Nigel swiped a mountain dew as he edged towards the porch that overlooked the desert. The sun had already risen half way up in the sky, and the sand blinked white-yellow. His heart was still pounding in his chest though, and breakfast had been two hours ago.
He'd told her that his nickname in college had been Phantom because he disappeared whenever his housemates wanted something cleaned. She'd bought it, and the look of mixed relief that came over her face hurt and intrigued him at the same time.
One more lie. One more lie in a long string of lies. As he sipped the mountain dew, he guessed that he was either getting really good at telling lies or the people around him were so trusting that they bought whatever line he fed them.
The phone rang in the house, but he ignored it. The answering machine would get it. He gulped the rest of the mountain dew and looked at his watch. Cassie had explained to him that she had had car troubles. So he had promised her that he'd go out and take a look at her car in fifteen minutes.
Nigel cringed at his niece's bellow. Brat was beginning to get a little too big for her britches. He'd made another startling discovery this morning with her aplomb announcement.
The Brat was telepathic, too. Although, from the fact that she hadn't objected to his college story, he knew she hadn't quite developed a handle on that particular power yet. Thank God.
"What's up Brat?"
"Mommy wants to talk to you."
Nigel started. "What was that Brat?"
"Mommy and Daddy want to talk to you. Mommy says they're coming home early and they're gonna bring Uncle Zhane and Aunt Carone with them."
Nigel dashed into the house. Brat tossed him the phone, and Nigel caught it neatly with his mind.
"Brat, what did I explain to you this morning about monkey business when we have guests?" He said sternly as she ran out of the room.
He brought the phone to his head as his niece let out a squeal of laughter from the other room. "Hello?"
"Nigel! How's my best cousin? Did you get my message last night?"
"Yeah, yeah I did. And about ten minutes after you called, your friend Cassie and her son showed up here at the house. I let her stay the night." Nigel said as he padded outside and sat down on the edge of the porch.
"Is she okay? Is her son okay? Did she tell you if she'd left Lenny or not?
"She's okay and so is her son. I haven't asked about her personal life, Ash. It's not my place."
"Well, make sure she doesn't leave before we get there. We'll be there in fifteen minutes with Carone, Zhane, and the twins. Bye Nigel!"
"Wait! Ashley! Damn." Nigel muttered as the line went dead. It just wasn't shaping up to be a good week for him. The woman he loved, didn't realize he still loved her much less that he was right in front of her. His niece decided that now, in front of guests, was the perfect time to hone her psychic abilities. The Crocodile kid was still glaring at him every time he came in the room.
And now Witch and Warlock were on their way.
Nigel sighed heavily and then took advantage of the peace and the mountain dew in his hand. It would probably be a while before he had the opportunity again.
Ashley turned to look at her husband as he walked out of the bathroom of their hotel room. He was every bit as fit as he had been when they'd been rangers. His hair was a bit shorter now though, than it had been then. The blonde-brown locks only hung to his chin now.
"I just called Nigel. He said Cassie came to the house last night with her son." Ashley said quietly as she walked up to Andros. He wrapped one arm around her shoulder while he tugged at the towel around his waist.
"Oh, Ash. It's about time she left that jerk. Every time I think about the way she looked that one time we visited her." He said as his eyes blazed.
"Andros, you're squeezing my shoulder."
"Oh, sorry. I just can't help it. It makes me so angry." He declared, and Ashley nodded. They'd had this conversation often over the last ten years. "I mean, hell, Cassie's as much my sister as Carone is. Damn it, she deserved better than that…that…"
"Asshole. Moronic drunk. Divatox-like minion. Darkconda look-alike. Dark Spectre wannabe."
"Yeah, exactly. Where the hell was Phantom when she needed him?" He demanded. Ashley shook her head.
"I don't know. I just don't know." She said sadly as Andros walked over to her and wrapped an arm around her. She looked up at him, and he kissed her forehead.
"I told Nigel we'd be there in fifteen minutes with Carone, Zhane, and the twins."
He raised an eyebrow at her. "You know it's a good thing we still have teleportation capabilities or you'd be in big trouble now, wouldn't you." He said as she laughed.
Kyle edged closer to his mother's side as he stood beside her in the family room. Kelsey had gone tearing straight for the first two people who had walked into the house, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that.
Kelsey was okay, he finally admitted, but the way the man she'd run to had tossed her into the air and then hugged her, had left him breathless. He was torn between fascinated wariness and envy. For a moment, he almost wished it had been him instead of Kelsey.
Then there was the other two grown-ups who had walked into the room too. They didn't look particularly mean, but from experience, Kyle knew that didn't mean much. His curiosity was drawn, however by the boy and the girl that came in with them. They looked as if they might be his age.
"Cassie, geez, it's great to see you again!" Ashley said as she went straight to her friend and gave her a long hug. "How have you been?"
Cassie hugged her friend back, as she felt tears gathering in the back of her throat. "I'm fine." She managed to get out as Andros came over to give her a hug. Zhane and Carone followed soon after.
"Omigod, Cassie! Is this Kyle? The little tiny baby? He's this big already?" Ashley asked as she bent down to the boy's level. Kyle blushed as she ruffled his hair.
"No Ash, that's the Crocodile kid. Witch, Warlock, I'm not giving you anything to drink until you promise to be on your best behavior" Nigel said as he walked into the room with a tray of glasses which the twins made an immediate dash for.
"Nigel, I'm not even going to ask." Ashley said with a grin as she reached out and smacked her cousin on the knee. "He looks just like you, Cassie."
Andros nodded his agreement. "It's good to see you again, Cassie." He grabbed a glass from Nigel and then made a face when he realized that it was mountain dew. He put the glass back on the tray and ignored Ashley's chuckle. "You are going to stay here a while, aren't you?' He asked hopefully.
Cassie felt the tears in the back of her throat gather with more force. She'd forgotten how much she loved her friends. How much they understood her, and how much they wanted to help her. Her pride had gotten in the way in the past, but she had Kyle to think of now.
She looked down at her son and smiled. "Say, Ace, why don't you go outside and play with Kelsey and…" She glanced up at Zhane and Carone. She didn't think it would be too appropriate if she called them Witch and Warlock.
"Oh yeah, This is Melody and that's Justin. Why don't you kids go outside and play while us grown-ups sit and talk." Zhane said as he gently pushed his son and daughter towards the door. Reluctantly the twins left followed by an equally reluctant Kyle and Kelsey.
"He can too!" Kelsey said hotly as she eyed her older cousin Justin. He was only six months older than she was, but he delighted in rubbing it in when he could. It also made him think that he knew more than she did.
"No, he can't Kelsey. Just cause his mom was a ranger, doesn't mean he can do what we do." Justin shot back as he pumped his swing into the air. His sister Melody stuck her tongue out at him.
"If Kelsey says he can do it, Justin, he can do it." She said as she packed more sand into her sand castle mold.
Kyle glanced over at Melody, then Justin, and finally Kelsey in slight amazement. He wasn't sure how the argument had started, but he thought it might have been when Justin had jumped off the swing and suspended himself in mid-air.
And now Kelsey was claiming he could do the same. He wasn't so sure.
"He can do it. Geez, Justin, you're so mean. All you have to do is get close enough to him, and you'll figure out that he's only half an Earther." The honey blonde haired girl piped up as she pumped her swing higher.
"He's an Alien?" Melody asked as she stopped shoveling. Kyle looked over at the white-blonde haired girl in abject horror.
"I am not an Alien!" He said as shoved Phantom down the slide. The bear coasted all the way down only to land in a pile of sand at the bottom. Justin and Kelsey giggled.
"You're only half alien, like me." Kelsey said with a grin as her new friend shot her a 'You have got to be kidding me' look. "Justin and Melody are whole aliens."
"I don't get it." Kyle said stubbornly. Aliens were gross looking, and usually had various types of slime oozing from every pore of their body. He'd seen them in movies, and never had they looked like a bunch of normal kids. Sure Kelsey, Justin, and Melody could do some neat things, but that didn't make them aliens, did it?
"My Dad, Aunt Carone, and Uncle Zhane are from another planet. KO-35. So Justin and Melody are whole KO-35ers. My Dad married Mom though, and she's an Earther, so I'm only half a KO-35er. Same as you." Kelsey said as she jumped off her swing and suspended herself in mid-air.
"So is that why you say I can do that stuff, too?" Kyle asked hesitantly as he climbed down from the slide and moved towards the sandbox. Justin jumped off his swing, and following his cousin's lead, he and Kelsey floated down to the sandbox.
"Yup." Kelsey said happily. "Here, we'll all help show you." Justin and Melody grinned.
"Okay, what do I have to do?" Kyle asked as Melody pulled a small ball out of her pocket. He watched as the fair-haired girl suspended the ball in mid-air and then made it expand. "Cool." He breathed as Justin grinned at him.
"First you have to look at the ball and make believe that it's alive." Kelsey said. He nodded as he pictured the ball talking to him. The image made him smile. "Then you have to ask it if it's okay if you move it."
Kyle nodded, and for a split second, the ball came into a sharp sort of inner clarity. Nothing existed but him and the ball in a stark black plane of existence. He vaguely heard Kelsey ask Melody to toss him the ball.
As it came closer to him, he felt his mind jump to life as it mentally reached out for the ball. For a second, he didn't think it would work. But then, the ball suspended in mid-air in front of him. The black plane of existence slowly disappeared and the sand box slowly came back into focus, although the ball still was still more clear, more sharp than the rest of the world.
"Cool." Was all he could manage as a delighted smile lit his face.
"Okay, you were right Kelsey. He can do it, too." Justin admitted. Kyle smiled at the brown haired boy. He could do it too, and the knowledge left him feeling special. Unique.
"I left him." Cassie said as everyone stared at her expectantly. "The divorce'll be final in a month, and I had to get a restraining order placed on him when he learned that." She heaved a sigh as Ashley murmured comfortingly beside her.
"You deserve better than him, Cassie." Andros said.
"I guess." Cassie said half-heartedly. It killed her to have to admit this to them. Her friends' opinion meant more to her than anything, and her pride stung at every word that came out. "I could have handled it if it had just been me, but there was Kyle to think of and Lenny wasn't getting any nicer to either of us."
"So what are you going to do now?" Carone asked gently. "Do you have any plans?"
Cassie looked over at the blonde and her heart rebelled with every fiber of her being at what she knew she was going to tell them. Damn it, her pride was all she had left, but it seemed like even that was going to slip away from her now, too.
Her friends meant well. They just didn't realize that when you had nothing in the world, all you could console yourself with was pride. Had it just been her, she would have breezed over this, not even mentioned it. But it wasn't just her.
"I…I don't know what I'm going to do. Everything Kyle and I own is in that beat up old Tercel. When Lenny heard about the divorce, he managed to cut me off from all of my savings and our checking account. I barely made it here with what little money I did have on me." She said as she ran her hands through her shoulder length black hair.
Nigel stared at her, at the motion. For the billionth time in ten years he cursed Fate. More than anything, he wanted to travel back in time and change the past. His past, her past.
"You're staying here." Ashley announced. Cassie looked up at her as her feelings pulled her in two different directions.
"I swear Ashley, Andros, when I get a job, I'll pay you back."
"Pay us back? Forget it, Cassie." Ashley said shaking her head. "You deserve to be here as much as we do. The Command Center was your home." Ashley said softly. Cassie looked up at her startled.
"We found your bedroom when we were building the house. It's part of the basement now, but it's yours if you want it." Andros said. "Kyle can sleep in the room you guys are in now with Nigel."
Cassie glanced up at Nigel, and then she glanced back to Ashley questioningly.
"Nigel knows about us and about the house." Ashley said easily.
"The house you built in the middle of nowhere." Nigel felt compelled to mention as he pointed at her with his mountain dew. Ashley rolled her eyes. Nigel sighed as he caught Cassie's dubious expression. He knew it was weird for a grown man to live with his cousin and her husband, but it fit their situation.
"Andros and Ashley let me room here in exchange for baby-sitting services. Five days a week, I have the Brat. Three of those five days, the Witch and the Warlock join in on the fun. Since I do business from my computer, it all works out well." He said with a shrug.
"You don't mind if Kyle rooms with you?" Cassie asked uncertainly.
"Naw, Croc and I will get along fine."
"The kids love Nigel." Zhane said with a grin as Nigel shot a mock glare at him.
"They love torturing me, you mean."
"Cassie, you want to see your old room? We kept it pretty much the same since we already had plenty of space upstairs." Ashley asked. Cassie nodded.
"I can just imagine the memories we're going to dig up now." She said with the first genuine laugh she'd had since they'd sat down.
"I have to admit that I did do some rummaging through it when we first discovered it." Ashley confessed guiltily. "I went through everything you had about Phantom." At her friend's startled expression, Ashley hesitated. "I'm sorry, Cassie. It was right after our visit to you, and I had gotten it into my head that if I could find Phantom, he could convince you to leave Lenny."
Cassie nodded her head as she took in all the information. "That's okay, Ash. I know you meant well. Besides, who knew we'd never see him again?"
"Why don't you all go ahead." Carone said as she hooked her arm around Nigel's. "Nigel and I are going to go check on the kids and make sure they are behaving themselves." She smiled until everyone was out of the room and then she rounded on him.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" She demanded. Nigel furrowed his eyebrows in confusion.
"I know you're Phantom." She said angrily. He gaped at her as his skin turned icy hot.
"How? When? I don't understand." He said. Carone threw up her hands and began pacing.
"I knew the moment I first met you. Geez, you throw off this aura that's almost blinding." She said. "I immediately recognized it as the Phantom's."
"Ashley and Andros don't know." He said quietly.
"Well, I'm just now figuring that out, thank you very much." She said sarcastically. "Why didn't you ever tell them? It would have solved so many things."
"I have my reasons. And it wouldn't have solved anything."
"You know I always did wonder why Ashley hadn't convinced you to go rescue Cassie. I guess I thought that you'd tried, but that you never had loved her like that so it didn't matter." She babbled as she paced around him.
"I couldn't have saved her, Carone. She doesn't, didn't love me. Not that way."
"Of course she did." Carone said, rounding on him. Nigel felt his temper rising. She had no idea how long he'd agonized about going after her. She had no idea how much the decisions had torn him apart.
"She was married to someone else and had a three year old son when I finally figured out where she'd gone. You know what, she only waited four months for me. Four months." He said angrily as he exposed old wounds. She looked at him curiously.
"You still love her." She said, as she stumbled on the realization. "You're going to have to tell her who you are. You're going to have to tell them all." She said softly.
"I…I can't. It's complicated." He said as he drew his hand through his shaggy brown hair.
"Well, you've got a month to make it uncomplicated before I tell them." She said as she then turned on her heel and stalked towards the back door.
"How do you sleep at night with all that caffeine in your system?" Cassie asked as she looked over at the man driving the Ford Explorer she was currently riding inside. Even though she'd only met him less than twenty-four hours ago, she realized she was more than a little intrigued by him.
It was as if he was humming a tune, and it was a tune that was exactly in harmony with her own. She let her lips quirk up slightly. She was just being fanciful.
He shrugged his shoulders. "Doesn't affect me. I think I've grown immune to caffeine."
She smiled in response. It was nice of him to volunteer to help tow her car back to the house. After much discussion, it had been decided that she would drive out with him to get the car while Ashley and Andros unpacked. Although she couldn't understand where the discussion part had come in. Nigel was the only one with a car that had a trailer hitch and towing capabilities.
"So how long have you been living with Ashley and Andros?" She asked casually as the desert dunes zipped by.
"Oh, about three years." He said as casually as he could. "I had learned that I had a cousin when I'd turned eighteen, and I had always wanted to go and meet her. I didn't get the chance though until just recently."
"What was stopping you?" She asked as his words peaked her curiosity. There was just something about this man that set her at ease. She hadn't felt this free talking to a single man in years. And he was a handsome man at that, she admitted as she glanced at his profile.
"There was a huge family feud, and I was trying to help out. Then, just when things had started looking better, my Uncle died. It practically broke my Aunt's heart, and it was a long time until things had settled down to the point where I felt comfortable leaving her." He said as his hands clenched on the steering wheel.
It was definitely an interesting glazing over of fact, he admitted. At eighteen, he'd been caught in a feud, yes. But it had been a feud between good and evil. One that had created the Phantom Ranger. From his eighteenth birthday on, things had rapidly begun spiraling out of control.
When Zordon died, his world had instantly been redefined in so many ways, that even ten years later, he was still reeling. The parents who had always despised the very sight of him, now wanted to get to now him better. Even his stepmother wanted to get to know him better.
But he hadn't been able to switch his emotions as rapidly as they had. His mother had been Divatox, world-renowned space pirate, for Pete's sake. It wasn't like he could just stop remembering the times she had tried to drown him when he was a child.
His father and his stepmother were Lord Zedd and Lady Rita. How could he simply blank out all the times they'd plotted his death? Hell, he had scars that lined his ribcage and his back from where they'd tried and failed.
Then there had been his Aunt. Zordon's death had hit her hard. Even though Eltarians were all gifted with extraordinary powers, Zordon had been special. But then, so had Dimitria. She had been his soul mate in every sense of the word. And as corny as it sounded, he had honestly worried about her dying of a broken heart for a long time.
"There! There's Matilda." Cassie said as she pointed to an old looking Toyota Tercel.
As he looked at it, he couldn't help but feel a mix of guilt and regret. This beat up car was all she had left in the world. Clothes were packed in half of the back seat of the tiny car, and he was sure the trunk was just as full.
A part of him wondered what it would be like for them both now if he had somehow managed to make it to Angel Grove sometime in those four months before she'd taken up with Lenny. Would things have been different for her? For him?
He shook his head as he parked the car and climbed out. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her as she did the same. Everything about her seemed to resonate absolutely with his soul.
But he couldn't change the past. No one could.
Nigel sighed as he looked up at the moon. It was only September, but the air still had a bit of a chill to it as it breezed over him. He checked his watch as he brought his mountain dew to his lips.
Midnight. Everyone was asleep inside, and the night was peacefully quiet with only the occasional howl of a coyote breaking the twilight silence.
Nigel jumped and dropped his mountain dew as the voice called from behind him.
"Geez, Aunt Dee, you scared about five years off my life." He said as he turned around to find his Aunt Dimitria leaning against the railing that bordered the porch.
She looked like the universal persona of motherhood. Her brown hair was long, but it was streaked more with gray now than it had been when he was younger. Her cottony white dress billowed slightly in the breeze, and he smiled in reaction. When he was younger, he had been convinced that her dress was made of the fluffy whiteness of the Earth bound clouds.
"Sorry, Phantom. I just wanted to see you, again. It's been a while you know. You're mother, father, and step-mother are all worried about you." She said softly as she sat down beside him.
"I know." Nigel said quietly as he folded his hands in front of him and stared. "I just…I can't go back just yet, Aunt Dee. I'm not ready. I beginning to think that I may never be. It's not their fault, I know that. But a part of me is still stuck in the body of the eight year old boy you rescued." He said as she curled an arm around his shoulders.
"It's a lot to forgive." She acknowledged. "A lot of rather nasty things happened to you before you were old enough to defend yourself. And more terrible things happened after Zordon and I took you in." She said.
"I guess a part of me is still scared that the moment I turn my back on them, I'm going to get run through the heart with a saber. I…It's just not that easy of a feeling to shake off." He said as he scratched the back of his neck.
"Oh, Phantom." She said with a sigh as she rubbed his shoulder. "Sometimes I wish I could have taken you when you were a baby. I could have placed you here in a family on Earth, and you never would have suffered."
"Placed me like you placed Ashley?" He asked as he turned to look at her. She nodded.
"She was my baby, Phantom, and our world was quickly turning into a war torn battle field. I know you don't approve of what Zordon and I did, but we had to do it. Your Uncle and I were too high up in the bureaucracy for her to be safe with us. She would have been the target of every evil terrorist in the galaxy." She said softly as the night air stirred around her once more, blowing the purple scarf around her neck up slightly with its gust.
"But in giving her up like that, you gave up the opportunity to know her. In giving her up like that, you gave up your right to be a part of her family. She's a great person, Aunt Dee." He said with a frown.
"How is my little granddaughter doing anyway? Still up to mischief?" She asked with a bittersweet smile. Nigel sighed as he ran his hand through his hair once more.
"Brat's doing great. She's stirring up more problems with each passing day, and loving every minute of it. Her abilities are developing so fast, I'm beginning to wonder if Andros doesn't suspect something might be amiss."
"They're all going to have to learn the truth, or you are going to have to leave, Phantom. You can't keep these secrets to yourself like this, it isn't good for you." She said gently.
"You managed to keep secrets just fine." He said angrily. "I don't know why I can't."
Dimitria sighed as she regarded her nephew. "Ashley's time as a ranger was different. Neither Zordon nor I realized that Tanya would single her out for the yellow turbo powers. It made your Uncle so proud to be there to see her initiated into Rangering, though. It was different, Phantom. The universe was still embroiled in the midst of battle. It wasn't safe for Ashley to know then."
"Oh how I wished your Uncle could have seen her again." She said sadly, and Nigel immediately felt guilty. "It was so hard to sit there and pretend for that year, that she wasn't my daughter. I had to be certain I didn't give her any special treatment, and I had to make sure no one suspected the connection. It was bad enough that Carone had been kidnapped in her place. I just couldn't stand the thought that the next time Evil tried, it would be her."
Nigel nodded as he reached over to grab the mountain dew can he had dropped, earlier. A myriad of emotions were churning inside him, each varying in intensity and urgency. One thing was clear to him, though.
"Just give me one more month, Aunt Dee. Just give me one more month and I'll try to give this all up and go back to Eltare with you." He said heavily. She nodded as she reached over and gave him a hug.
"Take care of yourself." She whispered into his ear as he drew her in a bear hug. As he released her, she looked up at him. "I know you never felt that it was possible, but for what it's worth, Phantom, you're as much my son as Ashley is my daughter. Blood doesn't mean anything. It's what's in your heart."
His face contorted slightly as he hugged her again. "Bye, Aunt Dee. I'll see you soon." He whispered into her ear as she pulled back. She smiled at him and then with a flick of her wrist, she disappeared into the indigo twilight.
He watched her go, and then he sat back own on the edge of the porch. He crunched the mountain dew can in his hand as he looked up at the moon. A month, he could give this all up in a month, he lied to himself.
From the shadows of the porch, Ashley stood in her bathrobe as the cool night air wiped through her loose hair, whirling the silky brown-gold strands around her face in complete abandon.
Tears were streaming down her stricken