"Pieces" pt. XI May, 2002 Stallion's Gate, NM Back at the conception of the project, when Sam and Al both spent more time poring over blueprints than anything else, Sam had decided that all the project's labs would have to be sealed off and labelled more top secret than any other location in the underground construction. Al had wisely, he thought, never asked why. It always made it easier to lie to Washington if he didn't know the truth himself. Accordingly, the entire bottom floor of the building was converted for a series of complicated labs, designed for biological as well as chemical purposes. Only the barest number of personel were allowed down there until the point that Sam leaped, whereupon Al had Sam's personal labs sealed off and had Gooshie convert the rest of the floor to find a way to bring Sam home. Whether Sam continued his personal projects in the long-deserted sections, Al had never thought to ask, but the half-finished experiments and ideas for retrieval programs were not abandoned when he returned. It was one of these experiments that Donna and Sam were trying to improve that evening. This particular lab was just a mass of computer monitors, so many that it seemed almost ridiculous, all connected to Ziggy's mainframe. If their failure to retrieve Melana had taught them anything, it was that the method that had snatched Dr. Beckett from time was far from foolproof and would need to be perfected before anyone else was sent back. And Sam fully intended to use Project Quantum Leap again, if not for himself. Swivel chairs (nice ones, Sam had insisted, considering the amount of time he and Al were planning on spending parked in them) were pulled up neatly under each terminal except for the ones the couple were using. They sat at adjacent rows, their backs to each other in spite of the fact that they were both working on the same program. They worked silently, for the most part, exchanging a few words here and there, but primarily letting the information they were inputing control what little communication and discussion they were having. At the moment, Sam felt far more comfortable with the computer. Although they weren't having an argument at the moment, they had had several in the past few weeks and Sam knew they all were strung from their unresolved conversation at the hospital when this whole mess had began. He also knew that, while he had been bending over backwards to resolve things with Al, he had made no such efforts with her and that made him angry at himself. Abruptly, he stopped his work and swung around, staring at Donna. Her back was still to him, but she seemed to sense his gaze. "What is it, Sam?" Sam started in surprise and then sighed. "Donna, I owe you an apology." "No..." she protested weakly, turning to look him in the face. He held up his hand to forestall her protest. "Please, just let me." He felt the tight knot of tension loosen a little and he nodded. "I said some pretty cruel things to you that day in the hospital. You were trying to be completely honest with me and I shot you down. I'm sorry." Her smile was overshadowed with tears and she swallowed them back. This had obviously been bothering her for a while. "Thank you." He grinned then and shoved off the desk leg, rolling over next to her. She laughed at that and he gave her a quick hug. "Are we okay now?" "Yes, I just, well...I feel bad that I-" "Hey!" He put a finger to her lips. "This is my apology, not yours, now don't go ruin my big scene." "Right. But I didn't really mean it. I was just...angry." He squinted slightly at her. "About what?" "It's stupid." "That's okay. I wasn't exactly thinking all that clearly either." She lowered her gaze and he gave her a minute to collect her thoughts. "I spent so much time in hatred and fear, for all those years. And I was angry at myself for..." She paused, groping for the words. "For, well, trying to find an excuse to let hatred win out." "You did what you had to do. And I'm just thankful that _you_ didn't have to do it alone." He hugged her again, longer this time and she relaxed, at peace for the first time in a while, satisfied that one unfortunate event wouldn't ruin everything. "You're pretty perceptive, you know that?" "Well, I knew that-" "Sam!" They both jumped at the cry and at the sound of flesh slapping against the metal of the door frame and turned simultaneously to see Al braced in the doorway, panting from exertion. That and his flushed complexion made Sam wonder if he had run all the way down the stairs. "Sam, I have to talk to you. _Now_." Donna released Sam swiftly with an understanding expression. Al seemed to be taking more and more of Sam's time lately and it was a hard thing for her to take, especially when she had known that this talk they had just had was a necessity for the health of their own relationship. Now, she just squeezed Sam's hand and whispered to him, "Go fix things with the two of you, now." He looked sadly at her and stood. Al looked incredibly upset, Sam thought as he took his friend's arm and led him out of the lab. "Al, calm down. This isn't like you; what's wrong?" Al directed Sam towards a dark corner of the empty lab next door. "Sam, I need your help. I mean, I really do," he choked, his eyes glinting brightly from the dim light streaming in from the hall. Sam wondered if it was tears that made them shine so that it was almost painful to look at them. Sam had only seen Al with this expression once or twice before and it was the sudden recollection of when that he became afraid for the admiral. The scientist strained to keep his words calm and collected. "You know I'll help if I can. Just tell me what's wrong." Al closed his eyes. "I was up in my office, doing some work. Well, trying to, anyhow." He seemed to relax as the narrative went on. "And, I guess I was feeling sorry for myself, too. I've really been on edge lately, you know, Sam. And things just haven't been easy. It's not like I was intending on doing anything stupid; it's just never-" Al's sudden eagerness to defend himself sent Sam's stomach into a downward spiral. "What _happened_, Al?" he demanded, the tension making his pitch rise a little. "I, well, I decided that I needed a break from the paperwork and I really didn't feel motivated to come help you out with your program, and I..." He stopped again and opened his eyes. Sam froze, praying that he wasn't going to say what he sounded like he was building up to. "...I just poured myself one drink." Silence descended and, the feeling confirmed, Sam groaned. "Oh, Al." Contrary to his suspicions when they'd first met, Al was not an alcoholic; there was a major difference between having a drinking problem and being an alcoholic and, luckily, Al fell into the group of the former. To Sam, he represented the difference between a person who couldn't handle his intake and one who wouldn't. And while Sam wasn't fond of Al's occasional drink, he knew it was that difference that kept him from destroying his own life every time he did. Even while leaping, Sam had known this from his first leap when Al had shown up teetering on the edge of being totally soused and then sober the day after. And the day after that (or had it been a week after?). After the stillness became unbearable, Al finished his confession. "I just got this feeling. Sam...I don't think, if I start, I don't think I'll be able to stop." Sam felt his own breathing begin to accelerate at Al's admission and he quickly and willingly took charge as his own memories suffused his mind. Memories of what Al's life was reduced to when he craved the company of a bottle over even that of a woman. Under the circumstances, Al's distress was, to say the least, understandible. Sam pressed Al's shoulder persistantly. "Al? Al, look at me." Slowly, Al raised his eyes to meet Sam's. They looked incredibly tired. "Al, I'm not going to let that happen, okay?" Al let out a heavy breath and nodded slowly. "Now, let's see if we can't substitute booze for sleep." "I'm game." The works were akin to surrender. To Sam, they said "do whatever you want; I just can't do it alone anymore." Sam took Al up to his quarters and scoured the room for hidden liquor. Al watched him, shaking his head. "Sam," he admonished, "it's not as if I've been hiding this from you for weeks; it just happened." "Better safe than sorry," Sam quipped, opening another drawer. While Sam cleaned out the office supply, Al changed and climbed wearily into bed. Sam returned and stood over him. Al grimaced. "You going to tuck me in, Doctor?" "No, but would you like a goodnight kiss?" For the first time since Beth had died, Al smiled a genuine smile. "Aw, Sam, you just turn me all to mush." Sam grinned. "What are you doing?" Al added with a touch of suspicion as Sam curled up in the overstuffed armchair in the corner of the room. "Getting comfortable while you fall asleep." Sam thought Al would protest, but he just rolled his eyes. "Could be a long wait," he warned. "I'll run calculations in my head," Sam replied, nonplussed. Al rolled over, muttering something unintelligible about geniuses. Sam wasn't sure exactly when Al fell asleep because he fell asleep himself. What he did know was that when he woke up, Al was still and peaceful, one arm slung over onto Beth's side of the bed, Sam smiled fondly and left him to his rest. ^----^----^----^----^ April, 2002 Santa Fe, NM She felt faintly dizzy as she arrived in her new host. The world spun sickeningly for a moment and then stopped abruptly as if she had been dropped in from the sky. She was in mid-stride as she walked down a small side street. From the looks of things, it was evening and the sunset was on its way. She stopped and noted that, thought the usual downtown bustle along a main road was evident from her position, she was, for all intents and purposes, done. Across the street, just to the side of a dark alley, a dark-haired woman emerged from a building. Curious and grasping at straws, Melana took off in her direction.