"Off the Beaten Path" pt. IV May, 1988 Charlotte, NC Sam was closing the hood when Al popped in beside him, a self-satisfied grin on his face. "What?" Sam grumbled, wiping his hands on a rag. He was trying not to act grumpy, but it was getting late and he was getting tired. Al raised an eyebrow, but let it pass. "We have your location." Sam exhaled, letting some of the tension flow out of him. "That's great. Where are we headed, now that I'm finally ready to go?" "We're going to Nant, SC. It's about five hours East of here, right on the coast." Sam sighed and then got in the car. "Okay, then, which way do I go?" "You're still going tonight? Gee, Sam, it's kinda late, isn't it?" Sam glanced around, as if just realizing it himself. It was now pitch black out, a few scattered stars that had survived dousing from city lights dispersed across the sky. A chilling breeze cut straight through to Sam's bones and he exhaled heavily. "What choice do I have? We only have two days left. You said it happens day after tomorrow, right?" "Right." "I don't want to waste any more time. We may need it later." He started the car and it jolted, then died. Sam bit his lip and tried again. This time, it came to life and he smiled up at Al. "Like a kitten," he bragged. Al rolled his eyes. "Just make sure you check into a motel or something if you start getting tired. You're not going to do Evelyn any good if you fall asleep at the wheel." Sam just nodded, resisting the urge to make a "mother hen" comment. With the admiral providing the directions, he made his way to the highway and started East. "You know, Al, I was thinking... Daniel. What if he doesn't accept Evelyn coming home? How can we be certain this is the best thing for both of them?" "Sam, Evelyn overdosed, and she did it because she was so distraught over her father's death." He eyed Al, positioned on the passenger's seat beside him. "Seriously?" "'Course," Al replied matter-of-factly. "Sam, this guy, Daniel, he's no father-of-the-year, but he's not a monster. He's a decent guy just trying to deal with everything life has thrown at him. Maybe Evelyn just needed to find something of herself that she'd lost..." "I don't know," Sam said doubtfully. "If things were that bad at home, that she felt her only option was to run away, what makes you so certain, you know, that this'll all work out if she comes back?" "Sam, I want to tell you a story. When Meg was, oh, I guess she was about 10 or 11, she got into this huge argument with Beth and I over how late we'd allow her to be out with friends." "Meg's the...youngest?" Al looked carefully at Sam. "Close. She's the second youngest, one of the twins, remember?" He didn't wait to see if Sam could confirm that he remembered anything, but kept talking. "Anyhow, she became so angry that she stormed out of the house and rode off on her bike. _I_ was more upset than Beth was - she kept telling me Meg'd be back when she was good and ready and that she just needed this time to herself. Well, we waited for an hour. An hour turned into two, then three, and before we knew it, it was dark out." He cleared his throat and tucked away the handlink. "Beth called the police and waited at home for them to arrive and I took the car out to look for her. "I tried all the directions I could think of and eventually it started raining, just really pouring down. Thunder, lightning, the works. I finally found her about three miles from home, walking her bike because she'd wiped out on it and couldn't fix it herself. I was still mad and she was still hurt, and maybe just a touch angry herself, but when I pulled onto the side of the road and got out, the first thing she did was drop the bike and run over. She was sobbing like a baby!" Al stopped and a small sigh escaped him. "What did you do?" Sam asked, feeling as if he knew the answer before it was said. The corner of Al's mouth lifted in a faint smile. "I hugged her, Sam." Sam's face became a brighter copy of Al's own. "I hugged her for all she was worth and few things in my life have ever felt better than that. What if...what if this is never what Evelyn intended? Her past shows she was never a bad kid, never a troublemaker. What if she just took a spill on her bike and doesn't know how to get back home again?" "Well," Sam said slowly, half reflecting on Al's meaning, half focusing on traffic, "then I guess we'll just have to go look for her." "Right," Al agreed. "Just make sure you keep one eye on the roadside and one on the approaching storm front." ^----^----^----^----^ June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Al Calavicci watched Daniel through the Observation Deck. Again. This time, it was Verbena running the tests and asking the questions. She was doing more listening than either of the other two, though. Beth had been conspicuously absent all day. She hadn't mentioned going out, but the word on the street - as it were - was that she had gone shopping. "Al?" Or not. A small smile materialized almost against his will and he turned in the chair to face her. "Where ya been?" he asked, taking her outstretched hand. "Working in the lab." He pulled her onto his lap and she flushed slightly at the action. "Something wrong with Daniel?" he questioned. "What? Oh, no. I was just working on some personal research." She hesitated. "Don't make me ask you again," she said finally. His expression held little less than sheer incredulity. "Unbelievable," he muttered, "are you still hounding me about my _health_?" "You still haven't taken me seriously about it." "There's nothing to be serious about." She nodded towards the Waiting Room below. "What about him?" He repositioned her and clasped his hands loosely, his arms around her waist. "Daniel?" he asked, honestly lost. "You only got a couple hours of sleep earlier, I know. Ziggy says you don't have anything more pressing to attend to, and yet I find you here, watching Daniel. Again." "Not again," he countered. "The first time I was watching you." She frowned. "I was thinking about Meg, okay? I was telling Sam earlier about the time she ran away, remember?" "Of course." Beth watched his eyes intently as he stared at some remote point. She still didn't like what she saw there. "Is that why you're being so distant now?" He sighed. "I suppose." "That was a long time ago, Al," she reminded him, laying her head on his shoulder. "I know." He paused. "Aside from a bit of a heavy heart from thinking about that, there's nothing wrong with me, Beth. Why is that so hard for you to accept?" She took several deep breaths, and then squeezed his arm. "Okay, I'll stop pestering. Will that satisfy you?" "No. I want you to stop _worrying_." "I'll try. Now will you go get some rest before you drop from exhaustion?" He smiled again. "Depends. Will you join me?" She laughed. "I'll do some work in our quarters, but if I join you I know you won't get any sleep." He pretended to be hurt by the comment. "That was just cold, Mrs. Calavicci." "Tough." She pulled back and stood up. "Come on." "Yes, ma'am." He stood up beside her, taking a moment to work the kinks out of his back. Then he leaned forward and kissed her. With her customary lack of tact, Ziggy intruded on the moment. "Admiral?" He pulled back with an audible groan. Beth smiled mischievously. "It wouldn't have worked anyhow, Al," she admonished. "What makes you think I was trying anything?" "I know you." "I'm still here, you know?" Ziggy prodded, her tone sultry. "We know, Ziggy," Beth replied, a tinge annoyed. Al wiped a hand over his face. "What is it?" "You may find it necessary to check in on Dr. Beckett." Al glanced habitually at his watch, even though that told him very little about what was going on with Sam. His mind was so cloudy that he couldn't even remember what time it was for him in relation to the project. "Is he okay?" "I am unable to answer that with any degree of certainty. All I can tell you is that his heart rate is accelerating and he appears to be distressed." "Where is he?" "About 50 miles out of Raleigh." Al started moving, Beth trailing along behind. "Is he hurt?" "I cannot be certain, but I don't believe so." Al stopped in the Control Room, grabbed the handlink, and turned to Beth. "I'll have to take a rain check on that nap." She kissed him briefly. "I'm holding you to it." The instant he vanished into the Imaging Chamber, the worried gaze she'd been holding back reasserted itself. Verbena entered the room and, seeing the look, stopped dead in her tracks. "Is something wrong with Sam? Ziggy just told me his lifesigns were a bit erratic." "We think he's fine, but Al's checking." "Ah." She watched Beth a moment longer. Beth continued to stare absently towards the Imaging Chamber Door. "You know," Verbena continued, "maybe you could come join me for some lunch? I know you've been hard at work all morning in your lab. We could talk for a while." Beth was so distracted that she missed the decidedly clinical tone of her friend's voice. "Sure," she said, finally turning to face the psychologist. "I could do with a bite to eat." Verbena offered her a smile and led the way out of the Control Room. ^----^----^----^----^ May, 1988 Nant, NC It had been a while since Eve had enjoyed such a relaxing atmosphere, but instead of putting her at ease, she just began to feel angrier and angrier. She was upset with herself for being so stubborn, for making such a stupid choice in the first place. And she was frustrated with her father, that every time she called, all she heard was a recording. She stifled a heavy sigh and reached awkwardly for her glass of orange juice. The cast made it difficult to do much, but she was determined not to let it slow her down. Joseph had come back as promised for breakfast, but then left soon after room service delivered it to them. He had intended to take her out, he explained, but had been off to a late start that morning. She refrained from commenting that it was still only 5:30. All the while he had been with her, he kept rubbing his hands together, as if he was anxious or upset. His conversation had been short and tight and she eventually gave up trying to have one. Granted, she hadn't seen him all that many times, but he had never been so...closed up. That tiny feeling that it had been a mistake to trust him returned, but she pushed it away again. He had been the only one who cared, the only one willing to help her. She'd been childish and immature in all her decisions; she realized that now, but he hadn't judged. He had...cared. Eve curled up on the bed, abandoning the remainder of her breakfast, cradling her wrist to herself. It was starting to throb again. The doctor had said it was broken in three places, and it sure felt like it. Not only that, but she discovered a bruise earlier that morning that covered a large enough portion of her back from when she'd been thrown against the wall. She closed her eyes, wishing Joseph was still there. Actually, she would rather her father was there. And her sister. And her mother. God, she missed them all. The psychologist had told her, after her mother and sister died, that she needed to allow herself to cry, to grieve, but her father never had. Instead, he had taken a firm hold on Eve and refused to let go, ever. It felt like he was trying to make up with Eve for mistakes made with the rest of their family. But Eve never blamed him for their deaths, no matter what he thought. It was hardly anyone's fault. It had been storming, though, and her father had tried to talk them out of going. Her mother said he was being silly and they would be back shortly, that they had a few errands to run. He'd dropped the subject after that. How could anyone blame himself for that? The psychologist had said a lot of things, most of which never registered through the strong grief she was still experiencing. Her father had never cried, though, and she hadn't either, no matter what rational part of her insisted it was the healthy thing to do. She curled up a little tighter, fighting back the tears that were beginning to threaten now. After a few moments of stillness, Eve sat up and reached for the phone again. She dialed home, then her father's cell phone, just as she had been doing repeatedly ever since arriving at the hotel. As always, there was no answer. Eve had not felt so alone since she had initially decided to leave home. Not stopping to think that he might be angry if she tried to reach him at work, Eve dug out the number Joseph had given her. It was probably his home number, but maybe someone would be willing to give her his work number. She hesitated only a moment, then dialed. The phone rang twice, then a female voice answered. "Hello?" Eve almost hung up. She didn't know why she was so shocked, except that she'd noticed at breakfast that Joseph didn't have a wedding ring. Then she realized how hurt she was. *It's just a hero worship thing,* she told herself. *You're being silly. He tried to help you, and now-* She cut off that line of thought, and cleared her throat. "I'm trying to reach Joseph," she said quietly, angry at how much her voice shook. "You have the wrong number," she said, sounding as if she was trying to keep her temper in check, and failing. "Sorry," she said meekly, and replaced the receiver.