1. The Eagle and the Princess
2. The Lion and the Tiger
3. The Bison and the Flower Girl
4. The Time and the Tied
5. The Jungle and the Shadow
6. The Badge and the Wings
7. The World and the Wind
8. The Shark and the Phone Tree
9. The Ice Pack and the Dog Tags
10. The Victory and the Deal
There was a crash from behind her, and she jumped. Instinct made her whirl, even as she saw some of the kids starting to giggle. She was just in time to catch a golden ear disappearing from the glass window set into the classroom door.
Alyssa turned back to her class with a puzzled look on her face, though she was trying very hard not to smile. "Was there someone at the door?" she asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.
"No, Ms. Enrile!" three or four of the children chorused.
"Well, all right," she said, lifting the picture book she'd been reading from again. "I guess we'll just have to finish this story, then."
The giggles started before she could pick up where she'd left off, and she gave them all a reproving look. "Michael..." She singled out a boy in the front row. "Is there someone at the door?"
Michael's eyes widened, and he shook his head vigorously. Next to him, Elan covered her mouth with both hands in an effort not to giggle. Alyssa turned slowly, giving their visitor plenty of time to hide, and as expected she saw nothing but an empty window.
This time, the thump came again as soon as she turned her back, and the giggling got louder. "Well," Alyssa said, closing her book and setting it on the floor, "I guess I'm going to have to go see for myself."
This was greeted by protests from her kindergarten class, and she smiled to herself as she walked over to the door. She knew perfectly well who was there. Nobody made monkey faces like Cole, and the thumping had sounded suspiciously like a seventy-pound dog trying to jump high enough to see through the door.
She opened the door to find the former Lion Ranger pressed up against the wall on one side and Ness seated obediently on the other. She couldn't help laughing at the picture they presented, and Cole gave her a disarming grin. "We were in the neighborhood..."
She pulled the door open the rest of the way, motioning for him to come in. "Elan's allergic," she reminded him softly, nodding to Ness. Then, louder, she announced, "It's just about time to catch the bus, so we'll finish our story tomorrow afternoon. Everyone gather up your jackets and lunchboxes, all right?"
"Ms. Enrile, can we play with Ness?" Eternity wanted to know, already sidling closer.
"Go get your jacket," she said firmly. "If you ask Mr. Evans nicely, maybe he'll let Ness walk out to the bus with you."
"Mr. Evans, please can Ness come with us to the bus?"
"Only if you get your jackets and lunchboxes like Ms. Enrile told you to," Cole answered, going down on one knee so he was closer to the kids' height. "You wouldn't want to have to call your mom because you missed the bus, would you?"
"My mom wouldn't care," Eternity insisted, but she drifted over to the coat rack nonetheless.
A little girl with pigtails made a beeline for Ness, and Cole scooped her up before she could reach the golden retriever. "No you don't," he said with a laugh, tossing her up in the air, lunchbox and all. "You don't want to get another rash, do you?"
Alyssa smiled, putting a hand on Michael's shoulder as he darted for the door. "Where's your lunchbox?" she asked, pulling the door shut so no one could sneak out while she wasn't looking.
Michael groaned comically, turning and racing back toward the coat rack. The group around Ness was growing, and Alyssa took a quick headcount while they were mostly occupied. Michael, Jake, and Chelsea were the only ones still hanging back. Michael was getting his lunchbox, Chelsea was afraid of dogs, and Jake...
"Jake," Alyssa called, spotting the girl on the floor at the back of the room. "Are you almost ready?"
"Yes, Ms. Enrile." Jake stood with obvious reluctance, and only then did Alyssa see what she was holding. The girl had picked up the book Alyssa had been reading from earlier and was studying the last few pages intently.
As the last few stragglers joined their classmates by the door, Alyssa put her finger to her lips. "Remember to be quiet while we're walking through the halls, all right?" A few of the children nodded solemnly, but most of them were too distracted by Ness to pay any attention.
She pushed the door open, leading the way toward the front of the school where the buses waited. Ness bounced along beside them, loving the attention, while Cole brought up the rear with Elan riding piggyback. The kids swarmed out into the sunshine, only a couple of them lagging behind with Ness when the buses were in sight.
Alyssa counted them off again as they climbed onto the appropriate buses, and she glanced back in time to see Cole waving to Elan as the girl ran over to her dad. Eternity's mom was waiting as well, and both parents caught Alyssa's eye and smiled before turning away. She was finally learning all the parents' names, and she waved happily in return.
The bell rang just as she and Cole were turning back to the building, and she pointed toward the corner instead. The kindergarten room had its own door, and it would be easier to go back in that way instead of wading through the crush of older students running for the buses. Two of her kindergarteners waved from their bus as they passed, and Cole smiled as she waved back.
"Have a good day?" he asked, putting his hands in his pockets. Ness paced along at his side, as sedately as it was possible for a golden retriever to pace, and Alyssa nodded.
"A great day," she said with a smile. "We did fingerpainting and we played 'name that wild zord'. Michael got the falcon and the eagle confused..."
"They're not anything alike!" Cole exclaimed indignantly, and she tried not to giggle.
"Well, Jake thought White Tiger and cat zord were the same animal," she offered. "If that makes you feel any better."
"Hey--" Cole stopped abruptly, and she looked up in surprise. She followed his gaze to the black emergency vehicle on the other side of the parking lot. Its lights were off and its engine was silent, but the symbol of the Silver Guardians was emblazoned on its side.
A Guardian with a red beret leaned against the driver's side door. Wes Collins was receiving a fair amount of covert attention, but he seemed aware of the exact moment when they took notice of him. He lifted his hand in acknowledgement, and they exchanged glances
By unspoken consent, the two of them headed across the parking lot toward Wes. He nodded in greeting as they approached, and Cole offered his hand amiably. "Good to see you again, Wes," he remarked, as the two of them clasped hands. "It's been a long time."
"Too long," Alyssa added, smiling at him. "It's so hard to keep up with everyone these days. Is this a social call?"
"I wish it was." Wes returned their greetings with a half-smile of his own, but he shook his head in answer to her question. "I'm afraid this is business."
Cole frowned. "What kind of business?"
Wes held up his left wrist, where his morpher glittered prominently against his dark uniform. "Our kind of business," he said, indicating the three of them. "Can the two of you make it to a briefing this evening at Guardian Headquarters?"
Cole caught her eye, and Alyssa nodded once. "Sure," she said, glancing back at Wes. "We'll be there. But what about the others?"
Wes gave her that same half-smile. "Eric's working on it now," he assured them.
Her boots had barely touched the pavement before she knew something was wrong. The tarmac was too quiet, filled only by the clang of maintenance and the roar of flybys like her own. She let go of the ladder and scanned the area quickly, wondering what could account for the absence of shouts and enthusiastic chatter.
Then she saw him. For a moment, Taylor was sure she was hallucinating. Sun spots in her eyes, maybe; that happened to some pilots. Because there was no way the person she saw standing not twenty feet away could be there.
"Earhardt!" he called, lifting his chin in acknowledgement.
She bristled. "That's Lieutenant Earhardt to you!" she shouted back. Tucking her helmet under her elbow, she ducked under the wing of her fighter and made as if to leave.
He didn't call after her, though, and she couldn't just walk away. He knew it, too, damn him. Finally she abandoned the pretense and turned back, trying to ignore the infuriatingly smug expression on his face. "What do you want?"
Eric lifted his right hand and crooked a finger at her. She glared at him, but it was clear he had something to say that he wasn't going to just yell across the runway at her. There was nothing for it but to obey his juvenile summons.
When he turned to lead her off the tarmac, though, she stopped and yelled, "Hey!"
He paused, and she added, "Whatever you have to say, you can say it here, because I'm not going anywhere until you tell me what you're doing here."
"Stubborn as ever, I see." Eric gave her an appraising look. "How does that attitude go over with the senior officers?"
She tossed her head, forgetting for a moment that her hair was confined to a braid. "How the hell did you get in here, Myers? This base is a secure facility!"
He held up his left arm, displaying the quantum morpher for all to see. "There aren't too many people that will argue with the Quantum Ranger."
"Say what you came to say and get it over with," she told him.
"Now, now," he chided, giving her a reproving look. "That's no way to greet your ex."
She could have slapped him. She settled for turning her back, wondering what it would take to make her walk away. She shouldn't be listening to him at all. She took a deep breath, made up her mind to leave, and took exactly one step before he grabbed her arm.
"Taylor," he said urgently, his voice just loud enough to reach her ears. "What are you doing here?"
"My job," she snapped, not moving. It was an argument they'd had many times before. "Unlike some people, I know what it means to give my word."
He gave her arm an impatient shake. "This isn't about us! It's about you and your destiny!"
Jaw clenched, she yanked her arm free and turned on him. "If one more person says the word 'destiny' to me I swear I'm going to scream! I want to fly, Eric! That's all I want! Can't you understand that?"
"You don't have to be in the Air Force to fly," he said. His eyes were flat.
"Well, I certainly can't do it in the Silver Guardians!"
He looked down, pulling something from his belt. She stared steadfastly over his shoulder, refusing to give him the satisfaction of watching. If he had come here just to rehash their old drama she was going to find a way to bar him, quantum morpher or not.
"What if you had this?" he said at last.
Her gaze flicked to him involuntarily, and her eyes widened. He was holding a growlphone in his right hand. Her growlphone, no less; the etched feathers were instantly recognizable in the sunlight.
"Where did you get that?" she demanded, reaching for it. He drew back, and she grabbed for it again. "Give me that!"
"Only if you leave the base," he told her. He held the growlphone at shoulder height, just far enough away that short of tackling him she knew she'd never get it.
Not that she wouldn't tackle him, if she had to.
"Eric," she said, trying to keep her voice even. "I have a commission and an oath. I can't just leave and you know it."
"My morpher got me in," he replied. "No reason yours can't get you out."
The irritating part was that he was right. The Animarium mission had given her special dispensation with regard to the Rangers. Her daily 1500 flights were condoned only because the eagle made the radar scream... If she said she'd been called back, they would let her go with no questions asked.
She eyed the growlphone in Eric's hand. She wanted it. She wanted that life again. But it was over, and they had all moved on. There was no going back, and she had always known that. She just hadn't known how hard it would be to live it.
"How did you get that?" she asked, lifting her gaze to Eric's.
He gave her a deliberately mysterious smile. "Wouldn't you like to know," he said, waving it invitingly in her direction. "Let's just say... a mutual friend gave it to me."
"Why?" she demanded, folding her arms crossly. "What's going on, Eric?"
"Come with me and find out," he suggested.
She narrowed her eyes at him, longing to wipe that smirk off his face. There was just no way to do it, not and get what she wanted. She would have to wait. She could always punch him later, after all. And with her growlphone...
She held out her hand with a sigh. She couldn't quite mask her elation when he tossed it to her, her fingers clenching possessively around the powerful communicator. With a morpher, the punch that he had coming would hurt all the more. And he would never be able to catch her afterward, either.
"We practically have to go out," Max argued, watching Danny rummage through his pockets for the keys. "It's not like we have anything to eat. And who wants to sit at home on our first night back?"
"There's cereal," Danny countered. "And pasta. And canned soup doesn't go bad. Who wants to go out on our first night back?"
"How can you have lost the keys?" Max demanded, as Danny switched to his duffel bag. "You just had them at the airport!"
"Maybe if the landlord installed metal detectors in our apartment building, I'd have them now," Danny muttered. "Wait!" Suddenly he brightened, dropping several things on the floor as he pulled his hand out of his duffel bag. "I got them!"
Max rolled his eyes as he reached down to collect his friend's errant belongings. "So much for your highly organized approach to packing," he commented, plucking the keys out of Danny's hand and fitting one of them to the lock.
"It's not that it's packed in an organized way," Danny protested, using his bag to push the door further open as he followed Max inside. "It's that the packing process itself was very organized. I was done in half the time it took you."
"That's because you had half the stuff!" Max tossed the keys on the counter and dropped his backpack in the middle of the floor. He trudged back out into the hallway and swung his second backpack over his shoulder, then piled his two duffel bags on top of each other and shoved them through the doorway.
"We have more voice mail," Danny announced, sounding a little dismayed. "I just checked it last night!"
"We're popular guys," Max reminded him. He kicked the door shut and threw himself down on the futon behind it. "Ah," he added, closing his eyes. "Home sweet home..."
"Hi, guys." Kendall's voice filled the apartment, and he smiled to himself as he heard Danny sigh. "I saw your voice mail was empty, so I thought I'd be the first to welcome you home. I watered the violets this morning, and there's a note on the table for you when you get in. I'll call tonight to make sure you're home safe. See you at work tomorrow!"
"She says she's glad the trip went well," Danny called, apparently having read the note while he listened. "She can't wait to see what the greenhouses looked like, and she's already rearranging displays to accommodate some of the new exotics."
"Welcome home guys!" This time it was Alyssa on the phone, and Max sat up abruptly. Many times Alyssa's cooking had been their compromise between going out and eating in, and she might yet save them from a night of canned soup and pasta.
"I hope you had a great time," she continued. "We got your postcard yesterday; thanks! You guys look good with roses in your teeth. You should see if Kendall could use that for advertising or something.
"Anyway, I'm sure you'll both be tired when you get in, so I'm going to make extra dinner tonight. We'll be eating around six if you want to join us. If not, we'll see you this weekend at the rink. Welcome back!"
"If you tell Kendall what she said about advertising, I'm never speaking to you again," Max said, pushing himself up off the futon and heading toward the bedroom. He ignored the bags he had dropped on the floor, but the next voice stopped him in his tracks.
"This is Commander Myers of the Silver Guardians," the voice mail message began. "I'm calling for Max Cooper and Danny Delgado. Something's come up involving your former line of work, and we need you at Headquarters tonight at 1900. Someone will let you in and escort you to the briefing when you arrive.
"And kids," Eric's voice added, sounding more than a little patronizing. "Try not to be late."
"Kids?" Max stared at the phone in consternation. "Kids! Who does he think he is!"
"Just ignore him," Danny suggested absently. He was adjusting the angle of the light over his violets, apparently unconcerned by the message. "Is that tonight at seven?"
"And that's another thing!" Max exclaimed. "Why can't he use normal time? Normal people use normal time!"
"Hey, it's Cole," the phone interrupted yet again. "Wes caught up with me and Alyssa at the school. He says there's some important briefing going on tonight at Guardian Headquarters, and he's sending a car for us at 6:45. If you guys want to come over early, we can eat and go together. Call when you get in. Bye."
"End of messages," the voice mail administrator added. "To listen to your messages, press one. To record a personal greeting, press--"
Max hung up on the voice mail. According to the microwave clock, it was just after four. Plenty of time to throw everything on the floor of the bedroom and catch some sun before dinner. Alyssa really was a lifesaver.
Giving his stuff a second glance, he amended his plan. Plenty of time to leave everything right where it was and catch some sun before dinner. Danny was still fussing over his violets, and Max knew what he was going to say before he asked. But he asked anyway, because that was what friends did.
"I'm going down to the dock," he announced, hopping up on the counter beside Danny. "Want to come with?"
Danny looked up, giving him a distracted smile. "No, thanks," he said. "I'm going to call Kendall and tell her we're back. I'll call Alyssa, too, and tell her we're coming over?"
"Sure," Max agreed, jumping down again. "She cooks way better than either of us. I'll be back in a little while."
"All right," Danny agreed. "See you."
"See you!" Max called back, heading out the door. The best thing about a friend like Danny was that he never had to explain himself.
Well, that and the fact that Danny never called him "kid".
They piled out of the vehicle in a noisy rush, spilling out into the evening air with shouts and good-natured shoving. Ness added to the clamor by loudly protesting the car's cramped quarters, bounding across the pavement and back again with an excited bark. Cole laughed, letting her romp while the others looked around.
They'd had to pass two checkpoints just to get this far, and he wondered what the Silver Guardians were expecting that they needed this much security. Wes only added to his curiosity by passing out laminated ID cards that clipped to their shirts. As Ness returned to Cole's side, Wes gave her a speculative look.
"Does she wear a collar?" the Red Ranger wanted to know.
"Of course," Cole said, attaching his ID to his belt. "We had to license her in Alyssa's name, but she has all her tags."
"She does tend to roam," Alyssa added, kneeling down to hug Ness affectionately. "We couldn't let someone pick her up again, even by accident."
Wes held something out to him, and Cole frowned at the generic "building access" card and clip. "For Ness," Wes explained, catching his puzzled look.
Alyssa reached up to take it, clipping it to Ness' collar without a word. But Danny asked curiously, "Is this really necessary? It's like we're on a secret mission or something."
Wes chuckled, shrugging apologetically. "Sorry, Danny. Standard procedure here at Headquarters."
"Why are we here?" Max put in. "What's going on?"
"Nothing that hasn't been going on for several years now," Wes said cryptically. "If you'll follow me, we'll join the others inside."
"Others?" Cole repeated.
"Well, Taylor of course," Wes said, as though they might have forgotten. "Eric. And Jen and her team."
"Time Force is here?" Danny sounded surprised. He exchanged glances with Max, and Cole saw Max shrug.
"They helped create the problem," Wes answered over his shoulder. "It's only fair that they help put it right."
"Is escort duty the best you can do tonight?"
"You know, you could be a little nicer," Eric told her. "It's not like I don't have better things to do than show you around."
"I didn't ask you to meet me at the gate," Taylor reminded him. "You're not doing me any favors."
He looked over at her then, but all he said was, "Your hair looks nice that way."
"Shut up," she snapped.
Neither of them said another word until they reached the end of the hallway, and Eric punched a code into the lock beside a closed door. She didn't bother to watch, and he didn't bother to shield it from her view. Given a couple of guesses, she could probably have figured it out anyway. He wasn't very creative when it came to lock codes.
The door opened onto a group of people that drew a smile no matter her current escort. Cole looked up first, and he broke into a grin at the sight of her. "Taylor!" he exclaimed, nodding to her as Ness bounded over in enthusiastic greeting.
Alyssa and Max echoed him with exclamations of surprise and pleasure, as though it hadn't been just a month ago that she had last seen them. Danny caught her eye and smiled, making no effort to come forward with the others but conveying his welcome nonetheless. And there was one other member of Wild Force that turned at the sound of the door--
Taylor could feel Eric's eyes on her, but she was determined not to show her surprise. To be honest, she had half-expected this. There was, after all, only one person who could have given Eric her morpher.
"Princess Shayla," she said, nodding calmly in response to the princess' smile. "It's good to see you again."
He watched from the back of the room as Taylor was absorbed into the group, leaving Eric by the door with an annoyed expression on his face. Taylor took a seat beside the princess, nodding to the Time Force officers across the table as though she had expected to see them here. Which she might have, of course, there was nothing to say that Eric hadn't told her as much as Wes had told them--maybe more.
Nothing except the obvious animosity between them, anyway. Danny sat down at the end of the table, Trip on one side and Max on the other. If the two of them couldn't buffer the chill emanating from Taylor and Eric, no one could.
Wes glanced over at Eric, possibly thinking along the same lines, but if something passed between them then it didn't show on their faces. Both of them remained standing, Wes at the head of the table and Eric by the door, while Cole and Alyssa took the remaining seats on either side of Princess Shayla and Taylor. Cole's dog settled behind him, waiting patiently for whatever was about to happen.
Trip started, a movement mostly lost in the shuffle of seating, but it caught his attention. Danny shot a covert look down the other side of the table. Trip and Katie were sneaking smirks at each other, apparently engaged in some kind of silent game while Lucas pretended to ignore them both. On Lucas' other side, closest to Wes, Jen was asking if all Silver Guardian briefings were this disorganized.
The remark was clearly meant as a joke, but Danny saw Eric transfer his frown from Taylor to Jen as though she had said something deliberately offensive. Taylor folded her arms, a small smile on her face. It was hard to tell whether she was more amused by Jen's question or Eric's discomfiture.
"What's up with them?" Max whispered, nudging his elbow and indicating the door with his chin.
"Don't know," Danny said under his breath. "Maybe the Eagle zord ate his Q-Rex for lunch."
Max snorted, then tried to disguise his laugh with a cough. "Just," he gasped, when everyone turned to look at him. "Just something caught in my throat."
"Before we go any further," Cole interrupted, glancing from Wes to Princess Shayla, "could someone tell me what the princess is doing here? I thought you were going to stay on the Animarium with the wild zords," he added curiously.
She smiled, looking down at the table for a moment. Cole was frank in such an innocent way that it was impossible to hear anything but what he meant in his words. There was no subtext, no hiding meaning, and no way to take offense when he so obviously intended none.
"I contacted Princess Shayla," Jen said, answering Cole without so much as glancing in her direction. "I thought it was best that we have help from Rangers that were based in the area, and to be honest... we know you. You're our first choice."
"First choice for what?" Max wanted to know, but Cole wasn't so easily deterred.
"How did you know how to contact her?" he insisted. Turning to address her again, he added, "I didn't think we'd ever see you again, Princess. The wild zords existed to defend the earth from Orgs, and the Orgs are gone... aren't they?"
She smiled again at his concern. "Yes, Cole, the Orgs are gone. The threat we face now is far more modern--or so Time Force assures me."
"But how did Time Force reach you when we couldn't?" Alyssa didn't seem any more willing than Cole to let the subject drop. "We can't even talk to our wild zords unless they come to us first."
"The Animarium isn't quite so isolated in the future," Jen interjected. "After we met you... well, I was curious. I've spoken to Princess Shayla several times in the year 3004. She told me how to get in contact with the Animarium of this time."
This was met with complete silence, and she caught Jen's eye for just a moment. Jen gave her the slightest nod, and she inclined her head in thanks for the Pink Ranger's discretion. She would rather the others not know of the real reason for her participation in the current endeavor.
"3004?" Danny exclaimed, breaking into the quiet with his surprise. "But that's--" He stopped abruptly.
"That's a thousand years from now!" Max was staring at her as though the concept of a millennia-long existence had been foreign to him until now.
"Well," Alyssa said at last, when she didn't answer. "If the princess went to all that trouble, then it must be important."
Looking back at Wes, the Tiger Ranger asked, "What do you want us to do?"
"Trizirium crystals weren't supposed to be invented for another hundred years," Wes told them, narrating for an image on the holoscreen at the head of the table. "But thanks to Ransik's escape, and more specifically to the knowledge of one of his robots, they were introduced to this timeline three years ago."
"Don't forget your dad," Jen murmured, and Wes' mouth quirked.
"Zirium powder was a waste product from one of the research projects he was sponsoring at the time," he explained, for the benefit of the others. "Ransik's robot stole the powder and used it to create the crystals."
"That wasn't just a research project he was sponsoring," Katie put in. "The Raimei Destroyer was an armored tank with no practical application."
"Yeah, since it took about five minutes to destroy it," Trip agreed.
Wes rolled his eyes, the expression of one who had been on the losing end of this argument many times before. "Whether it was worth it or not," he said firmly, "the crystals were created early, and their unshielded presence caused a temporal storm in Silver Hills."
"The fact that they were in use at the time didn't help either," Jen reminded him.
Eric shifted uncomfortably, but Wes just nodded. "That's true. The crystal that powered the Q-Rex was converted to bizerium, but the crystal in the robot we fought had to be shattered. The pieces dispersed on temporal currents that weren't completely traceable, and we've been tracking them down ever since."
"'We'?" Lucas repeated, deadpan.
"Time Force has been tracking them down ever since," Wes amended, giving Lucas an 'are you happy?' look. "They only recently decided to get other people involved."
"When they realized that four people hunting for hundreds of shards wasn't the most efficient ratio," Eric commented dryly.
"We were doing just fine until the other crystals started to affect the time shift," Jen informed him. "Most of the fragments have already been retrieved and contained."
"The ones we've missed have opened time holes as far away as Angel Grove," Wes added. This time Lucas didn't correct his use of the word "we". "Finding the others will keep further damage from being done to the timeline."
"We could do it ourselves," Jen repeated. "But the fragments from Doomtron's crystal aren't our only problem."
"There were at least two other whole crystals," Trip offered, leaning forward to cue the holoscreen. "They were left behind when Frax was destroyed, and by the time we located his lab, they were gone. They may have been caught up in the temporal storm somehow."
"Or someone could have stolen them," Lucas remarked idly.
"That's the worse case scenario," Jen agreed, glancing at her second in command. "That the crystals were both stolen and are being used by someone with access to a time warp to prevent further shifts from the year 3004."
"We don't know that, though," Trip insisted. "They could just be lost in the timestream, and it's only coincidence that one of them has shown up now."
"Either way," Wes said, including everyone at the table with a look. "One of the crystals is very nearby, temporally speaking, and it's starting to affect the time shift. Unless we can find it and contain it--"
"Or destroy it," Eric interrupted.
"Didn't work so well last time, did it?" Katie demanded.
"Unless we can find it," Wes said pointedly, "Time Force won't be able to travel to this time period much longer. That's why we need your help: not just to find the crystal, but to keep tracking the fragments until Jen's team can take over again."
"Most of it can be done remotely, from the Silver Guardians' headquarters," Jen added. "Wes and Eric can handle the tracking and the crystals. But they're going to need backup they can trust to deal with the time holes."
"The Silver Guardians are perfectly capable," Eric said, staring straight ahead. "But they're needed elsewhere."
Wes shot him an exasperated look. "We've discussed training a Silver Guardian special ops team, but in terms of knowledge and physical prowess, it's just not practical within this kind of time frame."
"We really need Rangers to cover for Rangers," Jen agreed. "And of the teams that are active in this time, Wild Force is the only one that's both local and familiar. You guys won't have any trouble working with Wes and Eric once we're cut off."
"That's if you're willing," Trip added, looking from one to the other along the other side of the table. "So what do you say?"
Wes grinned at Trip's eagerness, then followed his gaze to the other Rangers. "Want to help save the world again?"
"I know why I'm here," Taylor said, tilting her head back and rubbing her eyes. With a sigh, she pushed her chair back and put her feet up on the table, stretching her arms out over her head. She laced her fingers together as she stifled a yawn.
The chair creaked under her and the Eagle Ranger put her feet down abruptly, glancing over at her companion. "But why are you trying to learn this, Princess?"
She lifted her gaze from the holoscreen in front of them, wondering if it would be undignified of her to imitate Taylor's stretch. "Because I want to be useful," she said simply, letting her eyes wander around the room.
The briefing room at Guardian Headquarters had been converted into a sort of impromptu study area, the table littered with projectors and reports from the past few years. Wes and Jen had brought them all up to date in a sketchy sort of way, but anyone dealing with temporal anomalies needed more information than that to be safe, let alone effective. So they were faced with the task of condensing four years of Time Force training into little more than a week.
As the only Ranger with nowhere pressing to be the next morning, Taylor had volunteered to start tonight. Or perhaps "volunteered" was the wrong word... Since Wes' day started at five-thirty in the morning, Eric was the one staying on as instructor. She wasn't sure exactly what she had gotten in the middle of by offering herself as a second pupil, but both Taylor and Eric seemed to welcome her presence.
"You're already useful." The Eagle Ranger was out of her chair now, pacing around the room as though searching for an exit she might have missed. "Not that I'm not glad you're here," she added with a wry smile, "but we can't ask more of you than what you already do. The wild zords depend on you, and making sure they're safe takes up a lot of your time."
"The wild zords survived on their own for thousands of years," she said quietly, watching the holoscreen without really seeing it.
There was a startled silence before Taylor replied. "Yeah, in hibernation. The wild zords take a lot of maintenance; you taught me that yourself! Isn't it enough that you devote your life to being their guardian?"
She smiled a little. "You devoted your life to the Air Force," she pointed out, still looking at the screen. "And here you are."
"That's different," Taylor argued, folding her arms. "I'm on leave from the Air Force. Against my will."
"Against your will?" she repeated. This time she caught Taylor's eye. "Do you not want to be here, then?"
"No," Taylor said with a sigh. "I do." She kicked one of the chairs on the other side of the table back and sat, arms still crossed. "It's just... this isn't quite what I pictured when the team split up two years ago."
"Why not?" she asked, studying the first Ranger carefully. Of all of them, Taylor had always seemed the most certain of her future. She knew who she was and what she wanted, and if she defined herself in terms of an organization, well, what Ranger hadn't?
Taylor shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't know... it doesn't feel the same, somehow."
She didn't elaborate, and the princess hesitated. "The Power Rangers?" she asked at last. "Or the Air Force?"
Taylor didn't answer.
There was a beeping sound from the direction of the door, and the lock clicked loudly in the silence. The handle turned, and the door swung open to admit the leader of the Silver Guardians. She looked up with a smile of welcome, but Taylor didn't even turn her head.
Eric let the door slam behind him, depositing three coffee mugs on the table a moment later. He picked up one and passed it to her handle first, catching her eye with a deliberate show of courtesy. "Green tea," he said, inclining his head slightly. "No sugar."
"Thank you," she murmured, accepting the mug. He and Wes made an effort to acknowledge her title, and it was a considerate if unlooked-for gesture.
He set another mug in front of Taylor without a word. She didn't move, making no effort to even uncross her arms as he dropped into the seat beside her. It was the same place he had been sitting before he left to get coffee, but now Taylor glared at him as though he was purposefully crowding her.
Eric paid no attention. "Did you find what you were looking for, Princess?"
"I think so," she said slowly, forcing her focus back to the holoscreen. "There's so much information that it's hard to tell."
"I feel the same way most of the time," he agreed. "Time travel isn't an easy concept to grasp."
"It isn't the travel itself that confuses me," she said absently. Then she smiled a little and admitted, "Not that I understand how it's done, but I can accept that it's possible. It's the idea of changing the timeline that I can't quite believe."
"Happens every day," Eric pointed out. "Every decision we make affects the timeline. Just getting a cup of coffee changed my future--hopefully for the better," he added, with a hint of humor.
"But..." She looked over at him, frowning. "Isn't it possible that you were meant to get that cup of coffee? That, given the circumstances, getting coffee was the only choice you could have been expected to make?"
"You're talking about fate," Eric said flatly. "Predestiny."
"Perhaps," she agreed. "Do you not believe in fate?"
"No." He shook his head for emphasis. "I think that everyone has a potential that exists to be fulfilled, but that's the only kind of fate I accept. I don't believe that a set of unalterable events determines our future. Only we can do that."
"But unalterable events define our past," she pointed out. "Why shouldn't the future be the same way? Our future is someone else's past, after all."
"Time Force has proven that the past is no more certain than the future, Princess. Just because we remember it doesn't mean it happened."
She frowned. "I don't want to argue with you, Eric, but... the things I remember happening happened. I'm sure of it."
"There aren't many people still alive that could dispute your memories," he said blandly, and she looked up in surprise. "But if there were, I doubt you could agree on the exact details of any of them."
"Just because we don't remember something clearly doesn't mean it didn't happen," she told him, wondering if there had been some underlying meaning in his remark.
"Just because you do remember something clearly doesn't mean it did," he countered. "Jen remembers her fiance dying, but he didn't. Alex is alive and well. And he remembers Wes' father dying--that didn't happen in this timeline either."
"You're saying there's more than one timeline," she said dubiously.
"It's the only explanation that makes any sense," Eric replied. "Time Force calls it the multiverse theory. I think they stumbled onto it by process of elimination, myself. If there's only one timeline, then everything that will happen already has, and everything that has happened will."
"That's almost the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard you say," Taylor muttered, apparently tired of being left out of the conversation.
"And that's almost the most narrow-minded thing I've ever heard you say," Eric replied without hesitation. "Congratulations on making a bad perspective worse."
Trying to ignore them, the princess murmured, "So destiny does exist when there's only one timeline."
That seemed to throw Eric in a way that Taylor's remark had not. "Yes," he said after a moment. "I suppose it does."
Taylor shoved her chair back and stood up. "I'm hungry," she informed the room at large. Before anyone could reply, she had opened her growlphone and punched something into the keypad. Lifting it to her ear, she didn't bother to turn away as she waited for someone to answer.
"Hello," she said a moment later. "I'd like to place an order for delivery."
"You can't have food delivered here!" Eric exclaimed indignantly.
Taylor narrowed her eyes at him. "Watch me," she replied, turning just enough to indicate that she wasn't listening to him.
"Yes," she told the phone. "I'd like a french vanilla sundae with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, no nuts. Princess," she added, tilting the phone away from her face. "Do you want anything?"
She shook her head, trying to hide a smile at Eric's expression. "No, thank you."
"That's it," she told her growlphone. "That's right, just whipped cream and chocolate sauce. Taylor Earhardt? I'm at the Silver Guardian headquarters. Do you know where that is?
"Great," she said a moment later. "Someone will meet you at the gate. Thanks."
"You can't have ice cream delivered to the gate!" Eric looked outraged by the very idea. "This base is a secure facility!"
Taylor smiled so sweetly that it would have warned any sane person to clear the area. "There aren't too many people that will argue with the Eagle Ranger," she told him.
Eric's face went completely blank, and the princess wondered what he had heard in that remark. "I don't use my authority to order ice cream," he said stiffly, but Taylor was already on her way toward the door.
"Only because you didn't think of it first," she called over her shoulder. The door slammed behind her.
Eric sank back in his chair with a sigh. "I don't know how you lived with her for two years," he grumbled, staring at the tabletop. "Everything she does is trouble."
"Taylor has a good heart," she said gently. "She cares very deeply for those around her. She just doesn't always express it in the way you'd expect."
"Yeah, well, her attitude probably doesn't win her any friends in the military," he muttered.
"From what I've heard, her attitude is perfect for the military," she offered. "Just as your attitude makes you a success in your civilian militia."
"I don't have an attitude," Eric snapped. "I follow orders, and I do what it takes to get the job done. That's all."
She didn't bother to suppress her smile. "Just like Taylor."
He didn't glare at her, but she got the impression that it was a near thing. "Why all the questions about destiny?" he asked abruptly. "Something in your religion that disagrees with this time travel stuff?"
It was as close to disrespect as he'd shown toward her, but it was the question more than his tone that made her hesitate. "No," she said, glancing down at the table. "I don't have any problem with time travel. I guess you could say I've done it myself," she added wistfully.
Eric seemed to consider that. "You came forward, what? Three thousand years?"
She nodded wordlessly.
"And you've seen Jen's time, too," he said, almost as though he was talking to himself. "Or you will... That's a long time to sleep."
"Yes," she agreed quietly. "I find I can't face it again so soon."
"So that's why you're here." Eric leaned back and put his feet up on the table, rocking on the back legs of his chair. He sounded as though he'd just discovered a missing piece of the puzzle. Was everyone wondering what she was doing on the earth again?
"Do you have to sleep?" The question came out of nowhere, and she was startled into catching his eye. She looked away almost immediately, but she could still feel his gaze on her.
"If I understand correctly," he continued, "The first time you slept to preserve Earth's last hope against the Orgs. So why now? What are you waiting for now?"
"Why not?" she asked, before she could stop herself. "What purpose do I have but to carry on the traditions of Animaria? The Orgs are gone, true, but so are my people. My kingdom, my entire way of life is three thousand years in the past."
Eric let his chair fall forward with a thump. "I've gone farther back than that. Three thousand years is nothing, Princess. You could be back in Animaria tomorrow."
Her breath caught, and for a brief moment she let herself entertain the idea. It was a tantalizing thought... to have her life restored in less time than it had taken to vanish? How could she not consider it?
"I can't," she said at last, reluctantly. "It's over now--Animaria went on without the guardian of the animal spirits, and if I go back I'll change everything."
"So?" he demanded. "You think Jen's team doesn't change things every time they get in that Time Ship? In a multiverse there are infinite possibilities, Princess. Just because you weren't there in this timeline doesn't mean you can't be in another one.
"Besides," he added, seeing her waver. "The wild zords are already here, in the present. You wouldn't be affecting the outcome of the Org battle."
That was a persuasive argument, and she was sure he knew it. "I wish I could," she admitted finally. "I can't do it, but... thank you for making home seem closer than it did."
Eric just looked at her, and for a moment she thought he would try to convince her. But he only shrugged, reaching for his mug. "Suit yourself," he remarked, taking a swallow of coffee. "Need anything else from the databanks?"
She shook her head quickly, glad to be offered a new topic. "Thank you, no. I think this could keep me busy all night."
"It will, if you let it," he warned. "You have to be careful; I've gotten sucked into these things before."
She managed a smile, touched by his concern. Before she could reply, though, the lock by the door beeped. The beeps were followed by a buzz, and she saw Eric smirk. He made no move to get up and open the door.
The lock beeped again, and once more the buzz sounded. She assumed that meant an improper code had been entered and Taylor was locked out. She was getting to her feet to let the Eagle Ranger back into the briefing room when the locked beeped again, and this time there was a click.
She watched, surprised, as Taylor pushed the door open and walked in with a cup in one hand. Pulling the spoon out of her mouth, she shot Eric a condescending look. "Third try? You really are predictable."
Eric further surprised her by having no ready retort. Instead he glanced away, lifting his mug again as he reached for one of the reports on the table. The princess sat down again quietly, wondering how Taylor had guessed the code.
The next half hour or so passed in uncomfortable silence, which she tried to ignore as much as possible. Taylor had reclaimed her seat in front of the holoscreen, instead of across the table beside Eric, and she didn't bother to retrieve the coffee he had gotten for her. Instead she scraped the ice cream out of her "Dairy Bar" cup with great relish, her attention apparently focused on one of the projectors.
The princess managed to follow the history of time hole discovery and alteration for a significant amount of time after Taylor had set her cup aside. Eventually, though, she realized that she had gone from 2859 to the beginning of the thirtieth century without any memory of the intervening events. It was harder to watch a screen than it was to hear someone actually saying the words--or at least, that was the excuse she gave herself.
Lifting her head to look around the table, she found Eric staring moodily at the same report he had picked up when Taylor returned. Taylor was leaning rather precariously on the table, chin propped on her hand as she gazed at the projector. She looked like she was absorbing about the same amount of information as her companions, but neither she nor Eric seemed likely to call a halt to the session in the near future.
So the princess reached out and turned the holoscreen off, getting to her feet as they both cast startled looks in her direction. "I'm afraid I'm too tired to learn anything else tonight," she said firmly. "I don't want to interrupt either of you, but I should be going. Thank you for your help, Eric."
"I should go too," Taylor admitted, stretching her arms out in front of her before pushing herself up out of her chair. "I think I've watched this same scene almost twenty times now."
"Do you have a place to stay?" Eric asked. He was staring studiously at his empty coffee mug, as though it might answer instead of Taylor. "You've been living on the base for a while now."
"No reason I can't keep doing it," Taylor said, shutting the projector down. She was frowning, though, and she didn't seem particularly thrilled about the idea.
"You still have a place on the Animarium," the princess offered. "The warriors chosen by the animal spirits are always welcome in their temple."
Eric looked up at that, and Taylor, too, seemed surprised. "Is that true?"
"Of course," she said, smiling at Taylor's disbelief. "The eagle sometimes wonders why you do not visit him there. He prefers to see you in the sky, of course, but with your animal crystal you may walk onto the Animarium at any time."
Taylor gaped at her. "You know he's been coming to see me?"
She couldn't help but laugh. "How could I not? I do not miss the comings and goings of the very spirits I have been assigned to protect. I'm glad you have kept up your relationship with your animal spirit."
"You're not upset?" Taylor couldn't seem to get her mind around the idea. "But--you told us that the 'journey' was over! We all thought you were saying goodbye!"
Her smile faded a little, and she nodded reluctantly. "I was," she admitted. "I expected to return to the Animarium, and the sleep, for a very long time. But the animal crystals were not mine to take. I knew that if you ever needed them again, the animal spirits would answer your call."
Taylor shook her head, though whether in wonder or denial it was hard to say. "All this time," she murmured. Then she gave her head another shake, more decisively this time. "I think I'll take you up on that, then. At least for tonight. Tomorrow I'll try to figure things out, but right now I just need some sleep."
"There are some woods outside the first gate," the princess offered, drifting toward the door. "We should be able to find the path to the Animarium there."
"I'll escort you out," Eric said unexpectedly. He was right behind Taylor as she headed for the door, proving he wasn't quite as distracted as he had looked before.
"Don't trust us loose on the base?" Taylor inquired.
Eric caught the door she didn't hold for him. "Give me your keys."
"You wish," she retorted, not pausing.
His footsteps stopped. "Unless you want your car towed, give me your keys."
Taylor turned back reluctantly, and the princess waited. With an exasperated glare, she fished her keys out of her pocket and held them up. "One scratch," she threatened.
"And I'll be buying you a new car," Eric finished, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, I know."
The Eagle Ranger threw the keys to him without another word and turned away, heading down the hallway without waiting for either of them to follow.
"Thank you, Eric." She gave him an apologetic glance that he didn't see because he was too busy glaring after Taylor. "Will we see you again tomorrow?"
"Ask me later," he said disgustedly. "Good night, Princess."
"Good night," she murmured, but he was already striding down the hall in the opposite direction.
She didn't catch up to Taylor until she passed the second security checkpoint. The guard hadn't taken her ID, and she wondered what that meant for the future. It looked as though they might be expected for some time to come.
Taylor was waiting in the shadows just beyond the gatehouse. "Sorry," she muttered, when the princess joined her at the edge of the floodlights' reach. "He's just so rude sometimes; I can't stand it."
There was little she could say that wouldn't be either insulting or untruthful, so she settled for, "Things will look better tomorrow. Do you remember the way?"
She thought Taylor smiled in the dimness. "Your path will be shorter."
There was no arguing with that. She led the way into the woods, Taylor close on her heels as the moonless night closed in around them. Almost as soon as the trees surrounded them they gave way to virgin forest, towering specimens that had never been cut and contained within them all the life of a land long changed. The Animarium was a last, wild refuge on a planet overwhelmed by human influence.
"I missed this," Taylor whispered from behind her. "There's no other place like it."
"Not anymore," she agreed quietly. She drew in a deep breath of pure, unfiltered air, lifting her gaze instinctively to the cliff Max had dubbed "Pride Rock". It was empty, of course, with Red Lion asleep in his den below, but it jutted against the star-filled sky like a symbol of the lion's defiant roar.
"Do you really keep track of where all the wild zords are?" Taylor asked, apparently catching her glance. "It must get overwhelming."
"They have patterns, even as we do." She took another full breath before moving toward the temple, anxious to sleep if not to leave the living night behind. "Many of them are content to remain here much of the time. Others are not, but they often seek out the same places from week to week."
"Who leaves?" Taylor wanted to know, brushing aside one of the trailing vines that clung to the entrance. Her steps on the stone were sure, despite the darkness.
"The Rangers' spirits are least content to spend all their days and nights on this island of what was." It was only to be expected, she supposed--they were bound to people of this time, now, and they wanted to live in it. "Your--"
She broke off as she caught sight of the fountain. It showed an empty den where there had been an animal spirit resting peacefully when she left. She tried to stay calm, but her heart contracted involuntarily and her mind began racing through a list of possible horrors.
"What's wrong?" Taylor wanted to know. She too glanced over at the fountain, but the sight meant little to her. "Princess? Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," she said, a little too quickly. "It's nothing. Just another animal spirit seeking adventure." The image in the fountain vanished, but Taylor wasn't fooled.
"Who is it?" She moved around to stand between the princess and the fountain, studying her more closely as her vision adapted to the starlight. "Whose wild zord is missing?"
There was nothing for it but to tell her. "The wolf is gone again," she admitted, staring past Taylor into the night. "Within the last few hours."
"Again?" Taylor echoed. "But you said that our wild zords come and go more than the others. Why does it surprise you that he's not here?"
"It doesn't surprise me," she said softly. "It just--worries me."
"Why?" Taylor moderated her tone a little, but her curiosity was obvious.
"Because he doesn't go to visit." That had been one of the few things the wolf had told her about some of his more dangerous excursions. "He goes when he's needed. And sometimes he... he comes back hurt."
She sighed, then added unnecessarily, "It worries me."
Taylor didn't answer. Glancing over at the shadow of the table in the dimness, she asked at last, "Have you heard anything from Merrick?"
She shook her head.
"Of course you haven't," Taylor realized. "He probably thinks you're asleep. I got a postcard from him once... I'll pick it up tomorrow so you can see it. The handwriting is cute."
"He can write now," she murmured, more to remind herself than anything. Taylor had taught her to read and write years ago, but it had been a tedious and sometimes frustrating process. "I wonder who taught him."
"My money's on Willie," Taylor declared. "I'll bet he started learning the day he realized everyone else could do it."
She tried to smile, but her gaze was drawn inevitably back to the fountain. It reflected only starlight now. Lifting her eyes to the hills beyond the temple, she searched in vain for a silhouette she didn't really expect to find. Sometimes the wolf let her know when he returned--
"Princess," Taylor said quietly. She glanced back at her, about to apologize for letting her attention wander, but Taylor just smiled. "Things will look better in the morning," she repeated, with such certainty that it was impossible to argue.
The princess did smile this time, nodding once. "Your room is much as you left it," she offered, looking back the way they'd come. "And you finally have it to yourself again."
"Just like old times," Taylor commented, tossing her head. It was a habit she had never lost, apparently, despite the fact that she wore her hair in a braid now.
Without a word of goodnight, the Eagle Ranger made her way past the fountain. Her arms were folded against the cool night air, but she paused at the bottom of the steps to tilt her head skyward. Tomorrow, the eagle would no doubt answer her unspoken summons. For now, though, she seemed content to see only stars above her.
"Princess..." The word interrupted her own contemplation of the night, and she found that Taylor had turned back to look at her. "Don't stay up all night waiting for the wolf."
She just smiled, making no promises. "Good night, Taylor."
Taylor's knowing look was her only answer. They told each other what to do out of compassion and old habit, not real expectation. The Eagle Ranger turned and walked slowly into the temple, leaving the princess alone in the clearing.
He launched himself into the air, grabbing the beam and swinging down into the hallway with a whoop. His bare feet greeted the floor without having touched a single stair, and he dove onto Ness's dog bed. She leapt out of the way just in time, play bowing when he rolled onto his back and then dancing forward to jump on him.
Cole laughed, rolling over again as they tussled in front of the door. One of her rope toys dug into his back and he fished it out, offering it to her and then yanking it back as she sunk her teeth into it. She growled playfully, bracing herself as she held her ground in the impromptu tug-of-war.
"Come on, Tigger. Let's get you something to eat, okay?"
He paused, letting go of the toy as he watched Alyssa come down the stairs with their black foster cat cuddled in her arms. Ness sat back on her haunches, rope dangling from both sides of her mouth as she waited for the game to resume. She cocked her head, tail thumping against the floor as Alyssa reached the bottom of the stairs and smiled down at them.
"Breakfast to go?" she suggested, transferring Tigger to her shoulder and offering her free hand to Cole.
"Sounds great," he agreed, letting her help him up off the dog bed with a grin. "I'll get the lunches. What do you want to drink?"
She led the way into the kitchen, setting Tigger carefully on the counter. "Iced tea sounds good," she said, opening the refrigerator. "Do you want eggs this morning, or toast sandwiches?"
"Toast sandwich," he replied promptly. Ness whined, and he caught her eye. "Just a minute," he promised. "We're getting it now, Ness."
Alyssa spooned some of Tigger's food onto a plate and set it in front of the cat, then smiled down at Ness. "You're next," she told the dog, taking the jam and moving out of Cole's way.
The chicken and rice mix was in a tupperware container next to the milk, and Cole heaped some into Ness' bowl while Alyssa started the toast. "Tomato sauce or yogurt?" he asked the dog, stepping back to let Alyssa get to the peanut butter.
Waiting patiently by the living room door, Ness nosed the air gently.
"Tomato sauce it is." Cole poured some onto her food and set it down, sliding it across the floor to her. "I'm going to put the eggs with the lunches so we can have them later if we're hungry," he told Alyssa.
"Mmm," she agreed, taking the spoon out of her mouth to point at his toast inquiringly. "Do you want honey?"
He touched the back of her head to warn her as he reached past her into the cupboard. "I always want honey," he said with a grin, dropping a kiss on her shoulder as he handed her the jar.
She laughed, accepting the jar with a shake of her head.
Pulling their lunch bags out of the refrigerator, he added hardboiled eggs to the sandwiches they had made the night before. He took a water and some fruit, putting an iced tea in her bag before turning back to her. "Fruit?"
"A banana and some yogurt," she said over her shoulder, and he collected the requested items.
"I just want you to know," he said, zipping up the lunch sacks, "that yogurt is not a fruit."
Alyssa turned away from the counter, a double-toast sandwich in each hand. "It has fruit in it," she informed him. "And I have your breakfast."
"Yeah, well I have your lunch," he countered, smiling. "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree."
She sighed as though it was a terrible compromise. "I guess," she said reluctantly, but a smile tugged at her lips as she handed him his toast. "Are we ready?"
He picked up their lunches, shooting a glance at the clock as he handed hers over. "Let's go," he said eagerly, tearing into his toast as he looked around for Ness. "Ready, Ness?"
She looked up from licking her empty bowl and bounded forward as they headed for the door. "Keys," Alyssa said over her shoulder, and Cole patted his pocket to make sure he still had them.
"Keys, check," he answered, holding the door for Ness.
"Bye, Tigger!" Alyssa called, and they were off. Mornings were usually more relaxed, but today they had a special priority. The trees behind the building beckoned and Ness bounced happily along, undeterred by the change in their normal route.
Cole switched their lunches to one hand and wrapped his fingers around his animal crystal, exchanging glances with Alyssa. "Ready?" he asked.
She nodded once, holding up her own animal crystal. "Let's do it," she agreed.
They walked on into the trees, and Cole kept one eye on Ness. Humans could be brought onto the Animarium as long as they walked with someone who had an animal crystal, and it ought to be the same with animals. Still, he didn't want to take any chances. Ness would be awfully confused if they vanished into thin air right beside her.
Between keeping track of Ness and picturing the Animarium in his mind, he missed the moment when the live oaks turned to something larger and the haze cleared away from the horizon. But he felt the air change, and the ground was suddenly softer beneath his feet. Lifting his head, he saw Pride Rock looming against the vibrant dawn sky.
Alyssa caught his hand and squeezed it, and he whooped with joy to see Red Lion pacing across the cliff. The lion paused at the sound, swinging his massive head around to stare down into the forest. Cole yelled to him, waving his free hand, and Red Lion lifted his muzzle in a triumphant roar.
Cole laughed aloud, his animal crystal sparkling as it hadn't in years. He tucked it back into his pocket and dropped their lunches by the nearest tree. Whirling, he grinned apologetically at Alyssa, and she waved him off with a smile.
Free again, he flew across the ground toward the cliffs, distantly aware of Ness racing beside him. The forest soil gave way to gravel and sand in moments, and he scrambled across the stone toward Red Lion's den. The lion met him at the base of the cliffs, a muted sound rumbling in his throat as he watched Cole running toward him.
The next few minutes were a blur of thoughts and mixed emotions: joy at their reunion, curiosity about their separation, some loneliness and a sense of time passed, and the certainty that their fates were still entwined. It was hard to tell who felt what, but the sense of kinship with a spirit so much older and wiser than his own was exhilarating and frightening all at once. He had missed this feeling.
Dropping to one knee, he laughed at Red Lion's inquiry as he drew Ness close. Ruffling her fur affectionately, he answered, "This is your namesake! Lioness, meet Red Lion. Red Lion, this is Lioness. She's the one who led me to the lab the night before I met you."
He felt more than heard Red Lion's rumble of approval before he was distracted by Alyssa's arrival. She waved up at Red Lion and greeted him cheerfully, but there was a small frown on her face. "Where's White Tiger?" she asked, directing the question at him instead of Cole.
Red Lion tilted his head, one green-slitted eye regarding them from above. Cole knew, suddenly, and he glanced at Alyssa to see if she had heard too. She shook her head once, and he told her, "He says she's hunting."
Alyssa's frown deepened. "But it's barely sunrise! What's she doing out now?"
She hunts for another. The words formed in his mind with no warning, but the rest of the message was familiar feeling. He just knew, without having it put into words, and he told Alyssa, "Red Lion says she's hunting for the wolf.
"What's wrong with the wolf?" he added, before Alyssa could ask.
The answer surprised him, and he found himself frowning too. "The wolf burned his paws last night," he said, waiting to see if Red Lion would elaborate. When he didn't, Cole added slowly, "He can't run... so White Tiger's hunting for him."
"Burned!" Alyssa's eyes were wide with sympathy. "How did he burn his paws?"
Cole paused, then shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted, troubled. "Red Lion won't say."
They both turned at exactly the same moment, and there was Princess Shayla gliding through the windswept trees at the edge of the forest. Cole waved, and Alyssa shouted a greeting. Behind them, he heard Red Lion settling to the ground, watching the activity with a fond interest that Cole could feel emanating from him.
"Princess," he said with a smile, when Ness darted out of his shadow to wag at her. "Good morning."
"Good morning to both of you," she replied, smiling in return. "It's good to see you on the Animarium again--but isn't it a little early?"
They exchanged rueful glances. "We wanted to see Red Lion and White Tiger," Cole explained, watching her reach down to touch Ness. The golden retriever seemed to understand that this was not a person to be leapt upon, and she kept her squirming to a minimum as the princess patted her gingerly.
"We left early so we could come here before work," Alyssa added. "It's been a long time, and we wanted to say hello."
"Red Lion is very glad to see you," the princess agreed, lifting her gaze to the animal spirit looming behind Cole. "But I'm afraid White Tiger isn't here right now. She'll be disappointed to find that she missed you."
"Oh, we'll be back later," Cole said with a grin. The lion rumbled in agreement.
"But where is she?" Alyssa asked, as though she hadn't put the question to Red Lion just a few moments before. "Have you seen her, Princess?"
Cole gave her an odd look, but she ignored him so he turned his gaze to the princess. She was still watching the lion, an indefinable expression on her face. "She's... hunting," Princess Shayla said at last.
"At this hour?" Alyssa pretended to be just as surprised as she had when she first heard the news. "Why would she be out hunting now?"
The princess sighed, finally lowering her gaze to meet theirs. "The wolf spirit was injured last night," she admitted. "White Tiger is hunting for him."
"Injured?" Cole pounced, hoping she would be more forthcoming than Red Lion. "Injured how? Here on the Animarium?"
"No," the princess said quickly. "Not here..." She pressed her hands together, looking down at the ground before continuing. "The wolf spirit--often goes to help Merrick," she said softly. "When he comes back, he won't tell me where he's been or what he was doing. I think--they don't want me to know."
"No," Alyssa protested at once. "That can't be true, Princess. Merrick doesn't even know you're awake! He can't be purposefully keeping anything from you."
"That's right," Cole agreed. "Maybe the wolf is protecting him. I'm sure if Merrick knew you were worried about him, he'd send a message with the wolf."
The princess smiled a little, but it was a half-hearted effort. "Maybe he is," she said sadly.
"You told him to stay on the earth," Cole reminded her. "So he's staying. He doesn't even know you're awake!"
"The wolf spirit would have told him," the princess murmured.
"The eagle didn't tell Taylor," Alyssa pointed out. "You told us the things that are important to us aren't the same things that are important to the wild zords. Do you think the wolf told him because you have a reason to think that--or because you would have?"
The princess caught her eye again. "I wouldn't have," she said simply.
There was a silent moment, and then Cole demanded, "Why not?"
"Because he belongs on the earth," she replied. "And I belong here."
"You belong together!" Alyssa insisted. "Princess, he's your protector! He belongs with you, whether it's here or on the earth!"
Ness was leaning against the princess' knee now, and she patted the dog again, gently. "Merrick has to choose his own path," she said quietly.
"He did choose his own path!" Cole exclaimed. "He chose to be with you, but you sent him away! Can't you see that he'd rather be with you than anywhere on the earth?"
"The Animarium is a sanctuary, not a home." The Princess didn't look up, but her voice was suddenly firm. "Three thousand years ago, people came here to worship. Not to live. The warriors are welcome here, of course, but it is no place to live one's entire life."
"Then why are you still here?" Alyssa asked practically. "Maybe you're the one who should move. Merrick would go anywhere with you, you know."
"I'm the guardian of the animal spirits." Princess Shayla lifted her head and settled her arms at her sides, smiling a little distantly at them. "I'm here because they need me, and I will stay here as long as I must to serve them."
Behind them, Red Lion grumbled. Cole suppressed a smile. "Red Lion says you were a better guardian when Merrick was around," he said frankly.
Her eyes widened. The princess turned away abruptly, walking off without another word. She hadn't gone more than five steps before sparkles enveloped her form and she vanished into the air.
"Cole," Alyssa scolded him. "That wasn't very nice!"
"Red Lion said it," he protested. "Not me."
It was true, and she settled for sighing. "You're going to be late," she said, glancing at her watch. "We'd better go."
"I'll be back later, Red Lion." He smiled up at the giant wild zord, then clapped his hands for Ness. "Ready to go, girl? Come on, Ness!"
As they headed back the way they'd come, though, he commented, "We're right, you know. It killed Merrick to leave. Why won't she tell him she's still awake?"
"I don't know," Alyssa said with a sigh. "Maybe because he'd just come back, and she still doesn't want him to stay on the Animarium."
"I can understand that," Cole said, frustrated. "But it's his decision to make! If he wants to give up his life on earth for her, she shouldn't be able to tell him he can't!"
"He's a free spirit, Cole." She sounded uncharacteristically solemn, and he saw Ness nudge her hand comfortingly as they walked. "Maybe she doesn't want him tied down."
He frowned, trying to see what she was saying. "But he was sworn to be her protector for years before the final battle with Master Org. How is this any different?"
"Because that was Animaria. That was a whole land, a place that knew about and respected the wild zords. He and Princess Shayla both fit in there. Now the Animarium and the earth are separate, and it's different. He doesn't fit in here, and she doesn't really fit in on the earth. One of them would have to give up their place to be with the other, and she doesn't want that."
They walked in silence for a while, and her truth became clearer to his ears. But it came down to the same argument he had made before, and he repeated, "It isn't just her choice. If Merrick wants--"
"Cole." She stopped abruptly, and he turned to look at her. Alyssa searched his expression, and whatever she found there made her smile.
"Cole," she repeated, more gently this time. "If you hadn't adjusted to the city the way you did... if you hadn't found the spirit of the earth in Turtle Cove just as strongly as you did in the place where you grew up--I wouldn't have wanted you to stay."
She covered his mouth with her hand when he started to speak, and he waited. "I love you," she said softly. "That's why I wouldn't want you to live someplace where you couldn't be yourself. If Princess Shayla thinks that Merrick couldn't be happy on the Animarium... then I understand why she told him to go."
He took a deep breath and let it out, feeling the impatience seep out of him. He smiled a little, and she let her hand fall. "I understand, too," he said at last. "But--I won't help her deceive Merrick. If he asks about her, I'll tell him what I know."
Alyssa smiled back at him. "I know." With a slight shrug, she admitted, "Me too."
"It's better to trim them now," he offered, clipping a stalk from each side and studying the planet critically. He took off one more piece, then handed the flowers over with a nod of satisfaction. "The stress of repotting will keep them from blooming again for a few days, so you want them to look their best before you move them."
The bell over the door chimed, and they both looked up in surprise.
Kendall wandered over, a fond look on her face as she considered the arrangement. "You said you'd be waiting outside," she reminded him, tweaking one of the leaves with her fingers.
"Oh--what time is it?" He glanced down at his watch, found it covered by the gardening gloves, and looked around for the clock in confusion. "I was just showing Carrie..."
"I asked him for his advice," Carrie put in when he trailed off. "I didn't realize you were waiting for him."
Kendall just smiled. "You're not even supposed to be working today," she chided, taking his hands to pull his gloves off and set them on the table. "And Max is threatening to leave without us."
He let her lead him toward the door, shooting an apologetic look at Carrie as he did so. He transferred the look to Kendall when she pushed the door open for him, and she linked her arm through his with a laugh. "You just can't resist the new faces, can you?" she teased.
"She wanted to know," he blurted out, trying to explain how exciting that was to him. "She cares what's good for the plants, not just what will look nice in the arrangement. Most people--"
A horn sounded impatiently from the curb, and he looked up to see Max waving at them. He lifted his hand in return, glad when Kendall agreed, "Carrie's one of the good ones. I hope she stays."
"I thought you'd gotten lost," Max was complaining as Danny opened the door for Kendall. "The rink's already been open for half an hour!"
"There's never any music until later in the afternoon anyway," Kendall pointed out, climbing into the cab of the pickup and squeezing to make room for Danny. He had barely gotten the door shut before Max was pulling out.
"Like music is the point," Max scoffed, glancing over his shoulder as they threaded their way down the crowded street. "I bet Cole and Alyssa were there when it opened."
Danny and Kendall exchanged glances, silently disagreeing on the likelihood of that scenario. Dogs were allowed in the skate park but not the actual rink, and Cole had never been very fond of anything with wheels. He went because the others liked it, but it was a rare day when they got him to put on skates. Mostly he kept Ness company on the sidelines.
The rink was only sparsely populated by the time they got there, no matter Max's complaints. There were almost as many people in the skate park, which remained open but unsupervised throughout the week. As Danny had suspected, Cole and Alyssa were nowhere to be seen.
"Hey," Max called, standing up inside the truck and leaning on his open door to peer at the rink. "Is that Taylor over there? Who's that with her?"
Danny paused, holding the door for Kendall as he followed Max's gaze. It hadn't even occurred to him to look for Taylor; she hadn't made an appearance at one of their gatherings for weeks. But sure enough, there was a flash of yellow on the rink and a swirl of color from the person with her, and he squinted in an effort to identify her companion.
"It's the princess!" Kendall exclaimed, shading her eyes as she moved up to the front of the truck. "I didn't know they were going to be here!"
Max jumped down, retrieving his skates and swinging them over his shoulder before he slammed the door. "Well, who'd have thunk it?" he remarked, to the world at large. "Princess Shayla does know how to have fun!"
Out of the corner of his eye, Danny saw Kendall frown at Max for his irreverence. Predictably, it didn't deter Max in the slightest, and he headed toward the rink without waiting to see if they would follow. Danny didn't move--he was too busy trying to catch another glimpse of Taylor and the princess.
"I've never seen her wear anything but white," Kendall said, nudging his arm gently.
He took the hint and started walking, but he kept his eyes on the rink. "Neither have I..." Taylor came around the corner again, and he got a good look at the long-haired woman with her. It was Princess Shayla, wearing a gauzy skirt and a sleeveless wraparound shirt that didn't match any of the colors in her skirt. She was--laughing?
They were both laughing, he realized a moment later. She and Taylor were clumsier on skates than he was, which was saying something. They were holding hands to keep from falling, and every time one of them wobbled they grabbed at each other to keep from losing their balance completely. He had never seen either of them having quite so much... fun.
He heard a dog bark, and he and Kendall looked around at the same time. He was the first one to spot Ness, charging down the river walkway with a tennis ball in her mouth. He lifted his hand to wave when he saw Cole and Alyssa, a considerable distance behind but apparently unworried by her antics, and finally Alyssa saw him.
Kendall and Alyssa waved at the same time, and Ness came to a screeching halt just outside the skate park. She whirled, tennis ball still firmly in her possession, and took off back toward Cole and Alyssa. Bounding in circles around them, she dropped the tennis ball and barked again, throwing her whole body into the chase when Cole picked it up and threw it for her.
Danny and Kendall waited by one of the benches until they caught up. Max was already tearing up the rink on his K2s, but Danny was in no hurry to put his own skates on. The best part of coming to the rink was the company and the fresh air, occasionally the snacks, and even more occasionally the music. He wished he had an excuse as good as Cole's for just watching.
"Hey guys!" Alyssa greeted them cheerfully, as soon as they were within shouting distance. "We thought we might beat you here this time!"
"Not with Max driving," Kendall countered, smiling. "He wanted to be here at noon."
"We didn't even leave until noon," Cole put in. "Here, Ness!"
He threw the tennis ball for her again, careful to keep it low and inside the park. "Have you guys been to the Animarium yet?" he added, turning back to them. "We're kind of worried about Princess Shayla."
"That Princess Shayla, you mean?" Kendall hooked her thumb over her shoulder innocently.
It seemed to take Cole a moment to recognize her, but Alyssa got it right away. "Wow," Alyssa said with a laugh. "Maybe she and Taylor are good for each other."
"How did Taylor know we were going to be here?" Danny wanted to know. "Or is it just a coincidence?"
"No, I told her," Alyssa assured him. "I just didn't expect her to show up. She never has before... she's always been too busy."
Cole reached down to pat Ness absently as she returned with the tennis ball. "Should we have invited the princess to do things with us before?" he wondered out loud. "Do you think she was just waiting for us to ask?"
"The Animarium is her home," Danny said, frowning a little. "She's comfortable there. If she had wanted to come with us, she would have said something."
"Besides," Kendall pointed out, "it's only been a few days."
"What about before now?" Alyssa asked worriedly. "Back when we were Rangers..."
"She came to earth on her own then," Danny reminded her. "Maybe she still is. If she hasn't been sleeping--how do we know what she's been doing?"
That was greeted by silence. He was starting to wonder if he'd said something wrong when he saw Cole and Alyssa exchange glances. "That's true," Alyssa agreed at last. "We don't know."
Cole jumped over the bench easily and loped up to the rink, leaning on the half wall as Taylor and the princess wavered toward them again. Danny saw Taylor point, obviously catching sight of Cole, and the two of them tried awkwardly to coordinate some kind of turn. They almost fell several times, but it was hard to tell whether it was because of the turn or their hysterical giggles as they tried to remain upright.
Finally the princess caught hold of the wall and pulled Taylor up against it, both of them huddling together as they tried to stop laughing long enough to catch their breath. Cole said something that Danny couldn't overhear, but it only made Taylor laugh harder. If he was planning to ask the princess what she'd been doing, it didn't look like it was going to be easy.
Something warm bumped against his hand, and Danny looked down automatically. Ness was standing next to him, tail wagging as she gazed up at him with adoring eyes. The tennis ball was still in her mouth, and she wagged harder as he reached out to take it from her. Dropping it at his feet, she backed off a few steps and waited expectantly.
"Sucker," Alyssa accused, startling him. "You're as bad as Cole!"
"But she wants me to throw the ball for her," he protested, looking from Alyssa to Kendall for support.
"She always wants someone to throw the ball for her," Alyssa countered with a laugh. "The only reason humans exist is to throw tennis balls for Ness."
Ness gave her a reproachful look, and Alyssa's apparent exasperation melted away. "Yes, I know," she told the dog, as though Ness had said something and she had understood. "I'm a bad influence and I shouldn't call people suckers. I don't need Cole to translate that expression for me."
"That does look like what she's saying," Kendall said with a giggle. "Does she talk to people even when they don't understand her?"
"Yes," Alyssa said with an indulgent sigh. "Cole says that animals are talking to us all the time, we just don't listen hard enough."
Danny had picked up the ball and was about to throw it when a distinctive ring made him reach for his growlphone. It took a few seconds to realize it wasn't his, and his gaze went from Alyssa to Cole and Taylor, still hanging on the edge of the rink while they talked. Cole was pulling his growlphone out of his pocket, flipping it open and leaning over the wall so Taylor could listen too.
Unfortunately, that didn't do them any good. They had to wait until Cole nodded, put his growlphone away, and waved to get Max's attention before turning away from the rink and heading back to them. Behind him, Taylor and Princess Shayla were making their way along the half wall toward the nearest exit.
"What's going on?" Alyssa asked, as soon as he was close enough for some amount of privacy. "Was that Wes?"
Max cruised up to the edge of the rink, spun to a stop and bounced up onto the half wall. He swung his legs over and slid off on the other side, rolling over to the bench and stopping with enviable grace. "What's happening?" he wanted to know. "You look serious."
"It was Eric," Cole answered. Even Ness had sat down, apparently sensing this was not the moment to press the tennis ball case. "He says there's a time hole downtown, and he wants us to see it so we know what we're dealing with."
"Oh, man," Max groaned. "Now I remember why we stopped being Rangers. Is this going to take all afternoon?"
Cole shrugged. "Eric didn't say he needed backup, just that he wanted us to see a time hole."
"Time Force is probably with him already," Alyssa added. "But time holes can last a long time, can't they?"
"Or a really short time," Max said hopefully. "Maybe it'll be gone by the time we get there."
"I'll put our skates in the truck," Danny offered.
"I'll go with you," Kendall said quickly, and he saw Cole glance over at her.
Cole didn't say anything, though, and Max handed over his skates without complaint. Danny breathed a sigh of relief as they walked back to the truck. He and Max had taken Kendall with them the second time they'd gone to the Animarium, and it looked like that was all right with Cole. At least, he hadn't told her to stay behind yet.
"Do you think I can come?" she whispered, as he took her skates from her and put them on the floor of the cab with his and Danny's. "I don't want to get in the way."
"You won't," he said quickly. "Do you want to come?"
She nodded, and he smiled a little. "Then you can," he said, taking her hand as they rejoined the others. "It's just another lesson, anyway."
Taylor had already caught up with them by then, and the princess was right behind her. There were hellos and greetings all around, and no one objected to Kendall's presence as they walked out of the skate park and headed upriver along the walkway. Ness, too, accompanied them, and Danny wondered if she had been on the Animarium before.
Maybe it was the idea of confronting a time hole, or maybe it was the more concrete concern of seven people vanishing into thin air at the same time. Whatever it was, something made Danny look over his shoulder as they passed under the trees that shaded the walkway. There was only one person between them and the skate park, standing motionless on the grass and staring out across the river.
Not following them. Not even looking at them. They were in the clear.
"Something wrong?" Kendall asked quietly.
Not quietly enough, because he saw Alyssa give him a curious look too. He shook his head once. "It's nothing," he assured them.
With Princess Shayla leading them, the trees turned into the wilderness of the Animarium in seconds. Cole took over then, and finally the Animarium faded into the small copse behind the city library. "It's inside," he explained, seeing their startled looks. "Downstairs, in Bound Periodicals."
"Where?" Max said skeptically. "Is that an old person's store?"
Taylor shot him a withering look. "Try to pretend you've ever been in a library, kid."
"Don't call me kid!" he exclaimed.
"Then grow up," she snapped.
Alarmed, Danny stepped between them. "Guys, calm down," he told them, surprised at their vehemence. He expected them to tease each other. He didn't expect them to sound so serious about it.
They made it inside without further incident, but one of the Silver Guardians stopped them at the stairs. "I'm sorry," he told them without expression. He didn't sound remotely apologetic. "The ground floor is closed for the afternoon."
"Commander Myers asked us to come," Cole told him, looking just exasperated enough to make the Guardian hesitate. "We know about the time hole."
That did it. The Guardian reached for his radio, not taking his eyes off of him. "Commander," he said, resting his free hand casually on his weapon. "I've got seven people and a dog on the stairs. They say you asked for them?"
The curt reply came back immediately. "Send them down."
The man didn't look happy about it, but he did step out of their way. He stared straight ahead as they filed past, and when Danny looked back from the bottom of the stairs he saw the Guardian back in his original position. Very military. He wondered if Taylor approved.
The basement of the library seemed deserted when they emerged from the stairwell, but Cole turned right without hesitation. He led them through the stacks as though he knew exactly where they were going, and the rest of them followed in silence. And it was the silence that finally tipped him off.
The stairs were guarded, none of them were making a sound, and yet there were voices. Faint at first, appropriate for a library, but that was the sound Cole was aiming for. As they got closer, Danny realized that the voices were actually a normal volume, just muffled by the thousands of books.
"Rock," a woman's voice announced, eliciting immediate protest from another remotely familiar voice.
"You can't change your choice! That's not how it works!"
"But I said the wrong thing," the first voice protested. "I'm just saying what I showed. You lose."
"Eric!" The second voice turned to someone who probably wasn't going to be very sympathetic. "Tell her she can't change her choice!"
"Katie, you can't change your choice," Eric's voice obliged. He actually sounded amused. "But she's right, Trip. She did choose rock."
"But she said paper!" Trip complained. "Scissors cut paper!"
"And rock crushes scissors," Katie declared triumphantly. "It's the hand motion that counts, not the word. Right, Eric?"
"Right," Eric agreed. "Sorry, Trip.
"That's not fair," Trip muttered. Then, voice noticeably lighter, he suggested, "Best two out of three?"
"Hey, guys," Cole said easily, as they came around the end of the stacks and almost tripped over a table that been pushed up against a study carrel. Eric was leaning against the side of the carrel while Katie and Trip sat across from each other at the table and argued.
"Hi!" Trip grinned up at them as Katie turned in her chair to look at them. "We're just learning how to play 'Rock, Paper, Scissors.' Want to try?"
"How to play what?" Cole was instantly diverted, but Taylor broke in before Trip could answer.
"As important as that sounds," she said, giving Eric a pointed look, "we're here to see the time hole. That's it."
The smile that had been in Eric's voice as they made their way through the stacks was nowhere to be seen now. He gestured stiffly at empty space on the other side of the table, not even straightening up as he addressed Cole. "There it is. Appeared about an hour ago, growing at a rate of four millimeters a minute. Seems to be stabilizing now, but it's hard to tell."
"Yeah, since you can't see it," Max remarked, rolling his eyes. "Where is this thing, again?"
A smirk tugged at the corner of Eric's mouth, and he regarded Max with the same air of superiority that had made Danny afraid to say anything. Max just gave him an equally contemptuous look in return, not at all embarrassed. There wasn't, after all, anything there.
Eric reached into the carrel and grabbed a piece of scrap paper. It was one of the little quarter pages salvaged from the recycling bin and cut up to serve as a place for scribbling call numbers from the online catalogue. Eric crumpled the paper up without looking at it and tossed it down the aisle of carrels.
Two carrels down, there was a ripple in the air and the paper vanished. "Right there," Eric said, deadpan.
"Whoa!" Max was around the table in an instant, not bothering to hide his enthusiasm. "That's so cool! How did you know it was there?"
"We do have instruments to detect these things," Eric said dryly.
"Which you're obviously using to great effect," Taylor retorted.
Eric didn't even look at her. "We know it's here. We knew the instant it formed. We won't let anyone from this time go through, and we'll send back anyone who comes through from another time. It's safer to let it dissipate on its own than it is to try and close it ourselves."
"So you can close it, if you have to?" Alyssa asked. "What if it appeared somewhere that you couldn't close off? Like the highway?"
"What if something dangerous came through?" Danny added, shooting a nervous look at the place where the paper had vanished. He had heard stories about how Eric had acquired his zord.
"We can close off the highway," Eric said patiently. "With the backing of Time Force, the Silver Guardians have that authority. And the possibility of a temporal incursion, or 'dangerous things', is why we're here."
"Yeah, you look ready for anything," Taylor agreed sarcastically.
Eric didn't pretend to ignore her this time. Before he could do more than glare, though, Trip jumped in. "It's not likely that anything malicious would be able to exploit something this unpredictable," he said, glancing from Taylor to Katie and back again. "But if something tried, then yes, we could close the time hole from this side."
"So why don't you just close it now?" Max wanted to know.
"We could lose the crystal shard if we close the time hole prematurely," Trip said earnestly. "If we let it do its thing, we'll be able to retrieve the shard as soon as the time hole vanishes and we won't have to track it down again later."
"You..." Kendall sounded a little apprehensive, but when everyone turned to look at her she continued gamely. "You have to stay here until the time hole disappears? How long will that take?"
Eric just shrugged, but Trip answered, "It depends on the size of the shard and the temporal location of the other terminus. Some of them only last a few minutes, but we had one that stuck around for days."
"That's a long time," Alyssa said slowly, looking both surprised and sympathetic.
"We switch off," Katie said, throwing one arm over her chair as she leaned back. "Me and Trip and Eric, Jen and Wes and Lucas. Depends who's on duty, who went last time, whatever."
"We caused the problem," Trip added. "It's only fair that we take care of it ourselves."
"Plus they get to keep coming back to 2004," Eric muttered.
Katie grinned unrepentantly, but Trip appeared to take him seriously. "That's right!" he agreed. "Time Force would never have let us stay here so long if we didn't have a good reason!"
"Blew up that crystal on purpose, I bet," Eric said idly, staring in the direction of the time hole.
Trip looked taken aback, but Katie just chuckled. "You'll never prove it," she said, stretching lazily over the back of her chair. "Especially not when Jen has the final say on every report that goes back to the future."
Kendall nudged him, and he caught her quizzically amused look. She obviously knew they were joking, but without knowing anything about the Time Force team it probably didn't mean anything to her. "Jen and Wes are in love," he whispered. "She can't stay here, and he can't go with her."
Her eyes widened, and he knew he didn't have to say anything else. She touched the macrame bracelet on her right wrist and he smiled. The princess was speaking for the first time, asking something about time holes that made both Eric and Trip listen attentively. Max seemed to have gotten over his initial awe and was demanding to know when he could go back to the rink, while Cole called Ness from her wanderings in the stacks.
None of it made much of an impression on Danny at that moment. He was lost in an answering smile that reminded him just how much he had to be thankful for. His love was here, in this time, in his life, and he couldn't ask for anything more.
The beep echoed through the unconscious haze of dreaming, insinuating itself into her mind and refusing to go away. Responding to the sound was automatic, no matter how much she wished she could pretend otherwise. Even in the dead of night, buried in the warmth of several quilts and squished between down pillows and human warmth, she was still on call.
Jen reached out blindly, fumbling for the nearest chronomorpher. One of them skittered away across the coffee table and clattered to the floor, but her fingers clenched firmly around the other one and she depressed the call button. No hologram appeared, and that could only mean one person.
"Wes?" The voice was depressingly alert. "It's Eric."
Groggily, she hauled herself up out of her cozy nest. "This is Jen," she mumbled, hoping her voice was at least recognizable. Casting about for the alarm clock, she wondered distantly what time it was.
"Jen." Maybe it was the hour, or just her sleepy ears, but it sounded like his voice softened a little. "The time warp is closed. I thought you should know."
Just like that, she was wide awake. "Lucas?" she whispered, her breath catching in her throat. They had thought they would have another day, at least, but Lucas had been scheduled to depart tonight just in case. If he had been in the Time Ship when it happened...
"He's fine," Eric answered. "He got through, sent a signal back when he arrived. But the time shift is too distorted now to risk any more travel until we find the crystal."
She swallowed, knowing what that meant. They were cut off from the "future" indefinitely. She had chosen this course, and everything it entailed, but it was still... disconcerting. Strange, to be adrift in the past with no way back. And a little lonely.
"Thank you," she said at last, forcing the words out past the lump in her throat. "It's good to know."
"Right." Eric's voice was comfortingly neutral. "Good night, Jen."
"See you in the morning."
The chronomorpher turned itself off when the transmission ended, and she was left staring at it in the darkness. One of her only links to home, now. She never brought much with her--after all, she wasn't supposed to get comfortable here. But she had. Somehow, she had gotten far too comfortable.
The quilts moved a little and she felt Wes' hand settle on the small of her back. "Jen?" he asked quietly, no sleep in his voice. He had probably overheard the entire conversation. "You okay?"
She smiled to herself. Somehow. It was no mystery how she'd "gotten comfortable" here. Not to her or her teammates, at least. To the rest of Time Force... well, officers sometimes got attached to times other than their own. It wasn't encouraged, but it did happen.
"Yes," she murmured, squirming back under the covers as she lay down again. "I'm glad Lucas is all right."
"What about you?" Wes trailed his fingers over her arm, tracing little comforting circles with his thumb. "Are you all right?"
She nestled closer to him with a sigh, still smiling as she pressed up against his chest. "I'm feeling pretty selfish," she admitted softly, wrapping his arm around her. "But yes, I'm all right."
He was quiet for a moment, and she thought he would leave it at that. Just as she was closing her eyes, though, he spoke again. "Jen... there's no one in the world that cares as much about us as we do."
She opened her eyes again. Staring at the table beside their futon, she wondered what he meant by that. She was, if it came down to it, too tired to ask.
"Maybe it's selfish to do something just for us," he continued quietly. "But isn't it more selfish not to and then to hope that someone else will do it for us anyway? How can we expect to be given something if we won't even fight for it?"
Wes thought things through. Most of the time she loved him for it, especially since it wasn't one of her strong points. She put more faith in his convictions than in her own, because she knew that if he believed something then he could explain why. Some of the time, though, she was just as happy to make a decision and go with it.
When she didn't answer, he persisted. "You said the world needs people who are strong and true, right?"
Had she? It sounded like something she might have said. She never knew what his mind would latch onto and remember years later, long after it was obscured to her by the heat of the moment.
"If you're not true to yourself," he was saying, "then sorry, but you don't qualify. Maybe the world needs you to be selfish, Jen."
She couldn't suppress a yawn, and she let her eyes slide closed once more. "That's a nice logic puzzle you set up there," she murmured, patting his hand gently.
"Think so?" His wry tone said he knew exactly how close she was to falling asleep. "I've been practicing on Trip."
"Trip's a pushover," she mumbled, turning her head to bury her face in the pillow. "Try Lucas."
"Lucas is too good at it," he countered. "He always finds the flaw in my arguments. And Eric never listens. Trip's gullibility is good for my ego."
She didn't answer, knowing from experience that he would keep her up all night if she didn't let him get the last word. Whether she followed his rationale or not, it was reassuring to know that he was convinced. And that he could justify her actions with more than "it seemed like a good idea at the time," which was basically her argument.
She smiled into the pillow as she felt him settle into a more comfortable position, keeping his arm around her. Of course, Wes had a slight bias. Captain Logan might not find his "logic" quite so convincing...
The alarm clock was somehow less intrusive than Eric's call had been. Whether that was because she expected it, or simply because the alarm could mean only one thing, she didn't know. And unlike Wes, she wasn't going to bother analyzing it.
She rolled over and sat up, shoving the quilts off of her as she reached for the alarm clock. She shut it off and grabbed for the pillow that Wes had pulled over his head. Yanking it away from him, she grinned at his incoherent protest. Trust Wes to be able to carry on a one-sided philosophical discussion at midnight yet be completely inarticulate by the time the alarm went off at five.
She left him lying amid the covers while she filled the coffeemaker and set it percolating, then made her way downstairs. Four flights of stairs got the blood circulating again and swept away all lingering traces of sleep. She still wondered how Wes woke up thoroughly enough, fast enough, to reach the single bathroom on the ground floor each morning without tripping.
He was still in bed by the time she returned. She shook her head fondly, dropping a couple of frozen waffles in the toaster. While they cooked, she walked back over to the futon and stared down at the face that had changed her future several times over.
Wes stirred, seeming to sense her scrutiny, and she dropped onto the futon beside him. As he blinked blearily up at her, she pounced. His arms came up to catch her, but it was too late. Knees on either side of him and her elbows braced by his shoulders, she leaned down to kiss him playfully.
His hands settled on her arms, but he only pulled her closer until she melted against him. They lay like that for some time, kissing and enjoying each other's warmth as the dim light of predawn filtered into the Clock Tower. Then the toaster popped up.
"Mmm..." Jen tumbled away from him, swinging her legs over the side of the futon and pushing herself up. "Breakfast!"
She heard movement behind her: Wes getting up at last, hopefully. "Way to make a guy feel wanted," he called after her.
"Some things are more important," she replied, putting the waffles on a plate and rooting some jam out of the little refrigerator. "You know how it is, Wes."
"I'm beginning to," he muttered. When she turned around, he was propped up on his arms and blinking sleepily. Despite his complaints, a smile lingered around the corners of his mouth.
"Want some waffles?" she offered, waving the plate temptingly in his direction. "I think your other option is leftover Chinese."
He groaned, shaking his head as he stumbled to his feet. "Coffee," he said firmly, making for the strongest smell. "Coffee first."
"Clothes?" she suggested, glancing at the microwave clock. Wes had dozed longer than usual this morning. "You're going to be late."
She made the mistake of walking within arms' reach of him as she headed for the stairs. He caught her elbow and pulled her close, laughing as she tried to squirm out of his grip. "Clothes are optional," he informed her, catching the hand that held her waffle and taking a bite for himself.
"Oh, is that a new Silver Guardian policy?" She switched the waffle to her other hand, but he didn't free her wrist. Instead he gave her a roguish look and started to lick the jam off of her fingers.
Relaxing against him, she smiled indulgently as he kissed her fingers clean. There were worse things than being late to work because your lover was eating breakfast out of your hands. In fact, at this particular moment, she couldn't think of many things that were better.
He finally released her, albeit reluctantly, and she kissed him before making her way up to the balcony to change. "Coffee?" he called after her. She could hear more than one mug clink against the counter, and she knew he had anticipated her.
"Yes, thanks," she answered anyway, pulling the oversized t-shirt off over her head. Something occurred to her as she noticed her bare wrist, and she added, "Wes, could you look under the coffee table for my chronomorpher? I think I knocked it off last night."
"That's our super-coordinated Pink Ranger," he replied cheerfully. "Not only drops her own morpher but forgets to pick it up again afterwards!"
Stifling a giggle, she sing-songed in return, "Shut up, Wesley Collins!"
"Sure thing, Commander Jennifer ma'am!"
She balled up a sock and lobbed it over the railing at him. He was leaning against the table on the far side of the room, cardboard box in one hand and a fork in the other. He didn't even flinch as the sock bounced off his shoulder, just grinned unrepentantly up at her and saluted with his fork.
He joined her on the balcony a few minutes later, handing her chronomorpher over as he pulled his own clothes out of the closet. He was already wearing his on his wrist, and she smiled as she pulled her hair back into a ponytail. "I like the morpher-in-pajamas look," she teased.
"I'll send a memo this morning," he replied, deadpan. "'Pajama Friday begins this month at Silver Guardian headquarters'."
They made it out the door about the time he was supposed to be at work, and Wes joked that he was going to turn the siren on while they drove. It was the only way to get anywhere in an official vehicle quickly, since everyone adhered scrupulously to the speed limit as soon as they saw who was behind them. On the other hand, no one cut them off, and it was a tradeoff Jen was willing to make if it meant not getting coffee spilled all over her.
They were waved through both security checkpoints, and, somewhat to her surprise, it was still before six when Wes plunked his mug down on his desk. He gestured for her to take his chair, and at her inquiring look he added, "I'm going to check in with the night guard before I get started. We had a couple of perimeter breaches last week."
She nodded her understanding, powering up his computer without thinking about it. "I'll see if the tracking grid's turned up anything overnight. Let me know when you need your office."
He waved a hand dismissively. "You look better in it anyway," he said over his shoulder as he headed out the door.
She rolled her eyes, just on principle, but she was smiling when she turned back to his computer and got to work.
Caught up in temporal tracking, she was nonetheless peripherally aware when the clock clicked over to eight am two hours later. She noted absently that Wes still wasn't back, but base problems often distracted him when he made the rounds in the morning. She was more concerned by the fact that her commanding officer would be arriving at his workplace right about now.
The minutes ticked by, and her mind split onto two different tracks. One continued to work, while the other mentally reviewed Captain Logan's schedule. At 8:04 he would finish conferring with his assistant and step into his office proper. He would set his coffee down at 8:05 and start reviewing flagged Force memos by 8:06.
Depending on how many crises there had been since 4:30 the day before, it could be as late as 8:15 before he started in on field reports. And one active team would be at the top of his list: the high-profile Ranger vigilantes that had changed both past and future in a desperate attempt to avenge their leader three years before. The team that had broken half the rules in the book and written the other half themselves.
The team whose actions were officially condemned by Time Force but quietly held up as an example to incoming recruits. The team harried by the media and celebrated by the public. The team whose current leader's MIA status would be all over the newsnets by noon at the latest...
At 8:16, her chronmorpher beeped.
With a sigh, Jen turned away from Wes' computer and activated the holoscreen he kept set up in the corner of his office. "This is Jen," she said, careful to keep her expression neutral. She knew why he was contacting her, and he knew that she knew. That didn't mean she would be spared the interrogation.
"Jennifer." The steel in his tone made her glad she hadn't smiled. Logan was definitely not amused. "Your most recent report confirms the anticipation of a terminal warp flux originating on 24-05-04. One of your own teammates transited the time warp on your order at 2347 on 23-05-04 specifically to avoid said event. Yet you remain at temporal coordinates now completely isolated from the timestream."
"Yes, sir," she said smartly. Some imp within made her add, "That's a fairly accurate assessment of the situation. Sir."
"Would you care to explain your actions, Commander?" His deliberate use of her title was an unsubtle reminder that Ranger rank carried no official weight with Time Force.
"Sir, the time warp degraded more quickly than we anticipated. Transit should have remained within acceptable safety margins for another 24 hours at least. In an effort to maximize progress on the trizirium containment, my departure wasn't scheduled until this afternoon. As my report stated, sir."
Logan gazed inscrutably at her for several seconds. Then he leaned forward and did something to the projector. The meaning of his gesture became clear when he spoke again. "Off the record," he told her. "Did you have any intention of returning this afternoon, Jen?"
She straightened her shoulders. "Off the record," she repeated. She had come to trust Logan with more than her career, but there was no point in taking chances. "No sir, I did not."
He nodded once, and the moment of truth was over. "I trust you'll be able to explain the miscalculation that led to your stranding in the twenty-first century. For as long as communication is possible, I'll expect standard field reports and mission updates."
His hesitation said more than words. "Good luck, Jen."
This time she did smile, just a little. "Thank you, sir."
Then it was over. It hadn't gone as badly as she'd expected. She and Logan had a tacit understanding that had gotten them through the worst of her team's indiscretions. The Rangers saved the world, cleaned up after themselves, and didn't abuse their publicity, and Logan handled spin control for the Force.
Unfortunately, the unspoken nature of their agreement meant that she couldn't ask how much he really knew about their exploits. Or more specifically, the reasons behind them... did he know what had driven her to hunt Steelix so ruthlessly? Did he know what had made her team defy two consecutive Red Rangers to change events already a thousand years gone?
Did he know what was keeping Jen here now?
She wasn't sure, but she suspected she would one day find out. In the meantime, she had to trust Logan--as her team trusted her--to keep the Rangers from too thorough a review by the less lenient officers of Time Force. They did their job. If they didn't always do it within the parameters of the rulebook, well... even Eric admitted that they had helped the twenty-first century.
She glanced at the clock again. The Quantum Ranger would report in an hour and a half, and his partner still hadn't finished the rounds. She debated with herself for a moment, but finally she pushed Wes' chair back and stood. If nothing else, Logan's message was an excuse to go in search of her lover.
Jen smiled to herself as she headed for the door. Like she needed one.
He could sense someone nearby. The old instincts didn't fade, no matter how much he believed in the peace of this time. The sunlight was warm on his face and a soothing breeze drifted across the river, but he cracked his eyes open against the laziness of the afternoon to identify the passerby.
Cole was early. He hadn't expected the Lion Ranger for some time yet, but there he was, striding across the park with his dog at his side. Reaching out, he put a calming hand on his own companion's shoulder, and a grey muzzle lowered itself back onto paws without complaint.
"Merrick!" Cole's shout came from a distance away. He seemed to be the only one of the Rangers who understood that sneaking up on someone who had been trained for combat since he could hold a weapon was not clever, cute, or in any way amusing.
Opening his eyes the rest of the way, Merrick lifted his head from his duffel bag and watched the Lion Ranger approach. After days spent avoiding them, it was odd to simply await Cole's arrival. Beside him in the grass, a pair of watchful brown eyes echoed his gaze.
"Hey," Cole said, coming to a halt at last. He correctly interpreted Merrick's posture to mean he was welcome, and he dropped his backpack on the ground and sat without waiting for an invitation. "You were waiting for me."
It wasn't an unreasonable assumption. He was directly across the street from the community where Cole and Alyssa lived, making no effort to conceal his presence at a time when it was typical for one or both of them to be returning from work. He wasn't sitting on their front steps, but it was close enough.
"You don't seem surprised," he observed. He put his hands behind his head and rested them against his duffel bag again, studying the other Ranger.
Cole just shrugged. "I saw you at the skate park," he said, by way of explanation.
Merrick almost smiled. It wasn't funny, but the drowsy pace of the afternoon made the revelation more of a novelty than a cause for alarm. "So did Danny," he mused aloud. "I must be slipping."
That did seem to surprise Cole. "He didn't say anything."
"Did you?" Merrick asked idly.
"No," Cole admitted, conceding the point.
"Well, now you know why I was waiting for you." He switched his gaze to the sky, pretending not to notice when Cole waved Ness away from the silver-grey shape at his side. "It's been almost a week. I didn't want anyone thinking she was being stalked or something."
Cole sounded amused. "She is, though. Isn't she."
It wasn't a question, and Merrick didn't bother to answer.
"Ness, take it easy," Cole said a moment later. "He's not a dog."
Merrick turned his head a little to watch Ness slink up to his companion, tail low but wagging insistently. She was only trying to make friends, and he relaxed a little when a muzzle was lifted to meet hers. The owner of the muzzle then got to his feet carefully, making it clear that he was standing because he wanted to rather than because he had anything to prove, and proceeded to sniff her thoroughly.
"He is, actually," Merrick remarked, watching the process. Ness' tail hadn't stopped wagging the whole time. "Half dog," he amended, when two brown eyes met his reprovingly. "Half wolf."
The eyes turned back to their assessment of Ness, and peripherally he saw Cole nod. "I remember," he agreed unexpectedly. "I knew the first time I saw him. I'm just afraid Ness doesn't appreciate the distinction."
Merrick watched as Ness allowed the inspection, creeping slowly forward as she reciprocated. "She has the right idea."
The animals continued their ritual greeting, until finally Ness decided she'd had enough and tried a play bow on him. She got bared teeth in return. Instead of tucking her tail, she ignored his response and bounced away as though the incident hadn't happened.
"She's got spirit," Merrick offered, watching her go. "Good for her."
Moon paused in the middle of his preparations to lie down and shot an incredulous look in Merrick's direction. They had gotten good at reading each other's expressions. With his head cocked, ears tilted slightly back, the message was clear.
"Please," Merrick told him. "She's a golden retriever. A little perspective on the jealousy front, all right?"
The ears went further back, and the head turned deliberately away as he lay down. Retriever or not, Moon was not impressed by Merrick's praise. Merrick just looked up at the sky again, sharing silent amusement with a spirit that might or might not be listening.
"He stays with you?" Cole asked suddenly.
Merrick frowned a little.
"The city's pretty strict about the leash law," Cole explained. "If he's not on lead or under verbal command they can pick him up."
"If they can catch him," Merrick murmured. He saw the ears twitch and knew he was forgiven for admiring Ness.
"I know," he added, for Cole's benefit. "We haven't had any problems."
Cole didn't argue, and his next question drove that concern right out of his mind. "How did you know?" the Lion Ranger asked frankly. "About the princess, I mean. That's why you're back, isn't it?"
Staring up at the sky didn't help this time, because he knew who was up there. He closed his eyes instead, trying to ignore the images that formed in the darkness. He had preferred the lecture on leash laws.
"We didn't know she was awake," Cole told him when he didn't answer. "Not until last week when she showed up at a Time Force briefing."
"She left the Animarium before that." He had to force the words out, and the hoarseness of his own voice surprised him. "That morning."
His throat closed up and he could go no further. It was embarrassingly difficult to talk about her, and he'd had no idea until he finally tried. Well, he wouldn't be trying again anytime soon.
"How did you know?" Cole repeated.
He just shook his head. It was personal, and he couldn't make the words come anyway. He was grateful when Cole didn't press. He shouldn't have said anything.
"Do you have a place to stay?" Cole asked, more gently. "Alyssa and I have a spare room."
"I find that hard to believe," Merrick muttered. He didn't open his eyes, but he was glad for the change of subject.
"You've followed all of us," Cole realized. He didn't sound angry, or even surprised. He was just fitting another piece of the puzzle into place. "From the briefing? That's how you knew to wait for me here."
Actually, it had been Eric he followed from the briefing. The other two had walked onto the Animarium, and so he had trailed the last Ranger to leave the Silver Guardians' base instead. He hadn't found out where Cole and Alyssa lived until later.
"I'm fine," he said, not bothering to correct Cole. "Thanks anyway."
"You've been here a week and you're still carrying your duffel bag around," Cole observed. "You can't be staying somewhere permanently."
He opened his eyes at last. "I don't stay anywhere permanently," he told the sky.
"So stay with us temporarily," Cole suggested, undeterred. "Or with Danny and Max, if you'd rather. They have a foldout couch."
He glanced inadvertently at Cole, and the Lion Ranger's face broke into a grin. "I didn't say it was a good choice," he said, letting the appearance of determined ignorance drop just long enough to tease the other Ranger. "But it is a choice."
Merrick considered that for a moment. There were a dozen reasons why he shouldn't accept Cole's offer. Not the least of which was that Cole wasn't nearly as naive as he let people think he was, and he would take Merrick's presence in his home as tacit permission to interfere.
"We have a porch," Cole remarked casually.
Merrick sighed, staring up at the sky. Not naive at all. But interference or no, it came down to the fact that he needed a break from being alone. He knew himself well enough to know that the impulse would pass and he would long for solitude again soon, but right now he was too tired to fight it.
The sound of Cole's growlphone made him reach for his wrist. He aborted the motion almost immediately, and Cole didn't seem to be paying any attention, but he had no doubt that the Lion Ranger had caught the subtle movement. What he read into it was entirely open to question.
"Hey." The greeting was brief but Cole's voice was warm, and he had obviously known who it was before he answered. "What's up?"
There was a pause. "Yeah," he said, apparently in response to something Alyssa had said. "Found Merrick waiting for me when I got here."
Merrick waited, but this did not appear to provoke disbelief in the Tiger Ranger either. Had he been that obvious? If the entire team had known he was here, could his presence possibly be a secret to--
"Got it," Cole told his phone. "We'll be right there."
Merrick shot him a sharp look, but Cole paid no attention. "You too," he agreed, scanning the park. "Bye."
"A time hole opened this morning at Silver Guardian headquarters," Cole said, not waiting for him to ask. He shoved his growlphone into his pocket and got to his feet in one fluid motion, calling for Ness.
Merrick removed his hands from behind his head and folded them across his stomach, closing his eyes again. Clearly, there was any number of competent Rangers already involved, and if whatever it was had begun this morning then one more wasn't going to make a difference now. He stayed where he was.
"Merrick," Cole said impatiently. That was it, just his name. As though he was remiss for not jumping straight into the fray the moment he revealed himself to the leader of the Wild Force Rangers.
"None of my business," Merrick informed him from behind closed eyes.
"Not yet," Cole agreed. "But Princess Shayla's making it her business, so you're going to need to know eventually. And if Jen's only contacting us now you can bet she hasn't called the princess. You'll be able to find out what's going on without her ever knowing you were there."
Merrick opened his eyes and frowned up at Cole. The boy had been taking lessons from Taylor. He was even worse than Merrick remembered.
Sitting up, he accepted the hand Cole offered him without a word. Let the interference begin, he thought irritably. Was it too late to walk away? He hadn't actually committed to anything yet...
Moon flowed up off the ground behind him, haughtily ignoring Ness as she bounded to Cole's side. Cole ruffled her ears affectionately, reaching for Merrick's duffel as he did so. Merrick got to it first, swinging it over his shoulder as Cole shrugged and turned away.
Sure he hadn't committed. Just by being here he had committed. Any communication with Wild Force would draw him back into their group as inexorably as the seasons changed, and he had known that when he first arrived. Yet here he was, falling into step with Cole as he walked knowingly into the same situation he had left behind two years ago.
Couldn't stay together, couldn't live apart. Was the cycle as destructive as those late-night fireside chats made him think it was? He had tried to break free. He had tried, but the moment she set foot on the earth again, here he was. Right back where he had started.
Literally. He jerked as he realized where they were, then cursed silently as he caught Cole's sidelong glance. He couldn't be on the Animarium, but where else had he thought they were going? The Rangers had been using the Animarium's magical properties to travel since before he had awoken.
Moon seemed untroubled, ambling along at his side even as the ancient forest blended once more into the younger trees of Turtle Cove. Ness galloped out in front of them, then turned to race back as Cole led them confidently toward the street. Silver Guardian Headquarters loomed ahead of them.
Merrick just stood there and waited when they stopped him at the gate. He wasn't surprised, but Cole looked somewhat annoyed. "Look," he told the guard, "Commander Collins asked us to come. Am I a security risk now?"
"You're cleared to go through," the guard informed him. "But we can't let him in without an ID or confirmation from command."
Cole pulled out his growlphone and flipped it open. He didn't see the guard's eyes widen, but Merrick did. "Jen," Cole said, turning away from the gatehouse. "I'm outside, and--"
"That won't be necessary," the guard interrupted hastily. He had Cole's attention immediately, and Merrick narrowed his eyes. He *knew* not to underestimate the Lion Ranger, and yet he still did it...
"Go on through," the guard was telling Cole. "Sorry for the inconvenience, sir."
"Never mind," Cole told his phone. "We'll be right there."
They were waved though the second checkpoint as well, though Merrick caught a couple of nervous glances being directed Moon's way. He didn't mean to look menacing, but the half of him that wasn't wolf didn't mitigate his predatory appearance in the slightest. His presence had gotten Merrick out of several tight spots without the use of a single fist.
How Cole knew where to go, Merrick didn't know. Perhaps he was a more frequent visitor to the base than the incident at the gatehouse suggested. Or perhaps Alyssa had managed to convey more than he'd thought in that brief phone conversation. As he saw Cole tilt his head to one side as he paused at a corner, though, he reminded himself not to make the same mistake as the guard.
It was strange to be back among equals. The thought flitted through his mind unbidden, and he frowned a little. It was true, and it had only now occurred to him. It was strange to be around people who could match him move for move, anticipate him, and even manipulate him. It left him feeling uncomfortably... complacent.
There were five Rangers already assembled when they rounded a last corner and found themselves at the end of a hallway that had been cordoned off. He picked out Alyssa and Taylor immediately, but his mind was sluggish to supply the names of the other three. Jen. She was the one Cole had just called. Eric, the one he had followed that first night back in Turtle Cove. And Jen's lover... Wes?
"Merrick!" Alyssa exclaimed, a smile of sincere welcome on her face as she caught sight of him.
Taylor looked thoroughly aggravated, but her expression softened a little when she saw him. She nodded once, managing a smile that made her stormy eyes clear for just a moment. "Good to see you again," she offered.
He nodded in return, and found himself on the receiving end of a disgusted glare from Eric. He caught the man's eye and held it, staring calmly back until Eric sneered and looked away. Like he needed their drama on top of his own.
"We've stationed security in every direction we can cover, but if one of the whole crystals is causing this it could fluctuate without any warning," Jen was saying as he and Cole joined the others.
"It's lasted too long to be a shard," Wes added, his headset in his hands and his beret stuffed absently in his pocket. If the schedule he had followed last week was typical, his workday had ended several hours ago. "Unless it's a really big piece, which would be almost as bad as a whole crystal."
"The shards are less predictable," Jen offered, possibly for his own benefit. "But if it's a whole crystal then the odds of it turning up here at SGH are microscopically small."
"Meaning it's probably being manipulated by someone who knows what they're doing," Wes finished with a sigh. "Just what we were hoping to avoid."
He and Jen caught each other's eye, silent conversation flowing between them as easily as the spoken explanation had been rattled off. "Not necessarily," Jen said at last, but the words lacked conviction. "There are other explanations."
"We just haven't found them yet?" Eric suggested, and the look he shared with the Time Force officers indicated a private joke.
Wes smiled a little, then looked around at the assembled Rangers. "I'm sorry to ask this of you," he said with a sigh. "But we're going to need a Ranger guard around the clock. We have to assume someone who knows what they're doing is behind this, and we can't even guess what they might be planning.
"Eric, Jen, and I will cover the night shifts," he added. He said it as though it was a given, or maybe as though he had said it before. Their belated arrival must mean that they were getting the condensed version. "I know you all have work schedules--"
"I'll take a night shift," Merrick interjected. Seeing Wes' surprised look, he shrugged. "If you trust me, of course."
"We trust you," Jen said quickly. "We're just trying not to take advantage of you--all of you--any more than we already are."
"I'll take a night shift too," Taylor put in. "I don't have to be anywhere in the morning."
Awareness ghosted across the back of his mind, subtle as the wind on his skin, and Merrick stiffened abruptly. The entire world narrowed to that momentary sensation, and he heard his own words as if from a distance. "I need to go."
He wasn't sure whom he'd interrupted, but Wes wasn't the only one looking at him strangely. "Sure," the Red Ranger said, recovering quickly. "We'll just get you an ID to get you through the gate--"
"Now." He would have turned and started walking if not for Alyssa's hand on his arm. She was still the only one who dared touch him, he thought distantly. The only Ranger, at least...
"Merrick, stay with us while we work out a schedule, all right?" Her concerned gaze reached straight through him, bringing him back to himself abruptly. A warm pressure against his leg reminded him of Moon's presence, and he shook his head once.
"Sorry," he muttered. She might be on Earth, but she would have called one of the Rangers if she were in trouble. For all he knew, she was with Max or Danny right now. He had to get over that urge to run to her side.
"Merrick?" Alyssa was still giving him that worried look. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." He pulled away from her, ignoring the stares he was getting from the others. "I'll stay. I just--remembered something, that's all. It's nothing," he added, when Alyssa glanced at Cole.
"I'll take an early morning shift," Cole offered, as though nothing had happened.
Alyssa followed his example, taking some of the pressure off of him. "I can come after school," she volunteered.
He wasn't staring at nothing, he realized a moment later. He was trying to listen, and he was mostly succeeding. But he was instinctively facing the direction that led to her.
He couldn't get over the compulsion. No matter what he told himself, he knew it was impossible. It was part of what made him who he was, part of the magic that had been embedded in his oaths. The incredibly powerful magic of the Animarium seemed to disrupt it somehow, but as soon as she left the bond flared to life again.
So much for commitment. No amount of time would be enough to erase the words he'd said millennia ago. His very presence here proved that there was no starting over.
"Wake up, kid," she called, striding around the corner. "Time to go back to your nice warm bed and your teddy bear--"
She came up short as she pushed the door open and found a familiar figure lounging in the swivel chair at their temporary command post. Dark eyes assessed her in a single glance, and the look of amusement on his face made her bristle. "I don't sleep with a teddy bear," he remarked. "But if you're offering yours..."
Taylor glared at him. "This was supposed to be Max's shift!"
He shrugged, leaning back in the chair and putting his hands behind his head. "He didn't exactly complain when I took over."
"Well, I'm taking over now," she huffed. "So you can just get out."
The way he smirked gave her a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. "That's very kind of you, but I have a lot of work to catch up on tonight. I thought I'd just stay here and keep an eye on the time hole while I finish up a few things. You're welcome to join me, of course."
She folded her arms. "Forget it," she told him. "If you're staying, there's no reason for me to be here."
"Oh, but there is," he said smoothly. "What if I get done five minutes from now? I don't want to be stuck covering your entire shift, Lieutenant. Why don't you just do your job, like a good little soldier?"
"What do you know about being a soldier, Commander?" she spat. "Just because you carry a weapon and order people around doesn't mean you have what it takes!"
"What do you know about what it takes?" he demanded. "All you do is what you're told!"
"It's called the chain of command," she retorted. "Don't pretend you don't take orders from whoever pays your salary."
He pulled his hands out from behind his head and sat forward in his chair. "The Silver Guardians aren't mercenaries, and they aren't vigilantes either. They do what has to be done to protect this city when regular forces aren't enough. You of all people should understand what that means."
"I understand that you've made it your life," she shot back. "The Silver Guardians will go on without you, Eric! You don't have to defend them every second of the day!"
His eyes were hooded as he stared up at her. "Says the Air Force pilot," he said, biting off each word with a bitterness that surprised her. "Get off your high horse and listen to yourself for a minute! Which one of us are you talking about?"
She gaped at him. Then, in lieu of any suitably acerbic reply, she grabbed the scanner off his desk and stalked out of the room. Turning the instrument in the direction of the time hole, she fumed quietly to herself while she tried to get her anger under control.
"It's still growing," Eric's voice intruded a moment later. She shot a look over her shoulder and saw him leaning against the doorframe, weariness dragging his shoulders down even as he looked past her. The shadows that had been hidden while he was sitting down were now clearly visible on his face in the light of the hallway.
He looked terrible, she realized suddenly. She ruthlessly squashed a flicker of sympathy. No one had asked him to wait up for her shift tonight.
"We had to evacuate some of the offices upstairs," he added, eyes still fixed on the invisible tear in the space-time continuum. "We moved our other guards a safe distance from where we anticipate tomorrow's edge to be, but everyone's armed with detectors so they can monitor their relative positions."
"You have that many detectors?" she asked, frowning down at the scanner in her hand. "What did you do, rob the future?"
"We built them," he said matter-of-factly. "It's not difficult once you know what you're monitoring."
She gave him a sharp look, and he glanced over at her at the same time. "Or at least, that's what the engineers tell me," he added, deadpan.
She felt her mouth quirk, and she looked down quickly to keep him from seeing it. She could read the scanner only because he had shown her how to use it, but she preferred not to think about that. For now, she tried to concentrate on the time hole: it was growing faster than the one at the library, and it didn't show any signs of stabilizing.
"Anything come through?" she asked. "How many guards do you have on duty?"
"Nothing's come through." He didn't sound as though he thought that was good news. "I can't help thinking that the longer we go without activity, the more likely it is that there's someone on the other side waiting for the right moment."
"How many guards?" she repeated, looking up at the time hole.
"None of your damn business," he snapped.
She glanced over at him, raising a single eyebrow at his outburst. It was an expression she'd perfected over the years, rebuking him for his childishness while absolving herself of any guilt. She'd found that sometimes not arguing was as effective as yelling.
He folded his arms across his chest. "Sixteen," he said stiffly. "Two for each affected section, plus three reliefs and the rotating Ranger guard."
She smiled at the minor victory, and he glared at her. "You don't have to look so smug, Earhardt. The only reason those three backups are here is to compensate for the inexperience of you and your friends."
"Funny," she retorted. "I thought the only reason we were here was to compensate for the inexperience of your soldiers!"
"Anyone can pick up a morpher and call themselves a Ranger," he informed her. "Silver Guardian training is selective and rigorous."
She snorted, unimpressed by the comparison given his history. "Anyone can steal a morpher, you mean. Real Rangers are chosen!"
He drew his weapon and the floor beside her left foot exploded before she even realized what he was doing. She leapt out of the way with what was probably an unintelligible shout even as something slithered across her peripheral vision. The tentacle whipped back from the vaporizing force and rebounded against Eric's ankle, yanking him off balance as it clamped down and hauled him away.
He was gone before she had time to react, but she had her growlphone to her ear even as she ran for their temporary office. "Cole! Get to SGH, now!"
She didn't wait for his reply. She fumbled with the regular desk phone for several seconds before finally hitting the "emergency" button in the lower right corner. Damn Eric for not getting her a headset! Those she knew how to use.
"This is Taylor Earhardt," she said to whoever might be listening. "I need backup at the first location of the time hole. Commander Myers is gone. I repeat, Commander Myers is gone."
She hung up the phone and skidded out the door again. The hallway was ominously empty: no tentacles, no security, and no Eric. She continued full tilt down the corridor toward that invisible portal, paying no attention when her growlphone lit up and then cut off mid-ring as the air rippled around her and she was plunged into darkness.
Something caught her foot immediately and she slammed into a wall. The sound of weapons fire from somewhere up ahead made her push away and stumble blindly in that direction. Dropping one hand to her morpher again, she yelled "Wild access!" and was only half surprised when nothing happened.
"It's never easy," she muttered, cursing as her extended arm banged into a corner. "Eric!"
White stars flashed across her vision and pain exploded through her head. She was on the ground before she knew what had happened, and it seemed to be moving underneath her. She was sliding, she realized distantly. She should do something about that.
The air above her caught fire. Sparks rained heat and light down on her and she felt something grab her arm. As she struggled against the restraint it dawned on her that her legs were free. A violent kick and a calculated risk turned that grip to her advantage as she lurched to her feet, hissing at the pain-induced disorientation.
For a moment, the hold on her arm was the only thing keeping her upright. Eric. She didn't have to see him to know, and it occurred to her that he had just rescued her from whatever slithery tentacled being had caught hold of her. That had been his weapon that fired, and he must have come back for her when she yelled.
She wasn't sure whether his actions or her own helplessness annoyed her more.
"Move." His voice grated in her ear. "We've got to get out of here."
"The time hole," she gasped. Jerking her arm free, she grabbed for him reflexively when she felt him stumble. "We have to warn the others!"
She jumped as something brushed against her leg and the world spun as the tentacles came seeking again--slower than before, but how long would that last? Being shot must have had an effect on them. If only being concussed hadn't had an effect on her, they wouldn't still be faced with a stalemate.
"The others know," Eric said harshly. She couldn't tell if the arm around her shoulders was for him or for her, but right now getting out of the dark seemed like an awfully good idea. "We're no good to anyone unconscious."
That was a persuasive argument. She held onto that thought as they swerved and banged their way through a corridor that seemed to be doing its best to stop them. If they hadn't had to stamp and shoot their way out of tentacles every few seconds at first they might have taken the time to find a wall and follow it, but whatever was behind them had to be worse than inanimate obstacles.
Her head pounded in time with their footsteps, and every jolt made agony lance through her skull. Although the adrenaline of running made the pain a secondary concern, she had never been more grateful to slow her stumbling pace while they tried to feel their way out of the maze they seemed to have blundered into. With the way Eric was leaning on her she couldn't tell which of them was in worse shape, and asking now wouldn't help anything.
The musty light of long unused windows gradually penetrated the gloom they struggling through, and they forced their way through the eerily silent space between corridor and outer wall. The quiet dance of dust motes in the ancient light, stirred only by their passage across the floor, was surreal after the confused mayhem they'd been through in the depths of the building. The first door they came to refused to budge, and the crack as she kicked it open resounded strangely in her ears.
Sunlight assaulted them the moment they were through the entrance and she could hear traffic in the distance even as she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to turn away. She heard Eric curse, probably because she was supporting more than half his weight and had just thrown him off balance. The pain was suddenly that much more real, stabbing at her eyes as she forced them open again. The dark labyrinth behind them seemed like a dream in the face of this beautiful sunlit day, but her body wasn't going to forget so easily.
"Don't stop," he gritted, hand in a death grip on her shoulder. "We need to get out of here now."
"We are out," she said sharply. She caught her breath as the edges of her vision greyed, and she pulled his arm off of her shoulders and lowered him to the ground as carefully as she could. "Stay here while I try to figure out where we are."
"I know where we are." He dragged her down beside him, refusing to let her go and she was just too dizzy to protest. Her head hurt. "You look like you're going to pass out."
She ground her teeth, partly in annoyance and partly because he was right. "You don't look so hot yourself," she muttered, pressing her forehead to her knees and taking a deep breath. Damned if she was going to let him coddle her when he couldn't even walk on his own.
"This is Commander Myers," he said out of nowhere, and she resisted the temptation to raise her head and stare at him. She wasn't moving for anything: posturing, hallucinations, cyclobots... you name it, she was ignoring it.
"I need a cab sent to 577 Channing Street," he continued. There was a pause, and he snapped, "If I wanted a Guardian car, I would have asked for it."
She rolled her eyes. His headset. Somehow he had managed to hang onto his headset, and it was almost worth lifting her head to see him glare at someone who wasn't even there. But why didn't he just have them send a car?
577 Channing Street. Why did that address sound so familiar? She should know it from somewhere, but she couldn't... Channing Street. Silver Street was off of Channing. What did that mean? She couldn't concentrate, but at least when she lifted her head off of her knees her vision cooperated.
"Where are we?" she wanted to know.
"Silver Guardian Headquarters." He was reaching for his boot, she noted absently. "Three years ago."
She stared at him, contemplating that. "Don't take your boot off," she said at last, voicing the first thought that surfaced through her somewhat murky mental picture. "Your ankle will swell."
"Already has." He grunted as he pulled the laces tighter, eyes narrowing in pain. "Trying to keep it from getting any bigger."
Silver Guardian Headquarters. She looked over her shoulder, very carefully, trying not to disturb her head anymore than she had to. Maybe... if she squinted, she could almost see the outlines of today's structure in the rundown old building behind them.
Of course, with the way her focus was going right now, she could probably see a dragon in it if she tried.
"How do you know it's three years ago?" she asked suddenly, frowning. The building wasn't in good shape. Assuming they weren't decades in the future, she wasn't sure it could have been fixed up in the kind of time he was talking about.
He didn't look up. "Morpher has a temporal locator."
It would. "So what day is it?" she demanded.
"November 17," he said, letting go of his ankle with a sigh. "2001."
She didn't know where her mind went, but the next thing she knew Eric was shaking her. "Come on," he said gruffly, his grip on her shoulder nothing short of painful. "Cab's here."
That meant she should get up. She tried to remember if she knew where they were going, but it took all of her concentration to get back on her feet. She barely had enough strength to help Eric up, and she thought he might be shooting worried looks at her when he thought she wasn't looking.
She didn't pay any attention to the directions he gave the cab driver, but she knew the place they pulled up in front of a few minutes later. "I don't think this is such a good idea," she mumbled, staring out at the trailer park. "How are you going to explain to yourself that you're from the future?"
"Wouldn't surprise me," he grunted, hauling himself out of the cab. He must have paid the driver, because then he was limping over to her door and reaching in to help her out.
She blinked as she realized what he was doing, batting his hands away in irritation. "I can take care of myself," she snapped, her concentration rallying through the haze of pain in her head. She stood carefully, sliding under his arm and trying not to let him see her flinch when the ground tilted alarmingly.
He leaned on her without protest, which meant his ankle had to be a lot worse than he was letting on. They stumbled up the walk, probably putting on quite a show for his neighbors but she had to admit that even she needed the support at this point. Only at the door, when he fumbled for his keys and came up empty, did she begin to realize they might have bigger problems.
But he just slumped against the doorframe, letting go of her shoulders and nodding at the next trailer. "Spare key's under their flowerpot," he muttered.
She didn't ask. The moment she started up the neighbor's steps, though, the screen door banged open and a little girl glared at her from the top of the stairs. It took her a moment to recognize Alice, three years younger and dressed in kids' overalls. "Who are you?" the child demanded.
She tried not to flinch at the piercing tone. "I'm a friend of Eric's," she said, keeping her voice as calm as possible. "See, over there? He forgot his key."
"Eric doesn't forget," Alice declared, but she followed Taylor's gaze anyway. Eric lifted a hand to wave tiredly at them, and Alice's frown deepened. "Well," she said doubtfully. "Okay. I'll get it for you."
She dropped to her knees on the steps, folding up on the concrete in a way that made Taylor wince. Alice just heaved the flowerpot to one side and scraped the key out from underneath it, holding it out with an angelic smile. "Just remember to put it back when you're done!"
The girl was still sitting there, watching them from her steps as Taylor struggled with the lock a few moments later. It was some universal law that spare keys never worked as well as the originals, and she had to have an audience. The lock finally gave, though, and she pushed the door open and waited to see if Eric needed help.
He gestured for her to enter first, and she just didn't care anymore. She pushed her way into the kitchen and gave in to gravity, bracing her back against the counter as she slid to the floor. The world was spinning again, and she was getting sick of the constant movement. Literally.
Pressing her forehead against her knees again, she tried to take even breaths and block out the sound of Eric limping painfully around the room. She'd been the one to walk next door and had even had to talk to someone, so he could just take care of himself for a few minutes. All she wanted was for the throbbing in her head to stop. Just for a moment.
"Here." Something nudged her shoulder, and she dragged her head maybe an inch up off of her knees to blink blearily at Eric's boots. "Take this."
She managed to lift her head higher, comprehending finally that he was offering her aspirin and a glass of water. Her fingers closed around the glass on the first try, and she could feel him watching her movements critically. She wasn't going to try for the aspirin, so she just held out her open palm and he dropped them into her hand.
She swallowed and put her head down on her knees again, letting the glass rest on the floor beside her. Now that she had stopped moving the pain was washing over her and showed no signs of abating for something as insignificant as aspirin. Anything to be alone with her misery.
"Concussed?" Eric's voice drifted down to her from the direction of the refrigerator, and she thought she heard him opening the freezer door.
"Don't know," she muttered into her knees. What did it matter? Maybe she should stop fighting the periodic greyness caused by moving too fast. She wouldn't mind being unconscious, if only to escape this head-splitting pain. "Probably."
He didn't answer, and she forced herself to form appropriate words of concern. "Your ankle?"
"Not broken." He didn't sound too sure of that, and he followed it up with a grudging, "I don't think. You want more aspirin?"
She must be scaring him by not moving, she thought distantly. "Yeah."
It took a minute, but then he was back with another glass of water and more aspirin. He waited for her to take them before he joined her on the floor, leaning back against the cupboards with a grunt that sounded like it had been forced out through gritted teeth. She listened to him breathe for a moment, uneven and far too hard, and she handed the second glass back after she'd swallowed the aspirin.
He took it without a word, draining the tumbler and letting it hit the ground with a clink. She narrowed her eyes at his boots, catching sight of the ice pack in his hand. She supposed he hurt as much as she did, and he had to have just as many still-forming bruises. Being a Ranger sucked.
Pushing away from the cupboard, she was a little surprised when her head didn't immediately protest. The pounding ache produced no new needles of pain even when she inched forward, pulling loose the laces on his boot and starting to unwind them. They came free easily enough, but his sharp hiss when she tugged on the boot itself made her wince in sympathy.
She lifted his leg and braced it under her arm, easing the boot off as quickly as she could. She rescued the ice pack from his hand and draped it over his ankle as she lowered his foot to the floor. Pushing herself up, she felt the dizziness return and caught herself against the counter with a muffled curse. If she fainted, it would be his fault.
He didn't say anything as she made her way to the freezer and pulled out another ice pack. She couldn't help being annoyed that he had only had the cheap plastic ones three years ago. Grabbing a cushion from the chair in the corner, she put the second ice pack on top of it and stuffed it under his ankle while he sat and watched through slitted eyes.
The nausea caught up with her when she straightened up again, and she stumbled toward the bathroom.
She felt better after that, oddly. The aspirin must be doing its job. As she rinsed her mouth out, though, it occurred to her that she'd only heard the bottle rattle twice. Once for her... and then again, for her. Rolling her eyes at her image in the mirror--and sighing in relief when the motion brought no new discomfort--she made her way back to the kitchen and plunked the aspirin bottle down on the counter above his head.
She saw him flinch at the sound and felt no sympathy. "If you won't take a damn painkiller when you can't even walk," she snapped, twisting the cap off, "I refuse to feel sorry for you." She retrieved yet another glass from the cupboard--she wasn't bending over any more than she had to--and filled it with water before passing it down to him.
He accepted the glass, but not without a token protest. "The Quantum Power--"
"I don't want to hear it," she interrupted. "I was a Ranger before you were, and I know all about what the Power does and doesn't do. Take it," she added, pressing the aspirin into his hand.
He took it. She watched while he finished a second glass of water, then caught it before he could set it on the floor with the rest of his collection. Her headache was slowly, slowly subsiding to levels that could actually be called a headache rather than an ongoing catastrophic explosion inside her head. With the reduction of pain came an increased ability to reason, and she started to consider their situation more carefully.
"How long do we have?" she asked at last, glancing around the kitchen. "Where are you, anyway?"
He was quiet just long enough to make her look at him, and she caught his grimace as he closed his eyes. "The hospital," he muttered. "Or I will be. In and out for the rest of the week."
He had only been in the hospital once that she knew of. "The battle with Doomtron," she guessed, watching his reaction closely.
He just nodded. "We won't run into me," he said after a moment, eyes still closed as he relived a time he didn't like to talk about. "I spent the rest of the time at the Collins' place."
She looked at him too long; his eyes opened and he stared back at her with a combination of pain and curiosity. She blinked off the reverie, not quite daring to shake her head yet. "Move your toes," she said abruptly, dropping her gaze to his injured ankle.
He hesitated just a fraction, and she was glad of the excuse to glare at him. "Unless you want me to poke and prod your ankle for the next five minutes, move your toes." The ice should have numbed his muscles at least a little by now.
He did it, even moving his foot slightly for emphasis, but he couldn't manage without flinching. She wondered what his new recruits would think about their fearless leader, the one who had fought Doomtron with two broken ribs and a twisted knee, grimacing over a sprained ankle. She wondered how much they would pay her to let that secret slip.
"Don't smile like that," he grumbled, frowning at her without lifting his head. "Makes me nervous."
His expression was probably supposed to be threatening, but it only looked--
"A lot of things make you nervous," she retorted, without any real venom. "You need to put your ankle up and get some sleep."
"Only if you do the same." He was still giving her that look.
She turned away, heading for the bedroom without another word. It had to be almost morning in their time by now. She held onto that thought as she straightened his unmade bed, trying not to think about a time when she had done this out of affection rather than necessity. But she couldn't help smiling when she found his stupid dinosaur boxers tangled in the sheets.
Pulling open the bottom dresser drawer, she grabbed one of his sweatsuits and threw it on the bed. She kicked off her shoes and unbuttoned her blouse without a thought, dropping her own clothes on the floor as she changed into the sweats. She was tempted to toss them in with his laundry, but since she knew she'd just have to put them back on when she woke up...
She turned to get hangers from his closet and came up short when she saw him standing in the doorway. "Damn it," she swore, trying to calm her pounding heart as she glared at him. "You want to just yell 'boo!' while you're at it?"
"It's a thought." His knuckles were white on the ice packs he had clenched in one hand, and she saw him tremble a little with the effort of staying upright.
With a sigh, she went to him and wrapped his arm over her shoulder again. They were getting pretty good at walking like this, she thought wryly as she helped him to the bed. Maybe they could have three-legged races instead of twister at Max and Danny's next party.
"You want sweats?" she asked, getting his old black pair without waiting for an answer. She dropped them on the bed beside him and went back to hanging up her clothes. When it took him longer to change than she could reasonably spend in the closet, she escaped to the bathroom and stole his toothbrush with only a minimum of guilt. Like they hadn't shared more than that not so very long ago.
This time, she was listening for his footsteps and she was still caught off guard. Lifting her head, she saw a flash of black and skin in the doorway and tossed him an irritated glance over her shoulder. "Can't you just be a normal invalid?" she groused, rinsing his toothbrush and putting it back in the holder without apology.
Unless she was seriously mistaken, that was a smile tugging at his lips. "Back at you, concussion woman," he said quietly. "See you in bed."
She narrowed her eyes as she squeezed past him, more on principle than anything else. It had been a while since she'd seen him this... unguarded. She just couldn't bring herself to take advantage of it.
She paused only long enough to close the shades before collapsing on the bed. The sheets smelled more familiar than she cared to admit, and she buried her head in the pillow without worrying too much about the psychology of sleeping with one's ex-lover. She wasn't sleeping on the floor, and Eric had taken the same beating she had. They would just have to be adults about it.
She heard the toilet flush, listened to the water run in the bathroom for a few minutes after that, and then his limping gait shuffled into the silence of the bedroom. He settled onto his side of the bed with a barely audible sigh, and she heard him shift ice packs and extra pillow repeatedly as he tried to get comfortable. The mattress settled a little, creaking under his weight.
The room wasn't dark, but it had long ago ceased to be strange. The Eric Myers of this time might never have met her, but she had slept here many times before. She dozed off to the sound of his breathing.
Something warm and furry moved when her fingers twitched, and she stroked the cat reassuringly without really waking up. The cool breeze against her neck registered a moment later, and she shifted again. The comforter was up over her shoulders, but some accustomed warmth was gone.
Rolling over, Alyssa stretched one arm out over the pillow beside her. It was empty, and she let her eyes slide open at last. She could feel Ness' weight at the end of the bed. Tigger was curled beside her, trying to ignore her sudden restlessness. Her human bed partner, however, was conspicuously absent.
"Cole?" she murmured. Her eyes struggled to focus in the darkness. He was... changing?
"Taylor's in trouble." The words floated across the bed to her and she sat up abruptly. He kept his voice low as he added, "I don't know what's wrong or what she needs, but my growlphone went off a few minutes ago."
"I'll come with you," she said quickly, pushing the comforter away and burying Ness in the process. The golden didn't move, not even rolling her head to protest.
"No, don't." Cole's voice stopped her in mid motion, and she hesitated on the edge of the bed. "She told me to come to Silver Guardian Headquarters, and then she just hung up. I tried to call her back, but it wouldn't go through."
"Something must have happened. We'd better call Wes," she said, watching him brace one foot against the chair to lace up his workboots. "Was this her shift at the time hole? What time is it?"
"Half past midnight," Cole answered, tugging the laces tight and wrapping them around each other with a deftness he had only recently achieved. "It's her shift, and she had sixteen Silver Guardians with her. They've probably already called Wes."
Alyssa watched him switch feet worriedly. "But if you couldn't reach her growlphone..."
"I'll go find out what's wrong," he promised. "I'll call you as soon as I know anything. Sooner if I need help. Right now you'd better wake Merrick up, just in case."
He put his other foot back on the floor and leaned over to give her a kiss. "Love you."
"Love you too," she said automatically. He was already turning away, heading for the stairs. "Cole, be careful!"
"I will," he called over his shoulder. Ness was off the bed in a flash, bounding after him the moment he left the room. He stopped her at the top of the stairs.
"Ness, stay with Alyssa," he said, pointing back at the bedroom. Ness stopped, tail arcing over her back as she watched him hurry downstairs.
Alyssa heard his jacket rustle, then the creak of the front door and a slam as he pulled it shut behind him. She could hear footsteps through the open window, and then nothing. Only then did Ness turn, padding back into the room and looking up at Alyssa expectantly.
She got to her feet, dropping her head to Ness' head for just a moment. "He'll be okay," she told the dog. "It's just something he has to do. We'll never stop being a team."
She slipped her growlphone into the pocket of the sweatshirt she pulled on over her pajamas. It would do if she had to leave in a hurry. She felt her way out of the bedroom and across the landing, pausing at the top to see if Ness would go down first. The dog waited, following her slow progress down the stairs with patient dignity.
She left the hall light off and made her way across the living room to the porch door. It was lighter outside, and she saw Moon's gleaming eyes swivel toward her as soon as she put a hand on the door. Merrick was harder to locate.
Finally she spotted him, standing beside the deck in the shadow of the live oak that shaded their building. He was leaning back against the trunk, his light grey shirt glowing silver in the dappled moonlight. Princess Shayla was standing a few steps away, her urgent posture the antithesis of his relaxed mien.
Alyssa backed away from the door quietly. Merrick was already awake. There was no reason to interrupt just to tell him she didn't know anything. And there were several perfectly good reasons to let him confront the princess after all this time.
"Leave it, Ness," she chided the golden. Ness was staring through the porch door at Moon, tail halfway up and hackles raised. "Ness."
The dog dropped her tail and turned away, perking up again when Alyssa patted her in praise. "You don't have anything to prove," she told the dog. "You're our favorite no matter what."
Ness bounced after her as she headed for the kitchen. A soft meow greeted her as she turned on the light, and she smiled. Tigger was on the counter, turning in a tight circle as though he expected breakfast now. It was too bad Cole hadn't told the animals what was going on before he'd left, she thought.
"No, we're not eating now," she told them. "This is a middle-of-the-night emergency. We don't get breakfast until later."
Ness promptly sat down, looking to Alyssa as if to say, "See what I can do?" She, too, clearly expected to be fed. Tigger meowed again, and Alyssa sighed fondly.
"What am I going to do with you?" she asked, shaking her head at them. "You can have a treat, but no breakfast. That's it."
She pulled the bag by the refrigerator across the counter, and Ness' ears went up at the sound. Alyssa glanced at her, and she immediately put her ears down and wagged. Alyssa just smiled, opening the plastic bag and pulling out a piece of rawhide. "Stand up," she told the golden.
Ness stood obediently, still wagging.
"Good girl." Alyssa handed her the chew. Ness took it carefully, then waited, cocking her head just a little. "You can eat it in here," Alyssa told her. "Okay."
Ness settled down right where she was, placing one paw over the end of the chew and focusing all her attention on it. Alyssa put the bag away and warmed some milk for Tigger, patting the cat absently while he lapped at the designated "cat saucer". He was their third foster cat, and the only one so far who hadn't been allergic to milk. He had been given his own saucer the day he arrived.
Her growlphone rang. She had it open and pressed to her ear before it could ring again. "Cole?"
"I'm at SGH with Wes and Jen," he told her. "Taylor and Eric are missing."
"Eric was with her? Have they tried to reach his morpher?"
"The guardian in charge of the time hole rotation says that Eric came in to do some catch up work around eleven-thirty. He stopped by to check on the time hole, and Taylor issued a base-wide alert a few minutes after midnight saying that he was missing. She requested backup, and neither of them has been heard from since."
"The time hole?" she asked, her heart sinking. "Could they have gone through it?"
"That's what Wes is afraid of," Cole's voice answered. "The time hole disappeared before I got here, so there's no way to know when they ended up if they did go through."
"Do you want me to come down?"
There was a brief pause, and she could hear other voices in the background. "Why don't you wait until we've checked the base," Cole said at last. "If they're here, we'll find them, and if they're not, Jen says she may be able to track Eric's morpher. If there's anything the rest of the team can do I'll call you back."
"All right," she said, glancing at the stove clock. She knew he was trying to subtly point her in the direction of sleep. "I'll be here if you need me."
"Love you," he answered, and she smiled.
"Love you too," she told her growlphone.
Tigger bumped her hand as she put the device back in her pocket. She smiled, rubbing her fingers over his ears and stroking his back down to his tail. "Finished your milk?" she asked, picking up his saucer and putting it in the sink. She ran some water over it to rinse it off, then glanced back at Ness.
The golden was still happily absorbed in her rawhide chew, paying no attention to Alyssa and Tigger. "Cole says hello," Alyssa told her, just to see what would happen. Ness glanced up at her without moving her head, then back to her chew just as quickly.
The sound of a click, followed by the slide of the porch door, drew her attention away from Ness. Merrick was standing in the doorway, the moonlight as his back and the lamplight spilling out of the kitchen at his feet. "Coming?" he asked someone on the porch behind him.
There was no answer. He stepped through the door without further comment, pulling it shut behind him. She couldn't see past the reflected shine on the glass, but since she'd never heard him talk to the princess that way she assumed he was talking to Moon.
Once inside he stopped, regarding her with a stony expression she hadn't seen since Zen-Aku. "Thank you," he said at last, but the words were grudging. "For letting us talk."
"You saw me," she guessed. She didn't know why she was surprised.
One shoulder twitched in a half-shrug. "Moon did."
"You're welcome," she said tentatively, studying his face. He could have ignored her as easily as thanked her, and she wasn't sure exactly what had prompted him to seek out company now.
There was silence for a moment, and it only increased her confusion. Merrick had rarely, if ever, attempted to socialize with any of them. Yet he had just put himself in a situation where not making conversation would be awkward, to say the least--and he had done it on purpose.
"Did you know she was awake?" he asked abruptly.
She shook her head. Maybe that was all he wanted, then. To know that they hadn't all been keeping the same secret, one that might have changed his life had he been privy to it. Although she had told Cole that she understood the princess' reasoning, and intellectually she did, she was grateful that she didn't have to defend it.
The mask dissolved before her eyes and he looked away before she could see what was underneath it. Staring at the night-black window beside their computer, his words had an unexpectedly bitter tinge. "She's exactly the same."
Alyssa remembered the princess exchanging secretive looks with Jen, volunteering to study with Eric, and laughing with Taylor at the skate park. "Do you really think so?"
"Do you know what she said to me tonight?" Merrick was still staring at the window. "She told me that she hopes I'll be able to forgive her for the mistakes she's made in the past."
"That... sounds like the princess," Alyssa ventured.
"Doesn't it," Merrick agreed. He didn't sound like he thought that was a good thing. "Like the rest of us haven't made mistakes we'd like to be forgiven for. It doesn't work that way."
Tigger hopped down from the counter, stalking Merrick affectionately. He had changed so much since the distrustful cat he had been when he was first abandoned, she thought distantly. If only human faith was so easily restored.
"You're angry that she didn't tell you?" Alyssa suggested carefully.
"She doesn't think it matters," Merrick told the window. "She asks forgiveness and I'm just supposed to give it, as though the last two years don't matter. As though what they meant to me doesn't matter."
When he didn't continue, she prompted, "What did they mean to you?"
He glanced back at her, holding her gaze for a long moment. "I've seen more of the world in the last two years than I'd seen in my entire life," he said at last. "More of the world than I even knew existed. And it's all... different.
"Animaria is gone," he added, expression twisting with some remembered pain. "But I come back here, and it's all... she's the same. Nothing's changed, for her. I don't think she even realizes what the world is like now."
Alyssa frowned a little. Tigger, apparently bored with being ignored, was winding his way back toward her. Ness was trying to turn the remnants of her chew over in her mouth without dropping them, alternately grimacing and yawning. And then there was Merrick, welcome but aloof, a part of them but not, as he had always been.
"It takes more than the world to change a person," she said gently, studying him. "We feel... different, in different situations. But then when we come back to something that's familiar, sometimes we realize that all those changes were just... superficial."
Merrick didn't answer.
"I'm not saying you haven't changed," she offered at last. "It's just that I think it might not be her that's stayed the same. Maybe it's just your feelings for her."
"I don't even know how I feel about her!" He ran a hand through his hair, bangs falling in his face again as soon as he let them go. "I'm not sure I ever did! I thought I loved her, back in Animaria, but--I didn't know anything back then!"
"Yes, you did," she said, trying to keep her voice calm enough to soothe. "Just because times change, it doesn't mean people have to. Things that happen out there don't change what happens in here, in our hearts. Not all by themselves. Not without us."
She saw him take a breath to answer, but she insisted, "The world doesn't change us, Merrick. We change ourselves, because we stop believing--or because we start."
He stared at her for a moment, several expressions warring for dominance on his face. "You sound like her," he said finally, as though he couldn't decide how he felt about that.
Alyssa smiled, reaching down to separate Tigger from her ankles and scoop him up off the floor. "Thank you."
There was silence for a moment, save for the sound of the black cat purring in her ear. Then, as if it had just occurred to him, Merrick asked, "What are you doing up?"
"Talking to you," she said promptly, laughing a little when he shot her a look from under his bangs. "Taylor called Cole to come to SGH a little while ago. He's there, but she's disappeared and she isn't answering her growlphone."
Merrick frowned. "The time hole?"
"They think so," Alyssa agreed. "Jen and Wes are there with him, and the Silver Guardians are searching the base. Jen's going to try to track Eric's morpher if they don't find anything."
"I should go," Merrick said, glancing over his shoulder at the door. "I was supposed to take the next shift. They'll need someone to cover if Taylor's gone."
"There are plenty of people there now," she assured him. "Cole said he'd call if there was anything we could do."
He gave her an uninterpretable look. "You want to go back to sleep?"
His eyes held a combination of challenge and invitation. It was the same look she got from Cole whenever he wasn't trying to protect her, and despite the circumstances she felt an answering thrill of excitement. They were Rangers again.
"Let's go," she said, setting Tigger back on the counter without hesitation.
They were almost out of orange juice. Max finished off what was left in the carton and tossed it in the sink to wash out later. It was Danny's week to shop, and Danny always went on Tuesdays. There would be more orange juice by tomorrow morning.
Investigating the contents of the refrigerator, he found several more things that were almost but not quite gone. Danny was a great roommate in almost every way, but he was a little too... focused, when it came to grocery shopping. He didn't check anything before he left. He assumed that whatever was on the list was what they needed, and that was what he got.
Max pulled the marker off the white board stuck to the freezer door and added "orange juice" to the list. Then he put "apples," "eggs," and "WHITE bread" on the list as well. He felt it necessary to distinguish between "white" and "wheat" bread, since Danny didn't seem to notice the difference. Some weeks they ended up with one, some weeks with another.
As an afterthought, he yanked open the freezer door too. Cracking the lid on the ice cream, he considered the half-full carton. Yup, definitely needed ice cream too. He put "blueberry ice cream" on the list.
Finally satisfied, he extracted a piece of cold pizza from the box at the bottom of the fridge and wandered into the bedroom. Danny's week to shop meant his week to do laundry. Munching on the pizza, he gathered up as many clothes as he could with one hand and dumped them in the laundry basket by the door. He threw in his towel too, and figured he might as well clean out the rest of the apartment's towels while he was at it.
One slice of pizza and an overloaded laundry basket later, he was heading down the stairs to the laundry room in the basement. He made it all the way down before he realized he'd forgotten quarters, and he sighed loudly. Dropping the basket on the floor inside the laundry room, he turned back to the door.
"Good morning, Max," Kayla greeted him, peering at him from underneath the heaping basket balanced on top of her head. She waited patiently for him to get out of the way, then glided forward to place her basket carefully on top of one of the washers.
"Kayla!" He bounced up on the washer next to her and gave her his most endearing smile. "How's it going? Having a good morning?"
The elderly woman regarded him with a small smile. "Yes, Max. Thank you for asking." Turning back to her laundry, she added, "And yourself?"
"Well, here's the thing," he said, letting a sheepish note creep into his tone. "It was going great, until I got all the way down here and figured out I'd forgotten my quarters..."
He trailed off, giving her a hopeful look, and she just shook her head. "Help yourself," she said, gesturing toward the dish she'd set up on the edge of the coin deposit.
"Thanks, Kayla!" he exclaimed. He scooped out a handful and slid off the washer immediately. "You're the best!"
She didn't answer, but he knew she was still smiling. Kayla had been fond of him ever since he rescued her cat from the roof in the middle of a rainstorm. After that she had insisted he stop calling her "Mrs. Inpalei" and just use her given name, which according to her he pronounced better anyway. He and Danny had never been without desert on a holiday since.
Max fed the first washer with quarters and dug the detergent out from the bottom of the laundry basket, sorting clothes as he went. It was better to do laundry early in the morning, when there weren't many people in the basement. He could spread things out all over the place, leave them in long after the machine had stopped, and hang damp stuff up to dry without getting in anyone's way.
He had sorted their clothes in the time it took Kayla to fill a single washer. She had taken up a place underneath the high set windows, a knitting bag beside her chair and a felt jingly toy at her feet. Her cat must have come in with her, but he hadn't seen it. She had left the quarter dish on top of her washer.
Max filled two washers, shoved the laundry basket on top of one of them, and waved to her before he headed back upstairs. The first thing he did when he reached their apartment was to pick up the quarters from the change drawer and put them in his pocket. He would pay Kayla back when he went down to move the laundry.
He checked the time, the voice mail, and his alarm clock, which was still set for nine. He turned it off, as he always did, but he left it set just in case. Danny tried to be quiet when he got up in the morning, and Max wasn't going to tell him that he'd gotten used to waking up early. As far as Danny knew, Max rolled over and went back to sleep the moment he left.
The phone rang, startling him, especially when he had just checked it seconds before. Only people he knew would call so early in the morning, right? He picked it up more out of curiosity than anything else. "Three-oh-four," he told the person on the other end.
"It's Danny," his best friend's voice answered. Danny didn't expect anyone to recognize his voice--even people he'd lived with for years. "Did I wake you up?"
Max glanced at the clock again: seven-thirty. "Yeah," he decided, feigning a yawn for effect. "What's up?"
"The time hole's gone," Danny said, his voice noticeably quieter even though he was probably in the back office where no one could overhear their conversation. "It disappeared during Taylor's shift last night.
"She and Eric are missing," Danny added, almost as an afterthought. "Wes thinks they went through the time hole before it closed."
"They what?!" Max dropped all pretense of sleepiness. "I knew he was up to something! He had that stupid smug look on his face and he was way too nice to me when he offered to take my shift! He didn't even say anything about teddy bears!"
Danny waited for him to take a breath, then pointed out reasonably, "He always has that look on his face, Max. He was probably being nice to you because he wanted to talk to Taylor. Even Eric wouldn't go through a time hole for no reason... would he?"
"No," Max grumbled, kicking the edge of the counter with his toe. "He wouldn't have had to wait till midnight if he wanted to, anyway. Maybe he tried to make Taylor go through and they double-dared each other."
"Or maybe something came through from the other side and they had to chase it back," Danny said worriedly. "They wouldn't have expected the time hole to close behind them."
There was a pause and then he added, "At least, I don't think they would have."
"Eric probably knows all sorts of stuff about time holes," Max muttered. "I'm surprised Mr. High and Mighty hasn't already shown up with the crystal and a new zord on top of it."
"Jen's tracked them to 2001," Danny offered, ignoring his bitterness. "She says they're right at the end of some big battle that Time Force fought that year, but that Eric should know enough to keep them out of it."
"Because Eric's first reaction to danger is to run away," Max said sarcastically.
"Maybe Taylor will hold him back," Danny suggested. The idea was, at first glance, overly optimistic, but on the other hand Taylor would probably oppose anything Eric wanted just because he wanted it. Max brightened a little as he thought about it.
"Maybe," he agreed with some satisfaction. "I'd like to see that!"
"I have to go." Danny sounded distracted already, as though someone was talking to him from out in the shop. "Wes said he'd pass the word when they know more."
"Sure." Max glanced at the clock automatically, but the flower shop wouldn't open for almost an hour. They must be getting ready for some big event today--he wasn't driving for it, so he hadn't paid much attention. "See you at ten."
"Right," Danny agreed. "Bye!"
"Later," Max replied absently. As he hung up the phone, he thought of Princess Shayla. He and Danny had always been at the bottom of the phone tree, being both the least likely to know anything and the hardest to reach at any given time.
Cole always knew things, just because he was Cole. Alyssa knew things because she lived with Cole, and Taylor was the first person both Alyssa and Eric called when anything happened. Danny and Max usually got messages left on their voice mail, or sometimes with Kendall at the shop...
But who would have told the princess? Max thought about this, then remembered that Merrick was staying with Alyssa and Cole. So he probably knew what was going on--but would he have told Princess Shayla? As far as Max knew, Merrick was going out of his way to avoid the princess, not seek her out.
Her shift at the time hole. That was it: she had been scheduled to be there this morning after Cole. If she hadn't known what was happening beforehand, she had to know by now.
He put it out of his mind, counting on someone to let him know if anything changed. He didn't waste much time worrying about Taylor, just as a general rule, and he wasn't about to start now. She didn't worry about them, for one thing, and for another she was easily the most capable person on the team. He had never known her to get into something she couldn't get out of.
Max turned the radio on and got work on the dishes left over from last night. He had learned very quickly that the longer dishes sat in the sink, the harder they were to wash later. That didn't stop either of them from ignoring dishes in the evening, when there were better things to do, but one of them usually did them voluntarily the next morning. It saved hot water and aggravation.
The orange juice carton was easy to rinse, of course, and he flattened it and tossed it in the recycling bin when he was done with the dishes. Only when he debated emptying the drainer did he realized he had no dish towel. As far as he was concerned, that gave him the perfect excuse to avoid drying the dishes, so he left them where they were. Danny could put them away when he got home.
He headed downstairs to check out the paper--someone had usually left one in the lobby by now--and visit the garden. The apartment garden had been Danny's idea, but he had the whole-hearted support of several of their neighbors. They had set up a watering and weeding rotation that Max could never keep track of, so he figured he'd better check and make sure he hadn't forgotten his turn already this week.
By the time he had wandered around the lobby and the building several times, the rest of the residents were waking up and milling too. Or maybe "milling" was unfair, since many of them were on their way to work or class, but he had long ago noticed that the more relaxed he was, the more relaxed the rest of the world looked to him. Thus, milling. It was an art form.
He milled his way into the laundry room, not surprised to find Kayla still there with what looked like half a sweater on her lap. She knitted fast. Her cat was curled up at her feet now, the felt toy nowhere in sight.
Max fished the quarters out of his pocket and dropped six of them into her dish. Then he started transferring the laundry from washer to dryer, separating the towels out throwing them in to the first dryer. Danny insisted that towels had to be dried separately--Max had no idea why, but he did know that towels definitely did not dry soft enough if they weren't put in a dryer. So he made sure they went in first.
He put two quarters in the towel dryer and one in each of the others, waved at Kayla, and headed back upstairs. He had just enough time before he had to be at the flower shop to Accomplish something, which he usually tried to avoid. Mornings were not about accomplishing things. On the other hand, if the evening was going to be taken up with whatever mess Taylor had gotten herself into...
He sighed, deciding he'd have to catch up on his bank account eventually. He settled down at the counter, idly tapping his pen in time to the radio while he tried to remember where the calculator had gone. Was he supposed to pick Jordan up this morning? And were the violets meant to droop like that under their special grow-light? It was amazing how many things needed his attention when he was trying to think about money.
There was a knock on the door, and he grinned to himself. First the phone, now the door. He was on a roll this morning. With a little luck, he would get absolutely nothing done, which was after all his secret goal every day.
"Cole?" He stared at the Red Ranger in surprise, then leaned past him to look up and down the empty hallway. "How did you get in here?"
Cole gave him a nonchalant look that had probably been perfected long before the Animarium. "There was an open window in the laundry room."
Max frowned, trying to remember if that was true. Then he shook his head, disgusted that Cole had made the ridiculous sound plausible without even trying. "You can't just climb in through windows! This is private property!"
Cole smiled, but his look of polite confusion was just a look. He knew perfectly well that people didn't go around climbing through windows. "The woman in the laundry room didn't seem to mind. She was very nice."
Max couldn't decide whether to be outraged that Cole was still giving him this attitude, or to laugh outright at the idea of Kayla watching Cole break into the laundry room. "You probably talked to her cat," he decided at last, shaking his head again. "She likes anyone who likes Enis."
With that, he realized what was missing. Looking up and down the hall again just to make sure, he gave Cole a horrified look. "Did you leave Ness outside? What if someone sees her wandering around loose?"
"She's at day care for the morning," Cole answered, as though that were a perfectly reasonable thing to say about a dog. Before knowing Cole, Max would have laughed at the thought, but now he just accepted it and waved for Cole to come in.
"Danny called you?" Cole asked, as Max closed the door behind him.
"Yeah." Max went over to push one of the windows open, glancing at the garden outside as he did so. Two of their neighbors were already down there, either weeding or picking--it was hard to tell from here. "Taylor's missing?"
"Taylor and Eric," Cole corrected. "They disappeared just after midnight last night, and Jen's tracked Eric's morpher to 2001. Someone back then must have one of the crystals that was lost in the battle with Doomtron."
"So they can use it to get back?" Max suggested hopefully.
"Maybe." Cole didn't sound enthusiastic about the possibility. "It depends on how whoever's controlling the crystal has it set up. They must be able to direct its effects, or the time hole wouldn't have closed so quickly this morning. But if they know what they're doing, they're probably protecting it pretty carefully."
"Taylor and Eric won't be able to get to it," Max guessed.
"If they got away from it to begin with," Cole agreed. "Whoever has control of that crystal must have known the second they came through the time hole, and it's possible they're being held captive."
"When did you get so smart?" Max demanded, giving Cole a suspicious look. He knew Cole wasn't the naive jungle boy he pretended to be most of the time, but he had never been very interested in technology either. And time travel... definitely down at the bottom of a very long list of Things Cole Cared About.
"I've been at Silver Guardian headquarters all morning," Cole said with a smile. "Taylor called me just before she disappeared last night, and when I got there I offered to search the base while Jen tried to track her and Eric. We've been helping Wes secure the area ever since."
"We?" Max repeated, not sure he wanted to know. Bottom of the phone tree, as usual.
"Alyssa and Merrick came in around one," Cole explained. "Princess Shayla arrived a couple of hours ago, Merrick left, and Alyssa called in so she could get some sleep. The princess is working with Jen right now."
Max frowned, but decided against asking what, exactly, Princess Shayla could do to help a thirty-first century time cop. "Is there anything we can do?" he asked at last. He couldn't help being privately glad he had the evening to himself again, but if it got him out of work he'd volunteer to help at SGH.
Cole shrugged. "Probably not," he admitted. "I just wanted to make sure you knew what was going on."
"Aren't you supposed to be working today?" Max demanded. Cole's schedule was stranger than his, but he'd thought he had it figured out--for the next week, at least.
"I worked Sunday," Cole said calmly. "I have today off."
"Right..." Max eyed him, but there was no way to read the Red Ranger once he'd decided something wasn't important. "Well, thanks. You're better than Danny is over the phone, even if I don't know what you're talking about."
Cole grinned at that, nodded once. "Stop by later if you have time," he suggested. "Jen and the princess are working on some kind of... something, and it's fun to see them hunched over Wes' computer together."
Max laughed aloud, relieved that Cole was talking normally again. "I will," he promised. "And I'll bring my camera!"
Cole nodded again, tossing a wave over his shoulder as he headed for the door. He looked more tired than Max had noticed at first... or maybe it was just more noticeable from the back. Cole didn't always stand up straight, but he didn't obviously slump either. Now he was.
Long night, Max guessed. There were advantages to being at the bottom of the phone tree, after all.
The sound of the alarm jarred him out of a restless sleep for the third time that night, and he banged his hand against the head of the bed in an effort to turn it off. He groaned, finally managing to stop the noise. "Taylor?" he muttered thickly.
There was no reply, and he reached out for her shoulder through the tangle of blankets. He found the pillow next to his, but there was no one using it. He rolled over, squinting at the empty space beside him in consternation. At least she wasn't concussed.
He had to pry the blankets loose before he could lever himself upright, shifting his legs carefully over the side of the bed. A second glance at the alarm clock revealed the time, but five in the morning here was probably closer to noon in the year they'd come from. An ice pack slid out from under the sheets, impacting against the floor with a soft slosh, and he watched it dispassionately.
This was not going to be a good morning. He wasn't even out of bed, and any number of things had already gone wrong. One, he was stuck three years in the past with very few resources and fewer people he could trust with the information. Two, he had been brought here by some unknown evil that could be hunting him at this very moment. Three, he was in the company of a woman who had repeatedly threatened to solve problems such as his by shooting the afflicted.
Problem three, he decided frankly, was as much a bonus as a drawback.
He settled his feet on the floor and pressed experimentally against the rug. His ankle twinged, more in anticipation than actual discomfort, and he slid further forward, putting a little more weight on it. Still nothing. Being a Ranger had its advantages.
He pushed himself to his feet, bracing himself against the head of the bed and keeping most of his weight on his uninjured ankle. His vision greyed alarmingly, but he ignored it and waited for the rush to subside. Very, very carefully, he took one limping step toward the door. His ankle cooperated, and he continued slowly across the room.
He could hear noise in the kitchen, and he wasn't sure whether that should worry him or not. Taylor was notoriously destructive when it came to appliances in general, and kitchen appliances in particular. Leave it to someone who could fly the most advanced technology available to foul up a dishwasher, blender, and gas stove all in one day.
He limped down the short hallway to the kitchen, ready to favor his stiff ankle as long as it needed just so it wouldn't start hurting again. He was greeted in the doorway by one of the strangest sights he'd ever seen: Taylor, barefoot and... cooking. Had he woken up in some alternate reality? How long could he stay?
"Did the--" He cleared his throat and tried again, noting that she didn't even turn. "Did I sleep through the apocalypse?"
"You could have," she said over her shoulder. "Your headset was talking all night long."
"You could've turned it off," he muttered. He had gotten so used to hearing it that he didn't even notice it anymore.
She didn't deign to answer that, and he debated calling her on the cooking thing. The odds of her actually making something edible seemed low, so he probably wasn't risking very much. "Since when do you know how to cook?" he inquired, leaning against the doorframe and admiring the view.
She still didn't look at him, but she did point at the pancake mix on the counter beside her. "They come in a box, Eric. It's not rocket science."
It might as well have been when they lived together. Not once had she ever offered to make breakfast, and after the dishwasher-blender-stove incident he had forbidden her to try. Apparently the old rules didn't apply anymore. There was good and bad in everything, it seemed.
She flipped the stove off abruptly, and he raised an eyebrow as she slid three pancakes off of the pan and transferred them to an already-occupied plate. When she turned away from the stove, he could see a second plate sitting on the counter beside the box. From here, the pancakes on it looked perfectly innocent, even... appealing.
Taylor set her plate on the table, dropped a knife and fork next to it, and went back to the refrigerator. "I still can't believe you didn't have real maple syrup," she muttered, after careful consideration of the content. She finally pulled out the butter and what she referred to as "fake" maple syrup and took it over to the table with her.
Correctly deducing that the second place setting was his responsibility, he made his way slowly over to the stove. "I can't afford real maple syrup at the rate you go through it," he remarked, poking the pancakes gingerly. Even close up, they did look like actual pancakes.
"You make more than I do!" Taylor's silverware clinked against her plate behind him, and he paused to retrieve a fork for himself.
"Not this year I don't," he informed her. He pulled the stool out of the corner and joined her at the table, choosing to ignore the fact that she was sitting in his chair. He hadn't realized how much this place had changed until he found himself three years back in time.
Taylor didn't acknowledge his presence at the table in any way. She hadn't exactly rationed the "fake" maple syrup, either, so he could only roll his eyes when she commented, "You don't have to live off of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben."
"That's funny, coming from Ms. Marie Callander."
She tossed her head, the end of her braid flipping across her back. Her hair was wet, he realized suddenly. She must have taken a shower before he got up. There had been a time when she had let her hair dry loose instead of pulling it back immediately--what had happened to that?
"At least I get good frozen dinners," Taylor said haughtily.
"There's nothing wrong with Uncle Ben dinners," he retorted. The response was automatic, mostly to cover his surprise that her pancake effort had produced decent results. Was she holding out on him, or had she been taking lessons?
"Every Uncle Ben's product is the same," she was telling him. She had already put a good dent in her pancakes, presumably unslowed by the lack of real toppings. "Rice, rice, and more rice."
"White rice is a staple in many Asian countries." She really had been holding out on him. This was an actual breakfast, and eventually he was going to have to thank her for it. If she didn't run him into the ground with her stupid frozen dinner prejudices first.
"This is America," Taylor snapped, paying no attention when he got up and headed over to the refrigerator. She must be compensating for her newfound culinary ability by criticizing everything he said. "We eat meat and potatoes in this country."
He poured two glasses, even though he knew she hated grapefruit juice. Little did his counterpart in this time know that he would soon be buying three different juices and two kinds of milk. "Americans eat crap and you know it. You're complaining about it every time I turn around."
"Because most of them are too stingy to buy real food," she retorted.
He closed the refrigerator and carried the glasses back to the table, setting hers down in front of her before sitting down. "And the rest of them are too lazy to learn how to cook," he returned. "Get over it."
She gave his pancakes a pointed look. "Does it look like I'm over it?" Then she held up the bottle of Aunt Jemima and demanded, "Where's my maple syrup?"
That was almost a joke, but he was careful not to smile. Looking over at the place where the calendar would have been, were it three years from now, he told her, "Give me a year and a half. You'll have maple syrup and orange juice on top of it."
"But no margarine," she grumbled, keeping her gaze focused intently on her plate.
He dropped his fork and sat back on his stool, staring at her. "Woman, I bought skim milk for you! The least you can do is learn to spread real butter!"
"I would if you'd leave it out like a normal person!" she shot back. "Who puts butter in the refrigerator?"
"Anyone who wants to keep it for more than two days! Butter is not a condiment, and the sooner you stop trying to make it margarine the better!"
"Margarine is an improvement over butter, that's why it was created!"
"Anything you have to 'create' is not real food! How can you loathe Aunt Jemima and then turn around and spread synthetic butter on your pancakes?"
"Margarine is an improvement," she repeated stubbornly. "Aunt Jemima is a cheap imitation. There's a difference."
"Defend skim milk," he challenged.
"Milk without the fat! There's nothing bad about that!"
"Because there's nothing in it! It's white water!"
The phone rang. He looked over at it in total noncomprehension, his brain sluggish to identify the meaning behind the sound. Someone was calling him. In the past. At... five-twenty in the morning. Who would have that kind of death wish?
"You don't have an answering machine," Taylor reminded him.
"Too bad for them." He went back to his pancakes, and the phone just kept ringing.
Finally, Taylor got up and he paused, glaring after her. "Don't you dare," he warned.
She had her hand over the phone when it stopped ringing. Would she really have done it? Stupid question, he realized. Of course she would have. This was Taylor, after all. She returned to the table without a word, and he thought she looked a little disappointed. Maybe he should pull the plug on the phone while they were here.
Hopefully, that wouldn't be much longer. They were going to have to get back to the future site of the SGH, do some internal investigation, and try not to get banged up again in the process. He shot a sideways look at her, wondering if she'd bite his head off for asking how she felt this morning.
She finished her grapefruit juice with a grimace and set the empty glass on her plate, getting up again to put her dishes in the sink. "I'm going to get dressed," she said over her shoulder, not even bothering to catch his eye. The unspoken message was clear: she cooked, he was cleaning.
It wasn't just the dishes he was cleaning, either. When he finished his own breakfast, which he grudgingly conceded was very good, straight from the box or not, he cast a critical eye over the kitchen. He hadn't kept the neatest place even before he met Taylor, but neither of them had cared about covering their tracks yesterday. There were still glasses on the floor and a cushion beside them, the aspirin bottle out on the counter, and of course now he was short a couple of eggs and some pancake mix.
The last thing he would care about on returning from the hospital and his stay at the Collins' was the kitchen's disarray. And the first thing he would do would be to throw out everything that could have spoiled, so he probably didn't need to worry about the food. As long as they picked up what they had left out and replaced the dishes, his counterpart in 2001 probably wouldn't notice anything amiss.
Who was he kidding? As long as he picked up what they had left out. Taylor had clearly absolved herself of all responsibility for the state of the house, and he wouldn't be surprised if he found her curled up on the bed reading by the time he finished the dishes. She was forever stealing his books--in memory of the time he had first asked her out, she said when she was in a good mood, or in revenge for that time when she wasn't.
He finished the dishes, including the glasses on the floor, and Taylor still hadn't reappeared. Definitely reading. He put the aspirin away, replaced the pancake mix, which she had inexplicably left out even after putting the milk and eggs back--reading the instructions? Taylor? Doubtful.
By the time he had returned the stool to its usual place and put the cushion back where it belonged, his ankle was loosening up and starting to ache at the same time. He hoped it was a passing pain, or at the very least something that wasn't going to worsen substantially before the end of the day. There were, too, the disadvantages of being a Ranger: the constant back and forth between the accelerated healing process and the ridiculous amounts of abuse they heaped on their bodies.
He was going to take a shower. Whatever Taylor was doing, it obviously wasn't critical. And his own personal ability to cope would be vastly increased by a close encounter with large amounts of hot water. It might even help his ankle... and besides, Taylor had gotten one.
What this actually meant was lost on him until he had closed the bathroom door behind him, and suddenly all he could smell was Taylor. How did she do that? She was using his soap, his shampoo, his clothes and apparently his towel, too. He didn't know what to think about that--she had never, ever used his towel before, and she knew perfectly well where the extras were kept.
He pulled a dry one out of the closet behind the door, and his eye fell on something dropped carelessly beside the sink. That was new. He stood there staring for a long moment, trying to figure out what it meant. Since when did she take those off, even to shower?
She was sitting at the kitchen table when he emerged from the bathroom some time later, towel over his shoulders and the dog tags dangling from his fingers. He jingled them as he walked up behind her, and she lifted her head at the sound. "Forget something?" he inquired pointedly.
She looked over her shoulder, narrowing her eyes at him. "No," she retorted, reaching out to grab them from his hand. "I just didn't expect you to spend half an hour in the bathroom, that's all."
"Weak, Earhardt. Very weak."
She ignored him, letting her book fall closed as she hung them around her neck again. "I didn't make the bed," she told him, flipping her braid over top of the chain. "But I put the ice packs back in the freezer and folded up my sweats--do you want to wash them or just put them away?"
"There isn't time." He was perversely happy about that and determined not to let it show. "You probably put the ice packs away wrong," he added, turning to pull the freezer door open.
"No, I didn't." He could hear the eye roll in her voice alone. "They're flat and stacked sideways in the bottom left corner of the door. I still don't know how you lived with plastic ice packs all those years."
They were, too. She had put them back just the way he would have, before she bought him cloth hot/cold packs one year for his birthday. Absolutely essential to the Ranger way of life, she had told him. It hadn't been long before he agreed, and he had certainly missed them last night.
"What about the shades?" he asked, closing the freezer door. "Closet? Clothes? You didn't leave any more jewelry lying around, did you?"
"They're not jewelry and yes, I left a charm bracelet under your pillow that says 'Taylor slept here'," she retorted. "I also left my phone number in lipstick on your wall."
He really tried not to smirk, but he couldn't help it. "That would have saved some time," he muttered.
He heard her breath of amusement before she caught herself. He would have said something else, if a knock on the door hadn't made both of them freeze. She twisted in her chair and for a moment they just looked at each other. Finally, she got to her feet, and the motion brought him back to his senses.
She wasn't heading for the bedroom. She was heading for the door.
"Do not answer that," he said, putting as much steel into his voice as he could. "It's not funny, Taylor."
"You're not wearing anything," she pointed out. "Sweats and a towel isn't going to cut it if there's someone important out there."
"And having a strange woman answer the door will be that much better," he retorted. "Get out of the kitchen."
She shrugged, but he thought he heard her murmur "spoilsport" as she aborted her course toward the door and ducked into the hallway instead. He went to the door, glanced outside, and almost sighed in relief. It was only Alice. The kid had to get up ridiculously early just to catch the bus, but such was the price for living where they did. If he thought her mom would allow it, he'd offer to drop her off on his way to work.
He slid the deadbolt back and opened the door, mustering a smile for her wide-eyed expression. "Morning, Alice," he said, running a hand over his hair to smooth it down. "What can I do for you?"
"We ran out of eggs," she said solemnly. "We had enough, but then Mom got two bad ones in a row, and she wants to know if we can borrow one from you."
"Sure you can," he agreed, wondering if he dared to invite her in while he got them for her. Was Taylor listening? Would she know enough to stay out of sight? Or maybe the real question was, would she care enough?
He heard the refrigerator open behind him, and he had his answer. He was going to kill that woman. Sadly, before he had time to implement his new plan, Taylor had come up behind him and shouldered him out of the way at the door. "Here you go," she said sweetly, handing Alice an egg as though there was nothing out of the ordinary.
Alice regarded her with some suspicion. "You're the woman who came over to get Eric's key yesterday afternoon," she declared. She didn't sound like she thought this was a point in Taylor's favor.
"That's right," Taylor agreed politely.
Alice was frowning at her now. "You didn't bring it back," she said accusingly.
He tried to hide a smile. Good girl, Alice. He knew he liked her for a reason.
"I'm sorry," Taylor said, sounding a little taken aback. "Here, let me go get it for you."
"That's okay." Alice reached out and took the egg from her, but she didn't look appeased. "If Eric wants you to have his spare key, you'd better keep it. You can't just come up on our porch every time you need to get into his house."
He would have liked to watch her give Taylor the cold shoulder a little longer, but he had to clear up that misconception before she said something to his counterpart. "Alice, Taylor is just a friend. I'll put my key back when we leave, okay?"
Alice shrugged, clearly disbelieving. "If you say so." Her tone said exactly the opposite. "Thanks for the egg."
She turned and skipped down the steps, not waiting for him to respond. He stepped back, closing the door carefully before turning his glare on Taylor. "Are you out of your mind? What's the first thing she's going to say when she sees me next! 'Oh, Eric, how's your friend?'"
Taylor paid no attention to him. "I'd forgotten what a brat she used to be," she said under her breath, staring at the closed door.
"She was only rude because you gave her a reason to be," he fumed. "There's no way she's going to forget you were here now!"
"Oh, please." Taylor finally seemed to realize he was upset. "What are you going to think when she tells you what happened? That your future self showed up here with an ex-fiancee you haven't met yet, or that the neighbor's kid is crazy?"
"Alice isn't crazy," he growled. "And if I tell her she's nuts it's going to be your fault. It's no wonder she didn't like you when I introduced you to her."
"Because she'd already met me," Taylor realized. "Well, that's just strange." After a pause, she added, "Do you remember what you thought when she told you about me the first time?"
"What are you talking about?" he demanded.
"Later this week," she said impatiently. "Or whenever you get back from the Collins' place, and Alice tells you that you were here with a 'friend'. What will you think?"
He was worried that he might understand that if he thought about it long enough, and half-afraid that he already did. "I don't know," he grumbled at last. "I don't remember whether she said anything or not. I had other things to worry about."
"It probably wasn't important, then." Taylor seemed willing as usual to dismiss his concern. "You should go get dressed. We need to get back to that building and figure out what's going on in there."
It would have been easier to argue if there had been anything in that that he could argue with. He settled for turning away with a glower and tossing over his shoulder, "Call us a cab. I'll be ready by the time it gets here."
She muttered something he didn't catch. Just to see what she'd say, he called, "And pick up the bathroom while you're at it!"
"Do it yourself!" she shouted back.
He studied the woman standing in front of his desk, her eyes fixed on the wall behind his head. Grime smudged into her skin and her hair coming loose from its braid, her clothes were surprisingly neat. Dirty, but respectable looking, not detracting from her overall mien. Even so...
"You look like hell," Wes told her.
Taylor tilted her head in acknowledgement without catching his eye. "Thank you," she replied ironically. She stood at attention, but she didn't call him by his title or bother with formalities like "sir." He supposed he should get used to it. "You should see the other guy."
"We have," Jen interjected from the chair she was occupying on the other side of the room. She had set up in front of his computer days ago, and she was annoyingly good with the jury-rigged technology. "We threatened to check Eric into a hospital if he didn't go home and get some rest."
A smirk tugged at Taylor's lips. "I guess those quantum powers aren't everything they're cracked up to be," she mused aloud. "Maybe next time he'll listen when I tell him to duck."
"The way he tells it," Wes remarked, amused, "it sounds like he was the one covering you."
"He was," Taylor agreed. Her admission was unexpectedly civil, until she added, "Because he couldn't run, so I was the one with the crystal. And the detonator. I only have so many hands. And his aim is better than nothing... barely."
Wes exchanged glances with Jen. The Time Force commander rolled her eyes, making it clear what she thought of Taylor's attitude. He just smiled. Funny, coming from someone who had first reacted to him exactly the same way Taylor treated Eric now.
"Well, you completed the mission and saved the timestream from further disruption," Wes said, leaning forward companionably. Then, because he couldn't resist throwing it in, he added, "You two are a good team."
Taylor rocked back on her heels, looking him straight in the eye with a disbelieving expression. "If it helps you sleep better at night, Wes, you just keep telling yourself that."
He tried not to grin, but in the end he couldn't help it. He wouldn't tell her that she had just repeated, almost word for word, what Eric had said about her only half an hour before. But he sure enjoyed hearing it. They were two of a kind, she and Eric.
"Before you go," he said casually, the words stopping her before she could turn away. "I have a proposal I'd like to run by you."
Her incredulous expression did not abate, and she looked down at herself pointedly before lifting her gaze to his again. "Can it wait?" she demanded. "You have the crystal. Now I want my shower."
He really was drawn to attitude, wasn't he. First Eric, and then, years later, Jen. Now Taylor Earhardt. He'd like to think it was a case of opposites attracting, but he knew that if he put the situation to his father, he would get a very different opinion. Birds of a feather, no doubt.
"This will only take a minute," he told her. "Then you can think about it while you get your shower and a change of clothes."
She let out a long-suffering sigh. "Make it quick."
"The Silver Guardians need a chopper pilot," he said bluntly. "I'd like it to be you, for two reasons. One, of course, your flight experience, and two, your military background."
Taylor was already shaking her head. "No," she said as soon as he paused. "I won't join the Silver Guardians. I've already had this discussion with Eric."
"Now you're having it with me," Wes responded. "This isn't all about you, Taylor. We need someone who has more than experience--someone with a background like yours. Not your Ranger skills," he said, when she opened her mouth to protest. "Obviously those help, but I'm talking about the Air Force."
"Eric and I have never served in the armed forces," he continued. "A lot of the other guys have. Occasionally that causes problems. Problems we could solve by having a USAF lieutenant in a position of command."
That brought her up short, and her sharp look was impossible to miss. "A position of command?" she repeated skeptically.
He nodded, careful to repress his smile. "The rank of field commander, if you'll take it. The only people you won't be able to boss around are me and Eric... and I figure you'll do that anyway."
Her suspicion was almost tangible. "Did Eric put you up to this?"
"I do come up with my own ideas from time to time, Taylor. Eric approved it, of course; we both have to approve all staff-related decisions. But this is about a position we have to fill, sooner rather than later, and skills you have that would make you the ideal candidate."
She hesitated, and he leaned back deliberately. "Think about it," he suggested. "I'm not trying to drop career-altering decisions in your lap when you've just been through a time warp and the destruction of at least one major landmark. I just wanted you to know about the opening."
With a small smile, he concluded, "We need someone. And if it's not you, we're just going to have to break in a whole new James Bond type. Think of the demolition expense."
"Not to mention the cost of Eric's therapy," Jen commented unexpectedly. Her eyes were still glued to the computer screen. "Socializing him to someone new is no easy task."
Taylor's gaze snapped to her, and she regarded the Time Force officer for a long moment before her mouth quirked and she inclined her head. "I've noticed," she agreed at last. Looking back at Wes, she added, "I'll think about it. All right?"
He nodded. "All right," he repeatedly calmly.
She was barely gone when his phone rang, and he shook his head. "What do you want to bet it's Eric?" He caught sight of the caller ID before Jen could answer and he picked up the phone. "Hey, Eric."
"Did you talk to Taylor?" Eric's voice demanded. No hello, no how are you... just typical Eric. Single-mindedly focused on someone other than himself, for a change. Having the two of them both working for the Silver Guardians was something Wes could already see himself coming to regret.
"Sure did," Wes answered. "Got her side of the story... what's this about you not being able to run? And since when are you not the best shot at SGH?"
"Since Taylor's name came up for the piloting position," Eric retorted. "Did you ask her?"
"Yes," he said with a smile, rather enjoying Eric's impatience. "I mentioned it to her. She's thinking about it."
There was the briefest hesitation from the other end of the line. "She's killing me," he heard Eric mutter. "That's what she's doing."
"She doesn't want to stay on the base any more than you want her there," Wes said carefully. Reassuring Eric was a difficult and occasionally dangerous job, since he was as likely to take offense as be comforted. "She just needs a reason to leave."
"Yeah, and apparently I can't give her one." Eric sounded thoroughly disgusted, which Wes had come to realize was his way of disguising hurt.
"Eric..." He glanced over his shoulder automatically, but the office door was closed. "Would she be enough for you, if your positions were reversed?"
There was nothing but silence from the phone.
"Look," Wes said finally. "Get some rest. We'll all catch up tonight, okay?"
"You send Taylor home?" Eric wanted to know.
"I have even less authority to order her than I do you," Wes countered. "I let her go wherever she was going. She said something about a shower."
Eric grunted. "Not the Animarium, then." There was a pause, then, "Well, what do you know. Look what the cat dragged in."
Wes frowned, but before he could ask, Eric added, "Eagles don't drag. They devour. You of all people should know that."
Comprehension dawned, and Wes couldn't suppress a grin. "Company?" he inquired politely.
"Later, Wes." There was a click, and the line went dead.
Wes replaced the phone with a sigh, wondering why he had been surprised. "Opposites attract." Sure. More like "identical forces converge."
Jen gave him a bemused look, and he just shook his head. "Taylor broke more than the speed limit to get to his house in that amount of time," he remarked, by way of explanation.
"Magical travel," Jen guessed, looking back at the computer. "A thousand years from now and we still haven't figured that out."
"Speaking of which." Wes folded his arms, giving the personnel files on his desk a speculative look. "Think there's any way to get Merrick to stick around?"
"Ask Princess Shayla," Jen said absently. "She's the one who sent him away the first time."
Curious, Wes frowned in her direction. "What did she say to you in the future? About why she wanted to help, I mean? The Wild Force team wasn't the only one we could have asked to back us up."
Jen didn't look up, but she raised her eyebrows at the computer screen pointedly. "Would you have wanted anyone else?"
He considered that from every possible angle. "No," he admitted after a moment. "But that doesn't answer the question."
Jen paused, finally, tearing her eyes away from the computer and fixing her solemn look on him. "She said she didn't want to be alone."
Oh. He didn't look away. He didn't like it when she got that wistful expression on her face, the faraway look in her eyes that said she was thinking of a future he would never see. No matter how close she was, it made him feel very...
The princess wasn't the only one who didn't like that feeling.
"Wes," Jen said quietly. "I have to tell you something."
He forced a smile. "I'm not sure I like the sound of that," he teased, making an effort to keep his voice light. He didn't like her timing, either. He knew she couldn't stay forever. Unless she was leaving tomorrow, though, he didn't really want to be reminded of it.
She couldn't be leaving tomorrow. He almost stopped breathing as the thought occurred to him, but Jen wasn't giving him that look. He could read her expressions very well by now, and this wasn't the "you know I have to do this" look. In fact, this wasn't any look at all--she was fumbling with her coat, pulling something from the pocket where it was draped over the back of his chair.
"Captain Logan did some research," she said, keeping her voice low. "I don't know when, or how long he's known. But he told me this morning, when it looked like the temporal effects might be permanent."
"Told you what?" Wes wanted to know. Or, he thought he wanted to know. Yeah, he was pretty sure. She looked... focused. Not worried, not upset or resigned... just, like she suddenly knew something she had suspected all along.
Jen stopped playing with the plastic card in her hand and held it out to him. "Recognize her?" she asked, intent gaze fixed on him now.
He looked down at the holo-ID. It was one of the blank ones that all Time Force officers carried for fingerprinting or "carding" witnesses. And suspects, when the need arose. But this one wasn't blank anymore--it displayed a holo of a woman, maybe middle-aged, long brown hair shot through with silver as it fell in waves over her shoulders. With wide brown eyes and an upturned nose...
Wes lifted his gaze to the woman standing in front of him, searching her face for the age he saw in the holo. "It's you," he said softly.
Jen nodded once. He looked back at the holo, noticing that the hard glint in her gaze had softened to a twinkle, and there were laugh lines around her eyes. It was an amazing vision to have, and he couldn't quite get his mind around it. His attention finally shifted to the name at the bottom of the card.
"Jaycee Collins," he read aloud. He looked up, frowning slightly. "Jen?"
"Jen Collins," she said with a tentative smile. "JC. At least, that's what I'm guessing. I must have needed a new identity, at some point."
"But..." She had married him. She... would marry him? It must be even more confusing for her, existing as she did in two times almost simultaneously. On the other hand, she had been trained for it. He tried not to think too much about the future, other than as a sort of distant planet from which orders and reinforcements sometimes came.
"Something's going to happen, Wes." She sounded almost like she had already seen it. "Not this time. This time Eric and Taylor came back, and they brought the crystal with them. But sometime... someday we won't be so lucky.
"I don't know when," she said quietly, "and I don't know how. But something will happen, and I'll be stuck here. I'll be sent, or I'll run, or... I don't know. All I know is that this--"
Jen reached out and tapped the card in his hand. "This is me," she told the card. "And it's not me in 3024." She looked up at him intently. "It's me twenty years from right now."
He stared back at her, his thoughts refusing to resume their normal speed. "So... you--you will...?"
"I'm going to stay," she finished for him. Then she added hastily, "Not now. Not anytime soon, as far as I can see. Time Force is my life, and I'm not going to turn my back on it just because of some old hologram. But... someday--"
"Someday really will come," he murmured, staring down at the card like it might revert to blank plastic if he looked away long enough. "Jen... I wondered. I did wonder."
"Me too," she admitted softly. "I know, we always say we can make our own destiny..."
"But how often do we really believe it?" he suggested dryly. Lifting his gaze to hers again, he smiled. "I'm looking forward to someday, Jen."
"I'm still enjoying today," she informed him. "Careers before family, Wesley Collins."
"Oh, now there's family? My father will be thrilled." He smirked at her. "Do you know that for a fact, or are you just anticipating?"
"I don't know anything," she insisted. "Except that," she added, pointing at the card again. "But we both have jobs. We're lucky we get to see each other at all."
"That's the depressing way of looking at it," he complained, hitching one hip up on his desk and leaning back.
"Only if the glass is half empty," she countered. "I won't leave Captain Logan in the lurch, and you wouldn't abandon the Silver Guardians either. We'd have to, right now, if we were going to evade the Force from the future."
"You think they'd hunt you down?" he asked, suddenly serious. "After Logan showed you this picture?"
Jen hesitated. "I think it depends on the circumstances," she admitted after a moment. "There are people who have disappeared into the past with the blessing of the Force. But if I gave it all up, right now? I'm not sure I'd have it."
"Something will happen," he repeated, tapping the card with his index finger. "Something's going to happen. In the meantime..."
"In the meantime," she said firmly, "the glass is half full."
He grinned at her insistence. "All right. The glass is half full. I get to keep my job with the Guardians--not to mention my good relationship with my father--and hopefully prevent Eric and Taylor from tearing this place apart from the inside. While you..."
Wes considered her speculatively, but he couldn't resist. "Looks like there's time for Time Force after all, hmm?"
She almost giggled before she caught herself. He heard it in the breath that escaped as she rolled her eyes. "Cute," she told him. "Very funny. Get back to work."
"I'm at work," he pointed out, holding out his hand to her. "With my beautiful bride-to-be--"
She yelped indignantly as he caught her fingers and pulled her closer. "Bride-to-be?" she demanded. "Don't you think you're getting a little ahead of yourself?"
"You've got a thousand years on me," he reminded her, stepping away from the desk and drawing her into his arms. "I'm just trying to catch up."
She leaned into his kiss without further protest, bridging a gap between them that was more than just space. The holo-ID slipped from his fingers, landing on top of the personnel files on his desk: one more face in the pile, one more story already in progress. It wasn't the history, or the records, or even the names that mattered... it was the experience. The experience they shared.
They were neither of them alone.