"Off the Beaten Path" pt. II

June, 2000
Stallions Gate, NM

  Al sat on a swivel chair in the observation deck outside the Waiting Room,
watching his wife console their new visitor. He was definitely the jumpy sort,
this one. Al remembered quite vividly when they'd gone head-to-head over
environmental issues. He also remembered the man telling him months later when
they ran into each other that he had agreed with Al's views, but had to do his
job. Al had been left with a mixture of understanding for his opponent's
position and anger that he hadn't stood up for what he believed.
  Verbena had said that, distraught as Daniel was, and with a memory full of
holes, the chances he would recognize Al were small at least. Nonetheless,
they had both agreed he would stay out of the Waiting Room unless 
necessary. Daniel had never met Beth, though, so she was in there trying
to get him to cooperate while she performed their routine physical. She
worked steadily with him for another 20 minutes, then left the room to
meet Al outside in the hallway.
  "How is he?" Al asked her as they turned to head towards the lab so she
could analyze the blood sample she'd taken.
  "Better than he looks," she replied with a sigh. "He's really scared."
  "I could tell."
  "How's Sam?" she asked, looking sidelong at him.
  "Oh, he's fine. In very good spirits, considering."
  "Considering what?" They turned to enter her lab.
  He looked surprised at the question. "Oh, just everything. Nothing in
  She looked carefully at him. "Are _you_ okay?"
  He shrugged. "Why shouldn't I be?" Al glance up to see her staring at him.
  She ran a hand through her hair. "I asked if you were okay," she reminded
  When she continued to stare, he shrugged again. "Fine, why?"
  She set her samples down on the counter and turned back to him, leaning
against the counter and crossing her arms. "You don't look so well. Are you
  Al frowned and laid one hand on her arm. "Beth, I'm not sick. I  feel just
  "Beth!" he said, laughing. "Honey, you're being paranoid. Maybe _you_
just need some sleep. Why don't you let Verbena take over? Sam's almost
exactly 12 hours difference from us and he's only been there for a few
hours. None of us have adjusted yet." 
  She seemed about to protest, but then sighed. "I am tired," she admitted,
"but that's not it. I can tell when something's off kilter with you, and I
just have a feeling..." She trailed off, then smiled. "Maybe I'm being silly."
  Al kissed her deeply, then cupped her chin in his hand. "Never. You're not
silly. Why don't you catch forty winks and we can talk later, okay?"
  She returned his grin reluctantly. "Okay."
  He watched her leave with a worried glance. She had never acted quite so
strangely before and he hoped some sleep would do her good. Normally, he was
the one who was persistent and overprotective, not her. Al rubbed at his neck
and swallowed a yawn of his own.
  He shook his head, trying to put the memory of the conversation out of his
mind. The conversation, and the creepy feeling it gave him. He was about to
ask Ziggy to call Verbena when she stuck her head in the doorway.
  "Al, where's Beth?"
  He turned in surprise. "She was tired, so I sent her to take a nap. I was
just about to call you - could you finish up the tests for her here?"
  "Sure." She offered a warm smile and stepped into the lab. "How is he?"
  "Which 'he'?" he asked.
  "I was referring to Daniel, but either will do." She started picking through
Beth's data, listed neatly on the form on the clipboard.
  "Sam's doing great. We're still digging up  more data for him. Daniel..." Al
trailed off as the handlink beeped. He pulled it out and gazed at the readout.
  "What?" Verbena prompted.
  "We just got Sam's details. I'll talk with you later."
  The instant Al stepped into the Imaging Chamber, Sam's present coalesced
around him and he found himself exactly where he had been the last time he had
spoken with Sam.
  The leaper was on the phone, his back to Al. "I don't know, maybe a week,
maybe more. Is that going to be a problem?... That's fine... Well, yes, this
is that important... Thank you... Yes, sir, I'll be sure to let you know...
  "Who was that?" Al watched Sam flinch in surprise and smiled slightly. It
was taking more effort on his part to get a tongue lashing from his friend for
sneaking up on him lately. Being annoyed at Al often made the problems of the
leap seem less pressing, and, while Sam didn't seem to realize that was the
intention, the admiral certainly did.
  This one ranked no higher than a passing glare as Sam turned. "Back so
  Al hiked the smile up another notch, shifting it into a gesture of mock
innocence. "Yeah. I've got news for you - we got into the psych records."
  "That's great!" Sam exclaimed, pulling the seat 90 degrees so he could watch
Al without craning his neck.
  "What have you been doing?"
  "You first," Sam prompted. "What do you have?"
  "Well...let's see... Best we can figure, after your wife and daughter died,
you got real closed off. At least, that's the way Evelyn saw it. And you-"
  "Daniel," Sam corrected, beginning to feel disconcerted by Al's lack of
distinction between the two.
  "Right, Daniel," Al agreed readily, a tinge of apology in his tone. "Daniel
was really being overprotective of her. He stopped letting her go out, tried
to restrict her activities... He basically got paranoid about everything she
did. The shrink thought Daniel blamed himself for their deaths and felt he was
smothering Evelyn."
  "So she ran off because she felt stifled," Sam summarized.
  Al paused. "Right."
  "Okay, well, I just took time off from work; now all we have to do is find
  "That's the tough part," Al confessed, fingering the handlink.
  His fidgeting caught Sam's attention and he watched the colorful box for a
moment, lost in thought. Oddly enough, the hardest thing Sam had had to adjust
to after changing things for Al and Beth had not been his references to his
wife or his four daughters. It had not been the wedding ring that now caught
the light, drawing Sam's focus. It hadn't even been Al's more passive manner
when members of the opposite sex were around (though he still did tend to
shoot off a comment or two every so often). It was, interestingly enough, 
the absence of the cigar. It was such a small thing, but it had always
been a constant, and, in a world of endless change, Sam tended to cling to
any constant he could get.
  "Sam?" Al prodded, pulling Sam back to the present. Or the past.
  Sam found himself still staring at the ring and he lifted his gaze to meet
Al's. "Yeah, I've been thinking about that," he resumed, "why can't Ziggy just
lock onto Evelyn?"
  "Well it's not that simple. We're talking a lot of ground here, Sam. She
could be anywhere - she's been gone for months! We've managed to narrow the
search somewhat, but it's still gonna take some time."
  Sam sighed and crossed to the bedroom, clicking open the suitcase he'd dug
out earlier and proceeded to pack. "May as well get started."

May, 1988
Nant, NC

  She wasn't all there when he touched her arm. Hastily, as if afraid of being
caught, Eve shoved the objects into her bag. It wasn't as if she was going to
do anything with them, right? She may have admitted to herself that she was
truly out on the streets on her own and doing something she hated to survive,
but she was still, at heart, a nice girl from a responsible family and she
knew drugs had no potential to improve her situation.
  She'd thought a lot about going home lately, but pride and recollection
of why she'd left kept her here. If her father was controlling before,
imagine what he would be like if she went _back_. She'd also thought a lot
about the number in the pocket of her bag. She hadn't seen Joseph since
he'd given it to her, about a week ago. She was beginning to wonder if she
ever would.
  The man tugged on her arm again. "Hey, baby, wanna take care of me?" he
  She wrinkled her nose in disgust. Loneliness, she could handle, but she
didn't trust drunks. "No, I don't think so." Carefully, she extricated herself
from his grip.
  He frowned at her. "Why not?"
  "Just not up to it tonight, I guess," she replied coolly. She'd seen more in
the past couple months than in the many years before that and this guy didn't
even faze her. It was sad, she reflected, that such tragedy seemed
  "What if I didn't give you an option."
  It wasn't a question, but she still wasn't worried. True, they were outside
alone, but the way his speech slurred together told her that he probably saw
five or six of her. She could make her escape if it came to that. "Sorry," she
offered. She started to reach for her canvas bag, but he picked it up and
clutched it tightly with one hand. "Give me my bag, please," she said, calmly
and clearly.
  "I don't think so, honey," he murmured, taking a step towards her. 
  The movement was deft and secure and, in an instant, she was sure that she'd
underestimated him. In one swift motion, he'd grabbed her wrist. She shrieked,
partly in surprise, partly in terror as reality began to sink in.
  He twisted her hand, slamming her against the wall leaving her too stunned
to even tell for certain if he'd broken her wrist. All she knew was it hurt.
It hurt a _lot_, and it was just the beginning of the drawbacks to a very
dangerous line of work.
  It then became apparent that, thankfully, he wasn't intending to do anything
more to her. A drunken rage had taken over and had now passed, but he did seem
to forget she was there, as if her body was merely an extension of his own. He
dropped the bag, but maintained his grip on her wrist, which was beginning to
send shooting pains up her arm.
  "Hey!" someone yelled suddenly and Eve gasped as her wrist was twisted
again, still firmly in the man's grasp. "What's going on here?"
  Involuntary tears rose in her eyes and flowed down her face as she tried to
pry herself loose. Another jolt made her cry out as a blurry object crashed
into the man, finally convincing him to release her. She tumbled against the
wall again, almost losing her balance completely. She was barely aware of the
sounds of the two, still fighting, next to her.
  Finally, the sounds of conflict ended. "Go find someone else to mess with,
will you?" Joseph's firm voice yelled and she began to feel a little better.
He cursed under his breath, then turned to her. "Okay, come on, let's get you
to a doctor."
  "No doctor," she choked out.
  He sighed and helped her sit on the pavement. "Eve, if that's not taken care
of, it could cause some serious problems." He paused and then took her wrist
gently in his hands. Bone shifted where it was never designed to move and she
choked and bit her lip. He sighed again, more deeply this time. "Won't you
take me up on my offer _now_?"
  "I'll be fine. I just need some aspirin." She blinked back more tears. "What
are you doing here, anyway?"
  He grimaced. "Needed a stiff drink."
  She closed her eyes briefly. "Are things really that bad for you?"
  "Were they really this bad for you?" he countered.
  "I want to go home," she blurted out, surprising herself. "I don't care
about...consequences. I just want to go home."
  He smiled and she realized it was the first time she'd ever seen him smile.
It was a pleasant smile, she decided: sad but gentle. "Come on," he told
her as he helped her to her feet, "let's check you into a hotel, get some
ice on that wrist, and then you can call home."
  "I miss my father," she murmured, as if the thought had been pulled from her
and she was ashamed of it.
  He stopped and gazed quietly at her. "If your father is in the least bit
worthy of that, he misses you more than you could imagine."
  "Why are you doing this?"
  "Doing what?" he asked.
  "Helping me. Why are you so concerned about what happens to me?"
  "That's not really important, is it?"
  She blinked in astonishment. "Yes."
  "Why are you so concerned about my life?" he returned. "You're always asking
me if I have someplace else to be, someone else to be with..."
  "I'm just curious. I mean, even after just a couple months, you get a feel
for people who come to these types of places, you know? Now, your turn."
  "Well...trust me, this is the first time I've done something right. Come
on," he added, draping his jacket around her shoulders. "The sooner we get
going, the sooner you can call your father."
  She gripped his arm. "Thank you," she murmured.
  He seemed about to respond, but then he just turned and led her down the