February, 2000 New York City, NY Sam looked up sharply at Al's demand. He'd wondered if Beth would remember him, but had hoped she'd brush off his appearance as a dream or just forget it altogether. He certainly didn't expect her to be able to peg his face so easily after 30 years, either, unless Al was just playing a hunch in that area. Seeing the confirmation spread across Beth's features, he didn't think so. It was so long ago...if Beth recognized him this easily, she would think it strange that he hadn't aged, which would prove Quantum Leap, but, when she told Al what Sam had gone to say to her, they would both know what he'd done. "Al, I don't know what you're talking about." Al had had too long a day to play these games, though, and Sam knew it. "Dammit, I want answers. I'm only going to ask this one more time and, either I get an answer, or you're on your own, got it?" "Al, please don't do this..." "You know me. I know you do; you've as much as said it yourself. _How_ do you know me?" Al braced himself on the back of a chair in front of Sam, his knuckles turning white against the mahogany. Sam stood slowly. There were no other options; Al had backed him into a corner, as Sam had known he eventually would. "We were friends." He choked and realized this was going to be harder than he'd expected. "We were friends for a long time, and partners." "How can that be true and I don't remember you?" "Because...it never happened." The confusion that crossed Al's face was inevitable and Sam rushed on before he could get out any more questions. "In 1995, you and I created a project known as Project Quantum Leap. It deals with-" he hesitated to brace himself for the surge of disbelief "-time travel." Al looked startled, but he didn't protest its impossibility, as Sam would have expected. "And you and I created this?" His tone, did, however, hold a fair amount of skepticism. He should've counted on Al's acceptance in things impossible: he'd witnessed several of them personally and his reaction when a younger Sam Beckett had proposed it to him had been equally nonchalant. "Yes. But then the committee started bringing pressure to bear on us and I was afraid they'd shut us down, so I used it before it was ready, and I...leaped into the past. Because it wasn't ready, you couldn't bring me back and I leaped from life to life for five years, changing people's lives for the better. My last leap...changed your life. It wasn't the first time that had happened, but it messed everything up." Al narrowed his gaze. "Messed it up how?" "It changed things so you and I never met. And then I found myself here. I couldn't remember how to get in touch with anyone, and I don't know if I'm still leaping or not and I don't know where `I've' been in this timeline. You said it before: I'm lost." Al stared steadily at him and Sam could see a kind of fury on the horizon and knew the easy part was about to pass. "Prove it. I don't know you - I don't remember you. That's very convenient." Sam rubbed his palms together. "Your mother left you when you were young. For the record, you never told me what age. Your sister had Downs Syndrome and was confined to an institution where she later died of pneumonia at the age of 16. Your father died of cancer when you were 10 and, because God didn't heal him, you've resented Him ever since." He watched Al pale and exhaled with regret. "You could have found that out through records, or..." "You fell in love and had a secret affair with Lisa Sherman, a Navy nurse. Then you fell in love with Beth and married her." Sam turned his attentions to her. "April 1st, 1969, you met a man named Dirk Simon by the marina. You had a flat tire. A man named Jake Rawlins, an undercover cop, stopped to help." She shook her head slightly. "How do you know that?" "I was Jake. For those few days, I was him. I brought you the calla lilies and you asked me how I knew about that: it was because Al told me." Sam took a step forward, then pulled out his wallet and handed the picture to Al. "If you need more proof, here it is." Al took the picture and stared at it, then looked back up at Sam, fire sparking dark embers in his eyes. "If that's true, what could you possibly have done to erase all that? What event could you have changed?" Sam looked back and forth between them. He knew they had enough to put it together, if only they could see it, but neither wanted to. "Al, I don't think that's such a good-" "Dammit, don't _come_ into my house and tell me something like that and then refuse to answer my questions!" Al raged, stepping around the chair to face Sam head-on. He ripped the picture in his hands and the two halves fluttered to the floor between them. "What did you do?!" Sam stared at the torn image and dropped to his knees. "How could you do that? It was all I had left..." Sam's instinctive sense of loss only seemed to anger Al more. "What were you doing at my home in 1969?" he demanded forcefully. "What did you do to my life?!" Sam picked up the photograph, one half in each hand, and stared at them. "She didn't wait," he whispered finally. There was no stopping this now; if he didn't tell them, Al was sure to figure it out on his own. He caught the look in Beth's eyes and knew she already knew what was coming. He cleared his throat and continued. "She had you declared dead and married Dirk Simon." Now he looked up to see Al's face, a terrible mask devoid of emotion or reaction. "I leaped into Jake and you...lied, told me that I was there to get Beth to wait. You _begged_ me and I wouldn't do it. I'd never been able to forgive myself for that, so, later, when I had the chance given to me, I..." "She married someone else?" Al said, his voice low and controlled. Sam could see the fear and fury in his friend's eyes, though. "You were never supposed to know," Sam protested lamely. "You were supposed to go on with your life with the woman you loved and the children you'd've never had and never realize it wasn't the way it was." He felt a tear slip down the side of his face. "You should never have had to _know_, Al... I'm sorry!" Beth was shaking, but she took a step forward. "Al?" she asked softly and touched his arm, but he jerked away and she reacted as if she'd been struck. "Al, please, I don't understand any of this either, but-" He stared at her as if he didn't know her. "I'm going out," he said curtly and started pulling on his jacket. "Where are you going?" she countered, forcing back the turmoil of emotion she had to be experiencing with anger instead. "You can't just leave!" Sam advanced on the couple and Al rounded on both of them. "Just leave me alone! You want me to listen to this and then go out for ice cream together? Leave me alone!" He opened the front door and slammed it behind him. Sam listened for the sound of the car engine starting, and never got it. "I'm sorry," he said to Beth. "I should never have called Al that morning. I should have let it go; I should have let him go." She turned away from him, her shoulders rounded as she stood facing the door. "I told him to help you. He wasn't going to, but I knew I knew you and I had to know from where." She turned and Sam saw what he could almost describe as terror in her eyes. "It's true, isn't it? I left him." "Yes, it's true," he said quietly, then rushed on, trying to save her some pain. "But, Beth, I was there, I understand. And he did, too. He knew you'd given up hope, that not knowing day after day was eating you alive. Al understands that. He wasn't thinking of blame, or how you'd messed anything up: he was only thinking of how much he loved you and how much it hurt to lose you after so long." "And now?" she whispered. "What about now?" Sam sat slowly on the back of the couch. "Now...you have some things to work through, but if your faith in each other could carry you this far, this isn't going to destroy it." She covered her mouth with her hands, trying to fight back her instinctive emotional reaction. "I can't believe I would... It's not fair, Sam!" Sam didn't know exactly what she was referring to: maybe just the fact that yesterday her life had been almost-perfect, and now it seemed shattered. "He loved you enough to fight for you. He won't let it fall apart now." She reached for a coat and slid it on. "I'm going to look for him," she announced, wiping her eyes and pulling the coat firmly about herself. "Beth, you shouldn't-" She stared at him intently. "I don't know how to make amends for something I never did," she stated shakily. "I don't know how to fix this." Before he could reply, she was gone, and he turned and leaned against the soft cushions, his hands sinking in the fabric. He looked up and saw, for the first time, the picture of Al and Beth and their four children, smiling and contented. "Neither do I." ~~~~~~ Sam had fallen asleep on the couch when Al stumbled in. He awoke at the sound of the front door closing and sat up to see Al walk into the room and toss his coat on the back of the chair. He stared without comment at Sam for a long moment, without expression or opinion. "Are you okay?" Sam asked in hushed tones, unable to take the silence anymore. Al gazed at him from the exact same spot as earlier, the chair between them serving as some symbolic barrier for Al's emotion. "What happened?" he said quietly. "I don't understand." "I came home and she was gone and what happened?" Sam winced: he should have seen this coming, too. "I don't know what happened to her, but you...married four more times." Al's expression was impassive, but Sam thought he saw a muscle in his jaw twitch. "You joined the space program and went up once. Then, when everything started to catch up to you, you started drinking, which was when we met. You were...beating up a vending machine with a hammer." Al's unbroken stare didn't so much as waver. "So it was a lousy life," he concluded without room for debate. "Parts of it," Sam conceded, but allowed his protest to die there. Personally, he thought a lot of aspects of his friend's life had been worth hanging onto, and the space program was certainly nothing to sneeze at. "But then I helped you sober up and we became friends. Good friends. When I started leaping into the past, you were my guide - as a hologram. You were the only part of my life I had left." Al took a deep breath. "Children?" Sam blinked. "No. You didn't have any kids." "Good," Al stated sharply, suddenly regaining some of his fire, "because these are my children and my family and my _life_, not some fluke of an experiment." "I realize that," Sam started slowly, but Al cut him off. "And it's not what was or will be or should have been, it's what _is_. I love my family and I enjoy this life and I don't want to hear that it's something that could be taken away from me without my ever knowing I had it." He lifted the rear chair legs off the floor, slamming them back against hardwood, the sharp crack an added emphasis to his words. Sam winced. "Al, I know you're upset, but neither of us can change the fact that time is malleable. No, a week ago, this wasn't your life, but that doesn't make it any less valid because, for you, a week ago it was. Don't overestimate the influence of facts." "Don't lecture me, Sam Beckett," Al snapped. "It's not your life that's been turned inside out." Sam stood up, suddenly angry. "Don't tell me that! For five years, my life has _always_ been turned around and confused! And then I leaped into Jake and you _lied_ to me! Do you have any idea how much that hurt me? The only person I could depend on and you lied. Sometimes it felt like you were the only one back home who gave a damn about me and you couldn't trust me enough to tell me the truth. When I found out she was your wife and when I talked to you...the look in your eyes broke my heart and I understood at that moment that everything you've gained in this life had been taken away! I thought I'd done what was right and, maybe if you'd argued just a little bit harder when I did what I thought I was supposed to do and I was still there and I still told you `no', then maybe I would've felt better. But you didn't. I never forgot how much you loved her. So when I went back again, I told her. It was a gift, Al." For the first time, Al broke the connection and dropped his gaze. "And she didn't betray you, either," Sam resumed, more quietly. "If you could have seen how she was hurting... She didn't do it because she didn't love you - she did it because she couldn't take not knowing. Do you think just telling her you were alive would have convinced her to hang on for that much longer if she didn't want to believe it? It's a terrible burden to hold faith by yourself. That was something you'd understood, too, because you never lost faith that I would come home; sometimes I think you were the only one, because sometimes even I felt..." He trailed off. That was an emotion he couldn't share with this man. Al still didn't respond and Sam sighed deeply, regaining his emotional footing. "It was a gift, Al. Because you deserved it and so did she." Al looked back up, and this time, instead of accusation and hurt, his eyes held gratitude. Just a little, but it was there. "Where is she?" he asked quietly. "She went out looking for you because she was upset and worried about you," Sam replied. "But her car's still here." "You didn't drive," Sam pointed out. "And you let her go? What on earth was she thinking?!" Al ranted. Sam was startled and a little taken aback. "Al, what?" "You let a woman go out, on her own, at night, on foot, outside of New York City?!" Al started to pull his jacket back on. Sam felt himself pale. "I..." "How long ago did she leave?" With a tangible problem to deal with, Al seemed much more in control than he had just a few minutes ago. Sam never had the chance to answer the question, because Al opened the door and Beth stumbled into his arms and started crying.