pt. VIII September, 2000 Santa Fe, NM With any luck, they had noticed she was missing. That was the one thing this plan would have to count on and the way Al saw it, it was a pretty good chance her absence would be called to attention immediately. As soon as the guard she mentioned knocking out came to, in fact. He turned to Lieutenant Barnes, the only other person he had brought along for this, and nodded slightly. Barnes returned the gesture and the two of them crouched in the bushes outside the door, waiting. Christina stepped from her car and fought not to glance at the two of them as she walked up to the door. Taking a deep breath, she slid her card in the slot and the door unlocked and slid open. The guard turned to her in surprise. "Dr. Meth! Senator Franklin is looking everywhere for you!" She panted hard, as if she were out of breath. "I know. I have some incredible news! He is going to want to hear about this! Please, bring this satchel up to my office immediately and then find Senator Franklin. Don't use the intercom because we've been tapped into. His life is in danger. Do you understand?" The look on the guard's face showed he clearly did not, but he'd rather die than admit it. He nodded briskly and then took off at a rapid walk towards her office. She gave a sigh of relief and turned to let the admiral and the lieutenant in. She didn't speak, but motioned for them to follow her. The trio worked steadily downward into areas that construction had not entirely fixed up yet and Al became aware of the increasing heat. Christina motioned around the next corner and Al pulled her away from the hallway, moving to go out in front. He held up his hand and gestured: 1, 2, 3. They burst from the wall into plain sight but there was no-one there. Al turned to Dr. Meth with a questioning look. "Well? Where is she?" he asked, irritated and angry. "I don't understand. They must have moved her." She began to walk forward again but Al grabbed her arm. "I don't believe you," he said coldly. He released her and turned to Barnes. "We're leaving." She grasped at him, catching the edge of his sleeve in desperation. "Please! You have to believe me." He turned back and looked into her eyes. They were desperate, pleading, begging. And he believed her. He closed his eyes momentarily and then sighed. "Let's go." Barnes shot him a questioning look which he ignored. The relief in her face, he prayed, was genuine. They jumped out around several more corners before Al began to feel slightly foolish and then a couple more before they found what they were looking for. Two guards, not one as Dr. Meth had stated, were held at gunpoint by Al. He took their radios and weapons and waited for Barnes to enter the room. Fumbling with the keys, the lieutenant finally unlocked the door, backing up slightly at the blast of heat. His face fell at the sight, but Christina, standing beside him, smiled in calm relief. "Admiral, do you have a knife?" he asked, turning to Al. "Why?" He grimaced. "She's tied up." "Here." Al held out the gun to Barnes, and he took it. Al pulled out a pocket knife and went into the room, trying hard to make everything out in the dim light. And the rough floor wasn't making it any easier. In the corner of the room, he could make out a figure, apparantly Christina's friend, tied to a pipe that ran down into the floor. "Hurry," Christina urged. "Go help Barnes keep an eye on them," he instructed, eager to get her out of his hair. "Tell him to knock them out. We're going to have to do that anyway so they don't sound the alarm on us." She nodded reluctantly and turned to go back out into the hall, where it was cool. Al crossed the room to the woman, who was also gagged, and knelt down beside her. She felt the refreshing cool touch of his hand on her chin as he held her still to cut the ropes. She gagged slightly and he started to carefully cut the rope that held her neck, aware that every little jerk put more pressure on her windpipe. She tried to cough around the gag in her mouth and he moved the back of his hand to her forehead, trying to cool her down. "Easy," he said, keeping his tone low, trying to fight back the panic that demanded he do this as quickly as he could. He felt that if he went any faster, he could choke her to death, the rope was that tight. "You're alright, I promise you." *At least she's alive,* he thought to himself. The bind on her neck came away easily enough and she leaned forward slightly in obvious distress. He pulled her gag off, placing his hands on her shoulders so she could avoid extra pressure on the ropes on her hands. "Just breathe," he said gently. "I'm so sorry you had to be involved in this, but I'm going to take care of you, okay?" Her shuddering slowed and then stopped as he bent to release her hands, and then her legs. Stiff muscles and burns on places where she had been held down all throbbed and she hoped she could walk. He reached for her arm, intending to assist her to her feet, and felt her muscles tense as if in instinctual fear under his touch, making him even angrier with Franklin. Then the unexpected happened. She twisted in his grip, buried her face in his shoulder, and started to sob, deep, heaving sobs that left him at a loss for what to do. He didn't know whether to feel relieved that she was all right or to be angry that she was holding up their escape. He had fufilled his end of the bargain, but they would never get around to Christina's if they got caught. And she was already apparantly terrified. He wrapped his arms protectively around her, torn by her fear and its almost tangible nature in the room. "It's okay," he soothed. "I'm sorry, but we have to get going or we'll never get out of here in one piece. Can you walk?" She pulled away from him with obvious reluctance and bent her head to wipe her face. "I think so," she said quietly, holding onto his arm with a shaky hand. Al stopped. Hardly daring to do so, he reached out and lifted her chin so she had no choice but to look him in the face. And Al's world fell apart. "Beth?" She blinked as if she didn't recognize the name and then she clutched at his arm. "We have to go," she said unsteadily. He nodded slowly and stood, pulling her up with him. Outside, the security alarms had begun to go off and Al wrapped her arm around his neck, ready to carry her if necessary. He traveled with a detached feeling, as if he was watching someone else in his place from a great distance. They almost made it out of the building with no problems, surprisingly enough. Then, two guards cornered them just in sight of the exit. Al took out one and Barnes the other and then they were out, but not before smashing the door that would no longer open with Christina's clearance card. Al put Beth in the back seat and was about to move to the front when she called his name and he found himself unable to leave her. Lieutenant Barnes drove going, despite obvious security risks, to Project Quantum Leap. Al belted Beth in and proceeded to inspect her for signs of injury. "Are you hurt?" he asked, looking to inspect the bruise on her cheek where Franklin had hit her earlier. "My side hurts. I think I may have a broken rib or two," she admitted, trying to ignore the pain. Al nodded, trusting her say on medical matters over his own. "What about your neck?" "Al, will you forget about this for a minute?" He turned away, painfully obvious of the other two in front, unwilling to have this conversation in front of them. "It's my fault," he whispered. "He was going to use you to get to me, but then when he realized...." "Al, I-" she winced in pain and he turned his attention back to her. "Quiet," he said. "Please don't talk and don't move until we can have Dr. Beeks check you out." She leaned against the support of his shoulder and even managed to fall asleep on their way back to Stallions Gate. But Al was in no condition to rest. Seeing her again had brought up a whole new set of feelings and memories that he just wasn't equipped to deal with at the time. He had eight million other things going on; why this? However indirectly, he was the reason she was here, and he would just have to deal with it. He watched her sleep against him and swallowed the knot that had formed in his throat. She was still beautiful.... He brushed her hair away from her face and saw the shadowed pain there, although he wasn't sure if it was due to her physical injuries or her emotional pain. He ran a hand down the side of her face and noted the shiver that wracked her body. Abruptly, the image of Alia's frightened gaze presented itself in his mind and he remembered Verbena's mention that she hadn't been able to remember anything from her stay at the other project. He wasn't sure he even wanted to know what Beth had been through. Al wrapped an arm around her, gingerly, and whispered to her until the trembling eased, but he could no longer tell if it was hers or his own. ^----^----^----^----^ September, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Al leaned back and enjoyed the first cigar he had had the chance to light up in a while. Lost in paperwork was a good place to be, he decided. Christina Meth was assigned guest quarters to get some rest before she shared with him her ideas for shutting Franklin down, and Verbeena Beeks had a new patient that he fully planned to let her handle. If ever there was a time he could have used Sam home.... It was only a moment or two until he wished he really could be lost in paperwork, lost where no-one could find him, because he heard a movement and when he looked up, Verbeena was gazing down at him. "What?" he asked, trying not to sound as grumpy as he felt. "You know what," she said, sitting down despite Al's obvious lack of invitation to do so. "Do you know how scared that woman is right now? She has just been through hell, she's surrounded by people she doesn't know, she's in pain, and she needs somebody, Al." "Yeah?" he demanded. "So why does it have to be me?" "Don't you want to see her?" she asked. "No." He returned his attention, or tried to make it seem that way, to the work in front of him. Work that wasn't due for at least a week, Verbeena knew. "What are you scared of?" she asked. He bristled at the comment, but refrained from yelling back at her, which is exactly what she'd hoped he'd do. "Are you afraid she'll want to talk about it? Al, talk to me." "I'm not scared," he insisted in level tones. *I'm terrified,* admitted a small voice that he quickly silenced. "But I've got too much to do to worry about your patients." She nodded slowly. "I see." Without comment, she got up and left his office. What harm could it do, after all, just to go and see her? They didn't have to talk about what happened between them; they could just chat about things that had happened since then. But, Al realized, he didn't really want to hear about Dirk either, or any children she may or may not have. Was anything safe to talk about? He didn't know the answer to that, but, he decided, he would never know until he found it within himself to try.