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For I Would See the Sun Rise Upon the Glad New Year

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1996

People who had never been to New Mexico sometimes made the mistake of thinking it was one of those places, like Southern California, where the sun shone all the time and it never got cold. Of course, Al had spent enough time in San Diego to know that even California didn't always live up to its Hollywood reputation.

New Mexico, though, was inland and--at points--also a hell of a lot further above sea level than most of California. At higher elevations, sometimes they got snow. But even down in the desert, especially in the middle of winter, when the sun went down, it got cold. Damned cold.

At midnight on New Year's Eve...hell, he'd spent warmer nights in space.

This time, though, it wasn't the lack of humidity leeching heat from the air as soon as the sun went down that had him shivering like a wet dog. This chill went deeper than his bones, straight into his soul.

The others didn't feel it. Not yet. They were still riding too high on the success the year had brought them; Sam's theories were right, he'd proved it. The dread of what might happen if they couldn't retrieve him this year, or next year, or the year after that, hadn't sunk in yet. Except for Al. Maybe because he'd seen Sam; seen the look in his friend's eyes that he remembered feeling himself almost thirty years ago, in a jungle whose heat had been as stifling as the desert cold was piercing.

It was the look of a man who didn't know if he'd ever see home again.

The alcoholic in Al wanted a drink so badly he could almost taste it on the night air. A strong drink--whiskey might burn hot enough to drown out this creeping cold--but he couldn't. Not just for his own sake, not because of any stupid twelve-step program he'd never been sure he believed in, but for the sake of a promise. If he lost himself, if he gave the Committee any reason to take him off this project, he wouldn't be able to keep that promise, and that knowledge was stronger than the addiction. It was the only thing that was, anymore. It was all he had left.

"Admiral?"

He recognized Gooshie not just by the voice, but by the hint of halitosis on the wind that followed the little programmer around like an inconvenient curse.

"Admiral?" Gooshie repeated, stepping out away from the building, his usual costume of solid white making him look like some sort of spirit against the desert. "What are you doing out here? Everyone else is still down in the control room, celebrating." He hesitated a second before adding, "Even Dr. Alessi."

Dr. Alessi. Donna: who wasn't even here a year ago because her faith wasn't strong enough to ever make it this far. Al wondered, privately, if Sam had any idea what he'd done to her, the disappointment he'd set her up for, by restoring it.

Of course, Gooshie didn't know that. He didn't remember the way things were before Sam leaped into Lawrence College in 1972. To him it was as simple as: if Sam's wife could enjoy the holiday and believe he'd come home in the New Year, why couldn't Al?

Aw, hell. Maybe he was overthinking this. Maybe it was just the POW in him who took six long years to find his way home from the jungles of Vietnam that figured a man lost in time had to have even longer odds. Maybe it was the man who had lived for his wife, only to discover she'd given him up for dead, who couldn't quite look at Donna without picturing the long, hard road ahead of her. They had the most brilliant minds in the country hidden deep under that mountain. Surely no team on Earth was better qualified to find one man and bring him home than the one they'd assembled.

Still...he couldn't ignore the nagging certainty that the brilliant mind they really needed was the one that'd been perforated like a paper target and scattered across fifty years of history. Was it any wonder he didn't feel much like celebrating?

"I'm going to check on Sam," Al announced abruptly. "Gooshie, for God's sake, go back to the party. Stink up someone else's air for a while."

The words were as sour as his mood, but good-tempered Gooshie--damn the little bastard--didn't bat an eye. "Sorry, Admiral. If you want the Imaging Chamber to actually work, you'll have to put up with me for a little while longer."

Al grunted, irritated but hardly able to argue the point. Together they headed back inside the innocuous white building that hid two of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in human history, into the elevator that would take them deep inside the heart of the mountain, into that bright underground that only made the shadows seem longer and darker by contrast.


2001

Someone had spiked the punch. Al could feel the effects of it as he stepped out of the elevator at the surface. It was ironic that as recently as his birthday, six short months ago, they all would've known better. But things changed, especially around here.

If there's one thing Al got from AA that he absolutely believed in, it was the idea that alcoholism is a disease that is never really cured. Not even, apparently, by erasing the past where that long, downhill journey was started. He still remembered the compulsion; ergo, it still had a hold on him.

That was just one of many things Beth had to get used to about the "new him."

"New" him: what a laugh, considering it was really just the opposite. He was old--Beth and everything else around him, that's what was new. But how could he explain that to a woman who watched her husband go off to work like he did every other day, but come home with a whole other lifetime's worth of baggage?

Some days he thought she understood without him even trying to explain. After all, his Beth was too smart not to know that the description of the mysterious stranger who had given her hope matched Sam to a T. Or what that simple fact meant to the Project as a whole. He hated himself for how easy it would be to resent her silence on that matter for so many years, even though he knew what the consequences could've been had she broken that silence.

If Sam was leaping with his own face now...well, Al'd be damned if he knew how or why, but it would certainly explain why there'd been no one in the Waiting Room for the past several months since he disappeared.

"Which just makes more work for everyone else and gives me nothing to do," Al joked weakly to the silent, empty desert. He fell silent for a long moment before quietly, bitterly adding, "Thanks a lot, Sam."

Okay, so that wasn't entirely true. Or really true at all. He'd been working as hard as any of them, spending so much time in the Imaging Chamber just looking for Sam, any sign of him, that he was a little afraid his family was going to forget what he looked like. And wouldn't that just be the perfect irony? Sam going to all the trouble to get Beth back for him, only for him to lose her again by spending all his time looking for Sam.

It wasn't fair that fate seemed determined to make him choose between the two most important people in his life. Like he couldn't have one without losing the other; the memories of having both just a mocking falsehood he'd never really lived through.

And God, what kind of an ass did he have to be to feel that way? As if having Beth back--only the thing he'd dreamed about for nearly half his life--wasn't good enough.

"Al?"

Speaking of Beth...he turned to see her walking towards him, steam rising off whatever was in the mugs she carried in each hand. She handed him one. "Coffee. I thought you could use it if you're going to be up all night staring at the mountain."

Al stared at her. "How did you...?"

Beth gave him the same impish smile that was one of the first things he'd fallen in love with. "You've done it every year for the past five years--did you really expect me not to notice?"

He looked away, embarrassed, and she sighed. "I know you probably don't want the company, but--"

"No," he interrupted quickly, turning back to her and taking her free hand in his own. "No, it's not that. I'm an ungrateful bastard, I know. I should be inside with you and the girls, not moping around out here. I just can't stop thinking about where Sam might be, what he's doing, if he's in danger..."

"It's not your fault, you know, that we lost him," Beth said quietly. "It was the people in the Waiting Room who told us where and when he is."

"I know." The lie fell easily from his lips. He didn't want to worry her more than she already was. Isn't it? I found him the first time. It was my idea to search his birthdays. I should've known the minute I saw you where he was, and caught up with him in time to *tell* him we couldn't track him this way, so he could find some way to keep track of us. "I just don't like...not knowing. It wasn't like I was ever really able to do anything anyway, but at least I knew the odds."

Beth set down her cup of coffee on the wall where he always sat to watch the sun rise. "Are you still mad at me?" she asked frankly.

Al looked at her, startled. "For what?"

She met his eyes. "I knew, all along, that someday Sam would start leaping with his own face. I knew it before the Project even started, before we even met Sam, even though I didn't understand what I knew until after. So maybe it's my fault we lost track of him, because I didn't warn you, warn Ziggy."

She always had known him a little too well. Al tightened his grip on her hand. "You did what you had to do to prevent a paradox," he admitted gruffly. "If you'd told us...Sam might never have been able to get past us to get into the Accelerator, and all the good he'd done would've been undone. And considering he started telling us about his theories the first time he ever met you, it would've been damned hard for you to miss what was at stake. I know that."

"Intellectually, yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything," she pointed out shrewdly.

Al looked at her, and this time he was honest, if not entirely so. "I don't blame you, Beth." If I'd never asked Sam to win you back for me, you would never have been put in that position in the first place.

Beth shook her head with a sad smile, as if she could see the words he wasn't saying in his face. "He'll be back, Al. Someday. If Sam has any say in the matter, he'll be back. He cares too much about you and Donna not to."

Al turned to stare out over the empty desert again. "God, I hope so."


2006

Damn them, Al thought angrily as he rolled over on the narrow cot. Damn them all: I don't care if they're Republicans, Democrats or Santa's little helpers. They have no right to shut us down.

He'd said as much in the hearing, which was why he was here, spending New Year's Eve in a federal prison instead of flying back to the Project to keep his traditional vigil. Then again...not like they would've let him keep it, anyway. Those damned MPs had orders to throw him out if he got so much as two hundred feet from the building where they were tearing Sam's dream--and his only chance of ever coming home--apart.

Contempt of Congress. He'd show them contempt all right. Even if it meant spending the rest of his life in this cell.

I'm sorry, Sam. I'm sorry I failed you.

Down the hall somewhere, a door clanked open. Al ignored it, just kept staring at the wall. Some poor sap was getting a visitor: he wondered what they were in for.

The jangling of keys outside his own cell a moment later got his attention, though. He rolled over, eyes widening in surprise when he saw who was standing behind the guard. "Donna?"

Dr. Donna Alessi, Sam's wife--Sam's widow, more like it--smiled ruefully at him. "You just don't know when to quit, do you, Al?"

"Not when it involves our only chance of ever finding Sam, no, I don't," he agreed vehemently.

Donna let out a deep sigh that he didn't like the sound of before turning to look at the guard. "Can I have a minute?"

He nodded and opened the door to let her in before locking them both in and moving a little ways off down the hall: close enough that he could still see Donna when she wanted to leave, but far enough to give them at least an illusion of privacy.

Donna crossed the small cell and seated herself beside Al on the narrow cot. "I've spoken with the Committee...they've agreed to let you out, on the condition that you leave Washington, return to New Mexico, and make no further attempts to block the dismantling of the Project."

Al shook his head. "Not a chance in hell. I'm fighting this as long as there's a breath in my body to fight with."

He didn't know how he expected her to respond to that. Maybe with a rueful but secretly pleased smile; maybe by telling him she'd expect nothing less. He sure didn't expect her to get angry. "Damn it, Al, Sam's not coming back. It's not just the Committee, everyone's figured that out...except you."

Al looked at her, hopes sinking. His voice was quiet and almost despairing: "Oh hell, Donna...not you too?"

Donna stared at her hands, which she was twisting in her lap as if not quite sure what to do with them. "I know he promised me...but it's been ten years, Al. Five since we lost him for good." She looked up and her eyes were dead: any hope in them had faded years ago. "You can't keep a promise to a woman you don't remember. No matter who you swear it to."

"Donna, I..." He didn't finish that sentence. What the hell would he finish it with? An apology? And if so, what for? For letting Sam arrange that reunion with her father and overcome--temporarily, at least--her abandonment issues? For screwing up that leap back in 1945 so that Sam had to leap out again to save his life? For failing to find Sam and bring him home? He could spend a lifetime trying to make up for all the ways he'd let this woman down.

She looked him straight in the eyes. "I lost my husband to this damned Project. I won't lose the only connection I have left to him trying to keep it alive. Let it go, Al. For my sake...for your family's, if nothing else."

Al buried his face in his hands, thinking of Beth waiting for him back home in New Mexico. Of his girls, who one by one were starting families of their own. Whatever had happened to Sam after that fateful night, as far as Al knew his last act had been to give him back the life he'd always wanted, and here he was letting it slip through his fingers again, fighting a losing battle. The Project would be shut down and Ziggy dismantled, no matter how hard he fought: was it really fair to the people who were left to go down with the ship?

Besides...the Project hadn't been in control of Sam's leaps pretty much from the beginning. Maybe...just maybe...he didn't need it to find his way home. Al could only hope that by the time that day came, there would be something left for him to come home to.

His shoulders sagging, Al nodded slowly and admitted in a low, defeated voice, "All right. Tell them...tell them I'm done."


2016

The complex was empty now. Ten years ago, the place had been crawling with guards, there to keep everyone out (and him in particular) while they dismantled the Accelerator and dissected Ziggy like a billion-dollar fetal pig, trying to figure out what--aside from Sam's genius--had made her work. It didn't matter that he'd argued until he was blue in the face that not only was she their only chance to ever find Sam, but she was also sentient, self-aware. All that had won him was a short stay in jail for Contempt of Congress.

Al couldn't yet see headlights bumping slowly along the lonely, flat desert road that he had once traveled every day instead of once a year, but he knew he would eventually. They always sent a keeper after him these days, and really he couldn't blame them. He was pushing ninety, after all, and going to be pushing it pretty hard in only a few short years. Legally he wasn't even allowed to drive anymore--his once pilot-sharp vision had deteriorated fast after he passed seventy-five--but the road from home to here was one he could navigate a lot blinder than this.

He wondered who they would send this year. Usually it was one of his girls, but since Beth died they didn't come around as often as they used to. He'd have thought it would be just the opposite--that with one parent gone, they would want to spend more time with the one they had left while there was still time--but they all had busy lives, spread out across the country, and he couldn't begrudge them that. He was proud of his girls, and despite the distance and the time between them, he never doubted that they still loved him. He saw Trudi and her family every day, at least--as the surviving nurse of the family, she was the logical choice to relocate to New Mexico to take care of him in his waning years.

Waning years: it was an appropriate figure of speech, Al decided, for someone who had once set foot on the moon, even if the timeline where that happened had been erased a long time ago. He still remembered it, even if it was harder these days to keep straight which timeline was which. Still, it had to say something that, while in most men his age confusion was a sign of senility, with him it just meant he'd lived too many lives in one lifetime. Considering he'd spent five years of his life slogging through temporal quicksand, it could've been a lot worse.

Twenty years had gone by since his best friend had stepped into the Accelerator and disappeared into the past--almost twenty-one. It'd been fifteen since he vanished completely, leaving Al behind. He might not've seen Sam in fifteen years, but he still thought about him every day. He still wished, if nothing else, for the chance to apologize for not keeping his promise to bring Sam home.

He shivered, but not because of the desert night. No, it was the same bone-deep cold that had crept into his bones and taken up residence the night Sam leaped. Hardly a night had gone by in the past twenty years that he hadn't felt it, more piercing than ever now that he once again didn't have Beth to keep him warm.

Funny how after all these years, if Sam finally came back, he still wouldn't know whether to thank him or curse him for restoring Beth to him. He loved her now as much as he had before he lost her the first time, and he wouldn't trade a day he'd been able to spend with his girls (or a day he hadn't even though he remembered doing so). But the one thing he hadn't counted on was that getting Beth back would mean he'd have to one day lose her again--irreversibly this time, since old age and cancer were things all the time travelers in the world couldn't prevent.

He'd also never counted that gaining Beth would mean losing Sam. Okay, so he would never know for sure that there was a connection, but when he'd stepped out of the Imaging Chamber to find her there and Sam gone for good, what was he supposed to think?

Damn you, Sam, he cursed silently with an old grief that had fermented and turned bitter over the years. You gave up your chance to come home for me when I screwed up in 1945, and then left me no way to do the same for you. Because even if Beth would've understood me leaving her like that for the second time, I could never have passed up the chance to build real memories with my girls.

A bottle of champagne sat at his feet. Lightweight as it was in terms of actual alcohol content, he knew he shouldn't. Even if he had nothing left to live for, it would've been a bad idea, and he still had his girls. But the temptation was still stronger than it'd been in over a decade.

A ripple of blue light flared in the corner of his eye, but he ignored it. He'd been tricked by one too many flashes of lightning, or St. Elmo's Fire, or distant headlights. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me once a year for damn near twenty years...shame the hell on me.

Al wondered, almost idly, when he'd stopped waiting for Sam to return. When he gave up.


The one thing about leaping that hadn't changed since Sam had started keeping his own face was the disorientation he felt now as the desert materialized around him. Sure, he was less likely to leap into the middle of something anymore--because who would trust a man who just appeared out of nowhere?--but that initial moment of not knowing where he was, or when, was just as disconcerting as it had ever been. Worse, in a way, because now he didn't have Al or Ziggy to supply him with the answers he needed: he had to figure it out for himself.

Sometimes, in those first few dizzying moments, he would give anything to have them back.

No, Sam scolded himself fiercely. Al has a wife and a family to go home to, now. It's not fair to him or to them to ask him to keep following you around the continuum.

He looked around, trying to orient himself in the darkness and frowning when he realized the scenery was somehow naggingly familiar. The lingering effect of the leap combined with his Swiss-cheesed memory made it difficult to place, but somehow he had the feeling he'd been here before. Or at least he'd been somewhere very much like it.

There was a low building off to the left, bathed a dark shade of blue-gray in the starlight but probably white by day. On either side of it rose enormous rock shapes like the sort you would expect to see in Monument Valley: then again, maybe that's where he was. Maybe that was why it looked familiar.

The building was entirely dark and looked deserted, but there was a single car parked in the abandoned parking lot, and when Sam looked closely, a stooped, gray-haired figure of a man standing by it, staring up at the mountain that rose above him as if he expected it to impart to him all the secrets of the universe. In the other direction, far away across the endless flat stretch of desert, the headlights of a car were slowly moving towards them, but they were at least a good fifteen minutes away, if not more.

Aside from that, there didn't seem to be another soul in the world except him and the old man in the parking lot. Which, unless the car was headed this way--which seemed unlikely considering how lonely the place was--meant the old man had to be why he was here.

It wasn't until well after he'd left desert sand for asphalt and was crossing the parking lot himself that Sam realized with a sudden shock that he recognized the set of those shoulders beneath the nearly-white hair. Worse, surely there could only be one man in the world who would wear a purple overcoat with a gold lamé scarf in the middle of an empty desert.

It was Al.

But then...it couldn't be. Could Al have really aged that much in the five years since he'd last seen him? Or...had it not been five years? This wasn't the first time he'd leaped into the future.

A shiver of premonition running through him, Sam quickened his steps towards his friend. What on Earth could have happened to call him here?

"Al?" he spoke when he was close enough that his footsteps should've gotten Al's attention. The solitary figure turned, and Sam almost fell back a step, stunned by how haggard his old friend looked. It wasn't just age, either. He had no idea how old Al actually was, since he didn't know when he'd arrived, but he looked like he was well over a hundred.

He was knocked off balance too that there was no look of surprise or welcome or even recognition in Al's eyes. Just resignation, as if he'd been expecting this but not really looking forward to it. Have I been gone that long that he forgot me? Or by convincing Beth to wait, did I change history so we never even met? Sam thought desperately. "Al, it's me."

"Of course it is," Al answered dryly. "Who else would I hallucinate if I was starting to go senile? Elvis?"

Sam felt a sudden cold that had nothing to do with the sunless desert. "No, Al..." He closed the distance between them, taking both Al's shoulders in his hands. "It's really me."

Disbelief flickered across Al's face, followed by shock and finally joy. "It's...you're real?"

Sam smiled. "I'm real," he promised, relief flooding over him.

It turned out to be a flash flood, though, because almost immediately Al's face clouded over again. "You think this is funny? Fifteen years without a peep, then you just show up like none of it ever happened? Where the hell have you been?"

Fifteen years? No wonder Al looked so much older: he was older. But...why now? Why was he here now?

Well, only one way to find out: answer the man's questions and then ask a few of his own. "I've been leaping."

Al grunted, turning away with a sour twist of the mouth that might've been a smile if it weren't so bitter. "Let me guess: on your own and as yourself."

Well, that eliminated one possibility for why he was here: "Beth."

"Died six months ago," was the clipped, cold answer. "Cancer. Damned government insurance wouldn't waste money treating a woman who was likely to die of old age soon anyway."

Oh, God. Al, I'm sorry. "That must be why I'm here," Sam murmured quietly, unthinkingly, to himself, but Al heard it anyway.

His head snapped up. "Why you're here? Fifteen goddamned years and time or fate or who-the-fuck-ever is up there still isn't ready to let you just come home?"

Sam shook his head. "It's not God, Al. It's me; it always has been. I just didn't know it. I'll come home someday, I just...there's still a lot of people out there who need me."

Al's eyes widened, his face darkening and almost purpling with rage. "You goddamned selfish, self-righteous son of a bitch!"

Sam fell back a step, reeling from the vehemence of the anger Al directed at him, so intense it almost felt like hatred. But surely Al of all people could never hate him. "What?"

"Didn't it ever occur to you for a moment that there were people here who needed you?" Al fumed, and for a moment he stopped looking frail as the temper burned through him and made him shine again like the passionate old soldier Sam used to know. "Like maybe your wife or your daughter? Maybe the brother you cared so much about saving, or the sister you wanted to save? The Project you put your life into or your goddamn best friend? Hell, Sam, they murdered Ziggy! They took her apart piece by piece to try to figure out how to build another one, which would never have happened if you were here, and you know it!"

"I didn't know--!" he started to protest, startled into defensiveness.

"You never tried! You seriously mean to tell me you could've come home any time you wanted and instead you left us all here to worry for fifteen goddamned years?!" Al's voice was rising now, echoing around them in the empty desert like the voice of God Himself. "So what was Beth supposed to be, some sort of consolation prize? Make me stop caring about you because I had her? My God, Sam, I beat myself up for twenty years, wondering what I did wrong, what I should've done differently to bring you home to your wife, or to find you after you vanished on us, and all this time it was your fucking choice? What happened to the man who asked me--no, demanded--why he was allowed to save strangers, but not the people he loved?"

"I didn't..." Sam struggled to find the words, speechless at the venom he'd inspired. "I guess I just always thought there would be time--"

Al turned away, the line of his back stiff and unyielding. "Your time ran out a long time ago. I thought I knew you, Sam, but this...I guess my best friend died fifteen years ago after all."

"I'll stay," Sam tried one last desperate bid. "If it means that much to you, I'll stay."

Al looked at him over his shoulder, but this time his eyes seemed to have died. There was no emotion in them at all, or in his voice. "It's too late. You already made your choice. Go away, Sam. Go back to the strangers who need you, because we sure as hell don't anymore."

With that parting shot, he climbed into the car and slammed the door, gunning the engine.

Sam could only watch in disbelief and dismay as the one person he'd always counted on to be there deliberately drove away. The worst of it was the chill that ran through him with the realization that he couldn't fix this.

But no...he couldn't fix it now. There was always...there was always time. Time to go back and set things right...put right what once went wrong, just like he always had. Only this time...the stakes were so much higher than they'd ever been. Trembling as if he had a violent cold, Sam closed his eyes and surrendered himself to the leap.


2001

Someone had spiked the punch. Al could feel the effects of it as he stepped out of the elevator at the surface. It was ironic that as recently as his birthday, six short months ago, they all would've known better. But things changed, especially around here.

If there's one thing Al got from AA that he absolutely believed in, it was the idea that alcoholism is a disease that is never really cured. Not even, apparently, by erasing the past where that long, downhill journey was started. He still remembered the compulsion; ergo, it still had a hold on him.

That was just one of many things Beth had to get used to about the "new him."

"New" him: what a laugh, considering it was really just the opposite. He was old--Beth and everything else around him, that's what was new. But how could he explain that to a woman who watched her husband go off to work like he did every other day, but come home with a whole other lifetime's worth of baggage?

Some days he thought she understood without him even trying to explain. After all, his Beth was too smart not to know that the description of the mysterious stranger who had given her hope matched Sam to a T. Or what that simple fact meant to the Project as a whole. He hated himself for how easy it would be to resent her silence on that matter for so many years, even though he knew what the consequences could've been had she broken that silence.

If Sam was leaping with his own face now...well, Al'd be damned if he knew how or why, but it would certainly explain why there'd been no one in the Waiting Room for the past several months since he disappeared.

"Which just makes more work for everyone else and gives me nothing to do," Al joked weakly to the silent, empty desert. He fell silent for a long moment before quietly, bitterly adding, "Thanks a lot, Sam."

"You're welcome," was the unexpected, cheerful reply from a voice he'd thought he'd never hear again. "Even if I don't really know what for--I must've missed that part."

Al froze, not daring to hope it was anything more than the alcohol talking. Not that alcohol had ever been a hallucinogen--especially not the barely-there buzz a little wine in the fruit punch would give his far-too-tolerant system--but there was always a first time. Or maybe it wasn't anything chemical, maybe he'd just finally lost his grip on reality. Early-onset senility, or worse, maybe he'd just been working too goddamn hard. One thing was for sure: if he ever did lose it and start seeing things, Sam would probably be at the top of the list.

"Al?" This time Sam sounded worried, uncertain.

His whole body shaking with the incredible, irrational hope, Al turned around. Slowly.

Sam was still there.

He was wearing the same short-sleeved white shirt and tan pants that he'd been wearing in that mining town in Pennsylvania where they'd lost him and he didn't look a day older...except the white streak in his hair had gotten a little bit wider. It was a tiny, insignificant difference, but to Al it made all the difference in the world, because it was a change his mind, no matter how crazy, would never have thought to make. Which meant...Sam was real. He was there and he was real.

"Sam?" God, Al's voice hadn't cracked like that since he was sixteen!

Sam smiled. "Happy New Year, Al."

"You just reappear out of the blue after six months without a word and that's all you have to say, 'Happy New Year'?" Al exclaimed in disbelief. He was moving before he even made a conscious decision to, moving towards the friend he'd thought lost to them and pulling him into a bear hug. If he hung on a little longer than was strictly manly, well, hell, after five years without being able to give his friend so much as a handshake, Al figured he had a right to. "Where the hell have you been?"

Sam hesitated for a long moment before answering, "Figuring out some things I probably should've realized a long time ago." There was a look in his eyes that made Al vaguely uncomfortable. They were almost haunted, but at the same time a little too eager.

"That takes six months?" Al asked dryly.

Sam laughed, sounding more carefree than Al'd heard him in years, and at the same time strangely rueful. "No. It took...a lot longer than that, actually."

Al shivered. He didn't have to be a genius of Sam's level to figure out the implication. This Sam was from their future. "Then you're not back." He tried but failed to keep the flatness out of his voice. "You're not home; this is just another leap for you."

Sam shook his head so vigorously that it looked for a minute as if it might fly off. "Do you think you could ever be 'just another leap', Al? Any of you?" He smiled. "I'm home. I might still leap out occasionally, but not all the time. And I'll always come back between leaps, not like before."

Al's eyes widened, his mind still clinging like a drowning man to those impossible words: I'm home. "How'd you work out that deal?"

Sam's face sobered. Al knew him well enough to know the next words out of his mouth weren't easy ones to admit to: "I didn't work out any deal. I didn't have to. It was me all along. That was what the bartender in Cokeburg told me."

Something dangerous appeared in Al's eyes. "You were leaping yourself?"

Sam hurried to cut it off at the pass. "For what it's worth, I didn't know it. I wasn't staying away on purpose, I just...my work was always so theoretical here. Physics and archaeology and languages I never used...I have a medical degree, but I never practiced. Getting a chance to really help someone, to change the direction of people's lives, or even save them...it was a little addictive. As much as I wanted to come home, I couldn't resist just one more chance to make a difference. The problem was...there was always going to be just one more chance."

"Hell, Sam," Al protested. "You were making a difference long before you stepped into that Accelerator. You saved my life when I was on the verge of flushing it down the toilet, and I don't care if that timeline got erased: none of what I've got now would be here if you hadn't dried me out in the first place."

Sam looked at him and there was something indefinable in his eyes. "I realize that...now."

"So what did he say to make you realize?"

"He didn't," Sam smiled almost ruefully. "I mean...it wasn't him."

"Then who the hell was it?" Al demanded. "I gotta know so I can track down whoever it was and thank 'em."

Sam just looked at him. "It was you."

Al eyed him shrewdly. The title of Observer might be something he'd gotten only since they started Project Quantum Leap, but he'd been observing people--and Sam--a lot longer than that. He knew how to tell when something was wrong. "Do I even wanna know the reason why I don't remember this conversation?" he asked.

Sam looked away, suddenly sheepish. He was silent for a long time before finally answering, "Would it be selfish of me to say I'd rather you didn't?"

Al shivered a little, deducing as much from the tone of his friend's voice as from his words just how badly his future must've gone. "No," he admitted with more than a little relief. "I think I can live with that. Now what're we doing out here, freezing our asses off instead of going inside to join the party and tell everyone the good news?"

Sam smiled. "I can't imagine."


2016

Al's watch beeped. Okay, so it wasn't really a watch, and it didn't actually beep so much as it spoke in Ziggy's familiar, smug voice: "Admiral Calavicci, I thought you might want to know that the time is now precisely twelve o'clock."

Al grinned, tapping his wrist-link with one gloved hand. Most of the time, he didn't actually need a watch with that computer around--she was more accurate too, even than the atomic clock, due to all those years spent keeping track of Sam in time. "Thanks, Ziggy."

He reached for a green glass bottle at his feet, picking it up to set it on the wall between himself and Sam. Al eyed the bottle dubiously before setting to work on it with the corkscrew that Sam handed him. "What is this stuff, anyway?"

Sam smiled. "Sparkling white grape juice. Kinda like champagne, only without the alcohol."

Al grunted. "Then what's the point?"

"Says the recovering alcoholic," Sam retorted dryly.

Al rolled his eyes and, having worked the cork free, started to pour the grape juice into two plastic tumblers. "Hey, I never said you should've brought the real stuff. I know my limitations." He handed one cup to Sam and lifted the other, his voice quiet and serious. "To...well, to Beth. A better woman than I deserved to win once in a lifetime, let alone twice."

Sam's own expression sobered as he raised his cup to tap it lightly against Al's. Beth's loss had definitely been one of the low points of the past year and watching his friend have to watch her die slowly had made him wonder, at times, if he'd done the right thing all those years ago by convincing her to wait for Al to return. Neither one of them, he knew, had really considered that undoing the first loss would mean an inevitable second.

"I don't regret it, you know," Al broke the silence in that same quiet tone. "Losing her again...it hurt like hell, but it was worth it. Thank you. For getting her back for me. For my girls...my family."

Sam looked away, staring off into the twinkling, clear desert night. He tried not to shiver at the memory of another time this night had come around, a time when they'd both had very little other than regrets. It wasn't a pleasant memory, but one he treasured nonetheless because it kept him grounded. It reminded him how easy it would be to get lost in other people's problems and miss out on moments like this.

"Did you really do this every year while I was gone?" he asked instead, changing the subject but not really wandering far from his wayward thoughts. "Sit out here all night?"

Al grunted, but nodded too. "Freezing my ass off, most of the time. I guess a part of me kept hoping one year you'd just come walking across that desert back into our lives and that would be it. No more bouncing around in time, putting right what once went wrong for everyone else." Both men were silent for a long, almost eternal moment before Al looked at Sam and said, "You never did tell me why you finally came back. Only that it was something I said."

Sam stared into his cup. "I spent this New Year with you once before: New Year's, 2016. A long...long time ago."

Startled, Al glanced around them curiously, staring first at the brightly lit but quiescent compound, then out into the starlit desert. "Does that mean I should expect to see a younger version of you wandering around here somewhere?"

Sam shook his head. "No...at least, I don't think so. I think we erased that timeline. I hope so, anyway." He shivered. "That night was a lot darker than this one."

"Someone forget to leave all the lights on for the old geezers to find their way back inside?" Al prompted, glancing back again at the compound.

"Well, you could say that--the Project had been shut down--but...that's not really what I meant." He took a deep breath before plunging forward. "I found you here...all by yourself as if the world had forgotten you and you'd decided to return the favor. I thought you'd be happy to see me, but when I told you where I'd been all these years...you got so angry, called me a selfish bastard for leaving you all behind." Sam stared at his drink again. "I think you hated me."

Al snorted. "Right. As if I could ever hate you."

Sam looked at him. "If you'd spent this night alone because I never came back, and then you found out it was my choice? That you'd worried and worked all those years to bring me home for nothing?"

"I'd be pissed as hell," Al acknowledged. "Maybe even say something stupid, like I never wanted to see you again, and then regret it later. But I couldn't hate you. You're family, Sam. You and Donna both, just as much so as Beth and my girls. Who, incidentally, I wouldn't have if not for you. All the stupid, selfish decisions in the world couldn't make me hate you, or I would've ditched your ass back there in Vietnam."

Sam tried to hide a smile at the backhanded promise. In Al's own inimitable way, he'd given him exactly what he'd needed all these years but been afraid to ask for: absolution. "Thanks, Al."

Al smiled. "Anytime, Sam. You're not getting rid of me that easy." He raised his glass again. "To family."

"To family," Sam echoed, and they both drained their glasses, Al making an exaggerated face at the extremely non-alcoholic taste.

"Well, I don't know about you," he announced, rising from the low wall as easily as his old bones would allow. "But this old bastard's going home and going to bed. I'm not as equipped for this kind of weather as I once was."

Sam looked at him, eyes twinkling. "I thought part of the tradition was to wait for sunrise?"

Al turned to him and smiled a small but genuine smile as he held out a hand to his friend. "Come on, Sam, you know me better than that. The sunrise was never what I was waiting for."