by Pat Woodhouse

     "Al, I want to talk to you."
     She knew. Her face wore the same look of anger and hurt that Sam's had 
worn when he'd remembered her existence, and realized that Al had kept the 
knowledge from him. He debated begging off, using the press of work as an 
excuse, but knew that that would merely postpone the inevitable 
confrontation. Better to get this out and over with.
     He suppressed a sigh, hoping his smile didn't look as strained as it 
felt. "Sure, Donna, c'mon in. I needed a break from this crap anyway." He 
waved a hand over the computer disks and flimsies littering his desk, the 
ubiquitous administrative garbage that never seemed to lessen no matter how 
much of it he finished.
     Donna didn't return his smile. Closing the door behind her, she stalked 
up to Al's desk, dropping a computer disk on top of the clutter in front of 
him. Its color coding identified it as a personnel file. Even before he read 
the name on it, Al knew whose it was.
     He looked up at Donna, gesturing for her to sit, but she remained 
stiffly standing, ignoring both gesture and chair. "When were you going to 
tell me that Sammy Jo is Sam's daughter?" she asked abruptly.
     Al winced inwardly; Donna had never believed in pulling her punches. He 
sat back in his chair, fingers nervously toying with the disk. "How did you 
find out?"
     She shrugged wearily. "Does it matter? I did. If I hadn't, would you 
have ever told me?"
     "No." Al winced visibly this time; how had that simple word come out 
sounding so harsh? Donna dropped into the chair she'd earlier rejected, 
staring at him as though he'd slapped her, face bloodless. Alarmed and 
contrite, Al jumped up and hurried around to her, pouring out a glass of 
water and pushing it into her hand. Her fingers automatically curled around 
it; otherwise, she seemed not to notice that she held it.
     "I see," she murmured. Her voice rose and sharpened. "And you never 
thought that maybe I had a right to know?"
     "Donna--" Al began, but she cut him off.
     "Forget it." She sighed, rubbing her throat as if it ached. "All water 
under the bridge now, isn't it?" Suddenly aware of the glass in her hand, 
she raised it and took a gulp. A wry smile twitched at her lips. "I could 
use something a little stronger."
     "Me, too," Al muttered. He went back behind his desk, opened a drawer, 
and reached inside, pulling out a bottle of amber-colored liquid. Alcohol 
was, of course, against Project rules; but then again, so was smoking.
     Uncapping the bottle, he splashed a generous amount of the liquor into 
the remaining water in Donna's glass. She tasted, lifting an appreciative 
eyebrow. Al poured some, neat, for himself, settling a hip on the edge of 
his desk, and they sipped in a somewhat companionable silence.
     "I met her on my way here," Donna said (Al didn't have to ask who). "I 
wonder why I never saw it before, but she's a lot like Sam. Oh, not in 
appearance, but in how she *is*."
     Al knew what she meant. Aside from the small blaze in her hair, Sammy 
Jo was the living image of her mother, Abigail, but her temperament, 
personality, and especially, her brilliant intellect, were all Sam's.
     "I take it she doesn't know," said Donna.
     Al shook his head quickly, emphatically. "No, of course not."
     "What about Sam?"
     "He did, but I'd guess that leaping probably swiss-cheesed it out of 
     Donna made a non-committal sound, looking down into the depths of her 
glass and gently swirling its contents. "I know," she began, "from things 
you let slip, that Sam's been... involved with the women on his leaps. I 
won't say it never bothered me at times, but I knew they couldn't touch that 
part of him that belonged to me. I even reassured him, that time he leaped 
home, that I'd never felt betrayed by anything he'd done." She paused. "I 
couldn't say that now."
     She swallowed the rest of her drink, then stood with an abrupt finality 
that made the vague uneasiness Al had felt while listening to her blossom 
into a terrible certainty. He quickly came up off the desk, one hand 
shooting out to grasp her arm.
     "Donna, don't."
     She glowered at him with renewed anger, lips compressed, but didn't try 
to free her arm. "Don't what?"
     "Leave the Project. Leave Sam." To his dismay she made no attempt to 
deny it. "Well?" he pressed, an accusatory tone creeping into his voice. 
"Isn't that what you're going to do?"
     Bristling, Donna said, "I don't see how that's any of your business."
     "*Anything* to do with Sam is my business," Al retorted, flaring 
himself. "And you just can't desert him like this!"
     "Uh-uh, Al," Donna said, jerking her arm from his grasp. "I refuse to 
feel guilty about this, not when I'm the one who's been living in an empty 
house these last few years."
     As she stormed to the door Al's anger quickly dissipated. He took a 
step after her. "Donna, wait, please--"
     She stopped, her back to him, every line in her body taut. "What is 
it?" she said tightly.
     "Just... I'm sorry. For everything." It sounded hopelessly inadequate, 
but if she really meant to leave, Al didn't want these bitter, hateful words 
hanging between them.
     "Is that on your behalf, or Sam's?" Her wintery tone made it plain that 
this wouldn't go easy for him.
     "Mine, mainly," he said. "But if Sam were here, he'd say it, too." He 
drew closer and rested his hands on her shoulders, just in comfort now. "He 
loves you, Donna, and I know the last thing he'd want to do is hurt you."
     Donna's body drooped slightly, and Al thought he heard a soft sob. In 
the next instant, however, she straightened up again, and Al knew he'd lost 
her. He let his hands fall as she turned to face him. The anger had faded 
from her eyes, leaving a shimmer of tears and a bleakness that made Al's 
heart ache. "But he has, Al," she said.
     There was nothing Al could say to that, and with a weary shake of her 
head Donna turned to go. In a last-ditch effort the Observer threw out, 
"Have you talked to Verbena?"
     Donna gave a short, sharp snort of mirthless laughter. "Hardly. Verbena 
can be very... persuasive, and I don't want to be talked out of this."
     "Would that be so bad?" Al asked.
     "If I wound up resenting a bright young woman who wouldn't deserve it, 
yes." She turned back toward him. "Al, I really need some time and some 
distance to come to grips with this, and to think about a few other things 
as well."
     "Such as?"
     "Such as how much longer I'm willing, or can afford to, keep my life on 
hold like this."
     Al frowned. "'Afford to'?"
     Donna sighed. "I may be Co-director, but the Project is all Sam's ideas 
and work, and a scientist's professional life depends on their producing 
their own work. I had a career and reputation of my own before I married 
Sam, and if I stay I might not even have that." She smiled wanly. "So you 
see, this isn't all about Sammy Jo, though she was the catalyst. But even if 
I hadn't found out about her, I think it still would have come to this." She 
reached for the doorknob.
     Resignedly, Al asked, "What should I tell the others?"
     Donna shrugged, a show of indifference that didn't fool Al in the 
least. "Whatever you feel comfortable with," she said. "Not that it really 
matters; they'll believe what they want anyway."
     Al nodded. "I know," he said, "but I'll try to make them understand."
     "Thank you." She leaned forward suddenly and kissed him, a quick, shy 
brushing of lips across his cheek. "Take care of yourself, Al." Her voice 
faltered. "And... take care of Sam."
     "I can't do anything else," Al said quietly. Donna nodded, opened the 
door and quickly left, as if afraid of weakening if she remained any longer.
     "Goodbye, Donna," Al murmured after her. He closed the door, went back 
to his desk and picked up his neglected drink, knocking it back in one 
swallow. He was tempted to have another, but knew where that would lead, so 
he put the bottle away instead. But he couldn't work anymore either. He 
didn't know how long he simply sat there, confused thoughts chasing 
themselves around in his head, before a faint beep from his wristcom jarred 
him out of it.
     Al sighed gustily. It was time to see if Ziggy had managed to dig up 
any new information about this leap, and to check in on Sam, though that was 
the last thing he wanted to do now, with this secret weighing on his heart. 
But, just as he'd kept various others over the years, he'd keep this one, 
too. For as long as he had to.
     He got slowly to his feet, feeling, for a moment, every one of his 
years. Then he squared his shoulders and headed for the Imaging Chamber, 
lighting a cigar as he went out.