Notes: This is it. The final chapter. Glomps go out to those of you who stuck with me from first to last; it's been exactly fourteen weeks since I started this particular project. It's been a lot of fun for me, and hopefully for you. You guys kicked my ass into gear when I wasn't giving this the attention it needed, and that helped a lot.
In chronological order (^.~), I thank: cmar, crazy4nc128, StarTraveler, Kaiyote, Mandolin, eXtreme eVolution, always krissy, True-To-Blue, CamFan4Ever, CiuSune, AREH#1, greesr, Taynna, bunny angel, TwistedAngelPurple, SWRT-2, Doyles-Always, Prinzessin, and Hikaru Kosuzaku. I'd also like to thank Starhawk for much-needed encouragement, and to Chibi Gaki for beta-work (despite her noninvolvement in the fandom). You guys rock.
So. On to the conclusion. ^.^
* * *
The light shifted, mutating into inky shadow punctuated by bright flashes.
Fleeting images chased each other down, flickering, existing barely long enough for him to register their presence before flashing out. A few lingered longer –
– himself in a graduation cap and gown –
– the samurai star megazord crashing under inexperienced hands –
– blake, restrained and screaming –
– the sun shining over a restored academy –
– hunter's street bike a smoking ruin –
– but these faded away just as surely. Cam (is that my name?) was barely aware then of darkness and silence, of gentle warmth bathing his face and icy liquid rustling over the fingers of one outstretched hand. After what could have been an eternity, even these dim sensations began to recede. Just before they vanished altogether, he thought he heard voices, panicked and urgent, and he found the strength to hang on a little longer. He had one last fleeting sensation of pressure on his chest (I'm dreaming again) before he was finally plunged into absolute blackness.
* * *
Someone was holding his hand. He knew this because he could feel warmth and light pressure on his skin. It felt nice. He let his mind dwell on the sensation for a few moments, before sleep began to creep over him again.
The voice brought him partially out of his half-aware state, sparking mild irritation. Why won't you let me sleep?
Was that Hunter? He wasn't sure. The name that the insistent voice triggered seemed familiar, but he didn't know why. It carried pleasant associations, as if "Hunter" was someone whose voice he was glad to hear. It occurred to him, in a drifting sort of way, that he should perhaps respond in some way, since this Hunter kept calling his name. With that in mind, he managed to squeeze the hand encircling his.
"Cam!!" The response was immediate and intense, the pressure against his skin multiplying to the point of causing pain. Cam instinctively tried to pull away, but the motion in and of itself triggered a whole new cascade of agony and in that moment he fully awoke and remembered.
The Rangers. Lothor. The other world. The date. The crash. All of it.
Without thinking, Cam blindly reached for Hunter, relief momentarily overriding every other emotion. He buried his face in Hunter's shirt. "You're all right. You're all right." He couldn't stop the words from spilling out. "You're all right…"
"It's okay, Cam." Hunter pushed him back down, gently but firmly. Cam let him do it; the pain was subsiding, but he still felt like he had been hit by a truck. Which, he reflected, was probably the case. "Blake's okay, too," Hunter added, almost as if it were an afterthought.
Cam frowned. Blake hadn't been in the car; why did Hunter think he'd be worried about him? He was about to ask, but something else caught his attention. "I can't see."
"Your eyes are closed," Hunter said, sounding amused. Once Cam actually tried to open his eyes, it proved ridiculously easy; he had no idea why he hadn't done it before. The room around him was darkened, and its outlines were slightly blurred. Cam raised a hand carefully to his face; his glasses were missing. That explains one thing.
Hunter's footsteps were all the warning he had before painfully bright light flooded the room. Cam instinctively threw up a hand to shield his eyes, effectively blinded.
"Oops," Hunter muttered. "Sorry."
Cam squinted and eventually managed to see his surroundings. "This…" He rubbed his eyes with an aching hand. Another hospital room. He was starting to get really tired of those. He could see Hunter clearly now, and he noticed that Hunter sported some spectacular bruises as well as bandages peeking out from underneath the neck of his crimson shirt. Guess he had to wear his color sooner or later.
"Someone should be here in a few minutes," Hunter said, distracting him from his thoughts. "I'm not really supposed to be in here, so…" He glanced around. Cam nodded, and Hunter touched his shoulder lightly before slipping noiselessly out of the room. Cam blinked at his exit. He would have thought a car crash would make Hunter less graceful, not the other way around. He wasn't given time to dwell on the observation, for shortly after Hunter's disappearance, a nurse bustled in and started asking him questions.
Cam quelled his irritation at the content of those questions – name, date, address, how many fingers was she holding up, ad infinitum. Once or twice, she frowned as she recorded his answers. Afterwards, she shone a light in each of his eyes and checked his reflexes. "What's the last thing you remember?" she asked finally.
"The car," he replied. headlights approaching – fast – too fast – "I was driving. And I saw another car in my lane. That's it."
Hunter should have told her. Failing that, the paramedics should have. "I'm not sure." He wasn't; he didn't remember where, exactly, they'd been headed. "Didn't Hunter tell you?"
"One of the boys who brought you in?" She shook her head. "None of your friends could say what had happened."
The nurse consulted a clipboard. "Shane Clark, Tori Hanson, Waldo Brooks, and Hunter and Blake Bradley."
"Oh." That was odd. Why would the Rangers' mirrors have taken him to the hospital? After an accident like that, there should have been paramedics, police, some kind of report.
"The doctor will be in shortly. You're very lucky, Cameron." The nurse smiled.
The doctor, when he came in, told Cam the same thing; that he was lucky to have escaped so lightly, that he would be sore for a few days, and that he could leave at any time. Cam didn't wait to be told twice; he grabbed the clothes on the chair and walked out.
Only Blake was in the waiting room when he made his rather slow way there. Blake's left arm was in a sling, starkly obvious against his navy shirt. Maybe that's why Hunter said he was okay. What happened to him? "The guys had to leave," Blake said after looking around warily. "There was some… trouble."
"Are they all right?"
"Don't worry." Blake was trying for soothing, and he couldn't quite pull it off. "Your dad said to take you home."
"Okay." Cam started for the door. If they really needed his help, Blake would have told him. "Thanks for taking me home, Blake." Didn't hurt to remind him, though. "Let me know if I can help."
"They're fine. You're going home." Cam eyed Blake; the Navy Ranger's mirror had put way too much emphasis on those words.
"Are you sure…"
"Yes." Blake took him by the elbow and steered him towards the parking lot.
"All right, all right." He capitulated. Blake was nervous about something, and he wasn't going to make it worse. "Isn't that Tori's van?"
Blake helped him into the passenger seat before answering. "Yeah. Safer."
Safer than what? It was too much trouble to ask, and since Blake didn't say anything, he was content to simply watch the passing scenery until Blake's voice roused him from the half-daze he'd fallen into.
Cam climbed out of the van without really looking around. "Oh good," he said absently, and then he noticed his surroundings. Blake had taken him to the clearing that held the portal to the Academy in his world. "What are we doing here?"
Blake gave him a Look. He must have learned it from Hunter, Cam thought vaguely. "Maybe I should take you back to the hospital."
"Ha, ha. I'm fine."
Blake rolled his eyes. "Come on, then." He walked towards the waterfall, smoothly stepping across the rippling surface of the pool and activated the Portal.
Cam's knees gave out, and he collapsed onto the grass. I'm… I'm home…
"Cam?" Blake turned around and started back.
"Hunter." He had to go back – he'd totaled the car with Hunter in it. Cam scrambled to his feet and started towards the van.
"Hunter's fine, Cam!" Blake ran after him, caught him by the shoulder. "We've fought Lothor's monsters tons of times. You're in no shape to fight right now."
"No! Not that Hunter! The other one! I have to go back to the other world!" He tried to pull away from Blake, but one-armed or not, Blake was stronger.
"It's okay, Cam, take it easy. Calm down." Blake's firm grip on him belied his calming tone.
"I am calm!" Cam retorted, knowing that he was anything but. Distantly, he was aware that he was hysterical, but that didn't make him any calmer. "I have to go back – to see if he's all right!"
"Back where?" Blake was humoring him. He could tell.
Cam answered him anyway. "The other world. Where I've been for the past four months!" He struggled, trying to pull free, but when Blake suddenly let go, he was unprepared and stumbled backwards.
"Sorry, man," Blake said.
"What-" was all he managed before Blake's fist impacted and he slid to the ground, still conscious but unable to move. Blake picked him up with his good hand; it took him several tries before he finally got Cam off the ground and supported him through the Portal.
"Cameron." His father's voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. His vision cleared, and Cam found himself staring at the ceiling of Ninja Ops.
"Dad." He had to try twice to get his voice to work. "What happened?" Other than Blake hitting him, he meant; he was perfectly well aware of that.
His father knew exactly what he was asking. "Lothor's monster set a trap for you and the other Rangers," Sensei said gravely. Cam could see him now, in his guinea pig form. "When you went to save Hunter and Blake, his bomb exploded. Fortunately, they were not inside the building; they never were. By the time you went inside, they had already escaped. After the explosion, the Rangers found you and took you to a nearby hospital."
"You weren't breathing," Blake interjected. "You wouldn't –"
"The Rangers were waiting for you, but one of Lothor's monsters is now at the edge of the city. They are handling it."
There was so much to take in. Cam focused on what seemed to be the most relevant fact. "But… that was four months ago. I was out of it that long?"
"Dude, it was yesterday." Blake and his father exchanged looks. "Yesterday."
"But…" It was too much. "I've been in another world for the last four months. Since September. This month is January!"
"Maybe I should take him back," Blake said to Sensei.
"Don't talk about me like I'm not here!"
"What do you remember, Cam?" Sensei hopped up on his chest, preventing him from moving. Ninja master or no, he wasn't about to send his father tumbling downwards. It just wasn't dignified.
So he told his father what had happened, instead. He told him about waking up in the other world, and about discovering that it had no Rangers, no ninja elements. That he had tried so hard to get home, and had failed. And finally, he talked about the crash that had apparently served as a catalyst to send him back. He could still hear the glass shattering.
"But that's impossible," Blake said when he finished. "It only took us a few minutes to find you. There's no way you could have spent four months –"
"I was there!" He wasn't so certain now. "I was…" It struck him suddenly how odd Blake looked in his signature color.
"It is not impossible, Blake." Sensei regarded the Navy Ranger for a moment and then turned his bright eyes on Cam. "But it is improbable."
"Are you saying it was just a dream?" That wasn't possible. It just wasn't. But even as he tried to convince himself, he realized that the memories were dimming, becoming one step removed from everything else.
"I do not know." Sensei shook his head. "There is much in this world we do not understand, Cam."
"But –" Cam broke off his protest, unsure of what he really wanted to say. He was back home, and nothing had changed. And at the same time, everything was different. I should be ecstatic. Instead, he just felt numb.
"Get some rest, Cam. You will feel better tomorrow." Sensei patted his chest with one furry paw and hopped down.
"I should at least keep an eye on the others, and send the Zords when they need them." Cam sat up and turned towards the computer. That, at least, remained unequivocally familiar.
Sensei sighed. "All right." His miniature habitat rolled out of the main control room, but his gaze remained fixed on Cam until he had gone.
The fight gave Cam something to concentrate on that was wholly of this world, and he almost curiously watched four of his spandex-clad teammates struggling for survival against a misshapen beast. Just as he placed his hands over the keys, the monster swelled to an improbable size, and Shane's voice sounded over the comm.
"We could really use the Zords about now, CyberCam!"
"Wouldn't you rather have them from the real thing?" Cam's fingers danced over the keys in a routine he didn't consciously remember until after he'd gone through it.
"Hey, Cam!" Shane's voice was joined by Dustin's and Tori's, the three of them cheerfully welcoming him back. They were interrupted as the enlarged monster tried to step on the four of them. Hunter knocked Dustin clear and grabbed Tori, leaving Shane to his own devices. The Red Ranger ducked out of the way just in time.
"Cam, now would be a good time," Hunter snapped.
That was the Crimson Ranger, all right. "Four Zords, coming right up." Cam hit the release and sent the giant mechas on their way. One surprisingly short fight later, the Zords returned to their containment fields. The Rangers poured into Ninja Ops, laughing and chattering on a post-battle high.
"Did you see that? I totally nailed it!"
"What do you mean, you? That was all of us!"
"Yeah, but –"
"Lothor won't send anything like that again!"
"Dude, we so rock!"
The Wind Rangers were laughing, Cam amended. Hunter was standing just inside the doorway, looking intently at nothing.
Blake walked over to his brother and slapped him on the shoulder with his good hand. "Hey, bro, that was awesome."
"Yeah," Hunter said distractedly. His eyes narrowed and he shifted his attention to Blake. "How long before you heal?"
"Less time than it'll take for you," Blake's expression changed. "You shouldn't have gone."
Cam was aware of the Wind Rangers' exuberance at the edge of his mind, as they offset the odd intensity surrounding the Thunder Rangers. At the moment he registered the dissonance, the Wind Rangers seemed to pick up on it as well, and they rapidly became silent.
"It was fine." Hunter shrugged.
Blake opened his mouth, presumably to reply, but then he suddenly looked at Cam. Cam glanced away, and when he looked back, Blake was smiling at Hunter. "Take it easy, bro." He turned towards the Wind Rangers, who promptly pretended that they hadn't been watching Hunter and Blake almost argue. "Yo, Dustin. Didn't you say you landed a new trick on your bike yesterday?"
"Dude, what are you talking abou-" Dustin started, but at a sharp look from Blake, he broke off. Confusion still etched over his features, he picked up the sentence again. "Oh. Uh. Yeah. Let's go and I'll, um, show you."
"Great." Blake steered Dustin towards the door. "You guys want to come, right?" He eyed Shane and Tori. Clearly wondering what Blake was up to, they both hesitantly agreed.
Cam watched as Blake chivvied the Wind Rangers out of Ninja Ops with a slight feeling of disbelief. What did Blake think he was up to?
Hunter glared at his brother's retreating back, and Blake turned around to give him a little wave and a smile. Cam could read Hunter's expression, and to him it plainly broadcast both irritation and gratitude. He wasn't sure he would have been able to see that four months ago (or was it only yesterday?).
Hunter meandered farther into the room, looking everywhere but directly at Cam. Cam folded his hands together and waited for Hunter to say whatever it was that was bothering him. He was almost certain Hunter was about to lay into him for acting so stupidly, for going into the building when the Thunder Rangers hadn't actually been inside it in the first place. He was suddenly reminded of how much he was going to miss Hunter's mirror.
"Thanks," Hunter said abruptly, still not looking at Cam.
"For what?" He should have known that Lothor's monster wouldn't actually lead them to where it had been holding Hunter and Blake.
"For going in there after us."
"You're welcome," Cam said, surprised. "You would have done the same-"
"Yeah," Hunter agreed, just a little too quickly. He fell silent again.
"Hunter-" Cam started, just as Hunter began to speak. "Go ahead."
"I… Glad you're back." Hunter was finally looking straight at him, and his expression was one that Cam had seen on Hunter's mirror's face several times but never before on Hunter. Cam finally understood that it didn't matter whether or not his experience had been real in the barest sense of the word. He had survived, and changed, and learned. He had to believe that everything would work out in that world, if it existed, because he couldn't ever go back to it. He had to live in this one. It was… right.
"Yeah," Cam said simply, and smiled back at Hunter. "Me, too."