September, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM "Should you be sitting up with broken ribs, doctor?" Al asked casually, strolling into sickbay as if this was a part of his everyday life. Beth was propped up against the wall, half sitting in the bed. The left side of her body was wrapped in a secure bandage and she had obviously had some painkillers dumped into her system. "How did you know I was a doctor?" she asked, laying the magazine she had been reading in her lap. He shrugged and pulled a chair to sit beside the bed. "You're still in the Navy and I've got contacts. In fact, half of my contacts are yours too. Word travels." She smiled at him and he had to fight hard to keep his heartbeat from racing out of control. "I haven't heard much of you in recent years. After Apollo...." "Well," he fingered an unlit cigar to give his hands something to do, "this isn't exactly grapevine material." "Al," she scolded. "Nothing is too classified for the Navy scuttlebutt." "This is," he said, more sharply than he had intended. There was a silent pause and then he spoke again, seemingly without thinking. "So....you're using your maiden name again?" he asked, wondering why he was the one to tread into such dangerous waters. She lowered her eyes. "Yes. Dirk and I....we pretty much stayed married for the boys after a while." Al flinched. "So when he died, I decided to use my maiden name again. Speaking of which, I need to call them." "From here? No way. Security has gotten too lax around here exactly when we need to tighten up." He shook his head for emphasis and placed the cigar between his teeth. "Al, they'll worry." He sighed. "Later we can go into town if Dr. Beeks feels you're up to it and call them from there, okay?" She nodded her consent, suddenly fascinated with the blanket on the bed. His harsh words made her realize that this wasn't going to be as easy as she had foolishly thought it would. It had been so perfect. She was in trouble, he would come rescue her, and everything would be okay again. She had loved Dirk for a time, but that time was past. How could she have been so naive? The fairy tale quality of her thoughts seemed almost absurd in retrospect. Now she realized that's not even what she wanted. Al relented, seeing her troubled expression. "Look, Beth-" "Why," she began, looking back up at him with tears in her eyes. "Beth, don't," he pleaded. "Why don't you ask me?" she pressed. She bit her lip and looked back down at her hands. "I don't understand," he said, and, for a time, he didn't. "Why don't you ask me what you came here to ask me? Why don't you ask me why I left? Why don't you ask me why I couldn't wait? I came back, you know?" she persisted, suddenly close to hysterics. "Beth, please calm down." "I came back," she repeated and he closed his eyes. "When I heard you were home, I went to the hospital. I told myself it was stupid, that I would just be doing more harm than good, but I went anyway. I wanted to tell you....that I was sorry. That it was my fault. That I still loved you." Al felt his breathing accelerate, but he couldn't open his mouth to tell her to stop, or to comfort her. He felt as if his very soul had been torn from stem to stern. Again. "I went," she continued, as relentless as a storm. "But you were sleeping. And when I saw you, I just couldn't...." She gave in now to the tears she had been holding back and she turned away from him. He got up to go. He actually stood up, somehow making his legs work, and he faced the doorway, but he just couldn't move. He was rooted to the spot. He remembered how he'd felt. Betrayed. Oh, he had tried not to, tried to see it from her perspective. And he thought he understood. He buried that evil feeling, that loss of control he despised so much because he couldn't afford it for even a moment for eight years of his life. He buried it deep and it surprised him how easy it had been for her to take the tree that grew from it and tear it out by its roots. And the feeling of betrayal came up again and he reailized she still hadn't answered the question she had pressed him to ask. And the temptation to do so was almost overwhelming. Behind him, the sounds of her crying dimished slightly and then stopped. His eyes were dry. Al brushed a stray lock of hair off his forehead and stuffed his free hand into his pocket. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to break the uncomfortable stillness that had settled over them. "So tell me why," he said and the words felt like lead in his mouth. He couldn't bring himself to turn and face her. "Why?...." she repeated blankly and then the silence descended again. He heard her swallow hard behind him. When she finally spoke, her words were strong and clear and any trace of panic or hysteria had been carefully erased from them. Their clinical nature was almost as painful, if not more, then the violent display of emotion had been. "Because nowhere, in any rule book, could I find the exact date where you are supposed to give up hope and move on. And so I had to set my own date....and it was the wrong one." He heard a rustling noise and felt her hand touch his arm. "But it wasn't supposed to happen that way," he whispered, trying to control his voice. A silent protest from the heart. "I know." He could feel her hand trembling. "I'm - sorry. I never wanted to hurt you. You must know that." She tugged on his arm and turned him around to face her. "Al, look at me," she intoned gently and, with great effort, he met her gaze. "I loved you. And for all the reasons I wasn't there when you got back, because I didn't love you anymore was never one of them. I - just wasn't a strong enough person to hold on for that long. But I cared - I _do_ care - about you, Al, and I am so, so sorry." He had tried so hard to let go. Oh, how he had tried! Every time he thought he had, something else happened and he found out he hadn't. He was still looking her in the eyes simply because he discovered he coudn't move. Then, abruptly, she reached up and pulled him into an embrace and if she had done anything else, anything in the world, he would have found it manageable to maintain his composure. And if she had done anything else, it wouldn't have been right. She didn't say a word, just held him, and he didn't make a sound. But he felt the years slip away, only for an instant, as if they had never been there at all. The unlit cigar slid out of his fingers and rolled, forgotten, under the chair. ^----^----^----^----^ April, 1985 Simpsonville, SC Sam Beckett saw music. Well, sheets of music anyhow. At least he was in his element. He looked down at the papers and became suddenly aware of eyes staring at him. He glanced up slowly and saw a group of about twenty people gazing at him, as if waiting for direction. A choir....in robes.... "Oh....boy." "Mr. McNeill?" whispered a boy in the front row, leaning forward to make the sound less conspicuous in the dead stillness of the room. "Yes?" Sam hissed back, a little too loudly. "We're ready to start the offertory." He looked puzzled. Sam nodded and glanced around nervously before returning his attention to the top of the page. "Property of Holy Cross Episcopal Church" along with an address was stamped at the top, half overlapping the title of the song, which appeared to be "Come, Let Us Sing". Sam swallowed reflexively. Thanking God (and figuring he was in the right place to do it) for his music doctorate, he gave the downbeat and directed the song, earning only a few puzzled glances from various choir members at a fermata he held too long or a cue he failed to give. *Why me?* Sam survived the rest of the service without too much difficulty and only a few fumbles that passed off with little more than a look here and there. He noted that the church was rather small and booked an informality both during and after the service that left him feeling a little more at ease. After it was over, with impeccable timing, the Imaging Chamber door opened and Al stepped out, dressed in reserved blue slacks and a plain white shirt. Only the silver tie reflected any of his usual flair. Sam only spared him a glance or two as he drifted through the crowd of people, all seemingly friendly enough, following the last of the choir members into the choir room to change out of their robes. No sooner had he entered the room than a small woman with short gray hair and condesending blue-gray eyes walked up to him as she unsnapped the robe she had been wearing. "Stephen, you feeling okay?" she asked in a loud, harsh voice. Sam winced at her tone. She had been the one who was off-key, he recalled. "Oh, yes, I'm fine. Suzanne," he added belatedly, reading it off her nametag. He noted as he glanced around the room at other choir members that most of them had handmade nametags clipped to their clothing underneath the garments. He sighed with relief, breathing a silent 'thank you'. She shrugged and wandered off to the far side of the room. As he pulled off his own robes, he looked around for Al. He hadn't seen him again and he hoped this casual, friendly church would be far enough removed from relatively more strict Roman Catholic style so as to avoid any additional memories for Al. Finally, his friend drifted though the wall and strolled over with what Sam saw as forced casualness, but ease with his surroundings. "Hiya, Sam. So....you're a musician, huh? Shouldn't be too bad for you." His tone was calm and relaxed enough, but there was something in the man's eyes that Sam couldn't quite identify. But that could wait. Now, Sam was tired and irritated at having been abandoned for so long. Much to his relief, the last choir member drifted out the door to mingle and he was left in semi-privacy. "Al, I leaped in in the middle of a service! It was humiliating. I didn't know what to do or anything and I was supposed to be leading the music!" Al offered a small grin. "Hey, it's not my decision." Personally, he thought God, Fate, Time or Whatever got a kick out of some of the things Sam had to go through. Actually, he did, too. He pulled the handlink out of his pocket and started punching buttons. "It's April 17, 1985. You are-" "Stephen McNeill," Sam interrupted harshly. "I'm the choir director at Holy Cross Episcopal in Simpsonville, South Carolina. Thank you very much. Anything else?" Al spread his hands in a gesture of defeat. "Hey, listen pal, take it easy! What are you so upset about?" Sam blinked in surprise at his own outburst and he pulled a seat out from the desk it was tucked under, sitting down with a small sigh. He could never stay angry with Al for very long. "I don't know, Al. I'm sorry. I'm just....tired." He looked up and Al saw that Sam didn't entirely refer to physical exhaustion. The hologram's defensive gesture relaxed a notch and he managed a smile. "I know, Sam, I know. It hasn't been a picnic for me, either." Sam eyed him critically, but did not comment. "So what am I doing here?" Al returned his attention to the handlink. "Well, tonight, two things happen. First of all, your daughter, Ashley, disappears. Nobody knows what happened to her and they never even find her body. Secondly, this church burns down about midnight. Apparantly it was an accident caused by the combination of a storm and some faulty wiring, but either way, one person dies in the fire." Sam lowered his head and made a sound somewhere between a sigh and a groan. "I just want to go home," he whispered, low enough so that he thought Al coudn't hear him. Al heard, but didn't answer.