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Pinning on his best meet-the-politicians smile, Al tugged at the tunic of his dress whites and waited for the door to the Viewing Chamber to open. The amount of effort it took was vaguely dismaying; the longing for a stiff drink or twelve to get through the next half an hour was terrifying. He honest to god didn't know why he kept doing this to himself - why he didn't crawl off into retirement and a bottle and whatever peace he could find there.

But the same streak of pure, mule-headed stubborn that kept him alive in Viet Nam wouldn't give way now, and Al mentally resigned himself to enduring, with the promise of a hot toddy, hot tub, and hot blonde as soon as he was out of Stallion's Gate as incentive. The thought of the prospective hot blonde, the court clerk accompanying the Chief Justices, cheered him up enough that his smile was closer to genuine when the door to the chamber slid open. He stepped forward, one hand out to help steady anyone still reeling from the effects of what they'd seen inside - and the means used to see it.

"Easy there, easy," Al said to the tall, elderly black man who came out first. "Real kick in the butt, ain't it?"

Judge Lawrence blinked, opened his mouth to speak, blinked again. "I must admit, a very concise description - if one's backside is located above one's shoulders."

With a chuckle Al left him leaning on the wall and reached for Judge Acres, automatically smiling flirtatiously at her. Short and round, she was hardly his type, but the wide blue eyes under her cap of silver hair held the sort of wondering surprise that he was a sucker for. "I take it you're impressed."

"Very." She swallowed hard. "I can't even begin to imagine the consequences of being able to actually see a crime long after it was committed will have on the judicial system." Not unsurprisingly, she sobered quickly. "For now, I must admit that it will give rise to a great deal of heated debate on allowing it as evidence."

"All we're asking at present is if it can be considered just cause to delay execution in capital cases." Al shrugged, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. "You know how scientists are. They'll be fighting over the validity of the science for decades, but hard evidence is steadily mounting that what is seen in the chamber is accurate by any measure that critics have been able to propose."

"Indeed." Judge Lawrence stared thoughtfully at the floor. "It was well worth the tedium of the neuro-mapping process, as well as any health risks that may arise from the procedure."

"I wish I could tell you it's one hundred per cent safe, but truthfully, you can't know if there are long term effects if your oldest test cases haven't been in progress that long. I was one of the first, and let me tell you, the project doctors keep me under a microscope." Al leaned forward confidingly. "And they'd love to do the same for you and anyone else who volunteers to use the chamber."

Curiously, Judge Acres asked, "What other applications do your people have in mind?"

"Well, Verbena Beeks, the project psychiatrist, is campaigning to use it for therapeutic purposes, claiming that seeing certain life-altering incidents from a new perspective could have significant benefits. Historical documentation, of course. Can you imagine having first-hand experience, if only as a silent witness unable to interact with events, of say, Pearl Harbor? So many mysteries could be solved, like Amelia Earhart's disappearance, or at least, seen in a new light."

Al led the way back toward the main conference room, mouth working on auto-pilot with his usual spiel. It was comfortable enough a routine and one that gave sufficient satisfaction, if barely, that he actually relaxed and began to enjoy the discussion with the two Supreme Court judges. Their questions were insightful and provocative, and then they had to go and ruin everything by praising him for his genius in creating the project.

Desperately holding onto the semblance of good humor, Al brushed them off with the usual comment that none of the research was his. He had simply been in the right place at the right time to put the people, theories, technology and money together. Inwardly he wanted to howl in pain and frustration that the one man who was truly the genius behind it all had been forgotten, even by his own family. Time had erased Sam Beckett completely, not leaving the slightest ripple to prove that he had ever existed outside of Al Calavicci's memories.

Leaving the rest of the team to debrief the judges and woo them further into supporting the project, Al made his escape, finding himself back at the entrance to the chamber. He paced in front of it, torn as always between going in and staying the hell away. While anyone else who went in experienced whatever piece of history Ziggy directed them to, Al always, always, *always* appeared at Sam's side - unseen, unheard, and apparently as forgotten to Sam as Sam was to Time.

Sometimes it was too much to take; sometimes just being able to see Sam was all that held him together.

Al couldn't even talk to Ziggy about him. The records of Al's 'leaps' in the chamber never showed a hint of anyone being out of place, despite the fact that Sam was undeniably Sam to Al's perceptions. And he was inevitably putting something right, though Al usually had to guess on his own at what it might be.

If he hadn't had the clear, concise memories of the many changes in Time that Sam had made, Al would have been tempted to believe that he was strictly a figment of Al's imagination. On the other hand, he couldn't discount the possibility that he was completely insane. Weren't delusions as real as breathing to the nuts who had them?

Abruptly unable to stand another moment of his useless internal debate, Al spun on his heel and went into the chamber. "Good evening, Ziggy."

"Good evening, Admiral. Your usual random selection?"

To Al's ear, the hybrid's computer was more mechanical than ever; it was as if she lost more of her 'humanity' every day. Just two months ago she would have commented on how unusual it was that he never specified a destination and that other 'leapers' wished to see important historical events or a fragment of their own past. Or how disappointed most were that they couldn't look beyond their own life-times save on rare occasions when the quantum flow from the accelerator would simply go elsewhere on its own.

Snarling his yes, Al punched the lock button on the handheld to isolate him from her input and keep out anyone without an over-ride, which would sound an alarm if used. For a moment reality spun around him, then he was in the middle of a busy industrial-sized kitchen filled with people in chef's garb running around madly. Weirdly, an extremely lovely lady, accompanied by a stocky bald man, was watching the pandemonium while a camera crew filmed it.

The observers looked familiar and Al went to stand in front of them, studying them carefully as they waited for the call of 'cut' before relaxing into less posed positions. "That's one challenge that will have even the best of them tearing their hair out," Baldy said casually.

"Top Chef," Al said with a snap of his fingers. "My oldest loves that show. Huh. I don't think Sam's ever been this close to 'our' time. I wonder which one of the contestants he's supposed to be?"

Finally distracted from his own problems, he hung around the two stars, trying to guess which season it was without cheating and looking at the 'link for the date. The task they'd given the cooks was one that he didn't remember his daughter talking about, though he'd never actually watched any of the episodes, and he wasn't sure what the point of 'musical chefs' was. Wandering away, he peered into one of the boxes of ingredients that everyone had to use, though they were allowed to eliminate or add one item when, at random intervals, they were moved to a new work station.

The trick, Al realized very quickly, was trying to fathom what the chef before you had intended to do with the food by only looking at what had already been done. To his surprise, Sam, who usually either threw something into a microwave or ate fresh and natural, had no problem with the prep. He chopped, sauteed, and cut like a pro, blades and spatulas flying. It wasn't the first time since he'd been erased that Al had seen him demonstrate skills he didn't have, but there was something about the proficiency about it today that raised the hackles on the back of Al's neck.

Nor did he particularly care for the glazed expression in Sam's eyes. It was as if he was in a trance, almost, though he responded readily enough to comments from the other contestants. Lips pursed, Al peered up into Sam's face from the other side of the work counter, not liking the blankness there one bit.

While one part of his mind worked furiously, Al talked to Sam out of old habit. "Nice selection you got going there. Reminds me of a dish I had once while taking a furlough in the Caribbean. Had a sort of mixed fruit chutney on top of the shredded pork, but let me tell you, it had a bite to it that left the roof of your mouth screaming even as your taste buds were begging for more. Secret was this spice, what was it called, used in Chinese cuisine all the time, anyway you'd need to stew...."

Al trailed off into silence as Sam froze in place, knife literally in mid-chop. Disconcerted, Al started talking again, letting his original line of chatter flow without really listening to himself. "Those mushrooms, I'd discard them if you haven't already added or dropped something. At this point they'd be tough no matter how you'd cook them, and they won't really work raw with anything you've got going here."

Sam slowly stretched until he could reach the small stack of sliced mushrooms with his knife and sweep them into the pile of waste at the edge of his cutting board.

Heart in his mouth, Al whispered, "Sam?"

Still moving in slow-motion, Sam went back to his vegetables, gaze locked on his hands. Gradually he worked his way back up to lightning fast slashes of the blade, leaving Al rubbing at his face in confusion.

"Coincidence, I guess. If you heard me, you do something to let me know you did, even with all the cameras and witnesses around, right, Sammy?" Despite himself, Al waited breathlessly for some sign, any sign, but all Sam did was turn to the stove beside him to set pans onto the burners.

Shaking his head at himself, Al meandered off, but couldn't stay away long. "No, no, too little. You're going to need the sweet to off-set the worst bite of the spice, and you've got time to reduce the sauce. Go for the big saucepan, not the small one."

Without a moment's hesitation, Sam did exactly that.

Torn between confusion and pain, Al kept putting his two cents in, and, after a bit, began doing things that would Sam would have to react to if he were aware of him at all. He stood in the middle of the holographic (to him) stove, letting the flames lick around him in way that would have gotten a rise out of an atheist, told the most off-color joke he knew which should have produced a fire-engine red blush from Sam, and unexpectedly yelled directly in Sam's ear when the room was at its quietest.

None of it resulted in so much as a blink of surprise, but when Al simply shot the breeze, keeping his tone conversational and light, Sam would respond to Al's suggestions as if he'd thought of them himself. As un-nerving as it was, it was also the first thing they'd had resembling contact in several years, so Al went along with it, well aware he'd pay emotionally for the pretense sooner or later. After a while he even began to enjoy himself, snickering about what the other chefs were going through and assuring Sam that he was hanging in there pretty good.

Twenty minutes before time was up for the challenge, the chefs were moved for the last time and presented with the problem of presentation for a dish they knew nothing about. Sam stood at the work station staring blankly at the conglomeration of cooked ingredients as if they would magically assemble themselves into a recognizable meal on their own. After a moment he dropped his chin to chest, visibly controlling his breathing as if fighting off a panic attack.

"Hey," Al soothed. "This is the easy part. Take a taste of everything and decide if it's the main course, the side dish, or a garnish. Anybody can do that. This one's got the fish from what I can tell, so that's got to go on the plate first."

It took a few more seconds of coaxing, but Sam did what he was told, murmuring a description of what he ate. After that it didn't take long to fix the plates, but Al eyed them unhappily. "Boring, very boring. You need to dress it up, be artistic about it, but I don't see what you can do with this. Needs color, interest."

Without warning Sam darted away and came back bearing fresh oranges. Before Al could chide him about how plain and commonplace a fruit garnish was, Sam cut several slices and began to disassemble them into tiny orange triangles and small spirals of peel that he scattered attractively throughout the servings on the plate. The end result was rather like an abstract painting, and while Al had his doubts about the introduction of the raw orange as a flavor, he had to admit the visual was very nice.

Just as Sam placed the last piece, the clock ran out, and servers appeared to take the dishes to the judges. A proctor of some sort herded all the chefs into a pantry that had chairs set up to convert it to a waiting room, but Sam dodged the crowd and locked himself into the cooler beside it. Mystified, Al went in with him, idly checking out the contents of the shelf until Sam rested his forehead on the far wall, hands braced on either side at shoulder height, shaking as if he were already half-frozen.

Before Al could think of a thing to say, Sam murmured, "Al...." as tears slid down his cheeks.

The pain in his voice tore at Al far more viciously than any physical attack he'd ever known, and without thinking he reached for him, desperate to do something, anything, to ease even the smallest portion of that agony. He cupped the back of Sam's neck, then stumbled backward at the same time Sam jerked away, putting himself in a corner while he stared wildly around the room.

He had *felt* Sam under his fingers: felt the downy hair, the damp from the cold room condensing on heated flesh, the incredibly soft texture of skin.

With an insane mixture of hope and despair in his voice, Sam asked, "Al?" He took a half-step forward, reaching timidly. "Al?"

Just as cautiously, Al caught his fingers in his own, shuddering when they actually touched, impossible though that was. Abruptly Sam focused on his face, lifting his other hand to brush his thumb over Al's temple. "My, god, Al!"

He threw himself at him, snatching him up in a hug that was too tight to take a deep breath, but not tight enough at all. Al hugged back with all he had, smushing his nose into Sam's collarbone. "Aw, jeez, Sam, Sam, Sam."

They stumbled back into the corner, needing the support to stay on their feet because Al's knees were too weak to hold them and Sam was bawling like a baby, taking in great hitching whoops of air that made standing impossible. Tears didn't come easily for Al, but a few seeped out, not that he really noticed with the miracle of a warm, strong, tangible Sam in his arms. He felt so real, so impossibly real and without thinking Al sought out other evidence that he was *there,* sniffing at his neck and finding Sam's natural fragrance which he remembered from shared hotel rooms and doing laundry together in the hard days of pimping the project.

Animal instinct said that if he could smell Sam, he could taste, and he did, not caring about anything except assuring himself on all levels that he wasn't hallucinating or finally wigging out with no hope of return. He licked at the same spot he scented, lipped along Sam's jaw line, and gently butted his forehead against Sam's shoulder while biting at his shirt. Sam did much the same, blindly seeking as much contact as he could, all the while half-sobbing, half-laughing Al's name. Inevitably mouth met mouth, and Al dove into the kiss, never once giving thought to the fact that it was a man's lips on his. It was *Sam,* his Sam, and delving into his throat by way of tongue was just another way to touch him.

His body, on the other hand, had long ago been programmed with a set response to that particular stimulus, and all his blood fled south to engorge his dick. He was soon high and hard, burning against a matching ridge pressed along his length. Instinctively humping into it, Al moaned his pleasure and hungrily ate the one that Sam gave him in return. In a distant way he recognized that they had moved past comforting into sex, but he couldn't find it in himself to worry about it, let alone stop. All too quickly he was on the edge of his finish, dragging a very willing Sam along with him, unable to give up this incredible intimacy but unable override the urgent need for climax.

Dredging up a fragment of control, he groped between them for his fly and somehow got it open, hissing at a sharp stab of lust when Sam did the same. The moment their cocks scraped over each other, he grumbled, "Oh, god," and spilled. A bolt of intense pleasure tore through him, making it impossible to do anything but cling to Sam and moan, hips jerking spasmodically against him with his release. Distantly he felt a wash of wet warmth, heard Sam's low cry of ecstasy, and shuddered with a different sort of relief all together.

Together they sunk down to the floor, Al's back to the wall, Sam facing it as he sat on one hip. Winding his arms around Al's waist, Sam tucked into a small ball, his head resting in the curve of Al's neck. Smoothing a line from the back of his neck along his spine, Al dusted small, dry kisses over his hair, waiting for him to recover and give some indication of how he wanted to handle the turn of events.

For his part, it wasn't the first time in his life he'd been so deprived that he'd taken what relief he could, and losing Sam had caused the worst hunger he could imagine. In many ways he'd missed him more than he'd ever missed Beth when he'd been a prisoner and that was still a sorrow that echoed through him despite the divorce a few years ago. If he were honest with himself, having Sam go MIA, for all practical intents and purposes, had been the last straw his faltering marriage could stand. At least the end had been amicable and relatively easy for their daughters.

All he truly wanted now was to have Sam home, in the same Time with him, so they could make love again, much more thoroughly. After a bit, Sam whispered, "I don't know whether to smack you for taking advantage or complain that it was over too fast."

Chortling, Al said, "Maybe both? And then I can demonstrate how I can do a lot better at the last."

Although Al thought he felt the shape of a smile, all Sam did was snuggle in closer, tension flowing out of him until Al wouldn't have been surprised if he started snoring. After a bit, though, Sam said quietly, "Are you okay? Is Ziggy? Was there a major problem with the project? What kept you away for so long?"

Wishing he could obliterate all the hurt behind those words, Al said, "Swear to god, I've been with you every moment I could spare. But since you started Leaping as yourself, you haven't been able to see or hear me until today, and I have no idea why it changed in the first place, let alone switched to this."

"Ziggy couldn't get a good fix on me?" Sam said dubiously. "Maybe because there's no one in the Waiting Room?"

Biting the bullet since there was no telling how long the miracle of actually being with each other could last, Al shook his head. "Ziggy doesn't know who you are; no one does. As far as history is concerned, you don't exist anymore. The project at Stallion's Gate is called Quantum Peek, there isn't a waiting room anymore, and I'm currently in the Viewing Chamber, which, under other circumstances, would have been the Imaging Chamber."

"But... my name is on the contract for this show I'm doing; I've seen it. I have a driver's license, credit cards, a past that fits the situation I'm in here. That's the way all my Leaps are now."

Reluctantly Al took out the hand link and tapped in a few commands, then recited the list of contestants for the season of Top Chef that Sam was working. Sam's frown deepened as he read, but before he could comment, a knock sounded at the door startling both of them. Sam rocked up to his knees, putting himself between Al and entrance, hands going up defensively.

"Sam? Are you all right?" a feminine voice asked.

"Not really, Skyler," Sam answered, sitting back on his heels, voice thick and rough, apparently for effect.

"I'm really, really sorry, but you need to come wait with the rest of us. The production manager let you take as much time as he could, but there has to be some camera time with us reacting to what happened during the challenge." To her credit, she sounded truly apologetic, making Al wonder why Sam was being treated with kid gloves.

"Give me just another minute, okay?" A wry smile twisted Sam's expression. "Trust me, they don't want to film me the way I look right now."

"I'll tell them, but try not to take too long."

"Will do. And thanks, Skyler."

Sam waited a beat, probably to make sure she was gone, and turned back toward Al. All the color drained from his face and he lurched forward, blindly groping. "Al! Where...."

Acting on Sam's obvious panic, Al grabbed for him, catching him as he collapsed onto him.

"I couldn't see you," Sam gasped. "You were gone again!"

"Never left. Wish I could promise I'll never leave again." Al kissed him long and hard before breaking away to frame Sam's face in his palms. "We'll figure this out."

Inhaling shakily, Sam nodded. "Parameters. We need to establish some parameters. Why couldn't I see you a second ago, why I can now, what changed." Frowning, he inched away. "Don't move. Please. Just, don't move."

Abruptly he stood, almost absently cleaning himself with the kitchen towel that had been hanging from his waistband in the back and straightening his clothes with shaking hands. "Talk, Al. Any topic will do."

Tidying himself up as well, Al said the first thing that occurred to him. "Can't remember the last time I lost it like that; good thing I've got a hanky to clean the floor or I'd have some serious explaining to do."

"Al," Sam said with obvious, careful control. "I can't see or hear you right now. You didn't move, did you?"

Without waiting for an answer, he gingerly stretched out a hand, sighing explosively when he flattened his palm on Al's chest. "So distance isn't an issue, I don't think; just physical contact, and that doesn't have to be skin on skin. In fact...." Frowning, he scrubbed his fingertips over Al's uniform tunic. "That doesn't feel right. I mean, there's no texture, not really, no way to identify the fabric, no body warmth. It's more like, like, having my hand in a magnetic field. Pressure, but no other sensation."

Sam stroked a line along Al's throat, absently smiling when Al leaned into the caress. "That feels right." He cleared his throat, looked down at the floor, then lifted his eyes to meet Al's. "That feels *right.*"

"Yes, it does," Al agreed flatly. "And we'll get into the details on that when we've got more time and privacy. For now you just get through that genius noggin of yours that I've finally learned a few things about what love is, and I'm pretty darned sure we'll see eye-to-eye on the subject now."

Gracing him with a smile that always had the power to melt his heart, much as Al would have denied that once upon another time, Sam didn't so much as jump when another knock sounded, this one much louder.

"Beckett!"

"Be right out." Visibly putting away everything but the necessities, Sam added to Al in a whisper, "One of the contestants was either bribed or hired to deliberately sabotage the other chefs. I don't know which one, but he or she has to have immunity from being eliminated, at least for the first rounds, and the judges have to know that, though I don't believe they know why. If you could go listen in on them while they're deliberating, maybe you can pinpoint who it is. Right now I don't have clue one."

"Beckett!"

"Coming!"

Sam dropped a hasty but serious kiss on Al's mouth, then determinedly turned his back on him, rubbing at his face and eyes with his fists as if to erase the last traces of his tears. Loathe as he was to leave, Al did as asked and searched for the judges' table, enviously eavesdropping as they discussed the various dishes. True to Sam's prediction, the subject of a chef with immunity came up, and to his ears, the judges were not happy about that glitch in their deliberations. Apparently his skills left a lot to be desired, so far, but to Al's annoyance, they never mentioned his name.

When they reached setup for the direct critique part of the filming, Al made his way back to Sam, who was sitting in a semi-circle with the other chefs waiting their turn to be raked over the coals. The camera crew with them was still shooting, encouraging the contenders to chat and criticize their efforts. Sam didn't participate, but sat stiffly, staring in the distance and drawing several annoyed looks from both sides of the camera.

Finally a punked-out brunette with more piercings that Al had ever thought would get seen on the television, nudged him. "Sam, if this is all the attention you're going to pay to us, why did you show up at all? There were two alternates waiting in the wings who would have loved to have your spot."

"Cause my brother Tom thought I should," Sam said softly. "Where I work, it's his business, and you know what the publicity from this can do for a restaurant. He used to be a Navy Seal before he retired to Hawaii, and that's where he got the idea for the menu he uses - Best of It All. He would cruise restaurants when he was on leave, looking for the best of what the locals offered, sort of a hobby then, I guess. Anyway, a Seal's mindset is do or die, and he saw no reason for me not to be here."

"He's not the chef in his own place?" Someone asked.

Eyebrows going up, Al tapped the hand link. The Admiral Tom Beckett of his history was still in the Navy, running Seal Ops for the Indonesian Theater. Yet he knew from what he'd read on the show while snooping on the judges, Sam's application and background had been researched thoroughly before they would have considered him as a 'cheftestant.'

"No, he runs the front of the house, and his wife, Sou Lin, is the sous chef. I sort of fell into doing the cooking when I left my last career." Sam smiled winsomely, melting away several layers of resentment that had been aimed at him, Al saw with some relief. "I was suffering from serious burn out and looking for something completely different to do with my time. I started by helping Sou Lin in the kitchen because she was pregnant, and it grew from there."

"Whoa. I think you're the first person to compete that hadn't aspired to the hat since they could reach the top of the stove," Punk Girl laughed. "What did you do before?"

Ducking his head bashfully, Sam lifted both hands. "You're not going to believe me."

"Give us a shot."

"Yeah, this has to be good."

It took a few more good-natured cat calls, but at last Sam stood and went to a dry erase board mounted on the wall. Writing as he spoke, he said, "I studied quantum physics with an eye toward, among other things, how time and the super string theory of quantum mechanics works together." Taking the dropped jaws for granted, he gave only a portion of his attention toward the creation of equations on the board, but held everyone spell bound with the natural charisma of a born teacher. "You see, the math suggests that time, gravity, magnetism, all the natural forces of the universe, vibrate, and, like the material in a guitar or violin string, the frequency of that vibration is part of what unites them as a classification. All photons, for instance, if you could hear them, would harmonize in the same key and timbre."

"Ahhhhhh," somebody moaned in pain.

"Don't worry," Sam said with a grin. "There won't be a test on it later, I promise." To the general laughter of the room, he sat back down. "Anyway. The research money dried up, I couldn't find any reasonable proof, and my...." He suddenly choked, blinking furiously. "...My mother thought a sabbatical would be a good idea because I was working so hard, so I went to stay with her and Tom in Hawaii. You know the rest."

"I'm sorry for your loss," Punk Girl said softly, with several others chiming in with their condolences. "I don't know if I could have buried my mom then catch a flight the next day to do a television program."

"Thanks, Skyler, everybody. I have to admit that my focus right now is not on my cooking."

Ah, so that was the infamous Skyler, Al thought, bending over to get a better look at her. She was pretty girl under the zombie makeup and spiked hair, as well as nice. Checking the hand link, Al nodded. She'd made it to the last six in his version of reality.

That also explained why Sam was being treated so gingerly by the staff. If they believed he was in mourning, they'd be inclined to give him a bit more room, which he would need for his investigations. It would also give them a reason to excuse any serious bone-headed mistakes he might make as a chef. Sam was certainly doing a good job of acting the part of the bereaved son, except....

Al frowned. Except it didn't feel like acting to him; not to mention Sam had said that his 'cover' reflected his real life. Worried for him, Al made his way to his side and sat beside him to wait until the conversation shifted away from him. The last thing he wanted was Sam jumping a mile high on camera for no apparent reason when Al suddenly appeared again. Assuming he did appear to Sam again. Pushing that worry aside, he tuned back in to Sam's explanation to the others.

"...know I've been moving on automatic pilot most of the time; can't hardly think at all, let alone..." Sam's voice trailed off and Al recognized his expression as one of intense, detailed analysis of information as only Sam could do. "In fact," he went on reflectively, after a second. "it was almost like being in a zen state: flowing with events and elements without conscious purpose."

"Well," Padma said from the door. "For you, that worked. We've chosen our two favorite dishes, and you worked on both of them. Would you, along with Venda, Estev, Skyler and Reese, join us please?"

Amid the general chaos and clamor as people shifted positions and muttered congratulations, Al encircled Sam's wrist with his fingers, relieved when Sam glanced at him to flash a smile of pure delight. "Your guess about the judges was right on the mark," he whispered foolishly, as if anyone besides Sam could hear. "They didn't drop any names, but I could tell they were not happy about it. They're not impressed with whoever it is."

Bringing up the rear as they left the room, Sam whispered back, "That's good - if he's not trying, he'll be in the group with the worst work. You've just dropped the field down to six or so."

"If he's goldbricking because he's getting a free ride," Al said thoughtfully, "his attitude when he's told how lousy he did might make it easy to pick him out. I mean, anybody else would get defensive or maybe angry."

"I don't know," Sam whispered doubtfully. "If you've got a camera in your face recording your every twitch, especially this early in the game, guilty or not, you might do your best to stay unemotional or pretend to be unconcerned."

"Point. Either way, we need...." A squeal from the hand link interrupted them, but Al only pulled it out, slapped it silent, and put it back in his pocket.

Standing back from the queue as they waited to be ushered in Sam said, "You should answer that. It's not like I'm going anywhere soon."

"Oh, whatever it is can wait, or Ziggy would still be squalling," Al said, gesturing dismissively and hoping like hell that Sam bought it.

"If I don't exist, and the project still does under another guise, you must be the reason. Don't endanger your position there now, not just when we've connected again." Sam looked away, but Al could see his lips thin against emotion. "There's no reason to believe that whatever's behind that will dissipate as abruptly as it occurred. If it does, I think it'll actually be worse for me. If I don't see you fade away, I can keep hoping you'll be back soon."

"Awwww, Sammy." Giving into impulse, Al wrapped an arm around his waist and leaned into him, squeezing hard. On cue, Ziggy yelled at him again, and he scowled at the link as he slipped away from Sam's side. With what he thought was supposed to be a reassuring smile, Sam went through the entrance to where the judges were waiting for him and the others.

Since Ziggy was using an almost humanly urgent tone of voice, and because he didn't want Sam side-tracked by with worry, Al gave into the inevitable and opened the chamber door. Gooshie was on the other side of it, halfway panicked because the Chief Justices were up in arms over the Top Secret Umbra classification of the project. Al had anticipated that reaction - how many innocent people would be executed because their lawyers couldn't know it was possible to petition the court for a Viewing Chamber audit of history? - and had presumed he had laid it to rest before the judges entered the mountain.

Muttering to himself about the personal habits of lawyers, even supreme court judge-type lawyers, Al switched gears and followed Gooshie. It hurt, god how it hurt to set aside his concerns for Sam, no matter how pressing practical matters were, but Sam was right. He had to live his life in his own time until he could bring him home.

Hours later, Al poured himself a stiff one and sat behind his desk, calling up the episodes of Top Chef from Sam's Leap. It bothered him that there was no evidence of Sam's presence on the show, let alone the hint of a scandal from sabotage by one of the contestants. The closest he could find to some suggestion of a change in history was the confirmation that one of the original participants had changed their mind about appearing on the show due to a loss in the family. All the records on the man, however, had been mislaid somehow and no one even remembered his name.

Mentally comparing what he had seen earlier in the day to what had been broadcast, Al made careful note of who was eliminated and who won the challenges. Surprisingly - or maybe not, giving how Sam had been erased - the only difference in the two versions lay in the face and name of the man who made the spicy chutney for the pork. Sam's little lecture on the Super String Theory had not made the cut, nor any of the conversation about the loss of his mother.

Mulling that over, Al checked on Thelma Beckett, sighing tiredly when he found her obituary. A little more discreet research netted him the details he knew Sam would want, then he logged off for the day. After changing into a comfortable set of sweats in his favorite vivid purple with lame' highlights, he made his way to the Viewing Chamber, absently nodding to people along the way. Butterflies in his stomach, he went through the drill with Ziggy and stepped over the threshold.

He found himself in a bedroom that had been filled with twin beds, almost barracks style, in what had to be the middle of the night. It only took him a moment to pinpoint Sam among the sleeping bodies, in a bed closest to the far wall. Lying on his side, nose nearly in the corner, he was on top of the bedding, wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. Without hesitation Al tweaked coordinates to lay down on his side next to him, snaking an arm over his waist to hug him close. Sam's hand locked over his, and Al could feel the tension leave his too-stiff muscles.

Because of the intimacy of their position, not the worry for an audience, he murmured softly, "You can sleep now, if you want. I'll stay until you wake, and we can pick things up from there."

Shaking his head, Sam leaned back into Al, invitation clear in the wiggle of his backside into Al's groin.

With a kiss to the nape of his neck, Al pressed hard into his bottom. "Sure you can be quiet enough for the amount of company we've got on hand?"

He could almost hear the battle in Sam's head between what he wanted to do and what he should do. Fully expecting him to come down on the side of propriety, Al almost howled when Sam dragged their joined hands down to his not quite hard dick, rubbing himself lewdly the few seconds it took to get completely erect. Blood racing to his own cock fast enough to make him dizzy, Al moaned and humped against him, lips and tongue busy with Sam's ear. Apparently that was a special hot spot for Sam because he began thrusting, free hand stuffing his pillow into his mouth to stifle his cries.

"Damn, damn, damn," Al mumbled between nibbles. "I wish you didn't have to do that. I want to hear your love-noises, see if I can make you scream or whimper or, or...."

Abruptly Sam twisted away enough to take off his shirt. "Skin," he said so quietly it was hardly more than a breath of air. "Please."

"Awwww, jeeze." With fumbling fingers Al undid the front of his sweat jacket, glad he'd worn nothing under it. He gathered Sam back into his arms, squirming until he was plastered along Sam's spine, the solid strength of him doing interesting things to his already inflamed libido.

"Don't move; let me do all the work. You just lie there and let me love you." As sensually and tenderly as he knew how, Al stroked along Sam's front, admiring the lean length of him, more than a little bemused at how turned on he was getting. Since he'd done damn near everything that could be done with a willing woman, he'd expected to at least enjoy himself with Sam, but this was better than the first time he'd unexpectedly slid home with a girl.

Maybe because he loved Sam so damned much, he thought distractedly, then turned all his attention to turning him into a vibrating, panting, needy mass of flesh. When he'd tormented Sam's nipples into achingly taut peaks and nipped and sucked on his earlobe until it was flame-red and almost as hot, Al took his cock in hand. After all the teasingly light touches along the shaft and occasional fondling of the sac underneath, the firm contact was more than Sam could take. He lunged into Al's grip, then rocked back to momentarily capture Al's hardon in the cleft between his cheeks.

The achingly sweet pressure sent a thrill through Al that couldn't be denied. Giving into hunger, he thrust against Sam, matching the movement on Sam's cock, setting up a rhythm that only inflamed his need more. For a long, luxurious moment there was nothing but the pleasure he has so painstakingly created for them, spiking between them in stifled groans and desperate grinding. Then it shattered into ecstasy that could not be held by bone and body, but had to be released in bright arcs of euphoria and spilled seed.

Al drifted in the glow following their release, still idly petting Sam wherever he could reach. If he had his way, they would stay just the way they were until morning came, calling Sam back to his leap or Al back to the project. That wasn't going to happen, he knew, even as he felt Sam's brain engage again.

With a flattering sigh of reluctance, Sam carefully cleaned with tissues from a box sequestered between the bed frame and wall. Then he squirmed over until they were face-to-face as Al did the same with a handkerchief he'd brought for just that reason. Stealing a long, satisfying kiss after he made sure that no one was awake and looking their way, Sam got out of bed, offering his hand to Al.

Curious as to what he was up to, Al took it and was pulled out of the bedroom, down a hallway with doors that presumably led to other sleeping contestants, and downstairs. They slipped past a living room lit only by a flickering television screen, one of the chefs listlessly thumbing the remote, another snoring in the corner of a couch. Sam took them into a dining room, then out French Doors that led to a patio and pool, but didn't stop at either. Finally they were in a tiny shade garden close to the high brick wall and as far from the house as possible.

"We're private here," Sam said in relief, sitting under a magnolia tree, back against the trunk. "The security cameras are aimed at the fence, and while the staff knows I'm here, they won't be able to hear me or see more than a flash of movement now and then."

"Huh!" Al eyed the jagged glass set in the top of the barrier. "To keep the public out or you guys in?"

"Both. Not that it matters, except it will make the investigation that much easier. No worrying about outsiders, and it'll be noticed if anyone, even producers or directors approach one of the contestants privately." Sam put his forearms on upraised knees, hands dangling between them, making sure his thigh was in contact with Al. "It has to be either Weddle or Staren. You said the judges referred to a 'he' and of the four at the bottom of the last challenge, one was female and the other guy was the one told to pack his knives."

Sitting beside him hip to hip, Al said, "I'm not going to be much help on that front. From my point of view, you've already succeeded on this Leap. Staren will be eliminated on the next round; Weddle the one after that. The season proceeded smoothly with no major issues between the chefs, just the usual tensions you'd expect under the circumstances. No good cooks suddenly producing terrible food, nothing to indicate that there were anything hinky in the kitchen. The guy you replaced is Hank Timblinson, and he'll make it to the last six. He's been doing good since his run on the show; decent job at a three star in Atlantic City."

"Maybe the saboteur will be so obvious all I need to do is stay alert for suspicious activity," Sam said dubiously. "After all, he has no reason to believe he's being watched, especially by me."

"What I want to know," Al said with some exasperation, "Is why they see *you* at all. They call you Sam, but won't wig out when you suddenly become Hank or Hank suddenly becomes you or however it works now. Is that the way it always is when you Leap? And where is he? There's never anyone in the Waiting Room now, not that the project actually has one anymore, so it can't be residual image?

Dropping his head, Sam said, "Remember I was talking earlier about the vibration of the strings? In my original history, that theory wasn't very well accepted, and I pretty much ignored it relative to my own work since the math didn't suggest a reason to consider it. I think that was a mistake, as my current knowledge of quantum physics indicates not just that there are strings, but that they may form collective membranes that define our physical universe. That string that we metaphorically balled up to move from point to point on is combined with and resonating to all the other strings that make up people's lives in all times and places. Originally, when I Leaped, I displaced or drowned out 'their' string with mine, and I'm not sure why that changed.

"Now I think I'm only masking it and people accept it because we're both there, still in tune or maybe more in tune with the local melody, so to speak. Except for those times I Leap only as myself, about ten percent of the time, and then it could be a case of being a pure note that simply fits in with the chorus, to extend the metaphor."

"Like your string is louder than theirs," Al said, waving to encompass the universe. "And the Leaps are sort of a disharmony that you're correcting?"

Bestowing one of his brightest, happiest smiles, Sam said, "That's a good way to look at it. And maybe that difference is why we can touch now, and have to in order to see and hear each other." His smile died, and he tilted sideways to put his head on Al's shoulder. "I'm just sorry it took so long for us to discover that. Every time I Leaped, I always hoped that you'd find me again, always looked and listened hard for you, but never picked up on any clue that you were there."

"I was. You have to believe me on that, Sammy, but you never did anything that made me think you even remembered me or having any life but the one you were living for the Leap." Al didn't fight the temptation to trifle with Sam's hair, threading his fingers through the back of it, simply to be caressing him. "Yesterday was the first time you showed any awareness of me at all, and that was so subtle I wasn't sure I was imagining it."

"And yesterday was the first time I that I wasn't totally caught up in the Leap, worrying about you every spare second I had." Eyes drifting shut, Sam added slowly, "Like I said, I was barely functioning, which maybe allowed more of Hank to show through, leaving me in a more receptive, meditative state. All I could think of was how much I needed to see you, how badly I wanted to know you were okay; that I'd never had a chance to see my mother as myself again and how much that hurt and how much worse it hurt that might the case with you, too."

"Awwww, Sam." Al said. "I am sorry. I don't know what you were told...."

"Nothing; it's just something I know, like that I have to find a saboteur."

"She passed quietly in her sleep from a stroke, after spending a day at the beach with all her grandkids. Likely no pain, no time to be afraid, just the sort of peaceful end most of us would like. Tom and Katie sent her back to Elkridge to be buried next to your dad."

Gulping quietly a few times, Sam finally choked out, "Thanks. Knowing that helps."

"As much as anything can, huh?"

Al didn't expect an answer; didn't really want one. Sam's weight grew heavier and heavier against him, pleasant in a way he'd never really experienced before, and he was more than willing to let him slip away into much needed rest. He allowed him sleep until Sam started to shiver from the cold night air, then hustled him into standing and going back inside to his bed.

It was hardly the first time he'd done that for the super genius who could get so caught up in research he'd forget what day it was, let alone what whether or not it was day. But it was the first time that Sam snagged his wrist on the way to the mattress and pulled him down on top of him, muttering half-formed endearments against his collar bone. Al half-expected it to feel odd. After all, while he had a notion or two about sex between men, it was the first time in his life that cuddling with one had been on the menu. It was Sam as close as skin to him, though, and apparently that was all he needed to know. Al slept, too, well-aware Ziggy and Beeks would both have a thing or two to say about it later.

They were yanked out of slumberland with a fracas in the bathroom over toiletry items that had been switched, hidden or tampered with in various ways. He and Sam exchanged a look that spoke volumes about the saboteur getting such an early start, and, with a kiss that held promises for now and later, Al reluctantly left Sam to his Leap and returned to the project. After taking care of personal necessities like food, shower, and changing into one of his better shirts and clean slacks, he worked like a demon to clear his desk and calendar for the rest of the week. To the idly curious and pointedly worried alike, he laughingly explained away his absence with a shred of the truth - he was behind the scenes for Top Chef and loving it.

Theatrically bemoaning being able to look, but not taste, he was back at the Viewing Chamber by mid morning by his clock. Sam was running half a day ahead of him, he knew, so Al wasn't surprised to find him in the middle of the latest elimination round, looking very harried. It wasn't because of the challenge, which didn't seem to present much of a one to the chef he was channeling, but because of his recently won title of "Guardian Angel." Apparently he'd been catching and correcting interference from their bad guy since he'd walked into the kitchen.

From what Al gathered from the idle chatter of the others, Sam had called attention to a damaged pot here, a too-high flame there, an unplugged appliance on one side of the room, substituted ingredients on the other. The miracle of it, in Al's opinion, is that no one had gotten hot enough under the collar by the hassles to decide Sam must be responsible for them just because he was the person noticing. All the mishaps, minor as they were, had the contestants on edge, however, and Al worried that it wouldn't be too long before one of them did blame Sam for his troubles.

Waiting until there was a lull in preparation and conversation, Al caught Sam in the walk-in grocery pantry and gathered him into a long, hard hug. He didn't admit to himself until Sam shakily hugged back how much he'd been worried they wouldn't be able to connect again. A part of him wondered how long the fear would last and how the heck he was going to be able to live with it. The rest didn't care; he had what he had now. He'd lived on a lot less.

Pushing that aside, he said, "Any idea which one is behind your busy day?"

"I'm pretty sure it's Weddle," Sam murmured into his neck. "He's been in the right places at the right time, and agitating the others, too, with talk about jinxes and bad luck. What can you tell me about him?"

Without relinquishing his hold, Al took out the handlink and called up the necessary information. "Huh, bottom of his culinary class, went overseas on his parent's dime to try a fancier school, got kicked out for taking a punch at the boss, came back here, hasn't stayed in the same kitchen for more than a year at a time, usually closer to six months. Knows his food, though. No one complains about his cooking, just his work ethic and personal habits."

"Sounds like the type to want a short cut past the hard work, despite being able to do it," Sam said thoughtfully. "With a temper on tap for when he can't." He nodded to himself. "I know for a fact that Staren has been floundering too badly to even think about how to make mischief."

"So what do we do now? Catch him in the act and raise a fuss?" Despite the thrill of the hunt and the pleasure of working with Sam, a cold spike hit Al in the stomach. If Sam put things right, he would Leap, and who knew if they would be able to touch each other then?

"We'll need concrete evidence. Otherwise, any accusation I make might be seen as a way of eliminating the competition." A woman's voice rang out with the time, and Sam drew away slowly, catching Al's little finger with his own and pulling it down to where his apron covered his thigh to hook it into his pocket. He absently picked up a few sprigs of fresh mint and left the store room, towing Al along with him.

Amused, Al let himself be pulled along. "Setting him up will be tricky, too, for just that reason."

"Maybe I could...."

An angry shout interrupted whatever Sam had been about to say, and he picked up his pace to enter the main kitchen just as Weddle went nose-to-nose with a short, skinny Oriental gentleman Al vaguely remembered as being Wilson Tookey.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Weddle shouted, using his bulky six feet of height to loom over the other cook, dark piggy eyes narrowing.

With amazing composure, Tookey said, "Making ceveche, which, as you well know, requires a juicer for the fresh lime. You are not using that one, as you said yourself earlier when I asked."

"Yeah, that was just a ploy to get into my space, wasn't it? So you could put that rotten fish in with the good and ruin the whole batch." Weddle poked at Tookey, apparently expecting him to back away, but Tookey didn't move.

Coming up from behind Tookey, Sam said levelly, "His hands are bare, and I don't see any discarded gloves nearby. If he handled tainted fish, the smell would be on him, no way to mask it."

"And I saw him come over here. He was counting off something on his fingers; no fish," Skyler said, flanking Tookey on the left.

"Smart move on Weddle's part," Al muttered soto for Sam. "Making himself one of the victims to make it less likely to be one of the accused."

"Not to mention you're the only one who's had any trouble with spoilage," someone else added. By then all the other contestants were ranging on either side of Tookey, facing down Weddle, most with an air of annoyance but a few seemed genuinely mystified that he was in a rage.

Apparently not aware of that, Sam said calmly, "With the cameras and everything, we're all a bit nervy. They warned us about that, remember? It's easy in this situation to get distracted or mixed up." He managed a very realistic, open, good-humored smile. "I spent five minutes looking for my best knife, which I had in my left hand all along."

Unhappily taking in the opposition, and, in Al's opinion, maybe thinking he'd made his point as far as covering his backside, Weddle backed off a step. Regardless he said belligerently, "You saying I put that bad fish there myself?"

"Maybe you meant to throw it out and got sidetracked," Skyler said brightly. "Good thing you were cautious enough to double check once you found a few bad pieces in with your supply."

"Better safe than sorry," Weddle rumbled and turned away, running a hand through his thinning blonde hair and muttering to himself so quietly Al couldn't tell what he said.

Everyone else took it as a cue that the situation had been diffused and rushed back to their own tasks. Going to his own work station, Sam discreetly circled Al's wrist with his fingers and squeezed. "I'm going to have to focus on finishing the dish, now," he muttered, looking down at a checklist as if going over it to himself. "Much as I don't want to, it's probably better if we go our own ways until the cooking is done. Maybe you can keep an eye out for more trouble from Weddle, for me?"

"My pleasure. He strikes me as the type to get even, too, which gives me an even better reason to watch him." With a stifled sigh, Al pulled away and positioned himself between Sam and Weddle in such a way the man would literally have to go through him to get to Sam.

"Keep talking to me, too, Al. Maybe I won't be able to hear you directly, but on some level, I'm pretty sure I'll be aware of you."

"Done," Al said automatically, wincing when he realized Sam wouldn't hear.

To Al's surprise, Sam inhaled deeply, spine going very straight even as he flexed his shoulders and neck to relax them. He exhaled slowly, evenly, as if in a measured count, his gaze going abstract and distant. It was spooky, but even as Al shivered, he saw that Sam was trying to recreate the same frame of mind he'd been in yesterday when Al had first been able to reach him, however subliminally. It was a good plan, and Al tried to cooperate with it by wandering about the kitchen, idly chattering about how the other chefs were doing.

He never strayed too far from Sam, though, and made sure he always knew where Weddle was. That paid off a few minutes before they all ran out of time to complete their cooking. Weddle dropped an open bottle of oil, nudging it with his foot so that it rolled in the lane between cook stations. As both the bottle and oil were clear, they were hard to see on the brightly polished floor, making it a major fall hazard as the area had heavy traffic.

Before Al could call Sam's attention to it, Skyler left her post, hands full of plates to load the serving cart since she'd won the draw to present first. Shouting her name with the warning to stop, Al got in front of her, not forgetting she couldn't hear him so much as hoping he'd get through regardless, the way he had before on a few of Sam's Leaps. If she sensed anything, or if her intuition spoke up, she didn't pay attention but walked past him, gaze studiously on her burden to keep it balanced.

Al spun on his heel, senselessly grabbing for her. "Sam, stop her!"

Eyes flashing up from his slicing, Sam absorbed it all within a split second. "Skyler! Freeze!"

She hesitated, looking back over her shoulder at him. "What?"

Rushing toward her, snatching up kitchen towels as he went, Sam tossed the first on the floor in front of her to highlight the mess there. "Spill, bad one."

"Yowl." Skyler held her position until Sam took her elbow to steady her as she gingerly stepped over the mess. "Thanks. With my luck I would have gone ass over teakettle."

"And been seriously hurt," Sam agreed, sliding a glance toward Weddle.

"Nozzle," Al agreed, glaring at him in hopes he'd at least feel the contempt aimed at him.

Weddle pretended great concentration in placing his plates just so, but the tight line of his jaw and beads of sweat at his temples showed he wasn't as unaware as he wanted them to believe. Sam signaled one of the camera crew, indicating what the problem was, and one of the assistants flashed a thumbs up to show that someone would see to the danger. Leaving the towels as a marker to warn others - most of whom were truly oblivious to the brief by-play - Sam went back to his cooking.

Noting his air of satisfaction, Al caught his elbow to follow him. "You did that on purpose! You knew that low-life had at least one more trick up his sleeve, and put yourself in the right frame of mind to hear me if it was important enough."

Sam smiled enigmatically and went back to putting the finishing touches on his servings.

As luck would have it, the chefs were left to their own devices once their entries were served, and most meandered away to have a few minutes to themselves. Weddle was the last to leave, and he stopped in front of Sam, studying him as if to deciding where the best place to hit him would be. Sam returned the regard expressionlessly, still managing to convey his confidence that he could easily deal with whatever Weddle had in mind.

That, Al gloated to himself, disconcerted the underhanded slob, undoubtedly making him worry that he was being set up by whoever had bribed him to meddle. He retreated without a word or last glance, and Sam frowned after him, clearly thinking fast and hard.

"I didn't expect him to do anything really dangerous," Sam murmured. "Not yet anyway. Skyler could have broken a bone and been put out of the competition, or worse."

Al went tummy to tummy with him, ignoring Sam's small jump of surprise. "Don't go blaming yourself for not guessing how fast he would get nasty. Because you're here, she didn't get hurt, and you have no idea what happened to her in the first history. Maybe you're the reason why she made it as far as she did."

"She didn't get hurt because you're here," Sam corrected gently, twining his fingers into Al's and holding their joined hands down at his sides. "Thing is, I know how to prove Weddle is behind the 'accidents' we've been having all day long, but I didn't want to go to the judges with it yet. All I wanted was a chance to test my theory as to why suddenly we can touch, and honestly believed it wouldn't hurt to wait another day so I could." Eyes downcast, he added, "And I'm scared about losing contact with you again when I Leap next."

"Can't say I haven't worried about that myself," Al admitted. "But if we did it once, we can do it again. There's nothing special or unique about this Leap, as far as I can tell, or about the guy you're working through. And we know we can do it. Or at least I do, so if you forget...."

"No, that doesn't happen anymore," Sam put in eagerly.

"No more magna-foozled?"

"It stopped when I started Leaping as myself. I think it's for the same reason that Ziggy doesn't record the changes I make in History any longer. It's all tied together in the Super Strings and the time we simo-leaped. Do you remember when that happened?"

Giving a little squeeze before he released Sam's hands, Al stepped away to pace for a minute, pulling out one of his cigars. He hated lying to him, especially in the middle of a Leap, and he'd never been particularly good any it, anyway. On the other hand, he had no idea how well Sam would handle the truth in this particular matter; he took the blame on himself too easily for things he had little or no control over. Wasn't that part of why he made that first Leap to start with?

He went back to where Sam was waiting for him patiently, taking up the same position except that he left one hand free for gesturing with the cigar. "Yeah, I remember that. I remember all the histories, Sam, including one where I was executed for murder, which, let me tell you, is a useful thing to have kicking around in your head. And the one where Beth didn't wait for me to be repatriated."

Rubbing the bare spot on the ring finger of Al's left hand, Sam dropped his chin to his chest. "It didn't help?"

"Yes and no. We had a good marriage, raised a wonderful family, all daughters, but I never learned to put her and the girls first. I was too messed up from being a POW to realize what I was doing." He poked Sam gently in the sternum, cigar wagging. "It took you and the leaps to teach me that, but by then it was too late. We're still friendly, though, and I see them all the time, thanks to those lessons." Al shook his head at the oddness of how his memories worked. "You have no idea how weird it is to be grateful for something that didn't even happen this Time around."

Sam's head shot up, catching and holding Al's eyes. "But those changed histories are that real to you? What we did together, all the people we helped, they're as distinct and valid for you as the life you're living now? It's not all blended together or faded like a dream?"

Mystified at how intently Sam was studying him, Al said, "Don't ask me how I manage to navigate through them all, because honestly I can't tell you, but, yeah. For instance, I think of Tina with a lot of love, and now I've never even met her."

"That's good, that's important," Sam said, excitement rising. He twisted to look as a few members of the camera crew went through the kitchen at the far end, deep in discussion with each other, and lowered his voice. "One more question before we're interrupted - if Ziggy doesn't know about me, how are you finding me when you use the Imaging Chamber?"

"No idea. You're just always there when I go into the Chamber. Originally I talked Ziggy into letting me randomly leap because I thought we might bump into each other; more than a few of your leaps were for people one or the other of us knew personally. You have no idea how relieved I was when I went straight to you." Al leaned into him a bit more heavily, peering up into his face. "Wait. You said you had a theory. Is that why the twenty questions?"

"Yes." Sam glanced away at the sound of voices approaching in the distance, then said quickly, "I'm going to take care of Weddle, but hold off Leaping until this evening. I've usually got control of that, almost like a reward if I want to stay and see the end results of my work or just rest a little. I'll go back out to the shade garden at the house and explain everything then, I promise."

"Wait, wait. Give me the Dick and Jane version." Al heard more people coming in and added hastily, "Okay, just a clue."

Running his hand along Al's back in a loving, affectionate caress, Sam said softly. "One string, shared."

Despite the intensity of their conversation, Al couldn't help but arch into the touch, eyelids drifting down to half-mast in pleasure. The distraction wasn't enough to stop him from absorbing Sam's words, but was sufficient to ease the ache of loss when Sam straightened, adopting a blandly friendly expression. Al looked over his shoulder to see the same assistant who interrupted them yesterday.

Before Sam could release the death grip he had on Al's hand, Al said jovially, "This guy is as good as nun at sniffing out a personal moment to cut short, isn't he?"

Sam ducked his head to hide his smile and let the man hustle him away to the stew room, Al sticking close. Al was willing to bet that the mandatory rehash of the challenge was far more light-hearted than any of the contestants expected, and Sam was to blame for it. Under cover of quips and banter, though, he skillfully led all of them to the recognition of how odd it was that there had been so many unexpected difficulties. Weddle ran out his line about bad luck, but no one bought it, a few eyeing him suspiciously for even trying.

When Padma came in to fetch the first group of chefs, Sam stood before she could speak. "You've already made your decisions, right?"

Confused, she stole a look at the director, but said, "Yes, and they're final."

"Good. We have something we need to talk about before you make an official announcement, and frankly, we think it should be off camera." Sam made a sweeping gesture to include everyone present, and to Al's relief, they all nodded in agreement with him.

After a hasty conference with the camera crew and director, Padma had Tom and the guest judge brought in, and once they'd all settled down, Sam asked, "You don't have to name names, but have you been asked by someone you trust, or someone representing someone you trust, to give immunity to one of the contestants until further notice."

Al could see that Sam and the others found their answer in the judges' expressions, and the soft cries of disappointment, surprise, and hurt made the three of them shift uneasily. Padma said quickly, "I'm sure there is a purpose, and so far, the immunity has not interfered with fair results."

"The person involved has been persuaded to cause mayhem in the kitchen and among the chefs," Sam said gently. "I don't know why, but I can prove who. I think I can speak for the others when I say I can't compete under these circumstances. I'll quit, and I won't hesitate to say why."

There was a general murmur of assent, and Skyler said to Al's heartfelt approval, "No matter how you look at it, this game is rigged. What are you going to do to make it fair again? At the very least, we deserve to know who and why."

"You said you knew," Tom said, not quite accusingly.

"I'm hoping he'll come forward; it would go a long way if we could hear his side of the story. But if he won't, I'm sure the camera crews caught him in the act at least twice today." Sam jotted down a few times, almost down to the second, the location being filmed, and the camera being used, then gave the slip of paper to the director. "They just didn't know that was what they were seeing. It won't take long to confirm I'm right."

"Justin said it would give the show a ratings boost," Weddle blurted abruptly, and Al blew an unheard raspberry at him. "It would get a more mainstream audience and wider recognition for the chefs who competed. All he was looking for was a little more drama, a little more of the human factor so the common man would notice."

"Justin?" Padma said. "He's only an assistant."

Weddle shifted away from the other chefs, fists balled at his sides. "I know, but he arranges damn near everything, so he knows his stuff, and he's right. The average jerk on the street wouldn't know ceveche from couscous and doesn't care. If you could just get a small percentage of them to watch the show because of the tension and conflict, it could mean a big boost for all of us."

"Somebody wants to be a celebrity," Al said disdainfully, and Sam slid him a sidelong look of shared understanding.

"The appeal of the show is that it's not for the common man," Tom argued. "It's for people interested in expanding their tastes and learning more about the world. The names of the celebrity chefs we use have enough draw to pull in the curious or wannabe gourmet, and that gets us a niche that works very well. Our sponsors are classy and upscale, letting our audience bask in the feel of being sophisticated without pretension."

"How can you be content with a single bite when you could have a whole damn pie?" Weddle shouted.

"Some chef you are," Tookey said out of nowhere. "A single bite is gourmet; a pie is gluttony. You might as well sling hash in a casino buffet instead of running an exclusive restaurant. Who cares if you're not Ronald McDonald if you've got the Kroc family slavering to eat at your table and willing to pay a fortune to do it?"

Again there was a general murmur of agreement, though Skyler had to add, "Not that I would say no to having both."

The laughter that followed the comment lightened the room, and even Weddle eased off enough to sink back into his chair. "So what now?"

"Good question," Padma said, sitting down herself. "Any hint of scandal that the show was rigged will end the season, maybe the show itself. Our sponsors would ditch us without question."

"Are you willing to take our word that the immunity did not influence our earlier decisions?" Tom asked.

As the judges and contestants worked out a compromise that would allow them to continue, Sam gradually divorced himself from the group until he was standing at the fringes, and Al was willing to believe that not a single person remembered he was in the room. Finally he slipped out, making his own way back to the house the contestants were sharing. The sun was going down when he let himself in, and he only paused on his way through the building to pick up a few pieces of fresh fruit in the pantry.

Once outside, he went straight to the garden, settling under the tree with a grateful sigh and stripping off his chef's tunic. Al sat cross-legged in front of him, knees knocking Sam's. Watching him bite into a perfectly ripe pear, Al said wistfully, "Bet that tastes good. It's been torture seeing all that great food and not even getting whiff of it."

Swallowing his bite, Sam smiled mischievously. "Want to try an experiment?"

Before Al could yes, no, or maybe, Sam leaned forward and kissed him. The first shock of taste was cool, tart, with the slightly grainy texture of the pear, but the rest was pure Sam, sweet and fiery, flaring through Al so completely that he forgot about anything but finding more of that incredible flavor. He delved deep, licked at the edges of the lips yielding so lusciously, nibbled at the them as well, and gently pummeled the tongue that tagged and twined with own all through his plundering.

He had almost forgotten how sexy simply kissing was, and was mildly surprised that Sam was an expert at it. Making hungry, excited noises in the back of his throat, Sam met and matched each tiny shift of position Al made, each small retreat and advance. Seemingly content to do nothing but kiss, Sam wrapped his arms around him and lay back against the tree, pulling Al with him until Al was sitting on his heels astride Sam's lap. Despite the hardness poking at Al's belly, he only continued feasting on Al's mouth, taking his turn at learning what Al liked best in their shared mating of taste and passion.

At some point, though, Al couldn't stop his hands from roaming, though they never strayed past bare flesh. He cupped the back of Sam's head, fingers tugging playfully at his hair, massaged his neck and shoulders, ran his thumbs over Sam's cheekbones and jaw line. Sam murmured his approval, then pulled at Al's shirt collar to suggest he was wearing too much. Since it was definitely a good point, Al undid buttons and shrugged out of it, somehow without ever releasing Sam's lips.

To his delight, the heat and satin of being skin-to-skin with Sam added to the pleasure of their kisses without being a distraction from them. When Sam caught Al's lower lip between his teeth and lightly bit, the shiver that chased over his arms and down his spine made him eager for the next nip, the next firm stroke of tongue to sooth the minute sting of the bite. The desire that had him high and ready, churned heavy and languorous in his gut, seeking to make its escape into frenzied coupling, but Al refused to give up the wonder of being orally cherished as if he were too delicious to hurry into release.

Finally he and Sam found other places on each other to kiss - chin, eyelids, brow, cheek bone - using everything from sucking bites to feather light brushes of lips. Inevitably Sam found the spot just under Al's ear that had always held the power to turn him into a mindless mass of need, and he made full use of his advantage to drive Al to the edge of begging, arms locked around his hips to keep him from bucking against him. The pressure against his length, Sam's deep groans, even the color of the dying sunlight in Sam's hair were all so good that Al could only be grateful that Sam would not let him be captured by the single-minded demands of his dick.

When Sam finally gave a last lick to that sensitive bit and purposefully made his way down Al's torso, taking his time to nuzzle and taste, Al could only watch his progress from under lowered lids. Hands resting lightly on Sam's shoulders, he swayed back to get the best view, almost holding his breath as Sam got closer and closer to his hardon. The emotion that burst through him at the mere possibility of what was going to happen next had him reflexively tightening his grip on Sam.

"I want you in my mouth," Sam mumbled, tongue fucked Al's bellybutton for a moment before scrubbing his cheek over his tummy. "Please. The idea of you using me that way…" He moaned and roughly palmed the bulge in his pants. "Please. I know you're close, you'll be rough and hasty and I don't care, I want it like that. Please, please, please."

"Sam...." Al breathed, loosening his hold and reaching to undo his fly. "Sam," he repeated in an entirely different tone.

"You're the first, the only," Sam muttered, gaze fixed on what Al's fingers were doing. "Loved you before wanting you, but, God, when the wanting came..."

Al put a finger under his chin and lifted it until their eyes met. "When the wanting came, so did the hunger, to the point of madness, where anything is not just possible, but necessary."

"Yes."

That simple affirmation, made with Sam's heart in his eyes, undid Al completely. Taking a fist full of hair, he pushed Sam down onto his cock, intuitively sure that the force was part of the down and dirty that Sam craved. Which, God help him, Al craved just as much as proof that this was real, Sam was real, and for now, at least, he had what he needed.

He thrust as Sam opened to him, choking a little at the unfamiliar intrusion, but coping with it gamely. Holding his head between his palms, Al fucked his face with savage intensity, barely restraining from using full strength. Sam's lips locked around him, tongue fluttering inexpertly as he tried to find a way to accommodate the length possessing him. That bit of clumsiness, along with the stifled gags as Al plunged into his throat, was as good as the wet heat holding him so intimately, and Al surrendered to his lust, using him as if he were a well-paid pro.

Holding off his finish with mad determination to have Sam as long and hard as he could, Al gloried in Sam's desperate eagerness, his harsh pants and groans as he fought for air. As if Al weren't giving him enough, Sam grabbed him by the ass and added his strength to each shove into him, burrowing into Al's groin in his need to have him all the way in. He shook with the power of his own need, as no lover had ever trembled for Al before.

"Like that?" Al crooned, barely aware of the words spilling unbidden from the depths of his hunger. "Like being my hole to plunder, my cocksucker, my nasty little bitch. Going to cream for me? No need to play with yourself, just from my big, thick prick hammering away at that filthy mouth? Gonna drink me down, swallow it alllll up like the desperate, needy, slutty, beautiful, wonderful, amazing...."

Al slammed all the way in, all the way out at each word, then screamed Sam's name as he froze in place, back arching as his body released his seed in a crescendo of ecstasy. It tore from deep inside him to pulse through his cock into Sam's keeping, robbing him of everything but a pleasure almost too much to bear. Against his will his eyes closed, but not before he was blessed with the sight of Sam's expression twisting in rapture as his own climax took him.

After a small forever that was all too short, Al sagged down onto Sam, too weak to stay upright any longer. Sam took his weight with a nearly inaudible sigh of bliss, awkwardly shifting until they were both comfortably entwined. Around them the night crept in with the promise of moonlight later and a soft wind to carry it to them.

With an idle kiss to Sam's chest, Al mumbled, "If all your experiments were like that one, you would have never survived getting your first doctorate."

Obligingly, Sam chuckled, fingers tracing curlicues over Al's biceps. "Didn't have the right lab partner back then."

"You ever miss the lab? The pure thinking, planning, devising?" Apparently, Al mused, his brain was ready to get back to business, even if he wasn't.

"Not really," Sam said thoughtfully. "It wasn't until I'd been leaping for a while that I realized how isolated I'd made myself by concentrating on pure science, on intellectual pursuits. I guess I had the peace of the dervish: so busy I didn't have to think about what I didn't have."

"I can't imagine you giving up on it entirely. I mean, even with this Leap, you've been theorizing on Super Strings and Membranes and the sort of things your average chef never even heard of." Al leaned up on an elbow so he could look down into Sam's face. "So are you going to tell me how that applies to the fact that now I can screw your brains out if I want to?"

Sam gave him the widest, happiest smile that Al had ever seen from him. "I think you and I share the same string now. Between the simo-leap and you coming to me when I made the switch to leaping as myself, we somehow got entangled or blended, I'm not sure which, but what we're actually doing is touching mind-to-mind, my muons and neurons directly stimulating yours. That's why you always come to me when you use the chamber; why I can sense you if I let myself go beyond the time and place of my leap. It would also explain why Ziggy can't see any changes I've made. In a very real way, my leaps are all done in your time. They're part of your past."

Al turned the idea this way and that in his head, trying to understand it, but feeling to the heart of himself that Sam was onto something. "What does this mean as far as you leaping home?"

To his relief, Sam's smile didn't dim a watt. "I have a theory, if you don't mind testing it."

Looking down at where they were wound around each other, Al asked, "Now?"

"Now. I have to know if I'm right." With almost laughable eagerness, Sam scrambled to his feet, dressing hastily. He helped Al stand and hugged him tightly. "There's no risk, I swear. At the very worse, things will stay exactly how they are."

"Sam...." Al started dubiously.

"I know, I know, I shouldn't just go charging off without telling you what I have in mind, but this way, you can't be disappointed, and I'll have the chance to think through why it didn't work and maybe try again with more success. No point in both of us suffering through my trial and error." Sam gave a last squeeze and backed off a step.

"Sam," Al tried again.

Looking away and swallowing hard, Sam admitted, "I'm afraid I'll lose my nerve if I think about this too long. It means too much to me."

After a moment of near panic, Al gave in against his better judgment, like always, trusting Sam's instincts, like always. "Just promise me there's no way you can get hurt."

"Promise." With his heart in his eyes, Sam smiled at him and Leaped.

With a sickening swirl, the Viewing Chamber materialized around Al, and he wearily took out his hand link to open the door. Ziggy, of course, had dozens of questions about his time inside, each more pointed than the last, which was actually vaguely reassuring for Al. She sounded more like herself, and that made him think that whatever Sam was up to, might be working. Beeks was waiting for him, as well, and brushing her off was harder than dealing with Ziggy, but at last he was free of her genuinely concerned clutches and on his way home.

Walking into the late afternoon sunshine was disconcerting; most of him expected it to be night because it had only been a few hours since he'd seen a sunset. He'd adjusted to tougher things, though, and shrugged it off as he went through security and headed toward his parking space. To his immense annoyance, some arrogant piece of work had popped the hood on his car and had his head poked inside.

That happened occasionally. In all the histories, Al had taken the body of a Lamborghini and rebuilt a motor for it from a 365 Cleveland with modifications and tinkering designed to give the maximum horsepower with the minimum of fuel. In truth that had been a project he and Sam had worked on since the days of Project Star Bright. They had built their friendship with that car, and he still messed with it because it reminded him of those days.

Over the years, though, he had bragged to a few people about what the car could do, and even shown it to an acquaintance here and there who could appreciate what the vehicle was capable of. The end result was that the occasional nosy parker would come along to see for himself if there was something under the hood that he could steal, usually under the guise of making Al his partner in the endeavor. One particularly enterprising jerk had even suggested Al fund the marketing of the fuel thingie he and Sam had cooked up for boosting efficiency.

"Like what you see," Al said sarcastically as soon as he was close enough, hand link ready to summon security if the nozzle gave him any trouble.

"Al, what have you been doing to our baby?" Sam said distractedly.

Unable to believe his ears, Al froze in place, staring at the suddenly familiar backside and long legs.

"The injector's not close enough to the pistons for the preheating it needs to give the vapors the optimum expansion before firing. How many miles per are you getting now?" Sam poked his head back out. "Al?"

"You're home?" Al said slowly, not ready to believe it, despite the way his whole body was quivering.

Eyes sad, Sam shook his head. "No. This is another Leap, and sooner or later I'll have to Leap again." He straightened and approached Al as if expecting him to take a swing at him. "I can Leap back, though." He hesitated, chin dropping. "If you want me to, that is."

"SAM!" Jumping for him, Al grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "You're here!"

"Whenever you want me to be, as long as you want me to be." Making the words a solemn oath, Sam leaned in for a hard hug and got one in return.

"Because we're one string," Al said triumphantly, finally getting it. "Where ever you are, I can be, and visa versa, even if I have to use the Viewing Chamber to do it."

"Something like that," Sam murmured against Al's temple.

Pulling back suddenly, Al said, "What happens when I, you know, pass on?"

"Maybe I stop Leaping. Maybe you start Leaping with me. Maybe I go with you. Does it matter?" Sam said gently.

"No, no it doesn't." Al gave him another shake. "You're here. Period. The rest we can worry about when we have to."

With a soft laugh, Sam said, "That's my Al."

Hooking an arm around his back, Al turned them toward the car, slapping the hood down as he went past. "Come on; I'm *starving.*" He waggled his eyebrows at Sam. "Then we can get some food."

"Only if you're cooking," Sam said with such primness that Al shot him a look of pure astonishment before breaking into guffaws. Sam joined in as Al shoved him into the passenger seat so they could get their butts home.