"Pieces" pt. VI May, 2002 Santa Fe, NM There was a gray mist all around and everything seemed muted, distant. She felt lost and alone without an anchor to reality. There was no longer anything to judge reality _by_. Time had no meaning and each instant could have been a second or a day. Oddly enough, she should have been terrified, but she wasn't. Not yet. A voice in her mind told her she had to hold on - that she was still needed in that place she had come from, but she didn't know how to get back. She tried to lift her hand, but had no idea if she was succeeding or not. She tried to open her eyes, but she still only saw the gray void. For what she supposed must have been a long time, it went on like this. At times, if she was lucky, she would catch a sliver of reality, reaching through the thick curtain in a vain attempt to grab her - a flash of pain, a firm pressure on her hand, a gentle voice in her ear. She wasn't sure she liked it. The more it happened, the more frightened she became that she was lost in a place where nobody would ever be able to find her, lost and alone. Forever. So contented had she been to be nowhere at all that she had surrendered the urge not to question. But now, as the all-consuming fear grew, she began to worry and wonder. Here, there was nothing to drive away the panic because there was nothing else at all. And she needed something - anything - to hold her to what was real and tangible. Doubt was forming as to her very existance. And so she fought. She reached into the depths of her tattered identity like a child reaching into a bag, hoping to retrieve a prize, something of worth. Again and again she strained, striving to gather any clue about that place deemed reality. She remembered her name and other shreds of who she was. She remembered the names of her children and she could see their faces in her mind. She remembered her mother with her kind eyes and her little brother, so young and so fragile when his soul had been taken from them in a tragic accident. She remembered the field near where she grew up, so sweet and fragrant and she remembered how she used to lie there for hours on end, just staring at the sky. She remembered Dirk and her years with him and their children. A sharp wave of pain rose up and, torn from her quest, she cried out. >From beyond the wall, she heard a soothing voice call to her. "Beth, honey, it's okay. Please don't cry, baby. You're going to be fine, I promise." She hadn't known she was crying - she certainly couldn't feel it, but she knew who it was offering her the line to cling to. She grasped at it with all her strength. There was a pause and she felt the black wave rise up again. *Please, Al!* she cried to call out. *Don't stop - keep talking.* As if he had heard her, though his actual words gave no indication that he had, he resumed speaking to her, reassuring both her and himself at the same time. He spoke about inconsequential events that had transpired since she'd left. She used the slow, strained tone of his voice as her safety line as she climbed. The voice began to sound closer and then she was struck suddenly with an intense pain - a fire in her gut that was so intense that she couldn't stop the scream that rose in her throat. That, she was certain, had reached beyond the barrier because Al reacted immediately, ceasing his endless flow of comfort. And she hadn't even noticed the pressure on her shoulder until it was gone as he lifted his hand. His touch was gone and his voice had stopped and she feared he was going to get a doctor. And she didn't think she could hold on without him. Her physical agony was beginning to push her out again and she lifted her hand and called out, summoning all of her remaining energy to call him back. There was no sounds and she felt a tear slip down her cheek. "Beth?" She felt his hand on her face and, the anchor restored, she pulled the rest of the way through and opened her eyes. He was wiping her tears away, but his eyes were closed and he seemed to be fighting his own. "It's okay," he whispered. "Al?" He opened his eyes and they glistened in the dim light. She watched her trembling hand rise slowly and he took it firmly, stilling the shaking. He smiled sadly at her. "I know you'd come back," he murmured, but she saw that he was lying. She looked up at him, memorizing his face and the sound of his voice. A warm feeling came over her and the pain vanished, but everything was still crystal clear. She started to let go again, but instead of feeling the void, terrible and lonely, she felt safe and secure. She had the incredible sensation that someone had wrapped her in an embrace and, looking up, she was surprised to see that Al was still just holding her hand. Suddenly, she knew what was happening. "Al?" Her voice was barely above a whisper. "What is it, baby?" he asked, smoothing her hair back in a gesture that almost seemed more comforting to him than to her. "Calla lilies," she said slowly. Speaking seemed to require infinite effort. "What?" His hand stopped in mid-motion and she could feel it shaking. "When it comes time. I want calla lilies," she murmured. Then she smiled up at him and closed her eyes. ^----^----^----^----^ May, 2002 Stallions Gate, NM Sam reached absently for the phone when it rang, keeping his eyes trained on the computer screen. He was so close... Any interruptions now could avert him from his destination. "Hello?" He tried in vain to keep the irritation out of his voice. "Sam?" "Yeah, Al?" he asked, missing the tone in his friend's voice. "Could you...come pick me up?" He caught it that time - a kind of desperation that belonged to a lost soul. "Al, what's wrong?" The calculations were all forgotten now. "I - she's dead, Sam. I really...need you to come get me. Please. I-" He stopped again, but then resumed speaking before Sam could respond. "I can't really drive now." "You stay put. I'll be there in ten mintues." He laughed harshly. "If I was going somplace, I would have done it by now." "Al...promise me." "I'll be here," Al vowed, his voice quiet and serious. "So will I," Sam responded, putting down the reciever and scooping up his keys in the same instant. Worry propelled him out to his car and into Santa Fe in record time towards the hospital - a sight that had become as familiar as his own home in the past two weeks. Al sat outside the building, staring into emptiness and seemingly unaware of the warm sun that beat down on him. Sam pulled up to the curb and got out, crossing to where he sat, lowering himself carefully onto the bench beside the admiral. "When?" he asked quietly. Al drew in an unsteady breath. "About an hour ago. She came 'round for a few seconds and then she..." He let the sentence trail off into the suffocating heat. "An hour ago? Where have you been since then?" "I don't know...places..." He closed his eyes, his brow furrowed as if he was in pain. "Al, I-" "Sam, I know you're trying to help, but I don't need you to be my parent and I don't need you to look after me." "I'm not trying to be your parent, Al. I'm trying to be your friend." Al exhaled heavily. "Then, please, let's just go home." They got into the car and drove the entire way home in silence. Al stared out the window the whole drive, a shadowed sorrow evident only in his eyes. When they returned to the project, he finally turned to face Sam. "I'm gonna go get cleaned up and then I'm gonna go see Melana." Sam reached out to stop him and Al pulled sharply back from his touch. "Why don't you take some time?" "I _can't_. Ziggy isn't done synching up your brain wave patterns yet and I have work to do, remember?" His brow furrowed as if he was confused, but Sam knew better. "She will be shortly." Al looked at him, almost confused. "I don't know, Sam..." "Well at least let me take care of everything else." He tilted his head forward. "Please." Al's breathing increased as if he was deprived of oxygen and he reached a hand back to touch the wall at his back, searching for the steadiness to continue. "Sam, I can handle this. I-" "No you can't!" Sam shook his head angrily, his own sense of loss momentarily overpowering his sympathy. "You think you're the only one hurting? Well you're wrong, pal. You think I don't blame myself for not doing more? And things between Donna and I have been a little more than on edge for the past couple weeks. She may not have been the best of friends with her, but she's grieving, too." Belaying all reasonable turns the conversation could have taken, Al laid a hand on Sam's clenched fist. "Sam, I don't want you to blame yourself for anything, okay? It's meant a lot that you were home these past couple weeks. Go clear the air with your wife." Sam blinked, angry at himself for not talking sense into Al, but before he could pull their talk back to where he wanted it to be, Al had turned and walked down the hall to his quarters.