Shane watched Sensei's face while he read the message, and before his eyes, his old teacher seemed to age ten years. The clump of ice in Shane's gut doubled in size. "What's it say, Sensei?" he asked anxiously.
Sensei Watanabe lowered the paper and stared at his son's badge clutched in his hand. "It's essentially a ransom note, Shane." He pointed towards the bottom of the paper, where a seal was pressed into a dollop of orange wax. "It's signed by Kozuhiro Kinaga, head of the Tiger Claw Ninja clan, the most infamous band of ninjas in all of Japan."
"Japan?" Shane echoed. "Then what are they doing in these parts?"
"Actually, since they are employing portal technology, I do not believe that they are anywhere in this area at all." Sensei replied.
Cam's in Japan! The icy chunk just grew to glacier proportions. "What are they asking for, Sensei?"
Sensei met his former student's eyes. "Gold. And quite a significant sum."
The old teacher turned back towards the note. "The provided explanation is very vague. According to this, the gold is supposed to be payment for 'services rendered' to Lothor."
"Lothor!?" Shane cried, and Sensei couldn't tell whether it was a question or an exclamation.
"Sensei, Lothor isn't back, is he?"
Sensei shook his head. "No, I have not felt the ripples of Evil since your final battle. I believe that he is still very much stuck in the Abyss. Nevertheless, this note is very puzzling." Sensei looked out the window of his chambers into the tiny Zen garden below. "I have until tomorrow. Kinaga will collect payment himself, although the message does not specify where or when."
Shane's face was intent. "Well, if everything goes right, we might just be able to collect Cam before then."
Now it was Sensei's turn to look puzzled, and Shane brought him up to speed about CyberCam's scans up on the ledge. A spark of hope lit up in Sensei Watanabe's eyes.
"Shane, you have demonstrated excellent presence of mind when you got CyberCam and the scanner instead of going after the messenger." Sensei clasped his former student firmly on the shoulder. "I am very grateful to you."
Sensei normally didn't dish out praise like that, and if Shane's skin tone had been a little lighter, his former teacher would have clearly seen the blush on his face.
"Let's just hope that CyberCam can extract enough information from the scans," he added.
As if on cue, Shane's cell phone rang.
"Dude," CyberCam's voice sounded thrilled. "Score! I just finished programming the remote control and I'm pretty sure it's gonna work! I've already called the others. They are on the way. Get your sword; we'll meet you at the training plaza, bro!"
After the second ninja attack and Cam's abduction, the former Rangers had agreed to carry their cell phones on them at all times, should the need for a quick move arise. And now it looked like that time had come.
With a big grin on his face Shane told Sensei the good news. His old teacher picked up his staff. "I'll be going with you."
"To the training plaza?"
"To wherever the portal takes us, my son." Sensei replied firmly.
Shane knew better than to argue.
The other side of the portal...
Dawn was just pushing itself over the mountaintops when a lone figure in a russet kimono was walking along the dirt path towards her small herb garden. Aikiko was always up before her father, mainly because of the fact that she was responsible for preparing his breakfast. His morning meal was presently not on her mind, though. She was on her way to pick the herbs required to make more of the pain-numbing salve for Watanabe-san. Thinking of him also reminded her yet again of their secret conversation the night before. She had not answered his question, had not committed herself to any actions. But she had thought about it for the rest of the night.
As long as she could remember, Aikiko had been afraid of her father. It was the power he wielded as the leader of the Tiger Claw Ninjas, the most feared of all Ninja clans in Japan, as well as his incredible strength of body and mind. Not to mention the ever-present dark aura that surrounded him.
She was able to pinpoint the exact time when her feelings towards her father had turned to hate. It was the day he knowingly sent Koichi to his certain death when the Evil One arrived to take the test subjects back to...wherever it was he took them.
Kozuhiro Kinaga had known about the feelings his daughter had for his student, and he had not approved of them. The Evil One had thus provided the perfect opportunity for him to get rid of the unwanted suitor, short of killing him himself.
And Aikiko had had no choice but to accept her fate. It was her duty. The duty any good daughter had towards her father. This way of thinking might have been almost extinct in modern Japanese society, but modern-day Japan had not made it up the mountains of Honshu and to the Tiger Claw Ninja School yet.
The sudden flash of light just off to her right took her by surprise. 'Has Father sent out more ninjas? What for?' But the figures emerging from the portal, though dressed completely in black, were not members of the Tiger Claw Clan.
Growing up in a secluded, secret school high in the Japanese mountains, Aikiko had not met many Westerners in her life. Therefore the five men and one woman who were now staring at her were the strangest-looking little group Aikiko had ever seen.
She felt no fear at their sudden appearance. As a matter of fact, the moment she saw that they were not of her father's clan, she knew why they were here.
They must be the friends Watanabe-san was talking about.
Aikiko made up her mind in an instant. Her head whipped around in all directions, checking if anyone had caught the arrival of the outsiders, but as far as she could tell, she was alone. Nevertheless, she took rapid steps towards the strangers, waving her hands to indicate them to move backwards into the bushes behind them.
Once safely tucked away behind the concealing shrubbery, Aikiko took the initiative. "You are here for Watanabe-san, aren't you?" she asked, but only the older Asian man seemed to understand her. "My son," he said, straight to the point. "where is he?"
Aikiko looked around the little group. They all had their bokken drawn, eying her suspiciously with frowns on their faces. But how could it be any different? she thought.
She addressed the older man again. "I will take you to him."
The yellow-haired young man next to Cam's father, quite possible the tallest person she had ever seen, suddenly reached out and wrapped his fingers around her upper arm. Not hard, just enough to get her attention. He looked at her with his strange azure eyes, and said a single word. "Cam."
And Aikiko clearly heard the underlying flood of emotions streaming from this one word. She had no telepathic abilities, but it nevertheless drenched her mind as thoroughly as standing under a waterfall would have soaked her body.
Parts of a hushed conversation, only a few hours old, rushed back to her.
"Have you ever loved, Watanabe-san, purely and completely, with your heart, body and soul?"
"I do right now."
Aikiko had not the slightest doubt that that love had just been given a face. With bright blue eyes. This neither surprised nor shocked Aikiko; another side effect of growing up in an institution women were forbidden to attend. At the Tiger Claw school, only Kozuhiro Kinaga's status as supreme leader had allowed him to keep his daughter by his side after the death of his wife, and throughout her life here she had become fully used to the sight of clandestine unions between many of the exclusively male students. True, it was forbidden, but was practised nevertheless.
She hesitated for only a moment, before she raised her arm and pointed wordlessly towards a small building a few yards away, standing by itself at the top of a slight incline.
Hunter scrutinized the girl's face before him, but he could detect no sign of treachery in her open and unguarded gaze. Finally he nodded to her and gave her arm a quick, grateful squeeze. He turned to Sensei and the others. "I'm going to get him. Watch my back."
Aikiko's voice stopped him. Musical, yet intent, she spoke quickly.
"She says there is one guard inside the cottage, just to the left of the entrance door," Sensei translated.
"Got it," Hunter replied and locked eyes with Aikiko once more. "Arigato." Thank you.
Then he was gone so fast that Aikiko was left wondering if he had actually ever been there at all.
Cam once again jerked out of a fitful doze. Despite Aikiko's salve, he was once again aching all over, and between the pain and his forced upright position, there was no way he could do more than catch a few minutes of semi-sleep at a time. Fragments of dreams still clung to his mind: Lothor walking across the deserted SuperCross field, his entire Evil Army behind him... Tori and Blake smiling at each other, dancing at their wedding reception...Hunter's face hovering above him, eyes bright, face flushed with passion...
Through half-closed eyes he saw the cottage's door open. A figure, black against the dark outlines of the approaching dawn behind him, stood in the doorway. But instead of silently stepping inside to relieve his fellow ninja kneeling by the door of his guard duty, the figure reached out, and, quick as a flash, threw a few punches at the guard's head. The ninja slumped forward, unconscious.
The dark figure was already moving towards him, but Cam's overtired brain couldn't make sense of what had just happened. 'Aikiko' was the only name that came into his mind.
Had she decided to help him escape after all?
Then the figure knelt before him. Black leather clothes, blond head, beautifully familiar face, and for a moment Cam had the feeling that he was hallucinating. But the warm, calloused palm against his cheek was definitely real. And so was the voice. "Cam, can you hear me? Open your eyes. Focus, baby."
Cam willed his eyes to open all the way. "Hunter?" His partner's presence here seemed like
a mirage to him.
Hunter was grinning now. "You are such a damsel in distress, you know that?"
"WHAT?" That remark ridded Cam of the last lingering remnants of sleep.
"Well, it's true!" Hunter shrugged, "This is the second time in less than a year that I've had to rescue you. First from Lothor's ship, now from here..."
Cam rolled his eyes. "I don't know how you got here, but...just get me out of these, please." He yanked on the leather cords.
Hunter fumbled with the bonds. "Not just me; the
entire gang is outside. Jeez, what kind of Gordian knots are those?"
Suddenly he grinned mischievously. "You know, this gives me an
"...which I'm so gonna make you regret, if you voice it." Cam growled dangerously.
Hunter just looked smug.
A sudden noise outside the cottage made him turn his head sharply. The sounds of weapons clashing, grunts and other exclamations of physical combat. A cry of pain that sounded way too much like Blake.
The Ranger's element of surprise was gone.
Cursing under his breath, Hunter re-doubled his untying efforts. But only one of Cam's hands was free when suddenly three black-clad ninjas burst into the room. Hunter whirled around, drawing his bokken in the same motion. Up until now Cam hadn't even realized he was carrying it. Sparks were once again running up and down the blade as Hunter met the onslaught from three sides with ease. Cam felt almost sorry for the ninjas.
Hunter was making short work of the three attackers, but unfortunately, the degree of noise involved in the fight was way too high. It was sure to attract more ninjas.
Suddenly, a shadow flew through the open window and into the room. The figure rolled over his shoulder, shot back onto his feet and grabbed a handful of Cam's hair in the same motion. An instant later, Cam felt cold steel at his throat. Automatically, he reached up with his free hand, but with the blood circulation barely having begun to flow back into his wrist, there was no strength in his fingers. He clawed ineffectively at the hand holding the dagger. Then Kinaga's raspy voice was at his ear. "Tell him to drop his sword."
"Forget it." Cam hissed through clenched teeth.
Kinaga barked a loud command, and the three ninjas backed off Hunter to allow the ex-Crimson Ranger a clear view of Kinaga, and especially the dagger he held to Cam's throat.
Hunter froze. He knew Cam was in no condition to fight or defend himself from the ninja. He had seen the bloated fingers while untying the cord.
Now the old warrior pressed his blade deeper into Cam's throat, actually drawing a thin line of blood. Cam grimaced.
"Drop...your...weapon!" Kinaga snarled in heavily accented English.
Cam's mouth formed a 'No', but Hunter was already lowering his sword. The bokken clanked onto the floor. The three ninjas were on him immediately, and for a moment Cam could see nothing but a tangled heap of black clothing as they tackled him. Cam winced at the telltale sounds of punches, but Hunter made not a sound.
One of them picked up Hunter's sword while the other two pushed him down onto one knee, pinning his arms behind his back. Hunter raised his head slowly, locking eyes with Kinaga, and had he had the ability to shoot lightning bolts from his eyes, the older ninja would have dropped dead instantly.
Unfortunately, the leader of the Tiger Claw Clan was just as untouched by the ex-Crimson Ranger's murderous glare as he was by everything else.
"Listen," he ordered Cam. And to Cam's dismay, the sounds of battle from outside the cottage had ceased. Bad sign.
"I believe your friends are waiting for you," Kinaga said with a smirk. "Let's join them, shall we?" He jerked Cam to his feet with one pull, the dagger moving from his throat for only a split second, when Kinaga cut the one cord that still tied Cam to the wall.
Then the ninjas hustled their captives out of the cottage.
Outside, a bleak picture awaited Hunter and Cam. The rest of the Ranger team was completely surrounded by black ninjas. There were at least thirty of them, all armed to the teeth. Shane was bleeding from a split lip, Dustin looked like he'd had his face ground into the dirt, Tori's hair was wild and she was supporting Blake, who was leaning heavily on her, clutching his side with a painful expression.
Hunter shot his little brother a worried glance, but Blake gave his restrained brother a small nod and his 'I'm ok, bro' look.
Sensei Watanabe was the only one who didn't exhibit any battle marks. His staff had been taken, like the Ranger's swords, but he stood among his students with dignity and pride, calmly watching Kinaga approach him. The leader of the black ninjas shoved Cam towards the other Rangers.
"So my extra security measures yielded some unexpected results," he hissed and planted himself before the Wind head teacher. "Sensei Watanabe, I presume? You have decided to spare me a trip and deliver the payment yourself?" Kinaga's voice was mocking.
Sensei ignored the jeer. "I've come for my son."
"An exchange we can arrange immediately, if you have brought what I've asked for." Kinaga replied smoothly.
The two old warriors were of about the same height and build, so Sensei didn't even have to move his head as he held Kinaga's cold stare. "I've brought nothing but a proposition," he said calmly.
Kinaga's brows furrowed, a mixture of annoyance and puzzlement.
"A fight," Sensei proclaimed. "For my son's release."
"What? Dad, no!" Cam cried, but neither man even looked at him.
"What's going on, Cam?" Hunter asked next to him, and with a dismayed look on his face, Cam translated the unsettling conversation.
Kinaga was not amused. "You arrogant fool," he addressed Sensei. "What makes you think I would agree to this ridiculous substitute for my well-deserved payment?"
Sensei didn't even blink. "The fact that I will pay you twice the sum you have asked for if you defeat me."
Kinaga regarded him quietly for a moment, then wordlessly turned his head. His hard eyes traveled over Hunter, Blake, Tori, Shane and Dustin, and when he turned back to Sensei, a smug grin was at the corners of his mouth. "I accept. But with your impermissible intrusion onto my territory you have also raised the stakes." He took a step closer towards Sensei.
"Your debt has just quintupled."
Sensei and the Rangers were taken to a large
square directly in the middle of the school grounds. A raised wooden
platform was located just off to the side, and Kinaga headed straight
for it. He beckoned to Sensei to climb the platform. Sensei Watanabe
reached for the wide belt around his waist, unbuckled it and took off
his formal teacher's robe. Underneath he wore a simpler, lighter
cotton robe. He handed the heavy garment to Cam.
"Dad..." Cam began, but Sensei silenced him with a hand on his shoulder and a reassuring smile. Then he ascended the few stairs to the large podium where Kinaga was waiting for him. The leader of the Tiger Claw clan tossed him one of the simple wooden staffs he was holding and the two men assumed their respective attack positions, silently sizing each other up. The entire plaza had gone deadly quiet as numerous pairs of eyes were glued to the spectacle that was about to unfold.
The fingers on Kinaga's raised hand were hooked, talon-like, and his teeth were bared. A raw, ferocious power seemed to emanate from him, reminiscent of the very animal his clan represented.
Sensei was holding his staff in a two-handed grip. He stood still like a mountain; calm, centered, with the timeless and profound energy of the Wind Ninja flowing through him.
Then Kinaga attacked.
He was incredibly fast and agile for a man of his age as he whirled the staff at Sensei's head and body. But the old Wind Ninja countered every blow. For several minutes the fighting simply went back and forth across the platform as each man was trying to get a feel for his opponent. Suddenly Kinaga feinted a downward blow to Sensei's head with his staff, then kicked high instead, the heel of his boot striking Sensei squarely in the chest. Sensei was driven back two paces by the force of the kick, but this slightly greater distance gave him the chance to swing his own staff at Kinaga with greater force. He centered his inner energy, and swung at Kinaga with an earsplitting cry. The two wooden poles crashed into each other with such ferocity that Kinaga's staff was split in two. He gave Sensei an incredulous look, then hurled the broken pieces away with an angry growl.
Although his pole was still intact, Sensei flung it aside as well.
The black ninja grinned evilly. "Fool."
The two men circled each other, fists held out before them. Kinaga lunged forward, using his arms, elbows, hands and fingers in a succession of rapid attacks on Sensei's upper body. Sensei was driven back, but countered most of the blows successfully. With his eyes fixed on his opponent, he launched into a series of rapid-fire counterattacks, pummeling Kinaga's chest with lightning-quick punches, until the black ninja finally stumbled backwards, breathing heavily, hand pressed to his chest. Kinaga snarled at Sensei, his black eyes throwing daggers laced with concentrated hate at the Wind Ninja, and with a cry that sounded more beastly than human, he came at Sensei again. This time the savage attack included kicks as well as punches, and Sensei now appeared to weaken rapidly as he was forced to retreat yet again under Kinaga's onslaught. The black ninja realized this, too, and his expression became victorious. A swiftly executed roundhouse kick from him sent Sensei sprawling onto the floor.
"Dad!" Cam cried.
Kinaga looked away from Sensei and towards Cam with the look of a predatory animal going in for the kill.
The half second Kinaga's guard was down was Sensei's opportunity, and he took it without hesitation. In the time it took the black ninja to turn his head back towards his opponent, both of Sensei's legs shot out and up in a double kick that caught Kinaga in the stomach and the side of his hip. He was thrown off balance, and Sensei was back up on his feet so fast that his movements seemed blurry. He immediately launched into a devastating attack on the Tiger Claw ninja, and suddenly there was nothing weak in Sensei's kicks and punches.
Staring from the sidelines, Cam realized with a start that that had been his father's strategy all along. Appear weak, assure your opponent of victory, then turn the tables when his guard is down.
In his arrogance, Kinaga had temporarily forgotten this essential lesson of themartial arts.
Sensei's final charge was devastating on Kozuhiro Kinaga. The Wind ninja teacher's fist shot out with the force of a speeding train, sending the black ninja flying backwards. Immediately he closed the distance between them, picking up one of the broken pieces of Kinaga's staff in the process. The Tiger Claw ninja's body had barely touched the ground when Sensei already loomed over him, pressing the broken end of the staff firmly to his throat, but without breaking the skin.
Sensei and Kinaga locked eyes for a long moment.
"It is done," Sensei proclaimed quietly and withdrew the staff from Kinaga's throat. But as soon as the jagged wood was gone from his flesh, the leader of the Tiger Claws scrambled to a sitting position.
"Destroy them!" Kinaga screeched to his ninjas crowding around the platform. "Destroy them all!"
But before any of them could move to carry out his orders, a voice resounded across the plaza; clear, loud, and female. "NO!"
Some of the ninjas stepped aside to reveal Aikiko walking solemnly through the parted sea of black-clad bodies. She climbed the platform without hesitation, her manner confident and her expression determined when she addressed Sensei. "Even among the Black Ninja, there is a code of honor to be upheld. You have won your son's freedom fair and square."
She looked around the assembled small army of her father's ninjas. "You have all witnessed this fight. The agreement has been fulfilled. I say they are free to go!"
To the Ranger's astonishment, murmurs of consent could be heard all around.
Aikiko turned back to Sensei and held up her hand. In her palm lay her father's alien remote control. "Take this with you," she said. "It has brought us nothing but pain and disgrace."
Sensei received the gift with a solemn expression.
All the while, Kozuhiro Kinaga had not moved from his position on the floorboards of the podium. He looked beaten, both in body and spirit.
Suddenly Cam was by Sensei's side. Father and son looked at each other, and Sensei Watanabe could see a new respect in his son's eyes as he formally held out his teacher's robe for him. Sensei shrugged into the garment.
The two men turned back to Aikiko. "You could come with us." Cam's offer was genuine.
Aikiko smiled sadly, but shook her head. "I do not belong into your part of this world. I will find my own way, but now that I have finally met people who stood up to my father, I believe now that I can do so, too." Aikiko bowed low to Cam and Sensei. "Thank you for giving me the courage."
Sensei and Cam bowed back to her and left the platform to rejoin their little group. The Rangers had been handed back their swords, and they all crowded around Sensei, ready to return home. Sensei pressed a button, and the portal appeared amidst a bright flash of light.
Aikiko, standing immobile on the podium, smiled at them. "Farewell, Watanabe-san."
Cam smiled back at her. "Farewell, Aikiko-san."
The Wind Academy's training plaza was once again briefly illuminated by a bright flash as the seven figures exited from the transporter portal. It would be for the last time.
Sensei handed Cam the remote control. "Destroy it, son, and the other one, too," he said firmly. "Eliminate all possibilities of evil ever invading our schools again."
Cam nodded gravely. "I will, Dad." He looked down onto the device he was holding. "But I still don't know how you guys managed to get that portal open from over here."
"With a little help from CyberCam and some fast thinking from Shane," Tori replied.
At Cam's quizzical expression, she gave him a quick, condensed version of events that led up to the opening of the portal.
Cam looked at Shane with a grateful expression and held out his hand. "Thanks, Shane."
The former Red Ranger drew his friend in for a quick hug. "Anytime, bro."
"Hey, wait a minute," Cam said suddenly, turning to Hunter with an amused glint in his eyes. "You know how to activate CyberCam?" he unwittingly echoed Blake's earlier remark.
The Rangers chuckled at Hunter's prompt eye rolling. "Why does everybody around here think I'm a complete computer-illiterate idiot?" But then he grinned at his own question and shrugged. "All right, I might have been at one time, but watching you fiddle with CyberCam's program every day for the past few weeks...I guess something did stick up here." He tapped his temple.
Cam grinned. "I guess, sometimes you can teach an old dog new tricks. Lucky for me."
Sensei Watanabe clasped his son by the shoulder. "I believe that some rest would do us all much good." He looked around the disheveled group. "We will all meet in the dining hall for dinner later." And with another nod at his students he walked away slowly, his staff thumping on the ground with every step. Cam watched his father go, wondering just how much that intense fight had drained him. After all, he had beaten Kinaga without ever resorting to the use of any of his elemental powers. He made a mental note to visit him later in private to talk over the events...and to thank him.
Then Cam, Hunter, and the rest of the Rangers turned and strode towards the Teacher's Building and their respective rooms.
Cam had barely closed his door behind him when he suddenly found himself pressed up against the wall, Hunter's hands buried in his hair. The Thunder's mouth clamped down on Cam's lips in an all-consuming kiss that seemed to come from his very soul.
Hunter normally was the more physical of them, but the voracious intensity of this kiss was unusual even for him. It showed Cam just how worried about him his partner had been.
Suddenly, Hunter pulled back and looked down onto Cam.
"Don't ever scare me like this again, ok?" he said hoarsely, feeling his pent-up anxiety finally dissolving slowly.
Black eyes locked with blue. "Never been my intention in the first place."
"I know, but..."
This time Cam stopped him with a kiss of his own.
For a few moments, the two men simply hugged tightly and kissed, savoring each other's presence. But then Cam started to squirm. Hunter looked at him. "You ok?"
"Yeah. I've just had enough of being pinned to a wall for a while."
"Oh, sorry." Hunter took two steps backwards, pulling Cam with him. "Tired?"
Cam nodded, and the dark circles under his eyes seconded that. "Exhausted, famished, you name it. But the first thing I want to do is take a long, hot shower."
"I hear you." Hunter smiled and reluctantly disentangled himself from Cam. "I'll get you something from the mess hall, ok?"
"Ok. Thanks," Cam replied with a small, grateful smile before he shuffled towards his tiny bathroom.
But when Hunter returned from the dining hall some time later with a sandwich and some fruit, he found that he had apparently taken too long.
Cam had showered, changed into gray cutoff sweatpants and a green t-shirt, and was now sprawled across his bed, out cold.
With a lopsided smile, Hunter put the food down on the desk and took off his boots and leather vest. And for the first time, Cam never even stirred when Hunter carefully lowered himself onto the mattress and slipped an arm around his mate's waist. The dried blood on Cam's neck had washed away, but the thin cut from Kinaga's dagger was still visible.
'I could have lost you today,' Hunter thought grimly, and the depth of emotions that this notion stirred inside him was puzzling. It was the kind of bottomless anxiety he normally only felt for Blake when something bad happened to him. But Blake was family. Hunter looked at Cam's sleeping face. 'Guess that makes you family, too.'
He smiled, put his head onto the pillow and listened to Cam's slow, even breathing.
'So glad to have you back!'
And Hunter slept.