

Dinner is odd in a way I can’t place. Dustin and Shane are the same as ever, happy to engage my parents in conversation; they’ve known them long enough now that they can practically waltz in at any time of day or night and be welcomed like one of the family. Mi casa es tu casa and all that. And Hunter… talks. A little. He answers the boys’ questions and even my dad seems to engage him in a brief conversation about motorbikes, asking for recommendations with mom mouthing “midlife crisis” at me across the table, causing me to choke with laughter.

But something feels off and although the discomfort Hunter is radiating seems almost palpable, I’m not convinced anyone else has picked up on it apart from me. As soon as the meal is finished – as soon as it is polite– he makes his excuses to leave.

No one protests, but Dustin does get a promise from Hunter to meet at the Academy in the morning.

His departure removes some of the tension – some of the awkwardness – from the room, but leaves in its wake a… a strangeness that I can’t put my finger on. I feel like something’s missing. Something important.

I remember his laughter and how, when it was just the two of us together, everything seemed right. He was so open and normal and happy. As happy as the blond ever seems to be, at least. He changed the moment the others turned up. Withdrew behind his walls. Was polite and friendly (which was a relief in itself), but somehow not really here.

The others never see him as I do. He doesn’t let them. A part of me is sad; sad that they can’t see this fun, playful, goofy side to him that I do.

And there’s another part of me that is joyful, that this Hunter is mine. My own, just for me.

My feelings towards him are still confused, jumbled, but one thought rises above the mess and uncertainty, ringing true.

If this is it, if this is all Hunter and I are to each other, if this is all we can and will be, then I can live with that. Because I would rather have my Hunter in my life as a friend than not at all.

A thread of anxiety unknots itself from my stomach at that realisation, allowing me to pull my focus back to Shane, Dustin and my parents with a happier, lighter mood.

Everything will be okay.

XxX

I wake suddenly, unpleasantly, all at once, as if Dustin’s whispering in my ear again, rousing me, but sitting upright I can see there’s no one there. My bedroom is empty, the night silent, not even the familiar sounds of waves crashing on the beach present; silver moonlight creeping around the edges of my curtains and casting deep shadows into the corners of my room.

Peaceful.

So why does everything feel wrong?

I can’t explain it, but there’s a texture to the air, an apprehension that I don’t know the source of. An uneasiness that I can’t shake. Maybe it just because it is so quiet.

I lie back down, trying to drift off to sleep, but the niggling feeling is still present, refusing to let my mind rest. I twist around, unable to find a position that’s comfortable enough for more than a few minutes, body restless and nerves tingling.

Just as the gentle lull of sleep finally seems to grab hold of me, a loud beep shocks me back into full alertness, causing me to fumble around in the dark for where I’ve left my morpher beside my bed.

“You’ve got Tori,” I say, heart hammering in my chest at the sudden rush of adrenaline.

This is it; this is what’s wrong…

The Samurai’s voice is calm, but there’s an underlying tightness to it that I’ve never heard in his tone before that sends cold daggers stabbing into my stomach.

“Hunter’s in trouble.”

Chapter Text

And you'll find loss
And you'll fear what you found
When weather comes
Tearing down

There'll be oats in the water
There'll be birds on the ground
There'll be things you never asked her
Oh how they tear at you now

~Ben Howard

I didn’t think Hunter would still be at Tori’s when we got to her house after school.

What with them not talking and all the protesting Tori did when Hunter offered to take her home, I really wasn’t expecting him to have hung around. Or for Tori to have let him hang around.

And by the confusion on Shane and Dustin’s faces at the sight that greets us as we traipse into the living room, I don’t think they’d expected him to be here either. And certainly not here like this.  

‘Cos Hunter’s not just still at Tori’s; he’s fast asleep on the sofa, with the blonde’s legs draped over him, all loose limbs and lolling head, the comforter half over them, half pooled on the floor. They look peaceful. At ease.

Comfortable.

I’m not gonna lie, I’m more than a bit thrown by the almost complete 180 that seems to have happened while we’ve all been at school. It’s… disconcerting, as Cam might say. Weird. And there’s that flicker of suspicion in my stomach that keeps threatening to burst into something more concrete, more real, and it’s stupid but it’s there.

It is there.

I can’t pretend otherwise, not any more. Seeing them together like this… Seeing how relaxed they are in each other’s presence; seeing how relaxed Hunter is, how he’s let his guard down so completely around Tori... it’s so un-Hunter – at least the Hunter I’ve become used to – that I don’t know what to think. I know my brother hates sleeping near strangers, or even friends. His nightmares are unpredictable and to risk someone seeing him that vulnerable is like, a big deal. The only time I’ve ever known him to let his guard down around the others was in Tori’s van, right after the complete mess-up aka the Day Cam Became a Ranger, and that was due to sheer exhaustion more than trust.

This… this is something else.

I hang back as Dustin and Shane wander closer to the sofa, leaning against the doorframe to watch. I see them exchange a glance and then the Earth ninja leans down towards the sleeping blonde.

“Hey, Tor?”

He says it quietly, carefully, but clearly it’s enough to startle the Water ninja awake, her head coming dangerously close to Dustin’s as she struggles into a sitting position, eyes wide and disorientated for a moment, letting out a strangled cry of surprise.

I see my brother’s eyes open, taking in the room in one, lazy sweep that goes unnoticed by the others, his eyes meeting mine for a moment before turning his attention onto the two teens currently laughing at Tori. It might have been my imagination, but there looked to be a hint of awkwardness in his gaze.

I yank my focus firmly back to the red ranger, who’s moved around to back up Dustin and is currently explaining to Tori that we’d come to check on her, to make sure she’s okay. Or he would be, if it wasn’t for another voice overriding him.

“-Make sure you hadn’t killed Hunter.” That’s from the yellow ranger, obviously; Dustin giving my brother a cheeky wink even in the face of Shane’s best unimpressed look. “Dude, she gets grumpy when she’s ill,” he protests.

The darker man, with a faint long-suffering expression on his face, pretends not to have heard the curly-haired teen, just finishes what he’d been planning on saying to Tori like nothing had happened. “-how you’re feeling.”

“I’m good. A hundred percent better than this morning,” Tori tells the boys and I can hear the reassurance in her tone. She looks better, there’s colour in her cheeks and her eyes are brighter, more alert. “Sleep has really helped and Hunter has been the best nurse.”

The look she sends my brother is warm; soft and fond and strangely intimate. My stomach twists unpleasantly, that vague suspicion becoming ever more real.  

And Hunter’s reply – an overly-casual “She’s an awful patient” – does little to change my feelings. It’s all too cosy. Too familiar. Something’s changed, but I’m struggling to see what. Only hours ago they wouldn't even be in the same room as each other. Now they’re snuggling up together on the sofa.

Okay, ‘snuggling’ might be an exaggeration. But there seems to be an understanding –a closeness – between them that wasn’t there earlier. What the hell happened while we were at school?

“Your mom’s insisted we all stay for dinner.”

Shane’s words drag me from my thoughts, out of my mind and back into the now.

“I can’t.” I keep my eyes on Hunter; see the question in his eyes, the “Why not?” coming through loud and clear. I unfold my arms, letting them come down to rest by my sides as I move around to stop the two occupants on the sofa from having to turn their heads to see me properly, my eyes locked on my brother’s. “I’m meeting up with Leanne. I just came to see how Tori was doing.”

I try to keep my voice relaxed, nonchalant even – no trace of the tension thrumming through me – but even so, my words sound off to my ears.

I don't know if the others pick up on it – Tori might, and I think I see Shane jerk his head in my direction – but Hunter definitely does. My brother frowns at me, concern apparent, but before he can call me out on it, Tori’s mom pokes her head into the room.

 “Dinner’s ready.”

In the flurry of movement that follows Marie’s announcement, Tori vanishes, leaving the rest of us to be herded into the kitchen. I give the blonde woman an apologetic smile as I step around her towards the back door.

“I have to go,” I tell her and Marie nods; a hint of something that looks an awful lot like sympathy in her eyes. She probably thinks I’m finding it awkward being here now me-and-Tori aren’t a thing. She isn’t completely wrong; I am awkward here today, but it’s not ‘cos of the break up, and it isn’t why I’m leaving.

Hunter catches my arm as I make to leave, blue eyes giving me a searching look. For a moment I think he’s going to ask what’s wrong, but it’s too public for that. “Get home safe,” he mutters gruffly, then lowers his voice; a quick glance around to make sure the others aren’t listening. “I’m meeting up with some of the guys from Frank’s gym later so I’ll be back late. You’ll be okay, right?”

“I’ll be fine,” I tell him, putting as much confidence into my tone as I can. If I’m surprised that Hunter’s suddenly started hanging out with some random strangers, I don’t let it show. I don’t dwell on it. It’s just… everything is odd. Everything is different and if I try and think about one thing I’ll start thinking about everything and I can’t do that right now.

So I smile at him, reassure him, and then I walk out of the Hanson’s house into the late afternoon sun, a sense of strangeness, of wrongness, following me all the way through the streets as I head back to our apartment to grab what I need.

XxX

Leanne’s waiting for me by the time I get to Storm Chargers, lounging idly against her parked car, black hair twisted up into a high ponytail.

She smiles at my approach, opening the trunk to allow me to drop my backpack and Thunder blade in and waits for me to climb into the passenger’s seat.

“How’s classes?” she asks casually as we pull out onto the main road. I know she isn’t talking about school.

I glance at her sideways, trying to see if there’s anything else beneath her question, but it seems innocent enough. “They’re going well, actually.”

I haven’t told Leanne the truth about why we’re at the Wind Academy. I haven’t told her that we’re Rangers, or that the Thunder Academy has been destroyed. I haven’t let her know that Sensei Omino is gone, captured, or that my brother and I tried to kill the man we thought murdered our parents.

If she suspects there’s more to us being here, she hasn’t said anything. Hasn’t tried to pry. Has just accepted my explanation – that we’ve been sent as exchange students, of a sort, and while the Wind Academy’s teaching is just as good as our school, it has no facilities or tutors for the training of the Thunder blade – at face value and dug no deeper. Which I’m super-grateful for.

I don’t want to lie to Leanne any more than necessary. I’d rather not lie at all, but the truth is… complicated and uncomfortable. Mine and Hunter’s actions following Lothor’s attack on the Thunder Academy are embarrassing enough when the Winds mention them, and they haven’t known us as long. Didn’t know us then. Leanne did – does – and she would be merciless in her teasing, especially of Hunter, and the two of them really don’t need more reasons to dislike each other.  

There’s a sceptical expression on the Asian woman’s face that is all too familiar and I have to bite back a sigh. I don’t know where this… this superiority over the Wind Academy came from, but it isn’t just Leanne. Lots of the Thunder ninjas have it – me ‘n Hunter probably had it too, but we got better. Got over ourselves.

Actually hanging out with the others helped.

I spend the rest of the journey telling Leanne about the training. Carefully edited of course. It would be really nice if she could understand that the Wind students are just as good as any at the Thunder Academy. Judging by her non-committal responses, I think she’s still not convinced. But at least it’s better than our last car-conversation about my ‘relationship’ with Tori ending, or rather about Tori breaking up with me.

She doesn’t know what she’s missing”, Leanne had said. She was trying to be comforting, but the words hadn’t helped. They’re just what people say in those situations; they don’t actually mean anything.

Leaving Blue Bay Harbour, we head north up the coast a little way, to where the forest meets the ocean. We park off the road and hike down to the base of a small cliff where the ground is compact enough to train before the beach properly begins.

It’s a good place for me to practice the blade. Mostly ‘cos I know no one would think of looking for us here. I can escape from the world – and my head – for a bit and just focus on trying to make this weapon an extension of me.

Least, that’s the plan.

In reality, it’s not easy for me to let go of the feelings this afternoon has dragged up, to push away the thoughts running through my brain; to calm the confusion. I’m not like Hunter, burying things deeply. I can hide stuff, but nowhere near as well. It always finds its way to the surface.

Besides, I’ve always sucked at meditation.

Guess I don’t practice enough. Like with the Thunder blade. I used to be terrible and now… On a good day I can hold my own against Leanne. I’m nowhere near as good as she is – obviously; that’s why she’s teaching me – but I’ve been so much better lately.

Not today though. Today it’s like I’m back at square one all over again. I can’t seem to focus.

As my blade goes skittering across the ground, expertly twisted out of my grip for the third time this evening, Leanne frowns at me over her ninja mask.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I reply shortly, reclaiming my weapon. I don’t want to talk about this. There isn’t anything to talk about. It’s all just weird feelings and sneaking suspicions. Nothing real.

I bring my Thunder blade up into the ready position, hoping she’ll take the hint. When she makes no move towards me, I change my grip and attack, blade spinning up and around towards the black-haired woman and-

And I’m not entirely sure what happens next.

There’s a whirl of movement, the sensation of my blade whistling through empty air as something impacts the back of my calves; feet flying forwards and body falling backwards, my head cracks back against the ground and my vision careens wildly for a moment.

Well… that was stupid.

When the black spots vanish, I find myself flat on my back, staring up at the tip of a Thunder blade, inches from my nose. Glancing beyond the sharp edge, Leanne’s face swims into view, mask pushed down, and I can see her expression is disappointed and concerned all at once.

“What’s wrong?” she asks, spinning the blade up and away and offering me her other hand.

I take it, allowing her to help me to my feet. “Nothing,” I mutter, dragging my own mask off to get a better gasp of air; my cheeks heating as I rub the back of my head, wincing as my fingers come into contact with a particularly sore spot. I prod it experimentally, feeling a small raised bump and hold back a groan. Guess that serves me right.

Leanne shakes her head at me, retrieving the bottle of water she’d brought with us, tucked down in the shade of some boulders, and takes a long drink. Wiping her mouth, her frown deepens, clearly unimpressed by my answer. “Blake-”

“What happened?” I blurt out, almost unintentionally. As puzzlement deepens the lines on her brow, I clarify, “Between you and Hunter?”

“You’ve never asked me that before,” Leanne says, giving me a considering look as she holds out the water to me.

I shrug. “It’s none of my business, I know,” I say awkwardly, taking the bottle from her and absently twisting the cap in my palm – sudden nervousness, I guess. “But you’re the only person I’ve ever known my brother to date.”

The only other person I’ve known him to get close to, outside of family.

Ok, so that’s not strictly true.

There were a few girls around Hunter before Leanne, but they were always one-night-stands for him. Nothing serious. I don’t remember him dating anyone until her, or allowing anyone close enough to date him, and then afterwards… nothing. No one. 

I know my brother. I know he doesn’t ‘do’ getting attached to people. He doesn’t want to care about them because it means when he loses them it won’t hurt so much. Or at all. And I don’t know if he was like that before Leanne, or if losing her was kinda the final straw for him.

So when I think about this thing with Tori… it doesn’t make sense and I want it to make sense. I want to know why.

I can almost hear Leanne’s unspoken ‘Why now?’ as clearly as if she’d said it aloud. But she seems to decide against it.  

“You know,” she remarks instead, perching herself on a fallen tree trunk near the foot of the cliff and removing her mask fully. “This story- our relationship… it doesn’t paint me in the best light.”

She waits for a moment, like she’s hoping I’ll change my mind – withdraw the question – but when I keep silent she sighs, chewing her bottom lip as if trying to decide the best place to begin.

“It feels like a long time ago now,” she says at last, hesitantly. “We were young, and immature. At least, I was. Hunter… Your brother was always so serious. So much older than his age.”

I snort at the truth of that and some of the worry melts from her expression, but she doesn’t look at me. Leanne is one of those people who always holds your gaze when she’s speaking to you. Intense, as Shane would say. She isn’t right now. She’s avoiding eye-contact and that tells me she’s really uncomfortable. There’s a twinge of guilt, for making her dig up obviously painful memories, but I feel like I have to know. I think… I hope it’ll help me understand. Understand what the hell is happening with Hunter at the moment. And Tori.     

“We were never a perfect couple,” Leanne continues, wrapping a strand of her ponytail around her finger, gaze firmly fixed on a point out to sea, or maybe into the past. “I mean, I pretended we were. Or I ignored everything that was wrong. Wilful ignorance perhaps? I don’t know.” She shakes her head, the smile on her lips wry and bitter all at once. “Hunter was- Your brother is gorgeous, when he’s not covered in mud and oil. But he was always so… so unobtainable. Oh, a couple of girls had slept with him, I know, but it was a one-time only deal and I… I wanted him. For longer than one night.”

Her voice has dropped so low it’s almost a whisper – a confession. I feel my cheeks start burning and duck my head, embarrassment flooding my face. I know Hunter’s no virgin, and we’ve had ‘The Talk’ (or at least, a stilted, awkward and never-to-be-repeated version of it) and yet… ew. Too much information.

Catching sight of my obvious discomfort, Leanne meets my eyes finally, grinning. “Sorry,” she says, sounding anything but. “You started this; you wanted to know and this is all part of it. Part of why we were such a train wreck.”

“’Cos my brother is really good-looking?” I can’t keep the scepticism out of my tone.

Leanne laughs. “Not exactly.” I pull a confused face and she takes pity on me. “Your brother wasn’t very much like the other guys. He didn’t play the games they did, or show very much interest in us, which made him attractive.”

“Ugh, girls,” I exclaim, letting my head drop into my hands in frustration.

She reaches out to pat my arm sympathetically. “Teenage girls,” she corrects me gently. “Who had absolutely no idea what a real relationship was or should be. Who were just discovering who they were, and their places in the world, and trying to decide who they wanted to become. How they wanted to fit in.” I hear her take a breath, a slight hesitation before she adds, “Lots of girls at the Academy wanted your brother, but I was the one that got to date him.”

I raise my head from my hands to see a self-satisfied smirk dart across her face, but it fades as swiftly as it had arrived, being replaced with an emotion I’ve never seen from her before. Shame.

“And that’s probably where it all went wrong; before it had even begun. Hunter and me… we didn’t have very much in common. I wanted him because other people wanted him and that was a good enough reason, at the time.” The embarrassment is written all over her face now, all pride gone. “I don’t know Hunter’s reasons for dating me… but I know my own were less-than-sincere.” She turns her amber eyes onto me. “But I did love him, Blake. Whatever my motivations for dating him, I did grow to love him. That you have to believe.” It’s almost a plea, but I don’t know if she’s trying to convince me, or convince herself.

Her voice drops to a whisper. “I loved him. And I blinded myself to all the things that weren’t right between us. Papered over the cracks and pretended we were okay. Every time he’d be in one of his moods and wouldn’t want to talk to me… Every time he’d vanish and be gone for hours… Every time he was short or rude around my friends… Every time he’d deflect my question when I tried to ask him about his past, or our future... Every time he’d lie about something little for no reason at all… It was all fine; it didn't mean anything was wrong.” She takes a breath, as if steeling herself, before continuing, “And then he refused to graduate with me and it just… I guess it pushed me over the edge. Opened my eyes to all the… the crap and made me realise that things weren’t working between us, no matter how much I kept hoping they were.”

Every time he’d deflect… Every time he’d lie… Every time he’d vanish…

It’s so familiar it hurts.

But then something else Leanne’s said catches my attention; a big red flag waving so wildly and so obviously I don’t know why I didn’t notice it right away. “What do you mean, wouldn’t graduate? Hunter couldn’t graduate. He might have been the right age, but he hadn’t been at the academy long enough. He was in my year.”

Leanne gives a quiet, bitter laugh. “Oh hon, you really believed that? You know your brother; he might not have been in the senior class, but he was the equal of anyone in the academy. The senseis don’t judge you by time spent there, just ability. Hunter could have graduated with me easily.”

“So why didn’t he?” I demand, feeling my stomach sink even before she replies; already suspecting the answer.

Her smile’s tinged with sadness as she confirms my hunch. “Because of you. Because it would have meant leaving you.”

“That’s stupid,” I scoff, the sheer ridiculousness of her statement making me discount it immediately, but even as the words leave my mouth my brain catches up, a little voice telling me that’s exactly something Hunter would do. Stubbornly I insist, “Sensei Omino would have made him, if he was that good. He never did. He-”

“He wanted to keep you both close,” Leanne cuts in, voice firm but still kind. Bluntly honest. “He spent so many years trying to find you after your parents died – he never gave up searching for you, even after so many close calls and false leads – that he was never going to force one of you away. So he let Hunter stay in your year and found ways of pushing you both in extra classes and things rather than make your brother move up into the senior classes. I was amazed Sensei loaned you out to the Winds, but then I figured this is just another one of his delaying tactics.” She pauses again, as if waiting for me to confirm or deny this, and I wonder how much she suspects about our real reasons for being in Blue Bay Harbour. But her next words push those thoughts out of my head. “You’re his family, you know. More than that, you’re his last connection to your parents.”

Her words fall into a void, an empty silence that I can’t even begin to think of filling. There’s nothing for a very long time, just the swish of the waves lapping the shore and the cry of seabirds heading to nest for the night. I don’t know what to say, or how to react, what to feel.  

In this moment, I realise I miss Sensei Omino horrifically, a deep pit in my chest that aches with loss. He, more than anyone, would know what to do. He’d be able to talk to Hunter in a way not even I can. That not even Sensei Kanoi can. He’d be able to make things right. Somehow.

As if sensing my struggle to process – to take in what she’s told me – Leanne remains quiet, watching me with gentle concern. Waiting for me to make the next move.

“It was you that broke up with him?” I hazard at last, trying to pull out the final few threads of the story; put together the last few pieces of a puzzle as if I’ll suddenly be able to see the picture beneath and everything will make sense.

“Yes,” Leanne says simply, gaze returning to the ocean, a faraway look in her eyes. Just as I think that’s all she’s going to say, she sighs. “You know, I had this whole life-plan worked out for us,” she admits softly. “We’d graduate together and he’d come away with me. I’d go to college, he’d get a job nearby; we’d have this little house and…” she trails off, lips twisting into a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “It doesn’t matter now. It was a silly daydream from a silly eighteen-year-old who didn’t know any better. But it felt real, at the time. So when he told me he wasn’t going to graduate, not even ask- When he chose you over me, it made me realise that it was always going to be that way. You were always going to come first. And I knew then that we were never going to be okay.” There’s the faintest crack to her voice, a tremor of long-forgotten pain.

“I’m sorry,” I find myself apologising; that familiar, twisting guilt curling in my stomach and making me feel sick.

“Hunter has done so much for you; given up so much for you…”

Every time I think I know it all, think I know the whole story, something else comes along to remind me just how much I owe my brother. And just how much I’ve held him back from being… him. From being normal.

Leanne’s already shaking her head before the echoes of my apology have died away, a few locks of black hair escaping from her hairband to tumble around her face. I’m struck by how much she looks like a younger version of my mom – my birth mother, in the photos I’ve seen of her. We are related, after all – second cousins or something like that. It’s still weird to see a family resemblance when I’m not used to seeing it in my family.

“Blake.” Her eyes are meeting mine again, the full intensity of her gaze fixed firmly on me, leaving me nowhere to hide. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Do you understand? Nothing. This whole thing… It was between your brother and me. And his choices may have been made in your name, but they were his and his alone.”

She pauses, like she’s waiting for me say something, maybe to let her know I’ve taken her words on board. All I can manage is a stiff nod, but it seems to be enough. Leanne huffs out a breath of air, almost as if letting go of some tension that I can’t see, and the smile that returns to her lips is weak and half-hearted.

I almost decide to change the subject, but there is one thing that I’ve never really been sure of. Just one last thing I need to know. “You broke up with him ‘cos he stayed with me-” She raises an eyebrow and I quickly change it to, “-‘cos he wouldn't graduate with you… I still don’t get all the, the grrr between you. You leaving; him staying… It makes sense for you guys not to be together. Why the attitude?”

The Asian woman ducks her head, cheeks flushing a deep red. “That would be my fault. I… I told you I don’t come out of this in the best light.” She takes a moment, hands balled up into fists, and then she straightens her back, fingers uncurling as if she knows she’s come this far and won’t back out now. Her voice is low as she says, “Hunter seemed to believe he loved me, and maybe he did, but he never let me in. Not really. He had all his secrets and his moods and I… I couldn’t help him. He wouldn’t let me help him. So I turned to someone else for comfort. It was selfish and petty but I was so mad.” She hesitates again. “Afterwards, when Hunter caught-”  

She bites off whatever she was about to say, the sense of shame so strong now it leaves me in no doubt about how the relationship had ended. And I find myself disliking Leanne, just a little bit, for doing something like that to anyone, but especially to Hunter. Now I understand why he hates her. That sort of betrayal… You don’t just get over that.  

Almost as if she can read my mind, Leanne continues quietly, “When we broke up… I hurt him. I know that now. And maybe your brother had given more of himself to me than I realised at the time, but it wasn’t enough.”

I let her words wash over me, picking morosely at the seam of my pants leg with my thumbnail. The memory of Hunter and Tori together on the sofa swims before my eyes, and then I’m speaking without realising it.

“Hunter tells Tori things.”

I feel the weight of her eyes on me, the light of the setting sun reflecting back from them, turning the amber to fire. My words are an admission; giving voice to my suspicions – speaking them aloud and making them real.

There’s a long moment of quiet, of consideration, before she asks, “Is that such a bad thing?” I jerk my head to look at her in surprise; her response not exactly what I was expecting. There’s a small smile on her lips as she says, “Blake, you’ve made friends here, haven’t you? Other than this Tori. Those boys you introduced me to for instance. You’ve always been good at making friends, getting on with people. Look how easily you settled in at the Thunder Academy. You let people get close to you; let other people in. Can you say the same about your brother?” I shake my head and her smile turns more knowing. “You’ve always had friends around you, wherever you’ve gone. Hunter’s-”

“Only had me,” I finish for her, glumly accepting the truth of her assessment. And realising what it means.

Hunter’s let Tori in.

As if reading my thoughts, Leanne picks up the conversation again. “If he’s let someone else in- If he’s shared things with someone other than you… That’s a big deal, Blake.”

I know.

I get that, I do. But why did that person have to be Tori?

“But Tori was mine!” I exclaim, the words falling out of my mouth before I have a chance to fully think them through.

“And you think Hunter has what, stolen her from you?” The amusement in her voice, as if she’s trying to humour a petulant child, just adds to my irritation.

“Yes!”

The disapproval that brings to Leanne’s face is like an icy bucket of water being dumped over my head, bringing me out of my anger and back into reality.

“…Maybe. No. I don’t know,” I admit, voice trailing off, cheeks feeling hot with embarrassment at my own words. “But there’s something between them, and I don’t know what. I don’t how, or why and I hate feeling like this. I hate being suspicious of my brother. He’s the one person I should never have any reason to distrust. And Tori… I really liked her. I thought she liked me back, but turns out it was all me.”

I can’t bring myself to meet her eyes, so I turn and walk away a little, off the solid, rocky ground until I’m on the beach proper, scuffing the sand absently with the toe of my training shoe.

“I still love your brother you know,” Leanne admits quietly, breaking the heavy silence that’s fallen after my outburst.

I whip around to look at her, shock and confusion warring for a place on my face.

She laughs. “Don’t worry; I don’t want to get back together with him or anything like that. I couldn’t put myself through it all again. And I’m not the person I was back then. But Hunter was the first person I fell in love with and that’s special. That stays with you. I still love him, but I’m not in love with him. He’ll always have a place in my heart but that hasn’t stopped me moving on and finding love again. And I’m happy now. I’m with a wonderful woman and it isn’t how I’d imagined my life playing out, it’s not the dream I had when I was eighteen; it’s so much better. Because it’s real.” She smiles at me as I move back to sit beside her, and I can see the happiness she speaks of shining through, but then it dims a little as she adds, “A part of you will always love her, Blake. Love… leaves its mark on you whether you want it to or not, but wounds do heal and the scars stop aching eventually. And then one day you wake up ready to love again.”

There’s a calm reassurance in her words, the voice of experience reaching out to comfort me, but I still can’t help saying, “I thought everything was fine. I never even realised we weren’t ‘til she told me it was over.”

Leanne’s face softens with sympathy, her hand stretching out to take mine, giving it a gentle squeeze.  “I know it hurts Blake, when the person you thought could be your ‘forever’ rejects you; rejects your love. But people don’t belong to people. Hunter was never mine and I was never his. We shared our lives together for a while, and now I share my life with someone else. You will too. Tori is free to make her own decisions. If she chose to stay with you, even if it made her unhappy, would that be fair?” I shake my head and Leanne nods in approval. There’s slight hesitation before she adds carefully, “Your brother’s a good person, however much he might protest otherwise. It would be good for him to find someone he cares about and trusts enough to get close to.” Her lips quirk upwards. “Apart from you, of course.” She nudges me with her shoulder. “I know you want Hunter to be happy. I do too. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for him,” she finishes so quietly I barely hear her.

“So why do you provoke him, like, all the time?” I ask, words struggling from a suddenly-dry throat. If Leanne still cares for Hunter, I don't get why she’s always baiting him when they’re around each other.

“Because I can’t bear his indifference,” she answers after a short pause. “At least when he’s hating me he still feels something towards me.” Her cheeks turn pink as she adds, almost defensively, “I’m not perfect Blake; I’ve never pretended to be. I’m selfish and petty and flawed, but let me have this. Please.”

I give her a small smile. “I’m not perfect either.”

The slighter woman pulls me into a hug, all warm and understanding, the smell of shampoo and laundry detergent surrounding me. I let myself relax into it, my arms coming up to rest lightly on her back.

“Do you think she likes him back?” she asks me quietly, her breath tickling my cheek.  

“Yes,” I exhale. “But I don’t think he knows that yet.”

There’s another pause, a long silence stretching away like the ocean itself. I think we both realise we’ve come to the end of our conversation. Then Leanne pulls away from me, straightening up, shoulders squaring as if she’s ridding herself of memories I’ve dragged up, voice brusque and practical as she says, “It’s getting late. Come on; I should get you home before your brother starts to worry.”

Looking around at our surroundings for the first time since we started speaking, I realise night has crept up on us; the sun a molten ball of gold melting into the ocean, the first stars already visible in the deepening twilight. I know Hunter won’t be home when we get there, but I bite my tongue and just nod instead.

Collecting our Thunder blades from where we’ve left them, I trudge after the older woman, following her up to where we'd left the car in silence.

The trip back into Blue Bay Harbour is a quiet one. Both of us are kinda… subdued after the conversation. Drained. Leanne gets that I don’t feel very much like talking, keeping her chatter to a minimum, as if giving me time to process everything she’s told me, everything I’ve learnt. It’s going to take longer than this car ride, that’s for sure.  

The car stops in front of Storm Chargers – Hunter would kill me if I actually showed Leanne where we lived; she assumes we’re staying at the Wind Academy– and I manage a smile at my instructor.

“Thanks, Sensei,” I tell her cheekily and Leanne giggles, reaching out to tweak my nose.

“Same time next week?” she asks and I nod, ducking my head to find my bag tucked at my feet. I clamber out of her car ungracefully, shutting the door behind me as I juggle my backpack and the Thunder blade – carefully placed back in its carrier – awkwardly.

“Blake-” I turn back to the car to see Leanne has rolled down the window, concern in her eyes as she leans across to the seat to ask, “What are you going to do?”

I shrug one shoulder, answering her honestly. “I have no idea.”

XxX

The apartment is dark and stuffy and hot when I shove the door open, a mustiness to the air that wrinkles my nose. If Hunter’s been home since being at Tori’s, he’s left no trace.

Or at least, that’s what I think, ‘til I venture into the kitchen for some water and find a note taped to the microwave:

Seven and half minutes. No longer.’

I snort, feeling some of the knots in my stomach loosen. There’s a meal already tucked inside the microwave and for once I do as I’m told, leaning against the kitchen counter as I watch the seconds tick down on the clock, the note Hunter left me smooth against my fingers.    

Hunter cares about me.

The thought is warm and reassuring, standing out brightly amongst all the confusion. I’ve never had any cause to doubt this, but I’ve found myself doing it anyway. It’s got to stop. I have to stop it.

As I’m waiting for the microwave to finish, I notice something small and black lying on the work surface. Hunter’s phone. Just where he promised me he’d leave it. I pick it up, the weight of it heavy in my palm. It’s not a modern phone by any stretch, an old Nokia, the sort I vaguely remember kids at school having years ago. Basic but pretty indestructible, not like the fancy smartphones everyone has today. It’s on, and I can’t help but notice there isn’t a password or anything on it. If I want to look through the messages on there, there’s nothing stopping me. Just like Hunter said I could, if I didn’t believe him when he said Frank was good. If I didn’t trust him.

Trust. I have to trust my brother. I need- I have to stop all of this. All the second-guessing. All the suspicion and the distrust. All the doubting.

I carefully set the phone back down where I found it, the contents of whatever messages on it remaining a mystery to me. I have to start trusting Hunter again. Trust that he knows what he’s doing. Trust that he’s not going to do anything to hurt me. Trust him with Tori.

Tori

The microwave beeps loudly, jolting me from whatever path my thoughts were about to run down. It’s not ‘til I’ve eaten and am just considering bed that I let them push forward once again. It’s that image of the two of them together, asleep on the sofa, that I just can’t shake. That throws up the loudest warning bells.

Hunter just looked so… peaceful. Vulnerable.

He was okay with Tori seeing him like that.   

If there was anything that shows just how much he’s come to trust Tori, it was that. He might not even realise it, but he does trust and care for her. I saw how upset he was by their argument, how concerned he was when she was sick; even when she was mad at him he was worried about her.

It would be good for him to find someone he cares about and trusts enough to get close to.”

Is Tori that someone?

As for the Water ninja herself… She’d looked relaxed too. I mean, sure, she was asleep and she’d been sick, but there was something else. A carelessness that I hadn’t seen in her before.

Not around me at any rate.

There’s that flicker of pain in my gut, the one I get whenever I remember that Tori-and-I aren’t a thing anymore. Aren’t going to be a thing.

Like, I didn’t think Tori was my ‘forever person’. Not really. Not many people find the love of their lives at seventeen but I thought- I thought she’d share my life for longer than she did.

But that’s not going to happen – least not in the way I’d imagined – and I need to accept that. And figure out how to get over it.

I guess, if I really think about it and am honest with myself, I don’t know how much Tori and me actually had in common. I’m not saying that’s like, a deal-breaker when it comes to relationships, but outside of being Rangers (and ninjas), I’m not sure we have any shared interests. Like, Tori agreed to come to that martial arts film with me but that was ‘cos I asked her to, to spend time together, not because she actually likes those movies. I’m sure she’d have rather been surfing – or even spending her whole afternoon at Shane’s skate demo – but it was a date and she’d said yes. Even if her heart was only half in it. And I’d have totally understood if she’d told me about Shane’s thing but I got the feeling she didn’t, not ‘cos she really wanted to see the film, but so she didn’t disappoint me. Didn’t let me down.

But she didn’t want to be there much either. 

And outside of school and rangering, it’s not as if we spend much time together. I have work or I’m at the track. Tori is either off surfing or helping her mom teach. There’s never been many times where it’s just the two of us. Normally when we do hang out, it’s as a group – with Shane and Dustin at minimum, if not Cam and Hunter too. And I think we could have made the time to be together, if it was what we both really wanted.

And that’s not all on Tori. The last time we had the chance to go do something together I bailed on her to go to the track with Dustin.

Hunter and Tori have found time to be just the two of them.

She’s sought him out, made an effort to connect with him and he’s responded to that. He followed her out of Ninja Ops with barely a frown. No questions. No arguments. Seems my brother’s found the one thing in Blue Bay Harbour that I dreamed I’d find. Which is made even more strange ‘cos, out of the two of us, Hunter’s been the more adamant that we’re only here as long as we have to be. Not as if I’d planned on spending the rest of my life in Blue Bay Harbour either. I mean, we’re here ‘til Lothor’s defeated and then… I want to race. I want to join a team and travel the country and Tori…

I don’t know what Tori wants.

That realisation hits me like a zord, stopping me dead, midway through brushing my teeth; toothbrush half raised to my mouth. Is that really true? Have we never talked about her life after Lothor? My eyes are wide, face pale under the sickly glow given off by the bathroom light and I stare at my reflection for a long moment, brain trying to seek out a time – any time – that I actually spoke to Tori about her plans and dreams and wants and… There isn’t one.

I rinse my mouth out, washing the toothpaste away down the sink as I finally start to see Tori-and-me in a new light – a brighter, harsher one than the rose-tinted glow I’ve been used to.

I told Tori the truth, when I said I didn’t know what being friends with her is like. We kinda skipped that part and went straight into dancing around each other, liking each other – or at least, me liking her – without any of the getting-to-know-each-other part. Like, there was no friendship but the relationship was expected. Maybe that’s where everything went wrong.

“…before it had even begun.”

Hunter and Tori, they have things in common. I didn’t really think they did before, but after the whole AP English book thing which had made both of them happy (Tori ‘cos she’d managed to have a proper discussion with someone who ‘got’ a book, and Hunter ‘cos she made him do something he hadn’t had a chance to in years) I can see similarities between them that I’d never imagined existing before. But they’re there.

They’re both clever, smarter than me anyway, and they enjoy that sort of thing, while I just want to race. And sure, Tori likes motorbikes, is a pretty okay rider too, but she loves to surf and loves being in the water or even just on the beach and I think Hunter gets that. Like, gets that. In a way that I prob’ly don’t.

Then there was their fight, the other day in Ninja Ops… None of us had ever seen anything like it before. They were both so in sync, so in tune with each other and their elements. That whole thing was something else.

I flick the light switch off, letting the night in, and clamber into bed, twisting and turning to try and find a comfortable spot. But my mind is whirring, spinning around like the wheels on my dirt bike, churning up everything and it’s all a mess and I just… I can’t shut off. Can’t make my brain fall silent. All this – everything – it just reinforces my suspicions, but weirdly a lot of the anger and sick feeling that I thought would be here isn’t. Instead I feel strangely calm.

Tori may have chosen Hunter over me (well, maybe. Kinda. Okay so I’m not 100% sure but I think she might have, even if she doesn’t know it yet), but Hunter has chosen me over him, well, always. So maybe… Maybe Hunter-and-Tori as a thing wouldn’t be terrible.

Like, it would be weird, I guess. But I think… I could live with that sort of weird. It’s no weirder than space ninjas and magical ranger powers and brainwashing and being a protector of Earth even though I’m only seventeen. Compared to all that, the girl that just broke up with me maybe wanting to date my older brother is practically normal. Chick-flic rather that sci-fi.

But what do I do about it? It’s not really like I can turn around to my brother and say, “So my sorta-not-quite-ex-girlfriend might like-like you and I’m cool with that.”

Am I cool with that?

… I honestly don’t know.

I can’t- There so many conflicting feelings and emotions surging around me at the moment that I just don't know. And besides, isn’t this all just perhaps’ anyway? Like, I dunno for real if Tori likes Hunter. And I don’t know if Hunter likes Tori. I mean, I have suspicions, but the evidence isn’t really evidence – just feelings and hunches and nothing certain

“Gah!” I exclaim aloud, venting my frustration to the darkness.

Sleep. I need to sleep. These sort of things always look better in the morning. ‘S kinda like the human version of ‘have you tried turning it off and on again?’. I turn over restlessly, dragging the pillow over my head. I’m moving less than a minute later, blanket tangling my legs and I throw the covers off furiously. I slump back down, head coming to rest on the pillow, feeling the lumps and thin patches against my head. Staring up nothing, I allow my eyes to unfocus and slowly drift closed. Perhaps now would be a good time to practice meditation…

XxX

The sudden beeping of my morpher cuts through my uneasy sleep. Groggy, eyelids heavy with lead, I glance at my alarm clock; red L.E.Ds blinking three a.m. Ugh. Groaning, I raise my wrist to my mouth. “Blake here.”

“Where’s Hunter?” Cam’s voice is short, brusque.

“Bed,