Disclaimer: Not my creation, not my world, just my story. Saban made this universe; I just play in it and mean no harm nor disrespect. I certainly don't get paid for this.

Notes and Timeline: Starts in Zeo, canon up to there, then veers off into its own future. And, same as always, I'm not a doctor nor do I watch ER, so any medical errors are because I was just making a semi-educated guess at some things.

Warning: Death story, and darned depressing at that. You have been warned. November 2000.

FF.net note: As you can probably tell by the date above, this is not a new story, though it is new to FanFiction.net.

Shattered Dreams
by: Mele

Beep ... beep ... beep ... beep

It was the sound of life, the cadence of existence, but it was inexorably winding down, the pause between each individual beat growing a nanosecond longer each time. Other than the steady beeping of the heart monitor, the room was silent; there was no movement from either the wasted figure on the narrow bed, nor the statue like figure on the chair alongside.

It was a deathwatch, but unlike the stuff of novels or movies. There were no tears, no whispered prayers, no emotional declarations. The time for those was long past. It had been five long, painful years getting to this point; grief had long ago been worn out, leaving only a grim acceptance in its wake.

The visitor shifted slightly in his uncomfortable chair, the whisper of cloth and the muted squeak from the plastic seat the only break in the oppressive silence of the room. The wax-like hand of the patient on the bed was held with practiced gentleness by the other, who knew his comatose friend was unaware of his presence. But a promise had been made, and the time to keep it was at hand.

So he kept his lonely vigil, and in the fragile light of early dawn, he remembered.

Beep...beep...beep...beep

"Hey, come on, man! I was in the clear!" Rocky was all but hopping up and down in his agitation over the blown play, fixing Tommy with a glare worthy of a professional athlete or a five-year-old.

"Sorry, Rocko, but I didn't see you," Tommy confessed sheepishly.

"Maybe if I was wearing a short skirt it would help," the Blue Ranger huffed, not quite able to hide the grin that idea evoked.

"I've seen your legs, Rocky, they aren't that distracting," Jason deadpanned as he joined the others.

"Why do I find that comment oddly reassuring?" Rocky asked rhetorically, giving in to the laugh that bubbled up. They were having a good time; a much-deserved and -needed good time after a solid two weeks of trouble from Mondo. But, after soundly defeating the Machine Empire's monarch repeatedly, it seemed he had gone to ground for a while, giving the teens a chance to regroup and relax. Hence, a pleasant Saturday spent having a picnic in the park, followed by a lively game of touch football.

Katherine had declined to play, her skirt not really suitable for the activity anyway. So Tommy teamed with Rocky and Tanya against Jason, Billy, and Adam, while Kat offered commentary and encouragement from the sidelines.

"I dunno, Rocky, personally I think your legs are just fine," Tanya cooed at him with a grin, enjoying the sudden blush that darkened Rocky's expressive features. She had quickly realized her teammate was rather shy underneath the outrageous humor, and teasing him became a favorite pastime.

"In fact, between you and Adam I can't quite decide who has the best legs," she continued, managing to bring a flush to Adam's face as well. She contemplated going for a 'triple play' in embarrassment, but she didn't quite feel comfortable enough with Billy to tease him the same way she did Rocky or Adam.

"Quit upsetting my teammates," Jason mock-growled at the laughing young woman, herding Adam and Billy into a quick huddle and ignoring the giggling as well as he could.

They had just lined up for the next play when all hell broke loose. A contingent of Cogs attacked, catching the seven teenagers by surprise. They fought hand-to-hand briefly, but quickly realized they were overmatched by the mechanical soldiers. Tommy called for a quick retreat into the bushes and out of sight, to enable them to morph; at the same time they saw a group of children move into the area, unaware of any danger.

"Go ahead, morph!" Billy said tersely. "I'll distract them for a minute." The former Ranger dashed over to place himself between the Cogs, who were gleefully tearing apart the remnants of the teens' picnic, and the approaching children. Thankful, as always, that Mondo's minions were more than a little stupid, Billy was able to warn the children away before the Cogs saw them. But, he didn't realize that two of the mechanical menaces were coming up behind him, until he was grabbed by one and flung bodily into the other, striking his head sharply against the metal body. A little dazed by the impact, he still realized the Rangers had arrived on the scene, so he increased his struggle to escape the Cog's hold. All he needed to do was get loose and out of sight, then he could safely teleport to the Power Chamber.

Tommy realized Billy's plight and quickly dispatched the Cog he was fighting, enabling him to go to the former Ranger's aid. Seeing the Red Ranger approach, the Cog whirled and threw Billy with considerable force toward a decorative boulder. The blond stumbled awkwardly then hit hard, his head impacted against the unyielding granite with a gut-wrenching thud. The teen collapsed in a boneless sprawl, looking for all the world like a doll tossed aside by an uncaring giant.

Jason and Adam saw Billy fall, and moved quickly to help distract the Cog from doing any further damage to their powerless companion. The six Rangers worked deftly to move the fight away from their fallen comrade, desperate to end the battle and get Billy to the Power Chamber. By the time the last Cog was dispatched, they were out of sight of where they had been picnicking. They demorphed and ran back only to find several adults and children clustered around Billy's still form.

"Are you kids okay?" a middle-aged woman asked breathlessly. "There were some of those awful machine men around, they hurt this poor boy pretty badly."

"We didn't see them," Katherine lied smoothly, her gaze locked on the crumpled figure at the base of the boulder. "Have you called for help?" she asked, seeing the woman held a cellular phone in one plump hand.

"Yeah, they should be here soon," the woman replied distractedly. "In fact, I think I hear them now."

Jason and Tommy had pressed forward until they could kneel down by Billy. The Gold Ranger felt his heart sink as he saw the thin stream of blood that wound its way downward from the former Ranger's ear. Billy was deathly pale, the faint movement of his chest as he breathed the only sign of life. It was a stillness beyond simple unconsciousness, and the icy fear that had formed around Jason's heart grew more oppressive.

"Hang in there, Little Bro," Jason whispered, touching a still hand tentatively. "Help is coming, you're going to be fine. You have to be, we need you."

Beep...beep...beep...beep

A different time ... a different monitor ... a different atmosphere. The doctors had opted to relax the rules and let friends of the patient in, hoping something ... someone ... would be able to break through the shroud of the coma that enveloped the teenager.

They had determined that Billy had suffered two impacts to the cranium in his tussle with the Cogs, and the dual nature of the injury was what seemed to be causing the most trouble. There was a lot of swelling of the brain, causing damage to those tissues that define a person's whole existence. As each cell whitened and died, another part of the organ that made William Cranston unique and special was lost forever, and it was unknown just how much of the young man would remain once the swelling finally went down.

His father haunted the room, growing more silent and gaunt as each day passed and his only child remained in a twilight world, beyond even the reach of a father's love. The nurses slipped him food and drink on a semi-regular basis, since the man was reluctant to leave Billy's bedside except to go home to sleep at night. Others visited occasionally, the most frequent visitors being Jason Scott and Tommy Oliver. They came in, individually, at least once daily, with Jason usually coming in two or three times. The other teens dropped by sporadically, in general one or two of them on any given day, rarely more than that. Wallace Cranston tolerated their visits, choking back his questions regarding how it could be that his son got so badly hurt, while they all escaped injury. He had heard the explanation they gave the police; that they had run off at the sight of the Cogs, and had thought Billy was still with them. By the time they realized Billy was missing, the Rangers had already vanquished the Cogs, and the ambulance had already been called.

The whole situation felt wrong to the worried father, but no matter how odd it sounded, he knew Jason, at least, would not have abandoned Billy willingly. They had been friends far too long, and the larger boy had always been protective of his smaller friend; looking out after him, keeping bullies at bay. There was perhaps no one in this world Billy trusted more than Jason, and it was for that reason Wallace kept silent.

Caught in the dwindling prison of his own mind, Billy was unaware of the controversy surrounding his injuries, was immune to the guilt and despair his family and friends experienced. Oblivious to the passage of time, he remained in that distant place for nearly a month before slowly coming back to those who waited for him.

Beep.....beep.....beep.....beep

Jason released Billy's limp hand only long enough to open the blinds to let in some sunlight, lending the sterile room a false warmth. After the accident ... a euphemism they all used ... Jason saw little of his friends for several months. He was caught up in trying to cope with the aftereffects of the Gold Powers, while Wallace tried to cope with the changes in their lives that had been wrought by a single selfless act.

Beep.....beep.....beep.....beep

"The last of the tests are finished, Mr. Cranston," the white-haired doctor said solemnly. "It is much as I predicted it would be. Your son suffered permanent brain damage in the accident, resulting in a reduction of motor skills, significant loss of memory, and consequently, loss of knowledge and education and training. I'm sorry, but basically he knows who he is and who you are, recognizes some of his friends, all at a very basic level. He can speak, though I think you'll find his vocabulary decreased. We have already started him in physical therapy to counter the loss of motor skills. He can be retrained to a point, but all indications are that his capacity to learn is severely curtailed. The most likely scenario is that he will always require constant care and supervision of some sort."

Wallace's pale face lost the last of its color as he listened to the diagnosis. Though he had tried to prepare himself for this, it was obvious he hadn't succeeded. The thought of his brilliant son, who had a limitless future ahead of him only a month ago, reduced to a state of helplessness, was not something any parent could prepare for. Tears slipped down his haggard face as he faced the bleak prospect of helping his son find a way to exist in his new, limited capacity.

The doctor reached out, laying a comforting hand on Wallace's shoulder. "Remember, we don't know for sure how much he can regain. You have to keep a positive outlook. And regardless, he is alive, he can still love, and find joy in life. You're going to have to let go of what was, and find a way to embrace what is. Billy needs you more now than he ever has before."

Wallace nodded mutely, struggling to regain control before going in to see his son.

Beep ... beep ... beep ... beep

"Son, why don't you go put your things away, while I make dinner for us," Wallace suggested, pointing toward the stairs even as he headed for the kitchen. He was doing as he'd been instructed to do, provide as normal an atmosphere for Billy as possible, to not focus on his son's limitations. He had spent a number of hours with a staff psychologist, trying to come to terms with what had happened, and to prepare for a very uncertain future. All that work had led to this moment, when he finally brought Billy home.

"Okay," the teen replied, sounding unsure of himself. Wallace smiled encouragingly, watching until Billy started upstairs. The teen had done very well in physical therapy; his coordination wasn't quite what it had been, but as long as he was careful, stairs were not a problem.

The older man was gathering the ingredients for spaghetti when he heard a plaintive call from the second story, eliciting a soft sigh of resignation.

"Which room is mine?"

Beep ..... beep ..... beep ..... beep

"I don't like her," Billy whined, obstinately dragging his feet over the issue of getting dressed for dinner. "And the girls are mean."

"Billy, the girls are perfectly nice little girls. And Sarah is a wonderful person. And you are behaving like a spoiled brat. Now get dressed," Wallace ordered his stubborn offspring, his tone very firm but not harsh.

He had been dating Sarah McClure for almost a year, and, prior to his injury, Billy had gotten along well with the young widow and her two small daughters. But, in the five months since Billy had been released from the hospital, he had grown more and more disagreeable when it came to Sarah, and most especially, to Jenna and Mariah.

Outside of that, however, Billy had settled in back home reasonably well. He required a lot of supervision, so during the week he spent his days at a special facility, "Alternative Solutions", geared toward providing useful tasks for adults with special needs. The psychologists at the hospital placed Billy's mental age at approximately ten, while his emotional age was about seven. He was normally very even-tempered, placid and tractable, but he had bouts of anger and frustration, which he was still unable to control or channel into appropriate outlets. He tended to strike out or throw things when his temper flared, and Wallace, along with the woman in charge of "Alternative Solutions", had worked diligently to curb this tendency, though with no noticeable success yet.

"They're little bitches," Billy grumbled as he stalked back toward his room.

"William!" Now Wallace's tone moved into the zone of more than mild annoyance. "You will not use that sort of language in our home, and most certainly not around Sarah or the girls. Do you understand?"

"I don't like them," Billy reiterated defiantly.

Wallace took hold of his son's right arm and shook the teen sharply. "I didn't ask if you liked them. I asked if you understand that you will not use that sort of language anymore. Do. You. Understand?" He bit off each word furiously.

"Yes," Billy whispered, his rebellious moment past. He stood studying his feet, the very picture of abject misery.

"Aw, Billy," Wallace sighed, pulling his son into a hug. "I just want you and the girls and Sarah to get along. Could you try to? For me?" He reached over and tilted Billy's face up so he could look into the sad green eyes.

"I'll try," the teen promised.

Beep ..... beep ..... beep ..... beep

"Billy, you can put your things in the closet there, and this dresser and desk are for your use," the attendant explained, showing Billy and his father which items in the double room were for Billy.

"This is a nice, cheerful place, isn't it, Billy? You should be very happy here once you settle in," Wallace commented nervously.

The blond teen shrugged noncommittally, refusing to be drawn out of his gloomy shell. He'd been like that since his father had first told him that he was going to be moving to Stone Canyon Country Club, an assisted living facility that catered to special needs adults.

Wallace had not made this decision lightly, but had struggled with it for two months, ever since Sarah had gently and regretfully told him that they would have to break off their relationship since Billy couldn't get along with her or her daughters. It had come after Billy's temper had snapped and he frightened Mariah very badly by threatening to hit her. He hadn't actually struck the child, but the little girl had been scared badly enough to worry her mother into making her reluctant decision. Sarah loved Wallace, and the feeling was reciprocated in full, and she was not without sympathy for what had happened to the gentle, brilliant boy she had met over a year before. Indeed, Wallace had sometimes felt the only thing holding him together during Billy's long hospitalization was Sarah's unstinting support. But the fact of the matter was that her girls were only seven and five, and Billy could not truly be trusted to be gentle with them. She felt her first responsibility was for her daughters, regardless of how much it hurt to think she'd not be able to see Wallace anymore.

As for Wallace, he was torn. He loved Billy; that was not even a question. But, he loved Sarah, as well, more than he'd ever thought possible since the death of Billy's mother ten years before. However, his first, instinctive, reaction to Sarah's announcement was to insist he would never send his son away, that his first and foremost duty was to his child. Then a quiet voice deep inside him spoke up calmly, recommending he take some time to think it through, before he went throwing his second chance at love away.

For two months he vacillated, unable to make his decision. He discussed it with friends and family and even the therapist he'd seen when Billy was first injured. Finally he made an appointment with the neurologist who had treated Billy, and spent an hour discussing his son's condition and future with him. Doctor Mead was very forthright, explaining that Billy could live for decades as he was now, or, he could die in the next week from some unforeseen complication. It was he who recommended Stone Canyon Country Club, should Wallace decide to send Billy to live somewhere else. A visit to the facility, and a conference with the director there, decided him.

He still loved his son, but he wanted a future as well. And perhaps in time, when the girls were older, Billy could come home again.

"Come on, Son, let's take the quick tour, so you can see all the activities you have available here," Wallace suggested, hoping to spark some interest in Billy.

"No, thank you," Billy murmured, finally looking at his father with tear-filled eyes. "Can't I please go home? I won't fight with the girls, I promise. I'll be nice to Sarah. I'll clean my room, and not watch TV, and even not eat the chicken legs if you'll just let me come home. Please?"

"Billy, you aren't being sent here as a punishment. You're here so you can live more independently, expand your horizons some. You'll see, you're going to love it here," Wallace explained for the hundredth time, it seemed.

"No I won't, I hate it. And I hate you!" the young man spat out as he threw himself on his new bed and turned his back on his father.

The man gave a soft sigh and turned to go. "I'll be back to visit next week," he said as he started to leave.

"No, please, I'm sorry," came the anguished cry as Billy threw himself into his father's arms. "I didn't mean it, I don't hate you," the teen sobbed as his father's heart broke a little more.

"I know. You're upset. Give it some time, Son. I'm sure things will be fine here. I'll be back next week to visit," he repeated, wondering how he could walk out the door. But he found the strength to leave Billy there, knowing it was the best solution he could come up with for now. He wanted...needed...a life, and truthfully, he had his own concerns regarding Billy being around small children at this point. His impulse control wasn't the best, and while Wallace did not believe there was any malice in the teen, he could pose a possible threat. If Billy ended up hurting one of the girls in a fit of pique Wallace would never forgive himself. At least here Billy was surrounded by caring staff members who knew best how to help him gain control and make the most of the skills he still retained, no matter how much Billy seemed to resist it.

And already he was dreading next week's visit.

Beep ..... beep ..... beep ..... beep

The nurse left after a quick check of the equipment and Billy's vitals, the squeaking whisper of her shoes fading away as soon as the door quietly closed. Alone again, Jason took back up his post and turned his gaze out the window, scarcely seeing the bleak winter landscape.

It had been early fall when his life changed so radically ...

Beep ...... beep ...... beep ...... beep

"Hey, Little Bro, how're you doing?" Jason greeted his friend as he entered the sunny room.

"Jason!" The burly young man suddenly found himself with an armful of delighted Billy.

"Guess that answers the question 'are you glad to see me?'" Jason laughed, hugging his friend warmly. It was one of the more pleasant changes after the accident, this open showing of affection from the formerly reticent teen.

"Of course I'm glad to see you!" Billy smiled happily, sitting down on his bed and looking anxiously at Jason.

The former Ranger leader knew what Billy was waiting for, and without further ado started giving his friend the rundown on what all the others were doing. Even though Billy had only vague memories of his former teammates, he was still anxious for any news of their activities, sitting spellbound and focused while Jason caught him up on the gossip. Jason was running out of stories to tell when a bell sounded, granting him a reprieve.

"Time for lunch," Billy told him seriously, already standing up. "Come with me and you can have some."

"Thanks," the dark-haired young man replied easily, following his slight friend down the corridor. This was Jason's first visit to the facility, and though everyone appeared to be happy enough, it still seemed barren and depressing to him.

Jason had lost touch with Billy for several months while he struggled to recover from the problems caused by holding the Gold Powers. Weakened, ill, and depressed, he had lost contact with all his former teammates, only allowing Emily close to him. Their relationship had solidified during that time, and Jason was just waiting for a chance to get enough money ahead to enable him to buy her an engagement ring. With his own life back on track, Jason contacted Billy, and found Wallace was having problems with the teen. Anxious to help, Jason had taken Billy in a few times to give the elder Cranston a much-needed break, bunking his friend down in the spare room of his apartment. But, despite Jason's offers to help out more, Wallace had made the decision to place Billy in this facility, saying it would be best for him in the long run.

'Lunch' turned out to be a casserole which defied analysis, oddly washed-out-looking canned fruit, and a tasteless roll. Jason picked uninterestedly at his meal, having tried a bite of the main course and finding it unpalatable at best. He glanced over at Billy only to find the former Blue Ranger eating his lunch with dogged determination.

"How can you eat that?" Jason asked, surprised. Ever since he'd known Billy the smaller teen had been a very fussy eater.

"With a fork," Billy replied in all seriousness.

"I mean, don't you think it's kind of ... nasty-tasting?"

"Yeah."

"Then why are you eating it?" Jason wondered, puzzled by Billy's attitude.

"Because I'm supposed to eat it. It's a rule, and I have to follow the rules." Billy's expression was rather closed off as he made that announcement.

"What happens if you break the rules? Do you get in trouble?" Jason was starting to worry about Billy, wondering if there was some sort of abuse going on they didn't suspect.

"I don't know. I haven't been breaking the rules," Billy pointed out reasonably, startling a spontaneous chuckle from Jason with that bit of logic.

"Well, okay, but I'm confused here. I mean, it's good you follow the rules, but to the point you even eat this stuff? Why's it so important you follow the rule about eating?"

"Because, maybe if I follow all the rules, and don't cause any problems, then ... well, maybe my dad will let me come home." Hope-filled green eyes searched Jason's face expectantly. "Do you think he might?"

Pain lanced through Jason's heart at the desperate desire in those expressive green orbs. Wallace had assured him that Billy seemed to be settling down, fitting in and happy at the facility. Either the elder Cranston was deluding himself or Billy had done a far better acting job for his dad.

"I don't know, Buddy. He didn't send you here because you broke any rules, you know," Jason pointed out quietly, flinching when he saw sorrow glaze Billy's eyes.

"I know. But I thought, that maybe, you know, if I was extra good, then he'd change his mind. I want to go home, Jason. I don't like it here." A passing attendant heard the comment and met Jason's mildly embarassed gaze with a small shrug and understanding smile. They all heard that sentiment often enough.

Jason put a comforting arm around the thin shoulders, absently noting that Billy had seemed to physically shrink after his accident, even as he realized that couldn't be true.

"I'll see what I can do, okay?" he offered, appalled and honored at the look of faith Billy gave him at that comment.

Beep ...... beep ...... beep ...... beep

"Jason, you have absolutely no idea what you are proposing," Wallace Cranston said angrily, giving the younger man a stern look.

"Actually, yes I do know. I've looked into it extensively, talked to the people at the Country Club, and my mom put me in touch with some people to talk to as well. I've taken Billy in for a day or two before, as you well know. I can make this work," Jason countered, forcing himself to keep his temper in check. If this turned into a conflict, it wouldn't help Billy at all.

"I don't doubt you can. For a week, or even a month. But, Jason, Billy could live a normal lifespan. Are you ready to commit yourself to this for the next thirty, forty, sixty years? Are you? Are you willing to give up your entire adult life to care for him? Because it could easily come to that. You have a girlfriend, don't you? What about her? Is she willing to do what it takes to care for Billy for years? And, yes, you demonstrated that you can deal with him for a day or so at a time, but what makes you think you can do that for long term? I love Billy, more than you can imagine. And still, taking care of him wore me down, ate at my patience, tore at my soul. It's not easy, not at all."

"I understand that. But I want to take care of him, I can't stand to see him in that place, it's killing him. Maybe not physically - at least not yet - but mentally. He seems worse in that respect than he was shortly after he regained consciousness. Not a lot, but definitely deteriorating. I honestly believe I can take better care of him than they are, and Emily supports me in this decision" Jason said firmly, looking the older man directly in the eye.

"Jason, it nearly killed me leaving Billy there. And it was hell for him, too. I'm reluctant to take the chance of having you give up after a few weeks and putting him once more through the stress of being admitted back there. I appreciate your concern, but I don't think it's a good idea," Wallace decided, his expression set and stubborn. He did appreciate Jason's gesture, but it also irked him, seeming to accuse him of giving up on Billy. It wasn't in anything Jason said, but in the fact he was offering to give up his future for his friend. Guilt, sorrow and pride mixed uneasily in the man, creating a nearly impenetrable blockade around his decision.

"Please, don't deny Billy a chance to be happier, to reach his full potential. It's not going to happen where he is now," Jason pleaded.

"And you think it will with you?" Wallace snapped back, his anger finally finding voice. "What gives you the right to interfere with my son's future? I seem to recall you were conspicuously absent right after he regained consciousness. There was a period of several months where I barely saw you at all, and Billy kept asking about you, but I didn't have any answer to give him. How do I know you won't do something like that again? Taking care of someone like Billy is a very full time job, and there aren't any real days off, or vacations. You can't just decide one day that you're tired of it, and give him away like an unwanted pet," Wallace started, then stumbled on his own words.

"But isn't that what you did? Just sent him away when he couldn't fit in with your new life?" Jason asked softly, his own anger roused, but even so reluctant to hurt the man.

Wallace started to snap back, then stopped, seeming to deflate as the truth of Jason's question sank in. He raised one hand to cover his face as if in pain, as sorrow and grief washed over his once again.

"Yes," he whispered at last, his voice a defeated ghost of itself. "I guess I did at that."

"I'm sorry," Jason murmured, his face guilt-stricken. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I ... I just want to help Billy. I owe him that."

Wallace looked up at that comment, giving Jason a searching look. "How did Billy end up getting hurt?" he asked softly.

"He tried to protect some kids, I think," Jason said at last, knowing he couldn't tell the grieving father the whole story, but wanting to let him know Billy's sacrifice had not been totally in vain. He suspected...had seen indications...that Wallace harbored some anger against the teens who had been with Billy that fateful day. He was well aware that it looked like they had run off and abandoned Billy to the cogs, and he certainly couldn't blame Wallace for resenting that. But it appeared the man had decided not to pursue the matter, which made sense in a way. What good would it do now, when nothing could be changed?.

Wallace's interest seemed to fade a little, and he looked away from his son's friend. "I still think this is a bad idea," he sighed, looking more defeated than ever. "But, if you are so determined to take care of Billy, I'll sign the necessary paperwork to give you temporary custody of him. But I mean it, Jason. You hurt my son, and I will find a way to make your life a living hell."

Jason nodded in acceptance, quirking a half grin at the smaller man's determination. "I understand. And thank you."

Beep ....... beep ....... beep ....... beep

It had been a good day so far, almost perfect. Jason had invited Emily for a quiet picnic in the park, then a quick trip through Angel Grove's small but beautiful wild-animal exhibit. He occasionally had Billy either stay at his parents' home, or had someone come over to his place to stay with Billy, when he wanted an evening out alone with Emily. But most day trips included all three of them, a reality Jason felt they all needed to get used to.

It had been three months since Billy had moved in with Jason, and the difference in the smaller young man was obvious. He was talking freely again and moving quickly from place to place, instead of that plodding pace he had adopted at the Country Club.

So far Billy and Emily had been getting along fine with each other; Billy didn't seem threatened by the pretty blonde, and Emily was patient and understanding with Billy. Jason was starting to relax a little about their ability to deal with each other, something he'd been worried about despite what he had said to Wallace.

At the zoo, Billy hurried from exhibit to exhibit, running well ahead of Jason and Emily, who followed him at a more leisurely pace, smiling indulgently at the young man's antics. When happy and excited like this, Billy was remarkably charming and unselfconscious; eliciting smiles from bystanders who for the most part seemed to realize the young man was special.

He may have lost most of his intelligence in the accident, but his curiosity had survived, though the questions and answers tended to be simpler these days. He could be frustrating as any young child when questioning 'why', but Jason had also found his own world opening a little more when he saw things through his friend's unique view.

Later Jason would curse himself for not realizing the aquarium would be a problem, given Billy's past fears. But the former Blue Ranger's memories were so sporadic, so unpredictable; it was impossible to guess what could set him off. Apparently, even though he only occasionally recognized friends or former teammates, he remembered his old phobia of fish, but not his recovery from it. The aquarium was a circular building with display tanks lining the walls and a freestanding round, ceiling-high tank filled with sharks in the middle. Billy took one look at the sharks circling in that tank and completely freaked out.

Jason and Emily were still a few feet from the entrance when they heard the keening cry of terror from inside. Before they could react, Billy emerged from the building still screaming, and wild-eyed with fright. The area was crowded and all eyes turned to the terrified young man who was pushing past others in his haste to escape whatever horror he had encountered in the aquarium. Jason shook off his paralysis and dashed over to intercept his hysterical charge, wrapping strong arms around him and pulling the struggling body against his broad chest.

"Billy ... Billy ... Hey, it's okay. I've got you, you're okay. Come on, Bro, it's okay," he crooned to his smaller friend as the frantic struggles began to ease. "It's okay, Buddy, I got you. What happened, huh? Can you tell me?" he questioned gently.

"F ... f ... fish. Big ones. With teeth. I saw them, they were in there," Billy sobbed out against Jason's shoulder, shudders of fear still wracking his slim frame.

"Geez, it's a aquarium, what'd he expect? Cats?" a teenager who'd been pushed over by Billy's frantic retreat questioned angrily. "You shouldn't let him run around like that, people could get hurt."

Jason fixed furious eyes on the boy, who glared back before stomping off. Emily had watched the entire situation without moving from where she'd been standing when they first heard Billy's cries. She looked around at the other people, seeing anger, disgust, and, worst of all, pity, on their faces while they watched Jason calm his friend. She felt the uncomfortable sting of embarrassment and shame and angrily pushed them down. There was nothing pathetic or shameful about Jason's love and concern for his injured friend. If anything, it was an indication of what a good, noble man he truly was, and she was lucky to have him in her life.

Beep ...... beep ....... beep ....... beep

"I thought I could deal with this, but I can't. It's too much, Jason, just too much for me to deal with. I care a lot about you, I really do, but ..." Emily's voice trailed off as she saw the sorrow in the deep, dark eyes of her boyfriend.

"I thought you said it wasn't a big deal," Jason muttered, looking away with a sigh.

"I didn't think it would be," she replied. "But, I've never dealt with someone like Billy before, not long term at least. It's not what I thought it would be like."

"What did you think, Em? Idyllic moments like in a sitcom family, complete with harp music in the background? Real life isn't like that," he ground out, his hurt manifesting as anger.

"I ... I don't know. But it wasn't this. I'm sorry, Jason. I am. But I can't do this, and I can't make you choose. I have a chance to go live with my aunt back East, to go to school there. I'm going to take it," she stood unsteadily, looking a Jason with tear-filled eyes.

"I'm sorry," she whispered again as she let herself out the front door and into the afternoon sunshine.

Jason remained sitting on the couch, staring blankly at the spot where Emily had been sitting, his mind whirling in confused hurt. There had been no indication that she had been having problems adjusting to Billy's being there, she had been kind and patient and perfectly natural around them both.

Right up until she walked out on him.

Damn.

He glanced at the clock and noticed that Billy would be home from "Alternative Solutions" soon, so he'd better pull himself together. Sighing deeply, he went into the kitchen to see about making a snack for Billy, who was usually hungry when he got home.

Beep ........ beep ........ beep ........ beep

"Okay, you got your name tag?" Jason asked, looking Billy over critically.

"Oh! Almost forgot!" Billy dashed back to his room only to emerge moments later with a nametag pinned on the left side of his chest.

"Perfect. Well, Buddy, you ready for your first day of work?" Jason couldn't help but smile at Billy's enthusiastic bouncing around as he prepared for his first day on the job.

Billy had gone back to "Alternative Solutions" almost immediately after Jason brought him home, but had recently started pestering Jason for a chance to work, to earn money like other people did. Jason wasn't sure where this drive to work stemmed from, but he wasn't willing to squelch it either. So he hunted around for a possible solution, knowing instinctively that Billy wouldn't be satisfied with a 'job' at the dojo Jason ran with Rocky. For all his old friend had lost in the accident, there were some things that remained the same, and Billy's somewhat prickly pride was one of them. He was sensitive to the idea of being given anything out of pity, and could be incredibly stubborn when pushed. So Jason had known he had to help Billy find a 'real' job, and with the help of the folks at "Alternative Solutions," it wasn't long before he found a fast-food restaurant that hired handicapped young adults to do simple duties. The best part was that the managers were trained to deal with their special employees, which helped ensure they would not be treated unkindly.

"I'm ready!" Billy announced happily, standing at attention while Jason looked him over one last time.

"I can see that. Now, you remember the rules?"

"Yep. Do what Mr. Williams tells me to do. If I don't understand, ask. Don't pester the customers. Work hard. And smile," Billy recited with a studious expression.

"You got it. And, the most important of all, have a good day," the burly young man added, clapping his friend on the shoulder.

"I will. Thanks, Jason, for getting me this job," the blond said as he buckled on his bike helmet. The restaurant was close enough that Billy could ride to work easily, giving him an even greater feeling of accomplishment.

"I just helped. You are the one they hired after they interviewed you. Now, don't forget, you're supposed to come by the dojo after work, okay? And you have the phone number if there's a problem, right?"

"I remember, and I have it," Billy grinned cockily, the green eyes behind his glasses sparkling.

"Good. Have a good day, Buddy. See you this afternoon," Jason said, following his friend out to the small back porch and watching him get his bike out. He continued to watch as the slim young man pedaled down the street, a knot of worry in his stomach. He wanted so badly for Billy to succeed, he knew how much this meant to the young man who had lost so much.

The nervous feeling didn't disappear until Billy bounced into the dojo, grinning happily at everyone there. When Jason and Rocky asked him about his day he was full of news about his duties, and harmless gossip about his coworkers, who had treated the new employee to a chocolate cone as a first-day treat. Looking at the happy expression on Billy's face, Jason had no doubt at all that he'd made the right decision in taking Billy into his home and his life.

Beep ........ beep ........ beep ........ beep

"I got it! Jason, I got it!" Billy's excited voice preceded him into their apartment, bringing Jason to the kitchen door to find out what all the shouting was about.

"What'd you get?" he asked with a smile, seeing that Billy was excited in a good way, not a bad one.

"This!" And Billy hurried forward to put a slip of paper in Jason's hand.

The former Ranger leader looked curiously at it before grinning widely at his friend. "All right! Payday, huh? Wonderful, Billy. What do you plan to do with your riches?" he asked, giving Billy a one-armed hug.

Billy gave Jason a look of mild amazement. "I'm giving it to you, for my half the expenses. I'm almost twenty, now. An adult. I'm supposed to be paying rent and gas and stuff. So, now I am," he finished proudly.

Jason felt the sting of tears behind his eyes and fought to keep his voice steady. The doctors, Billy's dad ... they hadn't expected things like this. This pride, this drive to be self-sufficient, to be a functioning member of society. Not for the first time Jason felt humbled by Billy's sheer determination to not let his limitations hold him back. The stubborn pride that had led a shy, bumbling teenager to be a Power Ranger, and learn to fight and defend himself against all comers, still existed in the young man who daily proved his nay-sayers wrong.

It was true that Billy would never accomplish the great things that had been within his grasp two years before. The teen who had traveled to distant planets, built Zords, and battled monsters by the score had been lost in one fell swoop.

He should have been contemplating his thesis subject for a PhD, not picking up trash at a local fast-food place. He should have been poring over job offers in the six- and seven-figure range, not working part-time for minimum wage.

But Billy didn't waste time agonizing over the should-have-beens, the would-have-beens, the could-have-beens. He was too busy living the life he had, doing the things he could, and taking joy in each small accomplishment. Jason couldn't help but wonder if the 'old' Billy would have taken as much joy in his accomplishments as the 'new' Billy did.

"I don't think I need to have the whole check," Jason commented casually. "Our expenses aren't that high, and you need some money for personal stuff, right? How about we say $150 from each check goes toward rent and utilities, and the rest is yours to spend. Sound fair?"

Billy thought it over carefully, obviously trying to do the math in his head, but having problems with it. He had taken a special class put on by Angel Grove University, teaching very basic living skills such as handling cash, shopping, paying bills, and such practical matters. The class had been way above Billy's learning ability, but the instructor encouraged him to continue anyway, certain the young man would at least get something useful from the instruction. And again Billy had proven his mettle, working diligently on the class assignments, and actually learning far more than even Jason had expected. He could now send Billy to the store with a little money and a short list, and Billy would come back with a look of satisfied pride when he handed Jason the change and put the groceries away.

"Are you sure that's enough?" Billy asked, his brow furrowed in thought.

"I'm sure. I mean, I'd still be living here, even if you weren't, so you just should pay the extra cost of having you here, and that hundred and fifty every couple of weeks definitely covers it. Okay, Buddy?"

"Okay. But you really use it, okay? Promise that you won't just put it aside for something. It's for paying the rent and the bills," Billy insisted.

"I promise, Buddy. I'll use it to pay bills. Now, what are you going to do with your cash? Got any big plans?" he teased gently.

Billy looked up at Jason with a smile of pure happiness. "Yeah. I'm going to take you to dinner. Just like you do when we're celebrating something. My treat," he announced with a proud grin.

"Okay, Buddy, I can go for that. And I'm starved, hope you can afford me," the dark-haired man grinned.

"If not, you can wash dishes, I'll show you how," Billy shot back, much to Jason's delight.

Limitations indeed.

Beep ......... beep ......... beep ......... beep

The sound of Billy's cough all but rattled the walls of the apartment as the former Ranger hacked his way through the afternoon. Jason listened for a moment, then sighed wearily before going into the bathroom for the hated cough medicine.

It had been a thoroughly miserable week so far. Billy had caught a cold, and between feeling perfectly terrible and hating the medicine Jason gave him, had been in a wretched mood. Jason was tired from alternately comforting and battling his stubborn friend, plus there had been a small fire at the dojo, causing enough damage to require them closing down for two weeks until the repairs could be completed. The loss of revenue, in addition to the repair expense had hit the business hard, and financial worries were intensified.

"Come on, Billy, time for more cough syrup, before that cough of yours blows the windows out," Jason said, approaching the blond sitting on the couch in front of the TV.

"I don't want any. Tastes awful," Billy announced, his expression mulish.

"I know it doesn't taste good, but it works. And you're coughing more than ever. Just buck up and take it. It'll be over in a minute," Jason said soothingly, pouring a dose of the medicine into a spoon.

"I don't want any!" Billy insisted angrily, standing up and causing Jason to spill the medicine.

"Dammit, Billy! Quit acting like a baby. You are going to take this," Jason growled, grabbing Billy's arm and trying to make him to sit down.

Billy reacted in the way he was wont to when handled with any sort of force. He struck out at Jason, hitting him on the chest and slapping at his head. Jason evaded the second blow, but for once his overstretched patience snapped. He retaliated by punching Billy in the upper arm. Hard. He held nothing back, and the smaller man stumbled from the force of the blow, turning wide, startled eyes to his friend.

"I've told you enough times, don't hit!" Jason shouted, causing Billy to shrink back in fear.

The white-hot anger fled as quickly as it had come, leaving Jason appalled and ashamed in its wake. With a strangled sob Billy ran toward his room, slamming the door behind him, the sound of his crying muffled and distant. Jason looked toward the closed door with his heart beating painfully in his chest, his hands trembling in the aftermath of his outburst.

Never in all the time he'd know Billy had he ever struck his smaller friend. Never. He dropped down on the couch, cradling his head in his hands as the realization of how badly he'd blown it sank in.

"Oh, God, what have I done?" he muttered, trying to rally his emotions so he could at least apologize to Billy. His brooding was interrupted by the doorbell, startling him out of his daze. Wearily, he trudged into the hall to open it.

"Hey, Jase, I have the last of the paperwork here for the inspectors tomorrow, I just need you to sign them ..." Rocky trailed off, taking his first good look at his business partner. "What happened?"

"I ... Billy and I ... well ..." he stumbled, torn between needing to confess to someone and wanting to hide his shameful behavior.

"Come on and sit down. Tell me what happened. Is Billy okay?" Rocky asked, steering his partner to a chair.

Though Rocky and Jason had been teammates only a short time, they had ended up being well suited to work together. Rocky had matured suddenly after his accident, which had closely followed Billy's. Those events seemed to convince the happy-go-lucky teen that he needed to settle down, build a future; that life was not a permanent condition and nothing was guaranteed. He met a young lady while he was still in the hospital after injuring his back, and by the end of the summer following their graduation he'd married her. Throwing himself into his new business and family, they already had one child, with another on the way.

Rocky's long history of dealing with kids had made him the perfect choice to stay with Billy when Jason had to be away for some reason, and the good-natured former Ranger never refused. He was the only ex-Ranger besides Kimberly and, of course, Jason, who spent much time around the long-time Blue Ranger.

Accustomed to Jason's calm acceptance of Billy's limitations and idiosyncrasies, it was a distinct shock to find the burly young man so upset.

"He's okay, I think. Oh, God, Rocky ... I hit him," Jason confessed brokenly, running his hand through his hair distractedly.

"Hit him where? Why? What happened here, Jase?" Rocky's tone was calm and caring, no hint of censure in his manner at all.

"He didn't want to take his cough syrup, knocked it out of my hands, hit at me when I tried to make him sit back down. Then I lost it and slugged him in the arm as hard as I could. Dammit, I've never hit him before, I can't believe I did that. He's never going to forgive me," Jason rambled, more upset than Rocky had ever seen him.

"Hey, whoa, calm down just a little here. First of all, Billy would forgive you anything. Of that I'm sure. Second, while hitting him wasn't really a cool thing to do, I can certainly understand how he could drive you to it. Jase, you've taken on one hell of a responsibility here, and you don't let anyone help you near enough. You aren't a saint. I hate to burst your bubble about that, but it's true. Now, come on, take a deep breath and try to settle down," Rocky soothed him, placing a comforting hand on one broad shoulder.

"I know I'm not a saint, but, God ... hitting him? That's ... that's just plain mean," Jason muttered, still upset but settling down a little.

"Well, yeah. But he hit you first," Rocky said in such a serious tone of voice Jason couldn't help but chuckle; it sounded so juvenile.

"Yeah, he did at that."

"You think I've never been tempted to hit Juan, or my sibs, when they were being difficult?" Rocky asked next. The quiet question rocked Jason, who turned incredulous eyes on his friend.

"I ... no. You have?" he asked dubiously. He knew how much Rocky adored his small son. It was unthinkable he'd ever hurt him in any way.

"Sure. I think any parent feels like that at one point or another, when things just get to be too much. The point is not to give in to the impulse."

"I did," Jason muttered, a fresh wave of guilt crashing over him. Rocky sighed, then decided it was time for a few home truths Jason needed to hear.

"You know, I feel partly responsible here. I've been wanting to point out to you that you'd taken on too much alone, but ... well ... sometimes it's kind of hard to tell someone that, you know? But, Jason, you shouldn't be in this alone. Can I ask you something?" At Jason's silent nod he continued. "Why did you bring Billy to live with you? Really?"

"He was miserable at that place in Stone Canyon," Jason said quietly.

"Still, it wasn't your job to make it better, that was his dad's. So, why did you bring him here?" Rocky's expression was serious, his eyes locked on Jason's with unsettling intensity.

"He's my friend, I couldn't stand to see him that unhappy, especially since I knew why he'd been injured. If we'd gotten there a little sooner, been a little faster ..." his voice trailed off weakly.

"Did you hear what you just said?" Rocky asked. "You said 'we'. If we'd gotten there sooner. I suspected you'd taken Billy in mainly because of guilt, and while I don't think it's a great reason, it's pretty understandable. But you are not the only one feeling guilty. We all do, and maybe it's time we all did something about it," the former Ranger declared firmly.

"I didn't think it was bothering anyone else," Jason commented quietly, looking down at his clasped hands.

"Oh? I think it's bothering everyone. I know it is me, I think it's one of the reasons I got married and started a family so quickly. To, I dunno, take full advantage of the chance I was given? And look at the others. Tanya has a full slate of classes at the university, yet she still finds time to devote to a number of charitable causes. I swear, she's trying to emulate Mother Teresa. Take Adam. He was always a good student, but now he has to be the best, as if he has to replace the potential that was lost that day. And Kat, why do you think she stays away? Do I even need to mention Tommy? The risks he takes now, as if he doesn't care if he lives or dies. I don't think he's forgiven himself for surviving uninjured after what happened with Billy. None of us got away unmarked that afternoon," Rocky concluded softly.

Jason was silent for a few moments, lost in thought. "I guess I didn't really think about it. I see what you mean, though." He chuckled a little. "When did you get to be so wise, huh?"

"When Juan was born, of course. Daddyhood requirement - must be wise and all-knowing," Rocky grinned.

"Ah, I see," Jason smiled, feeling the burden of guilt lift slightly.

"Let me ask you something else; has it helped? Taking care of Billy? Has it helped dealing with the guilt?"

"Yeah, I guess it has, in a way. But guilt wasn't the only reason, you know. He's been my friend for a long time, in a lot of ways like my brother. I mean ... I care about him. Period. It's that simple. Or that complicated. I'm not sure which," Jason explained with a puzzled frown.

"I understand. Believe me, I understand the whole concept of brothers," Rocky grinned, before turning serious again. "But Jason, why don't you let us all have a chance to heal a little? Let us help with Billy. I think what happened today, things just piled up too much. You can't do it all alone, you know. And some of us, we need the chance to feel like we're doing something for Billy, to make up for when we couldn't. And frankly, you could use the occasional breaks. I know that for a fact. I love Juan, more than I thought it was possible to love someone, but there are days I am so grateful to leave the house and go to work. The days he's extra fussy, or feeling sick, or whatever. As for Sonya ... geez. I thought we were headed for divorce until my mama stepped in and pointed out a few home truths to me, like that my wife needed more than motherhood to fill her days. Simply needed a break every now and then. Taking the occasional night out, just for ourselves, has been a lifesaver. One I suspect you need, as well. So, what do you say? Can I call in the troops to help you out?"

Jason felt his heart lighten as Rocky spoke, a loneliness he hadn't even realized was suddenly lifted. "I never really thought about it that way. One thing I definitely know is that I can't have another day like this one. I'll agree to just about anything that will prevent that," Jason replied with a small, rueful smile.

"Good. I'll get in touch with the others, and we can set up a plan. Now, you need to go talk to Billy, get you two squared away again. Just sign these papers and I'll leave you to it. Unless you want me to stick around?" he offered.

"Nah, I can handle it. And thanks, Rocky. You don't have any idea how much you've helped. I'll see you at the dojo in the morning, I guess," Jason said, signing the forms as he spoke.

"Always glad to help. And I mean that, Jase. If you need to talk later, give me a call, okay?" Rocky replied as he walked toward the front door.

"Will do," the former Gold Ranger responded, seeing his guest out before turning with a resolute look at the closed bedroom door that seemed to accuse him.

He tapped gently on the varnished wood. "Billy? Can I come in?" he called softly.

The sound that came from inside sounded vaguely like permission, so he quietly entered the cluttered room and sat down beside the curled-up figure on the bed.

"I'm sorry, Bro, that I lost my temper like that," he said calmly, placing a hand on one thin shoulder.

"You hit me," came the snuffling reply.

"Yeah, I did. I wish I hadn't, but I did."

"It hurt."

"I'm sorry, I know it did."

Billy uncurled enough to look at Jason with a frown. "Does it hurt when I hit you?"

"Yeah, it does. Hitting hurts, no matter who does it," Jason answered.

The blond seemed to think this over carefully. "So that's why you and Dad are always telling me not to hit, right?" he ventured at last.

"Well, yeah. I thought you understood that," Jason explained.

"I didn't know it hurt that much. No one ever hit me back," Billy noted with honest confusion.

Jason couldn't help but snicker a little. "Guess it never occurred to us," he admitted. "We okay here? Still friends?"

In answer Billy sat up and reached out to Jason, who swept him into a tight hug. "We'll always be friends, 'cause you're my big bro," Billy whispered, squeezing the larger young man for all he was worth.

"And you're my little bro," Jason agreed, glad Billy's position kept him from seeing the tears in his dark eyes. "Nothing will ever change that."

Beep .......... beep .......... beep .......... beep

"How're you feeling, Son?" Wallace asked Billy as he drove them to Stone Canyon to visit an art show there.

"Better. Cold's all gone," he reported dutifully, watching the scenery flashing by with avid interest.

"That's good. Things going okay at work?" he queried, wanting to get his son to open up at least a little.

"I'm doing fine, Mr. Williams said I do a good job, and they gave me a raise last week. Kelly, one of the counter girls, quit yesterday because her dad made her. She said her grades were bad because she was at work too much. We gave her a hat as a going-away present."

Encouraged, Wallace asked more questions, getting Billy to answer with more detail, giving him at least the impression that he knew what was going on in his son's life. He was more than a little distressed that Jason was able to give to Billy what he, his father, could not.

Wallace had married Sarah a few months after placing Billy in the facility at Stone Canyon, and now the younger woman was pregnant with Wallace's child, a development that delighted him no end. But, though he had gained much by his choice of Sarah over Billy - and no matter how he cleaned it up, it still boiled down to that - he still felt as if he'd abandoned his first child. Sarah rarely came on these visits, and the girls never did, and Billy didn't seem to notice or care. He hadn't been told of the pregnancy, and Wallace doubted he'd even care if he knew.

His feelings of guilt had been bad enough before Jason came back into the picture, but at least then he could comfort himself with the idea that no one would be able to sacrifice everything for Billy's sake. But Jason had proven that theory wrong, and Wallace felt an irrational irritation over that.

These twice-a-month day trips were his attempt to maintain his connection with Billy, and soothe his smarting conscience. Plus, despite everything, he still loved his son, and enjoyed spending time with him, regardless of what they ended up doing.

Wonderful as his new family was, they couldn't replace Billy, who was still, and would always be, his first child.

Beeep .......... beeep .......... beeep .......... beeep

"I now present to you Adam and Tanya Park," the priest announced, waving his arm over the couple as if in benediction. The assembled group of family and friends cheered the new couple as they made their way back up the aisle, cueing everyone to get in line to give their congratulations to the happy pair.

Resplendent in tuxedos rented for the occasion, Jason and Billy had served as ushers along with Tommy, while Rocky stood by Adam's side as his best man. Tanya had lured Katherine back to be her maid of honor, with Kim and two college friends serving as bridesmaids. So for the first time in far too long, the whole gang of ex-Rangers was together, except for Aisha.

"When are you going to get married, Jason?" Billy asked curiously, watching the dozens of dancing couples whirling to the music provided by a college band. His green eyes were alight with happiness and pride, he had been so excited to be asked to serve as an usher.

"Well, Buddy, it will probably be a few years, yet. I need to meet the right girl, first." He felt the faint stirring of an old pain as the image of Emily flashed across his memory, reminding him that at one time he thought he had found the 'right girl.'

"I met the right girl. But she doesn't know it," Billy said softly, not looking at his friend.

"Oh? And who is that?" he asked, knowing full well who but playing along.

"Kimberly," Billy replied with a wistful smile. "I like her best of all. Well, except for you," he added anxiously.

"Well, you do have good taste, there's no denying that," Jason grinned. It was a very well-known 'secret' that Billy had a huge crush on the first Pink Ranger. Kim herself was very aware of it, and was extremely gentle and careful of Billy's feelings, while deftly evading his timid attempts to broach any but the most general of subjects.

"She's the best," the former Blue Ranger agreed, turning his attention back to the dancers.

Jason saw Rocky watching him, and smiled at his business partner, knowing the other young man was delighted with Adam and Tanya's decision to get married. Rocky had made good on his offer to get help for Jason, and consequently in recent months Jason had at least one night a week 'off'. Rocky, Adam, Tanya, Kim, Trini, and Zack were the usual volunteers, with Tommy begging off due to his frantic racing schedule. Though Kim, Trini and Zack were not wracked with the same guilt the former Zeo Rangers had, they still felt badly about what had befallen their childhood friend, and were more than happy to help in whatever way they could.

Rocky had been right about the potential healing that could take place if the former Zeo Rangers could contribute to Billy's care. Seeing for themselves, up close and unrehearsed, that Billy was happy, and as content as he could be under the circumstances, helped them each find a bit of peace with the what had happened. Billy accepted his situation, frankly not really remembering or understanding that his life had ever been much different, and found joy in so many small things, it was hard on his good days to think he was actually not nearly the man he had had the potential to become prior to the accident. In this manner, the past two years had sped by; two years of relative calm during which they all began to establish their adult lives.

Only Tommy and Kat were not taking advantage of the chance to make amends of a sort, and Kat's excuse was pretty hard to dismiss. She was following her dream in London, with some success, and was simply too far away to participate. Tommy, however, managed to almost always be too busy to spend much time with his former teammate. And on those rare occasions he was around, only Billy seemed unaware of just how miserably uncomfortable the race driver was, how anxious he seemed to be to leave.

"You want to dance, Billy?" Katherine asked quietly, startling the blond young man.

"No ... no thank you," he stammered, blushing, looking down at his feet.

"You sure? I'd be happy to show you how to dance, if you like," she offered.

"No ... please. I can't dance, I just like to watch."

Katherine patted his shoulder comfortingly before turning sapphire eyes to Jason.

"How about you? Want to dance?" she asked brightly.

"I'd love to," Jason decided, pleased she'd asked. He led her onto the floor and took her in his arms, relishing how good she felt. It had been a long time since he'd held a woman, even to do something innocent like dancing.

"Billy looks good," Kat said softly, backing off enough to look into Jason's dark eyes. "How are you doing?"

"Good. Great even. Everyone is helping, which has made a world of difference. How about you? Are you happy in London?" Something in the beautiful woman's face told him things were not perfect in her dancer's world.

"Yeah, I am. As much as I can be, at least," she replied at last, her gaze drifting over to a dark-haired man who stood alone, a glass of punch in one long-fingered hand. Tommy had performed his duties as usher, but it was obvious he was just marking time until he was free to leave.

"He's not dealing well with things, is he?" Katherine asked Jason, her gaze solemn.

Jason sighed. "No, he isn't. He hardly ever sees Billy, and when he does, it's like torture to him. He tries not to show it, but ... well, it's pretty obvious. He used to be my best friend, and now he's like a stranger. I think sometimes he was hurt worse than Billy was that day, and with as little chance of full recovery." His voice had trailed off as if he were speaking to himself, having forgotten to whom he was talking. He turned back to his dance partner to find tears sliding silently down alabaster cheeks.

"Kat ... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything," Jason stammered, upset by her sorrow.

"It's okay, Jason. You didn't say anything I didn't already know or suspect. But, the thing is ... I still love him. If he would let me in at all, I'd be with him in a heartbeat. But he won't. And, maybe I'm a coward, but that's easier to deal with thousands of miles away from him. And if I'm being honest, so are the memories of that day in the park."

Jason didn't know how to reply to that, so he settled for a wordless hug to comfort the tall blonde. He wished he could help Katherine, and Tommy, but they had to reach out for help first, and so far that had been beyond either of them.

The next day Katherine boarded a flight back to London, promising to come visit soon, unaware that this had been the last time the 'old gang' would all be together.

Beeep ........... beeep ........... beeep .......... beeep

"Red Dragon Dojo, Rocky DeSantos speaking," Rocky answered the phone by rote, half his mind still struggling with the intricacies of scheduling classes.

"May I speak to Jason Scott, please," an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Jason is teaching a class right now, can I help you, or have him call you back?"

"My name is Monte Williams, I'm Billy Cranston's supervisor. And I really need to speak to Jason Scott. Would it be possible to interrupt his class?"

Rocky felt an icy ball form in the pit of his stomach as he replied to the man he'd never met. "I'll get him, it'll be just a minute."

He put the call on hold and went into the classroom where Jason was putting a dozen advanced students through their paces. He walked quickly up to Jason, wishing he didn't have to do this.

"You have a call. Billy's supervisor. Where are you in this class?"

"What? What's wrong?" Jason asked worriedly.

"I didn't ask. He's on hold. Whoa ... where are we here?"

"Oh, sparring katas. I gotta get that," Jason was headed toward the door again.

"Jase!"

The broad-shouldered man turned at Rocky's call.

"Call me and let me know what's happening, okay?"

Jason nodded curtly and hurried out the door to the office phone, only to find himself racing toward his car a few moments later. Within five minutes he'd pulled into the parking lot of the burger place, and he rushed in to find Mr. Williams waiting for him.

"I'm sorry, Jason. It hit so quickly, he went down out here in the dining room. Did he miss his medication or something?" the older man asked.

"No, he's really good about taking his seizure meds. You said it was a bad one?"

"I believe it was a grand mal type seizure, if ever I saw one. He was conscious for a few moments afterwards, then drifted off to sleep. He's resting comfortably in my office, but he was aware that others saw him, that it happened in a public setting. I think that bothered him. I'm so sorry, Jason. But I might as well tell you now, that until you can bring a doctor's clearance that he shouldn't experience any more seizures, I can't let him come back to work." There was genuine regret in the man's expression.

"I understand. But it's going to break his heart," Jason sighed sadly, wondering how he would ever be able to break that news to his friend. Billy took such pride in his job.

"I know. But, honestly, you get this under control, and I'll take him back in a heartbeat. He's a wonderful employee, a hard worker, and just a nice kid. Everyone here likes him, customers and coworkers alike. Come on, I'll show you to the office. Take as long as you need, I'm working the counter anyway," Monte told him, giving the younger man an encouraging pat on the shoulder before turning back to the front counter.

Jason let himself into the small office to find his friend curled up on the faux leather couch; he was covered by a colorful blanket, sound asleep. The dark-haired man studied the thin face carefully, noticing the faint lines of pain across the high forehead and the fatigue evident even in sleep.

"You been keeping things from me, Little Bro?" he whispered, wondering if Billy had been feeling badly and he'd just missed it. He sighed and sat down on the desk chair, pulling out his wallet to find a card with Dr. Mead's number on it. He knew Billy had taken his medication, so this seizure was something that absolutely needed to be checked out. A quick phone call later and he was gently trying to wake the sleeping young man.

"Come on, Billy, work with me here. I need to get you over to see Dr. Mead, and for that I need you sort of awake," he urged his friend, manipulating him into a sitting position.

"Jason? I'm sorry, I didn't mean to do it," Billy murmured, not quite awake.

"Shhhh, Buddy, it's okay. You didn't do anything wrong," Jason soothed him while assisting him to his feet. "And Dr. Mead just wants to check you over, it's not a big deal, okay?" He hated having to do this to Billy, but the doctor had been insistent that Jason get him to the hospital immediately for tests and observation.

It was a quick trip to Angel Grove Memorial, and the ER had been told to expect them, so the still-groggy Billy was whisked away with startling efficiency, leaving Jason to deal with the paperwork since he had a medical power of attorney for Billy. Once that was completed he made a quick call to the dojo to let Rocky know how things were going, then settled down to wait. He considered calling Wallace to let him know what happened, but decided to wait until he knew more about what they were dealing with. Jason and the elder Cranston had made their peace long ago, and Billy's father visited his son a couple of times a month, usually taking him somewhere to spend the day together, much to Billy's delight.

Three interminable hours later Dr. Mead finally came to the waiting room to get him.

"How is he?" Jason asked anxiously, not liking the expression he saw on the kindly neurologist's face.

"Come with me to my office, and we can talk," the doctor invited, ushering the younger man ahead of him.

They settled down in the closet-sized office, Dr. Mead opting to sit beside Jason rather than behind the cluttered desk.

"Jason, there is no easy way to tell you this. The exams showed Billy has a brain tumor, probably benign, but completely inoperable and growing slowly. It's not suitable for radiation, so chemotherapy would be our only option, but to be honest, I don't think it will do much, in fact may do more harm than good. I'm so sorry," he said, laying a hand on Jason's forearm.

"Is this from the accident?" was the only question that made it through the fog in Jason's mind.

"I don't believe so, though there is no way to be certain. It could very well be the 'seeds' for this tumor have been there all along, something he was born with," he noted. "We didn't detect anything on the earlier CAT scans, and you know how thorough they were. But, even if we HAD found something, it probably would still have been untreatable," Mead shrugged helplessly.

"What's going to happen to him?" Jason asked through numb lips, his mind hardly able to wrap itself around this new development.

"When it comes to brain tumors, nothing is certain. But, the most likely scenario is that Billy will continue to have seizures, even though I'm going to be increasing his medications for that. They will gradually get worse, and more frequent, along with severe headaches and gradually increasing loss of vision, speech, and motor skills. Eventually he will lapse into a coma, from which he won't awaken," the doctor explained, hating the pain he saw in the younger man's dark eyes.

"My God, hasn't he been through enough already?" Jason whispered, running a hand down his face. "Are you absolutely certain? Would you be offended if I sought a second opinion?"

"I'm certain, but if you want a second opinion, I can give you the names and numbers of some colleagues. Might even be the best idea, Jason."

"What do we do now?"

"Now? Take him home; let him rest. He's scared; he needs to be in familiar surroundings. But, don't treat him any differently if you can avoid it. I would recommend he not go anywhere alone, nor ride his bike, just to be safe, but he's not made of glass, he won't break. He'll be more worried if you fuss over him a lot, and he doesn't need worry right now. I'll give you some literature you can read to help explain about the seizures and how to deal with them, as well as my home, office, and beeper numbers. If you need me, don't hesitate to call me, day or night. Now, let me get you those names and numbers, and start the paperwork to get you out of here," the doctor said kindly.

Jason sat back wearily, working to compose himself and consider his options, already dreading the unavoidable call to Wallace Cranston to update the man on his son's condition.

Beeep ........... beeep ............ beeep ............ beeep

The sound was so soft at first that Jason didn't even hear it, but gradually it increased enough to intrude on his consciousness, even over the movie he was watching. It was a soft moaning sound, and with a weary sigh the former Ranger leader went in to see what was wrong with Billy.

The blond was twitching on his bed, obviously in distress, but not, as Jason had at first thought, having a seizure. No, this appeared to be a bad dream, which was a relief to the other man.

"Billy? Come on, Bro, wake up for me, okay? Looks like you're dreaming," he crooned softly, running a firm hand over the thin shoulders of his slowly awakening friend.

"Jason?" came the confused query, as Billy finally roused enough to recognize his companion.

"None other. Did you have a bad dream?" At Billy's nod he continued. "Want to talk about it? Do you remember what was happening?"

"I was lost, in fog, like in the Dracula movie we watched. And there were other ... things there. A big monkey man who had glowing red eyes, and a witch with cones out of her head, a red looking guy with no skin ... and a robot. They all kept saying they were going to get me, and I tried to run away, but they were always in front of me. I was alone, and scared," he said softly, as Jason felt the minute tremors of fear in his friend's body.

"Sit on up a little, okay?" Jason asked, maneuvering so he could sit with his back against the headboard, allowing him to cradle Billy's shaking body in his strong arms. "Did you recognize any of them?"

"No, but it seemed like I should. I don't understand why that is. But it was like I had to get somewhere, and they wouldn't let me. I was so scared, but I couldn't yell for help even." Billy's voice was already fading as he relaxed in the safe embrace of his friend.

"It was just a dream, Buddy, no one is going to get you. You're safe here, so just go on back to sleep. I'll watch out for you," he murmured, smiling a little sadly as the body in his arms eventually grew lax with sleep.

Jason didn't relinquish his hold, but instead studied the much-loved countenance of the man-child he held in his arms. Since Dr. Mead's diagnosis a few months before, only Jason, Rocky and Wallace knew the truth of Billy's condition. Billy seemed to stabilize; he had seizures about once every couple of weeks, and his prescription for glasses had had to be increased, symptoms that made it so Jason was regularly reminded of the inevitability of Billy's decline.

He had taken Billy to a large medical center for a second opinion, which only confirmed Dr. Mead's diagnosis. Options were virtually nil, since neither Jason nor Wallace were willing to put Billy through distress unless there was a good chance of it being beneficial.

As his thoughts focused on what lay ahead, Jason fought for control of his emotions. It was bad enough to consider that Billy was dying, but that it was going to be so long, and that it would slowly and inevitably take what little Billy still had in the way of abilities and privileges, well, that was the ultimate cruelty. It had been hard to explain to the blond why he couldn't go back to work, and Jason doubted Billy had actually understood, but in the end had simply acknowledged that Jason knew best. And he could no longer ride his bike or go places alone, denying him the small freedoms he'd worked so hard to attain in the wake of the accident, now over four years past. Each seizure was an ordeal that left him frightened in its wake, and worst of all, embarrassed at having been seen writhing around, out of control. The outgoing gregariousness, which had been one of the more pleasant side effects of the brain damage, was being replaced by the fear of those he cared for seeing a seizure. Jason constantly assured Billy that his friends wouldn't think any less of him, but that was one argument the larger man lost every time.

Jason cried silent tears at the vagaries of a fate that first denied Billy his intellect and luminous future, then turned around to slowly rob him of the meager replacements he'd managed to create. It was incomprehensible that anyone could have that much bad luck in such a short lifetime, and still maintain the amount of joy Billy did. For he wasn't all 'gloom and doom', as Kim was likely to say, but on the whole optimistic and able to find some fun in the most mundane everyday occurrences.

"Jason?" The soft voice jarred the former Gold Ranger from his thoughts. "It's okay, Jason, don't be upset. I know that sometimes the monsters win in the end," he said, not seeming to notice Jason's gasp of surprise. Billy's voice had a faraway quality to it. "And that's okay, as long as I'm not alone."

Jason's grip on his friend tightened convulsively.

"You won't be alone, Bro. I promise you that. You won't ever be alone."

Beeeep ............. Beeeep ............. beeeep ............. beeeep

"Hey, thanks for coming guys," Jason greeted Adam and Tanya at the door, ushering them into the apartment.

"We couldn't miss Billy's birthday," Tanya smiled, holding out a brightly-wrapped package.

"Why don't you go on in and give it to the birthday boy. But don't let him open it yet, no matter how much he wants to," the dark-haired man said, indicating the spacious living room where the others were already gathered. All the former Rangers who lived in California were there, along with any spouses that could get free for the afternoon.

"Trying that trick, is he?" Adam smiled, knowing how much Billy loved getting presents.

"On everyone," Jason chuckled.

They laughed at his comment, then headed into the crowded living room as Jason went toward the kitchen, which accessed the small patio where a barbeque was warming up. Jason had bought enough ribs to feed an army, along with corn and salad, Billy's favorite menu. He had just decided the fire was perfect when he heard Kimberly calling him from inside.

He found the others standing around helplessly as Billy thrashed on the floor in the throes of another seizure.

"Oh, damn it. Why today?" Jason cursed softly as he did what he could to keep Billy from hurting himself during the violent attack. As it eased off, Jason spoke soothingly, knowing it helped Billy reorient himself.

"Jason, my room. Please?" Billy's voice was soft, but ragged and emotion-filled.

"Okay, Bro, just hold on, let me help you up," the larger man agreed easily, helping the slight blond to stand. Billy kept his head down, his gaze firmly on the carpet as Jason guided him to his room and settled him down on the bed. It wasn't until Billy was lying down that Jason saw the tears.

"Are you hurt? What's wrong?" he asked gently, smoothing the mussed light hair back from the chilly brow.

"They all saw me," Billy whimpered, obviously trying to control his tears.

"Aw, Billy. It's okay, they understand you can't help that. They love you no matter what," he said as soothingly as possible, pulling Billy up into the hug he knew the smaller man needed. He sighed sorrowfully, wondering where this sense of shame came from, and wishing he knew what to say, to do, to make it easier on Billy.

Realizing Billy had finally drifted off to sleep, he tucked the former Blue Ranger in bed, then stood, contemplating him with tear-filled eyes.

"Hell of a way to celebrate your birthday, Bro. God, why can't you catch a break?" he whispered, breathing deeply to get himself back under control. He had a dozen people out there waiting, he couldn't let his feelings run away with him now. Once he felt like he was calm again, he quietly stepped back into the living room, and faced what seemed like a sea of anxious eyes.

"He'll sleep for about an hour, then he'll be fine. If you don't mind the extra time, I'll bank the fire and wait dinner until he's up again," Jason announced, almost unnerved by the degree of concern he saw in all their friends.

"Jason," Trini's gentle voice stopped him at the doorway to the kitchen. "What's going on? He's having seizures much more frequently now, and that one he just had, well, I know enough to know that was not a minor thing. Is there something we should know?"

The midnight-dark eyes of the former Gold Ranger were bright with unshed tears as he looked into the concerned faces of his friends. His gaze sought out Rocky, who gave him his silent encouragement, his expression conveying that he thought it was time to let the others know.

Keeping his voice soft, mindful of Billy sleeping in the nearby bedroom, he finally spoke, finding the first few words were the hardest.

"Billy has a brain tumor. We, his dad and I, found out about it after he had his first seizure at work. There's nothing they can do, it's benign, but growing, and completely inaccessible. Billy doesn't know, or at least I've never told him, and his medications seem to control the pain, if not the seizures. I'm sorry, I probably should have told you sooner, but ..." he gestured eloquently toward the closed bedroom door, the tears finally falling as he saw the grief he'd carried essentially alone for so long echoed on the others' faces. Somehow they ended up in a huddle, a group hug of epic proportions, tears flowing freely as the grief washed over them all.

They stayed that way for a long time, until almost self-consciously they began to pull themselves together, if only for the sake of the man they were here to celebrate with. It wouldn't do for Billy to find his guests crying all over the apartment, and for his sake they were willing to put aside their sorrow and put on a cheerful fa├žade.

"You're certain there's nothing that can be done?" Trini asked reflexively, regretting it the moment the words left her mouth. Of course Jason would have explored every option.

"Yeah, I've talked to several doctors, dragged Billy several places, there's nothing," he replied, his voice devoid of rancor.

"Oh, man, this just sucks," Zack sighed, his usually cheerful face awash with grief.

Tommy stood alone, his expression stony and withdrawn, his normally expressive eyes impassive and closed. Jason felt a chill looking at him, and realized he needed to tell them one other thing.

"Guys, I think you should know, the doctors don't think the tumor has anything to do with the accident. They think it was there all along, and this would have happened regardless," he explained, with a desperate look at Tommy.

"Sure it would have," the taller man scoffed, turning away. "Please tell Billy I'm sorry, but I need to get back to the track. I have a full slate of races coming up this weekend, and I can't afford to break training for long." He avoided everyone's eyes as he made his hasty retreat, leaving an awkward silence in his wake.

"He'll be okay, he just needs time to work it through," Kim sighed, an old pain in her doe eyes.

"I hope so, but frankly, I don't think he's even 'worked through' the accident," Adam replied softly, looking worriedly at the door Tommy had so recently exited.

"Guys, we need to turn this back into a party before the guest of honor awakens, okay?" Rocky said firmly, though his smile was a bit wobbly.

"Definitely," Kim agreed with resolute cheerfulness. "Let's get the table set up, and make sure everything will be ready to go when he wakes up," she suggested, heading to the kitchen with a purposeful stride. "And did anyone decorate the cake yet?"

Prodded into action by the smallest ex-Ranger, soon the air of despair had dissipated, and when Billy emerged from his room later he found his friends ready to have him join in the fun. Initially a bit hesitant, he soon warmed to the cheerful mood when he found no one was treating him any differently than usual.

The party lasted until fairly late that evening, courtesy of a spirited game of charades, fueled by Rocky and Zack's antics. By the time everyone but Kimberly had left, Billy was almost nodding off.

"Come on, Bro. You've had a long day, I think it's time you hit the sack," Jason suggested firmly, urging Billy toward the bathroom. By the time he was settled back in his bed, he fell asleep immediately, a small smile still playing around his lips.

"God, what a day," Jason moaned as he went into the kitchen to find Kim putting away the last of the dishes. "Thanks, Kim. That wasn't necessary, but it's appreciated," he grinned.

"You looked wiped. Go sit down, I'm making some hot chocolate, I'll bring you a cup. Go on, sit," she shooed him out of the small kitchen and toward the comfortable sofa. Jason was grateful for the reprieve and found he could finally relax bit by bit as he let the last few hours pass through his mind once more.

"Here," she said a few minutes later, her soft voice interrupting his thoughts as she handed him a steaming mug. She settled down on the couch beside him and regarded him seriously.

"Are you okay?" she queried at last.

Jason sighed deeply, contemplating the steaming cup he held in his hand. "I guess so. It's hard, watching him decline. But, I have to admit, it was a relief to let you guys know what's going on," he admitted.

"You should have told us a while ago, Jason," she scolded gently. "I thought you learned your lesson about shutting us out."

"I know, but I kept hoping something would come up that would change it, you know? But, nothing did, and ... well ... I guess I was playing possum. I did have Rocky and Billy's dad to talk to when I needed to," he pointed out.

"Do you have any idea how few people could do what you're doing for Billy?" she asked after a lengthy silence.

"I'm just doing what has to be done, Kim. He's my friend, I really can't do less for him," the burly man stated matter-of-factly.

Luminous brown eyes met his as a warm smile crossed the delicate features. "You're something else, Jason Scott," she murmured, running a hand down the side of his face. He leaned into the gentle caress, his eyes closing as a small smile played across his lips.

When his gaze met hers again he felt a stirring in the vicinity of his heart he hadn't experienced since Emily left him. Looking into those soft shining eyes, he realized with joyful surprise that the feeling appeared to be reciprocated.

He leaned toward the petite woman and their lips met in a sweet first kiss, as without thinking the small, soft feminine body molded to his, and delicate hands ran over his back, exploring the broad expanse as the kiss intensified.

Breathless, they finally broke their embrace, separating a little and looking at each other in a new light. It was anyone's guess how far it might have gone if a muffled coughing sound hadn't reached their ears from behind the closed bedroom door, reminding them both that they were not exactly alone. Jason in particular stared at that door, his expression distant and melancholy.

"Kim, I'm sorry, but I can't do this right now. You're going to think I'm nuts, but if I start anything with you at this time, I'd feel like I'm somehow betraying him," Jason murmured, almost afraid to meet Kim's gaze when he heard her deep sigh.

"I suppose you're right," came the subdued reply.

He did look at her then, and saw she was also looking at Billy's door with tears sparkling in those large expressive eyes. Twice in her life had she been the object of Billy's unrequited affection, once in their preteen years, and now. And both times Kimberly had known of his feelings, and had managed to dissuade him without damaging his fragile ego, a feat of tact very few women could have managed. But under the circumstances, starting a relationship with Jason, who was Billy's caretaker, big brother, and hero rolled up into one, would be an act of cruelty that neither of them was capable of.

"Do me a favor, though?" she asked finally, accepting the inevitable.

"Of course."

"When ... when things are settled down, and you do feel like the time is right, give me a chance? I'm willing to wait," she whispered tenderly.

"It's a promise," Jason said, cupping the side of her face in one warm hand. "You can count on that."

Beeeep ............. beeeep ............ beeeep ............ beeeep

The church was crowded; standing room only, by the time the service began. The organ music filled the large area with its somber tones, somehow highlighting, rather than drowning out, the soft sobs of the mourners.

The group of former Power Rangers sat together near the front of the church, taking up almost two pews. The men were all in black suits, while the women wore dark dresses, with few or no accessories. The group, who had helped celebrate Billy's birthday a few days before, met again under vastly different circumstances.

"I can't believe this happened," Kimberly sobbed softly, leaning into Jason for support in her grief. "He was fine five days ago."

"We always knew it could happen like this, but I didn't like to think too much about it," Adam agreed, wiping at his misting eyes and tightening his grip on his wife's hand.

Jason had wrapped one strong arm around Kim's slender shoulders, lending her all the support he could. "I'm going to miss him so much. Even though he wasn't there a lot recently, I kept hoping things would change. Now that chance is gone, and so foolishly," he said, his gaze still on his knees.

The group fell silent as the service began and their eyes were drawn constantly to the flower-draped coffin behind the minister. Prayers were said, more tears were shed, as the crowd said good bye to Tommy Oliver, who had lost control of his car in a race on Saturday, crashing into the wall at nearly 100 mph, killing him instantly.

He was only twenty-two when he died, though there were some who firmly believed that, for all intents and purposes, he'd actually died at age seventeen, following a devastating attack by a contingent of cogs.

Beeeep ............... beeeep ............... beeeep ............... beeeep

"Come on, Billy, you're supposed to be helping here," Jason grumbled around his smile as they worked in his parents' back yard, raking leaves into a small mountain preparatory to bagging them.

"I am," the blond insisted with a wicked grin as he threw another handful of leaves at his friend.

"Oh, you are, are you? Well, I can help even more," Jason growled, dropping his rake and advancing menacingly on the smaller man.

"You gotta catch me first," Billy taunted him, breaking into a laugh that quickly turned into a squeal of surprise as Jason captured him around the waist and dumped him unceremoniously into the deep pile of colorful leaves.

"Piece of cake," Jason grinned, following his slighter friend down and tossing leaves over him as if to bury him in them. Billy retaliated by launching himself at his attacker, and soon the two young men were wrestling around in the leaves like the boys they used to be only a few short years before. The impromptu wrestling match ended when both combatants stopped to catch their breath, sprawling side by side amidst the ruin of their leaf pile.

"I won," Billy announced, thumping his chest for emphasis.

"Says who?" Jason countered with a mock glower at the blond.

"Says me," was the unperturbed reply.

"We should get a second opinion," Jason decided, smiling.

"Hmph," Billy replied absently. "This was fun. I like raking leaves," he announced happily.

"I noticed. Though I think you had more fun destroying our work."

"Yeah. But it's all been fun," Billy insisted, looking over at Jason with a happy smile.

"That it has. But, Buddy, we need to clean up our mess here, so upsy daisy, let's get back to work, okay?" Jason said, standing and holding out his hand to help Billy up.

It was the work of a few minutes to get the pile back together, and Jason walked over to the low wall to grab the box of plastic bags. "All we need to do is bag them up and we're done. Mom promised up apple pie with ice cream if we do a good job, and it looks like we qualify," he rambled as he turned back toward the pile. His gaze fell on Billy who had collapsed and was thrashing around in the throes of a seizure.

"Damn," Jason muttered, going to assist his friend, as he had so many times in the last few months. But this seizure didn't end like the others had, it just kept going, the slender body whipping back and forth violently. Jason felt his panic rising; this was not normal at all.

"Mom! Mom, call an ambulance," he shouted to his mother as she appeared at the back door. "Hang on, Little Bro, help is coming," he murmured anxiously, praying the frantic movements would stop and give his friend some peace.

Beeeeep .................... beeeeep .................... beeeeep .................... beeeeep

There was the distant clashing of trays, signaling that breakfast was being served. But none would come in here, where Billy feasted around the clock on an IV drip. After the seizure that started in his parents' yard was finally stopped, Billy sank into a coma without ever regaining consciousness. Jason was oddly satisfied that his friend's last conscious moments were spent having fun, laughing in the sunshine with a friend. He accepted the doctors' assurance that Billy was unaware of anything after he collapsed, and that he was not suffering now as he slowly drifted away.

So Jason waited with a patience born of love, watching the familiar face now slack and guileless against the stark white of the hospital bed. Waiting for, and dreading, the moment when his duty would be finished, and he would be clear to leave and start the rest of his life. A life without the vivid spark of this friendship, which had burned brightly for fourteen years. Through good times and bad; through adventures and heartaches; battered, but not destroyed, by monsters and villains.

And as he waited he realized he didn't regret a moment of it, from the day he met a shy, timid eight year old, to this day as he watched the tide of a still young life ebb away.

It had all been worth it.

Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The end.

Author's notes: Well, if you made it this far, thanks as always for reading. And a big thank you to Dagmar who did the beta reading, provided the title, and hung on for the ride with encouraging words when things stalled.