Chapter 24 Al waited, watching from the bedroom window as the gray pickup truck pulled out of the driveway. When Sam flashed a glance up at the window, he gave him a quick thumbs up. Then, as the truck disappeared down the street, he punched in a code. "They just left. Keep me centered on Sam at all times, Gooshie." "Centering lock is set, Admiral," Gooshie's voice came over the handlink. Intuition seemed to be running high. "And don't worry. I've triple checked, and only Sam can see and hear you." "What about...later?" Al's stomach twinged at that thought, but he dismissed it. "Everything," Gooshie emphasized again, "is ready whenever it's needed." As he was about to punch in the code to be centered on Sam, something crossed the Observer's mind. "How's Perry doing?" "Verbena's been with him since you went into the Imaging Chamber," Gooshie replied. "Ziggy says they're talking." "Good," was the only response Al allowed himself. "Center me on Sam." An instant later, the bedroom was empty. ------------------------- It hadn't surprised Sam too much when Margie's parents came out on the porch with her when he'd rung the bell. *Some things never change* he thought, as he went through a ritual he hadn't `played out' since he was sixteen. As Mr. Hennessey stepped forward, he suddenly recalled how Tom had helped him practice this ritual after the first time he'd gotten up the courage to ask Lisa Parsons out. "Good evening, sir," Sam said confidently, extending his hand and meeting John Hennessey's eyes with a smile. He saw the approval in Margie's father's eyes, felt it in the firm handshake. "Good evening, ma'am," he said, turning to Margie's mother, keeping his grip light but firm. "Hello, Perry," Mrs. Hennessey, a slightly taller and older version of her daughter, said with a warm smile. "How are you this evening?" Sam, Margie, and her parents exchanged pleasantries for another minute or so. Then, placing a hand under Margie's right elbow, he said lightly, "We don't want to be late for the first dance of the year," and turned toward the steps. "Have fun, you two," Mrs. Hennessey said, quickly kissing her daughter's cheek, then stepping back. "We will," Margie answered, smiling, her cheeks flushed almost as warm a pink as the slim, sleeveless polished cotton sheath she wore. At the gentle pressure on her elbow, she turned to walk down the steps. Glancing up, she flashed a warm smile up at her escort. "Remember, Margie," her father called after them. "Be home by eleven o'clock." "I'll have her home on time, sir," Sam said, pausing to look back at her father. The Observer had watched all this from where he stood by the driver's side of the truck. But he had spent more time watching Howard than the little scene on the porch. He noted how Howard's lips thinned, then pressed together, hard, when Sam put his hand under Margie's elbow. A glance at those hooded gray eyes told him that the first bubbles of suppressed anger had just broken the surface of Howard's temper. His countenance darkened almost to the same shade as Howard's, also in anger, but for a totally different reason. "Chill out!" he snapped even though he knew it was useless. "He's your son!" he emphasized the word. "He's a teenage boy taking a teenage girl to a dance, not Jack the Ripper scoping his next victim!" Glancing up, Al saw Sam and Margie almost at the truck. Loosing his cool now....or any time during the next few hours...would only be a hindrance... perhaps even a harm...to Sam. Darting one last venomous glance at Howard, he yanked the reins in hard on his temper. Moving around the truck as Sam helped Margie in, Al warned, "Be careful. He's already getting hot." Sam darted a quick sidelong glance at Howard, then managed another in the Observer's direction. Al read the question in Sam's eyes. "I don't know why, but when you touched Margie, I could almost see his blood start to boil. For damned sure he's having a hard time holding onto his temper." The subtle nod Sam managed was response enough. The five minute ride to the school was silent. Sam smiled encouragingly at Margie, and squeezed her fingers gently when she looked at him questioningly, unable to fathom the thick cloud of tension hanging over them. There were a number of students just arriving as Howard pulled up in front of the gymnasium several minutes later. Quickly, Sam got out of the truck and offered his hand to Margie to help her out. Closing the door, he leaned down to look at Howard. "I'll be here at ten thirty to pick you up," Howard said tersely, his gaze boring into his `son's' eyes. He didn't need to say anything else, the anger simmering in his gaze said it loudly enough. In spite of...or maybe because of...the pain now steadily building in his head, Sam voiced Howard's unspoken thought just loudly enough for the man to hear. "Don't worry. You won't have to come and get me." A part of him enjoyed the startled look on the other man's face. As the truck pulled away, Sam straightened and turned back to Margie. He saw that they had been joined by Cathy Durwood, the redhead from chemistry class, and her date. Almost as one, the two couples turned and went into the gymnasium. Brightly colored balloons on long strings were attached to every chair on either side of the large room. Small clusters of balloons were fastened to the corners of the refreshment tables at the end of the gym across from the double doors where students were entering. Long crepe paper streamers in the school's colors of blue and yellow dangled from the high ceiling, fluttering in the breeze from the air conditioning. Along one wall was a broad banner bearing all the names of the juniors and seniors enrolled in Willandale for the new school year. Written above the names, in large blue and yellow letters was, "Welcome to the Willandale High School 'Junior-Senior Get Acquainted' Dance. There are no strangers at Willandale High ...only new friends you haven't met yet." The music committee, two sophomore boys and the school music director, had the `music booth' set up in a corner opposite the refreshment tables. They were laughing and joking as they selected records and made sure that the PA hook-up was working. There were already several couples dancing to a tune that sounded familiar to Sam. As the two couples blended into the modest crowd of teen-agers, Sam thought, *Probably less than a hundred and fifty juniors and seniors combined.* He and Cathy's date followed the girls to a section of seats along the wall opposite the gym's doors. "Could I have some punch?" Margie asked, looking up at Sam as she sat down. "Uh, sure." He glanced at Cathy. "Would you like some, too?" "Yes," she smiled coyly at him. From the corner of his eye, Sam saw the mischievous look light up the Observer's face, and shot a "don't even go there" look him. He knew without hearing, that the saucy remark on the tip of Al's tongue would make him blush to his hairline. Jack Wilson, Cathy's date, followed him to the refreshment table. Al trailed along behind Jack. "Where'd you get the `courage pill'?" Jack asked, picking up a glass of Coke from the half-dozen or so filled glasses on the table and taking a swallow. "What do you mean?" Sam glanced at the tall thin boy with a shock of sandy blonde hair and bright blue eyes. "Cm'on, Perry," Jack said. "When school started almost three weeks ago, you practically stopped breathing every time Margie looked at you. Now you've brought her to the 'Get Acquainted Dance'." Cathy's date paused to take a longer drink of Coke. "The way I figure it, you've found some magic `courage pill' and swallowed about six of `em to get you through this evening, or...." "Or?" Sam prompted. He dropped one of the cups of punch when Jack finished his thought. "Or..." Jack paused, cocking his head to one side, looking Sam up and down. "Or, you're not Perry Kirkwood. Hey!" he said, sidestepping a slosh of punch that splattered on the floor in front of him. "Lighten up. I was just kidding." "If you only knew," Al said, grinning as he watched Sam mop up the spill with paper napkins. He ignored the dirty look his friend shot him as he disposed of the used napkins, got another cup of punch, and returned to the girls. The first half hour or so of the dance followed the basic pattern that many school dances followed. Talking, laughing, eating, and as much dancing, especially the slow numbers, as the girls could convince their dates or any unattached boy into. For the most part, Sam enjoyed himself. He tried a few of the more energetic dances, enduring Margie's and Cathy's gentle teasing at his attempts with good humor. But when the lights were dimmed ever so slightly as the first romantic notes of "Return To Me" filled the gym, he was the first `boy' in the room to stand and offer his hand to his date. "May I have this dance?" Sam asked, not realizing the appreciative look in his own eyes as he met Margie's warm brown gaze. Margie felt her cheeks flush as she smiled up at 'Perry'. "Yes, you may." Putting her hand in his, she stood up and let him lead her to the center of the dance area. Giving himself to the mood of the music, Sam drew Margie into his arms, and as if the most natural thing in the world, she laid her head on his shoulder. Folding her hand against his heart, he surrendered to the romance of the music. For a few minutes the couple moved to the slow, romantic tempo of the ballad as if they were the only two people in the room. Standing to one side, Al smiled broadly as he watched the `kid'. "Atta boy, Sammy," he said softly. "Enjoy." But by the time the last gentle notes faded and the lights came up, things were starting to change. When she stepped back, Margie saw a familiar sight as she got a look at `Perry's' face, now almost chalky white. "Perry," she said, putting a hand on his arm, concerned. "Are you getting one of your headaches?" All Sam could do was nod slightly. "I'll be okay," he whispered. "I just need to sit down." Sam's head was hurting too badly for him to be embarrassed when she, and then Cathy, each slipped an arm around his waist and walked him to a chair. Even as he obediently sipped at a glass of water pressed into his hand, Sam set his mind to another equation, and the pain eased. But not much. Glancing to one side he saw the Observer a couple of feet away, his piercing gaze fixed on him. He managed a slight nod when Al said one word. "Bathroom." Getting to his feet, Sam said, "I...think if I splash some cold water on my face, I'll feel better." In her concern for Perry, Margie had sent Cathy to get one of the male chaperones. He and Margie walked Sam out of the gym, as unobtrusively as possible. At the restroom door, he convinced them that he could manage on his own, and entered alone. Al was waiting for him. "You okay?" Al asked. "The intense focus isn't...working," Sam gasped, gripping the edge of a sink to keep from dropping to his knees as another sharp stab of pain tore through his temples. When the pain eased and he could straighten up some, he met the Observer's dark eyes. "Don't worry, Al," he said. "I'll be okay." He had just enough time to see the understanding in Al's eyes before everything went black. As soon as the words, "Don't worry" crossed Sam's lips, Al punched in a code on the handlink, then hesitated, his finger poised over the last button in the sequence. Only when he read Sam's eyes did he press the last button. -------------------- Shaking his head a bit, Aaron opened his eyes and straightened to Sam's full height. Checking himself in a mirror, he adjusted the jacket and tie. His lip curled derisively as he studied his reflection. "I'm never gonna wear anything like this again," he muttered. Then he leaned across the sink, his face within an inch or so of the mirror and stared into the hazel eyes looking back at him. "Come on, Sam," he mocked. "Let's get back to the party." -------------------- "Perry," Margie hurried to him as he came out of the bathroom, then hesitated when he smiled at her. She didn't know exactly what it was, but just by the look in his eyes, she knew something was different. "Are you feeling better?" Not wanting to tip his hand, especially with the chaperone standing there watching, Aaron smoothly assumed Perry's mannerisms. "Much better," he assured her. "In fact, I've got a hunch that was the last headache I'll have like that for a long, long time." He slipped an arm around her waist. They entered the gym just as another romantic song was starting. He turned to her, and smiled his most seductive smile. "Let's dance." Margie couldn't understand it. Couldn't understand how in the space of a few minutes she could go from not wanting to ever leave Perry's arms to feeling soiled by just the thought of him touching her. "I think I'll sit this one out," she said. Aaron played `Perry' to the hilt. "Oh, okay. You don't mind if I ask one of the other girls to dance, do you?" he asked with just the right amount of shy uncertainty in his voice. "No," Margie shook her head. She watched her date saunter over to a small cluster of girls a few feet away. Almost immediately she saw him slip an arm around Patsy Klingman's waist and lead her amongst the other couples. She shivered, watching them, and then went to sit with Cathy. A few minutes later the song ended and Aaron returned Patsy to her girlfriends, leaving her with a knowing wink, then went in search of Margie. He spotted her standing near one of the refreshment tables with a chunky redhead and a tall, skinny kid, all three talking and eating chocolate cake. *You're a much tastier morsel than that cake, baby* Aaron allowed the lascivious observation to slither through his thoughts as he walked up to them. *And before this night is over, I intend to enjoy a sample.* "There you are," he exclaimed with a smile, deliberately standing very close to her. "You feel better now, Perry?" Jack asked, wolfing down a large bite of cake. "Yeah, sure," Aaron spared a brief glance in the other boy's direction. "That's great," Cathy said, unabashedly licking a spot of dark frosting from one finger. "But Mr. Weathersby decided, 'just to be on the safe side'," she imitated a man's slightly nasal voice, "he should call your father to come get you." She popped another bite of cake in her mouth. "He should be here any minute." Aaron swore and screamed inside, even as he nodded understandingly at the ditzy redhead. "Thanks for telling me." He cast an eye at the bit of cake left on Margie's plate, then inclined his head to catch a whiff of the aroma. "Mmmm! That smells great! Is it good?" he asked as she took another dainty bite. "Yes, it is," Margie said, swallowing the bite of cake. "Amy's mom makes the best fudge cake I've ever tasted." Aaron fixed her with a winning smile. "May I have a taste?" Wordlessly she nodded and lifted the last morsel on her fork, hesitating a moment before offering it to him. With the swiftness of a swooping hawk, Aaron grabbed Margie by the waist, pulled her against him and kissed her hard. *Get outta this, Sam* Aaron laughed raucously as he deliberately retreated into the blackness, forcing Sam out. He tasted chocolate...and something else. As the blackness faded from his mind and his eyes focused, Sam felt the crimson heat flood his face as he realized that it was a girl's lips he was tasting. Realizing where his hands were, he jerked them away, just as two heavy hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him away from the girl. Margie. For an instant all he could do was just stand, feeling the heat in his face double as he looked into Margie's startled eyes as she, too just stood there, too shocked to react. Fred Weathersby, the chaperone that had helped `Perry' to the restroom, had lingered nearby when he had returned to the dance, still a bit pale. But when he saw the young man grab Margie Hennessey, he reacted instantly, grabbing the boy and forcing him away from her. Not wanting to cause a scene if it could be avoided, he backed Sam several feet away from the startled girl. "I think you'd better leave now Perry," he said, keeping his voice low but sharp. He glanced again at Margie, then back at the red faced boy in his grasp. Dropping his voice lower, he said, "It's a good thing it wasn't my daughter you grabbed." Sam started to apologize, but felt the pain begin again, even sharper than before. Desperately he reached out a hand to Margie, only to have it slapped away by Fred Weathersby. "Keep your hands to yourself," the chaperone said, "and leave...now." His gaze and attitude was unrelenting. He waited another few seconds then said softly so only `Perry' could hear, "Don't make me call your father. Or the police." Sam looked to Margie again. "Margie, I am so sorry," he pleaded. "Please forgive me. I..I don't know what came over me." It was a lie. He knew all too well what had come over him. "Please forgive me," he begged. Margie Hennessey's thoughts were in a whirl. She hadn't moved an inch since the chaperone had grabbed `Perry' and pushed him away. She watched Mr. Weathersby talking to Perry. She didn't really hear whatever it was Cathy was rattling on about as she put an arm around her shoulders. *She's so excitable.* The only thing she knew for sure was that in spite of his obvious embarrassment and whatever the chaperone was saying to him, she still trusted Perry. Stepping out of her friend's comforting embrace, she walked over to `Perry' and Mr. Weathersby. "Margie," Fred Weathersby was surprised to see her so close. "I don't think..." "It's all right, Mr. Weathersby," she said calmly. "Perry didn't hurt me." "But he grabbed you!" the man insisted, still striving to keep his voice at a reasonable level. In spite of the tension hanging over them and the chaperone's steely grip on his arm, Sam kept his eyes on the slender girl studying his face. "Margie," he apologized, "I am so very, very sorry. Please believe me. It was the headache...." "I believe you," she said, absolute trust in her voice. "It must really be a bad one." "It is," he said. "It's like I...blacked out." Sam hesitated. "You...you know that I would never ever hurt you." When Margie reached her hand up to cup his cheek, Sam felt a spark of hope. Gently he pressed his cheek against her hand, his eyes locked with hers. But his heart skipped a beat when she removed her hand and turned to face Fred Weathersby. " "Perry didn't hurt me," she said in a low, clear voice. "Yes, he grabbed me and kissed me, but that's all he did." She glanced up at Sam. "I know Perry well enough," she said, "to know that he wouldn't do something like that deliberately." She turned back to the waiting man. "He gets awful headaches," she explained. "I've been around Perry often enough when he's got one of his headaches to know how badly he hurts when he has them." Her gaze nor her composure wavered. "I think tonight the pain was so intense that he simply reacted to it in a very unexpected way." Fred Weathersby didn't say anything for a moment. Finally, glancing at the silent boy still firmly in his grasp, he said quietly, "Are you sure you don't want me to call your father to come get you, Margie?" "I'm sure," she said confidently. "And, Cathy," she glanced around for her friend, "will vouch for me when I tell my folks. She was standing beside me when it happened." "That's right," Cathy affirmed as she stepped up beside her friend. "I was." "I saw it, too," Jack Wilson spoke up as he moved to stand beside Cathy. "We both saw what happened, Mr. Weathersby. Perry didn't hurt, Margie. He just kissed her." It was another couple of minutes before Fred Weathersby released Sam. Letting his gaze go from Margie to `Perry' he said quietly, "I advise you both to go straight home." He turned his gaze fully on Margie. "And I will be calling your parents tonight to let them know what happened." "I'm going to tell them, too," Margie assured him calmly. "Because nothing but an unexpected kiss happened." She glanced at her watch and turned to Sam. "It's almost ten thirty, Perry. Maybe we should wait for your father outside." --------------- Through it all, Al, now a silent and invisible Observer, even and especially to Sam, had watched the scene unfold, drawing on his military discipline to keep his mind focused, putting his private observations aside to consider later. As he listened to the exchange, he punched a couple of questions into the handlink. When Sam and Margie left the gym, followed closely by Cathy and Jack Al brought of the rear of the little group. In the sultry warmth of the August night, Al strolled near the couples while they waited for their rides. He only half listened to the idle chatter between Cathy and Jack; his main focus was on Sam and Margie. They sat together quietly on one of the cement benches several feet to one side of the gymnasium doors. He hadn't been close enough to hear what Margie whispered to Sam as they sat down. But when he saw Sam shift his position slightly and lay his head on her shoulder, his eyes squeezed shut, his lips a thin white line, Al knew how badly his friend was hurting. For a moment he allowed his emotions to get loose as he mentally shook his fist under the nose of GTFW. *He's done so much. Suffered so much all these years, doing your thankless dirty work, putting right whatever it is you wanted put right. What more do you want from him?* Realizing that it was neither the time or place for his emotions, Al allowed discipline to get his mind and thoughts back on track. It was exactly ten thirty when the Observer saw the gray pickup truck turn in the school driveway and head for the gym. There was a dark blue Chevy behind it. Pulling up in front of the gym, Howard saw his son sitting with his head on Margie Hennessey's shoulder. Not realizing what he was doing, Howard prayed that nothing had happened. For nearly ten minutes, Margie had sat quietly beside Perry. One hand held his while she gently stroked the fingers of her other hand across his forehead. When she heard the sound of a vehicle approaching, Margie glanced up and saw the pickup. "Your father's here," she said softly, listening to Perry's moan of pain at having to move. She slid an arm around his waist as they stood up, steadying him. By the time the truck came to a halt at the curb, she and Sam were waiting there. Sam was sure his knees were going to give out as he leaned against Margie, wincing when Howard got out of the truck and slammed his door. But, by the time Perry's father got around the truck to him, Jack had hurried over to open the door for him, then helped him inside. Very carefully he leaned his head back and closed his eyes as Margie slid onto the seat beside him and closed the door. Jack bent down and looked in. "You gonna be okay, Perry?" he asked, concern in his voice as he watched his friend's pain drawn face. Sam opened his eyes and glanced at Jack, managing a slight nod. "I'll be fine," he whispered. "Thanks." Seeing Howard hurrying around to get in the driver's side, Sam knew he only had a few seconds. He glanced at Margie, hesitated then took her hand in his. "I'm sorry..." he whispered, looking into her eyes. "Shh," Margie whispered softly as she laid a finger on his lips. "You don't have anything to apologize for," she reproved gently. In spite of his pain, she could still see determination in the blue-gray eyes watching her. A slightly mischievous grin touched her lips as she leaned closer to whisper in his ear, "So our second kiss was more public and unexpected than I would've liked." She paused then whispered, "I still liked it." Drawing back, the wan smile turning up the corners of 'Perry's' lips told her he understood. Even the slightest movement aggravated the steadily intensifying pain in Sam's head. But that didn't stop him as he leaned close to whisper in her ear. When she drew back and nodded her understanding, he let go of her hand and closed his eyes. He winced again at the sound of the door slamming as Howard got in beside him and started the engine. The silent ride to Margie's house was accomplished in less than ten minutes. After she got out and closed the door, Sam slid over by the window and reached a hand out to her. "Remember," he whispered urgently as she moved closer to take his hand. From the corner of her eye she thought she saw a frown darken Mr. Kirkwood's face. She didn't care. "Fifteen minutes," she responded softly, leaning close to whisper in 'Perry's' ear. Sam gasped and squeezed his eyes shut momentarily as an especially harsh pain stabbed through his temples. "And ...don't be...afraid." Margie gave a small nod and squeezed his fingers. "I won't,' she promised, then quickly leaned in and kissed Sam's cheek. "I'll be there," she whispered against his ear, then stepped back as Howard shifted into drive and backed out of the Hennesseys' driveway. She stood watching as the pickup turned left at the corner and disappeared. For a couple of minutes Margie stood quietly, listening to the sounds of crickets and cicadas chirping in the warm late summer night. Then she heard the squeaky hinge on the front door creak as it was opened. "Right on time," her mother said. "Where's Perry?" Margie didn't turn around. "He got a really bad headache at the dance," she said. "He and his dad just dropped me off." There was quiet between mother and daughter for a few seconds. Then, "We have company," Ruth Hennessey said quietly. At that Margie turned to look at her mother, then hurried inside. The squeaky hinge creaked again as the door was shut. -------------------------------------- By the time Howard turned into his driveway, `Perry' was sitting more or less upright but his eyes were still closed. Getting out to go around to help him, he closed the truck door rather hard, then heard the gasp. Glancing inside, Howard watched his son grab his head, pressing the heels of his hands hard against his temples. Dismissing the flicker of guilt that flitted through his mind, he went around and opened the passenger side door. "Here, let me help you," he said as Sam carefully put first one then the other foot on the ground. Sliding an arm around his waist, Howard slowly walked him up the front steps and into the house. It took another couple of minutes for them to get upstairs. Gratefully Sam sank down on the side of the bed, enjoying the coolness and near darkness of the room. He winced when Howard turned on the small bedside lamp, but didn't say anything. "Can you undress or do you need help?" Howard asked. "I can manage," Sam said, pain coloring his every word. Leaning forward he propped his elbows on his knees and then dropped his face into his hands. "How about if get you something to drink," Howard said. "Some milk, maybe?" He hesitated then added, almost as an afterthought, "How about some hot chocolate?" Unexpectedly, a brief smile crossed his lips as a memory gentled his thoughts for an instant. "When you were little you loved having hot chocolate at bedtime." For a single moment, the pain in Sam's head eased enough for the question to come through in all its implications. "Sounds good, dad," he answered wearily. "Get into your pajamas and I'll be back up in a few minutes," Howard said. He turned toward the door, then stopped and went to stand in front of Sam. When he felt a hand on his shoulder, Sam looked up at Perry's father. The look in his eyes was the closest thing to caring or understanding he'd seen in the man since his leap in. Never had Howard hated himself more than at that moment as he spoke the cruelest lie of his life. "It will help you sleep," he said gently. "You'll feel better in the morning." Sam looked into Howard's eyes, knowing he was lying. Still he managed a tired smile. "That's probably all I need. A good night's sleep." Watching the big man turn and step into the hall, Sam felt his gut instincts kick in. "Dad?" he said, waiting till the other man met his eyes. "Yes?" "I love you," Sam said quietly. He watched Howard walk away. Untying his shoes, Sam kicked them off. Getting slowly to his feet, he shrugged out of his jacket and draped it across the chair by the desk. The rest of his clothes landed on the floor. He had just pulled on the pajama pants.... --------------------------- When he was denied the opportunity of gloating over his host's embarrassment and humiliation after his brief emergence at the dance, Aaron's anger had blown up into full fledged fury. In the past hour he had raged and pushed and clawed, determined to come out. Little by little, he began to recognize that his most resistant prey's strength was beginning to disintegrate like so much sand in a high surf. Suddenly he found a gap in the resistance. His fury became a black rage that ripped the small opening wider, and he hurled himself headlong into transition. -------------------------------------- Standing just a few feet away and watching Sam's suffering increase as Aaron prepared to emerge stirred the Observer's emotions to fever pitch. Only the discipline of a lifetime helped him to push his personal feelings aside and wait for the signal. He wasn't sure what it would be; it didn't matter. Al knew he would recognize it when it was given. When he heard Sam speak a moment later, he knew. ------------------------------------ Sam gasped as the white-hot pain ripped through his skull. Grabbing the edge of the dresser to keep from falling, he sagged against it, then dropped to his knees. Pressing the heels of his hands against his temples, his eyes squeezed shut, he did the only thing left to him to do. "Please..." he begged, tears of agony beginning to run down his face. "Please, stop. I can't stand this anymore!" -------------------------------------- "Here we go," was all the Observer muttered as he entered a code on the handlink. It was a very minute change. But the change involved tweaking a few of the neurons and mesons he had received from Sam several years past. It also caused a few seconds of slight dizziness. "Hurry up, Gooshie!" Al snapped, "or I'm gonna blow chunks all over this place!" Then, just as he felt his system resume `normal mode', Sam cried out for him. "Oh, God....Al!" Sam sobbed. "Where are you?" Al hurried to his friend and there in the Imaging Chamber, knelt down in front of him. At that instant, he knew that if he could have wished it into being so, he would have exchanged places with Sam in a heartbeat. But it wasn't about to happen, so he used the skills he had. "I'm right here in front of you, Sam," he said. "Open your eyes and look at me." Once again, Sam reached out through the pain, found the familiar sound of Al's voice, trusted it, and opened his eyes. Ignoring the steadily intensifying pain when the soft light from the bedside lamp touched his eyes, he focused as best he could on the Observer's face. "Al!" It was a sob of agony and relief falling from Sam's lips as he looked once more into the dark eyes of the Observer. "I can't take it anymore, Al," he gasped the words. "Fight him, Sam," Al ordered sharply. "You have to fight him with everything you've got!" "I..am...fighting him," Sam said, his speech short and choppy. "Then you've gotta dig deeper and fight harder," Al used his "admiral's voice" as Sam had once deemed it. "I have been fighting, dammit!" Sam swore angrily as his pain doubled. "But it's like a blind man trying to box. I know someone's there, I can feel the punches. But I can't see to hit back." But no matter what he was suffering, Sam Beckett's ingrained sense of fairness wouldn't let him stay angry at his best friend. "I'm sorry," he whispered, tears cascading down his cheeks as he looked into Al's eyes. "It...just... hurts so bad." ------------------------------------- Howard was halfway up the stairs with the cup of hot chocolate when he heard the soft thud followed by sobs of pain. He took the rest of the steps three at a time and was at Perry's bedroom door in four strides. Flinging the door open, he saw Perry on his knees, weeping, his hands on his head...and talking to thin air. Setting the cup on the bedside table he went to his son and without a word bent down and helped him to stand. "Come on," he said, half walking, half carrying the tormented boy to the bed. Easing `Perry' down on the side of the bed, Howard sat down beside him, keeping his arm around his son's shoulders. "It hurts!" `Perry' wept, pressing ever harder on his temples. "Make it stop!" he begged, looking at his father. "Please make it stop hurting." At those pleading words from his only child, Howard's throat constricted so tightly he almost couldn't breathe. But his hand was steady as he picked up the cup of lukewarm chocolate. "Here," he said quietly, putting the cup to his ‘son's' lips. "Drink some of this. It will help you sleep...and make the pain stop." ------------------------------------ Al followed Howard and Sam to the bed, standing in front of them so he was directly in Sam's line of sight. At Howard's quietly spoken assurance, he felt a knot twist in his belly. When he spoke, he saw Sam hesitate before drinking from the cup. "Are you sure you this will work, Sam?" When his friend glanced up at him and nodded, Al acknowledged him with a nod. Then, as Sam took the first swallow, he punched in the special code on the handlink, once more becoming a silent and invisible Observer. ---------------------------------- Sam took a couple of swallows of the tepid chocolate before finally turning away from the cup. He noted that the pain had eased a bit. He had a feeling it was just the lull before the storm. "You want some more?" Howard asked, glancing in the cup. "No, thank you," Sam whispered, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I've had enough." He looked at Howard. "Maybe if I lay down" Howard nodded and got up. He watched his son lay down on his right side, placing his head very carefully on the pillow. He noted how Perry drew his knees up, his arms against his chest with his hands folded under his chin. *Just like when he was little.* he thought. *And terrified* came the unbidden thought. Brushing that thought aside, Howard set the cup down and turned to draw the sheet up to Perry's shoulder. Knowing how sensitive his son's skin was during a headache, he draped the sheet over him gently. He noted the drying tear stains on Perry's face. The tears had stopped, but he knew they would flow again when the headache resumed. The bad headaches, like this one, always did. They were never over with quickly. Howard dared to brush the damp hair off Perry's forehead. When the boy looked up at him he said softly, "Close your eyes. You'll be asleep before you know it." "Okay," Sam said, and obeyed. Through his lashes, the time traveler watched Howard as he left the room, drawing the door closed with care. In the quiet of the low lit room, Sam glanced around. Trying not to think of the shadows, he took a deep breath, closed his eyes and relaxed. Then, between one heartbeat and the next he was snatched into hell.