Disclaimer: The usual. Don't own anything you recognize.
Note: This is kind of from left-field - a musing during class led to something coherent. I do not know anything about the legal system surrounding Child Protective Services. All I know, I gathered from watching Judging Amy and Big Daddy, and even then, I don't know what I'm talking about. Feel free to correct my incomplete knowledge of that.
KINGS AND VAGABONDS
By Etcetera Kit
It's enough to make kings and vagabonds believe the very best...
Prologue: Fading Away
Conner McKnight rolled over and sighed. Sleep was not coming, as it hadn't come for the past three weeks. Normally, insomnia was not something that plagued him, but lately… his thoughts churned until he didn't dare fall asleep. Memories came to him—the rest of the Dino Thunder Rangers, his daughters, the divorce…
Life was not supposed to have come to this—living in a third-rate apartment infested with insects and mice and taking whatever work he could find to help make the rent money. He used to be a prominent soccer star, his picture in every major magazine and on the Wheaties' boxes. He used to be married to a beautiful woman and had been the father of two great little girls. In the blink of an eye, he had it all cut out from underneath him until he felt like he was lost, floating in a sea of strangers with no hope of finding a friendly face.
He remembered the past four years in nothing but a blurry haze of events. He had retired from soccer at age twenty-eight. He was still young enough to continue playing if he had chosen to, but he had enough money—invested properly—that he didn't have to continue playing. The plan had been to take a few years off and spend time with his daughters before becoming a coach. The few years he planned to spend with his family had seemed like a peaceful end to a long and glorious summer. Nothing to do but watch the girls grow up and spend long romantic evenings with his wife.
How naïve and superficial that seemed now. He should have known something was wrong when his wife had stayed home on what was supposed to be a family vacation and had declined all his offers of taking a cruise for just the two of them. She began to avoid him and the girls. He realized what was happening too late. The full impact hit him when he was holding the divorce papers in his hands and a lawyer was calling him, giving him a court date. He had tried to make the divorce as smooth as possible. He had told his wife that they could file a joint claim and work out even custody time for the girls so that things like alimony and child support would be a non-issue.
That woman had refused and ended up taking everything from him. He lost the house, the girls and huge sums of money in alimony and child support. She had used a prenuptial agreement both of them had signed to do it—the agreement read that, if spousal infidelity could be confirmed, then… well, he didn't want to think about that. He had never so much as thought about cheating on her. He wasn't sure how she managed to prove it, but he found himself outside that courtroom that day, saying his final farewell to daughters he would not be allowed to see again and going to his car, the only thing he had left.
The red digital numbers on the clock read 4:23. He was supposed to meet Eric, his twin brother, for breakfast in two and a half hours. Eric was the only person from his past that he still kept in contact with. His parents had faded into the background, along with his fellow rangers—Doctor O, Kira, Ethan, Trent and even Hayley had become distant, obscure figures that he could not connect with.
It didn't matter. Nothing mattered anymore. He had lost the two things in the world most dear to him… and now, life didn't matter. Madeline and Christina… his two beacons of light when he was away from home because of his soccer schedule. He remembered the awe and wonder that surrounded each of their births. His ex-wife didn't want them—she saw them as bargaining chips on a table. He should have seen through her façade earlier. She saw the wealth he had and the prestige she could gain from being married to him. He was held a prisoner by his heart and was willing to agree to anything if he could have his daughters back.
If he had any money left, he would have used it to go to court and get his daughters back, but he didn't. No… he needed to concentrate on getting through the day, starting with surviving breakfast with Eric and fending off his offers to stay with him. He wanted to take Eric up on his offer, but it didn't feel right, taking things from his brother with almost no hope of ever repaying him. Besides, he figured the courts would be more likely to let him have custody of the girls if he were living and surviving on his own.
He needed to do something, but he didn't know what.
He hadn't realized that the problem would yield a solution the next morning. Conner rolled out of bed after a sleepless night and stumbled into the bathroom. He took a quick shower and got dressed in jeans and a red t-shirt. It was his day off from his morning shift at Starbucks, but he was working the lunch and dinner shift at Chili's that night. He worked all day and all night and barely had enough to get by on… what kind of life was this?
Grabbing his keys and heading for the front door of the apartment, his phone rang. Great, now he was going to be late for breakfast on top of everything else. He picked up the phone. He didn't have a cell phone anymore, since he couldn't afford it.
"Hello?" he asked.
"Is this Conner McKnight?"
"Yeah," he replied gruffly and impatiently.
"This is Lionel Wilcox from the CPS office in Reefside."
That got his attention. "Yes?" he asked, eagerly, all thoughts of breakfast and being late pushed out of his mind.
"Your ex-wife has been called in on three domestic violence violations since you two got divorced. After the third time, we place the children elsewhere, preferably with the other parent." There was a pause. "Do you have time this morning to come down to our office?"
He glanced at the clock. "Yes."
"All right. I'll be waiting for you when you arrive."
"Thanks!" He hung up the phone, a huge smile growing over his face. Working all day and night suddenly seemed like a wonderful thing as long as he was doing it for something… or someone. He gave Eric a quick phone call to cancel breakfast, ignoring his questions as to why and got in his car, driving as fast as he dared to the CPS office.
The office was bare and something Conner had come to expect of government-issued things. A tired, overworked looking woman was sitting at the front desk. "Can I help you?" she asked, in a tone of voice that clearly suggested she didn't want to help him.
"Uh, hi," he said, suddenly feeling nervous. He was thirty-two years old! What did he have to feel nervous about? "I'm Conner McKnight. I'm here to see Lionel Wilcox."
"Down the hall, second door on the left," she instructed.
"Uh, thank you," he said by way of politeness before walking as quickly as he dared down the hall. He found the office quickly and knocked on the door.
"Come in!" came a voice from inside.
"Daddy!" two shrill voices shrieked.
He was immediately attacked by his daughters. Conner smiled and held out his arms, welcoming their enthusiastic greeting. Madeline was six and Christina was four, but the pair of them combined were enough to knock him off his feet. He held both of them close, reveling in the closeness that he had been denied for too long. Holding them at an arm's length, he studied them. In the few weeks since their separation neither had changed much. Both had grown some. He frowned at the bruise blossoming over the side of Christina's face. He gently pushed her light brown hair away from her face, noting that it was tangled and greasy. Madeline was not in much better shape, albeit bruise-free.
"What happened?" he whispered to her.
"Mommy got mad," Madeline informed him in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.
He gently kissed both of their foreheads. His girls…
"She wouldn't let us see you," Christina added. "We wanted to."
Those words melted his heart. He had been so afraid that both of them would grow up and forget all about him. Mr. Wilcox cleared his throat. Conner looked up, realizing that there was more important business at hand. He picked Christina up and held Madeline's hand as he sat down in one of the straight-backed wooden chairs in the office.
"Thank you for coming," Wilcox said. He was tall and thin man, thin to the point of being pinched and unhealthy.
"It's no problem," he replied.
The social worker shuffled through some papers. "We talked briefly on the phone, but there are a few more details to go over. Your ex-wife did not have a job and, since she is being held right now, CPS has the right to seize her assets in order to provide child support."
Conner felt a knot of tension ease from him. That would make his life easier already. He might even be able to give up one of his jobs.
Wilcox pushed a sheaf of papers towards him. "Take these with you, sign them and bring them back here tomorrow morning. For the first year, you'll have monthly CPS inspections."
"I didn't know these things could be settled so quickly," he said quietly.
"We didn't want the publicity that would accompany if this went on too long."
He picked up the papers and tucked them into his jacket pocket. He then took the girls' hands and led them out of the drab office, back to his apartment.
"Daddy, can you read me a story when my hair's combed?"
Conner smiled at Christina's request. This was the same routine every night. The girls would take their baths and he would comb their hair. While Christina was having her hair combed, she would ask for a story. He suspected this had something to do with what had happened in those few weeks the girls had been with his ex-wife. God, he couldn't even view that woman as their mother. Well, their final visit from CPS had come and gone, meaning that they were now home free.
"Of course," he replied as he worked on getting a particularly nasty knot out of her hair. He had managed to find another job working as a paraprofessional with a school district. The pay wasn't great, but it got them food, clothes and paid the rent. In truth, he hated that job, but there was nothing he could do about it.
"Green Eggs and Ham?" his five-year old daughter asked.
"Whatever book you want."
She smiled to herself, allowing him to work out the tangles in her hair with no interruptions. They didn't have much. As soon as he had gotten his new job, they had moved out of his one-bedroom rat-hole apartment and found a better place. The apartment had two bedrooms with a bathroom between the two. The living room and kitchen were connected into one large open space. There were no bugs or rodents—meaning there were no late-night chases after cockroaches. (Ironically enough, the girls would chase them down themselves and he would be jolted awake by the noise.) The landlord here also fixed things promptly, so there was no waiting for the plumbing or lights to be returned to normal.
Being in this particular apartment complex had worked out well for them. A young family lived downstairs and the mother would wait with the girls for the bus in the morning, since Conner had to be at work by seven-thirty. (He was a paraprofessional at a high school.) However, he could be home when they got off the bus in the afternoon. They still were not living in the lap of luxury, but it was enough. They had each other.
Finishing combing out the tangles in Christina's hair, he put her hair into a quick braid. She jumped up and ran into the bedroom that her and Madeline shared to get the book. Madeline came out of their bedroom with her and the two of them gathered around him on the sofa for the story before it was time to go to bed. Most of the books the two of them had were books he had found in the attic of his parents' house when they had been born.
Soon enough, the story was over and he was chasing the girls to their bedroom. He tucked them into bed, gave them each a kiss, made sure the nightlight was working and left them to drift off into dreamland.
He wandered back out into the main part of the apartment. A sheaf of papers announcing school events was lying on the kitchen table. All of them pertained the Parents' Night that was coming up in a week. The school was hosting an open house. Parents and their students could visit with the teachers, see the classrooms and specials and have refreshments for a two-hour period. He had attended the event last year and it had been awkward if nothing else. He could tell that teachers and other parents were itching to ask why he had complete custody of the girls, where their mother was and thing of that ilk. He supposed it was unusual for the father to be the primary guardian in divorced situations…
Whatever the case, in one week, he would be facing those questions once again.
The school was crowded and buzzing with people. The kindergarten classrooms were near the front of the building (the district had day-long kindergarten) and Christina had excitedly dragged him to her classroom to show him her drawings and her desk and introduce him to her teacher. Soon enough, it was Madeline's turn and he got a tour of her second grade classroom and teacher.
Right now, the girls were bouncing around, eating cookies and talking with their friends while the parents tried to get a few moments of respite before rounding the kids up again and dragging them home.
He turned at the sound of his name. The only person he saw was the school's music teacher. No, it must have been some parent looking for their kid.
All right. That was him. He turned and realized that it was the music teacher who was talking to him. She was younger than some of the old bats at the school, but still only about thirty. Her pale yellow blouse and black skirt compliments her petite frame. She looked vaguely familiar… like from a distant hazy dream. Then it clicked.
She smiled. He took a deep breath. What was Kira Ford doing here? She had been the Yellow Ranger on his team, as he had been the Red Ranger. Kira was also a Grammy Award winning musician and had a couple of gold records under her belt. Now she was the music teacher at an elementary school? It didn't make sense.
"You're a music teacher?" he asked.
Kira nodded, shrugging. "It's not so unusual. I was just looking for some peace and quiet."
"Like Doctor Oliver?"
"Exactly." She paused. "What are you doing here? I know you don't teach here, so that limits the possibilities."
He sighed. "I'm here with my daughters." He motioned to Madeline and Christina who were still chatting with their friends like a pair of gossiping teenagers.
"Are you married?"
"Divorced." Kira looked sympathetic. He gave her a scrutinizing look. "So what about you? Find Mr. Right somewhere along the way?"
She shook her head. "No." She paused. "So what happened to you being a famous soccer star?"
Obviously, she didn't read the tabloids. "I retired. Then my ex-wife cleaned me out in the divorce."
"But you got custody of your children?"
"Something like that." He didn't feel like detailing how exactly the girls had come to be in his custody. It was not a subject he tended to think about. His ex-wife was scum and that was all there was to it.
"Have you heard from Ethan or Trent or Doctor O?" she asked.
Now he felt guilty. Once he had rocketed to athletic stardom, he had left behind almost everyone he had known in Reefside, including his family members (all save Eric.) It hadn't really been anyone's fault. He was busy. The folks back in Reefside were busy and soon enough, the phone calls, e-mails and letters dwindled to nothing. "No," he said softly. "It's been almost fifteen years."
Kira's hazel eyes were asking him a question, wondering if he was the same Conner she had known all those years ago. "Kira," he whispered. "I'm not the same person you knew. Too much has happened."
She nodded. "I understand. Neither am I." She paused and glanced at the parents wandering into and out of the school's music room. "I need to go. Good luck, Conner," she added softly.
He watched her go, knowing that the wide canyon between himself and the people from his past could never be bridged.
"You've been laid off. You've been evicted from your apartment. Everything you own is in that car."
Conner sighed, willing his cheeks not the flush. The sentence was true. All their belongings were in his car. The school district had started downsizing—the first to be laid off were the newly hired employees. He had been working for just about a year and he was canned. The rent money ran out and he couldn't find a new job. Now, he had loaded their meager possessions, his daughters and himself into his car and they were going to stay with Eric for a while, until he could get on his feet again.
The person before him was a big blue dog, one of the alien immigrants in the recent interplanetary immigration laws. He was in charge of SPD, a prestigious police force that specialized in fighting aliens and enforcing the immigration laws. He had introduced himself as Anubis Crugger. Conner's knowledge of SPD was limited, but he was fairly certain that they had created ranger powers for some of their police squads.
"I'm offering you a chance to get back on your feet."
"I know," Conner replied.
"Think about it. You'd have free room and board in the academy housing. I can offer you and your daughters one of the apartments. In addition, you'd have a salary. Your daughters can go to the school at the academy and you'd be doing work you're suited for."
The offer was tempting. He didn't know how the dog had found him in the parking lot of his apartment complex or even how the dog knew anything about him. Living and working at SPD wouldn't be so bad and the girls would have a good school and friends…
"I know about your past, Conner," Crugger said. "I know you were a Power Ranger and I know that you still have other powers that came with that honor."
His mind froze. Years ago, the Dino-Gems had given them their ranger powers, but also enhanced skills. His had been super-speed. When the gems stopped giving them their ranger powers, it left their super-powers. Part of the reason he had rocketed to soccer stardom was because of his speed. No one knew how he could be so fast. It was something he had hidden from everyone—Eric, his ex-wife, his daughters…
"We need you."
Conner stood up straight and squared his shoulders. "I'm nothing anymore. I'm a has-been athlete who can't keep a job. Why should I believe you'll continue to give me a job?"
Crugger nodded. "A fair question. I have a simple answer. You were the Red Ranger. My B-Squad cadets are lacking a strong leader. I have given them their morphers, but I haven't given anyone the red morpher. You are a strong leader. I want you to be their Red Ranger."
He fell silent, not sure how to respond to someone who had faith in him.
"You are the leader that they need." Crugger paused. "And you would have the job as long as you wanted it. I don't foresee that SPD and the need for rangers is going to disappear anytime in the near future."
"I don't know…"
"If you won't do it for yourself, then do it for your daughters."
He glanced to the car and saw Madeline and Christina looking out the window at him. Both were pale and looked frightened. Crugger was right. They couldn't go on living like this. It would be a betrayal to the two beings that put so much faith in him not to take this offer."I'll do it."
To Be Continued...
Author's Note: I know that it is bad form to post a story while I have another in progress, but this was just such an intriguing subject matter that I couldn't resist. After this, we depart from Conner for a few chapters and dwell on the SPD rangers - Sky, Syd, Z and Bridge. I will issue more notes as I see fit on the AU-ness of this piece. With that said, I would appreciate honest comments on this. The really, really AU stuff starts up in the next section.