School Daze

by:  Lady Chatterly 

AKA: Dbl Dragon

 

The crush of hot youth enveloped him immediately; a pulsating beat boxing his ears with its wild thumping. Please tell me I'm not at a rock concert! Blurs of arms and colorful sweaters whipped about him from towering bodies. A voice crackled and boomed from tinny speakers. Sam clutched the swaying navy and gold jacket in front of him and a tall, strapping young man turned and flashed him an easy smile. Pulling himself to the side, the guy nodded towards Sam obligingly and afforded him a better view. A girl, microphone clutched in hand and sporting a yellow pleated skirt, took center stage, her face angrily slashed with war paint.


"Are we going to let AKRON desecrate OUR FIELD?? NO!! Are we going to send OSU home crying like a bunch of PUNKS?? YES!! Because who the HELL are WE?? ROCKETS!! ROCKETS!! ROCKETS!!"

 

A roar erupted from the crowd and spirit oozed contagiously. Sharp blasts from air horns pierced all common sense and a mad swirl of screaming and laughter exploded, wrapping Sam, too, in its delirious fun. A tiny smile of realization was creeping onto his face. "Oh, Boy," he murmured. "I'm back in school!"

 

"So...this is Toledo."

 

A warm baritone rumbled at his left and Sam glanced over. The young man was turned away, his face lifted towards the stage. The sun caught a handsomely bronzed profile. His chin jutted forward obstinately and there was something defiant in the way his jaw was set, the swell of his cheekbones...
    

Oh no...

 

Intense pair of almond-shaped eyes was suddenly burning into Sam's. He let his gaze waver to the ground, catching a white-sneakered toe peeking from beneath boot-cut jeans.  Thank god it's not heels.
    

"Ohio," he murmured.
    

"You speak Japanese." The lilting accent fluctuated the question into more of a statement.

Sam laughed nervously. "No...I-I don't think so. I mean, Ohio, the state."
    

A slow, crooked grin broke across the guy's face. "You must be freshman. I'm freshman, too. I'm from Cleveland."
    

Sam felt the cool electric tingle of recognition ride down his back. "Me...too.."


A tiny leak of memory spilled forward begrudgingly. It was like teasing the desert with a drop of rain. I have a dog...named Sparky and my sister is almost --thirteen. The vast plains of darkness in his mind stretched endlessly before him and he sighed bitterly.


 "You really from Cleveland? Or you just say that to get to know me?" The liquid

 caramel eyes danced with laughter.
    

Something neon pink snapped a few inches above their heads and they ducked. A group of guys wearing "Omega Psi Yo Mama" shirts hooted with laughter. The Frisbee flopped a yard away from Sam into the crisp green lawn. "Go fetch, Fido!" barked one of the guys into a megaphone and a flimsy boy trotted the distance half-heartedly, studded collar winking in the sun and leash flapping behind him.

Fraternities, Sam thought mournfully, remembering of some vague past the image of a shallow dive into a wading pool gone wrong.

The young man scowled briefly towards the display of stupid human tricks, turning a warm smile on Sam. "You live on campus?"

"Uh...yeah, I think."  Reaching into the pocket of his pullover jacket, he heard a nice jingle of keys and shook them out. "I actually have to get going now..."
      

"You don't know my name. It's Tomomichi. Everybody calls me JP." And he raised an eyebrow, managing to look disarming and mischievous at the same time.
       

Against his will, Sam laughed. "Yeah, well, it was nice meeting you, Tomomichi. I guess I will see you around."
       

"Not if I see you first."  Tomomichi abruptly turned and strolled away leisurely, the sun riding easily on his back.

 

Sam watched him for a moment, a strange warm pang of... something falling over him.  That was interesting...now, let's figure out where you live..  He studied the ring of keys, turning them over delicately in his hands.  There were no engravings or tags to clue him in. "Well, I could always go door to door," he chuckled mirthlessly, shrieks of happy abandonment ringing in the air. "Alright, Beckett, pick a direction and go."

 

Just southwest, a burst of light winked from the trees. As if in a slow, heavy trance, his feet moved, and he felt a satisfying crunch of gravel underneath his shoes. Kids drifted aimlessly about him, some in small groups of freshly formed cliques, and a few, like him, wandering solo. ~Student Union~ read the title of a building that was fading fast on his right. A wall of windows showed students inside milling about anxiously like ants, some emerging triumphantly from a bookstore with bags of overpriced --yet always recommended and little used-- reading materials.  A line that was obscenely long snaked out from a black-and-white tiled cafeteria that was trying earnestly for a 50's look.
   

An odd dark tower of glass rose suddenly before him as he rounded the corner. He was all at once allured. And repelled. That's creepy.  He advanced more slowly around the structure as people pushed and pulled on the heavily tinted doors and seemed to be swallowed inside. The flow of traffic swept him towards a stone bridge, which he gladly crossed away from the building. A low murmur of water tumbled over smooth rocks below, twisting around downed limbs, and rumbling onward to...The Ottawa River. A beautiful canopy of leaves arched over the stream, both seeming to stretch miles and miles into nowhere. It was then Sam realized that he, too, was standing beneath its cool cover. He grinned up at the trees on opposite sides of the bank whose branches had interlaced like fingers. A guy on roller blades wove around him sharply, shooting Sam a hostile glare over his shoulder. He tried giving guy a tiny smile of contrition, but his mouth wouldn't cooperate.
         

 The other side opened up to a huge field about three football stadiums in length with trees dotting the lot here and there.  An impromptu game of Freeze-Tag broke out. Passersby became unwitting participants, having been slapped by someone and designated as "IT!!" as everyone scattered like marbles dropped on the floor. Sam moved away from the direction of the maddening frolic. He drifted closer towards a rolling hill, a tall oblong building shooting straight from the top like a giant milk carton. PARKS TOWER WELCOMES THE CLASS OF 2000, proclaimed a white sagging banner in an ominous shade of blue and yellow.
           

He hit a minute stretch of paved surface before he was on grass again, picking up his pace to a trot. A small courtyard completely shaded from the sun was being grazed upon by kids looking for a quiet place to read.  He skipped over the blacktop of a miniature parking lot, almost running by the time he'd reached where he thought he was supposed to be. A door swooshed open and his shoes sank into plush carpet. A girl sitting at a circular desk glanced up at him briefly and flashed a perfunctory smile. Then she went promptly back to ignoring him.
           

Two elevators off to the right of the desk dinged pleasantly, both opening to spill their load of anxious mothers with huge handbags and balding middle-aged fathers making rounds to the car to haul in cardboard boxes and suitcases.   I must be in this dorm. He sighed inwardly, not considering his discovery a total victory.  I've got a key and no name --
           

"Rachel!"
           

Sam's heart cracked thunderously in this chest. He spun around, eye-level with a chin. He adjusted his vision slightly upward and found the person belonging to the chin grinning and slightly out of breath. "Man! I saw you in the woods, what were you running for?"
          

I'm Rachel!  "I...didn't want to be late."
          

The face screwed up its nose and the light sprinkling of freckles
threatened to merge. "Late for what?"
            

"Late...for...my mother's call," he attempted weakly, adding a tiny smile. "But I think I lost my key, so..." He let his words to trail off expertly, allowing a small look of embarrassment to creep onto his face.
            

The girl smiled brilliantly, snapping a wad of bruise colored gum. "That's cool. I got a key."
             

The muscles in his jaw nearly went slack. Of all the dumb luck.  His free ride was already walking away, shuffling coolly towards the elevators. He stepped in after her, watching closely as she depressed the button marked 3 and the car rode smoothly up the cable. A soft ~bing!~ announced their arrival as the doors opened into a naturally lit hallway
wrapping to the left and right.  He waited as the girl steered left, counting the number of rooms they passed until she abruptly stopped and he almost slammed into her. The lock tumbled heavily in the chamber and then the door swung inward, the girl popping on a light to her right.

 

Two comfortably cushioned chairs and a matching coffee table sat unused in an area Sam guessed was being designated as the living room. He closed the door, the girl digging into an ample sized fridge, pulling out water balloons and Twizzlers. "These are for later," she grinned elfishly, and he was suddenly very sure he did not want to know.
    

Quickly his eyes took in the cozy little layout of room 3207. A short hallway just beyond the refrigerator forked into three small, unlit areas. At the moment, shoes were being heaped onto a doormat across from them.  He studied the pile for a moment; decided none of them were really his style. Two doors, labeled "A" and "B" were a sure bet to be the bedrooms.
           

Sam felt eyes guarding him closely.  "Keys?" he suggested, half-shrugging.
           

The girl's face lightened considerably. "Oh, I don't keep doors locked. That's you." She tossed him a teasing see-this-is-what-you-get look and resumed the careful arrangement of supplies in her pack. "For a minute, I thought you had amnesia."
           

A strangled cough flew out of Sam's mouth, and he feebly covered it with a laugh. "Yeah, amnesia."
         

"You need to lay down, too." The girl shooed him off in the direction of door A, relief flooding over him. The long slender handle gave easily in his hands and he slipped in, exhaling deeply. His fingers automatically went for a tiny silver button that would grant him some privacy. The satisfying click of the lock felt like kind hands unloading the
burdens of uncertainty from his shoulders. Not too much could go wrong in a bedroom.  God, I hope not today. The weary thought crossed his mind as he sunk gratefully onto a freshly dressed bed.
           

An interesting feat of a bed elevated by the tops of a dresser and a set of shelves was displayed across from him. A desk threatened to erupt a leaning tower of books, clothes and CDs. Five pairs of the same shoes in the different colors littered the floor. Sam turned his eyes away from the mess, surveying the immediate surroundings on his side. Nice, tight, clean.  It was like night and day in this room.
           

A small stack of mail beckoned him from the other well-organized desk. He shifted through campus flyers, food coupons >>ROCKET PIZZA, FASTER THAN THE SPEED OF LIGHT!!<< until he came to a plain envelope with his -uh, her-- name in plain, block letters. RACHEL HORTON. Postmarked September 22nd, UT Registration Office. Sam was filled with a stupid giddiness, debating whether or not he could rightfully open someone else's mail.
         

"Hey, Sam, sorry it took so long."
           

Sam smiled pleasantly up at his long time companion, who was as always, predictably late. "Hi, Al," he said distantly. He considered the sunburst yellow tie screaming from the pea green shirt, and decided against commenting.
          

"Alright." Al inhaled deeply and jabbed at the handlink. "The year is, uh-"
          

"Nineteen Ninety-Six."
           

A crooked eye was cocked at him. "Yeah, and you are Ra-Rack. What?" Al's hand shot up and gave the link a solid whack. The tiny machine bleated plaintively.
           

"Rachel Horton. I'm in Toledo, Ohio." Sam folded himself neatly on the bed, tapping the envelope against his shoe. "Al, I think I'm a freshman."
            

Al quickly fastened his gaping mouth to the rest of his face. "Gee, that's a neat trick," he sneered, feigning hurt. "What don't you know?"
           

"I don't know why I'm here," Sam replied sweetly, leveling Al with a quick flutter of lashes.
           

 "That's-that's real cute," he grumbled, smacking the whiny box in his hand. "Okay, well you know that you're Rachel. Uh, you are a freshman and --Sam."
            

 Standing before a full-length mirror behind the door, Sam was tilting his head slowly and auburn hair tumbled gently over his shoulder. Calm dark brown eyes stared back at him, squinting a bit at the corners when he tried smiling. "Hey, Al."
            

"Yeah, Sam?" A light edge of wariness crept into Al's voice
            

"You know, this is the first time this Leap I've tried to see myself. I mean, I passed windows and there's glass all over the place."  Sam's fingers traced the curve of Rachel's cheeks, a dimple pressing faintly into sable brown skin. "But I wasn't even looking.  And-and then I was remembering these things."
            

 "Whoa, what 'things'?" Al narrowed his eyes at Sam.
            

"I don't know. Rachel's memories, I guess. And I walked here without any help."
            

 "You mean you Leaped here."

 

"No," Sam whirled away from his reflection to face Al. "I walked here. On my own two feet. I Leaped in somewhere else."
            

"Where?"
            

"I-I don't know. There was this pep rally and this guy, Tom."
            

 "Tom," Al muttered softy, punching in the data. "Nope. Nobody in here by that name."
            

Sam settled dejectedly into a chair at the desk.  "Maybe I only met him by accident. By my Leaping in when I did."
            

"That's possible. And maybe you better stay away him on purpose." Flashes of red and green lit the handlink as it gave a high-pitched squeal. "...Ziggy says there's a 97.6% chance that you're here to keep Rachel from getting pregnant."

"Pregnant? " Something hot and slithery coiled up inside his stomach. "Al, I just got here. I'm-I'm the one of the first kids in the family to go to college. I can't have a baby! I have to graduate!"
      

"Sam, calm down."

 

Sam murmured softly. "Who's the father?"


Al frowned at the read out. "Ziggy doesn't know," he admitted, falling quiet.
      

The thoughtful silence between them stretched for some time.  Al leaned -as much as holography would permit-- against the sill of the room's only window, glancing occasionally at the handlink for change. The same numbers throbbed, nice and red, like a nasty welt. He watched Sam in his new form, always struck with awe by the strange melding of two minds and hearts in one body. Oh, this one was cute. A pink slip of tongue poked through her lips absently while she -Sam-- stared on, maybe looking for an answer on the wall.

 

"Well," Al started, slow and reluctant. "I'll go see what I can dig up. In the meantime, you just relax, kid. I mean, this should be a snap compared to--"Shit!"
      

Sam arched a delicately shaped eyebrow. "Compared to what? Have I been pregnant before?"
      

Al sighed. "No use in hiding it from you now."
      

"Wow, the messes I get myself into." Sam whistled low and Al chuckled.
      

The link uttered its usual pops and squeaks as the hologram plugged in the codes to activate The Door.  A brilliant blue portal enveloped Al as he began to step through. "I mean it, Sam. No funny business. No smiling--"
      

"I can't smile?" Sam laughed incredulously.
      

"No flirty smiling! If a guy is coming on to you, you run the other way." Al swirled his arms in counter circles.
      

"Yes, Uncle Al."
      

 "And no kissing...Aww, what am I saying? You would think I had daughters or something. Look, Sam, I don't want to hear that anything hinky went down while I was gone."
      

"Hinky?!" That was definitely a new one.
      

"I'll see you soon."  Al gave him a brief nod before The Door shut them out of each other's world.
      

The lock popping open followed a sharp knock at the door -Sam's door- and the girl he'd seen earlier shuffled in, smiling somewhat apologetically. Sam snapped up the telephone receiver and casually dropped it back on its cradle.
      

 "So how's your mom?"
      

"Uh, she's-she's fine."
      

The girl dumped her empty pack near the raging desk. "You seem cool with your uncle."
      

How much did she hear? "Uh-huh."        

          "Don't worry. My uncle acts like my dad, too. He told me I wasn't even allowed to hold hands!" They both burst 

           into laughter at this, Sam relieved to have a new friend replace the void of Al's departure.

 

* * * * * *

The cool hum of The Imagining Chamber embraced Al like a hug from a polar bear. GodDAMN, it's cold!  He sniffled as he tossed the handlink haphazardly towards the counter. Gooshie shot him as fierce a look as he braved, watching thin-lipped as the former Rear Admiral breeze by. There was the usual Peanut Gallery, mostly sleep-starved interns in pristine white lab coats buzzing about numbly, awaiting his return. Ensign Clark fell briskly into step with him, balanced a cup of hot black coffee carefully. They executed a perfect hand-off while Al nodded appreciatively towards the crew, some managing weak smiles in return. Their shoes clacked throughout the lower level as Clark dutifully cleared the checklist.
       

"Phoenix-Twelve-Twenty-Seven-Cobra-Fifteen." Al paused, rolling his eyes at the voice sequencing box standing between him and his chambers. I can thank Gooshie for this one, too.
       

 "Dragon-One." Clark finished smoothly.
       

"Dragon-One. Thank you, ensign." The locking mechanism hissed as the door rolled back. A vaporous warmth and darkness greeted them. Clark waited patiently as Al disappeared into the dim lair, silently navigating his way. "Lights," Al instructed towards the ceiling moments later, reappearing behind his desk, shuffling through papers. Clark entered only then and stood at attention before the retired officer. This was the dance they did every Leap, for as long as Clark could remember since recruitment to the Project.
       

"At ease, ensign. So, really no Ziggy, huh?"
       

 "According to your direct specifications, sir."
       

Al glanced upwards, still feeling the "eyes" of the know-it-all computer. "Good. I don't want anyone butting in."
       

A manila folder flashed from Clark's hand and across to Al. His heart thumped wildly. Calavicci, get yourself under control. He touched his fingertips to the brief, signaling Clark to bug off. "Very well, ensign. Dismissed."
      

"Sir." Clark cut a sharp about-face and soon the door rumbled to a close.
      

All alone with my thoughts. His jaws clenched, longing for cigar. There was deep regret in his promise to Beeks. If only she wasn't so observant! But that was a shrink's job, right? To analyze things to death? He would have wrapped himself around a bottle of Vodka once, finding all sorts of escapes at the bottom of his glass. But he shot that habit to hell after a nasty tangle with a hammer and a vending machine. So he could kick smoking, right? Whenever he wanted to. Whenever Gooshie whined to the Administrative bigwigs that his fine Cubans were giving Ziggy cancer. All right, enough of this. He didn't sit to open the unlabeled folder, simply lifting the front jacket away from the thin report inside.

 

OPERATION: CALLA LILLIES embossed the single sheet. His hand threatened to tremble. The throbbing in his mouth was to the point where it was making his eyes swim in his head. It's like I'm dying every time. But it was a strange and beautiful death. The pain reassured him that he really existed.

 

Subject: ELIZABETH SIMON, retired naval nurse.

Residence: 4169 Honeycut Lane, Picksford, Connecticut.

Spouse: DIRK SIMON, personal injury lawyer. Son, JONATHON

SIMON, contract laborer.

 

Subject hospitalized on 07/01/01 at 20:06 hrs. Admittance through

University Hospital emergency room. Complaints in the nature of

fatigue. Private consult with oncologist requested.

 

Diagnosis: UNAVAILABLE.

 

Subject discharged on 07/01/01 at 22:35 hrs.

 

Oncologist? What the . . A grating metallic noise cut into his thoughts. Al flipped the folder closed and pressed his thumb against a small pad underneath his desk. A compartment slid out smoothly and he tucked his secret into a file and released pressure, allowing the drawer to tuck itself away. "Yeah?" he called out gruffly. "Come in."
      

The door opened to reveal an intern in running shoes. Singh stood elegantly at 6'2," his dark raven hair framing the sides of his face like wings. He had a doleful grin and his hands stuffed firmly in his pockets, which Al liked to take to mean that the young man didn't enjoy pestering him. That maybe someone else put him up to this. Perhaps a nosy
psychiatrist. Or a bothersome hybrid computer.
      

"Uh, sir, you're needed in debriefing."
      

Al nodded curtly. "On my way."
      

He sensed that the kid was lingering at the door and nailed him with a hard look. "I was told to make sure you come with me, sir," Singh's shoulders lifted in a helpless shrug.
      

So the babysitting begins.  Singh didn't understand the low mutters emitted from the Admiral as he marched ahead defiantly, but he knew enough to trail behind silently.


***************


What am I doing? Sam tugged at the short-sleeved black mock turtleneck. It fit. Well. He gave an appreciative glance down at his comfortable dark blue jeans and sensible leather boots. Rachel, thankfully, was low maintenance. He had given a cursory sweep through her things and much to his relief, found only a small bag containing lip liner, gloss, some
eye shadow and powder. After a trial run, his hands moved smoothly to apply these things with little fuss. He felt like he had done it a thousand times. Or at least on at least three or four other occasions.
       

"Ready to Percolate?" His roommate was popping her hips to some R&B blaring from the radio. She had arranged a white silk scarf to cover her hair, pulled on a bright yellow polo shirt, found jeans of nearly the same hue, and finished it off with mustard colored tennis shoes. She and Al would get along so well, Sam mused, squirming in his top.
       

"Girl, you ain't gon get that thing any tighter. Let's go!"
       

"Tighter? But I was trying to--"
       

Bassemah pulled Sam from the bathroom mirror and down the narrow hall, laughing as he swatted all the light switches off along the way. "You look great, you look gorgeous. And if we don't get our asses going, no one will see our beautiful faces."
       

They were at the door when Sam tensed. "Don't you think we should stay in? I mean, school does start tomorrow."
       

 The other girl smiled patiently. "And that's exactly why we have to go out tonight. College is about getting an education, right?"
       

"Yeah," Sam agreed.
       

"But college also is about learning how to socialize. And a dance is a social thing. You can't spend so much time educating yourself that you forget how to have fun."
       

Sam grinned at Bassemah. "Are you majoring in law?"
       

"No, why?"
       

"Because you are smooth."
       

Bassemah snorted at this and corralled Sam out of the suite. They went tripping and laughing into the night, wolfing up great big clouds of steam in the chilled air. Sam's boots clacked pleasantly on the concrete bridge, their reflections rippling dreamily across the creek's surface. A building loomed ahead, the streetlights glaring off its dark windows like black ice. Sam's heels dug into the ground and he jerked to a stop, snapping
Bassemah backwards.
       

"What is it?" She squinted in the direction of Sam's gaze and chuckled. "Don't tell me you're scared of the library. I thought that would be your favorite place."
       

A nasty chill ripped through Sam. He had seen this building, on another night, alone. But the lighting had been different. The fingers of dawn were creeping along the edges of the sky then, not like now.
       

"Rachel, are you okay? Rachel?" It was Bassemah, puzzled. The odd vision began slipping away as quickly as it had come on, leaving Sam drained. He fought against the nausea rising in his throat and took in the night air deeply.
       

 "I'm okay," he murmured, managing a shaky laugh. "I guess I'm not that excited about hitting the books."
       

"Uh-huh." Bassemah shot him a look out of the corner of her eye, glancing around. "Are you going to be cool going to this party?"
       

"Yeah, yeah. Cool."
       

Bassemah took up his arm firmly, flashed Sam a rather dazzling smile, and trooped around the building. Thunderous beats lashed out at them as they neared the Student Union, kids milling about.

 

Bassemah took up his arm firmly, flashed Sam a rather dazzling smile, and trooped around the building. Thunderous beats lashed out at them as they neared the Student Union, kids milling about, mostly posturing to make sure they were seen. The loud rumble of gossip, trash talking, and catcalling buzzed his ears as they wound their way inside the hall. A folding table was set up in front of a large auditorium door and two students sat behind it, taking money and handing out tickets. Bassemah pushed him forward.
           

"ID?" a girl asked Sam, looking very much like a watermelon in a pink and green sorority get-up.
           

"Uh." he looked back at his roommate helplessly and she cut in front of him.
           

"She's a freshman. The Rocket Center didn't print her a card yet. Here's ten for both of us. You know how slow they are."
           

 The girl grunted in agreement, stamping their hands sloppily with a wet AKA insignia, and waving them through. The murky lighting inside gave the place a particularly seedy look and the bump and grind lyrics blasting from the speakers promised all sorts of complications for Sam. He turned to Bassemah and she was gone. Great. I will just not dance. He looked along the walls for chairs. Of course, they didn't exist.
          

"I'll go guard the coat rack then," he muttered, ignoring the appreciative stares from so many guys as he slipped through the crowd towards a group of clothes horses clustered in the rear. He pushed his back firmly against the wall, letting out a sigh that did little to unwind him. Soon, his eyes were able to distinguish individual people amongst the shadows and he eventually found Bassemah, whooping it up to some song that involved a whole lot of gyrating and some repetitive phrase about catching dogs.

 

"Been waiting long?" It was the smooth, easy voice of melted butter that made Sam smile despite himself. Well, actually smirk. Tomomichi's breath was warm in his ear, his hand casually at Sam's arm.
          

"Not waiting for you," Sam retorted lightly, not bothering to turn to look into the eyes that he knew were burning holes in him.
          

"But waiting. So is this how you girls do it in the States? Hide corners and make the man come get you?" Again, with the questions that didn't really sound like questions. More like a thinly veiled accusation.
          

"What man?" Sam swiveled his shoulders to face Tomomichi squarely. "I thought you said you were from Cleveland. And how did you find me anyways?"
           

"Exchange program. And I have good eyes." Even in the dark his smile was quite charming.
           

'If a guy is coming on to you, you run the other way.' Sam pulled away from Tomomichi's touch. "I'm not really in the mood for dancing."
            

"Who said anything about dancing? I came to talk."
            

 "You came to a dance to talk?"
            

 "You came to a dance to watch coats."
            

 Sam burst into laughter. "You don't give up, do you?"
            

 Tomomichi moved in closer. "I can't win if I quit."
            

Sam put a foot of distance between them. "Uh, maybe you should quit while you're ahead." Where is Al?
            

Tomomichi reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, placing it in Sam's hand. "I will see you again?"
            

Movement in front of them distracted Sam and when he turned back, Tomomichi was gone. Bassemah came bounding towards him with someone in tow. "Hey, what are you doing back here?"
            

 "Enjoying the view," murmured Sam, slipping the paper into his jeans.
            

"Hi, Rachel." A young Latino student stepped forward, his smile as warm as his sweater.
            

Sam extended his hand. "Hi."
            

 The look he gave Sam was small and wounded. "So we're back to formal introductions?"
            

Sam was completely dumbstruck. "Uh." But the young man had already taken Bassemah's arm and was leading her back to the dance floor. He could make out the words she was mouthing as she frowned back. ARE YOU CRAZY? Exclamation points all over the place. Sam leaned back, brushing the sleeve of Rachel's jacket. He slid the inviting leather from its hanger and slipped his arms inside. Checking the pockets for keys, he glanced at the rumpfest on the floor and left.


**********


Al rarely wore a watch. Voluntarily. The damned thing drove him crazy. At first he thought it was the incessant ticking, so he switched to wearing a sportier, digital model. The sophisticated kind that could tell him such useful things as what time it was in the Tropic of Cancer and what kind of weather New Mexico was having. But he found himself glancing at it compulsively, trying to catch the precise moment when all the numbers flicked out of existence and were replaced by a fresh new hour. Then he would obsessively check its progression. Slowly, it began to depress him.
      

Time waited for no man and no woman waited for a dead man.
      

But he surely could have used a watch now, to glare at for the duration of the staff meeting.
      

"So if we recalibrated the ionic pulse emitter, it could significantly improve our chances of rebuilding a more successful Retrieval Program." White coats around the table grumbled in dissent, bobbed their heads thoughtfully, ticked off figures on their calculators, and did other very wild things Al presumed quantum physicists did during a hot-blooded debate. Only one white coat sat passively, presenting a blank, yet personable expression. Verbena Beeks.
      

I wonder if she can read minds.  Nearly a half-beat off from his thought, she shifted her gaze, casting Al a long, penetrating stare. And tipping him a wink.
      

"I motion for a continuance. It's getting late and I know we all could appreciate a good nod while this Leap is quiet." The speaker was someone new -at least, new to Al. He had baby-smooth features and was obviously practicing with the wisp of peach fuzz under his nose until he could grow a real moustache.
      

 No one countered. The room quickly filled with the noise of chairs scuffing the floor and heavy shoes filing out. Al nearly pounced out of his chair when he heard his name being called. He waited by the door sulkily. It seemed Verbena was purposefully walking in slow motion. She had a graceful manner of floating, if you could call it that. Al always thought she would make a great magician. Especially now that he knew she was psychic.
      

"Admiral, I would like you to meet our new PCT, Cary Masterson." It was the young speaker, beaming proudly at the sound of his name. "He's stepping in for Tina," Verbena seemed to add gently.
      

Al narrowed his eyes. "Where's Tina?"
      

"Chicago. Family business."
      

"Hm." Al grunted softly, giving the kid a quick head-to-toe. It only made sense that the world would turn everything on its head while he was away.
      

"Truly a pleasure to finally meet you. I've heard much in your favor, Admiral Calavicci." Al detected a faint British accent clipping the young man's words.
      

Al decided to try him. "Really? Like what?"
      

"You've piloted an Apollo mission. Quite impressive. I'd love to hear the gory details when you've the time." His sea blue eyes sparkled and he gave Al a rather cherubic grin.
      

"Sure. That would be nice."
      

Cary tipped his head graciously and saw himself out. In the room alone with Verbena, Al suddenly felt very small. "Are you going to pick my brain?"
      

"Only if you want me to. Let's talk and walk."
      

Al knew very well what she meant. She would do the walking and he was supposed to supply the conversation. They fell into a nice rolling stride, the cold air stirring up in places he didn't care to have visited. "Sam seems okay. A little wound-up from the Leap, though. I think Rachel's having a lot of influence in this one. He says he's remembering more than usual."
      

"Significant residual recall." Verbena clicked a pen in her front pocket, nodding. "Rachel's memory loss is quite sizable. The last thing she remembers is checking her bags before her parents drove her to school. We had Ziggy run a search on the University of Toledo and in that year, Rachel would have had to arrive on September 16th for the start of Freshman Orientation."
      

Al nearly stopped in his tracks. "That's almost a week's worth of lost time."
      

They were pulling up to Verbena's office and she paused before a blue mat, submitting to a 26 beam cross-section scanner. In less than 15 seconds, security registered her identity and her doors swooshed open. More than a little envious, Al followed her inside, his feet sinking into the plush carpeting. The office was actually more like a cozy little front room. Lush green plants tumbled from white ceramic pots and two upright lamps cast a soft glow towards the ceiling. And her sofas; Al nearly drooled at the sight of them. Overstuffed white Italian leather. If he wasn't careful, he might find himself getting comfortable and dozing off. Or worse yet, talking.
      

Verbena flipped on the coffeemaker in the small kitchen to the side and came in with a glass of water. That's what she was having; a glass of water that she ran from the faucet. No ice. I wonder if there's anything in that to analyze, Al mused.
     

"Ziggy seems to be having some trouble accessing your quarters," she offered casually, sitting next to him.
     

"Ziggy is always having some kind of trouble," he muttered. "Speaking of the devil, why isn't she bugging you? She never chimes in at your place."
     

 "Well, Ziggy and I have an understanding that my company takes me into their confidence. They can't have that if there is a snoop around."
      

The aroma of good ole Columbian begin to waft in and Al's mouth watered. "Yeah, well, I'm surprised she didn't get give me a lashing in the conference room."
      

"I asked Ziggy not to. When feelings are hurt, it's wise to refrain. Besides, I'm sure whatever business you've been taking care of is best done in private."
      

Al gaped at the psychiatrist as she rose to attend the gurgling machine. If he hadn't known her for as long as he did, he might have been spooked. She returned with a cup that Al liked. Its design reminded him of a colorful inkblot. Every time he looked at it, he saw something different. He decided to brave a question. "What do you know about oncologists?"
      

Verbena sipped thoughtfully. "They specialize in treating tumors. Usually cancer."
      

Cancer. The world clicked and blurred around him and for a moment he had nearly lost his coffee all over the floor. Something inside him locked, like steel, and he regained his composure. He brought the mug up to his lips and drank slowly. Slowly, with Verbena beside him in companionable silence.



**********

 

When Sam arose, the dorm was filled with an eerie silence. Well, with the exception of the refrigerator, which he could hear buzzing outside his door. He blinked over at Bassemah's side of the room. On her bed a pile of laundry was growing into a potential threat. He wanted to doubt greatly that she might be sleeping underneath. Nothing would surprise me. He rolled onto his feet, stretching luxuriously. It didn't seem right that he should feel so refreshed after having crashed at the time he did. Brushing his teeth, he scanned the main area for signs of life. There was only him.
       

Sam basked in the flooding sunshine as he strolled leisurely through campus. After returning from the bathroom, he caught the time on his alarm clock. Ah, so he was a late-riser. He almost started rushing around until he remembered the schedule sent from the Registration Office. His first class didn't start until 9:56 in the morning.
       

Traffic in the main courtyard was slow, the rest of the world having trudged sleepily out of bed hours ago. Sam gleefully enjoyed knowing this fact. The lawn spread before him alluringly and he stepped into it, feeling the blades of grass bend beneath his feet.  It's really beautiful here.  He sighed, tipping back his grey wool beret, and turning his face up towards the clouds.
 

"Well, if it isn't Mary Tyler Moore," Al snorted, nearly throwing Sam into his second heart attack this Leap.
      

"Who?" Sam clutched his chest, allowing his breath to steady.
      

"Never mind. So what have you been up to, Little Miss Sunshine?"
      

Sam pretended to cough into his hand. "Nothing. I thought you could tell me what's going on."
      

"Well, it seems Rachel's brain is just as magnafoozled as yours. She doesn't remember anything near the time of the Leap. One thing for sure is she didn't know many people before she got here, so the odds are against there being a boyfriend that goes to the school."
      

 "What about the pregnancy? Does Ziggy know when the baby was conceived?"
      

A horrible shriek of bells and whistles came from the handlink. "Your super-ego computer has an attitude," Al informed him over the noise. "According to the baby's E-t-d--"
      

"Estimated Time of Delivery."
  

 "Yeah. Junior's about to becomes a bun in the oven...in the next two weeks."
      

"Two weeks?" Sam hissed, his stomach churning.
 

"I'm working on it, Sam...Sam, don't do that." Al watched helplessly as his friend began to wear the grass thin in his pacing.
      

"Al, walk with me." Sam abruptly started across the courtyard.
 

"You know, Verbena likes to pull this stunt, too."
      

Sam marched resolutely into the nearest building, scanning the halls for a phone. He found the clunky black and blue box and snatched up the receiver, pounding randomly on the keypad. "See if you can find anything on Bassemah Bashir."
      

A ridiculous jangle of bicycle bells sounded as the link fed Al the information.  "Uh, born 1977, Cincinnati, Ohio, enrolls as Computer Technology major. Drops out in one semester. Too much partying.
      

 "Okay, what about the guy? There was this guy at the party last night. He-he acted like I'd met him before. He was Hispanic, I think. Oh, what the hell is his name?"
      

"Sam. " Al's eyes widened in amazement.
      

"Look, I'm about to find out in an unnatural way what it's like to be a woman unless you give me something! "
      

They both turned slowly to find a student standing behind Sam, his mouth slowly coming unhinged. The quarter he had in his hand dropped and rolled on its side underneath a row of lockers. Sam calmly cupped his hand over the phone's mouthpiece and pasted on one of Rachel's heartbreakingly sweet smiles. "I'm gonna be on for a while. It's long distance."
      

 The guy nodded wordlessly and stepped around them in a hurry. "Have Ziggy run a complete list of Toledo's minority enrollment, 1996, male students only."
      

"Okay." The small box performed a series of sharp taxicab whistles and hummed busily in Al's hand.
      

"Al, what happens to me if I have this baby?" Sam was kneading Rachel's lower lip with his teeth, a very unSam-like thing to do.
      

"You mean what happens to Rachel if she has this baby." The younger man waved impatiently at the correction. Very Sam-like. "Well, uh, she doesn't stay long at Toledo. She moves back home and tries to attend community college, but she ends up having a very difficult pregnancy and has to leave. Right after the baby's born, she goes to work at a drugstore hoping to make enough money to help around the house and get back into
school."
      

 "But she never does. Having a child means investing all your money. And time." Sam rested the receiver against his shoulder, sighing.
      

"The paternity of the father is never revealed."
      

Sam glanced at a clock above a doorway across the hall. 11: 09am. He watched for a moment as the second hand swept the face, the minute hand moving slow and ominously behind. Why did it always feel as if time were winding down towards something terrible? The link shrilled terrifically. Sounds like half time. Al bared his teeth at the offending noise, shaking his fist menacingly.
      

"Here it is. One thousand, eight hundred and twenty-three minority males. Two hundred fifty six of them Hispanic."
      

 "Two hundred fifty-six. Uh, have Ziggy eliminate all them, except Latino men with dark complexions and that are about 5'11 in height."
       

"That's Forty-seven."
       

 "Uh." Sam's mind flashed back to the party. "Dimples! Check and see how many of them have dimples."
       

"We're down to three."
       

"Left and right."
       

Al raised his head, looking somewhat in awe. "Ha. Whadda ya know? One. And his name is Javier Vasquez."
        

Sam hung up the phone resolutely. If she did nothing else more significant during her brief stint at Toledo, Bassemah was about to do something great.

                                                          *********


The searing metallic screams set off by his 'doorbell' was enough to make Al feel as though he were living in Monster Truck hell.  Ziggy. She had some nerve. As he had stepped out from the Imaging Chamber, he asked her to recalculate Sam's odds with Vasquez thrown in as a wildcard. She actually "hmph!"-ed him! He would not have believed it if he had been told, except he was there and had heard it with his own ears. He then had to tell Gooshie to tell Ziggy she'd better do it. Gooshie gave the computer his Wimpy-Willie version of the order and she acquiesced just as nicely.
       

Boy, the things he would do to her. If only he could get his hands on her circuit boards. "Singh, this had better be damned good--"
       

 "Good morning to you, too, Admiral." Looking as though she never needed sleep, Verbena stood at his door, her coat freshly pressed and hair pulled back into an elegant upsweep.
        

Al clutched at the silk robe he had thrown on recklessly. "The only thing that's right is the 'morning' part," he grumbled, trying to mask his embarrassment. "Uh, why don't you come in? I promise to put some pants on."
        

The massive mahogany desk that took center stage in his office always struck verbena; there were very few things he allowed on it, the exception being a reading lamp and simple cup holding pens. Delicious cabinetry of dark wood and smoked glass ran the entire length of the wall on one side and on the other, the very stiff, uninviting chairs that made every government office complete.  The room gleamed as if it had been polished moments earlier. All this belonging to a man who answered his door wearing a scary lime green and red robe with leopard print boxers.
        

Al was the fastening the cuffs of a heather grey shirt as he returned from his bedroom. "So, uh, what can I do for you?"
        

She glanced at his slacks. Charcoal black. Reserved. "I wanted to thank you for welcoming Cary. He couldn't seem to say enough about you sitting down and talking with him last night."
       

Yeah, and did he tell you he did all the talking and I did all the walking?  "Hm. Nice kid. Kind of reminds me of someone."
       

 "Pulse says he's doing a wonderful job.  He appears to be quite experienced at his young age."
       

"Hm." Al was beginning to feel suspicious about this conversation. He caught Verbena eyeing his shoes before looking him in the face. "So you came all the way here, at the ass-crack of dawn, to talk about Masterson?"
       

A bit of heat came into her cheeks. "It is rather early. I apologize."
       

Al suddenly grinned. "Doctor, are you asking me out for breakfast?"
       

Cornered with a question, the doctor looked the way Al imagined he must when she has trapped him with one of her "shrink-patient" stares. "Yes, I am."
       

Something inside Al melted. "You know, I'd love to, but there's something I gotta take care of."
       

She nodded knowingly. "I understand." He felt as if maybe she did. He walked her to the door and after crossing the threshold she turned to him. "Don't carry the world on your shoulders, Al. It's a heavy burden." She touched his arm briefly and was gone.
       

His mind whirled in the sudden silence. He sank into the high-back chair at his desk, touching his finger to the small trigger beneath without having to find it. His love's labor rolled out smoothly towards him, thick with records and receipts. Even some of her discarded mail. And photographs. Beth in her garden under the afternoon sun. Laughing as she wore a paper crown on her birthday. Standing alone in a window, watched a car whose plates proclaimed DS 4LAW pull away.
      

I've been stalking you, Beth, my own love. Every move you make.  He had called in his favors, pushing those that needed to be pushed. Clark came promptly, fresh from the academy. She did as she was told and did it quickly. She flew, gathered briefs and delivered them into his hands. And for nearly three months now, he was sure that she was reporting to D.C. that their favorite son had been placated. For now. Where are you, Mr. Absolute, when I need you?
      

Al gazed upon his sad little shrine. How long, Beth? How much time do we have together? Does your son even know? Or is this secret just for you and me? He popped a couple of Zenfir, hating himself as soon as the acrid wash of orange juice plunged them down his throat. Anything to dull the pain...soon his head began to feel too heavy to lift and he stumbled to bed, collapsing in a cold sleep.  Mercifully, he dreamed dreamlessly.


*************

 

Sam wandered the many twisting halls of the Student Union, lured there by the idea of his teeth sinking into a hot sandwich oozing mayo. But for scientific purposes, he prowled the building first to become more acquainted. If he were going to be on campus another two weeks, it would serve him well. Having inspected the last room in the only remaining corridor of the top floor, he hurried towards the stairs, Rachel's stomach already well passed angry with him. He was sailing past the second level when a voice rang out into the stairwell. He froze and looked up. It was Bassemah, his long-lost roommate.
     

"Hey, what happened to you last night?"

He began ascending the stairs, his stomach howling in protest. Bassemah was still wearing her yellow ensemble, but someone else's jacket slung over her shoulders. "You mean this morning?"
     

Her smile was pleasant and her shrug said 'whatever'. "What was up with you and Professor X? I looked up and you were gone."
     

"Professor X.?"
     

"Javier. Xavier." She was giving him that did-you-fall-and-bump-your-head look again. "He was pretty salty after the way you played him. I didn't know what to tell him."
     

Sam saw an opening and pounced. "Would you happen to know how I can get in touch with him? To apologize, I mean."
     

 Bassemah favored him with one of her scrunched up expressions. "Yeah. He's at MECHA."
     

"Thanks." He glanced off down the hall, grateful not to have to ask where he was going. "So, what happened to you this morning?"
      

"I met up with some people from the BSU and we came here after the mixer to play some Spades." Again, a blasť shrug and easy-going grin. "I'm on my way to McBastard to talk to the teacher for my C Plus-Plus lab."
      

"Wasn't that class this morning at eight?"
      

"That's why I'm only going to talk."
      

Sam shot her an incredulous look. His roommate was impossible. Without a second thought, he started down the row of student support group offices. To his right, a roar of approval went up from the open door of the Black Student Union. A guy sporting a shirt with a huge black and gold 'A' slammed a tile onto the table and received a round of high-fives. Apparently, they had moved on to Dominoes. At the very end of the hall, he spotted a door draped with a Mexican, Cuban and American flag. MECHA. He knocked tentatively at the door before pushing it open. He didn't know what to expect, but what he hadn't prepared for was to come face to face with Javier. The latter did very little to hide a tiny scowl that crept onto his face. Sam took a slow breath, feeling stifled.
      

"Uh, Javier, could I speak to you?"
      

 Javier motioned for Sam to close the door and turned promptly back to unpacking stacks of leaflets from cardboard boxes. Several Kinkos cards littered the desk. The office smelled of fresh paint and newly laid carpeting. Sam looked around for a seat. There was none to take. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for what, what happened. I was kidding
around and I guess it didn't go over well."
      

Javier continued slapping the papers into piles on a long folding table. Th-whack!  Sam watched the muscles in his back knotting and relaxing rhythmically. For a moment, he just stood and admired the work. I bet he can dance.  Sam instantly shook the thought from his mind.
     

Suddenly the young man abandoned his task and turned startling grey eyes on Sam. Wow, I didn't catch that earlier. He sighed heavily and crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the table. "I come to a party to see you and you pretend you not to know me. No, I guess it didn't go over well."
     

"Look, I'm-I'm sorry. I don't do well at parties. I'm more of a stay at home girl."
     

Javier cooked his eyebrow, dimples jumping from his cheeks at the hint of a smile. "Your friend told me you wanted to meet there."
    

So that's why she was rushing.  "Bassemah is a special girl."
     

Javier laughed at his struggle for words.  "I could tell that the two of you were different from the first day we met in Orientation. Bassemah seems like a lot of fun."
     

"And that would make me...?"
     

"Grounded. Serious. I like a woman who knows where she's going, not just out looking for the next good time."
     

Sam's face began to feel warm and he backed into the door. "Oh. Well, uh, thanks. I'm, um, gonna go.."
    

 Javier moved forward, reaching behind Sam for the knob. "I'll walk you out."
    

 "Out" was a step into the hall. They faced each other silently, Sam rocking back on his heels. He wished desperately for something to clutch. Like Bassemah's neck so he could wring it. "Well, I guess I'll be seeing you around."
    

Javier reached out and gently caressed Sam's cheek. "Don't be a stranger."
    

Jolts of electric panic rode up and down Sam's spine. "Oh-okay." At the moment he looked down at his shoes, a student crossed into a room up the hall from them. As Sam murmured his good-bye and hurried on, he passed the darkened lounge of the Japanese Student Association, not feeling the eyes of Tomomichi burning into him.

 

*************

"Admiral. Admiral! It is imperative that you wake immediately. Dr. Beckett has significantly altered Rachel Horton's timeline."

 

"Hmmm...?" Al was somewhere between the pleasant, fuzzy layers of sleep when a voice broke through, at first seeming faraway and breathy like a whisper and eventually growing louder. His brain began pushing aside the silky cobwebs of unconsciousness, against the rest of his body's will. He was reaching for a pillow to pull over his head when the overhead lighting went into high beam, singeing his eyes behind their closed lids. Only one gal he knew could find such an effective way of getting a guy out of bed.
   

"Ziggy, kill the stadium lighting, would ya?"
   

The room was instantly plunged into darkness, funny white dots remained dancing before his eyes. His vision adjusted slowly and he swung his legs over the side of the bed, his head feeling very much like a 12-pound bowling ball on his shoulders. "What is it now?"
   

"Rachel Horton will now become impregnated one night from tonight," the computer purred.
   

He was on his feet and out the door before Ziggy could say another word. He whisked into the Cold Room, snatching a handlink from a nearby counter. "Gooshie, fire up the Imaging Chamber," he snapped, tucking the rumpled shirt into his pants and wiping the sleep from his eye. "Get a lock on Sam and get it quick."
   

A spiral of whirling images descended upon Al and he stood impatiently in eye of the twisting storm, gnashing his teeth where his soothing Chivello would have been.

 

**********

"-am! Sam!"
   

 Sam jumped, his pen sailing across the room. He frowned worriedly at the Observer's appearance. "Al, you look like somebody just died."  Some strange expression that Sam could not read settled over Al's face and was erased.
   

"What did you do after I ran that check on Javier Vasquez?"
   

The gravity in Al's voice made Sam nervous. "I-I went and talked to him--"
   

"What did you say?"
   

"Nuh-Nothing. He and I got off on the wrong foot. I just went to go smooth things over."
   

"Yeah, well maybe you made 'em a little too smooth. Rachel gets pregnant tomorrow night."


"What?!" Sam bolted up from the desk, standing toe to toe with Al. "That can't be possible. I hardly know him. We-we've never even had our first date!"
   

"Sam, what were you doing talking to him, huh? Didn't I tell you to--"
   

"Run away," they finished simultaneously, Sam collapsing onto the bed.
   

"I don't know, Al. I was thinking I could change things for Rachel. I mean, what if this is supposed to happen? I was thinking that if, if maybe Javier is the father of this baby, he would admit to his responsibilities and help Rachel so she wouldn't have to do it alone."
   

"And you were thinking you could fix everything in one conversation?"
   

 "Stranger things have happened, Al." Sam pulled his hands through Rachel's hair, dislodging a pencil he'd tucked in her ear. "So much for changing things for the better."
   

Al plugged the information into the link, shaking his head. "It's now at 98.2% and the father is still unknown."
   

"That just doesn't make any sense. Who else could it possibly--"
   

"Sam?"
   

Digging frantically into the closet, Sam pulled out a blue burlap bag containing laundry. He snatched a pair of dark jeans from the top, pulling its pockets inside out. A crumpled card fluttered at his feet. "Have Ziggy run a check on someone named Tomomichi Takeshi."
   

 "Toe-mo-mee-chee." Al muttered, fingers flying over the keypad. "Yep. Originally from Nagoya, Japan. Comes here as an Exchange Student, but it says here that Rachel never knew him."
   

"Until I Leaped in. Al, he was the guy I met my first day. I just couldn't remember his name right. And he popped up at the party out of nowhere and then disappeared. That's how I got his card. He wanted me to call him."
   

"Sam, you gotta steer clear of this guy, you understand? You could be ruining Rachel's life!"
   

 His heart seemed to fold into itself. He couldn't stop the sudden downward spiral of emotions. Tears began stinging bitterly in his eyes. Was he about to cry? He turned his back to Al, sniffling as he brought a hand up to his runny nose.
   

"Sam?" Al touched the younger man's shoulder, his fingers disappearing into the cloth.


"I'm, I'm okay, Al, I think it's just Rachel." He went into the bathroom for tissue, honking his nose emphatically. "I feel like I've been here before. Is it possible to Leap in at the same place twice?"
   

 "Well, I wouldn't say it's impossible, but Beeks says that you internalized a lot more of Rachel's essence than usual. It's like she was a wet sponge being wrung out and you absorbed most of her feelings and memories. We also talked about some bleed-in theories, but that's a whole other story."
   

Sam raised an eyebrow at Al in the mirror. "You and Verbena talked?"
   

"I didn't let her psychobabble me, if that's what you mean."
   

Sam chuckled, dabbing cool water at his puffy eyes. Some things never changed. And that was okay.

 

***********


The cool New Mexico evening felt great against his face. With his eyes closed, he could still see the sky, the stunning watercolor of blues, purples, pinks streaking across its canvas. The sun was a low simmering ball of orange, nestling deeper into the shoulders of the canyons. And in his mind, it was somehow even more spectacular, yet his heart, his heart felt nothing.
   

"You hardly ever get the chance to catch a sunset around here," he spoke softly to Verbena, who had slipped quietly beside him. Without opening his eyes still, he could tell that he'd finally surprised her for once.
   

"It is beautiful." Her voice held a note of wistfulness that caused him to look over. She
seemed to be gazing somewhere beyond the horizon, her eyes lost and dreamy. The afterglow washed her in a brilliance of red as she stood, unaware, in its fury. A tiny knot fixed itself in Al's throat and he swallowed thickly, turning to watch the dazzling display.
   

"How's Rachel?"
   

"She's progressing nicely. Exhibiting hardly any signs of shock or confusion. This has been one of the few Leaps that the patient has been calm and actually asking questions about the Waiting Room."
   

"Sam's nosiness must have stayed behind," Al snickered.
   

"She's planning to major in Bio-Chemical Engineering."
   

Al whistled. "That's quite a load for such a little gal."
   

"Can't be as heavy as yours."
   

He eyed the doctor suspiciously, his mouth tightening. "What do you mean?"
   

Verbena tucked her hands into her coat pockets, tilting her head slightly. "The project's sole Observer. Living underground in a cave. Scheduling your life around Leap Time; I bet you didn't sign up for this."
   

"I wouldn't have to any other way."
   

She fell silent, staring out into the distance as if it held an answer. A breeze stirred the wisps of hair dangling from her French Roll that had loosened. Al watched the silky tendrils dance in the wind. In that moment, she could have been anywhere in the world, but God/fate/time/whatever had stuck her here, studying the sunset as if it were her first. Or last. We are two of the only people in the world who will look at the dying sun and understand loneliness. Al exhaled a breath so heavy it all but left him empty.
    

"I'm sorry for having to ask Ziggy to wake you. You seemed so peaceful."
    

"How'd you know I was sleeping?"
    

"Ziggy registered your second stage delta waves."
    

Al rubbed his hands feverishly at his thighs. "Yeah, well, I could've used something a little stiffer than a few hours snooze."
    

Two warm hands clasped his, squeezing gently. "You could have used something better."
    

He slowly brought his hands to his chest, pulling her in. The air around them stilled and it was quiet. All he could see was his cool reflection in her eyes. Her pulse jump as one strong hand slipped around her neck, the other sliding towards the small of her back and pressing her firmly against his heat. The soft flesh of his lips sank into hers with cruel and deliberate hesitation. He tasted her slowly, pulling away with the electric tingle of satisfaction on his tongue. He could feel her warm breath as he returned, his mouth aching.
    

A sharp piercing cry sounded in the darkness. Damn!
    

Verbena fumbled a pager from her pocket, glancing at the screen and snapped the alarm off. She cleared he throat, clutching the top of her coat as if it were suddenly cold out. "Admiral," her voice steadied.
    

He gave a small perfunctory nod. "Doctor."
    

He did not watch her go. He waited until her footfalls sounded at a distance before leaning against the mouth of the cavern, dipping his head back to take in the night. The sky had rolled out its velvety blanket, the stars winking secretively. He stared at the huge, waxy moon, touching his tongue to his lips. There was soft dew clinging to them; light. Sweet. A tiny smile played at the corners of his mouth and slowly began to
spread.

 

***********

 

He walked slowly and carefully, looking like a man -er, woman-- trying to retrace his steps. He didn't know what good it would do, but it couldn't hurt. All around him, people seemed to drift aimlessly, shrieking and laughing out loud. Sam watched them a little enviously, feeling muted by this strange, impending destiny that was pressing him with its heavy hand. He slipped Rachel's earphones over his head, trying to think of nothing in
particular. The singer's voice was sad and sweeping with nostalgia.
   

"Hey, Jude. Don't make it baaad. Take a sad song, and make it bet-terrr."
   

Words to live by, my friend.  University Hall sparkled before him like a castle of white sand under the sun and he trudged towards it. Rachel had a Spanish III test, but he couldn't for the life of him concentrate in the dorm. His mind whirled each time he attempted to crack open a book. Bassemah's late night phone marathon did not help. He parked himself a seat in an empty lecture hall, savoring the silence. His eyelids were beginning to droop and he rested his head, allowing the words to wash over him.
  

"And anytime you feel the pain. Hey, Jude, refrain."
 

"That's a great song."
   

Sam peeled one eye open and peered over at Al. A delicate sliver of a tie in metallic silver hung from the Observer's neck and a matching fedora perched smartly atop his head. His shirt and pants were two similar hues of navy blue interrupted by a pair of suspenders that reminded Sam immediately of Reynold's Wrap. "You look conservative."
   

Al shrugged casually, an odd grin twitching at his mouth. "Yeah, well, I try. I just thought I'd come and check on you before the fireworks."
  

Sam glared at him sharply. "Al, that's no way to talk about my situation."
  

"No, no, no," Al waved his hands defensively, as if clearing the air. "I mean fireworks: Cherry bombs, bottle rockets, Tijuana toilet crackers today is the 4th of July. Well, for me it is."
  

"Fourth of July." Sam's mind traveled far towards the bottom of a near empty well and found water. "Oh. Everything okay?"
  

"Yes, everything is fine, Sam. Thanks for asking."
  

"Anything on Rachel?"
  

Al tapped on a sleek new hand link and it emitted a few low mutters. "No. Still the same as last night."
  

Sam's stomach rocked a bit and settled down. "Que Sera, Sera."
  

"What?"  Al perked
  

"I don't know. I heard it from somewhere." Sam murmured sleepily, sliding down into the chair.
  

"You just take it easy, kid. Get some rest and for heaven's sake--"
  

 "Stay away from boys," they said in unison.
  

"You're a real cut-up, you know that, Sam?"
  

Sam smiled drowsily. "No, I thought I was a choir boy. You're the cut-up."
  

He never saw the cool blue of The Door wink out and take his friend with it. He had fallen asleep before Al could even reply.

 

************


He was smiling. It made the interns nervous. And whistling. That warranted light frowns from the techs. Only two people were relieved. Gooshie, because he had not heard a bark from the Admiral all day, and Cary, who delighted in his change of mood and the promising festivities ahead. His brisk stride, which was usually all business, was now a light stroll. He seemed to be bouncing with each step. Like he was having fun. The idea confounded most of the senior staff. Sure, the guy knew how to swing and every room in Las Vegas had been given a whirl by the charming Italian, but this place was no party and it sure wasn't Vegas.

Stallion's Gate was lean with people, most having been given authorized clearance to picnic outside on compound grounds. Others bolted at the chance of breathing fresh air and talking about anything that had nothing to do with the Project. The few left were the dedicated stiffs who wrapped Quantum Leap around themselves like a thick warm blanket. Well, Al was feeling nice and loose and not about to let work cramp his style.
   

He was in the mirror, giving his eyebrows careful consideration when the doorbell sounded. Pleasantly. He glanced up at the ceiling, knowing the computer could register his surprise. "Zig, whoever it is, let 'em come on through."
   

He heard the primary door swoosh open as he studied his face, and was turning away from his reflection to just as the second door leading to the back room rolled on its tracks. He peered out from the bathroom to see the silhouette of a woman lingering just outside of his lair. "I didn't mean all the way through," He growled heavenward, positive he could hear the machine snickering.
   

He touched a sensory pad just outside the bathroom door. Dim lighting and smooth music filled the darkened room. Verbena smiled and raised a brow just slightly. His fingers moved quickly to kill the radio, giving her a small, embarrassed laugh. Note to self: program the CD and the lights separately.
   

For some strange reason, he felt completely naked -and not in a good way-- having her in his den. Candles of every size and fragrance were arranged strategically on glass tables and a bearskin rug of delicious texture laid waiting in front of his custom built fireplace. Couches upholstered in exotic silks invited all sorts of trouble with the right kind of company. Overstuffed pillows lay everywhere. He didn't figure her to be the type of dame to take to a nice little romp on the floor. But now, thanks to his good friend Ziggy, it looked as if that's all he'd figured her for.
   

"Bena." he began, and didn't know how to end.
   

"Nice place," she said breezily and Al could feel his dignity slowly creeping back.
   

"So, uh, is it about that time? I guess we should get going."
   

"Actually, I wondered if you wouldn't mind sitting for a moment."
   

"Yeah, sure." He gestured towards a sofa decorated in deep purple and hunter green with gold embroidery. At the wet bar, he made himself a Long Island Ice Tea -virgin-- and drew the doctor a glass oof water from the tap.
   

They sat quietly, Al's body humming in proximity to hers. He glanced at her slyly and wondered what it was that was on her mind. He knew a 'talk and walk' when he heard one, even if the walking part had been eliminated. But her expression was remarkably cool and unrevealing. She had a good poker face.
   

"How have you been sleeping?"
   

 The question threw Al. "Uh, fine, I guess."
   

"The Zenfir's been helping?"
   

Al paused in mid-swallow. "Maybe."
   

"I hope this holiday isn't what's causing you to lose sleep."
   

Something inside of Al dropped. It was a sinking-pit feeling. He needed a really hard drink -Now. "Me and Uncle Sam've kissed and made up. Why would you say something like that?"
   

"The pharmacy contacted me about a refill."
   

Al shrugged nonchalantly, setting down his tea. "So I decided to give the Zenfir another curtain-call."
   

"Al." It was her tone. Soft. Firm. And those eyes; he was going to melt right on the spot, keeping things from her. She had put her hand on his thigh to stay him and it seemed to burn right into his flesh. Oh, no. Her touch. His loneliness. This couch. It was too much.
   

He bolted up before he did anything, feeling warm all over. Verbena stood also, her face riddled with concern. "Is there anything I can do?"
   

Al sighed, nodding miserably. "Yeah. Go on without me."
   

Verbena placed her glass on a nearby table, smoothing her skirt. Her fingertips grazed his arm lightly. Then she was gone. He pressed the sensory pad, shutting down the den. As he passed himself in the bathroom mirror, he did not look this time, knowing what he would see. He pushed open a door to the left of the sink, leading him to sparsely
decorated room with a modest size bed and a mammoth closet. In the drawer of a simple nightstand, he found four tiny blue pills. Just in case.  He rolled them around in the palm of his hand, listening to their delicate clink! in the darkness.

 

**********


Sam felt like he was waiting for the Boogie Man to come. He was so wound up, that he nearly exhausted himself in anticipation. And the damned clock. He watched it warily as it ticked off the hours. 10:23 pm. So far, so good. It had been quiet. He had spoken to no one, allowing the answering machine to screen his calls. One call had been from Rachel's mother, wishing her luck on an Organic Chemistry exam (which Sam had been too keyed up to review for) and the rest of the messages were for Bassemah. All forty-seven.
   

He was nodding off, bundled safely at the head of the bed with a pillow tucked under his chin, when the phone jangled. It gave one more obnoxious burst before a recording clicked on: "We're too busy doing better things than answering this phone. Leave
your complaint after the beep. BEEP!"

"Ha! I crack myself up-"
    

"Bassemah," Sam mumbled thickly, snuggling further into his blankets.
    

"Just calling to see what's up, making sure you're not throwing any parties--"
    

"No parties here."
    

"Without inviting me!"
    

"Figures," Sam muttered.
    

 "Ha-ha! See, there I go again. Anyways, just to let you know, I'm at McBastard, doing this shitty lab and I probably won't be back until forever--"
     

Something shiny caught Sam's eye by the answering machine. He craned his neck for a closer look. Bassemah's keys. He dove out of bed for the phone, fumbling for the receiver.
     

 "Don't wait up! Later!"
     

"Bah--" The message ended just as he blurted out her name.
     

Damn!  He hung up the phone, sighing. He couldn't just leave the place open until she decided to come home. That could very well be Rachel's undoing. Aggravated, he snatched on his jacket and a pair of running shoes. He glanced at the clock.
     

T-Minus 1 hour and 33 minutes.
     

He was down to the wire.

 

****************


Al was on the prowl, softly stalking himself. In the bald hours of the morning, he had carefully retraced all his steps, his pauses, looking very much like a man on a mission. To the few bleary-eyed staffers, this went almost ignored, as they were accustomed to his third shift routine. The Admiral was in Thinking Mode, everyone knowing better than to accost him with a problem or meaningless conversation. But the kid, maybe he didn't.
Ziggy interrupted Al's pensive sojourn to the cafeteria.
  

 "Admiral."
  

"What, Ziggy?"
  

"You seem agitated."
  

"Can't you see I'm busy?"
  

"Not too busy for Dr. Beeks," the computer pouted sulkily.
  

Al shot a glare upwards. "Ziggy."
  

 "Perhaps I would be bothering you with an important projection I have found regarding Dr. Beckett's Leap. Of course, if you're too busy."
  

"Spill it."
  

There was deliberate hesitation, followed by a reluctant admission. As if she were being prodded. "Pulse Communications Technician Cary Masterson has asked me to inform you that a Christopher Isaiah Horton has just appeared in our databanks."
  

"So?"
  

"So." Ziggy drawled. "Rachel Horton will be hosting the deoxyribonucleic acid of a male embryo in exactly fifteen minutes and two seconds."

 

***********


Sam began to trot, the jingle of keys ringing lightly in his pocket. The air was brisk, containing a nice little snap to it. The long streak of unseasonably nice weather in Ohio was beginning to lift and he could feel the full blood of a true Northeastern fall pulsing through. Tingles of coldness were stinging his cheeks and whirling around his ankles. It seemed the faster he went, the quicker Nature moved from playful nips to nasty bites. He slowed down as he approached a wooded area, contemplating a short cut. If he rounded the lit walkway, it would take him nearly 20 minutes to get to McMaster's Hall. If his calculations were right, he could be out on the other side of the miniature forest in 10 minutes easy.
  

Now I see why they call it McBastard, he clucked to himself, surveying the thick grove of trees before him. "Well, short cut it is." He began carefully picking his way through the twisted gnarl of roots and brambles scraping at his legs. With the exception of his heart pounding in his ears and the steady puffing of his breath, the journey seemed eerily silent. His foot hooked a smooth, moss-covered rock and he went sprawling forward. His courage took flight from him for a moment as he turned on his backside and managed a shaky laugh. This was the reason man invented sidewalks. Oh, well, he was too far into his decision to backtrack now. It would cost him another five minutes of hiking if he changed his mind. Briefly, a Robert Frost poem sprang into mind. Something about the road less traveled. At that moment, he could not recall if Frost's tone had been that of relief or regret.
   

He put his hand down into the damp grass to push himself up when a twig snapped sharply to his left. He drew in a sharp breath, moving quickly into a crouch. Could just be a squirrel, looking for a little late night snack. But then, what did he know about squirrels? He slipped his hands into his pocket, curling his fingers around a key. For a long moment, there was nothing but his shallow breathing and the low hum of nocturnal life. He braved a few cautious steps before continuing. From behind him, branches broke in quick succession followed by a familiar scratching sound. Like the way a bush whips a person's coat as it is pushed aside.
   

Immediately, he bent low to the ground in the stance of a track runner, digging his shoes fiercely into the hard ground. It sounded like a herd of elephants were in pursuit, crashing through the foliage wildly. Ahead, a thicket narrowed his path so tightly he might get caught trying to hurdle through. He veered sharply left, remembering that when he initially placed the direction of the first sound, he had been facing where he'd come from.  But they had fanned out like a band of search dogs and quickly, one of them swung out and set Sam flat on his back. The wind was knocked out of him in one gust, his ears ringing from the blow.
  

"Looks like somebody lost their kitty in the trees."

 

The voice was strange and thick in its mocking sympathy. Random snickers followed, but were quickly muted by a threatening growl.
  

"Maybe we should take her to lost and found?" A second voice, thin and reedy, suggested and the air quivered with suppressed laughter.
  

The toe of a boot pressed minutely into Sam's side as if its owner were inspecting road kill. "Naw, she ain't collared, boys. I don't even think we'd get a reward." The band murmured in agreement, feeling courageous and moving in.
  

Sam's brain spun and stirred in his head. He closed his eyes, a hot wave of nausea spilling over him. "Please. I don't want trouble."
  

 The first speaker knelt close, his breath a liquor cabinet of combinations. He chuckled darkly. "Ain't about what you want, kitty. You in my country and us dogs rule here. Come fetch, Fido."
  

A trembling boy hovered over Sam, his gangly body cutting the picture of a ridiculous scarecrow rather than a menacing thug. His eyes rolled desperately behind the ski mask; frightened, ashamed. 'Go fetch, Fido!'
  

 "I know you."
  

 The boy leapt up at Sam's whisper, his eyes wild with fear. He was quickly shoved away by disgusted hands and the end of a blunt object smashed into the side of Sam's head. His vision ebbed between blurring and darkening and his eyes threatened to dislodge from the throbbing. From far off, he heard the soft thump of feet treading the earth.
  

 The ringleader stood over the fallen prey, flexing a nightstick absently in his hands. He bore his eyes into Sam's, and they were low and dirty. "Fido, he's just a dumb lapdog scared of his own mammie's tit." Giggles flitted throughout the posse, some stamping their feet at the wit of it. "But Bowser, he's a fuckin' pitbull. And he don't scare so easy."
  

A wonderful blue light that went unseen dazzled the gloom and Sam's head lolled heavily to the side. Al. The Observer appeared at Sam's right hand, punching furiously into a handlink.
  

"Jesus, Gooshie, what took you so-Sam! SAM! Oh, God. Look, buddy, someone is coming this way, okay? You just stay with us, all right? I swear I'll get you out of this." He whirled to face the unseeing brute, his fury unleashed. "Don't you dare lay a hand on her, or I swear, I'll cut that ugly mug of yours up!!"
  

The huge shadow eclipsed Sam, its face twisted with hate and savage lust. He snapped Sam's legs apart and thrust himself in between, digging at the button of his jeans. Sam laid still, his brain screaming out a million things, but his heart only listening to one of them. His fist. He ripped his hand from his pocket and slashed upwards, the cruel teeth of the key sinking readily into the fiend's cheek. Bowser went down like a rock, howling and clutching his face as the stunned gang took off.
   

 "Way to go, Sam! Now that's what I mean by a nasty right hook!"
  

The cautious footsteps turned quickly into a panicked run, coming towards Sam. There was a brief tangle and some yelling followed by what sounded like someone being thrown soundly to the ground. Bowser was dragging himself off, tripping and stumbling through the bush. Sam closed his eyes, allowing the cool night to slip over him.

 

************


A soft steady beep reached down and pulled Sam gently. It tugged him from his sleep, unhurried but insistent. His eyelids felt like they weighed a hundred tons, refusing to open on his first few tries. He prayed that he was still in bed in the dorm, Rachel's honor intact. But there was something cool and terribly antiseptic about this place. His nose knew where he was. His eyes finally confirmed it.
 

"Hey, kid." The hologram stood back from the bed, his eyes a little red.
 

"Rachel, oh my God!" Two arms squeezed him recklessly, the relief in the voice unmistakable.
 

Sam blinked, adjusting to the harsh overhead lighting. Bassemah swung her legs over the gurney beside him, smiling like crazy. She had a band of gauze winding around both hands. The night crept back to him as he watched he listened to her jawing on, and suddenly he became angry. "I thought you said you were at the lab." he started slowly, his eyes narrowing.
 

Bassemah grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, well, after I called, I decided to go to the lounge and chill instead."
 

"And it's a good thing she did, Sam," Al chimed. "She was on her way back to the dorm when she took that short cut and found you."
 

At the mention of Sam's unwise choice, he winced. "Are you okay?"
 

"Girl, I'm fine. Some asshole came running at me and I pepper sprayed him. He pushed me and I got a few scratches." Her hands looked as though she had taken a tumble through a briar patch.
 

Al moved closer. "Bassemah was able to positively ID the nozzles who did this. They're in Lucas County as we speak, cooling their heels."
 

A doctor poked his head into the room, smiling at his now conscious patient. "So, how's our Cinderella feeling?"
 

"Uh, okay," Sam mumbled.
 

The resident flipped open a chart at the foot of the bed and dashed off a few notes. "We ran some tests, cat scans, MRI's. There's no sign of a skull fracture, but there was blunt trauma to your temple. You took a nice hit."
 

"Yeah, nice," Al snorted.
 

"We called your home and your parents are on their way. Should be here in another hour or so. I prescribed some aspirin or you can take some Tylenol for that lump on your head. You'll be all set to go after that." The doctor snapped off a quick salute and slipped back out the door.
  

Sam carefully directed a question to Al, though appearing to speak to Bassemah. "Do the police know why I was attacked?"
  

Bassemah shook her head. "They said they were investigating."
  

The handlink bleeped and hummed. "Some Fraternity initiating its recruits," the retired Naval Officer sneered. "I figured as much."
  

 There was a soft rap at the door and all three froze. Sam called out cautiously. "Yes?"
  

Tomomichi walked in, favoring Sam with one of his intense gazes. "Out for late night walk?"
  

 "Hi." So this is where he gets his quirky sense of humor.
  

The handlink whined as it spit information out for Al. "Your friend's been moonlighting as an intern at the hospital and he gets his bachelor's and goes on to med school in three and a half years. Wow."
  

"So, we meet again," Sam murmured slyly, unflinching under the heat of Tomomichi's eyes.
  

"And they meet again. Two years from now. Rachel leaves Toledo to attend a local college and runs into Tomomichi by a chance. His friends were friends with acquaintances of hers from high school. They see each other at a barbeque. He tells Rachel that he's going home to Japan for the summer and she goes with him. And they never come back," Al finished incredulously.
  

"I'm outta here." They watched as Bassemah hopped down from gurney and exited the room, leaving Sam and the intern a strange, knowing grin.
  

 "Uh, Bassemah does stay at Toledo. She ends up pursuing law and begins campus awareness on sexual assault and crime."
  

"Were you ever going to call me?" Tomomichi stood with his arms crossed over his scrubs, his eyes laughing.
  

Sam held his own. "Were you ever going to dance?"

 

At that moment, a cool electric field enveloped the time traveler and were he once had been, Rachel Horton again existed.

 

 

 

 

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