"Off the Beaten Path" pt. VI May, 1988 Spring Hope, NC Sam drove in silence. He couldn't find a decent radio station and, anyway, the speakers were completely shot. He fumbled for the map he'd bought, but it was too small to see while speeding 70 miles per hour down the freeway, so he just figured as long as he kept going East, he'd be pointed in the general direction until Al saw fit to show up. *Middlesex - 10 miles* Sam Beckett eyed the sign as it passed by and rolled his eyes dramatically. "Must be why Al's not here," he muttered, then laughed. Yep, he'd definitely been in the car by himself for too long. He was starting to get really loopy. It was at this point that he realized he'd only been back on the road another 45 minutes or so, tops. However, he also couldn't recall the last time he'd eaten anything. "Might as well get gas while I'm at it," he said aloud, relishing the sound of his own voice. Then he chuckled. "Even when Al's not here, I still talk to myself." The sound of his voice was hollow in the emptiness of the car and he realized at that moment that he was lonely. Sam moved onto the exit ramp and into the parking lot of the nearest fast food place. He pulled up to the drive-thru, placed his order, then put the car back into gear to drive around, reaching for his wallet as he did so. His back pocket was empty. He checked the other one. It was empty as well. "No," Sam murmured, disbelieving. He searched the seat beside him, the back seat, the floor - he even glanced at the _ceiling_ for goodness' sake! It was nowhere to be found. "No," he repeated, louder this time. "I was right," he groaned, "leap from hell." ^----^----^----^----^ June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Al took several showers. Beth had a hot meal waiting for him when he returned (which she _made_ him eat), and he went off to his office to do paperwork. Thanks to Ziggy's constant checking - for once - of Sam's situation, he soon found himself going back into the Imaging Chamber much earlier than expected. "Sam, we have a little problem," he informed his friend. Sam didn't turn to face him. "Oh?" Al nodded and positioned himself in the passenger's seat, tucking the handlink away after doing so. "Yeah," he confirmed. "You see, I understand there's not degree for basic geography, so I get how you could be confused. When in the USA, most people generally consider the Atlantic Ocean to be to the East." "All the ones who can read a map," Sam agreed. "Good! Then we understand each other. Well, Sam, it's getting late and the sun'll be going down soon. In the West." He paused, waiting for a response. When he got none, he frowned, but resumed his narrative. "The sun would be that big ball of fire you're heading towards." "Uh-huh." Obviously, his attempt to lighten the leap had failed. Al narrowed his gaze. "You're going the wrong way, Sam," he said bluntly. "I know that, Al." Al threw up his hands. "Then why are you driving in this direction?" "Because!" Sam snapped, "I lost my wallet. Yes, you heard me right. First the stupid car breaks down, then it gets stolen, and now I've gone and left my wallet at a motel." Al closed his eyes briefly. "Oh," was all he could think to say. "I called the motel," Sam resumed, his voice becoming more acid as he went, "and they said they found it and are holding it for me." "Well, that's good." Al pulled out the handlink and glanced at it. "You only have a day left, Sam. Maybe you should just forget the wallet." Sam shook his head at that, wiping at one eye with his hand. "It's about three hours to Nant, one hour to the motel, and maybe about two hours 'til I'll need gas. If I have to walk those last 70 miles, it'll take a lot longer." He slammed the heel of his hand against the steering wheel. "At this rate, we'll never get there." He cursed loudly for a moment, then stopped abruptly. Al, for his part, was stunned. "Sam what is _with_ you on this leap? Bitterness and sarcasm aren't exactly your calling cards. You've been making jokes this entire leap while under it all you've been steaming and I want to know why." "I don't know, Al..." Sam sighed, his anger dissolving into helpless frustration. "I just can't seem to get anything right. Two days here and I haven't even been able to make a five hour trip." Al ran a hand across his face. He found an image of Julia somewhere in his memory - she used to get like this. She'd let everything build up inside of her until it exploded outward in a violent emotional display. Of course, with her, one well-placed hug went a long way. But he couldn't even touch Sam. Al clenched his hands into tight fists. "I'm sorry, Sam," he said finally. "I don't know what to say. I know this entire leap has been two steps forward, one step back, but you still get to the finish line that way. It just takes a little longer, y'know?" Sam shifted his weight in his seat. "And then there's you," he added quietly. "Me?" Al looked honestly confused. "What about me?" "I've been so worried about you for this entire leap, and I don't even know why. I mean, you haven't really been acting oddly, but I know you don't talk when there's a problem and..." He stopped and glanced at Al. "And I should be there," he finished miserably. *Now would be the time for the hug,* Al thought bitterly, careful not to let his frustration shine through. "Well, maybe you should. But you're not. And there's a reason you're not, Sam. Don't forget that. Don't forget Evelyn or Danny. Don't forget that they need you. It's a wonderful thing, being needed. Makes you feel _worth_ it, y'know?" Sam turned that over in his mind. Al never sugar coated things and Sam respected him for it. For him to say this indicated that he meant it. "You're right," he conceded. "It's a very good feeling." Al nodded, satisfied. He'd worried a lot about Sam's mental state since Cokeburg, especially after Beth appeared. Shortly after adjusting to the new life - a wife and four daughters - he went to Cokeburg and did some digging. Without Ziggy's help (who still insisted that, since Sam had been there, it existed). He sifted through state, county, and town records, spoke to a few people who'd been there for years, and generally made a nuisance of himself. Not only were there no records of an "Al's Place" in '53, but it seemed it had never existed, either before or after that time. He never told Sam. Sam, for his part, had his own secrets. He'd never told Al that he'd given up a chance to go home to help him and Beth. At least, that's how he'd interpreted the bartender's riddle - he'd never been entirely certain what he meant. But he never wanted Al to feel guilty, never wanted him to second guess that he and Beth were supposed to be married, that their four children were supposed to be a part of this world. Sam had once teased Al about having _four_ kids. "This globe is running out of space, Sam," Al responded seriously. "We weren't planning on four kids. We wanted two. We had Marina and then the twins came. They're Julia and Megan. And Emma, well, let's just say she was a pleasant surprise." He'd told Sam this just briefly after recalling it himself. When Al told him, Sam knew he could never tell Al what he passed up, for the same reason that Al wouldn't have told him what he'd done for Tom: because the victory would not have been as triumphant. Or maybe just because some sacrifices were meant to be hidden. Al was fighting with the handlink when Sam looked back over at him. "What?" Sam asked. His anger was gone and his frustration was gone, and now he was just fighting mental exhaustion. Al made a face and smacked the 'link again. "Oh, nothing. She's just...being difficult. She keeps telling me that I ought to go check up on Evelyn now that we have a lock." He hit it once more and then relented. "Fine. Give me the information at _your_ convenience!" Sam wasn't entirely certain it was Ziggy he was talking to. "Uh, listen, Sam. Is there anything else you need from me?" Sam held back a sigh. "You could tell me what's going on." Al waved the 'link about casually. "Oh, she's just insisting there's a snag someplace. It's probably nothing important." Sam's frown deepened. "Why don't you go back to the motel," Al resumed, "and then keep heading East. I'll be back shortly to give you directions from there." "Can't you give them to me now?" Sam pleaded. He was already feeling helpless on this leap - he wanted _some_ assurance that he could reach his destination. With his luck, a dragon would consume Al the instant he left the Imaging Chamber and _then_ where would he be? *Definitely punchy,* Sam thought dryly. Al could see the need for control in Sam's eyes and so he motioned with his right hand. "Pull over, Sam. Into the breakdown lane." Sam obeyed, casting curious glances to his partner. "One look is all it takes for you," Al elaborated, then held up the handlink. "Here. Start reading." Sam grinned faintly as the directions scrolled by. "Okay, Al," he said when they had finished. "Thanks. That makes me feel a lot better." "Good." Al nodded and smiled slightly. "I'll be back soon." The phrase sounded suspiciously like parental reassurance, but Sam just nodded as he concentrated on pulling back out into traffic. When he turned back, Al was gone. Sam sighed deeply. "I should have flown," he muttered. ^----^----^----^----^ June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Dr. Verbena Beeks was at her desk typing up a transcript when Beth knocked on her door. Being that this was a top secret project, the people she worked with here didn't have nearly as severe problems as those she'd worked with before Sam Beckett persuaded her to move to the middle of the desert (excepting, perhaps, Al Calavicci). As a result, typing transcripts was work she found particularly dull and, because Project Quantum Leap was so top secret, she couldn't hire anyone to do it for her as she used to do. Thus, interruptions were always welcome. Verbena couldn't hear Beth's knock with the headphones on, but, from the edge of her vision, she could see her crack the door and peek in. Quickly, she beckoned her in, pulling the headphones off and stopping the tape player. "Beth! How nice of you to stop by. Taking a break from your research?" Beth smiled wryly. "That, too," she agreed. Verbena looked sympathetically at her. "Numbers still coming out skewed?" "Yeah. Maybe you could take a look at them?" Verbena motioned for her to sit. "I don't know...cellular biology isn't my strongest point, but I'll be happy to try." Beth fidgeted. "Actually, I came down here to ask your help with something...more up your alley than mine." "I see..." Verbena frowned. "What's wrong?" Beth continued to look uncomfortable. "Well, I'm not sure how much I should even been telling you about this... I really should have asked before even coming to talk to you-" "Does this have anything to do with Al?" Verbena hazarded. Nine times out of ten, that was one of the only things that could make her this flustered. Beth exhaled in frustration. "How did you guess?" Now Verbena was honestly confused. In spite of her assumption that Beth was there on behalf of her husband, she hadn't noticed Al behaving any differently lately. "What's the problem?" Beth leaned forward, her back straight and rigid. "I've been noticing he was upset lately, but every time I asked him about it, he'd act all confused and insist that there was nothing wrong. I guess I believe he didn't think anything was. But then, last night, something...happened, and now I _know_ something's terribly, terribly wrong, but I don't know what to do about it." Verbena's brow furrowed as she fought to keep her own concern at bay. Beth was worried enough for the both of them. "What happened?" she asked after a pause. "See, I'm not so sure I should tell you." "Okay, I understand," Verbena said gently, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her desk. She was about to continue when Beth shot up from her chair, startling the psychiatrist. "He had a nightmare," Al's wife said, her voice full of anguish. "Not just a nightmare, a night _terror_. And we beat this so long ago, y'know? He hasn't had problems with it since-" "-That you know of," Verbena interjected. She had said this to try and draw Beth onto a track of objectivity, but it backfired. "Oh, no, you don't really think that he-" "Now, Beth, calm down," Verbena said firmly. "Why don't you just start at the beginning, slow and easy... You told me before, in confidence, that he'd been having dreams about Sam." "For years," Beth agreed. "Since before he leaped, even. But this wasn't about Sam." "He told you that?" Though Al may try to cover, he would never lie to Beth. He never could. Through necessity, he'd learned to lie to Sam, though. Beth nodded. At least she wasn't so worked up anymore. "What should I do?" Verbena leaned back in his seat. "You know, Beth, sometimes things happen to people that are so painful, that they hide it from themselves. Oftentimes, something will trigger that feeling or memory or whatever, and it will need to be expressed. Maybe...through a dream?" Beth slumped in the chair, wiping her face. "So what should I _do_? He won't talk to me; he doesn't even want to think about it." "If it's a memory, or an emotion he's trying to avoid dealing with, it'll catch up with him eventually. And if he won't talk about it and won't accept that, then all you can do is be there when it does." Beth's face was dismayed. "Now, that may not even be it," Verbena continued. "I don't know enough about the situation and I could easily be over-analyzing. It could just be nothing more than a nightmare. That's perfectly normal; everyone has them." Beth stood up, took a few deep breaths, and walked to the door. She turned the knob, and looked back towards Verbena. "It wasn't _just_ anything," she said quietly, and left.