The Wind and Thunder Rangers straggled down the stairs into Ninja Ops. Gone were the high spirits that usually accompanied a defeat of one of Lothor's monsters. The game had changed and it was taking its toll. As soon as Cam reached the main chamber, he went immediately to retrieve the med kit. Blake and Tori cleared a path for Hunter and Shane who were supporting Dustin between them. All of the Rangers had powered down and were wearing ninja training suits.
Shane's anxiety and concern were evident in his face. He and Hunter did their best not to jostle Dustin as they guided him over to sit on the low table in the center of the room. Cam met them there, equipment ready.
Cam began as he always did these days, checking to make sure Dustin hadn't sustained a concussion. For, as much as Cam could do, and as helpful as the Ranger healing powers were, he was not going to mess with a head injury. If worse came to worse they could invent a fairly plausible story about a track accident to cover any emergency room visits. They'd had to do that once already, and the reaction from Dustin's mother wasn't pretty.
Cam was shining a pen-light in Dustin's eyes, but Dustin kept trying to bat it away. "Dude…I didn't hit my head or anything."
"Dustin," Cam stated in exasperation, "do we have to go through this every time? You know I'm going to check."
"That light is so bright, man."
"Yes, I know. May I continue?" Cam assured himself that Dustin had no concussion, and that his unsteadiness on his feet was due more to a succession of injuries rather than a head injury from the fight today.
"Dude, I'm fine…just tired." Dustin tried to sigh deeply, but ended up groaning with a wince. He looked up at Cam guiltily as Cam pinned him with a stare.
Without being asked, Hunter and Shane worked together to get Dustin's tunic off; he was in no shape to do it himself. Beneath was a yellow tank top which Hunter carefully stripped him of. Tori gasped and reached out reflexively for Blake. He grabbed her hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Dustin's torso was a mess of old and half-healed bruises. It was lucky that the trip to the hospital had occurred before things had gotten this bad, or they never would have released Dustin back into his mother's care.
Dustin looked like he had been beaten on a regular basis for weeks; which in actuality he had. Only his innate Ranger healing ability and support from the others had kept him on his feet this long. The newest bruise was already darkening into a deep black-blue, and Dustin's difficulty breathing had Cam worried. Cam reached for a scanner from the med kit.
Again, without being asked, Hunter and Shane maneuvered Dustin around on the table. We've had way too much practice doing this Hunter thought grimly to himself. Dustin let himself fall back into their waiting hands to guide his body to the table; with Shane and Hunter taking all of his weight, Dustin didn't need to exercise already overtaxed muscles. Shane's hand lingered for a moment on his shoulder, and then touched his hair. Dustin turned his head slightly toward Shane and smiled. Then he closed his eyes, and tried to relax as much as possible, allowing Cam to do his work.
Shane and Hunter moved away from the table, joining Tori and Blake close to Sensei's hut. There was nothing they could do at the moment, and until Dustin needed to be moved it was better to be out of the way.
Shane pitched his voice low, but the frustration and concern could be heard clearly in his voice. "It's getting worse, Sensei. We have to do something."
"That monster today nearly crushed Dustin, " Hunter added. "If Cam and I had gotten there any later…or if he'd been forced to unmorph…" Hunter shook his head. He didn't need to finish, they all knew what he was saying.
The change had happened gradually at first. More Kelzacks than normal would be brought into a fight, and a large number of them would surround the Yellow Ranger. No one really kept a head count of how many Kelzacks they each fought during a battle, so five or six more here or there didn't really make a noticeable difference. Then it seemed the Kelzacks were targeting Dustin, and the other Rangers had to not only fight their own, but then they had to fight their way through to Dustin. Shane quickly picked up the habit of fighting side by side or back to back with Dustin; if it wasn't Shane, it was Hunter or Cam, and that problem was solved.
Then the monsters started targeting the Yellow Ranger. It was odd; some monsters didn't even seem to have any other purpose than to inflict damage on Dustin. They weren't looking for ancient scrolls, trying to blow up energy plants or causing general havoc – they just wanted to beat the crap out of Dustin. It would seem that the obvious solution would be for Dustin to stay in Ninja Ops away from the fight. But there was always some reason for him to join, and once he arrived, the focus fell on him.
"I agree with you Shane, though I am quite at a loss for what to do." Sensei's gaze shifted to the low table where Cam was still working on Dustin. "It seems clear that our enemy's strategy has changed, and our need to defeat Lothor is even more urgent."
Tori spoke up for the first time since they'd returned to Ninja Ops. "I don't think it's Lothor." she stated. All of the men looked at her questioningly, but only Shane recognized the expression on her face. Tori was a thinker. And Shane had learned from long experience that when Tori put her mind to a puzzle, when she came up with a solution it was usually right. "I don't think the enemy's strategy had changed…I think the enemy has."
"What do you mean, Tor?" asked Blake.
"All of this stuff that's been happening, it's not Lothor's style. It would make sense for him to single out Cam because of the family connection. He's already targeted you two, "she gestured to Hunter and Blake, "because you escaped his control. But for him to isolate Dustin just doesn't make sense."
"Well, if not Lothor, then who?" Hunter demanded.
"Marah." Tori stated firmly.
"Marah?" Shane echoed in disbelief. "She can't even tie her shoes by herself!"
Tori gave him a look. "You give her far too little credit. Look at the damage she's done in the past few weeks." Shane crossed his arms on his chest and shook his head.
"Look at the evidence," Tori continued. "If we trace back this change in the enemy's behavior, it all started right after that Beevil incident. If you recall, it's been the Kelzack Furies that have been set on Dustin more often than not." Blake and Hunter were nodding, but Shane was not convinced.
"Any of Lothor's generals could send the Kelzacks down." he countered.
"That's true," Tori agreed, "but would any of them care one way or the other that you and Dustin are now dating?" She raised an eyebrow at Shane, and he flushed.
The open acknowledgement of him and Dustin as a couple was still very new for Shane. Tori, of course, immediately knew what had happened when Shane and Dustin had returned to Ninja Ops that night. She made it abundantly clear that she approved and was happy for them. Blake was the next to know, and while he wasn't gushingly happy for them in the way Tori was, it was apparent that he approved as well.
With the knowledge that Blake and Tori were backing them up, they broke the news to Cam and Hunter. Cam's response was along the lines of "It took you long enough." And Hunter didn't seem fazed one way or the other. All in all the team reaction was anti-climactic. Even Sensei's cryptic "Love is not always where we look but where we find it" comment held a flavor of support.
Shane was so grateful. These last few weeks, dealing with Dustin's constant injuries would have been such a nightmare if there'd been fighting among the team as well. The day Dustin had been knocked out during the fight was the worst day Shane could remember. He could see everything happen, yet was too far away, and too wrapped up with his own fight to help. Watching Dustin hit the side of that building; watching his head snap just a little too far, had Shane's heart in his throat. Then when he fell, he didn't get up.
At the hospital, it was Hunter who'd walked with him for hours letting him vent his frustration and fear – he wouldn't have been able to do that if Hunter hadn't known how Shane felt about Dustin. It was Blake who'd stayed up with Shane the night Dustin's shoulder had been dislocated and collarbone broken; talking about the fear of losing a loved one in battle. Shane had learned a lot about Blake that night, and came away with the understanding that Tori's heart was in very safe hands.
Shane was flabbergasted by the implication of Tori's question. "You think Marah's behind all of this because…because Dustin and I are dating?"
"I don't think that's all of it, but I think it's a big part." Tori shrugged her shoulders. "You've got to see it from her side. Let's just say that when she approached Dustin about leaving Lothor, there was some small part of her that was telling the truth about wanting to change. I think that has to be right otherwise Dustin wouldn't have trusted her. Then she betrayed him…personally, I think she was working a little too hard to insult him that day, like her heart wasn't really in it."
Shane frowned, finally getting the gist of Tori's logic, and not liking where it was heading. "So, she goes home to lick her wounds, felling bad for herself because on some level she really did have feelings for Dustin, and what does she find out? That Dustin basically fell into your arms that same night. She'd be totally humiliated."
"And if Kapri had anything to do with it, she'd make sure everybody knew about it." added Hunter. Blake nodded in agreement.
"So it's revenge." stated Shane grimly.
"I think so." said Tori sadly, not at all happy to be the one who had figured the situation out.
"Then why not take her anger out on me!" Shane argued. His voice was still pitched low so it wouldn't carry over to the table where Cam was working. Anger and frustration caused all of his muscles to tense and he looked as though he was ready to snap. Hunter placed a calming hand on his shoulder.
"Because it's killing you to watch Dustin get hurt. There's nothing worse she could do to you." Blake said softly. The expression on Shane's face indicated that Blake's assessment was absolutely correct.
Before the conversation could resume, Cam joined the group. "I've done all I can," he stated. Shane immediately headed over to the table. "Tori, I want you to try something." All of the ninjas looked at Cam in surprise. It had been a revelation to them that Cam, as a samurai, had some limited healing abilities. He didn't employ them much because he felt that being an untrained Healer would lead to more problems than it solved. But since the daily injuries to Dustin had begun, he had started to employ his power more and more to Dustin's minor injuries. He had unfortunately gained enough experience to feel confident mending bones as well.
"What can I do, Cam?" Tori asked. As far as she knew none of the rest of them had any Healing abilities.
"It's all this bruising…" Cam stated with a wave of his hand. Tori winced. Maybe Cam had some immunity to the shape Dustin was in because he dealt with healing him nearly every day, but this close up look at what Dustin's injuries looked like was new to Tori. Dustin's torso was bruised from his collarbone to his waist; and Tori was certain the bruises continued where she couldn't see, on his back and legs. The oldest bruises had faded to an ugly yellow, and there was every color of the rainbow in-between. His chest was a mottled collection of greens, purples, black and blue, melding with the most recent and vivid bruise on his left side. There was even a clearly defined boot print. Tori couldn't imagine the strength of that kick if it could leave a mark like that through the Ranger suit.
"Bruises are just the body's way of cleaning up an injury. Mostly it's collected dead blood cells beneath the skin." Tori made a face at Cam's clinical description. "But bruises are painful too because of all of the collected water and cells that have yet to be flushed out of the body. Dustin's had so many repeated injuries that his body just can't keep up with the repair that's needed. That's where you come in."
Tori brightened at the thought of actually being able to do something to help Dustin. "What should I do?" she asked eagerly.
"I think you need to "encourage" the bruises to flush out of Dustin's system faster."
"Okay…" Tori walked around the edge of the table until she was on Dustin's left side. She kneeled on a cushion by the low table. Shane looked up inquiringly from the place where he had settled on Dustin's right. Cam walked around to position himself by Dustin's head. Hunter, Blake and Sensei gathered at the end of the table near Dustin's feet. Dustin looked around curiously.
"What's going on?" he mumbled, a little out of it from Cam's ministrations.
"Tori's going to try to take care of some of that spectacular bruising." Cam replied.
Dustin lifted his head a little off the table to look down at his chest. "Go for it, Tor." He gave her a little grin.
Tori, uncertain about what to do, placed her hands on Dustin's chest. He sucked in his breath. Tori snatched her hands back quickly afraid she'd touched a sensitive area.
"Cold hands!" was Dustin's complaint.
"You're such a baby." Tori mocked, but she did take the time to rub her hands together to warm them up before she placed them on his chest again.
Tori ignored the group gathered around her and focused on centering herself. She gathered the feeling of her element around her, then extended her senses to Dustin.
Seeing his injuries through the eyes of her element was enlightening, and she immediately understood what Cam had been trying to explain. There were very few clear paths for blood and water to follow around the injured areas; she concentrated on changing that.
As Tori worked, Shane watched Dustin's face. It was immediately evident that Tori was having a positive effect. Dustin's breathing was eased even more and he relaxed as he didn't have to hold himself rigid to prevent further injury. Tori's hands settled gently over the newest and most vivid bruise. As she worked to ease the bruising, Dustin sighed in relief.
"Tor…will you marry me?" he mumbled.
Tori was too caught up in her work to respond, but Blake teasingly smacked Dustin in the foot. "I didn't think she was your type."
"I'll marry anyone who can do this for me." Dustin replied as he relaxed even further into a semi-conscious state.
"Are you sure he doesn't have a concussion?" Shane asked Cam. "He shouldn't be so ready to pass out like that."
"It won't last long." was Cam's calm reply.
"What do you mean?" asked Shane.
"Well, all that water Tori's moving around has got to get released sometime."
Shane wasn't clear on exactly what Cam meant, but it eventually became evident. Tori worked for about ten more minutes in silence and the other ninjas watched with fascination as the discoloration on Dustin's chest faded. Then suddenly he snapped out of the semi-conscious state and sat straight up. His sudden movement distracted Tori who stopped her ministrations. Shane put a hand up to try to prevent Dustin from moving, but Dustin used it instead as an aide to stand up.
"Bro…" Shane tried to reason with him.
"Shane, " Cam direction impatiently. "Don't get in his way, help him."
"Help him where?"
"To the bathroom."
"Oh. Oh!" Shane exclaimed as he understood. It was a measure of how much good Cam and Tori had done that only Shane needed to help Dustin across the main room of Ninja Ops.
In their absence Sensei stated, "You have made a good start to helping Dustin in the short term, but we must bend our minds to developing a solution for the long run."
"Father's right." Cam agreed. "This is fine for now, but we can't keep this up forever." The others nodded in grim agreement.