CHAPTER FIVE "Sure, Admiral," replied the technician. "It's time for a break anyway." He picked up a small lunch-box that sat incongruously on the sugar- mouse-pink, mint-green and lemon-drop top of the high-tech console, calling out in a louder voice, "You won't be needing me for a while, will you, Ziggy?" A rich, mellifluous, contralto voice emanated from the blue ball, lit with an ever-changing, swirling grey mist, set into the ceiling. "No, Dr Carter. I'll be fine. I'll take yet ANOTHER run through my data banks. I'm bored. There's been so little for me to do this Leap, apart from keeping The Door closed when necessary - and that used one pico-second of my capacity - though it was interesting and educational to observe the Admiral's reactions." Al snorted. "I suppose I could research the Life and Works of John Donne through that so-called computer at Oxford University. Yes, it will be fun disturbing that dignified, old, metal box at the Bodleian Library." "One day, I swear I'm going to take an axe to that mechanical maniac!" Al muttered as he and Dr Carter left the Control Room and caught the elevator up to Level Two. There were a couple of other staff members in the elevator, both wearing lab coats and important expressions, who greeted Dr Carter eagerly. They smiled absently at Al before drawing the young technician into a conversation littered with math so advanced they might have been speaking Swahili for all Al understood, despite his aeronautical engineering degree. Dr Carter raised an apologetic eyebrow at him over their heads and he ground his teeth on the cigar-stub, clamping his mouth shut on the questions that threatened to burst forth. Much to Al's disgust, the White-coats trailed after Dr Carter into the cafeteria, almost pushing him aside in their keenness to continue their unintelligible discussion with the tall young man. Finally, Dr Carter managed to bring the conversation to a close and they wandered off happily to the servery, still speaking Swahili to each other, leaving Al and the young man to look for an empty table. Unlike the Control Room which Sam Beckett had personally designed, the cafeteria, not having had the benefit of his eye for user-friendly furnishings, was drab, functional and grey. However, at this time of the morning it was well populated with Project staff seated at the small square plastic tables, chatting desultorily over weak coffee and flabby, anemic sandwiches and donuts. Several people nodded to the two men as they looked for somewhere to sit; smiling at Dr Carter, frowning at the Admiral, their smiles arrested as they noticed the state of his clothing. Clearing his throat, Al quickly ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his tie. Finally locating an empty table, they sat at opposite sides, Dr Carter placing his lunch-box in front of him. Al promptly forgot his untidy appearance and stared at the man across the table, who was now grinning broadly, eyes sparkling greenly. "My God!" Al exclaimed. "You look just like Helen when you smile like that! It's incredible." He smacked himself on the forehead with the heel of his hand. "How could I have been so blind? I can't believe I didn't realise who you were! You've got the same build as Sam, the same hair - though it's lucky you don't have that white streak, that would have been a dead giveaway - even the same nose! But your eyes," he waved his cigar-stub at the youthful figure before him, "now they're pure Helen." He rocked back dangerously in the flimsy, plastic chair. "To think I was worried about you and Tina!" He gave a crack of laughter. Then the chair rocked forward. "You're not - um," he gestured expressively with the cigar-stub, "with Tina, are you?" "No, Admiral, I am not," replied Sam's son emphatically, eyes still twinkling. "I think she's quite happy with Gushie - not that what she chooses to do is any of your business." "Now you SOUND like your father!" growled Al. He shook the cigar- stub. "Don't you start in on me, you wise-ass kid. I remember you in diapers, so don't think you have the right to tell me what is or isn't my business just because you're all grown up." "I was out of diapers at eighteen months and you didn't know me 'til I was four-and-half, so don't think you can pull that one on me, either, Admiral Al," came the quick, laughing reply. Al stopped glaring. "'Admiral Al'. God, that brings back memories. You always called me that. Annoyed the pants off me at first being a lieutenant-commander, but I got used to it pretty quick. I almost missed it when I left the Air Force base and went back home." Al fell silent as he remembered the exact manner of his leave-taking with Helen. "I could do with a coffee," said the younger man, rising quickly. "Would you like one?" He pushed his lunch-box over to Al without waiting for a reply. "Here, try one of these while I get us some. Everything in here tastes as though its made from Ziggy's spare parts, so I bring my own stuff." He threaded his way quickly through the tables in the direction of the servery. Al watched the retreating figure, absently opening the lunch-box. The kid even walked like Sam Beckett - that is the Sam Beckett he remembered from their first days at the Project - not the bowed and shuffling man of recent months. Not that Sam had been like that this morning. He'd strutted like a kid after his first time. That was Helen's doing. She'd had a similar effect on him, too, helping him find peace and rest and laughter - for a short time. Though it hadn't been a great, engulfing fire - more a sort of warm glow - and when she'd sent him away he'd twisted everything she'd done for him with guilt. He took a muffin out of the lunch-box and bit into it, his mind still in the past, regretting words he had spoken in anger and humiliation to a woman who hadn't deserved them. If only he could apologise - properly - so she could hear him. The flavors of the muffin, rich chocolate combined with tangy orange, permeated his taste buds. He realised how hungry he was and finished it quickly, relishing its soft freshness. He'd eaten hardly anything over the past couple of days, surviving on limp, plastic- flavored pastrami sandwiches and cups of flavorless coffee, which he'd snatched in between sessions of alternately pleading with Ziggy to let him into the Imaging Chamber and raging at the computer, threatening him with every form of destruction under the sun in an attempt to force him to open The Door. Of course, nothing had worked. Ziggy had remained calm and logical, countering everything he said or did with sane, reasoned comments that had frustrated him even more. He took another muffin and began to eat it as the figure which looked so much like a younger version of his best friend came back to the table. A cup was placed in front of him. "Black is right isn't it, Admiral Al?" said the other man as he sat down. "Yeah, sure. You remember well." He took a sip of the hot liquid and grimaced. He might as well be drinking hot water. He looked up at the white-coated youngster. "'Sammy-boy'! That's what I used to call you!" "Yeah," replied Dr Carter with a wry face. "That may be okay for someone who's four-and-a-half, but not for someone who's twenty-one! Just Sam is fine." "And Helen called you 'Samson'." Al laughed as he suddenly understood a joke that was twenty-one years old. "How are the muffins?" asked Sam, propping his elbows on the table, hiding his mouth behind clasped hands. "Sensational! I haven't had any as good as these since your Mom's." The penny dropped. "These ARE your Mom's." It was a statement, not a question but Sam nodded, eyes glinting. "These are fresh." Again a statement, again Sam nodded. "Helen's not in Virginia?" Sam shook his head. "She's here - at the Project!" Sam shook his head again. "Then she's somewhere nearby - at...at Destiny?" Eyes alight with mischief, Sam pointed at Al with one hand and put the forefinger of the other on the end of his nose, saying, "Bingo! You got it Admiral Al!" Al stuck his cigar-stub in his mouth, reached out and yanked the taller man over the table by the lapels of his lab coat, grating into the face about three inches from his own, "Don't play with me, Sammy-boy. I want the address. Now." Some of the other diners turned around to stare at the two men. Sam quirked one dark eyebrow and waited. The word, "Please," escaped with difficulty through Al's clenched teeth. "No problem," said Sam, chuckling. "I've got to get back to Ziggy, anyway. I'll have him program your car with the route to Mom's." Al let him go and he picked up his lunch-box. "You're behaving like a typical four-and-a-half year old, Sammy-boy," growled Al as they headed out the cafeteria to the elevator. Sam threw back his head and laughed. "I never WAS a typical four- and-a-half year old, so I can't possibly behave like one." "No, I don't suppose studying human biology, calculus and physics is typical of a four-and-a-half year old. Nor is translating Italian, Japanese and Welsh on that computer in your bedroom. AND you kept giving me advice on how to get round your Mom." "Don't call it a computer where Ziggy can hear you. He'll blow a circuit. According to him, it's like comparing a Neanderthal with Albert Einstein. He calls it 'that stupid pile of chips'. I can't think where he can have possibly picked up that phrase, can you? Hey, do you remember the day we met? Mom had FINALLY invited you home for dinner. You should have seen your face, it dropped a mile when this little kid opened the door." "I sure do. Your Mom spent the entire meal laughing as I tried to deal with a four-year-old genius who insisted I'd make admiral one day!" The two men caught the elevator down to Level Ten and walked back to the Control Room reminiscing comfortably. As they turned through the doorway, Sam said, "Ziggy, program Admiral Al's car with the route to Mom's, please." He swung the lunch- box up onto the computer's console. "Sure thing, bro'," replied the contralto voice. Al was unable to believe his ears. "WHAT did you say, Ziggy?" "'Sure thing, bro'. It means, 'I will comply with your request, brother'," said the computer. The Admiral had obviously failed to interpret the phrase correctly. "I know what it means! I just don't believe you said it. 'Bro'?" Al queried again, to Sam. Before Sam could reply, the computer answered, "Yes, Admiral. Since Dr Beckett created both myself and Dr Carter, I consider him my sibling and, therefore, give him the current vernacular, or slang, designation of 'Bro'." Sam raised an amused eyebrow and shrugged. Al closed his mouth. Then muttered, "Stupid pile of wires and chips!" Ziggy had become used to hearing the Admiral use such derogatory terms over the last couple of days and therefore ignored his remark, merely saying politely, "Your car has been programmed with the route for the last thirty seconds, Admiral." Sam put his arm around the older man's shoulders and walked with him to the door. "I missed you a lot after you left. I know you weren't with us very long, but you were the nearest thing I ever had to a Dad. Thanks, Al." Al stopped at the door and gave him a hug, saying gruffly, "And you were the nearest thing I ever had to a son." He studied Sam's face with shrewd brown eyes. "You're going to get your father back, aren't you?" "I sure am - with a little help from Ziggy." "I am unable to calculate the precise time of Dr Beckett's return." The computer sounded a little irritated. "There are too many unknown factors. However, it IS known that my brother" - Al snorted - "will enter the Accelerator and successfully Leap into the past. I, therefore, theorize Dr Beckett will Leap into the Retrieval Chamber at the precise moment his son Leaps out of the Accelerator." "Leaps out," repeated Al slowly. "So that's how it's going to be done. You're going to take over from Sam - your father - and Leap instead." "Yes, Admiral Al," confirmed Sam. Al nodded thoughtfully. "Just a minute, you said 'theorize', Ziggy. You mean you don't know for certain?" There was a momentary pause. "No, Admiral," replied the computer grudgingly, as if it hated admitting it wasn't omniscient. "Humph!" Al looked at Sam. "But you know for sure that you'll Leap back in time?" "Oh yes, that's an absolute certainty." Al's expression became very serious. "You do realise what you'll be taking on, don't you?" "Yes, I do." Sam saw the concern in Al's eyes. "Don't worry about me, I'm much better prepared my father was. In fact, I can hardly wait! I've been studying the data Ziggy has on Dad's Leaps in preparation for entering the Accelerator, whenever that might be - not much longer, I hope." "But what if your brain gets Swiss-cheesed like your father's? You won't remember any of it." Sam shrugged. "I don't think it'll matter." Al still looked worried. "Look, Al, if it wasn't meant to be, then why am I here? I've been working towards this all my life. I was bred for it." Sam gave a little laugh. "Only don't put it that way to Mom. She says it makes her feel like a prize brood mare!" Al was not entirely convinced but the mention of Helen reminded him how much he wanted to see her again. "I've gotta go. There are some things I need to sort out with your Mom. WE'LL talk some more about this later." He gave Sam one last, searching look, then nodded his head. "Your Mom did a good job on her own. You turned out okay, kid." The two men hugged each other again, then Al was off down the corridor to the elevator. Sam went slowly back into the Control Room, asking Ziggy to call his Mom. An image of Helen appeared on the large vid-screen located on one wall. "Admiral Al's on his way, Mom. You'd better get a decent pot of coffee ready." * * * * * Al stood at the door of the smart new condo and tried to ring the bell. His hand almost reached the button before it stopped, and he found himself halfway back down the path to his Ferrari. Having broken every speed limit to get to this particular address, he was finding it harder to ring the doorbell than it had been to fly through half a dozen enemy guns in 'Nam. Until three days ago, across all the intervening years since he'd flung himself into his convertible and left her sitting silent on the old swing-seat on the porch, he'd managed not to think of Helen at all. He'd driven away from the little house as fast as he could, and kept going. He'd driven for hours, stomach churning with anger and mortification, convincing himself he'd been used. Eventually, he'd switched on the radio in an attempt to fill his ears with sounds other than the now hated voice of a woman saying she didn't love him. As the music drowned out the voice, he'd pulled off the road because, for some inexplicable reason, the car suddenly veered, the wheel jumping out of his hands. He'd needed a smoke and couldn't get the damn lighter to work. Finally, he'd managed to light his cigar and listened while Ray Charles told Georgia she was on his mind. By the end of the song he knew exactly who and what he wanted, who he'd really wanted all along. He'd switched off the radio, pitched his cigar-butt and all memories of Helen out the window and headed straight for home, praying Beth would be there waiting for him, as she'd waited for him once before, hoping he'd have the guts to meet her eyes. And now he was trying to find the guts to face the woman that, in his mind, he'd turned into a marriage-wrecking, heartless monster! "This is ridiculous," he muttered as he turned and marched up the path again. He chewed frantically on an unlit cigar - no smoking in Helen's home. "I feel like I did when I had to go see Mother Augustine at the orphanage after Sister Thomas Aquinas caught me smoking in the boiler-room. Dammit, I am no longer in the third grade, I'm an Admiral of the American Navy!" Finally screwing up enough courage, he stabbed at the button. It had an old-fashioned, melodious chime. He nervously straightened his bootlace tie for the tenth time since arriving at the condo, thanking heaven he'd thought to duck into his quarters to shower and change before racing out of the Project to his car. Footsteps were nearing the door. Panic, like an icy wave, drenched him. *Oh God! It's nearly eighteen years since I saw her. How am I going to apologise for behaving like a complete slimeball?* The door opened and there was Helen, her face aglow with one of the beautiful smiles he remembered so well. "Hello, Al," came the warm, lilting voice. She looked the same, exactly the same. Then he noticed her hair was cut differently, smoother, shorter, although it was the same glorious dark-red, and her skin no longer had the youthful bloom he remembered. It was more delicate and he detected subtle lines around her eyes - laughter lines he was glad to note - but her eyes, her eyes were still the clear grey-green that had fascinated him so much. She was dressed in the casual way he remembered she preferred; belted jeans, which he could have sworn were the same size as those of nearly twenty years ago, and a soft blue chambray shirt, its collar open and sleeves turned back at the wrists. Still no rings on the slender fingers, but a gold chain around her neck and heavy, engraved, half-hoop gold earrings added an air of maturity and sophistication her younger self had lacked. "Would you like to come in?" she inquired, eyes twinkling as they had of old. "Or are you going to stand there like a store dummy all day?" She gave him another smile, then turned and walked with the long, graceful stride down a short passage. Al followed, nearly tripping over the doorstep in his haste, and found himself in an open-plan living area. The interior of the apartment was a complete contrast to the homely little house where he had last seen her. It was cool, airy and modern with light lime-washed furniture, offset by bright cushions in aquas, blues and greens and vases of tall grasses and dried flowers on low tables. There were a couple of good prints on the walls, depicting impressionist interpretations of fields of flowers in the same aquas and greens of the cushions. Through a wide, sliding glass door, he caught sight of a sparkling swimming pool surrounded by palm trees. The smell was the same, though. Helen's house always smelled good; fresh coffee mingled with other tempting aromas, hot bread, cookies, muffins or biscuits. His own home never had, Beth hadn't had time to bake. The scent of coffee and something else, something savory he couldn't quite place, tantalised his nose now. His stomach rolled and heaved like an ultralight in turbulence. Was that due to hunger or the jitters? He decided to leave that question unanswered. Helen brought a couple of blue, potbellied mugs to the lime-washed dining table where a coffee plunger already sat. Al watched, rolling his cigar in his fingers, remembering his final, angry words the last time they'd met. "For Pete's sake, sit down, Al," said Helen, waving at a chair as she pulled out one for herself. "You're making me nervous." He hurriedly sat in the chair opposite and found his voice. "You! Nervous - never! I've never seen you look nervous. Scared a little, maybe, but not nervous." Helen laughed as she poured the coffee, then looked at him over the rim of her mug. He was a little more grey than when she had known him, a few more lines drawn on the time-battered face. She wondered if any of them were due to her. The aroma of the coffee beckoned but Al ignored his mug, drinking in the sight of Helen instead, not quite believing she was really there after so many years - looking so GOOD after so many years. All his clever lines deserted him and he had no idea where to start. "You look - incredible," he finally managed to blurt out, waving his cigar in circles, hoping it would express what he seemed incapable of vocalising. For once, she let the exaggerated compliment go, saying simply, "Thank you." Her mouth twitched as she sensed his uncertainty, knowing he needed to make peace and knowing just as well that he hadn't the slightest notion how to begin. Silence fell again. Helen became more amused as Al shifted uneasily in his chair. She'd better help him out a little. "You look a little different from the last time I saw you, Al. Your clothes, I mean." She indicated the dull gold suit, shimmering gold shirt and black bootlace tie. "It was dress whites the day we said good-bye. You knew I was a sucker for the uniform." "SAID good-bye! That's not how I remember it." He'd dressed so carefully that day, banishing a faint, nagging doubt further away with every starched, crisp item of uniform, every gleaming accessory he'd put on. By the time he'd settled his commander's cap at exactly the right angle on his carefully brushed hair, he'd persuaded himself he was making the right decision and that there was no way Helen of Troy would refuse him, never mind Helen of Truro. As soon as she'd opened the door he'd known the dress whites wouldn't make the slightest difference. She hadn't even let him in the house. Pride had kept him going. She'd tried to stop him, but he wouldn't listen. He'd even gone down on one knee like a lovesick Romeo. Godammit, he knew she loved him, could see it in her eyes, but her voice, so cold and hard, cut him to ribbons. 'Go away, Al, I don't love you enough. If I can't have Sam's father then I don't want anyone. It was fun, but it was just sex. You don't love me. Go back to your wife. I don't want you.' He'd been prepared to give up everything including his family, had cheated on his wife, only to be told it was 'just sex'. He couldn't believe he'd been such a fool. He'd jumped furiously to his feet and told her exactly what he thought of her. If she couldn't forget, if she wanted to be alone for the rest of her life, that was her problem. He washed his hands of her and her brat of a son. She'd sat on the old swing seat, shivering a little in the cold, and taken everything he'd thrown at her. She hadn't flinched, not once - making him madder than ever. Despite the love and pain he could see in her eyes, he'd listened only to her voice and convinced himself she didn't care, had never cared, and stormed off. And she called it saying good-bye! "I don't remember using the word 'good-bye' - not once - though I used a heck of a lot of others! It was more along the lines of, 'You used me and made me cheat on my wife!' and me doing a lot of name calling before disappearing into the sunset without even a backward glance!" The words tumbled from him. "I was so full of wounded pride! How could you turn me down? Me! The Great Calavicci! I was such a prize, too - a drunken, washed-up jet jock. Totally irresistible!" The plunger and mug leaped in the air in surprise as his fist hit the table. "What a conceited, arrogant bastard I was!" Helen put down her coffee and gently uncurled the fist with both hands. "You were trying very hard not to be a drunk, Al, and you were definitely not conceited or arrogant. Quite the opposite, in fact. Your self-esteem had already taken a hammering by Beth apparently not needing you. I think I smashed it about a hundred meters underground that day. I'm not surprised you reacted as you did. As far as you were concerned, you were offering me everything and I stupidly turned you down because of someone you considered a delusion - this man who would one day come back for me. You didn't know it was Sam Beckett - who'd had no choice about leaving - and not some snake who'd used me and then deserted me and my baby. "You also have to remember that I KNEW you had to leave. You had to help Sam build the Project. From the day I decided to take the path that led to Sam - and you - I knew you wouldn't be able to stay. I'd had a long time to prepare for it, Al. I didn't want to hurt you, but it was necessary. And I hurt you SO much. I'm sorry, Al." It had been incredibly difficult to watch him leave and say nothing, he'd been so angry and miserable, his face as white as his uniform, his brown eyes as hard and bright as the medals on his chest. It had almost been harder than watching Sam go; there had been nothing she could do about that. Al she could have called back with a single word. Al shook his head, denying his pain had given him the right to behave the way he had. "No, Helen. I -" "Hush a while. I have some more I want to say. I want you to know I was - am - intensely proud you loved me and my son enough to ask us to be your family. I loved you - I still love you - more than any man I've ever met - except one. But I also want you to know that, even if your path in life could have allowed you to marry me, I still wouldn't have accepted your offer. Part of what I said that day was true. If I can't have Sam, I don't want anyone." Helen's eyes were dark, very serious and worried, afraid she might be hurting him all over again. Yet her gaze never wavered and Al felt her determination to make him see the truth. "It's okay," he reassured her, squeezing her hand. "I understand that now. I understood this morning when I was in 1977 with you and Sam. I've seen the way you look at each other. You two belong together - body and soul." He smiled as he repeated her own words. Relief replaced the worry and green flecks danced in her eyes. "Sam and I aren't the only ones who belong together. You didn't want me at all, did you?" "No, Helen." Yes, he had. From the second he'd laid eyes on her. Their relationship hadn't been the way guilt made him remember it. He hadn't needed seducing. In fact, if anyone had been reluctant, it had been Helen. Pheromones had a lot to answer for. They - and the need to prove to himself that someone wanted him even if his wife no longer did - had sent him chasing after Helen faster than a mink after a muskrat. "That's not true. I did. And I came to care for you, too - but not like I care for Beth. She holds my heart. Thank God you sent me back to her." "She works at the Project as well, doesn't she? Samson said he'd met her." Al smiled as Helen used the old nickname for her son. "Yes, she's part of the Med Team." "Samson says she's lovely - inside and out." Even though the glossy brunette head now shone with a few silver threads, Beth was still beautiful. Al heaved a contented sigh. "That's my wife - as gorgeous as the day I married her." "When can I meet her, Al? I'm dying to meet the keeper of your heart. She must be a very special lady." Al's bootlace tie suddenly felt as though it was choking him. "You want to meet Beth?" he croaked. His expression was one of such comical dismay, Helen had a hard time swallowing a laugh. "Oh, Al. You didn't ever tell her, did you?" Al withdrew his hand from Helen's and ran his finger under a collar that had become way too tight. "I - I couldn't. I just COULDN'T. Every time I tried I'd see the love and trust in her eyes and - and the words just stuck in my throat." The guilt he felt at actually having done 'it' with another woman had been bad enough, but the thought of seeing Beth's expression change to one of hurt and betrayal and disgust had been unbearable. He could no more tell her of his infidelity than he could fly to the moon without a rocket. Helen recaptured his hand. "My dear Al, if Beth loves you as much as you love her, do you really think she'd have cared what you'd done? You went back to HER. And don't tell me you only went home because I told you to. You didn't have to go home. No, Al, even if I'd agreed to marry you, I don't think you and Beth would have made it to the divorce courts. I think you'd have worked out for yourself who you really loved long before then. I just speeded things up a little." She gently rubbed her thumb across the plain gold ring he wore on his third finger. "You never took it off, you know." Yes, he had. On that last day, he'd finally done it, swearing because it was jammed on so tight, intending to flush it down the john. But he hadn't quite been able to bring himself to throw it away and had thrust it into his pants' pocket, where he'd found it when he'd searched for his lighter while listening to Ray Charles in the car. That's when he'd realised what road he was on, realised he'd unconsciously taken the route for home as soon as he'd backed out of Helen's drive and was already more than half-way there. He hadn't been able to ram the ring back on his finger fast enough. But he still didn't want to tell Beth about Helen. Helen suppressed a sigh as she saw the reluctance in his eyes. Beth was going to have to find out sometime. "You don't have to tell her about us straight away, but I'd really like to meet her, Al. Think about it at least." He slowly nodded his assent and she decided she had pursued the matter as far as she could. She patted his hand. "Now, tell me about your girls. I know they must be all grown up now, but I can't imagine them. I still see them as they were in your photo. They were all so pretty." "They still are, they take after Beth," Al said proudly, relieved the talk had turned to a safer subject. "So start with Libby, she's the oldest, isn't she?" "Yes, she's twenty-three now and looks just like Beth at the same age. She wants to be an interpreter at the UN. She has a real gift for languages - could speak fluent Spanish within six months of Inez coming to help out at home. She used to insist Sam speak only Spanish to her - and she can swear in Italian better than I can. She's been going steady for the past year with this Hungarian student and the last time she was home she kept calling me 'Dahlink Daddy'. I'm waiting for her to tell us she wants to change her name to Zsa-zsa." Al rolled his eyes and Helen laughed. "Let's see, who's next?" he continued. "Sharon? No, no - she's only twenty so it must be Ruth." "Of course it's Ruth, Al, and she'd be twenty-two now. She was the one with the cute plaits. You said she was desperate for a pony. What's she - a veterinarian?" "No, she decided at the last minute she liked people more than horses after all and switched to medicine. She's at Stanford, studying real hard. She never took much notice of boys - always preferred horses - but I think all that human physiology must have got to her at last 'cos she brought home a med student last holidays. Benny Goldman his name was - father owns a funeral parlor - and I think they were doing a lot more than studying the THEORY of human reproduction from the noises coming from her room." "You sound as though you didn't entirely approve of the practical nature of their studies, Al. That's not like you - from what I remember." "Oh no. She's twenty-two - it's about time. I was beginning to think there was something wrong. Though you can never quite imagine your own kids... No, it's not that. It's..." Al shifted a little as though uncomfortable. "It's the way their faces light up when these guys walk through the door. They used to light up the same way for ME. It's hard." He gave a rueful grin. "Beth says I have to learn to let go." Helen smiled. The green-eyed monster had raised its ugly head in their relationship, too. Al sighed. "I've had to let go of Sharon already. She's married - with two kids." "Two children? Already?" "Step-children - both boys. We don't think it'll be long before she announces we're going to be real grandparents, though. Yeah, she got married about a year ago. It's not quite what Beth and I had anticipated but Mike's a nice guy - much older. Their house is total chaos - and she's happier than a pig in mud. All she ever wanted to be was a Mom. And she started practicing real young when Maxine came along." "Maxine? Ah, yes. Samson said you have four daughters now." "Yeah. Maxine's our youngest. She's the surprise package that turned up about fifteen months after I went home to Beth. And what a package she turned out to be. She was born with dark hair like the rest of 'em but within a year it had changed to blonde. Blonde! How could Beth and I have a blonde kid? If I didn't know any better I'd say Beth slipped one in on me, but Beth says Maxine might not look like me, but she sure acts the same!" Helen laughed. "Let me guess. She has a one track mind?" "You got it. Boys. She never wanted a Barbie - she only wanted Ken. I think she hit puberty at about nine. Ever since then there's been a parade of boys tramping through the house after her - big ones, little ones, fat ones, skinny ones, jocks, nerds, white, black, yellow, red with blue spots - she's completely indiscriminate - and as far as I'm concerned they're all unsuitable and she's way too young. She brought home a marine once. A MARINE! I've never seen a marine retreat faster than that one when I told him how old she was! I don't think she'll get to see her sixteenth birthday, I'll have strangled her before then. Sweet sixteen? Not Maxine. She's a little spitfire! She's more trouble than the other three put together. She won't study and scrapes through her grades - and she's probably the brightest of the lot. I get so mad - and then we fight. Luckily Beth calls a truce before it's all- out war and negotiates peace-talks, usually by giving us both a good talking to. Then it's kiss and mak up time and it's quiet again - until one of us breaks the treaty conditions. Beth tells me I should be a little more understanding and try to remember what I was like at fifteen. I DO remember - that's what has me so worried!" "Sounds like Beth has her hands full dealing with you two." "She's an angel. She has more tact and patience than Henry Kissinger. She says we should be grateful that at least Maxine brings these kids home for us to see, and she reckons half the time Maxine brings them for just that reason - so I can see 'em and go into orbit!" "It also sounds like Beth is a very wise woman. So -" "So enough of me and my family," Al interrupted quickly, guessing Helen was going to ask about meeting Beth again. He smiled a little apologetically. "Tell me how you managed all this time. It must have been hard on your own." "Sometimes it was, but that was mainly just after Sam had gone - before I met you," she admitted slowly. "Sometimes I wanted to run away and pretend I'd never met Sam Beckett, that one day I'd meet a nice, ordinary guy who WOULD be able to stay with me." She gently stroked one of the gold earrings with her finger. "I fantasized about being a wife and mother, about being the same as everyone else - but whenever I imagined the guy he always had Sam's face. Other times I wanted desperately to go find him - the young Sam in my time, I mean. I got as far as the Mail Office once, searching frantically through phone directories looking for 'Becketts', intending to ring every single last one of them until I found him, or a relative, or SOMEONE." Helen's mouth twisted. "I ended up surrounded by phone books, bawling my eyes out because I knew I mustn't do it, while all these people stared at me as though I'd gone nuts." She realised the knuckles of the hand holding Al's had turned white. She released her grip and patted his hand while rising from the table. "That son of mine said you might be hungry. I understand you've been living for the last couple of days on that tasteless, nutritionally empty junk they serve in the Project's cafeteria." She went into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and said into its depths, "Why in the name of protein and carbohydrate didn't Sam Beckett set up an eating place that serves decent food? He knows people perform better if they're on a good diet." "I always do. Perform better, I mean." Helen grinned at the plate of chopped bacon on the refrigerator shelf. He hadn't changed a bit. "Sam couldn't personally oversee everything, though he tried. Mostly he was too b-" "-busy worrying about Ziggy's innards to worry about his own or other people's," finished Helen as she emerged from the refrigerator. "I can just imagine. Drink your coffee, Al, while I fix lunch. I can talk while I cook. I'm sorry, it isn't tacos, I'll make those another day. Will Penne all' Amatriciana do instead?" Helen was going to cook for him, the wonderful smell was going to be his lunch. Grabbing his mug and the plunger, Al hurriedly left the table and sat at the breakfast bar. "Will it do? The crust of a stale loaf would do if it had been made by you, Helen." She inclined her head in acknowledgment of his extravagant compliment, eyes dancing, while she stirred bacon into the rich, tomato sauce gently simmering on the stove. "Your muffins are just as sensational as they used to be, too - if not better." Helen's smile was sly. "Choc-orange always were your favorite." She took a bag of pasta from a cupboard. "It really wasn't that hard, you know." LIAR! thought Al. "And I wasn't alone. I had Sam's child," Helen pulled a wry face, "Sam's GENIUS child. With him around it was hard WORK. You must remember what it was like, Al." He remembered exactly. Busy. Organized chaos. The kid never stopped unless he was parked in front of his computer, but Helen always made time for HIM, even if she had to bargain with her clever and manipulative son to make the time. "Let's see," continued Helen, tipping the pasta quills into a big pot of bubbling water. "When I met you the music, Italian and Japanese tutors had already started and he learned French, German and Mandarin after he began school. You realise now, of course, where his photo- graphic memory came from? He taught himself Welsh, using an English- Welsh dictionary and grammar book I found at the library. My Mom would have been real proud of him. Oh, I forgot the most important one - the math tutor. English I could help him with - math, never! He soaked up everything we threw at him like a sponge, delighting in each new discovery, in each step forward." Helen's face glowed as she spoke of her son. "It was tough for him sometimes, though. Oh, his frustration when he understood but couldn't physically do! I picked him up so many times when he fell down, literally and figuratively, trying things his mind was ready for but his body wasn't. I can see him now, thumping the piano because he couldn't stretch his little hands into the octaves he needed to master a difficult piece of music. "So there I was, trying to keep up with Sam and busy with my own studies and work. I guess it might have been easier if I'd stopped work but I found I needed it." Helen stared very hard into the sauce she stirred. "So I carried on at the library part-time - but you know that, don't you? I didn't need to work for the money - the house was mine and David - David Pendrick - you remember him?" Al shook his head. "Oh. Well, he was sort of my guardian and he invested the money Mom had left me so I had a small income. Later, we had Samson's profits from his computer software to pay for all his 'extras' - the riding and swimming and dancing lessons and the rock-climbing and ski-ing and all the other stuff." "Computer software?" "Ever heard of 'Time Traveller' with that intrepid scientist Dr Bill Blake or 'Air Ace' starring Commander Frank Cavallieri, dare-devil navy pilot?" "Of course I have. 'Air Ace' is still years ahead of the other flying games on the market. I should know, I've tried 'em all. So they're Sammy-boy's." Al shook his head in wonder and chewed his cigar in unconscious imitation of Air Ace Cavallieri. "They sure are. Bill Gates chased after him for a while but Sam had bigger things in mind." Helen stopped stirring and looked directly at Al, wooden spoon in hand. "I never pushed him, Al. He wanted to do it. I told him very early on about his father, who and what he was. When he was a little older I told him that he could Leap, too - but only if he wanted, really wanted. I never, ever told him it was the only way his father could come home, and I explained as best I could what Leaping entailed; I told him the state Sam was in when I met him. I didn't want him to feel guilty if he chose not to Leap. But he never gave even the slightest indication that he didn't want to, and believe me I watched him like a hawk to see if he did." Helen gave a short laugh. "He just took even bigger bites of life, did more, learned faster, becoming a jack-of-all- trades and master of one - quantum physics." She turned back to the stove and stirred the sauce once more. "He told me once that he'd calculated his father would Leap home when HE started HIS first Leap, and that he now had two reasons for packing so much into as short a time as possible - so he could start helping people, start fixing things, and so his father could come home - to me." She flashed Al a misty smile. "He's a good boy." She put down the spoon. "Pour more coffee, please, Al." She brought parmesan and a grater over to the marble slab on the breakfast bar and began to grate the cheese. "Where was I? Oh, yes. He went to the local schools, I wanted him to have as normal a childhood as possible." And the thought of sending him away had been unbearable. "His principals and teachers were VERY understanding of his unusual abilities." Her mouth curved. "I think his winning every inter-school and state competition going helped their understanding just a smidge - and he raced through his grades. There was a downside, though. He was bullied by some of the kids because of his intellect, but I helped him deal with that and he learned Karate and Kendo, which helped his discipline when he was younger and got him out of some scrapes when he was older." She looked across at Al. "But you know about the Karate, too, don't you?" "Yeah. I've still got the bruises where he demonstrated when I didn't believe he could do it." Helen grinned. "He switched to Tae Kwon Do when he was older. He's good at sport. It helped him be more accepted at school. He likes baseball and ice-hockey but the love of his life is basketball - and skate-boarding. He's real good at those. Ever since he saw 'Back To The Future' he's been trying to perfect a hover-board like Marty McFly's." She gave the cheese one last grate, then shook the grater and put it in the sink. "Sam's good at basketball, too - Sam Beckett, I mean," said Al, taking advantage of Helen's pause for breath. Not that he minded hearing her talk. It gave him the opportunity to watch her face, see the emotions flit across it as she flitted about the kitchen, describing her son and their life. And she was a lot more willing to talk about Sammy-boy than herself. He'd known it must have been hard. He ate a strand of cheese thoughtfully, wondering if he'd made it harder. Helen smacked his hand. "Wait. It'll be ready soon. All good things come to those who wait." Maybe - one day. "Yes, I know Sam Beckett's good, though I understand his brother is better." "Have you ever met any of Sam's family?" Helen cupped her hands around her mug. She stared into the coffee, seeing faces in the swirling liquid. "No. I wanted to. I could have, I found out where they were, but I didn't think it was right. I couldn't tell them who we were and I didn't want us to meet as strangers." She shrugged. "Maybe now it would be okay. I guess it's something Samson and I need to talk about. "But even if he couldn't mix with his own family, I did my best to make sure he mixed with other families, he needed to see how other people lived, but it wasn't always easy. I guess our version of a family was still a little unusual for Truro, Virginia, even though it was the Eighties. My single parent lifestyle shocked a few of our older, conservative neighbors." Her eyes suddenly gleamed. "That was bad enough, but then I had a dashing older man - a married man of Italian descent - a Naval commander of all people in a town full of excellent young Air Force officers - who visited and, horror of horrors!" - Helen's voice dropped to a disgusted and gossipy whisper - "stayed ALL NIGHT in the same house as my innocent little boy!" She laughed. "But he was the one who kept trying to get me to stay!" protested Al, keeping his tone and comment light, while he mentally socked each of Helen's nosy and censorious neighbors. "Yes, even way back then, Sam saw what people needed and tried to fix it. He knew how lonely I was sometimes." How lonely they both were. "The neighbors had even more to say after that rather noisy scene on the porch, though from what I heard they were more concerned with how dangerously fast you drove up our quiet little street when you left than anything else." Al groaned and buried his face in his hands. "I'm sorry, Helen. They probably heard me all the way back at the base." Helen shrugged. "It didn't matter. It helped me sort out who my real friends were. I had a few phone calls and visitors over the next couple of days. The people who were really concerned offered shoulders to lean on without asking questions. The ones just indulging their curiosity I got rid of pretty quickly - or rather Sam did. He told the most incredible lies with such an innocent look on his face. We used to have bets as to who would take the longest to realise he was making fun of them. It's very disconcerting to discover a four-year-old is laughing at you." Al pulled a sour face. "Yes, I remember." Helen grinned. "He was pretty wicked to you sometimes, wasn't he?" "Wicked?" The brown eyes opened very wide. "Your angelic little son? Never. A real pain in the butt, maybe, but not wicked." After a while, the kid's teasing had stopped being a pain and became something he'd looked forward to as he drove from Truro Base to the little house, as was Helen's warm smile when she opened the door and welcomed him in from the cold. Sometimes the kid opened the door, warning that Mom was trying to finish her English assignment and they'd have to forage for themselves if they couldn't wait. Then the two of them would raid Helen's well-stocked refrigerator and store-cupboard and make the most incredible mess in the kitchen. When she finally emerged from the little spare bedroom she called her study, tired but content with the assignment she'd written, she'd make them clean up, directing operations from the kitchen table, while eating the strange dinner they'd made. "Did you get your English degree?" "I sure did. I passed the following summer - with High Distinction, to my great satisfaction. Sam started school in the Fall and I...and I was feeling a little tired so I gave up work and concentrated on being a mom for a while." Helen stumbled a little on her words and picked up the coffee plunger, refilling Al's mug. "But it didn't keep me busy enough. I had too much time to think, to remember." Her eyes had clouded over. Al put down his mug and cigar, came around the bench and gently pulled her into his arms. He knew how it felt, having too much time to remember how things had once been. It hurt and throbbed like an untreated wound until you thought you'd go mad from loneliness. But the memories also kept you sane, made you determined to get through the next pain-wracked day - and the next and the next - until you got back what you'd once had. For him, later, when what he'd wanted so desperately had been so tantalisingly close yet had seemed further away than ever, the pain had been so bad the only way to stop it had been to hit the bottle. But somehow he didn't think Helen had ever done that. He wrapped his arms around her more tightly and prayed fervently that Sam Beckett really would be allowed to come home soon. She had lived on memories long enough. Helen held Al as close as she could, settling her chin on his shoulder, leaning her head against his so she could feel his ear against her own. They used to dance like this. This was something special, something she could only do with Al, Sam had been too tall. With Sam, the angle of his jaw would be against her temple and he'd kiss her hair. Al's personal scent had been different from Sam, too, cigar smoke and aftershave - and liquor. The smell of liquor had diminished the longer she'd known him, though she hadn't been able to banish it completely. Beth must have helped him combat it, she couldn't detect the taint of it at all now. And he'd changed his aftershave, too. God, he felt so nice. He knew exactly how much she was hurting and why. The ache of loss receded, became the livable, continuous faint nagging on the edge of her mind, banished by Al's strong, comforting presence. She relaxed against him. Helen was holding on less tightly now and Al realised, much to his surprise, his libido hadn't even squeaked at the feel of her body against his. He'd offered comfort and friendship, and it had helped her. That felt amazingly satisfying - special, precious. From what he'd said this morning, Sam obviously hadn't believed Helen had started the affair. Mr Morals hadn't even batted an eyelid when he'd burst in on them, declaring Helen had seduced him. He'd never understand Beckett, not even if he lived to be two hundred and fifty-four. You'd think the guy would be at least a little bit jealous of the relation- ship, however it had happened. He'd been jealous of her relationship with Sam. Helen finally removed her chin from its comfortable position on Al's shoulder. She kissed the lived-in face. "Thanks, Al. I really needed that." Al smiled into grey-green eyes that were on an exact level with his own. "You're welcome, Helen. Any time." A buzzer sounded. "The pasta's ready, I think." Helen went to the stove and deftly snagged a quill on a fork. "Here, you try." Al bit into the piece she presented. "Al dente. Perfect." "Good, I'm hungry, too." She quickly put their meal together, Al helping when requested, and in no time they were sitting at the dining table once more. Al took the first forkful of pasta glistening with cheese, tomato and bacon. He circled his thumb and forefinger. "Bellissimo!" he exclaimed once his mouth was empty, kissing his fingers. "Just the right amount of chilli!" Helen merely grinned, too busy with her pasta to reply. When they were finally mopping their plates with bread, hunger satisfied, Al said, "Now, less about Sammy and more about you. What did you do to keep busy?" Helen lifted a shoulder. "Oh, not much. I started The Brown Foundation. It was named after something Sam Beckett said to me once." She paused expectantly. Al's jaw dropped. He'd known she wouldn't hit the bottle. "The Brown Foundation! You mean that huge child care charity that 'give moms and dads a chance to go back to school'?" "Uh-huh. That's me." Helen's eyes twinkled and she puffed out her chest importantly. "Chairperson of the Board - or I was until the Project employed Sam. I resigned then, though I'm still on the Board of Directors and I know exactly what's going on." She waved a hand in the direction of a comtelvid screen and small combi-console beneath. "I'd got the idea when trying to take my English degree and had trouble finding carers for Sam. I used the last of Mom's money to open the first center. We were open twenty-four hours a day, were as flexible as the Moms needed us to be and provided a stable, safe environment for the kids instead of them being passed from relative to neighbor to relative - and we kept costs as low as we could." Helen spoke with enthusiasm and Al sensed she was proud of her achievements. "Then David - David Pendrick - came on board, bringing his financial expertise and lots of lovely dollars, and we expanded rapidly. That's when we branched out into the other areas. We'll help any family - any type of family, not just nuclear ones - if they need it, especially with education. "We moved the BF's headquarters to Boston when Sam got into MIT." Helen leaned forward and tapped one finger on the table. "Did you know he beat his father's record by two months and twelve days to become the youngest person to graduate?" Al shook his head and drew his brows together. "Didn't anyone make the connection with Sam Beckett?" Helen shrugged. "Why should they? It was nearly twenty years after he'd left. Samson was only known as Sam Carter - we left the 'B' out of his name for a while." She stroked her cheek with a thoughtful finger. "There was one guy I'm not sure about, an old professor they dragged out at Sam's graduation. He couldn't keep his eyes off Sam and when they were introduced he kept pumping Sam's hand and clapping him on the back, saying something about 'once in a generation' with a huge grin cracking his face. I didn't catch his name, though." Helen leaned on the table. "Oh, you should have seen Sam that day, Al. He was so happy. He'd worked really hard that last semester, even giving up his beloved basketball so he could concentrate purely on his physics and math. I was so proud of him, it was the culmination of everything he'd worked for. He stood on the platform, his face shining, and looked straight at me and - and then his eyes searched the auditorium, just for a second or two..." Helen's gaze dropped to the table. She drew lines with her finger through a spilt drop of bright red sauce. "The shoulder's still here if you need it again, Helen," said Al softly. She flashed him a quick smile. "Thanks, but I'm okay." His brown eyes held exactly the same caring expression they had the VERY first time she'd seen him. In fact, he looked exactly the same as he had when she'd seen him that first time, when she was small - and that had been nearly forty years ago. "I probably shouldn't be telling you this, Al," she said slowly, "but a couple of times you were there to help us through the bad patches. I don't mean at the graduation - Sam wasn't looking for you - but at home." Al looked startled. Helen nodded. "I felt you sometimes and Sam saw you, too, when he was very small, before he'd met the real you. It wasn't often, but you always seemed to turn up whenever he or I needed help most. It made a huge difference knowing you were watching over us. Ziggy and Sam are working now on a couple of additional devices for Ziggy, one of which will stretch the distance - geographical not temporal - you can be away from Sam - Sam Beckett, that is. It's strange to know it must work when they haven't actually invented it yet." Helen's eyes glinted at Al's astonished look. She waggled her finger. "Just you make sure that being able to come visit doesn't distract you from helping Sam Beckett do whatever needs to be done so he can Leap on and, hopefully, come home one day." "But surely you KNOW Sam makes it home," Al managed to say while still absorbing the incredible information she had given him. "You seem to know everything else!" Helen sighed and her eyes lost their sparkle. "I wish I did. I only know what Sam told me in the letters he sent - and he couldn't send a letter telling me he'd Leaped home to THIS time because he has to still be in the past to have sent a letter!" "Oh. Of course." Al clasped the hand lying on the table, not caring a dime that he stained his gold shirt sleeve with sauce. "I'm sure he'll get back, Helen. Don't worry. He'll make it one day. You'll see." She nodded, trying to smile. "But for him to do so means I have to say good-bye to my son and that will be very...difficult." "Oh, Helen." Al gripped her hand even harder. "It's okay. I've had even longer to prepare for that good-bye than I had for a couple of others." Helen laid her other hand on top of his. "And I'll have a good friend to help me through it. Maybe one day I'll have both my Sams at once." She'd better - or he'd be climbing the ladder Upstairs and demanding to know why not. Helen looked down at their clasped hands. "Al, I need your word about something. Don't worry, it isn't anything to do with Beth." He owed her that much at least. "What is it?" "I need your word that you'll never tell Sam Beckett I'm here." She saw his brows tug together. "Please. I do have reasons - good ones." The big, grey-green eyes were pleading with him. "Okay," he agreed. "You have my word, Helen." Clearing his throat, he continued, trying to lighten her mood, "Hey, how could you tell I'm there, when I'm a hologram I mean?" This time he raised a genuine smile. "I can't tell you yet, you might change what you do and then I wouldn't be able to tell any more," she replied, laughter once more lurking in her eyes. "Aw, come on!" coaxed Al. "Ple-ease!" "I'll tell you if - WHEN - Sam Leaps home," she promised, and none of his entreaties changed her mind.