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September 19, 1999


"You're an incredible woman, Donna."

It was a nice thing to hear; god knows, I could do with the ego boost. But as the adrenalin of the day's events ebbed away, as the fact of Sam's loss fully hit me – the realisation that, once again, he wouldn't be coming back – depression washed over me. Depression, and guilt. I hadn't made the best showing I could have. In fact, I'd behaved ... well, like a wimp. Let's be brutally honest here. I'd let my own needs, my own desires get the better of me, hadn't even stopped to consider any others. I gave a sardonic little laugh.

"That's what you think. Didn't anybody tell you? I tried to stop him Leaping ..."

"I know." Al's voice was quite calm, not so much as a hint of the reproach or the resentment he was entitled to be feeling. "Who could blame you?"

I ignored the interruption and ploughed recklessly on.

"... even though I knew your life was on the line ... I couldn't stand to see him go, to lose him again, when he'd only just come back to me ..." Remembering, remembering how it had hurt to watch him as he ran into the Accelerator, I shivered, drawing my shawl closer around myself: the Chinese shawl that Sam had bought for me at an antiques stall in Greenwich Village, a second anniversary present. Silk is for twelfth anniversaries, not for second. Had he known even then that we didn't have twelve years?

"Who could blame you?" Al said again. "For god's sake, Donna, you're only human, you're not some kind of plaster saint or something. And besides," he went on, his voice softening, "you didn't stop him. When it came right down to it, you did the right thing."

I wasn't ready to accept his absolution. How could I, when I couldn't forgive myself? "No," I said flatly, "I didn't. Not really. Another moment or two and he would have gone anyway, whatever I did, whatever I said. I could see it in his eyes. At least this way I got to keep a little dignity. At least this way I got to keep his respect ... I had to tell him to go. But I didn't do it for you, Al. I did it for me. I did it so that if he ever Leaps back again, we'll still have something worth calling a marriage." Because what kind of a marriage could we ever have had, with the knowledge always between us that I had let him let his best friend die? For that reason alone I would have had to let him go.

He put his arm around me. I wanted not to accept the comfort – I knew I didn't deserve it – but when I tried to pull away, he only drew me closer. After a moment or two I gave up and let myself lean against him. When it comes to support and consolation, Al's always been there for me; up until today, I've always tried to do as much for him. But when it came to a choice between him and Sam ... well, I'm afraid Al came off a very poor second. And what made it worse was that I knew that, if the same situation ever arose, I would probably behave exactly the same the second time around – hating it, hating myself, I would nevertheless go the same road. And with exactly the same result, or lack thereof.

In my defence, I have to point out that it had been a hell of a couple of days. I'd had to stand by, a helpless witness, as the man I loved Leaped into the persona of a mental patient: had had to maintain at least the semblance of control as I listened to Al's reports of my husband being beaten, abused, subjected to electro-shock that tore away his personality, stripped him of everything that made him Sam; had fought desperately to maintain our fragile link with his brainwaves, as every passing minute brought with it a higher and higher chance that we might lose him altogether, and forever. Then there'd been the systems crash; the Imaging Chamber had gone off-line, a total shutdown, and Ziggy had retreated into herself, stubbornly refusing to respond to any of our frantic pleas for answers. We'd thought we'd lost them both then, Sam and Al together, hadn't known until the moment the envelope – the envelope that Al had mailed back in 1945 – dropped onto my desk that there was still a chance. The shock of the loss, the dizziness of the reprieve ... it was all too much to take. I needed time out, time to stand back and take stock; but time is one luxury we never have. Ironic, really, in view of our line of research ...

"You're really beating yourself up over this, aren't you, honey?" Al's fingers ran along the back of my neck, began to ease the tense, knotted muscles there. I tried to make myself relax; it didn't come easily.

"Don't I have reason? Incredible," I mimicked. "The only thing incredible about me is what an incredibly selfish bitch I can be ... but I miss him so, Al. I love him ..." I had to stop then. God, how I loathe and despise weepy women. For heaven's sake, Al wasn't crying – was he? – and he missed Sam every bit as much as I did, if not for the same reasons. If Al could be strong, then so could I.

His hold on me tightened, a comforting grip. "I know. I know, Donna. It's okay. Don't keep thinking about it – it's done, let it go. Believe me, whatever you might think, nobody else would have dealt with it any better than you. I wouldn't. Face it, in that situation, most people would've done a lot worse. The only person I know who honestly, consistently puts other people's needs in front of his own is Sam. And I guess that's why he got this crazy job in the first place."

"Sam wouldn't have hesitated ..."

Wouldn't have hesitated to leave me.

Hadn't hesitated; had left me. And now all I could do was wait.

Shit! I was going to cry!

I hadn't realised I'd spoken aloud until Al answered me.

"No. You keep on doing what you've been doing all this time. You keep the Project on line. You sweet-talk Ziggy-dearest. You analyse the research data. You keep working on the upgrades. This was your dream, as much as it was ever Sam's, or mine." He hesitated, then added quietly, "This time around."

I looked up sharply. I knew that Sam's Leaps threw out ripple effects that altered our world in subtle, significant ways, but once altered, only Ziggy remained aware of the original timelines. Ziggy ... and, although he didn't talk about it much, for obvious reasons, Al retained some overlapping memories ...

"Are you going to tell me?"

"No," he said slowly. "Not everything. I don't remember it that clearly, for one thing, and for another ..." He shook his head. "Never mind. Just ... one of the first Leaps Sam ever made was for you. For the two of you. Not for the sake of your happiness, that was incidental, but for the sake of the Project. To give it a strong leader while Sam's gone. Whoever, whatever's Leaping him around wanted someone to hold it all together. Someone almost as creative and gifted as Sam himself. Someone who someday may be able to bring him home forever ... They wanted you."

As he said it, I felt a brief spasm of dizziness: as though the parallel life I had not lived in this timeline had crossed with mine for an instant, so that just for that one moment I lived both lives at once: a life where I had met Sam at Starbright, married him soon after, lived and worked with him for over ten years, co-written his papers, co-founded Project Quantum Leap, taken on full executive and creative control following Sam's premature Leap; and another life where ... where I had ... not ...

I knew that what Al had said was true. It didn't make me feel any better to know that god or fate or time had been so kind as to promote me from pawn to queen. Once upon a time I believed in freedom of choice. Now I felt hounded, manipulated. I loved Sam; the thought of another year, or two, or five, or ten without him was agony to me ... but the realisation that our being together at all was merely a minor move in some great cosmic game plan was repugnant beyond belief.

I could come close to wishing that things had stayed as they had been. You don't miss what you've never had. It's the having and the losing that hurts.

"Someday," I echoed. Thanks a lot, I silently added, to whatever cosmic forces might be listening. And in the meantime, here I was, the archetypal Plucky Little Woman. Tammy Wynette, standing eternally and loyally and cloyingly by her man. Great. What a sop to my ego.

Better yet, I was going to go along with it. What other choice did I have? I could swallow my pride, stay and carry on running the Project, stay and play the part I had been so peremptorily assigned, stay and hope that one day all my waiting would be rewarded; or I could leave. Either way, I was alone. But only if I stayed did I have a chance of ever seeing my husband again.

So long, Women's Movement, nice to have known you.

Oh, I'd thought about leaving, don't imagine I hadn't. When I'd first found out that Sam had Leaped, without a word to anyone – my anger almost outweighed my fear for him. When retrieval program after retrieval program failed, I became progressively angrier, and more frightened. When Al reported back from the Imaging Chamber to tell us that Sam had forgotten everything and everyone he'd ever known, grief and pity almost overwhelmed me. Then Al began bringing back stories of women, a seemingly endless string of damsels in distress, and I added deep and bitter jealousy to my list of conflicting emotions. For my own peace of mind I rationalised that, if Sam didn't remember me, then he couldn't betray me. I even almost convinced myself. I went so far as to forbid Al to tell Sam about me – saving face again; he had to believe himself a free agent in order to carry out the tasks he was given, and what could I do? How could I stop him? That arbitrary force that ruled our lives had taken control in this, as in everything.

Don't think I was happy about it, though. It hurt. It hurt when I read Al's reports; it hurt every time I remembered. It never stopped hurting. And I had to pretend I didn't care. To let the pain I was feeling show ... it would destroy me. If people guessed – well, they guessed. But damned if I was going to let it show.

Now Sam had come back to me, only to leave me again. Because, torn as he was between love and duty, duty won. Even if it hadn't been Al he had to save, if it had been a total, meaningless stranger, he would still have left me, gone back into the Accelerator. My boy scout, my hero. The man who couldn't see a moth trapped against a window but he had to rescue it. It was one of the qualities I'd most loved him for: his selflessness, his humanity.

Qualities which I lacked. I was harder, tougher. Well, one of us had to be. I had always been the practical one in our partnership; Sam was the dreamer, the visionary, while Al – well, Al had the charm and the charisma to beguile the unwary into letting us turn our crazy dreams into reality and, when that failed, the political and the military clout.

We'd made a terrific team. So now we had reality: we had Project Quantum Leap. And Sam had his wonderful, bright destiny; and Al at least had a hologram.

All that I had was the knowledge that without me the whole thing would fall apart. Cold comfort. And the memory of one night, an oasis in the desert of my years of lonely waiting; and that vague promise of 'someday'.

No, I wasn't leaving. No matter how much it hurt, no matter how lonely. Sam was a soldier; that was how I had to think of it: a soldier off fighting the good fight, while the ones he left behind stayed and kept the home fires bravely burning.

I'd be right here until the day he Leaped home again.

And then I would take the greatest of pleasure in kicking his cute little butt from hell to breakfast.

It couldn't be soon enough for me.