"Linked" Book II, Part XII ~~~~~~~~~~~~ February, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The following week and a half was long and agonizing. It was almost as if Doctor Sam Beckett had died, such was the atmosphere among project personnel. Al spent the first few days in the infirmary before he was reluctantly released to his quarters under Beth's care. He spent most of his time asleep and, after two days in his own bed, Verbena had to set up a temporary IV again because he'd stopped eating. Beth reported that he had nightmares constantly and she never slept straight through the night without being woken by one. She was worried and upset and feeling helpless that she couldn't seem to get through to Al. Verbena had initially been disturbed by the thought that, since Al had been in a coma while Sam was between leaps, the same thing might happen again. Nobody really knew where Sam went during that time of limbo, but if Al's condition had been any clue, Sam probably had little or no awareness that he was there. As for Al himself, he felt certain that he would never see Sam again and the best friend he'd ever had outside of his wife would be gone forever, trapped in the past without a link to his own time and his own life. What would happen to Sam without Al? Sam had once claimed he wouldn't be able to make it alone. Al had put on a confident expression and insisted that he could, but whether he truly believed it or not was another story. Sam was strong, but was anyone really that strong? Al had accepted his role as lifeline without question or complaint; problem was, he hadn't been ready to relinquish the title. "Al?" Beth called, walking into the room. He looked up with expressionless eyes. "Verbena wanted you to get up today. Just for a while." He shook his head and avoided her face. She bit her lip and took a few steps closer. "You can't stay in bed forever." "Hurts too much," he responded, staring now at the wall. "Because it hurts in your heart doesn't give you the excuse to give up." He didn't respond and she pulled the chair from the desk to Al's side of the bed. "Do you think Sam would let you get away with using this as a reason to stop living?" He looked at her now and what she could see in his soul scared her. "It shouldn't have happened," he stated. "But it did," she pressed. *Talk to me, Al. I was there all those days when you needed my help; why won't you accept it now?* His left hand clenched into a fist. "But it shouldn't have!" he repeated vehemently. Her eyes glistened, but she forced calm into her voice. "Say it, Al. It's been building for a week and a half now, so why don't you just say it?" She could tell by his expression that he knew what she was talking about, but he didn't move. "Say it, Al." It had suddenly become very important to her to hear him admit to it. "Say it!" "It should have been me!" he yelled over her last words. "Okay? It should have been me. How could you let-" He stopped, his face ashen. Her hands trembled in the resounding stillness and she opened her mouth to say something, but the words died in her throat. There was a great, painful distance between them that she didn't even want to bridge. She just couldn't face him. She nodded slightly and got up, backing away from him. "I know," she murmured. "I know that you-" Then she turned suddenly and fled from the room. She fell onto the couch and buried her face in her hands. She may not have known what Al had been going through in that coma, but Beth Calavicci knew loneliness. She'd known it for six long years and she'd known it every time she went to bed alone because he was away at sea or even because he was stuck up in the Imaging Chamber trying to help Sam through a difficult situation. Just because she loved him for his strength and dedication didn't mean she wasn't hurt by it. She leaned against the back of the couch, turned sideways facing away from their room, and huddled into a small ball. "Beth?" he asked hesitantly from behind her. She didn't move except to squeeze her eyes shut. "Beth, I didn't mean to..." He stopped, sighed, and she heard his slow progress into the living space. With a start, she realized he must have pulled the IV out himself. He sat down behind her, collapsing heavily against the cushions. "I didn't mean to say that." Her hands clenched the soft fabric and she could feel his eyes on her. She could picture them, too: dark and beautiful - sorrow lined with regret. They said the eyes were the window to the soul, but she'd always felt that Al's were the gateway to the universe. Hers, anyhow. A small whimper arose in her throat. His hand, still a little unsteady, brushed her hair to the side. "I'm sorry," he murmured, "I know you did what you had to do." "What about...wanting it to be you instead?" she asked, referring to his earlier admission. "I wish I could say I didn't mean it, but..." "But you did," she finished for him, her voice filled with more emotion then she would have liked. "I wish I could do something, or-" "You don't have to do anything," she interrupted. She bit her bottom lip hard, straining to hold everything back. He leaned so close that she could feel his breath on the nape of her neck. "Thank you," he murmured. "Thank you for not giving up on me - or Sam. Thank you for saving my life." He kissed her gently. "Thank you for loving me enough to do what you knew I'd want, no matter how much it could hurt you." "Would you hate me if I told you I'm glad it wasn't you?" He moved back. "No." But the answer came slowly. She swallowed hard and pressed her knuckles to her mouth. "When we first met Sam, I swore I would never make you choose between him and me. You needed him and, now, he needs you. But I just didn't know what to do." He touched her back lightly with his fingertips. "I...I miss him, Beth." She couldn't take it anymore. She slid around to face him and saw the regret - and the forgiveness - mingling with his own need to be forgiven. She could see his anguish and the grief and the loss fighting for release, even though he strove to keep it all contained inside of himself. She brushed the side of his face with her fingers. He grimaced, pushing it back again. "I know you do, Al. I miss him, too." It was the right thing to say and, for the first time, they were facing their grief together instead of trying to work through it alone. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ March, 1998 Fairbanks, AK ~~~~~~~~~~~~ "Dad? Dad, are we going?" Sam opened his eyes to see a small kitchen surrounding him, the overhead lights bright and full to reveal a pale yellow decor, like sunshine. He registered the silence in the room as a sharp contrast. His arms rested at his sides, but there was a wallet held tightly between the fingers of his left hand. He lifted it and was about to open it and see what his identity was when he glanced down and noticed that a young boy was pulling on his pants' leg. Before he could find a response to a question he couldn't even recall, a girl about 15 or 16 entered the kitchen and looked at him. "Who's driving?" she asked. Was she even old enough to drive? "Well, I...wasn't planning to." It was enough to make Al proud. *Al...* Memories flooded his mind, none of them pleasant. He must have looked more upset than confused and disoriented because she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around his middle, clinging to him as if she was half his estimated age for her. He returned the gesture gingerly, waiting for her to pull away. When she finally did, he was surprised to see tears in her eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked, tipping her head upwards. She forced out a small smile. "I don't know. How about you?" "Uh...yeah." She frowned and seemed to close up. The boy tugged on him again. "We goin'?" The instant Sam glanced down, the girl turned away from them, wiped her eyes, and grabbed the keys. "Let's go, then," she stated, starting for the back door. Sam blinked in astonishment at the night and day change that had just taken place. Just what was going on with this family, anyhow? They piled into a mini van, Sam riding shotgun, and the teenager behind the wheel. The drive progressed mostly in silence and Sam contented himself by watching the scenery flash outside his window: mountains all around them, green and full of life. It was completely opposite from the atmosphere in the van - dim and oppressive. Sam couldn't honestly say he was surprised that their arrival was a hospital. The girl parked the car and Sam followed her into the ICU wing of the building. They entered through the glass doors and walked to the front desk. She looked expectantly at him. *Uh-oh...what now?* "I'm, uh..." "Mr. Burton," the nurse greeted him. "Your wife's awake - I just checked up on her, but I'm afraid she's not doing so good." She pulled out a file. "In fact, Doctor Dorhan wanted to speak to you." Sam blinked, trying to keep up with what was going on. "About what?" She glanced uncertainly at the kids. "Uh...he wanted to discuss some new treatments." "Treatments." He always felt rather idiotic at the start of a leap and was reduced to echoing everyone around him. "Uh, yes, but I believe he wanted to speak to you about it himself. Would you like to see him first, or your wife?" The girl pulled her purse strap up a little further. "We'll go talk to Mom and wait for you. Come on, Jeff," she added, and her little brother trailed her down the hall. As Sam watched them, making mental notes of where they went, he found it very interesting that she just assumed her father would want to talk to the doctor first. It could be a lot of things, but he filed the information away for future reference. The nurse paged the doctor, who arrived within minutes. He was a little on the heavy side, shorter than Sam himself, with a name tag that read "Abraham Dorhan". He ran a hand through his thinning hair and smiled warmly at Sam. Instantly, the leaper found himself trusting him. "Mr. Burton," the doctor said cordially, shaking Sam's hand. "I wonder if you have a few minutes to discuss further treatments for your wife." "Uh, I guess so, yes." Dorhan folded his arms over the clipboard he was holding. "I'm sorry to report the current mode is being less than effective. In fact...the cancer is spreading at an alarming rate." Everything was starting to come together, now, and Sam wasn't sure he liked the picture coalescing before his eyes. "I'm afraid our only option," Dorhan continued at Sam's unresponsive gaze, "is to attempt some more...experimental techniques." "Experimental how?" "Well, they tend to have more drastic side-effects, and they're not necessarily proven to be more effective than what we've already tried." Sam was hesitant to commit. "Can I talk it over with my wife first?" "Oh, certainly; I'd assumed you would. There's no reason to give me a reply today. However, the sooner you do decide, the better. If we do end up going with these alternate routes, arrangements take time." "I understand," Sam assured him. "Do you have any...reports or details on these treatments?" Dorhan looked surprised. "Of course, but it's not exactly in layman's terms." "That's okay," Sam assured him, wondering what Mr. Burton did for a living. "Well, I'll have some references sent to the room." Sam nodded and shook the man's hand once more before heading off in the direction Jeff and his sister had vanished in. He glanced into the room he thought he'd seen them enter. Sure enough, they stood by a hospital bed, bent over a small figure. He advanced into the room. The woman in the bed looked tired, but her eyes were a rich hazel and still full of life. She wore a woolen cap over her head, probably because she'd lost her hair through treatment. He took another step into the room and she shifted her gaze to his face. A small smiled curled her lips. "Alex," she whispered. He froze. "Sherri."