The "closed doors and quiet" he'd hoped for didn't exactly happen. The deceptively peaceful appearance of the house soon gave way to revelry. It seemed The Colonel had arranged for 80 or so of his closest relatives to wait for the arrival of the brand new family. A burst of music, balloons and cheers erupted with such force when they opened the door, it threatened to push them back out. Sam clutched the luggage that he'd nearly dropped. The element of surprise was never lost on him. He was beginning to believe that one day his heart might fail him. The swell of well-wishers quickly spilled over into every room on the first floor. Men gave him hearty thumps on the back while pumping his arm nearly out of the socket. Women caught him around the waist in gut-wrenching hugs, rich language pouring from their mouths. He bent down obligingly so that they could take his cheeks between their thick, strong fingers, practically wringing his face. Children raced gleefully between the legs of the adults, flinging bits of food everywhere. He couldn't find his wife or the babies anywhere. *Al, where are you?* Lost in thought, he smacked right into someone who had been dancing. Reflexively, Sam stooped and caught them to his chest like a line drive from home plate. A delicate hand came up to brush aside the curtain of hair that veiled her face. Wet, pouty lips and large hazel eyes jumped out at him. "~Te gustas la rumba?~" A surge of heat rose into his cheeks. "Uh, no ~gracias.~ I-I don't rumble." He quickly set her feet to the floor and slipped away, peals of laughter breaking out behind him. Towards the rear of the house in a small hallway (which was surprisingly empty), he found a tiny utility closet and squeezed himself inside, closing the door. "Mmm...~gaspacho~..." Sam jumped, knocking over a mop that passed easily through the hologram. The basin of a sink protruded through Al's stomach and Sam was caught between laughing and feeling peevish. "Is there any way you could just ~warn~ me before you show up?" "Hey, who answered your call, kid?" Al growled in good humor. "Okay, so I already know ~this~ much," Sam held up his left hand to show the thick gold band on his third finger. "Tell me everything else." "Well," Al absently whittled a toothpick in his mouth while consulting the handlink. "Your espoused is Lola Leon Ortega, a classically trained ballerina at the Los Angeles Settlement of Dance and Theater and --hey, you know, this reminds me of a song... 'Her name was Lola She was a showgirl...'" "Al." No matter the holes in his memory, Sam knew the strains of cheesy disco music when he heard it. "No respect for the classics, " Al muttered. "Wow. It says here that you two just had twins a little over a month ago. Congratulations, Sam, how'd ya manage that one? Anyways-" A loud thump from outside caused both of them to freeze. "Looks like we need a new office," the hologram said quietly, though he need not. "Ziggy, find me an empty room somewhere in this house." Even the usual howls and shrieks of the handlink seemed muted. Al nodded approvingly at the readout before translating to Sam. "Okay, you want to go upstairs and hang a...right around the guardrail. Keep going straight until you get to the second to last room on your left. You should be in the clear there." "Al, how do I get out of here without being noticed? I'm like two feet taller than anyone here!" "Oh...uh, just say ~Voy al bano.~" Sam stared at him blankly. "It means, 'I've got to go to the little Leaper's room.' I can't imagine ~anyone~ trying to stop you from that." Sam took a deep breath before cautiously sticking his head out into the hall. Three kids tussling around with a soccer ball blinked at him curiously. "~Hola,~" he managed weakly and smiled. They took off screaming. Creeping back into the party, he wove his way through the throngs of people, nodding politely, but blurting out the business about the bathroom the moment someone poised themselves to pinch or steer him off course. By the time, he'd successfully navigated his way upstairs and into the correct room, he was certain that he had made a fine impression as the poster child for adult diapers. "How embarrassing," he hissed when he was facing Al again. "Next time, we use Plan B." Al snorted with amusement. "There is no "Plan B", Sam. Besides, what happened to your Spanish? You've never had problems before. It's your ~Italian~ that's shot." Sam made sure to favor the ex-Rear Admiral with the most sour expression he could muster before responding. "Ha. Very funny. Well, you'll be pleased to know that I've done a little research myself." With a flourish, he produced a fairly worn wallet from his back pocket of his khakis. "Born October 17, 1974, type O blood, enjoys Chinese, visits the library -and quite often according to these receipts-member of the QuikPix Discount Club and carries a book of stamps tucked in the billfold. Thank you very much." "Well, that's a relief. I don't know why the Project even bothers to cut me a check at all." Sam rolled his eyes. "Why am I here, Al?" "Yeah, that's a good question, Sam..." The uneasiness in his voice plucked a taunt chord of fear in Sam's heart. For the first time, he noticed that not only was something not right about this Leap, but there was also something a little unsettling about the Observer. Al was always fussy about his grooming, particularly in keeping his face clean-shaven. Sam vaguely recalled his friend's rationale running concurrent with Navy regulations and a personal side note about "hippies." At this moment, a five o'clock shadow went unchallenged. His hair was overrun with dark curly ringlets and the sky blue collar of another shirt poked from beneath a rather normal looking sweater. And there were other things that should have clued him in. "When you got here, you started to tell me about Lola, but Al, you ~always~ tell me about the person I've Leaped into first. What's going on?" "Well, to be honest with you, I'm not sure. We had to do a little Sherlocking when the guy came into the Waiting Room. He only knew his name and he kept saying something about ~Los Cerritos.~ Ziggy ran a search and found a mall by that name outside of L.A....and that's how we found you. So actually, you've got the jump on us." Sam felt an itching in his new legs and started to move around a bit. "So, does this mean I'm flying blind?" "Yes...and no. I've got information, just not on you. Lola is the only child of Marisol Leon, a homemaker, and Cesar Colon Ortega, a retired colonel for the United States Army." Al raised an eyebrow at Sam. "Boy, you've got your hands full." "Yeah. I think I've already made his A list." "Hm. Both originally from Pinar Del Rio, Cuba...home of the world famous ~Habanos!~ Oh, Sam, I think I'm in love." The funniest things seemed to excite Al. Sam smiled, shaking his head. "Hey, I haven't seen you with a cigar in a while." Al shrugged. "Apparently, smoking causes cancer in some overgrown calculators." A guffaw rolled from Sam's throat, tiny bubbles of laughter tickling his nose. ~Al vs. The Super Computer.~ That had to be the greatest match-up since Ali and…Louis? Or was it Tyson versus Frasier? Sam could never keep it straight, although he was sure Al must have told him a thousand times-- "Noah?" The voice was soft and near. Al jabbed a finger in the direction of a door behind him and Sam turned the knob, slowly pushing open the door. It was another guestroom, nearly identical to the one they were in, the lay out and furnishings practically a mirror image. Snuggled in a mound of pillows on the bed was Lola, her hair pulled back into a sleek ponytail. The left side of her blouse had fallen away from her smooth olive shoulder, her fingers danced at the front clasp of a black lace bra... "I wish I'd had a mother like that." Sam jumped at the sound of Al's voice at his side and quickly pulled the door closed. "Have you no shame?" "It's the human body, Sam, there's nothing to be ashamed of. And uh...you got a little drool on your chin there." Sam's hand flew up to his face before he realized he had fallen for the oldest trick in the book. "Al," he growled, turning on the hologram. "Go. Find me something I can use." "Okay, okay. But if I come back empty-handed..." The link buzzed as his commands prompted the dazzling aura of The Door to appear in the middle of the room. "Just don't shoot the messenger, alright?" Sam sighed heavily as the portal slammed shut. There was suddenly no doubt in his mind. He was flying on a wing and a prayer. * * * * * "Clark!" Before he'd even stepped out of the Imagining Chamber, Al's sharp call rang out into the Cold Room. The few tiptoeing interns jumped. From beneath the central "launch panel," there was a solid ~thump!~ followed by a slew of unintelligible curses. Gushie emerged, his face ablaze, gently nursing his oft-bruised cranium. "Perhaps you could find some way to warn us, Admiral, of your return." Al snickered, casually tossing the link to a young technician with a clipboard who nearly fumbled the catch. "Hi, honey, I'm home. Where's Clark?" He was greeted with blank stares. *Oh, geez --don't tell me this Leap screwed that up, too.* A certain hybrid know-it-all began to hum patiently and Al knew that if she had a face, she would probably look like a Cheshire cat all the time. He took a deep breath, clinching his fists. "Ziggy, I need a location on Ensign Clark. Please." Ziggy purred sweetly. "Ensign Clark is no longer on the premises. The Ensign is also not accounted for at The San Fermin Naval Base or at the family residence of 854 Red Cross Road, Champuya, Indiana." Al felt the angry bite of his nails as they drove deep into the tender meat of his hands. "Well, where the hell is she? ~Please.~" "She is currently being detained in Washington, D.C." *Detained?* The ugly hollow word nearly caused him to flinch. ~Detained~ was a euphemism, one of those nice words bad guys used to lull others into believing there could actually be a Happily Ever After. Yeah, Al had been "detained" once and he was still waiting for the end of that nightmare to ride out. "What happened to Clark?" "The Ensign was en route to Hartford on a reconnaissance mission when she was intercepted at Phoenix West Airport by Vice Admiral Edwin Miles Sisko and Lieutenant Commanders Jake Hoyt and Paris Kwan." "Pentagon pricks," Al grumbled, half-walking, half-running out into the main corridor. Suits and lab coats choked the hallway in their hustle to plow through last minute problems and then scurry off to the cafeteria. Unlike most of the residents at Stallions Gate, the cooks called it quits at 5:30 P.M., with no exceptions. It took the new people no time at all to get with the program, after having to resort to chewing on their tennis shoes the first few nights of missed meals. He was rounding a corner, cursing, when he collided with another staffer at full speed. Papers exploded into the air like doves. "Sorry about that," Al muttered, snatching sheets from the path of oncoming traffic. "I didn't see you there-" He suddenly felt like he'd swallowed a mouth full of sand. His accident victim wore a soft, almost shy smile and a silver pen in her left breast pocket that she was fond of clicking while she talked. She also made a mean cup of Columbian and her hardest drink probably came straight from the tap, no ice. "Dr. Beeks." He quickly shuffled his pile to cover the shaking in his hands. God, he was nervous. He hadn't felt this uptight since Sister Geraldine caught him running numbers at Confession. "Admiral. Long time, no see." "Yeah, well, I don't have to tell you how crazy things get round here." Al managed a shaky laugh, adverting his eyes. They stood there for some time, the mad dash of the world swirling around them. He could feel her watching his every tick and nuance. *Just crawl under a microscope, Calavicci, you'd make one helluva study.* Verbena gave a low, husky chuckle. "No rest for the weary. Or the Project Observer." Al tucked the fuzzy collar of his pajamas down into his sweater. "Occupational hazard. I gather these belong to you." He made his elbows lock as he extended the slightly crumpled computer print outs to her. He saw her gaze dip to the ragged flesh of his palms. Just briefly. Her eyes were full of questions, but she did not ask. "Excuse me." He nodded curtly in acknowledgement of his somewhat rude and hasty retreat and continued onward to his quarters.