April, 1985
Simpsonville, SC

  "Sam!" Al popped in just to Sam's left. "Her father has her."
  "What?" Sam stopped dead in his tracks. "Al, what are you talking about?"
  Al motioned frantically with his hands. "They're in the car parked a block
and a half east of here. Ziggy just coughed this up, her biological father,
who is not you, kidnapped her. We still don't know what happened to her, but
we should have known that you weren't her father," he added, for Ziggy's
benefit. It was as close to a lashing he could afford to give the computer on
such time constraints.
  "What about the fire?" Sam asked, panting heavily.
  As Al pried the information from the handlink, Sam reached the car and
grabbed for the handle. Catching a glimpse of Ashley in the passenger's side,
he pulled out the man sitting behind the wheel and pushed him up against the
  "Steve!" the man cried in surprise.
  Al hadn't supplied the name of her father, but that didn't matter because
Sam didn't need it. Pushing the man harder, he yelled into his ear, "what do
you think you're doing?"
  "I wasn't gonna hurt her," he whimpered. "I just want my baby back."
  "Steve?!" Behind him, he heard the sound of approaching footsteps and
turned slightly to see Sharon grinding to a halt several feet away. "Greg?
Steve, how did you know?"
  "Get Ashley. Is she alright?"
  Al looked in through the open door. "She seems fine, Sam."
  Sharon crossed to the door and opened it, pulling Ashley out by the hand.
"Steve, he's mentally unbalanced, not homicidal."
  "Sure he is," Al muttered. "Sam, you've got to get to the church!"
  Sam released Greg, uncertain how to handle the situation. "Call the police
and take Ashley back to the house. I've got to go to the church."
  Ashley pressed up against her mother's leg, more confused than scared. The
woman peered at her husband as if he had gone insane. "Steve, you can go in
the morning. You've got to stay and clear this up."
  Al bit his lip and then looked up at his partner. "Sam, the fire's started.
The building will be down to the ground within ten minutes. Leave the nozzle
at the neighbors until the police arrive and get moving!"
  "Yeah, okay, I'm going!"
  "What?" Sharon looked as if for the first time in all this insanity, she
was having trouble dealing with it.
  "I've got to _go_. Lecture me later."
  Sharon extended a hand to Greg. "Come on, dear, let's go inside and clear
all this up."
  Sam started to stop her in shock and amazement but Al stopped him. "Sam,
Ziggy says they're fine, apparantly she knows something about this situation
we don't."
  "Just like Ziggy says Steve's Ashley's father?" he countered sarcastically,
watching Sharon as she led both of them towards the house like two children
instead of a girl and a kidnapper.
  "Sam, _go_!"
  Al's sharp tone broke through the haze that had settled over Sam's brain
and he swung into action, passing the trio on his way back to the car. With
the hologram providing constant directions, he sped down the back roads
without paying mind to traffic rules. The brilliant blaze and the sound of
distant sirens made it an easy matter to locate the church. The damage
already inflicted was incredible, but Sam couldn't spare a moment to mourn
the loss this would mean to those who worshiped here.
  "It's one of the parishoners, Sam. She's this way," Al motioned into the
flames, showing Sam the best way to tread to avoid trapping himself in there.
  "She passed out from smoke inhalation and if you don't get to her soon...."
  "Well, I'm trying, Al." Sam ducked into the building, keeping his eyes on
the bright colors of the handlink, trying to discern which way he was going.
After a moment, Al realized Sam was no longer behind him and he stopped,
panic gripping him.
  "Sam?" he called, peering into the inferno, but of course, Sam couldn't
respond. Finally, eyes still trained on the 'link, he emerged from the smoke.
Al breathed out a sigh of relief that felt easier than it should have in
light of his surroundings. "Sam, she's right over here. Keep her low. That's
  Sam lifted the woman over his shoulder and carried her as gently as he
could out of the building. By the time he exited the building, he could
barely breathe himself and he clung to consciousness with both hands,
desperately reaching out for assistance. Strong hands grabbed him and he
caught a glimpse of a couple of firemen just before he felt the weight of the
woman lifted off of him and he collapsed.

September, 2000
Santa Fe, NM

  "Sam's okay?"
  He looked down at the floor momentarily. "Yeah. He passed out at the end
there, but he's fine. On to the next assignment." The constant motion of the
airport traffic moved around them, but they were both oblivious to it.
  Beth nodded and the uneasy silence fell across them again. He felt as if
there was a huge chasm that had sprung up between them and neither one of
them could cross it without being hurt. "Are you going to be able to retrieve
  Al shrugged, finally looking up to meet her gaze. "Gooshie says it doesn't
look too good. Sam's been gone for a good deal longer than the program calls
for. But either way, it can't be done while he's inbetween leaps and so we've
got to wait." He cleared his throat. "Beth, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I got angry
and I'm sorry I blew up at you. You were right, you know."
  A sorrowful look filled her eyes. "I'm sorry too, Al," she whispered and
tears threatened, but she would not let them fall; he knew that.
  Nonetheless, he pulled her to him, into an embrace that both crossed the
boundary and diffused it's threat. She returned it, accepting both his
blessing and his unspoken offer to help carry some of her load for her. "I
love you, Al," she whispered, her words muffled. She said it and this time,
she meant it. She didn't know if she was _in_ love anymore, but she still
loved him. He didn't say a word, but he pulled her closer until she could
barely breathe.
  "You're one stong woman," he murmured, admiration evident in his tone. "Are
you going to be okay?"
  "I'll be fine. Just promise me one thing."
  Her hands tensed on his back. "Promise me this goodbye isn't forever."
  He exhaled slowly, allowing the sifting emotions and thoughts to fall in
place where they would. "I promise."
  The moments passed and the only thing that changed was their acceptance.
Acceptance of the way things had been and, for Al, the way they had to be.
Finally, he released her, pulling back with a slight smile.
  She swallowed and lifted her bag. "Goodbye," she said softly, her
expression indicating her understanding of the change in him.
  He rested his hands on her shoulders and lightly kissed her forehead. A
flicker of something almost like recognition flashed in her eyes for in
instant, and then was gone. "'Bye," he murmured and turned and left.

-Continued in "In Circles"