Disclaimer: All hail Saban, his characters have driven me completely insane. I know what you're thinking...there's no way that this many people could get into car accidents. Oh all right, so sue me! I can't think of any other nice, traumatic ways to kill off people! I own George, Tiana, Angus, and about a billion other characters in this fic. (Although, there are times when I really wish I didn't. Maybe I can convince them all to go on a nice cruise through the middle of a hurricane...*ponders thought*...it definitely has merit... :) If you've made it through all the fics up to this one, congratulations, you probably have more patience than I do! Thanks again for taking the time to read my stuff!

Falling Leaves
By Rachel Lynn

"The fall of a leaf is a whisper to the living."

English Proverb Stone Canyon
"Hey Lindsey girl! Can you keep a secret?" Jose DeSantos said happily as he looked over at the tiny ten year old Asian girl sitting in the passenger seat of his old Chevy truck. She nodded solemnly, and he let out a bark of laughter. It amazed him sometimes how a girl so quiet had become bosom buddies with his rather rambunctious daughter. As far as he could tell, Clara had two volumes for her voice, loud and louder while Lindsey was quiet or all together silent.

"I can keep a secret." Lindsey said seriously as she looked up at her best friend's Papa. _I liked Mr. Jose. He's so funny. I just wish Mom and Dad had let me stay at Clara's tonight. We were having so much fun trying to rescue Clara's barbie from the evil Rocky's clutches._ She giggled at the thought. _Too bad I had to leave before Clara had a chance to pour the jug of maple syrup we found in the pantry over his head. Man, I really wanted to spend the night. I've done it before. I can't believe Mom and Dad wouldn't let me._

"Well, I don't know munchkin, you have to swear not to tell Rocky and Clara. It's a surprise for them and the rest of the little ones. Are you sure you can keep a secret?" Jose teased back as he turned his attention to the road in front of him. The residential roads of Stone Canyon were illuminated by the street lights and the full moon that was hanging heavy in the sky. _Traffic isn't as bad as I thought it would be at 8 o'clock on a Friday night._ Jose noted as looked in his rearview mirrors.

"Please tell me. I can keep a promise! I swear I can!" Lindsey begged as she bounced up and down on her seat slightly. She frowned though as she tugged at the seat belt. _It's so uncomfortable. I wish I could take it off, but I promised Mr. Jose that I would keep it on._ She made a face though as she finally let go of the nylon belt.

"Okay, munchkin, if you swear." Jose conceded with a laugh. "The secret is chocolate chip pancakes." Lindsey gave him a skeptical look, and the older man simply had to laugh.

She waited for him to explain the joke to her, but he never had the chance. Bright lights blinded her and there was a loud crunching noise followed by a large audible pop as she felt herself being thrown against the seat belt she had been playing with only moments before. She heard herself scream as her eyes closed shut, and the interior of the truck crumpled around her. She felt a sharp pain in her leg and in her arm, and then she just felt numb as the world quit moving around her. For a moment, she knew nothing. Then slowly, she opened one eye and then the other. The first thing she noticed was blood. Blood and jagged sections of distorted metal.

"Mr. Jose!" She cried out in panic as she tried unsuccessfully to move from her position in the car. "Mr. Jose! Where are you?" She cried as she felt something red and sticky begin to ooze into her eyes. She brought her left hand up to her eyes and smeared the liquid away with childish impatience. As she drew her hand back she screamed as she realized that it was her own blood that she was looking as it dripped off her fingers.

"Lindsey?" The voice was accompanied by a sickening gurgling sound, but the Asian girl was able to identify it immediately.

"Mr. Jose?" She whimpered as she turned her head slightly to get a better look at her best friend's Papa. Twisted metal and shattered plastic blocked her view of his legs and torso, but she could clearly see her face, and for a moment she felt true terror and panic almost take hold. Blood was spurting from a gash in his neck, and his breathing was becoming more labored with each passing second. As she looked closer at his face, in an attempt to keep her attention away from the cut in his neck, Lindsey saw blood streaming slowly out of his ears, and trickling out of his nose. "Mr. Jose?" She cried this time as hysterical tears began streaming down her face.

"You're. . . You're going to be . . . fine, Lindsey." He said haltingly as he blinked unseeingly for a moment. Lindsey tried to keep silent as Jose DeSantos struggled to say his next words. "Tell. . .Tell my wife that I. . .love her. And tell the kids . . . tell the kids. . . that I . . . I love them . . . and that . . . I wish I could . . . be there . . . to see them grow up . . . "

Lindsey waited for him to say more, but he never did. His eyes rolled back in his head, and his labored breathing grew silent. As the faint sound of sirens began to tread into the background, she felt herself screaming and screaming. Finally, the screaming faded into a fuzzy black oblivion.

* * *
Angel Grove Methodist Church
May 20, 1999
Lindsey gave a happy sigh as she watched Alicia Hillard Velasquez and LeeAnn Cranston Hammond dodge the handfuls of flower petals that the well wishers were throwing at them and their new husbands. _It was a beautiful wedding. The flowers the dresses, the bridesmaids, the groomsmen, it was like it was all out of some elaborate fairy tale. The vows were the best though. It was so romantic the way Manny vowed to Alicia that he would tell her every night, no matter where he was or what he was doing, how much he loved her and how much she meant to him. The whole ceremony just about brought me to tears a couple of times. Its even better because we all survived that awful kidnapping incident together._ She thought as she smiled and threw the petals into the air with her good arm.

_Of course, the whole ceremony made me laugh so hard I almost fell off the pew._ She struggled not to burst into giggles as a rather rambunctious great dane followed by two small flying dragons ran through the church's double doors with gleeful abandon. _Now there's a trio that can really stir something up. I thought that they'd never make it through the rest of the ceremony after they showed up._

"You can say that again." A deep, heavily accented voice intoned next to her as the brides and grooms piled into the white limo that was waiting for them. Lindsey jumped slightly, startled, as she turned around to see Carlos standing next to her. He had been one of the groomsmen in the wedding and as a result he was wearing a rather elegant looking tux with a blue cummerbund and a blue bow tie. The bow tie, however, had been knocked askew sometime after the wedding and before he'd come to stand next to her. Her fingers fairly itched to fix it, but she held them tightly close to her stomach instead.

"Hi Carlos." She said softly as she felt her cheeks flush as he focused his attention on her. Suddenly, she felt very self conscious as his brown eyed gaze focused on hers. "Nice wedding, huh?" She said quietly as she broke eye contact with him in favor of looking at her feet. _Way to go, Park. Why don't you just point out the fact that the sky is blue, maybe he hasn't noticed that either. I can't believe I just said something that unbelievably obvious._ She looked back up at him, only to see his eyes dancing with mirth. _Great. He's laughing at me._

"Yeah, it was a nice wedding. Say, do you want to catch a ride with me to the reception?" Carlos asked as he looked down at the short Asian girl who was blushing something fierce. He tried not to chuckle too much at the thoughts he'd just gleaned from her, but sometimes she just thought the strangest things. _I guess that's why I think she's so different from the other girls I know. Its like she has this whole other person that she keeps bottled up inside her head that no one knows even exists but me. And I'm not even supposed to know that. Although, there's been something about her that has attracted me ever since I first met her._

"Um, sure. If you're sure you want to." She responded in a rather dubious voice as he held out his arm to her. For a moment, she hesitated. He'd offered her his left arm, which meant that she had to take it with her right. She glanced down quickly at what was left of her right arm. Although the injury had happened eight years ago, she still felt uncomfortable wearing the skin colored prosthetic arm that replaced the portion of her right arm that was missing from the elbow down. _Its moments like this when I'd give my left arm to have my right arm back. Damn. What do I do now?_ The last thought held a tinge of desperation to it. For the first time in her life she was on the receiving end of a gallant gesture from someone her own age of the opposite sex, and she couldn't accept it. Carlos looked at her for a moment, blinked and then smiled.

"Oh. My bad." He said as he then bent over and physically swept her up off the ground and into his arms. She let out a small squeal of alarm and then threw her good arm around his neck. _Carlos Velasquez, I cannot believe you just picked me up. I probably weigh a ton._ She thought as she avoided the curious looks her friends were shooting in their direction.

"You don't have to do this, Carlos. I may have a slight limp, but I can walk just fine on my own." She said as she looked up at him. He grinned back.

"Nah. I want to do this. You're as light as a feather. Besides, I know you can walk. You walked out of the church just fine, didn't you?" He pointed out. "Its the least I can do, considering you just agreed to ride with the person who has the great privilege of transporting an over affectionate great dane and two curious dragons to the reception." She stared at him for a moment, and then burst into laughter of the image she had of them going down the road in the car with the disastrous trio.

* * *
"Angus! Angus, you dumb dog! Get back here with my arm!" Lindsey cried out as the large, tan, great dane tore across Angel Grove park with her fake limb dangling from his jowls. The sun was shining brightly in the sky as the reception festivities continued in a cook-out/ picnic-like outing. Children ran in every direction getting, what used to be their Sunday best, disheveled beyond redemption. _Well, at least I can say that this is the most interesting game of fetch I've ever played with this dumb mutt. I'm going to kill Rocky for this._ Lindsey glared at the unrepentive mongrel that was wagging his tail happily at her about a football field's length away at the other end of the swings.

Her first mistake had been taking off her arm, she acknowledged as Angus let out a muffled bark. CC Edwards, TJ's younger sister, had asked about it, and wanting to give the girl a forward, non-frightening explanation, she had taken off the arm only to have the mutt steal it right from underneath her nose.

"How are you going to get it back?" CC gasped between fits of laughter, and Lindsey found herself smiling in response.

"I have no idea. Any suggestions?" She asked brightly as the dog tossed the arm up in the air and caught it neatly in his jaws. Lindsey shot him an aggrieved look.

"Throw him a hot-dog instead?" CC suggested as she dissolved into giggles.

"What's going on?" Rosa DeSantos, CC's best friend asked as she walked over to where they were standing.

"Your brother's dog made off with my arm." Lindsey said with a laugh as she pointed to the happy dog who seemed to take great pleasure in throwing her arm up in the air and then diving ambitiously for it.

"Rocky!" Rosa hollered then with the classic DeSantos volume. "Your dumb dog stole Lindsey's arm!" That pronouncement garnered the attention of *everyone* at the reception, much to the Asian girl's dismay. Lindsey felt her cheeks turn bright red as, what seemed like a million eyes, focused solely on her.

"Heh, we were, ah, playing fetch only this time he decided not to give it back." She said with a weak laugh. CC and Rosa burst into hysterical laughter, and Lindsey suddenly saw the hilarity in the situation. Within moments, she was rolling on the ground with the pair of seven year olds, oblivious to the shocked looks on everyone's faces.

What ensued next was the most bizarre version of tag anyone had ever seen. All the children at the reception had immediately gotten it into their heads to chase after the dog. Carlos, Tannen, Cassie, and Rocky then became involved in the affair as George and Tiana began circling the dog, chirping happily as they flew in and out of the laughing children. Carlos finally managed to tackle the big dog to the ground, only to be rewarded for his effort with a breath of fire on his rear from Tiana. He yelped as Tannen tackled his dragon to the ground.

From his spot at the picnic table, Mr. Velasquez laughed so hard, tears formed in his eyes. "I haven't laughed this hard in years." He exclaimed breathlessly to himself.

"I know what you mean. I haven't seen that dog that active in years. Poor Lindsey." A dark haired Hispanic woman laughed in agreement next to him. She appeared to be in her mid to late forties, like him. But it was obvious that the years had been kind to her. Her long dark hair was graying slightly at the temples and there were the faint beginnings of crow's feet at her eyes, but he thought that they were rather endearing laugh lines. Her brown eyes still had a certain appeal to them too, as they displayed every emotion she seemed to feel in their depths.

"Hi. I don't believe we've met before. My name's Rick Velasquez. Manny and Carlos are my sons." He said as he introduced himself and his absent sons. She smiled back at him as she noticed that the years had been kind to him as well. He looked to be about her age, but he still had a trim figure and a commanding physic that were often missing among men her age. His jet black hair was graying by his temples but she thought that that only made him look more distinguished.

"My name's Mayra DeSantos. Most of those children running over there are mine. Rocky's my oldest, and that is his dog. Then there's Clara, Paul, Cristian, Blanca, Miguel, and Rosa." She said as she rattled off the names of all of her little hellions. Rick smiled, duly impressed.

"You and your husband must have your hands full trying to raise that bunch." He said with a small laugh. She smiled distantly at him.

"Actually, I'm widowed. Its almost been about eight years now." She said matter of factly. "I lost my Jose to a drunk driver in `91." Rick regarded her with new respect and understanding.

"I'm widowed too. I lost my Cristina in `90 to a moron who ran a red light." He said solemnly. "Car accidents are a hellva way to lose someone. They're here one moment, then gone the next." He added as an after thought. She nodded her agreement as she regarded him with new eyes. They sat in silence together for a moment as they watched the kids race around two fire spitting dragons and a great dane. "I . . . I don't want to sound too forward, but would you like to maybe go out and see a movie or something with me sometime?" Rick asked hesitantly, unsure of exactly what was expected on the dating scene nowadays. He'd been out of it for so long, but there was something about the woman sitting next to him that made him want to give it a try again.

"Sure. That sounds like fun. I haven't seen an adult movie in ages. Anything that doesn't involve purple dinosaurs or Disney would be like heaven. Um, how does Friday sound?" She asked hesitantly. He beamed back at her.

"It sounds wonderful." He responded.

* * *
Angel Grove High School
June 11, 1999
"Man, our last day as seniors and our last day here." TJ said with a happy sigh as he kicked back and put his feet up on the picnic table next to Carlos. "Can you believe all the things that happened this year? We almost get our butts kicked by aliens while almost failing out of high school at the same time. Then Andros shatters Zordon's tube, all the universe's evil is wiped out and we're revealed as rangers. We get full ride scholarships to Angel Grove University and jobs with NASADA when we graduate. Can you believe that? It all seems like some really warped dream, and that's not even mentioning what happened this Thanksgiving." TJ shaded his eyes against the noon day sun in order to see how his friend was reacting to what he had just said. Carlos didn't acknowledge him, and it became painfully obvious to TJ that the Hispanic boy hadn't even heard a word he'd said. TJ followed his friend in black's line of sight and then smiled. _ _ Carlos, you're staring, and you stare any harder, you're going to start drooling._ _ The teen in blue projected with a laugh.

"Huh? What?" Carlos asked as he swung his head around to his see his best friend.

"You were staring at Lindsey Park. Again." TJ noted as he gave a barely perceptible nod towards the table where the Asian girl was currently eating lunch.

"I can't help it." Carlos said with a slight flush. "She just thinks the most interesting things." He added with an embarrassed shrug.

"You read her thoughts?" TJ asked incredulously. Carlos nodded somewhat shame-faced. "How do you know its her thoughts you're reading?" The teen in blue asked, curious.

"The whole thing works like a radio. I tune into the people I want to listen to. She thinks I have a cute butt. What do you think?" He asked as he tore his eyes away from her to look at his best friend.

"About your butt?" TJ asked rather dubiously.

Carlos frowned. "No, I don't want to know what you think about my butt, Man. Pay attention. I want to know what you think about her." He clarified indignantly. TJ stifled a laugh as he turned to look at the solitary girl.

"I know she's Clara's best friend, other than me of course. Clara's told me that she worries about her sometimes and that she wishes that she and Zoe had the same lunch as her." TJ said thoughtfully after a moment.

"Clara wants the same lunch because she wants to be as close to you as possible." Carlos said as he made a mock smooching noise. TJ shot him an aggrieved glare. "Although she has a point, I worry about Lindsey sometimes, too. I don't think she has any really close friends at this lunch. I don't know, after Manny's wedding, I really wanted to ask her out on a date, but I didn't know how to go about it. I mean, I've never really done that kind of thing before." Carlos said as he scratched the back of his neck with a perplexed look on his face. TJ rolled his eyes. It amazed him sometimes how Carlos had managed to make it through high school without having gone out on an official date. Most of the girls in their class had fairly drooled over him for the last two years, and he'd never even noticed.

"Why don't you go over there and invite her to come over here and join us for lunch." TJ suggested blandly as he lost his friend's attention once more to the beautiful Asian girl.

"Um, sure. Yeah, that's a great idea, Teej." Carlos said absently as he got up from the table and moved across the courtyard.

Lindsey covertly watched the two teenage guys out of the corner of her eye as they stared at her from across the courtyard. _Clara said that since I really don't have any other friends here at this lunch, that I should just go over there and sit with them. Okay, I can do that. Sitting by myself sucks. Here I go._ She sat there and stared at the sandwich in her hand. _Or not. Chicken._ She gave the tuna and lettuce sandwich a wry smile. _Some things never change. I don't know why I can't just get up and invite myself over to their table. Its not like they aren't nice guys. One, they're both power rangers and completely different than the rest of the guys in our class. Two, Clara wouldn't date someone who treated her or her friends badly, she has too much self respect for that. Three, I know Carlos won't say anything mean to me. He's just too nice._ She frowned slightly as the unbidden memory of when she'd first met the Hispanic boy came to mind.

* * *
Angel Grove Elementary
April 1991
Lindsey Park looked out over the crowded gym with unhappy ten year old eyes. It had been four whole months since the accident, and since then she had changed schools. Angel Grove Elementary had a better handicap program than Stone Canyon, so her parents had opted to drive her twenty extra minutes out of their way every morning and afternoon to ensure that she was allowed to attend. She hated it here though, and she'd only been going for a week. She drew and released a dejected breath of air. It smelled like sweaty socks in the gym. _A fifth grade sleep over. I hate this. I don't have any friends here. They all think I'm a freak of nature. Who wouldn't? The neon pink cast on my leg makes me look like a space robot and I don't have a right arm from the elbow down._

"How are you holding up, dearie? You're not too tired yet, are you? You're arm doesn't hurt does it? Could I get some ice and make it all better?" Mrs. Thompson intruded into her thoughts with her annoyingly high pitched sing song voice. Lindsey swiveled her gaze the teacher's. _If I wag my tail and pant happily, will you leave me alone in peace?_ She couldn't help but think. _You can't make my arm "all better". Its gone. Are you blind?_ Lindsey smiled instead.

"I'm fine Mrs. Thompson. Really, this is the most fun I've had in a long time." She lied artfully. The teacher bought the line and then wandered off after some rowdy ten year old, leaving her in blissful peace. _I wish Clara was here. I miss my old friends. I miss my old life._ She frowned as she stared at her good hand.

"Are you Lindsey Park?"

Her chin whipped up and she found herself staring at a ten year old boy with short, straight black hair, and skin that was a shade or two darker than her own. She nodded uncertainly as she recalled his name. _Carlos. I've seen him playing soccer at recess. He's really good. They call him stupid Spanish boy though `cause of his accent. If he's come here to pick on me too, then I really have made the discovery of the century. I've discovered hell._

"If you're going to touch me and run, I'll save you the trouble." She said as she reached over with her left arm and tapped him on the knee. He looked at her, confused. "The last kids who came over to talk to me, tagged me and then ran. It was some kind of bet. Touch the freak." She explained with a straight face. Carlos frowned, but decided to ignore the comment.

"My new friend, Ashley, says that the reason you're in a wheelchair is `cause you were in a car accident." He said solemnly. She nodded, trying for the millionth time, not to picture the twisted metal and the blood that had worked its way into all of her dreams.

"Yeah, I was in a car accident." She said quietly, as she looked up at the boy's dark brown eyes.

"I was in a car accident, too." He said as he pulled up his shirt slightly. Across his belly was a pale seven inch jagged line that was obviously a healed scar. "I got this in a car accident." He said. "It was really scary. There was blood everywhere and I could hear my brother screaming and my stomach really hurt."

"Yeah, mine was really scary, too. I lost my arm and my leg was shattered so bad that the doctors couldn't put it back together very well. They say I may never walk again." Lindsey said as she motioned to the twisted looking appendage that was housed in a plaster cast. "But I'm not supposed to know that. I got this scar, too." She added as an afterthought as she lightly traced the thin pale line above her brow. Carlos bent over to get a better look, and then backed away, duly impressed by the extent of her injuries.

"Are the rest of the snot heads here bugging you very much?" He asked next then, startling her somewhat.

"Yeah, but after a week of it, I'm kinda used to it." She said with a shrug. Carlos frowned, and then looked over his shoulder.

"Hey Ashley! C'mere!" He hollered across the gymnasium. Lindsey looked up to see a smiling brunette dance her way over to them, and she felt her heart fall. Ashley was an incredibly pretty girl.

"What's up, Carlos?" She asked as she shot a friendly smile in Lindsey's direction. Lindsey felt herself smile back. The brunette's cheerful friendly overture seemed completely at odds with her outward appearances. And idly, Lindsey wondered if she hadn't been too quick to judge her.

"We're going to protect Lindsey from the rest of the dweebs here, how does that sound? We can play a card game or something, like "go fish". I know I brought a pack a cards with me in my backpack." He said as he looked back and forth between the two girls.

"Sounds like fun." Ashley said with a quick smile.

"Yeah, it does." Lindsey responded with a smile of her own.

* * *
Carlos stopped halfway across the courtyard, stunned by the memory he'd gleaned from her thoughts. He'd forgotten that the three of them had been pretty good friends through the end of fifth grade. He and Ashley had had different teachers than Lindsey the next year, and they had grown apart, but he couldn't believe he'd forgotten how close they had been for those three months until school had let out for the summer. He shook his head to clear away the shock and then made his way over to her table.

"Hey Lindsey. What's up?" He asked, in what he hoped was a casual voice. She looked up at him and blushed. He smiled at her. She always blushed when he talked to her, he noticed.

"My guess would be the sky, but if you haven't noticed I'm a little on the vertically challenged side, so I imagine you would probably have a better idea of that than me." She said with a small laugh as she moved over and made room for him at the table. He sat down next to her with a laugh. "So what brings you to my neck of the courtyard?" She asked hesitantly.

"I got sick of listening to TJ whine about not having the same lunch as Clara, and I, um, I wanted to know if you maybe would to agree to planetarium with me on a date this Friday." He said quickly. Lindsey blinked for a moment and then stuck a finger in her ear, wiggled it around and then extracted it.

"Did I hear that right?" She asked softly. He nodded as he felt his throat go dry. She looked around the table behind her and to her sides.

He felt his heart leap into his throat. _She's going to say no. I never should have asked. I am going to kill TJ for this. Ask her out on a date, he says. She'll say yes, he says. This is the last time I listen to him._

"Are you asking *me* out on a date?" She asked uncertainly, as it finally began to dawn on him. _She doesn't think I'd actually ever ask her out._ He nodded and watched as she drew a breath. "Yes. I'd love to." She said, her voice barely above a whisper, and he saw a ecstatic smile begin to work its way into her usually serious expression. He looked into her dark brown eyes for a moment and then let out a whoop of satisfaction as he gathered her in a quick bear hug.

"She said yes, TJ! She said yes!" He shouted across the courtyard. TJ nodded his head and gave his friend the typical, "I think you're going crazy" look.

"That's great Carlos. Didn't I tell you that she'd want to eat lunch with us." TJ shouted back, not quite understanding why his friend was letting out thrilled shouts as he jumped up and down in front of the astonished looking Asian girl.

* * *
Velasquez household
July 3, 1999
"Life is wonderful." Carlos announced as he sat down with a happy sigh at the kitchen table. Rick Velasquez looked up from his newspaper with a wry grin as he looked at the ecstatic expression on his son's face.

"I take it that Lindsey agreed to be your girlfriend." He said as he took a sip of coffee. "I knew she would. That girl is absolutely crazy about you. Of course you're just as crazy over her. Mayra thinks that the two of you should have gotten together ages ago." He added with a wink.

"Mayra? Who's Mayra?" Carlos asked, his curiosity piqued. In the months after his father had been trapped by the physcos with Ashley, they had become much closer. Their relationship resembled that more of father and son than of strangers, but before now, he'd never heard his Dad mention any woman's name other than his mother's and *that* didn't even happen that often.

"Mayra DeSantos. Rocky's mother." Rick added as he took another sip of his coffee and then set the mug along with the paper down on the table. "Carlos, Mayra and I talked this over, and we realize that this might not be the easiest thing for you kids to accept. That's why I want you to go with me to the park with the DeSantos' tomorrow for a fourth of July picnic. You can bring Lindsey if you want." Rick added as he looked intently at his son. Carlos frowned slightly, but he didn't appear to be overly concerned.

"You went on a date with her shortly after Manny's wedding didn't you?" He asked. His father nodded with a secretive smile. "Sure. I'll be there. I think I'll bring Lindsey along, too. The rest of the team can do without me for one holiday. I'll leave it up to Ashley, and Cassie to explain this one to the aliens." Carlos said jokingly with a laugh. Rick smiled. "Do you think Clara will bring TJ along?"

"Probably." His father answered. "Those two are pretty much attached at the hip. I'd say good luck to the person who even tries to tear them apart. Zoe will probably be there too, what with the way she and Rocky are. I swear those three girls are like some unseparable trio." He added with a chuckle. Carlos grinned back.

* * *
Angel Grove Park
July 4, 1999
"We're engaged."

Rick looked nervously at the large group of shocked looking young people that were seated on the grass in front of him and Mayra. He glanced over at his fianc‚,, and shot her a wry smile at the reaction they were receiving at their news. She smiled back at him as she took his hand in hers and moved closer to him. Rosa, Miguel, Blanca, and the twins were the first to recover from the shock though.

Rosa and Miguel let out hoots of laughter as they got up and danced around. Blanca smiled and looked shyly up at Rick, while the twins grinned and nudged each other in the ribs as they started making mock kissing noises in attempts to embarrass their unshakable mother.

The older kids were in a class all of their own, though. None of them seemed to lose their shocked expressions at the news, and the newly engaged couple shared a knowing glance as they looked at their young adult children and then back at each other. Rick sighed slightly as he recognized the stubborn slant that was beginning to work its way into Carlos' expression. _Well, we knew the younger ones would take it the easiest. Its the older ones that knew their parents better. They were old enough to realize our failings, and they will be more difficult to convince. I did try to warn Mayra. I hope she doesn't take this too hard, she's had enough heartache in her life. So have I for that matter._

Rocky was the first to recover from the news as he untangled his arm from around Zoe Oliver in order to walk up to his mother's side. Clara watched uncertainly from her spot next to TJ. Carlos just seemed to be lost in thought as his arm unconsciously tightened around Lindsey.

"You're kidding." Rocky said as he gained his mother's attention. "Right, Mom?" He asked uncertainly. She turned to her oldest son and smiled slightly. "This is a joke. You're just playing a practical joke on us, right?"

"I'm sorry, honey. But this is for real. I love Rick, and we decided that when people like us love each other the way we do, the next step is marriage. Please try to understand." Mayra said as she looked pleadingly at the proud young man before her.

"Understand? How can I understand?" Rocky said, feeling a sense of dread creep under his skin at the sight of his mother's hand in Mr. Velasquez's. "What about Dad? What about him? Didn't he mean anything to you?" He demanded, trying desperately not to feel angry over what was happening.

"Honey, your father has been dead for eight years now. He wouldn't have wanted me to live alone for the rest of my life, that's just not the way my Jose thought." She said as she paused. "Its time for me to move on. Its time for you to move on. I know I didn't handle things right when he died, but you have to look forward sweetheart . . ."

"Forward?!" Rocky bit out angrily. "Look forward to you marrying *him*?! You expect me to be happy about this?" He snapped. Carlos' eyes flashed as his friend's words finally shook him out of his own stupor.

"Are you saying that there's something wrong with my father?" Carlos demanded as he rounded on Rocky. "Do you think I'm happy about this either? I certainly don't want him marrying *her*, either. My mother may be dead, but that doesn't mean that I need a new one." He said as he looked into his father's eyes. Clara looked uncertainly from Rocky to Carlos, unsure of what was going on, or what to feel.

"Well, from what I've seen of your father, he isn't much of one, so I agree with you whole heartedly. I don't need a new father, either." Rocky said. With that, he turned on his heel and stalked out of the park towards his motorcycle, leaving Zoe standing beside Clara watching him retreat. Carlos paled slightly at the comment, and then his expression grew dark.

"Fine." He shouted angrily, ensuring that Rocky heard, and then turned and stalked off in the other direction towards his jeep, leaving Lindsey in his wake. Clara looked from one boy's back to the other's and then at the older couple standing in front of her, and then promptly burst into quiet tears as she turned her head into TJ's shoulder.

"Great picnic." Lindsey said to herself with a touch of irony as she tried to help TJ comfort her best friend.

* * *
Rocky looked out over the horizon as the sun set over the desert badlands at the eastern edge of Angel Grove. The white sands of the dunes were now red and orange, making the large open expanse of nothingness appear as if it were on fire. But there was no warmth from where he was sitting. In fact, it was pretty damn cold. Rocky shifted slightly on his feet for a moment and then got off of his motorcycle. He made his way to the edge of the cliff that over looked the Californian desert, and shivered slightly as a chill ran up his spine as he sat down on the edge of the fifty foot drop. Idly, he wondered what his family was up to at the moment. He hoped they were too involved in their own lives to notice his absence. He really wanted to be alone to try and absorb the bombshell his mother had just dropped.

Rocky threw an old worn pebble down onto the desert floor, and watched to see where it landed. He gave a somber smile as it hit the growing pile of rocks that were beginning to litter a dune about ten feet from the base of the bluff. _I've thrown enough pebbles off this cliff to create my own rock quarry on the desert floor._ A humorless smile worked its way into his expression. This was his `thinking spot', the only other person in existence who knew about it was Zoe, and he'd only taken her here once.

Rocky ran a hand through his dark brown hair, as he thought briefly about his girlfriend. He felt bad about leaving her just standing there, but the urge to leave the situation and to leave the emotions behind had just been too overwhelming. He tossed another pebble across the barren terrain. The sun had almost fallen out of view, and the first stars were just beginning to twinkle in the twilight sky. _For a bunch of stars, they look awfully damn happy._ He gave a small snort as he tossed another pebble and then looked up once more. He wondered if they were ever truly happy, truly content. Or was it possible, could they be a little bit like him? Did they burn themselves out trying to be the light in their world? Rocky laid back on the old red rocks of the cliff as he stared up at the darkening sky. He snorted as he dismissed his fanciful thoughts. _Pumba is right, they are just burning balls of gas._ He gave a wry smile as he made a mental note to stop watching The Lion King or any other Disney related movie with the kids. He looked back up at the thousands of glittering stars.

In a way he envied them. They felt nothing. They just sat in space and went through their chemical reactions and created light. If one of them died out, the rest were oblivious. They felt no pain, no remorse. They didn't ponder on what might have been, or what could have happened. He let out a deep sigh as the sun finally dropped out of sight.

He was so sick of pretending that his life was perfect. That he had no problems. Because he had plenty of problems. He was nineteen years old, and he was out of high school, but he hadn't gone to college like the rest of his friends. They had all left for other universities or other exciting lives, while he had stayed home. What was he going to do with the rest of his life? And while he was at it, what was he going to do about his mother remarrying? As a ranger, there had always been a clear cut purpose to everything. Defend the planet. Fight evil. Serve Justice. But after he'd given up the powers to Justin, he'd felt like he'd been cast a drift. The only thing in his life since then that had remained constant had been Zoe. If it hadn't been for her, he was pretty sure he would have lost it long before now. He sighed as he heard tires crunch against the desert rocks and, out of the corner of his eye, he saw the low beams of Tommy's truck as it pulled up next to his motorcycle.

Turning slightly, he watched as his petite brunette girlfriend climbed out of the driver's seat and made her way over to him. "Does Tommy know you borrowed his baby?" He asked with a wry smile as she sat down beside him at the edge of the bluff.

"Nah. What he doesn't know won't hurt him. Besides, what does he need with it? He's out racing the track with the most souped up car he could get his hands on. He's in heaven." She said as she picked up a pebble and tossed it. It fell slowly and made a plinking noise as it bounced off another rock in the pile at the bottom of the cliff. "Your Mom's worried about you." She added quietly. Her green eyes looked over at him as he stared off blindly into the night.

"How could she do this?" He asked finally, bewildered. "I mean, she loved Dad so much. She completely fell apart when he died."

"Just how old were you when he died anyway?" Zoe asked softly. She knew that talking about the late Jose DeSantos was a taboo subject in her boyfriend's household, which struck her as being rather odd, but out of respect she had followed the rules. Until now.

"I was eleven. God, it was awful. I can still remember Mom just sitting on the couch for the three days afterwards in Dad's old golf shirt. She wouldn't get up and dress, she wouldn't take care of Miguel or Blanca, she wouldn't do anything but sit there and cry. My aunts and uncles had to take care of the rest of us kids until she snapped out of it."

"Eleven? I thought you were twelve when Rosa was born?" Zoe asked, mildly confused.

"I was. Mom was three months pregnant with Rosa when Dad died. God it was awful, she almost miscarried twice during that pregnancy. It was almost too much. I went from being a carefree, no worries kid to a full time baby-sitter /surrogate father. The first year after his death was pretty bleak." He finished. Zoe's heart went out to him as he explained his childhood away in such an emotionless voice. Cautiously, she moved closer to him, snaking an arm around his waist. Wordlessly, he returned the gesture, pulling her close to him.

"You were stronger than she was, you know." Zoe said quietly. "It probably doesn't seem like it, but from what you've said, and just from the way that I see you are with your brothers and sisters, you were the rock when your father died. I think things would have been a lot worse if you hadn't taken control. Its not fair though, you were just a kid." She said as she tossed another pebble in mild annoyance.

"I guess. I don't know. Its just that after a while, I got so mad at Mom. Things were just so strained for so long. I found myself horsing around just to see if I could make anyone in my family just smile and forget for a second how much we all missed Dad. After a while, I guess it just kind of stuck with me. When people are unhappy or worried, my first reaction is to goof around until they at least crack a smile. And I hate it. Everyone thinks I'm this happy, carefree guy." He said as he angrily tossed a pebble.

"You're not though." Zoe said knowingly. "I know you Rocky, and believe it or not, I can usually tell when you're laughing on the outside while you're crying on the inside." She said as she intertwined her hand in his.

"I know, and sometimes I think that you're the only one who doesn't see me in just one dimension." He said and then sighed. "I'm just lost a little I guess, and Mom's announcement only threw me for a bigger loop. Things are just changing so fast and I don't know how to keep up with them. I mean, I'm nineteen years old, and I have no idea where I'm headed in life."

"I don't think that most people our age do. If it makes you feel any better, the future scares the crap out of me. There are no certainties in life, but it really sucks when you finally realize you have to move out into the real world to try and strike it out on your own. There is so much pressure to succeed, it feels like you're failing everyone you love if you even make the smallest mistake. On a different note though, Tommy and Jason wanted me to ask you what you would think about helping them open up a joint Dojo. It would mean a couple of business classes at AGU and a lot of hard work." Zoe said as she turned to look at him. He paused for a minute.

"Its an idea at least." He said with a hint of interest, and Zoe smiled in the dark.

"Do you want to go home, or do you want to talk some more?" Zoe asked as she snuggled closer to him to avoid the cool breeze that was blowing over the edge of the bluff.

"Talk." Rocky said decisively.

"Okay." She agreed, and they were silent for a moment. "What do you remember about your father?"

Rocky rested his chin on her head, and slowly, he began to tell her all about his father and about his childhood. Together, they sat there and watched the sun rise slowly over the dunes to the far east as dawn greeted their sleepless faces.

* * *
TJ sat on the park bench, with his arms around his girlfriend as she cried heart wrenching sobs into his shirt. Her mother and Mr. Velasquez had left them alone about an hour ago to take the rest of the kids to a fast food joint in order to sit down with them and try to explain what was happening a little bit better. Lindsey had pretty much left fifteen minutes after Carlos had, and he had stayed with Clara.

He stared down at her sable hair as he unconsciously rubbed her shoulder comfortingly. Something told him that she need to cry like this, but he couldn't help wishing that there was something he could do to take away her pain. Finally, her sobs seemed to abate.

_ _Do you want to talk about it?_ _ He projected as she lifted up her teary face to look into his. She nodded as she let out a little hiccup/sob and a calming breath.

"I haven't cried this hard since Papa died. I don't even think I cried this hard when he died. I was in shock, you know. He was my Papa. He was supposed to be invincible, but he wasn't." She said as she pleaded with him to understand. He nodded reassuringly. "Mom took it really bad, and Rocky had to do a lot just to keep our family together. I think that's kinda why he stormed out of here like he did. I don't know. It even feels to me like Mom's trying to get some stranger to take Rocky's place with the younger kids. He is like their father. He's the only `father' that Miguel and Rosa have ever known. How could she do this TJ? How could my Mom tear our family apart like this again?" Clara asked as another tear rolled down her cheek. TJ pulled her closer and gave her a reassuring hug.

"I don't think your Mom is intentionally trying to pull things apart. I think she just wants to be happy, and I don't think that Mr. Velasquez is out to take Rocky or your father's place. I know things are a little confusing right now, but you and your family have so many things to be thankful for, Clara. You're father may not be alive, but you still have your mother and all of your siblings. In the few months that we've been going out, you have brought me into the only true family I've ever known. Your Mother dotes on me as much as she dotes on Miguel or you, and Christian harasses me as much as he harasses Paul. It may seem like things are falling apart right now, but I don't think they can in your family. You guys are too strong, and you've been through too much for that. You're only regrouping a little bit." TJ said as he looked into her eyes. She managed a teary smile.

"Thanks TJ." She said simply as she hugged him.

"Anytime, sweetheart, anytime." He said. "You know, I've always felt that one way to never forget how important someone was in your life is to talk about them. Why don't you tell me what you can remember about your Papa." He said as she curled her chin against his chest and they both sat back to watch the trees swaying in the wind.

* * *
Lindsey grimaced slightly as she watched Carlos stare off into space from his spot on the roof of his two story house. _Of all the places, and he has to pick the one place that it will be extremely difficult for me to get to._ Thoughtfully, she circled to the back of the house to the tool shed, and carefully, to make sure her bad leg didn't give way, she heaved herself up onto the small ledge of the tool shed that gave her better access to the roof. _One day as girlfriend/boyfriend and here I am climbing roofs for him._ A wry smile lit her face at the thought. _But I would do this a thousand times over for him. In the last month, I've felt like a whole new person because of him. All my life I have stood on the outside looking on while others have lived out their lives, having their fun. And I have wished so many times that I could be a part of that, but I haven't known how until now. I feel so alive when I'm with him. He touches a part of me that no one else can._

She moved cautiously across the slopping roof as she made her way to Carlos. He seemed oblivious though, as he continued to stare straight ahead. Quietly, she made her way over to him.

"Are you Carlos Velasquez?" She asked. He turned to look up at her confused, but she plowed on ahead anyway. "I heard that you were in a car accident once." She paused slightly as he nodded. "I was in one too, once." She said softly as she sat down beside him. "I lost my right arm from the elbow down and my leg was so badly broken that I will always walk with a limp."

Carlos stared at her momentarily as her curly black tresses swayed slightly in a light Californian summer breeze. Her words reminded him eerily of another conversation, and he found himself pulling his shirt up slightly to expose his stomach. Slowly, she reached out with her left hand and traced lightly over the seven inch scar.

"I got this in a car accident." He heard himself saying. " My Mom was driving me and Manny to soccer practice, and we came to an intersection about a mile from our house. Manny was in the front seat, and I was sitting behind Mom. The light turned green, and my Mom started to turn right. The guy came out of no where. All I can remember was a large pop, and then a stabbing pain in my midsection. Manny was screaming in the front seat, and I could see him, but I couldn't see my Mom ahead of me. The metal had crunched in too deep. I can remember calling her name over and over, but she never answered." He paused for a moment as Lindsey drew closer to his side. Instinctively, he reached out for her waist, steadying her, and pulling her into his embrace. "I can remember seeing the body bag later out of the corner of my eye as they put me in the back of an ambulance, and wondering who had died. My father finally told me when I got out of surgery at the hospital later. He didn't take her death well. None of us did."

"Dad retreated into work, and we ended up moving because he couldn't stand to live in the same house or even the same town anymore. For the longest time, Manny and I just lived in the house with him, but he wasn't really even there. It was kind of like living with a zombie. He made us dinner and packed our lunches, but it wasn't like he was really there. Not like we needed him to be." He said as he ran a hand through his long straight hair. "I can remember at breakfast one morning about a month after the accident, I just burst into tears because I missed her so much. My Dad, well, he looked at me for a few moments, and then he left the room. I think that it was then that I started pushing what I felt back into the recesses of my mind, hoping that if I ignored the pain, it would go away."

"It doesn't though, does it." Lindsey said as she laid her head on his broad shoulder. She felt him take a deep sigh. "Have you ever talked to your father? Have you ever told him how you felt? How you feel?" She asked a little hesitantly.

"No." He said dejectedly. "I guess...I guess I've always been a little afraid of what he'd do. I mean, my entire life, I have tried not to rock the boat too much. To be the perfect kid. When I was younger I was convinced that if I was the best soccer player in school, if I had the best grades in my class, then my father would have to pay attention to me, that he'd have to love me. I suppose somewhere along the line, striving for absolute perfection just became a habit." He said, mildly bewildered, as if he'd just figured something out for the first time.

"Yeah, Adam says you're as stubborn as hell, and that you're too hard on yourself." Lindsey commented. "When he was home over the summer last year, he told me that he had been trying to help you train to compete in some martial arts event across town. He said that you had some really awesome moves, but you couldn't see that because you were too busy concentrating on the few things that you couldn't do." Carlos was glad for the lack of light that dusk provided as he smiled slightly. He remembered the "martial arts event", but there was a lot more to it than Adam had told his sister. Even now, he reflected, he still felt slightly guilty about accidentally breaking Cassie's arm in that incident. He'd almost quit the team because of it.

Silence descended on them as they both watched the sun fall behind the park trees off in the far distance. "Your father does love you, you know." Lindsey said after a while. "I saw the way he was beaming at you and Manny at the wedding. He had this huge smile on his face, and I swear the buttons were going to pop off his jacket because he was so proud of the two of you." She paused to let what she said sink in. "When a parent dies, it sucks. Especially for the kids. I watched the DeSantos' go through the loss of Mr. Jose. Everyone was so concerned with consoling Mrs. Mayra, who was inconsolable. No one really did much for the kids other than take care of their daily needs and watch after them. I can remember seeing Clara's pale face for the first time after the accident, and then having her burst into hysterical tears for two hours on my hospital bed. She didn't have anyone to talk to about her loss, and I'll wager that you didn't either." Lindsey said as she turned her luminous eyes up to his. He nodded, and she noticed that his eyes shone overly bright in the starlit darkness.

"I missed my mom so much after she died. She had just understood me so well. I didn't have to explain myself to her, she knew what was going on inside my head. When she died, I didn't have anyone. I couldn't talk to Manny. I couldn't talk to Dad. We moved shortly after she died so I couldn't talk to any of my old friends even if I had wanted to. I wanted nothing more in the world than to have her back. Sometimes, I'd just sit at the table by the door and will her to walk through it, even though I knew she never would." He said quietly. She could hear the tears in his voice, and she snuggled up closer to him, wrapping both arms around his middle. His arms draped over her shoulders, pulling her closer as silent sobs tore at him. After a while, they finally quieted some, and Lindsey dared to look up into his face. He smiled wanly at her, and bent down slightly, kissing her on the forehead where a small tiny scar marred her perfect skin. She smiled back at him and then put her head against his chest as they both stared up at the stars overhead.

* * *
Mayra DeSantos looked up from the book she was reading as she heard a soft knock on her bedroom door. From his place on her bed, Angus lifted his head off the bed, his ears perking up. Absently, she gave his head a reassuring pat as she put her book down.

"Come in."

Mayra smiled slightly as her oldest daughter's head peaked around the corner of the door uncertainly. "Mom, can I talk to you?" Clara asked softly. Mayra nodded easily as she patted the empty space on the bed next to her. Reluctantly, Clara walked over and she sat beside her mother. "Are you really going to marry Mr. Velasquez?"

"Fraid so, sweetheart." Mayra said as she gently turned her daughter around, and grabbed a brush off the bedside table. Obediently, Clara allowed her mother to brush her long chestnut tresses. "I love Rick. I love him in much the same way that I imagine you love TJ." Mayra said matter of factly.

"Do you love him as much as you loved Papa?" Clara asked, trying to sort out the tangle in her mind. Her mother gave a soft sigh, and Clara almost regretted asking the question.

"I loved your Papa a lot, but I love Rick just as much. Your Papa was such a kid at heart. He loved you kids so much." She said with a sigh as she began to braid Clara's hair.

"Why did he have to die?" Clara asked softly as she reached over and rubbed the sleeping great dane between the ears.

"Hon, that's like asking why the world turns. There is no real answer. Sometimes things like that just happen." Mayra said as she took off her reading glasses and gave a sad grin.

"I guess. But it still sucks." Clara said with a hint of anger. "Why Mr. Velasquez? Why marry him?" She finally asked. The question had been bothering her ever since her mother had announced her engagement. She knew next to nothing about her future step father.

"Well, to begin with, his name is really Enrique Emanuel Velasquez." Her mother answered with a happy note in her voice as she tied a rubber band around the braid she had just finished. Clara turned around with a slight grin.

"Enrique? Just like Rocky? He's gonna love that." Clara answered with a mischievous grin. Mayra rolled her eyes at her daughter's idea of humor.

"What am I gonna love?" A male voice asked from the doorway. Both Clara and Mayra looked up.

"Enrique Jose DeSantos! Its about time you finally came home. I've been worried sick. You could have called." Mayra scolded her son as he walked into the room and sat down on the bed next to Angus.

"Sorry Mom. I needed some time to think by myself." Rocky said in a tight voice. "Now what is this that I'm gonna love?" He asked, focusing his attention on his sister.

"Mr. Velasquez has the same first name as you." Clara answered happily. Rocky made a disgusted face. Mayra sighed.

"Rick isn't that bad, you too. He's even a pretty nice guy if you'd get to know him." Mayra said with a hint of sarcasm as she regarded her oldest children. Both shot her a look that indicated that they didn't quite believe her.

"What happened to Carlos' mother anyway?" Rocky asked as he gave his dog an obligatory pat. "Divorce?"

"Car accident." Mayra answered, instantly gaining both Rocky and Clara's attention. "She was driving Carlos and Manny to soccer practice when a guy ran a red light, crashing into the driver's side of the car, killing her instantly." She explained.

"Carlos' scar. The one on his stomach. He got that from the car accident didn't he?" Rocky inserted as the injury occurred to him. His mother nodded.

"They rushed him to the hospital from the accident and he in surgery for three hours. Rick says they was afraid of internal bleeding for about 24 hours afterwards too. Carlos managed to pull through though." She said as she stated the obvious.

"He and Lindsey do have a lot in common then, don't they." Clara said as she propped her back up with one of her mother's lacy pillows.

"Yes they do, and so do Rick and I." Mayra said, regarding her children thoughtfully. They seemed about it for a moment. "You guys think I handled your father's death badly, Rick was ten times worse. He avoided Carlos afterwards because the poor kid reminded him too much of his late wife. He retreated into his work, blocking both Carlos and Manny out of his emotional life." Her children seemed to consider the possibilities, and Mayra took that as a good sign. "I know I didn't handle things right when Jose died, and I will always regret that. You kids needed someone to be there for you, and I wasn't. You needed to talk out your grief as much as I did, but I wouldn't let you. What's worse, I tried to get rid of everything that reminded me of him. It wasn't until I tried to give away Angus and Rocky ran away from home with the mutt, that I realized I'd gone off the deep end. By then though, you guys had already started internalizing everything." She said, and then paused slightly. "I'm not marrying Rick so he can replace Jose or even you, Rocky. I'm marrying him because I love him and marrying him makes me happy. I feel alive again when I'm with him. I'm not asking you two to instantly accept him. Even I know that that is asking too much. I'm just asking you guys to give him a chance." She finished. Clara nodded thoughtfully. Mayra then turned to look at her oldest son's face.

"I guess Mom. If it makes you happy, I'll try. But I want us to talk about Dad. I don't want to forget him. Ever." Rocky said finally as Angus rolled over, exposing his stomach.

"We will. I promise." Mayra said, meaning every word as she looked at her children's solemn faces. The tan great dane looked at each person in the room imploringly and then, giving up on that tactic, gave a low woof. "Oh all right ya dumb mutt." Mayra said with a laugh as she scratched the dog's belly. The last of the tension in the room seemed to ease as Clara's laughter joined in with her mother's at Angus' content face. Rocky cracked a grin, and tugged the dog's ears lightly. Secretly Mayra smiled, her children would come around eventually. They were strong and they were fair, she knew they would make the right choices.

* * *
July 10, 1999
Velasquez household
It had been a week since his talk with Lindsey on the rooftop of his two story house, Carlos acknowledged, and his nerves had reached the breaking point. _Lindsey is right. I can't keep doing this to myself. I have to talk with him, or at least have it out with him._ He sighed as he rubbed his hair out of his face and made his way down to the table in the kitchen. As usual, his father was leaning against the counter, a cup of coffee in one hand, the newspaper in the other.

It was a normal, very familiar sight to Carlos. One that had even been comforting at times. But this morning it only irritated him. _How can he go about things as if nothing has happened? How can he look so damned content when my guts are tying themselves in knots?_ Carlos felt a scowl works its way into his face as he yanked the pantry cabinet open as hard as he could. Forcefully he took out his Lucky Charms and slammed them down on the table. His father merely raised an eyebrow, and then went back to reading his paper.

That only served to further infuriate the Hispanic teen. Angrily, Carlos yanked a bowl out of the cupboard and slammed it down on the table beside the box with the smiling leprechaun on it. The cheap ceramic bowl broke into pieces on the table under the added pressure.

"Care to talk about it?" Rick Velasquez asked finally as he folded the newspaper up and set it down on the counter. Carlos glared at him.

"Talk? Now why would I want to do something as trivial as that? I mean, there couldn't possibly be anything important for us to talk about. Its not like we talked or anything when Mom died. Its not like we talked or anything when you decided to move away from Stone Canyon. Its not like we talked when you decided you were going to get married to my friend's mother. Why on Earth would we talk now?" Carlos asked sarcastically. In the back of his mind he realized that he was being overly harsh, but years of holding it all in had finally come to a head. Rick opened his mouth to say something but Carlos abruptly cut him off. After years of feeling like he couldn't say anything to his father for fear of rocking the boat, it felt really good to churn up some killer waves.

"So you want to talk now. Well, lets talk about when Mom died. I loved her too, you know. I missed her, too. God, do you have any idea of how scared I was when it happened? Manny wouldn't say more than two words to me, and when he did talk, he burst into tears. I had to sleep alone in that hospital bed trying to imagine what life would be like when I finally got home. And I wanted to go home so bad. But it wasn't the home I remembered. Aunt Rosalina was there, overseeing the funeral, but she wasn't the same as Mom, and there was nothing that would bring Mom back. You, well, you were off in your own little world."

"It was about six months after the accident, if I remember right, that we moved to Angel Grove. You didn't talk to me about that monumental decision, either. I know you couldn't stand to be in a house that constantly reminded you of her, but I needed that. I needed to know that she had been there once. I *liked* the fact that it reminded me of her. I could go into the living room and see the big purple stain in the corner and remember the time that she tickled me so hard I spilled my juice. I could walk into the laundry room and remember her laughing at my muddy jeans that always had a frog in the pocket when she was doing laundry. I had a happy memory for every room in that house. Just being there was like a reminder to me that she had been a part of my life and that she had loved me."

"Until I met Ashley, I hated it here. The kids at school picked on me. They called me stupid Spanish boy, and they said that the reason my mother was dead was because she couldn't stand to have a son as stupid as me. Ten year olds can be really harsh." Carlos said at his father's dubious look. "My teachers were just about as bad. But you never knew that, did you? You never went to parent's night. You never had parent teacher conferences, even when I was totally flunking out of high school earlier this year. But you know, I really didn't mind those lapses that much."

"What I minded was the fact that you never came to one of my soccer games. Not one. I helped Angel Grove High make it to State four years in a row. Four. Did you even know that I had games? Did you even care?" Carlos yelled angrily. "I can understand if you weren't thrilled with soccer, if it bored you senseless. Fine, I can live with that. But you couldn't even pretend to like it for one lousy game? Did you ever have any concept of how much it would have meant to me?"

"Can you understand where I'm coming from, Dad? You haven't played an active part in my life up until you and Ashley were trapped together. I feel like I've just begun to get you back. And now I have to share you with a new wife and seven step brothers and sisters. Can you understand why the prospect doesn't thrill me too much?" Carlos asked, feeling the rage in is system begin to wind down. "I have spent a good portion of my life just trying to gain your love. Is there any point where I might have succeeded? Even a little?" He asked, his breath catching painfully in his throat as he waited for his father to give him the truth.

Rick watched as his son appeared to brace himself for the worst while still hoping for the best, and his heart nearly broke. "Carlos, I do love you. You never had to do anything to gain my love, you already had it the whole time. I know that I have been the world's most rotten father to you and Manny. I wish almost everyday that I could go back in time and change the ways I handled everything." He paused slowly as his son continued to give him an intense stare.

"I know . . . I know that I handle everything about Cristina's death wrong. You needed me to be there for you, and I wasn't. The only thing I can say is I'm sorry. Its woefully inadequate, I know, but I can't undo the past. I can only say that I was wrong. I was wrong to leave you two alone with your grief. I was wrong to retreat into my work. And I was wrong for never having shone more interest in your life."

"I guess...I guess I didn't even realize what I was doing until I had that talk with Ashley. I started seeing a therapist after that, and I started paying more attention to the things that I never should have ignored."

"Oh lord, you just remind me so much of Cristina." Rick said honestly with a heavy sigh. "The two of you are alike in so many ways. Manny was more like me in many ways, but you were the spitting image of your mother. I know that she understood you better than I do. She would have been so proud of you. I'm proud of you, for what its worth." He added. Slowly Carlos walked over to the man that had given him life and leaned against the counter beside him. Casually, Rick through an arm around his younger son's shoulders and they were silent for a moment.

"I promise that I won't let Mayra and the rest of the DeSantoses prevent me from spending time with you. I want you to feel like you're welcome when you're with them, but I also want us to spend some time together. Just you and me." He looked over at Carlos. The teen nodded seriously. "Since its Saturday and all, how about you and I go for a drive together. Maybe we could stop by our old house in Stone Canyon and take a look around?" Rick suggested uncertainly. Carlos looked thoughtful for a moment.

"That would be nice, Dad." He said finally. "Just let me eat my cereal and take a shower." Rick eyed the smiling green leprechaun on the red box.

"I don't suppose I could convince you to eat something at least semi-nutritional like raison bran, can I?" Rick asked, a smile creeping into his expression as his son made a disgusted face at the mention of raison bran.

"I happen to like the colored marshmallows. You know, I think that if General Mills was really intelligent, they'd get rid of the oatie things all together. I mean, ew." Carlos said with a smile.

"Well, I guess that explains why Manny complains about missing marshmallows when he eats your cereal." Rick said with a laugh as he watched his son begin to pick the colored chunks of pure sugar out of the box and plop them in the new bowl he'd gotten out of the cupboard.

"Well, then its a good thing he's Alicia's problem now." Carlos said with a joking grin as his father laughed.

* * *
Thanksgiving, 1999
"Thanksgiving! Of all the days in the calendar year, my mother decided that Thanksgiving is the perfect day for a wedding." Rocky grouched as he pulled on the bow tie that was making his neck itch.

"Stop that." Zoe said as she slapped his hand away. He gave her his best pout and she rolled her eyes. "I think its romantic, now stop messing with that tux before you ruin it completely. You're supposed to look nice. Carlos is a groomsman too, and you don't see him yanking on his clothing, do you?" She said as she pointed across the room to where Lindsey was adjusting Carlos' bow tie.

"You know, I'm kinda looking forward to having him for a brother." Rocky said thoughtfully as Zoe slapped his hand away from the bow tie for the third time in ten minutes. Rocky shot her a loving, but disgruntled look. She stuck her tongue out at him. "That way, when this is all over with, I can wrestle him to the ground for making me look bad." Rocky said as he smiled at Lindsey as her eyes rolled. It was obvious she had heard the comment.

"Rocky's deranged." She whispered to Carlos as she smacked his hand away from his cummerbund. "And if you touch that thing one more time, I won't be the only one in this relationship with one arm." Her eyes danced with mirth as he gave the purple material one last disgusted pat.

"I feel like a purple penguin." He complained.

"You'll live." She said, without sympathy. He crossed his eyes and started making gagging noises. She laughed as she slapped him lightly on the arm.

"Has anybody seen Angus?" Clara asked worriedly as she walked into the room, her long purple bridesmaid gown lightly touching her bare feet. As if on cue, the great dane tore through the room at top speed with something dangling from his mouth.

"Angus! Get back here with that Chocolate chip pancake you idiot! Chocolate is bad for dogs!" Mayra cried out as she rushed into the room after the dog, completely decked out in her wedding dress and veil. Four pairs of eyes fastened on the bride as the dog made his get away through the open window.

"Chocolate chip pancake?" Rocky asked in disbelief. "Mom! Good grief, you're what? Forty two? Isn't it a little late in life for this?" Mayra blushed as she glared at her son. Secretly though, she was glad to see Rocky stand up to her like this. It meant that he was getting more comfortable with the new change that marrying Rick would mean. Even Rick and Rocky seemed to be getting along better. Carlos and Rocky now went out with him every Saturday to do what they called "guys' day without any crabby women". She was sure that between her son and his, they were never at a loss for corny jokes.

"Really, Mom? Another one?" Clara asked in amazement. She turned to grin at Carlos then, Carlos grinned back with a somewhat shocked face as he read her thoughts.

"What's going on?" Lindsey whispered to Carlos as she poked him gently in the ribs.

"You remember what Jose said to you before he died, about chocolate chip pancakes. The DeSantos' have this weird ritual where they make chocolate chip pancakes everytime they have to break the news that Mayra is pregnant." He said with a wry smile.

"But I never told anyone what Mr. Jose said about chocolate..." Lindsey trailed off, confused for a moment, and then her face lit up with understanding. "You read thoughts. You read my thoughts!" She added with an indignant grin. He laughed at her expression as she tried to hug him and punch him in the arm at the same time.

"Yup. And I happen to know that you think I have a cute butt." He added as she turned beet red.

"Dork." She said as he wrapped his arm around her.

Angus sat with his paws draped over the window sill, the pancake still hanging limply from his jaws. He watched the silly humans laugh and joke with each other with big brown dog eyes.

A big breeze floated through the grove of trees surrounding the small tree, and the tan dog felt the whisper of the cool autumn wind. Amber, yellow, and brown leaves littered the ground, but Angus knew that after winter had passed, spring would come. And with spring, new leaves would grow, covering the empty bare trees with green lush life again.

Author's note: Well folks, here it is. The end. I loved writing this series, and I put a lot of my heart into it. I'd like to just put in a couple quick thanks here: Thanks to Cynthia and Jeremy for taking the time to go through my stuff and post it. They do a lot of work when it comes to keeping their sites going, and they have my utmost respect. Thanks to Jacqui and Janet for helping me with ideas, and letting me know where I'd gone astray as well as when things clicked. And finally, thanks to everyone who read this series. Your comments and e-mails meant a lot to me, and they helped me from getting too discouraged with what I'd written. Thanks again everyone, hopefully you had even a portion of the fun reading these suckers as I did writing them. :)

The End