"Off the Beaten Path" pt. XII June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Al Calavicci exited the Imaging Chamber and took a deep breath. Children... Sam didn't have any, of course, but Al feared it was just a short jump from speculation of children to recollection of Donna. And the request had taken him off guard, too. Sam was the closest friend he'd ever had, and he knew Sam felt the same way about him, mainly because the kid repeated it incessantly. (Every so often, Al felt guilty that he wasn't expressive enough to return the courtesy.) Even so, it had seemed an extremely trusting, unselfish thing to ask, even for Sam. Al shook his head and tossed the handlink on a nearby console. Without pausing, he turned to start snapping orders at Gooshie to hopefully figure out why Sam hadn't leaped. Instead, he found Beth waiting for him. "Al, what's going on?" The Control Room was empty except for her, which was odd in and of itself. Normally, Gooshie and Tina were in here, powering down and monitoring. "Sam fixed everything, but he still hasn't leaped." He paused and glanced around the empty room. "Where is everyone?" "They left right after powering down the Imaging Chamber." Her voice was suspiciously soft. She took a step closer, but didn't move to touch him. "How's he doing?" Al attempted a smile, but it failed him. "It was tough on him, but he did okay. The odds are good." She nodded and stepped still closer. "Al, I asked Verbena to give me a minute to talk to you." Warning bells were starting to go off. "About what?" "If you don't get some rest soon, she's going to sedate you." Al flinched. Had he been so out of it that he didn't even realize everyone else was so intent on watching over him? She continued before he could say anything in response; the expression on his face made it clear enough how little that idea appealed to him. "It's been longer than I care to think since you've slept, and you're not doing anyone any good. It's time to face this. When the dreams came back that second time, you said it was because you felt so alone. You're not now." He breathed deeply. "I promised Sam I'd sleep after he leaps." "What does he have left to do?" She seemed to be straining to keep her voice level and passive, keeping all worry and anxiety from her words. Al closed his eyes. "I dunno. He says he does, though." "Will he need you?" *Yes. Just say yes.* "No," Al replied slowly. "I don't think so." "Then why don't you let him handle the rest of the leap on his own?" Her voice was gentle, and just a little too persuasive. "Oh, I couldn't do that, I-" He stopped as he felt her hand on his arm. "Beth..." The word was almost a plea. "Come on, Al," she persisted. "It's time to stop running." She was right. Beth and Sam: they had both been right all along. He was still running, even though he no longer had a reason to. He nodded, opening his eyes slowly. He was so tired... Once the first bit of resolve broke down at that admission, he felt almost powerless to resist the urge to give in. He felt suddenly as if he _had_ been sedated and was actually tempted to check her hands for needles. She smiled at him and, taking his hand, led him all of the way back to their quarters without comment. He barely felt her pull off his shoes and jacket and prod him under the covers. As soon as his head hit the pillow, though, he was wide awake and his stomach was churning. Beth seated herself at the desk and started working. After a moment, she glanced back to see Al watching her and she looked sorrowfully at him. "Go to sleep, Al," she said, her voice a low order. Then she moved across the room and laid down next to him. "Close your eyes," she said gently. "I promise, I'm not going anywhere." It was an irrational fear, he knew, that led him to think she'd be gone when he woke up. She'd be there if he needed her. Beth moved against him, put her arms around him, and held tightly onto him. Once he started, gradually, to relax, she sang softly to him or to herself until he fell asleep. He had no dreams. ^----^----^----^----^ May, 1988 Nant, NC Sam Beckett stood several yards away from the main gate of Project Starbright. It was starting to come back to him - the Marine guard at the door who never had more than a nod for Sam and a salute for Al, the sterile grounds, the strict adherence to rules and regulations... Sam had always found it a rather confining environment and was glad to drag himself (and Al) away to Project Quantum Leap. Starbright, though it had been good for Al's career, had never really been good for Al himself. Neither of them had ever found anyone on staff who they could count as friends (save each other) and those people Al had associated with had been the ones who introduced him to many of the bars along the coast when things had started to get bad for him. Sam himself hadn't liked conversing with anyone other than Al, and even he could be a bit trying in the beginning, before he accepted Sam's help and friendship. He had already seen Al enter the building, however unsteadily. Sam recalled that in the revised history, the alcohol had been less of a problem, but withdrawal, sullen spells of self-induced separation, and some deep hurt that left a jagged scar in his soul had more than taken its place. He didn't try to talk to Al - in fact, he had actually hidden when the admiral arrived. It wasn't Al he needed to talk to. Al had already started in on the bottle that day, though. *It must have been one hell of a nightmare,* Sam thought grimly with an internal wince. He couldn't recall Al telling him about it in any great detail, but that knowledge may have just been resting in one of the holes. He'd so hated to lead Al into it, knowing how painful and shameful a thing it had always been for him. *And still is,* Sam amended with more than a little worry. "Figured out how to get in yet, MacGyver?" Al's voice asked innocently from beside him. Sam jumped violently and turned to face his partner. Al was wearing a deep brown suit, cut in some exotic pattern. A bronze tie shimmered in the light. Al was smiling. "I told you - I'm not going in. And will you _stop_ sneaking up on me like that?" Al seemed satisfied at the remark. "Oh, right. Well what are we doing out here, then?" "Waiting," Sam informed him, craning his neck to keep the gates in view. Then he spared a long gaze at his partner. "How are you doing, Al? I mean, you look..." He faded off, expecting Al to supply an answer, but the admiral just watched him. "Better," Sam finished lamely. "Yeah," Al said, looking at Sam with an expression he couldn't identify, "a good ten hours of sleep'll do that to you." Sam hesitated in spite of Al's relaxed appearance. "And...everything's okay?" "Don't remember a dream at all," Al confirmed with ease. "Thanks to Beth - she's so patient. The woman's an angel." "Well," Sam continued as if it was obvious, "she puts up with you, doesn't she?" Al tilted his head and cast a reprimanding look, mainly for form's sake. Gradually, the look changed and Sam paused. "What?" he prompted. "Thanks," Al said, smiling slightly. "For what?" Sam felt as if he had missed a jump in conversation. "Just...thanks." Then Al pulled out the handlink, cradling it in his left palm. "Ziggy doesn't know why you're still here, but you seem to. You gonna let us in on the secret or make us wait?" Sam's face twisted into a smile. "I was gonna say I'd make you wait, but it doesn't look like I'm gonna get the opportunity." He pointed across the lot to a young Sam Beckett. The scientist was walking slowly towards the main gate, his hair longer than Sam currently wore it and flopping about his ears, giving him an even younger appearance than he already had as the new kid on the block. He was obviously lost in some deep and pressing thoughts, most likely involved in deriving some equation or another. The leaper stepped out into plain view. "Excuse me," he said. His younger self broke from his thoughts and turned in surprise. It was disconcerting seeing himself - much more so than Sam thought it would be. He now understood why Al had tried to avoid being in the Imaging Chamber when Sam had been with "Joseph". He had thought it was just because his younger self was so lost and torn that it would only serve as a painful reminder, but, though that may have been part of it, he now saw that the effect was just plain spooky. Plus it had been so long since he'd looked at _anything_ and seen his own face. "Can I help you?" his younger self was saying. "Yeah, I need a favor," Sam returned. Al was eyeing the exchange curiously. The scientist looked startled and even glanced from side to side as if to assure that this stranger was speaking to him. "What can I do?" The leaper, who had been digging around in his pockets, finally came up with what he was looking for. "Here," he said, holding out the wedding ring he'd found in Al's house and placing it in his younger self's hand. The scientist eyed the ring carefully, then looked back at Sam. "Is this...yours?" he questioned, not comprehending. Sam gestured to the inside of the complex. "No. Not mine." Dr. Beckett fingered the ring curiously, glancing at the inscription. "AJC & EMC - June 23, 1961" Still confused, he tried to hand it back. "Then why-" "Give it to him, will you? Tell him...to let it remind him. And the rest will fall into place." "I don't understand, give it to who?" The leaper glanced at the hologram, who was staring curiously at the ring on his finger, then back at the scientist. "You'll know who I'm talking about. Trust me." The scientist seemed about to protest, then shrugged and pocketed the ring. "Sure, okay." "Thanks." "Kid," Al said aloud to the young man - who couldn't hear him - as he and Sam watched him walk into the building, "you have no idea what you're about to get into." Sam turned to him, his grin wide. "The most incredible adventure with the most valuable friend." "Geez, Sam," Al grumbled. He was about to start talking about "mush" and "sap" and how much he liked to avoid those things in daily conversation when, in a brilliant blaze, Sam leaped.