Author's Note:

After 12 long years we have finally reached the conclusion of Doo 'awéé ééhoozIIh da - The Lost Child. The story sprang up from a simple question and it took on a life of its own. When we started this story we never imagined it would take so many years to complete, but real life often has other ideas and more than once it's prevented us from having time to write. Because of that, it means even more that so many readers have stuck with this story to see it through to the end.

We wanted to tackle so many ideas and issues and we have always been grateful for everyone's support. As it is though, all things must come to an end, and our journey has reached that point. It is with both joy and sadness that we post this final part. We'll miss this universe, a place where Michael is safe and loved, surrounded by family and friends, and of course, involved with Maria in a stable relationship. All of our characters are ready to continue their journey beyond the pages we've written (and it's a LOT of pages, lol) and the time has come for us to let them go.

So, we hope you've all enjoyed the journey. We've seen our characters through the ups and downs of family situations, new relationships, dangerous enemies and high school drama. Thank you all for reading, for following the story in spite of the lengthy distance between some of the updates, and your continued support through it all!

Part 156

Catherine felt tears threatening yet again as she watched her husband and son through the living room window. They had gone out to take a last look at the motorcycle and they'd ended up shooting hoops in the driveway. She'd known since the moment Maggie was born and since they'd brought Michael home that one day she'd have to let them go. That long-time knowledge didn't make it any easier. They would always be her children, that wouldn't change no matter how old they got, but letting them go out into the world on their own was one of the hardest things she'd ever done.

Before the day was half over both of her children would be gone, leaving to pursue their own lives, and she and John would be returning to an empty house. She reached up to wipe her eyes, clearing her vision for a moment, and a smile graced her lips when Maggie joined the pickup game. Her heart ached at the familiar sight. How she was going to miss this! Memories of the past 18 years flashed through her mind, moments good and bad, happy and sad, but through all of them the thread of love was a constant.

She knew that wouldn't change, no matter where their dreams and goals took them. Maggie had all intentions of earning a degree in law and returning to the Rez to practice and help their people. Michael didn't have a specific goal in mind and she didn't know if one day he would come back home to live or if he would simply come back on occasion to visit. It was unrealistic to expect children to return home to live out their lives, but a mother could dream.

"You're doin' it again, Mom."

She blinked and realized that the game had ended and the driveway was empty. She drew in a fortifying breath and turned to face her son. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Michael grunted out a response before taking a drink of water. "We're gonna be home for the holidays."

Three months. Catherine nodded as she tried to work past the lump in her throat. Three months to him felt like a lifetime to her. "I know… it's just three months." She shook her head. "I know it doesn't seem that long to you, but one day you'll understand."

"One day when I've got kids of my own?" He grinned and shook his head. "Don't be lookin' for me to make a grandmother outta you anytime soon, Mom."

The relief she felt was immense. She hadn't even been thinking about that possibility, though she supposed it had been lurking at the back of her mind since her son had gotten serious about Maria. It wasn't having grandchildren that concerned her. No, it was the reality that they didn't know if it was even viable in this situation. "Just remember that there's only one method that's one hundred percent foolproof."

Abstinence. Michael made a face. Yeah, that wasn't gonna happen. "We're careful, Mom."

She had to bite her tongue to control the urge to tell him just how many babies were born every year to parents who were careful. She had accepted that he was a grown man and she knew he was capable of making his own decisions. But it was hard to let go in spite of the fact that the time had come to do just that.

"Do you have everything?"

He nodded. Most of his stuff was already packed in Maria's car, a decision they'd made in the hope that their departure wouldn't become a huge event. "Yeah, got everything including my toothbrush."

She sighed when he glanced at the clock. She could remember the anticipation, the eagerness to be out the door and on her own; an adult, independent and taking on the world. Michael was going to be out there much like she and John had been so many years ago, working and making a living while juggling a relationship. It wasn't going to be easy and she knew there were going to be days when her son and his girlfriend both wanted to call it quits. She also knew they were both stubborn and they had what it took to make things work. Guarantees weren't a given but she believed they were going to succeed, in life and in love.

Her eyes misted again and she drew in a calming breath.

"We're gonna be okay, Mom," Michael assured her when he saw her eyes watering up again.

"I know you are," she said with a tearful smile. "No matter how long I've known this day was coming the reality's a little harder to deal with." She drew herself up straighter and nodded. "I know you need to get going." She shook her head fondly. "You're just like your dad that way. You hate to be late when you're going somewhere."

"Yeah, and we don't wanna miss our reservations. We'll be lucky if we don't end up losing our rooms because Isabel makes us late. Alex said he'd do his best to keep her on schedule but he's got about as good a chance of doin' that as he has of ropin' the wind."

Catherine chuckled. She had gotten to know Isabel, Alex, Max and Liz over the past few months and she couldn't imagine the tall blonde being ready to go on time. "I'm glad the two of them will be close by. It'll be good for all of you." Tears pushed to the surface again when she thought about Maggie attending college all alone on the east coast.

It was easy enough to know where her thoughts had just gone. "She'll be okay, Mom." He leaned against the counter beside her and bumped her with his shoulder. "We come from good stock."

She choked the tears down. "Yes, you do," she finally managed to get out as she turned and threw her arms around him. "I'm gonna miss you so much."

"Hey, I'm leaving too!" Maggie said as she burrowed into the hug.

"This isn't about you," Michael said, nudging her out of the way and grinning when she huffed indignantly and plowed her way right back into their embrace. He was going to miss her a lot. He and Maggie had been tight since the beginning and he was used to her being there for… well, for everything. Who was he kidding? He was going to miss all of them. He hugged them tighter to give himself a moment to get rid of the lump in his throat.


Maria grabbed the handle at one end of the trunk, taking some of the weight before Gabriel could take it all on himself. "Here, let me help you with that."

He didn't bother telling her he could easily carry the trunk himself, knowing that she would insist on helping regardless.

They settled it on one side of the small trailer he'd hitched to the back of the car and she watched him while he used bungee straps to secure it to the frame. He stepped back and frowned as he took in the amount of stuff that was now packed on the trailer. Most of it would've fit in the backseat - excluding the trunk of course, but now that they had Magnum traveling with them that space would be needed so they could all have a comfortable ride.

"I wish I'd been able to get an enclosed trailer for you."

Maria hugged him. "Gabriel, no, this is perfect!" She knew he was worried about her things being packed on the trailer since they would be staying at a hotel overnight, potentially giving some thief the opportunity to steal from them. "We're stopping at the same hotel we stayed at when we went to California for Spring Break. They've got a well-lit parking lot with security cameras and they've got a security patrol that keeps an eye on things. And the truth is, it's just stuff. My stuff and I want to keep it, but as long as Michael, Magnum and me are all safe, that's the most important thing."

He smiled and nodded. "You're wise for your years."

Amy watched them from the porch, her heart full to overflowing. A year ago she wouldn't have seen this coming. Her daughter and her… boyfriend. She made a face and shook her head. She wasn't old, but somehow the term boyfriend just seemed so… juvenile. So no, not her boyfriend. Her… she supposed significant other was most appropriate, but somehow that sounded so… clinical? Lover, maybe? True, but too graphic. No, she needed another word to describe Gabriel.

Fiancé, she thought and a smile eased over her features. Yes, maybe it was time to accept the changes in her life and move forward with them.

Maria's ease with Gabriel made her so happy. It hadn't been easy at first, most things weren't when dealing with a teenager, but she had watched her daughter grow and change so much over the past year. She wasn't a child any longer; she was a young woman about to head out and begin her own life, independent of her mother. It was the way the circle of life was supposed to work and in spite of her desire to hold tight to Maria and never let go, she knew that day had arrived and she had to stand back and let her spread her wings and fly solo.


Max leaned back against the jeep and crossed his arms over his chest as he scowled at his sister's growing pile of absolute necessities. It wasn't like she was never coming home again. And their parents had already promised to bring whatever she couldn't fit in the car out to California for her. He rolled his eyes at the oversized suitcase she was manhandling out to the driveway. The mountain of luggage and other stuff that she'd carefully been building was never going to fit in Alex's car. More than half of it was going to have to stay behind but there was no telling her that.

He glanced over his shoulder when he heard vehicles approaching and it only took a couple of seconds to identify the Parker and Whitman family cars. They parked on the street in front of the house and moments later he spotted Alex turning the corner at the end of the block. He shook his head as he scanned over the small car. He'd never get all of her stuff in there. He checked his watch and sighed. They were supposed to be meeting Michael and Maria in less than an hour and he knew they were never going to make it on time.

He turned in time to catch Liz in his arms, dropping a chaste kiss on her lips since her parents weren't far behind. "You didn't bring that much did you?" he asked with a nod at the growing pile that his sister was constantly adding to.

She snickered and shook her head. "No. Mom and Dad will be sending some of my stuff and they'll bring the rest when they come for a visit."

"Yeah, same for Isabel but that hasn't stopped her from tryin' to pack up her entire room." He straightened up. "I guess we'd better get your stuff loaded up. I'd rather be busy with that than getting pulled into helpin' Alex try to squeeze all of her stuff into his car." He watched as his sister's boyfriend backed in next to the jeep, slowly creeping up the driveway until the two vehicles were parallel. "Little bit further and you could be rid of half that pile," he said when Alex got out.

"Have a little faith," Alex said with a grin. He reached out and patted the rack attached to the roof of the car. "I've got this covered."

"Uh-huh," Max said doubtfully. "Well, we've gotta get Liz's stuff loaded up too, so…" He was relieved when the other guy just waved him off and approached the mountain of luggage and boxes.

Alex studied the logistics of the situation, slowly moving around the haphazardly stacked pile of necessities - and he had no doubt that Isabel believed each item was of detrimental importance. He scratched his chin as he made one more pass, mentally packing the car and determining the best way to go about the monumental task. He looked up when his girlfriend came out of the house hauling yet another bag and he held a hand up when she added it to the stack. "Isabel," he greeted, giving her a look.

Her expression was mutinous. "I need everything here."

"I'm sure you do." There was no point starting the day off with an argument. He leaned in for a kiss. "Is there any chance what you have here is the extent of the necessities you'll be needing for this trip?"

Isabel glanced over the things she'd been bringing out for the past hour before shifting her gaze to his car. "I've got one more bag."

He nodded. "Okay. One more bag should do it." He hoped it was really only one more bag. Any more than that and he'd have to make a deal with Michael for a little space on the trailer he'd be using to haul his motorcycle to San Francisco. He wanted to avoid owing the temperamental hybrid if at all possible.

"I can help…"

Alex just shooed her back towards the house. The last thing he needed was for her to help load the car. They'd never make it out of the driveway. "Go on and get that last bag and I'll tackle this. Besides," he offered with a grin, "I don't wanna be responsible for depriving your mom of a single second with you before we leave."

She turned her head and smiled when she saw her mom standing on the porch talking with his mom and Nancy Parker. "I'm gonna miss them, Alex."

He reached for her hands and drew her gaze with the action. He wasn't surprised to see tears shimmering in her eyes. Leaving home wasn't going to be easy for any of them but out of all of them he had a feeling it would be hardest on Isabel. "We'll be back in three months for Thanksgiving." He squeezed her hands. "And somehow I don't think we'll make it the entire three months before your mom and dad drop in for a visit." He shook his head. "The very first time their baby girl's away from home for more than a short vacation? No way they'll make it a whole three months, Isabel."

She smiled tremulously and leaned into him. "Thanks, Alex," she whispered.

"Always." He wrapped his arms around her and sighed quietly. He couldn't believe the turns his life had taken over the past year. Every one of them had led him to this point though, so there wasn't a single one he'd change. There was no predicting where the future would take them, he only knew where he wanted it to go. Where they both wanted it to go, he thought when she leaned back, her fingertips ghosting along his cheek as she watched him.

"My dad's probably gonna come out and help you." She gnawed on her bottom lip as she sent a quick look over her shoulder to glance at the pile of absolute necessities.

"I'm sure he'll have sound advice considering the many family outings you've had over the years," he teased. "I can't imagine you've ever traveled light." He held a hand up when she started to protest. "I know, I know, it's all necessary. So, go spend a few more minutes with your mom and let me attempt the impossible."

Isabel rolled her eyes at him but went to do as he had suggested. She was torn between wanting to step out on her own to start life as an independent adult and wanting to stay where she knew what to expect, where she knew she was safe and sheltered. But she knew she was ready to get out and experience life and she was eager to see where this new road would take her. She glanced back at Alex when she neared the porch. Yeah, she knew where she wanted that road to lead eventually, but the journey was just as important as the destination.

Alex gave the newly-installed rack a solid tug before turning to look at the monstrous load he was expecting it to hold securely and he shook his head. He was expecting the impossible. He snorted to himself as he approached the mountain of luggage. Well, a year ago he would've said dating Isabel Evans was impossible. He studied the pieces she'd gathered, mentally arranging them and trying to figure out the best fit.

"If you're planning a future with my daughter you'll want to learn how to haul her caravan early on," Philip said, humor evident in his tone.

He looked at Isabel's dad. "I can see the wisdom in that," he agreed.

Charles scanned over the girl's luggage and shook his head with a fond smile at his wife. She didn't travel lightly but he had to give her credit - she'd never had this much for him to drag from car to hotel and back again!

"She won't be easy to live with."

Alex laughed at Philip's statement. "No sir, I don't expect she will." He glanced back at Isabel and watched her for a moment, smiling when he caught her eye. "I don't need easy though." He just needed her but he managed to keep that comment to himself. True as it was he didn't need to spout off goofy sentiments in front of her dad, his dad and oh yeah, now Liz's dad too.

"Philip, I don't know how you're able to do it," Jeff Parker said as he joined them. He didn't understand Amy's ease with allowing her daughter to cohabitate with her boyfriend either. Although he supposed it was easier to understand with her because Amy Deluca was a child of the 70s, a hippie, and she and Maria had an unusually free and open parent-child relationship. He had a wonderful relationship with his daughter, but the thought of welcoming the idea of her and Max sharing living space right off the bat didn't sit well with him.

The lawyer shot a look at his daughter's boyfriend, hiding a smile when he realized Alex had busied himself with rearranging the different pieces by size while trying to appear like he wasn't listening to what was being said around him. He didn't mind if the young man heard a word he had to say because it was the truth and he didn't believe in hiding the truth. "Diane and I had a long talk about that very thing when they approached us about sharing an apartment a few months back. And it all boils down to their being old enough to make their own decisions regarding such things. They could've easily made the choice to move forward with that plan without discussing it with us. They're of age and they don't need our permission. The fact that they came to us like adults, asked our opinion and openly discussed what was sure to be an uncomfortable subject, was more than enough incentive to give them our blessing."

Charles nodded as his gaze followed his only child. It was going to be strange without Alex in the house. He had expected it to be harder on Elaine, had expected it to impact him less since he traveled so much for his job, but now that the day was upon them he wasn't so sure. He'd known he'd miss him of course, but he'd felt an immense sense of loss come over him that morning when he'd walked into his son's room after Alex had gone out to make a final round through the house to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. The bedroom had been devoid of the things that had cluttered it up, a menagerie of things collected over a lifetime. Pictures, posters, books, clothes, computers and the odd assortment of computer-related things, DVDs, music sheets, his guitars and various other items that tended to be strewn about. It had all been gone and everything that wasn't being taken with him to California had been carefully boxed and labeled and stored in the closet, out of sight. But not out of mind, he thought.

He'd missed so much over the years, out of town for his job, making a living and providing for his family to the best of his ability. He hadn't been there to see Alex take his first steps or cut his first tooth, hadn't been there to teach him to ride a bike or dropped him off for his first day of school. But he'd been there for every birthday and graduation. He'd sacrificed more than one holiday to be there for those milestones. Sure, there were events he wished he hadn't missed, but he felt he'd been there for the most important things. There were regrets, of course. Everything had its price and providing for a family was no different.


John leaned back against his truck, keeping an eye on Michael while he went over every inch of the motorcycle one last time. In a few minutes he'd be leaving them, heading out into the world to make his mark. It was something every man had to do. No one could do it for him and he wouldn't want them to. He could remember the day he left home as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. His family had been there to see him off, so proud of him for getting into college and yet, so sad to see him leave.

His mother had been there, but there had been so much distance by that time because of her disapproval of his relationship with Catherine. That memory still left a hollow ache in his heart. They had never been able to find their way back together and she'd died with that distance echoing between them. He'd agonized over the possibility of history repeating itself with his wife and son and he'd prayed for her acceptance. He didn't want Michael to have to live with the pain and regret such a chasm would cause, especially if that gap was never bridged. He was so grateful that they had finally made peace and that Catherine had fully accepted Maria.

"The past teaches us many lessons."

He turned his head when his father came to stand beside him. "Yes, it does."

"Many of them are painful," River Dog said sagely.

He nodded as he thought about his mother, about the pain that remained to this day every time he remembered her leaving this world with so much left unsaid between them. "Yes, they are."

"A mother's love is not finite. There are no borders, no walls so large or so strong that it cannot reach beyond them."

He shook his head sadly. "Aren't there?"

"Your mother may not have agreed with your choices, John, but her love for you was never in question."

His jaw set, he stared straight ahead. "That wasn't how it felt, Dad."

"Son, your mother was a woman of few words." He smiled slowly at John's incredulous look. "Unless she felt strongly about something," he added. "And yes, she felt strongly about your relationship with Catherine."

"She never changed her mind," he muttered quietly.

"No, she didn't, and that had nothing to do with you. Your mother wasn't perfect, she was as flawed as the rest of us, but sometimes she - like anyone else, would set her mind to something and nothing could change it. She knew she was wrong, she had regrets, but time has the ability to damage just as much as it does to heal. In your mother's case, she lost her way and she never made peace with certain decisions she made. But never once did she stop loving you." He reached out to grip his son's shoulder. "Never question her love for you, Son."

It wasn't as simple as that, Michael thought as he straightened up. He hadn't meant to eavesdrop on their conversation, but he couldn't help it if his hearing was so good. He knew Mom loved him but her disapproval of Maria had threatened to destroy the relationship he'd relied on for so long. He knew how that felt and even knowing that she loved him unconditionally, he'd found himself questioning everything he knew about the mother-son dynamic they shared.

"Well, I guess I'm about as ready as I'm gonna get," he said as he turned to face them. He checked the time and shrugged one shoulder. He was running right on schedule but he knew in the end it wasn't going to matter because Isabel would never be on time.

John nodded. "I'll go get your mom and sister."

River Dog waited until they were alone to speak. They had decided to keep it to just the five of them and Eddie, if he was able to make it, because Michael would be uncomfortable if the whole family showed up to see him off. And there was no reason for Maria to have to deal with him in an irritable mood as they went off to start their life together.

"You're ready?"

Michael nodded. "Yeah." He reached up to scratch his eyebrow. He really didn't know what to say. How did you thank someone for your life? If not for River Dog and his parents and Maggie he didn't know what would've happened to him. He didn't know if he'd even still be alive.

"You know we don't say goodbye."

"I know."

"The day I found you I knew you were special." He smiled when Michael shook his head in denial. "I knew you would change our lives." He knew the boy saw it the other way around and he knew that both sides were true. "A single pebble dropped into a still pond creates ripples that move into the distance until they can no longer be seen. The effects from those ripples go on long after the initial disruption has disappeared."

"Okay." What was River Dog telling him? Sometimes he wasn't altogether sure he understood the old man when he talked like this.

"The pebble represents all of us. We have all, in some way, changed each other's lives." He smiled enigmatically. "You came into our lives or we came into your life, both are true, it all depends on one's perspective. The ripples of change go in both directions; we've changed each other with our actions, our thoughts and our words. Change is important." He looked out into the desert. "Change is constant. Without change the world would cease to exist. You have to change, to grow, to branch out, but you must do it without compromising who you are."

"Your wisdom is always a source of learning, River Dog." Eddie grinned as he loped up the driveway. "I was afraid I might miss you," he said as he joined them.

"No such luck." Michael looked at his grandfather, studying his serious features for a moment before he nodded. Be true to yourself and always stand up for what you believe. He had a feeling that's what the old man was telling him. It was advice to live by.

The screen door slammed as Maggie shot outside and bounded down the steps to throw her arms around her brother. She was going to miss him so much. She would be in her dorm before sunset and he would be in a hotel at the other end of the country. "You didn't lose my number, right?"

Michael rolled his eyes as he hugged her. She'd written it on multiple pieces of paper, shoved them in his bag, his pocket, his wallet and then written it on the inside of his arm. "I'll call you tonight," he promised. He glanced over her shoulder when Mom handed Dad a small package and he moved around them to put it in the saddlebags slung over the back of the motorcycle.

"Cornbread," Catherine said in response to his curious look. "I can't have you leaving home without it." She'd spent hours over the summer teaching Maria how to make it and she had memorized the recipe and could make it as close to perfect as she'd ever seen.

Michael nodded. "Won't be the same when you're not makin' it."

Tears shimmered in her eyes and she smiled as she leaned in to hug him tightly. She was going to miss her baby boy so much!

"Let's take a picture," Maggie insisted and shoved a small camera in Eddie's hands.

He rolled his eyes at her but as soon as the family had moved in close together he snapped off a couple of pictures. He changed places with Maggie at her insistence and mugged it up for the camera while she took a couple of shots of him with Michael and then with the family.

"I'll send you copies," she promised as she hugged her brother one more time.

"I'll make sure I put 'em out when you come for a visit," he teased.

"Whatever." She was silent for a moment as she nearly cut off his oxygen with her tight grip around his neck. "We're still on for next summer, right?"

He squeezed his eyes shut when he heard the tremor in her voice that was already thick with tears. "Yeah, we're on," he swore, his voice gruff with suppressed emotion. This was even harder than he'd imagined.

He hugged them all in turn, his throat getting tighter with each embrace. His mom was last and when she hugged him his hands clenched in the material of her shirt. "Thank you," he rasped, hoping she understood.

Catherine closed her eyes and held him close, hearing what he wasn't able to say. She nodded and kissed his cheek. "I love you, Michael."


The roar of the engine sent Magnum into a barking frenzy as he raced back and forth at the front door. Maria laughed at his antics but didn't open the screen door until the motorcycle came to a full stop. The puppy raced down the walk to throw himself against Michael's leg, hopping up and down in a bid for attention. She watched him lean over and rub the animal briskly and within moments Magnum had fallen over on his back in the grass, presenting his belly for a good rub.

"He's as demanding as you are," Michael growled when she stepped over the puppy to lean in for a kiss.

"He'll learn to share," she said with a laugh.

"Like you?"

She snorted indelicately at that and shook her head. "Not hardly."

"Didn't think so." He glanced at the trailer that was already packed. "You ready?"

"Yeah, I think so. We did a little rearranging, switched some of the stuff in the trunk out so things that were more valuable were a little more secure. I tried to keep as much as possible out of the backseat so Magnum has room to move. I don't want him to be cramped."

Michael decided not to comment that considering the puppy's size he might as well get used to living in a cramped space. He was going to be huge and the houseboat was only so big. "I'm sure he'll be fine."

She smiled and leaned over to give the rambunctious puppy a pat. "Yeah, he will be. Mom wanted to say goodbye before we go. Are you okay with that?"

He cleared his throat. He wasn't sure how much more of these emotional send-offs he could handle. "Yeah, sure." He rubbed the back of his neck. "You're ready to go though, right?"

She pinched her lips between her teeth to keep from laughing and nodded. "I'll just go get her while you tie the bike down and once we've said our goodbyes we'll head out to meet the others and then we'll be on our way."

He watched her go and then looked down at the puppy when he flopped down and started to chew on the toe of his boot. "Hey, cut it out." He gave Magnum a nudge and got up to load the motorcycle on the trailer. Gabriel came out a minute or so later and they worked together in silence to secure it. He retrieved a tarp from the back of his truck and they draped it over the motorcycle and other things to protect them from the elements. They had just finished securing the last of the tie-downs when Maria and Amy came out of the house.

"Well, it looks like you two are as ready as you're gonna get," Amy said, her throat tight and making her voice thick. She moved to stand in front of Michael. "I promise I won't drag it out and embarrass you," she said and wrapped her arms around him for a few moments before releasing him. "You two be safe out there. Don't take any unnecessary risks, understand? Maria's my only daughter and I've grown rather fond of you too." She leaned down to pet Magnum when he jumped up against her leg. "Yes, and you too," she assured him, laughing when he licked her hand.

Maria hugged her mom, squeezing her eyes shut as she fought for control. It took several long minutes before she was able to step back and smile without breaking down and crying all over the place. "I love you, Mom."

"Oh, my piccolo fiore del deserto," Amy murmured and hugged her daughter again. She sighed and leaned back as she wiped her eyes. "Be safe and always remember you're a beautiful, strong woman who can handle anything life throws at you." She winked at Michael. "And never let him forget it either."



He cleared his throat and blinked a couple of times when he realized his eyes were damp and his vision was blurry. He focused on his wife when she rested a hand on his arm. "I've missed so much, Elaine." So much that he could never get back.

"And one day he'll have a family of his own and he'll understand why from the perspective of a husband and father." She rubbed his arm. "You're a wonderful father, husband and provider, Charles."

He watched his son laugh at something Philip said as they worked together to load the car and he drew in a steadying breath. "He's become a man and somehow I missed it." He was grateful for Elaine's ability to bite her tongue in situations where she was proven right because she had warned him years ago that this day would come and he would realize just how much he had missed in his pursuit for the next promotion or the next pay raise. He only hoped his son had learned something from his father's lengthy absences throughout his life - even if it was what not to do.

"Well," Alex rubbed his hands together as he surveyed the packed car, "as long as she doesn't bring anything else I think we'll be okay."

"Just take it slow and easy," Philip advised. "It's not a competition and if it looks like you're getting close on check-in time at the hotel, give them a call and let them know you're still coming so they don't give your reservation to someone else." He winked at the younger man. "Trust me, if you're planning to spend your life with a woman like my daughter, you might as well get used to making those phone calls."

Jeff snorted as he leaned back against the car and crossed his arms over his chest. "That's true if you intend to spend your life with any woman."


He chuckled and wrapped his arm around his daughter's shoulders when she came to stand beside him. "Perhaps not to this degree," he said with a nod at the overstuffed car behind them, "but women tend to run on FST and it's unusual to find one who marches to the same clock the rest of us do."

"FST?" she asked with an arched eyebrow.

"Female standard time," Philip tossed out before Jeff could answer.

"FST," Max mused and shook his head. He'd have to remember that one. He'd have to tell Michael about it just to see the annoyed look on his face. He glanced at his watch. They were already running late so chances were good they were going to be on the receiving end of more than just an annoyed look when they met up with Michael and Maria.

"Yeah," Alex said when he caught the look on Max's face, "we'd better get a move on if we're gonna get this show on the road." He looked at his parents and before he could utter a word he was enveloped in a fierce hug he hadn't expected from his dad. Oh, he didn't doubt his dad loved him but he wasn't one to be very physically demonstrative.

Isabel smiled at his shocked expression as she hugged her parents, grateful that Charles had given his son this gift. His mom was free with her affections when it came to her only child, but his dad was considerably more reserved. She was so happy her parents were more like his mom when it came to outward shows of affection. "I'm gonna miss you guys so much," she whispered.

"You won't have time to miss us too much," Philip promised. "We'll be out to visit before long, see how you're doing and make sure things are going well for you. Haul the rest of your caravan out to your new place."

She smiled against his shoulder. "Dad," she protested, but there was little actual protest in the word.

He kissed the top of her head and released her to her mother's embrace so he could speak to his son. "Max, you be sure to take your time on the road. There's nothing important enough to risk your safety, got it?"

Max nodded. "Got it, Dad. We'll take it slow, maybe do a little sight-seeing on the way, but we won't rush into anything."

Philip smiled and gave his son a hug. "Good." He leaned back and let his hands rest on Max's shoulders, looking him straight in the eye. "I love you."

He swallowed hard. He'd never been given reason to doubt his parents loved him and Isabel but he'd always struggled to say the words back to them. He glanced at Liz, enveloped in the arms of her parents, soaking up their love as she prepared to go off into the unknown to create a life independent of them. He could - and did - say the words to Liz, so why was it so hard to say the words to them?

"It's alright, Max," Diane assured him as she took her turn hugging the stuffing out of him. "We don't need the words to know you love us."

How did she always know? She always had and she'd never pushed him for more. "I do, you know," he whispered finally. "So much."

Her smile was radiant as she leaned back to look at him and her hands came up to frame his face. "Call us when you stop for the night, okay?"

He nodded. "We'll call," he promised as he backed away, reaching for Liz's hand when she came up beside him.

The future was beckoning and it was time for them to go.


Michael was pacing back and forth in front of the Jetta, annoyance clearly written across his features as he scowled at the road leading into town. He checked his watch again, huffing in irritation when he saw that they were now 27 minutes behind schedule.

"They'll be here, Michael," Maria assured him from her position lounging on the hood of the car. She had her sunglasses on, more to hide her red-rimmed eyes than out of deference for the sun, and her foot was keeping time with the music playing on the radio. Magnum had dozed off on them, giving them a reprieve from his incessant playful puppy behavior.

"Yeah, they'll be here late," he muttered and crossed his arms over his chest as he turned to look at her. "Y'know, we're gonna be late. We'll miss our reservation and end up havin' to sleep in the car with Magnum the Motormouth."

She just laughed. "If we can't make the time up we just call and let them know we're running behind but we are still gonna be there. It's not a big deal."

He shook his head at her reasoning. "We're still behind schedule."

Maria just rolled her eyes at him. He would calm down once the others arrived and they got on the road. It had been an emotional morning and it was stressing him out. From the corner of her eye she saw him go still and a moment later his hands landed on his hips. Yep, they were about to have company. She lay there and listened to the other cars pull up behind them followed by the sound of car doors opening and closing.

"Do you people have no concept of time?" he bellowed.

Max just shot a pointed look at his sister, silently throwing all blame on her shoulders.

"It took a little time to get loaded," Alex said calmly, moving to hug Maria when she slid off the hood of the car. "You doin' okay?"

"Yeah, little rough saying goodbye to my mom."

He nodded. "Understood." He backed away to give Liz room to move in for a hug.

Michael walked around Alex's car, shaking his head as he ducked to check the backseat as well. He was surprised the tires hadn't burst from the pressure of the load he was carrying. "Don't you think this's overdoing it just a bit?"

"We can transfer some of it to your trailer if you - "

He cut the other guy off. "You blow a tire, Isabel can fix it." He shrugged when she shot a look at him. "Hey, I'm all about equal opportunities for women. You're the one that had to load your entire room in and on the car."

Her eyes rolled impressively and she tapped the face of her watch. "Do you want to get on the road or are we gonna stand here debating packing techniques all day?"

He opened his mouth and closed it again. "Let's go," he bit out and stomped back to the car.

"I'll call you tonight," Maria promised as she released Liz.

"You'd better. Good luck with his mood."

Maria just laughed. "It'll smooth out once we're on the road and he can put some distance between him and the emotional goodbyes from this morning." She hugged Max when he came over. "You guys be careful and take care of each other."

Isabel stood by the car and watched her brother and his girlfriend as they moved back to the jeep, preparing to leave. They had said their goodbyes at the house, but it was harder than she had anticipated knowing they would soon be separated by thousands of miles. "Hey Max," she called and felt relief when he paused before jogging back over to her.

"What's up?"

"We're gonna be okay, right?"

One side of his mouth turned up in a half-smile and he nodded. "We're gonna be okay, Iz. We'll be back for the holidays and I'm sure you'll be able to finagle your way onto the committee to handle the Santa's Village thing." He leaned in to hug her. "Hey, maybe you can even get Michael to play Santa again."

She laughed and shook her head. "Never." She sighed and closed her eyes. "But you can still…"

"No, I will not be an elf for you. Never again." He chuckled. "But I will promise to come to the event any time you plan it."

"It's a deal. I'm gonna miss you, Max."

"Hey, I'm just a phone call away. And we'll get together to do somethin', just the two of us, over the summer."

She smiled tearfully. "Okay, just no camping."

"Agreed. We'll talk about it, come up with somethin'." He hugged her again. "Take care of yourself. And Alex too. He's been good for you."

"Yeah," she whispered, "he has." She reached up to wipe her face. "Liz, she's been good for you too. I'm glad you guys are together and happy."

"You guys wanna give the rest of us a break?" Michael hollered, his tone full of annoyance. "You were supposed to do all this mushy stuff before we met up."

"I don't know how Maria stands him," Isabel grumbled.

Max laughed and shook his head. "It's one of life's mysteries." He turned to go back to the jeep where Liz was waiting for him. "Call me tonight if you need to talk."

Michael growled as he dropped back into the drivers' seat. "Now we're 48 minutes behind," he snarled as he put the car in gear.

Beside him Maria just smiled and dropped her head back against the headrest. "So Michael," she said as they pulled out on the old highway with the others following behind, "when are you gonna tell me where you got your nickname?"

"I got it from my grandfather, you know that."

She rolled her eyes at him yet again. "But why that nickname? I mean, it has to mean something, right? Why Magnum and not something else?"

He shook his head and shifted around to get comfortable as he held his right hand out. "First time I saw River Dog he scared the hell outta me. I didn't know what the hell he was or what he wanted from me. I reacted defensively, threw my hands out and knocked him back."

"Okay," she shrugged, "so?"

He flexed his hand, pointing his forefinger while curling the other fingers into his palm and flicking his thumb up and down. "Magnum," he said with a smirk.

"Magnum," she mused, her eyes widening when the light bulb suddenly switched on. "Oh! Magnum, like a gun. I get it now!"

He snorted and shook his head. "Took you long enough."

"Well, my mom is a peace-loving hippie. We didn't exactly do much talking or learning about guns in my house."

He was leaving that one alone. "Okay, your turn. You got my nickname outta me so what's your middle name?"

They slowed as they reached the point where I-70 intersected with 285 North and they rolled the windows down to wave when Max and Liz took the interstate and they stayed with the highway. She swallowed down the lump in her throat as she watched the jeep getting smaller in the side mirror. "Well, in Italian it's piccolo fiore del deserto." She shrugged. "A loose translation anyway. It's what my dad called me when I was little."

That's what her mom had called her, he realized. "My Italian's a little bit non-existent, Maria."

She sighed. There was no avoiding it now. He'd just find an Italian-English translation book and figure it out for himself. "It means little flower of the desert, alright?"

"Little flower…" he choked back a laugh. "Your name is actually Maria Little Flower of the Desert Deluca?"

She sunk down in her seat just a little bit as the embarrassment flooded her features. Why did parents do these things to their kids? "Yes," she gritted out, "that's my full name."

He roared with laughter as he checked the mirror, making sure they hadn't left Alex and Isabel on the side of the road with four blown tires. Nope, they were still rolling right along behind them. "Little Flower," he said with another laugh. "That's perfect." He caught her hand when she reached over to slap his arm, bringing her hand up to press a kiss to her knuckles.

The road stretched out before them, going on as far as they could see; an open road full of possibilities, a future that seemed limitless, and a world that was theirs to explore. It didn't matter what life threw at them because they could handle it. They had each other, they had their friends and they had their families. Maria squeezed his hand and smiled at him before shooting a glance at Magnum, yawning widely as he gave her a puppy grin. No, it didn't matter because they had everything.