"How come you get to be the only Demon Child From Hell? I wanna be one, too."
"You can't be the Demon Child From Hell too. It's something that Uncle Nigel only calls me."
Nigel cracked an eyelid as two familiar childish voices chattered carelessly in front of him. What was it with six year olds and break of dawn conversations? Hell, he noted as he blearily looked out the side window, the sun hadn't even begun to peak over the horizon yet. If he were to make a wager, he'd say it was probably close to 4 in the morning.
"Why me?" He groaned as Kyle and Kelsey turned to look at him.
"Tell Kyle he can't be the Demon Child From Hell." Kelsey demanded, as Nigel raised an eyebrow at her. Kyle was doing his damnedest to glare at both of them.
"I can be a Demon Child From Hell, too." The dark haired boy muttered sullenly.
"Enough. Kyle, you can't be the Demon Child From Hell." Nigel said tiredly. Kelsey crowed happily. "You can be the Demon's Hellish Henchman. Now go to sleep, both of you." Nigel said as he pulled his blanket up over him and rolled away from the two kids.
Of course, Fate being Fate, and his always being the butt of its perverse joke, the two chattering magpies didn't move an inch.
"I'm the Demon's Hellish Henchman!" Kyle yelped happily as he stuck his tongue out at Kelsey.
"Congrats, kid. Now go to sleep." Nigel muttered. Kyle hesitated as old habits started to take over. Maybe it wasn't such a good idea to bug the big man when he was trying to sleep.
Kelsey, however, had no such inhibitions. She winked at Kyle as she crawled up onto the bed. Nigel grunted as she flung her tiny body onto his shoulder. Nigel cracked an eye open as she pushed her tiny face into his. As their noses touched he sighed.
"I'm not tired, Uncle Nigel."
"You never are." He retorted as Kyle edged closer to the bed. Nigel noticed the movement out of the corner of his eye, and the look of absolute envy and longing in the kid's eyes touched a chord within his heart. In a way, he knew that the same exact look had flittered across his own face many, many times when he had been a child.
"Well, Demon's Hellish Henchman, you might as well join the Demon Child From Hell up here, too. If you both promise to be good little hellions, I might tell you a story." He said as Kyle climbed up onto the bed, and sat next to Kelsey's squirming little body.
Cassie yawned sleepily as she made her way towards the bedroom that Kyle was rooming in with Nigel. She'd slept better last night than she had in a long time, she admitted with a smile as she pulled her old bathrobe closer around her.
There was something comforting about the room Dimitria had given her in the Command Center all those years ago. Her mentor had known that she had nowhere else to go. And for once in her life, she had had her own room.
It was like being handed her freedom and her self worth on a platter all over again. The room reminded her intensely of all the good times, all the bad times, and all the in between times she'd had with her friends as rangers.
Even if it had been only for a short period of time, she had been a Ranger. And she had had respect. Sleeping in that old room had reminded her of the one thing she seemed to have forgotten over the last couple years. She was strong. Despite everything that had happened. Or maybe because of it, she shook her head as the idea flitted through her brain.
She smiled as she scratched the back of her head lazily. As she came to a stop at the doorway to the room her son was staying in, she cracked the door open slightly. The sight before her almost stopped her heart.
On the far single bed, Nigel was snoring on his back. Kelsey was sprawled on top of his chest, her hand suspended haphazardly in front of his nose. And there, in the melee of arms and legs, was her son, curled up tightly against Nigel's side.
Tears stung her eyes as she saw that Nigel's arm was wrapped protectively around Kyle. Lenny would no more have done that then he would have jumped in front of a burning semi.
"Cute sight, isn't it?"
Cassie yelped as she whirled around to see Andros standing behind her bare-chested in a pair of sweat pants. Her yelp was followed by a loud grunt from inside the room, and Cassie turned around in time to see Nigel holding his nose gingerly.
"Sorry, Uncle Nigel." Kelsey murmured sleepily as she rolled over letting him get up. Kyle remained fast asleep, though, as the big man climbed out of the bed and left the two children.
"I think your daughter just broke my nose, Andros." Nigel said as he reached the doorway. Andros just chuckled as he made his way down the hallway.
"You'll live." He shot back before he rounded the corner to go into the kitchen.
"Oh, here you're bleeding." Cassie said as she pulled a Kleenex out from the pocket of her bathrobe and handed it to him.
"Thanks. Kelsey's back hand is a lot worse than it looks." He said as he put the Kleenex up to his bleeding nose.
"How did you end up with the two of them, if you don't mind me asking." Cassie's lips twitched as she looked up at him. He turned his blue eyes to her, and she suddenly felt flustered as he pinned the azure gaze on her.
"Trust me when I tell you, you don't want to know." He said as he grinned back at her. He pulled the Kleenex away from his nose and then he winked at her. "Can I escort you to breakfast? I guarantee that Ashley can make eggs a lot better than I can."
"No offense Nigel, but it's not hard to make eggs better than the ones you burnt into black rubber yesterday." Cassie said lightly as he chuckled.
It was obvious to everyone in the kitchen that cooking eggs was not the foremost thing on Ashley's mind. Her hair was slightly mussed, but no more so than normal for any other morning. No, it was something in her eyes that made the occupants of the kitchen suspect something wasn't quite right with the usually cheerful brunette.
Ashley didn't notice their scrutiny though, as she accidentally sloshed more egg onto the burner. She hadn't even looked in the mirror yet, so there was no way fro her to know that there were bags under eyes, easily telling everyone that she had just had a rather sleepless night.
Who am I?
It was a simple sounding question. One she thought she had known the answer to. Who was she? She was Ashley Hammond. Ex-yellow astro ranger. She had spent her teenage years defending her home planet, Earth. Her parents were Cindy and Howard Hammond.
But they weren't. Her parents were Zordon and Dimitria of Eltare. Earth wasn't her original home planet. She'd been born on another. She wasn't Ashley Hammond. Ashley Hammond didn't exist.
So who am I?
A shiver crawled up her spine as more egg slipped out of the pan and onto the burner. She didn't notice though, and she didn't care. It was hard to care about something as trivial as eggs when you were questioning your very existence.
"Placed me like you placed Ashley?"
Such and innocuous sounding question. But it wasn't, in the span of seconds, Nigel had thrown everything she had thought she'd known into turmoil. She didn't even know her cousin, she thought with a sigh. Nigel. Phantom.
That thought hurt too much for her to contemplate so she let her mind creep away from it. She had trusted him. He was the closest thing to a brother that she had ever had, and he had just betrayed her trust in him. In everything.
"Ash, hon, are you alright?" Andros ventured as he came up beside her and threw an arm around her shoulder. She let him hug her and she forced down the bubble of hysteria that was trying to work its way out.
"I'm fine. I just didn't sleep well last night is all." She said softly as he kissed her forehead. She wasn't ready to tell him. She wasn't ready to tell anyone. For once, she held a secret close to her heart, and let no one see.
She needed to figure it out for herself first.
"Here, Ash. I'll make the eggs this morning. You look like you need to sit down." Cassie offered as she got up and took the frying pan from her best friend's hand.
"Thanks Cassie." Ashley replied tiredly as she plopped down into a chair. She watched her short dark haired friend as she made eggs. Cassie kept sneaking looks at Nigel when she thought no one was looking. And it was obvious to her that Nigel was sneaking them back when he thought no one was looking.
Cassie and her Phantom.
Ashley shook her head slowly as she turned to look out the kitchen window at the rising sun. She wasn't sure how she felt about that. She wasn't sure how she felt about anything.
"Nigel!" The shout was punctuated by a childish squeal of happiness, and Nigel found himself smiling as he turned around to see Witch and Warlock running up the driveway with Carone and Zhane trailing behind them.
"How are my little Witch and Warlock?" Nigel asked as the twins flew into his arms. It was a good thing he was sitting on the porch, he reflected as their enthusiasm almost threw him backwards with its momentum.
"Wanna see a trick, Nigel?" Melody asked as she blinked at him with angelic looking blue eyes that were in a face framed by wispy curls of white blonde hair.
It was a loaded question and he knew it.
"Yeah, Nigel! Mel and I worked on it all last night so we could show you." Justin piped in, and Nigel grinned at the boy's dimpled cheeks. Justin lacked his sister's white blond hair, but the brown hair that framed his face and puppy brown eyes made him appear to be just as saintly as his sister.
"Okay." He said simply as he waited. The two kids bowed their heads, and then put their hands together, their palms touching lightly. The air seemed to grow crisp around them, and Nigel felt more than he saw as they reached down inside themselves.
Then they pulled their palms apart and smiled up at him. He grinned back, a little confused by the fact that nothing had happened.
"Isn't he cool?" Melody chirped happily as he mussed her curls with a hand.
"Yeah, we found him in a sub space pocket last night before we went to bed." Justin piped in.
"Who?" Nigel asked, getting the distinct feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.
"We named him Jimmy." Melody said as she pointed to something behind his shoulder. He turned as both kids hopped off his lap.
He hadn't meant to yell. Okay, okay, scream. But he hated snakes with an absolute undeniable passion. And the twenty-foot boa constrictor-like creature behind him was probably one of the bigger ones he'd ever seen.
Melody and Justin had dissolved into giggles. And as he turned to them, they knew how to make the best of the situation they had created. Both ran like hell for the other side of the house where the swing set, Kyle, and Kelsey were.
"Witch! Warlock! Get your tiny butts back here and get rid of this snake!" Nigel yelled as he took a healthy step away from the slithering creature. Neither child responded with anything except giggles.
"Here, I'll take care of that, Nigel." Carone said as she hid a smile. With a snap of her fingers, the snake disappeared back into whatever sub space pocket the twins had found him in.
"I hate snakes." Nigel muttered.
"You'll live." Zhane said with a grin as Nigel glared at him. "Listen, we can't talk for long, Nigel, we're already late for work as it is." He added ruefully as Nigel nodded.
"I just thought I would let you know that Carone told me." Zhane said solemnly as his wife laced her arm inside his. Nigel looked resigned as he sat back down on the porch.
"And I have to agree with my wife. You have to tell them Nigel. They have a right to know." The blonde haired man said as he looked down at Phantom.
"I will." Nigel vowed hollowly. "I will, just give me a month to figure out how I'm going to say it."
Zhane nodded. It was fair enough.
"Catch you later, Nigel." Carone said as she gently tugged her husband's arm.
"Bye, Nigel." Zhane added as he turned back towards their car.
"I can't believe you're leaving me here with those two when they know how to get a twenty-foot snake out of a sub space pocket." Nigel joked as they climbed into their car. But it sounded hollow even to his own ears.
Sweet blissful quiet. Nigel sighed happily as he lay down on the wooden slats of the porch. The sun was beaming down on him, warming his skin, and it was the first time this week that he'd felt any sense of peace.
He'd badgered Cassie into taking his car into Angel Grove as she looked for a job. He'd fix her Tercel in a minute, after he'd soaked up some sun. Andros had taken the munchkins from Hades with him when he went to the grocery store five minutes ago.
Nigel hadn't bothered to point out the error of that decision to his cousin's husband. He figured Andros deserved what he got for underestimating the abilities of four six year olds. He could even see the groceries now. Twinkies with sugar cream puff cereal. Yum. He closed his eyes as he threw his arms behind his head.
One word. One word and his eyes flew open and his whole body tensed like a rabbit about to run for its very life. So much for peace.
"Ash?" He asked uncertainly as his cousin sat down on the porch beside him. Her brown eyes bored into his skin. "Did you just say what I think you said?"
"You're Phantom." The brunette said listlessly. "Don't bother denying it. I know, Nigel." She said as she looked down at the mountain dew can in her hands.
"How…how'd you find out?" He asked softly as she refused to meet his gaze.
"I came down last night around midnight. I couldn't seem to sleep, and I was just going to grab a glass of milk. The light was on by the porch, so I was going to come on out to see what you were up to. I was standing in the shadows of the porch when Dimitria appeared."
Damn. The fight hissed out of him as he saw the dejected look on her face. She knew. She knew everything.
"I'm sorry, Ashley. I never meant for you to find out like that. He said as he tried to put an arm around her shoulder. She shrugged it off.
"Don't touch me, Nigel. I don't particularly trust you much right now. You never meant for me to find out." She said stiffly as he winced.
"You're right." He said. "You're right. I never intended for you to find out about your true parents. I never intended for you to find out about Dimitria and Zordon. But you have. I'm sure it has to be really confusing for you right now. And I don't blame you for being mad at me, but if you have any questions, I'm more than willing to answer them."
Ashley was silent for a moment as she stared at the can in her hand. He waited tensely as a myriad of emotions flitted across her face.
"Are you really my cousin?" She asked finally, and he let out a mental sigh of relief.
"Yes. Divatox, my mother, and Aunt Dimitria are sisters."
"Divatox?" The surprise was evident in her face, and he nodded grimly.
"I spent the first eight years of my life living somewhere between Divatox and Lord Zedd, my father. Aunt Dee rescued me from them." He said wearily.
"I'm sorry, Nigel." She said softly as she looked up from her can. She recognized emotional baggage when she saw it. And he was carrying a full load.
"No, I'm sorry, Ash." He said gruffly." I should have told you. You deserved to know the truth, and I kept that from you."
"Who am I?" She asked out right. He smiled oddly.
"You're Ashley Hammond. You've lived your entire life here on Earth with adopted parents who loved you as much as they would love a child they had had themselves. Your real parents, Dimitria and Zordon of Eltare gave you to them when you were born because they feared for your safety. You're also my cousin. I never meant to love you, you know. In fact, I wanted to hate you so much when I first met you." He said bitter-sweetly. Her eyes flashed with hurt and anger.
"You were their daughter. Their child. I wasn't. And God, I wanted to be their kid so bad. They were the only people in the entire universe who had ever loved me. They were the only ones who had ever shown me any kindness. I was so jealous of you, sometimes I thought I wouldn't even be able to see straight."
"But then I met you." He said with a sad smile. "It was impossible to hate you. Still is. Even though you didn't know them, even though you had never spent any time one on one with them, you were just like them. You were kind, loving, understanding. And God, you wouldn't take no for an answer." He said with a laugh.
"You were just so cheerful as you chipped away at people's defenses." He finished as she looked at him. Tears were gathering in her eyes, he noted. "Aw, Ash. Don't do that." He said softly as he moved over to hug her. She sobbed against his shirt and he rubbed her back. If he was ever to have a sister, he could help but think, he would want her to be Ashley.
"I think I might have gotten a job!" Cassie cried happily as she jumped out of Nigel's Ford Explorer and raced over to where he was standing. He smiled widely, and then threw his arms around, picking her off the ground and twirling her around.
"That's great!" He said as he finally put her on the ground. Her face was flushed, she knew, and her sides tingled from where he'd thrown his arms around her.
"Thanks for loaning me your Explorer, Nigel." She said softly as she watched his face flush.
"It was nothing. I took a look at your Tercel. It's not s bad as we both thought it was, I fixed it up, and Matlida ought to run right as rain, now." He said as she beamed at him. He grimaced inwardly though. It was a good thing he had some powers of his own or the car would never have made it anywhere again. She had managed to over heat the engine to the point of slaughtering it.
"So what kind of a job is it?" He asked as she sat down on the porch steps.
"It's a receptionist gig at the local radio station. It isn't much, but I have to start somewhere, and they are offering pretty fair wages. I dunno. I'm actually looking forward to it." She said with a shrug. He smiled as she grinned at him.
"Say, you want to go out to dinner tonight?" The words just jumped out of his mouth before he could think about them. She shot him a startled look.
"Just you and me?" She asked.
"Um, yeah." He said. He'd already asked, he might as well go with it. "I'll understand if you don't want to though. I mean you just got out of a marriage and I don't want to pressure you into doing something you don't want to do. It wouldn't be anything fancy, though. Just a simple dinner at this place downtown. If you don't want it to be a date, we could just go as friends. I do want to get to know you better…" He trailed off. He was babbling like an idiot, he thought, as he bit back a groan. Cassie's eyes were twinkling at him mischievously, though.
"I never loved Lenny." She said quietly. "Of course, when I married him, I thought I did, but I was young and stupid at the time. But I'm not that dumb anymore. I like you Nigel. I like you a lot, and I would love to go out to eat with you on a date tonight." She said as he smiled with relief.
"Uncle Nigel !Justin bit me!" Kelsey's bellow broke the moment as she ran around the corner of the house.
"Figures. It just figures." He muttered as he looked down to inspect the slobbery mark on his niece's arm. Of course a couple of six year olds would interrupt just when he was about to try and steal a kiss for the first time. Fate hated him, he thought with a sigh of disgust.
He watched her from the shadows of twilight as she helped her son up from the porch and ushered him into the house. His Cassie. His little Cassie.
He'd finally found her. After so much searching, he had finally found her. She looked happy here at this house in the middle of the desert. Her face had been radiant with an inner kind of joy when she'd hugged her son to her chest earlier.
She was his. There was no doubt about it, he thought as he watched her as she stood in the doorway. The light from inside glowed around her, outlining her figure. She was his, all right.
He would tell her. Soon.