"The Final Chapter" pt. VII July, 2002 Charleston, SC Al entered the restaurant slowly, glancing around the crowded room for a familiar face. In spite of the anguish that had settled itself in his stomach over the daily part of his life that had, once again, been removed, he felt pretty good about this meeting. He had felt bad about leaving Sam in that place without guidance for so long, but Verbena insisted she would take over in case things got bad, and besides, Sam himself had been adamant that Al go. He anxiously felt around in the pocket of his slate grey slacks for a cigar before recalling that the lobby of the restaurant was probably non-smoking. And he knew Beth no longer smoked, so there was no telling if he would be able to light up at all. He settled for clasping his hands tightly in front of himself and moving through the room. He stopped dead, his eyebrows raised in surprise, as he spotted a woman sitting alone in the far corner, a lit cigarette dangling in a shaky hand. If anyone should be familiar with shifting time lines, he thought dryly to himself as he moved towards her. She glanced up and caught his eye as he approached, crushing the butt in the ashtray in front of her. Judging by the size of the smoldering mass, she had been here for some time. Beth stood up as he pulled off his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair and she extended a hand. He looked blankly at it for a moment and then took it, wondering absently how long this level of formality would last, evaluating how much harder this was going to be if it remained. He took the opportunity to give her a long, steady look in the eyes. It was pretty bad. He released her first and they sat. "How long have you been here?" he asked, opening up the conversation on neutral ground. She indicated the ashtray with a wry smile. "A while," she admitted. "Why did you want to see me?" "I had to talk to you." "Why?" she demanded, a little vehemently. Then she sighed and reached for another cigarette. He considered the question while she lit up and then dropped his gaze. Damn, this was hard... "I know this is going to sound a little odd," he began, borrowing from Sam's customary script, "but I needed to know how the last few years have been for you. I needed to know...if you were happy." She leaned forward and rested her chin on her hand. "You mean if I regret not-" "No," he cut her off with a wave of his hand. "That's history." It was hard to accept that what had happened all those years ago when he'd come home was something he'd finally resolved. Resolved with _her_, in fact. But now, for her, it was all still an untouchable subject laced with pain. He ran a hand across his face and took a deep breath, trying again. "I want to know about the last five years of your life. Anything and everything. I need to know if..." He trailed off and shrugged helplessly. She looked up knowingly. "Does this have anything to do with the line of work you're in?" Geez, she was fast! "Yeah." "You're not going to tell me what's going on, are you?" "I think it would be better if I didn't, no." He contemplated her a moment longer. "Sorry." She smothered the last cigarette and then stood up. "Suddenly, I don't have much of an appetite. Would you like to go for a walk?" He grinned slightly. "Sure." Silent wanderings took them to the boardwalk by the beach. It was just starting to get dark and Beth pulled on the sweater she had brought with her, wrapping her arms in a painfully protective gesture about herself. Al winced at the motion. Even though the ocean breeze cooled things down considerably, it was still July in South Carolina and wasn't cold enough to warrant the way she was hugging herself. And it didn't help, he thought, that she had inadvertently taken them to the very place they had spent countless evenings in the other timeline getting to know each other again before re-marrying. "So?" he asked finally, breaking the long silence that had begun to feel oppressive to them both. "You gonna talk to me?" Beth moved in front of his path and sat down on a cold bench facing the sea. "I don't know what to talk about. What do you want to know?" He shrugged and sat down next to her, clasping his hands in his lap. "How are things with Dirk?" She flinched at the question and he again reminded himself that things were still largely unresolved for her. He ran a finger across his bottom lip and twisted to sit at an angle, facing her. She wouldn't look at him. "Listen, honey, you don't have to fear for my feelings, okay? Trust me. I know you and you're just going to have to believe me when I say I understand and that you don't have to pick and choose what you say in front of me." The look she cast him said she didn't entirely believe him, no matter how much she may want to. "I don't know," she said finally, carefully. "It's hard." He almost reached for her, but aborted the gesture suddenly, not without some frustration at the self-imposed restraint. She continued, not seeming to notice. "I just don't know how much longer I can go on like this, Al." Her tone was pleading and he noted it was the first time she had addressed him by name. "Like what? With Dirk?" She shook her head in irritation at her clumsiness with words. "No, I mean, Dirk's part of it, but that's not what I mean. He and I, though, we were going to get a divorce before I...left. And then when I got back, well, he said that he didn't think I should be alone. And things got really good between us again. But now..." She sighed and finally adjusted her position to face him. "Now it's just back to how it was before I left. We don't get a moment's peace." "Beth," Al interjected, a disconcerting thought crossing his mind, "does he know you're here tonight?" She dropped her gaze at the question, focusing on her hands twisting anxiously in her lap. "No." He frowned at her. "Doesn't he trust you?" "Oh, Al, I don't know. What does it matter?" "I think it matters a hell of a lot," he responded, trying ineffectively to counteract her apathy. Then he lowered his voice. "Do you still love him?" She raised her head to meet his eyes and smiled through the pain. "You're not going to ask me if I loved him when I married him?" "I told you, that's history. And I know you loved him then, otherwise you wouldn't have married him," he answered without hesitation. Her eyes widened in amazement and he wasn't sure whether to be angry or pleased at her surprise. "I don't know," she said, responding to his earlier question. "Do you trust him?" he asked, trying the opposite tack. "Sort of." "Sort of?" he echoed. "I guess so," she amended. "You don't sound too sure of that," he noted placidly. "Is he cheating on you?" She laughed bitterly. "No." "You sure?" "Dirk could never lie to me. And he could never do something like that; he's just not capable of it." Al covered an internal flinch at those words. When he was married to her, he never thought he could be capable of it, either, but then he had married again. And again. And... Somewhere along the way, marriage had lost it's sanctity. Until he re-married Beth. "In a way," she resumed, "it would be easier if he was. At least that would be something tangible to fight." "So what is it?" "What are you, my therapist now?" she demanded, but her voice only held the barest hint of annoyance. He raised an eyebrow. "It's everything," she relented. "We fight all the time, and we both work and everything's just so hard. And..." She bit her lip and wiped her eyes. "Why do you want to know this, Al?" "I just want to help." He slid an inch closer. "Tell me how you feel, Beth." He could see it on the edge, screaming to get out. And he had the feeling, judging from the heavy look in her eyes and the dark circles they produced, that marital difficulties with Dirk was the least of her problems. Therapist or not, she had been held prisoner for a year and he wondered if she had had the opportunity to speak to anyone who understood that. And that, he _definitely_ understood. "I just feel so tired," she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. Then, suddenly, the rest came out in a frantic rush. "I just don't want to do this anymore, Al. I can't take it. What do you do when everything's too much? You can't stop it from coming, you can't turn your back on it all. I'm just so, so tired." She drew a breath that could have been covering a gasp or a sob. "I just want it all to stop." Al felt his heart beat faster at the words. It was those feelings that drove people to take their own lives. He'd come fairly close to choosing that option a time or two himself. It was the craving for escape that had led him to the bottle. Escape from something that was buried so deep inside of you that running didn't help; you had to silence those voices from the inside. Alcohol had worked, but not for long. Sleep worked too, because when you slept, you couldn't feel. But then nightmares robbed you of even that and that's when barriers of logic and reason seemed to break down. "Do you have nightmares?" he asked, cupping her chin in his hand. She looked at him, her eyes filled with tears. She nodded, not trusting herself to speak. "How bad are they?" It became a vast effort to keep his own words steady. "Bad," she answered, and her voice broke. "Do you remember what happened to you there?" he said, recalling an interview with Alia what now seemed like eons ago in which she said she hadn't remembered a thing. Whether he had consciously admitted it or not, it had been that confession that plagued him, in both time lines. "Or do you remember in your sleep what you've blocked out while you're awake?" She stared at him in amazement and, briefly, the flood of tears she had been holding back became slightly easier to restrain. "Beth," he said gently, responding to the look, "I've been there too, remember? Only when it happened to me, I didn't have anyone to talk to except a bottle. And as a result, I kept company with one for a long time. I don't want to see that happen to you." He held up his other hand to forestall the inevitable comment. "Don't apologize for that, sweetie, it wasn't your fault." He removed his hand from her face and she grasped it suddenly, holding onto him as if it was her only lifeline. "I don't want to do this anymore, Al. I don't want to fight anymore." He knew, in an instant, that she wasn't referring to Dirk. He also knew, no matter how much distance he had been trying to maintain because she was, after all, a married woman, that somewhere in recent moments he had lost that distance. And it didn't really matter. "I know you're tired, sweetheart. I know." He pulled her to him and, for a moment, she resisted. Then she surrendered to the need to be comforted, to be with someone who understood what she was going through. She couldn't understand how he had possibly survived without that. "Just don't give up, please." He stroked her hair in comfortable familiarity. "Please." The ease with which he held onto her almost made her more uncomfortable and she tilted her head to free her face of the heavy coat he wore. "Why are you really here, Al?" she asked slowly once she had regained some measure of control over her voice. "What changed?" His chest heaved with a long sigh and she heard the first trace of pain thus far in his words when he spoke. "I'm not sure it's a good idea to burden you with that." "Please tell me," she implored, clutching his arm tightly. "Well," - another sigh - "it's a long story, but, for me, a couple of days ago you weren't in Charleston." She closed her eyes, listening to his heart rate accelerate. He was starting to speak with more difficulty, too. "You were in New Mexico. With me. Dirk died five years ago and you weren't at that other project for a year. You were only there a couple weeks at most. And, about six months ago, you and I re-married." The tears she had successfully held back earlier came now and she was certain she heard Al choke back a sob also as he held her, tracing his hand slowly up and down her arm. Darkness settled in completely around them and, for a moment, each of them forgot the rest of the world waiting for them to continue on with their lives. The acute guilt Beth had felt about meeting Al when she was still married to Dirk vanished, as did Al's hesitation about getting too close to her when he knew she was no longer his. They just set it all aside and waited together for healing to come. Al stared out the window. He had flown to Charleston, but refused the helm on the ride back. Now, his co-pilot was up front, handling the small plane with her usual efficiency. Al needed some time to think. Alone. He hadn't realized just how long he and Beth had sat out there until glancing at his watch after walking her home. She had tried to convince him to leave, but the last thing he wanted to do was leave her out by herself at such a late hour. When he told her that, she just smiled at his decidedly paternal gesture and let him wrap his arm around her shoulders in the name of warmth when they both knew it was more than that. With that acceptance, they had made their first conscious step into very dangerous territory, though neither of them would admit it to themselves or each other. The warm hug they shared at the edge of her driveway, too, was more than they would admit to. What he really wanted to do was kiss her and hold her and make everything the way it had been before Melana changed it. That was the way it was _supposed_ to be! Al took a deep breath and let it out slowly, watching the lights of Atlanta come into view underneath. His own anguish had been pushed effectively to the background while he was with her, simply because her own terrible need was sharper than his own. He'd given her his office number and made her promise to use it if she needed to talk about anything. Made her promise over and over not to make any drastic decisions without calling him. But now, after feeling the intense passion well up inside of him at her house, he just felt empty. He would have to convince Sam. If, God help them all, Beth did something, if her own sense of insanity drove her to the brink, he would never be able to forgive himself for it. And if Sam asked why he would sacrifice all those other people for her, well, he would just have to be honest with his friend. It was because- "I love her," he whispered. Even as the utterance left him, he knew Sam would never accept that reason as enough. And the diminishing rational corner of his mind had to agree. The plane jolted sharply, pulling him out of his thoughts and he reached for his buckle. "Sir?" Al glanced up to see Jane...somebody standing in the entranceway to the cockpit. "If you're here, who's drivin' the plane?" he quipped with as much spirit as he could find within himself. "Uh, well, about that..." She was gripping the entranceway with a death grip, he noted. "I think you should come take a look at this."