"The Final Chapter" pt. VI July, 2002 Stallions Gate, NM Al heard the phone ring once, twice, and then someone lifted the receiver. "Hello?" said a male voice Al identified as Brian's. He had to pause to remind himself not to address the young man with the comfortable informality they had shared in the other timeline. Brian was Beth's youngest, and it surprised him that he was home; he was usually off doing field work in some backwater corner of the world. "Is Beth there?" he asked, unable to bring himself to use her last name. "One moment." Al leaned back in the chair, relieved Brian hadn't asked who was calling. There was a short pause, and then he heard her voice. "Hello?" His heart leapt into his throat and he was left momentarily speechless. "Hello?" she asked again when he didn't respond, a tinge of familiar irritation in her tone. She was having a bad day. "Beth?" he asked, knowing full well it was her. "Yes?" She sounded more puzzled now than irritated. There was a shocked pause. "Al?" she asked, the incredulity almost tangible. He cleared his throat. "Yeah." "Hang on a moment. Let me get on the other phone." Before he could respond, she set down the phone. Mentally, he conjured up the image of her kitchen, and the small table near the entranceway that the phone was probably resting on. "Dirk?" he heard her call, from a distance. "I'm going upstairs, could you hang the phone up when I get there?" "Who is it?" Al pursed his lips, concentrating on holding the phone steady. Suddenly, he began to wonder if this was such a good idea. "Just a friend. Will you, please?" Her voice clearly said, "Don't push it," but the message that was clear as day to Al went right over her husband's head. "Well, why can't you tell me who it is? I know your friends; what if I wanted to talk to her?" "Dirk..." Beth's voice held a warning and Al could tell by her tone that this had been going on all day. "Let it go." "I was just asking," he said, more to himself than her. Silence reigned from that point on, and Al breathed a sigh of relief that Dirk hadn't picked up the phone to talk to him after all. "I've got it," Beth's muffled call finally reached him, and then the click of the receiver being replaced returned some measure of privacy. "Al?" "Yeah, uh, sorry to just call you out of the blue like this, hon, but I needed to talk to you." "What is this about?" she asked, her voice cautious and maybe even a little suspicious. He anxiously twisted the phone cord on his fingers. "I'd really rather do this in person if we could..." "In person - where are you?" she demanded. "Are you in Charleston?" "Well, no, actually, I'm still in New Mexico." Al was beginning to get the feeling he was the final straw for the day. "And you're just going to skip over here for a day?" she countered. He grimaced at the fire in her words. "Look..." She sighed heavily and he twisted the phone cord tighter. "This isn't such a good time, Al, I've got a lot going on and I'm not sure I need one more appointment to top it all off with." *Appointment?* Al considered her words; just how far did he want to push her? "Beth...it's important." She was quiet for so long he almost wondered if she'd hung up on him, but then she drew in a deep breath. "Okay," she agreed. "Okay, but I really can't give you more than an evening. And it has to be in a public place." He swallowed tightly. Why did everything have to change again? _Why_? "Fine." ^----^----^----^----^ July, 2000 Santa Fe, NM Sam made his way back to the room by following Mason. It seemed they were both off duty and, never one to wait to start a task, he decided to talk to her as soon as they were someplace private. As they walked, Sam evaluated his options regarding Melana. Two people were going to die and, even though she wasn't one of them, she was still here and still involved. He was torn between making contact with her so they could work together and the fear that doing so would alter her decision. Sam didn't really know her all that well, and he finally decided that perhaps he should wait for Al's council in that area before committing one way or the other. When he finally made it back to the room, Mason seated herself in a cross-legged position on the bed, pulled out a pad of paper and a pencil, and began writing. The leaper seated himself on the bunk opposite her without knowing if it was his or not. He smiled at her, but she only looked up long enough to glare slightly at him, then returned to her work. It seemed, of the four, Karen was the outcast; that was going to make his job a lot harder. He sighed, knowing it was still morning, but feeling as if it was much later. "Uh, I was just thinking..." Sam said slowly, trying again to break her concentration, "why don't we all have dinner tonight? We can-" "I'm going into town tonight," she responded sharply without even raising her head. "Oh? To do what?" "Nothing in particular." Sam raised his eyebrows. "Uh...huh. Mind if I tag along?" Mason snapped the pencil down against her pad. "Look, Karen, there are things going on around here that you don't understand," she said intensely. "So explain them to me." She laughed and Sam strained to cover his surprise at her reaction. "Trust me. It's not your cup of tea. It will be easier for you to remain uninvolved if you just don't know." "So what if I don't want to remain uninvolved?" he pressed. "What if I want to help?" "Why are you doing this?" she snapped, dropping the pad on the mattress. "I just-" "We are _not_ in the third grade and Franklin is _not_ our teacher." "I know, but-" "We don't owe him anything," she continued, oblivious to his attempts to get a word in edgewise. "And we don't owe you anything." The door opened and Amanda entered, looking confused. Except it wasn't Amanda. Mason fell into a somber silence the minute the door opened and Sam watched her get up and go into the bathroom without another word. Whatever happened tonight either was the cause of their disappearance or a clue to it, Sam was certain. He turned to Melana and smiled at her. She looked terrible - exhausted, anxious, and maybe even scared, but she managed a small smile in return. Seeing her, even in the aura she occupied, he made his decision. He could not let her think she was alone here. "Are you going tonight?" he asked her. Melana glanced at the bathroom door. "Looks that way." The smile grew wider and he beckoned her over. "Maybe you can help me, then," he said quietly and, reaching out, he touched her hand. Her form shifted and her eyes widened in disbelief. "Dr. Beckett?" "Sam," he reminded her, encouraged by the look of relief that crossed her face. "Sam, we got some more data for you," Al said, appearing out of nowhere in front of the pair, his back to Melana. "Al!" Melana's cry came from the depths of loneliness and he whirled to face her. "Melana..." He trailed off and cast a sidelong glance at Sam. "She can see me," Sam reassured the hologram. "Oh." Al looked as if he wasn't sure this was a good thing or a bad thing, but Sam knew they needed her help just as much as she needed theirs. "How are you doing, baby?" he asked her gently. She shrugged, her eyes filled with pain. "I talked to Thames," she told him softly. He flinched, confirming her suspicions. "You knew who he was, didn't you?" she asked, even though his reaction had already given that away. "Not until recently. But, yeah, I knew. I'm sorry...if we could have contacted you earlier we would have. Are you all right?" Sam watched the conversation with confusion and curiosity, but didn't interrupt. Melana drew herself up, closing her eyes briefly to steady herself. "I will be," she stated, drawing a smile from Al. "What do we have to do?" Al noticed how she carefully steered the conversation both from herself and the multitude of questions about why Sam was there. "Your two roommates, Mason and Sandy, disappear within the next couple days. We have no details on that, but-" "Beth!" Melana exclaimed suddenly, as if just remembering. "I almost forgot, Al, did it work? Did I...?" She let the question hang, waiting for some confirmation of success, some sign that she hadn't started this all over for nothing. Sam started to speak, but Al's glance at him nailed him into silence. "Melana, sweetheart, I can't thank you enough for what you've done. You gave her back to me." His words were heartfelt and sincere, and Melana failed to pick up on the underlying pain due to her own sense of relief. "Al," Sam practically whispered, looking for reassurance that his friend was all right. All further conversation was cut off when the bathroom door opened and Mason emerged. "Can I talk with you a moment, Amanda?" she asked, eyeing Sam pointedly. Sam started to object, but Al waved him into silence. "You can fill Melana in on everything later, Sam. For now, I need a minute to talk to you." Sam glanced at Melana, confirming that she was feeling better, and then he nodded. "Okay. I've got to stretch my legs anyhow." He gave her an encouraging glance on his way out. "Do you want to tell me what that was all about between you two?" Sam asked firmly once the door was closed behind them. "About Thames?" "Sorry, Sam, it's a private issue. But...just keep an eye on her for me, will you?" "Of course." "Anyway, what we found was some more data on your two missing persons. Franklin was, of course, questioned about it and he claimed that they left for a week's leave and never checked in again, but when their co-workers were asked about it, there were discrepancies between dates given by the senator and everyone else." "Okay, so at least we know now that Franklin was a direct cause of whatever it is that happened to them." "Most definitely," Al stated angrily. "As if we didn't know that for sure, but at least you don't have to cover all your bases now just in case we were wrong; it's narrowed down." A natural pause settled over them and Sam knew the silence represented a shift in the conversation. "I'm flying to Charleston," Al said finally, tensely. "Or, at least, I was planning to. I need to make sure you won't need _me_ here. Verbena's getting synched up now, so you'll have someone observing, but if you want me here, I won't go." "Al," Sam said firmly, "I'll always want you here, but I think you definitely need to do this. I know you can't be satisfied until you know this for sure. Did you call her?" "Yeah." "And?" the scientist asked, trying not to press, but wanting to all the same. "And I didn't really get a lot out of her over the phone and I thought it would be better if I went to see her. I'm taking the project's plane this afternoon." "Al?" Sam waited until he had the admiral's full attention. "Be careful." He shook his head. "What do you mean?" "I mean with her, with you, with both of you. Tread carefully." Al held Sam's gaze a minute more, then punched out. He understood.