"Linked" Book I, Part IV ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Nightmares seemed to be the norm. Beth could recall waking up several times during the night and she was certain she remembered looking at the clock at least once every hour. When she finally got up, more exhausted then when she'd went to bed, the only thing she could remember was a faint image of someone holding a gun and aiming it at her. She took an unsteady breath and wiped her face with both hands. "You better wake up soon, Al," she murmured to the empty pillow. "It's getting awfully lonely in here." Then she felt it: a wave of emotion so strong and so fierce that she was helpless under it's onslaught. She cried without realizing it. The stillness in the room dissolved from a comforting lull into a paralyzing nothingness before her and she felt as if it was a struggle to keep conscious. With a heavy breath, she sat on the bed and pressed her fingers to her temples. Then, everything went momentarily black. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Al's blood pressure had been steadily dropping ever since his brief flirtation with consciousness, and it had Verbena worried. Doctor Spenard seemed relatively unconcerned, much to her annoyance. "We need to find a way to break the fever," he was saying. "Soak him in cold water?" Verbena suggested. It seemed primitive, but could be very effective. "You know," he mused, "I think we should run some more neurological tests." "What do you expect to find?" Verbena asked curiously. He took off his glasses and wiped his brow with his sleeve. "Hopefully nothing out of the ordinary, but at this point I'm running out of ideas to try." "Me too," she confessed. "This is real twilight zone stuff. I mean, he should be fine. He shouldn't even have the fever!" "I used to love that show," he commented, staring at Al without seeing him. She made a sound of disgust. "I need a break," she muttered. It was either that, or strangle him. Spenard pursed his lips. "Did you hear that?" She glanced quickly at Al. "What?" "No, no, not him." Then she heard it, too. Someone yelling. "Beth," she said anxiously. Verbena opened the door to the small waiting area just in time to see Beth crashing in from the opposite door. Verbena reached out and caught her before she could pass. "Please," Beth was gasping, "I've got to see him, _please_!" "Beth, what's wrong?" "He's in pain; I have to help him!" She started crying. "How do you know? Beth?" Beth let Verbena put her arms around her and hug her firmly, but she didn't relax into the comforting gesture. "I feel it. Please, I have to see him." "Beth, are you sure you weren't just dreaming, or-" "No!" She yanked free. "I just know. Verbena, he's a part of me and I know." "Okay, okay," the psychiatrist said calmly. "Of course you can see him." She let Beth pass by, then followed her in and shut the door behind them. Beth slowed her pace with an effort as she approached Al's bed. She held his hand in hers and touched his face with her palm. "Al?" she whispered. "Al, you're okay. I'm here." Verbena and Spenard exchanged concerned glances. Beth continued to whisper to him, then spoke without even glancing up. "Don't look at me like I'm crazy," she said. "It's beyond science and he's in pain. I know he is." "Beth, it would be kind of abnormal for him not to be," Verbena pointed out gently. "So what's wrong with him? Do you know yet?" "Not yet, ma'am," Spenard put in, "but we're working on it." "Working on it," she repeated dully, finally looking up at them. "You have theories - I know you do." "Our best guess right now," Verbena volunteered, casting a sidelong glance towards her colleague, "is that his body is rejecting the implant." She paled. "So...you have to take it out?" "We don't know for sure yet, Beth." Suddenly, Beth understood a little of what Donna had gone through the leap Al and Sam had switched places. "Will you be able to regain contact with Sam?" "Gooshie's working on that particular scenario." "He wouldn't want you to do it," Beth said quietly. She sat down in what was previously Verbena's chair. One hand brushed his hair back absently. "I know, but if he dies the link is severed anyway. And that's a last option. We're not doing anything, yet." "But you have to hurry," Beth persisted. She took a shaky breath. "Verbena, I don't know how to...make him know I'm here." Verbena glanced at Spenard and he subtly left the room, for which she was grateful. "He knows, Beth." "I'm scared." "He knows that, too." Beth glanced sharply up. It wasn't the response she'd expected. "Do _you_ think it's the implant?" Verbena bit her lip. "I'm not sure." "Call that expert back in here, then. I want to know." "I will in just a moment." Beth focused intently on Al's still face. "I'll be fine, Verbena," she said, feeling the psychiatrist's eyes on her. "I've been down this road before." "Maybe, but I'm not so sure that means it's easier." "No," she confessed, "it's not." She felt her friend's hand rest gently on her shoulder. "Verbena, can I...stay here with him while you work?" Verbena hesitated, doubt plain on her face. "Please. I think...he needs me." "You really do feel it, don't you?" Beth raised her head and Verbena finally saw the tears skipping down her cheeks. "Yes." "Okay, you can stay for a while. If I say the word, you leave though, understand?" "Thank you." But Beth had no intention of leaving. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ The energies around him were fierce and relentless and he was afraid. It seemed like no end. What truly bothered him, what constantly drove him to the brink of despair (though not yet beyond) was that he knew it was all for a reason. There was a huge, vast, _worthy_ purpose to it all. He just couldn't remember what it was. And so he kept going because he had to. At some eternities it was worse than at others. Sometimes he almost remembered who he was. Even the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet he would have given anything to have back now. A point of reference would at least have told him he wasn't alone, wasn't forgotten. Then he felt it again: a strong presence all around him. He clung to it. It made him feel sane again, made him feel real. *Don't go. Dear God, stay with me forever.* ~~~~~~~~~~~~ January, 2001 Stallions Gate, NM ~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~Don't go.~ Beth glanced up to see Verbena and Doctor Spenard consulting in the corner. She wasn't certain she wanted to know what they were discussing. She bent over Al until her lips were almost touching his ear. "I won't go," she whispered. His hand tightened on hers. She sat up abruptly. "Verbena?" she called without removing her gaze from his face, searching for any signs of life. In the corner, Doctor Beeks and Doctor Spenard turned simultaneously. "Al? Can you hear me?" She glanced up as they approached. "I felt him. He squeezed my hand." "That could just be-" Spenard began, but Verbena waved him into silence. She nodded encouragingly to Beth. "Talk to him, Beth. Keep talking." "Al, honey? It's me. It's Beth." She fought to keep her voice steady. "Al, can you hear me?" He stirred slightly, and then his eyes opened slowly, dark and unfocused. "Al?" Beth repeated hopefully. He started coughing violently and Verbena slid one hand under his back and pushed him over onto his side so he wouldn't choke. Beth released his hand, but kept a steadying pressure on his shoulder. "Al? Oh, Al, why couldn't you tell me before it got this bad?" Scolding was all she could think to do. The fit slowed and eventually stopped and he reopened his eyes to see Beth staring into them. "Hey, beautiful," he whispered hoarsely. She wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry and so she did both. "Hey, yourself." She wiped his face with the cloth. "How do you feel?" He closed his eyes again and she feared he was losing consciousness, or worse. "Al?!" she called urgently. His gaze took longer to focus on her this time. "Verbena?" she implored. Doctor Spenard lowered Al until he was on his back again and then started taking readings. "Keep talking to him," he instructed Beth. She wiped her eyes and bent over him. "Al?" "What happened?" he murmured. "We were hoping you could tell us," Verbena said. He smiled faintly. "Hi, `Bena." "You've got us all really worried about you, Al." She glanced back at Doctor Spenard; he was frowning. Al inhaled sharply and squeezed his eyes shut. "Talk to me, Al," Verbena intoned. "Hurts..." Beth looked up at her friend, worry and panic growing in her eyes. For Al, that was an enormous thing to admit to. "I know, Al," Verbena assured him, trying to placate both of them with her voice, "but I don't want to give you anything more until we understand exactly what's going on." Her eyes flicked anxiously back between Al and Beth. "Where is the pain?" Beth could see the agony in the tension of his face. "My stomach. And..." His awareness faded again and Verbena leaned closer. "What do you remember about three days ago?" "Three days?" he asked with wide eyes. "The last day of Sam's leap," Beth confirmed softly. "Sam!" Al gasped, his hands gripping the handles on the sides of the bed. Verbena pushed him back, remembering the episode several days earlier. "Take it easy," she suggested. He relaxed, more under the influence of the pain than any action of hers. "He's dead, isn't he?" Verbena and Beth exchanged startled glances. "Sam?" Beth asked. Complete sadness reflected in Al's eyes. He whispered something unintelligible and Beth touched his hair softly. "Al, Sam's not dead. He's in between leaps." Al's breathing became even more shallow and he blinked, looking confused. "Al," Verbena said in hopes of capturing his fading concentration. "Al, why did you think Sam was dead?" "I..." His expression clouded and he caught his breath. "I don't know - I can't remember." Beth looked across at Verbena. "Isn't that enough questions for now?" she demanded. The psychiatrist bit back the urge to push Al, to find out what was going on. "Yeah, it's enough." She patted Al's shoulder. "You get some rest. And you," she added, gesturing to Beth, "you go get something to eat and get to bed. I know you've been anxious and you probably haven't been sleeping." Beth eyed her, trying to decide if she'd had Ziggy checking up on her. She immediately made a sound of protest, but, before she could begin voicing objections, Al reached for and gripped her hand with surprising strength. "Don't go," he whispered. A determined look crossed her face. His plea was reason enough to stay. "I won't," she emphasized. She looked at Verbena. "I won't."