When reality focused enough for Sam Beckett to grasp it, he found himself standing over a hot stove, egg-slice in hand.
He was wearing an apron and he could smell food cooking. For one panicked moment he thought he'd leaped into a woman again. Just as he was about to make his feelings felt about that, high heels, girdles and dresses in general, he caught sight of himself in the glass door of a china cabinet.

He was in his early sixties. Tall, straight, full head of hair, kind eyes. An attractive man in his day. Only now the eyes had heavy circles under them and there were lines of strain around the strong mouth.

Sam frowned and looked down. He was wearing sport pants and a collared shirt...and loafers. He sighed. Definitely a guy. Finally he relaxed, only to realize that the scrambled egg on the stove had caught. He automatically scraped it all out and began another batch, toast and coffee.

There was a clock above the stove. Six forty-five...He looked out of the wide window over the kitchen sink to the back garden...In the morning, his mind finished with a sigh. He was dog tired. Wherever he'd leaped from it must have been night, or late afternoon, because he wanted nothing more than a shower and a warm bed.

By the time he'd completed the tray already laid out with white linen, crystal bud vase with red rosebud, crystal butter dish and a glass of ice-water, he realized he didn't have any idea who it was for. He picked it up carefully and went looking for someone to give it to.

There were four bedrooms, one obviously his, judging by the pants thrown over the door, the socks on the floor and an open briefcase on the desk under the window. The second one was unoccupied, a girl's room, then came a bathroom, a living room and the third, a boy's room, before the main bedroom from which the muted sounds of a talk-back radio program emanated.

Sam stopped in the doorway and studied the occupant. She was listening to the radio. She might have been younger than he, but it was difficult to tell. She was greying, gaunt, and quite obviously seriously ill. The professional side of him immediately began to assess her medical condition.

"Hello," he said quietly, knowing he couldn't go wrong with that.

She turned still-striking dark eyes to him, then the tray, and beamed. "Bill, it's lovely. But shouldn't you be getting ready for work, darling?"

"N-No, not today," Sam stammered. "I've taken the day off to be with you." He prayed he was right and hoped Al would arrive before he really made a mess of things.

The woman misted up. "You didn't have to do that. I feel just as good today as I did yesterday. In a few days Margaret will be here with the twins. And Steve promised to come home as soon as he gets a little ahead in his studies."

Sam wondered what her name was, and how he was going to find out. His name was obviously Bill, and their children, if he'd read it right, were Margaret and Steve. One married and one still at college.

He put the tray carefully on her lap and stepped away.

"Can I get you coffee? Tea?"

"Don't tease, Bill," she giggled, taking years off her drawn, illness-ravaged face. "Just get the pills and the water."

"Pills..." Sam muttered as he trotted back to the kitchen to look for them. They were all in a small huddle of bottles and packets by the bread-box.

He smiled to himself as he read the label. Names. Prescription for Mrs. Helena Barton. So he was Bill Barton...

As he continued to read the bottles and boxes and to marry them with his observations, the smile vanished and his brow furrowed. He sighed jaggedly and began filling the cup with the dosages.

She took them and the glass of water without complaint.

While she picked at the food, Beckett sat in an arm chair which seemed to have been installed at the bed-side as an after-thought. An old black and white television with an old fashioned antenna sitting on top of it sat idly in a corner opposite.

It wasn't long before the medication knocked her out. He was deep in thought trying to work out what he was there to do, and trying not to think about Mrs Barton's medical condition, when the chamber door finally opened.

"Al, why am I here?" he demanded before his friend was able to manage even a hello.

Calavicci made a gesture towards the door. When they were safely back in the kitchen he consulted the hand-link.

"Ah..you're here--in Orange county, California--for this couple, Sam. The guy you leaped into, William Barton, was convicted of the murder of his sixty-three year old wife in 1973. He goes to jail for six years but he just fades away and dies two years before he's due for release."

Sam looked back toward the bedroom door. "She has cancer, doesn't she?" he asked grimly.

Calavicci looked up reluctantly from the handlink and nodded. "Barton thinks she has maybe another six months of hell if he does nothing."

"But she doesn't..?" Sam guessed.

"No...no she doesn't. Ziggy says that if he hadn't done it Helena would have died less than ten days later anyway."

Sam frowned. "She's in an advanced stage of the disease, yes, but as a physician I'd have to say--"

"As a physician you wouldn't know about the undiagnosed heart condition they found during the mandatory autopsy after Barton's arrest," Al shot back. Ziggy says there's a 97% chance her heart would have given out within the next ten days."

"So...so Bill went to jail for nothing?"

"That's about the size of it."

Beckett's expression grew grim. "So my being here is going to change history? I don't have to do anything drastic while I'm here, except keep Helena alive until I leap--?" His eyes narrowed. "--Or she dies naturally?"

"That's basically it," Al agreed. "Ziggy has been over and over this one and hasn't come up with anything else Bill Barton needs to do or not do in this time frame."

Sam relaxed a little, but his expression remained grim. "She's in a lot of pain, Al," he said quietly.

"Yeah, well, that's what most of that medication is for."

"The thing is, she doesn't complain about it. She barely even shows it--"

"But you can tell..?" Al asked, curious.

Sam nodded, but didn't elaborate. "Tell me about Margaret and Steve."

"Well, Margaret is 30, a teacher married to an architect named James Lowell. They have two children: twin four year old boys--Kane and Jackson--and they all live in Arizona. Steve is a second year engineering student at Cal Tech. He's an egg-head, but he likes the girls...and they like him."

"Well, that ought to keep me out of trouble for a while at least," Beckett observed. "How--I mean when exactly did Barton--?"

"Eight days from now, with a well constructed overdose of that chemical cocktail there. Ziggy thinks you leaped in early because there may be something else you have to do before then."

"Something else?"

Al shrugged. "Ziggy doesn't know yet. Maybe something to do with the kids, or something for Helena."

Beckett sat down hard on a kitchen chair, leaned his elbows on the small table and put his face into his hands.

"Maybe I'm here to do it sooner," he said darkly. "Have you ever thought about euthanasia, Al?"

"Sure. Every time the media gorges itself on the subject, I think about what I'd do."

Sam lifted his head and looked a question at his friend.

Al shrugged. "Nobody can know for sure, but I do know that there's no way I'm hanging around on a respirator once my brain quits. And dying any kind of long, painful, useless death isn't my idea of mercy."

"It isn't as easy as that," Sam said slowly. "It isn't just the victim's decision. When you ask someone to help you die, you are still asking a person to kill for you, to take a life. When people choose to help someone die, they're still taking that life. Nobody gave human beings that right, any more than anyone gave them the right to create life."

"But we do both," Al pointed out.

Sam shrugged. "It's a question with no right answers, Al, only choices. You hung on for six years in Vietnam, when other guys couldn't make it, when it would have been easier to let go--"

Calavicci's expression suddenly changed to one of concern. "You aren't thinking about keeping history on track, are you Sam?"

Beckett opened his mouth in surprise, paused for a moment as if looking inward then looked at his friend again. "No," he said grimly. "I guess the idea of basing a decision about Helena's life solely on Ziggy's odds just bothers me a lot."

"Those are pretty damned good odds," Al defended.

"You're talking about someone's life," Beckett reminded him testily. "If Ziggy's wrong and Helena goes on suffering..."

Al subsided. "You're right. That was stupid, but Ziggy can't find any other reason for you to be here. And we're not only talking about Helena's life here. There's your--Barton's life, and the effect this whole thing has on the rest of this family."

Sam nodded reluctantly, wanting the conversation to be over suddenly. "I know," he said, rose and pushed the chair in. "I've gotta get back to her, Al."

Calavicci sighed, nodded back, tapped the handlink and disappeared through the chamber door again.

        *******

Nursing Helena Barton was not in itself a difficult assignment for Beckett. He was a doctor, and he was young and strong enough to lift her to make bed changes, to carry her to the shower, the bathroom.

Above all else, she was a perfect patient. He also found her a wonderful conversationalist, well read, intelligent, clever at arguing a point and always gracious in either victory, or defeat.

Sam reflected ruefully on the fact that her victories far outweighed her defeats. It certainly tested his swiss-cheesed brain, arguing the rights and wrongs of the politics of half a dozen different countries, the effectiveness of U.S. military intervention, women's rights, and a dozen different issues that he hadn't even remembered for a long, long time.

"You've been reading up, Bill," she said after Sam almost aced her on a rare point.

He grinned. "I..ah, yeah. You're too good at this. I decided to provide a little more of a challenge."

She smiled back. "When are you going back to work?"

Sam had called in sick as soon as Al filled him in on where he worked.

"I..I don't know," he told her truthfully. "I just know that I have to be here now." He frowned when another shadow crossed her fragile face. "Do you need something for the pain? I
can--"

She shook her head slowly. "It doesn't really work very well any more, anyway," she told him, strain in her voice. "It's all right. I'll be fine."

Sam put a hand over hers. "I'm here," he said instinctively.

"I know." Helena smiled. "I know...Why don't you go and make yourself some tea."

For a moment Sam forgot he was someone else. He nodded and smiled, then withdrew to the kitchen. Only when his hand was on the can of generic tea did he remember again that he was not Sam Beckett. He snatched up the canister and shovelled out enough tea for a small pot, slammed it back down and made a lot of unnecessary clatter filling and putting the kettle on the stove to boil.

A moment later he turned calmly to the refrigerator and found himself an apple. He went to the small breakfast table and sat down heavily before beginning a methodical demolition of the fruit. The exercise was punctuated only by the whistle of the kettle. By the time he finished the fruit the knot of anger had ebbed away, leaving only an empty ache.

"Something wrong, Sam?"

Beckett looked up. "Al, where did you come in?"

"Outside. Sometimes I like to come in like everybody else does, even if I have to walk through the door," he pointed out dryly. "Nice garden."

"Yeah, it is. Bill takes care of it."

"Sam, you didn't answer my question."

"Oh, I, ah...it's just, sometimes--" He stopped and poured the hot water into the teapot, not sure how to continue.

Al watched the stress draw his friend's face into a tight knot, then quietly and knowingly changed the subject.

"How is she?"

Sam looked up, relieved. "Oh, she's great...I mean, she's extremely ill, but she's been enjoying having Bill home. She's a great lady, Al."

"You're getting attached to her," Al guessed.

Beckett looked up swiftly from pouring the tea. "I don't think so," he said unconvincingly.

"Take it from me, Sam. I can tell. I think Bill needs to go back to work."

"But who's going to look after Helena while I'm away? And what do I know about being a sales co-coordinator for a department store?"

"Mrs Barton has been doing just fine on her own up to now. You leave a cold lunch, medication, a jug of water, the radio and phone numbers with her and she will spend the day listening to her shows, sleeping, and reading when she feels well enough. As for the other: well, you'll work it out, Sam. You always do."

Beckett made a face at him and rose to go back.

When he walked into the room there was a small wooden box opened on Helena's lap. She was holding a very old, tarnished crucifix and chain and staring out the window as if she were a long way away.

Sam put the tray down on her side table and sat on the bed.

"You okay?" he asked softly.

She turned back to him and held up the crucifix. "I couldn't help it, Bill. I find myself thinking about them every day now," she told him tremulously.

Sam looked down at the box, at the old sepia and black and white photographs of babies and children, of Helena and of a man who was obviously not Bill Barton. He cast about for the right thing to say.

"It wasn't your fault," he said finally.

"Maybe," she whispered. "But I could have tried to love him more, to help him realize that he didn't need other women, that he didn't need to go to the track to feel good. And I could have tried harder to get him to take a job near home." She paused. "I could have tried harder to make him want me..."

Sam looked down. "There..there are always recriminations in those kinds of situations. Hindsight isn't always a fair judge of the past."

Helena turned back to him.

"I love you so much, Bill," she said softly. "I don't know what I would have done without you. If you hadn't come along anything could have happened."

Beckett looked down again uncomfortably, sorry to be invading her privacy at all.

"You know, Joe had a gun in his closet and I knew it was there," she remembered. "There were times when I was so close to breaking--I used to imagine going and getting it when he was so cold and so...when things were at their worst...but I ran away instead. If you hadn't picked me up that day on the highway I could have ended up anywhere...I wouldn't have cared."

Sam slid across to sit alongside of her, allowing her to rest her head against his shoulder rather than causing her pain by putting his arms around her. He took her hand gently in his.

"I'm sorry," he said helplessly.

She picked up a photograph of a toddler and a baby together. "Do you think they'll ever forgive me? How can they ever know what it was like? He worshipped them and they worshipped him. I know he would have made a good life for them, but how could they ever know how hard it was for me to leave them behind? How much of a child I was, myself?"

Sam tightened his hand just a little around hers.

"You did what you had to do," he told her, chafing at his ignorance.

She put the photograph and the crucifix back in the box and closed it. "I shouldn't be doing this," she muttered. "Put it back in the bureau out of my reach, Bill."

He took the box and slid off the bed. The top drawer of the bureau was full of stationery, letters, photographs of Bill Barton and their two children and dusty mementos of other times. He slid the wooden box into an empty corner and closed the drawer.

"Can I get you anything?" he asked when he turned.

She shook her head.

Sam bit his lip. "I've been thinking about work. I don't think I can afford any more days off for a while. Will...will you be okay if I go back to work tomorrow?"

The earlier hurt dissipated from her face. "I was wondering how long it would take. Of course I'll be fine. You know they can't get along in there without you."

Sam half-smiled. "Yeah, right. It's just...I don't like you being on your own so much."

"Don't worry, darling. Margaret will be here soon. And with those twins around the house the last thing I'm going to be is on my own." She smiled. "In fact I'll probably be pining for my quiet times within a couple of days of their invasion."

Sam chuckled. "I'll make sure you have your quiet times," he promised, watching pain lance across her face, despite her good cheer.

        *******

Sam's first day in Bill's office was a near-disaster until Al turned up and, along with Ziggy, ran things almost single-handedly, instructing Sam as he went. By the end of the day Sam had memorized more information than he had in the previous two years of leaping. His mind was a sea of invoices, business letters, requisitions, freight charges, order forms, vouchers, franchise agreements...the list went on and on...

By the time Beckett put the '69 oldsmobile in the garage and dragged himself into the neat suburban house he was ready to drop.

Al came through the chamber door just as he was sculling cold water from a pitcher out of the refrigerator.

"I used to get into big trouble for doing that when I was a kid."

Sam choked and lowered the pitcher. "Al," he coughed. "Don't do that."

Calavicci harrumphed. "I bet you never did that on the farm."

Sam smiled self-consciously. "Sure I did," he admitted. "With the milk. I just never got caught."

"Figures. You egg-head, hero-types never tarnish your armor."
Sam put the pitcher back in the fridge, closed the door and leaned against it with his arms crossed.

"If you tell me once more that I was a nerd--"

Al actually looked surprised. "I said that?"

"Several times," Sam drawled.

"Oh." Al decided it was time to change the subject. "Well, I'm here because during routine background checks Ziggy found something weird with Helena Barton's records. It seems there's a gap. There's nothing substantial to be found on Helena Ann Barton before she married William Barton."

"Well, can't Ziggy trace down her records?"

"Sam, there are fifty states in this union. And it all happened before you were born. If she did anything--married, gave birth, killed someone, did time even, it wasn't in this state or in New Jersey, where she was apparently born. Ziggy would have to comb the records of every city in every other state to find that information. Without a better lead--especially if she changed her name or something--there's no way to fill in that hole any time this side of Christmas."

Beckett was very quiet. "Do you have to?" he asked.

"Huh?"

"Is it necessary to this leap to go digging around in Helena's past?"

"Well, no, I guess not. Ziggy's almost a hundred percent certain now that you're here to stop Bill from killing her and destroying himself and his family in the process."

Sam's mind played back the image of the hurt in Helena's face when she was talking about her past.

"And nothing else?"

"No. Why? What is it you aren't telling me, Sam?"

"Nothing important. Just personal stuff that's nobody's business but Helena's."

"Oh, well, you never know what's going to happen on a leap. And you never know what might be important. You know that, Sam."

Beckett nodded and looked away. "If anything changes I'll tell you, okay?"

Calavicci frowned. "All right," he said warily. "Just take it easy, Sam. This Margaret is gonna be here soon, so watch your step...dad."

Beckett turned with a suitable retort, but the imaging chamber door was already closing. He shivered, then sighed and went to make a tray for Helena.

Sometimes seeing that door close on Al's world--his world-- made his heart ache so badly that he had to ignore it, or go crazy.

        *******

If Margaret was the eye of the storm, then the twins were the hurricane. Kane and Jackson were the pre-schoolers from hell.

They arrived on Saturday and by Monday morning Sam was ready to leap out without looking back.

He woke Sunday morning to the pounding of little fists on his back and the weight of both of them on it. There was a distinct smell of peanut butter and toast near his ear and crumbs periodically raining down on his pillow.

He half turned, pulled the culprits off his back and sat up holding the owner of the toast as his cohort sprinted away.

The little boy looked like a cherub, his dark curly hair and velvet brown eyes above full pink cheeks and cupid's bow lips utterly and deceptively innocent. "Kane--"

"Jackson," the child corrected.

Sam sighed. "You are supposed to eat your breakfast at the table, not in my bed." He put the boy on the floor. "Now go find your brother while I get dressed."

"You aren't grampy," the child pointed out.

"Yes, yes I am," Sam said carefully. "Only right now I'm pretending to be someone else. Pretty soon I'll go back to being just grampy again, okay?"

"Okay."

Sam watched him go and exhaled with relief.

He was in his bathroom shaving after a long, hot shower when both boys re-surfaced and demanded a shaving lesson.

Sam tightened his towel and searched the drawers until he found another old safety razor. It took several more strokes to finish his own shave, then he flipped the blades out of both razors, used the brush to put lather on their small faces and sat them on the cupboard.

The lesson took about fifteen minutes and all of Sam's patience. He swiftly found out that any serious explanation of how to do the job was superfluous and stood back to watch them try to emulate his--or possibly their own father's--shaving actions. By the time they had lost interest and attempted to leave, the bathroom looked like a hurricane had hit it. And so, pretty much, did the kids.

He collared them both and washed the shaving lesson off their faces before shooing them out of the room. It took twenty minutes to clean up the pools of water, soap and all the footprints and hand-prints all over everything.

By the time he finally made it to the kitchen it was time to leave for work.

"Dad, you haven't had any breakfast!"

"I don't have time--"

Margaret put down the pan she was washing up and dried her hands. "You can't go without anything to eat."

"No. It's all right, really," Sam told her. "I really have to go."

A frown knitted the brow that was so like Bill's. She was fair and grey-eyed. Sam decided that the boys must be like their father. Something about them reminded him of someone, though...

Helena, he realized. The eyes. They had her eyes.

"Dad, take care of yourself, okay?"

Sam focused on her. "I will," he said firmly. "I promise you, nothing is going to happen to me."

Margaret nodded but it was a fragile motion.

Sam had seen the fear in her eyes, her clenched hands. He put his arms around her and held her close as she wept.

Then just as quickly as it had come upon her, she stopped and drew back. "You're going to be late anyway," she pointed out. You might as well have your tea and some cereal after all..."

Before he could object Sam found himself seated at the table eating the bran-and-fruit cereal and sipping the tea while she started on the pan again. He watched her for a moment.

"Margaret, are you going to be all right?"

She didn't turn. "I don't know. I can't imagine life without mom in it."

Beckett put down his cup. Neither could he...

A dozen different platitudes leaped into his mind. He frowned. None of them had ever worked for him, or for his family.

"Whatever happens," he said finally, gently. "I'll be here."

She turned then, and grinned at him, despite her red-rimmed eyes. "I love you, daddy."

Sam smiled back. "I love you too," he said, then winced as something crashed in the other room, shattering the moment and sending her off in a flurry.

        *******

Beckett spent the greater part of his evening after a less anxious day at work entertaining the twins while Margaret spent time with her mother. He discovered that properly occupied, the pair weren't anywhere near the mobile disaster areas they appeared to be most of the time.

They were quick to learn and eager to please, though their attention spans grew shorter as they grew more and more tired. He watched Kane attempt to remove a plastic piece from the balancing game, his small hand not quite steady or agile enough yet to be certain of the outcome.

Against all odds he succeeded and giggled happily at his success. His brother duplicated the process and both of them turned to watch Sam take his turn, anticipation glowing in their tired little faces.

Beckett took the fork-like tool and aimed it with a deliberately unsteady hand at the game. The twins cackled. He made a convincing show of almost getting the piece off before putting enough pressure on the arm he was working on to make the game tip and all the pieces come crashing down.

The twins shrieked with laughter then charged at their grandfather.

Sam caught them and rolled backwards. The wrestling match lasted until their mother emerged to find one twin in a scissor-lock and the other being tickled mercilessly by his grandparent.

She smiled. "All right, you three. Bath time."

Sam released Jackson from the scissor-lock and stopped tickling the still-cackling Kane, picked them up as he rose and carried one under each arm to the bathroom for their mother.

"Need any help?" he asked, sitting them on the bathroom cupboard.

Margaret shook her head. "Go sit with mom for a while. I've monopolized her all evening."

Helena was lying quietly, lit only by the bed-lamp. She was awake, but tired. She looked up when Sam came in. The room seemed too quiet, lonelier somehow, without either the radio or the television on.

Her ravaged face lit up. "Hello darling," she said softly.

Sam sat on the bed next to her and touched her face. "Hi," he said. "Enjoying having your daughter home?"

Helena nodded. "And the twins are beautiful. They remind me so much of..." She stopped and sighed. "He was a beautiful child."

"Steve?"

She shook her head. "The box--"

Sam understood. He brought it from the bureau, unsure whether Bill would have wanted him to or not, but certain that there was something Helena needed to resolve.

She picked through the old photographs until she found one of a child about the twins' age and gave it to Sam.

The little boy had their eyes and the same dark, curly hair. He was perhaps even more angelic than they, his slightly higher, slavic cheek bones giving his face a truly cherubic look. Sam smiled. For all his innocent looks the tot had torn the corner of his shirt pocket and the second button was missing.

"Looks like an angel," he told her.

"Anything but," Helena told him. "He used to get into such mischief, but he had a beautiful heart. He could break the neighbor's window with his slingshot in the morning and bring home a half-dead, flea-infested stray cat in the afternoon for me to 'fix'. And he loved to pick the carnations for me..."

"You loved him very much."

Helena picked up another photograph of the boy, a couple of years older this time, sitting with a two year old girl. It was obviously done in a photographic studio, the quality of the reproduction clear and crisp.

"Cute kids," Sam told her, and meant it.

"Do you remember when I first told you about them?" she asked him.

Sam swallowed. "Ah, sort of. It was a long time ago..." he guessed nervously.

"You wanted me to go back for them. But I couldn't. I couldn't face Joe again. I couldn't. I was the one who ran--who deserted them--in the first place...and I truly believed that losing them was God's punishment for my sins."

"How--how old were you?" Sam asked, forgetting that he should probably already know that.

Lost in old memories, Helena didn't seem to notice. She picked up the photograph of the little boy again. "I was seventeen when he was born. Joe was twenty-three. Lord, if I had it to do again I'd never have let Joseph seduce me with those good looks, that little-boy charm, no matter how much I thought I loved him. I don't think he was ever truly in love with me, even though he adored the children."

Sam looked down at his hands, sorry that he was invading her privacy, but aware that the talking was helping her with whatever had been troubling her so much since he leaped in.

"God, I wasn't even twenty-four when I left. I was just a child. When Joe started gambling I coped by ignoring it. I told myself it was his fun. He worked so hard, so long, that he deserved a little pleasure, even if it meant not being with us for most of the time that he was home between jobs. Only it wasn't fun. It was eating up our lives, our marriage. And when the new baby came along," she went on, picking up the studio shot and touching the little girl's face, "I thought he was going to leave us, but he didn't. He just started getting more and more jobs further and further away."

Sam looked at the picture she was holding. "It must have been hard for you, at your age, alone most of the time with two small children, and one of them disabled--?"

She nodded. "He never understood what it was like. Some days I thought I was going to go mad, others I just wanted to die. All he ever saw was all of us trying hard to be on our best behavior so he wouldn't get angry or impatient and go off to gamble and drink somewhere."

"He spent the rest of his free time with the children, didn't he?" Sam realized. "You had no life together at all..."

Helena looked up from the pictures, tears on her cheeks. "I never understood what went wrong. I thought it was me. There were no rows. I did everything I was supposed to do, had everything as perfect as possible for him when he came home from jobs, but it was as though I wasn't there...I don't think we even made love during the last eight months."

Sam covered her hand with his. "It was a long time ago," he said gently. "Don't torture yourself over something that happened when you were just a kid. You were too young to cope with that kind of pressure. There's no reason to believe they didn't end up having a good life, just like we did."

She shook her head. "It's not fair, Bill. If we could have at least found out where they went, I'd know. I'd know they were all right." Her voice was trembling and the tears were falling freely now. "I can't die without knowing, Bill. I have to know."

Sam picked up a hazy photograph of the little boy running through a sprinkler wearing only a swimming costume and something indistinguishable around his neck. He looked down at the crucifix.

Maybe there was a way to ease Helena's mind. If the news was good, he could tell her, and if Ziggy found only bad news, he would say nothing...

        *******

Beckett was busy shaving the next morning, a captive audience sitting on the bathroom cupboard watching him, when Al arrived.

The children's eyes grew wide as dinner plates.

"A man!" Kane shouted. "Grampy, a man!"

"A scary man!" Jackson added, looking at Al's violently bright suit, tie and shirt up and down.

Al made a face at them. "Sam, this is all real nice and cute, but is there somewhere we can talk without an audience?"

"Yuckky!" Kane announced as Al drew on his cigar and blew out the smoke.

Calavicci scowled at him. "Cut it out, kid, I get enough of that from Tina."

Sam grinned. "Yeah, yuckky," he agreed and smiled at Kane. "Al, set a good example for the kids."

Al scowled at him and stubbed the cigar on some unseen object before letting it go so that it disappeared.

"W-w-ow!" Jackson shrieked. "Ma-a-gic."

"Yeah, right," Calavicci said irritably. "Sam?"

"Okay, okay," Sam nodded and lifted the children down from the cupboard. "Listen, guys, I've got to go talk to Al for a while. Go play out in the garden for a while so Grandma can sleep, okay?"

When they were gone Sam faced him and grinned again. "You can smoke now."

Calavicci was unimpressed. "Well thanks, but no thanks. A cigar needs to be savored and I'm not in the mood for savoring any more."

Sam shrugged, the smile widening. "What's going on, Al?'

"Not much. Bill Barton is sitting in the waiting room waiting for Saint Peter. He thinks he had a heart attack or something and died. It's taken Verbeena two days to convince him he hasn't deserted Helena when she needed him most. He wants proof that she's okay, and that I've really been here." Al rolled his eyes. "He thinks I'm an angel."

Sam closed his eyes. Bill should have been here spending as much time with Helena as possible, not stuck in a room decades in the future...

"Tell him...tell him about the box of photographs in the bureau," he said reluctantly. "Helena's photographs of her first family."

"First family?"

"Yeah, she was married before. And tell him she's okay. Margaret and the twins are here. Did you tell him about me?"

"Sorta. When he saw his reflection I had to tell him something. But he doesn't know you're here, with her. He's depressed enough as it is."

Sam sighed. "Okay, just tell him that you saw the box. Al, she wants to know what happened to them."

"Who?"

"Her first husband. The kids."

"Kids?" he said, screwing up his face. "Ahh, no. What happened?"

"She..." Sam stopped and bit his lip. "She ran away, Al. She was just a kid and--"

Al's face grew dark. "Figures," he muttered.

"No, it's not like that, Al. She had her first child when she was only seventeen. The second one was handicapped. The guy was away all the time with work, and even when he was home he wasn't. She couldn't cope. A kid that young shouldn't have to cope with all that by herself, and then have to deal with a husband who doesn't give a damn about her."

A strange look passed over Calavicci's face. "Sam, you're only seeing one side of the coin," he said bitterly. "You don't know what they went through, what it would have been like for them after she vanished. Kids don't understand the crap that goes on in adult relationships. All they know is their mother is gone and their dad isn't cutting it on his own..."

Beckett shifted uncomfortably.

"Al, I know there are some co-incidences but this isn't you. I believe Helena. I know there's always two sides, I mean she says Joe worshipped the kids. Apparently he never raised a hand to them. It was her he focused his frustration on. I think they had to get married, Al, and I don't think he ever really loved her. It built up over time, the frustration, the feeling of being caught up in something he could never get out of. Then when the second child was born the added pressure of a disabled child on the relationship must have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Instead of getting a job near home he worked more and more away from them."

"Joe," Al mused. "My father's name was Joe..." He scowled. "Sam, I don't want to know, okay?" he snapped. "Nothing excuses a woman from running out on her kids. If it was that bad why didn't she take them with her?"

"Maybe she knew she had nowhere to take them. Helena didn't have any family except for a brother working somewhere on the west coast."

"It's wrong, Sam. It's wrong for a mother to leave like that. There had to be other options."

Beckett sighed again. It was no use arguing with him.

"Okay, Al. I'm sorry this has brought back so many old memories," he said softly. "But if there's any way Ziggy can find out what happened to them--"

"Oh, sure," Al said off-handedly. "Get a name and a place to start, and Ziggy'll find whatever details you need. Which is more than I can say for them. They're never gonna know what happened to her, because she'll be dead."

Sam winced, wishing his friend didn't have to re-live all the ghosts of his past again. He'd sat with Al through enough troughs of depression when the older man was drying out to know that there were some parts of his friend's past that were beyond pain, beyond hurt.

He swallowed, moved by the memories. "Al, I'm sorry," he said tremulously. "I didn't mean--"

Calavicci seemed to snap out of it then. He looked at his friend with affection.

"Don't...Sam...That was a long, long time ago. Do what you have to do. I'll be fine."

Sam nodded silently but his mind was doing the opposite.

Sure you will, he thought unhappily. Sure you will.

        *******

That evening after both Helena and the twins were asleep and Margaret had gone out to visit an old school-friend, Sam crept into the bedroom and took the old box and a handful of legal documents from the bureau drawer.

Helena looked terribly small and fragile in the big bed against the pile of large pillows, but at least in sleep she found some respite from the pain. He bit his bottom lip, crept out of the room and closed the door gently.

He sat at the kitchen table to open the box. It was very old, and dusty. He rubbed at the film of grime on the top of it until he could read the words, then chuckled softly to himself.

It was an old cigar box.

He took the crucifix and chain out first, then a wedding ring and two shirt buttons. Then one by one, he laid all the photographs out on the table. There were a lot of baby pictures of the little boy, then fewer and fewer as he grew older, until the little girl came along. A burst of new baby pictures, then only a very sporadic sprinkling of pictures of the baby girl with the boy. The husband, a dark-haired, dark- complexioned man of middle-height wasn't in any more than a handful of the photographs. Those were almost all with the children except for one posed wedding picture and another that looked like a tourist shot in which he had his arm around a dark-haired beauty.

Sam looked closer. It was Helena.

When they were all laid out in rows he studied them for a while, just getting to know them. The more he looked at the little boy the more he could see Kane and Jackson in his features. He felt almost as if he knew the child.

He picked up the picture with the torn pocket and missing button, smiled and casually turned it over, looking for a date, a year.

He read the words scrawled across the centre of it and sat up, unaware that he was holding his breath.

It simply said: Albert, aged 4. April 7, 1941.

Suddenly there were too many coincidences, too many things...Now that he knew, he could see the resemblance that had eluded him before. Sam could feel his own heart beating in his chest, and chided himself for jumping to conclusions.

That didn't, however, stop his hand from trembling as he picked up the other photos and turned them over. So many of Albert...He turned over the studio print of the two children together, and found...nothing on the back. Annoyed, he picked up several of the amateur shots and checked them all.

And found what he was looking for. He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes.

Albert and Trudy...

It wasn't possible. Why would God send him here, to Helena, now? Why now, when it could hurt Al so much? He sat up again and swiftly turned the rest of the pictures over.

Albert, Trudy, Albert and Trudy, Joe...and Anna and Joe...

Anna? Sam frowned. The young woman had to be Helena, but the picture had Anna written on the back of it.

He looked in the box for anything else that might help. All he found were some folded papers, fragile documents he was almost afraid to open. He laid them out very gently on the table. One was an old, yellowed marriage certificate for Joseph Alberto Calavicci and Anna Helena Selkov, the other a hand-made card with drawings of trees, clouds, and stick figures of a family of four holding hands. The words 'Happy birthday, mama,' were printed on it in large, wobbly letters and it was signed: love, Albert. An adult hand had added a date to the bottom of the card: June 14, 1942.

He went through the other documents then, found another marriage certificate and three birth certificates: Bill's, Margaret's and Steve's.

He picked up the marriage certificate.

'...The marriage of William Jeffrey Barton and Helena Ann Selby...'

No wonder Ziggy couldn't find those missing years.

Sam carefully packed all the items away again and closed the box before leaning back in the chair and covering his face with his hands.

He had leaped into Al's step-father. It was an impossible situation. He wanted to run to his friend and tell him that his past was no longer just a painful blur, that Helena was his mother, and that she loved him very much.

But Al idolized his father. How could he give him back his mother if it meant taking away the untarnished memories of Joe Calavicci?

Sam suddenly thought of something else. This all meant that Margaret and Steve Barton were Al's brother and sister...and the twins were his nephews...No wonder they looked so familiar. He grinned to himself in spite of his worry. Who'd have thought Al could have been such a beautiful, innocent looking child? And what had he said about Steve..? An egg-head who liked the girls...And they liked him. Well, that pretty much summed Al up too, though he knew Calavicci admitted only to the part about the girls.

But Al didn't get to where he was by simply by being the cynical, gratification driven ex-jet-jock he masqueraded as.

He was making tea and enjoying the silence of the house when the chamber door opened. He jumped, then scowled, annoyed with himself for letting the situation get to him that much.

"Wow, you're as jumpy as a cat," Al commented. "Tea again, Sam? Don't you ever drink coffee?"

"Sometimes," Sam drawled, glad to see his friend in a better mood. "And sometimes I get really macho and have a light beer--happy?"

Al chuckled. "It's quiet at the project. It's the fourth of July and everyone's out celebrating except Ziggy, Tina and me." He looked up suddenly. "What? Oh. And Gooshie," he added under sufferance. "And Tina won't even let me near the nachos and melted cheese so I thought I'd come and check on you before we go home for the night."

Sam's head tilted a little and a wistful look came into his eyes. "I remember you eating nachos and melted cheese, Al. We were pouring over some plans...'La Mancha was playing in the background...and you got cheese on the specifications for the imaging chamber."

"I got it off," Al protested. "All it left was a little grease-mark. How come you can remember junk like that, but never anything important?"

"We used to have a lot of fun," Sam mused. "Remember the time you hid all my CDs for three days?"

"Yeah, well, it gave the rest of us a break from show tunes for a few days. And you gotta admit playing Elvis over the p.a. system did liven the place up for a while."

Sam laughed. "Until Security found out where you hooked it up. They liked the p.a. to be free for little things like emergency announcements, pages, watch changes...little things like that," Sam teased.

Both men laughed, enjoying the memories until their eyes met and both saw the same ache in the back of the other's.

Sam looked away first. "Al," he said quietly, "I've been thinking about what you said about Helena. Wh--what would you do if you could see your mother again?"

Al stared at the back of Beckett's dark chestnut head for a long moment, as if the possibility had not occurred to him for a very long time.

"I'd probably go see her," he said slowly. "If only to find out what kind of woman would run out on a kid like Trudy when she needed her most."

Sam swallowed. "What if...what if it meant finding out some stuff you didn't like...you know, about your dad or something?"

"Why?" Calavicci demanded. "Have you found one of these people?"

Sam nodded. "Only they think their father was this great guy and their mother was this terrible person who ran out on them because there was someone else. The trouble is their father apparently was a good guy--with them, but not with their mother."

He turned to face Al.

"You of all people know how it is when a marriage isn't working--how bad things can get. It doesn't mean either party is really a bad person. Circumstances cause people who wouldn't usually hurt anyone to hurt each other--"

Al was looking at him strangely. "Sam, what is it? You look like you're trying to tell me my dog just died--"

"You don't have a dog, Al," Sam pointed out. But the distraction didn't work.

"Sa-a-m..?"

Beckett pulled the box toward him and opened it. With unsteady fingers he picked through and found the picture of Joe and Anna together and put it on the table so Al could see it.

Calavicci bent to focus on the photograph, never one to admit that his eyes weren't what they used to be.

For Sam the moment seemed to last forever.

Al straightened without saying anything. When he turned and moved away Beckett realized that he'd lost all color. In fact, if he'd been there in the chamber, Sam would have gone to his side in case he passed out.

He went anyway. "Al--?" he said softly.

Calavicci's shoulders hunched, but he didn't answer.

"Al, don't--" Sam began.

Al ignored him and walked into the kitchen sink.

Sam lunged but came up empty as his friend disappeared through the wall. In frustration he punched the tiles so hard that the skin on his knuckles tore. Without even looking at them he raced outside to the garden.

The lawn was lit only by moonlight, and Calavicci was standing at the far end, over a bed of straggly carnations.

"She always had these in the house," he said when Beckett stopped at his shoulder. "Good thing I'm a hologram...I never could stand that perfume."

Sam looked up at the stars. He didn't know what to say--couldn't help, couldn't even touch his friend. He wanted to scream. Instead he opened his mouth to say something, couldn't, swallowed and blinked back the tears of frustration.

When the silence stretched Al finally turned around.

"How long have you known?"

Surprised, Sam cleared his throat and brought his eyes to Al's haggard face.

"A--a few hours ago. I was trying to find the names you asked for..."

Al closed his eyes. "All those years in the orphanage after my father died, I used to dream of her coming to the door like some kind of angel, to take me home...of the three of us being a family again...her, me, Trudy." He looked down at the carnations again. "My dad never talked about her at all, you know, afterwards. Not a word. All I knew was the name on my birth certificate: Anna Selkov. Nothing else, except what I could remember from before she went away. And the memories of a six year old aren't much to remember a parent by. I was almost seven when she left. I remember overhearing my father tell someone on the phone that she ran off with an encyclopedia salesman. I believed it because I had to. It meant that it wasn't my fault..."

"It wasn't your fault," Sam said hoarsely. "It was as much the fault of the times as it was your parents. There was no encyclopedia salesman, at least not one who came to your house. I don't know what Bill was doing or where he was going, but he picked your mom up on the highway after she ran away from your father."

Al looked at him, shocked. "She ran away on her own?"

Sam nodded. "She reminded me of it last time we talked about...well, you. She loves you, Al. It's in her voice, in her eyes when she looks at those pictures."

"No," Al said coldly, back in the body of a seven year old who'd just been told his mother wasn't coming home. "If she loved us she wouldn't have left us behind. She'd have taken us with her, no matter what the cost."

"Even if it meant risking your sister's health? Or breaking your dad's heart? Al...are you saying that if we could change things that you'd give up that time you spent with your dad before he died to go with your mom instead?"

Al turned away. "No," he said roughly. "That's not what I meant..Christ, I don't know what I mean. Leave me alone, Sam. Just leave me alone."

"No," Sam said softly. "All those years at Starbright, when we were both kinda orphans--you getting over Maxine, and me with mom and Katie in Hawaii and dad and Tom gone--you and I were the only family either of us had. Don't tell me to walk away now, when you need me most. You didn't, after Donna ran away," he reminded the older man gently.

Calavicci looked at him, startled. Sam hadn't remembered Donna since leaving the Project for the second time...he obviously had no recollection of the changes he'd made to the time line, at least for this leap.

Beckett's swiss-cheesed, temporally-crossed brain was a source of endless inconsistencies both to him, and to Ziggy. For this leap, Sam appeared to have access only to memories of the original, disastrous wedding day. Given a choice, Calavicci would have preferred to forget it, and his own memories from the same period.

"God you were a mess," he remembered shakily, beginning to focus on the new subject, and determined to keep Beckett from accessing any memories of his new history. "It took me fifteen hours to get you to change out of your tux, let alone eat or drink anything."

"Donna had just finished up at Starbright and you'd just taken over the administration," Sam remembered.

"Thanks to you," Al reminded him. "What a pair we were that week. You never needed to get drunk more in your life and you wouldn't because you refused to risk me falling off the wagon. That was the only bender I ever went on where I could remember everything that happened." He made a face. "And all the food we ate..."

"We both put on about five pounds that week," Sam recalled, pleased to see the distraction taking some of the tension out of Al's face. "Which, for you, was no mean feat."

Calavicci actually smiled a little. "I looked good, too. Natalie liked it. Only trouble was Natalie liked you more."

Sam frowned, trying to remember. "The peroxide-blonde in data-entry," he guessed. "I remember her. She broke up with you." He frowned again, then shook his head, laughing nervously. "Na-a-h."

"Oh, yes," Al told him, smiling wider.

"She was the one who came into the physics lab when I was working back?"

Calavicci nodded, remembering how the emotionally bankrupt Beckett had lost himself in his work to escape from the pain of losing Donna.

"I remember. She had nothing on under her lab-coat!"

Al straightened. "Hey, you didn't tell me that. You just said she tried to kiss you and you sent her home."

Sam cleared his throat. "Ah, maybe it's my swiss-cheese memory..." he offered.

"Sa-a-m."

"Well, okay, all she had on was a lab coat. She took it off and--"

"And you fought her off and sent her home?" Al guessed.

Sam colored.

"You didn't?"

"I tried," Sam insisted.

He had tried to reason with her, to talk her out of it gently and it hadn't worked. Natalie knew what she wanted, and what she wanted was him. He hadn't realized how much he needed to be with someone until she touched him. At that moment she knew it too...And then it was suddenly far too late...

Beckett cleared his throat. "I--"

Al was shocked. He knew Sam was withdrawn and depressed, hurting terribly after the wedding fiasco, but...

"Sam, you didn't? She was fooling around with half the project. Even I only took her out twice. God...And there was me thinking you were such a choirboy."

Sam colored again. "I didn't care about anything, Al...And I didn't want to be alone...and it, well, it just kinda happened..."

Calavicci nodded. "Figures," he said. "First real woman to rub up against you after you get your heart broken and you were mush."

Sam scowled in mock-annoyance. "Cut it out, Al," he growled and stamped his feet to bring back the circulation in them. It was early fall but the temperature had dropped considerably since they'd been outside. "It's cold out here. Can we go back inside now?"

Al looked back at the house with lost eyes. "You go back inside, Sam. Tina's waiting for me."

He nodded and turned for the back door, listening to the chamber door open as he did so.

Al watched him with real affection. "And Sam--"

Beckett turned, eyebrows raised quizzically in a heart-breakingly familiar gesture.

"Thanks..." Calavicci finished hoarsely, stepped through the opening and disappeared.

        *******

Sam spent a sleepless night re-living the past and worrying about the outcome of what was becoming a very complicated leap.

Was he there for Bill or for Helena? Or could it have been for Al all along..?

He rose some time after six and wandered out to the kitchen in his pajamas to make a hot drink. The boys were up and had made their own breakfast. Overflowing bowls of brightly colored cereal without any milk were being demolished at a great rate and there seemed to be more orange juice pooled on the table than in their glasses.

Sam sighed and cleaned up the mess, halved the cereal and added milk before making himself a cup of hot tea and heading down the corridor to check on Helena.

She was awake and feeling relatively strong, holding her book as she read instead of resting it in her lap.

"Good morning," he said softly.

She looked up and smiled, as though she couldn't help but smile whenever Bill was near.

"You're up early, dear."

"Couldn't sleep," Sam told her.

"Oh? What is it, Bill? You aren't ill?"

Sam shook his head. "Just thinking about Albert and Trudy, mostly.

Her expression changed to one of sadness. "I'll never know, will I?"

Sam swallowed. "You--you know the chances of Trudy..?" he ventured, knowing that if he was going to tell her about Al's life, that blow would have to be softened.

Helena nodded. "I know. I just want to know what happened to her--how long she lived, if she was happy..."

"I...I made some inquiries," Sam pressed on, sensing that Helena's mental state was stronger than it had been for some time. "I knew how important it was to you, so I've been working on it for some time now," he embroidered.

She put down the book, her hand trembling a little as she let it go. "You found something?"

Sam looked down at the book. "I know how much you want to know about...about all of them," he said awkwardly. "But I don't want you to be hurt--"

Helena sighed. "It's all right, Bill. It was all such a long time ago. I think I've probably done as much grieving as I'm ever going to do."

"Joe...he died. He died of cancer when Albert was ten," Sam told her haltingly. "Al--Albert went back to the orphanage. Trudy went to an institution."

"Back to the orphanage?" she asked grimly.

"Yeah, well, ah...Joe's work took him a lot of places. He finally got a big job in the Middle east. He couldn't take care of the kids so welfare moved in and took them away when Albert was eight. When he first came back he used to take Albert out on visits whenever he could, until he saved enough money to buy a house so that welfare would let him have both the children back."

"Then he got sick," Helena finished sadly. "And I never knew."
She covered his hand. "Trudy..?" she whispered.

"She stayed in different institutions until she was sixteen. She died of pneumonia," Sam recounted with growing difficulty. He was glad Al had not returned.

Tears spilled silently down Helena's paper-thin cheeks, but she remained calm.

She looked up and directly into Sam's troubled eyes.
"What happened to my little boy?"

"He's still alive. He's had a hard life, but he's built a career and he's among friends--good friends," Sam said warmly.

"Very good friends," a voice said behind Sam.

Beckett turned. "Al?"

Al half smiled and nodded.

"Bill?" Helena asked, puzzled.

Sam turned back to her. "N..nothing. I thought I heard the kids in the cupboards again."

She nodded, her eyes distant. "I can't believe you found out what happened to them after all this time. How is it possible when we failed so miserably all those other times?"

Sam fidgeted restlessly trying to think of something plausible.

"Tell her you used the name. That Calavicci isn't that common. You started with a computer search of births, deaths and marriages. When you found out where Joe died you knew where to start looking for Trudy and me," Al instructed mechanically.

Sam repeated the explanation.

Helena nodded. "But that means you've been looking for them for a long time..."

Sam hunched a shoulder self consciously. He didn't like deception. "Kinda," he said awkwardly. "I knew how important it was to you. And I--" He looked across at Al. "--I thought we owed it to Albert," he finished.

Al's eyes grew bright with emotion. He nodded almost imperceptibly.

"Does...does this mean you know where he is?" she asked, her voice not quite steady.

Sam looked at Al again, a little wild-eyed. He hadn't figured the Al Calavicci from 1973 into the equation.

Al had paled but he made no comment.

Sam turned back to Helena. "I ah...not yet."

Helena's face fell. "Then, then I want to know everything you've found out about his childhood, his life."

"Well--"

Al nodded at Beckett's asking glance, then closed his eyes as Sam recounted everything he could remember Al telling him about his childhood, his navy years, Beth, the space program. He helped fill in gaps when his friend's swiss-cheese brain kicked in, following the progression of years, until Beckett stopped suddenly.

Calavicci opened his eyes. No Vietnam. Sam had left out Vietnam completely...

"So much hurt," Helena whispered. "So much pain. If only I could tell him how much I love him. How much I've always loved him..."

Sam sat on the bed and took her hand. "Maybe he knows, Helena," he told her and looked up at Al, whose expression was unreadable. "Maybe he knows..."

Beckett rose again. "I think I should go and get you some breakfast and bring your pills." He looked directly at Al again. "I think you should be alone for a while."

When the door closed Al exhaled slowly and jaggedly. He hadn't yet looked into the eyes of the woman Sam said was his mother. He hadn't yet allowed himself to embrace her existence. The feeling, as though he was about to step off a cliff, was so strong that he couldn't move from where he stood.

Helena reached painfully for the tin Sam had left on her bedside table and put it on her lap again.

Al watched her open it and take out a photograph and a chain.
He frowned. A memory scratched at his subconscious..

She was crying. He didn't want to go to bed. He was too big to go to bed before it was dark...

She tucked him in tightly and brushed the curls off his brow. He remembered the moisture on her face, the drop that landed on his cheek. He remembered telling her he loved her, and that he wanted to stay up. She'd chuckled in a watery kind of way and touched his face with a trembling hand before gently removing the crucifix he'd worn since before he could remember. He hadn't questioned why. It didn't seem as important as staying up longer. Nor did the words she said as he drifted off to sleep..

Al closed his eyes against the terrible ache in his heart as her last, whispered, words echoed in his memory.

I love you, Albert. God Bless you, my darling. Good-bye...

Finally he opened them again, drew a deep breath and moved to Helena's side. She was still so very far away...

He couldn't smell the perfume she always wore, couldn't touch her, couldn't talk to her. He looked down at the photograph she was staring at.

The kid looked like the munchkins who'd been trailing around after Sam. He shook his head. It was so long ago...he barely remembered that house, that torn shirt, let alone having that picture taken.

Helena drew out another picture. Al recognized his father standing with his mother--this time a mother he recognized, one who'd haunted his memories: young, dark-eyed, long dark hair.

He lifted the handlink with a trembling hand. The dying woman next to him was not her. She was not the image he'd carried so long in his heart, the hope he'd harbored all those years. He was about to activate the chamber door when Helena broke the intense silence that had surrounded both of them.

She touched the small faces on the photograph she held and sobbed. "I'm so sorry," she told them. "I'm so very sorry..."

Al turned instinctively, reaching out to touch her hand. And found himself staring into eyes that had haunted his dreams for more than fifty years. For a long moment he was lost, unable to move, to think, to feel anything.

"I..." He tried to speak, but his voice failed him. The trembling of his hands spread to his chest, his mouth.

And then she looked away, breaking the connection, her gaze dropping again to the box, and the task of putting away the pictures.

The severance was more than he could bear, the grief of over fifty years of heartache welling up and pouring out.

Standing unseen in the doorway with Helena's tray, Sam Beckett did not hold back his own tears, rather turned and withdrew silently to deal with his own personal agony of separation ...of being useless to the one person in the universe he truly needed to be there for...

When he went back, a long time later, Al was gone and Helena was dozing, pain keeping her from any kind of real rest. Sam helped her take her medication and sat with her, drinking his tea while she picked at the breakfast he'd made.

Time was drawing near to the day on which Bill Barton had chosen to release Helena from the agony he'd known in his heart that she was suffering, despite her silent stoicism.

Sam put down his cup, troubled. No leap had ever lent him such a passive role. There had to be something he had to do. And it had to be more than just bringing Al to meet his past. More than causing his friend even more pain in a life punctuated by pain...

And then, suddenly, he knew.

He knew why he was there.

And for the first time since he arrived the leap finally felt right...

        *******

As Sam moved through the corridors of the rehab' hospital past amputee vets and others with little more visibly wrong than their vacant stare, a shiver went down his spine. The sudden memory of being a patient in such a place was not a pleasant one.

Once out on the grounds, the nurse gestured toward one of the many trees with benches under them. This one was tucked away from the main grassed area, perfect for anyone who wanted to be left alone...

The man sitting on the bench was incredibly thin, sitting with his shoulders back almost defiantly, despite the very real sense of fragility that surrounded him. His struggle to appear nonchalant in that most isolated part of the grounds brought a lump to Beckett's throat.

Sam had seen him do that before.

As he drew closer, his practised medical scrutiny picked up the effects of deprivation and malnutrition, and the strain around the dark eyes.

"Commander Calavicci, you have a visitor," the nurse announced.

As Sam expected he tensed, cowered, then visibly schooled himself into straightening and rising as though nothing was wrong, despite the obvious lack of strength in his arms and legs.

"Hello beautiful," he drawled. "We had a date last night and you didn't show."

The nurse grinned. "I know," she said good naturedly, "but my husband wanted his dinner in time for the football."

He smirked. "Figures," he muttered mock-tragically and focused on Sam.

"The government send you?"

Sam shook his head. "No. Its personal, Commander Calavicci."

The commander closed his eyes. "It's Al. My name is Al. If one more person calls me Commander Calavicci I'm going to resign my God-damned commission."

"I'd like to talk to you privately if I could..ah...Al," Sam stammered.

Calavicci nodded at the nurse, who turned and left reluctantly.

"What can I do for you...?"

"Oh, it's Bill...ah, William Barton. Ah...this isn't easy..." Sam began uncomfortably. "I just, I wanted to meet you, to talk to you about your family."

Calavicci's gaunt face screwed up in obvious scepticism and annoyance. "My family? My family is dead. What is this? Some kind of stupid joke?"

Sam shook his head. "I know your father died of cancer and I know your sister died of pneumonia--"

Calavicci sat down again on the bench, the trembling in his limbs not just from over exertion. "So you're here to boost my morale, right?" he cracked, forcing his hands to be still.

Sam closed his eyes. "No, not exactly. I'm here because I--I mean, because I wanted you to know that..." Sam stopped, suddenly realizing he was in over his head. His heart pounded with things he wanted to say, and couldn't, things he should say and didn't know how to.

"I came for my wife," he said finally.

"Your wife?" Al repeated. "You got the wrong guy. I'm a married man, Mister B--" He stopped as if struck, what little color there was in his cheeks ebbing away. "Never mind," he growled. "What do you want?"

"My wife would like more than anything to see you, Comman--Al. It's very important to her. Y'see she's..she's dying."

"No I don't see," Al rasped, annoyed.

Sam drew a deep breath and said in the gentlest of voices: "My wife is your mother, Al."

This time Calavicci grew so still and his eyes so vacant that Sam thought he was going to pass out. It was some time before he focused again on the figure of Bill Barton.

"My mother? My mother deserted her family thirty-seven years ago. I don't have a mother," he said coldly.

"My wife is Helena Ann Selby Barton, Commander Calavicci. She was born Anna Helena Selkov. She is your mother. Whatever the reasons she left your family and changed her name, they are best explained to you by her. She never stopped loving you, you know. You and your sister both."

Calavicci's eyes flashed. "She didn't give a damn about Trudy. My sister died in a crummy institution because she didn't have a mother to take care of her. And if your wife wants absolution now because she's dying she ain't gonna get it from me!"

Sam's eyes narrowed. "She wants to see you because she loves you," he said softly. "Helena doesn't need absolution from anyone."

It was not what the other man expected him to say. "What do you do for a living?" he asked for no apparent reason.

"Sales co-coordinator at a department store," Sam replied, puzzled.

"Ever sold encyclopedias?"

"H-o-h...Al," Sam murmured unhappily to himself. "Maybe once, a long time ago," he added aloud.

From nowhere Calavicci lunged at him, swinging.

Sam caught his arms easily, Al's heartbreakingly light weight no match for his muscular strength. He held the fragile, struggling figure away from him.

"I've never been to your house," he insisted. "Your mother ran away from your father. She didn't run to me, Al. I met her for the first time when I picked her up. She was lost and alone and far too vulnerable to be walking along the highway in the evening with a suitcase."

Calavicci ripped his arms from Beckett's grasp and wrapped them around himself.

"I don't know what cock-a-mamie story you two cooked up," he said angrily, "but I know she ran away with the stupid encyclopedia salesman because she--"

"Because why?" Sam retorted. "You weren't there. You really believe that your father would tell you--a child--the truth? That your mother was so young and so starved of love and companionship, so overwhelmed by the pressure of raising both you and Trudy--a handicapped child--alone, with almost no support from him, that she broke and ran? God, Al, she was just a kid."

Calavicci was cowering again. His face was still a stone mask, but the fight had gone out of him.

"I don't want to see her..."

"What?" Sam yelped, bewildered. "But--"

Calavicci shook his head, his eyes in distant place, his face a cold facade.

"She's not my mother. She hasn't been my mother since the day welfare came and took my sister away, screaming and crying. And when I walked into that orphanage for the first time and heard that gate shut behind me I decided that I never had a mother. She doesn't exist."

"No," Sam said tremulously. "You're wrong. She's alive and she is a warm, loving, wonderful person. She's payed for leaving you behind every day of her life. There's never been a day when she didn't think of you or your sister..."

Calavicci's shoulders were rigid, his jaw set, but he didn't speak.

Sam's mouth flattened into a thin line. He took something from his jacket pocket. "She kept this to remember you," he said quietly and held out his hand, the crucifix dangling from the chain draped over his fingertips.

Calavicci stared at it mesmerically.

Sam could see the memories flashing in the dark eyes. "Maybe," he said gently. "...Maybe this is God's way of making up for some of what you've been through over the years..."

Al's eyes flicked upward. The look in them was not pleasant. "How the hell would you know what happened to me? What my life has been like for the last six years?" he demanded angrily.

Sam blinked, but remained calm. "You were shot down in 1967. You spent a large part of the last six years in a tiger cage near Cham Hoy catching rainwater in your mouth whenever you could and eating maggot and weevil-infested rice," he recited. "You were starved, beaten, tortured and you saw a lot of friends die. You were moved to those tiger cages in 1969. During the transfer the navy mounted a rescue operation to try and save you and two others. It failed. A sapper ambush of the seals who went in after you almost succeeded." Sam swallowed. "A photographer named Maggie Dawson died after taking a Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of you being moved down that trail." He paused, regarding his shoes. Eventually he looked up. "You came home to find out that Beth had disappeared after marrying a lawyer named Dirk Simon whom she met in San Diego on April fool's day..."

Calavicci stared at him. "Who are you?" he asked. "That rescue mission is still classified. No amount of research would have gotten you that information."

"People talk," Sam told him non-committally.

"Yeah right," Calavicci growled. "But not military people. Not about combat missions."

"Look, almost any information can be acquired if you look in the right places, know the right people. That's not the issue here. What's important right now is that your mother needs you--"

Calavicci made a face and shook his head.

"--Almost as much as you need her," Sam finished harshly.

The dark eyes flicked up to Beckett's again and studied them. "I don't need anybody, least of all--" he stopped, aware that he wasn't fooling Barton in the least.

As Sam watched his friend the memory of Beth's pain, of her grieving, burned in his mind.

"It wasn't your fault," he whispered. "She loved you, Al. She believed in her heart you were dead. She was in mourning when Dirk came along, or she would have waited..."

Calavicci stepped back a little, his face closing again.

"You are beginning to bother me big time, Barton. How can you know so God-damned much about my life?"

"Because I care about you, Al," he replied instinctively. "...And I want to help."

But Calavicci was crossing the small clearing to the other side, his shoulders hunched, his gait stilted.

"Sam..."

Beckett swung around.

"Al..?" he gasped, feeling like a parent caught assembling bicycles on Christmas eve.

The older Calavicci, however, was looking past him to the hollow-eyed shell with his face, now lighting a cigarette over a bed of petunias.

"Why, Sam?" he asked.

"You know why," Beckett said softly. "Besides, Helena deserves to know that he made it, that he's going to be okay..."

"I was so screwed up back then I doubt you could get me to agree to go to the bathroom, let alone take a stranger claiming to be my stepfather seriously," he said slowly.

"It hasn't been easy," Sam agreed. "God, Al, I never realized..."

Calavicci shook his head. "That--this--was a long time ago, Sam. It's over."

"Did anybody visit you while you were in here?"

He chuckled mirthlessly. "Chip was killed in Vietnam, Beth was God-knows-where and I had no family...the nurses were kinda fun, though..."

Sam looked down at his feet, swallowing hard. "You think I should walk away?" he asked hoarsely.

Al looked past the tree to the fragile silhouette, his face unreadable, then turned back to Sam. He contemplated his friend for a long moment before a growing warmth thawed the ice in the brown eyes.

"If it were anyone but you..."

Moved, Sam nodded, his eyes smiling.

Calavicci shifted uncomfortably. "I'll go check with Ziggy on the chances of you succeeding. This place still gives me the creeps."

In a beat he was gone.

Sam crossed the clearing.

"Al--" he said quietly as he drew level with Commander Calavicci's shoulder.

The effect was electric. The frail body jumped, stiffened and swung around, a look of pure feral aggression on the haggard face.

Tears pricked in Sam's eyes. This Al Calavicci reminded him of nothing so much as a beaten dog ready to savage anyone or anything.

"I'm sorry," he apologized. "I didn't mean to startle you."

"I thought you'd gone," Calavicci growled, withdrawing again.

"Thought about it," Sam retorted. "But we're not finished yet. Wouldn't you like an excuse to break out of here for at least a couple of days?"

It was a long shot but he was running out of options.

Calavicci raised an eyebrow. "That'd be a neat trick, since I can't even get an estimate of when I'm likely to be discharged from this dump."

Beckett swallowed, seizing the opening. "This is different."

Calavicci was unimpressed. "How...different?"

Sam smiled. "You aren't alone this time," he said softly, his eyes growing very bright. "This time its...family."

For a long moment Calavicci was unmoved but for the mechanical motion of his cigarette almost continuously from his side to his mouth, and back to his side again.

"I can't," he said finally.

"Yes you can," Sam retorted, smarting. "You made it through all those years after your mother left, the orphanage, your father and your sister's death. You made it through Vietnam. You can't just give up now."

"I ain't giving up on anything," Al told him. "I wouldn't give Him the satisfaction."

"Him?"

"Him." Al jerked a thumb skyward. "The Guy who's always there--until you need Him."

Sam didn't argue. More than once it had occurred to him that it was almost as if someone had set out to deliberately hurl agonizing obstacles in Al Calavicci's way, just to see how far the man could be pushed before he pushed back...

"Just so long as you're sure it's Him that's your real problem," he pointed out instead. "It seems to me that considering the kind of stuff that's been going on in your life, that, well, maybe you should be looking in the other direction."

"Oh, brilliant deduction, Sherlock. Six years of contemplating my navel--or better yet, my next drink of water, left me plenty of time to work that one out all by myself. It doesn't alter the fact that Someone up there absents Himself from my life every time another bogey comes into view."

Sam took a deep breath. "Look, nobody's denying you the right to be angry. You have more right than any two people I know to be mad, but don't you think that you owe it to yourself to at least get her side of the story? Al, you were a little kid when she left. How can you possibly know for certain what happened?"

"My father would never lie to me," Calavicci rasped.

"Adults, even ones who wouldn't lie to their children, often withhold the most painful truths until those kids are old enough to understand and to deal with them. Your father died when you were ten. He never had the chance to do that. Give Helena that chance while you still can," Sam begged. And when the silence stretched: "Please..?"

Calavicci threw the still-lighted butt of his cigarette into the petunias and looked up at the afternoon sky. Then the bony shoulders squared and the still-wasted body shifted its stance to a cockier tilt as he found and lit another cigarette.

Finally he lifted his eyes and looked squarely at Beckett.

For the first time Sam was able to see beyond the anger and the cynicism that burned in those dark, haggard eyes, to what lay behind.

Fear.

"So," Calavicci drawled. "Where exactly do you live these days...?"

        *******

Sam woke from a deep sleep uncertain what had disturbed him. He rolled over, blinked and listened.

It was 2.30am. He'd gone to bed content that things were working out. The hospital had given permission for Commander Calavicci to leave the hospital in his care, day after next, provided the doctor supervizing his case agreed; he'd had an easy day at work and things were going relatively smoothly at home, in spite of the terrible twins.

The silence stretched. Sam turned on his side, drew the blankets around his neck and closed his eyes to go back to sleep. Then he heard it. The faintest of sounds, but one that pierced him like a knife.

Moments later he'd shrugged on a robe and flown down the hall to Helena's room. She was awake. Sam turned on the light. She'd thrown up. It took less than a moment for him to realize that she was in crisis.

It took most of the night for her to come through it, Sam holding her hand and talking softly to her when the pain was at its worst, cleaning up when necessary, sitting silently when it eased and she closed her eyes to sleep; stroking her brow when sleep deserted her and the tears came.

It was dawn before exhaustion combined with the medication to finally shepherd Helena into a deep sleep.

Beckett slipped out silently, glad she was finally resting, but filled with inner turmoil about his so-called mission.

Stopping Bill might be right for Bill, but how could he be certain it was right for Helena..?

He staggered into his room and flopped on the bed, robe and all. He was still there several hours later.

"Sam?"

"Uh?"

"Sam, wake up."

Beckett opened his eyes. He was cold and uncomfortable. He moved stiffly and looked at his arm. He was still in Bill's robe and he was laying on top of the bed covers. He rolled over and sat up.

"Al?"

"You look like hell, Sam."

"Yeah, well you would too if you were up half the night."

Calavicci's brows knitted. "What..? What happened?"

"Helena went into crisis last night."

"So did you take her to the hospital--what?" he demanded impatiently.

Sam shook his head. "I'm a doctor, Al, remember? There wasn't any more they could do for her there than I could do here, except maybe give her so much morphine that none of her current medication would work any more."

"I don't understand."

"Sure you do. If her body gets too accustomed to high doses of morphine, nothing else will be strong enough to combat the pain.

Al looked away. "How..how is she now?"

"She's sleeping. With any luck she should be feeling a lot better when she wakes up. Not good, but better."

"That's good, Sam. That's good," Al said absently. He was watching information flicker across the handlink's display.
"How did things go at the hospital?"

Sam smiled. "I'm bringing him home with me day after tomorrow. The hospital is letting him out overnight."

Calavicci looked up and focused on Sam. "The twenty-third. That's--that's the day before Bill...killed...Helena."

Beckett's expression darkened. "Well, that's not going to happen while I'm here," he pointed out. "She's going to see her son, Al. That's all that matters now."

In reply Calavicci tapped the handlink and the chamber door rumbled open.

"Is it?" he asked hollowly, tapped the device again and vanished.

        *******

"This isn't working, Sam."

Beckett jumped. "What isn't working and where have you been?"

Al surveyed the piles of invoices and correspondence spread over Beckett's desk. "I thought you had the hang of this stuff. Apparently you don't."

Sam shook his head. "I can't concentrate on this stuff with Helena the way she is. I know Margaret is there, but--I don't want to be here, Al."

"Ziggy figured as much. She says you should apply for a leave of absence on compassionate grounds. Tell the truth. In the original history Bill didn't, and quit when they wouldn't give him the time off."

It took less than fifteen minutes to walk the application through. Bill was obviously well liked and respected. There was sympathy, support and immediate action.

Sam stood before Banyon Waterford, Barton's direct superior, waiting for the final verdict on the application. The receding, overweight manager was staring at the application, a genuinely appalled look on his ruddy face.

"Why didn't you tell me, Bill?" he asked quietly. Sam could hear hurt in his voice. "I shouldn't have had to find out like this."

"I--I'm sorry," Sam stammered, trying to think on his feet. "I didn't want anything to change here at work. I needed--I didn't mean--"

Al arrived.

The other man sighed jaggedly. "You still should have at least told me."

"Ah, Sam, this is Banyon Waterford. You've been friends with him for ten years. You don't live in each other's pockets, mainly because he's Ivy league and you're--well, your father was a meat-worker for forty years. You always moved in different social circles. But you both have a lot of time for each other. You call him Bob. It's a private joke."

"Yeah, I should," Sam agreed, trying to think like Bill Barton. "I just didn't want anything else to change. I needed you, this place, to stay the same. Everything else is falling down around me, Bob."

Waterford nodded sympathetically. "Well, you know I'm here, Bill. Anything you need--"

"Th-thanks," Sam said uncomfortably. "I should get to work on that backlog. I'd like to get rid of it before I go."

"Only if you're up to it. Edwards can handle it if you want to go home. He's slower, but he gets there in the end."

Sam shook his head. "No, I should do it," he said carefully, then smiled at the older man. "I'll be fine. And thanks--for everything."

Waterford watched the door closed behind him before sitting back in his padded leather chair and dragging a hand over his face.

"Christ.." he said sadly.

        *******

"...And that's how you make Thelma Beckett's prize-winning pumpkin pie."

"Sounds great," Margaret grinned. "I didn't know you were into cooking, dad."

Sam put down an impressive-looking pumpkin. "Yeah, well, I've learned a lot of new stuff since--"

The back door opened, then banged shut, making both jump like startled cats.

In a heartbeat Sam went from preparing to body-block the intruder to the ground, to relief when Margaret grinned from ear-to-ear and put her arms around the man's neck.

"Hello squirt," she said happily.

Steve Barton returned his sister's hug, grinning down from his father's six foot plus height, then turned to Sam.

"Dad," he grinned.

Sam returned the hug, then patted him on the back and drew away.

"Good to see you, son," he guessed and grinned back. "So how's life away from home?"

Steve waggled his eyebrows. There was a sudden, poignant resemblance. In many ways, Steve was Bill's son, tall, broad and athletic, but in coloring, facial bone structure, and especially the eyes, he was Helena's child...and Al's brother.
Margaret glowed. "Isn't this great? Waterford gave dad some time off yesterday and now you're here. We're all together again."

Everyone laughed and agreed, then one by one the joy slipped away from them.

"You better go see your mom," Sam finally told Steve. "She'll be ecstatic about you being home."

Margaret turned to Sam as the door swung closed. Her face was
set. Her tone was deliberate and determined.

"Now, these pies--"

He didn't need to ask her to know what she was feeling. "Oookay," he told her jovially, following her lead. "Well, you need..."

When Al finally returned Beckett was removing pies from the oven.

"I bet they smell yumola," he said wistfully.

"And taste that way too," Sam told him. "My mother took prizes every year."

"How is she?" Al asked quietly.

Sam knew exactly who he meant. "The pain is worse," he said heavily. "But she's still in relatively good spirits. And Steve came home today."

"Steve?"

"Yeah, your br--Helena's son," he fumbled self-consciously.

"Steve...She named him after her brother," Al mused.

"Piieee!"

Sam turned as a veritable hoard seemed to crash into the kitchen. The twins had arrived, firing incredibly noisy toy machine guns at each other.

"Kane, Jackson, that's ENOUGH," Sam yelled. "Your grandmother is resting. Cut the racket or no pie."

That did it. They ceased immediately, but for the clatter of the machine guns being dropped like hot rocks onto the parquetry floor.

"Pie?" Jackson asked plaintively.

Al watched as Sam sat both boys at the kitchen table and provided each with a thin slice of pie topped with a small scoop of icecream and a very large spoon.

Beckett turned, sighed with relief at the restored quiet, then smiled.

"You're an uncle, Al. And I think they take after you," he pointed out dryly, studying their efforts at dressing themselves. One had managed to match an orange T-shirt with small purple flares and the other had on baggy red track pants and a yellow T-shirt with small animals all over it. The tag was hanging out the front and the curve of the neckline was at the back.

At that point Margaret and Steve returned.

Margaret went to scrape pie off the table and to wipe her sons' mouths. "Dad, mom's awake and she's asking for you," she said over her shoulder.

"I'll make her something to eat," Sam said quietly and went to do the medication.

He watched Al surreptitiously as Steve played with the twins and Margaret rinsed their plates. Calavicci's face was inscrutable, but at least he hadn't vanished.

When the tray was ready Sam headed for Helena's room, musing over the fact that Al had stayed in the kitchen.

Helena was very pale and far more fragile than before the crisis, but she positively glowed when he came into the room.

"Hi," he said softly and kissed her cheek. "Margaret said you were up. You don't have to finish anything, but I thought you should try to eat something."

He slid the tray onto her lap and watched her take her medication before picking at the food. A moment later she put down the fork and looked up at him, tears in her eyes.

"What? What is it?" he asked, worried.

"I have to go to the bathroom," she told him reluctantly.

He removed the tray and folded back the bedclothes. Lifting her was easy, too easy, but ignoring the way the frail, bony body tensed against the pain was not. Neither was the humiliation in Helena's eyes when he picked her up.

Sam emerged from the bathroom in search of a new nightgown and underwear to find Al standing at the foot of the bed. He went to the chest of drawers and pulled out what he needed.

"Al?"

He shook his head. "I don't know, Sam."

Beckett bit his lip. His friend had never looked more alone.

"I spent fifty years of my life as an orphan. It's who I am. This is like some kind of Mad Hatter's tea party..."

"Give yourself some time," Sam said gently.

"Time?" Al croaked, looking at the bathroom door. Then, suddenly, he laughed. Then his voice dropped to a whisper. "Time..."

Sam heard the irony in the word, his own lips twisting into a bitter smile as he put a long blue nightgown over his shoulder.

Al watched him carry Helena back from the bathroom and settle her in the bed again, painfully aware of the humiliation and helplessness that radiated from every pore of the fragile body.

"Have you told her yet?" he asked.

Sam shook his head as he pulled the bed covers straight and tucked them under.

"Something wrong, Bill?" she asked.

"N...no. I was just thinking," Beckett stammered. "Can I get you anything?"

Helena shook her head. "Steve is coming back in a while to talk to me about school--and about the new girl in his life, I hope."

Sam touched her hair. "I'll get rid of the tray and fill your water jug," he told her softly.

He deliberately passed close to the hologram on the way out.
"Stay with her, Al," he whispered, and was gone before his friend could even frame a reply.

Calavicci faced her again. For long hours he'd tried to imagine the circumstances that would force this woman to run out on two babies.

Hell, they'd hardly been bigger than the twins.. He'd turned seven and Trudy was almost four...

A sudden, vivid memory of that last birthday as a family came back to him. It had been hot. But not as hot as the July day he found out she was gone...

She'd had a birthday the month before, but he'd only found out about it the day before his own. He remembered being determined to make her a card. He couldn't remember doing it, what it was made from, or what it looked like, but he remembered the need...

Al frowned. He had only fragmented memories of the day. She had turned on the sprinkler for him to play while he waited for Trudy to wake up from her nap so they could have the cake. And there was a cake. It was soft. He remembered because he'd never had such a soft cake before, but he couldn't remember what was on it, or even if it had candles. What he did remember, with exquisite clarity, was that his father wasn't there. A pang went through him as the long repressed memories resurfaced.

His father was never there...

He looked at his mother again and swallowed. Her eyes were closed but she was not asleep. He came to her side and 'sat' in the bedside chair.

Suddenly he longed to talk to her, to know, to ask all the questions his father never had the chance to answer. He longed to smell the soft fragrance he could almost, but not quite remember, to feel the reality of her, just once...

And then Sam was back with the pitcher of water and the fragile window to the past slammed shut again.

Al rose and drew the handlink from his pocket as Beckett picked up a glass. "I'll see you later, Sam," he said roughly, hit the link and vanished.

It was all Beckett could do not to call after him or look up from pouring the water.

        *******

Commander Calavicci was not in his room when Sam arrived to collect him. The Nurse seemed puzzled, but not overly concerned by his absence.

"We'll try the gardens, Mister Barton. Sometimes Al--uh, Commander Calavicci, sits out there for hours. It's partly because he can smoke out there, and partly because he's used to being alone, I think," the small, mouse-haired nurse told him as they headed down the corridor. "It's been very hard for him to re-adjust. The Navy only treats the body. They aren't much interested in the mind, beyond getting what they want. After that, what we can't fix gets sent home--or thrown away."

Sam stole a glance at the unspectacular but appealing face, set now in a defiant frown.

"You like him, don't you?" he asked gently as they passed through the glass doors into the sun.

She stopped. "If you mean do I care about what happens to him; do I like the way he thumbs his nose at them, then yes, I like him very much. But--"

Sam raised his hands, smiling. "That--that's exactly what I meant."

She smiled back. "Al is a good man. He doesn't belong in this place. He should be home, with people who care about him. That's the only healing he really needs right now."

Sam nodded. "And he is going to be with people who care about him very much," he promised.

"I hope so," she said and turned around to scan the grounds for any sign of the Commander. "There," she said eventually. He's over there."

"Hiding again," Sam murmured to himself.

The nurse looked up at him, new respect in her eyes. "Don't let him be hurt again," she said softly.

Sam smiled. "I won't," he promised, and watched her go back into the hospital.

Calavicci lit a new cigarette with the butt of the previous one, then ground the discarded end into the grass with his boot heel. He was dressed conservatively. A dark red shirt under a brown leather jacket, dark sports slacks and cuban-heeled boots. Sam had rarely seen his friend in such subdued attire.

"Nice jacket."

Calavicci half turned and looked up at Beckett. He squinted against the brighter light and removed the new cigarette from his mouth.

"Yeah. I gave one of the nurses some dough and my sizes. Seems when my ex disappeared my stuff either went with her or disappeared under a mound of red tape somewhere."

Sam swallowed. It was the first time the Commander had referred directly to Beth. And he remembered Beth, at least for now. They were painful memories, made even more so by the tortured eyes staring him out of such a ravaged body--a body that should have been in Beth's arms, not sitting alone under a stupid tree in some hospital, smoking himself to death...

"Are you ready to go?"

Calavicci looked up at him for a long moment. "As ready as I'm gonna get," he drawled, rose stiffly and crushed another half-smoked butt underfoot.

"Where are your things?"

He grinned...and gave Sam the first glimpse of the man he knew as Al Calavicci. "You're lookin' at 'em."

The muscles in Sam's face tensed. Finally, he looked away.

"What?" Calavicci demanded.

"A-ah, nothin'," Sam replied tremulously. "I'm fine. The car's out front." He looked back then and forced himself to smile. "Ready to go?"

They drove in silence, Calavicci occupying himself with the view out the passenger side window, and a concerted effort to fill the car with cigarette smoke.

Eventually Sam wound down his window in self-defence.

"Never smoked?" Calavicci broke the silence.

Sam shook his head. "I once did an autop--ah..I've seen what a lung looks like after a couple decades of smoking those things," he amended quickly.

Calavicci snorted but said nothing.

"I haven't told the others," Beckett blurted unexpectedly. It wasn't exactly something he could work up to with subtlety.

"Others?"

"Margaret and Steve. I couldn't do that to their mother. She'll tell them in her own time, and her own way. As far as they're concerned you're a friend of mine from out of town."

Calavicci shook his head. "I don't know why the hell I let myself in for this," he muttered.

Beckett thought of Helena and the way she'd looked at that photograph, how she'd sounded when she was talking about the little boy she'd lost. He slid a glance towards his passenger. The commander looked, if it were possible, even more alone than he had in the hospital gardens.

"Oh, there you are."

Sam jumped.

"It's not easy hittin' a moving target," the older Calavicci grumbled when he saw Bill Barton's annoyed expression in the rear-view mirror.

Beckett turned his head long enough to mouth the words: "where have you been?" in vehement fashion.

"Talking to Bill Barton."

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Sam asked without thinking.

The commander looked at the cigarette he'd just lit. "Best I can come up with right now," he drawled and took a long savoring draw of the filter-tip.

The hologram shook his head. "I hated those things."

Beckett looked at the inevitable cigar, then at Calavicci's younger self again and snorted softly.

"Barton doesn't know who I am," Al pointed out. "Hell, I'm only a couple of years younger than he is. Verbeena convinced him that he's part of some mysterious military experiment and that he'd be going home soon. She says to leave the revelations to you. I did however, get him talking about her. It's killing him, watching her die--almost as much as it was killing him keeping it all bottled up inside. Once I got him started talking about it he busted open like a stomped milk carton."

Beckett stole another glance at his passenger. Which is more than I can say for either of you, he thought ruefully and swung the car into Barton's street.

"The good news is Ziggy's only giving it a 15% chance that he'll still try and kill Helena."

Sam exhaled with obvious relief and pulled the car into the driveway. At which point it was the commander's turn to exhale, and stub out yet another cigarette in the car ashtray. He sat back in his seat and stared up at the hood.

"You need some time?" Sam asked sympathetically.

Calavicci continued to stare upwards. "I need a marguerita," he rejoined, then thrust open his door.

The house was all he'd ever dreamed of as a child; a real home, with flowers growing in every crevice, sun-porch, swing, grass, kid's bikes on the front lawn...

Before they reached the front door two blurs came hurtling around the corner chasing an unfortunate ball of tortoiseshell fur.

"Jackson! Kane!" Sam scolded.

The boys stopped cold. "There's two of you!" Jackson wailed.

Sam looked around. The holoraphic Al shrugged and took out his cigar long enough to make a face at the twins. "That's not me," he improvised. That's my son. Looks like me, huh?"

Kane nodded. "But he doesn't have a yuckky."

Al scowled and drew heavily on his stogie.

"The kids don't much like cigarettes," Sam told the commander. "You made a good impression."

"Cute kids," he conceded as they raced away.

"Your nephews," Sam told him.

"No shit, Sherlock," he drawled, still watching them tumble onto the grass, wrestling and giggling.

Sam chuckled. That sounded a lot like his Al. And speaking of his Al...the senior Calavicci had vanished again.

The kitchen was redolent of pork roasting for dinner, and percolating coffee. There were crayons on the table and tiny discarded sneakers beneath it.

Sam stole a glance at his companion. There seemed to be a rigidity about his stance that wasn't there before, and his mouth was set in a hard line. He looked back at Sam with eyes that glittered in the brightness of the sun-filled room.

Beckett produced some mugs and some cream and put them on the table. "Why don't you help yourself to some coffee while I go see how your--how Helena is? Cookies are in the green jar."

Calavicci looked amused. "Yeah, sure," he said.

Helena was listening to a radio program.

The senior Al Calavicci was sitting next to her. He didn't see Sam at first, lost somewhere in his own thoughts.

She did, however. She smiled, her facing lighting up. "Margaret has gone to the market. Steve is around somewhere though. He's supposed to be watching the twins."

Sam grinned. "He is. Sort of. I brought a visitor to see you."

Her face dropped. "Visitors? But I'm not...I can't..."

"This is someone very important...to both of us," Sam added softly.

Al looked up then, meeting Sam's green eyes over Helena's grey head, a glimmer of a smile in his.

"Would you like your hairbrush and stuff before I go and get him?"

"No," Helena pouted.

Sam sat on the bed alongside her for a moment and took her hand. "He's come a long way to see you. Are you sure you don't want me to get your bed jacket, and the brush?"

She searched her husband's eyes curiously, then relaxed a little. "If it's that important to you, dear," she conceded wearily.

All at once she looked awfully small and vulnerable. Sam wondered if he'd done the right thing. He caught Calavicci watching him again, and recognized the same doubt in his friend's dark eyes.

Beckett went to get the jacket and her brush the from the bathroom. He returned with the make-up case and her hairspray. Between the two of them, with much giggling from Helena and head-shaking from Al, Sam managed to pin her hair up, spraying stray bits mercilessly into place. Afterward he held the mirror while she did her face with frail, unsteady hands.

"You look perfect," he told her when she was done, then sniffed. "Smell good too." He coughed, making her chuckle again. The air reeked of hairspray.

"I love you," she said suddenly, her eyes very full.

Sam moved closer and touched her face gently. She lifted it toward her husband's.

"I love you too," he whispered and as Bill Barton, bent, without hesitation, to brush her lips tenderly with his.

She kissed him back, then raised a hand painfully to cup his cheek. "Hold me," she begged. "It's been so very long..."

Sam looked to Al. The older man nodded slowly. With great care and extraordinary gentleness Beckett drew her into his arms and cradled her carefully, sensitive to every tiny sound of pain, every tensing of her muscles.

In the bureau mirror Al watched the aura of Bill Barton holding the woman he loved. He'd seen the way Helena looked at Sam, the way she said her husband's name. And he saw the gentleness and genuine feeling with which the aura that was really Sam held her now--just as he knew Bill Barton would hold her.

When Sam finally eased her back onto the pillow and excused himself to go and find the Commander, Al allowed himself to wonder, for the first time, what it might have been like to have grown up in this house--with Trudy--to have been a real family, with Bill, and eventually Steve and Margaret.

Who would he have been? How much longer might Trudy have lived?

He shook his head. He should have given Beth children, should have made them a real family. Coward, he thought bitterly.
Maybe if he'd done that, instead of making excuses, Beth might have waited...

The Commander had finished his coffee. Sam found him on the back step, yet another cigarette burning between his fingers, watching Steve entertain the twins with horseback-rides on the grass. There were several butts at his feet.

"You okay--?" he asked.

Calavicci turned. "Oh, fine," he drawled and aimed the cigarette hand at the group on the lawn. "Brother, right?"

Sam nodded. "Steve. He's at Cal-tech and doing very well. He likes the girls too...and they seem to like him."

Calavicci chuckled. "Figures. He looks like me," he added, more to himself than anything.

"And me," Sam correctly lightly.

The slender figure drew on the filter tip and blew out a long slow trail of smoke before glancing lazily at the obvious height and width of shoulder of both Bartons. "Yeah. Make a good quarterback," he conceded flatly.

"Fullback, actually," a disembodied voice corrected.

Sam half-turned. The senior Calavicci was behind him.

"Fullback, actually," Beckett repeated as the Commander got up stiffly, not quite able to completely un-kink his back.

"I prefer baseball myself," the smaller man replied, slipped past Sam and went back into the house.

Beckett followed. "That's right," he remembered enthusiastically. "I remember. You pitched--"

Calavicci halted and turned back to his step-father. "How the hell could you know so much?"

Sam shot a wild-eyed glance at his friend.

"Months of research," supplied the older Calavicci. "You wanted to know everything about him, for her, in case you didn't find him in time..."

Sam repeated the explanation.

The Commander's eyes narrowed. He shook his head. "I'll know," he said darkly. "I'll know if it isn't her."

The older Calavicci stared at his younger self. The surprise in his dark eyes turned to sadness.

Had he forgotten so much over the years..?

Helena looked up as they came into the room, her eyes widening as they lighted on the wasted body of her oldest son.

Sam slid onto the vacant side of the bed and took one of her hands in his. "Commander Calavicci, I'd like you to meet my wife, Helena."

Calavicci nodded. "Ma'am."

Sam heard the swiftly indrawn breath, felt her hand tighten sharply around his.

"N-Nice to meet you, Commander--" she managed.

He raised a hand. "Please, call me Al," he told her, stopping his other hand halfway to the pocket holding his cigarettes and carefully returning it to his side.

"Al--Albert?" she asked tremulously.

Calavicci's back straightened rigidly. He nodded and stepped closer to the bed. When she looked up at him he stared into the still beautiful eyes for the longest time.

Finally, he broke the silence. "You still use that scent..."

Helena half-sobbed, half laughed. "It's the hairspray," she told him. "I've always used the same brand."

Sam's head turned as she spoke. He was certain he'd heard another sound. Al had his back to them, keying a sequence into the handlink.

"Al?" he whispered. The familiar back tensed as the chamber door opened, but he didn't turn. Sam watched it close with a sense of failure. He turned back to the others.

There were tears in Helena's eyes. The younger Calavicci had managed to stand his ground, though looking more and more like a trapped animal.

Helena let go of Beckett's hand and opened the tin on her lap.
He watched her lift the crucifix and a picture from it.

"I--I kept this for you," she told her son and held it out in trembling fingers.

Calavicci's arms felt frozen. He forced himself to extend one and to take the chain from her. As the crucifix glinted in the light from the window memories he'd so successfully repressed for more than three decades poured into his mind, a thousand small fragments of a shortened childhood. He remembered the feel of that chain around his neck, the way it sometimes pinched the hairs on the back of his neck, the way he used to finger the crucifix as he went to sleep.

He dragged his eyes away from it and looked up at her again.

"Why?" he demanded.

Helena did not look away. Tears welled up and spilled down the papery cheeks.

"I couldn't stay, and I couldn't take her with me," she whispered. "I've missed you so much. Both of you."

"Are you saying it was all Pop's fault?"

Helena shook her head slowly. "People make mistakes. I was just too young to cope with the magnitude of mine. Running away was wrong, but it was all there was at the time."

"Running away from what? Responsibility?" Calavicci demanded harshly.

She closed her eyes, her thin fingers tightening on the photograph. "From the emptiness," she whispered.

Sam swallowed.

Calavicci's eyes narrowed defensively. "Pop didn't love you?"

Helena opened her eyes and found his. "Do you remember the nights you cried yourself to sleep after he would leave again ..sometimes after just days at home?"

He nodded slowly.

"Do you remember the days when all there was to eat was potatoes and lima beans? Trudy would cry for milk and there was none to give her..."

Calavicci swallowed. "You used to sit in your room and cry and cry. You thought I was outside."

"There was no food because there was no money."

"But pop worked so hard--"

"He wasn't always working, and he didn't always give his wages to me."

"But he loved us. I know he loved us. He came back--after. He came back from overseas because he had enough money to buy a house. For a while we were happy. We were a family--"

"Of course he loved you, Albert. He loved you more than anything on Earth, you and Trudy. But part of him never came to terms with what she was and what she represented. In his heart he thought he'd failed somehow. He never blamed her for that," she added, her eyes adding the rest. "And the medical bills ate up the money so fast..."

"I don't remember Trudy being sick--"

She shook her head. "You were very little. It wasn't difficult to convince you to stay with Aunt Peg next door while I took Trudy to the city."

Calavicci's eyes widened. "I remember her. She was huge, and her dresses always had these enormous flowers--colorful, gaudy stuff--and she always smelled like cookies."

Helena laughed, a real, happy laugh. "She loved you so. She was always baking cookies for you--and for Uncle Zeb--"

"Yeah," Al mused, "I remember. 'So he wouldn't get jealous,'" she always used to say." He looked down at her.

She was so ill, so emaciated, so grey, it was almost impossible for him to match the last childhood memory of his mother to this fragile woman.

Helena returned his regard, looking into his dark-lashed eyes, the only things utterly unchanged about that small urchin of so long ago.

"This is difficult for you, isn't it?" she asked gently.

"You're damn r--ah, you could say that," he amended uncomfortably.

"Would you do something for me, Commander?"

Al tilted his head a little. "Sure. Why not?"

"Come and sit here. I want you to look at something."

Calavicci hesitated. He rubbed the back of his neck, his wrist gut-wrenchingly thin as the coat sleeve slid down his arm exposing it to their scrutiny.

Sam swallowed.

"Please," Helena whispered.

Calavicci's troubled eyes came back to hers. After a beat he nodded.

When he was seated on the edge of the double bed, next to her, she handed him the photograph she'd taken out with the chain.

"Do you remember that day?"

He stared at the image for a long time, then half-laughed. "I didn't want my picture taken. I hid in the tool shed."

"And I found you there, a scowl on your face that would have frightened Caesar, and convinced you to do it for..." Helena stopped, remembering.

"For pop. You said he'd be disappointed if he didn't have a picture of me to look at when he was off building bridges or whatever the hell else he was doing."

Helena nodded. "I didn't notice that you'd torn your shirt
until after I took the picture."

She pushed the tin toward him. Gradually they worked their way through the pictures, the commander's fingers trembling as he held the first image he'd seen of Trudy in almost three decades.

"I had nightmares for years about the day they split us up," he said slowly. "She screamed and screamed. And pop just stood there. He didn't say nothin', didn't do nothing. Christ, he didn't even cry; just stood there and watched them drag us out of the house."

Helena slid a hand over his unsteady forearm. "Don't be too angry with him," she said gently. "Sometimes silence can be much louder than a scream."

Calavicci swallowed and looked down at the box. He picked up another photograph with his free hand. It was the shot of his parents together, young and seemingly happy.

He seemed to stare at it for an eternity. Beckett worried as his expression grew more and more haunted.

"That's her," he whispered tremulously and turned slowly to Helena, as if looking for that girl in her ravaged face. Then he looked down at the picture again, his shoulders slumped. Long seconds passed. His father's smiling eyes looked up at him. "I don't...I don't remember him like that. He always...he always looked old to me."

Helena's hand tightened on his arm. "I'm sorry. Sorry for everything. How many nights I've prayed that somehow, He could find a way to make it up to you, where I failed.."

Sam closed his eyes.

"You were wasting your breath," Calavicci said bitterly. "There's No one there. There never was. Not when you went away. Not when they dragged Trudy away from me and especially not when my old man was in that hospital. Oh, no. And surprise, surprise," he added in an eerie, disturbing tone, "He doesn't do tiger cages either. Maybe He didn't like the smell of rotting feet, or maybe He likes his rice without the bonus protein wriggling around in it..." He threw the photograph on top of the others. "No, there ain't No one there. It's all a lie. Trust me, I know."

"Then you don't know anything," she retorted with surprising strength. "If you are right then who am I supposed to believe brought you to me? Or sent Bill to pick a stupid young woman up off the highway before something terrible happened to her? Who do I thank for giving me such beautiful children...and grandchildren?"

Al's face screwed up. "How do I know? Fate, life, whatever. For all I know we control our own destinies. Maybe in the end the only ones we can blame are our ourselves..."

Helena made a sound suspiciously like 'pshaw!'.

"You're here, aren't you? How many others didn't come home at all? Her fingers closed tightly on the sleeve, feeling, poignantly, the degree to which his arms had wasted during his long captivity. "However terrible it was for you--" she stopped to swallow, and to blink moisture from her eyes.
"--you were spared. You're here, whole, the past behind you. You have a future to shape however you want--"

He laughed a hollow, angry laugh. "You mean with my wife? A new life, with a house, children, a dog? Yeah, I know about that. I spent six years planning that future. And you know what? The first thing they tell me when I get home--after they tell me I've been dead for four years that is--is that Beth married some nozzle in '69 and disappeared. That's navy for 'we can't divulge that information in case you do something stupid,'" he added in an acid tone.

Helena's eyes widened, and what little color there was in her cheeks drained away. With an effort, she contained her response to the new information. Instead she focused on Beth.

Beckett, who'd been watching, instinctively covered her hand with his, giving her added strength.

"You loved her very much?" she asked softly,

Calavicci looked in dire need of a cigarette. He ran a restless hand through his dark hair. "Yeah," he said finally and looked away.

Sam moved. The commander looked strained and uncomfortable. Helena was very tired and pale, the planes and angles of her face all the more stark for the over-exertion.

He touched her cheek. "I think maybe you need to consider taking a break. You're tired, and I suspect the commander would like to go outside to smoke and to regroup a little."

Helena's eyes moved from one to the other, the strain more telling than ever in her wan features. She nodded.

Al exhaled with relief and turned to go.

"Bill--" she called unsteadily when Sam moved to follow an obviously relieved Calavicci out the door.

He turned.

"Don't go yet..."

It took some time to attend to her needs and to be with her until she drifted off into a drug and exhaustion induced torpor.

Sam was about to stand up when the chamber door opened. He jumped when a voice spoke at normal volume. The instinct to berate Calavicci for disturbing Helena from her hard-won rest was repressed just in time. Instead he gestured irritably toward the door.

"Where have you been?" he demanded, closing it behind him.

Calavicci, resplendent in peacock blue shirt, red and gold suspenders and white pants, avoided his gaze. He waved a newly -lit cigar carelessly.

"Oh, there was work back at the project. You--you didn't need me here--"

Sam's irritation died as quickly as it had flared. He watched his friend through knowing eyes. "Are you okay?" he asked gently.

Calavicci fiddled with the handlink. "Sure. I've been talking to Ziggy. She's still confident that you're here to prevent the euthanasia. If you do, Bill Barton won't go to jail, and more importantly, won't die there. Steve will probably stay in college, Margaret and her husband won't mortgage everything to pay for her father's defence and she won't spend the next twenty years sucking down valium...And Helena--Helena will die peacefully within the week, anyway."

Beckett sighed inwardly, but allowed Calavicci the diversion.

"Then right after the original time of her death, tomorrow, I should leap out?"

"That's what Ziggy thinks," Al confirmed.

"And you? I mean the Commander?" Sam pressed.

"I don't--that is, Ziggy doesn't know where that's going yet. You changed history big time bringing him here."

"Did I do the right thing, Al?"

Calavicci looked away again. "I don't know."

"Then you think I should have left him in the hospital?"

Al shook his head. "I can't answer that, Sam. I don't know that woman in there...I don't even know him any more..."

"Al, I don't want him--" Sam paused and shook his head in frustration, "--that is, you, to be hurt again."

Calavicci ran his cigar hand over his face. "For what it's worth, if I'd known she was still alive I'd have probably done anything I could to find her. If I believed any different I would have stopped you long before now."

With that admission the ramrod tension finally seemed to drain from Beckett's slim frame. "I'm glad, Al. She loves you very much. I think right now that's what he needs to know...that somebody loves him."

Al's eyes lighted with affection for the younger man. Then he sighed a jagged sigh. "Sam, there's something you should know. I wasn't myself back then. It was a really bad time in my life. I thought I'd put it behind me--until now..."

Beckett nodded. "I know he's hurting. I hope that I can be there if he needs me. I mean, I am his--your--stepfather now. And he doesn't seem to hate me any more--"

Calavicci chuckled mirthlessly. "Yeah, well, six years as a POW tends to put a lot of things into perspective."

"Besides," Sam went on, "I know him. I know him as much as anyone does--better, because I know you. I won't let him be hurt again..."

Al smiled as Beckett turned when the back door slammed for the third time in as many minutes and headed down the corridor.

"I know you won't," he said softly.

        *******

Beckett found the commander surrounded by the twins. A barely -smoked filter tip lay flattened near his left boot and there was a glass of something green and fizzy in his right hand. All three were lined up on the back step in the afternoon sun.

"You guys aren't pestering Commander Calavicci, I hope?"

"No," came the stereo reply.

"We're having drinks," Jackson announced. "We got one for Al. He was thirsty."

The commander half turned and raised his soda in a salute to Sam. "They thought I needed some company--and a drink." He took a long swig of the green concoction, watched approvingly by both rosy, cherubic faces.

"I'm going to be a pilot when I grow up," Kane announced, full of self-importance.

"I'm impressed," Sam told him. "You have an uncle who's a pilot. A very good pilot."

"Like Al?" Jackson chimed in.

"Yeah," Sam grinned. "Exactly like Al."

Calavicci laughed. It was little more than a chuckle, but there was genuine amusement in it.

"There you are," a voice called. "Steve said he thought you were out here. I swear, that boy comes home once in a blue moon to visit, then spends all his time down in that shed tinkering with that old outboard motor you two have hoarded since I can't remember when--"

Sam took the groceries from a weary Margaret. "Margaret, this is Commander Calavicci."

"Commander, this is yo--my daughter, Margaret."

Calavicci nodded. "It's Al," he amended.

It was obvious that something was teasing her subconscious, but she hadn't yet put it all together.

"Have we met before?" she asked as the boys burrowed into the shopping bags.

"I don't think so," he replied. "I've ah...been away for some time."

Margaret shook her head. "I'll get it eventually. It'll drive me crazy until I do, but I'm sure I know you from somewhere..."

Calavicci shrugged, his expression as he looked across at Sam clearly asking the question.

Sam however, wanted that decision to come from Helena. It appeared that he was going to have to ask her about it...and soon.

A check before the evening meal was served revealed that Helena was sleeping soundly.

Dinner was relaxed, Sam and Margaret producing the roast and the pies that had filled the house so pleasantly all afternoon with delicious, hunger-provoking aromas, to unanimous approval.

Beckett watched the commander as they started the meal. He seemed content to serve himself normal helpings of everything that was passed to him but scowled when Margaret called on Bill to say grace.

Without hesitation Sam nodded, before repeating the blessing that had long been a tradition in the Beckett household. Afterward he looked up to see that Calavicci's scowl had somehow transmuted into the bleakest eyes he'd ever seen.

Margaret reached for a roll. "That's a new one, dad. What happened to the old one?"

Sam was prepared. "Oh, I kinda liked this one and change is healthy. We'll go back to the old one in a little while," he told her and watched them all begin to eat.

He suddenly felt conspicuous at the head of the table, out of place. He looked across to where Steve was making short work of his first serving of Pork. That was his usual position. A pang of homesickness, and something else--something painful-- went through him.

At that point Kane and Jackson started a fight over a fork, startling Sam and breaking the painful connection with the past.

He enjoyed the meal and was even more gratified to see that Calavicci's appetite had also sharpened. The commander was still subdued but, for the first time since Sam first saw him, he seemed almost relaxed. There was color in his cheeks from the warmth of the house, and the meal...and possibly even from the red wine Margaret had served with the food. And, as Sam looked around the group at the table, he realized that he looked like he belonged.

At that point Kane decided that he couldn't remember how to cut his food and made this fact clear to everyone at the table.

"Give it to me," Margaret demanded, used to the routine. She was seated across the table from the boys, who'd demanded emphatically to sit next to Al.

"It's all right," Calavicci told her. "I'll do it."

"Yeah, Al'll do it," Kane repeated, followed closely by Jackson.

"Commander Calavicci," Margaret corrected.

"But Al said--" Kane began.

"It's all right, pal," the commander told him without looking up from cutting the pork. "If your mom tells you to do something, you'd better do it. You're going to have a lot of years after you grow up to call people whatever you want to call them."

Kane made a face.

"I saw that."

Kane's eyes widened. Calavicci still hadn't looked up from the plate.

Margaret, looking from one to the other and smiling at the interplay between the two, suddenly lit up.

"I've got it," she told him. "I have seen your face before." She excused herself from the table and scurried away.

Kane fell upon the cut-up food and rapidly caught up to his brother. They were demolishing desert when she came back, a magazine clutched in her hand.

"I knew I'd seen the Commander somewhere. Look, dad."

Sam took the magazine. Time. He frowned. Time magazine had published his own accomplishments in physics, had called him the next Einstein. There was nothing but ads on the page facing upwards. He turned it over and froze. His fork clattered on his plate.

He read the text slowly, barely able to grasp what he was seeing. As he stared at it, he found himself remembering. Remembering it all.

You could have been free...

I was free. I was always free...up here.
..

"Dad? Dad are you all right? You're as white as a sheet. You look as if you've seen a ghost--"

A ghost he would have preferred to have remained at rest.

"N-No," he stammered. "I'm all right. "I was just remembering something..." He looked up to find Calavicci watching him. Slowly, almost mechanically he extended his arm, passing the magazine to the other man.

Calavicci looked startled for a split second, then unfolded it in business-like fashion to find out what magazine it was before turning back to the page bearing his image.

"Whoever took it did a good job," he commented. "He must have been one hell of a--"

"She," Sam corrected.

Everyone turned to look at Bill's wan face again.

"It..it says in there that the photographer was a woman--Maggie Dawson. She won a pulitzer prize for-for it."

Calavicci looked down at the picture again. "The picture is attributed to M.T. Dawson, but it doesn't say anything about a Pulitzer prize, or the sex of the photographer--"

"Sam, the picture won the Pulitzer prize in 1971."

Sam looked up, surprised, as the senior Calavicci stepped through the chamber door.

"It's 1973. Either she's been reading an out-of-date magazine or--" The newly-arrived hologram paused to determine the reason for a sudden agitation in the handlink. "Oh. Ziggy says Time reprinted the picture because of the current public interest in the repatriation...of the last of the POWS."

Beckett was taken aback by the vehemently bitter tone of Calavicci's last words. He cleared his throat and faced the commander.

"This is a reprint of the original. I first saw it in 1971, when it actually received the award. I guess I just anticipated the attribution."

The commander continued to contemplate the image. "I remember that transfer."

His counterpart closed his eyes and removed the cigar from his mouth, his hands dropping slowly to his sides as he listened to his own voice recall the past.

"There was an air attack right in the middle of it. A lot of locals were killed--sappers and stuff--and a couple of villagers. They didn't much like it." The commander's face contorted as memories of the retribution endured by the prisoners grew vivid in his mind. "They didn't like it at all..." He looked straight at Sam. "These other guys--they paid--"

A glass of juice toppled over spreading liquid across the table, courtesy of one of the twins.

With that the commander seemed to rouse from whatever tormented memories he'd been immersed in and to withdraw self-consciously. He became preoccupied with his food as things were cleaned up and the meal normalized again.

For the admiral it meant rousing himself from painful memories, admonishing the twins to stop watching him and to concentrate on what they were doing, meanwhile making rash promises to play with them in the morning if they behaved. It worked.

"Sam, I'm not needed here. I think I'll go back and see what Ziggy has to say about tomorrow," he announced abruptly, and was gone before Beckett could object.

Despite attempts by Steve to steer it in that direction, the conversation did not return to the battlefields of South East Asia again.

Nor did Helena rouse again that night, leaving her family to spend a quiet evening once the children had gone to bed.

Which they did, television playing quietly as Margaret watch a favorite film, Sam and Al browsed newspapers and magazines, and Steve lay spreadeagled on his stomach on the floor trying to repair a damaged toy truck.

Eventually he turned to Margaret to pronounce it dead and was struck by a powerful sense of deja vu as the commander, alongside of her, looked up at the sound of his voice.

"Y'know," Calavicci was saying, "sometimes you can manufacture an axle if you can find something near enough to the same diameter..." He instinctively slid off the lounge to hunker down next to his still-bemused brother and took the toy to study the broken wheel.

Sam watched them curiously. Side by side the resemblance was uncanny, despite the difference in years and build. Eventually the pair agreed that it might be possible to salvage the toy.

"Mags, the Commander thinks the truck..." Steve trailed off. His sister was staring. "What's wrong?" he demanded bluntly.

But Margaret was caught up in the unexpected picture the two men made together. For a long moment she stared, trance-like, at them.

"Dad?" she whispered finally, turning to her father. "Who is he? What's going on?"

Sam swallowed, and met Calavicci's resigned gaze. "He...he's a guest in this house. He...he..."

"What he means is, your mother wanted to see me before it was too late," Calavicci interrupted.

Sam closed his eyes. They should have been told sooner. Now it was too late for gentle preparation. He rose.

"Give me a moment," he muttered, and slipped away. He was back in seconds with the box. "I wanted your mother to do this, but it can't wait any longer. You kids know your mother and I weren't exactly teenagers when we got married--"

"Mom wasn't old," Margaret protested. "Twenty-six or something, wasn't it?"

"Almost twenty-six," Sam said quietly, trying to remember clearly what Helena had told him over the course of the leap. "See, we...ah, had to wait almost two years before her divorce came through--"

"Divorce?" They demanded in unison.

Beckett nodded. "It's a long story, but the bottom line is--"

But Margaret's expression was one of comprehension. She turned to the commander.

"--You're my brother," she finished surprisingly calmly.

Calavicci nodded.

Steve stared silently at the stranger. Who he was seemed inconsequential alongside the revelation that his mother had another life before the one he knew. He turned back to his father.

"D...did you love each other?" he managed.

"More than you can ever know," Beckett told him hoarsely. "Just the same as we loved you and your sister. The same as your mother has always loved Al--Albert and..." Sam stopped, distressed. He hadn't meant to make things even more difficult. Perhaps he could save it after all. "And his fa--"

"Sister," Calavicci finished, deliberately pre-empting Beckett's attempt at substitution.

"We have a sister?" Steve asked, slowly beginning to grasp the situation.

"Had," Calavicci corrected. "Her name was Trudy. She would have been thirty-six this year."

"Six years older than me...I'm so sorry," Margaret said softly. Her eyes mirrored the pain in her voice. "I would like to have known her."

For a moment she saw his eyes flicker to reveal the depthless pain behind the tired cynicism he seemed to wear like a mask.

"You loved her very much," she whispered.

The nod was almost imperceptible, the mask slipping again.

Margaret drew a soft but jagged breath, moisture gathering in her lashes.

"The boys, they're like you too," she whispered, and made a tiny noise when Sam handed her the photograph of the small Albert in his torn shirt.

Calavicci's mask was firmly back in place. "We look like her--Steve, the kids, me. You look like your dad. Steve is built like him. I'm built like mine. That's how families usually work," he pointed out, unaware that his right fist was clenched over the pocket holding the cigarettes.

His sister saw it. At that moment she also realized something else. She looked up, only about a foot between them now.

"You--you don't have anyone, do you?"

Sam sucked in a worried breath.

Calavicci's lids barely flickered. "No," he rasped.

Margaret slid gentle fingers over the fist.

"But I'm used to it," he added, his off-handed tone not fooling her for a second.

"Well, you don't have to be used to it any more," she told him, the tears caught in her lashes now sliding silently over them. "I would very much...like to know about my brother."

After a long silence he took her fingers in both his hands. "Thank you," he said gently. "But you don't have to worry about me. I'm fine."

Beckett knew it for a patent lie.

Margaret's answering look told Calavicci the same thing. "You're more like her than you realize," she told him, her eyes sliding towards the door, then back to him. She withdrew her hand and patted his forearm before he could frame the question. "Would you like some coffee?"

There was gratitude in his eyes when he nodded. For a moment there was a gentleness in them too, as he watched her go to the kitchen. Then he turned to the others, cynicism back like shutters on a window. "There's no such thing as good coffee in hospitals," he told them dryly.

The rest of the evening was spent in an artificially calm review of family history from Bill and Helena's wedding, to the present day. Calavicci seemed to be content to take refuge behind a mug of coffee and to nod appropriately when the conversation shifted in his direction. Both Steve's attempts to draw him back into discussion about the war, however, failed dismally.

When the others had turned in for the night, Beckett finally ventured outside into the damp air looking for Al. He found him under the porch-light. He was surprised to see the commander's hands trembling as he cupped the match inside them and bent to touch the cigarette between his lips to the flame.

"Al?"

Calavicci drew a long, ragged breath and removed the glowing filter-tip from his mouth, exhaling the blue smoke as he turned.

"Dad..." he drawled.

Sam was momentarily taken aback, then he remembered who he was and chuckled. "If you like," he offered. "But I'd settle for a chance at friendship..."

Calavicci shook his head. "I'm not your son. I'm not anyone's child." He drew on the cigarette again. "I've been alone for thirty years and no five minute family is going to change that."

Beckett shifted uncomfortably. It was as though he was listening to another Al Calavicci--to the one he'd once found vandalizing a vending machine. That Al Calavicci had been as desperate, as alone and as fragile as this man was. Maxine--Maxine? No, Sharon. Sharon had just left him, the project was threatening to dump him, but none of it was enough to account for the bitterness, the rage, the emptiness of the man he'd spent so many long hours listening to and talking with, in a naive, but stubborn attempt to shepherd him away from the self-destruction of the bottle. A shiver suddenly went down his spine.

If this leap was a success--if Al was able to deal with his personal demons, here, now, would they ever meet? Would there be a drunken Al Calavicci in that laboratory waiting for a young scientist curious enough to investigate the sounds of a vending machine being assaulted...or would history change again? Would he be the one left alone?

He forced himself to speak. "M-Maybe not, but you haven't really given yourself a chance to get to know them yet--"

Calavicci shook his head. "You don't understand," he said, turning and focusing the dark eyes on Sam. He touched his temple with the ring finger of his cigarette hand. "My family is up here. No matter what I feel or think about her, you, the others, that will never change. Never."

But I do understand, Beckett's mind retaliated, where his mouth could not.

"I know you're hurting, Al. I know you think you're alone, that no one, neither God nor man, is there for you, but you're wrong. Dead wrong. You're here aren't you? You came home didn't you? You--" Sam swallowed. He hated pushing so hard, but Helena had so little time...He took a nervous breath and continued: "Your trouble is you've spent too much time feeling sorry for yourself. My wife is dying."

Calavicci dropped the burned-down cigarette butt onto the concrete and stepped on it, then looked up slowly. "So you said," he acknowledged, still almost too casually.
What is it my--your wife is dying of?"

Beckett blinked. "Cancer," he replied.

Calavicci half-stepped backward. He swallowed, his eyes haunted and overbright. "Cancer," he repeated, still trying to appear casual and unconcerned. "What kind?"

"S-Stomach."

"That's...interesting. My father died of cancer--of the lung..."

"I know--I mean, I'm sorry," Sam stammered. "That was a long time ago. Right now your mother is still alive and she needs you. She's not asking your forgiveness...she just wants to say goodbye."

Calavicci's eyes narrowed. "I'm here, aren't I?"

Beckett shook his head in frustration. "But why..?"

"The truth?"

He nodded.

The tired brown eyes regarded him for a long moment before sliding away again, then Calavicci smiled one of his bitter smiles. "Because anything is better than that damned hospital ward."

For a moment Sam was very still, his eyes, suddenly far too luminous, glittering in the harsh porch-light.

Calavicci shifted uncomfortably in the silence. There was something suddenly unnervingly vulnerable about the old man. Empathy turned to swiftly to anger.

Why should he feel pity for this man, above all men? Why, even now, when he had less than nothing, were people demanding things from him? Was it ever going to be his turn?

"I'm out and I'm going to enjoy it," he added defiantly.

Beckett shook his head, unable to come to grips with the terrible cynicism. "I'll take you back to the hospital first thing in the morning," he said in a sad, defeated tone and gestured to the doorway. "I'll show you where you'll be sleeping tonight. Steve has taken his old room and Margaret has the boys with her in her old room, so you'll be taking my bed. I've set up a cot for myself."

Calavicci shook his head. "You don't have--" He stopped when the bleak look in his stepfather's grey eyes forestalled any further protest.

Bill had converted his study into a bedroom to give Helena space without robbing Margaret and Steve of their rooms and the memories contained in them. He'd bought a double bed for comfort and kept the bureau to work at. Now there was an old folding cot in one corner, made up by Margaret, for Sam to sleep on. It looked serviceable, but incredibly uninviting.

The Commander watched the dispirited Barton silently gather personal items in preparation for a trip to the bathroom, and debated the wisdom of saying anything more.

"I really did like them, you know," he finally conceded.

Beckett hesitated in the doorway. "Who..?" he asked flatly and proceeded down the corridor without waiting for a response.

"All of them..." Calavicci replied softly.

        *******

Beckett sat up, jerked out of a deep sleep by screaming, agonized cries in the night. In his stupor his thoughts immediately went to Helena, but as his eyelids prised themselves apart he realized that it was a man's, not a woman's cry. And it was close by. He focused momentarily on the illuminated bedside clock-face. Two-forty a.m....

The commander was curled up in a corner of the room, trembling with the terror of some kind of waking nightmare. He seemed to be replying in short, terrified bursts of clumsy Vietnamese to some unseen captor or aggressor. One of his legs lay outstretched and twisted on the floor, as though damaged.

Sam swallowed. He'd brought Calavicci here without much thought as to the effect the stress and the exertion might have on him. Not to mention the added pressure he'd put on him the previous evening...

His earlier anger and disappointment forgotten, he slid off the bed and moved very slowly towards the crouched figure.

"Al," he whispered. "It's all right, Al. It's just a nightmare. It's over."

He was close enough now to put a gentle hand on a his arm.
Calavicci reacted violently to the touch, screaming and lashing out, shouting in streams of confused Viet and English curses, pleas and unidentifiable babble.

Sam clutched at his flailing arms and held them fast to stop him from hurting either of them and continued to talk soothingly over the cries, and the rage.

Without warning the arms were suddenly wrenched from his hands and he found himself under a barrage of painful blows.

And just as suddenly they ceased. Sam looked up gingerly. Calavicci's eyes open and wide with shock. They were also blurred by disorientation, but it was obvious that he was awake.

Beckett's cheek smarted and the corner of his mouth was split. Apart from the throb from the blows, however, he was still in one piece, though he would be bruised and sore in the morning. He scrambled to his feet.

"Are you all right?" he asked, wiping away a trickle of blood from his mouth.

Calavicci's eyes seem to take forever to find his.

"No..."

"Where...where were you?"

Calavicci's eyes closed, and the silence stretched again.

"You don't want to know..."

"You're so wrong," Sam told him tremulously. "You have to have to let someone in, some day."

"I did--" a voice behind him said quietly. The chamber door closed.

Sam turned. The older Calavicci's face was haunted and drawn.
"--I let you in..."

Beckett's face flushed with emotion. He drew a deep breath and turned back to the commander.

All those years before Starbright, Al had been alone with his nightmares...

He tried again. "Who was I, Al? Who was I when you were hitting me--and hitting me?"

The commander's face darkened, and he seemed all of a sudden much smaller.

Admiral Albert Calavicci swallowed. He fumbled, his hands trembling as he tried to slide the handlink into his pocket.
Eventually, when the younger man remained silent, he answered for him.

"I used to have the same nightmare over and over. Back in the cage it was a dream, something to keep me going, a wish--but later, in the hospital, it turned into a nightmare." He seemed to look deep within himself for a few moments.

"Every time they came to take me or one of the others away for interrogation I used to fantasize about overpowering the guards, commandeering a weapon and shooting as many of the bastards as I could. Then I would find the sadistic bastard in charge and beat him--beat him until he couldn't stand up; beat him until he begged for mercy; until his own children wouldn't recognize him...until his last breath rattled long and hard in his throat and his eyes turned back in their sockets...Of course, it never happened. I was too weak to put up a fight and there were too many of them..." He paused, a tormented, tortured look on his face. "A lot of guys never came back to their cages..."

"Oh, Al..." Sam said softly.

The younger man finally looked up. "What?" he growled.

Beckett looked into his haggard brown eyes.

"You aren't one of them, Al. It was just a dream, a way for your subconscious to deal with the rage, the pain still inside you. It doesn't mean you've become one of them--one of the people who hurt you..."

The commander's eyes widened, then closed. A moment later he turned and leaned against the wall, his back rigid, his fists clenched.

The Admiral watched sadly. "Sam, it took me over ten years--until I met you--for me to understand what you just said. Don't ask too much of him right now."

Sam glanced at the hologram and nodded before focusing again on the commander. When he spoke his voice was distorted by strong emotion.

"I'm not your father, Al...I can't even claim to be your friend...but as Helena--Anna's husband I claim the right to call you family--even son, and to care about you. I do care about you..." He stepped toward the tense back.

Calavicci didn't turn.

"Sa-a-m," the older man said softly.

"Al, you don't have to be alone any more--"

The rigid back shrugged a little. "But I am alone..."

"No," Sam told him tremulously, and put a hand on his shoulder. "You're not."

The small, frail body was unmoved. Calavicci's next words were halting and strained.

"Do you know what its like to go from three meals a day to a bowl of dirty brown rice--if you're lucky?" he asked softly. "To eat it no matter what it was contaminated with...even with things crawling around in it?"

Sam grimaced.

The commander went on, his voice faltering. "Do you know what its like to feel and smell your own feet rotting? Have you ever heard the roar of monsoon rain coming? Been soaked to the bone for weeks at a time? Or slept in pools of water, twisted around, with your legs half up the side of a cage you couldn't lie down, or stand up in..?" He sighed a long, jagged sigh. "Have you ever dreamed of nothing but the slow, agonizing death of another human being--at your own h-hand? Wanted it, lived for it?"

Sam shivered, his fingers tightening on the bony shoulder as the rasping voice began to crack.

"Have you ever watched someone you cared about being lead away, knowing they won't come back and un...un...unable to do a damned thing about it?" Calavicci's body trembled beneath Beckett's hand. "A...a..nd have y-you ever come home to f...find that everything you dr...eamed of, everything that ever meant anything in your life," he battled through rising tears, "was gone? That the one beautiful thing th-that you were ever allowed to know in your life...was gone?!"

Sam swallowed. "Beth..." he whispered.

The commander punched the wall hard, burying his face against it as his shoulders began to shake.

Sam drew him away, catching him around the chest as he sagged. "It's all right, Al. You're home," he said quietly. "You're home, and you're safe."

Calavicci struggled helplessly against the rising tide of his grief. "Oh, Beth..." he moaned between jags. "Why..?"

The Admiral squeezed his eyes closed against the raw pain of reopened wounds, and the traitorous moisture that followed.

Sam saw. He closed his eyes and half-turned the thin, grieving body toward him. He swallowed a hard ball of rising tears as the Commander, lost in a vortex of grief, horror, loss, and regret clung to him like a child and wept.

"I'm here." Beckett's arms tightened around the slender shoulders. "It's Sam, Al. I won't leave you alone. I promise I won't leave you alone."

And as his own damning words echoed through his mind like the accusations of a relentless prosecutor, tears slid over Beckett's lashes and down his cheeks, first in ones and twos, then in a blurred stream.

He looked up at the Admiral, bereft of words to frame the terrible regret that gripped him into an apology to the man he'd left behind all those years ago.

"My God, Al--"

The older Calavicci looked down at him with surprisingly gentle eyes. He shook his head.

"Don't, Sam. Don't. I know. I always knew..." His own voice cracked then. "Look after h-him. I...Gooshie needs me..." He tapped the handlink unsteadily and retreated through the chamber door.

Sam exhaled jaggedly, allowing himself, for perhaps the first time, to consciously consider the two men as one and the same. Both were his friend...and both were in pain.

Eventually the dark head slid sideways. The commander's breathing was rhythmic and deep. He'd drifted back into an emotionally-exhausted sleep.

It took very little effort for Beckett to carry him to the double bed and to draw the covers firmly around his chilled shoulders before tucking them in. Calavicci stirred momentarily, his eyes flickering open and focusing on Beckett for the merest of seconds.

There was confusion and anxiety in them, a distinct lack of recognition.

"Al?"

"Sam?" came the slurred reply.

And then he was asleep again, lulled by the warmth, the security of Sam's arms, into blessed refuge from the memories, the trauma.

Beckett swallowed and stared for a few moments, not at all certain what had just happened. He stayed, watching the haunted face in repose, the rise and fall of the narrow chest somehow very reassuring. Satisfied that he was going to be all right, Sam reluctantly withdrew.

He climbed into the narrow camp bed numb with both cold and emotional overload. For a long while he lay oblivious to his frozen feet and hands, lost in a flood of memories, all of them painful, all of them filled with the changing faces of Al Calavicci. And all of them leading back to one inescapable moment in time...

He should never have gone; should never have gone behind Al's back...

He clamped his eyes closed against the memory of stepping into the accelerator even as Gooshie shouted frantically to him to stop, as chaos spread around him--as he left behind everything that ever mattered...He choked down a despairing sob before a flare of anger at his submission to self-pity withered it to nothing. He turned over forcefully and shunted his thoughts into more contemporary issues.

Tomorrow--today, was the day Helena Barton died in the original history. Today he might leap, and he couldn't do that with so much still unresolved. He couldn't leave the Commander now, not when he was still so terribly alone...

Somewhere in the midst of his ruminations he drifted into a fitful sleep. When he woke late in the morning he couldn't remember going to sleep at all. Sunlight was pouring in the window and the big bed was empty.

Sam dragged himself off the cot and found himself staggering, unprepared for the stiffness and the bruises from the night before. His mouth was slightly swollen and crusty. When he parted his lips the split stung ferociously, reminding him vividly of the previous night's events. It took him some time to wash and dress and get himself out to the kitchen for breakfast.

Margaret watched him come in, her smile transmuting into shock and concern when she saw his face.

"Dad? What happened to you?" she demanded.

Sam shook his head. "It's nothing."

"It's not nothing! Don't protect--"

Sam had raised his hands in a stilling motion. "I'm not protecting anyone," he assured her. When she remained unconvinced, he went on. "When...when people are severely traumatized, the horror sometimes goes on manifesting itself in their dreams--"

"Nightmares?"

He nodded. "Terrible nightmares. Don't worry about me, Margaret. Apart from a lack of sleep, I'm fine. Where is he?"

"Outside, with the twins," she told him, concern still evident in her eyes. "Mother is awake."

Sam nodded again. "I'll take the tray."

Helena looked more fragile than at any time since Sam's arrival. She was in pain. A great deal of pain.

It hurt him to see the way her face lit up when her husband walked into the room. When she refused the tray he put it on the side table and gingerly, painfully slid onto the bed next her and took her hand.

"It's bad today, isn't it?"

Helena closed her eyes, barely moving her head in acknowledgment. "But it'll ease. I know it will," she insisted.

Sam nodded. "Yeah. I'm sure it will too. Have you seen Albert today?"

"N-not yet."

He frowned. He hadn't noticed the blueness around her mouth, her fingertips before. It wasn't pronounced, and he hadn't been looking for it before...

"It's not easy for him," she said softly.

"Right now nothing is easy for him," Sam agreed. He kissed her forehead. "I should go see how he is this morning. He had a bad night last night."

"I know," Helena told him.

Sam looked down, startled.

"How much did you hear?"

"Enough." she said unhappily. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Sam looked away. "I didn't think--"

There was no reproach in her voice. "You never would have tried to protect me when I was well, so don't go starting now. He's my son. There's nothing about him I don't want to know."

He turned back to her. "He's hurting."

Helena nodded. "I could hear the pain last night. I couldn't always hear the words, but the hurt..."

"He needs you--us, right now. He needs to know he's not alone," Sam finished uncomfortably.

"Then make certain he knows," she told her husband pointedly, still without reproach. "He's suffered so much, so long, and still God seems to ask for more. How can it be fair that after everything else that's happened to Albert, he should come home to such emptiness--how can it be fair that his Beth wasn't there, waiting for him?"

Sam took back his hand as though stung, and slid off the bed. "I don't know. It was wrong, and I'd give anything to undo that wrong, but I can't," he said miserably. "I can't."

Helena watched her husband stride out of the room and wondered what devil was plaguing him this morning. Bill always felt things so deeply...

After a couple of beats she bowed to the pain, closed her eyes and allowed her head to sink into the pillow again...

Sam found Calavicci at the bottom of the garden standing over the straggly bed of carnations, and moved silently to his side.

For several long moments neither spoke. Eventually, after another long, slow draw, Calavicci removed the cigarette from his mouth and looked up at the grey sky.

"Did I hurt you?" he asked flatly.

Sam shrugged. "Not much," he lied.

"Your nose grew," Calavicci drawled and seemed amused by Beckett's reaction. "You shouldn't have brought me here."

Sam sobered quickly. "You belong here."

"Why is this so goddamned important to you? It's not just her," the dark head gestured. "It's you." His eyes narrowed. "It has something to do with Sam, doesn't it?"

Beckett drew a startled breath. "Who?" he managed.

"Last night. You talked about someone called Sam."

"I did? Ah, yeah. Well--"

"I think I dreamed about him," Calavicci went on. "Or at least there was someone--he had green eyes..He was young, but he had a lick of grey at one temple..."

"Strange dream," Beckett said carefully. "I'm sorry about last night. It was my fault. If they knew at the hospital--"

Calavicci suddenly became agitated. He stepped toward Beckett.
"Don't you dare tell them--!"

Sam raised his hands. "I won't. I promise. Al, I'm sorry. I'm sorry I brought you here--sorry I brought you so much pain..."

He subsided. "Forget it," he said softly. "You love her very much, don't you?"

It wasn't what Beckett expected. Another realization struck him then. His heart twisted into a knot. "Yeah, I do," he admitted. "and I can't...I don't want to lose her."

Calavicci held his stepfather's emotional-filled eyes for a long moment, then silently walked across the lawn and into the house.

        *******

Propped up by her usual nest of pillows, Helena looked up, then turned her radio off. She was tired and pale, the blueness around her lips standing out starkly now, almost as dark as the circles beneath her eyes.

"Hello Albert," she said softly.

He stepped into the room. "How' you doin'?"

She paused, as if considering her reply. "I don't think I'm doing very well at all," she told him calmly. "But it doesn't matter in the long term, does it? What is more important right now is whether or not you are all right."

He shrugged. "I'll be fine."

Helena's eyes were tender. "I heard you last night."

The dark eyes flicked to hers, surprised.

"You never loved her, did you?"

Helena didn't move, nor did she need to ask the question. "Oh, yes. I loved her," she corrected. "I loved her from the moment I first heard her cry. I still loved her when the doctors shook their heads as they wrapped her and took her away, and I kept loving her even when your father looked at her for the first time and never said a word..."

There was a painful silence, then she continued as if she hadn't stopped.

"I'd never seen your father cry before that day or after..."

Calavicci stepped closer to the bed. "When we were small... before you went...you used to send her out with me to play. You knew the kids teased her, made fun of her. I used to get into so many fights--"

"I know. I never said a word about the torn clothes, the skinned knees, because I knew," she told him gently. "You were so little..seven or so, but you loved her so much."

"I thought you were ashamed of her, that you cried so much because the kids made fun of her."

Helena shook her head again. "I never hated Trudy, Albert. I did cry--even cried myself to sleep many nights, but it had nothing to do with how I felt about my daughter. Do you think I'd have sent her out with you to play with all the other children if I was ashamed of her? I cried because I knew I couldn't give her what she needed, because you went without so much so that she could at least have the medical care she needed to stay healthy. I cried because I was so alone. Your father adored you. He even grew to love your sister, but--"

"Anybody would have loved Trudy," Calavicci whispered.

She smiled and nodded. Then the smile vanished. "But he didn't love me. We were married because you were coming--"

Calavicci's eyes registered surprise, but nothing more.

"--He never blamed anyone, not directly. But by the time Trudy came along there was nothing left between us. At first, after you came, he was so proud he'd get close jobs just so he could be with you as much as possible. He loved you so much. Those were the happiest times I can remember with Joe. Then I fell pregnant again and things started to change. He wanted to give you everything, and he knew that if we had another baby to feed there'd be no money for anything but the essentials. By the time Trudy was born he was working away almost constantly, supposedly to pay the bills. Pretty soon pay packets stopped coming home. Instead he would divide it and send us a share. Sometimes an entire pay went missing without any explanation. I started putting money aside out of every pay he did send or bring home, for those other times."

Calavicci sat down silently on the bed as she spoke.

"And Trudy?"

"At first, he was devastated. Later, he grew to love her too, but he never tried to love me again. He only came home to see you. Even then the horses and the--" she hesitated. "The fast life saw more of him, more of his pay packet than we ever did. He worked hard, damned hard, but he was never happy. I don't ever remember him being truly happy...except--" Her face lightened for a moment. "Except for the first time we met. He was funny and attractive, and so charming. He was on top of the world. And he wanted to be with me. I was sixteen and so starry-eyed I didn't know if I was coming or going. By the time your grandmother discovered that I seeing Joe it was too late. You were on the way. I turned seventeen the day before we got married--seven and a half months before you were born."

Al closed his eyes against the ugliness between the lines.

"All I remember about pop is how much I wanted to be with him, how hard he tried to keep us together after you left. He can't have been much over thirty, yet I don't ever remember him looking anything but old, worn out. When he brought us home a couple of years after that he looked even older. I didn't know it was cancer. I didn't know until after he died. He should have..." Calavicci's voice faltered.

Helena slid her hand over his when the dark head bowed.

"...He should have told me," he continued hoarsely. "He
shouldn't have sent a ten year old kid to pray for him to get better when he knew he was going to die. I knew they'd take Trudy away from me again. I knew if I couldn't convince God to save him I'd be alone again. She'd be alone again. And no one would ever come for us."

Tears slid down Helena's papery cheeks. "All these years you've been so angry--but it wasn't really God you blamed, was it?" she realized. "Any more than you ever really blamed me, or Beth or anyone else..."

She tightened her fingers around his hand to still its shaking. "You think you're somehow responsible for every bad thing that's ever happened to you. That you must some how deserve every blow?"

He turned his head and looked at her with distressed but questioning eyes.

"I know, because I believed the same thing about me. From the moment my baby brother died at birth, until I married Bill, I believed that I deserved every hurt, every slap life ever gave me. I never wanted a baby brother or sister. Your uncle Steve had left home to go live with Uncle Oleg in Pennsylvania, where there was steady work, and I finally had mama to myself. I wished the baby would never be born. When he was stillborn I knew it was my fault. Then later, when papa died, I thought it was punishment for killing the baby, but I never told a soul. I lived with that guilt my entire childhood... Then Joe came along and, for a while, he made me feel like a princess--" She shook her head. "--And then I was punished again. I was pregnant, my mother was devastated, and I was going to marry a man I knew in my heart didn't love me. God's reward for a terrible, sinful girl, I thought...And when mama died less than a year after you were born, I knew it was so..."

She stopped and reached up to brush his cheek. "Don't waste your life punishing yourself, Albert. You didn't make me go away. You didn't make your father ill. It wasn't your fault Trudy died. Those were all consequences of the choices your father and I made a very long time ago. Only you were made to suffer more than any of us, my darling, and for that I can never be sorry enough..."

A single tear slid down his right cheek. "I never treated Beth right," he said softly. "I loved her so much...I didn't deserve to be that happy...I couldn't let myself be that happy--I took everything the Navy threw at me, and more. I saw her less than three out of the eight years we were married, yet I can still say they were the happiest years of my life. I never loved anything...anyone the way I loved her."

"Did they ever tell you what happened to her?" Helena prompted gently.

"Only that she married that nozzle in '69 after having the navy declare me dead," he told her tremulously. "If I'd given her half the happiness she gave me, maybe she'd have waited..."

"And maybe, if she was certain in her heart that you were dead, that there was no way God or fate was ever going to give you back to her, perhaps she would have allowed herself to move on, however much she loved you. Maybe it was the only way to make the pain go away," Helena pointed out, her slender hand now engulfed by his wide one.

Tears moved slowly down his cheeks. "You never came," he whispered. "You never..."

Helena used reserves she could ill-afford to tap to draw her son to her and to hold him in her arms as he wept--as they both wept.

An unseen observer, the Admiral watched them silently, unable to be a part of their reunion, yet irrevocably tied to it by the past. His tears were not for the pain, but for the memories. His hand went to his throat. He lifted the crucifix from its resting place beneath the open-necked shirt and held it comfortingly in his fingers.

A moment later the tiniest of tinkles at the door caused him to turn. Sam was there with a tray, carrying medication, glass and a new pitcher of water. He was about to turn and leave when he realized the admiral was there. Al watched him open his mouth, then close it again, eyes riveted to the chain of the crucifix still in his hand.

Rather than disturb the others the Admiral tapped the handlink and winked out, repositioning directly behind Sam.

"Sam," he said softly.

Beckett turned. "Al?" he whispered.

Calavicci cocked his head toward the kitchen. It was deserted.

"Al, where did you get that?"

"You changed history, Sam."

"But--!"

"But..? Sam, you did what you came here to do. It's over." He looked up at the wall clock. "Five minutes and you'll leap out of here, Bill Barton will leap back, and life will go on."

Sam's face crumpled. "Not for Helena."

Al's dark eyes grew bleak. "Not for Helena," he agreed. "But you weren't here to save Helena. You were here to save Bill and his family. You've done that. He doesn't try it again."

"Ziggy knows when Helena is going to die?"

Al nodded. "Three weeks from now, in her sleep."

Sam's eyes were perilously overbright. "It's not fair, Al."

"Life never promised to be fair," the Admiral reminded him quietly.

Beckett suddenly realized something. "Al--you?"

Calavicci looked down at the crucifix still visible at his throat.

"Ziggy says it didn't change an awful lot, Sam. I guess it made things better...for her, for me." He half-smiled. "I guess I'll know for certain in a few minutes..." After a beat, his expression grew serious again. "What you have to understand is that nothing, not even this, could fill the void Beth left when she walked out on me."

Sam's eyes silently began to shed their burden of moisture. "I was wrong," he whispered. "I should have told her, Al. I should have told her."

Calavicci shook his head slowly. "Look on the bright side. I'm still here. You keep changing my history and one of these days you could suddenly find yourself with some nozzle observer you never saw before."

Beckett's spine chilled. He looked away. "Don't leave me, Al," he whispered.

Calavicci swallowed. "Never," he said so softly that Beckett didn't hear. Then at normal volume:

"Sam--"

Beckett turned.

Al nodded toward the clock. Two minutes left. "Go on. Go and say goodbye."

It took a moment for the brutal reality of leaping to sink in. Then Sam ran.

When he arrived Helena was alone. Through the window he could see the commander with his brother on the back lawn, a twin astride the backs of each shouting commands at the top of their small lungs.

"I thought he was with you," he said softly and came to sit on the bed.

Helena smiled. "He was. The twins came and dragged him off to play."

"Are you all right?" he asked, unaware of the pain in his own voice.

Her smile widened. "Today there is no one happier than I," she confirmed.

Sam covered a fragile hand with his, unsure of anything except the exquisite pain of knowing he would never see her again. With only seconds left he leaned forward and brushed his lips against a hollow cheek.

"Goodbye," he whispered.

Then as the sensation of displacement began to overtake him, threw his head back in despair.

He leaped...

        *******

As the imaging chamber reformed around him, Calavicci tucked the crucifix back inside his shirt, then opened the chamber door.

Gooshie watched him walk past in a daze and wondered exactly what quandary Doctor Beckett had left him to ponder this time. Then he remember the phone message.

"Admiral--" he called.

Calavicci turned.

"Sir, there was a message for you. Jack Lowell called. He said to tell you they'll be in Vegas by tomorrow afternoon. They have two days."

"Oh sure. Thanks, Gooshie," he acknowledged, and deliberately headed toward his office so that Gooshie wouldn't see his confusion.

The small room was in darkness. It wasn't one of his favorite places. The light was bright and harsh when he flicked it on. How could he tell Gooshie that he had no idea..?

Lowell...Jack...Jack. Something fell into place. He swallowed and moved around his desk to the padded leather chair that, even after all these years, was still barely worn in. He sat down and rubbed his hands over his face.

And then suddenly, his expression cleared. He reached for the phone and gave the operator a number.

When the connection was made his face lit up.

"Margaret," he said, smiling. "I've heard from the boys..."


* * *



The End