April, 1985 Simpsonville, SC "Sam, I want your opinion on something," Al said, changing the subject. He knew he could talk to Gooshie about it, but he wanted to let Sam know some of what was going on with him and asking his scientific opinion was the most indirect way to do it. And if there was one thing Al Calavicci was not direct about, it was feelings. Grateful for the distraction, Sam looked back up at his partner. "Yeah?" "Well, I've had a number of things going on here and I wanted to know, I don't know how crazy this is going to sound, but can _I_ affect the future?" He paused, trying to find a better way to rephrase it. "I mean, if someone, say, three years in the future from where I am...can I change their present by what I do now?" "If you know what the future is destined to be, you can change it..." Sam mused, but his brow furrowed and it was clear he didn't completely understand what Al was driving at. Then realization dawned. "Zoe," he said, very quietly, with a grim expression. Al gave him a look that was only faintly surprised. "You remember Zoe?" "Al," he countered, "she's a little difficult to forget." He hesitated. "Do you remember Alia?" "Who?" Al allowed himself a small sigh of relief. He had changed that, anyhow. And because Sam was still here indicated that the changes he had made had not killed his friend in the process, as he had originally feared. He didn't want to ask the next question because he worried that by his helping Alia, he had harmed _her_ and for all he had been through, he would rather have died than do that. He also didn't want to open up that can of worms with Sam, so he refrained from asking directly, trusting that Sam's expression would reveal any trace of her involvement. "So you don't recall Alia." Al cleared his throat. "Anyone else?" Sam's puzzled look deepened and the admiral closed his eyes in relief. "No. Al, what's going on?" Out came a cigar in a basic involuntary action that indicated his discomfort. "I ran across Zoe and her friends here and I'm just trying to figure out what I've changed." Change. That was something he and Sam tried to involke every day of their lives since this whole thing began. And it was the one thing human nature tended to rebel against. Like he resisted the change in Beth. He hadn't wanted to see her again because as long as he didn't, nothing had changed, not really. He had also noticed her careful wording when she spoke to him earlier. She had said that she loved him when he returned home, that she cared about him. But she never once said she loved him _now_, at that moment. Of course, he had changed, too; they didn't really know each other anymore. That was why the thing that scared him was that he _did_ love her now, in the present. Granted, he hadn't said it, and he wasn't planning to either. She had gone on without him because she had to, not because she chose to, and it wouldn't be fair of him to ruin what she had created. "Al?" He realized abruptly that Sam had been talking to him. "Sorry, what?" Sam frowned. "I said, can you give me the details of what all's going on tonight? Al, come on, talk to me!" Al closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. "I know it's something more than the other project; I can tell. When are you going to learn that you just can't hide things from me?" Al opened his eyes, but kept them focused stubbornly on the cigar. "Please." He cleared his throat and looked up then. "Sam, please, just trust me. I'm just not ready to talk about it." Sam wasn't sure he believed him, but a woman entered the room, robbing him of the chance to press further. "Ready?" she asked. "That's Sharon, your wife," Al informed him and his voice was calm and firm again and Sam knew he would have to start the conversation from scratch to get anything out of the admiral. "Ready? For what?" She offered a small laugh. "To go?" she prompted. "Sure," he agreed with a sigh, picking up the only coat left in the room as he followed her out into the hall. ^----^----^----^----^ September, 2000 Just outside of Santa Fe, NM Al tried not to listen in on the conversation as Beth spoke with Matthew on his cellular phone. Irony had brought him back to the coffee shop where he had met Dr. Meth. He was supposed to be meeting with her that evening to discuss any legal actions they could take to shut down the other project. When he had confronted her with it earlier, she had innocently proclaimed that she never really had any ideas on how to eliminate them, but she had claimed she did to get what she wanted. But that turned out to be okay in the long run because he needed something from the project, something he couldn't get if it was no longer running. Beth flinched as she readjusted herself in her seat and then relaxed again. "Matthew?" "Mom?" she heard from the reciever and she let go of the breath she had been holding. Wrapping her hand more firmly around the phone, as if to reassure him, she laughed briefly in relief. "Matt, it's okay. I'm fine." "Mom, what happened to you? Brian and I were worried sick!" He sounded a little angry and she figured he had a right to be. "I would have contacted you if I could. Listen, just trust me that I'm fine. I don't know when I'll be home, but you don't need to worry about me. Can you just call into work and tell them I've been detained here and to find a replacement for me?" "Mom." His voice was slightly scolding and very tense. "Why can't you tell me what happened? This just isn't like you." Al moved uneasily on the other side of the table and she felt a twinge of guilt: the remenants of thirty years of slowly ebbing pain resurfacing. "I know. It's not exactly a usual situation, okay? Listen, I have to go. I'll call you when I'm in town. In the meantime, don't you have to get back to San Diego and get back to work?" "I won't leave until I see you here." He was as stubborn as his father, she reflected grimly. "Matt, I don't have time to play games. Please, I'm telling you everything's fine. I'm going now." "Okay," he said, albeit reluctantly. "Just be sure you call when you get home. And if I don't hear from you in three days, I'm letting the dogs back out." She smiled. "Deal. Love you." "Same here. Talk to you soon." She hung up the phone and leaned back in her chair, trying to avoid looking at Al. She tried to deny that irrational part of her that just wanted to...... But it was no good thinking along those lines. He still hadn't acknowledged that she had finished her phone call and when she finally did look at him she realized he was too absorbed in what he was thinking to even notice. He had explained nothing about Project Quantum Leap, but what she had gathered from Senator Franklin and her own observations, he and Dr. Beckett created this project and now Dr. Beckett either didn't come back or couldn't. She recalled the way he had lit out of the infirmary the instant he had been called to say that Sam had landed and she realized that what he was engrossed in was more than professional dedication. That evolked a mixture of feelings, the strongest of which were a feeling of having been replaced along with a kind of sad satisfaction that he had found a good friend who would look after him. She watched him work with singleminded determination that made her wonder about the person he was now. If the years in Vietnam hadn't changed him enough, years apart from her, battling enemy after enemy, winning awards, and fighting demons certainly would have. Now, she fought hard to deny the voice that whispered to her that she still loved him because she knew that wasn't true. She didn't _know_ him; how could she possibly love him? But when she looking into his eyes, she saw that he still loved her, someplace behind the muted pain and lonlieness. Or he thought he did, but the fact of the matter was, he didn't know her anymore either. And, she realized with a start, where she had healed, he had buried. *Oh, Al,* she thought to herself, *how will I ever make you understand?* "You have two kids?" he asked suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts. She looked away quickly, embarassed at being caught staring, and then looked back. The expression on her face was one Al recognized as belonging to psycologists the world over: weighing, calculating, that look that said they thought they knew your breaking point better than you. And seeing that look in her eyes made him more uncomfortable then he would have liked to admit. "They're not exactly kids," she replied, laying her hands on the table top as if she wasn't sure what to do with them. "But, yes. Matthew and Brian. Matthew is married and Brian is in Africa working on his graduate thesis." He swallowed and his eyes drifted downward towards the glass he held loosely in his hand. Beth found himself looking at him again, like a moth drawn to the flame, she supposed, because if she let this continue as it was going, it would surely only lead to disaster. "You ready to go then?" he asked, but made no move to collect the papers scattered over the table. She nodded and reached for her purse. "Grandkids?" he asked abruptly and she flushed slightly. "Not yet, but Andrea's expecting. They say February." He nodded and finally moved to gather his things. Then he stopped again and closed his eyes. "Beth, do you love me?" His straightforward honesty revealed a directness Al rarely expressed when dealing with sensitive subjects and it brought forth two realizations in Beth. The first was that, after years of work and pain, she had finally managed to heal. The second was that Al hadn't. She also noted to herself that a part of her had known that all along and she hadn't been very fair by not talking to him about it. And now she was faced with answering this question. "No," she whispered. She saw a flash of anger pass across his face, only to be replaced with carefully disguised anguish. He laughed harshly and stood up. "Well...I asked for that one," he murmured and sucked in a deep breath. Beth stood too. "Al, you have to understand-" "No," he said sharply, cutting her off. "That's fine. I asked and you told me. That's okay." She blinked at the unfairness of it all. They had gone through a complete role reveral. She had been the one who was disillusioned while he had been focused on practicality and survival. Somewhere along the line, that had changed. Perhaps because she had regained her equilibrium and he had finally gathered the courage to confront. And now she had shattered that courage, but his question had backed her into a corner; she couldn't lie! He started to collect his things again. "Whatever happened to that romantic side of yours?" he asked, trying to sound idle. "I guess I outgrew it." He regarded her with deep eyes. "Too bad. I always thought it was your best quality." "Al, please-" She tugged on his arm as he started for the door and he turned to face her. "Please what?" The fury she saw in his eyes frightened her and she released him quickly. "Please don't do this." He narrowed one eye and tilted his head back. "Let's go," he said in low tones. She clenched her jaw and followed him out of the cafe. "Talk to me, Al," she half-pleaded. He didn't speak, but unlocked and opened the door for her. She put her hands on her hips and looked him straight in the eye. Her posture and expression indicated that she wasn't going anywhere until he agreed to talk to her. He took a breath and, between clenched teeth, muttered something at her. She raised an eyebrow in question. "I said get in the damned car," he said roughly, pushing her in. With a slight gasp, she fell onto her seat and Al closed the door quickly, walking evenly around the front of the car to get in the driver's side. "Lock your door," he said tightly in a tone used to being obeyed. "Al?" She knew him well enough to know something was seriously wrong. "We're being followed."