When I began work on this story, it was 2005. I was an undergrad, about a year out of service, and my best friend was Roie.
Since then, in roughly chronological order, I graduated with my BSc, served through Second Lebanon, had two breakups the second of which was quite bad (and both of which are on the Constellations Team), graduated with my MSc, had a false start on a PhD in bioinformatics and then got to my current PhD research, in ethics. My best friend is Tami, who's been there for all of that.
Through all that, there was this story. Some things about it are quite different than what Roie and I had envisioned, then, and i'm still waiting on his opinion of how things turned out. Other things - well, other things are intensely personal, whether as first drafts of my current research (moral psychology) or as almost biographical.
The year is is the final chapter of Constellations. I would like to thank everyone who had been on this road with me - the lurkers whose silent footprint I saw in the stats, the reviewers who gave me strength and made me laugh, and the Constellations Team:
Marah and Camille, the best beta readers I could ask for and much more than that.
Navot, who was influential in the development of Kapri and her biography.
Nurit, Friendly Local Physicist.
Opher, who talked me through the final chapters.
Tami, who for six years listened to me talk of a story she doesn't read in a fandom she doesn't know, and who has been with me through everyhing that happened in these years.
And first and last, Roie, who got me the season, watched it with me, drafted the plot and the character interpretations together with me, gave some of Cam's best lines and who has, through all these things, made this story happen.
Thank you all.
50. Storm Ascending
Final lap. Final lap. Hunter's ears rang with adrenaline as much as with the roar of the crowd and the thunder of the engines. His little brother was leading, but it was a near thing. He and another jockey – Kowalsky – had been snatching the lead from each other for the past two laps, and there was no telling who will come ahead each time. He wasn't aware of his grabbing Dustin's shoulder hard enough to bruise, of Dustin's constant stream of encouragement and swearwords, or of Kelly biting her nails on Dustin's other side. All his attention was on the one bike, the one person, as Blake and Kowalsky cut each other time and again, leaving everyone else whole seconds behind –
– they crossed the finish line a hair apart, definitely less than a second but just as certainly more than three-tenths –
The numbers flashed up on the board a moment later: half a second. Blake had come first by half a second his very first time at a full-blown professional race.
And somewhere, at some point in the haze of noise, colour and back slaps, something happened that took Hunter several long moments to register.
His morpher was chirping. So was Dustin's. And Dustin and Blake hadn't noticed yet.
Praying that Kelly and Dustin could distract Blake for a second, Hunter pushed his way through the mess until he found a bulkhead to hide behind and slapped the comm open. "Is it the end of the world?"
"Cam, Adam and Léan are missing and Ops is trashed," said Shane's voice. "Does this count?"
"Fucking elements." The words rolled out before Hunter realized what he was saying. "What do we do?"
"We don't have CyberCam or teleportation access but the zords and everything else survived," said Shane. "So find a corner and see if you can call the Glider Cycle. If that works hitch Dustin a ride here. Otherwise I'll fly down there and get him. Streaking takes too long."
"Shane, where the – " He didn't, thought Hunter, except Shane obviously had, and the next time Shane called him crazy Hunter would have something to say about that. "Did you streak all the way back to Blue Bay Harbor?" he demanded.
"Yes," said Shane. "End of the world, remember?"
His absence would be noticed any second now, and he had to get himself and Dustin away mere minutes after – Hunter bit back another swearword.
Shane swore on the other side of the comm.
"Now what?" asked Hunter, too angry to properly dread the answer.
"Kapri in a zord."
"How the – "
"Turns out the zords get the sensor feeds. At least she's in the middle of the woods and not downtown. Change in plans. You give Marah a ride back. I'm grabbing Dustin and Tori."
It would be a while before they could get Blake away and they needed a megazord, but... "Shane – "
"Do you have a better idea?"
Shane was only ever that curt if he felt he was losing control of the situation or the team. Hunter swallowed everything he almost said, counted to three and said, "We're destroying Lothor today."
Shane's sharp intake breath was audible before he said. "Yes. Oh, hell yes."
The lawn chair was for show. So were the popcorn bowl and the tea ceremony that Lothor busied himself with, humming happily the entire time. Cam reminded himself, again and again, that Lothor bothered with the elaborate show precisely because it grated on Cam's nerves. That it was what Lothor did: he was a Shadow Master, someone to whom the world at large was a tool, a demon in a human's clothing.
Sheer irritation still made it increasingly difficult to not wreck his already-wounded wrists with futile attempts to break out of the cuffs. Those cuffs were made to hold a ninja. They had probably been made to size for him specifically. Cam wouldn't be getting out of them on his own, but it was try or go crazy.
Finally – finally – Lothor relaxed against the backrest with his tea. "So, where were we?" he asked and, predictably, snapped his fingers. "That's right! Prophecy, army team. Yada yada." He grinned at Cam over the rim of his teacup. "I love slang, don't you? Anyhow," he took another sip of tea, "prophecy. You must be wondering how I could possibly be losing if I have such a great prophecy which, as it happens, is not telling my doom. Aren't you now?" Lothor glanced at Cam over the ream of his teacup. "The answer, dear nephew, is simple." He leaned forward, looked at Cam intently and said in a stage whisper: "I haven't."
"Right," said Cam, because it was expected. "You planned for my team to destroy your entire army."
"Exactly!" said Lothor. He leaned back in the lawn chair, beaming. "That was precisely the plan. Have you ever heard, nephew mine, of the Abyss of Evil? No? It's one of Earth's more fascinating attractions. It's a natural sink for evil. Well," he waved one hand, "for evil-tainted power, but you get the drift. There are several steps in using the Abyss. One, bind oneself to the Abyss. My research turned up that formula. Two, kill off the troops bonded to one, thus sending all of their power straight into the Abyss. You and your team did me this service. Then comes Step Three: get the Abyss to blow wide open. Kaboom!" Lothor gestured widely with his hands, the tea sloshing around and nearly spilling. He reached for the popcorn. "And that," he said, "is what's going to happen now. Enter evil megazord, stage left."
His zord was slower than the Glider Cycle and the cockpit wasn't made for two people, but at least there was a cockpit. Marah wouldn't have survived a four hundred mile flight at that speed hanging unprotected in midair. He put the comm on speaker and they spent the drive listening to Shane, Tori and Dustin arguing their way through combat while Marah worked at control panels he'd never even touched, assessing Ops's status remotely.
"The peripheral telemetry is obviously working," she said, "or we would have never gotten the alert on that zord, but I don't think the processing core's quite right."
"Our zords and the comm are working," said Hunter.
"Yeah, but these are grid-anchored – they'll work so long as you have your morphers and the zords aren't physically destroyed themselves, but yeah, I wouldn't count on second-line auto-repair and we're really limited on power spheres – unless Secondary Ops survived, which I don't know because the data processing is off even that it's not completely down –"
"Wait," said Hunter, cutting her off. "Secondary Ops?"
"Mm-mm," she said. "Deep, deep down even below the zord bay. It's obviously at least somewhat damaged and I'll need a photonic blowtorch to get through the blast doors – Cam put in, like, twenty of them, and lockdown would've activated them all – "
"Is that going to get us full power sphere activation?"
"Yes," she said, but then chewed her lip. "If it isn't too damaged. And if I can get it up in time."
Hunter believed in no deity to pray to, but he had pretty good reasons to believe that one's ancestors would actually be listening. Mom, Dad, he thought, now would be a really good time to be looking out for us.
Hunter was gone. So was Dustin. Kelly had no idea where they'd gone to but she was absolutely and without question going to flay them alive, cut them to pieces and fry them in deep oil when they did deign to crawl out of wherever they had disappeared to. The boys had been so professional for the past few weeks, so reassuringly mature, that she'd forgotten their tendency to disappear with no warning and reappear with no good explanation.
She'd always forgiven Dustin and his people. Trying to handle the mess around Blake all on her own, Kelly thought that that had been bad judgment on her part.
She was so overwhelmed that she didn't even realize Blake had maneuvered the two of them into a side room until he had.
"You don't have a heart condition, do you?"
"After the last hour, I think I do. Blake, what on earth are you doing?"
Room now locked, Blake turned to face her.
"I swear I wouldn't do this if I had a choice," he said, "but I need your help. We all do."
And then, with no further warning –
Kelly's jaw worked as she stared at the figure before her.
The black visor clicked and slid open, revealing Blake's face under the alien helmet. "Kelly?" he asked cautiously.
Trying very hard to neither sputter nor swear, she said: "You're a Power Ranger?"
"Yes. Me, Hunter, Tori, Shane, Dustin and Cam. We're the Power Rangers. And we need your help."
"This," she said, "is crazy. Absolutely freaking crazy." Blake was seventeen. Cam was even younger. Kelly was still struggling with the implications. "How long?" she demanded.
Which made no sense – even less sense – some of the Rangers had tried to kill the others – it was more than she could handle.
They were the Rangers all along, Blake said, and now suddenly he was telling her what was obviously a very big secret and Hunter and Dustin were very conspicuously missing. "What's going on?" she asked, sharply.
"Where do you think Hunter and Dustin are?" he countered. "There's a fight going on. Right now. Everyone else is already on it."
"You need me to cover for you. While you're off fighting aliens – " she was going to add not even an hour after you won your first professional race, but 'off fighting aliens' was crazy enough all on its own.
"Kelly, please," he said. "We're not even supposed to tell unless it's that bad an emergency, and…"
"Go," she said. "Go now, before I get a chance to actually think about this. I'll cover it up somehow. We don't want recruiters thinking you took badly to the stress."
Relief broke across his face. "Thanks, Kell, you're the best."
"And just so we're clear, if this alien thingamajig does kill you?" she took a step forward and jabbed her finger into his chest. It felt like jabbing it into a block of concrete. "I'm going to dig you up and kill you all over again. Are we clear?"
"Yes," he said. "And you won't need to dig us up first." His visor clicked shut. "We're the Power Rangers."
"You're Power Rangers," said Lothor idly. "Do you know what that means?"
On screen, the battle was ongoing. Lothor didn't seem to pay it any attention, though: sitting cross-legged on the lawn chair he turned sideways, giving Cam his full attention.
It meant they had morphers. It meant the morphers responded to them. Cam could give a three-hour lecture or a one-minute brief on the properties of morphers even if he had been shaken awake in the middle of the night. He could build metamorphable weapons and lock them into the grid. He could list all the physiological changes that morphing and mere grid exposure induced in his and the other Rangers' bodies. He could fix a morpher and he probably could build one from scratch, too, if he had to.
He was pretty sure Lothor asked after something else.
"The Morphing Grid is a natural power," said Lothor, "like electromagneticism or gravity or the subnuclear forces, but it also isn't like them at all. The Grid was born out of life, out of sentience. The First Species discovered the Grid and began to nurture it, and ultimately it grew and grew and developed into the wondrous thing that it is today. When you link up with a morpher you are feeding off of the experience, insight and possibly the very soulfire of generations upon generations upon generations of sentient beings. That's why you Rangers are so difficult to kill. That's why you're so – "
A particularly loud explosion made Lothor pause and turn to the viewscreen.
While Lothor had been monologuing, the Wind Megazord discarded the Serpent Sword and called the Lion Laser and the Power Drill. The explosion was the first blow from the Turbine Combo.
"Well, about time," said Lothor.
He'd thought the rest of the power spheres would get the job done. He was wrong. Shane hid the zord behind the Scarf and demanded, "Just how tough is this thing?"
"Very," said Marah over the comm. "I finally got the real-time analysis running, and your best bet is to hold her off until Hunter and Blake get there. You have to try and not take too much damage until they do because even with the Thunderstorm Megazord this is not going to be an easy one."
"Does this zord have any weaknesses?" asked Dustin.
"I don't have CyberCam online because I had to get the power sphere relay and the telemetry hub first and – and I'm not Cam and I'm sorry and…"
"Marah," said Shane, trying to not sound sharp. Marah was on the verge of tears if she wasn't already crying. "You got all the critical systems up in maybe ten minutes and you got us the spheres, which is what was really urgent. You're doing great."
"Totally," said Tori, and her light tone was much more convincing. "You're awesome."
"But if Cam was here he could – "
"But he isn't and you already saved our necks," said Dustin. "I love you, all right?"
It took Shane over a second to pause, rewind and realize just what Dustin had just said.
"The Abyss is full," said Lothor. "Has been since Motodrone. Your red Ranger tossed in several hundred kelzacks today, but kelzacks don't impress the Abyss much. Not even the furies. That was a disappointment." He shook himself. "And you're probably wondering why it hasn't exploded in all its malevolent glory just yet."
He didn't want to know. He did want to know. He could avoid asking, but then Lothor would lean back and say nothing. Cam shut up anyway.
"Oh, well," sighed Lothor after a few moments, during which the two giant battle mecha traded blows and sparks and probably set acres of woodland on fire. Cam reflected that it was a good thing Southern California knew how to handle big forest fires.
"I should have known better than to think you'd humor me," continued Lothor, "but a ninja can hope. The reason that the Abyss hasn't exploded yet is, of course, that it is full precisely to the brim. It needs to overload, and it also needs a spark." He pointed to the screen. "They're prancing around right on top of the Abyss, you know; and when that zord is destroyed it's going to explode; and when it explodes, all the power that it contains will flow into me; and then," Lothor grinned, and for once it was a cruel expression rather than a jovial one, "then I can rip me some real power."
Marah's voice rang out of the comm system suddenly. "Got it!" she said. "The power transformation drive, guys!"
"Energy blasts and high speeds!" yelled Dustin before Shane had a chance to demand an explanation.
"Marah, load us up with everything we can support for sixty seconds," he ordered over the comm. "We're ending this."
Cam stared as the Thunderstorm Megazord discarded the spheres it was using and re-armed with the Lion Laser, the Sting Blaster and the Star Blazer. His team was not actually stupid or irresponsible, for all that he'd never admit it to their faces, and if they armed the megazord with a combination that could wreck its systems so thoroughly then they had to have finally come up with a proper plan, because the battle wasn't that desperate yet.
Twenty seconds later, it was over.
"Well," said Lothor, putting away his popcorn. "That was disappointing." He got up and stretched, standing on tiptoe. "One down, six to go."
"What?" said Cam sharply.
"Well, the one zord clearly wasn't enough to set the Abyss off, was it?" said Lothor. "I was counting on mutual destruction. That zord was certainly capable of that, but Kapri apparently wasn't."
"And you just happened to have yet another zord in the launch bay."
"No," said Lothor, "I don't." He lifted his right hand, around which wrist Cam's amulet was tied like a bracelet. "Thanks for the keys, Nephew."
Marah reported no outgoing teleportation streams, but the wrecks gave too much interference. The five of them screened Ops off the comm and were arguing whether to search for the Marah's sister – or her remains – on foot when Marah patched through, sounding hysterical.
"Cam's zord is moving!" she said. "It just started up and launched out of the bay, but I can't establish contact!"
"Had there been any incoming teleportation?" asked Shane.
"No, there hasn't."
"We're hoping for the best, right?" said Dustin.
"Yeah," said Tori. "It's Cam. Hope for the best."
"And prepare for the worst," said Hunter, but a glance at the board told Shane that that went only to him.
"Hope for the best and prepare for the worst, guys," he said, somehow keeping his voice steady even though the words were broken glass. "Lothor has a track record."
"Seriously, Shane – " began Tori.
Marah cut her off. "Incoming teleportation!" she said. "Straight into the Samurai Star's cockpit – you should see it any moment now."
"Is it Cam?" demanded Blake.
"I don't know," said Marah. She was in tears by the sound of it.
"It doesn't matter," said Hunter. "We'll know in a second anyway."
"Marah, block the power spheres, just to be on the safe side, okay?" said Shane.
"Dude, I hate to say it, but in our current state?" said Dustin. "The Samurai Star could literally just beat us to destruction."
"Here it comes," said Tori.
Shane opened a channel. "Thunderstorm Megazord to Samurai Star," he said.
The answer was prompt.
"Sorry I'm late," said Lothor's cheerful voice. "Couldn't let you have a party without me, now could I?"
His wrists had to be long torn and bruised from wrestling with the cuffs; his legs burned and ached from struggling with the foot-lock; he had a pounding headache from the effort of pushing at his extra senses without the amulet's focus, steeped in the toxic atmosphere of Lothor's ship, for hours. Yet Cam kept struggling. On the view screen before him, the Samurai Star – his zord, his zord – was doing battle with the Thunderstorm Megazord. The Star was but the one zord and the Thunderstorm was made up of five, but Cam had been working with zords and morphers – had been listening to Adam's combat legacy stories – long enough to know better. Cam could not be his team's sixth if he could not stand up to his team; his zord could take on all five other zords, even with the gestalt boost of the megazord mode.
The swords of the two giant machines clashed, again and again, sometimes against each other and sometimes against the other machine's body. Then the Samurai Star took to the air and the megazord braced itself, raising its sword, and for a moment Cam almost dared to hope –
– on screen, everything exploded. When the light cleared, neither the Star nor the megazord were visible.
He had to break free.
The zords were down. The zords were down so hard that Shane had to smash the cockpit's windows to get out, and he suspected the other Rangers had to do the same. Cam's zord was down, too, and Shane was furious that that was a good thing. At least Lothor couldn't trample them to death. He knew better than to hope, however remotely, that Lothor had died in the crash. He'd seen Lothor survive his own power reflected by the Gem of Souls: a mere zord crash was nothing.
Even if the explosions were spectacular.
He clicked the comm open. "Everybody check in."
But the comm was dead. He was still morphed and he was pretty sure that he was still on Earth and that Skyla's power wasn't burning so hot as to disrupt the comm.
The explosions. There was a huge screen of fire between the wrecks of the megazord and Cam's zord, and there was something definitely wrong with it. Shane narrowed his eyes behind the visor of his helmet. He could see something that looked like fire, but he could also see something else. It was dark, beyond black, beyond even the prismatic darkness of death that clung to the Gem. It was the fresh, concentrated form of the same power he'd seen earlier that day at the Academy.
Shane's eyes traced the fault line across which the screen of not-fire sat. Oh, he realized. Shit.
They were standing on top of the Abyss.
"Shane!" shouted a voice to his right. Tori.
Bright yellow across the charred metal to his left: Dustin.
Comm or no comm, the team could find each other. A few moments later the five of them stood around in a loose formation.
"Don't look at those flames," said Shane.
"Why?" asked Tori.
"Because that's the Abyss of Evil," said Shane.
"Figures," said Blake. "That's why they attacked in the middle of nowhere."
"Too late for that," said Hunter shortly. "Now what?"
"Now this," said Tori.
The not-flames did not look much like flames, anymore. They collapsed to the ground, where they pooled like so much magma, and then began flowing, first slowly and than faster. They formed a spiral and, as more and more power reached the center of it the spiral rose into the sky. The cyclone rose higher and higher, gathering more power, and when it finally gathered every last drop of power that had exploded from the Abyss, it collapsed into its center.
Between his struggle with the restraints and the on-screen battle, Cam neither heard the bay's door open nor heard her approach until Kapri was fifteen feet away.
He didn't recognize her at first. She'd lost her glamour, and without her makeup, her hair pulled in a simple ponytail and dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans she looked little like the woman he and his team had been fighting for close to a year. She looked awful. She looked like someone who had crawled out of the wreck of an exploded zord by the skin of her teeth: covered in soot and dirt, clothes ripped – open cuts and burns showing through – and dragging one leg slightly.
She'd only gone face to face with Lothor once before, in the Cavern of Souls at the Mountain of Lost Ninja. Sometimes Tori wondered how she did not have nightmares of it. This was not one of those times. Standing before the man in a burnt-down forest, her teammates to her right and left, the dying bodies of their zords at their backs, Tori's mind rang with the perfect clarity of battle. She could hear herself and her teammates breathing over the roar of the fire, the faintest rustle of their feet against their dirt; could see Lothor's muscles ripple and almost-move under his uniform; could tell, through that, how the power wrapped around his body though she couldn't see it with her eyes.
Could see Cam's morpher dangling from Lothor's hand.
The laziness of his smile was a lie; the wickedness was not. "I've been waiting for this day," he said, "for longer than you have been alive."
Kapri collapsed on Lothor's lawn chair, resting her elbows on her knees. She pressed the base of both her palms against her forehead for a moment before she looked up at him and asked, "He did name me 'general,' right?"
Cam's mind kicked up several gears. He stared at her.
"I'm betraying him to you either way," she continued conversationally. "I just want to know how badly I'm screwing him over. It also bears on your team's chances today, so."
At least the added adrenaline was clearing his head a little. "Give me one good reason to believe you right now."
"You aren't getting away with this, Lothor," said Shane. His voice was pitched low, dangerous.
"Oh yeah? Who's going to stop me, you?"
"Yes," said Tori. "Us."
"Now, what ever gave you that idea?"
"We're the Power Rangers," said Dustin.
"No," said Lothor. "You were."
Kapri struggled to her feet. "Your senses are screwed without your morpher, right? I'm going to have to touch you." She limped the short distance to him and, stabilizing herself with one hand on his chains she laid her other hand against his face. "I'm betraying Lothor to you," she repeated. "I hate him since I was four and for more reasons than we have time for me to explain right now. He must've told you about the prophecy and if he didn't then I really hope Marah did. And I really hope that you can read me clearly enough to know I'm telling you the truth."
He couldn't, not yet. She was desperate for him to believe her; she was terrified for her life; and her hatred for Lothor ran deep enough to suggest that at least that part was true. But he'd never used his psi senses without the amulet to support them and he could count on the fingers of one hand the worse days he'd had. He needed her to keep talking.
"Proceed with the assumption I don't completely disbelieve you right now," he said. He sounded caustic and pissed off. Good.
Kapri's face hardened. "The generals are the key," she said. "I figured out there was something he wasn't saying. He was so sure, absolutely sure, he's going to win but it didn't say that anywhere in anything he let me see of the prophecy. And I never believed, not even for one moment, that he brought Marah and me along just to help him deceive the rest of the troops. And then came the generals. Every general was a celebration and finally, I realized – there were five. There were only five generals named in the prophecy, only five generals I knew of. Five, see? And there are six of you. This kind of thing matters when fighting Power Rangers. All it takes for Lothor to make a general is to name them general just the once, to just the one person. Marah and I would have made seven. He would have beaten you for sure. He named me a general, didn't he? I'm his sixth."
It wasn't that his heart was in his throat, quite: his pulse slammed through his entire body. He latched on to Kapri's conviction, because she had never been more certain of anything else in her entire life and he could feel behind her words the form of the knowledge from which she worked these conclusions.
"Yes," he said. "He made you general. And yes, I believe you."
The sound she made could have been a sob; was a sob, if he let himself feel that much for her.
"I'm going to let you go now," she said. "All you have to do is let me live, and you can't lose. Prophecy warranty."
Lothor thrust his hand forward. They never saw it coming. Lothor stood and smiled as he watched the five teens struggle to their feet.
"All this year," he said, "you thought you were so lucky, so powerful, so good. Truth was, I was betting on it. I was baiting you into killing off my troops for me, sending their power into the Abyss. I was training you to become better and stronger. Fattening you like livestock in preparation for this day, today," he spread his arms to the side, "when my nephew loaned me this little trinket and you and that stupid girl so helpfully blew the Abyss wide open, feeding all its power – all the power of all the warriors you have destroyed – into me. A year ago I could kill you by snapping my fingers. Now, with this power, I could do better, and I have. All that precious power contained in your morphers? It's mine now. And now, dear little no-longer-Rangers, now I'm going to make you pay for how much you pissed me off."
Kapri had to resort to magic to cut the chains without blasting him in the process. They both collapsed to their knees, him from being chained and her from exhaustion. Cam pushed himself up on his arms and dragged her along with him, to lean against the chair.
"You actually didn't kill me," she said.
"You're Marah's sister," he said tiredly. "I'm quite glad I don't need to. Don't be an idiot," he continued as he felt her freeze up next to him. "We have the time for it."
"No, we don't." She tipped her head back, found nothing to lean it against, and dropped it forward. "He's probably going to drain out your morphers."
"He's going to do what?"
"The morphers are just capacitors, you know that, right?" she rubbed her hand against her cheek. "So the raw power of the Grid doesn't kill just by tapping into it. He can steal the power that's in them, but he can't rip out your Grid connection, not even if he kills you."
"There's no way we can destroy him unmorphed. Without our morphers – "
She cut him off. "He can't rip out your Grid connection," she repeated. "Rangers achieved second-order morphing before, not that I know how. But," she shrugged, "it can be done, it's been done, and there's a prophecy saying you can't lose, so you have to be able to do it."
"Theoretically, I was destined to die today." She winced. "You know killing a Shadow Master isn't that easy, right?"
In the back of his head, the six tips of a dream-shurikan shone with their respective powers as it transformed into a subtler, deadlier weapon.
"I know how to do it," he said. He gestured around them. "Can you undo the stasis?"
"Free Adam and Léan first, before I go" he said. "Then the three of you can get everyone else." He hesitated, and then asked: "Is my father…?"
"Alive," she said, shortly. "But you want the healers recovered first. He doesn't have more than an hour otherwise."
"Right. So." He tested his muscles, and, carefully, tried to stand. "Let's get this going."
He hadn't known that having his morpher destroyed would hurt so much. It was as if everything wrong that had ever happened to him and that he had ever witnessed, had been packed together into a single moment and that moment stretched on and on. Hunter had his elemental power still, as did the others, but it was all they could do to stay alive. No, he corrected as he dove out of the way of another oily-dark blast. Lothor is playing with us. Lothor could finish them off in a heartbeat if he so wanted.
"Guys!" shouted Dustin.
Hunter turned his head. The earth ninja had erected a two-story high barricade. Hunter picked himself up and ran for cover. He threw himself across the last six feet, landing in a roll, and when he rose –
"Cam!" Hunter hugged him fiercely. "Are you okay? How – "
"Kapri," said Cam. He sounded short and waspish even on the scale of Cam. Hunter pulled back and considered him, bruises and all.
"Is everyone here?" said Cam, turning to glance around. "Good."
"Cam, he destroyed our morphers," said Tori.
"Which destabilizes the power matrix he created for himself and gives us the in we need," retorted Cam.
Shane, being Shane, grinned. "Remind me again why we're not supposed to have blind faith in you?" He slapped Cam on the back. "Did I hear a plan in there?"
"We need to put our powers together," said Cam.
"But we don't – " said Blake.
"Yes, we do," said Dustin. "We have our elements."
"Yes," said Cam, before anyone else could say anything. "We need to put it together, weave the best and most solid power matrix we can. Then Dustin drops this wall and we push everything we have through the samurai amulet. The pull of the polarized powers will destroy Lothor before he can fully transform into a demon."
"Before he can what?" demanded Hunter.
"He's a fully realized Shadow Master who has transmuted every last bit of his soul into power," said Cam matter-of-factly. "What do you think that makes him?"
"So we annihilate him at the core," said Blake.
"That's the plan," said Cam.
"Let's do it," said Shane.
Their usual formation was roughly v-shaped, with Shane at the center and Tori and Hunter at his wings. This wasn't going to work, not this time, not for what they needed to do. Shane stepped forward, very close to the wall. Dustin and Tori fell behind him and to his sides, the three of them forming a triangle. Hunter, Blake and Cam formed the complementary triangle, Hunter standing before Tori, Blake before Dustin and Cam at the back of the formation, behind Shane. They had trained together, fought together, long enough that they did not need their morphers to move as one when they called on their elements.
Hunter's eyes watered as he kept them open, unblinking, despite the way the air and the earth were tearing under the combined press of all elements thrown together, everything almost torn to pieces in the split-second it took the six of them to achieve perfect balance.
The wall was smashed to pieces by a miasmic ball of screeching darkness. Wrapped in the power of his team, Hunter could see it, hear it, taste it. There were tentacles of power reaching out from Lothor, and they were dark like cracks in the very fabric of reality, colourless even through the prismatic glitter of the team's power matrix.
"So," said Lothor. He didn't seem amused, anymore. "You didn't run off after all. I suppose I should thank you for offering me even more power."
"There is a reason," said Shane, "that we're called Ninja Storm."
"We're not offering you anything," said Tori.
"Except your end," said Dustin.
"Which you brought on yourself," said Hunter.
"And which you totally deserve," said Blake.
"It's over, Lothor," completed Cam. The next second, the entirety of their power burst forward from his amulet – still in Lothor's hand – like six spikes of light too bright to be called white.
Twice before Hunter had felt as if his life force was being torn out of his body. This was different. It felt as if an entire lightning storm was coursing through him, crackling. It was too much power, too much, and Hunter gritted his teeth in the effort to keep the rest of his body in perfect posture, to not break the fragile balance everything depended upon.
The six of them were strong. Hunter had grown up knowing he and Blake had uniquely deep elemental affinities, and the past year had taught him that Shane, Dustin and Tori had a potential to match. Whatever Cam was, he was powerful, too. Without their morphers, though, it wasn't enough. Lothor was struggling, screaming, trying to let go of the piercing ball of light that Cam's morpher had turned into, but he was still standing and still very much alive. They needed more power, but this was all that Hunter's body could take without burning up and the others couldn't be doing better. They desperately needed more power –
It happened to Shane, first: liquid fire gathering under his skin, gold and red, and for a few terrifying seconds Hunter thought that Shane would be the first of them to die –
– but then the Red Ranger was standing there, and a second later there was a flash of brilliant blue from behind Hunter, as if Tori had only needed to know that it was possible before she, too, morphed without a functioning morpher; then Dustin, and then the tide of power caught Hunter. Morphing had never hit him like this, not like this, as if the power had always been behind a screen before and that screen was no longer in the way –
Lothor fell to his knees, writhing, screaming still. The edges of his body melted and twisted. The amulet flew out of him hand. For a second, the form of the demon was clearly visible, and then it was over.
Lothor was gone.
"Is he really…?" asked Dustin.
"Yes," said Cam. "It's over."
"Power down," said Shane.
Tori demorphed; they all did, turning so they all faced the center of their circle and each other.
"Did you know?" she demanded of Cam. "That we – that we could – "
"After I've slept for twenty-four hours," he said.
"Dudes," said Dustin. "I don't think you're getting this. We nailed Lothor."
It was as if what Dustin said was a cue. She had no idea who moved first or who reached for whom, but the next moment they were all hugging and laughing and talking at once, and she was not the only one crying.
Blake was the first one to break away. "I have to go back," he said. "Kelly's probably going mad by now."
"What did you tell her this time?" asked Cam.
"The truth," said Blake.
"You did not –"
"Guys," said Shane. Everybody fell silent. "You," he pointed at Blake, "go back, have fun, pretend you didn't save the world today."
"Sign up with the highest bidder," added Tori.
Blake flashed her a grin.
"Somebody has to check up on the Thunder Academy. You're stuck with that," he told Hunter. "The rest of us have a Wind Academy to put together."
Blake showed up out of nowhere, the way he and the rest of her kids always did, and Kelly did her best to convince everyone else that things were totally normal. The second they were alone behind closed doors, though, she asked: "Is everyone all right?"
"Yes," he said, and then: "It's over."
Oh, she thought. Then, instead of repeating that or something else equally inane out loud, she surrendered to impulse and pulled him in for a hug.
To her great surprise, he hugged her back.
They stepped through the holographic portal, and paused.
"It looks like nothing happened," said Tori blankly.
Before them, the Academy's buildings had been restored as if they had never been gone; the pagodas, too. The grounds were crawling with people.
"Almost," said Cam.
The plant life was still missing, and the movement of the crowd was not that of a normal day.
"Come on," said Shane. "We have people to find."
They walked down the slope and past the main square to the central building. The other ninjas stepped aside, letting them pass. There was a gathering murmur in the crowd.
"This is weird," muttered Dustin.
"No kidding," she replied.
Up ahead, one of the ninjas ran into the building. A moment later someone else emerged, running down the stairs.
Dustin broke pace with the rest of them and ran forward to meet her. Marah reached up even as he grabbed her waist, pulling his face down with both her hands for a kiss.
Shane made an amused sound. "Image of a happy ending," he said.
"Indeed," said Cam dryly. "We need to – "
"No," said Shane.
Tori knew exactly what he meant. "Go find your dad, Cam," she said. "We'll take care of everything else."
Kapri had teleported down with the last of the ninjas. Marah had insisted. Marah had things to take care of, though, being one of three people who knew what was going on – at least until the return of the Rangers – and Kapri was in the way. She found an empty office at the top floor of the central building and stayed there. Outside the window the light turned golden, amber and finally red.
The door was pushed open. Kapri jumped.
"I couldn't find you," said Marah. She was dressed in the same black leather as the rest of the Wind ninjas, though without the coloured trimmings. Her hair had so much dust it was grey.
"I was here," said Kapri. "You were busy."
"Shut up, Kapri," said Marah. She stepped in and closed the door behind her.
They stood like that, looking at each other in silence, for long, agonizing moments. Eventually, Kapri broke first.
"He was going to kill both of us," she said. "You did good, you got away, if you hadn't – "
Marah's hand snapped up to her mouth at Kapri's first word. Then she forced it down. "Kapri, stop, just stop," she said. "Please." Then she stepped forward. "I don't know what to believe, anymore. I love you, but – "
Kapri dug her nails into her palm, her feet into the ground and said, before her fear would fail her, "You're my sister. And I was – "
She never finished that sentence. Marah flung herself forward, hanging down from her Kapri's neck, and for once both sisters were crying as hard.
He had no idea what he would find as the water student – she was a senior, but Cam couldn't remember her name – led him through the back and down to the river that ran through the grounds, to a one-story building the healers liked to use. Cam bowed back to her distractedly before pushing the door open. Joanna Reese, the senior water teacher, was sitting on her knees on the rug, and next to her –
Cam didn't know he cried out as he ran to his father.
She grabbed his shoulders, pulled him back. "Easy, Cam," she said gently. Her touch was light. "I don't know what exactly happened, but he was in a very bad shape. His chi was completely distorted."
"Was he – like this, when you…?"
She released his shoulder before she said, "What do you mean by 'like this'?"
"He was hurt in the attack," Cam told her. "The first attack. He was – Lothor trapped him in a transmogrified form."
"This would explain the state of his chi," she said. "But yes, he was like this when that girl brought me to him. He must have been released when you destroyed the dark ninja who trapped him."
"Will he be all right?"
"Yes," she said. She touched his shoulder again. "His chest may not be quite the same, but it's nothing we can't manage. He'll sleep for a while."
Cam nodded. "I'll stay with him."
She smiled. "He is your father," she said.
Leaning with her back against the door was a bit dramatic, but Tori felt she was entirely entitled. "Please tell me you had a better afternoon than I did."
Blake, who was lying on the bed and had removed the pillow from his head when she entered, gave her a smirk. "Factory Blue," he said. "But we made them work for it."
"He's giving me too much credit," said Kelly, who was collapsed in the desk chair. She glanced up at Tori. "Your boyfriend's dangerous."
"So am I," said Tori.
"She hits harder," said Blake dryly.
"Right," said Kelly, drawing the syllable out slightly. "Let me guess: no one else is coming back tonight?"
"Léan and Cam sure aren't, neither of them have seen their fathers in over a year. Marah has her sister. I have no idea about anyone else."
"Okay," said Kelly. "I," she continued, pushing herself up, "am going to get drunk. You two," she shook her head. "I don't want to know, do I?"
Eventually it was Adam who tapped his shoulder and pulled him out of the Clan Council room. Hunter hadn't even noticed it had gotten dark. He blinked at the starry sky once, twice, several times, before tapping the auxiliary communicator Adam had brought him; Cam wouldn't be fixing their damaged morphers any time soon.
Hunter didn't smile, but he did close his eyes. "Glad you made it, CyberCam."
"Me too, my homie. You know my big bro, he wouldn't let anyone down. Totally had my backup somewhere not even the Big Bad Uncle could touch it."
"Yeah," agreed Hunter. "Care to give me a ride back?"
CyberCam clucked a tongue he didn't have, and the next moment Hunter was standing in a strange place that had to be what the Wind Academy looked like when it wasn't a burnt-down wilderness.
Hunter looked up at the windows of the building he was standing under, many of which were lit. "Tell me he isn't trying to run the clan single-handedly," he said.
"No worries," said CyberCam. "The Old Man's still sleeping, but Marah talked to Sensei Reese and Sensei Reese grabbed your boyfriend by the ear and sent him to an empty apartment hours ago, and I fetched all your stuff."
"Thanks. Directions would be nice, too." Hunter turned around, taking it in. "I don't know this place at all."
CyberCam talked him to the residential area, to the right building, up the stairs and to the door. The room Hunter stepped into had a mattress spread out on the floor, more mattresses in a storage cabinet that was left open, and two duffels by the wall, the open one being Shane's.
Hunter stepped in and let the door close behind him. "Shane?" he called.
There was no answer.
There was another door to the side. On its other side was a bathroom – as spartan and not lived in as the main room – and sitting on the edge of the bathtub, having apparently taken a bath but then forgotten what to do next, was Shane. He didn't look up at Hunter.
Go find him before he forgets to be anything but the leader, said Adam when he'd pulled Hunter out. Hunter hadn't needed the reminder.
He stepped in quietly, walked around the discarded towel – he didn't want to know how long Shane had just sat there – and kneeled next to him.
"Hey," he said, touching Shane's knee lightly. "That's a lousy way to fall asleep."
Shane blinked. "Huh? What? Hunter?"
"You," Hunter told him, "are totally out of it. Also an idiot, but that can't be fixed. Come on," he pushed himself up, pulling Shane with him before the guy had a chance to say a word. "We're finding you a clean pair of boxers and then – "
He didn't finish that sentence because suddenly he had an armful of Shane. More than an armful – Shane stepped into him, tangling their legs somehow, arms and hands fastened to Hunter's side and his forehead resting between Hunter's neck and his shoulder. Hunter's arms went around him automatically.
Everything else could wait.
At first he merely sat next to his father; then he held his hand with his own; eventually he gave up and bent forward, pressing his forehead to his father's hand, as awkward a position as it was when sitting next to a prone person. He stayed that way for the rest of the night: the room was already alight with dawn when he felt his father's mind stir.
He should break contact, he knew: should straighten his aching back and let his father wake to the sight of his son's face, should not push at the boundaries the way he was doing. But it had been half a year since he'd spoken to his father at all and a year since he had seen his father's face, and his father had married his mother knowing her for who and what she was, and Cam was tired.
"Cameron," said his father, voice raspy.
"Dad," said Cam, the syllable barely pushed past the lump in his throat. He straightened slowly, his hand moving to his father's, maintaining unbroken touch.
His father's grip was weak, but that was the aftershock of his illness. His smile, though small and exhausted, was warmer than Cam remembered it ever being.
"We won, Dad," he said. "Lothor's gone. Everyone – all the ninjas – have been released. The Academies are restored. The team – the team is well." He forced himself to not screw his eyes shut. "It's been half a year. I'm sorry, I'm so –"
"I am proud of you," said his father, his grip tightening minutely. "I am proud of you, and I love you, and I never once doubted that you and your team would succeed. You've done well, Cam."
Cam swallowed the rest of the apologies and squeezed his father's hand. "I'm psychic," he said, "but I think you already know that."
"Your mother," said his father, very gently, "had me promise that I would let you be a samurai first, as she had been. I am sorry that –"
"No," said Cam. He shook his head. "Please don't, Dad."
"All right," said his father. "It's all right, my son."
They'd had easier weeks. The subject of 'better' was debatable, and would take longer to decide. There were ninjas to brief, sporting events to go to and Kelly who wanted her explanation and wanted it last week. By the time they managed to get away there were just over two weeks to go before Tori would move to college, and Dustin's birthday rolled around, giving them an excuse they did not quite need. It was summer, no one needed to know how far from anywhere they went up the beach, and there was nothing for them to worry about.
Nothing, that is, but Tori's revenge for Dustin not having his birthday party interrupted by aliens, and Dustin's retaliation.
"Hey!" shouted Shane as the quake had nearly tossed him face-first into the fire. "Careful with that!"
"Sorry!" called Dustin back.
"I don't care how far from any dwelling we are," began Cam.
"Lay off them, Cam," said Hunter, but then he leaned back and called at the two splashing figures: "You know water conducts electricity, right?"
"Hey," protested Blake. "No…"
Marah shut him up by putting a s'more in his mouth, and asked: "Who else wants one?"
Cam buried his face in his hands. "Are you going to help?" he demanded.
Shane and Hunter exchanged glances, and then looked at Kapri, who was sitting on Cam's other side.
"What?" she demanded. "I'm not getting into this. I'm still waiting for you guys to off me when I'm not paying attention."
"Nobody's forcing you to stay," said Hunter.
Shane gave him a Look, and then deliberately turned to Marah. "I'd like a s'more."
"Okay," she said, "but we need to toast more marshmallows first."
Hours later, things had gotten quieter. The half moon hung low and yellow in the clear sky; Marah had fallen asleep with her head on Dustin's chest, who was lying on his back, combing her hair absently with his fingers; Kapri and Blake were, of all things, playing a game of Go; Tori was sitting behind Blake, lounging against him with her elbow on his shoulder, distracting Kapri from the game with an argument on sword technique which Cam, who was brewing yet another round of tea, occasionally interrupted, which then led to Kapri shushing him lest he wake her sister.
"What?" demanded Hunter. He and Shane were sitting a bit further away from the others, their backs to a handy boulder, and Shane was giving him a look. Again.
"Think Cam's doing that on purpose?" asked Shane.
"Baiting Kapri to get her to be less twitchy?" Cam had been studying Adam's dirty tricks. "You know he is." And that had nothing to do with Shane looking at him this way. "And you're evading."
Shane shrugged. "Marah wants to go to school, did you hear that? Cam will have to create her a paper trail somehow."
"Yeah, it was hard to miss that with the way they don't stop talking about it." He glanced at Marah and Dustin. "With the school experience she had?"
"Yeah, even high school is a remedial experience after that," agreed Shane. "And Blake's going to, like, half move in with Tori, dorms or no dorms."
Hunter was trying to not think about that. "It won't be dorms for long," he muttered. "Think we'll need to write wedding speeches by next summer?"
Shane snorted. "Tori's parents will kill her if she marries before she graduates from college."
The thought of his baby brother moving in with a girlfriend – even if it was Tori – and marrying – even if it would be in four years' time – tied Hunter's stomach in knots, but Shane wasn't avoiding a subject, this time. "Cam's talking about school, too," he said, neutrally as he could.
"Yeah, except he's talking about de-classifying parts of the research he had to do for the Rangers and getting three doctorates in three years. And he totally can do it, too."
Which concluded the list of pretty much everyone who mattered.
Moments passed in silence. Hunter carefully looked anywhere but at Shane.
"Sensei offered to let me stay at the Academy," said Shane abruptly.
Hunter blinked. "You mean, to work?"
Shane shrugged. "We're graduated now."
The Winds were. Blake was, too. Hunter, with his freak occurrence of a primary affinity, had a year or so to go. "We're going to have to get used to streaking a lot," he said, "or else talk Cam into letting us use the teleporter when it isn't an emergency."
"I don't have to take him up on it yet," said Shane. "There isn't an expiration date. Or, hey, at all. You never wanted to – did you?"
You never wanted to be a full-time ninja, Shane meant. It was Hunter's turn to shrug. "Blake didn't." And because he didn't want to talk about that, and Shane was possibly being an idiot again, Hunter asked: "You?"
Another shrug. "I'm not going to be a professional skater."
Hunter pushed himself straight and turned to face Shane completely. "That," he said, "is a stupid reason. You're a good ninja. And you're good with people. Kelly says you could manage any staff anywhere, and I believe her. Question is, what do you want?"
"What do you?" countered Shane.
"You're both idiots," announced Cam.
He and Shane both startled as they hadn't noticed Cam's approach.
"What, no tea?" said Shane, looking up at Cam, who was standing above them.
"You want tea," said Cam, "you come join everyone."
Hunter glanced behind Cam. Kapri seemed to have gone to sleep as well, curled up on Marah's other side; Blake and Tori were playing in the surf again.
"I see the Go board is free," he said.
"You know I'm going to beat you," said Cam.
"Yeah, but how long is it going to take you?"
"If you two are going to play," said Shane, "I'm going to do like the smart people and go to sleep."
"The tea is over there," said Cam shortly, turned, and walked back to the fire.
Shane and Hunter looked at each other, shrugged, got up and joined their team.