Sam began to trot, the jingle of keys ringing lightly in his pocket. The 
air was brisk, containing a nice little snap to it. The long streak of 
unseasonably nice weather in Ohio was beginning to lift and he could feel 
the full blood of a true Northeastern fall pulsing through. Tingles of 
coldness were stinging his cheeks and whirling around his ankles. It seemed 
the faster he went, the quicker Nature moved from playful nips to nasty 
bites. He slowed down as he approached a wooded area, comtemplating a short 
cut. If he rounded the lit walkway, it would take him nearly 25 minutes to 
get to McMaster's Hall. If his calculations were right, he could be out on 
the other side of the miniature forest in 10 minutes easy.
   *Now I see why they call it McBastard,* he clucked to himself,
surveying the thick grove of trees before him.
   "Well, short cut it is." He began carefully picking his way through the 
twisted gnarl of roots and brambles scraping at his legs. With the
exception of his heart pounding in his ears and the steady puffing of his 
breath, the journey seemed eerily silent. His foot hooked a smooth, moss 
covered rock and he went sprawling forward. His courage took flight from him 
for a moment as he turned on his backside and managed a shaky laugh.
   *This was the reason man invented sidewalks.*
Oh, well, he was too far into his decision to backtrack now. It would cost 
him another five minutes of hiking if he changed his mind. Briefly, a Robert 
Frost poem sprang into mind. Something about the road less traveled. At that 
moment, he could not recall if Frost's tone had been that of relief or 
    He put his hand down into the damp grass to push himself up when a
twig snapped sharply to his left. He drew in a sharp breath, moving quickly 
into a crouch. Could just be a squirrel, looking for a little late night 
snack. But then, what did he know about squirrels?
    He slipped his hands into his pocket, curling his fingers around a key. 
For a long moment, there was nothing but his shallow breathing and the low 
hum of nocturnal life. He braved a few cautious steps before continuing. 
>From behind him, more twigs broke in quick succession followed by a familiar 
scratching sound. Like the way a bush whips a person's coat as it is pushed 
    Immediately, he bent low to the ground in the stance of a track runner, 
digging his shoes fiercely into the hard ground. It sounded like a herd of 
elephants were in pursuit, crashing through the foliage wildly. Ahead, a 
thicket narrowed his path so tightly, he might get caught trying to hurdle 
through. He veered sharply left, remembering that when he initially placed 
the direction of the first sound, he had been facing where he'd come from.  
But they had fanned out like a band of search dogs and quickly, one of them 
swung out and set Sam flat on his back. The wind was knocked out of him in 
one gust, his ears ringing from the blow.
   "Looks like somebody lost their kitty." The voice was strange and thick 
in its mocking sympathy. Random snickers followed, but were quickly muted by 
a threatening growl.
   "Maybe...we should take her to the lost and found?" A second voice, thin 
and reedy, suggested and the air quivered with suppressed laughter.
   The toe of a boot pressed minutely into Sam's side as if its owner were 
inspecting roadkill. "Naw, she aint collared, boys. I don't even think we'd 
get a reward." The band murmured in agreement, feeling courageous and moving 
   Sam's brain spun and stirred in his head. He closed his eyes, a hot wave 
of nausea spilling over him. "Please...I don't want trouble."
   The first speaker knelt close, his breath a liquor cabinet of 
combinations. He chuckled darkly. "Aint about what you want, kitty. You in 
my country and us dogs rule here. Come fetch, Fido."
   A trembling boy hovered over Sam, his gangly body cutting the picture of 
a ridiculous scarecrow rather than a menacing thug. His eyes rolled 
desperately behind the ski mask; frightened, ashamed.
   *'Go fetch, Fido!'*
   "...I know you..."
   The boy leapt up at Sam's whisper, his eyes wild with fear. He was
quickly shoved away by disgusted hands and the end of a blunt object smashed 
into the side of Sam's head. His vision ebbed between blurring and darkening 
and his eyes threatened to dislodge from the throbbing. From far off, he 
heard the soft thump of feet treading the earth.
   The ringleader stood over the fallen prey, flexing a nightstick absently 
in his hands. He bore his eyes into Sam's, and they were low and dirty. 
"Fido, he's just a dumb lapdog scared of his own mammie's tit." Giggles 
flitted throughout the posse, some stamping their feet at the wit of it. 
"But Bowser, he's a fuckin' pitbull. And he don't scare so easy."
   A wonderful blue light that went unseen dazzled the gloom and Sam's head 
lolled heavily to the side. *Al...*
   The Observer appeared at Sam's right hand, punching furiously into a 
handlink. "~Jesus~, Gushie, what took you so-Sam! SAM! Oh, god. Look, buddy, 
someone is coming this way, okay? You just stay with us, alright? I swear 
I'll get you out of this." He whirled to face the unseeing brute, his fury 
unleashed. "Don't you ~dare~ lay a hand on her, or I swear, I'll cut that 
ugly mug of yours up!!"
   The huge shadow eclipsed Sam, its face twisted with hate and savage lust. 
He snapped Sam's legs apart and thrust himself in between, digging at the 
button of his jeans. Sam laid still, his brain screaming out a million 
things, but his heart only listening to one of them.
	His fist.
	He ripped his hand from his pocket and slashed upwards, the cruel teeth of 
the key sinking readily into the fiend's cheek. Bowser went down like a 
rock, howling and clutching his face as the
stunned gang took off.
    "Way to go, Sam! Now that's what I mean by a nasty right hook!"
   The cautious footsteps turned quickly into a panicked run, coming towards 
Sam. There was a brief tangle and some yelling followed by what sounded like 
someone being thrown soundly to the ground. Bowser was dragging himself off, 
tripping and stumbling through the bush. Sam closed his eyes, allowing the 
cool night to slip over him.

*		*		*		*		*

  A soft steady beep reached down and pulled Sam gently. It tugged him from 
his sleep, unhurried but insistent His eyelids felt like they weighed a 
hundred tons, refusing to open on his first few tries. He prayed that he was 
still in bed in the dorm, Rachel's honor intact. But there was something 
cool and terribly antiseptic about this place. His nose knew where he was. 
His eyes finally confirmed it.
  "Hey, kid." The hologram stood back from the bed, his eyes a little red.
  "Rachel, oh my god!" Two arms squeezed him recklessly, the relief in the 
voice unmistakable.
  Sam blinked, adjusting to the harsh overhead lighting. Baseemah swung her 
legs over the gurney beside him, smiling like crazy. She had a band of gauze 
winding around both hands. The night crept back to him as he watched he 
listened to her jawing on, and suddenly he became angry.
  "I thought you said you were at lab." he started slowly, his eyes 
  Baseemah grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, well, after I called, I decided go to 
the lounge and chill instead."
  "And it's a good thing she did," Al chimed. "She was on her way back to 
the dorm when she took that short cut and found you."
  At the mention of Sam's unwise choice, he winced. "Are you okay?"
  "Girl, I'm fine. Some asshole came running at me and I pepper sprayed him. 
He pushed me and I got a few scratches." Her hands looked as though she had 
taken a tumble through a briar patch.
  Al moved closer. "Baseemah was able to positively ID the nozzles how did 
this. They're in Lucas County as we speak, cooling their heels."
  A doctor poked his head into the room, smiling at his now conscious 
patient. "So, how's our Cinderella feeling?"
  "Uh, okay," Sam mumbled.
  The doctor flipped open a chart at the foot of the bed and dashed off a 
few notes. "We ran some tests, cat scans, MRI's. There's no sign of a skull 
fracture, but there was blunt trauma to your temple. You took a nice hit."
  "Yeah, ~nice~," Al snorted.
  "We called your home and your parents are on their way. Should be here in 
another hour or so. I prescribed some aspirin or you can take some Tylenol 
for that lump on your head. You'll be all set to go after that." The doctor 
snapped off a quick salute and slipped back out the door.
   Sam carefully directed a question at Al, though appearing to speak to 
Baseemah. "Do the police know why I was attacked?"
   Baseemah shook her head. "They said they were investigating."
   The handlink bleeped and hummed. "Some Fraternity initiating its 
~recruits~," the retired Naval Officer sneered.
   "I figured as much."
   There was a soft rap at the door and all three froze. Sam called out 
cautiously. "Yes...?"
   Tomomichi walked in, favoring Sam with one of his intense gazes. "Out for 
a late night stroll?"
   *So this is where he gets his quirky sense of humor.*
   The handlink whined as it spit information out for Al. "Your friend's 
been moonlighting as an intern at the hospital and he gets his bachelor's to 
go on to med school in ~three and a half years.~ Wow."
   "So, we meet again," Sam murmured slyly, unflinching under the heat of 
Tomomichi's eyes.
   "And they meet again. Two years from now. Rachel leaves Toledo to attend 
a local college and runs into Tomomichi by a chance. His friends were 
friends with acquaintances of hers from highschool. They see each 
a ~barbeque~. He tells Rachel that he's going home to Japan for the summer 
and she goes with him. And they never come back," Al finished incredulously.
   "I'm outta here." They watched as Baseemah hopped down from gurney and 
exited the room, leaving Sam and the intern a strange, knowing grin.
   "Uh, Bassemah ~does~ stay at Toledo. She ends up pursuing law and begins 
campus awareness on sexual assault and crime."
   "Were you ever going to call me?" Tomomichi stood with his arms crossed 
over his scrubs, his warm eyes laughing.
   Sam held his own. "Were you ever going to dance?"
   At that moment, a cool electric field enveloped the time traveler and 
were he once had been, Rachel Horton again existed...