Pt. III When Sam arose, the dorm was filled with an eerie silence. Well, with the exception of the refrigerator, which he could hear buzzing outside his door. He blinked over at Bassemah's side of the room. On her bed a pile of laundry was growing into a potential threat. He wanted to doubt greatly that she might be sleeping underneath. *Nothing would surprise me.* He rolled onto his feet, stretching luxuriously. It didn't seem right that he should feel so refreshed after having crashed at the hour he did. Brushing his teeth, he scanned the main area for signs of life. There was only him. Sam basked in the flooding sunshine as he strolled leisurely through campus. Before leaving the suite, he caught the time on his alarm clock. 9:56am. Ah, so he was a late-riser. He almost started rushing around until he remembered the schedule sent from the Registration Office. His first class started at twelve-thirty. Traffic in the main courtyard was slow, the rest of the world having trudged sleepily out of bed hours ago. Sam gleefully enjoyed knowing this fact. The lawn spread before him alluringly and he stepped into it, feeling the blades of grass bend beneath his feet. *It's really beautiful here.* He sighed, tipping back his grey wool beret, and turning his face up towards the clouds. "Well, if it isn't Mary Tyler Moore," Al snorted, nearly throwing Sam into his second heart attack this Leap. "~Who?~" Sam clutched his chest, allowing his breath to steady. "Never mind. So what've ya been up to, Little Miss Sunshine?" Sam pretended to cough into his hand. "Nothing. I thought ~you~ could tell ~me~ what's going on." "Well, it seems Rachel's brain is just as magnafoozled as yours. She doesn't remember anything near the Leap. One thing for sure is she that didn't know any of the people before she got here, so the odds are against there being a boyfriend that goes to this school." "What about the pregnancy? Does Ziggy know when the baby was conceived?" A horrible shriek of bells and whistles came from the handlink. "Your super-ego computer has an attitude," Al informed him over the noise. "According to the baby's E-T-D--" "Estimated Time of Delivery." "Yeah. Junior's about to become a bun in the oven...some time in the next two weeks." "~Two weeks?!~" Sam hissed, his stomach churning. "I'm working on it, Sam...Sam, don't do that." Al watched helplessly as his friend began to wear the grass thin in his pacing. "Al, walk with me." Sam abruptly started across the courtyard. "You know, Verbena likes to pull this stunt, too." Sam marched resolutely into the nearest building, scanning the halls for a phone. He found the clunky black and blue box and snatched up the receiver, pounding randomly on the keypad. "See if you can find anything on Bassemah Bashir." A ridiculous jangle of bicycle bells sounded as the link fed Al the information. "Uh, born 1977, Cincinnati, Ohio...enrolled here as a Computer Technology major...drops out in one semester. Too much partying." "Okay, what about...the guy? There was this guy at the party last night. He-he acted like I'd met him before. He was Hispanic, I think...oh, what the ~hell~ is his name?" "~Sam.~" Al's eyes widened in amazement. "Look, I'm about to find out in an unnatural way what it's like to be a woman unless you give me ~something!~" They both turned slowly to find a student standing behind Sam, his mouth slowly coming unhinged. The quarter he had in his hand dropped and rolled on its side underneath a row of lockers. Sam calmly cupped his hand over the phone's mouthpiece and pasted on one of Rachel's heartbreakingly sweet smiles. "I'm gonna be on for a while. It's long distance." The guy nodded wordlessly and stepped around them in a hurry. "Have Ziggy run a complete list of Toledo's minority enrollment, 1996, male students only." "Okay..." The small box performed a series of sharp taxi-cab whistles and hummed busily in Al's hand. "Al, what happens to me if I have this baby?" Sam was kneading Rachel's lower lip with his teeth, a very unSam-like thing to do. "You mean what happens to Rachel if ~she~ has this baby." The younger man waved impatiently at the correction. Very Sam-like. "Well, uh, she doesn't stay long at Toledo. She moves back home and tries to attend a community college...but she ends up having a very difficult pregnancy and has to leave there, too. Right after the baby's born, she goes to work at a drugstore, hoping to make enough money to help around the house and get back into school-" "But she never does. Having a child means investing all your money. And time." Sam rested the receiver against his shoulder, sighing. "The paternity of the father is...never revealed." Sam glanced at a clock above a doorway across the hall. 11:09am. He watched for a moment as the second hand swept the face, the minute hand moving slow and ominously behind. Why did it always feel as if time were winding down towards something terrible? The link shrilled terrifically. *Sounds like half-time.* Al bared his teeth at the offending noise, shaking his fist menacingly. "Here it is. One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-three minority males. Two hundred fifty…six of them Hispanic." "Two hundred fifty-six...uh, have Ziggy eliminate all them, except Latino men with dark complexions who are about...5'11 in height." "...That's Fourty-seven." "Uh..." Sam's mind flashed back to the party. *'Hi, Rachel.'* "Dimples! Check and see how many of them have dimples." "We're down to three." "Left ~and~ right." Al raised his head, looking somewhat in awe. "Ha. Whadda ya know? One. And his name is Javier Vasquez." Sam hung up the phone resolutely. If she did nothing else more significant during her brief stint at Toledo, Bassemah was about to do something great. * * * * * * * The searing metallic screams set off by his "doorbell" was enough to make Al feel as though he were living in Monster Truck hell. *Ziggy...* She had some nerve. As he stepped out from the Imaging Chamber, he asked her to recalculate Sam's odds with Vasquez thrown in as a wildcard. She actually "hmph!"-ed him! He would not have believed it if he had been told, except he was there and had heard it with his own ears. He then had to tell Gushie to tell Ziggy she'd better do it. Gushie gave the computer his Wimpy-Willie version of the order and she acquiesced just as nicely. Boy, the things he would do to her. If only he could get his hands on her circuit boards... "Singh, this had better be damned good--" "Good morning to you, too, Admiral." Looking as if she never needed sleep, Verbena stood at his door, her coat freshly pressed and hair pulled back into an elegant upsweep. Al clutched at the silk robe that had been thrown on haphardly. "The only thing that's right is the "morning" part," he grumbled, trying to mask his embarrassment. "Uh, why don't you come in? I promise to put some pants on." Verbena stepped slowly as Al fled into the back. She was always struck by the massive mahogany desk that took center stage in his office. There were very few things he allowed on it, the exception being a reading lamp and simple cup holding pens. Delicious cabinetry of dark wood and smoked glass ran the entire length of the wall on one side and on the other, the very stiff, uninviting chairs that made every government office complete. The room gleamed as if it had been polished moments earlier. All this, belonging to a man who answered his door wearing a scary lime green and red robe with leopard print boxers. Al was the fastening the cuffs of a heather grey shirt as he returned from his bedroom. "So, uh, what can I do for you?" She glanced at his slacks. Charcoal black. Reserved. "I wanted to thank you for welcoming Cary. He couldn't seem to say enough about you sitting down and talking with him last night." *Yeah, and did he tell you he did all the talking and I did all the walking?* "Hm. Nice kid. Kind of reminds me of someone." "Pulse says he's doing a wonderful job. He appears to be quite experienced at his young age." "Hm." Al was beginning to feel suspicious about this conversation. He caught Verbena eyeing his shoes before looking him in the face. "So you came all the way here -at the ass-crack of dawn- to talk about Masterson?" A bit of heat came into her cheeks. "It is rather early. I apologize." Al suddenly grinned. "Doctor, are you asking me out for breakfast?" Cornered with a question, the doctor looked the way Al imagined he must when she has trapped him with one of her "shrink-patient" stares. "Yes...yes I am." Al felt that familiar flip of his heart as something inside him started to melt. "You know, I'd love to, but there's...something I gotta take care of." She nodded knowingly. "I understand." He felt as if maybe she did. He walked her to the door and after crossing the threshold, she turned to him. "Don't carry the world on your shoulders, Al. It's a heavy burden." She touched his arm briefly and was gone. His mind whirled in the sudden silence. He sank into the high-back chair at his desk, touching his finger to the small trigger beneath without having to find it. His love's labor rolled out smoothly towards him, thick with records and receipts. Even some of her discarded mail. And photographs. Beth in her garden under the afternoon sun. Laughing as she wore a paper crown on her birthday. Standing alone in a window, watched a car whose plates proclaimed DS 4LAW pull away. *I've been stalking you, Beth, my own love. Every move you make.* He had called in his favors, pushing those that needed to be pushed. Clark came promptly, fresh from the academy. She did as she was told and did it quickly. She flew, gathered briefs and delivered them into his hands. And for nearly three months now, he was sure that she was reporting to D.C. that their favorite son had been placated. For now. *Where are you, Mr. Absolute, when I need you?* Al gazed upon his sad little shrine. *How long, Beth? How much time do we have together? Does your son even know? Or is this secret just for you and me?* He popped a couple of Zenfir, hating himself as soon as the acrid wash of orange juice plunged them down his throat. Anything to dull the pain...soon his head began to feel too heavy to lift and he stumbled to bed, collapsing in a cold sleep. Mercifully, he dreamed dreamlessly. * * * * * * Sam wandered the many twisting halls of the Student Union, lured there by the idea of his teeth sinking into a hot sandwich oozing mayo. But for scientific purposes, he prowled the building first to become more acquainted. If he was going to be on campus another two weeks, it would serve him well. Having inspected the last room in the only remaining corridor of the top floor, he hurried towards the stairs, Rachel's stomach already well passed angry with him. He was sailing past the second level when a voice rang out into the stairwell. He froze and looked up. It was Bassemah, his long-lost roommate. "Hey, what happened to you last night?" He began ascending the stairs, his stomach howling in protest. Bassemah was still wearing her yellow ensemble, but someone elses's jacket slung over her shoulders. "You mean this ~morning?~" Her smile was pleasant and her shrug said ~whatever~. "What was up with you and Professor X? I looked up and you were gone." "Professor X...?" "Xavier, ~Javier~..." She was giving him that did-you-fall-and-bump-your-head look again. "He was pretty salty after the way you played him. I didn't know what to tell him." Sam saw an opening and pounced. "Would you happen to know how I can get in touch with him? To apologize, I mean." Bassemah favored him with one of her scrunched up expressions. "Yeah. He's at MECHA." "Thanks." He glanced off down the hall, grateful not to have to ask where he was going. "So, what happened to ~you~ this morning?" "I met up with some people from the BSU and we came over here after the mixer to play some Spades." Again, a blasé shrug and easy-going grin. "I'm on my way to McBastard to talk to the teacher for my C Plus-Plus lab." "Wasn't that class this morning at eight?" "That's why I'm only going to talk." Sam shot her an incredulous look. His roommate was impossible. Without a second thought, he started down the row of student support group offices. To his right, a roar of approval went up from the open door of the Black Student Union. A guy sporting a shirt with a huge black and gold "APA" insignia slammed a tile onto the table and received a round of high-fives. Apparently, they had moved on to Dominoes. At the very end of the hall, he spotted a door draped with a Mexican, Cuban and American flag. MECHA. He knocked tentatively at the door before pushing it open. He didn't know what to expect, but what he hadn't prepared for was to come face to face with Javier. The latter did very little to hide a tiny scowl that crept onto his face. Sam took a slow breath, feeling stifled. "Uh, Javier, could I speak to you?" Javier motioned for Sam to close the door and turned promptly back to unpacking stacks of leaflets from cardboard boxes. Several Kinkos cards littered the desk. The office smelled of fresh paint and newly laid carpeting. Sam looked around for a seat. There was none to take. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for what, what happened. I was kidding around and I guess it didn't go over well." Javier continued slapping the papers into piles on a long folding table. *Th-whack!* Sam watched the muscles in his back knotting and relaxing rhythmically. For a moment, he just stood and admired the work. *I bet he can dance...* Sam instantly shook the thought from his mind. Suddenly the young man abandoned his task and turned startlingly grey eyes on Sam. *Wow, I didn't catch that earlier.* Javier sighed heavily and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the table. "I come to a party to see you and you pretend you not to know me. No, I guess it didn't go over well." "Look, I'm-I'm sorry. I don't do well at parties. I'm more of a...stay-at-home girl." Javier cooked an eyebrow, dimples jumping from his cheeks at the hint of a smile. "Your friend told me you wanted to meet there." *So that's why she was rushing me.* "Bassemah...is a special girl..." Javier laughed at his struggle for words. "I could tell that the two of you were different from the first day we met in Orientation. Bassemah seems like a lot of fun." "And that would make me...?" "Grounded. Serious. I like a woman who knows where she's going, not just looking for the next good time." Sam's face began to feel warm and he backed up into the door. "Oh. Well, uh, thanks. I'm, um, gonna go.." Javier moved forward, reaching behind Sam. He moved in close as he twisted the knob. "I'll walk you out." "Out" was just a step into the hall. They faced each other silently, Sam rocking back on his heels. He wished desperately for something clutch. Like Bassemah's neck so he could wring it. "Well...I guess I'll be seeing you around." Javier reached out and gently caressed Sam's cheek. "Don't be a stranger." Jolts of electric panic rode up and down Sam's spine. "Oh-okay…" At the moment he looked down at his shoes, a student crossed into a room up the hall from them. As Sam murmured his good-bye and hurried on, he passed the darkened lounge of the Japanese Student Association, not feeling the eyes of Tomomichi burning into him. * * * * * "…Admiral. ~Admiral.~ It is imperative that you wake immediately. Dr. Beckett has significantly altered Rachel Horton's timeline." "Hmmm?" Al was somewhere between the pleasant, fuzzy layers of sleep when a voice broke through, at first seeming far away and breathy like a whisper and eventually growing louder. His brain began pushing aside the silky cobwebs of unconsciousness, much against his body's wishes. He was reaching for a pillow to pull over his head when the overhead lighting went into high beam, singeing his eyes behind their closed lids. Only one gal he knew that could get a man out of bed... "Ziggy, kill the stadium lighting, would ya?" The room was instantly plunged into darkness, funny white dots remained dancing before his eyes. His vision adjusted slowly and he swung his legs over the side of the bed, his head feeling very much like a 12-pound bowling ball on his shoulders. "What is it now?" "Rachel Horton will now become impregnated one night from tonight," the computer purred. He was on his feet and out the door before Ziggy could say another word. He whisked into the Cold Room, snatching a handlink from a nearby counter. "Gushie, fire up the Imaging Chamber," he snapped, tucking the rumpled shirt into his pants and wiping the sleep from his eye. "Get a lock on Sam and get it quick." A spiral of whirling images descended upon Al and he stood impatiently in eye of the twisting storm, gnashing his teeth where his soothing Chivello would have been. * * * * * "-am! Sam!" Sam jumped, his pen sailing across the room. He frowned worriedly at the Observer's appearance. "Al, you look like somebody just died." Some strange expression that Sam could not read rolled over Al's face and was erased. "What did you do after I ran that check on Javier Vasquez?" The gravity in Al's voice made Sam nervous. "I-I went and talked to him--" "What did you say?" "Nuh-Nothing. He and I got off on the wrong foot. I just went to go smooth things over..." "Yeah, well maybe you made 'em a little ~too~ smooth. Rachel gets pregnant tomorrow night." "~What?!~" Sam bolted up from the desk, standing toe to toe with Al. "That can't be possible. I hardly know him. We-we've never even had our first date!" "Sam, what were you doing talking to him, huh? Didn't I tell you to--" "Run away," they finished simultaneously, Sam collapsing onto the bed. "I don't know, Al. I was thinking I could change things for Rachel. I mean, what if this is supposed to happen? I was thinking that if, if ~maybe~ Javier is the father of this baby, he would admit to his responsibilities and help Rachel so she wouldn't have to do it alone." "And you were thinking you could fix everything in one conversation?" "Stranger things have happened, Al." Sam pulled his hands through Rachel's hair, dislodging a pencil he'd tucked in her ear. "So much for changing things for the better." Al plugged the information into the link, shaking his head. "It's now at 98.2% and the father is still unknown." "That just doesn't make any sense. Who else could it possibly--" "Sam?" Digging frantically into the closet, Sam pulled out a blue burlap bag containing laundry. He snatched a pair of dark jeans from the top, pulling its pockets inside-out. A crumpled card fluttered at his feet. "Have Ziggy run a check on someone named Tomomichi Takeshi." "Toe-mo-mee-chee..." Al muttered, fingers flying over the keypad. "Yep. Originally from Nagano, Japan...comes here as an Exchange Student…but it says here that Rachel never knew him..." "Until ~I~ Leaped in. Al, he was the guy I met my first day. I just couldn't remember his name right. And he popped up at the party out of nowhere and then disappeared. That's how I got his card. He wanted me to call him." "Sam, you gotta steer ~clear~ of this guy, you understand? You could be ruining Rachel's life!" His heart seemed to fold into itself. He couldn't stop the sudden downspiral of emotions. Tears began stinging bitterly in his eyes. *Am I about to cry??* He turned his back to Al, sniffling as he brought a hand up to his runny nose. "Sam?" Al touched the younger man's shoulder lightly. "I'm-I'm okay, Al, I think it's just Rachel." He went into the bathroom for tissue, honking his nose emphatically. "I feel like I've been here before...is it possible to Leap in at the same place twice?" "Well, I wouldn't say ~impossible~. But Beeks says that you internalized a lot more of Rachel's ~essence~ than usual. It's like she was a wet sponge being wrung out and you absorbed most of her feelings and memories. We also talked about some bleed-in theories, but that's a whole other story." Sam raised his eyebrow at Al in the mirror. "You and Verbena ~talked?~" "I didn't let her psychobabble me, if that's what you mean." Sam chuckled, dabbing cool water at his puffy eyes. Some things never changed. And that was okay. * * * * The cool New Mexico evening felt great against his face. With his eyes closed, he could still see the sky, the stunning watercolor of blues, purples, pinks streaking across its canvas. The sun was a low simmering ball of orange, nestling deeper into the shoulders of the canyons. And in his mind, it was somehow even more spectacular, yet in his heart... His heart felt nothing. "You hardly ever get the chance to catch a sunset around here," he spoke softly to Verbena, who had slipped quietly beside him. Without opening his eyes, he could tell that he'd finally surprised her for once. "It is beautiful." Her voice held a note of wistfulness that caused him to look over. She seemed to be gazing somewhere beyond the horizon, her eyes lost and dreamy. The afterglow washed her in a brilliance of red as she stood, unaware, in its fury. A tiny knot fixed itself in Al's throat and he swallowed thickly, turning to watch the dazzling display. "How's Rachel?" "She's progressing nicely. Exhibiting hardly any signs of shock or confusion. This has been one of the few Leaps that the patient has been calm and actually asking questions about the Waiting Room." "Sam's nosiness must have stayed behind," Al snickered. "She's planning to major in Bio-Chemical Engineering." Al whistled. "That's quite a load for such a little gal." "Can't be as heavy as yours." He eyed the doctor suspiciously, his mouth tightening. "What do you mean?" Verbena tucked her hands into her coat pockets, tilting her head slightly. "The project's sole Observer. Living underground in a cave. Scheduling your life around Leap Time. I'll bet you didn't sign up for this." "I wouldn't have to any other way." She fell silent, staring out into the distance as if it held an answer. A breeze stirred the wisps of hair dangling from a French Roll that had loosened. Al watched the silky tendrils dance in the wind. In that moment, she could have been anywhere in the world, but god/fate/time (whatever) had stuck her here with him, studying the sunset as if it was her first. Or last. *We are two of the only people in the world who will look at the dying sun and understand loneliness.* Al exhaled a breath so heavy it all but left him empty. "I'm sorry for having to ask Ziggy to wake you. You seemed so peaceful." "How'd you know I was sleeping?" "Ziggy registered your second stage delta waves." Al rubbed his hands feverishly at his thighs. "Yeah, well, I could've used something a little stiffer than a few hours snooze." Two hands clasped his warmly. "You could have used something better." He slowly brought his hands to his chest, pulling her in. The air around them stilled and it was quiet. All he could see was his cool reflection in her eyes. Her pulse jump as one strong hand slipped around her neck, the other sliding towards the small of her back and pressing her firmly against his heat. The soft flesh of his lips sank into hers with cruel speed. He tasted her slowly, pulling away with the electric tingle of satisfaction on his tongue. He could feel her warm breath as he returned, his mouth aching... A sharp piercing cry sounded in the darkness. *Damn!* Verbena fumbled a pager from her pocket, glancing at the screen and snapping off the alarm. She cleared her throat, clutching the white coat as if it were suddenly cold. "Admiral," she managed a little breathlessly. He gave her a small perfunctory nod. "Doctor." He did not watch her go. He waited until her footfalls sounded at a distance before leaning against the mouth of the cavern, dipping his head back to take in the night. The sky had rolled out its velvety blanket, the stars winking secretively. He stared at the huge, waxy moon, touching his tongue to his lips. There was a soft dew clinging to them; light. Sweet. A tiny smile played at the corners of his mouth and slowly began to spread.