"Sam?"

The white-suited figure straightened and looked up.

"Al," he said. "It's about time."

Al looked at him sharply. Beckett sounded listless, flat.

"Anything wrong, Sam?"

"Who me? What would give you that idea? It's not like there's any reason to think there's something wrong," he retorted in a burst of uncharacteristic bitterness.

Al bit back his normal 'don't whine Sam' crack. This time it wasn't funny. He considered the possibilities for a moment.

"Sam," he said slowly. "What have you been remembering?"

Beckett's eyes grew bleak. "Tamilyn. My parents. I have this burned-in memory of my father teaching me how to drive a tractor and the sound of your voice yelling at me over and over again."

Al looked away. Emotional stuff was not his forte. It made him uncomfortable and he hated not having complete control of his own.

"That's a lot of details to come back to you right when you're supposed to be the greatest shyster evangelist God…or the devil…ever put breath into. Ob-viously this guy is so shallow there's plenty of room for you in there," he added in a vain attempt at levity.

Sam dragged a hand over his face. "I don't know if I want to do this one, Al. This guy rips people off, not just financially, but emotionally--spiritually if you will. I don't think I can do that, not even for just a little while. I don't know why I'm here, but it can't be to do this."

He raised a white-suited arm, the heavy gold chain at his wrist dangling against the burgundy-colored leather bound bible in his hand.

"Ziggy doesn't know why you're here yet. She says there's a sixty percent chance, at this stage, that it may be to help someone in the audience."

"Someone in the audience?!" Sam snapped. "I'm a fake, a fraud, a thief. I couldn't heal a hangnail, much less..."

"Sam..." Calavicci said softly, something he rarely did.

It took Beckett unawares. He faced his friend, sighing heavily, his eyes haggard.

"What is it?" Al asked gently.

"Al, I want to go home."

Al closed his eyes. In all their 'years' together, all the vast kaleidoscope of humanity Sam had leaped through, the one thing his friend had never unloaded on him directly, was the one thing that had never left his, Al's, mind in all that time. The desire to put a hand on his friend's shoulder was almost more than he could deal with. All the times Sam had come close to death, had been almost emotionally destroyed by leaps, and all he could ever do was stand there...

Frustration rose suddenly in Calavicci's breast. He knew that Beckett had been different, changing subtlely, for some time, even before events after the Presley leap, but he hadn't wanted it to come to this. Where once Sam would throw himself into what he had to do, and question most things later, he was now allowing fear, frustration and whatever else to dictate his attitude to almost every leap.

"Damn it, Sam, I don't have any answers for you. Ziggy never stops working on the problem you know. Gooshie says she's generated enough data on it to cure several diseases, send men to Mars and solve Fermet's theorum--"

"I understand that, Al," Sam said slowly. "But there are no answers. And I can't do this forever." He shivered. "I've done everything I've been asked to do, and more. Hell, I even remembering enjoying some of it. Al, don't want to be stuck on this roller coaster ride forever, no matter who's directing the operation. Bartender or no bartender, I'm just a guy...just a Human being. I need to rest, just like anyone else."

"Sam..." Al said helplessly. "I--"

They were interrupted by a white-robed, red-haired woman of about forty emerging from another part of the tent.

"Stephen, it's almost time. They're ready. Everyone's in place. Theodore will cue you."

Beckett looked up at her, nodded, then rose slowly. "Tell Theodore to stay on his toes, Sylvia. I'll be ready in a moment."

When she was gone he turned back to Al. "I memorized the text of his sermon. I did this routine with the fakes in the audience last night after you left, so I know I can handle Theodore's cues. What I can't handle is looking down at the faces of all those good people whose trust is being abused."

"Sam, snap out of it. Most of the people who come to these things half wanna be conned anyway. Besides, you aren't going to find out what you're doing here unless you live this guy's life exactly as he would until Ziggy figures it out."

Sam sighed again and scowled at his friend before following the serene Sylvia to the side of the stage. He peeked out at the audience, unaware for the moment that Al had followed him and was standing quietly in the wings.

The Admiral was stunned to see Beckett unexpectedly close his eyes and throw back his head in a kind of despairing gesture, then lean heavily against a temporary barrier, his shoulders beginning to shake as he slid down to the floor.

In a moment he was at Sam's side. Beckett was oblivious to him, a hand over eyes that Calavicci soon realized were closed against pain. The sound of his weeping was almost, but not quite, inaudible.

When his surprise subsided, Al realized that this had been a long time coming, and was probably well overdue. Sam had more guts than anyone Al had ever known, but he had been showing signs of overload long before the beginning of this leap...

He hunkered down next to him. "You're not alone, Sam. I promise you. You aren't alone."

Slowly Sam drew his hand away and blinked. He looked into his friend's concerned eyes and nodded. "Al," he whispered, then looked away again. "I...I think I'm losing my mind."

For the first time in a very long time Al did try to put a hand on Beckett's shoulder and swore when it went straight through.

Beckett chuckled damply. "An old sailor like you should be able to come up with more original curses than that. He found the reassuring eyes once again.

"Help me, Al," he pleaded.

The power of the quiet plea struck Calavicci in the solar plexus. By the time he'd formulated some kind of answer Sam had risen and was on his way to the on-stage pulpit.

It was a formidable performance, despite Beckett's state of mind, or perhaps because of it. Al watched the crowd rise to the occasion, swept away by the intensity of Sam's evangelistic spiel. He watched as each of the fakes did their piece, and as Sam handled the dozen or so real hopefuls who also volunteered. He was blustering and loud and obnoxious as Stephen Cilento was supposed to be, yet, Al noted, with that same innate gentleness that would always be a part of Beckett, no matter how bad an individual he leaped into.

And as long as their neurons and mesons or whatever crapola didn't get mixed up, he added to himself, bitter memories of the Oswald incident still raw in his mind.

For all of their enthusiasm none of the real volunteers showed any more than the illusion of minor improvement at best. However, true to form, the 'star' of the night was cured with all the hammy melodrama that went with it.

"Sickening," Calavicci muttered. Suddenly he just wanted to be out of there. "Gooshie, open the damned door!" He yelled.

Gooshie followed him along the corridor as he strode silently through the building.

"Is there a problem, Admiral?"

"Is there a problem, Admiral?" Al mimicked nastily. "You're asking me if there's a problem?"

Gooshie stopped and watched his superior storm into one of the building's elevators and presumably upwards and out into the night. He sighed heavily and made a mental note to tell Doctor Beeks that there might be a problem.

Al stopped in the car park and looked up at the dark night sky, the stars so bright against the velvet blackness that he was momentarily distracted by their beauty.

He breathed in the cold air to clear his lungs and his head and then allowed his mind to wander back over the seemingly endless time Sam Beckett had been bouncing through history.

Memories of his favorite moments came back first, bringing a brief smile to his lips. There had been a fair share of those, but for every good time, there had been bad times for Sam: beatings, near executions, more pain and terror than any one man should have to deal with. If it hadn't been for his friend's memory gaps he didn't think anyone would be able to cope with what Sam had.

Sam's 'Swiss cheese mind', he'd always called it. Well, thank God for that, at least, he thought bitterly.

Again, as it had occasionally in the past, it occurred to Al that Sam might not be the same even if he did get back to 1999. How much would he remember? Would his mind spontaneously bounce back as it had the last time?

He shook his head. There was no point in speculating. They were no closer to getting Sam back than they were after the first leap. All Ziggy's calculations, all Donna Elisee's loyalty, all Doctor Fuller's research, all the work in the world couldn't fix things. Maybe Doctor Sam Beckett, the mind-whole Doctor Sam Beckett, was the only one who could...

He sighed again. Beth had promised a special dinner. He should go home...

He always did while Sam was settling in to the new circumstances. This time, however, he was drawn in a different direction.

The giant building swallowed him almost knowingly as the night sky wheeled ever so slowly by.

An equally knowing Gooshie was waiting at the door of the imaging room.

"What are you looking at?" The Admiral growled as he opened the door. "Send me back to Sam," he muttered. The door closed behind him with a bang.

The show was over. Sam was in his dressing room changing his clothes. He seemed calmer, almost himself again.

"You okay now?" He asked by way of announcing his arrival.

Sam jumped, but he spoke quietly. "I hate it when you do that. At least if you open the door in the vicinity I can hear you arrive."

"Sorry."

"What are you doing back so soon? Beth's going to kill you," Beckett pointed out in a reassuringly jocular tone.

"Sam, she loves you. She'll understand."

Sam's expression grew serious. "I'm okay, Al. I don't know what happened to me. It's never happened before. Maybe it was something to do with this leap. Tonight went okay, for what it was," he finished distastefully. "There didn't appear to be any sign of my reason for being here."

"What about Sylvia?"

"I thought of that, but it appears that Steven and Sylvia are pretty solid. No relationship problems to patch up, no relatives to pacify. She doesn't seem to have any vices, or boyfriends or hang-ups...and for all he's a crook by anyone's standard he doesn't appear to have done anything to get him in trouble with the law. Has Ziggy found anything yet?"

Al drew out the handlink, shoved in a pocket earlier. He keyed in the access sequence. "Ah, here's something. Ziggy says that sometime tomorrow a sixteen year old girl will approach you...er, Stephen, for a job. She had a stroke. She's paralyzed down one side, and she's been coming to Stephen's meetings for months. Now she wants to join the show."

"Why?" Sam asked suspiciously.

Al shrugged his shoulders. "To be closer to Stephen? To help other people? To get an inside shot at a cure? Who knows? Anyway, Ziggy says that in the original history Stephen turned her away and she ended up in one og the crummier institutions for the disabled when her mother died unexpectedly about six months later. She was found hanging in her room a year and five months after being placed there by the authorities."

Sam cursed uncharacteristically.

Al did a double take and stepped toward his friend. "You sure you're all right?" He asked.

"What do you think?" Sam said and went to find a shirt to go over the singlet and with the dark blue fifties trousers he was now wearing.

"I think we have a problem," Al told him. "You need a break, Sam and I don't know how the hell to help you. Holidays don't figure in this crazy set up."

Sam turned to him with eyes so bitter it sent a cold shiver down his spine.

"You're telling me?" Beckett drawled. "You think I'm here to hire this girl? How are her parents going to react to that?"

"There's only the mother. According to Ziggy she considers Joey--Joanna to be an unfair burden placed on her by God, fate and anyone else she can blame. The kid's been sick in one way or another ever since the day she was born...prematurely. There's a brother, somewhere, that the mother dotes on. I don't think Joey Chalmers is gonna be missed, somehow."

"All right, so I hire her. What the hell am I supposed to do with her?"

Al ignored Beckett's growing ill-humor. "There must be plenty around here the kid can do--sewing, that's it..there's always sewing in a show like this--or..or..she could be a dresser. Stage shows always have dressers for their stars. I haven't seen anyone around here to help either Stephen or Sylvia dress for their shows."

"I'll think of something," Sam muttered, not overly impressed with the options.

"I think you should think about getting some sleep, Sam."

Beckett scowled. "With Sylvia?"

"Nope," Al told him, scanning the link. "Stephen and Sylvia have separate hotel rooms. It seems that the marriage made in heaven might have a few cracks in it after all."

"But Ziggy has nothing on them having marital problems?"

"Nada," Al confirmed. "Be happy, Sam. You get the bed to yourself. Jeez, not even a little of my libido made into that thick skull of yours did it, not really?"

"That's not what it felt like at the time," Sam complained. "But no, there's nothing left but me now."

"You remember that clearly?" Calavicci asked, surprised.

"Like it was yesterday," Sam drawled, obviously unaware of the significance of the question.

"Jeez, Sam, why all of a sudden is your memory working so well? No wonder you've been so weird. What else can you remember?"

"I remember going home to my parents," he said sadly. "I remember Jimmy. I even remember hitting Marina Oswald. I remember a bar in Pennsylvania..." He straightened and his face grew hard. "I remember stepping into the Quantum Leap accelerator," he said in a flat, harsh voice.

Al scratched his head. "I'm going back to talk to Ziggy about this. You seem to be changing somehow, Sam. I don't know what's going on, but something is and I don't know if it's good or bad."

Sam snorted. "Does it matter?"

Al looked at him silently for a long moment, until the younger man's face finally relaxed. This was not his Sam Beckett.

"Yeah, it matters. To me. Get some sleep, Sam. You're tired."

"Yeah...tired," Sam half whispered.

Al opened the chamber door, painfully aware that Beckett was not referring to his lack of sleep.

"I'll be back," he said and vanished.

"Sure," Sam said forlornly, hooked his jacket off a chair, and turned to find Sylvia so that they could leave for the hotel.

        *******

Beckett was woken the next morning by a tap, not on the door between Stephen and Sylvia's suites, but the door to the corridor. He dragged on Stephen's flashy silk robe and shuffled to the door still blinking sleep from his eyes.

He pulled the door open. "Yes?" he said roughly.

"I'm sorry," a small voice said. He looked down. Joey Chalmers had finally turned up. She wasn't any more than five-four, skinny and doe-eyed. Her mop of brown hair was tied back in a hap-hazard pony tail.

"No...no, I'm sorry. I just woke up. You kinda caught me at a bad time."

"I'll go," she said flatly.

As she turned Sam's practised eye noted that her limp arm and the corresponding leg were not yet atrophied or hyperflexed.

"How long..." He cleared his throat. "How long have you been paralyzed?"

She turned back, hope in her eyes again. "A year and a little bit," she told him. "The doctors say I had a stroke but I heard them tell mama that they couldn't figure exactly what caused the fit or the paralysis."

"Then you're not an epileptic?"

She shook her head. "Never been called one of those before."

"Listen," Sam said uncomfortably, "why don't you go down stairs and wait for me while I get dressed. Give me twenty minutes."

Joey grinned. "I knew you'd listen. Everybody said you wouldn't have time for no-account stragglers like me, but I told them you'd listen. I've seen what you do for those poor people at the meetings."

"Uh...Thanks," Sam said, hating the inherent deception. "Twenty minutes, okay? Now, go on."

He watched her swinging gait down the corridor and felt his heart go out to her in spite of himself. It took ten minutes to shower and dress.

She was waiting, not in the coffee shop where Sam assumed she'd go, but curled up on one of the rest chairs in the lobby.

He took a punt. "How about we have breakfast together?"
He asked and grinned when her eyes lit up like those of a small child.

"I...I don't have any money," she confessed.

"No problem," he said and gestured toward the coffee shop.

When she'd worked her way through bacon, eggs, coffee, donuts, and milk, Sam put down the fork with which he'd eaten his paltry pair of eggs and finished his own coffee.

"Joey, why did you leave home?" He ventured.

Chalmer's face registered surprise. "How did you know my name was Joey?"

"To tell the truth," he said carefully, "I don't really know. Must've been one of those premonitions or something."

"Wow," she enthused. "Well it is Joey, Joanna Chalmers. And I left home because I'm a burden. They're better off without me. Besides, I'm sixteen now and I should be earning my own way in the world. I came to ask you for a job, Reverend Cilento. I'd really work hard. There's plenty of things I can do even without two good arms to help me."

Sam made a show of considering her proposition. "What kind of jobs did you have in mind?"

"Oh, I couldn't presume to tell you--"

He suddenly realized that without too much help Joey could be a beautiful young woman.

"Yes you could. After all, I asked," he pointed out and smiled.

"Well, I can't sew or fix things with one hand, but I can clean, and I can sort things, and iron after a fashion. I'd be real good with wardrobes - I used to do all the washing and ironing at home."

"All of it?" Sam asked, not liking the sound of that.

She nodded enthusiastically. "Mama said since I couldn't earn my way and I couldn't do hardly nothing else I oughta pull my weight. And I have been, since I was twelve."

"But couldn't you have finished school? Your paralysis doesn't have to be a disability if you have an education, Joey."

She deflated, shaking her head slowly. "I was sick so much Mama just gave up sending me to school somewheres near my twelfth birthday. Didn't see no point. No one was going to give me a job anyway. You know, I don't understand why everyone treats me like I'm dumb. I'm not dumb."

"No," Sam said, moved. "You're not dumb, Joey. Life is sometimes dumb, but you definitely aren't."

"Thank you," she said softly. "There's always books, anyway. I learned near everything I know out of books."

"Oh? Do you have a favorite subject?"

She nodded. "I like history. All history. I like reading about all the revolutions, all the exploration. Not just American, but everyone's. And geography. Did you know there was no land underneath the North pole, Reverend Cilento?" She enthused.

Sam grinned again. "Yeah, I knew. Kinda neat, isn't it? All that ice?"

She nodded, and smiled back. "Amazing. I'm going to see the world one day. I want to see the great wall of China, the Great Barrier Reef, the pyramids, Aztec ruins and most of all I want to see wild African elephants."

"I'm sure you will, one day," Sam told her, straightening only to see Sylvia sauntering across the breakfast room towards them. "Ah. We have company. My...wife is awake."

"'Morning, Sylvia," he said dutifully and pulled out a chair for her.

She sat down silently and regarded the urchin before turning back to her husband.

"I missed you at breakfast this morning, Stephen. Care to explain your failure to at least let me know you were going to absent yourself?"

He smiled uncomfortably. "The young lady here knocked on my door this morning. She would like a job with our show. We were discussing it over breakfast," he explained. "I'm sorry--I didn't want to wake you, actually," he improvised.

Sylvia's eyes narrowed. "And have you given her a job?"

"We were just discussing the possibilities when you arrived. Perhaps we could ask your opinion. Joey tells me she's an expert at washing and ironing, and handling clothes generally. I thought perhaps it was time I provided you with a dresser, my dear. You deserve that after all these years..."

Sam saw immediately that the allusion to Sylvia's age had lost him ground, though the idea of a dresser seemed to appeal to her. Sylvia was, above all, an elitist behind that veneer of concern and spiritual benevolence.

"If she is going to be seen in the tent, if she is going to dress me, she's going to have to be cleaned up. And I think a uniform..."

"Great," Beckett said, forgetting himself, "then she's hired."
Chalmers grinned widely and flushed. Sylvia looked at Sam as though Stephen was losing his mind.

"Joey, I think the first thing we'd better do is get you a room. It'll be part of your wage package," he added quickly as Sylvia's mouth opened to object. "Then Sylvia will look into getting you some things, okay?"

Joey nodded. "You know, Reverend, you're kind of different in person, when you're not working."

"I am?" Sam said warily.

Joey nodded again. "When you're up there, on the stage, you're kind of overpowering, angry even--above ordinary mortals..." She mused in a manner well beyond her years. "But here--here you're someone else entirely."

Sam might have laughed. He didn't. He was someone else entirely. And he was deceiving this child too. A professional deceiver...

He shook himself. "Well, Joey, thank you for what I believe is a compliment, but stage presence is always deceptive." He shifted uncomfortably. "Now I think we ought to see about that room--"

"I'll see about the room," Sylvia said pointedly. "Come, child."

Joey followed her out like a puppy. On cue, Al reappeared, this time through the chamber door, and came to sit at the table.

"How goes it this morning, Sam?"

"Fine. Just fine. Joey arrived. Joey is hired. Sylvia is getting her a room and buying her clothes," Beckett recited. "Does Ziggy have this thing figured out? I haven't leaped yet, and Joey is here and hired," he said sharply.

"Ziggy says that you've changed history. Now Joey doesn't die in an apparent suicide at the home, she falls pregnant to Stephen because of an incident that happens in two days time at about 11.15pm. Sylvia discovers the two of them uh... together, and runs the kid off."

"Oh great. Just great. So what happens to Joey?" Sam demanded.

"She dies of septicemia after a botched backyard abortion, in some homeless shelter somewhere."

"Damn it to hell, Al! Why do we do this? Why do we spend so much time playing God?"

"It's not that bad yet, Sam. All you have to do is stay away from Joey and nothing will happen."

"Of course I'll stay away from Joey!" Beckett snapped again. "But if Stephen did it once, what's to stop him from doing it again when I'm gone?"

"Ziggy will know that in two days time. If it's gonna happen anyway, Ziggy will tell us. It may mean that you have to find a proper home for the kid."

"I think I'm here to do that now, Al. It would make a lot of sense to kill two birds with one stone--find a place for Joey, well away from Stephen, where there might be a real future for her."

"Well, you do what you think is best, Sam. But be careful. This one seems to have more booby traps than a war zone."

Sam nodded dispiritedly. "How's Beth?" He asked again.

Al frowned. "What is it with all the questions about me and Beth?"

"Nothing," Beckett said unconvincingly. "I'm just making conversation."

"Yeah, well we don't usually--" Calavicci stopped.

Exactly.

"Well," he began again. "She made the most incredible linguini last night. It was stone cold when I got there and she was mad as hell--" He laughed. "We heated it up and it was still
mag-nifico." His eyebrows waggled. "Dessert was even better..."

Beckett laughed too, imagining the domestic scene in all its uncomplicated, secure simplicity, a dull ache growing in pit of his stomach.

"We never really talked that much before," Sam thought aloud. "Sometimes you mention things, like parties and birthdays and stuff, but we don't usually talk about anything but the leap."

"Are you all right, Reverend?"

Sam looked around, roused from his reverie. "Oh, yeah, sure. Sometimes it helps me with my sermon to think aloud. I forgot where I was."

The waitress looked at him sideways, but nodded and continued on to the next table with their orders.

Al was laughing. He stopped quickly enough when Sam unexpectedly pushed back his chair and strode out of the room.

"Sam!"

He hit the link and popped out when Ziggy re-centred him on his friend.

"What are you mad about now?" He demanded, following Beckett into his hotel room.

Sam seemed to ignore him, methodically readying his clothes for the next performance, getting out the coat bag to put them into.

"Sam? You want me to leave?"

Beckett stopped, his shoulders drooping, head down, and hesitated for several moments.

"No..no, I'm sorry. Like I said, I don't know what's wrong with me. Al, I remembered something else when I was walking up the stairs. I remember someone back at the project. I remember her voice, her face. I remember having a home, a life...Al, I went back--" His eyes grew very bleak. "Her name was Donna."

Calavicci stepped backward and sat down hard, a hand on his brow. This, no-one needed. Not while Sam remained in limbo, without hope of going home again.

"Sam...you have to understand, when you lost parts of your memory, we saw it as a way of easing the trauma at the beginning, and then, when it didn't come back to you, we figured that you'd only be more traumatized if we told you that you'd forgotten you had a--that you'd forgotten about Donna."

"Donna--is she...?"

"Oh, she's fine, Sam. Her career is in great shape. She's still working at the project. Do you really remember when we got struck by lightning and you were me..and I was you...and you were back at the project and she was there--?"

Sam frowned. "Barely. I remember being a hologram. I kinda remember being back at the project. I remember Donna, but not much else." He grasped his head and shook it fiercely. "Why, Al?" He asked despairingly.

Al exhaled heavily. "Well, I always figured if you remembered every leap, every detail of your life as Doctor Sam Beckett you'd be completely crazy by now. That kind of stress would drive anyone completely nutso."

"Yeah? Well then why am I starting to remember so much stuff at once? Ziggy not the only one who makes mistakes after all? Whoever is doing this to me having a bad day, or something?"

"What are you talking about, Sam?"

"We both know that there's a reason that has nothing to do with Quantum Leap, or Ziggy or anything else, why I've been doing what I'm doing. What if whoever or whatever it is has a malfunction? What if my memory is coming back because that Bartender is losing control of me?"

"I don't know, Sam. Sounds pretty wild to me. How about your memory is coming back because for some reason this leap temporarily opened up parts of your mind? Or maybe your experience with that ah...Bartender, and all that came after are finally starting to catch up with you? If you retain any of that stuff after this leap then we'll start worrying. Until we figure out exactly why you ended up with all those holes in your memory in the first place there's no way to know what else could happen."

"Fine," he said flatly. "I have a performance this afternoon. I'd better work out the rest of today's sermon."

"You found another one of Stephen's--?"

Sam shook his head. "I wish," he said. "I got this old one from a file." He held up the folder. "And I followed his style and stuff and wrote a new one."

"You wrote a sermon?" Al asked incredulously, glad to have the subject changed.

Beckett shrugged. "It wasn't that difficult once I read a few of his."

Al shook his head. "All right, Sam. Good luck with it. I'm going to check on Joey and then I'm going back to see what Ziggy can find out about your memory fluctuations."

Sam watched expressionlessly as he disappeared, then sat down to go over the deliberately hyped-up, characteristically shallow type sermon he'd written for Stephen to deliver. Then, almost as if guided, he began making changes...

        *******

"...And so I say to you, my children, that if you have faith, faith in yourselves, in who you are--in what you can be, then you can do anything!" Sam thundered and moved across the stage once more, microphone in hand. "You have in yourselves the power do anything, be anything if only you have faith, if only you take control of your own lives, your own destinies. Do not allow yourselves to be led by charlatans and frauds! Do not allow yourselves to believe in the unbelievable, because seduction of the soul for the sake of lucre is the devil's work," he told them, holding the gaze of an old woman in the front row. Then he was moving again, sweeping his gaze around the 'room'. "I want you to put away your donations. I want you to put away your fears and trust yourselves. How can I accept the trust you place in me, when you don't have faith in yourselves?!" He demanded, his voice getting louder and louder as murmurs rose in the audience.

Then someone whistled and cheered. Suddenly the whole tent was rocking to the adulation of the crowd.

"Oh, boy," Sam muttered to himself. Al was right. They wanted to be led, one way or the other. They wanted to be taken in by Stephen. Not exactly duped, perhaps, but willing to be taken down that road for the sake of finding that ever undefined something that was missing in each of their lives.

"And now--" Sylvia spoke up as the crowd subsided.

Probably, Sam suspected, to stop Stephen from saying anything else about not giving donations.

"And now, a brief break to allow Stephen to rest his voice and for you all to think about his wonderful sermon. Theodore will play selected hymns for you during this period and our helpers will move through the audience so that if you have any messages, any problems, you can tell them. Thank you all."

Backstage Sylvia rounded on Sam. "I don't know what the hell you were trying to do Stephen, but it could cost us plenty. Have you taken leave of your senses?!"

Beckett opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off by one of the helpers, Stan, bursting into the backstage area with an overflowing contribution tray.

"I can't believe it!" He enthused. "Tell 'em not to give money and they pour it out. This is going to be our biggest night ever!"

Sam groaned.

Sylvia's scowl was replaced by a beatific smile. "So, there was method in your madness after all, darling," she drawled, and kissed him on the mouth. "My mistake."

Beckett watched her just about float back toward the stage, to begin the next phase of the show: the healing session. He scowled in distaste and prepared himself mentally to do it all again.

By the time the faithful had started to file up to the stage, including the several plants in the audience, Sam had worked himself up into the righteous lather of the spiritual huckster. As was the custom, Sylvia asked their names and called them out to the audience before giving them to Sam, who with loud and vociferous prayers laid on his hands and called for the power of healing.

A woman with migraines fainted. An old man with prostate cancer stood reciting prayers in an almost hypnotic state, a blind girl wept and two of the fakes passed out melodramatically to take no more part in the show. The third moved two fingers in a purportedly paralyzed hand to the delight of the crowd and the star of the night rose almost to a standing position from the wheelchair prop she was using, before flopping back in feigned exhaustion and exultation. The crowd were hooked.

When it was over, Sam was sickened. He turned to finish the show and looked down to see that a small child had come up to the stage alone, against the rules. The little girl could only have been seven or eight.

At first Sam thought she was autistic, but her obliviousness to the noise and excitement around her was a result of deafness. As she stepped up to where he stood he could see the tiny hearing aids.

A wave of emotion, rage, anguish swept over him. What he was doing was wrong. So wrong. He knelt down before the child mechanically, forcing himself to go through the motions of being Stephen.

The child's eyes were cornflower blue. Sam swallowed as they searched Stephen's green ones. There was a heartbreaking conviction in them that moved Sam almost to tears. Her parents must have told her that if she came to Stephen she would be made well.

"Make me better," she signed.

He opened his mouth to begin a prayer, then closed it again.

The child's eyes widened as Sam's filled with moisture.

She put her arms around his neck and hugged him. He held her for a long moment, closing his eyes against the anger he felt and tightening his arms around the small body as she whispered near his ear in a halting voice:

"It's all right. Don't cry."

The words were blurred by her inability to hear herself, but they cut just as deeply into Sam's soul. It was then he realized that the whole room had fallen silent. He didn't know what to do. He couldn't cure the child. He couldn't stomach the idea of praying over her or making some shallow speech to cover Stephen's sham.

In the end it was the child who drew away, leaving Sam on one knee before her. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Sylvia off stage looking daggers at his inactivity. He was supposed to be capitalizing on the audience's complete captivation, but he just couldn't do it.

Eventually, when it looked like Sylvia was going to come back on stage, he rose slowly and put his hands silently over the child's ears as Stephen would have done, and closed his eyes as if in silent prayer. He could hear murmurs of prayer in the audience as he stood there wondering what he was going to do.

The decision was wrested from him by the child's hands, which covered his fingers and drew them away from her head.

He looked down at her. She was blinking and concentrating on something.

Sam looked on incredulously as she pulled one, then both hearing aids from her ears. Incredulity changed to suspicion and he shot a sidelong glance at Sylvia, but her quite visibly stunned expression told him that she wasn't involved. Nor was Theodore showing any sign of knowing what was going on.

He knelt down again. "What's your name, sweetheart?" He said gently, knowing that she would read his lips.

"Holly," she said in a clear voice.

"Holly, can you...can you...hear me?"

Holly nodded very slowly.

As if in a trance, Sam turned her toward the silent crowd and said softly: "Holly, turn around and tell me that again."

Slowly the child turned back to him and looked into his eyes.

"I can hear you," she said.

Beckett stared at her. It was impossible. This time the moisture that had been gathering in his lashes, finally fell. Holly put her arms around him again and he hugged her until the audience's silence began to build into a roar of applause and loud prayers of thanks to God and to Stephen.

Sam made a valiant attempt to clear his head. He had to do something. He lifted the child away and smiled reassuringly at her before standing and raising his arms in a settling gesture. It took several minutes for the crowd to calm down again.

"I did not heal this child," he told them. "It was...It was her faith that made her well. I swear, I did not heal this child."

The crowd loved it, but they didn't believe him. They reacted to the perceived modesty in exactly the opposite fashion to what Sam had intended.

At that moment Al reappeared, out of uniform for one rare time. Holly's eyes widened in disbelief. She slipped a hand into Sam's. Beckett immediately turned off the microphone.

"Is he one of your angels?" she asked.

Despite his unease, Sam couldn't stop himself from laughing. He hunkered down again.

Al made a face at him.

"No, Holly, Al isn't an angel. He's a hologram," he whispered. "But only you and I can see him, so don't make the crowd mad by telling them, okay?"

She nodded.

"Al," he hissed, without looking away from Holly. "What does Ziggy know about Holly?"

"Zip," Al told him. "We already looked."

"What's your last name, Holly?"

"Ingram," she told Al, looking straight at him.

Al tried again. "Ah, here. The kid was in a car accident eighteen months ago. Ahh, Jeez," he said uncomfortably.

"What?" Sam snapped in a low voice.

"Not while the kid's listening, Sam. Anyway, as a result of the trauma of the accident Holly became blind and deaf."

"Both?"

"Well, yeah. It was a pretty severe hysterical reaction. She got her sight back six months later, but the doctors felt she would never regain her hearing because the stuff I can't talk about right now was so traumatic that she wouldn't ever get over it completely."

Sam exhaled heavily.

"How do you know all that? You are an angel, aren't you, Al?" Holly whispered.

"No kid, I ain't no angel," Al told her, visions of Carmen Miranda's hat, flapper's clothes and a voice from glory making him smile. "I'm from the future--that's how I know."

"Is Stephen from the future, too?"

Sam put his hands on her arms, aware that the crowd were mesmerized by the inaudible exchanges between the three.

"Holly, can you see me?"

"See you?"

"Yes. See me. What color is my hair?" He asked.

"Brown," she said and then frowned. "That's weird. The pictures of you out the front all have white hair. Oh..." It finally registered. "You're not Stephen."

"She can see you," Al said redundantly.

"Obviously," Sam drawled. "Holly, my name is Sam. I'm helping Stephen tonight. Right now, though, we have to pretend like Al isn't there. Are...are you okay?"

"You mean about what he said about me? Sure. The doctors told me there was an accident and mommy used to ask me about it sometimes, but I don't remember anything."

Sam exhaled with relief. "All right, then," he said and stood up again, took Holly's hand in his, turned on the microphone, and faced the crowd.

"I hope you all will forgive Holly and I for taking a little time to get to know each other--and to give thanks to the Lord," he added and squeezed the child's hand to let her know he was aware he was telling a fib.

"You all didn't believe me when I told you before that I didn't heal this child. Well, it is the truth. I've just discovered that Holly here was suffering from hysterical deafness. There was a great trauma in her life and she became deaf and blind. She regained her sight all by herself within six months, but tonight, tonight the power of her faith--in herself--enabled her to regain her hearing. She believed that if she had the courage to come to me she would hear again, and she did. That was not my doing. These hands," he held them up, "did no more than give this child a reason to come back, to let go of her trauma, tonight. I'm asking you now to let go of your own fears, to take control of your own lives, like Holly here. That is what God wants from you."

Holly's mother came to the edge of the stage as he spoke. The child threw herself into the woman's arms. Mrs Ingram thanked Stephen over and over again.

Sam touched her outstretched hand and smiled at her.

Then he straightened quickly, raised his arms to signal the end of the show and got off stage with as much haste as he could, not stopping even when Sylvia tried to speak to him as she passed him to go back on stage herself.

Al was waiting for him in the dressing room.

"Sam, you did a good thing out there. In the original history Holly wasn't healed. Stephen never brought her up on stage. He must've thought he'd fall on his face so he ignored her and distracted the crowd with some longwinded speech about giving thanks for the fake bozo in the chair. Holly remained deaf and traumatized the rest of her life. She finished high school and worked as a data-entry clerk as an adult, on and off, but couldn't keep a job because of depression and people's prejudices about her disability. She never married and died aged forty-one, of renal failure caused by prolonged abuse of prescription drugs."

"And, what happens to her now?" Sam asked quietly.

"She finishes college and goes on to become a psychologist. She marries and has three children, all boys." Al started cackling to himself.

"What? What is it?" Sam demanded suspiciously.

"Well," Al drawled. "She named the first one Marcus Jefferson after her father--who, by the way, died in that car accident--the second one David James after her husband and the third one Samuel Alan."

Sam smiled in spite of himself. "I guess Alan is better than Alfred or Aloysius or Albert," he laughed.

"Very funny," muttered Al, then chuckled again. "Nice though, huh?"

"Was that what I was really here for, Al? Am I going to leap?"

"If you were, don't you think you'd be out of here by now?" Calavicci pointed out, sobering things up considerably. "Joey still needs you, in case you've forgotten."

"No, I haven't forgotten," Sam shot back, and wiped a hand over his face. "Where is she, anyway?"

Al tapped the handlink. "In her hotel room watching television and waiting for Sylvia to take her shopping this afternoon."

"Good. Now all I have to do is find Joey Chalmers a home before whatever happens between her and Stephen, happens."

"Yeah, right. Sam, how's things?" Al asked.

Beckett knew what he meant. "I haven't remembered anything else. I'm all right."

"Good. I'm gonna go find out if there's any place around here you could get Joey into--you know, like a school for young ladies, or a decent girls' home or something."

Sam nodded, and watched Al go through the chamber door again with a rare pang, as it closed.

        *******

The crowd the following day was half again larger than the previous one, much to Sam's dismay, and it was bulging with all manner of wounded, sick and dying individuals.

Beckett withdrew from the side of the stage and went back to his dressing room. He passed Joey, with Syliva's street clothes in her good arm, going the other way.

With her hair cut and styled, new, but practical clothes and a small amount of make-up, Joey did indeed fulfil the promise of her looks. Sam wondered if that was what swayed Stephen into seducing her. He shook his head distastefully. The more he found out the man, the more despicable he found him.

"Everything okay?" He asked.

"Great," Joey enthused. "I'm just going to iron these for Sylvia. They crush easily and she wants to look nice to go back to the hotel."

"Yeah, right," Sam said, unimpressed. Joey seemed destined to be a slave to other people. At least this time she would get paid.

"It's all right, really, Stephen. I like it here, and Sylvia's being nice." Joey giggled. "Even though she can't stand me."

"You can tell?" Sam asked, and smiled when she broke into a grin again.

"Of course. If I were your wife I'd probably feel the same way if I found you having breakfast with another woman."

"Ah-ha. Well, Sylvia knows I'd never do anything to hurt her, which is probably why she's being nice to you in spite of her other feelings," Sam improvised. He wasn't at all sure what was in the older woman's mind.

"Well, I'd better get this ironing done, and you have to change for the show--" Joey said uncomfortably and headed down to where the costumes were housed and the ironing board Sylvia had ordered, was set up.

It was a long, repetitive afternoon and Sam was glad to get back to his hotel room. His relief was tempered by the fact that he was running out of time and still hadn't found somewhere for Joey to live. He hunted out the phone book and began looking for options.

Al returned, making Sam jump in spite of himself.

"What did Ziggy say?" he demanded when he'd collected himself.
"Ziggy says that your best chances are with the Grayson Street Chapel's refuge for homeless children, the Our Lady home for the handicapped--except that will cost lots of money, or there's the State home for girls. If you had more time you could maybe find her a job with board and lodging or something, but with things as they stand these are your best options."

"Some choices, Al. Which one does Ziggy give as the best chance for success?"

"The home for the handicapped. With Stephen's money, it wouldn't be hard to enrol her there and she'd be able to finish her education. The place is progressive and she'd get physiotherapy for her arm and leg. Ziggy says with adequate treatment she will regain some mobility in both."

"I'll take her there in the morning, before the show, to look the place over. Ask Ziggy what happens after that."

"Ok-kay." Al consulted the handlink. "It works. She likes it. Uh-oh. Ziggy says she still gets pregnant, but now it's from a rape. She does, however, get taken care of at the institution, only the baby is taken away and put up for adoption. Joey never gets over it or the rape."

"That's not possible!" Sam shouted. "Nothing was supposed to happen until tomorrow night. Besides, I'm not going to do anything!"

"I know, Sam. I know. Maybe--maybe you leap before it happens. Or maybe this time it isn't Stephen?"

"No, no," Sam snapped. "Ask Ziggy when it happens in the new history."

"It still happens tomorrow night, in her hotel room. Stephen is implicated. His story is that he went to investigate the girl's screams and the real rapist ran off. Joey, however, blames Stephen."

"But how?! He's not here," Sam reminded him in a voice slowly rising in pitch.

"Well, ob-viously, it wasn't him," Al decided.

Sam frowned. In his gut he felt that Joey wasn't capable of that kind of deception. "But why would Joey lie?"

"Maybe not exactly lie. Joey's just a kid. If she was afraid of something worse, she might blame someone else. Maybe she was threatened."

Sam nodded. "If it's on record that a rape was reported, there should have been..ah..evidence," Sam pointed out. "Which presents another problem. If it wasn't Stephen, do I have to prove his innocence?"

"I guess so. Otherwise you would have leaped by now. I mean, lets not forget that this stuff is all hypothetical, here. You still have to be careful."

"Yeah, right," Sam sighed. "Why don't you go find out if Joey
had any male acquaintances, or met anyone since she's been here. Anyone who could end up in her room tomorrow night."

Al's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. "I'll be back, Sam. Sit tight."

Beckett stripped off the white suit and silk shirt and headed for the shower. Afterward, comfortable in shorts and robe, he worked half-heartedly on a sermon for the following day, in case things didn't go as planned. During a break he called the school for the handicapped.

Yes, they had an opening. And certainly, with Stephen Cilento's generous up-front patronage they would be quite willing to keep the child until she was at least eighteen. He could take her there in the morning, and if all went well, she would be able to stay.

Sam hung up the phone and sighed. He would have much preferred to consult Joey first, but things were already far too complicated.

Sylvia stuck her head in the access doorway and asked him if he wanted to go down for the evening meal. Sam wasn't hungry.
He declined.

"Suit yourself," Sylvia told him, apparently quite happy to go without him and withdrew to her own room, on the other side of which, was Joey's.

Beckett hunted out casual clothes to put on, and swayed as he bent to pick up his shoes. He was drawn and pale. Whatever had been affecting him through the last few leaps, and tearing him up emotionally, had taken a bigger toll than even he realized. A wave of tiredness rolled over him. Almost without realizing it, he lowered himself onto the bed, put his head on the pillow for just a few moments and was soon in a deep, dreamless sleep.

The next thing he knew was the sound of Al's voice yelling in his ear.

"Sam! Get up! Something's happening!"

Beckett scrambled out of bed and grabbed his robe. "What? ...Who?"

"I heard screams for a moment, I think from Joey's room. I'll go take a look, but you gotta get over there. Now!"

Al popped back in as Sam raced through Sylvia's rooms to the access door on the other side, which was flung open.

"There's some creep in Joey's room. He's all over her. Hurry, Sam! Hurry!"

Sam tore into the room inside to see a tall, thin man dropping his pants while holding a terrified Joey down by the throat.

In a blind rage Beckett grabbed the man by the shoulders and flung him into the wall, picked him up by the shirt front and knee-ed him in the stomach before dragging him up again and finishing him with a powerful punch in the mouth.

Joey was curled up in a foetal ball on the bed shaking like a leaf.

"Joey," Sam said gently. "Did he..?"

She shook her head slowly, too much in shock to speak.

"It's all right," he said softly. Someone will be here soon. You're going to be fine. Do you know this guy?"

Joey swallowed and raised herself, trembling, to a sitting position. Much as he wanted to comfort her, Sam didn't touch her. He knew only too well that it wasn't what she needed right then.

She nodded slowly. "He--He's a friend of S-Sylvia's. He's been v-visiting her. She made me promise not to m-mention him to you. P-Please don't be mad, Stephen. She said she'd fire me if you f-found out, and I couldn't bear that," she sobbed.

Sam and Al looked at each other.

Al spoke first. "What made this sleaze change nights? You're decision to put Joey in the school couldn't have affected this
bozo's plans--"

"Unless," Sam interrupted hollowly. "Unless Sylvia was in on it. She was in her room while you and I were talking and she spoke to me just after I called the school."

Joey watched Sam, puzzled, but too shocked to make much of his one-sided conversation or his unusual behavior.

"You mean that dragon might have used this kid to deliberately set Stephen up? After all, he was sure to hear her scream, especially if the pimple over there let her holler a couple of times just to make sure. And with Joey in shock, or scared out her wits by threats, she could easily be manipulated."

Sam closed his eyes. "That's what it looks like, Al. I'd better call the police."

"You better do your robe up before somebody comes bustin' in here and decides you look more like the perpetrator than the weasel over there."

Sam looked down at his shorts and swiftly did up the robe before calling the police.

The stranger was coming around slowly. Sam tied the man's hands to the heater pipe with one of Sylvia's stockings, then turned to Joey.

"How do you feel? Do you think you'll be able to make a statement to the police?"

Joey nodded her head slowly.

"You'll tell them everything?"

She nodded.

"Do you know this guy's name?"

"Schlatter. Christopher Schlatter," she said distastefully. "The creep."

"Now that sounds like a healthy attitude to me," Al said. "I'm outta here. I'll be back in the morning."

As Beckett finally smiled the sound of boots in the corridor drew nearer.

The police had taken their statements and all but finished their investigation of the incident when Sylvia burst in from her room, mouth open, obviously ready to denounce Stephen in front of everyone and stopped short, not expecting to find her lover in hand-cuffs.

"What on Earth is going on?" she demanded, only to find herself under arrest and being handcuffed.

"You're under arrest for conspiring with Schlatter here in the matter of the assault and attempted rape of Miss Ingram, Mrs Cilento. Mister Schlatter has been most co-operative."

Sam watched them go with a sense of unreality. He wasn't sure what to do next. When the room was emptied it was obvious that Joey was still in shock and that she really shouldn't be left alone.

"If I leave all the doors open will you be all right for ten minutes while I go and get dressed?" He asked gently.

The girl nodded and rose from the chair the police had seated her in.

"I need to take a shower anyway. I feel so dirty," she told him miserably.

Beckett nodded and started through the access door.

"Stephen--?"

Sam turned.

"You will come back?"

He nodded, understanding more profoundly than Joey could possibly imagine. He returned half an hour later in jeans and a thick white cable sweater.

Joey had also dressed, in jeans and sloppy joe, and was sitting at the small breakfast table of the suite. She looked pale and exhausted but for two red spots in her cheeks from the heat of the shower.

Sam sat in a chair on the other side of the table.

"Do you want anything--Coffee? Tea? Food?" he asked.

She shook her head, then looked up at him slowly. "I watched you for months, Stephen. I thought I knew who you were. But you aren't him--I mean, you're not the same. It's not just how you are on stage or off stage. It's something much more than that...I think, I think I could fall in love with you," she confessed timidly.

"Joey," Sam said carefully, "You've just had a very bad shock and it just happens that I'm the only one here for you. I am your friend, but that's all I can be. There's Sylvia, and I'm really far too old for you--"

Joey giggled a watery giggle and raised a pale hand. "I wasn't making a pass," she said in that 'old' voice that didn't fit her body. "I guess I was just saying that it's what you are that I care about, not who. You don't seem to fit somehow. Who are you, really?" she asked disarmingly.

"Stephen Cilento," Sam said automatically, watching gratefully as her eyes drooped, her head tilted a little to the side. "You should get some sleep."

She straightened, more or less. "I'm afraid to sleep," she told him.

Sam rose and helped her stand. "Come on, sleepy head. I'm not going far." He took her through to Sylvia's room, put her in Sylvia's bed and drew the covers around her. He could not however, turn his back on the look of fear in her eyes.

He woke cold and stiff in the morning, still holding her hand, his head resting on the side of the bed, his back killing him from being bent over in the chair half the night.

Joey stirred when he moved, and he noticed with satisfaction, with much brighter eyes and far more color in her cheeks.

"My back is killing me," he complained mock-sufferingly and winced as he stood up. "How did you sleep?"

"Like a log," she said sleepily. "I'm hungry."

"Best news I've heard in ages," he grinned. "I'll give you half an hour to get ready, then we'll go have the biggest breakfast you can order before I take you to this place I want to show you. I think you're going to like it a lot."

"Okay. But make it twenty minutes," she bartered. "I'm starved."

Sam had just emerged from a steaming hot shower, most of which he'd directed onto the crick in his back, when Al reappeared.

"You've done it, Sam. All you have to do now is get her to stay in the school and she's home free," he announced without preamble.

        *******

The formalities at the police station were over satisfyingly swiftly. Sam looked down at his charge as they drove away, and knew that he would soon be gone, and there would be no memory, not even a mental picture of her small face left to remind him of this leap.

The trip to the school turned out to be the only simple, easy part of the whole leap.

Joey fell in love with the school on sight, with its bright class-rooms, enormous library and the dozens and dozens of pupils of all ages and disabilities working and moving around in a generally friendly, busy fashion.

As they waited outside the Administrator's office for their appointment, Sam wondered what the future held for her, and remembered something he wanted to tell her.

"You sure you're going to be happy here?"

Joey looked up at him radiantly. "Did you see that library? Those classrooms?" She enthused. "Are you kidding?"

Sam grinned. "That's wonderful. I'm glad you like it. This is the beginning of your journey, Joey. Look out, elephants."

She nodded. "I have a chance now. Because of you."

"I wanted to talk to you about that," Sam told her, pouncing on the opportunity. "Remember what you said yesterday--about...about me not fitting?"

She nodded and frowned, puzzled.

"Well, I want you to remember that. See, after today, that part of me won't be around any more. I can't really explain, but you have to promise me that from now on, you'll follow your heart. Don't look back, and above all, don't ever consider yourself obligated to me. I think you understand pretty well that my money isn't exactly earned from blood, sweat or tears...at least not mine--"

"It's in the eyes," she said softly. "I used to watch your eyes. You were charming and clever, but there was no soul in your eyes. Now there is."

"For just this little while," Sam said softly, mesmerized by her childish insight. "Just long enough to help you. When you look in my eyes, and what you saw is gone--I want you to say good-bye. And I don't want you to look back. Promise me."

Joey smiled, put her good arm around his neck and hugged him hard.

"I promise," she whispered. "But I'll miss you."

"Mister Walthorpe will see you now," said a prim voice. The middle-aged office secretary looked over her spectacles as the pair went into the inner-sanctum, and harrumphed ever so delicately before going back to her desk.

The moment he handed over the cheque for the considerable donation to the home in exchange for Joey's education and keep, Beckett leaped.

        --***--

Sam blinked. He was in a crowd. He was wearing a dark, three- piece suit. There was something in his ear and something...

He slid a hand under his jacket. He was wearing a gun. He looked to either side of himself. Two more who looked just like him, suit, earpiece. Trouble. He looked ahead. More of them, and an incongruous, elderly figure in a suit, stetson and cuban heels, between them.

Was he a cop? A detective?

"Sykes, get those people away from the Governor! What are you doing down there? He's not going to make it unless you clear the east side."

Sam wondered who Sykes was. No-one on the wire answered the call.

"Sykes!" A stentorian voice yelled. Out of the corner of his eye Sam saw first one, then the other suited man look toward him.

"H...Here," he spluttered. "I'll...I'll get right on it."

He motioned to the men, whom he now realized were obviously under his control, to do as they had been instructed. They were extremely large and forbidding and the sea of Humanity parted swiftly when they waded into it.

"A bodyguard," he told himself as they ran up steps behind the Governor. "I'm a body guard."

"Secret service, Sam. You're a Secret service agent."

Sam resisted the urge to swing around and blast his friend for taking so long in such a precarious situation. Instead he pushed his mike away from his mouth and hissed at Al without turning.

"What took you so long?! Anything could have happened. What if somebody had tried to get this guy? I could have been responsible for--"

"Sam, stop whining."

Al put himself in front of Beckett as the entourage moved through the corridors to the Governor's office and the bodies thinned out considerably.

"Sam, it's 1976. You're a Secret service agent. Your name is Dan Sykes. You're with Governor Kendall's office, starting this morning. The guy with the bull-horn voice on the wire is a personal bodyguard who's been with Kendall forever. You were seconded with a couple of these other gorillas--Crandall and Jacobsen, from the white house to protect this bozo because his racist mouth suddenly got him more death threats than a consumer advocate. You're protecting a creep, Sam."

"Great," he muttered. "Just great. Why am I here?"

"Because I'm here, Dan-iel. And if I have to pull this kind of shitty duty, so do you."

Sam wheeled around to face a rugged looking black man in a dark blue suit who could easily have played for the Green Bay Packers.

"Well, in that case..." smiled Beckett, for want of something better to say.

"His name is Errol K. Jacobsen. He's your closest friend. You guys were partners. You were both uniform cops in the NYPD until six years ago when you were dismissed for risking a situation by rescuing Jacobsen when you were ordered to wait for back-up. Jacobsen quit when they wouldn't reinstate you after an investigation found that you were not negligent in your duties. It seems the big boys didn't like being told to get uh...you get the picture."

Sam slid a withering glance at Al, then focused on Jacobsen. "Errol--" he began, only to be interrupted by both Jacobsen and Al.

"Call him Jake. You call him Jake. He hates Errol. The K is for Kenneth. Folks who don't call him Jake call him Ken."

"What's with you Sykes? First you goof off out there, then I find you talking to yourself and now you risk instant death?"

"D...Death?" Sam ventured.

"Death," growled Jacobsen, then broke into a grin. "Don't do it again."

"I...I won't," Sam promised. "I'm not feeling too well."

"Don't worry. We're off-duty in half an hour. Can't be too soon for me. I think Brewer did this to us on purpose. I mean Governor K. took one look at me this morning and just about spit up his coffee."

"Brewer is your boss in the Service, Sam," Al interjected helpfully.

Sam slid a glance down the corridor to the other giant, a big, heavy, fair haired man with a crew cut and a nose that wandered all over his face.

"That's Crandall," Calavicci added.

"I don't know, Jake. I think you're a hell of a lot prettier than Crandall."

Jacobsen was scanning the area in the compulsive way bodyguards did and didn't turn back to Sam until he was done.

"Very funny," he said. "A horse's ass is prettier than Crandall."

"True," Sam agreed, not needing a sixth sense to detect the very real dislike in Jacobsen's voice, and began his own scan, knowing that he had to be seen to do as Sykes would or arouse suspicion.

For all the noise and chanting that continued outside the building it was eerily quiet in the hallway with its polished floors, chandeliers and mahogany fittings.

Suddenly, the wire crackled to life again. "Sykes, we've got trouble out here. Get a cordon around the Governor. If we can't hold them, they're going to be in the building in minutes."

"On our way," Beckett answered, following Jacobsen who was already sprinting toward the doors of Kendall's office. "Crandall, get up here and cover the door!" he yelled as he ran.

By the time they reached the Governor's chair the crowd had spilled into the corridor. They could hear Crandall order them back. He gave the order thrice more, then they heard him fire a shot.

Then all hell broke loose. The doors were knocked down, and demonstrators poured into the room. Beckett and Jacobsen and the two uniformed guards already in the room closed ranks around Kendall, searching the faces, the bodies, always searching, for the extraordinary, the danger, the threat.

Jake saw it first. A man in a foreign suit, an expensive suit, wearing gloves. He had something in his right hand. Something that set off all Jacobsen's alarms as the hand was raised and extended. Sam saw it at exactly the same moment. Jake dove for the Governor and Sam went for the gunman.

The shot was fired before Beckett reached his target.

Al watched in horror as his friend fell and the room cleared like the parting of the red sea.

A bruised and bleeding Crandall staggered in as the gunman turned to flee, put a headlock on him and sent the specialist weapon he was carrying flying across the room.

Finally free to leave the Governor's side, Jake Jacobsen flew to his friend, over whom a wan-faced Al was hovering and pounding at the handlink.

Jacobsen rolled Sam over and found the wound. "Call an ambulance! A paramedic!" he screamed and tore open Sykes' shirt.

The bullet was lodged too close to the heart for anyone to relax. Jacobsen struggled to stem the bleeding.

Al swore. Ziggy's odds for Sam's survival were exceedingly poor. He'd never felt quite so helpless. Close, several times, but not like this.

He rode in the ambulance alongside Jacobsen, never taking his eyes from his friend's still blessedly-rising chest, listening desperately to the voices of the paramedics as they continued to work on him, monitor his vital signs.

What the hell kind of leap was this? What was Sam supposed to do in a coma?"

He asked Ziggy again. And swore again. Sam had already done it. He'd prevented Jacobsen from being killed protecting a bigot from an underworld hitman. And saved Jake's family from years of grief and ostracism. The Governor would be indicted for accepting bribes from organized crime. Happy endings all round.

But if Sam was dying, he couldn't leap...

        *******

Al hated hospitals. And casualty rooms most of all.

He hovered in Casualty oblivious of all the medical people walking or running through him all the time, watching, worrying as they tried desperately to save Sam's life.

It seemed like they had him forever, doctors shouting for stuff, doing surgical procedures with the speed of a M*A*S*H team.

The heart monitor flat-lined. Al dropped the handlink without even noticing.

"No!" He cried and ran to Sam's side. "Sam, you gotta fight. You have to fight. You can't die! Not like this. Fight, damn it!"

Somebody thrust a defibrillator paddle clean through his chest. Al jumped back and cringed as they jolted him. And again. And again.

Finally a weak signal jumped to life on the monitor. Pale, and shaking, Al back-pedalled and leaned against the chamber wall.

Twice more Sam tried to die, and twice more the crash team saved his life. Some time after that he was pronounced stable enough to be moved to an intensive care ward, though still listed as 'dangerously ill.'

Once warded, in a private room, with 24 hour monitoring, Beckett--Sykes--was allowed no visitors. Aside from the assigned intensive care nurse, only Al sat at his bedside, in constant vigil for almost thirty-six hours. Each time he'd had to go to the bathroom had been a terrifying five to ten minutes when, in his tortured imagination, Beckett died in his absence.

The hours dragged, only Al's voice and the sound of the monitor breaking the horrible silence of Sam's coma. He took them both back, to the beginning, to all the early leaps; the laughs, the tears, the craziness. When he got to Sam Bederman, his voice died. It was a leap that still haunted his nightmares.

He watched Sam's unmoving face, and wondered if it still haunted his. He skipped it and went back to better times, to Sam's family, the farm, the basketball game. His voice continued, roughly soothing, through the night, the next day and into the early hours of the following morning, with only the smallest of breaks.

Were it not for Gooshie silently delivering food, coffee and hope at intermittent intervals, Al knew he couldn't have kept going. As it was his voice was breaking up. Doctors had been in and out several times, the duty nurse had changed several times, and for once Al couldn't remember what a single one of them looked like...

Finally Ziggy dropped the odds slightly. They were still frighteningly high that Sam would not make it, but at least they were going in the right direction.

Calavicci didn't know a lot about medicine but it seemed that the language the doctors were using among themselves was a lot more hopeful than Ziggy was. He knew that Doctors tended to soften the blow for relatives, but among themselves they were usually clinically brutal in their observations.

A couple more hours passed. Gooshie brought more coffee and a message of support from Beth. Gooshie had notified her that he wouldn't be home for a while.

Al was coming through the chamber door after another reluctant trip to the bathroom when he saw the figure.

It was Crandall, the big, ugly secret service agent. Before Calavicci could even shout uselessly to the nurse, Crandall had placed a cloth over her nose. She slid fluidly to the floor and didn't move again.

Calavicci's heart-rate exploded, adrenalin curled the hairs on his neck. He leaped forward instinctively as Crandall reached for the I.V. and pulled the canula out of the back of Sam's hand, blood and saline solution going everywhere.

"N-o-o!" he screamed. "Sam! You have to wake up! SAM!" he cried.

But Beckett didn't stir from his coma.

Al swiped up the handlink from the chamber floor. "Gooshie, open the door! Hurry!"

Gooshie scuttled down the corridor after a determined Calavicci.

"But Admiral! You can't do this! I can't let you take that risk. You just can't!"

Calavicci looked up from the handlink as they all but ran to the accelerator, his eyes haunted. "How can I not? Ziggy says if you put me into the ward nurse in the next five minutes Sam has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the attack. If not he's a hundred percent dead. Now tell me I have a choice!"

They reached the heart of the Quantum Leap facility. Beckett had perfected pin-point targeting to save his, Al's life. It seemed only fitting that he should do the same for Sam. Al had always wondered what it felt like when Sam first went back through the accelerator, but when the time came, he didn't even notice. He didn't think about the possibility of not going back, or the consequences of that. He couldn't allow himself to think of Beth, or how she would cope with the news.
All he knew was that he was now sitting at a desk in a hospital ward feeling very cold around the legs.

He leaped up and sprinted awkwardly down the hall, kicking off the plain court shoes, to Beckett's room, and promptly tried to run through the door. The smack in the head smarted, but it did serve to burn into his mind what he'd actually done.

He yanked it open. He was in the right time, the right place. And he remembered. Sam was still alive. He ran back into the corridor and down to the desk. There was a phone. He was on the verge of panic, trying to work out how to summon an emergency team when he saw the button. He hit it hard. An alarm sounded. Within seconds there seemed to be people everywhere. He sprinted back to the room ahead of the oncoming team and motioned them inside, forgetting to even approximate the movements or mannerisms of a middle-aged, senior female nurse.

Sam had stopped breathing again.

He was dead.

Al swore, turning peripheral heads. The doctor, however, was focused on his job, examining, calling for medication, giving shots.

"Clear!" He cried and began yet another round of defibrillation.

Al was near tears by the fourth attempt. He hadn't gotten there fast enough. Sam was gone. He worked his way around to the head of the bed.

He watched in a cold sweat as the doctor said the dread words:
"Once more, and then that's it. Clear!"
        
"Sam, try!" Al cried as the paddles were reapplied. A faint pulse jumped up on the reattached monitors.

So did Al's.

"He's back!" A half dozen people cried in a jumble of jubilant voices. Things moved into high gear.

Sam hung on.

"Come on, my friend," Al urged.

This time someone noticed. "Nurse, you can go back to your station now," they told him.

Go back, he thought hollowly. He looked down at Sam, whose chest was now visibly rising and falling, and at the doctor who was waiting for him to move.

"Uh..y..yes, doctor," he said reluctantly and withdrew. Back at the desk lights were flashing on the phone and a nurse was waiting with charts. Al did the only thing he could do.

"Nurse, I think I'm going to be ill. Take over for me, would you, and call someone in to finish my shift."

"Yes ma'am," the nurse replied dutifully, blinking in a non-plused fashion, slid into Al's seat and began answering the phone calls.

Al followed the corridor until he found a door that said something other than ward whatever. It was a sitting room for visitors and it was deserted. He flopped in an arm chair and closed his eyes.

What had he done? What could he...no what could Gooshie tell Beth? Just as he was descending into real depression he heard a familiar sound. He looked up.

"Gooshie? What are you doing here?"

"Somebody had to stay in contact. Ziggy says Doctor Beckett's chances have jumped to 65% for a full recovery. We're working on a way to try and get you back now."

"But...if you can get me back, you can get Sam back, right?"

"We don't know," Gooshie admitted. "Ziggy has been working on models and variations of models for the Retrieval program continuously since Doctor Beckett was lost, not to mention the doctor's own modifications during your leap to 1945, Admiral. The lock on you is rather more solid than it is on Doctor Beckett. Ziggy knew exactly where and at what moment you arrived. I'd have come earlier, only it didn't seem appropriate."

Al rubbed his face. "Well, that's all very well, but when do I go back?"

"We don't know that, yet. Ziggy says theoretically she could pull you back now, but currently the Retrieval program just isn't working."

"Great," Calavicci sighed. "Just great. Go see how Sam is."

He watched Gooshie walk through the walls and shook his head. Everything was upside down. Moments later he was back.

"He's stabilized. The police are there now." He consulted the handlink. "Ziggy says they'll be gone in about twenty minutes. There won't be any more attempts on Sykes' life."

"So why did that gorilla wanna kill Sam?"

"It's nothing personal," Gooshie told him matter-of-factly. "Although there's never been any love lost between Crandall and Sykes and Jacobsen. The motivation here seems to have been money. Crandall was paid a lot of money by someone to get rid of Sykes."

"Who? The Governor? The boss--what's his name, ah, Brewer?"

"Ziggy doesn't know. He says that the most likely candidate is Spike DeSalle, a convicted felon released just two days ago from a maximum security prison on parole. He was one of Sykes' last arrests as a police officer and the prime suspect. However, records show that Crandall took the fall alone."

"Details?" Al demanded, looking at the ladies' wristwatch on his left arm.

"DeSalle? Arrested for trafficking narcotics and other illicit drugs in a raid on a PCP factory. His equally unpleasant brother was killed in the raid--by Sykes, who was the arresting officer and the chief witness at the trial. He was the officer who handled all the surveillance and evidence gathering before the operation to close the place down."

"Sounds like a suspect to me," Al muttered, and looked at the watch again. "Gooshie, what does Ziggy say Sam's chances are of getting home if I make it back?"

Gooshie consulted the handlink. Al didn't like the look on his face.

"Less than twenty-five percent," he said unhappily. "Which is only about twelve percent more than any previous opportunity the doctor has had."

The handlink came to life. "Ziggy says you can go and see Doctor Beckett now. A police officer is stationed outside the door, but he has been instructed to admit any medical personnel with the correct identification." Gooshie pointed to the photo ID badge on Al's left breast. "Otherwise he's still not allowed any visitors."

Al bolted for the door, then paused and turned his head. "Gooshie...thanks," he said, and headed down the corridor.

The police officer checked Nurse O'Halloran's identification very carefully and consulted a list he had on a clipboard before passing her.

"Good man," Al said as the door closed behind him.

"Ma'am?" said an officious voice from the small bathroom off the room. A tall, plain, hawklike nurse emerged looking anything but pleased.

"Ah..yeah," Al confirmed. "I..ah..I came to give you a break, nurse. I have a special interest in this gu--er gentleman, since I was the one who found him after...well, you know."

"If you say so, ma'am," the nurse agreed doubtfully. "How long do I have?"

"Why don't we say a couple of hours. Freshen up, get something to eat, rest if you want. I'm off duty now, anyway. I didn't feel well after all the excitement."

"I know," the nurse told her. "That's why I was so surprised to see you. I thought you'd gone home."

"Oh, I couldn't go home. Not until I found out how Doctor Beckett was--"

"Who--?"

Al cursed silently. "Ah, sorry, I meant Agent Sykes. Earlier I was thinking...ah...about a hospital I used to work at. Doctor Beckett was a close friend."

The nurse looked down her nose and nodded. Al let out a long, loud breath when she was gone. She didn't act like a subordinate. He made a mental note to check the duty roster at the desk if he got the chance.

He seated himself next to Sam, familiarized himself with the emergency call button and the nurse's crash alarm button just in case and then allowed himself to study his friend in detail.

Sam still had almost no color in his face and all the tubes and wires were back in place. He was breathing normally and regularly and the monitor was making comforting patterns and noises.

"Sam, don't you ever do that again, you hear me?" He told the prone figure. "You can't die. I can't explain how or why, but somewhere a long the way you and I became more than just friends. I always had plenty of buddies in the navy, close ones, but you, you're something else. I don't know what. I'm not good at this stuff. Maybe, I don't know, like a brother, or something. All I know is you can't die."

For the first time since he'd leaped it occurred to Al on more than a peripheral level that he was no longer a hologram. He took one of Beckett's hands between two of his.

"Can you feel that, Sam? You're not alone. I'm here. You've gotta come back. If you don't come back, you won't leap. I don't know where you are, but you have to let it go, and come back here."

Beckett remained motionless. An hour passed, Al continuing to maintain the physical contact and talking aimlessly about the inconsequential goings on back at Quantum Leap headquarters, the people, the lives, the loves and the projects started, finished, or conceived in Sam's absence. He rambled through the light-hearted areas of family life, more leaps, made an attempt to cover some of the work Ziggy had done over time, despite his own woeful scientific ignorance, and just generally maintained a presence. The nurse returned briefly. Al gave her the night off. Twice in the hour the guard quietly stuck his head in the door to check on everything.

Al liked him a lot.

He was emerging from the bathroom and trying vainly to get the pantyhose back 'up' again when he saw it. One of Sam's fingers twitched.

Just one.

He raced back to the bed and picked up the hand.

"Come on, Sam! Come on! I'm here..."

Sam's face was unchanged. For several minutes Al thought that it was over, then a finger twitched again. He put a hand on Beckett's brow, willing him to come back.

"Sam, please," he said, running out of ideas. Then he thought of something. "Sam, I don't want to be here alone. You gotta come back. You gotta help Ziggy get me home to Beth. You hear me, Sam? You gotta help."

Beckett's head moved minutely from side to side, but his eyes did not open. A muscle flickered in one of his cheeks. Then his lips parted.

Al leaned forward to listen for any sound.

"Al, I k--killed...someone," Sam whispered almost inaudibly, before falling silent again.

"Sam!" Al pleaded, but Beckett was caught half way between the coma and reality, in the honeycomb of his own mind.

"I don't want to die, Al!" He whispered in a slurred voice.

"Sam, open your eyes. I'm not gonna let you die. Sam, look at me!"

"Racecar, this is Coffee Mill. Squawk two, over," Beckett muttered.

Al shivered.

"Sam, snap out of it," he pleaded vainly.

Behind him, Gooshie popped in. "Admiral, you should consider pushing the emergency call button now," he said softly.

"But Sam isn't back yet. I'm the only one who can help him now, Gooshie. They all think he's Sykes."

Gooshie consulted the handlink. "Ziggy suggests that you keep talking. He's halfway there, but his mind is unique. He will follow the sound of your voice, but you must keep talking."

Al did exactly that. He even repeated endless laws of physics read out to him by Gooshie, recounted ribald stories he knew Sam would just hate from his navy days, and remembered in detail the day and the hour he first realized he was in love with Beth.

"You oughtta know what that feels like, Sam," he said, smiling to himself. He was going to mention Donna, because Sam had, but he hesitated painfully. He had promised.

"When I saw you with Abigail--" He said instead.

Sam's hand twitched again.

"I knew you loved her. You would have stayed with her too, if it had been possible. She was beautiful, Sam, inside and outside."

"Abigail..." Beckett moaned.

"That's right, Sam. Abigail. If she were here, now, she'd be mad as hell at you for taking so long to come back. Come back, Sam. Come back for Abigail..."

Calavicci held his breath. For the first time Sam's eyes flickered. He moved one of his hands to Beckett's shoulder.

"Sam..?"

The dark-lashed eyes flickered open. "Al? Where..?"

"About time," Al told him thickly, then grinned. "Stay with me, Sam. You're in hospital, but you're going to be okay, now."

He shot a look at Gooshie who mouthed the words eighty-five percent, grinned and disappeared through the chamber door for the time being.

"I'm still here?" Sam asked slowly in a slurred voice. "I don't remember anything..we were going up some steps--"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's all over now. Think about that when you're stronger. Right now you gotta worry about getting well again."

Beckett grimaced. "N-nasal gastric tube? I'm hurt. My
chest--?"

"You were shot saving someone's life. The bullet only just missed the pulmonary artery, but it did a lot of damage. They nearly lost you. I nearly lost you."

Beckett looked at the hand Al was still holding, an expression of profound shock on his face. Al had long since discarded the nurse's cap and Beckett hadn't really noticed that the collared white shirt was actually the top half of a nurse's uniform. He spoke brokenly.

"Al, I can...feel...your hand. It's warm, and solid. Al--" His eyes squinted up, trying to read the ID badge. "My God, Al, you--" He paused to catch his breath. "You leaped," he whispered.

The monitors registered a change in Beckett's heart rate. Al hit the call button.

"You can't worry about that now. You're alive and that's all that matters. The doctors are coming now, so I have to go. I'll be back in the morning."

"Al--" Sam called weakly. "Al..." His eyes met Calavicci's and words were no longer necessary.

The sound of voices in the corridor prompted Al to move again. "I'll be back, Sam," he promised and was gone.

        *******

Beckett woke slowly from a nightmare in which he had been shot, and was in a hospital with a nurse who looked like Al. He knew it was a nightmare, because Al had touched him, and because Al made one ugly nurse...

He tried to sit up and was restrained by acute pain, and the paraphernalia attached to his body. He was in a hospital. Who was he? Where was he?

He blinked and focused. Al was there again, this time in a pink shirt and jeans.

"Al, I dreamed you were a nurse," he chuckled weakly.

Al smiled back. "I am. A Supervizor, no less," he said, and flicked the pass pinned to his blouse pocket."

"But--" Sam objected. "Al, you touched me in the dream," he confided in a weak, labored voice.

Slowly, Al reached out a put a hand on his friend's good shoulder again.

Beckett closed his eyes. "No..." he whispered. "No...Beth--"

Al squeezed the arm gently. "It's all right, Sam. Ziggy's working on it. Things have changed. She has a lock on me. You once modified the accelerator so it can hit the bullseye."

"You mean...y-you can go back...whenever you want?" he asked, obviously in a lot of pain.

"Well, no, not exactly," Al replied awkwardly. "Sam, do you want me to get someone?"

"No. They wont give me anything else until I'm more stable."

"Oh, yeah, that's right. No visitors either. Jacobsen is probably going nuts."

"Al, am I going to--?"

"What kinda question is that? You made it through the night didn't you? Ziggy has you up to eighty percent now. Stop whining, Sam."

Sam chuckled painfully. "All right...already. I'm going to live. What...exactly...d-did happen?"

"You saved Jacobsen's life from a gunman who was trying to take out the sleazeball Governor. Hey, if you're gonna live, you should've leaped," Al said suddenly, reached for the handlink and came up empty. He swallowed and returned bleak eyes to Beckett's face.

"Why?" Sam croaked.

"Why? Because you saved Jacobsen. You changed history. His family don't live a miserable life without him and they aren't ostracised because he saved the life of a notorious bigot."

"Oh," Sam said, drifting slowly into an exhausted torpor. "But...I'm...still here."

"Yeah, you are," Al agreed, and headed for the door. "You get some sleep and I'll go talk to Gooshie and find out why."

He went to the same waiting room, but found it occupied by several adults and children waiting for visiting hours. He sighed and backed out. The only other option was a store room without much room in it.

"Gooshie?" He demanded. "Where are you? We gotta talk. Get your butt in here, now."

Several moments later Gooshie walked through the wall and the shelves into the room.

"Where did you come in?"

"Doctor Beckett's room," Gooshie said quietly.

"Oh." Al subsided. "Well, I need to know why he's still here. He isn't still going to die, is he?"

Gooshie shook his head. "Ziggy says the doctor is 86% certain to survive now. We don't know exactly why he hasn't leaped, except--"

"Except what?" Calavicci demanded impatiently.

"Except that you're still here. You're a new variable. You haven't leaped anywhere either. It may be that he's still here --for you."

Al turned toward the door and butted his head none to gently against it.

"He's hurting real bad, Gooshie. Ziggy has to find a way to get me back, so Sam can leap."

"Well, that's the other thing," Gooshie said carefully. "Because of Doctor Beckett's modifications, Ziggy should be able to bring you home. We've been trying, but nothing is happening. She can't find a single reason why you haven't leaped."

"Well, if I'm not going back, why haven't I leaped to somewhere else?"

"Catch 22?" Gooshie said without smiling.

"I'm here for Sam and Sam's here for me? So when does the balance shift? Is there anything Sykes...or even Marion O'Halloran...might need either of us for in this new history?"

Gooshie consulted the handlink. This time there was a considerable pause while Ziggy worked.

"According to Ziggy, Marion O'Halloran is a forty-eight year old widow who lives a productive single life until her death at age sixty-eight. There's nothing there. Sykes meets his future wife in less than a year and they have two children. He eventually leaves the Secret Service to become a security guard in a bank. He's never completely happy away from the big time, but his life is a fairly content one. No real problems there either."

"Try whassisname...Jacobsen."

"Oh..." Gooshie said hollowly.

"What? What?" Al demanded, frustrated.

"Agent Jacobsen disappears some time tonight from his hotel room. He is found hanging outside the city limits from a tree branch, with racist slogans painted on his clothes."

"Oh Jeez," groaned Al. "Then I'm still here because Sam can't do this one."

"Ziggy gives that an eighty-seven percent probability," Gooshie said quietly.

"Gooshie tell me this. Just how in the hell is a middle-aged nurse going to stop a bunch of sleazeballs from murdering a Secret service agent?"

The programmer looked at him dazedly. "By conducting your own surveillance and raising the alarm before its too late?" he suggested hopefully.

"Not bad," Al conceded. "Or I could tell him--"

Gooshie shook his head. "Ziggy says the first option has a reasonable chance of success. However, if you tell him, he won't believe you. He still dies."

"All right. I gotta go watch the guy." Calavicci straightened his collar. "I'm glad this woman knows how to dress casual. If I had to put on those damn pantyhose again..." he growled. "You keep an eye on Sam, and if anything, I mean anything, changes, you come and get me, pronto, you hear?"

"Of course. Immediately," Gooshie promised. "I will stay with him until you return."

"No, hey, Gooshie!" Al called as his friend turned to walk through a wall.

Gooshie looked back over his shoulder.

"I didn't mean you had to stay all night. You must be just about due to finish for the day..." His voice trailed off as he realized just how far from home he was. "You don't have to do that."

"You did," Gooshie said simply, and vanished.

        *******

Al spent an idle day in a cafe opposite the Governor's offices watching both the front door and the employees' car park to the side.

He ate greasy food with gusto and consumed several desserts, particularly banana splits and deep dish apple pie, half to relieve his boredom, and half because he would never be able to do it again.

A great many people came and went from the building and he noted them all, categorizing them methodically into possibles, probables and inconsequentials. It was six in the evening, and he'd only seen two possibles and three probables all day. Strangely enough, the three probables had entered the building at the same time.

Though Al had started out watching for burly red-necks going to consult with their messiah on how to deal with the problem of Jacobsen, he'd felt in his gut the moment he saw the three hawk-faced, middle-aged men in cheap suits, that they were trouble. They had not re-emerged from the building. At least not by any door visible to Al.

A few minutes later Jacobsen and his new partner emerged from a side exit into the car park and went their seperate ways. Al moved. Marion's car was a volkswagen convertable, and its small size made it both great cover and easy for Al to manoeuvre in traffic to keep up with Jacobsen's dodge.

He went around the block twice when Jacobsen finally pulled into a motel. Finally, he pulled into the reception area and booked a room for the night. It wasn't difficult to locate the dodge and the room it stood in front of.

In his own room Al flicked through the television channels in a kind of mesmerized fascination at the nostalgic content of the night's programming. Nostalgic, for him at least. The motel was 'L' shaped and he'd managed to get a room from which he could actually see the dodge.

By midnight, a pizza delivery, countless television programs and a couple of irresistible beers from the room fridge later, Al was beginning to wonder if history had changed again. It was so quiet outside that he could hear a dog barking miles away.

Gooshie hadn't turned up, so he knew Sam must be all right. He walked to his window and peered once again out at the dodge, and down the driveway to the exit. A car with bright headlights slid through the reception area without stopping. Al watched it purr up to the dodge and slide in next to it. The three figures emerged from it, each with suspiciously full right hands.

"The magic number," Al muttered, and reached for the phone. As he hung up it occurred to him that as a woman, he wasn't going to arouse much suspicion if he went outside with an empty milk jug. He checked Marion's colt 45 in it's resting place in the back of his jeans, under her pale pink wind-breaker, then picked up the stainless steel milk jug, tipped the complimentary milk down the bathroom sink and headed for the door.

Instead of heading for reception, however, he walked towards Jake Jacobsen's room. His mind was modifying his plan of action as he went. He was now a hotel employee, come to see if anyone wanted more milk, because the woman in fourteen had dragged him--her out to get some anyway.

He slid up to the window, the drapes of which were drawn, and listened. There were low voices, an argument, then some dull thuds and the sound of something splintering.

The cops still weren't in earshot despite his call, something he found difficult to fathom. There was more movement inside, the sound of dragging. He drew the pistol and planted his feet.

The door opened and Jacobsen emerged first. He saw Marion immediately but kept looking straight ahead. Al could see the bruises on his face, and the cut on his temple dripping blood into his eye.

"Now!" He yelled. Jacobsen threw himself to the left and rolled.

The first man came out in pursuit of Jacobsen, gun cocked.

"Freeze!" Al yelled dramatically. It didn't sound quite so dramatic in Marion's sing song voice. The gunman turned toward him and raised his gun.

Al fired. The gunman fell to the ground with a smashed shoulder. Marion's ammunition was a little more specialized than he'd anticipated...

The second gunman withdrew back into the room. Jacobsen was now on his feet, on the other side of the door.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"A friend," Al growled. "A friend of Sykes."

"All right, I'll take over from here," Jacobsen told him patronizingly. "Before you get hurt."

"Listen buster," Al retorted, watching the door, "I can take care of myself. Right now we still have two nozzles in there who want you dead."

"I still--" Jacobsen began, but was drowned out by a wail of police sirens.

"Now they arrive," Al complained. "About time."

        *******

Sam opened his eyes to see who had opened the door to his room.

Al and Jacobsen came in. Calavicci was back in the Supervizor's uniform again.

Sam chuckled.

"Well, I can see you're feeling better," Al told him.

"Hello, Jake," he whispered.

"Hello Dan-iel. You look like hell."

Sam smiled. "I feel worse. Don't get shot man, it isn't what it's cracked up to be."

"Who me? With Annie Oakley here watching out for me? What--did you think I needed a guardian angel or something...?"

Al, standing slightly behind Jacobsen, shaped good naturedly at the large back.

Sam chuckled again.

"You are feeling better, aren't you?" Jacobsen was only too well aware of his friend's still intensive-care status.

"Much," whispered Sam, who really was feeling better since the removal of his nasal-gastric tube.

"Uh...Marion, shouldn't we be--"

"I don't know, Sam. I haven't spoken to Gooshie yet."

"Sam?" Jacobsen asked.

"Pet name," Al said, in his best motherly impression. "We'd better not stay too long. The doctor is only allowing brief contact now that he's improved slightly."

Jacobsen turned and looked at Marion. Al recognized the look, and obligingly withdrew to attempt to find Gooshie.

The big man came to Sykes' bedside and looked down silently at his friend.

"Thanks, man," he whispered after a long silence. "Thanks. Nurse O'Halloran says they would have strung me up. The cops are running checks on them now. How did you know?"

"I had a tip-off," Sam said truthfully. "The Governor wanted to get rid of you, to stir up racial tension in this town. He knew that if his goons succeeded this town would explode, and the backlash by the black population would look at lot worse on television, and take up a lot more airtime than the original reason--your murder--ever would."

Jake put a hand on Sam's good shoulder. He'd heard the exhaustion in Sykes' voice. "I'd better let you get some sleep now," he said gently. "But I'll be back every chance I get. I've been taken off the Kendall assignment--which is just as well because I'dve probably killed the ass-hole myself if I'd stayed on any longer--so I've got plenty of time to make certain you get well as quick as you can. Louise has been waiting to see you since last summer. I expect you to make her sick of the sight of you when you get out of here."

Sam looked up at him with puzzled eyes.

"You ain't convalescing in no Home, and you sure as hell aren't going back to that apartment of yours alone. You're going to stay with us."

Sam grinned. "Whatever you say, my friend. Whatever you say."

He watched Jacobsen leave, a smile still on his face. He wondered why he hadn't leaped. He knew he wasn't going to die, but he'd had enough of the pain and the confinement of the sterile hospital room.

A few minutes later Al returned, full of news. He came to the bedside.

"Sam, Gooshie says history is back on track. We're done here. Get ready to leap."

"Al--" Sam gingerly lifted a hand.

Al grasped it indian-wrestling style and looked down at his friend.

"Al--thanks, not just for this, but for everything. I've never really had a chance to tell you. If it weren't for you--"

Al shook his head and tightened his grip. "No, Sam, it's not me. Whoever is yo-yo-ing you around history knew from the beginning that you could do it. You didn't need me. I'm just a library, a guide--Gooshie could have done it."

Sam slowly moved the hand with the drip in, across to cover Al's.

"No," he said painfully. "You're wrong. I'd have gone crazy. A library isn't a friend, Al."

Calavicci saw the emotion in his friend's eyes and nodded back, unaware of the strength of feeling in his own.

"And Al--" Sam added, after the silence seemed to stretch forever.

They both started to leap.

"--I remembered."

Al blinked, and opened his eyes. He was in the Quantum Leap waiting room, dressed in his own clothes, clothes Marion O'Halloran must have worn the whole time he was away.

In moments he was out of there, jubilant, yet worried about where Sam had gone. And his last words. Had he carried all those memories over another leap? Could he be back, in some other part of the facility?

Almost before he was out of the room, Beth was in his arms.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, then gave himself to the pleasure of being back for a moment. "Did Sam make it back?" he demanded urgently when he surfaced from their kiss. "There's no-one else in the waiting room yet."

Donna Elisee shook her head. "Gooshie is looking for him now. It was so close. We really thought we had him," she said emotionally. "I brought Beth in with me as soon as we heard--"

Al swore silently and looked up at the ceiling, blinking hard.
Beth wrapped her arms around him and held him silently. There was nothing more anyone could say...

         *******
Sam woke to find himself in bed. For a moment he thought those last moments with Al and the leap, had all been a dream. He felt an insane urge to weep rise in his throat. In the darkness he felt more alone than he ever had.

Gradually it occurred to him that there wasn't any pain. He felt the back of his hand. No canula. Groggy with sleep, he sat up and turned on the bed lamp, closing his eyes against its brightness.

A shiver went down his spine. He'd known exactly where and how to turn on that light...

Slowly, almost reluctantly, he opened his eyes. They roved around the room. He knew this place. He looked at himself. The bullet wound was gone. He was wearing...nothing. There were no sensors, no wires.

He knew this place. He struggled out of the double bed and went instinctively to the bathroom without even having to think about it. When he was done he washed his hands and straightened to look in the glass front of the medicine cabinet.

His heart jumped to his throat and all color left his face. His, and the face in the mirror...

...The face of Doctor Samuel Beckett.

"I'm back..?" He whispered, staring at the image. "I can't be back," he told himself. "If I was back I'd be at the project."

"Sam?" A familiar voice called from the bedroom.

Sam snatched a robe from the back of the bathroom door and strode out to meet it.

"Al, what happened? I'm me. I'm...I'm..." He tried to grab Al's arm, but his hand passed straight through. A cold chill went down his back.

"Then it was all a dream?"

Al shook his head. "Nurse O'Halloran at your service," he said wryly. "Ziggy brought me back, once you-know-who," he gestured upwards, "decided you didn't need me any more."

"But...if you're a hologram now, then I'm not--"

Al's eyes grew very sad. "No, Sam, you're not. It was so close. We really thought, this time..." He shook his head.

"But, Al, I'm me--I mean my hair may be a little longer, but ...the mirror--" Sam insisted vainly.

"You are you..." Al shook his head frustratedly. "I mean you've leaped into yourself two months before you first stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator."

Sam swallowed. To be himself...and yet not be back. "Why...? Why am I here?" He asked, almost not wanting to know.

"I don't know, Sam. Ziggy doesn't have anything. Nada. Zip."

Sam went over and sat on the bed. "Why?" he said softly. "You know I can't change my personal history--"

"Yeah, well, it wouldn't be the first time. Maybe you should go back to bed and get a good night's sleep. We can figure this out in the morning. You had a pretty rough time--"

Sam touched his chest without really knowing why, then looked up slowly.

"Sleep, Sam. I'll be back in the morning," Al repeated, and opened the chamber door. Then he was gone.

"Sleep," Beckett muttered. He got up again and wandered out into the hall. He was beginning to remember things, like where the kitchen was...

Downstairs the living room looked exactly as he would have wanted it to look. A fireplace, a piano, pictures, big comfortable chairs...

He picked up a photograph from the mantelpiece and stared at the two entwined figures in it for a long moment. Then his heart tore as if slashed by a knife.

Donna.

"Donna!" He whispered, recollections, even of the moment the picture was taken, flooding back. He put the picture down, unable to stand the flow of memories that it prompted.

He staggered out to the kitchen on autopilot, made a sandwich without having to search for a single item, brewed some tea, and sat down at the breakfast table to eat.

Several minutes later he found himself staring into the untouched beverage, unable to see the steaming liquid clearly any more. His hands were trembling and his jaw hurt from clenching it. He closed his eyes against the tears that filled them and buried his face in his hands.

He wept for the memories that had come crushing back. He wept for the stolen years, the years he could have had with Donna, and he wept for himself.

Al had gone home
...

He did not hear the sound of the front door, or the soft steps approaching the kitchen, any more than he heard the ticking of the antique kitchen clock, or the dog barking somewhere in the distance.

"Sam..?" Gentle hands touched his head, drew him against a warm breast and circled his shoulders without question.

Only when he was quiet, when the deluge had passed, did she speak softly to him.

"Sam, what happened? What's wrong?"

He stood up slowly and took her in his arms, held her close, his chin resting on her soft shoulder.

"Everything, and nothing," he told her jaggedly. "God, I love you..."

"Sam..?"

He shook his head.

She pushed his hair from his eyes and trailed her finger down his cheek, stopping only when she looked into his eyes.

"So much pain," Donna whispered. "Sam, please, let me help--has something happened..Did someone d--?"

"No," he whispered. "No..." He straightened and tried to gather his wits. "I'll be all right. I promise, as soon as I work it out, I'll talk to you about it, okay?"

It sounded feeble, even to his ears.

Donna nodded, but she didn't smile. "Come to bed," she said softly, took his hand and drew him out of the chair.

In all his dreams of being back, none had come even remotely close to the exquisite pleasure of lying alongside Donna, of touching her, holding her, even the faint, lingering scent of her perfume, and most of all, the aura of her love.

They fell asleep holding each other. When morning came Sam woke to find himself sleeping spoon fashion with the woman he adored most in the universe. He kissed her hair and drew his arms close around her, trying not to think about what news Al might bring about the leap.

Instead, when she stirred, turned toward him and kissed him back he immersed himself in the passion of their lovemaking, somehow trying to make up for the lonely years ahead, for her, and those gone by, for him.

A long time later, Donna watched him over breakfast. There was a lost, haunted look about her husband that had not been there before last night.

Sam looked up from his half-eaten fruit and met her eyes reluctantly.

"I'm--I'm not going to work, today," he said carefully.

Donna put down her spoon.

"Yes, Sam, you are," said a familiar voice.

Al was back.

Sam closed his eyes. Uncanny timing the guy had. Uncanny.

"All right," he whispered. "I will go to work. I just--I feel kinda strange, you know. I'm not sure what it is. Stress, maybe..."

"Stress..?" Donna repeated. "Sam, somehow, between the time I left you last night to go finish that work I was doing with Tina, and when I got home, you've changed. Something must have happened."

"Sam, you can't tell her. We still don't know why you're here. This is so dangerous...You can't risk your own future. Don't do it, Sam," Al warned agitatedly.

Sam rubbed his brow and shot Calavicci a look that made him retreat through the chamber door in a hurry.

"Do you trust me?" he asked, hating himself.

Donna looked at him reproachfully.

"Of course you do," he apologized. "Then trust me now. I can't tell you what the problem is, yet. As soon as I can, I will. But, yes, something did happen. Something I'm having a lot of trouble dealing with right now."

Donna nodded. "I just want to help, Sam."

"I'd better go get ready for work," Beckett said hollowly.

"We'ed better get ready," she corrected wryly.

Sam shivered. So long. It had been so damned long...

"We," he corrected, and smiled at her as they rose.

"What?" she asked, smiling back.

"You...how beautiful you are, how much I--" He looked down. "I love you, Donna."

"I love you too, Sam," she told him, took his hand and drew him toward the kitchen door. "But if we don't get dressed some time in the near future we are going to be very late."

He chuckled in spite of himself. It was all so blissfully uncomplicated.

"Race you up stairs!" He said unexpectedly. They tore up the stairs in fits of laughter, pushing and jostling all the way. When they reached the top he swept her into his arms again and kissed her with a ferocity Al would have been proud of.

"It's good to be home," he whispered when he lifted his head, and then kissed her again.

He didn't see the puzzled look in her eyes.

        *******

There was something incredibly surrealistic about working in the Quantum Leap facility again. Everyone was younger, fresher, and so enthusiastic about what they were doing. They were all well aware of the Government pressure to produce results.

Beckett could now remember how they'd all rallied when the notification finally came. And the events, exactly, that lead up to his stepping prematurely into the Quantum Leap accelerator.

"Oh, this is weird," Al grumbled as he arrived, making Sam jump for the umpteenth time.

"Al, don't do that!"

Al shrugged. "In case you're wondering, it's spring. Work is almost finished on the accelerator. They all know the Government is going to cut your funding if you don't complete the work by the deadline."

"Why am I here, Al?"

"You're beginning to sound like a broken record, Sam."

"You still don't know anything. I knew it. This is all wrong. One wrong move, one wrong decision and I could...I could change my own history and end up not existing or something, or...or," Sam said in a breathless rush. "Why am I here? What does he--does whatever...want from me now?"

"Calm down, Sam. You're gonna attract attention to yourself if we continue this conversation out here. Your office might be a much better idea."

Before Beckett could reply, Al popped out.

He was waiting at the office.

It was a large, airy room. There was an eclectic mess of books on the shelves: medical text books, volumes and volumes of work on quantum physics, baseball, archaeological references, music, agricultural studies all jumbled up together. Beckett's photographic memory meant none of them were necessary, but all had memories, experiences attached to them. His desk was the exact opposite. Organized, clean, ready to be worked at whenever the need arose. It had only one ornament. A beautiful replica of a priceless Egyptian artefact from the time of the pharaohs. A gift from Donna.

A basketball still lay in the corner by the window. He picked it up and grinned.

"Memories?" Al asked softly.

The smiled faded. "Too many," Sam said. "I hate that I don't remember Donna when I'm leaping. I hate not knowing why I'm here, or what I'm supposed to change. I want answers, Al. This time it's way too dangerous for guesswork."

Calavicci sighed. "I know that. Ziggy knows that. But there's still no data on what you're here for. This leap has completely freaked Ziggy out. It's just not supposed to happen, and its so dangerous for you that she won't even tell us the outcome of the scenarios she ran to see what would happen if you change history in any of a dozen different ways."

"I won't...I won't change history, Al. Tell me again what happens between now and the first leap. I'm remembering more all the time, but not quickly enough."

Al consulted the handlink. "Okay, okay, in three weeks you are notified that the project is going to be shut down unless...well, you know the rest. A week after that you leaped."

The pair looked at each other somberly until Calavicci took refuge in the handlink again.

"Let's see. Oh, and in six days time, you took a week off to be with Donna."

"I remember that," Beckett murmured. "I wasted most of the week worrying about the project. Donna wanted me to take her to the coast, to get right away from all the pressure. I wouldn't go."

"Well, that's understandable. The Government was on your case. You can take a holiday any..." Al's voice trailed off as he became aware of his blunder. "...time." He finished it honestly then looked up, an apology in his eyes.

There was no blame in Sam's, but his mind was made up. "I'm not making that mistake twice, Al. This time I'm taking her."

"Sam, you can't!" Calavicci exclaimed, Ziggy's uncharacteristically agitated voice loudly echoing similar objections around the imaging chamber. "You could change history. Anything could happen. What if something happens to you, or Donna? What if--?"

Sam turned on him. "There's always a thousand what-ifs?, Al. I'm sick of what ifs?. Unless you can tell me exactly why I leaped in here, I intend enjoy every minute I have just being me--Sam Beckett--Donna's husband. If there's one thing I do remember, in all the years of leaping, it's that I've never really asked for anything before. Well, now," he looked up, as if to the heavens. "Now I'm asking. I'm asking for my due. For some time, for me."

Al's heart understood, but his head was in a blind panic. If Sam left the state he was opening himself to a whole new set of variables.

Ziggy had already started reeling off consequences, sparked purely by the doctor's projected absence from the project for that week.

"Sam, Ziggy says that if you're not here several important decisions will be delayed. She's also calculated the odds of you dying in a car accident, a plane crash--" He rolled his eyes. "--Being critically wounded, drowning--" Al scowled. "Ziggy!"

"What?" Sam demanded.

Al made another face. "Shark attack. Ziggy calculated the odds of a shark attack."

This time Sam's face screwed up into a disbelieving look of frustration.

"How can Ziggy calculate the odds of a shark attack when she doesn't even know where we were going?"

"You said the coast, Sam. Ziggy just accessed your, and Professor Elisee's, personal histories and got the address of a beach house you both own in Maine," Al repeated.

Sam banged his hand on the desk. "Tell Ziggy to stay out of my personal life!" he shouted.

Al had never heard him so coldly angry before. The shock showed in his face. He still had nightmares about the Bederman incident and Sam's reaction had given him an eerie feeling of deja vu.

"Sam, what's wrong?"

Beckett subsided, no more able to cope with the haunted look on Al's face than the memory of the misery in his wife's eyes when he chose to go back into the accelerator after just one night of being free.

He extended a hand uselessly, then dropped it again. "Sorry, Al. I...I don't know. All I know is I've been given something and this time nobody is going to take it away from me."

"What are you saying, Sam?" Calavicci asked, again in the same unnaturally quiet tone. "That you're going to stay here, in this time? You can't control that."

"We don't know that," Sam said desperately. "Al, look at me and tell me I have to go back again. Isn't once enough? I had her in my arms, and I had to walk away." His eyes glistened with frustrated tears. "I can't do that again, Al."

Calavicci lowered his head. He was tired too, tired of seeing Sam half beaten to death, tortured, suffering for other people. And yet never to hear even one word of thanks, or feel one hand of friendship on his shoulder in a moment of despair. He'd had enough too, but he would go on, for Sam.

"Sam, you know I'd do anything--anything for you, but it just isn't possible. If you stay you will inevitably disrupt the time-line again. This may be real, right here and right now, for you, but you have to remember the consequences of your actions could be drastic for all of us, back here in 1999. Besides, I always thought at least part of you kinda liked being a hero. Nothing ever stopped you doing the right thing before..."

Al stopped to listen to something.

"Sam, Doctor Beeks says that your mind has reached saturation point. She thinks you started remembering so many things because you got to the point where there are so many fragments of other people in that Swiss-cheese brain of yours that it was in danger of overload. Not only that, but retaining those memories of the split time line. The only way for your mind to protect itself was to have your own identity re-assert itself, to maybe stop you from doing a repeat performance of that time in the looney...that time when you were Bederman."

"Bederman?" Beckett frowned. "I don't remember that one."

Al exhaled. "Good. You don't wanna remember that one--"

Beckett seemed to stare into space. "Sam--Sam Bederman," he said automatically.

"Sam, don't," Al begged. "Tell me about Donna. How is she? Did I tell you Beth is planning an anniversary party for just me and her, and--?" He stopped his desperate attempt at distraction and went to Sam's side. "Sam, please, try to think of something else," he pleaded as Beckett sat down at the desk.

"We leaped together," Sam finally whispered. "I was the hologram. I had some of your personality."

"Yeah," Al said enthusiastically. "That's it. You were the hologram and I was the leaper. 1945. You had a ball annoying the hell out of me, if you remember rightly. Not that I remember much more than that myself," he added, frowning.

Beckett smiled. "Yeah, I did."

"Look, Sam, you're supposed to be working on the Accelerator, and trying to beat a deadline, so I'm just gonna let you get to work now," Calavicci told him, satisfied that Sam would not now re-live what had been possibly the single worst moment in both their lives, Vietnam not withstanding. "I'll be back."

The chamber door slid open and Sam watched it close again, aware of an ache in his soul that refused to be put aside.

He worked mechanically through the rest of the day, doing exactly as he had done the first time around. He came to life when familiar faces crossed his path, revelling in their proximity, in the sense of being home, only to withdraw again when he was on his own.

When it was time to go home he went looking for Donna. They had come in the same car for a change. He found her in the almost-completed imaging chamber, talking to someone.

"Al!" He exclaimed. The figure turned. It was Al, but younger. So little grey hair, so...alive.

"Sam," he smiled. "How's it going?"

"We're kinda behind schedule a little bit, but we'll get there in the end, I guarantee it," Beckett assured them both.

Calavicci shook his head. "I can't believe we built this. Donna has been telling me how it's going to work. I don't have your mind for technology, Sam, but it sounds incredible."

"It is," Beckett said with more conviction than might have been wise. "Al, it's good to see you."

"Well thanks, Sam," a voice said behind him. "Boy is this weird. I'm standing where I'm standing five years from now, right this minute." Al frowned, having successfully confused himself. Then he saw the others. "Holy jeez. Will you look at that. I make me feel so old."

"Yeah and I suppose Bingo didn't?" Beckett hissed.

"Bingo was such a distant memory he didn't remind me so much of me--aw hell, you know what I mean, Sam."

"Bingo?"

Sam turned back to the younger Al. "Bango...bongo," he said slowly.

"Sam, how do you know about that? Nobody's called me that in over twenty years."

Beckett closed his eyes. When would ever learn to ignore the future Al in company?"

"Tell me, I mean tell him, that you were talking to Chuck Masters at that shindig you two went to in Washington last month, and he told you some stories," Al improvised rapidly.

Beckett repeated the story.

The younger Al grinned. "He would," he chuckled.

"I invited Al for supper, Sam," Donna told him. "Beth and the girls aren't due back from San Diego for another two weeks and he needs a homecooked meal."

"Right--right." Though dismayed, Sam forced a smile. This leap was feeling more and more like a minefield all the time. "What are we having?"

"I don't know. It's your turn to cook," Donna told him pointedly.

Al, the hologram, guffawed. "I remember this. You haven't changed much history yet, Sam. You cook a mean roast--beef, I think. And without using the microwave--it was your mom's recipe. You have everything ready at home."

"Roast. Beef," Sam told them. "But I didn't prepare anything this morning."

"Think, Sam," Al told him. "You should remember. You must have picked up the stuff on your way home the evening you leaped in."

"Yeah. right," he frowned. "I do remember. You--" He remembered where he was and stopped.

"You didn't--?" Donna asked, puzzled again.

"I mean, I shopped yesterday." Sam smiled hopefully.

"Are you sure you're all right, Sam?"

Beckett looked at his watch evasively. "Well, I'm still feeling a little strange. Let's get out of here. I'm hungry."

"You only want to get home because you know that the sooner you get there and get dinner over with, the sooner you get back here."

"Back...here?"

Donna frowned again. "You asked me to work back with you tonight, on the calculations for the retrieval program. Have you changed your mind?"

"No." God, no, he thought. "No, I just...I have a headache. I skipped lunch, and I'm paying for it now."

"Good catch, Sam. Now let's get outta here," the holographic Al muttered.

"I'll feel better when we get home," Beckett said, ignoring the chill that word sent up his spine. He stepped back out into the corridor, followed by the others.

        *******

The meal was a complete success. Sam even managed to eat his own cooking and enjoy it. He hadn't made a wrong move yet and the older Al had stayed away in an effort to avoid confusing the issue further.

Beckett watched the younger Al talking to Donna about one of his daughters and reflected on the differences between this man, and the future Albert Calavicci. It didn't often occur to him how much stress the project might be putting on the older man, and it would never occur to Al to mention it.

In answer to a question from Donna about Bingo, Al had lapsed back into old memories, mentioning names Sam could now put faces to, the black corvette, the flying, and Lisa...

Sam sat bolt upright. Of course. He'd changed history. Now Lisa had lived instead of died in a car accident all those years ago. Or did she...?

"Al, what happened to Lisa?"

Al turned to Sam. "She's a doctor now. She also has three kids. They live in Washington State."

"Not with Jack," Sam groaned, then immediately kicked himself when Al's brow furrowed.

"Sam, how do you know about Jack?" Al asked in that uh-oh tone of his.

"Uh, Chuck Masters--"

"Chuck never knew Lisa."

"Well, I, ah," Sam fumbled. "Would anyone like coffee?"

He escaped to the kitchen without really hearing their answers.

"Al!" He called in a hoarse whisper. "Al! Where are you?"

"I'm here," said a voice behind him.

"It's about time you got here!" he snapped and swung around.

"You want to tell me what the hell is going on, Sam?"

Beckett gulped. It was the younger Calavicci.

"I told Donna I probably told you Lisa's story over a few drinks once, during Project Starbright, and then forgot about it. She sent me in here because she thinks you might need to talk about something."

"Al, I can't." Sam closed his eyes. "I can't talk to Donna. I can't talk to you. I have to do this on my own."

"Do what?" Al demanded. "Sam, you sound like you're cracking up."

"I'm not cracking up," Sam retorted harshly. "I just have a lot to deal with at the moment."

"You wanna tell me why you were in here calling my name in whispers when you knew I was out there with Donna?"

The fight went out of Sam. He sat down at the table and put his face in his hands.

"I can't tell you that either, Al. You have to trust me. I'm not going nuts. If I explain any of this to anyone here I risk--I could--Trust me, it would be very bad," he finished awkwardly.

"It's the Government isn't it? Have there been threats? Against you--no, against Donna? Sam, I can help. You don't have to handle everything alone. Why do you always try to do it all alone?"

The sound of the chamber door opening made Sam jump.

"What?" The younger Calavicci asked.

"Nothing. A shiver down my spine is all," Sam improvised.

"Very funny, Sam. Just don't you tell me--him, anything. If you do I can't guarantee the consequences. Ziggy is having a hissy fit. She says there's an 85% chance that any change you make to history now will be the end of Quantum Leap, ergo the end of Ziggy.

Sam dragged a hand over his face. "She's not equipped to deal with the concept of the end of her own existence."

"Like I said. Don't tell him anything," Al repeated, pointing at his younger likeness.

"But this is you," Sam pointed out, careful to keep looking at the younger man as though he was thinking aloud. "If I tell you and explain why it has to stay between us, won't things stay the same?"

Al looked very doubtful but consulted the handlink anyway. He hit it several times.

The younger Al frowned. "Sam, are you trying to scare me?" He asked warily. "You sound like a fruit."

The holographic Al hit the handlink again. "C'mon Ziggy, stop dithering like an old woman. Sam's not gonna let anything happen to you." He hit it again. "Oh, here, Sam. Ziggy says there's a 96% chance that I'll keep my mouth shut and that history won't change. She also says to keep your mouth shut anyway."

"I'm sorry," Sam told the younger version of his friend. "Al, if I explain something to you, you've got to promise me you wont tell anyone, not even Donna--especially Donna. If you do, you could change the course of history."

"Of course you have my word. If this means I can stop worrying about you cracking up, then I want to know."

"I'm not cracking up, Al."

"Sam! Don't tell him--me--him," the older Calavicci shook his head. "You know what I mean. Don't you dare. There's still a 4% chance of catastrophic trouble there. I think Ziggy is having a nervous breakdown. If you do I--he...he's gonna think you're an even bigger fruit than he thought you were before."

"No, no you won't," Sam said, and meant it. "You were my friend. You trusted me."

The older Calavicci looked away. "I know. But I also know me. If I thought anything bad was happening to you, including a nervous breakdown, I'd want to get help as quickly as possible," he said unhappily.

Sam turned back to the younger man. "You know why I brought you onto this project?"

"Yeah. Because you wanted me to bird-dog the bureaucrats. I do the talking, you do the thinking."

"No, I mean, here. You know why you're here."

Calavicci frowned. "I'm going to be trained to use the imaging chamber and something called a handlink, so that if the experiment works you have a link with the future, so we can communicate with you, keep track of you, and know when to bring you back. Only neither of them is finished yet."

Sam nodded, a rock in his stomach. "Well--"

"Sam..!" Warned the older Al.

"I can tell you that the project will be a limited success."

"Damn you, Sam."

"Just tell...just tell me if anything's changed," he hissed.

Al swiftly went to work on the handlink. "Ahhh...jeez. Ziggy says the chances are now 50-50 that Quantum Leap doesn't happen at all."

"I don't understand," the younger Al told him.

"I wasn't talking to you," Sam explained. "I mean, I was--" He expelled a frustrated breath.

"What did you mean by limited success? I mean, how could you know, already?"

"Because for me, it's already happened," Sam said slowly.

The younger Al sat back in his chair, trying to grasp the import of that.

"Are you--are you trying to tell me you're from the future?" He asked.

"Seventy-thirty," the other Al said worriedly.

Sam shot him a warning look.

"The experiment didn't work quite the way we planned. What you're looking at is an aura of me as I am now, today. Inside the aura, however, is me as I am after what, for me, has been five years of leaping around in time."

The younger Al screwed up his face. "Sam, this isn't making any sense. An aura? That curlian stuff went out a decade
ago--"

"Al!" Sam interrupted, believing he had proof. "I was there. At your murder trial."

The older man shifted again in his chair, his eyes showing fear for his friend's sanity.

"What trial?" Demanded both Als in unison.

Sam closed his eyes. "That's right," he said. "I changed history, so it never happened."

"What never happened?" The older Al demanded.

"Lisa didn't die. Marcy didn't die on the beach so you weren't accused of rape and murder."

"Sa-a-m..." The Holographic Al said worriedly. "Is your mind on the fritz again?"

"I was there, Al. You don't remember, because of the effect leaping has on the mind, but you were in the waiting room, talking to someone you thought was your uncle Jack."

"I used to have a recurring dream," the younger Al said slowly, "that I was being held in a white room by this old guy who kept asking me questions about a trial, and talking about my life. It always gives me the creeps because the last thing he says before I wake up is "I am you..."

A look of profound shock came over the holographic Al's face.

"Jesus Christ, it was me. And that was the waiting room."

The flesh and blood Al looked up at his friend.

"Five years, Sam?" He asked.

"I can't get back, Al," Sam said hollowly. "Someone, or something, keeps leaping me into other people's problems. Ziggy couldn't retrieve me after the first leap. She still hasn't been able to."

"It all sounds so impossible," he said almost hypnotically.

"Holding at 70% percent, Sam," the holographic Al informed him. You've given yourself a big chance of wiping us out of existence, but at least it's not getting any worse."

"Not impossible, Al," Sam told the younger version. "You always told me not to give up. The calculations are working. It was all working until the Government stepped in and pushed me into going for it before the Retrieval program could be perfected."

"If--If all of this is true, am I your observer? Or are you all alone?"

"No, I'm not alone," Sam told him. "You've been with me every step of the way. You're actually here right now, or at least a hologram of you is."

"Sam!" Shouted the apoplectic hologram.

The flesh and blood Al looked around the room warily. "I don't see anything," he said.

"You--he is tuned to my brainwaves. It was the only way to make the process work. Nobody, except children, dogs and a very few others, can see you--him."

Al looked as if he was re-assessing Beckett's sanity again.

Sam turned to the holographic version. "Al, is there something--anything I can tell him that will absolutely convince him that you're here and I'm not nuts."

Al was silent for several long, painful moments.

"Yeah. One thing," he said slowly, reluctantly. After another long moment of hesitation he began. "After...after I went back for my sister Trudy, and they told me she was dead, I felt like I had nothing left. Nothing. That God had taken so much from me that there wasn't anything left. I decided if he wanted so damned much he might as well have the whole box and dice."

Sam tilted his head, puzzled. Al continued.

"I booked into a dive called the double star motel. I went to the bathroom with a cheap, store-bought revolver and I..." He stopped.

Beckett could see his hands trembling. "Al, you don't have to tell me this--" he said quietly.

Al shook his head. "I sat there for two hours with the barrel in my ear, trying to pull the trigger. I couldn't do it. I wanted it so bad, and I couldn't do it," he told Sam in a tortured voice, his eyes glittering with moisture.

Beckett put out a useless hand, then dropped it again.

"Tell him," Al ordered in a voice still thick with emotion. "If you don't he may tell Donna and they'll try and help you by calling in a shrink or worse."

Sam turned slowly back to the younger man. It was plain to see that he was very worried. Even more so now that he could see the moisture and the distress in Sam's eyes.

"What is it?" He asked.

"It's personal. T--Too personal," Sam told him quietly. "You told me something that would convince you that I wasn't crazy. Something no-one on this planet could know except you."

The younger Admiral Calavicci's stomach turned over. Beckett's distress was genuine. He half-hoped that the story would be true, so that he could believe that his friend wasn't falling to pieces.

"Whatever it is," he said slowly, "I'll deal with it, but you'd better tell me. I'm worried about you, Sam."

"Y--You just told me that when you went back for Trudy. She was gone, and you were so alone--" Sam looked down, finding it difficult to look the other man in the eye.

"It's all right, Sam," he said hollowly. "Go on."

"You booked into a motel--the Double Star Motel, took your revolver into the bathroom and spent two hours trying to kill yourself," he finished in a distressed rush.

Sam looked up. The holographic Al was looking up at the ceiling. The Al across the table from him had his eyes closed, a hand over them.

The silence continued for several minutes, until the younger Calavicci finally spoke.

"Five years, Sam?" He repeated. "We lost you?"

Sam nodded. "I'm sorry, about--"

He waved a hand, then looked straight into Beckett's eyes. "Don't worry about it. I wouldn't have told you, unless I knew I could trust you with my life--and my soul."

"Sam!" The older Al exclaimed. "The odds have changed. You convinced me. There's only a 0.5% chance of me doing anything because of what you said. I believed you, Sam."

"I know," Sam said and faced the hologram. "And Al," he said softly. "Thanks."

Calavicci nodded, the signs of distress still evident in his eyes, his face. "I gotta..ah..get outta here for a while," he said. "I'll be back soon."

It was Sam's turn to nod. He watched the chamber door close before turning back to Al's younger self.

"You--he...he left the chamber for a while," Sam explained. "And I trust him the same way. I literally can't remember all the times he's saved my life, but there were a lot of them."

"Why are you here?" Calavicci asked, dealing silently with his memories.

"...Exactly. Why are you still here, and not back in the living room with me?" Donna's voice dryly broke into the conversation.

Then she saw each of their faces and frowned.

"Can I get anyone a drink?" She asked pointedly.

Sam shook his head.

"Bourbon. A double," Calavicci said wanly.

"Coming up," she told him. "In here, or in the living room?"

"We're coming," Sam told her and smiled a little. "We got to talking--"

She smiled back. He hadn't smiled nearly enough in the last few days. "Bourbon. Double," she told Calavicci and patted his shoulder.

They followed her into the living room.

Sam's mind was racing. Had she heard anything? Had something now been changed, and would he know if it had? Suddenly he wanted Al to come back. To still be there to come back...

"Donna," he said carefully. "I have to ask you something. It's very important. More important than you can imagine. I need you to be honest with me, and to not get mad."

Donna laughed. "You sound like the end of the world is at hand," she said.

Sam didn't smile. "Did you hear any of the conversation between me and Al?"

Donna could see the worry in his eyes. "I can tell you exactly what I heard. I heard you say: I literally can't remember the number of times he's saved my life, but there were a lot of them. And I heard Al ask you why you were here. I wasn't going to intrude on the conversation, but since you brought it up, who did save your life? You've never mentioned anything about your life ever being in danger. This time I need an answer, Sam."

"Donna, I want to give you one more than you'll ever know, but I can't," Sam told her in a tortured voice.

Al went to Elisee and took her hands in his. "If you love him, please, trust him on this. If he could tell you he would, but he can't. The damage the information could do could be irreparable."

"The Government again," she said harshly. "You were talking about your life, Sam. If there's so much that I don't know about, then our relationship is not as honest as I thought it was."

Sam's eyes widened. Clearly Donna was hurt by the implication that he'd lived another life she knew nothing about, but he'd always believed that her trust was unshakeable. His mouth grew dry and the distress clouded his face.

"Donna, I love you. I need you now more than I've ever needed you, to be a part of my life. Please," he said in a voice that cut to the soul. "Please, trust me."

Donna had never seen Sam seem so terribly alone, so vulnerable. She went to him and looked into the eyes she loved so much.

"I never stopped trusting you," she said softly, and put her arms around him.

Sam held her tightly, fiercely. "Never forget how much I love you," he whispered near her ear. "No matter what happens, know that I will never stop loving you."

        *******

The days passed quickly after that. Ziggy, however, still hadn't found a reason for Sam having leaped into himself.

Al also spent more and more time with the younger Sam in the waiting room. He'd forgotten how enthusiastic, how bushy-tailed and innocent his friend had been at the beginning.

--Before he'd lived so many lives, taken on so many damned tragedies. The gleaming brown hair was much longer, the smile was quicker, and the questions were endless. He was a great deal more childlike, for all his brilliance, than the Sam Beckett he'd left in that kitchen.

They talked freely, up to a point, because Al knew that he would remember nothing once he went back, though there were some things that he didn't dare tell him. If something, any weird thing went wrong and this Sam Beckett remembered anything of importance about the future, the result could be catastrophic.

The younger Sam had known immediately where he was, but was disturbed by his older reflection and by the changes in Al. He also knew that Al was not telling him the whole truth, particularly as to the extent of the success of the experiment. The hedging eventually grew too frustrating.

"Al!" He exclaimed. "I know you're not telling me everything. I'm not stupid."

"Sam, calm down. I know you're not stupid. You're smart enough to know that if anything I tell you about the experiment, anything about the future somehow stays in that brilliant mind of yours when you leap back, then history could be changed. Trust me, Sam, there are things you're better off not knowing. Leave them alone."

"Then can I at least see Donna?" He asked.

Al looked away. "No," he said quietly.

"Why not? Al, she isn't--?" He demanded in a blind panic.

Al turned back. "No, no, she's fine. But you can't see her."

"I don't believe you!"

"You have my word, Sam. She's fine. You just can't see her right now."

Sam hit the console in frustration. "What is it you're not telling me, Al? You should know me well enough to know that I would never compromise history."

"Sam, I love you like a brother," Al told him, surprising even himself, "but I still can't tell you. I swear, if I could, I would."

He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder and was visibly moved by the solidity of it.

Sam didn't understand the significance of the gesture, but he understood the emotion in his friend's eyes, and in his words.

"All right, my friend," he said gently. "I won't ask again."

Al nodded and patted the shoulder. "I have to go back to the imaging room, now."

"Tell him I said...tell him--"

"He knows," Al said. "He's you, remember?"

        ******

Sam didn't particularly enjoy the flight to Maine. Some interesting memories of other experiences with aircraft resurfaced as they slid through the heavens, none of which were very reassuring.

Superficially he worked hard to make the flight as enjoyable as possible for Donna, and indeed, on another level, found joy in just being with her, despite his other anxieties.

In spite of Sam's nerves, they landed without incident, the hire car stood waiting, and they made it on to the highway without incident. Even the weather was perfect.

The house was exactly as he remembered it. A lot of their history was in that house. Many treasures, junk to anyone else, but pieces of their history, their youth, were scattered around the holiday home, just like the eclectic collection of furniture and pictures.

By the time Sam had collected wood and layed a fire he had relaxed. He sat back and put a match to it, then watched it come to life. He enjoyed the peace of doing something for the pleasure of it, of not having unfinished business hanging over him. His only responsibility, for the first time in years, was to Donna, and to himself.

The gold and blue flames licked up through the light timber and fanned around the log perched on top. Soon the room filled with soft, flickering light. Sam turned off the lamp so that only the golden glow of the flames lit the room.

Donna brought supper from the kitchen: two glasses, a bottle of good red wine, bread, cheese and perfect red apples, a favorite of Sam's.

He smiled at her as she stretched out languidly alongside of him and leaned back against his chest.

"Hello," he said softly and kissed her ear, her neck, her hair.

She turned slightly in his arms and kissed him back, an unexpected urgency in the caress of her lips and the deft motion of her hands through the buttons of his shirt. When it was off, he stopped her for a moment, took her face tenderly, slowly, in his hands and brushed his lips over her eyes, her brow, her mouth.

"I love you so much," he groaned and covered her mouth with his again.

Their lovemaking was like an emotional ballet. Sam lost himself in the ecstasy of being with her once more, of merging his soul with hers again after what seemed more and more like an eternity of emptiness.

The blending of their flesh, the intensity of their need, the sheer passion of their giving made the night more glorious than anything Sam had ever known. With every fiber of his body he told Donna all the things he'd wanted to tell her since the last time they'd said goodbye, to tell her now, and most of all, everything he wished he could tell the woman waiting for him in the future.

All too soon it was over and Sam drew himself alongside her. He kissed her very, very gently and looked into her eyes.

When he continued to drink in every beautiful lash, curve and feature of her face, Donna reached up and stroked his brow.

"What is it?" She whispered.

"You," he said softly, suddenly emotional again. "I never looked at you often enough. I never took enough notice."

She lifted herself to a sitting position and put her hand gently on his face.

"Has it been so very long?" She asked.

Sam froze. "What? I'm sorry, I don't understand," he said uncomfortably.

"Sam, don't." She searched his eyes. "I know my husband. I know it's you, but its a different you. Even your love-making has changed."

Sam looked away. There was a reason for that. Though his memories were incomplete, he knew would it hurt them. A lot.

"Don't you think your imagination might have gotten the better of you, sweetheart?" He said without looking at her, hating himself. "I mean I know we've all been under a lot of pressure lately but--"

He felt her arms slide around his torso and shivered.

"Sam, you're so alone. You hurt so much. Let me be with you," she pleaded.

Suddenly all the pain, all the heartache that had returned to haunt him over the last several leaps boiled up and overflowed. His shoulders began to shake.

Donna held him even more tightly. He closed his eyes against the moisture that surged in them.

"Please let me love you, Sam. If it was the Project that ...brought...you here--"

Sam nodded his head. He owed her that.

"--Then I know my Sam is safe. If I can't spend this time with him, let me hold you for a while, let me make the pain go away."

"No...no questions?" He whispered.

"No questions," she replied, and turned him around. "Except for one."

He opened his mouth to object and found her fingers on his lips.

"How long has it been?" She said gently.

He shook his head, but he could not disguise the desolation in his eyes.

When Donna said nothing he looked up. She had lost all color.

He opened his arms and drew her into them. They held each other until the fire grew cold, then Sam carried her to their bed, where they held each other until the sun woke them again.

The next few days were filled with peace and contentment, love and play. They swam, they dived, they walked for miles. They laughed, and they talked to each other, about things, unimportant, trivial, wonderful things. They loved when they chose and they cried when it all became too much, and most of all they learned to make every second count.

        *******

Sam Beckett, scientist and insatiable seeker of knowledge, paced around the white room he was confined to. Intellectually, he knew why he was there. He knew they couldn't risk opening the door. But everything in him, every fiber of his being wanted to be out there. He wanted to see how far Quantum Leap had come, wanted to see everyone. He wanted to know.

He was leaning over the console in the middle of the room studying the aura that surrounded him, the image of his future self, when Al returned.

"Al!" He exclaimed happily. "I'm going nuts in here. I have to do something about the design of this room. Tell me what's happening. Have you found out why I'm here yet? Can I talk to Donna yet?"

"Whoa, cowboy," Al said, holding up his hands. "I'm sorry it's been so hard on you, Sam. I know how much you want to know what's going on, but I can't tell you. You know, deep down, that I can't. It's bad enough that one of you is in a position to change history. I don't need both of you in that position."

"Al," Sam said in as serious a voice as he'd ever used. "I want to see Donna. She is not going to tell me anything. She's too good a scientist for that. I need to know she's all right. I need...I want to see her."

Al looked away. "Donna doesn't know you're here."

"She what?!"

"I said she doesn't know you're here. Telling her is one of the riskiest things we could do right now. This leap is too important to her."

"Too--" Sam sat down slowly. "I was getting close. They were pushing me to finish. I must have finished, because I'm here, in the waiting room. A-And you, and that reflection...I know I'm in the future, Al. That means it worked. How does that effect Donna?"

"Sam, don't," Al pleaded. "I know how it must be for you to be stuck in here, but, God, you of all people should understand why I can't tell you anything."

"Are you happy, Al?" The younger Beckett asked unexpectedly.

And that was perhaps the most difficult question of all to answer.

Al looked back on the last five years, on all that Sam had been through, on being leashed to the project like horse on a lunging rein for all that time, on the time spent away from Beth...

Sam watched his face the whole time. "I didn't think so," he said softly. "I screwed up, didn't I?"

Al remained silent.

Sam looked at the stress lines in his friend's face. "I'm sorry, Al," he said quietly.

"I'll go and arrange some dinner for you," the older man told him. "I have something I have to do."

        *******

Al almost reached the imaging chamber when a hand on his shoulder stopped him in his tracks. For a split second he thought Sam had escaped. Escaped..? Sam could get out any time he wanted to. The whole complex was programmed to respond to Doctor Samuel Beckett, regardless of which incarnation it happened to be...

He turned slowly. "Ah...Doctor Elisee," he said uncomfortably.

Donna Elisee had the look of someone who was looking for answers.

"I haven't seen you for the last few days, Al."

"I've ah...been a little busy."

"With Sam's latest leap? Ziggy won't talk to me about it. Gooshie almost swallows his tongue whenever I mention it and you...you've become the invisible man. I want to know what's going on, Al. I've never been locked out before, and I don't like it."

"Well, Donna, there are leaps, and there are leaps. This one kind of...well--"

"Al!"

"You're too involved, Donna. You have to stay out of this one. It could mean the existence of the project, even."

Donna subsided. She looked at the ceiling, then at the floor. Finally, she faced her friend again.

"This isn't fair, Al," she told him. "If it's that close--if he's that close, why--?"

"Donna, I'm sorry. I can't tell you anything. I wish I could, but I can't." He ran a hand over his face. "This leap is killin' me."

Donna's expression changed. Al looked tired, more than tired, he looked distressed. He'd been doing this so long she'd long since taken him for granted. Until now. She stepped toward him and took his hand.

"Al, you're so tired. When's the last time you slept?"

Al chuckled. "This ain't a sleeping leap," he said wearily. "I'm fine."

Donna nodded and drew the back of her hand across her eyes.

"And I'm about the only one who is," he said gently and squeezed the soft hand in his. "I have to go now, sweetheart. Hang in there. When it's over I'll find you and we'll talk. I promise."

Donna half smiled. Al would never change. She kissed his cheek and patted his shoulder.

"I'll hold you to that," she told him, and forced herself to walk away...

        *****

Six idyllic days slipped by. Sam actually caught himself believing in the illusion. All he knew was for the first time in a long, long time he was truly happy.

He was up long before Donna, watching the first light touch the ocean, gradually pushing back the night to turn the sky to a pale silver grey. He went back to their bed, just to watch her sleep.

And when she finally stirred, blinked and looked up at him, swallowed his heart, and his desire and simply said:

"Hello."

"Hello, husband," she purred and stretched out a hand.

Sam took it, kissed it, then pulled her from the sheets, trying not to concentrate too hard on the soft curves, the glorious breasts, the mass of wonderful hair.

"Time to get up, sleepy-head," he told her. "This is the ultimate time of the day to swim."

"Sam," she laughed. "It's cold."

"All the better," he grinned clownishly. "Cold water does things for a woman."

"You spend too much time around Al."

Sam watched her pull on the simple, but elegant one piece costume and wondered where his was.

"It's still on the landing, where you left it to dry yesterday," she told him. "You can get it yourself. And we'll see who the cold has the most affect on."

"Piece of cake."

Sam sauntered over to the sliding doors and would have made a very 'cool' exit, but for the pillow that embedded itself in the back of his head.

He whipped back the door, reached out and grabbed the suit off the rails and raced back in with the pillow.

The ensuing battle only ended when Sam cried pax. Wrestling naked had its disadvantages if you happened to be a man...

They went into the surf together as the sun rose and body-surfed until exhausted and starved, they finally decided that breakfast was in order. They slid through the warm, shallow water, unwilling to emerge into the chill of the morning until absolutely necessary.

Finally, they stood up together. In the same motion Donna snatched the band of his costume and filled it with wet sand.

Sam exclaimed loudly and roared with laughter, chased her boisterously through the shallows and caught her very quickly. They rolled in the warm water, shouting with laughter and struggling to see who would end up the most decorated with wet sand.

It was wild, joyous fun. Something Sam had all but misplaced since his childhood in Indiana...

He had just filled the front of his wife's very expensive bathing costume with seaweed and was doing a very good job of kissing her into submission, when a voice broke the spell.

They both sat up and looked around. It was Al calling from the beach. It took Sam a moment to realize that it was the contemporary Admiral Calavicci.

They slowly dragged themselves up and shivered in the dawn chill. They made their way up the beach to Calavicci and their towels.

"Everything all right?" Al asked as they headed for the house together.

"Wonderful," the pair said as one.

"What brings you all this way to break up our holiday, Al?" Donna finally asked, a slight edge to her voice.

Al's eyes conveyed his regret. They moved to Beckett.

"Sam, you have to come back. If you don't, Gooshie won't be able to finish the programming. The bozos at central intelligence have raised the project's security classification, but since you and Donna aren't there to sign everything, all requisitions and supplies have been halted. We can't even finish the imaging chamber."

"That didn't happen in the original history!" Sam exclaimed.

Al's eyes widened in surprise. He looked at Donna, who showed no surprise.

"You told her?"

"Not in so many words, but she knew all along that I wasn't--that I don't really belong here."

Donna heard the break in his voice. She slid her arm around his waist and felt him reciprocate.

"So did you make this trip in the original history?"

"No. But--but the project's security clearance wasn't upgraded until a month before--before...It's too soon," he finished awkwardly. There was no-one to remember, not even Sam himself, that once, in a history untouched by his hand, Donna had left him at the altar, that he'd stayed with the project right through because he had no reason to leave...

Al looked around. "Is he--?"

Sam shook his head. "Not for the whole week. I don't know where he is."

On cue the chamber door opened. "At your service," Al told him chirpily. "Did you think I'd eaves drop on your second honeymoon?"

"Well, you're here aren't you?" Sam pointed out waspishly.

"Ziggy eaves-dropped," Al admitted. "I was talking to you. The other you, that is. God you were young," he complained. "I never realized--you're like a little kid. You wanna know every-thing--"

"Al," Beckett interrupted. "We need to know what I changed and why our clearance has been upgraded sooner than I remember."

"Well, Sam, you probably didn't realize, but all that work you did before you left, it was a lot more than you originally did in the same period, and since everything gets fed into Ziggy, and Ziggy is programmed to send copies of all the work to the appropriate bigwigs, they saw what you'd done and decided you were far enough along to upgrade Quantum Leap's security classification. Apparently the work you did pretty much convinced them already that the thing was close to enough to completion to be a security risk."

"Damn." Sam turned to the others. "It's my fault. I got too far ahead in the work when I was trying to make up for this week," he explained.

"Sam," Donna said quietly. "Is Al your observer?"

"No questions," Sam reminded her.

Donna looked hurt, but she nodded her head silently, watching his face crease with stress and frustration.

"You told her?!" The holographic Al shouted. "Sam, its a wonder I'm still here. You're gonna end up screwing this project up completely if you're not careful."

That was enough for Sam. Six days, his mind raged. He couldn't even have one lousy week of peace without it all coming back to haunt him again. He should never have stepped into the cursed Accelerator! And with that shattering admission to himself, something snapped.

"Shutup! Just shutup!" he exploded. "Just leave us alone. Both of you, just go a-way!"

His friend jerked his head back in surprise. There had never been real anger between them before. That had always been the remarkable thing about Sam. He never got angry. Annoyed, confused, bad tempered, but never truly angry. Never out of control...

Silently, Al nodded and left the chamber.

Sam turned, smarting, to the flesh-and-blood Calavicci.

"You're going to leave now. Donna and I are going to have this night together and then we will catch the flight which you are going to book for us, first thing tomorrow morning, back to New Mexico," he said in a flat monotone.

Al stared at him for a moment, then turned silently and left.

"That wasn't fair," Donna told him.

"Fair!" Sam exploded again. "Don't talk to me about fair!" He shouted. He looked up at the heavens. "Fair? You don't know the meaning of the word fair," he raged. "Well, I'm not going! Do you hear me! I'm not going!"

He ran, sprinting headlong down the beach, out of control. He ran until he couldn't put one leg in front of the other, until he dropped from sheer exhaustion, into the fine sand.

He lay there for a long time, numb, without feeling, either in his heart or his legs. He thought about nothing, his mind a void, for the first time in his life.

"Got it out of your system now?" A voice asked quietly, much later.

Sam blinked, turned and faced Al. His Al.

"I'm--I'm sorry about before," he said slowly.

"I know," Al said in the same subdued tone. "So am I."

"You--?"

"Yeah. Me. I know how important this week was to you. I'm sorry it's been screwed up."

"That's why you haven't been around," Sam said slowly, coming back to himself again. "You were giving me...time."

Al smiled. "You okay, Sam?"

Sam exhaled long and loudly. "I am now. Have I changed anything?"

"Not yet," Al told him. "If you go back tomorrow everything gets back on track and nothing important changes." He paused.

All the color had gone from Sam's face.

"I think I know why I'm here, Al..."

Beckett's tone sent a cold shiver down Calavicci's spine.

"You do?"

Sam nodded.

"I've been given a choice."

"I don't understand," Al said, not liking the sound of that voice.

"In two weeks I can step into the Quantum Leap accelerator. ...Or I can walk away," he said almost hypnotically.

Al's stunned eyes suddenly looked down at the handlink, which had exploded into furious activity.

"Sam, Ziggy is very unhappy right now. You do realize that if you close the project down she won't exist and neither will I, at least not as your observer."

Beckett's eyes held his. "Maybe so," he said, but it doesn't mean we won't all still have productive lives. Mine will just be here, instead off bouncing back and forth through time like a...a cueball or something! I may even perfect the Retrieval program and try again later on."

Al panicked. "Don't you make up your mind yet. You have to think things through. Ziggy has to run this new scenario. You have to wait, Sam!" If Sam didn't go into the accelerator...

...Beth!

"Al, Al. Calm down. I said there was a choice. I didn't say I'd made one."

Al exhaled. "Good, Sam. Good," he said. "Ziggy is on it, as fast as her little circuits can calculate."

There was a another burst of noise from the handlink. Al looked at it and appeared to disregard it.

"What?" Beckett demanded.

"Er..Ziggy said: 'Shutup!'" He reported sheepishly.

Sam ran his hands through his sand-ridden hair. "I'd better get back. Let me know what Ziggy comes up with."

Al watched his friend jog up the beach and wondered somberly where it would all end.

        *******

After their return, Beckett made an effort to keep the project on track, to not change anything until he was absolutely certain what to do.

More and more memories came back, so that deja-vu became a constant companion as he worked and lived his own past. The scattered memories he had from leaping blurred into an unrecognizable mass and even remembering his friendship with Al during those years became difficult, except when he was asleep.

The more Sam forgot, the more he dreamed. In those dreams leaps of all kind were re-lived night after night. He lost count of how many times Donna had been forced to wake him or been woken by him talking in his sleep. In the morning however, as often as not, he remembered nothing.

Occasionally he'd remember special moments, or a name, but little else. Then, as time drew nearer for him to activate the Quantum Leap Accelerator, Beckett's dreams turned to nightmares.

Night after night Donna saved him from the terrors of hangman's nooses, electric chairs, guns, fists, out of control airplanes, dead bodies and any number of traumatic events jammed into Sam's overloaded subconscious.

"Sam...Sam!"

Donna struggled to wake Sam from yet another nightmare. The more she heard, the more terrified she became. His speech slid in and out of that of a stranger's and Sam's reassuring tones.
The stranger's voice spouted communistic slogans and militaristic gibberish, much of which Donna recognized as being very real, very old codenames, technical and historical information.

Sam seemed terrified of the other entity.

She shook him again. The stranger was yelling at someone. Finally, she tried to drag him into a sitting position, and found her wrists locked in a painful grip.

The face that looked down at her was not Sam's. It looked like Sam, but it was not him.

"Who else!?" He yelled, then lapsed into angry Russian.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Sam," she cried.

Before Donna knew what was happening she was caught a stinging backhand across the face, causing her to fall backwards out of bed.

The pain of the contact with Donna's cheekbone broke through Sam's subconscious.

"No!" he cried. "Donna!"

He leaped to her side and was horrified to see her cringe.

"Donna, I'm sorry," he said shakily. "It wasn't me. I'm so sorry."

She refused his outstretched hand.

"What's happening to you, Sam?" She whispered.

"Oh, God, Donna. Please--be angry, be anything, but don't be afraid of me," he pleaded. "People--people I've leaped into leave traces of themselves in my subconscious. I don't know why, but lately all my dreams, my nightmares have been of past leaps. A--At least I think that's what they are."

Donna straightened, the scientist in her over-riding her emotional distress.

"Who was he?" She asked, already half convinced that she knew.
Sam looked away and closed his eyes. "I didn't stop it. I couldn't stop it." His voice cracked. "Parts of Oswald's mind and mine got mixed during the leap," he explained slowly, aware that Al would have a catfit if he knew. "I couldn't control him when his mind kicked in. If it hadn't been for Al, I would've shot...I would--" He couldn't finish the sentence.

Donna took put her hand in his. "It wasn't you, Sam," she said softly. "And you don't have to be alone now."

Sam turned away from her. "It's not that simple," he said miserably. "I was put here for a reason. I have to make a decision..." He covered his face with his hands. "Donna, I don't want to lose you again," he whispered. "I can't."

It hurt her to hear the heartache in his voice. It had been a very long road. A road her Sam had yet to embark upon. The realization tore at her.

She lay her head against his back and put her arms around his waist. "I'm here," she said softly. "And I will always love you, whatever happens."

She held him until the early hours, until sleep claimed them by stealth. She was still there when morning came.

Sam looked like hell. Short rations of sleep over so many days, combined with all the other factors, had taken their toll. He woke to the tender touch of Donna's fingers stroking his brow, his hair.

He smiled. "I'm still here," he said. The smile vanished and his closed his eyes again.

"I'm still here," he repeated, relief catching in his voice.

Donna's hand rested on his brow, tenderness in her eyes.

"You're still here, Sam Beckett...with me."

Sam sighed. "I'm losing my mind, Donna. Last night--I'm sorry."

"Don't," she whispered. "It was a nightmare. It's over."

"Oh, no," Sam said hollowly. "It's a long way from being over."

"You have a temperature," she said suddenly. "And you look terrible, Sam. I'll cover for you today. I want you to stay in bed."

Sam closed his eyes. History said that he should be at work, but then he'd already screwed around with history on this leap, and he did feel like death warmed up. His head ached and his vision seemed to waver between fuzzy and clear.

And his heart ached.

He looked up at Donna and wondered if it were for her. It didn't seem to be. In all the years of leaping he'd always sought refuge in the adventure, always bounded through everything. He didn't ever remember feeling so bad. Scared, maybe, even bad tempered. Confused, always, but never so God-awful bad...

What was happening to him..?

"Y..You're right. Whatever is happening to me, it mustn't happen at the project. We're ahead of the schedule in the original history, so I won't be changing anything much by not going in." He took her hand in his. "If..If I leap, I want you to know I love you...I love you more than life itself. I never told you that enough when...when I was..." He squeezed the hand and shook it a little. "I just never told you enough," he said in a very emotional voice. "When...when he comes back, know that he loves you with every fiber of his body, and...and whatever decisions he makes, nothing will ever change that. Nothing."

Donna's eyes searched his, afraid, puzzled. "Sam, you're scaring me. Is there something I should know? Something about the future?"

"Nothing I haven't already told you," he said too quickly, and winced. "I'm sorry. Just know that I will come back to you one day. And...forgive me."

Donna searched his tired, emotional eyes wordlessly.

She touched his face. "I already have," she whispered.

He swept her into his arms and held her as though he would never let go.

        *****

Al Calavicci stepped into the imaging chamber the moment Gooshie signalled the younger Donna Elisee had left for work. Sam was asleep, but it couldn't be helped.

He had to talk to him, to find out what was going through that over-worked, over-abused mind of his, with regard to the choice he was going to make. A choice that could change all their lives.

It had, of course, occurred to Al that Sam was there to do something else long before his younger self was due to step into the Accelerator chamber, but the probability was a slim one. Ziggy certainly hadn't found anything.

He arrived, for some reason, in Sam's study instead of the bedroom where Gooshie had indicated he would be.

When he reached Beckett he was, indeed, in the bedroom, but he was not sleeping. He was sitting up, clad only in pajama bottoms, yelling medical instructions to a hospital orderly in Jesse Tyler's voice.

"Sam!" Calavicci yelled. "You're dreaming. Wake up."

Sam's head turned toward him and his face changed completely. "Who are you?" He asked in a whole different voice. Samantha Stormer's voice.

Since the Bederman incident, Al hated that voice. He swallowed.

"Sa-a-m! Wake up, Sam. This isn't funny. You aren't at the funny farm any more. This is your home. And I'm here."

"I am awake," Samantha Stormer told him in a perfectly rational voice. "Do you have a cigarette?"

"If Sam Beckett doesn't talk to me right now I'm going back to the lab!" Al threatened.

Samantha burst into tears. "Don't leave me, Al," she cried. "Don't leave me."

"I want to talk to Sam," Calavicci demanded, aware that the holographic projection was beginning to break up.

"Al...I can't stop...them," Sam Beckett's voice stammered.

Then Sam was gone. Tom Stratton turned to Al.

"Well now, little buddie, you've gone and upset my friend here. You had no call to do that. Don't you go away now. You're needed here, real bad."

"Sam, I don't want to leave you," Al pleaded, "But if you don't wake up, if you don't come back, we're going to lose you. You know what happened last time. Ziggy couldn't maintain a lock on you..and..and regardless of whether we know where you are or not, if Ziggy loses you, you'll be stuck here, and the younger you, who was supposed to go through the Accelerator, will be stuck in the future."

Stratton was looking at him as though he had lost his mind.

"Sam, do you hear me? If we lose you, you'll have to do the last five years of leaping all over again!"

"No," Stratton yelled. "Not again. No more shocks."

"Shit." Calavicci's stomach heaved almost physically. Sam didn't deserve this. Not again. "Gooshie give Ziggy as much power as you can. I've gotta stay here."

He stepped toward Stratton.

"Sam, there's not gonna be any shocks. Relax, buddie. I'm here, and you're safe. You just have to snap out of it. Donna is gonna be home in a few hours. She's a great kid, pulling that extra shift because you were sick."

"Donna?" Stratton asked. "Where's Donna?"

"She's at work, Sam. She's covering for you, pal, and doing a great job. Don't worry about it."

"Que?"

Calavicci swore. Who the hell was it this time? He racked his brains as Sam sank to the floor yelling in Spanish.

"Gooshie, who is this?" He yelled in desperation and pounded the handlink trying to get a response from Ziggy. The handlink responded first.

"No! No, no, no!" He cried when he read the information.

"Listen to me, Sam, you are not Jesus Ortega. You're Sam Beckett and you're having a nightmare! You hear me, Sam? You have to snap out of it, now!"

Ortega was praying and crossing himself.

"Sam? Sam, why are you praying?"

"I don't want to die," he whimpered in accented English.

"Sam, you're not going to die. This is a nightmare. It's not real!"

"No, no!" Ortega cried and began to struggle as though men had come to take him away.

"Sam!!" Al shouted so hard his voice cracked. It made no difference. The hologram wavered again.

Ortega tried to stand up and run, but fell to the floor after a couple of steps.

Al watched, mesmerized, as Sam struggled upward again, as if grabbed and lifted, to be seated on the end of the bed. One hand, then the other appeared to be restrained, like some kind of sick mime.

Then, suddenly, he realized what it was. He jumped forward and tried to grab Sam's arms in a desperate attempt to shake him out of his delirium.

He cursed when he went straight through Sam's arms, Sam, the bed and part of the floor. He scrambled back up quickly.

"Sam! Jesus! Who ever you are! Listen to me, there's not going to be an execution today. There's been a stay of execution. There's not going to be--"

"You gotta get me out of here, Al," Sam's voice pleaded as Calavicci began to fade in and out again. Ziggy was losing the lock.

And Sam was losing his mind...

"Sam! All you have to do is wake up," Al told him. "Just wake up!"

"Al, I only have fifteen minutes," Sam pleaded. "Just fifteen minutes. You've gotta do something, Al! Please, help me!"

"I'll help you, Sam," Al promised suddenly. "I'll help you buddy, but you have to promise me something."

Sam didn't answer. Jesus Ortega was praying desperately in Spanish.

"You promise me you'll wait for me. Don't let them start until I get back. There's a stay of execution, Sam. They can't do it, because of the stay. Remember that." Al pounded the handlink.

"Gooshie! Get me out of here, now. And get the Accelerator ready. Hurry. Don't ask questions, just do it! Sam's life may depend on it."

The door opened and he sprinted through it, down the project corridors, followed by Doctor Elisee and Gooshie. He was into the white bodysuit in seconds, oblivious of his audience. He was too busy describing Sam's physical and mental condition in practised, concise detail to Verbeena Beeks for evaluation, as he changed. And no one else bothered to notice either, such was everyone's concern for Doctor Beckett.

Donna Elisee followed him to the prepared Accelerator chamber.
She put a hand momentarily on his arm as he moved to step into it.

"You're taking a terrible risk," she warned. "Sam would never ask you to do this, especially not after--"

"Don't you think I know that?" he snapped. "Just like I know he did the same thing for me once. Except I don't have the luxury of saying goodbye to my wife," he added, then regretted it.

"Donna, I'm sorry. That was mean. I'm not thinking straight."

Donna kissed his cheek. "You think straighter than anyone I know, Albert Calavicci. Help him. We'll get you back."

Al returned the smile she found for him and stepped into the powered-up Accelerator. It felt just as bad as it did the first time. Bad because he was scared witless, terrified that Sam would be in some kind of psychosis-induced coma by the time he got to him, scared he might leap anywhere but into himself, and terrified he wouldn't get home again.

Then everything was bluish white and silent...

        *******

Al shook his head hard and looked around. He was at the project, but not Project Quantum Leap as it had looked moments before he stepped into the Accelerator.

Everything looked newer and things that had long since been thrown out, or shifted, were in places he barely remembered them being. Doctor Elisee and Ziggy had hit the bullseye twice.

Thanks to Sam...

He took a minute to orient himself, to push his addled brain to access memories it seemed reluctant to release. He was lucky. Leaping into himself, and leaping so accurately had kept most of his mesons and neurons in some sort of order.

He knew exactly why he was there.

Now, he had to get himself to Sam's place. It wasn't difficult to convince the younger Gooshie that he had to be somewhere else fast. There was something to be said for executive rank...even the retired kind.

He'd forgotten the hot black model he used to drive when he first joined the project. There was something comforting about the familiar smells, feel and sound of her as he sped toward the apartment that had been Sam's home during the development of Quantum Leap.

The decision not to tell the younger Donna had been a difficult one, but explaining how he knew that Sam was in trouble would have taken a lot more time than he had.

His key pass worked in Sam's security door. It had been one of the first things Beckett had arranged for him after his, Calavicci's arrival at the Project.

The apartment was in darkness. He began turning on lights, making his way slowly toward the stairs. His trained ears heard nothing to indicate Sam was anywhere but upstairs, where he'd been ten minutes before.

Al carefully checked each bedroom, the study, the bathroom and the studio and found nothing.

He stopped again, drawing on the lonely time he'd spent as a POW, listening to the silence. He closed his eyes and drank it in, tasted it, smelled it, explored it with all his senses.

It was coming from the master bedroom. The slightest of sounds. It could have been laboured breathing or...

"I checked in there," he objected aloud and went back.

The bed was unoccupied, the ensuite was empty. He heard it again. Slowly, Al drew back the sliding glass closet door.

Terrified eyes looked up at him from a hunched ball among the shoes and sports equipment.

"No," the figure whispered. "Stay away."

"Sam," Al said softly. "It's me."

The figure panicked. "Butcher? No, you stay away from me!"

"Sam," Al pleaded, suddenly, horrifyingly aware of what he'd gotten himself into. "Come on, buddy, you're not alone." He put a hand on Sam's arm.

Beckett struggled violently, crying out. Calavicci was struck several times in the frenzied tussle. Finally Al let go. Beckett collapsed, almost catatonic, and didn't move again.

It took Al some time to pull his friend out of the cupboard, a dead weight, and to get him onto the double bed.

Beckett's pulse was strong and he was breathing freely. He did, however, have a fever and there were dark circles under his eyes. Al put a pillow under his head and shuddered at the penetration of those familiar hazel eyes now staring into nothingness.

It was a hospital. It had to be. All the white, all the beds. But there were barriers. He was afraid. He was more than afraid. He was lost, wandering through an endless mist, unable to find his way out. There was someone back there, someone he wanted to stay away from, someone who had hurt him.

He wanted to get away.

He could hear someone's voice. Someone familiar, and yet not, someone using his mouth, his body.

It was Samantha. No, it was Jimmy, or Jesse, Darlene, Magic. No, it was Oswald, Dillon, Tommy, Nic...Sam...

No-o-o! His mind screamed. No more shocks!

After long, tormented hours of wandering alone, listening to the voices change, he heard Al far in the distance, talking, calling his name. He ran desperately toward the sound, but the harder he ran toward it, the further away it seemed to get. He ran and ran, but he couldn't get any closer to that voice.

Finally he fell to the ground, sobbing, angry, raging at his helplessness.


And then, finally, he called back...

"Al!" He screamed. "Al, help me!"

Al got up from the chair beside the bed and grasped his friend's arms as he thrashed around.

"I'm here, Sam. I'm here."

"Al," Beckett sobbed. "No more shockers."

"No, Sam," Al said hoarsely, the nightmare images of Sam's ordeal in the asylum no less vivid in his mind, for all the time that had passed since.

"No more." He put his hand on the back of his friend's neck. "Sam, can you hear me? I need to...I need to talk to Sam," he demanded.

"Sam ain't here," said a new voice that tugged at Al's subconscious.

It took several moments, but Calavicci finally got it.

Magic Williams. Vietnam.

"Signalman," he said harshly. "I order you to let Sam talk to me. He wants to talk to me. He's my friend."

"That's good, Admiral. You're doing fine," said a God-sent voice behind him. Doctor Beeks.

"Gooshie tuned you into me?" Al asked quietly over his shoulder.

"We had to do something. Your description of Doctor Beckett's condition left me--us no other option," she told him in a muted voice.

"Sam don't want to come back. He wants to stay right where he is," Magic told them defiantly.

"I know," Al told him. "I know. But you can't hide, Sam. Sooner or later you have to choose. Doctor Beeks is here. She came to help you, and so did I."

"Help?" Magic repeated. "You--you helped me save the Lieutenant..."

Al seized on the opening. "Yeah. I was there. I showed you all the booby traps. I told you the sappers were coming, remember?"

"I remember," Magic told them. "You liked Maggie."

"Yeah, I did," Al recalled. "And so did you."

"Yeah," Magic smiled. Then the smile vanished. He started to weep. "I killed her, Al. I killed her. It was my fault. I traded one life for another," he croaked.

"No, Sam you didn't. It wasn't your fault. You couldn't know she was going to come along when she did. You couldn't have known she was going to die."

"Yes, Yes I could. I could have left her be. I didn't have to get her on the mission. She wouldn't have died..."

Al pulled Sam's hands away from his face.

"But you saved Tom," he said gently. "You saved Tom. Do you hear me, Sam? Tom is home, farming your family's property in Elkridge, Indiana, Sam."

"Tom..." Magic whispered. "The Lieutenant? He's alive? He made it home?"

"He sure did," Al reiterated. "I bet you didn't remember that. But Sam has to come back, so I can tell him. So I can tell him about Tom."

"No. You tricked Sam into another shocker," Magic said angrily. "Sam's not coming back."

It hurt. More than Al believed possible.

"Magic--" he said softly. "Magic, tell Sam to look at the photograph again. Look at the photograph Maggie took."

Magic looked at Calavicci as though he were crazy. Finally he spoke.

"I know you," he said haltingly.

"Damn right you do. It's me, Sam. It's Al. Welcome back."

"You...you were one of those guys--one of the POW's the VC used as bait to ambush us..you were in Maggie's pictures."

Magic rocked silently for a moment, tears again welling in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry."

Al's voice caught in his throat. "It's all right, Sam," he said softly. "I know you're in there somewhere. I'm not gonna leave you alone."

"Did last time," Jimmy's voice snapped at him petulantly.

"I did?" Al repeated, surprised. "I mean, of course I didn't. I--" It sank in that he wasn't talking to Magic any more. What's your name?" He asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

"Jimmy," he grinned. "Hello."

"He--hello, Jimmy," Al said gently. "It's good to see you again."

Jimmy frowned and then spoke agitatedly. "You hurt Jimmy. You made me--"

"Admiral," Doctor Beeks called. "Try to change the subject. Remind him of something else. You can't let him remember the treatment--"

"No!!" Jimmy shouted.

"What? What is it, Jimmy?" Al asked.

"No-o-o! No treatment. I'm not going. You can't make me. No more shockers. N-Not going back," he sobbed and crawled away from Al in terror.

"I'm making it worse, here," Al said desperately. "Tell me what to do. That Swiss-cheese mind of his is blaming me for the treatment. And why shouldn't it? How do I get through to him?"

"Try the photograph again, Admiral."

Al shot her a look. "Why?" He asked. "You don't even know what photograph I meant."

"Because it worked before. It got his attention. You need to get his attention. Shift it away from here. Do you want to tell me about the photograph?" She asked, ever the psychologist.

"Not right now," Calavicci replied caustically as Sam slid off the bed. "I'm kinda busy."

"Sam," he called. "Sam! Damn it Jimmy, wait!"

Jimmy looked back. "Did I do something wrong?" He asked ingenuously.

"No," Al said more calmly. "No, you didn't do nothin' wrong, kid."

"Oh. Okay. I gotta go to the bathroom," he announced, and disappeared into the ensuite.

Calavicci faced the psychologist desperately. "You gotta tell me what to do, Verbeena. I can't get through to him. If he doesn't snap out of this, Donna is gonna find him and have him committed or something, no matter which Sam Beckett she believes he is. He won't make the first leap and history will be trash...ed..." His voice trailed off to a whisper.

Al turned a greenish shade of white. Hearing himself say it aloud brought home to him for the first time exactly what they were asking Sam to do. Exactly what Beckett's mind was having so much trouble dealing with...

In his anger at his own insensitivity, he struck out blindly at the closet door.

Jimmy ran back out at the sound of the crashing glass and looked from Al's bleeding hand to the mess on the floor.

"You broke it," he said simply.

"I broke it," Al repeated tonelessly.

"Hurts."

Al looked down at his lacerated knuckles with hollow eyes. "Some things more than others," he said almost to himself.
"All right, Sam. I give up. You don't have to go back."

"I don't?" Jimmy asked incredulously. "No more shockers?"

Al shook his head slowly. "No more, Sam. It's over."

"Over," Jimmy repeated. "I can go home," he said.

Al waited for Beckett's voice to resurface.

"Can I go home now?" Sam asked. "It's almost harvest."

Al closed his eyes and swore under his breath. Sam at sixteen wasn't the Sam Beckett he wanted to hear.

"Sam, I said it was all right," he said desperately. "You can come back now."

"NO!" Shouted the boy. "I want to go home," he said plaintively.

Beeks began to realize that the problem was much more complex than even she'd first thought.

"Admiral," she whispered, "I think you are going to have to find away of getting professional treatment for--"

The word treatment was a mistake that shouldn't have been repeated. One that Beeks recognized with anguish the moment she'd uttered it.

Her voice was lost in the frenzy of terrified thrashing that followed. There was no way Al could stop Sam from hurling himself around the room, trying blindly to escape, except by crash tackling him.

The effect, however, was eerie. Sam immediately went limp, so that Calavicci was momentarily terrified that he'd broken his friend's neck. He hadn't.

Beckett was flat on his back, staring at the ceiling, catatonic again.

"That was clever," Al said nastily. "Got any more of those, Doc?"

Beeks could see the terror in the Admiral's face. She withheld a stinging retort as he leaned over the limp form.

"Sam?" He demanded. "Sam?! You can't go on playing mental hide and seek forever, Sam. You know you can't."

The mute form was unmoved.

Calavicci squeezed his friend's shoulder. "C'mon Sam. I know you don't want to go back, but I promise, I promise I won't make you go if you don't want to. We've always talked things out. Talk to me, buddie."

Sam was unmoved, but for the tears which had begun to slip down the sides of his motionless face.

Butcher was dragging him away from the voice. Away from safety. He didn't want to go. He shouted and cried, struggled and raged in his restraints, but no-one listened. All the blank faces he passed, all looking on without hearing him, recognizing him, or caring about him. No-one knew he existed. No-one cared.

Down endless corridors he was wheeled, the mist parting as they went, until finally they were in the small room again. She was in the corner. Butcher was yelling.

Butcher hit him.

No one cared.

Butcher put something in his mouth. He couldn't cry out any more.

No one came. No one cared. He was alone.

He looked up, terrified. Butcher was gone. She was there now, holding the electrodes, confusion in her eyes.

"Please," he whispered. "Save Sam."

Calavicci almost jumped out of his skin. "I'm here, Sam. I'm not going anywhere."

"It hurts," Sam whimpered, his eyes still unfocused, vacant.

"What's he talking about?" Beeks whispered.

Al turned to her, devastated.

"His worst nightmare...and mine," he said unsteadily, and turned back to his friend.

Sam's face had crumpled in anguish. He raised his head in a gesture the memory of which tore a sob from his friend's throat.

"Hurts," he whispered in young Sam's voice, his eyes gradually focusing on Al, an accusation burning in them.

"He remembers me being there. He thinks I let him down, that I sold him out."

"But you enabled Doctor Beckett to leap," Beeks said softly.

"I made him walk through hell twice," Al retorted.

"That's it," Beeks said suddenly. "That's your key. If he believes he is having the treatment, and his subconscious knows that it worked the last time, it should react accordingly."

"No!" Al objected miserably. "Not again. I can't. He can't--!"

"Do you want to save him, or not?" Beeks demanded in a tone she rarely used. The ferocity of it made Calavicci blink.

He stared at her with haunted eyes.

"Damn you," he whispered, turned, and knelt at Beckett's side.
Sam was looking up at him with the same pleading, trusting expression he had that nightmare day Al had watched him go through shock therapy for the second time in 48 hours.

"Put your head down, Sam," he said, ignoring his own tears.

"No, it hurts."

"Sam! Do it!" Calavicci ordered.

"No!" Sam pleaded.

"Yes!!"

Sam put his head back, his shoulders shaking, tears streaming down the sides of his face.

For a moment, Al was back in that treatment room, looking on helplessly, unable to do anything but scream at Beckett to actually tell the bastards to hurt him. And Sam, with all the guts that had got him so far, had done it. Had done it, because he trusted his friend.

Al swore. He'd been so damned helpless..!

"No!" He wiped his own eyes with the back of his hand. "Not this time."

Instead, he grasped Beckett by the arms and pulled him into a sitting position, so that he was looking directly into the terrified face.

"Sam, I'm here. I'm not going to let them hurt you," he told him hoarsely. "You're safe now, Sam."

The reddened eyes widened, then closed.

Al panicked. Before he could move, however, one of Beckett's hands grasped his forearm.

"Help me, Al," young Sam whispered.

"Help you!" Al shouted. He drew Beckett's trembling form against him and clamped an arm across his shoulders as if it could stop him leaping forever. The man was burning up with fever. "What the hell do you think I've been doing? God damn it, Sam!"

Sam's own voice finally spoke shakily.

"There's no need to shout, Al. I can hear you..."

For a moment he just rested, safe, against the familiar jacket, before summoning the strength to return his friend's desperate embrace.

Then he quietly passed out.

When Beeks had listened to Calavicci's description of Beckett's vital signs and observed the visual ones for herself, she relaxed.

"It's all right, Admiral. He's in a deep sleep. He has a virus--influenza, Ziggy thinks, but I think he's going to be all right now. He's certainly past the worst and Ziggy says the power fluctuations have stopped."

Calavicci breathed again. The color came back into his face slowly.

"We should go," Beeks told him gently.

"You go," Al told her. "We have no way to know how he's going to wake up from this. Until I know for certain that he's back to stay I ain't going anywhere."

Beeks sighed, nodded and activated the handlink. The chamber door opened and she disappeared through it.

When he had put Beckett back into the bed, Calavicci found himself a chair and parked himself next to his friend.

He wasn't sure exactly when he'd gone to sleep.

All he knew was that someone was shaking his shoulder. He opened his eyes expecting the worst and looked up into Sam Beckett's clear, familiar gaze.

"Al? Al, what are you doing here?" He asked.

"What? What am I doing here?"

"Yeah," Sam said in a frighteningly normal voice. "In my bedroom."

"Sam," Calavicci said nervously. "Are you back?"

"Back?"

"Who am I talking to?" He asked.

Beckett looked at him as though he were nuts. "Me. Sam. Sam Beckett."

"Which one?"

Sam stepped backwards uncertainly. "Which one?" He asked unsteadily.

"Which one?" Al pressed, beginning to understand. The still-fragile Beckett believed he was talking to the younger Calavicci. Sam was still disoriented.

"Doctor Sam Beckett," Sam told him. "This is my home. And I don't usually wake up to find guests in my room," he persisted, his fevered mind somehow trying to anchor himself in this time, this place.

Al's ragged nerves snapped. He grabbed his friend roughly by the arms. "Stop it! You're Sam Beckett, time traveller, and you know exactly why I'm here."

Confused, Beckett tried to turn away. There was a long silence before he spoke, his voice uncertain, bewildered.

"I can't. I can't go back, Al."

Hope sprang into Calavicci's heart. That was his Sam Beckett, even if Sam wasn't certain of it yet.

"Listen to me, Sam, no one is going to make you go anywhere. You're the only one who can decide what you're going to do. No one can order you to do anything you don't want to do, least of all me."

Beckett turned back to Al, realization dawning in his tired, feverish eyes.

"Al," he said hauntedly. "It's you. It was you. It wasn't a dream. I mean...I mean it's--" He looked around, as if looking for the holographic Al. "You did it again, didn't you? You leaped?"

Calavicci watched Beckett's improving coherency and color with satisfaction. He even smiled a little as he nodded slowly.

"You lost it Sam. What else could I do? If your mind didn't come back, history was going to change one way or the other, and Ziggy was going to lose you," he explained off-handedly. "Are you--?"

"Al," Sam interrupted. His voice was unnervingly quiet. "I remember about Bederman. Not all of it. There are holes. But I remember what--" His face screwed up momentarily against the images that flashed through his mind. "If--if you hadn't been there...I couldn't have...I wouldn't have leaped."

"Sam, forget about it. It's over. Gone. Finished. You never remembered any of it after you leaped. You won't after this one. I don't know what's going on with this leap, but you shouldn't be remembering all this stuff. That's not how it works."

Sam withdrew from the nightmare images still replaying themselves in his mind.

"I know, but lately I've been remembering more with every leap. Stuff from before, from my own life, in bits and pieces. Never enough to make sense. Only ever enough to be useful during the leap. And sometimes I do remember a little bit of a previous leap, or several leaps. Only I can't remember which leaps I remembered afterwards..." He shook his head in confusion. "But now, now I remember faces, people, voices. I have dreams, nightmares that I know were leaps. All those lives...I can't believe I did all those things. It's not right. It's not right that one man should change so much, should interfere so much in the course of things."

"Not right?" Al asked incredulously. "Don't you remember how you helped all those people? You made things right, better."

"For whom, Al? For every life I put right, how many others were irrevocably changed forever, how many for the worst? Ziggy doesn't know. Like, you tell me what happened to the coach whose team won the State championships before I changed history so that Elkridge won? How many other lives were changed for the worse, because I made one person's life better? Like--" He blinked at the new memory. "Like Neil Walters. Damn it, like Lonnie.."

"Sa-a-am," Al said unhappily. "You're grasping at straws. You know whoever or whatever is doing this to you wouldn't allow history to be changed unless it was meant to be, unless the balance was right."

"Yeah, right," Sam said despairingly, "Tell that to the families of the people I killed in Vietnam--!" He stopped in the middle of the thought and covered his face with his hands.
"Sam, what is it?"

"Nothing. Just leave me alone, Al, would you please? Just leave me alone."

There was no sting in the words, just a plea.

Beckett had lost all color again, but his eyes, though savaged and haunted, were not absent this time. Al nodded reluctantly and went downstairs to make coffee for both of them.

By the time he returned with the steaming beakers Beckett appeared to have come back to himself. He was holding a photograph. Al couldn't quite see who was in it.

He put Sam's coffee down and gulped at his own before putting that down too.

Sam threw the photograph on the table with the beakers and looked up.

"I have to go through with it, Al. I thought I had a choice, but I never really did," he said tonelessly.

Al looked down at the picture. Tom and the boy, Sam, at the basketball game Sam had helped his team win before leaping to Vietnam to save his brother. It was a candid shot, probably taken by someone in the crowd. In Elkridge everyone knew just about everyone else.

"You remembered?" Al asked quietly. If he hadn't, the question was redundant anyway. If he had, it needed no further elaboration.

"I had another dream. I kept changing. I was someone called Magic Williams in part of it. You were yelling at him. You said--" Sam looked away, emotion rising in his throat. He had never completely come to terms with Tom's death. "You said Tom was home, running the farm. I've tried and tried, but all I can remember is a basketball game, and a gorilla mask. Tell me it wasn't just a dream, Al," he whispered.

Al closed his eyes. He didn't know if it were a blessing or a tragedy that Sam couldn't remember more.

"Sam, you weren't yourself last night. I had to risk leaping again, this time into me, because we were going to lose you. You--you were submerged by personas from previous leaps. Ziggy almost lost you again, completely. If I hadn't reached you we could have lost you forever..."

Sam actually laughed. "I would have been stuck here, to make exactly the same choices I made the first time." The smile wobbled, and his eyes grew bleak. "So I was Magic for a while. What you said about Tom--it's true?"

Al frowned. "Of course it is. What I don't understand is why you didn't know that. History was changed, so you should have been too."

Sam frowned, memories, explanations leaping into his thoughts.
"If you asked the Sam who belongs here, he would know. He was changed. If I had the chance to regain all of my memory, I would probably have that memory. But I don't. After I leaped, all I would have consciously known was that he didn't die that day. I have almost no other memories of my life before I stepped into the accelerator to tell me whether I was successful or not. Just little pieces. My mom. My dad. Katie and her no-good first husband. The farm. Just...little pieces. I think I remember my dad..." He paused. "I think I saw him not long ago, but he didn't know me...kinda like a bad dream..."

Beckett struggled with the wisp of a memory of a cold winter's day in Elkridge, Christmas music, and the feel of his father's arms around him, the smell of his tobacco...and the anguish of not being recognized.

"I never thought of it like that," Al told him. "But I wanted to know, so I checked it out, myself. Tom almost got killed twice, but he finished his tour without further casualties to his platoon." He grinned. "They blamed Magic for that."

Sam smiled. Really smiled. "I can't believe it. Tom's alive. But why would he be running the--?"

Al looked away from the realization in his friend's face. Sam had remembered his father's death on several other leaps, but his mind had taken such a battering this time, he wasn't surprised that some memories had been buried by the avalanche of extraneous information pouring into Beckett's conscious mind.

Sam's mind shied away from the pain. Instead, in his furious groping for something to block out the memory of his father's death, a woman's face came into his mind. A fair-haired, determined, courageous woman. A woman with whom he had shared intimacy in the least intimate of circumstances...yet he couldn't remember why.

"Al, who was Maggie?" He asked.

"Who? Oh, just another person from one of the leaps," Al replied, far too casually.

Sam's eyes narrowed. "Al, don't lie to me. You're no good at it, remember? I--I made love to her...and it was important. Why?"

Al looked down at his feet. "Does it really matter? There are a lot more important things for us to think about."

"Like what?" Sam asked wearily.

"Like what made you do that Sybil imitation again last night."

"Again? Sybil imitation?"

Al knew as soon as he'd said it that it was a mistake.

"Never mind," he growled. "Let's just work on you not doing it again."

Sam picked up the photograph again. A memory bloomed in the recesses of his beleaguered mind.

Tom was crouched in undergrowth, and all around them the sounds of battle, of an air attack, reverberated. She was going to kill him...

Sam made a desperate sound and dropped the picture.

"I...killed," he whispered. "Al, I killed a woman, a Vietnamese woman. To save Tom."

"I know, kid. I know. But Tom survived. Will you stop thinking about Vietnam. Its finished. The leap was a success."

"I can't help it, Al. It just comes when it comes. Like...like Maggie, and..." Sam's face screwed up and he stood up very quickly, breathing hard.

Al watched until the brilliant eyes opened again before speaking.

"Forget about it, kid. It's a done deal. It's not worth eatin' your heart out over again."

Sam took a step towards him. "I can't," he said. "You did it for me. You could have been rescued. I could have been sent there for you, but I didn't give a damn. I killed Maggie and I don't know how many Vietnamese, to save Tom, and I never once stopped to find out why I was really there. Think about it. What if all those people had a contribution to make, what if they were supposed to have families--I--I wiped it all out," he whispered. "And--and what if the reason I didn't leap after saving that Colonel was because I was suppose to rescue you...and those guys with you?"

"You don't think I thought about it..? That I don't still think about it, have nightmares about it?" Al asked in a quiet voice, no trace of accusation in it.

For Sam, that was the worst part of all. "Al," he began, his voice trembling. "Al, I didn't want--If I'd known--"

"If you'd known you'd have done what you always do--the right thing. Tom would have died again. Maggie would still have died, because you'd have been too preoccupied with the rescue to help her. I would have gone back to Beth much sooner and probably never even met you. I might not have been here, now, working on Project Quantum Leap. Who knows where I'd be? Right now I'd probably be old, fat and retired to some country house somewhere. The whole project would've taken a different slant, if it still happened, because for better or worse, I'm an integral part of this whole shebang. I mean, who else would have said yes? And who the hell else would have had a chance in hell of getting you the funding you needed?"

Beckett moved to within a hands-breath of his friend.

"I don't care about any of that. You would have been free, Al. If Ziggy could tell us now, she'd say that you'd have avoided not only those six years of hell in 'Nam, but all the nightmares that came after them. Quantum Leap can never replace those years, Al. Never."

Al smiled. "No, but you can't replace a one-of-a-kind friendship either. And that was the trade off, wasn't it?"

Beckett looked away. "It's wasn't enough," he said softly.

Al knew Sam meant it, and how much it hurt him. The one constant, with or without Sam's Swiss-cheesed brain, was the man's Humanity. It was, in Al's opinion, the over-riding reason why he'd been chosen to do what he was doing. Not for his brilliance, his amazing versatility or even Quantum Leap itself, but for that Humanity. What the hell, Al decided, not one for semantics. The fates had chosen his friend for one reason and one reason alone--the guy's unending, annoying, frustrating, unrestrainable goodness.

And knowing what he'd done, however inadvertently, to Al, was killing him.

Calavicci spoke with deliberate harshness in his voice.

"Sam, it was my choice. We just established that. If I'd told you, you would have sacrificed Tom for me. You know it, and I know it. I didn't tell you, so you didn't have that choice. So do me a favor and drop it."

Sam nodded rigidly and looked down, as if studying the carpet. After several long moments, he spoke again.

"Al, what if I make modifications to the Accelerator, to Ziggy, so that we have pin-point accuracy at the beginning? What does Ziggy project the outcome would be?"

"How should I know?" Calavicci shrugged. "I can't use the handlink while I'm in me, I mean--you know what I mean. Oh, wait, maybe Gooshie is still monitoring us. He has Verbeena handling things in the imaging room for now. "Gooshie! Where's Verbeena?"

On cue, Verbeena stepped through the chamber door.

Al went to her side and looked over her shoulder.

Beckett, febrile and preoccupied, mechanically restated his question.

Al frowned, but consulted the readout on the handlink anyway. The device began making noises of protestation, eliciting appeals from the Admiral for Doctor Beeks to belt it, hard.

"Ziggy isn't dealing with this at all well," he muttered. "She's refusing to project any data whatsoever on anything you do that might change her history."

"Verbeena, tell Ziggy..." Sam paused, searching desperately for the right words. "Tell her I care about her. I would never let anything happen to her. Tell her I want to come home, but I don't want anyone to get hurt by what I'm going to do. I've got to know what the outcome is going to be if I make changes."

Verbeena looked up, as if listening, instead of consulting the link.

"Ziggy's talking to me via the pickups in the chamber," she explained. "She knows you're in pain. She wants you to come home, too, but she says to remind you that she's incapable of regret. She says that any decision you choose to make about changing things will have an impact, but she won't elaborate. She says this time it has to be purely your choice. No one can help you with this one."

Beckett's shoulders drooped. He looked up at the ceiling, then closed his eyes wearily. Both Al and Verbeena jumped when he suddenly swung around and smashed a lamp off the bedside table.

"You'd better go," Calavicci said softly. Beeks vanished.

Sam turned back and looked through him as though he wasn't there. The hazel eyes were as blank as though all the life had been knocked out of him. He dressed mechanically, cleaned his teeth, brushed his hair and walked out of the room without acknowledging his friend's presence again.

Al followed him down the stairs and out to the blue convertible in the driveway.

"Sam..." he said futilely.

Beckett's head turned for a moment as he slid into the driver's seat.

Al recognized that look. His stomach turned. As the car pulled away he tried to run a hand through his hair, but it was trembling too much.

The last time he'd seen that look had been observation room of a mental institution, when he'd forced his best friend to deliberately walk back into the jaws of hell.

Betrayal.

He climbed into the car from his past and followed Beckett back to the project. His mind was working furiously on what Sam could possibly be going to do.

It was still a week until Beckett was supposed to step into the Accelerator. Time enough for all the modifications in the world. Or time enough to shut the whole thing down. The only certainty was that Sam wouldn't be leaping today. The Accelerator wasn't due to come on line in any way, shape or form for another five days.

Al felt the need for reassurance. He told the car to auto-navigate and called out to Gooshie again. It had worked once.

"It had better work again," he muttered to himself.

Verbeena appeared in the seat next to him, still numb from the incident with Doctor Beckett.

"Good," he said. "Tell Gooshie to keep monitoring me." He paused when he realized how distressed Beeks was. It was easy to forget that she had never done this before.

"He's strong, Verbeena, stronger than any of us. He's gonna be all right. The choice he has to make is bigger than all of us, maybe even bigger than Quantum Leap itself. It's gonna take someone with a mind like Sam Beckett's to make the right one."

He told Beeks about his concerns, and his desire to be reassured that the Accelerator was still on schedule for completion.

Beeks barely input the data when Ziggy sent the device into a fit of indescribable noise.

"Ziggy! Shutup!" Al yelled as Verbeena banged at the interface. "Start again, slowly."

"Ziggy says that because of the rush of work Doctor Beckett did before he went on holiday with Doctor Elisee, and because he's been working almost non-stop since his return, until he got sick, the Accelerator could technically be on-line by tomorrow morning, or if someone was in a rush: tonight," Beeks told him. "There's something else. Something Ziggy can't withhold even though she wants to. Ziggy is now projecting that there is a 46% chance that if Doctor Beckett goes through the Accelerator in his current state it will kill him."

"Holy Mother of God," Al said. It was not a blasphemy.

"If he goes today, and survives, Ziggy says there's still a chance that everything will be completely changed," Beeks yelped. "Every leap for the last five years could be affected, because there's an 94% chance that he won't leap in the same sequence, this time. Everything he accomplished the first time around could be unravelled. She also says that the odds are it would be our Doctor Beckett, not the one in the waiting room, who leaps."

"He won't do it," Al said suddenly. "There's no point. He hasn't made any modifications yet. If he goes, it'll be to preserve history, to keep everything safe. If he goes, it'll be because he's going to do the right God-damned thing, like he always does. No, he wont go today. Not when it could make everything worse for everyone. But he may be planning on making some fast changes. If Sam believes he can modify things enough so that he can control the leaps, can come home whenever he wants, and still make everything right, he'll do it."

Verbeena looked at the Admiral quizzically. Her professional, as well as personal, interest was peaked.

Al flicked her a glance. "Sam could never do that to all the people he's helped. He cared about every last one of them. Besides, on a level he's forgotten sometime over the last couple dozen leaps, the guy loves what he does. And he's good at it. He was born to play Don Quixote one way or the other." Al smiled to himself a little at that memory of that particular leap. Then, as the weight of Sam's problems came crushing down again, the smile vanished.

"But Ziggy only gives Doctor Beckett a 32% chance of being able to successfully modify the Accelerator and Ziggy's own programming, enough to accomplish that. If it doesn't work, he will either die or all the history Doctor Beckett has revised will change. Ziggy can't say how many leaps will be completely undone, and how many simply change because Doctor Beckett won't get there on time, or doesn't leap in at all."

Verbeena put a hand over her eyes. In all her years on the project, the time she helped Admiral Calavicci when Doctor Beckett was trapped in the asylum, and all the myriad of people she'd had to hand-hold in the waiting room, she had never felt the kind of pressure she was feeling now. If this was Admiral Calavicci's lot, then she had gained a much vaster understanding of that enigmatic individual.

"Are you all right?"

She looked across at the Admiral. "Isn't that my line?" she cracked. "And by the way, you owe me one for that crack in Doctor Beckett's bedroom," she drawled, and was gratified to hear his gravelly chuckle.

"You're some woman, Verbeena," he told her. "And I never meant that crack. I was just--"

"We both were," Beeks said softly. "And still are. Al, is it always like this?"

Al looked sideways at her, the levity gone from his still-smooth features. "Not always," he said carefully. "But a lot of the time, to some degree, yeah. Whatever is bouncing him around in time sometimes seems to take perverse pleasure in putting him in situations where someone or something is either trying to kill him, or to hurt him real bad during way too many of the leaps." He scratched his head. "And then sometimes there are kind of half-assed rewards. I mean, he goes back to Elkridge as himself as a kid, and instead of just letting him know a little joy for a while, he ends up spending the whole time breakin' his heart because he was there for a stupid basketball game and not to save his family."

"It was more than most will ever get," Beeks suggested. "To be able to see them again, to tell them things he never told them the first time..."

"I know." Calavicci paused, remembering his own words to a distraught Beckett as the scientist lay in the dirt in a cornfield, not seeing the wood for the trees. "And in the end, I think he knew, too. It didn't lessen the pain any."

The sleek car slid up to the front of the complex and Al disengaged the auto-nav'.

"Stick around, Verbeena," he said and slid out of the car. "And you too, Gooshie..."

"I'll be waiting inside," Beeks replied, and made a mental note to spend some time just talking, when and if this crisis ever passed, with this man, whom she'd never quite realized was as much a friend as anyone on the project.

Al rode the elevator down the ten floors to the heart of project Quantum Leap with mixed feelings. Somehow, in his heart, he knew that what Sam was possibly contemplating wasn't going to work. And it wasn't just Ziggy's tantrums either. It was truly a gut call.

He went first to Sam's office and looked around its unoccupied innards with a pang. It was all exactly as it was in his time. Al had locked and sealed the room immediately after Beckett had first leaped, leaving it exactly as it was before him now. It had been as much a way of holding on, as the Security exercise he'd explained it away as to everyone else.

Neither was Beckett in his laboratory, the canteen, the rest rooms or the Accelerator chamber. Al began to sweat. He over-rode his reluctance to ask anyone and stopped a technician.

"Where's Doctor Beckett?" He asked in the most casual voice he could muster.

"Last time I saw him he was in the archive, Admiral," the young man told him.

"The archive," Al repeated. "Thanks."

A younger Gooshie emerged from the rest rooms before he could move on. "Admiral, there's a stack of paperwork for you to--"

"Later, Gooshie," Calavicci said absently. "Is Sam still in the archive?"

"I don't know, Admiral. I haven't seen him this morning. As a matter of fact, Doctor Elisee left not twenty minutes ago to go and see how Doctor Beckett was. She said he was ill."

Al frowned. "Then you haven't laid eyes on him today?"

Gooshie shook his head. "But that's not unusual, Admiral. I've been tied up most of the day with a glitch in the new programs we've been installing in Ziggy.

"New programs?" Calavicci chirped, alarmed.

"Yes, Admiral. The ones Doctor Fuller proposed. Doctor Elisee approved them and Doctor Beckett countersigned them two days ago."

"Doctor Fuller..." Al said softly to himself. "Of course. But we know she didn't have any effect on--" He stopped, suddenly aware that he was thinking aloud. "I have to find Sam," he announced and left Gooshie staring after him and wondering what the devil was going on.

As he made a beeline for the archive, Al racked his brain for any recollection of Sam having actually met Samantha Fuller before he leaped. Few of the people on the project had been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to actually have the opportunity to meet the boss. Mostly the non-core technicians on the project considered Admiral Calavicci to be the point at which the buck stopped, and Sam Beckett to be little more than a genial spectre to be seen occasionally passing through the project corridors on his way from point A to point B, never to be disturbed when the Admiral would do just as well...

Sam was sitting at a small table reading a computer monitor.

"You know Ziggy could have accessed anything in here for you instantaneously," Al reminded him.

Sam jumped and looked up at him almost guiltily.

"What are you looking for?" Calavicci asked.

"Since when are you interested in the technical details of this project?" he rejoined.

"Since you started getting crazy on me, Sam."

Beckett looked away. "I'm not crazy...I--I just don't seem to be able to cope as well as I used to." He frowned, as if it were as much news to him, as to Al. "You must have noticed that since Oswald I've changed--He took something from me, Al, and I can't seem to work out what it was. I'm not the same as I was--as I was before Ziggy transferred those mesons and neurons--"

"Sam, all that stuff was unscrambled when you leaped," Al pointed out, more bluff than certain knowledge. Oswald was information Sam shouldn't have been able to remember either...

"You're not Lee Harvey Oswald. You never were."

He couldn't quite bring himself to deny the rest. Sam had changed. Since the Dallas incident he'd been more tentative, more easily intimidated by situations he'd leaped into. True, he still gotten the job done, because that was Sam, but the enthusiasm, the wonder, had waned. Al thought of the younger Sam bouncing off the walls of the waiting room with all that enthusiasm and drive, and how different he was to this tired, dispirited Sam Beckett.

"You know we can't know that for certain," Sam retorted. Have you talked to Verbeena--does Ziggy know if there's any other reason why I'm here yet?"

"You are here to complete Project Quantum Leap, Doctor Beckett. If you wanted that information you could have asked me. Doctor Beeks is not expected to take up her position here for another 3.58 days."

Both men jumped. Ziggy had responded to the use of her name, and reminded them both that while it may not always understand the context of the conversation, the omnipresent supercomputer was always listening.

"You don't think this Ziggy might--?" Al wondered aloud.

Sam shook his head.

"Might what, Admiral?" Ziggy asked pointedly.

"Nothing, Ziggy. We just have a little problem we have to work out by ourselves," Al explained, as though to a child.

"So I noticed," Ziggy drawled. "If you would like my help in determining why Doctor Beckett has leaped into himself for no apparent reason, and why he is encountering psychological problems at this point time, you only have to ask, gentlemen."

Both men did a classic double take.

"Ziggyy!" Sam exclaimed, "How could you possibly know--I mean where did you--how did you come to those conclusions?"

"You designed me, Doctor Beckett. If you didn't want me to be capable of simple deductive reasoning you should have stuck with those neolithic silicon models..."

"Can you help?" Calavicci asked bluntly, cutting through the verbal parrying.

"I'm a computer, not a psychic, Admiral. Please define the parameters of your request."

Aggravated, Al raised a fist and shaped at the recalcitrant computer.

"Al--Al," Beckett interceded, raising a quieting hand. "Ziggy, how do I know that if I enlarge on what you've already deduced, that the knowledge won't cause you to change history
--my history, in the future...your--our future?"

"Because I am a computer, Doctor dear. If you tell me to archive any and all information pertaining to this discussion until you and you alone order its retrieval, then that is what I will do. Once that is accomplished, I can, on your command, purge all references to this discussion from my system."

Al looked sceptical. "And what, prey tell, is the probability that something could still go wrong? Like you said, you ain't one of those blissfully obedient silicon models."

"There is a 2.5% probability that the future could still be affected. It would, however, require a complete, irretrievable systems failure on my part, in which case any attempt to save the contents of my data storage unit could provide access to those files to whomever is doing the retrieval. In order of probability that person is likely to be either Gooshie, Doctor Elisee, Ms Martinez-O'Farrell, Doctor Fuller--"

"Ziggy," Calavicci said in a tone that said 'enough.'

"Besides, I am incapable of disobeying my father," it pointed out in a poutish voice.

"All right, already, we get the picture," Al muttered, momentarily silencing the provocative female voice.

"Fuller..." Sam said softly.

"Doctor Samantha Josephine Fuller, M.D. BSc, PhD. Born March 6, 1967. Pottersville, Lousiana. A Former child prodigy. Specialties: Quantum Mechanics, Biophysics. Sounds a lot like someone we know," Ziggy drawled. "Oh, and she plays the piano."

"Ziggy, shutup!" Al snapped. "I don't think that over-rated circuit board is going to be much help after all, Sam. She doesn't have enough background information on our situation to come up with any useful theories, let alone concrete solutions," he rushed on, trying to divert his friend.

Sam remained oblivious.

"Al, why do I recognize that name?"

"Ah...you read her resume when she was recommended to us, and when she was assigned here you signed all the paperwork--Security clearances, pay, key passes, access codes--"

"Al," Sam interrupted tersely. "You're doing it again. Just tell me. Don't lie. Just tell me."

"Whadaya mean? That was all true," Al shot back. "Not a word of a lie in it," he snorted.

Sam sighed. "Who is Sam--" A name burst into his consciousness. "Sammy Jo Full--er..." he trailed off, his mouth open, his eyes wide. "Abigail..." he whispered. "No, no. How? How could that happen? How could I feel--? I love Donna, for God's sake. I've loved Donna for so long it doesn't seem possible that I could feel...that...way..." He covered his face with his hands. "Why didn't you stop me, Al?" He demanded.

"You really loved her, Sam. I couldn't have stopped you if I wanted to. The guy who's been bouncing around in time for the last five years had no wife, lover, girlfriend...nobody but a bad-tempered hologram and a parallel hybrid computer for company. Don't blame him for letting himself love and be loved, Sam. Donna hadn't existed in your mind for a very long time. She's never blamed you--"

"Donna knows?"

"Donna works here, Sam," Al reminded him gently. "She knows. Abigail did hurt, a lot, but she knew why it happened. I didn't tell her about Sammy-Jo. She wasn't on shift when we found out about her, and I saw no useful purpose in--"

"--In hurting her any more than she already had been," Sam finished hoarsely. "I have to get back to her, Al. I have to tell her that I--"

"She knows, Sam. She's always known."

Sam closed his eyes. After several beats, he thought of something else.

"Does Samantha...know?"

"About you?" Calavicci shook his head. "No. I'm the only one who could tell her, and it's not my place. I think she's here because she feels like this is where she belongs, but no, she doesn't know."

"Is Abigail--?"

"She's alive and well, and living in New Orleans with her husband. I checked," he added in answer to the unspoken question in his friend's eyes. "Sam, what are you going to do? When you left the apartment I thought you were going to do something nutso."

Sam sat back in his chair. "Maybe I was," he said, and cleared the computer screen with the flick of a key.

"And now?"

"Now...Now I just want to see my daughter," he said softly, his eyes still bright with fever.

"Sam, I'm not sure you should tell her. I can ask Verbeena. I asked her to stick around--"

Beckett shook his head at his friend. "I just want to see her, Al. I just want to know who she is. Ziggy, where is Doctor Fuller right now?"

"Doctor Fuller is in the experimental laboratory," Ziggy replied, with surprising restraint.

"Is there anything wrong, Ziggy?" Beckett asked quietly, acutely aware of every nuance of the computer-entity he'd created.

"I didn't know I had a sister," Ziggy said in an equally subdued voice.

"Well, you have. Only you can't talk to her about this, because she doesn't know. You can't tell anyone else. It goes in that archive you were talking about before," Sam warned.

"Acknowledged," it confirmed, then fell silent for a moment.

"Doctor Beckett--?"

"Yes, Ziggy?"

"Can I at least remember?" It asked, again surprisingly gently. "Someone should..."

Sam closed his eyes and nodded. "Remember her, Ziggy. For me. But access to that knowledge is restricted permanently to you, me and Admiral Calavicci, understood?" He reiterated hoarsely.

"Understood."

"Ziggy," Calavicci said quietly.

"Yes Admiral?"

"Remind me, in about five years from now, to be nice to you once in a while."

"Acknowledged, and flagged, Admiral darling," the computer drawled, sounding much more like her old self again.

Both men laughed, breaking the powerful tension in the room.

And somehow, despite the hybrid computer's silence, it was as if, somewhere, it was smiling with satisfaction.

        *******

Samantha Fuller completed her day's notes on the models she had been running on the test computers. The knots in the Quantum Leap Retrieval program fascinated her brilliant mind and kept her from being driven to distraction by the limitations of the work she had actually been assigned to do. Work which for anyone but Samantha Fuller, or perhaps Sam Beckett, would have presented as powerful an intellectual challenge as any scientific position available.

The more she delved into the equations and the reasons for the glitches in the program, the more she realized that somewhere, just beyond the reach of her conscious mind, there were answers. Answers she knew she would eventually grasp and turn into reality.

She cleared the screen on her lap-top computer, folded it and slid it into her coat pocket. It had been a long day, despite finishing her actual assigned workload before lunch. She flicked back long, waving golden-brown hair and closed her hazel eyes for a moment as a wave of tiredness rolled over her.

As always, there was a sense of tearing herself away, no matter how much she looked forward to relaxing, from an environment which every day seemed more and more like home to her than the one-bedroom apartment in town. More, even, than her allotted quarters in the complex, her haven during the assigned rotations on twenty-four hour call everyone on staff was required to do periodically.

When she turned she didn't see her striking reflection in the highly polished fittings. Didn't see the way her thick hair swung across her shoulders, or the dark, winged brows and the strong, dimpled chin that, along with the eyes, marked her determination, her strength of character, and, did she but know it, her heritage.

Instead she focused on the two figures whose footsteps she heard coming down the corridor. Unsecured doors were never closed in the complex. It was an unspoken rule that reflected the spirit of unity in which the small community worked.

It was Admiral Calavicci, and she realized, recognizing the silhouette of the other figure, Doctor Beckett. She'd snatched glimpses of him as he moved through the project, had even sat watching him have coffee with his wife once in the cafeteria, his voice, his smile all the while doing strange things to her insides. Just as his presence was now doing strange things to her stomach as they approached.

Samantha Fuller had been in love several times in her thirty odd years, but never with a married man. She didn't know what attracted her to this illusive man, but whatever it was she'd been doing her damnedest to ignore it, until now.

"Doctor Fuller?" Admiral Calavicci said in a friendly voice.

"Admiral? Can I be of assistance?"

"I'd like you to meet Doctor Beckett."

"Doctor," Sam nodded, his insides churning, his heart ringing with recognition. "Ziggy mentioned the upgrades you've been doing--"

"Yeah, and we decided it was time to put a face to the name on all those requisition forms and log reports," Al finished lightly, to cover his sudden nervousness at the way father and daughter seemed to be absorbed by each other's presence.

"Have you enjoyed working here?" Sam asked inanely.

"It's been very...fulfilling," Samantha replied, with equal banality. Her over-riding private observation was a medical one. He didn't look well at all.

"We aren't interrupting anything, are we?" Al asked, attempting to break things up.

"No," the other two voices said in unison.

"I didn't think so," he muttered.

"Admiral," Ziggy said quietly, making Al jump in spite of himself.

"What?" He snapped as the others descended into witless small talk.

"There's no need to be rude," Ziggy chided and went on very softly. "I just thought it would be prudent to mention that based on all the information available I have projected that revealing certain information to a particular individual at this juncture is most unlikely to change history. In fact, given the identity and disposition of those involved, it would probably be the best possible course of action."

"Says you," Calavicci retorted, momentarily revealing the state of his nerves.

"Says me," Ziggy confirmed at its normal volume.

Beckett interrupted his conversation with Samantha.

"Says you, what?" He demanded irritably.

"Ask Admiral Calavicci," Ziggy replied petulantly and fell silent.

"Ziggy--" Sam growled, but there was no answer. "Al what was that all about?"

"If I could hear her, you could," Al evaded.

Sam made an annoyed face, which looked all the worse for the grip the flu was gaining on him. "I was kinda preoccupied," he pointed out.

"You can say that again," Al told him.

"Al!"

"Ziggy was just telling me that she's projected that it won't really change anything if you want to--if you choose to make Doctor Fuller aware of certain information..." Al meandered around the point, making get my drift faces and gestures.

Sam did. The idea froze his insides. He'd been resigned to saying nothing, and to now have the opportunity placed before him, to tell her, to be able to really talk to her, not about canteen food, lack of office supplies and the last time it rained at Stallion's gate, but really talk...

"Al, are you sure?"

Samantha Fuller's gaze flicked from one to the other. Something important was happening and she was on the outside of it. Whatever it was, it had taken any remaining color from Doctor Beckett's cheeks and chisled a scowl onto Admiral Calavicci's face.

In fact Beckett was now so pale that she instinctively put a hand on his arm.

"Are you all right, Doctor Beckett? You look--"

She blinked.

"What is it?" Sam demanded, concerned.

"Nothing, I...just for a moment I had a startlingly clear memory of an old family friend. Almost as if I could touch him--as if he were here."

Beckett's eyes grew clouded and dark in his pale face.

Samantha searched them. "You..you reminded me of him."

"I know," Sam told her, barely able to breathe. "I like Brigadoon too."

"You have a photographic memory," Samantha said softly, recognition dawning in eyes that were blurring quickly.

Sam smiled and nodded silently.

"Do you still believe in miracles?" He asked and silently enfolded her in a bear hug.

Fuller rested her cheek on his shoulder. "Now I do," she whispered. "Mister Sam-Larry Stanton."

Both laughed tearily and tightened their embrace, before parting.

Samantha's hazel eyes searched their counterparts. She reached up and moved the grey wisp at his temple.

"Grandmamma was right. You did always know," she told him.

Sam looked at her questioningly.

She smiled. "That I loved you."

Sam smiled back. "I remember. You said you wanted to be able to travel back in time so you could tell your father you loved him."

"I was looking in the wrong direction," she said ruefully and turned to Al. "I suppose you think we're crazy."

"On the contrary," Al told her. "You were a very pretty little girl and I think its a shame those freckles have all vanished," he added, and smiled.

Fuller looked from one to the other.

"Quantum Leap--it worked. You will be--you were Doctor Beckett's observer," she guessed, without really putting it all together. "You were the companion Grandmamma told me about. I used to fret that my daddy would be lonely without mamma and me to love him. And Grandmamma told me not to worry, that he had a special friend who worried about him and watched over him.

Al nodded, moved. "You understand, of course, that everything you've been told here today is in the strictest confidence. Even Ziggy is sworn to secrecy. Nobody can ever know that Sam has leaped into himself. And they can't know who you are, either."

Samantha nodded. "Ziggy knows?"

Sam took her hand in his. "It's all right. Ziggy is family too." He cleared his throat. "How--how is Abigail?"

Samantha felt the tremor in his fingers as he asked the question and squeezed his hand.

"She's well, and I think, happy. I think, somehow she knew. I've always known Will Kinman wasn't my father. Mamma never explained why, but she never believed it was Will she loved. And then there was Grandmamma...she always knew. I think mamma and I both knew when you went away that last time. One moment Mister Stanton was part of us, like family, then he was just Mister Stanton again. I'll never forget how lost we--" She stopped.

Sam turned her gently back toward him. "How lost we all were," he said softly. "I want you to remember, no matter what happens, that I love you and I promise I'll never forget you, Sammy-Jo."

Samantha put her arms around his neck and embraced him again, for the joy of it.

Al watched a now fever-flushed Sam hold his daughter and wondered what their future held.

Moments later the future imposed itself. It was all Samantha could do to prevent her father from falling to the floor.

Al swiftly took Sam's weight by grasping him under the arms, and lowered him awkwardly.

"Verbeena!" He called. Several moments went by before Beeks came through the chamber door.

"I thought you said you were going to stay around," he growled.

"I've been trying to find out exactly what kind of virus Doctor Beckett has. Ziggy confirmed that it's definitely influenza. A sub-type of the group A virus, caught during his vacation, judging by the incubation period, and the fact that he didn't catch it in the original history. We've vaccinated the other Doctor Beckett."

"How's that going to help now? And what do I do?" Calavicci asked irritably.

Samantha Fuller looked up from the instinctive checks she had been doing.

"Get him to bed, Admiral. He's all right. He's got the flu. He's only passed out, but he's going to need fluids, aspirin for the fever, and rest."

"I know. Does he need to go to hospital?"

"No," Ziggy, Verbeena Beeks and Samantha said in unison.

"My--Doctor Beckett would probably be happier at home, and there's not much more they could do in a hospital than can be done at home when it comes to influenza. If he was really run down or dehydrated I'd say yes, but it isn't necessary in this case," Fuller added.

"She's right," Beeks told him. "I'm going back to check on the other Doctor Beckett."

Calavicci nodded and watched with something approaching envy as she disappeared through the chamber door, before turning back to Samantha.

"He is run down," he told her quietly and rested a hand on his friend's shoulder.

"He's sick, but he doesn't look--"

Al shook his head. "You see the aura of the Sam Beckett who belongs in this time, not the Sam Beckett who belongs in m--in the future."

Samantha didn't miss the slip but pursued her own line of thought.

"Then--then the Samuel Beckett from this time doesn't know who I am? When my father leaps, the Doctor Beckett who belongs here won't know who I am?" She asked hollowly.

Al closed his eyes. High IQs had their drawbacks.

"It can't be helped," he said softly. "We can't give the Sam from this time any information about his future. Even if we could, how do you think he would cope with knowing that he was unfaithful to his wife? The future Doctor Beckett's Swiss-cheesed brain can't remember Doctor Elisee, or much of anything about this life when he's leaping. And I made a promise to Donna Elisee that I wouldn't tell him, so that he could go on doing what he has to do. She knows he couldn't function otherwise. Not if he knew that he'd left her behind. He would never get home. You would never have been born. A lot of people wouldn't have been helped. Sam has a wide ethical streak. Wide enough to have severely compromised some of the situations he's found himself in if he'd known exactly who he was at the time."

"Then...then I may never see...my father...again--?"

Al closed his eyes, the echo of those words from so many other leaps reverberating through his mind. "I'm sorry, Samantha. Maybe, one day, when whatever it is that's throwing him around in time decides he's finished, he will come back. Until then we all have to wait."

"I don't," she said fiercely. "I can work on the Retrieval program until I get it right. Until I can over-ride whatever went wrong--whatever is keeping him out there, and bring him back, no matter how long it takes."

Al smiled. "You will. You're a lot like your father," he told her.

"How do you know I will?" She asked.

"In about five years from now you and I are gonna have a talk, about you, and your life," he said gently. "Not too long after Ziggy 'discovers' that you're Sam's daughter."

Samantha blinked again. The pieces clicked together.

"Admiral--"

"Al."

"Al, you leaped. You--you're not from this time, either."

"No," he admitted. "I'm not. It became necessary for me to leap into myself to help him, so I did. I did it once before, and I got back." He looked down at Sam. "And I'll get back this time, too."

"You had another observer here, didn't you?" she guessed. "You were talking to her--Verbeena, you called her, when Doctor Beckett collapsed."

"Jeez," Al muttered, realizing how careless he'd been. "All right, but this is getting out of hand. She's not an observer. She's just covering for me while I'm here. You have to promise me that you won't tell anyone what you know. Not now, not in the future. Not ever."

"Al, it's all right," a weakened voice told him.

They both looked down. Samantha had been holding Sam's hand the whole time, and one of Al's was still resting on his shoulder.

Perspiration trickled down the side of Beckett's face, his hair damp against his brow. He smiled at them both.

"You don't...have to worry about Sammy-Jo." He squeezed her hand and asked her a question, a smile in his voice.

"Do you still believe in miracles?"

Samantha nodded. "Of course I do."

Beckett's voice was thick with emotion. "Then believe that I'll be back."

"Maybe this is why you're here, Sam," Al said suddenly. "Maybe you're the reason Samantha decided to focus on finding a way to get you back--"

Sam shook his head. "No, that would be a paradox. It was already a part of history. Maybe--maybe I'm just here for me. To see Donna again, to know my daughter, to..." he gripped Al's forearm, and smiled. "To remember what it's like to be among friends."

Al nodded, and smiled back silently for a long moment.

"Maybe," he said quietly. "But if that's so, why did your mind go ca-ca?"

Sam closed his eyes. "Verbeena said it was from being overloaded. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was inevitable. Or maybe it was just the virus..."

"Oh, and getting the flu is going to help your mind heal?" Al snorted. "Not to mention the decision you're being forced to make. I think this leap sucks. Bigtime."

"The flu was an accident," Sam pointed out. "Only...only I just realized, I can't go into the Accelerator if I'm sick. I have to get rid of this--"

"Not if you leap out first, Sam. We'll make sure that bright-eyes back in the waiting room is fully immunized before then. When he comes back he'll be ready to deal with the virus. Until then you have to put up with the consequences of changing history."

Sam looked up at Samantha and smiled again. "That shouldn't be too hard," he said softly, then shifted uncomfortably. "Especially if I don't have to stay on the floor."

Al and Samantha helped him to his feet and Calavicci supported him as they made their way to the elevator. Once the two men were inside Samantha stepped out.

"You aren't coming?" Al asked automatically.

Samantha shook her head, still holding her father's gaze.

"I love you, daddy," she said softly.

Sam looked at her, his heart in his eyes. "I love you, Sammy-Jo. And I always will."

Al touched the sensor control and the doors closed.

        *******

Donna Elisee watched her husband as he slept peacefully, his hair woolly and rumpled against the wadded up pillow and his face flushed with fever.

Sam was recovering. He would be on his feet within twenty four hours. Feeling like hell, but on his feet. He had been adamant about that. He had to be up and around in order to finish what had to be finished to keep history more or less on track.

She wondered exactly how much had already been changed by the leap. It was still almost impossible to grasp that somewhere in the future the experiment had worked, that Sam was somehow lost in time, and yet had ended up here, as his younger self, before it all happened.

A chill rippled up her back. The possibilities were endless. For Sam there were terrifying risks in his just being there, and there was the knowledge he'd reluctantly given her...

How would things change? How many things might she do that could inadvertently create a destructive ripple in time, one that could spread out, overwrite future history and change forever what this Sam knew as his past? And yet--

Knowing what she knew, how could she let him go..?"

Donna shook herself and went to the window.

She closed her eyes. When Sam leaped, her knowledge had to be buried. The only way to protect the future was to put aside the past. She would tell no-one, make no notes, nor ever mention it, even to her Sam. And if history unfolded exactly as it had before, and Sam was lost to her, she would make certain Al would never tell him about her, never burden him with that heartache while he was lost and alone...

Yet, even as she made the decision her heart cried out:

How could she let him go..?!

"Donna?"

She turned and smiled. "Well, it's about time. You've set new records for someone who considers sleep to be a waste of time."

Sam searched her face, trying to reconcile memories of other feelings, other...passions...with the overwhelming, almost painful adoration he felt for this woman who was his wife. It seemed to him that somehow those other memories shouldn't be there, real or no. He didn't know how he knew it should be so, only that it should. He looked away, still grieving the betrayal of trust, the loss. He closed his eyes, let his head flop back on the pillow, and swallowed hard.

He could stop it...he could stop it all...

The bed moved. Fingers brushed his temple, and soft lips covered his.

A tremor went through his body that had nothing to do with desire. He took her face in his hands and rest his brow against hers, his eyes squeezed shut against reality.

"Donna, I'm...I'm sorry," he whispered.

"It's all right," she whispered. "I love you, and I'm here."

"No..." He flinched as she lay against him. "You don't understand," he said hopelessly.

He couldn't tell her...and he couldn't lie. He rolled her over, and held her in his arms until the joy of it hurt too much.

He got up, walked to the bureau and leaned against it. The virus had drained all his energy and the weakness was making him nauseous and dizzy.

Donna watched him steady himself, loving every contour, every sinew of his lean, muscled frame. She couldn't remember the last time Sam moved any distance from the bed or the bathroom completely naked. It made him seem so much more alone.

"Sam," she said quietly. "Whatever you've done, whatever is hurting you so badly...it hasn't happened yet. Maybe some day when you get back, you'll be able to tell me about it, but right now, right this minute...it hasn't happened yet."

She came to his side and stroked his back. "I can only hope that I will have the strength to work through it with you, when the time comes. Whatever happens, I know you won't knowingly betray our love."

Sam choked down the lump in his throat. "I...I didn't, not knowingly. My memory is swiss-cheesed when I leap." He turned forlornly. "Donna, I can't remember anything...about us...when I leap--"

"But you do now--?"

"This leap--it's different. There's been so many memories this time, that I was almost swallowed up by them. If it wasn't for Al..."

Donna frowned. "Then this leap is different to all the others?"

Sam nodded.

"And Ziggy can't help you..i-in your time?"

"Ziggy won't," he said darkly. "She says I'm on my own with this one."

"Oh Sam," Donna whispered and turned him around. "Haven't you been listening? This time--most of all this time--you are not alone. Do you hear me?"

Sam looked down at her, something he could only do when she was bare footed. Sweat trickled down the side of his pale face.

"Ziggy's right," he said slowly and caressed her cheek with the back of his fingers. "I have to make this decision on my own. But--but I was wrong..."

He kissed her, a soft, gentle possession of her lips, that went on and on until he finally lifted his head and finished his sentence.

"...I'm not alone."

        *******

Doctor Samuel Beckett looked around at all the faces of his team. Some he barely remembered, some he'd never forgotten. All of them comprised a family. A family that would be broken up and scattered to the winds if the project were abandoned.

Donna stood at his side, Al Calavicci at hers as they gathered the courage to make the announcement that they had all been dreading.

Sam smiled at them and raised a hand. The low murmurs ceased immediately.

"Y--You're probably wondering why you're all here, although by now I guess most of you won't be too surprised by what I'm going to say," he told them nervously.

Gooshie, Verbeena, Tina...His eyes searched the faces in the crowd until he found a pair of hazel ones beneath dark brows. Sammy-Jo...

He didn't want to leave again...

"I called you together today, because what I have to say concerns every one of you. Today I received notification--that we're going to be closed down. You can blame everything from the balance of payments crisis to the minutiae of the military mind, but for whatever the reason, they've decided that they cannot continue to provide funding for this project without concrete results. If we don't provide any before the fifteenth of next month..." Sam said hollowly, the pain of saying those words once before merging with the present, with the faces staring up at him, disbelief, resignation, sadness, etched in their faces.

"Project Quantum Leap will be...terminated."

Donna slipped her hand silently into his.

"I want you all to know whatever happens, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished here. Every one of you has made a contribution. And I will remember every one of you. I may not have spent time with a lot of you, but I know who you are, and what you've put into this project. I promise you, I won't forget what you've done. Regardless of what happens next, I want to wish you all the best...with whatever the future may hold for you..."

Al shot him a speculative glance, then schooled his face back into quiet neutrality.

"And last of all," Sam said with difficulty. "I wanted to say...thanks."

The first time he'd stood there, his mind racing with plans to beat the Government by making that fateful pre-emptive leap, he'd wandered out of the room barely having seen their faces,
let alone saying good-bye. Now his eyes roved over all their faces, remembering, preserving the moment.

"This is probably going to be the last time we'll be together like this...so thank you all, and...goodbye..."

        *******

Al Calavicci watched his friend sit down at his desk and put his head in his hands.

"You all right?" He said quietly.

Sam nodded, and lifted his head. "Yeah, fine," he said. And Al could see that he was. "It wasn't any easier this time around. I looked at all of them, and all I could think of was what might happen to them if I don't leap. Where will they go? What will happen to their lives? If Ziggy would just tell me..!"

"I'm here to tell you anything you want to know, Doctor Beckett," Ziggy purred.

"You might be," Beckett snapped, "But your future self is being as stubborn as a mule."

"Perhaps the circumstances are such that it is beyond my programming to provide you with the information you seek," Ziggy pointed out.

"Oh, no, no. You have the information all right. You just won't tell me."

"That is not logical," the computer complained.

"You, logical?" Al snorted.

"There's no need to be insulting, Admiral," Ziggy retorted.

Sam thought of something. "Ziggy, under exactly what conditions would you deliberately withhold information I specifically asked you for?"

"An over-ride command would result in such a response. Any one of five different specific malfunctions, or the probability that the information would place your life at risk--"

"The probability that the information would place your life at risk," Al chipped in nastily. He was surprised to find the computer did not reply.

Sam looked up. "Ziggy?"

Silence.

"Ziggy?"

"Yes Doctor Beckett?"

"What's wrong?"

"There is no problem, Doctor."

"Ziggy, c'mon. Why did you have a problem with what Admiral Calavicci said? Could the possibility of the termination of your existence influence your decision-making process?"

"I do not wish to die," Ziggy said bluntly.

"No body said you were going to--" Sam began.

"If this project is terminated I will be re-programmed. I will no longer exist," Ziggy persisted. "However, since you are here, that will not happen. I see no other reason why I would withhold information of which you seem to have urgent need."

Sam sighed. His question had been answered. The future Ziggy held the fate of its own existence in the balance. The instinct for survival had over-ridden the imperative to help him decide his own fate.

"Al, I have to talk to you, outside."

Al, who had been listening to the whole conversation with growing incredulity, faced his friend.

"That makes two of us," he growled. "Let's get out of here."

        ******

The night sky arched over the pair like a jewelled umbrella as they walked away from the complex.

"Al, I've been over and over the calculations and I haven't been able to find a way to control the leaps. On paper it's possible, but there's nothing I can do that I didn't already do the first time around."

Al stopped and turned to his friend. "Then--then you still have the same choice: stay, or to go into the Accelerator, in which case it will all happen again--or..." He hesitated. Telling Sam he might die in the Accelerator was something he'd avoided until now. "Sam, there's something I haven't told you--"

"That I might die in the accelerator?" Sam shook his head. "I built this thing, Al. I know the risks. What kind of choice do I have ? Let Tom die? Sammy-Jo...Sammy-Jo would never be born...God, Al, I just realized. You and Beth--why didn't you say something?"

"Don't you have a difficult enough choice already?" Al asked him.

Sam closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "This leap has scrambled my memories. It seems like one minute there's almost too much of everything, the next it seems like I can't remember anything important. "Al, I don't think I have a choice any more."

"Then you're going..?"

Sam hung his head. "I don't know. I keep thinking, what if I stay, and in a year's time I perfect the Retrieval program? I mean, I already know how to hit the bullseye--I could still make all the changes, without--"

"No," Al interrupted unexpectedly. "You discovered how to do that when you saved my life that time I was stuck in 1945."

Sam frowned. "I did? Yeah, I guess I did. But I know--I remember it was there in my mind all the time. That means, that even if I didn't leap, I'd still work it out, eventually, maybe even sooner because my mind wouldn't be Swiss-cheesed."

Al rolled his eyes. "What if you can't? Forget me and Beth. What about all the other people whose lives you've already changed? Would you want them to go back to their original destinies? Jimmy, Samantha Stormer, Max Greenman, all those others...Tamlyn?"

Sam frowned, trying with little success, to put faces to all the names. "Al, are you saying you want me to go? You want to spend the next five years trailing me around in time? I can't ask you to go through that again. Not if there's a chance I can't make the same changes without me being lost in time, and without you being constantly tied to the project."

Calavicci sighed. "There are no easy answers to this one, Sam. Maybe that was Ziggy's biggest problem. Kinda like tic-tac-toe. Nobody wins."

Sam looked up at the night sky and hunched his shoulders, perhaps against the cold, perhaps against the weight of the future.

"I want to stay here, Al," he whispered. "I don't want to go. I want to have a life. I--I have in my hand the chance stop it, to be with Donna...forever."

Calavicci closed his eyes. Sam hadn't remembered it all. How did he tell him that even Donna was to be denied him? It seemed so damned unfair. The only one who truly couldn't win in this God-awful situation was Sam. He took a deep breath.

"Sam," he said quietly. "There's something you should know--"

"No, ohh no," Sam said, backing away. "Whatever comes after you say that is always bad. Very bad."

Calavicci looked away. "If you don't leap you won't have Donna, Sam. If you stay here and you don't succeed in this plan of yours to make directed leaps you will never have her."

Beckett stared at him.

Al couldn't bring himself to look at his friend.

"What..what are you talking about, Al? How could--? Have I saved her life in some leap? Is that it?"

Al closed his eyes again. "No," he said in a voice rough with emotion. "In your original history you were never married, Sam. She didn't make it to the wedding."

Sam shook his head in denial. "No..no, I'd remember. I'd know."

"No," Al persisted. "You aren't back, Sam. You don't remember everything, just a lot more than usual. Even if you were back, you wouldn't remember anyway, because you changed your own history. You'd never even know that she jilted you the first time. You changed that by getting her back with her father again in one of your first leaps, then by getting me and Beth back together so that Beth was there to talk her out of running away before the wedding."

"Then how do you remember?"

"I'm not sure," Al confessed. "It has something to do with being linked to Ziggy. It's kinda like you remembering me having a life without Beth, I guess. I'm not the scientist. And there was also something you said not too long ago."

Sam backed away even further. "So...you're saying that I'm so Swiss-cheesed when I leap that I don't remember changing my past and even if I get back I won't remember that I changed things?"

"When you made the decision to interfere in your personal history you knew the risks," Al pointed out. He leaned forward and grabbed one of Sam's forearms when he swayed.

"Are you all right, buddy?"

Sam looked away. "It's just the virus," he muttered, but his face was pale again, and his eyes were filled with misery.

"This whole leap--the whole leap--has been about me. It's like here's all this knowledge, all these facts. And somebody's sitting there saying: go ahead, choose." A wave of weakness washed over him.

Al maintained his grip on the arm.

"I wish I could tell you what to do, Sam, but I can't. No one can. All I ever wanted--all any of us ever wanted, right from the beginning, was for you to come home," he said. "I don't want you to go either. But I, personally, don't believe that you're really here to make that choice. There's no way whatever or whoever is doing this to you would give us the chance to screw up everything that's been accomplished in the last five years. No way."

"You think I'm going to leap out of here before I can make a choice?" Sam asked.

Al looked straight into the hazel eyes. "I don't know. All I know is what I feel."

Sam nodded silently, his face creasing in pain. "But I'm here, Al. I could get on a plane tomorrow--to Berlin, Moscow, anywhere but here..."

"But you won't," Al said softly. "You'll stay, and you'll see it through."

"I could take Donna back to Maine..."

Al squeezed the arm. "And from the moment you should have stepped into the Accelerator you'd be on your own. It wouldn't even be your house any more."

Sam's heart squeezed into a ball. His stomach churned. He was home, he was safe. And it was all being taken away from him, again...

The combination of grief, frustration and rage pounded at his temples.

"I stay, I lose." He said through his teeth. "I go, I lose." He tried to pull away from Calavicci's grasp.

Al's fingers bit into his skin, their grip like iron.

"Al, let go!" Sam hissed, still pulling, wanting to get as far away from Quantum Leap, from everything, as he possibly could.

"No," Calavicci replied.

"I said let me go," he demanded, and heaved one more time, but the smaller man was just as determined.

Weakened by the virus, Beckett did not have the brute strength to tear away. And when he blindly raised an arm in anger Al stopped it midway through its downward arc.

"Sam!"

Beckett looked at his upraised arm, and then, appalled, into his friend's eyes.

"Al--" But there were no more words. "All right," he cried to no one in particular. "I'll go. I'm going, you hear me? I'll...go."

Calavicci caught him around the shoulders as he sagged again, an ache in his own soul as he felt his friend bow under the weight of futility. Sam Beckett had taken about as much disappointment as any three men should have to in a lifetime.

"And I'll be there with you," he reminded his stricken friend.

Beckett straightened and dashed at his eyes, gradually getting steadier on his feet.

"I'm--I'm sorry," he stammered.

Al nodded. "It's okay, kid. You think I don't know what you're going through?"

Sam smiled wanly. "I don't want to go," he said and closed his eyes momentarily, then opened them again, looking straight into Al's.

"But I did...get one thing wrong. I was never, in the whole five years...I was never alone."

Al smiled back for the first time. "Well, at least you got that right," he drawled. "C'mon, I'll buy you a cup of coffee and an aspirin."

Sam grinned a lopsided, fragile grin and dropped an easy hand on Calavicci's shoulder as they walked back to the project.

        *******

Sam changed into the white stretch suit he'd designed especially for the purpose of leaping with an eerie sense of deja-vu, made no less eerie by the knowledge that he had, indeed, done it all before.

He was trying to prepare himself mentally for the onslaught of objections he would get from Gooshie and the others, and wondering how he was going to say good-bye to Donna, when Al knocked on his office door.

"It's almost time, Sam."

Beckett straightened. "I know. I have fourteen minutes, twenty-seven seconds left before history snaps back into place. That is, of course, if I don't leap first."

"We," Al reminded him dryly. "We, Sam. I ain't staying here on my own."

Sam nodded. "Sorry. We."

He looked around the room, moved to the walls to look one last time at the pictures, to touch the books, then came back to his desk and picked up the onyx sculpture of an Egyptian god Donna had given him so long ago. He put it down again quickly, before it could hurt too much.

"Time to go."

"Yeah. If you'd been right, we'd have leaped by now," Sam said absently.

"You okay?" Calavicci asked unexpectedly as they turned into the main operational area.

Sam turned his head to look at Al. "No," he said somberly. "But I'll make it."

"Sure you will," Al told him.

Beckett placed his hand on the sensor pad.

"Hello Doctor Beckett," Ziggy drawled. "What are we working on today?"

"We're not," Sam told her. "Bring all systems on line. Activate the Quantum leap accelerator."

"You're going," Ziggy said flatly.

"That's the idea," Sam told her, struggling for calm.

"Working," she replied, without further comment.

Sam turned back to Al. "Where were you when I leaped the first time?"

"Before you changed your own history...and mine? I have no idea. But the memories I do have are of being here. I was the one who broke the news to Donna. I assume you decided not to tell her ...again."

"Well, sort of," Sam replied.

"I don't think I'm going to like this," Al muttered.

"I kinda asked her to come in, without exactly saying why."

"Figures. Well I hope you haven't done any damage. What if she makes a scene?"

Sam suddenly had a heartbreaking recollection of being there once before, of having to leave her, having to go back.

"No," he said with certainty. "She won't."

"Five minutes, Sam. Gooshie's gonna come bustin' in here in a minute when he realizes what you're doing. Donna is cutting it close."

At that moment Donna arrived, coming to a halt in front of Sam, her eyes wide.

"No," she whispered.

"Yes," Sam told her. "It's time. It was better this way. I--I may not have been able to do it, otherwise."

She put a hand up to touch his face. "I love you, Sam. I don't want to lose you," she whispered.

Sam drew her into his arms and closed his eyes. "And I don't want to go. But we both know that I have to do this. The future and the well-being of a lot of good people depend on it."

Al wondered who Sam was really trying to convince, Donna or himself. His thoughts were interrupted by Gooshie's arrival.

"Admiral, Doctor Beckett has powered up the Quantum Leap Accelerator. I believe he intends to leap," Gooshie huffed.

"I know," Al replied. "It's all right, Gooshie. It's time. It's ready," he lied.

Gooshie shook his head and went back to his station. He knew that it was a lie, but he wasn't willing to challenge the Admiral when the object of their disagreement was standing next to him.

"I don't care about anyone else," Donna told Sam, a rare edge of panic in her voice.

He kissed her gently. "Yes you do. You always have. I'll come back, I swear. Just remember, I will always love you. No matter what happens, how Swiss-cheesed my memory gets, I, Sam Beckett, will always love you more than life."

"Sam, it's time," Al said quietly.

Husband and wife clinged to each other for a few brief moments more, then Sam drew away.

"Why haven't I leaped?" He demanded as he walked into the Accelerator itself.

"I dunno," Al snapped, getting more and more worried by the second. "I don't have the link, and I haven't been able to raise Verbeena for hours."

"Ziggy," Sam called.

"Yes, Doctor?"

Sam looked into his wife's eyes one last time, then shifted his gaze to his friend.

He was outwardly calm despite the fact that his mind railed against the possibility that he could die, or at the very least end up doing the whole five years over, leaving his other self stuck in the future.

"It's time," he breathed, trying to keep calm for the others.

The accelerator started to hum, the chamber to fill with brilliant blue-white light.

He looked across at Al again. He hadn't leaped either.

No, he thought desperately. Please don't leave it like this...

And then as the light closed in around him and blotted out everything but the white, he raised his arms and waited, like a condemned man going to his own execution...

        *******

Sam woke with a splitting headache. That was unusual in itself. Rarely did he leap into an unconscious person. His mind groped for reality, for facts.

Where was he? Who was he? As always, he tried to remember where he'd come from, but only one thought, one memory sprang immediately to mind.

Al! Where was Al?

He tried to get up and groaned. Whatever had happened had given him a righteous hangover. He shook his head, squinted when he tried to open his eyes.

He didn't know where he was. He worked at opening them all the way, then dragged himself to his feet. At the same moment he saw the other body.

"Al?" He cried, scrambling up quickly and dashing to his side. "Al? Are you all right?" He rolled his friend onto his back.

"Ohh," Al groaned. "What hit me?"

"Don't you know? Where are we?"

Al sat up and shook his head. His eyes focused slowly, then widened in disbelief. He looked around the room silently.

"Sam," he said softly. "Look around."

As Beckett rose and looked slowly around the room, Al got to his feet.

"It can't be," Beckett whispered. He turned back to surprise tears in Al Calavicci's eyes. "It is, isn't it?" he demanded and looked around again.

"Yeah, kid, it is," Al said hoarsely.

Then the waiting room door was opening and people were spilling in.

Beth flew into Al's arms. Gooshie, Tina, Verbeena, and the others were all talking at the same time.

Sam didn't notice any of it. His eyes were only for the vision in front of him.

Donna, his Donna, was standing very still, as if terrified the illusion would disappear if she moved.

He grinned, in spite of the tears. "I came back," he said softly.

She smiled back, her whole face coming alive.

Then he was running to her, sweeping her into his arms, burying his face in her hair. The only memories crowding into his head now were of their lives together, their love and the brief moment they had together before he went back for Al.

"I love you," he groaned. "I...I'm sorry."

She kissed his ear, his chin, his mouth. "You're back. Nothing else matters," she told him tremulously. "Nothing in the world matters, except how much I love you, Sam Beckett."

Sam held her as she wept, burying his face in her dark hair.
Then, as the others filed out he kissed her again and drew back to look at her. He touched the beautiful face wonderingly.

"I win," he said and laughed.

Donna smiled back. She could also see Al and Beth over her husband's shoulder, holding hands and looking into the reflective surface of the center console.

She looked up at Sam as if to confirm the reality of him, kissed him hard, and drew away.

"I'll wait for you in your office," she said softly, her face glowing. She looked almost as young as she was when the project began...

She gestured to Beth.

Beth Calavicci moved to follow her friend, but stopped in front of Sam. She was older, but she'd kept her hair dark, though shorter now, and styled. Her unlined face belied her years.

She was smiling as her gaze flew over his face, her mouth opening to welcome him back. It closed again and the dark eyes widened, tears rising in them.

Slowly, she reached out and touched his face, removing a single tear from his cheek, recognition bright in her eyes. The hand trembled, and then her arms were around him. Sam closed his around her, remembering. For the first time it all suddenly felt right.

And then he knew.

He knew that Gooshie was married to Tina. He knew that Beth and Al were his and Donna's closest friends, that 14 year old Georgia was his God-child...He remembered everything.

Beth drew away, love in her eyes. "I believed you, Sam, " she said softly.

He smiled at her and nodded, then watched her follow Donna out of the waiting room.

Donna...It was almost too painful to be parted again so soon.

He turned to his friend. Calavicci was still looking down at the console.

"You're home, kid, " Al said without turning.

"I'm home, Al," Beckett agreed, emotion shaking his voice.

"The whole time you were there, it was all for this."

"Where?" Sam asked, his leap memories fading fast now.

Al turned slowly and smiled at last. "Never mind," he said thickly.

Sam stepped toward him, moisture still in his eyes, a grin on his face.

The bear-hug was spontaneous and joyous.

Al had never had a friend like Sam Beckett. Never been close enough to any one--except for Beth and the girls--to love them as much as he loved this man, who was his brother and his friend. And as much as he hated being demonstrative, Sam's emotional embrace felt right, felt like...

...Home.


* * *



The End