Step 8: Wait for Rescue
The walk to the new home of the Ranger Memorial Statue had been silent ever since Jen warned Alex they wouldn't be rejoining them for the trial. Alex hadn't sounded happy about it, but promised to update them later. Jen had offered him an uncertain smile before leading the way, and something about her posture told him she didn't know what to say to him anymore.
He could relate.
Making small talk about Newtech City and Time Force was nothing important. Talking about Alex ... well, that was awkward, but necessary for his peace of mind. And Jen seemed to understand, at least a little, that he loved Alex enough to worry about him.
She wouldn't understand why it was so much more than that, though. There was no way she could. And he hoped that she'd never understand: he didn't want her to have to suffer the way he did.
He tried to keep thinking about Jen and the others, trying to keep himself calm. But he couldn't stop thinking about that strange flash of gold on the corner of his vision in the sky that looked suspiciously familiar, and the way his morpher had flickered three times. It had happened so fast, he had to convince himself it hadn't been wishful thinking. But even if that's all it was, he couldn't take the chance. Because he couldn't risk being wrong.
It was standard Newtech Ranger alert code, developed in the months on Aquitar by Zhane, who claimed it was better to be safe than sorry. A silent triple flash was an order to gather at the nearest meeting place for a chance to regroup. A double flash would have been a check-in request, repeated if it was urgent. Continuous flashing was an emergency, and was usually followed by check-in to confirm where everyone was, and find out who was in trouble.
It had been only two months since Taylor and Vanessa had joined the team, almost three for Eric, but during the weeks they'd started rebuilding the damage done to S.P.D., Wes had made sure to introduce them all to the codes. He had also given them their badges, letting Justin handle the explanations why, and explained to them the rules of being a Newtech Ranger. Six rules, as set down by the team on Aquitar. One rule per Ranger, one team to follow them.
Rule One, Tori: Loyalty to the Team first.
Rule Two, Zhane: Loyalty to what was important to the Team.
Rule Three, Justin: Never abandon a teammate in need, for any reason.
Rule Four, Dax: Trust in each other, no matter what.
Rule Five, Chip: Complete and total honesty within the Team. No secrets, no lies.
Rule Six, his own: We are always a team. Time, distance, other teams, or whatever else may separate us, we remain a team. This Team is forever.
He wondered if there should be three new rules now, and what Eric and the girls would chose to instate.
Eventually he shook his head with a sigh. So much for not thinking about it, he thought ruefully. Seems like everything reminds me of the team these days.
Or at least, everything about being here did.
He closed his eyes to prevent tears, letting Jen lead him. He didn't do it often - having his sight back was a gift he never wanted to stop appreciating - but there were times when he was grateful that he'd kept her. For a day, maybe two, he'd actually thought about returning her to the trainer he'd gotten her from so that someone else could use her skills, but the thought of letting her go was too painful. And now, having her here at his side to protect him and trusting her to lead him down the street without consciously stopping to think about it, he was glad he'd talked himself out of it.
The fact that he'd closed his eyes was probably the only reason he was paying enough attention to hear it. A howl. A wolf's howl, with that strange metallic quality to it that could only be made by a Zord.
His eyes snapped open.
The human Jen had stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, looking around with a frown. "Did you hear something?" she asked suspiciously.
He blinked at her. "Something?" he echoed.
"It almost sounded like ... like a Zord," she murmured, looking around warily. "Or a wolf ... "
He forced a laugh. "Like what? You think there's a giant metal wolf running around the city right now?"
She looked at him for a moment and finally huffed a laugh, looking down. "How's Merrick been?" she asked softly, turning to walk on.
He smiled genuinely, both at the fact that she'd let it go, and the chance to talk about someone he knew. "Doing pretty well, last I heard. He and Cole have a cabin in the woods somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, and Cole said they'd just adopted another wolf into their pack. And Cole's still taking care of anything that walks, flies, crawls, or swims." His smile softened. "They're happy."
She turned to look at him again, startled. "Merrick and Cole?"
He laughed, grinning at her. "Yes, believe it or not." His smile faded a little, and he shrugged. "When Shayla went back to sleep on the Animarium, she made Merrick stay on Earth. From what Cole said, they lost track of him for awhile and they were starting to worry, so Cole hunted him down and just ... stayed with him, I guess. They eventually built the cabin, and never left."
She frowned slightly. "I wouldn't have pictured them together. I thought that Cole and Alyssa ... "
"Everyone did," he agreed. Had he just heard a bird? "But Cole's never really said anything about her or Merrick either way. And even though they live together, he and Merrick won't say whether it's more than just companionship. We think it might be from the signs, but ... " He shrugged. "Cole's not talking, and Merrick never does."
She almost smiled then. "And the others?"
"Well, Alyssa's still working as a kindergarten teacher. She says she's happy, and she's gotten a lot of teaching awards. Danny and Max are living together, taking care of kids Danny picks up off the street." He clenched Jen's leash a little tighter in his hand, because even now, it was hard not to feel resentful. "Max hates it, but he puts up with them for Danny's sake. Taylor's married now, with a daughter. She and her husband both work at S.P.D.; Jason's one of my supervisors, actually. And their daughter Casey is on C Squad."
"What does Taylor do at S.P.D.?"
"She's in Vehicle Design and Maintenance, designing Zords. She says she hates it, but everyone knows she's lying." He grinned fondly.
Jen smiled at that, and finally slowed. "There it is," she said quietly.
He looked to where she pointed and swallowed hard.
He'd always hated the Memorial Statue. It was a constant reminder of Mirloc, his friends, and how badly he failed. It reminded him of the years he'd lost, of Eric raising Sky without him, of his son growing up into someone he didn't know. It reminded him of that day, of screaming, of pain, and of the realization that he'd lost Dax and Tori while he did nothing. Of five years in the dark, trying to remember his friend's faces.
It was a tribute to his failures, and just looking at it made him want to throw up.
But it was one of the few things from home that was still here. And if that had been the signal code on his morpher he'd thought it was, he needed to find some place they would know. Time Force wasn't the same as S.P.D., but the statue hadn't changed. It was older, but it still remained.
He walked toward it slowly, reaching out to trace the words that should have been there. "Hi, guys," he murmured, looking up at it. "Looks like you lasted longer than the rest of us after all ... "
He started talking for the sake of talking, barely aware of his own words. He told Jen what the statue stood for, who it represented. He told her who they were, and by the time he got to Dax and Tori and how he'd lost them, he was crying. His Jen was whimpering anxiously beside him, trying to make him stop, but once he'd started he couldn't. The human Jen stayed silent, but he could see the tears in her eyes as he went on to tell her how much he missed them, how much they meant to him.
It was more than he'd ever planned to tell any of them about himself, and he was somewhat surprised that he'd been able to say it without Eric hovering right behind him. But Jen was Jen, and he owed her a lot of things. Even this. She'd never understand why or just how much he'd changed since that last day on the beach, but she deserved to know something. Even if it tore him apart to say it.
He brushed a hand across his eyes, trying to rein his emotions back in. At last he turned to look at Jen again, taking in the way she struggled not to cry for him. "I almost lost my life that day," he told her quietly. "This morpher is the only thing that saved me. And even then, I wasn't really saved. Just alive." He swallowed, glancing back up at the statue. "That's what this statue means to me. That's what everyone forgot."
"I won't." Her voice was thick with tears, but her tone was firm. "I won't forget what it means, Wes. I promise."
He turned to offer her a weak smile. "Thank you," he said simply.
The sound of an explosion split the air.
Jen whirled, already reaching for her morpher. "That came from Time Force!" she shouted, breaking into a sprint.
Wes remained where he was, smiling softly as he closed his eyes. "Eric," he sighed in relief.
The soft crunch of boots on grass was the only sound, but he knew. He'd known he was being watched as soon as he began to explain for Jen. It was something between five years of listening to know where the people around him were, and something from twenty-seven years of being partners. Because even when they were separated, he'd always thought of Eric as his partner.
He opened his eyes, still smiling, and drank in the sight of his husband in front of him. He took in the soft, relieved look in Eric's eyes as he stared back, the shadows and lines of his face that told how worried he'd been. The tension in his shoulders that showed how on edge he still was, and the way his fingers twitched even as he moved toward Wes.
And then Eric was dropping down to kneel next to him. In front of Jen.
"Good girl," he informed the retriever. "You did a good job."
Jen's tail wagged enthusiastically as she practically wriggled with delight. She barked once, trying to lick Eric's face.
He laughed softly, pushing her back down, and ruffling her ears. "Down. Good girl. Good girl."
She settled and sat down, but her tail continued to wag.
Wes folded his arms as Eric finally stood back up and turned to look at him now. "You hugged the dog first," he said flatly.
Eric raised his eyebrows, looking faintly amused. "I did."
Wes' eyes narrowed. "You. Hugged the dog. First," he repeated.
"Yes, Wes. I hugged the dog first," Eric said patronizingly. And then he was *there* right in front of him, so close Wes could feel warm breath on his face, and he could smell him, hear him, and he was here. "The dog takes less time to say hello," Eric murmured, leaning in.
And then he was drowning in kisses and warm hands running over his arms and shoulders, and it was perfect.