"Off the Beaten Path" pt. VII June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM Beth paced. Al had come out of the Imaging Chamber, locked himself in his office, and stayed there all day. The time for Sam's reason for leaping was drawing nearer and nearer with every passing minute and even Ziggy seemed to be worried. It was now two hours before Daniel Geller was found dead, shot twice through the heart. Whatever was bothering Al, he'd never let it get in the way of taking care of Sam, and it was this she was banking on when she ordered Ziggy to unlock his door. Once the computer had conceded (when had it ever really bothered her to invade someone's privacy anyhow?), Beth burst into his office. She didn't know why she was so scared of what she might see, but all that met her eyes was a stack of papers, and Al mulling over them with a calculator. At first glance, it appeared like any other day at PQL. At second glance, she noticed the dark rims under his eyes (not in itself surprising seeing as he'd still refused to sleep), the suit that was beginning to crease, and his hair, where curls had exerted themselves through his running his hands through them. He barely seemed to notice her presence, and she felt her heart start to beat faster. Why had she let him banish himself from everyone else for so long after that terrible incident in their quarters? She should have talked more to him, made him talk to Verbena, _something_. "Al, Sam is going to need you soon. He's only got a couple of hours left and Ziggy says he's been in Nant for some time." Al glanced up from behind the desk, but didn't register her presence. "Al?" she said again, prompting him. "You're right," he agreed suddenly, launching to his feet. "I've got to go stop him." Beth snagged his arm as he passed by. "What?" she demanded. He jerked around, turning an inexplicable rage on her. "Let go," he said sharply. She released her hold on him, her eyes becoming moist with confusion and hurt. He softened visibly at the sight and stepped forward to envelop her in a crushing embrace. "I'm sorry, baby, I'm so sorry. You know that I love you, don't you?" She nodded, still clinging to him. She felt as if the were at the edge of something very large and very threatening and the question of Al's state of mind plagued her. "You know I always have and always will, right?" "Al, you're scaring me," she whispered. He pulled away and kissed her once. "Sorry," he said again. "I never meant to hurt you." He turned to go, but she held him back again, this time with words instead of with hands. "Al? You are coming back, aren't you?" "Of course." "Will...I still be here when you do?" He smiled softly at her. "Absolutely. I didn't mean to scare you...I just..." He shook his head, as if uncertain of his own position. She swallowed, and then nodded at him. Whatever was wrong, he'd figured it out already and all she could do was wait until he decided to tell her, and be there for him, as Verbena had said. "It's okay. Go." ^----^----^----^----^ May, 1988 Nant, NC "Sam, we gotta talk." "I'll say," Sam agreed. He was sitting in his car out in the parking lot of a motel, looking drained. "I finally got here, by the way. She's not here." "Not anymore," Al agreed. He looked tense, as if afraid of being caught in a lie. "You okay, Al?" Sam asked, mainly for form's sake, as he knew Al would not tell him if he wasn't. "Sure, kid." He still didn't meet the scientist's eyes, though. Sam let it pass for the moment. "Ziggy gave me the wrong directions to get even here, you know? Doesn't she know right from left?" "Uh, she says...what? She says *reck* is right and *link* is left. Ah, apparently it's _me_ who doesn't know right from left." "Lemme see," Sam said, and Al tilted the handlink to face him. "*Recht*," he corrected. "It's German. Tell her we're amused." "Uh-huh," Al said absently, still fiddling with the link. "Tell her we're also running out of time. We've got to find Evelyn." "Yeah, that's what I came to talk to you about. You see, Danny dies in this little dive about ten minutes from here." "Yes?" Sam prompted, when Al stopped. "And you can't go." Sam froze, then turned to stare at Al. "You've _got_ to be kidding." "No," Al said, still staring at the 'link. "Why?" Finally, Al looked up at him, and Sam flinched, though he couldn't really say why. "Because, if you do, you'll die." Sam was momentarily struck speechless. "That's why you're here, Al, to make sure history doesn't repeat itself." His voice unconsciously became smooth and reassuring. It didn't appear to be helping. "Besides, Danny dies whenever he shows up at the bar, right?" Al shook his head. "No, Sam. It was just sorta a fluke thing. It's all timing. If you go there when Eve's there, you die." "Well, isn't that the whole point of going to the bar? Because Eve's there?" "Yes, but you're not going to do her any good if you die." "Okay, fine," Sam said calmly. "What happens if I don't go yet?" "Uh...you don't die." Sam nodded. "What about Evelyn?" Again, he consulted the 'link. "She gets shot instead." Sam frowned. "How does _that_ happen?" Al shrugged, shook the handlink, and sighed. "Oh, a long, complicated series of events take place that wouldn't have if Danny had been there. Someone else gets shot, but not killed, and she ends up in the open and gets it, too. Only she dies." "How's that different from the original history?" Sam asked, trying to piece everything together. "Originally, Danny is shot and killed instantly, Eve apparently does something different enough that the three shots fired after that don't hit anything more than the wall." Sam nodded and started the car. "How do I get there?" "Sam, you can't go." Al's tone was almost pleading. "Don't you get it? If you go, you both die. If you don't, only Eve does. Maybe you were never here to save the both of them. All those things that went wrong with the car and losing the wallet and all, maybe they happened for a reason." "I don't believe that and neither do you, Al." Sam studied him carefully. "When are you going to tell me what's going on?" "You can't go, Sam," Al repeated, stubbornly. "I'm not kidding, Al. Tell me how to get there." Al mumbled something. "What?" "I said, 'no'." Sam was stunned. "What?" he repeated. "No, Sam, I'm not going to send you to be killed. It's ridiculous." Before Sam could say anything else, Al punched out, leaving his partner without direction, without purpose, and without any clue as to what was wrong or how to fix it. ^----^----^----^----^ June, 2000 Stallions Gate, NM "Al, what were you thinking? You can't just let that girl die." Al eyed Verbena, but didn't reply. "At the very least, you can't just leave Sam there without any direction." "What direction is there left to give? If he goes there, he dies. It's that simple." "So you'd sacrifice her? If you know how Danny died, can't you change it?" He fumbled for the right words. "Things like this, they happen real fast. There may not be time to dodge a bullet." Then he frowned, as if his own words were wrong. "Don't you think saving one life is enough?" "No." "Look, Beeks..." He sighed deeply, noting Beth's entrance into the Control Room with despair. Like he needed another bystander. "I don't like this any more than you do, okay? I don't like that sometimes we can't fix it all. I don't like that sometimes things just get messed up and you can't fix them. I _hate_ it!" His voice rose as he went and Beth took another step into the room. She knew. He leaned against the console behind him. He could see it in her eyes: she knew. "Al," she said quietly, "what if Justin had said the same thing about Marina?" Verbena looked curiously at them. She knew Marina was their oldest daughter, but she hadn't a clue who Justin was. "I don't want Sam to die," he said angrily. "I'm trying to protect a friend." "You told Sam the details. It's his decision to make, his sacrifice. Why don't you let him make it?" She looked sympathetically at him. "I know it's hard." "Yeah." He exhaled heavily. "Fine," he said firmly into the resounding stillness. "I'll let Sam make his decision. And I'll do what I can to keep him alive." "Come here," Beth said, leading the way out of the Control Room. The door slid shut behind them and they were alone in the hallway. She took his hand, fingering his wedding ring. "You know I love you, right?" she asked. He smiled slightly, noting that she was saying the same thing to him that he'd said to her earlier in his office. "Yeah, I know." She kissed him. "Good. Remember that." "What if we have to do it all over again?" he asked. She looked steadily at him. "Then we do it all over again. It didn't kill us before; it won't now." Al nodded slightly with all the reluctance of a child trying to avoid carrying out a task. "Then I guess I'd better get this over with." "The sooner, the better," she agreed. "Go ahead. I'll be waiting for you when you get back." Moments later, Al walked into the Imaging Chamber. "Sam," he said quietly to his friend, still sitting in the parking lot, "we'd better get going. We don't have much time." Sam looked up at him and saw what it had cost him to return. He also knew that everything was about to hit the fan.