Disclaimer: Not mine. They belong to BVE et al. Any similarities in dialogue between this and the episode Quantum Secrets is purely accidental.

Notes: This is part of the Identiverse, so where that and PRTF cannon part ways, I go with Identity. Given the length, this probably ought to be considered a full chapter of Identity, slotting in between Control Issues and Eric (more or less, anyway), but I'm posting it separately because it doesn't fit in with the style of the rest of Identity.

Yup, this is an episode interpretation of Quantum Secrets with a few things modified and a couple of new scenes worked in.

Many, many, many thanks to Ekat for beta'ing above and beyond the call of duty -- especially considering when I started this one off, she didn't actually LIKE Eric! For Eric haters and Eric fans alike -- there's something in here for both...

Please offer feedback -- it tells me how I'm doing.

~*~

What Matters

Eric puttered around the tiny kitchen area. But for a trip to the dentist that afternoon, he wasn't normally home for lunch -- in fact, he tended to avoid being at 'home' as much as possible. It just reminded him of how alone and isolated he was.

Ruthlessly he forced that thought down. There was one good thing about being home, it meant that his pair of lovebirds got some fresh air and their daily feed at a reasonable time of day for once. Picking up the dish of birdseed he'd poured, he headed out into the cluttered back yard and across to the birdcage.

The yard was still filled with all the trash the previous occupant of the house had left behind, which included several, industrial wire spools. It did make crossing the yard a little hazardous and every now and then -- when he'd cracked his shins against one of the spools or when he'd tripped over some of the loose wire -- he'd promise himself he'd clear the yard up on his next day off. But the next day off never seemed to come.

"All right guys," he murmured as he reached the cage. "Time for lunch." Carefully, he unlatched the cage door and slid the dish of birdseed into the cage.

As he latched the door shut once more, there was a small thump from beside him. Eric started and looked.

"Hi." Eric found himself staring at a girl of about seven or eight who had apparently appeared out of thin air. The thump, he realised, had been her bouncing onto a nearby spool.

"Where'd you spring from?" Eric asked.

"Next door," she replied, as though this was something he should have known. "I'm Alice. What's your name?"

"Eric," he found himself replying.

Alice beamed brightly. "May I talk to your birds?"

Eric blinked, a little stunned. "Sure."

"Thank you!" Alice turned her attention to the birds. "Hi little birdies!" She glanced back at Eric. "Are they friends?"

It took a few moments before Eric mentally picked himself up from the floor at that question. It wasn't as if he'd ever given the subject any thought, but... "Yeah -- I guess so."

"That's good," she replied. "Everyone should have friends."

As she turned her attention back to the birds, Eric found himself smiling. There had been a time, a long time ago, when that was something he'd thought. The smile faltered as he felt a pang of regret for the loss of innocence and naivety he'd suffered. Then his train of thought was seriously derailed by someone bringing their hands down firmly on his shoulders.

"Hey!" Eric objected, looking round. Behind him were a shortish, balding, thickset man and two taller (and even more thickset) goons in dark glasses. "Who are you?"

"That doesn't matter," the balding man replied. "We want you to come with us."

"What?!" But even as Eric started to protest, the two goons in shades started to move until they were in a position to loom over Alice. And then Eric caught the flash of sunlight on metal. His protest died unspoken as one of the goons aimed a cyclosabre at her head.

"Your choice," murmured the balding man. "Either you come with us peacefully, or your little friend here..."

"Leave her out of this," Eric replied softly to avoid alarming Alice any more, but pouring as much venom into the words as he could. "I'll come with you."

"Knew you'd see it my way."

The cyclosabre vanished again, and Eric found himself being led out of his back yard by the two goons and the balding man, in the direction of a large, black saloon car.

"And just so's you don't get any ideas," the balding man added, grabbing Eric's left arm. "I'll take that." So saying, he snatched the quantum morpher from its place on Eric's wrist.

Eric winced but said nothing. If he'd been in any doubt about Ransik's involvement, the snatch of his morpher firmly pushed that doubt away. The question was, what was going on?

"Now get in the car," the balding man finished.

One of the goons opened the nearest rear door, and the other bundled Eric into the vehicle. Before Eric could so much as open his mouth to complain, he felt something connect with the back of his head and everything faded to black.

~*~

The next thing Eric knew, he was being dragged out of the saloon. The two shade-wearing goons gripped his arms tightly and held him in place, up against the railing of a bridge. Looking around, Eric vaguely recognised the area as being to the East of Silverhills, into the mountains that gave the city its name.

"What do you want with me?" Eric asked, fixing his attention to the balding thug.

"It's not you I want," the thug replied. "Allow me to introduce myself." He passed a hand over his face and in a flash of light a grey-ish coloured mutant replaced the man. "I'm Conwing, and I want your zord."

As Conwing transformed into his natural form, so did the two thugs holding Eric in place. Their transformations into cyclobots didn't surprise Eric quite as much as Conwing's. The two robots tightened their grip and dragged him towards the mutant.

"Now," Conwing continued, holding out the quantum morpher, "call the Q-Rex."

Eric glared in silence. If this guy thinks he can intimidate me into doing what he wants, he's in for a long wait.

"Ooooh how brave!" Conwing sneered.

At a signal from the mutant, Eric found himself being flung harshly against the bridge railing by the two cyclobots. Before he could recover, the robots grabbed him by the arms and pulled him back to his feet.

"Now call the Q-Rex." Eric just glared at Conwing and said nothing. "Know what, maybe I should go pay your little friend a visit."

In spite of himself, Eric blanched at the threat. Conwing had hit on the one thing that would actually have any affect. There were a lot of things he was prepared to do -- or not do -- that would make most people balk, but allowing someone as innocent and young as Alice get hurt because of him was not one of them.

"Come on Eric," Conwing cajoled. "What's it to be? Do I go see your friend?"

Eric looked up, pouring as much venom into his expression. "All right."

Conwing chuckled and held the morpher out. Shaking himself free of the cyclobots' grasp, Eric reached out to press one of the buttons on the front of the morpher, hoping to bluff the mutant and find a way out of this situation without potentially turning over control of the Q-Rex.

Conwing slapped his hand away. "Uh-uh-uh. I know it's voice activated. So speak very clearly."

Damn. Eric gave an inward sigh. He had no choice. There was no way he could fight his way out of the situation and to continue with non compliance was as good as killing Alice himself. "Q-Rex...arise."

It didn't take long for the savage zord to appear, much to Conwing's delight. The mutant snatched the morpher away from Eric and turned to face the arriving machine. "Q-Rex," he commanded, "go and attack the city."

Eric couldn't help but smirk. In so far as the giant dinosaur's expression could change, the Q-Rex stared down at Conwing with scorn. "He only responds to my voice," Eric commented.

"I know," Conwing agreed. He turned back to Eric and produced an orange coloured mouthpiece. "Which is why," he continued, fitting the mouthpiece, "I brought this."

Eric's jaw hinged open. Conwing's voice had changed as he fitted the mouthpiece, from the mutant's gravely natural voice to Eric's own. Conwing chuckled at the reaction in an awful parody of Eric's own laugh, which only served to make Eric feel even more uncomfortable.

"Q-Rex, megazord mode," Conwing commanded, switching his attention to the zord.

Eric could only look on in fast mounting horror as the Q-Rex obeyed the command. There should have been something else I could have done...

"Aah," Conwing gloated. "Year 3000 technology. Gotta love it." Before Eric could wonder about that statement, Conwing turned back and drew his blaster. "Thanks for the voice lessons -- I have everything I need now, so you've outlived your usefulness."

Conwing aimed the blaster straight at Eric's chest. Now I know how Wes felt, Eric found himself thinking. I always figured I'd die young but I hadn't planned on it being this young. Almost instinctively he started to back away from the blaster-wielding mutant, and surprisingly, the two cyclobots allowed the movement. Eric soon found out why: He backed into the bridge railing. He glanced over his shoulder. It was a thirty-foot drop to the river below -- he'd survived worse...if he could make it over the railing without getting vaporised.

"So long, sucker!" But before Conwing could pull the trigger, the sound of vector cycles filled the air. "What the...?"

Conwing looked up in the direction of the noise. Eric didn't bother -- he knew who it was likely to be. Instead, he used the cyclobots' grip on his arms against them, bringing them crashing together. As they fell away, he quickly turned and vaulted over the railing.

"Oh no you don't!"

Eric heard the words as he dropped towards the water, and could only wait for the blaster fire that was bound to follow the statement. Sure enough, a hail of blaster fire followed them. It was all hastily aimed, but Conwing succeeded in tagging Eric's shoulder just as he hit the water.

The pain was instant and disorienting. Eric tried to scream and instead found himself inadvertently inhaling water. He tried to kick for the surface, but he had lost all sense of which was up or down. In spite of every second of training he'd logged, he started to panic. The lack of oxygen was starting to make him feel lightheaded. He tried another kick for the surface, but to no avail.

I am not going to die here! I refuse to die like this!

But there didn't seem to be anything he could do about it. The water roaring in his ears seemed to be getting louder; everything else seemed to be getting more and more distant. The reflex to breathe overcame every piece of common sense and he inhaled more water.

No...

~*~

Consciousness drifted back to Eric in wisps. The first thing he realised was he could feel a breeze against his damp clothing. Next followed the realisation that he was completely out of the water. Then came the recognition that he was lying on something damp and gritty. But the discomfort of his situation was over-ridden by the relief of not being dead.

The next thing he noticed was that someone was gently dabbing something against his forehead and temple. As the 'something' (and from the smell, it was some kind of antiseptic wipe) was drawn down his cheek, it brushed against an open wound. Though the pain was minor in comparison to the earlier pain in his shoulder, Eric reflexively flinched away from it.

"I won't be a second -- promise."

Wait a sec! That sounds like... Eric opened his eyes and found himself staring up at Jen. For a long second he said nothing, largely because he wasn't sure what to say. Finally, if a little half-heartedly, he pushed Jen's hand away and sat up.

"I don't need your help." But even to his ears, the words sounded false and hollow.

To judge by Jen's expression, she thought even less of them than he did. "Obviously you did, you'd have drowned in that river if I hadn't pulled you out," she snapped, getting to her feet.

Eric ignored her outburst and put his hand up to probe the shoulder wound and found it was bandaged. Presumably more of Jen's handiwork. "Well if you think I'm gonna thank you, you're wrong." He tried pushing himself off the ground with his wounded arm, testing out how injured it was, and found his arm collapsed under him. Guess very would cover it.

Jen offered him a hand up. He ignored it. It took a little doing, but he managed to get to his feet.

"Look, what is your problem, Eric? We're not your enemies," Jen tried.

"Yeah. Well you're not my friends either."

Eric walked across the little river beach and sank down against one of the nearby rocks.

"That's your choice," Jen retorted. "Maybe if you'd lose that attitude, you'd get to know us a little better." She threw the wipe in his general direction. "But I doubt that's ever going to happen." She turned on her heel and started to walk away.

Conwing's comment about the year 3000 came back. If the Q-Rex and the quantum morpher are from the year 3000...and these guys were after the Q-Rex... "I know more about you than you think," he replied. Jen stopped. "I know you and your friends aren't even from here," he added, testing his theory.

She slowly turned back to face him. "What do you mean?"

Eric scanned her expression and posture. She's nervous which means... "So it is true. You are from the future."

Jen sighed and chewed her lip thoughtfully before replying simply, "Yes."

Eric just nodded. It did make a strange kind of sense -- if time travel was involved, that would certainly explain why the morpher could be so far ahead of its time and still come from an archaeological dig site.

"Maybe we should have said something sooner," Jen began. "If you knew..."

"Save it," Eric replied tiredly. "I have problems of my own." He got back to his feet. "Like getting back my morpher." Eric started to head back upstream.

"You only care about yourself, don't you," Jen snapped.

Because no-one else has ever given a rat's ass about me. Eric slowly turned back to face her. "You don't know anything about me."

"Enlighten me." Eric just shook his head. "Fine." Jen stormed past him, only to stop a few yards further along the riverbank. "Look," she continued, making a visible effort to calm down, "please, do me one favour. Don't tell anyone we're from the future. Especially not Mr Collins." She met his gaze. "It would ruin everything we've been working for."

Eric sighed. "I'm not making any promises."

"That figures." So saying, she turned on her heel and headed upstream rapidly.

Eric sighed again and watched her leave, hands on hips. There was a brief moment when he wondered what it would have been like to have accepted Jen's help and to have listened to what she had to say, instead of blowing her off. Then his fingers brushed against the mass of scarring on his right side, just below the bottom of his ribcage and winced, not from actual pain but the reminder of what had happened the last time he'd trusted someone that much.

"I work alone," he muttered to himself. "And right now, I need to get my morpher back."

With a renewed determination, Eric set out upstream, following the path Jen had taken, hoping it would lead to the battle site and Conwing.

Somewhat to Eric's surprise, it didn't actually take that long to reach the battlefield, although it was quite a tough, uphill hike. He arrived on the scene just in time to see Jen get blasted by Conwing.

"You're no match for me!" the mutant gloated.

"Hey. Conwing!" Eric yelled.

Slowly the mutant turned to face the direction of the shout. "You again! Boy, you must really like learning things the hard way."

"You have something of mine," Eric retorted, "and I'm going to take it back."

"Suuuuuuuure you are," Conwing drawled in a tone of voice Eric knew he'd used several times to the other rangers. Not for the first time, he wondered why the other rangers hadn't long since pounded him into the dirt for it.

Dismissing that as irrelevant for the time being, Eric turned his attention to the matter at hand. I have his attention -- now how do I... The thought trailed off as Eric's gaze fell on Jen's V-5 weapon. When Conwing had blasted her, she had obviously lost her grip on the weapon. Eric eyed the distance up and nodded. Piece of cake!

He set off at a dead run, aiming straight for the V-5.

"Oh no you don't," Conwing exclaimed. "Q-Rex -- destroy him!"

That is all I need. Eric didn't need to look round to know that the Q-Rex was now pursuing him. Getting squashed by my own zord is not how I plan on dying. He was faintly aware of the other rangers all yelling advice at him, but he tuned it out, concentrating, instead, on reaching the weapon far enough ahead of the massive zord for it to be any use to him.

Eric risked a glance over his shoulder. This is going to be tight. He looked back at the V-5. Make that very tight. Another look over his shoulder. Now or never... Without breaking stride, he dived across the remaining ground between himself and the V-5, reaching for the weapon. As he took off, the Q-Rex set its massive foot down on the patch of ground he'd been standing on -- but the relief of avoiding that was superseded by the realisation that his dive wasn't quite going to be enough.

Skills long ingrained took over. As he landed -- still a few feet short of the V-5 -- he tucked and rolled, letting the momentum carry him those last few feet. As he came out of the roll, his hands automatically grabbed the weapon. It was a different shape and size to the assorted guns he'd trained with but it didn't seem to matter. In one, fluid motion, he had the V-5 into his hands, up into a firing position and aimed.

He fired.

The blast of pink energy struck Conwing squarely on the chest, knocking the mutant off balance. As the grey-coloured creature frantically tried to stay upright, the stolen morpher slid from his grasp and landed on the turf about four feet from Eric.

Yes! He dived forward again, discarding the V-5 as he went and scooped up the morpher.

"No!" exclaimed Conwing.

"Told ya," Eric retorted. Then into the morpher, he added, "Q-Rex, stop!"

Only then did Eric dare look and see how close the Q-Rex had come. Whew -- that was too close. The zord had come to a halt a bare ten feet behind him. Another step forward and... He gave an involuntary shiver at that prospect. Strapping the morpher securely to his wrist once more, Eric turned back to face Conwing.

"It's payback time," Eric promised, dropping into a ready stance.

Conwing glanced from Eric, to the other, regrouped, rangers and back. "Yeah. And you are gonna be the one who pays." So saying, the mutant ripped off the DNA patch to grow to his giant size.

Eric watched the rapid growth with a mixture of alarm and horror. A glance at the Q-Rex told him the savage zord was in no condition to fight Conwing. A glance at the Shadow Force megazord -- who the other rangers had presumably called upon in some vain attempt at stopping the Q-Rex while he'd been unconscious -- told a similar story. How the heck was he supposed to fight something that big without a zord?

Conwing further damaged the Q-Rex even as Eric was assessing the situation before attempting to stomp on either the other rangers, or Eric himself. Eric wasn't sure who the actual target was -- Conwing missed by several feet -- but the action did effectively separate him from the other rangers. Then Conwing fired his blaster at the other rangers.

Eric could only look on in horror as the other rangers were caught in the full force of the blaster fire.

That does it -- I've gotta deal with this guy myself.

"And now for the city!" Conwing promised, heading in that direction.

"Oh no you don't," Eric retorted. "Quantum Power!"

"Eric...no..." someone called out from behind him as he started after Conwing. Eric couldn't spare the effort to identify the speaker.

"I work alone," he yelled over his shoulder. "And I'm gonna handle this myself."

As he started running in the direction Conwing had taken, Eric pressed the relevant button on his morpher and called up the TF Eagle. Pity this doesn't have any weapons systems, he mused as he flew after Conwing. Guess I'm just going to have to make do with what I do have. The bigger they are -- the harder they fall.

In no time at all, Eric was flying over the suburbs, close behind Conwing. Setting the TF Eagle's controls to autopilot, he prepared to stand up in the seat and take aim at Conwing with the Quantum Defender.

"Insolent insect!" Conwing swatted at the TF Eagle.

Had Eric actually been in control, it wouldn't have mattered much -- the swat going wide -- but with no manual input, the downdraft of the swat was enough to knock the craft off course. It started to spin, and Eric found himself being flung out.

Again Eric had the sense of knowing how Wes must have felt as he hit the sidewalk from thirty feet up. The landing took the wind out of him and left him lying dazed, but without any chance of recovery as a horde of Cyclobots appeared and started tossing him around. He tried to fight back and defend himself but his limbs suddenly felt like they were made of lead and were moving through molasses.

"Energy loss: Critical." The voice of the Quantum Morpher's computer managed to sound faintly smug as it stated the warning.

Tell me something I don't know.

He crouched in the centre of the circle of robots during a momentary lull, breathing hard and trying to come up with options to get out of this situation.

You could have let the others help -- you could have trusted them, you didn't have to do this on your own.

Eric swallowed that regret -- it wasn't as if it was going to get him anywhere. What he needed was a plan of action but there didn't seem to be any inspiration forthcoming. Almost as if on cue, the heads-up display on his visor flashed up a message.

What the...? Mega battle? What the hell is that? There followed a series of instructions. In lieu of a better idea, Eric followed them.

~*~

The next thing Eric knew, the other rangers had appeared on the scene and were 'arresting' the chronofrozen form of Conwing. He had vague, hazy memories of being the cause of Conwing's demise but beyond that, he wasn't sure what he'd done -- or perhaps more accurately, what the Mega Battle had done. What he did know was that every single fibre of his body now resonated with complete and utter exhaustion to the point where just staying upright was a struggle.

He was aware of both Wes and Jen saying things to him, but he couldn't seem to bring enough focus to his concentration to actually hear either of them. He turned to head towards a nearby Silver Guardians SUV, intending to get into it, drive home and sleep for the next several years at least, but he managed a bare two steps before his knees started to buckle.

Everything blurred again as a wave of dizziness struck. When it finally passed, Eric found himself lying on the ground, demorphed and staring up at the other rangers, who had also demorphed, and were clustered around him.

"One of us should see him home," Jen commented.

"I can see myself home," Eric tried to respond, but all that came out was a groan.

"I'll do it," Wes finally offered. "I'll see you guys back at the clock tower."

Jen nodded. "You got it."

As the other four rangers walked away, Wes crouched down. "If I help you, do you think you can stand?"

"Yes." This time, the word sounded articulate, if not as certain as Eric had intended.

"Good." Gently, Wes helped Eric back to his feet. "Just lean on me and we'll make for the SUV." To further encourage that, Wes put a supportive arm around Eric's waist.

"I can manage," Eric muttered, trying half-heartedly to shrug out of the grasp. "You don't need to do that."

"Uh-huh. Sure you can," Wes retorted sarcastically. "You can barely stand up, but sure, you can manage."

"Can it, Collins." Wes was right -- and Eric knew it, but he was not about to give Wes that satisfaction.

"Look, I know you don't like me, but..."

"I don't like you?" Eric found himself repeating, a little confused. Sure, he hadn't been nice to Wes -- or the others -- but where did the idea he disliked them come from?

For a brief moment, they stopped and Wes turned to face Eric. "You've been rude to me ever since you got back into town, you've fought with me, you've sucker punched me, tried to kill me...not to mention dropping me fifty feet from the TF Eagle. If all that's because you like me, I pray I never make your shit list."

"Oh." That would be where.

"Oh would cover it," Wes agreed.

They reached the SUV. Wes propped him up against the side of the vehicle while he opened the passenger door, before helping him into the passenger seat.

"Now," Wes asked, as he climbed into the driver's seat, "where am I taking you?"

"Home," Eric replied automatically.

Wes sighed. "Which is?"

"Huh?" Eric frowned and tried to make sense of the question.

"Eric, I'm not a mind reader -- where do you live?"

Oh. Oh, right. Yeah. Forgot Wes wouldn't know that. "Sorry. 312 Maple Street."

"312 Maple Street," Wes repeated, starting the SUV.

"You do know where that is?"

"Yes."

Good, cos I don't think I could manage directions right now. Everything seemed to fade a little more. Unconsciousness was beckoning, but through the rapidly gathering fog, something struck him.

"Is this what it felt like?" Eric asked.

"Hmm? Is what like what felt like?" Wes replied, sounding a little puzzled.

"This." Eric weakly waved a hand at himself. "Is this how you felt...after you took on Univolt?"

"I guess."

"Yay me."

And the last thread of consciousness faded away.

~*~

Eric gave a groan.

His whole body ached, and he felt tired beyond belief, but much to his surprise, he found himself lying on his own bed, in his own home.

"What the...?"

That was when he realised there were hushed voices coming from the direction of his living room. He could pretty much guess who it was liable to be and the prospect made him grimace, particularly as he realised he was no longer wearing any kind of shirt, which meant the scars across his back and on his right side were plainly visible.

Eric swallowed and hoped against hope that no-one would ask him about them.

"Who's out there?" he called. A moment later, and sure enough, Wes walked into the bedroom. "Oh, it's you."

"You were expecting maybe the Tooth Fairy?" Wes retorted.

"I was expecting to find myself slumped on the back porch," Eric replied, a little more honestly than he necessarily intended.

Wes' eyes widened at the suggestion. "Why? Because that's what you'd have done, roles reversed?"

Eric slowly sat up, wincing as his assorted bruises complained, and shrugged a little stiffly. "Not as if I've given you any reason to do anything else. How'd you get in anyway?"

"With a bit of help," Wes admitted.

"How're you feeling, Eric?" Jen asked, stepping out from behind Wes.

Eric sighed. "Are the other three in my living room?"

"No. Just us."

Thank God for small mercies, then. He slid off the bed and stood up. "Well, I'm fine now, so you can just go back to that clock tower of yours or wherever it is you hang out."

"Eric, why are you so determined to push us away?" Jen asked.

"Because I don't need your help, and I don't want your friendship."

"Wrong answer," said Wes.

"What do you mean wrong answer?" Eric retorted angrily.

"I mean, just think about this for five minutes, Eric. What would have happened if one of us hadn't offered to bring you home? What would have happened if you'd collapsed like you did when you were actually behind the wheel?"

Eric opened and shut his mouth a few times as the consequences of Wes' suggestion filtered through his mind. "OK." He didn't like conceding that point but there was no arguing with it either.

"For that matter, what would have happened if you hadn't gone it alone against Conwing? If you'd accepted our help then?" Jen added. "Like it or not, you're a ranger. Like it or not, so are we. If we don't work together things like today are going to keep happening until it winds up killing someone. Maybe you, maybe one of us -- or maybe someone innocent like your next door neighbour."

Preventing Alice from getting hurt is what got me into this mess, Eric mused. Why the hell do they have to be right?

"You don't have to like us," Wes continued. "Just work with us."

"I don't do teamwork," Eric muttered.

"Why?"

"Because teamwork can get you just as dead as working alone...if not deader." Unconsciously, Eric's fingers brushed against the scars on his side -- he certainly knew that one from personal experience.

Wes opened his mouth to say something more but Jen got in first. "That's..."

"Cold, hard, painful experience," Eric finished.

For several seconds, Eric met Wes' gaze. "We're fighting on the same side," Wes finally said. "And like it or not, you're on this team. Can you deal with that or are we just going to have this whole conversation again sometime?"

Eric crossed to the chair and started picking through the clothing on the back. "Maybe. If I say yes, does that mean you two are going to leave me alone?" He found a clean undershirt in the clothing pile and turned back to face them, carefully pulling it on as he did so. "Look. I'll cut a deal with ya. You stop hassling me, I won't tell Mr Collins about what I know."

For a brief moment, the offer hung on the air, then Jen nodded. "OK. C'mon, Wes -- let's get going. The rest of the gang are probably wondering what's going on."

Wes nodded. "Yeah. See you around, Eric."

Eric said nothing, just continued getting dressed. Wes shrugged and headed in the direction Jen had already taken.

"Thanks," Eric murmured, although he wasn't entirely sure what he was saying thank you for. Part of it was for neither Jen nor Wes actually asking about the scars -- that much he was sure about. But the rest...

Eric shook his head, pulling on a clean uniform.

What matters? he wondered. What actually matters to me? My pride or doing what I was trained to do? I won't tell Collins what I know. I've already said I won't. Can I work with them? He pulled on his boots. They are right -- if I don't do it, people will get hurt. But can I trust them?

Slowly Eric headed for the door.

Guess I'm going to have to try.

~*~

Reporting in after the mutant attack had gone about as well as Eric had dared hope for, given his lie about the Mega Battle mode. It wasn't the flat out lie it could have been, because he truly wasn't sure where the information had come from. Suspecting it had some how come from the future was not the same thing as knowing it. And he had promised to say nothing about that part.

But on returning home, something else struck him: His birds had been out in the back yard when he'd been abducted.

It wouldn't have mattered, but he had a hazy memory of at least some of the final battle with Conwing taking place in the general vicinity of his home. So the instant he got back, he changed into civvies again and started to hunt through the mess in his back yard for the birds -- or any sign of them.

He now wearily sank down on a handy wire spool and sighed. It looked as if, in the chaos of Conwing's attack, his birds had been vaporised.

"Knock, knock?" called a voice.

Eric started. Looking round, he saw Alice and a brunette woman about his own age -- presumably Alice's mom. In Alice's arms was his birdcage, completely intact.

"Um, hi," began the brunette a little nervously. "Alice tells me these are yours?"

Eric smiled. "They are," he agreed.

"I saved them," stated Alice proudly. "They were going to get squished by the monster!"

"Did you?" Eric replied, accepting the cage as Alice held it out to him. "Then you're very brave. Thank you." He placed the cage back on its stand.

"You're welcome," Alice replied.

"C'mon Alice, time to stop bothering Mr...um..." began her mom.

"Eric," Alice supplied. "His name's Eric. He said so."

"Ohmygosh -- Alice Megan Cunningham, what have I told you about talking to strangers?" Alice's mom looked up at Eric in complete embarrassment. "I'm terribly sorry -- she won't...she shouldn't...she..."

"Was no bother at all," Eric finished, cutting through Alice's mom's mortified babbling.

"I only wanted to see the birds," Alice commented softly, looking utterly contrite.

"You...don't mind?" Alice's mom finally managed.

Eric shook his head. "No. In fact," he added on the spur of the moment, "she's welcome to come over and visit whenever she likes."

"Really?" Alice exclaimed.

"Are you sure?" Alice's mom queried.

"Yes."

"Cool!" Alice pronounced and bounded over to the cage stand to look at the birds she'd rescued.

"Thank you..." began Alice's mom.

"It's no trouble," Eric replied, smiling. "I'm not here a lot of the time so it'll mean they're getting looked after properly."

"That's...ah...very kind of you Mr...er..."

"Myers." Then with a wry smile, he added, "Eric Myers."

"I think I'd got the Eric part," she replied, chuckling a little bit. "I'm Kimberly Cunningham, by the way."

Eric held out a hand. "Nice to meet you."

Kimberly shook his hand. "Likewise."

"Mommy can we get some birds of our own?" Alice asked.

"No, sweetheart -- we don't have room for them," Kimberly replied.

"But you can help me with mine," Eric suggested.

"Really?" Eric nodded. "Cool!"

"C'mon Alice -- time for dinner," Kimberly commented. She glanced at Eric. "But you can come back afterwards and...Eric can show you what you need to know."

"OK!" Alice raced off in the direction of her own home.

Kimberly smiled. "Thank you -- really."

Eric returned the smile. "My pleasure."

He watched as Kimberly followed her daughter.

Yeah. It's for people like them that I have to make it work with the other rangers, Eric realised. They are what really matters.