Strategic Planning for the Strategically Disinclined
Shane didn’t bother looking up from his lukewarm cup of tea when Cam made his way over to where he and Blake were hiding out in the corner, as unobtrusive as two guys in leather-like ninja suits could be in a waiting room filled with second hand furniture and fake plants. Someone - one of the veterans, he thought - had shoved the Styrofoam cup in his direction earlier with orders to replenish his energy. It was a nice thought, but he hadn’t bothered to partake of it. The warmth was welcomed though, and it smelled comforting, like home.
They didn’t do the tea-thing much as a team, but occasionally Sensei would insist in that quiet yet demanding way of his, that they share in this sacred tradition together, no matter how ‘outdated’ it may seem to them. It meant a lot to Cam, even if the Samurai ranger would never say it, so they acquiesced easily enough. With the exception of Hunter, but that was to be expected.
Hunter, the damn ass,=; why couldn’t he have just stayed away-
Tori was standing vigil over Dustin’s unconscious body in one of the nearby patient rooms, quietly keeping out of the way as one of the doctor’s checked him over. Shane, as agonizing as it was, had elected to stay out where he was accessible to the other rangers, ready for the inevitable debrief. He didn’t have a lot to give them, which was why, he suspected, Blake had stayed with him instead of following after Cam to wait for Hunter. It was probably for the best though. There wasn’t anything more either of them could do for Hunter there than they could here, and at least in the waiting room they had to pretend to be civil.
Shane had yet to ask for clarification on the entire ‘hole in the ceiling’ ordeal Commander Meyers had asked him about earlier. He didn’t have the energy to process whatever the answer would be, and ultimately, he was probably better off not knowing the details.
At some point, someone had started handing out cookies. Shane had declined, but Blake took a handful without question and automatically began shoveling them into his mouth on such glazed over autopilot he probably didn’t even taste them. It occurred to Shane that the thunder ninja probably hadn’t eaten since morning- none of them had, now that he thought of it. Food had sort of been passed over in favor of salvaging what little they could of an uncontrollable situation. The sun was already beginning to set.
Shane should have grabbed some as well, but he could barely keep himself from chucking his weak tea across the room in sheer frustration; there was no need to risk the loss of cookies as well. They had already wasted enough today, thanks.
“What’s the good word?” Blake asked around a mouthful of cookies, somehow making it seem more endearing than gross. It was one of the Thunder ninja’s talents.
When Cam’s first words were, “I need you to be calm,” Shane managed, through some form of measure, to not drive his fist into the wall. He suspected it had something to do with how tired he was, but realistically he had always known it would be bad news. Another inevitability.
“That’s comforting,” Blake drawled, shoving another cookie into his mouth carelessly. It took Shane a few seconds to realize the younger Bradley was reverting to default mode, where everything on the outside was presented merely for show. Whatever he was thinking, it was going to be kept to himself, for now.
Shane hadn’t seen him like this since he and Hunter had been trying to kill Sensei.
By Cam’s tired look, he knew the tech recognized this as well.
“Dustin’s fine,” Cam said, hands loose at his sides. He must have meditated on the way over here. Shane’s control resulted from exhaustion, and Cam’s could too, but he knew the guy well enough to realize that genius-sized brain of his never truly shut off. Especially not in situations like this.
“He overexerted himself,” Cam continued. “But otherwise-”
“He’s fine,” Blake finished for him, quirking an eyebrow. “How’s my brother?”
Shane knew it would be bad.
At the end of the day, it was a question of how bad. There was a lot of Shane that was furious it had come to that point, but this was where they were, and there was no point in pretending otherwise.
“Three broken ribs.” The information hit Shane like a wrecking ball, but Cam wasn’t done. “One of them shifted and punctured a lung. He’s in surgery now.”
“Awesome,” Blake cursed lowly under his breath, the lone cookie that remained crumbling pathetically in his fingers, hand now tensed into a fist. “How bad-?”
“He’ll make a full recovery,” Cam said, tone hard, but quiet. “Dr. Mitchell says it will take a few weeks though, even with the aid of his morpher.”
“Double awesome?” Shane, for lack of anything better to say, fell back on the catch-phrase Dustin loved so well. It was badly-timed and out of place, but when he reached for Blake’s shoulder, the navy ranger didn’t shake him off, so that was something.
They were both fairly aware of how inconceivably un-awesome this all was.
Shane looked back to Cam, and whatever his next question had been disappeared on his tongue. He knew that face. He knew that face too well. It was a not a face he was particularly fond of seeing.
“We should go check on Dustin,” Cam suggested, nodding back towards the entrance of the waiting room. They followed after him mechanically, conscious to keep their heads down, away from the security cameras.
When they got there, it was just Tori and Dustin, pale against the sheets. The doctors must have been satisfied, for now. Cam closed the door behind them quietly; a subtle movement that wouldn’t draw attention, save from those who knew to look for it, and took a deep breath.
“Do we have a problem?” Shane asked. There was no point in putting it off, really. They might as well cut to the chase.
Cam went for the indirect answer.
“We’re going to, I suspect.”
“You gonna make us ask, man?” Blake murmured, narrowing his gaze into a mean glare. “Or are you gonna spit it out?”
“They ran facial recognition on Dustin.”
“Is that bad?” Tori asked. She was already beside Blake, having moved as soon as the younger Bradley had entered the room. They settled side-by-side against the wall, Blake’s arms folded across his chest, too openly defensive for what he had trained into himself, but reverting to the posture from exhaustion. It was just the team, anyway.
Tori bumped his arm casually, and if he softened then, well, none of them commented on it.
“They ran it against high schools in the Blue Bay Harbor area,” Cam replied. He didn’t look particularly happy about this.
“Definitely bad,” Blake concluded. He bumped Tori back and the blonde smiled; small, but visible.
“When they found the right school, they ran Hunter’s picture and found his records,” Cam said, and no one pretended Blake’s stream of curses wasn’t exactly what they were thinking because damn, damn, that was not what they needed.
“The papers are good,” Cam continued, brushing one concern out of the way. “But they know he’s a minor.”
Blake swallowed, shaken but stubbornly holding onto annoyance to keep him going. “Sensei Omino-”
“Added Kanoi Wantabe as one of your guardians back in September, as far as the authorities know,” Cam said; the statement made so cool and offhandedly you would hardly think twice about the immense undertaking in computer-wizardry Cam must have pulled off to make that happen. “I tried to make you emancipated minors, but that has more regulations.”
“You didn’t need to do that,” Blake’s voice was rough when he said it, his shoulders tight with restraint.
“In light of recent events, I think it is very clear that I did.” For Hunter, it would have been pure disdain, but towards Blake Cam’s tone was more academic in nature, indicating a particular point.
“If the problem isn’t a lack of guardian,” Shane began, feeling around the words carefully (as though a tentative approach would somehow change the outcome.) “Then what is it?”
They all knew the score here; Cam wouldn’t have bothered to segregate them from the rest of the rangers were it not for an important reason. A conflict of guardianship would have been a valid concern, but if that wasn’t the case…
Cam held Shane’s gaze for a moment, before flicking his attention back to Dustin in the bed. His fingers worried against the edge of his sleeve, a slight, nervous tick, and there was so much of him trying to stay in control that it was doing so very little for the rest of their collective composure.
Blake saw it, Tori saw it, Shane saw it, and none of them needed to exchange knowing looks to confirm their fears, they just knew.
“When Dustin wakes up, he can check out against medical advice. At most, he has a concussion, and the doctors will probably look the other way in regards to his papers.”
“And Hunter?” Shane probed, because this was the build up. This was Cam’s demonstration, a smaller example to lead to a bigger one.
Cam sighed – visibly sighed – and Shane knew they were kind of screwed.
“Hunter’s injuries are too extensive. At the very most we can ask for a transfer to Blue Bay Medical to carry out the duration of his recovery, but that is only after he’s stable enough to make the move.”
“And how long will that be?” Tori asked. She had given up all pretense of letting Blake handle this alone and had moved behind him, chin leaning against his shoulder as she wrapped her arms around the tense thunder ninja’s waist, gracefully flexible against his unyielding frustration.
“A couple days.” Cam frowned, then turned his attention back to Dustin, his figurative rock in the storm. “We could move him sooner, but it wouldn’t be…advised, per se.”
“By ‘advised’, do you mean ‘legal’?” Blake snapped, seeing through the pitiful veil for what it was. “As in, they would hunt us down-”
“That would be assuming Hunter was ever here and, according to Bio Lab’s records, Hunter Bradley never entered into their medical care.” Cam never took his eyes from Dustin as he spoke; he was too tired to bother. “The veterans have kept him off the official record.”
Because for Shane, that was the important part. He needed to know the lengths to which this courtesy would extend. For him, that made a hell of a lot of difference for his gratitude.
“Dr. Mitchell’s plan was to record Hunter’s arrival into Bio Labs Medical Center as later in the evening,” Cam said, his voice steady, without emotion. Blank. “Officially, he will be one of the rare cases of critical civilian injuries.” Finally, he turned his gaze back to the red ranger, but Shane kind of wished he hadn’t, wished to un-see how the exhaustion and strain of their weekend misadventure weren’t taking such an obvious toll on one of the team’s strongest members.
“They’re willing to work with us to create a cover story later, when everyone’s had a chance to recover,” Cam continued. “They would have pressed for sooner had I not explained my father’s awareness of our occupation.”
“Then what’s the damn problem Cam?” Blake snapped.
Tori’s grip tightened around his waist, but he actually shook her off, shrugged out of her hold and refused to look at whatever disapproving expression she might have in favor of glaring down Cam, stalking forward like a giant.
“If they know we have guardians, if they know our guardians are aware of our ‘occupation’,” Blake snarled the word with no lack of bitterness, openly mocking Cam’s choice of phrasing. “If they are working with us for a fucking cover story, then what’s the issue? Spit it out already.” The younger Bradley ordered the last in a spiteful hiss, the quiet edge much more effective than whatever shouting they could do.
It was their way, not only as ninjas, but as a Bradley in particular, to shut down into seething silence to convey critiques with latent derision.
Shane wasn’t even conscious of the move between the two rangers, he just suddenly was, Tori at his back, facing Blake, the red ranger focused on Cam. The tech wouldn’t make any moves, probably wouldn’t respond to the provocation at all, but Shane needed him to keep going and to do that, the tech needed to be aware he was not alone in this. He couldn’t get lost in potential guilt when there were problems still on the table.
Cam shut down, eyes to the floor, away from Dustin, from them, as he considered his response. “The damage is too deep,” he said quietly. “It would be negligible for them to fake father’s approval to release Hunter.”
“They wouldn’t have to fake it,” Blake snapped, leering around Tori. “You just said-”
“He needs to be here.” It was the first time Cam had made any indication of being- of feeling anything strongly. “My father would have to be here to sign the forms, and as to date there is no legislature regarding the legal rights of intellectually coherent animals, so even if he were present – unless he somehow became human on the trip over, he wouldn’t have the right to sign Hunter out.”
It hadn’t been a point Shane had dedicated much thought too, and honestly, he had never expected Guinea-Pig Sensei to become another given of the universe, like breathing or sunshine, like he just was, but here they were.
How great of a leader was he, that he hadn’t even thought about the status of their Sensei? It figured Cam, who lived with this trial, accumulated it as one of his many burdens as though he could have possibly prevented it, it figured he had not forgotten.
But really, how did Sensei stand in the eyes of the law?
Tori was the one who answered first, Blake too driven by frustration to move into logic. “If they’re willing to work with us on everything else, can’t we just explain what happened? I’m sure they’ll understand.”
Cam swallowed, the remnants of his agitation clear in the twitches of his fingertips, but he tried, at least, to regain his composure. “They would,” he agreed quietly. “Based on what they have demonstrated so far, I believe they would. The question, however, is should we put them in that position?”
“Spell it out for us Cam,” Shane ordered – politely, softly, but still an order – before Blake could start spitting fire again. “What’s going on in your head right now?”
“Right now?” The tech’s lips twisted into a bitter grin, but he didn’t laugh – thank you, thank you – he held it together that much. “Right now we are standing in a disaster area whose total damages are second only to the Astronema invasions.”
Tori began to object. “Rangers have caused destruction before, everyone understands-”
“But this could have been avoided,” Cam said, interrupting with brutal hardness. “They may not see it now - if we are lucky they will never see that - but as it stands, the only thing between us and public scrutiny is Bio Labs and the veteran rangers, and I think-” He flicked his gaze to Shane, and for a second there was some hesitation there, a touch of uncertainty. “Do we really want to twist their arms more, by making them shirk regulations? The public might allow our transgressions to pass as par for the course, but the rangers with public identities will fall under scrutiny, there is no way around that.”
“Do you know how the authorities interact with ranger teams?” Shane asked.
It wasn’t something they ever had to bother with, with private identities, but there should be some kind of precedence here.
“All public teams have fallen under some kind of business or government agency with the exception of the space team, though they fall under intergalactic military jurisdiction. Or so I believe.”
“You’re worried that the longer we stay here, the more risk we present to the public teams?” Shane could see that being Cam’s fear, could understand its gradual procession from guilt to something more quantifiable, paranoia and concern.
“I’m worried we’re a risk to both them and ourselves,” Cam corrected. He eyed each of them individually, giving them the proper focus they were due in order to understand the gravity of the situation. “I think we can alleviate their liabilities by simply not becoming them.”
“You want to duck out?” Blake asked, a combination of curiosity and challenge, like he wasn’t sure which was more overwhelming. “After everything that’s happened-”
“Wouldn’t it be worse on our part if we left?” Tori asked, talking over Blake’s verbal assault in favor of something more productive, ignoring his indignant sputters. “It could reflect poorly on us. Make it look like we are more at fault.”
“Possibly.” Cam allowed this with a nod. “But does that risk outweigh the potential downfalls of staying? We need to consider which will be the more detrimental outcome.”
Shane closed his eyes, an insistent ache growing in the darkness. He felt very, very tired. “Would it be worse if we stayed, or if we left?” He gave them a moment to consider it. “Is that what it ultimately comes down to?”
“You know the answer to that,” Cam murmured, understanding the exhaustion, the dilemma.
They all did.
“But what about Hunter?”
Blake had used his silence to center himself. He sounded – not completely one hundred percent, but calmer.
As they considered his question, he continued, “I think that factors a hell of a lot into this, right? How bad’s it going to be for him if he gets moved before it’s ‘advised’?”
By the look on Cam’s face, he had already considered this. “Dr. Mitchell has walked me through the steps necessary for his recovery-”
“You’re not a doctor Cam.” Blake didn’t snap, but there was a distinct bite to his words. Tori stepped closer and didn’t take no for an answer when Blake ignored the move.
“After the surgery, his morpher will be doing most of the work,” Cam replied, his tone tight. Strained. “Cyber Cam is already procuring the necessary medical supplies. If worse comes to worse, father can talk Tori and myself through the healing arts.”
Tori, despite herself, startled at this. “I thought that was only for advanced students.”
“Congratulations,” Cam drawled. “You’re being promoted.” His gaze flickered to her morpher as he moved to grip his Samurai Amulet, rolling the small, green sphere between his fingertips. “Circumstances being what they are, I think you’ve earned it.”
“Would he be okay?” Blake cut in, ignoring their tête-à-tête with extreme focus. “If something went really wrong-”
“I have Dr. Mitchell’s business card, along with her personal address and phone number. If his condition exacerbates, we can bring her to Ninja Ops.”
“You would do that?” Blake asked, almost contemptuous. “You would risk the sanctity-?”
“I’m trying to do what’s right here,” Cam snapped, lunging forward, around Shane. The red ranger almost wasn’t fast enough, but he managed to get a handle on the tech’s arms before he could start throwing punches. The green ranger tensed in his hold, but didn’t try to break it, glaring at Blake. “I understand your concerns, I understand Hunter’s condition and I am trying, very hard, to prepare appropriate countermeasures to protect us from the least-desirable outcome. I am trying Blake,” he hissed. “-and despite what you may think, I care about Hunter’s health just as much as you do, so if you could at least pretend, the way you do so well, to give me the benefit of human decency, we could actually get something done.”
“That’s enough,” Shane snapped, pulling Cam away. Without being told, Tori mirrored his movements with Blake, getting them to opposite sides of the room. Cam by Dustin, Blake near the window. “You guys done? Got that out of your system?”
Cam tensed in his arms, but Shane’s focus was entirely on Blake. He was the instigator in this mess; Cam was just an easy target. Always had been, for the Bradleys.
The navy ranger opened his mouth, eyes defiant to spit out some scathing retort, but Tori was already there, shushing him. “This isn’t going to help us Blake,” she reminded him quietly. “There is a time and a place, and neither of them are now.”
“Fine.” He turned away, shaking from her grip as he looked at the shuttered windows, blinds closed for privacy. “I can’t-” he said after a few moments, a few deep breaths. “I can’t contribute to this one guys, I’m sorry; I’m too close.”
He was compromised, emotionally, and though they already knew that – if his unpleasant barbs had been any indication – Blake’s posture didn’t look any less ashamed by this admittance.
For now, there was nothing to be done for it. Nothing he would listen too.
They moved on.
“Then what’s the next step here?” Tori asked, standing between Blake and the rest of the room, blocking him off from that which he felt he could not contribute.
“We call Sensei,” Shane decided. It was high time that someone did, anyway. “We get his take on it.”
“You might not have noticed it Shane, but there’s been a common trend in Sensei’s mentoring style lately, and that’s ‘Do what you think is right’,” Tori reminded him softly, but with a point. “You know he’s just going to turn it back on us.”
“It couldn’t hurt to try,” Cam murmured, his jaw clenched as though he were grinding his teeth. “We need to explore all options to make an informed decision.”
“I’ll call him,” Tori volunteered, already in process of retrieving her cell phone from one of her robe’s many hidden pockets. “But we need to make a decision if he leaves us on our own.”
With that, she turned towards the restroom, a small, sterile thing on the adjacent wall, across from Dustin. It was the most privacy they could obtain without the pressing worry of stray ears.
To be honest, Shane was surprised her phone was still even functioning. Then again, the fact that it was could very well be a result of those upgrades Cam had briefly mentioned in passing.
Cam wasn’t always a showman when it came to his genius. Sometimes he just wanted them to be prepared, safe.
“Shane,” the tech began, gravitating towards Dustin subconsciously, his hand resting on the brunette’s hair. “If we must-”
Shane closed his eyes again, all but shoving his palms against his eyelids to lessen the exhaustion and growing migraine, and allowed a moment for the words to sink in.
He had to make the call, because if Cam was forced to Blake would be feral around the green ranger for weeks, stalking just over Cam’s shoulder, a constant presence as he examined every move Cam made in relation to his brother’s care, critiquing everything he did and questioning what he didn’t. If Cam had to make the call - and he would - they would both end up miserable. It would be a small puncture in the unity of their team that would slowly devolve into a black hole, destroying their ability to work together and worse, allowing Lothor an opening to injure someone else.
If they stayed – and they could stay, it would be easy – they would have to place complete trust in the veterans to have their backs, because if they didn’t…Cam wasn’t a minor anymore, but Blake and Hunter were and if they didn’t have a guardian who could sign official paperwork for them, in the eyes of the law, they might as well not have a guardian at all.
Two teenagers without a guardian, and one of them sustained heavy injuries. Clearly, they couldn’t manage as they were, so even if the veterans allowed them to slip by, they would probably have some concerns about Blake and Hunter’s continued living conditions. They would most likely insist upon having one of them hang around to help keep an eye on things, so incidents such as this would not be repeated.
Would that be so bad? It would be nice to have someone else to turn to, who understood the things they were doing and why they did them, to help critique-
But that was what Sensei was for, and Tori was right. Most of the time, Sensei urged them to determine their own strategies and then review them later on for what had been done and what could have been done better, how they could have approached the situation differently to achieve a more acceptable outcome. During those meetings, early on, Sensei had played as peacekeeper and prober, a voice to move the thought process along. Now, he was hardly ever present, because he trusted them, needed them to work through these things on their own. They were their own unit, and they would learn as such, grow as such.
Worst case scenario, Shane thought, Blake and Hunter get taken up by Child Protective Services.
Worst case scenario- worst case-
It made all other contemplation moot.
However slight the probability, Shane could not choose, in full awareness, the option that might engender such a horrible outcome. He didn’t care if the veterans fought for them to hell and back; if there was an option that completely prevented the risk of Blake and Hunter being caught in the legal system, then that was the option Shane was going to take. It was the only one he could take.
It wasn’t about losing two rangers; it was about the protection of his family.
Shane protected his own.
In the long run, it probably wouldn’t be their best choice. It would probably damage their relations with the other ranger teams and, as Tori said, establish an unfavorable precedence. If they needed help again in the future this would strain things. These were all facts that Shane was very well aware of.
And he did not give one damn about any of them.
They couldn’t take Hunter. They couldn’t.
“Are you sure?” Cam asked. For all his preparations, Cam had never made a choice either way. His self-determined duty was simply to make them the most prepared whatever strategy they chose. While he had made the argument for leaving, that was merely so they would be informed. Aware. Educated to make the best possible decision.
For all his intelligence, Cam still had his doubts.
Shane nodded, confirming his decision. “I’m sure.”
“You’d better be,” Blake warned. He didn’t even bother turning away from the window, eyes focused on the blinds with fearsome intensity. “You’d better be sure Shane, because if he gets hurt- worse, I mean-”
“I know,” Shane muttered. “Trust me Blake, I know.”
The navy ranger
glanced over his shoulder, arms folded across his chest in concrete defiance,
displeasure, dis-everything. Shane met
the younger Bradley’s eyes without flinching, knowing that however much he
cared for Hunter, it would always be surpassed by Blake, and nodded.
An eternity later, Blake nodded back; satisfied for now.
It was about that time Tori glided back into the room, a silent shadow as she closed her phone with a definite snap, a frown etched across her face.
She didn’t have to say it for them to know, but she did anyway. “He says the decision’s ours.”
“Damn it,” Blake sighed, an uncontrolled exhale as he scrubbed a hand across his face. “Why the hell does he keep trying to make us so damn self-reliant all the time? Can’t we save personal growth for later?”
“If he caved for us when it was most difficult-” Tori began, tone weary.
“-then how can we learn to persist when it is most difficult?” Shane finished, familiar with Sensei’s seemingly most favorite catchphrase ever.
They had heard it far too many times, in Shane’s humble opinion.
By the window, Blake released an inarticulate sound of frustration.
Cam perched on the edge of Dustin’s bed, continuing his slow movements through the yellow ranger’s curls. “I believe that aptly summarizes our feelings on the matter.”
“Preach,” Tori droned, a tiny smiling finding its way to her face as they shared in the bitter humor.
“When’s Hunter getting out of surgery?” Shane asked, trying to move them past the depressing topics beyond their control. “When do we need to prepare for our… ‘check out’?”
He could have used the word ‘evacuation’, but knowing their luck that would be overheard by just the wrong person, so he elected for his alternative.
“Another hour,” Cam said, taking the codeword in stride. “Two, tops.”
“Do you think they’ll come looking for us?” Tori asked. “They have addresses if they found Dustin and Hunter’s real records. And the rest of us-”
“Cyber Cam’s already taken care of it,” Cam interrupted, his voice clipped. Shane belatedly realized that the fact the medical staff had managed a successful match on facial recognition at all upset Cam, that he hadn’t been able to prevent, or foresee, this happenstance was an insult to his skills. Cam continued, “The rest of our records are blocked off for the time being, and the addresses listed on their forms are strictly mailing addresses.”
Tori raised her eyebrows. “You switched them to PO boxes?”
Cam nodded, a stiff, jerking motion. “Yes.”
He was angry, but they all were. It was a state of being Shane was beginning to think they wouldn’t be able to escape for a long time.
“Two hours,” Shane repeated, rubbing a tired hand across his face. “Then we need to prepare for-” The air ninja cutoff with an uncertain jolt, blinking his eyes rapidly to confirm he was seeing what he was actually-
But Cam was moving too, pulling his hand away from Dustin’s head as the brunette began to stir, eyes blinking slowly as he was drawn into consciousness.
“Ugh,” the earth ninja groaned, curling in on his side. “Did I get hit by a bus? Two buses?” He tried to shift again, but aborted the action almost immediately, settling for his small huddle of pain. “Eight buses,” he decided. “Definitely eight buses.”
It startled a laugh out of Shane; a solid explosion of joy as he smiled, like a crazy person, at his semi-conscious teammate. Hell, with all the discussions of ethics and clenching at his gut, it was nice to hear Dustin, alive - and apparently - his perky self again. If slightly more in pain.
Dustin managed a half-hearted glare in his direction. “Sure, laugh at the headache guy.”
“You bet your ass we will,” Blake droned, his face a default of bored casualness, but he rushed over just as quickly as the others, crowding around the bed. “That’s what you get for sleeping on the job.”
“No Lazyboy songs please.” Dustin threw a dramatic arm across his eyes, Cam looking on carefully to ensure he didn’t strain anything. “I can’t take the theme song right now.”
There wasn’t a particular moment when they all froze, but it happened, a unified jolt across the non-bedridden ranks, as one-by-one they remembered the reference. It was a Dustin-and-Hunter thing, no one else ever really got it, but they gladly listened along whenever the two argued over their imaginary superfailure.
It took Shane a few seconds to remember to breathe again, and that had more to do with the elbow Tori was digging insistently into his side more than anything else.
Right- talking, they had to-
As out of it as he was, Dustin had been drawing closer and closer to complete coherency, not that it would have taken much to notice the rather awkward silence that had descended over them.
“Hunter?” he asked, pulling the arm away from his face.
Dustin narrowed his eyes, examining the individuals gathered around his bed. His eyebrows furrowed in confusion when he noticed a certain blond was missing and that motivated him more, craning his neck around the wall of athletic teenagers, assuming Hunter was doing his usual ‘you-got-hurt-so-I’m-just-gonna-lurk-back-here-because-that-scared-me-and-I-can’t-handle-feeeeelings’ game he liked to play.
Shane could name the exact moment Dustin remembered everything that happened, and he only had about half a second to prepare for the brunette attempting leap from the bed, shouting the blond’s name.
“Hunter-” His call was cut off by a solid tackle from Tori, who was smarter than the rest of them combined and figured out his freakout was inevitable. She pinned Dustin’s legs while Cam went for his shoulders, wrapping his arms around the flailing brunette and hushing him, repeating consolations in a low informative stream, controlled and steadfast.
It took a few minutes of Cam repeating they were fine, Hunter was fine (as he could be), where they were, and how long he had been out before Dustin’s struggles eventually ceased, the earth ninja breathing heavily with wide eyes. He nodded when Cam asked if he understood, if he knew what was going on, if they could let go now, and the others pulled away.
Cam consciously stayed near, and Dustin sagged into the tech, chest heaving. His eyes were scrunched closed and at first Shane thought it was a headache, the same symptoms of overexertion the rest of them were plagued with, but then recognized the expression with painful familiarity.
Guilt. Dustin was feeling guilty.
“How bad?” he asked. They would have curbed it had he not turned those beseeching eyes to Cam, who never would have lied to him under normal conditions, let alone under the weight of that particular gaze. “How bad is it?”
Wisely, Cam deflected, brushing a hand across Dustin’s cheek with careful tenderness. “He’ll be out of surgery soon. The doctors say he will recover.”
“But how bad?” Dustin asked, stubborn. He was going from imploring to determined, which wouldn’t do them any good because an exact report was the last thing Dustin needed, and when he got this way he wouldn’t accept anything less.
Figures and statistics could be used as an accounting for things Dustin had no control over, but he would infuriatingly use them anyway to support his faults. Intangible damages were easier to deal with – hurt feelings, wounded pride – but give Dustin accurate details and he would hold onto his transgressions forever, beyond the capability of forgiving himself.
Dustin knew that, they all knew that. Now they just needed to move on.
Shane cut to the heart of the matter, nipping this thing in the bud before it could come back to haunt them. “This isn’t your fault Dustin.”
The brunette shot him a bitter glare. “We shouldn’t have used the blockers.”
“And I shouldn’t have given them to you,” Cam said, cutting in before Dustin got to the ‘if I hadn’t’s, because those were never easy for anyone.
The assist was very much appreciated, though shifting the guilt was sort of the last thing they needed here.
It was Blake, strangely, that stepped in and saved the day. “And Lothor shouldn’t be an asshole who murders people’s parents and tries to take over the Earth,” he said, fists tight against his sides. “But he does, so if there’s anyone in this damn situation that needs to be blamed for shit, lets go ahead and place it on him, okay?”
He stared them all down as if daring them to disagree, and even if it was just another show, Shane found himself relaxing, nodding along in agreement.
“Blake’s right,” he said, piling onto the navy ranger’s point before Dustin could protest. “It’s like Sensei says; we respond as best we can to a given situation-”
“-And while we may review and attempt to improve these responses,” Tori picked up the quote, using her best sage, all-knowing impression of Sensei. “Whatever the results, the instigator bears the fault for creating the situation, and the necessity for response, in the first place.”
They fell into silence, waiting to see if it sunk in, if any of their comfort had hit its mark. Cam, ignoring his usual conduct for unfamiliar surroundings, held Dustin close, arms moving around his boyfriend’s waist, head resting against the other teen’s shoulder. It made an immediate difference, Dustin sagging into the hold with a distinct huff, annoyed. Annoyed that they were right.
“I hate it when you talk logic to me,” he grumbled.
“I have it on good authority that you don’t.” Cam grinned into his hair, almost playful.
And that- yeah, by the immediate blush that graced Dustin’s features – that was not something Shane had wanted to know.
Blake made his protest slightly more vocal. “Dude.”
“It think it’s adorable,” Tori chirped. Her look of adoration didn’t even turn away from the two lovebirds when she deftly smacked the back of her boyfriend’s head, earning a wounded glare for her efforts.
It lasted for about all of two seconds before Blake was smirking. “Talk nerdy to me?”
Tori met his gaze with a wicked grin. “Sure, I’ve got some Calculus notes-”
Shane coughed. Pointedly. “I think you’ve made your point.”
“There were points?” Dustin asked. It required him to cease his lovey-eye contact with Cam, which gained the red ranger a glare for his troubles. “I thought-”
“Points,” Blake repeated, adding a subtle inflection as though to add an innuendo Dustin couldn’t see. “All of them.”
And Dustin, being the spy-enthusiast, would assume it was a code and spend the rest of the evening trying to determine the nonexistent meaning to Blake’s waggly eyebrows, and Hunter would get involved-
“Points,” Shane said, but there as a definite lack of umph behind it.
He would be okay, Hunter would be okay; they would all-
Shane would be a lot happier when this day was over.