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THE DANGERS OF FIDELITY

by

Jane A. Leavell


"Ladies and gentlemen, a toast!" Rear-Admiral Albert Calavicci, co-director of Project Quantum Leap, held up his frosted beer mug. "That was one small Leap for a man, one giant Leap for mankind!"

A chorus of hoots greeted his attempt at solemnity. Shrugging, he sat back down to think of a better line.

Celebrating at the Just Say Neigh, the only bar within 35 miles of Stallion's Gate, New Mexico, was Al Calavicci's idea of a good time. Judging by the crowd in here today, he wasn't the only one who felt that way. What had been a tiny, neglected dump became an obscure but friendly home-away-from-home once the government started hollowing out the butte to become the home for a top-secret time travel project. All those construction workers and guards-and later, Project staff and guards-had to have someplace to kick back after hours. Now, everyone gathered here whenever Sam successfully Leaped-hell, even the bouncers were off-duty Project security guards or former Project staff. The bartenders and cocktail waitresses-ecstatic at the octupling size of their daily tips-would never risk losing their jobs by being too nosy; the Project staff were so grateful to go off-duty after being on Condition Red for 36 hours at a time that they had no desire to talk about Project business; and everyone was happy.

Especially now. Sam had saved a social worker from burn-out by helping him reunite a dysfunctional family, and it could be a week before he landed himself in another mess, so everyone was free to relax. From here, Al could spot Sam's wife Donna and Verbena Beeks, the Project Psychologist, at the table by the only window, munching on nachos and getting teary-eyes about Sam's failure to Leap home, which to Al's mind was no way to relax, but women seemed to like a good cry now and then. He made a mental note to avoid that end of the bar. In the back, ringing bells announced that Gooshie, who had to be ordered off the base and away from Ziggy every time they shut down between Leaps, was consoling himself by setting impossible records on the video games. George Atobe from Medical was surrounded by a cluster of Library clerks loudly arguing about the merits of old horror movies. And Al himself was sitting in a corner, nursing a beer and smiling a little as he took it all in.

"Do you mind if I join you?"

He blinked and looked up...and up. The redhead standing by his table could best be described as statuesque, and was enough to make a man start visiting museums that had lots of statues just like that. She had to be nearly a foot taller than he was when he stood at attention, and with her sunset-colored hair piled in a role on top of her head, she seemed even taller. Her body was perfectly sculpted to match that imperial height, with black satin pants that seemed to be painted onto her long legs, and twin peaks swelling under a silver lame midriff blouse. The sight made him yearn to take up mountain climbing.

Al jumped to his feet. "Do I know you? And if not, why not?"

Those bee-stung lips parted in a smile. "I'm new in the area. Cleo Dubois."

"Al Calavicci."

"I know." She flowed into the chair beside him, moving it even closer. "Your reputation precedes you."

"Can I get you something? A drink?"

"That would be a good place to start." Her voice had just the faintest tinge of an accent. British? Sort of an Eve Arden tone. "How about a martini."

He flagged down Dolores, the pert Hispanic waitress working the floor tonight. "Well, they're more trustworthy with a margarita, but it's worth a try. Dolores, one martini, por favore."

"Introduce it to the vermouth bottle, but don't let them get too intimate," Cleo ordered. Those brown eyes didn't leave Al's face. "Why don't you get yourself something more?"

"That's okay, honey, this beer's still cold," he assured Dolores, who nodded and began worming her way through the crowd around the vid-screen.

"Are you sure? You look like a man who needs to relax."

"I do. But I'm not going to be here much longer, and my car deserves a good driver."

"Oh, but you can't leave now. The party's just getting started."

He shrugged. "It's been a long day."

"It could be an even longer night." She leaned back in her chair, giving him a good view of those two mounds. He'd always loved candy bars. "I was surprised to find you alone. The local women must be blind."

"I've got a steady, and they know it," he said regretfully. Why did she have to remind him of Tina? For a few minutes there, he'd been happily entertaining thoughts of playing Prince Charming to her Not-Quite-Sleeping Beauty, but now cold reality set in.

"I don't see anyone here."

"She got an infection from her new tattoo, so she's out sick right now."

"Her loss." Heat glinted in her eyes. "My gain?"

"Boy, do I wish."

Cleo didn't push it. Accepting her martini from Dolores, she sipped, then raised her eyebrows and nodded. Al slipped the waitress a big tip. Dolores grinned at him, tucked the bill down her wolf's head tee-shirt, and sashayed away her hips twitching. Before Cleo materialized, he'd planned to sit here admiring the way Dolores' hydraulics system worked-purely from an engineer's point of view-and it was pretty clear she'd realized that.

"How would you like a taste?"

"Huh?" He forced his gaze from Dolores' swinging buttocks, and goggled. Cleo was leaning across the table, holding out her martini glass, but below it her breasts were swelling halfway across the table, dragging her blouse down, and that was all he could focus on. Al licked his lips. "Oh, yeah," he moaned, then wrenched his eyes up to her face. "I mean, no. Thanks."

"Too bad." Her tongue flicked out, barely disturbing the surface of the gin, and she shifted position, the breasts moving further across the table. Despite his attempt to act cool, his eyes went that way again. "You're missing an unusual taste sensation."

"I can imagine."

A slow, sultry blues tune replaced a Nashville rock single in mid-twang at the jukebox, to startled complaints from the minuscule dance floor. Cleo rose. "Dance with me?"

It hurt just to say it. "I really shouldn't."

"I've heard it said that you specialize in doing things that you really shouldn't."

Cleo took his hand, and somehow he found himself on the dance floor, where really wasn't room for another couple. No doubt that explained why she plastered herself against him, practically smothering him her bosom.

(If I'd met you before I met Tina. . . .) he thought fervently, then told himself sternly, (But you didn't.)

Tina was a very accomplished dancer, and she did a combination voodoo rite/striptease routine that had to be experienced to be believed, but even fully clothed, Cleo had her beat. No pun intended. She swayed to the music, her body glued to his, in a rhythm that perfectly matched the music yet was unmistakably sensual. If the music didn't end soon, they'd be doing the mattress tango standing right there on the dance floor.

Even a month ago, Al Calavicci would've jumped her bones, even right then and there, crowd or no crowd. She was obviously more than willing, and a connoisseur of sex he knew he'd never had anything as good as she was offering-not even that time he was a wet-behind-the-ears ensign on late night guard duty for a harem doing a diplomatic Washington tour.

But that was before Dr. Ruth.

Not that the tiny, dumpy, German grandma-type turned him on. Never. But Dr. Ruth made him admit that what he felt for Tina-even though it was nothing like what he still felt for Beth, his first wife-was a form of love. She even prodded him into hunting Tina down and telling her so.

Okay, so he was married five times, which didn't exactly qualify him to be a poster boy for Monogamy. But after Beth dumped him, he didn't even bandy the word "love" around-most of his women just took it for granted that he probably felt something for them. Having finally told Tina he loved her, he wasn't going to turn around and cheat on her...not even with this sex goddess.

Reluctantly, he told Cleo, "I have to go."

"Not yet. The fun's just starting."

He said miserably, "I can't have fun. I'm going steady."

Her hands massaged his back in slow, teasing circles. "Who would it hurt? I could leave now and meet you in a few minutes in the parking lot. No one need ever know." She sealed it with a hungry kiss, her tongue trying to tie his in knots.

He might have had to make more painful moral choices in the past, but at the moment he couldn't think of any. Every nerve in his body, and every habit he had developed in the last twenty years, was bellowing, "DO IT!" Tina had cheated on him with Gooshie, more than once, right? But then, to be fair, he hadn't been celibate those nights himself, so they were even.

If he gave in now with Cleo, the next time he was tempted-even by someone less alluring-it would be easier to cheat. How would he ever know if faithfulness worked with women if he never gave it a fair chance?

His hands resisted it, trying to hold onto her smooth skin, but Al forced them to pry Cleo away. Sighing, he said, "I would know."

The blues number clicked off and was replaced by a Garth Brooks song, to the rejoicing of the other bodies crowded onto the dance floor. Oblivious to them, Cleo stared at him in disbelief. "You're turning me down?"

"Believe me, honey, I don't want to. I really, really don't want to."

"But you are."

"How can I expect my steady to be faithful if I can't do it ?"

Now, that was a big mistake, trying to use logic with a lustful woman scorned. She dug her nails into his back, undoubtedly drawing blood, then shoved him back into the arms of a couple trying to start a line dance. Al fell through their clasped arms and nearly dragged the woman to the floor. By the time he caught his balance and apologized, Cleo had stormed out of the bar. The only good part to the whole fiasco was that the male half of the couple was a janitor at PQL, so he had to pull back his fist before he smashed in his boss's face.

(I sure hope I don't regret this,) Al reflected, picking his way back to the corner table. (So far, this love stuff is a lot harder than I remember. . . .)

/-/-/-/-/

Phasing into a new life somewhere in his past was always disconcerting. This time, Sam Beckett felt a prickling ticklish sensation, like women running their fingers all over him, and had a sense of purple-blue colors fading all around him. He shook his head groggily. A moment ago, or so it seemed to him, he had been a pot-bellied, balding Ohio social worker with heartbreaking caseload, taking a family to their first alcohol abuse counseling session. Now, who and when and where was he?

He opened his eyes somewhat hesitantly, prepared to flinch, because it seemed like he usually materialized in the middle of something embarrassing, like performing on stage; or potentially lethal, like driving a race car; or both, like making love to a gangster's girlfriend. Today, for a pleasant change, no bullets were flying, no cars were speeding, he wasn't holding a scalpel and engaging in exploratory surgery or standing in front of an expectant audience or kissing a stranger. So far, so good.

Or maybe not.

Cautious checking revealed that he was nestled against a pile of red satin heart-shaped pillows in the middle of an immense heart-shaped bed, facing a big screen vid-showing scenes from a soap opera. It had to be a soap opera, based on the hammy over-acting of the head-tossing blonde in the close-up; besides, when the camera pulled back, he recognized the doctor trying to seduce her as the actor he had once Leaped into just before a demented fan kidnapped him. This somehow felt like a bad omen.

Piled all around Sam in the bed were a jumble of half-empty candy boxes, nail polish bottles, romance novels, back issues of Playgirl, and some technical computer journals. No one else seemed to be in the room, but when Sam tilted his head, he found himself gaping at a big ceiling mirror that reflected the image of a buxom blonde crammed into a tiny, lace-strewn, red-and-black camisole.

"Ohhhhhhh, boy. I'm Tina." Sam collapsed against the pillows, wishing he hadn't looked up. "Wait a minute. How did I know that?"

Good question. Although for the past five years his partner Al had been bemusing with wild stories about Gooshie, Tina, Beeks, and myriad female employees who seemed smitten with the Project Co-Director, none of the names or stories had ever conjured up any mental images. Since Verbena entered the Imaging Chamber with Al in one Leap, and Gushie filled in for Al as Project Observer on another, he sometimes remembered what he looked like, but Tina hadn'' been part of any Leaps, had she? His memory had been riddled with gaps since he first stepped into the Accelerator, so that he even forgot his own name and identity on some Leaps, yet he knew without any doubt that the body in that reflection belonged to Tina, Project Pulse Communication Technician and Al's main squeeze.

"If I'm Tina, why am I here? To fix something at the Project?"

No, that didn't sound right. His memory felt more Swiss-cheesed than it had been since his first Leap. Although Sam knew for a fact that he time-traveling as a result of his own scientific project, and that Al Calavicci was his Observer who guided him through Leaps as a hologram spouting data collected by their computer, he couldn't actually remember where the Project was, or what it looked like. Was it in a warehouse? On university grounds? In a military base? Disguised somehow? If the purpose of this Leap involved something at the Project, surely God or Time or Fate or Whatever had taken over his Leaps would have left him with the knowledge he needed to actually find the place!

Oddly enough, he seemed to remember a lot of stuff about Al and Tina, even though his other co-workers remained faceless. For instance, he remembered Al's house out in the desert, full of weird mechanical gadgets, with every room decorated in a different style by a different woman, all of them clashing--the rooms and the women. He remembered that Tina sported a tattoo in an intimate location, that she used to moonlight as an "exotic dancer," that she was the Project champion video game player, and that she and Al were soul twins: both married and divorced, both flamboyant dressers, both far more brilliant than their behavior indicated, both party animals, and both uncertain as to the exact meaning of the word "monogamy." For some reason, she kept dumping Al for Gushie, which showed a fundamental lack of taste. And wasn't there a crocodile in a pit somewhere around here?

Sam made a mental note not to go exploring.

(Fine. I remember all that, so maybe I'm here for Al and Tina. To get them back together? I thought Dr. Ruth did that. Besides, I'm pretty sure she cheats on Al. Maybe I'm here to break them up?)

"Oh, no. I'm not gonna do Your dirty work," Sam told the ceiling, but looking at Tina's body overflowing in the filmy nightclothes made him feel queasy, so he jumped out of the bed and away from the ceiling mirror before addressing God or Whatever again. "Al's had enough losses in his life, and some of them are already my fault. I'm not taking Tina away from him, do You hear me?"

Presumably God, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, did hear, but no reply fluttered down from on high.

A new idea made Sam feel even worse. If he had to reunite them romantically after some sort of spat, that would mean he and Al--well, she and Al--Al would want to--

Sam gulped. Granted, he owed Al his life many times over, but did he actually owe his best friend a close encounter of the sexual kind?

"Oh, boy," he whispered.

(Don't be stupid. That would be Tina's job. And if there's one thing Al will never need, it's help jump-starting his sex life. So why am I here?)

Maybe if he got some clothes on, he would feel less...well, less naked. Sam opened the huge closet on the back wall of the room, and discovered that most of Tina's off-duty outfits would make him feel equally exposed. Figuring there had to be something normal hidden in the racks somewhere, he began systematically sliding hangers to one side.

(Bad enough being a woman. Why do I have to be Tina? She wears those spiked heels--I'll fall and break both my ankles. And I'll never get all that make-up right. She's got enough stuff on that table over there to stock all the shelves in the Make-up Department at Universal Studios.) To himself, Sam admitted he was stalling. Al wasn't here to distract him with outrageous stories about unlikely escapades, so he was distracting himself. (Enough already.)

Closing the closet door, Sam tried to come up with a plan of action.

There was no way he was going to paw through Tina's personal belongings, searching for a diary that he would never have the nerve to read anyway. Since he couldn't remember anything about the Project, he couldn't call and ask the computer--Alpha? Lothos? Ziggy?--for advice. It almost seemed as though he were being kept from connecting with the Project for some reason.

(Guess I'll just have to wait for Al to center on me and tell me what I'm doing here.)

Avoiding the heart-shaped bed with the black velvet bedspread, Sam sat down at Tina's heavily-laden make-up table and began to leap through a computer journal.

It wouldn't be a long wait. He could always count on Al.

/-/-/-/-/

Maybe he was getting old.

How else to explain how Albert Calavicci, womanizer extraordinaire, could leave a party early-and alone? That just wasn't natural. Yeah, he organized a wet tee-shirt contest-which he should've won, because a red silk shirt is just a fancy tee-shirt, really, and he looked darned good in his, only he got outvoted-and he beat Gushie at pinball, but just when everybody else was actively pairing off for the night, here he was, pulling up into his own driveway with an empty passenger seat.

(Just as well,) Al consoled himself. (I'm really bushed.)

But that ate at him, too. When had he ever been too tired for fun and frolic? He'd always been able to please himself and his women, even when more than one a night was involved. None of his marriages or flings ever broke up over an inability to satisfy them. Hell, that dance with Cleo tonight had left him with a raging erection that took eons to subside, so it wasn't that he no longer had what it took. No, let's face it, he wasn't tired. He was afraid of being faithful.

"Ain't that a kick in the butt?" he muttered, and pressed the button that secured the garage for the night. Another button ensured that the house automatically unlocked and lit up in welcome.

Instead of walking into the house, he paused to admire the night sky. The desert had pretty much yielded up her daytime warmth, but the skies were clear and glittered like a sequined Vegas dancer's dress. As always, he had to bite down regret that he would never be able to fly to those stars; after the moon landings, the space program pretty well got snuffed, and even if they ever quit playing around with shuttles, he was too old for the astronaut program. That was a young man's game.

(Well, what the hell. I do get to jump around in time. Thanks to Sam, I won't ever be bored. Besides, Tina'd have a fit if I went rocketing around the universe in a spaceship-just keeping up a Naval flight career irritated women, so they damn sure wouldn't put up with me being gone decades at a time to reach other planets. If Beth couldn't handle it, no woman could. Probably.)

He flinched away from that thought. Brooding about Beth was a waste of time, and major depressing to boot.

(The thing is, I didn't cheat on Lisa, and she dropped me to go back to her hubby and have a baby. I didn't cheat on Beth-at least not until 'Nam-and she dumped me for that Dirk jerk. Is this faithfulness crud a good idea?)

A lizard scurried across the sand near his feet. Probably trying to keep warm. The desert got pretty cold, once the sun went down. He should head for the house, but instead Al lingered in the starlight, strangely reluctant to give up worrying.

(Maybe I'm scared of trying again. Seems like every time I commit myself to somebody, they leave me, like my wives; or they die, like Pop, and Trudy, and Chip, and Ruthie. Even Sam's gone. I can see him, and talk to him, but we can't exactly chat over beer and pizza whenever we feel lonely. So if I try this Boy Scout routine with Tina-act like we're really serious-and she ups and dumps me--)

He shivered. Time to go inside. If he couldn't have Cleo, he'd settle for a good cigar.

Problem was, entering an empty house was even more depressing than standing outside trying to make sense of his life. Maybe he should've bought a dog or cat, something that would be happy to see him come home, but he spent ninety percent of his life at the Project, and that wouldn't be fair to a pet. Besides, where would he ever find a dog as lovable as Chester had been? He could construct some sort of robot pet that wouldn't need to be fed or played with, but that wouldn't be a thrill to come home to. After all, he wasn't exactly overjoyed to go to work and play with Ziggy all day, was he?

The house was okay. When Al had time, he put in gadgets, because he liked to play with hardware, but the furnishings were mostly left up to whatever woman drifted into his life, and as a result it was sort of like coming home to a hotel room, if the hotel was owned by the Addams family. None of the rooms matched, and few of the decorations meant anything to him. It was just a place to stay, in-between trips.

He wandered from the high-tech kitchen to the study, not sure what he wanted to do. Sort through the mail? Nah. Probably bills and legal papers. Get something to eat? What he was hungry for wasn't stored in cupboards and refrigerators.

Maybe he should've stayed at the Just Say Neigh. At least he would've had a bartender for company. As it was, Sam would be off in limbo for a few days, Tina was out sick, and Verbena Beeks would write him up if he hung around the base when he was supposed to be relaxing. But trying to think of a good way to relax was very stressful. He wasn't in the mood to read, or play with the computer, or watch videos. Drinking alone was the last thing he should do, especially given his bad mood. So what did that leave? Jacking off?

(No way.)

Never one for second best, Al marched to the phone and switched on the experimental vid-monitor. This baby cost him a pretty penny, but he figured it was better than wasting the bucks on alimony payments. Hooking Tina's phone to this had been her last birthday present, and it added a whole new dimension to obscene phone calls. So far, the images were a grainy black-and-white, and only a few inches tall, but Tina could do a lot with a few inches. Al beamed when the little monitor filled with squiggly lines, then cleared.

"Hi, baby," he rasped.

For a moment, that pretty little face seemed confused, then Tina squinted at the monitor on her end. "Al? Al, it's me!"

"Of course it's you. I'd recognize that luscious figure anywhere."

Surprisingly, she appeared to blush--at least, her face and throat got darker--and she tried to fold her arms over her chest without letting go of the receiver. "No, Al, I mean it's really me."

Something wasn't right. Suddenly suspicious, he growled, "It had better be. I'm warning you, Tina, if I ever call you and Gushie answers, I'm not gonna fall for that fixing-your-VCR line again!"

"No, Al, Gushie's not here. I'm--"

"Good. Listen, sweetheart, I know how much that nasty tattoo is itching you, and I swear I won't lay a finger on it-unless you ask me to, that is-but I think I can make it feel better if you let me come play Doctor. You know, sort of kiss it and make it feel better."

Tina's eyes got very big. "Well, I--uh--"

"I've always had great faith in the healing powers of whipped cream," he said coaxingly. Boy, did she look nervous all of a sudden. Was that damn foul-breathed Gushman hiding in her bedroom, out of the limited camera range? "Oh, geez. Hold on just a minute, baby, that's the doorbell. I'll get rid of whoever it is and be right back."

Maybe, while he was gone, Tina would put on some music and start her special stripping routine. No, better yet, she should stay clothed and let him peel her like a big, yummy banana once he got there. The thought made him practically trot to the front door to get rid of whomever was ringing the bell.

Who'd be weird enough to bother him at this time of night? Jehovah's Witnesses didn't bother coming out into the middle of nowhere, which was one good reason for building out here. It couldn't be an emergency at the Project, because they'd signal him on his mini-beeper, not drive all the way over. Some sort of summons for another alimony hearing? Big mistake-he was not in the mood to deal with legal hassles. Whoever it was better have a real good excuse for interrupting.

Flinging the door back against the wall, he opened his mouth to roar, and promptly closed it again, gazing up into the pouty lips, high-planed cheeks, and dow-brown eyes of Cleo Dubois. His own eyes promptly dropped down to the vast expanse bared by the way she'd tugged the silver midriff blouse down her shoulders. A moment later he was back in charge, but that was a moment too late, for she'd already oozed her way past him into the living room.

"You can't come in here!"

"I already have," she pointed out, unruffled. "What a kitschy, Art Deco room. Who does your decorating? I really must avoid her."

"Look, maybe I didn't make myself clear before. You're a lovely lady. Believe me, I'd be very interested, if I wasn't already involved with someone else. But I am. So you have to leave now."

"My feelings are hurt." The idea seemed to amaze her. She cocked her head, giving him a long study. "I must say, I never imagined you'd turn me down. Given your history. . . ."

"What history? Never mind." Al cast a glance over his shoulder toward the phone cam, praying it wouldn't pick this up. How could he ever explain this to Tina? She knew about Denise, and Colleen, and Trixie, and-well, she had plenty of reasons to believe he would willingly entertain a gorgeous sexpot after-hours in his quarters. She'd never believe this wasn't his idea. "It's getting late, and I want to go to bed."

"So do I."

Alone."

Cleo heaved a sigh. "Unbelievable. He sleeps with every woman he's ever met, yet he refuses to sleep with me."

"I didn't sleep with every woman I ever met! A lot of them, maybe, but--" He struggled to get back on target. "Out. Now."

"I owe you a drink."

"It was my treat." He held the door open, making quick gestures through it with one arm. "This way."

She shook her head firmly. "One thing you should know about me, Al: I never forget to collect what's owed to me, and I always pay my debts. Always."

"Fine. The next time we run into each other at Just Say Neigh, the first round's on you."

"I'm afraid that won't do. I plan to be leaving soon, once I take care of some unfinished business."

Grimacing, he stared past her at the monitor. It was black again. Either Tina got tired of waiting for him, or she'd spotted Cleo and hung up in a huff. Great. There went his hopes of seeing Tina in her little nurse outfit tonight.

Cleo had wandered to the sofa and was pulling a flask from her small silver shoulder purse. Steaming, Al went after her. Slapping a woman wasn't his style, unless she slapped him first, but he was perfectly willing to wrestle her to the door, if that's what it would take to get rid of her.

"Here you go. One drink, and we'll call it even." She gave him a hopeful look. "Unless you've changed your mind?"

He nailed her with his Admiral-caught-you-in-dirty-clothes-on-parade glare. "No!"

"Incredible." She held out the flask, arching her eyebrow. "Well?"

"Oh, for-here." Al snatched the flask from her and tossed back a swig, then choked, his eyes tearing up. "What is this stuff?"

"It's a secret recipe. Do you like it?"

"No!" He stuck his tongue out and waggled it briefly; it felt numb. "I've had your drink. We're even-Steven. Good night."

"Surely you jest," Cleo said reprovingly. "My martini was much larger than that. You barely had a taste."

No way was he going to drink more of that stuff--it tasted like the medicine the nuns used to force down his throat at the orphanage. Holding his breath, he tilted the flask and faked swallowing several gulps. Somehow, Cleo's elbow struck his belly as she rose from the sofa, and ended up actually swallowing some of the crud by accident. Cleo waited patiently as he wheezed and gasped, then took the flask from his limp fingers and recapped it.

It took a minute to recover; felt sort of like having just swallowed liquid hair by mistake. Finally he was able to croak, "You satisfied now?"

"It will have to do."

Geez, it was worse than the moonshine the old-timers brewed out of rust and sweat in battleship engine rooms. But strong. Definitely strong. He already felt a glow.

Cleo slipped her arm under his. "Since we're not fated to become friends, could you at least give me a tour of your home before I leave? As something of a consolation prize?"

"Sure. This is the living room." He gestured with his other hand. "That's the front door. Step outside, and I'll show you the driveway."

On the way there, though, he stumbled, and suddenly Cleo was all over him, draping his arm around her neck. Irritated, he tried to push her away, but she grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and squeezed. Al yelped, and found himself being steered away from the door.

"Hey," he protested, totally inadequately.

"Hay is for horses."

She sounded just like Sister Mary Joseph, the hatchet-faced Mother Superior who used to whack his knuckles with a ruler. That was alarming, as was the fact that he couldn't get his balance.

One and a half swallows of booze could never affect him like this.

"Don't tell me, let me guess," Cleo chirped. "This must be your bedroom." With one hand, she dimmed the track lighting to a seductive glimmer. "Lie back now and let Mama Cleo tuck you in."

This wasn't right.

Sagging onto the king-size flannel upholstered bed, Al tried to pull himself together, but the muscles in his arms and legs seemed to have lost all connection to each other. He scowled at the back of her neck as she yanked his showed off without untying them, then swung his legs onto the bed. The image wavered. Was her face melting? If he squinted real hard, it was like when Sam Leaped into someone: the surface aura was that of the Leapee, but underneath he could see Sam's boyishly handsome face. Except this wasn't Sam.

"You," he said vaguely.

"Yes, me," she mocked him, unbuttoning his shirt. "Cleo."

"Not Cleo. Not. . .Alia."

That startled her. About to slide one of his suspenders down, she raised her head to meet his gaze with eyes that seemed to shift in color. "When I touch your time-traveling partner, we see each other. Perhaps it's rubbing off on you." She snapped the suspender against his chest. "Except that I am not that whey-faced little wimp."

"Zoe?"

"Now you've got it." She reached for the zipper on his pants. He tried to squirm away, but she slapped him in the face, hard. "Hold still."

(Oh, boy.)

"Why?"

"So I can finish undressing you," she said reasonably.

The pants were a lost cause. Al tried to get a good grasp on his jockey shorts as a last defense, but his hands seemed uncoordinated. That was unnatural; he'd always been good with his hands, as a lot of women would testify. "No--why me?"

She tossed the blue trousers to the floor and said evenly, "I told you, Admiral, I always collect full payment on what I'm owed."

For the life of him, he couldn't think what she meant. He had never undressed her, not even mentally. The first time Sam encountered Alia, Zoe as a holographic Observer like him, so he never even saw her. The second time, she'd Leaped into a big black man, a prison warden, to capture Sam and Alia, and Al still didn't interact with her. They'd never even met. But the only coherent protest he could come up with was, "Huh?"

Zoe smiled without humor, patting his head. "You are cute, aren't you? Revenge, dear. I intend to give you a long, slow, and very painful death. I thought first I'd sample what you're known for and see if you live up to your reputation, before I start cutting things off."

(Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!)

Al struggled to sit up, but she shoved him back onto his back again. "Whadda I ever do to you, anyway?" he slurred, aggrieved.

She widened those mud brown eyes. "Surely you're joking. Do you have any idea what sort of agony I suffered for letting you and your overgrown Boy Scout partner beat me--twice? Not to mention being shot in the belly with a shotgun."

"Wasn't me," he pointed out, although at the moment he wished it had been. His aim was better; Zoe wouldn't have survived to do this.

She jerked his fingers loose and hauled the jockey shorts down his legs. "Oh, I know. But your interfering helped him defeat me, didn't it? And unfortunately, Lothos can't seem to lock on to Dr. Samuel Holier-Than-Thou Beckett at any point in his life, even before he started Leaping. So that leaves you." She eased into the bed with him, running one hand down his bare chest. "Don't worry; we haven't forgotten him. Goody Two-Shoes will be devastated by the death of his beloved admiral. I'm quite looking forward to his reaction, the next time we meet."

"He's in the past. He won't know--"

"Thames is here; he'll be my witness." She put her face close to his, grinning. He half expected her to bare fangs instead of teeth. "And I brought a camera. We'll make sure he sees plenty of pictures, in no-longer-living color."

If he was ever going to do it, it would have to be now. Gritting his teeth, Al put all his concentration into his right arm, swinging it up and bashing her a good one in the face. Zoe shrieked. He tried to buck her off the bed, but she straddled him, locking on with both legs, and both hands came down at his face, claws first.

He didn't know karate or judo or tae kwan do, like Sam, but Al was a darned good streetfighter. Unfortunately, so was Zoe. Even though she was taller than he was, he would've smeared her against the wall like a mosquito, except whatever she'd doped him up with left him weak and slow, so his blows lacked force. Biting her hard on the tip of one cazonga nearly did the trick, even through her clothes, but somehow she got her hands on the Calavicci family jewels and bared her teeth in a savage grin, flexing her fingers. Al froze.

"Shut up!" she hollered over her shoulder, presumably to her Observer. "I can handle him." To prove it, she squeezed, just a little. Despite himself, Al moaned. Zoe wiped her bloody nose on her arm, still not letting go. "You didn't drink as much as you should have, did you? Tsk, tsk, tsk. Well, that's all right, I prefer a little life in my men, as long as we're having sex. And afterwards. . . ." She smiled. "The trunk of my car is filled with equipment. I knew you'd have a meat carver, and handcuffs were at least a possibility, but I was afraid you wouldn't have a scalpel for the delicate work."

It wasn't only the drug that made him feel like vomiting.

Still keeping a grip on his vital organs, Zoe bent to kiss him. Her lips tasted salty, from the nosebleed. Midway through the kiss, she bit down hard, and blood from his lower lip mingled with hers. She pulled her face away an inch.

"You know what they say about rape, Admiral-you might as well relax and enjoy it." Her grin broadened. "Let's make your last time a memorable one."

Both of them twitched as the doorbell chimed. This month, it was programmed to play the first few notes of "Anchors Aweigh."

"Expecting someone?" Zoe asked.

"Big meeting. . .all security guards from Project," he offered, though it was hard to get the words formed.

"Somehow I don't think so."

(Well, it was worth a try.)

The doorbell sang again, then was replaced with angry pounding on the door.

"Don't just stand there drooling--go see who it is!" Zoe snapped to the invisible Observer. Instead of resuming where they'd left off, she leaned to one side to snare Al's top and used it to wipe off her face, ruining a very expensive silk shirt from Rodeo Drive. Then Thames must have returned, because she cocked her head, her eyes narrowing. "Oh, really? Admiral, your girlfriend is pounding on the door, demanding that you let her in. She says if you make her look for her key, she'll be very angry. What do you say--shall we invite her in?" Maybe she read the fear in his eyes, because she licked her lips and purred, "A threesome could be entertaining, don't you think?"

He had thought he was out of energy, but the idea made him start bucking again, and Zoe nearly fell out of the bed. Revitalized at his near-success, Al made a determined effort to escape, but when his head snaked up for another try at the biting routine, she stuffed the blood-smeared shirt in his mouth and punched him hard in the belly, driving hard as if trying to reach his spine. As a result, he sucked in a little air and too much silk. She topped that with a knee to the crotch.

Al lost all interest in the proceedings.

/-/-/-/-/

Since knocking didn't seem to get Al's attention, Sam resorted to kicking the front door. It made a satisfyingly loud thud, and it made him feel better, but Al still didn't answer.

"I know you're in there!"

He couldn't escape a sense of urgency. Al hadn't shown up in holographic form to guide him through this Leap, and he was beginning to suspect that absence had something to do with his mission here. Would Al leave the Project over a woman? No, that was absurd. Even when Sam wouldn't change the past so that Al's first wife didn't leave him, Al was visibly suffering, but he didn't quit.

Maybe he had a heart attack in bed with the woman Sam saw on the vidscreen? Not likely. If the man didn't have a coronary thrombosis while enjoying Tina and her athletic, unorthodox ideas of fun, no woman could kill him.

On the other hand, if Tina caught him in bed with another woman, she might kill him herself, on purpose. Could he have Leaped here to prevent that? If so, where was Al's hologram now? After all, Sam wasn't about to murder his partner, whatever the provocation, so the future Al should be alive and well and here.

This time his kick nearly snapped the hinges.

There was something about the woman with Al that set his teeth on edge. Neither her face nor her voice were familiar, yet there was something about her eyes, her expression--an unpleasant undertone to her phrasing--something about her that he felt he should know.

He had this creepy-crawly feeling that something was wrong.

(Who would want to hurt Al? Excluding men who found out he was sleeping with women already spoken for, that is. . . .)

"That's it, Al! I've had it with you! I'm coming in right now!"

There had to be six electronic door cards in the cherry-red leather bag, three of them bearing the names of Las Vegas hotels and three of them blank. Sam stuffed one into the slot on Al's door just as the door was flung open from the inside. Startled, he took a step backwards and twisted his heel, nearly falling over. As he had suspected, Tina's spiked heels were a menace. Losing his dignity in front of Al's date meant he started out at a distinct disadvantage, quite aside from the sore ankle, so he straightened up quickly, feeling a blush start at his throat under her level stare.

The woman he had seen on the vidphone turned out to be redhead, which made sense--Al had a predilection for redheads. Her silver lame midriff blouse was torn at one shoulder, with a flap hanging down toe xpose a lacy black bra. Her face was damp, and her nose was swollen, with a fleck of something that might be blood dried on one nostril. Sam's bad feelings about this got instantly worse.

"Can I help you?" the woman demanded. She didn't sound at all eager to help.

"I need to see Al. Right now."

She seemed amused. "He's tied up at the moment. Can I take a message?"

Sam stared into her brown eyes, again swept with the sense that he should know her. Was this something to do with his memory gaps-a mislaid memory trying to reassert itself-or something else? "He'll see me."

She moved quickly, blocking the doorway as he started to edge inside. "I'm afraid not. He and I will be. . .busy. . .the rest of the night. Why not come back tomorrow, when we're finished?"

Alarm bells were ringing somewhere inside him, like the ruckus in the Control Room the night he sneaked into the Accelerator and took his first Leap into the past. "I'm not leaving until I see Al."

Rage briefly flickered in that imperial expression, then she seemed amused again. "Have it your own way." With elaborately false courtesy, she stepped aside to let him in. "On your head be it."

"That's an odd choice of words, isn't it?"

"Is it? I only meant that it's awfully late to start an emotional scene--a lover's quarrel. After all, what's done is done. Arguing about it now isn't going to change anything; it's merely a waste of time." She walked to the oblong metal coffee-table and picked up a silver flask. "While you're waiting for Al to get dressed, can I offer you a drink?"

"No."

"Oh, please, I insist. I'm trying to be civilized about this." She held the flask out with a coaxing smile. "Why don't you meet me halfway?"

(Why do I feel like Snow White being offered a potion by the witch?)

Sam shifted position; the high heels were beginning to feel really uncomfortable. "I, um, I'm not thirsty. Does Al know I'm waiting for him?"

"Give him a minute to pull himself together, dear. We were going at it hot and heavy when you interrupted, you know."

Sam cast a skeptical glance at her nose. Whatever his moral failings, Al had never been into rough sex. If she got that swelling in a struggle, it wasn't during a bout of pleasant foreplay. Al might be hurt. He had to do something.

(Well, it's worth a try. If I'm way off base about this woman, no big deal--at least it'll bring Al out here in a hurry.)

In Tina's loudest nasal blare, Sam yelled, "Al, Sam Leaped into that evil Leaper's Observer! Gushie says you have to come back to the base right now!"

The redhead dropped the flask. "He did what? When?"

Sam smiled at her, although he didn't feel like laughing. "That's certainly an inappropriate response for one of Al's romantic liaisons, wouldn't you say?"

Her eyes narrowed. "And you certainly aren't behaving like his floozy."

"I don't think 'floozy' is the right word. Carefree, maybe, but not a floozy."

She bent to retrieve the flask and glided toward Sam, who edged behind a gold-trimmed white chair. She glanced toward Al's bedroom. "Who are you?"

"Tina," Sam said firmly, widening his eyes in surprise that she had to ask. "Who are you?"

"Al's new girlfriend. Your replacement."

"I think you're wrong about that."

"Variety is the spice of the Admiral's life."

"He usually likes his women a little less. . .worn."

The woman touched her nose. "I was having a squabble with my ex-husband. The Admiral rescued me."

"You're very good," Sam said, and meant it. He had a feeling his excuses weren't so fast or so believable on his own Leaps, but this Leaper seemed to have a quick answer for everything.

Again her eyes flicked to the bedroom. Was that how he looked during a Leap, trying to talk to Al without anyone noticing? Her Observer must be standing there. "Did Beckett really Leap?" she asked.

"Didn't you hear me? He Leaped into--" Sam tried to remember. "--into Thames. In fact, he's probably here right now."

Her eyes focused on him again, with a distinctly menacing glare. "I really must insist that you have a drink. Now."

One at a time, Sam kicked off Tina's red shoes. He knew from a past Leap that a blow to the temple with one of those spiked heels could be lethal, and the good thing about using shoes for a weapon was that you wouldn't run out of bullets or be arrested for carrying a concealed weapon. But when he bent to retrieve one, the redhead darted around the chair and snared his left wrist.

A pulsing electronic roar seemed to engulf him as their flesh met. Sam's head shot up in time to see the tall redhead's sensual appearance washed away by the aura of Zoe, the arrogant Leaper he had battled for Alia's life. In turn, Zoe's eyes absorbed his real features, then sparkled with instant delight.

"Dr. Beckett!" She ran her tongue over her front teeth, like a tigress about to eat dinner. "Oh, I am going to have fun. Both of you, in one day!"

/-/-/-/-/

For about half an eternity, Al was nothing but a mass of agony in vaguely human form. No coherent thought, no anger, not even fear-just endless pain. Then, for another lifetime, the pain settled in the area from his groin to his chest, in waves of alternating fire and ice.

The thing to do was to compartmentalize the pain, wall it off from his conscious thought until it was something removed from him. God knew he had plenty of experience doing that in 'Nam.

(And I've had worse hits down there. She pulled the blow. Probably didn't want to spoil her plans for the evening.)

Bile bubbled up in his throat. People had tried to kill him before, sure, but mostly it was impersonal--an act of war, a need to remove an obstacle. Once or twice it was in the heat of the moment, an impulsive angry act prompted by finding him in the wrong bed with the woman or some such thing. But this--looking into the eyes of someone who hated him and getting an obvious sexual thrill from the thought of hurting him--Jesus! It was worse than perverted. It was terrifying.

The worst part about it was that she wasn't some loony, unable to help herself. She'd made a conscious choice to be evil, and she relished every cruelty, every mortal sin she committed. Even the Pope himself couldn't cleanse a soul that black.

(She's gonna kill Tina.)

That was a terrible thought, but between the pain, the lack of breath--silk shirts taste awful, and worse with blood and sweat on them--and the dope he'd swallowed, he couldn't do anything to prevent it. It took a major effort just to yank the shirt out of his mouth, turn his head, and vomit onto the bed.

(Good. Maybe that'll clear this stuff outta my system.)

Maybe not--Al sure didn't feel any better.

Zoe's holographic partner was probably in here somewhere, watching him. Gave him a creepy feeling, almost like knowing there was a ghost in the room with him. He couldn't do anything about that, either, so he put it in the same compartment with the pain, and tried to seal it off.

(Tina doesn't deserve this. Poor kid comes running out to fight a sleazy broad over me, and instead she runs into a female Attila the Hun.)

Hell, he didn't deserve this, either.

He had the pain under better control now; it was still there, but as a steady dull throb. In another couple hours, maybe he'd even be able to move. Of course, by then she's probably have amputated his legs at the knees...or even higher.

Through the pain, he thought he heard Tina yell something about Thames. Not the river, the Observer. Only it wasn't Tina, was it? If he could somehow concentrate, he'd know that voice, he was sure of it.

Then Zoe crowed triumphantly, and his heart damn near stopped.

(Sam. That's Sam out there, and she's got her claws into him. Oh, geez, he's dead meat. He'll be fighting by the Marquis of Queensbury rules, and she'll rip his balls off.)

Maybe he couldn't find the strength to save himself from Zoe's predatory clutches, or even to defend Tina, but he was damned if he'd let Zoe hurt Sam Beckett. If there was one decent, kind, loyal human being in this universe, it was his partner. By the time they met on the Starbright Project, he had given up on everything, even himself, but the kid looked at him as if he was some kind of hero, trusting him completely, turning to him for advice. That's when Al decided his mission in life--the reason he survived countless losses and imprisonment and all his own efforts to live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse--was to shield Sam Beckett from trouble and teach him to laugh and enjoy himself while he was carrying out his crusades.

No way was he gonna lie here while Zoe snuffed out the one light in the darkness his life had become.

Grimly, he switched into survival mode, the unemotional pragmatic affect that got him through years of hell in Vietnam prison camps. As uncoordinated as he was right now, he couldn't stand up, but he could uncurl his body and roll out of the bed onto the floor. Good thing he had let that blonde from Coding--Marta? Colleen?--replace the Spanish tiles with carpeting that helped cushion the blow.

He'd need a weapon. His sidearm was on the shelf in the walk-in closet, which might as well be a million miles away. Maybe he could sort of slither up and bite her ankles? No. He wasn't' crawling too well yet. Al grabbed one of the suspenders from the clothes dropped on the floor, knocked the ashtray from the bedside stand, and started half-rolling, half-crawling toward the bedroom door.

". . .done to Al?"

"Nothing, yet. We were just getting started. Don't worry, Dr. Beckett, I've give you a front row seat to watch from. That way there'll be no surprises when I start in on you."

Something crashed to the floor, and glass tinkled. At a guess, one of the fat ugly chrome lamps in the living room just ate the big one. No great loss.

(Dammit, why'd I let Sam talk me into building such a big place? If this was a trailer, I'd be in the living room by now instead of halfway to the bedroom door.)

Whatever conversation they'd been having out there was over. That was bad; at least while they were talking, nothing much was going on. He'd have to move faster, that's all. Rolling has hard to do with his arms folded around the cojones, but it covered more ground more rapidly than crawling when his arms and legs seemed terminally limp.

As he got nearer, he could hear more. Judging from the pants, gasps, and slapping noises, there was a real hair-pulling contest going on out there. When a high-pitched wheezing squeal erupted from Sam's--or maybe Tina's--throat, Al winced in empathetic pain, his own groin tightening. Sam had just encountered Zoe's knee, and whether it was his equipment or Tina's that was hurt, it had to be excruciating. It sure was for him.

(Almost there. I can make it.)

Panting for breath, Al stopped just outside the living room, trying to get a good look at the situation and analyze it strategically. At first he had only a vague impression of lots of long, shapely legs tangled together. A few inches from his nose lay one of Tina's red sequined showes with the heel snapped off. The heel itself was sticking out from under an overturned chair. The other shoe, still intact, turned out to be clutched in Sam's right hand, and he was belaboring Zoe's back with the heel while yanking on a fistful of her hair. Even though his face was green, he seemed to be winning this fight. Well, actually, it was Tina's face that was green, since Al didn't have the strength it took to see through her aura to Sam's persona.

(Holy Mary, I hurt. I'm probably gonna swell up to the size of a soccer ball.)

He blinked sweat out of his eyes and propped himself up on his left side. Biting his lip, because a little new pain would help distract him from the really big ache, he began wrapping the suspender around the baked clay ashtray Sam's niece had made for him for Christmas.

As quickly as that, things went ka-ka.

While they were wrestling on the floor, Zoe jerked away, leaving a handful of hair in Sam's fingers, and rolled onto her purse. In the time it took Al to blink, she clipped Sam on the jaw with something metal. When she stood and kicked Sam--in the side, this time, not her usual target area--she was holding a tiny silver derringer.

"Pick up that flask and drink it. Every drop," she growled, her voice ragged and hoarse. "Or I'll shoot off your kneecap."

If Sam did what he was told, he'd pass out, and she'd have plenty of time to bring in her "equipment" and chain them both up for the rest of the festivities she had planned.

(Geez Louise, Sam, don't do it. Don't do it!)

Rubbing his jaw, Sam sat up, and his eyes widened as he met Al's gaze across the room. Al shook his head. Sam seemed dazed, either from the fight or from seeing his partner lying on the floor buck naked. The sight tended to leave a lot of women that way, too.

Zoe moved closer, her arm shaking. "If I have to repeat myself, I'll shoot both knees. Do I make myself clear?"

Slowly, Sam reached out for the flask that was half-hidden by a fallen sofa cushion. Al shook his head again, desperately.

He'd been hoping that by now he'd have recovered enough to twirl the suspenders over his head like a bolo, but that miracle wasn't going to happen. In any case, he was all out of time.

At the same moment that Al tried for a slingshot effect, twanging the ashtray out of the pulled suspender, Zoe's Observer must've yelled some kind of warning. Apparently the idiot had been out here enjoying the catfight, probably assuming Al was going to be curled up like a cooked shrimp for another hour or so without bothering to ever check. This clown would never make it in the Navy.

"He what?" Zoe sounded incredulous. She must've thought he was down for the count, too.

Being underestimated had saved his life more than once. This was no exception.

Actually, it was a good thing Thames finally noticed him, because suspenders don't make a good slingshot and the ashtray barely nudged Zoe's back. But in the split second that her head spun around to verify what Thames told her, Sam's right leg shot up in a scissors kick. Zoe's derringer put a small hole in the ceiling instead of in Sam's kneecap. Before she could fire again, Sam rocketed up off the floor, driving his head smack into her jaw. Maybe it was just wishful thinking, but Al could've sworn he heard bones snapping. Zoe collapsed.

(Bet Thames' handlink is beeping like crazy,) Al thought with infinite satisfaction, and let himself sag against the floor. The inlaid checkerboard tiles out here felt cool against his skin. (Sam can handle it from here.)

Grunting, Sam retrieved the derringer, glanced toward Al, hesitated, then bent to dig the muzzle in Zoe's throat. When he opened her eyes, her face spasmed in a rictus of mingled pain and hate.

"You won't kill me," she hissed. "You're not man enough."

He said softly, "I've killed before. You know that. And if you ever threaten anyone I love again, I'll kill you the way I'd destroy a virus or a rabid animal. Remember that, Zoe. Al, and my family, and my co-workers, are sacred. They've been posted 'No Trespassing.' Do you understand me?"

It seemed to hurt to open her mouth. "You can't stop us."

"I just did. I can Leap in time, just like you. Tell Lothos now that he's given me the idea, he can expect an attack just like this, any time." He bared his teeth at her. "Think of the damage I can do when I Leap into you."

Zoe stared past him in horror at something only she could see. "No! It's not my fault! I didn't know he'd he here--I was winning until then!" She writhed like a dying snake, suddenly haloed in block. "Lothos, PLEASE--!"

Within the black glow, her features ran, like a candle melting under intense heat, and abruptly she was gone.

Seeming as limp as if he actually had drunken some of her chemicals, Sam dropped the derringer and stumbled toward Al, who dredged up a grin.

"Like somethin' from The Outer Limits, huh?" He let his eyes close. "You done good, Sam."

"If you hadn't come crawling to the rescue, I might have lost." As gentle as a lover, Sam knelt and eased Al's head onto Tina's lap, then reached for his wrist. Once a doctor, always a doctor. "What did she do to you, Al?"

"Same thing she did to you. A knee to the sweetmeats."

"Sweetmeats are intestines. It looks like she nailed you in the testicles."

"You, too. 'Cept Tina doesn't have any."

Sam wasn't about to be sidetracked. "Do you have a blood pressure cuff here?"

Al opened one eye in disbelief. "Why would I have one a those things?"

Even upside-down, Sam's face looked worried. "She drugged you, didn't she?"

"Only a mouthful, maybe two. It's wearin' off already. Sam, when I thought she had you, I nearly wet the floor." He stirred on Sam's lap, straining to get a good look at his home. "Geez, you guys really trashed the place. Now Tina'll wanta spend a fortune redecorating it. Probably in early neo-harem, or late Hell's Angel."

"Hush. Lie still." Sam patted his shoulder. "Listen, I want a blood work-up on you. I'll call an ambulance."

"No way. She kneed me in the family jewels, and she made a lot of threats, but you got here before anything happened. Thank God." Al shivered. "You shoulda heard the way she talked. Give a guy nightmares for a year straight."

"But--"

"No. You can't make me go, so give it up."

"Then we'd better at least get you in your bed. Can you sit up?"

"Ouch. Can't I just lie here for a little while? No, huh? Okay. Give me a hand." His bed was liable to bring back unpleasant memories of Zoe, but he didn't want to mention that, because Sam would twist that around to make him spend the night in a hospital--or worse yet, the Project clinic, with Dr. Beeks psychoanalyzing him and taking his cigars away. Standing up wasn't easy; his body kept trying to hunch over his groin. Then he remembered something important. "Sam, she said they can't find you in Time, not even before the Project. They wanted to go after you."

Sam carefully slung Al's arm around his neck. It felt a lot less threatening when he did it than when Zoe did. "I think I'm their secondary target."

"Huh?"

"Did it ever occur to you that maybe you were their main target, not me?"

"That's stupid, Sam. You're the brains. I'm just the Observer."

They limped toward the bedroom, with Sam's eyes on Al's feet. "Maybe that's because they meddled. Maybe you were supposed to come up with Quantum Leaping--you're smart enough, you're better with hardware than I am, and you've always been the one who had to manage the military and arrange for funding. Maybe you weren't supposed to get caught in Vietnam, or be shot down in the first place. Maybe your mother wasn't even supposed to be leave you when you were eight."

"Sam, that's crazy. Quantum Leap is your baby, not mine."

Sam was smiling as he half-carried Al through the bedroom door. "Maybe that's because I got sent in to help after the bad Leapers messed up your life enough to sidetrack you."

"Come on, Sam, you're making my head hurt more than it already does." To his amazement, they were already by the bed, and he hadn't even felt any pain, he'd been so distracted. That sly dog--he was copying what Al did to him on tense Leaps! Very gingerly, he eased himself onto the end of the bed, and watched Sam strip off the fouled top sheet. "Oh, boy."

"What?"

"Uh...that girl in my living room's gonna be sore when she wakes up."

"I have a feeling Zoe got to take most of the aches and pains with her. Here, lie down. Easy. Put your feet up. There."

"So why haven't you Leaped yet?"

"Maybe I have to convince you to see a doctor first."

"Fat chance." His eyelids wanted to close, but Al wouldn't let them. "Where are you going?"

"To check your medicine cabinet for painkillers. Don't move."

"Yeah, right. I was planning to try out for the rodeo."

(Sam's idea is half-baked, but...what if they couldn't find Sammy to kill him, or maybe seduce him to the Dark Side of Force, because in the future me and Gushie and the gang figure out a gizmo that'll magnafoozle his aura so nobody but Ziggy can lock onto it? I could Leap back to when he's born and use it. Gushie swears he and Ziggy have the Accelerator practically fixed.)

It seemed impossible, but so did time-travel, and he and Sam did that the way other people stopped at the liquor store for a few bottles. Tomorrow, when his head was clearer, he'd hook up his PC with Ziggy and do some preliminary research.

Nobody was going to mess with Thelma Beckett's boy as long as Albert Calavicci had anything to say about it.

(Wouldn't that be a kick in the butt, if Zoe Leaping here to kill us ended up saving Sam from her in the first place?)

He yawned, but forced his eyelids back up to half-mast. If he went to sleep alone, he was 100% certain to have the mother of all nightmares, but asking Sam to spend what remained of the night would be awkward...especially with Sam currently in Tina's luscious form.

Sam had returned with a glass of water and a bottle of pills left over from the time the serial killer Leapee got loose and busted his ribs. "Take two of these. I'll get you an ice pack."

"Get two," he croaked. "You could probably use one, too."

Sam just smiled and held the glass of water to his lips. Al obediently swallowed, then felt the hair on his arms stand on end. It was weird, being touched by Sam's Leap out when he wasn't wearing any clothes and wasn't standing in the Imaging Chamber at the Project. There wasn't even time to say "Goodbye," or "Thank you," or "Hold on because we're gonna find a way to get you back home, honest." Tina's body collapsed on top of his chest, but missed the important areas, for which Al was very grateful. He patted her back as she stirred.

"Al!" Those long eyelashes blinked. "I was in the Waiting Room, only I wasn't really, I was Sam--"

"I know, sweetheart."

She made a little moue and rubbed her crotch area. "Boy, that tattoo didn't feel that bad before." She sat up straight, putting her hands on her hips. "Hey! What am I doing here in your bed, anyway? Why are you naked?" Her eyes narrowed. "What were you and Sam doing?"

"Tina! That's disgusting!" He scowled, shaking his head at her nasty thought patterns. "Zoe--you remember her, that Evil Leaper who tried to kill Sam and her ex-partner Alia--she Leaped in, and when I wouldn't cheat on you, she was gonna turn me from a bull to a steer, so Sam Leaped into you to save me. Only he was little tiny bit late. Now, aren't you ashamed of yourself?"

"Oh." Tina raised herself on her elbows and lowered her head, checking his body to be sure nothing important was missing. "Oh, Al, you poor baby! Look what that Zoe did to you! Come here and let Tina make it all better."

Al nestled against her and smiled blissfully. (Sometime you don't have to do the bingo-bango-bongo to have a good time, although admittedly it helps. Sometimes it's enough just to be cuddled by someone you love....)


You know, I'd like to Leap back to Jane Leavell's Fan Fiction Page

. ...No, on second thought, take me to her main page to check out the links and guestbook.

...Better yet, I think I'll send her some feedback.