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The Gift

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Enough Leaps and after a while, even familiar places don't make sense when that first flash of *awareness* hits. Despite that, despite being in the dark, this time I knew immediately where I was, at least superficially, and who I was with.

Al's snoring is that distinctive.

Not to mention, as usual, he had me crowded up against the edge of the bed, nose literally to the wall, with only a scrap of the blankets. Unexpectedly - and happily - a fragment of memory surfaced. I knew all this because of the odd time or two we'd shared a bed while we were raising funds for the Projects. Between a tight budget and the vagarities of traveling, it had been our only option often enough that I had actually learned to sleep through the racket he made.

With a chill, I suddenly wondered if I had leaped into myself again, or, worse yet from my point of view, had I leaped into one of Al's many women? I didn't know quite how I was going to handle either possibility, and suddenly, tiredly, I decided I wasn't going to now. Judging by the feel, dawn wasn't close, yet, and it couldn't hurt to pretend I was finally home until he woke up.

Carefully elbowing him, I said sternly, "Roll over!" in my best long-suffering tone of voice.

It was one that he knew well, regardless of the actual sound of it when used, and it worked. With a strangled snort, he thrashed to his other side, taking the rest of the blankets. Smiling at the very normality of it, I unwound enough from him to be comfortable, snuggled down into the warm spot he'd left behind. "Night, Al," I whispered.

From the other side of the bed, looking unsettled and worried, my Al replied, "Night, Sam. Sleep well."

****

Waking up was more disorienting than Leaping in had been. For starters, I didn't feel very well, though I couldn't complain about anything specific. Tired, I guess would have been my answer if asked, and achy, as if I were catching the flu, or maybe just getting over it. If I were coming down with something, I was probably over due. After all, with the exception of being shot, punched, slapped, and so on, I'd been very healthy during the years I'd been Leaping.

More confusing, from my point of view, was that I was plastered up against Al. Or he was against me; our position made it kind of hard to tell. My back was pressed into the wall, and his back was squashed into me so tightly I could have counted his vertabra from the dents he was making in my chest. I had an arm curled under my head for a pillow, but the other was hanging onto Al, fingers jammed between his thighs and palm cupping him very... intimately.

And he seemed to like that, if the morning erection filling my hand was any indication. I seemed to like it, too; my own was very happily wedged into the cleft of his backside, reminding me with very powerful twinges that it had been a long time since he'd been called into action.

My instant surge of fright about what Al would do if he woke up before I could get away didn't make the stupid thing subside, and neither did sternly reminding myself that we were both serious heterosexuals, or counting to twenty in every language I knew. Determinedly I closed my eyes to try to visualize glaciers, the surface of the moon, anything to freeze up the desire creeping through me like heated honey.

It didn't help that Al started rocking back and forth ever so slightly, pressing first into my hand, then back onto my hard-on, making happy noises in the back of his throat as he did. I don't think he was all the way awake, but at the rate we were going, it wasn't going to be much longer.

Nor was it going to be much longer before I was going to have some very difficult explaining to do. Though I hadn't moved and couldn't take away my hand without hurting Al, I wasn't going to be able to hold off doing something much longer. The honey had set my nerves on fire, set my mind on fire, and it was getting difficult not to give into the demands of my need.

Desperate, I wiggled my fingers, trying to ease them away from vise Al's legs had my hand in, but he muttered something that sounded like a name, and I stopped instantly. "Hey," he protested. "Felt good. Do it some more."

Heavy with sleep and desire, his words added to my hunger, and I sighed, though I was trying frantically to shove backwards into the wall and get my erection away from contact with him before he realized that his girlfriend/current wife had a big surprise for him.

When he deliberately wriggled around on it, as if trying to fit it in better where it was, I was the one who froze in shock. Not noticing, he said sleepily, "Hey, you must be feeling pretty okay this morning. That thing feels like it's serious."

Somehow I cranked up my jaw enough to stutter. "It is... but, ah, you don't... that is... we don't have to... oh, God, Al! That feels so good."

He rotated his bottom over me again, this time dislodging my erection so that he could capture it in the crevasse between his legs. "Hold still, lover," he murmured. "Save your strength. I can do this for us."

"Don't know if I can," I told him honestly. "It feels like forever since I've been touched."

"Jeeze, you are serious aren't you?" he panted, answering my first thrust with one of his own that was as strong. "Go on, go for it!"

The encouragement wasn't needed; I helplessly pumped into the warm folds of his flesh, slicking it up with the leaking of my own preejaculate. A part of me saw to it that Al was pleasured as well. Distantly I could feel my hand working in time to the movement of my hips, and his little grunts of pleasure were every bit as satisfying as giving into the animal urge driving my body.

Too quickly I felt the heat of my desire concentrating at the base of my spine, ready to explode out my length in the shock of ecstasy I craved. "Al," I breathed, trying to warn him, but he only moved faster, hurrying both of us along. "God, Al!" I bent my head so that I could taste the curve of his shoulder and shuddered into my own release.

With a stifled shout, Al did the same, bucking wildly and scrabbling at his pillow. I held onto him, depending on his realness to help me survive the power of the ecstacy owning me. When it finally let go, I slid helplessly back into sleep, trying to murmur thank you's to my lover as I did.

Some indeterminate time later, the shifting of the bed woke me back up, and I blinked blearily at a young Al climbing out of it, unselfconscious about his nudity. "Hey," I said softly, not wanting him to simply slip away, needing to know more about who I had leaped into and his relationship with my best friend.

"Hey yourself," he said softly, tenderly. "I didn't mean to bother you; go back to sleep. You need the rest."

Why? I wanted to ask, but instead said cautiously, remembering that his words earlier hinted that whoever I was hadn't been well recently, "Actually, I'm feeling pretty good."

He looked pleased to hear that, then checked the clock. "Rest anyway. Maybe we can go out when I get off this evening if you're up for it. Those clowns at NASA will have me running through the rat maze most of the day, so I'm going to be in the mood for a little fun when I get back." He sounded both distracted and affectionate, and he started pulling clothes out of a drawer, obviously getting ready to leave.

Hoping to get something more useful out of him - like where *I* was expected to show up for work, I said laughingly, "You sound like you want me to spend the whole day in bed waiting for you."

With a leacherous grin, he wiggled his eyebrows at me. "Now there's a nice image to have hanging around in my head."

All right, that didn't work. I glanced around looking for some clue as to what profession I might have, then jerked my eyes back to him when he added more seriously, "Mike, we've talked about this before. I would rather you stay there and try to keep your strength up than be doing the housewife thing around this place. A few dirty dishes or a bit of dust isn't going to bother me, and finding you on the floor with a major bleed because you were pushing yourself too hard will."

"Just want to pull my own weight," I muttered, more for something to say as I ran through the few symptoms Al had given me to try to pinpoint what might be wrong with 'Mike.'

Sitting on the edge of the bed, he leaned over and brushed my hair away from my eyes, unintentionally scattering my thoughts. "You've done that and don't ever think otherwise. Done more than enough to be able to afford to coast a little now."

"Uh," I stuttered.

From behind me I heard my Al say, "Promise me that you'll take it easy, but don't agree to give up on doing anything around the apartment. Mike, the stubborn ass, did as much as he could, right up to the end."

Blushing so red I could feel the heat of it radiating off my face, I muttered something to the young Al - Bingo, I'd have to think of him as Bingo or go crazy trying to keep my Als straight. But apparently neither of them were as straight as I had thought and that made me blush harder.

Thankfully Bingo looked at the time again, and ran for what I hoped was the shower, calling over my shoulder, "Sleep!And don't tell me you don't need it; I felt how warm you are."

With the door closed behind him, I fidgeted the blankets around me, sitting up against the headboard, not looking at Al. Sighing, he walked out of where he was sticking up out of the mattress and came to stand where Bingo had been only a few minutes before. Handlink at his side, he told me softly, "Your name is Michael Ingalls, it's November 4th, 1973, not quite a year after we had both been repatriated from Viet Nam. He was diagnosed with Acute Lukeimia when we had our physicals once we got stateside, and has been fighting it ever since. Three days from now, he'll lose that fight."

"You were POW's together?" I asked, lifting my eyes to look at him for the first time. As usual, he was an Andy Warhol nightmare, this time wearing a silver lame' suit that had purple threads chasing through it. On his lapel was a twig of mistletoe - telling me it was near Christmas his time - with a matching purple ribbon tied on it.

With a punch or two on the hand link, Al changed his position so that it looked like he was sitting on the bed with me, jacket shimmering slightly as he did. "The Cong moved us in together when it looked like they were going to be sending us home. Hit it off pretty well, all things considered."

Despite myself, I couldn't help but mutter, "I noticed."

Face bland, which meant he was hiding some pretty powerful emotions, Al said softly, "Thank you." That sent the color back into my face, but before I could say anything he went on. "You changed history already. Mike was too sick, the first time around, to make love for the last few months of his life. Didn't even leave the bed the last week. I..." he stopped, closing his eyes as if in pain. A minute later he added, "It helped when he was gone to think that I'd made him feel good. There wasn't much pleasure in his life his last years."

Compassion for both of them overshadowed my embarrassment, and I said gently, "Is that why you became lovers? To help each other out?"

Shrugging, Al dropped his head and fiddled with the link. "Couldn't really call us lovers; just a couple of lonely soldiers taking what they could get. Never got much beyond the kind of thing that happened this morning, but it helped keep me sane when I found out Beth divorced me."

"Then I'm glad he was there for you," I said sincerely. Al looked even more uneasy, so I tried to get us back on familiar ground. "Do you know why I'm here, then? For once, it must be pretty easy."

A squeal from the handlink earned it a glare and slap from Al, then he said in obvious confusion, "That's what gets me. We've haven't got a clue. Mike was pretty much at peace by this time, didn't have any family left to make things right with. I - Bingo is doing pretty good, too. Taking astronaut training, not even unhappy that it's mainly to be a publicity thing for NASA. You know, former POW and all that."

"Somebody they both know then?" By now I was used to having major gaps in information, but was pretty sure either intuition or Ziggy would turn something up sooner or later.

"Ziggy's running it," Al confirmed. Then, looking guilty, he added, "I talked to Mike; he didn't have any ideas, either."

Well, I couldn't get mad at Al for that; under the circumstances I probably would have done the same thing. "What did you tell him when he woke up in the waiting room?"

"The truth." He sounded defiant, but I thought about it. Michael was going to be gone in a few days, and it was very possible I'd be here most of that. It occurred to me that may have been why I leaped; he and Al would be able to spend some extra time together that they couldn't have had the first time around. That didn't feel right, so I didn't mention it. Instead I asked, "How did he handle it?"

That earned me Al's best wicked grin. "Are you kidding? Look at the titles on those books over there."

I glanced over then smiled myself. The shelf was filled with Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Norton, and dozens of other other science fiction authors that I had heard of in passing. "Pretty excited, huh?"

"He's all but begging to be allowed to look around the complex. Just telling him what Ziggy is had him on his knees."

"Then letting him play with my laptop will have him," I cut myself short, astounded that what I had been about to say was 'on his back, legs spread.' It wasn't a very charitable comment, and I couldn't for the life of me figure out why I'd wanted to say it. Quickly I filled in, "Promising you his first born."

Thankfully, Al chuckled. "Unless you can think of a reason not to, Sam, I'm going to answer any question he's got and do a little showing off, too. He was always absolutely positive that we wouldn't blow ourselves up and would make it to the stars someday."

"Pity the space program isn't something to brag about our time," I said absently, noticing that the shower had stopped, and I could hear Bingo singing off key to himself.

"Yeah, well." Noticing my distraction, Al fiddled with the link again. "You can take it easy until we figure out why you're here," he said. "No place in particular to be and no one to act like Mike for. He'll..." and he gestured at the bath, "be gone most of the day. Maybe sleeping in is a good idea. You do looked a little flushed, Sam."

Once he'd called my attention to it, I realized I was still on the warm side, and the sort-of achy feeling I'd had earlier was definitely stronger. Squirming back down, curling up in the middle of the bed, I agreed, "A day off couldn't hurt." I arranged my pillow to suit myself, suddenly sleepy, and mumbled, "Later?"

"I'll check in with you as soon as we learn anything," Al promised.

"Kay." I didn't hear the imaging chamber door open, so I added, "Talk to Beaks and whoever about taking Mike out of the Waiting Room. I don't think it could hurt."

"Thanks, Sam." Al's hand brushed aside a lock of my hair, and he kissed my forehead, and for a second as I tumbled away into slumber I could have wept because it wasn't my Al, and he wasn't touching *me.*

****

To judge by the sunshine pouring in the bedroom window when I woke up, I didn't just sleep in, I'd slept the entire morning away. Not that it had done me any good; if anything, I felt worse than I had when I had awakened the first time. It didn't really surprise me. Too many years as a farm boy and student perpetually short on time had the habit of early rising deeply ingrained on me. I always woke up from sleeping in feeling groggy and lumpy.

I shuffled my way through showering and dressing, then explored the small apartment Bingo and Mike shared. It was unremarkable, obviously a bachelor's place and not really a home. There was a second bedroom, apparently Mike's, where I found more of his books, but very little in the way of possessions. The living had a bit more personality - a small TV and what was a state of the art for then stereo took up most of the space. Kitchen was frighteningly bare, with the only food in it canned soup and instant pudding.

Wanting something more substantial, I found the phone book, delighted that it had a map of the city in the front like I had hoped. Calavicci's listing gave me the address, the yellow pages the closest grocery store. Chalking up a small victory for myself, I found the coat closet and pulled one out, mentally composing a shopping list.

When my fingers brushed the paper shoved deep into the pocket of the jacket, I felt a charge run over my nerves, one that told me that this was part of why I was there. Curiously I pulled it out to look it over. It was a receipt, written a month earlier, from a jewelery store for a ring. The pick up date was last week, and I guessed from what Al had said earlier that Mike hadn't felt up to going out to get it. Wondering why he hadn't asked Bingo to get it for him, I looked up the address of the store on my map and added it to my list of chores.

At the jewelry shop I recognized the ring instantly. It was the heavy gold one that Al wore on his pinky, the one he took off only when necessary and which he had gone to court over when an ex-wife had demanded it in a settlement. More confused than ever why this would have anything to do with my Leap, I looked it over carefully, rubbing at the inside of it as I did.

The edge of the jeweler's stamp caught my thumbnail, and the sight of a clerk setting up a red and green display gave me an idea. "How long would it take to add some engraving to this?" I asked the clerk who was boredly waiting for me to finish paying the bill.

"Two weeks," she drawled.

"If I paid extra?" I asked, trying for a charming smile.

It seemed to help; she straightened and looked thoughtfull. "Five days."

"Paid a lot extra?" Unashamedly I leaned in closer.

Whether it was the money or my feeble attempt at flirting, I don't know, but she answered, "Two."

That was cutting it very close to the time I had in this Leap, but I could always write a note for Bingo asking him to pick it up for me. "Done." In a few minutes we had negotiated the price, I had written down what I wanted inside the ring, and I was busy trying to come up with an explanation for the engraving that would satisfy Mike's roomie without diminishing the value of the gift in his eyes.

It surprised me how tired I was by the time I arrived back at the apartment, and surprised me even more when I nodded off in a chair reading Stranger In A Strange Land. Bingo woke me with a kiss to my forehead, the same way he'd said goodbye, and I smiled up at him, stretching hugely as I did. "I'm sorry, I meant to have some dinner waiting."

"Just as well you didn't. I'm later than I meant to be." At his words I noticed how dark the room was and reached for a lamp to switch on.

"Got any plans this evening?" I struggled to my feet, trying not to look down at the hand that fit itself to my elbow to help me up. It was disconcerting be treated like an invalid, but I didn't want to hurt Bingo's feelings by shrugging it off.

"If you're still feeling better, maybe go over to Pappappas' and have some linguini?" Bingo asked hopefully. "Stay for that singer who does a set for the dinner crowd on the weekdays. You know the one with the really, really high..." he gestured at his chest, but finished with a cheeky grin, "notes?"

Laughing, I slugged at his shoulder. "Al, don't ever change, okay?"

"Hey, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," he shot back. "Forty years from now I'll still be like this."

"At least twenty-five," I said sotto vocce, heading toward the bathroom to freshen up.

"What?"

"Want to make reservations for forty minutes or so from now?" I improvised hastily.

Looking puzzle, Bingo said, "Reservations? At Pappappas?"

Happy enough about the day that for once a slip up didn't bother me, I ignored him and closed the door. The person in the mirror on the other side blinked at me, and his lips moved as I spoke. "You don't look as if you should be out of bed. Why aren't you in a hospital?" Under a shag of walnut brown curls, dark green eyes peered out of face that looked as if it had never seen sunshine. The skin was dry, barely stretched over the bones of the skull, and colorless lips were pinched shut over exhaustion. Mike was about my height, I guessed, and his bone structure was a sturdy one, making me think that he normally was barrel-chested and wide shouldered. The reflection showed someone slumped forward as if a heavy weight were crushing him and who was starvation thin.

Despite that, I could see that before his illness he had been very, very handsome with the sort of good looks that could have graced a magazine cover. I felt another stab of irrational discomfort from that, and opened the medicine cabinet so I wouldn't have to look at him.

The evening was both wonderful and painful. Al's company was as charming and entertaining as I remembered, and I honestly couldn't say when I'd had a more fun evening. We laughed over everything and nothing, talking about everything from current (for Bingo, anyhow) politics to the book I had been reading. As always the conversation was insightful and humorous, with an occasional barb that could have penetrated steel.

It made me so home-sick for my own time, my own Al, in a way that I hadn't thought could happen since I so often had my observers undivided attention. But when I looked at that belief honestly, I had to admit that mostly we were both concentrating on whatever Leap I was in. It had been a long, long time since we had just had fun together.

That was a depressing realization, which Bingo mistook for weariness from Mike's illness. With excuses about needing to get up early the next day, he paid our bill, leaving a generous tip, and took us home. Once there we really did get ready to turn in, though I suspect it was because Bingo wanted to get Mike to rest.

It seemed like a good idea; between walking all over the city and the stress of trying to keep Calavicci's straight in my head, I was bone tired. When the lights were out, I hesitated at the threshold to Bingo's room. Al hadn't told me whether or not they always slept together or what. It made sense that if the younger Al wanted to keep close tabs on his roommate that they would, but I didn't know if I was going to be able to do it. Just thinking about being in bed with him was giving parts of me ideas I didn't want them to have.

Bingo, damn him, noticed and wrapped his arms around me, brushing his belly over my arousal. "You are doing a lot better today, aren't you?"

That sent a jolt through me that I didn't quite know how to deal with. I bit back a moan, put my hands on his shoulders to push him away, but he stretched up to lick my throat, finding almost by instinct that spot just down from my ear that had always been in direct communication with my libido. This time I couldn't hold back the moan, and instead of setting him away, I clung to him, not at all bothered by the erection I could feel growing between us.

The times I had been a woman during my leaps, being close to a man had been a hardship. Being close to one as another man unexpectedly felt right and was shockingly exciting. That it was Al, if not the one that I saw each day of my Leaps, was a dose of eroticism that had me ready to do anything this Al wanted.

Regardless of that, I fought surrendering to him and my hunger, and I tried to summon the will to back off, to make an excuse that I wasn't feeling *that* well. Before I could, the shine of the Imaging Chamber door lit the bedroom, and my Al stepped through. He took in what was going on with a fast glance, and a bulge began to fill the front of his pants nearly as fast.

"Oh, jeez, Sam," he groaned.

That did me in. I bent my head so that I could nuzzle at Bingo's cheek, coaxing him into turning up his face so I could find his mouth. With more surety than I felt, I claimed it for a kiss, shivering when the taste and feel of those soft lips hit me. Under the hint of garlic and Chianti from our dinner, was a flavor that was pure Al, one that complimented the scent I had always associated with my friend. Even as his arms tightened, his subtle musk enfolded around me, as exotically and enticingly different as the slight burn of whiskers.

If there is one thing Al knows how to do better than anybody else in the world, it has be kissing. By the time he tore away to find some air, we were in the middle of the bed, knotted around each other using all four limbs, and I had no idea how we got there.

Panting, gasping really, I tried to pull him back for more, but he captured one of my fingers and sensually drew it into his mouth, his eyes staring into mine with an unspoken question.

"He wants you to suck him," Al breathed, his voice coming from the head of the bed. "Please, please suck me, Sam."

By that time I was so turned on that anything Al wanted to do sounded good to me, and the way he sounded as he asked - desperate, needy, wanting - only added to my willingness. I scooted down, fumbling down his boxers to free his arousal. Being eye to eye with it intimidated me for a moment. I knew it had felt big, but it looked huge. Then he made this anxious little noise, and shifted, obviously fighting the male urge to thrust. I have no idea why that reassured me, but it did, and I cautiously licked off the single clear drop that was suspended at the tip of it.

Bitter, but again, it matched the scent and taste I already knew, and, as simply as that, I drew the whole cap into my mouth, working on experience of what I had liked done to me in the past.

Giving was every bit as erotic and satisfying as receiving had been.

The feel of the smooth shaft over my lips, against my tongue, Al's quiet sounds of pleasure, the way his body trembled, shivers racing over him as I caressed him - all of it made my stomach clench and my hardness throb, and while I held him in one hand, I worked myself with the other, not wanting to hurry but not able to slow down either.

Al whispered huskily, "Do you have any idea how hot you look doing that? How incredibly sexy it is to see that cock vanish into your mouth, to see yours so hard and ready to shoot?"

His words may as well have been another hand on my body. They stroked over me, finding every nerve ending, every sensitive spot, and I whimpered, freely moving into my own grip.

"Yeah, Sammy," Al said encouragingly, "Do it just like that. Fuck your hand, make us come. Oh, oh, oh, please, Sammy, make us, make us, make us...."

He bit off a scream, then one came anyway and under my fingers I felt the first surge of his release speed through his flesh. There was no time to decide, but swallowing was as natural as loving him that way had been. Nor could I tell if I liked it or not; my own finish hit me in great bolts of sensation that threatened to shake me apart. Clumsily dealing with Al's fluid, I laid my head on his hip and whimpered from the force of my climax.

He threaded his fingers through my hair, holding my head gently while we both recovered. I had nearly drifted off when he murmured, "Jeez, Mike, I don't think you ever got into it that much before.

Despite myself, I jumped, reminded too vividly that who I had been making love to hadn't been making love to me. It had never hurt so much before, and I stayed where I was so that he couldn't see my face. And my Al, damn him, left in a quick blaze of a door opening and closing, without saying a single word to me.

***

I woke from dreams of being choked and smothered, my face and chest wet, air moving soggily down my throat. Gagging, I tried to sit up, to move to find out what was happening to me, but panic and a strange weakness in my body wouldn't let me. Blessedly Bingo's reflexes were good; he hit the lights at the same time he hauled me upright, tilting my head down so that I could breathe through my mouth.

"Bad bleed," he said noncommittally, rags already in hand to staunch the flow. "Knew you were over-doing it."

"Worth it," I mumbled, and it was, even though it took the better part of two hours for my nose to stop bleeding. Bingo never left my side, patiently helping me wipe up the worst of it, and propping me up when staying upright became a problem. By the time it slowed to a trickle, I was nearly out, cold and sweaty from blood loss and shock. He held me, giving me the warmth of his body, talking to me softly of inconsequential things. I plummeted back into sleep with his words acting like a lifeline holding me securely in my dreams.

Not many hours later, he left the bed to go to work, and I stirred, hardly able to move. "Al?"

Lips to my forehead, he murmured, "Shhh. Sleep. I'll call later."

Reluctantly, I let him go, listening to his movements through the apartment as I drifted on the edge of awareness. Part of me wanted to call him back, to keep him at my side, real and touchable for another day. Bingo or Al, it didn't really matter any more; I would take what I could get because it was better than nothing. Even if it wasn't mine to have. I didn't even feel guilty. In my time, Al was with Michael, and they were spending the days of this Leap in each other's company, no doubt laughing and enjoying each other as much as Bingo and I had. If Al had to use me to get the physical relief that his old lover could no longer provide, well, it wasn't as if I weren't getting anything out of it. I owed both of them for the masquerade I played now.

I let him go, though I knew the smallest noise from me would have called him back. Bingo didn't know how short the time Michael had left was, and I didn't want to interfere with the job and friends he would need when he was alone again. Nor did I think Michael would have wanted me to.

My next awakening was harder than the first; I'd had beatings that hadn't left me as sore and exhausted as I felt that morning. Painfully I crawled out of bed - literally - and headed straight for the bathroom. My skin felt stiff and sticky and completely disgusting and all I could think of was a shower. The hot water did a lot to revive me, and I cheered up, deciding I would cook tonight, using one of Al's own recipes just to see his reaction. Afterwards we could catch a game or something on the tube, or listen to the stereo, or maybe neck on the couch.

The last made me grin. Chances were very good we'd go straight to the necking part in my plans for the evening, if Al had anything to say about it. It might be fun to make him wait, though, make him work for a bit.

A pang of desire survived my general tiredness and pulled pleasantly in my groin. There was a stir of interest in my penis, and I reached down with soap slick hands, not to do anything about it, but to think about how nice it had been last night. I scratched through my pubic curls on the way down, both to clean out the dried sperm trapped in them, and because that felt nice, too.

And froze when my fingertips brushed over a large lump just inside the crease of my hip and leg. Automatically I called up the medical information I had stored in the back of my mind, running over the symptoms I'd been experiencing as I ran a finger over the nodule just under my skin: fever, body ache, fatigue, nose bleed, swollen lymph node. Not wanting to believe what all that was adding up to, I quickly finished my shower, wrapped a towel around me, and sat on the edge of the tub, thinking furiously.

In the past I had been pregnant because the young woman I had Leaped into was. I had retained supressed childhood memories that weren't mine, but that belonged to the person I was supposed to be in that leap. There was at least one time that I could remember vaguely, so much so I couldn't remember who I had been, when there had been enough of the person left behind that I had acted like that man, doing what he would have done given any situation.

While it stretched the edges of my own beliefs about Leaping, I had very clear evidence that this time, what had been left behind was the disease that killed Michael Ingalls. I had all the symptoms of the terminal stages of lukemia.

At the beginning of this Leap I had wondered if I had replaced Michael so that he could have his last days with an Al who was free to spend as much time with him as they wanted. And to give my friend a chance to put some ghosts at rest while allowing a good man to see the future he believed in so strongly. It hadn't felt like the reason at the time, and it still didn't, but I couldn't think of anything else that would explain why I would the one who was sick now. After all, you couldn't very well enjoy a guided tour of the future if you were confined to a bed. And I knew without reason or explanation that Michael was well enough to be up and about.

Moving slowly, I finally stood and dried off, taking my time getting dressed with my mind racing with possiblities and theories. It seemed... fair... that I should be the one with the lukemia now. If Michael was getting what he wanted, that was at the choice of Whoever was bouncing me through time. I was taking what I wanted, what wasn't truly mine. There was an odd symmetry to paying for it with a few days of feeling bad.

I spent the rest of the day at the library, looking through the texts and journals about the illness, comparing what was known in 1973 to what I knew. Marrow transplants were in their infancy, chemotherapy was crude at best, and the mortality rate was extremely high. Not that it would have mattered anyway. I was progressing much more rapidly than a normal patient, to judge by going from a little achy to having to lean on buildings to get back to the apartment in about twenty-four hours.

By the time I got back, I didn't have much choice but to crawl into bed. True sleep was beyond me; I sort of drifted in and out, becoming fascinated by small things and returning to them over and over. There was a pattern underneath the wallpaper next to the bed; a crack in the plaster over the lathing that meandered and twisted all over it, like a drunkard's path. I followed it with my eyes endlessly, and once with the tip of a finger as far as I could reach without moving. One corner of my mattress was coming undone; the smallest movement on the bed would cause the single thread holding it to slip another millimeter or two. I would deliberately wiggle or push on the bed, then measure and remeasure the gap over and over again in my mind.

Once Al came into the room. I was sure of that despite the fever that I recognized was playing tricks with my perceptions. But I pretended to be alseep and after aimlessly wandering through the apartment for a while, he went away without saying anything. Mostly I was relieved, and the part of me that howled in pain could hardly be heard over the illness burning through my ears.

When night fell, I woke from a light doze, fever mostly gone and capable of getting up, however creakily. After I'd freshened up, I started the dinner that I'd planned earlier, enjoying the simple pleasure of creating something. Bingo came in as I was ready to put the pasta on to boil; I offered a kiss and was taken up on it.

The rest of the evening was spent in a comfortable domestic bliss, almost exactly like the one I had envisioned earlier. It was sweet, precious beyond belief, and the only flaw in it was that I wasn't up for more than a good cuddle on the couch.

Know what? Calavicci cuddles as good as he kisses.

Bingo was outside taking out the garbage when Al popped back in. Not wanting to spoil his visit with Michael or uselessly worry him about me, I played at having a bit more wine than I meant to, and stayed put while he paced around, occasionally bending close to peer at something.

One thing I needed to know, though, just to confirm if my theory about what was happening to me. "How's Mike doing? Beeks keeping an eye on him?"

Chuckling, Al gestured with his cigar, as if to sketch his friend into the room with us. "When she can keep up with him. Knowing that he's in the future, that he moved in Time, has him so energized he's like a new man. Got a knack for the technical stuff, too. He and Gooshie talked all through lunch about computer and hybrid programming and God knows what all til I was bored enough to drown both of them in their soup."

That made me smile. Al understood technical jargon and conversations, but affected not to, often deliberately resorting to words like 'thingamajig' or 'gadget' just to get under the skin of the scientists and technicians. In fact, he originally got together with Tina by playing too stupid to understand what she did at the Project.

Apparently remembering that, too, Al added, "Tina thinks he's a doll."

I nodded, then asked sleepily, "Ziggy got anything yet on why I'm here?"

"Nada." He shrugged. "Best she's been able to do, and it's such a slim percentage it's not even worth quoting, is that you might simply be on vacation. Think about it. Bingo is trying his damdest to get into the Apollo program right now and is too busy to pay much attention to you or any slips you might make. Mike doesn't have any other friends in the area, so you can be You all day long, and pretty much please yourself. Sounds like a vacation to me."

I honestly gave that some hard thought, but had to say, slowly, "It doesn't feel right, though, Al."

Shrugging again, he agreed, "Didn't think it could be that easy. You got any notions?"

The 'zing' I had felt when I touched the receipt for the ring, then for the ring itself echoed in my head, but it was too small to be all of the answer. "No, not really," I told him. "Maybe tomorrow I should search through his things or call some of the people he knows? See if I hit on something?"

Uneasily Al pushed my suggestion away with his cigar. "You won't find anything. Mike was considered a KIA, not POW and what little family he had destroyed or gave away his belongings. Friends from before are all scattered goodness knows where, and he's been caught in the hospital routine to make new ones, really. He has a doctor's appointment tomorrow; maybe you'll find something there."

"Maybe." It did sound like a possiblity, but something he said earlier had wandered back through my thoughts. "Al, can I ask you something?"

"Sure, shoot." He came to stand in front of me readily enough, but there was a touch of uneasiness in his eyes, and I knew he thought I was going to ask about last night. Telling myself, not for all the money in the world, I said, "You said Bingo was really trying hard to get into the space program. I never thought to ask why you were so focused on it. As sick as Mike is, I would have thought you'd put it on the back burner until, well, until..."

Snorting, Al crossed his legs under him and sat down, taking a minute for a drag on his cigar. "When we met, all that damned fool talked about was science fiction and moon shots and colonies in space. Wanted to be an astronaut so bad that he tried to talk me into helping him hide the 'luke so he could try out. Guess you could say he was contagious. Have to admit, I like the idea of flying that high. You know how much I love being a pilot, Sam. Being an astronaut is like being a pilot's pilot to me."

It made sense, and I nodded, but before I could say anything, he went on softly. "Bingo is thinking that Mike will hang on until he goes up, at least for the first time. It's a, ah, loss he's having trouble facing right now. Can we say denial, boys and girls?"

That made even more sense. "Is he going to be able to handle it?" I asked, worried despite the fact there was nothing I could do about it.

"Made me even more determined to get up there; a memorial if you will," Al answered easily, then his eyes slid away. "Course, I got married again about two months later. Weird as it sounds, it was because I was mourning for him."

"Doesn't sound weird to me," I said gently, then summoned a smile. "But then I've known you for a long time."

He mock-glared at me, then grinned his evil grin. "That, Dr. Beckett works both ways."

We both heard Bingo at the door, and Al stood, looking very much as if he'd rather stay. "I'd, uh, better let you go. You know, have, some privacy."

All at once I couldn't stand having him leave without easing the strain between us. "Al, before you go, there's one thing you have to know - I can't say no to you. Not to Bingo, not to you. With all you've to put up with from me, all the things you've done for me to help me, there was no way I could have turned you down. Not when Bingo had every right to expect it, not when you needed me to give it to him. Uh, guess I'm a little surprised you wanted to watch, though."

"I take it you've never video-taped yourself making love," Al said, a trifle smugly, though I could tell he was working for it.

"No. No, I can't say as I have." Relieved he wasn't angry at me for taking advantage of Bingo, I admitted, "I wouldn't know whether to be embarassed or laugh my butt off."

"Now that's the boy scout we all know and love," Al chuckled.

Bingo came up behind me and put his hand on my head. "Mike? Who you talking to?"

I couldn't help it; I giggled. Not laughed or chuckled, I giggled. "You, of course." The expression on his face set me off again, and next thing I knew Al was guffawing, going back through the Imaging Chamber door as Bingo was hefting me to my feet to put me to bed. Shucking off my clothes, I opened my arms for him, intending to see if I could persuade him to at least let me love him with my hands.

I yawned before I could ask, and was asleep before he had both of us settled for the night.

Much to my disappointment, I didn't even feel Al leave the bed that morning, and when I did wake up myself, I was terrified that I wasn't going to be able to get up, I was so weak. If I had to put something right before I could Leap, it was going to have to be soon. Tommorrow was the date of Michael's death, and at the rate I was losing my strength, by the end of today, I was going to be bed-ridden, unable to do anything to help either myself or anybody else.

By slow increments I got to my feet, weaving unsteadily as I tended to necessary business. Staying home wasn't an option. That was Michael had done in the first history, so to change it, I had to at least go out, trusting to Whoever was Leaping me to put me where I needed to be. I knew there was a doctor's appointment, but the Al's ring seemed more important, so I decided that would be my goal for the day.

I barely made it, and it did take me nearly all day to accomplish it. Though the shop wasn't that far away, I had to rest at every corner, and I tottered back and forth between freezing in the thin November sunlight, and burning up from the cancer inside me. Once I sat, sure I'd never get up again, but I kept thinking about how happy my Al would be to get a Christmas present from me, and how important the ring must be to Bingo for him to keep it so determinedly over the years.

The entire time I expected to meet someone or see something that would explain why I was there, who would accidentally tell me what I needed to do to Leap. But other than the occasional odd look and an angry business man muttering about bums and drunks, no one bothered me or spoke to me. I'd given up on it by the time I reached the apartment building, and was focused entirely on getting back to bed. It was my oasis in the desert, and I had to get back there before it was too late.

Mercifully I think I was pretty much out of it by the time I let myself into the apartment; I never felt my collapse onto the mattress, still fully dressed and wearing my coat. Instinct must have made me burrow into the bedding at some point; when the bright glare from Al entering the room cut across my face, waking me up, I was tightly wrapped in the blankets.

"Jeez, Sam, you look terrible. What happened?"

"Good. I feel terrible. Please tell me you're here to tell me what I need to do to Leap." My mouth was dry, my throat sore, and I didn't want to move any more than it was necessary to talk.

"No, nothing. And Ziggy is begining to go ballistic. Keeps saying something about death being inevitable, we don't do miracles. Anything on your end?"

God bless my brain child. She was beginning to have the same suspicion I had and wasn't any more willing to face it than I was. But I pushed that aside; I had something I wanted to do while I was strong enough and clear-minded enough to do it. "Ran some errands (okay one, but I wasn't really lying) and didn't dress warm enough for the weather. I'll be okay as soon as I warm up (well, I would if I ever did). I found nothing, though." Under the covers I dug through my pocket until I found the ring, and brought it out. "I did get you a Christmas present, though."

"That's not for nearly two months, yet, Sam. If you give it to Bingo early, he'll know how bad off Mike is, which is one thing that Mike definitely doesn't want to happen. Don't think you can hide it away for him to find later; Bingo's going to simply gather all his stuff up and give it away." Al was upset and getting moreso, and damn my weak hands, I was having trouble getting the box out to where he could see it.

"Not for Bingo," I panted. "For you. Don't know how close to the holiday it is our time, but you're wearing mistletoe. Can't be far off."

He was still bothered, and confused now, too. "For me? What, I mean, it's a sweet thought, Sam, but it's not like I can actually pick it up and take it through the door with me."

"You don't have to," I said eagerly. "You already have it, see." I finally got the box opened, and lifted it up so that he could look inside. "If you'll tell me..." I intended to say, 'how Mike arranged for you to get this after he died.' but before I could, Al exploded, literally killing me with the blast of his words.

"GOD DAMN YOU SAM BECKETT!!!!" He sprang away from me as if I held a weapon, looking utterly furious and horrified.

"Al?" I asked weakly, shrinking back into the bed.

"Do you have any idea at all what it would have meant to me to have Mike give me that ring?! Do you?!!!" he shouted. "From the first time I saw it in the shop, I drooled over it, wanting it bad but not willing to spend that kind of money on myself for no good reason. Everytime we walked past the window it was in, Mike would try to talk me into getting it or letting him buy it for me. I wouldn't let him because he needed the money to pay medical bills for God knew how long, and that was the same reason I wouldn't let go of my cash. Finally he made me promise that I would let him get if for me when I came back from my first space launch."

"Al," I started.

"He died before that, didn't he? No way to keep the promise, so I went out and bought it for myself, because I could hear him gently nagging me about it." Al stomped back and forth, waving his hands and yelling loud enough to make my ears hurt.

"But," I tried again, but he wasn't listening.

"So I'm going to walk out of here, and I'm going to remember a history where he did leave it for me to find when he died, like I kinda hoped he would, and all the happiness that would have given me is going to be shit because *Mike* didn't give it to me. You did. Like the busy-body, know-it-all, Sam-knows-best, man-with-a-minor-god-complex that you are, you're going to take away a cherished memory because you wanted to do something. 1.4 billion dollars spent on keeping you happy and well informed while you move around in Time, playing saint and savior all rolled into one, and that's not enough to keep your ego fully inflated!"

I couldn't talk now, not past the incredible knot in my throat or the pain clouding my heart. All I could do was dig in deeper in the superficial warmth of the blankets and listen to Al tell me exactly what he really thought of me and the work we'd been doing together.

Whirling to face me, he demanded, "GET RID OF IT!" Ripping the one on his hand off, he threw it away from himself visciously. "I'd rather Bingo never lay eyes on it again than have it turn to shit in front of my eyes. GET RID OF IT!!" He didn't wait for me to answer, but hit the controls of the handlink with furious stabs and stormed through the opened door.

I shook for a long time, wishing I had strength enough for tears. At the sound of Bingo talking to somebody out in the hallway, I rolled clumsily to my side, facing the wall, box clutched in my hand. In front of me was the tear in the mattress and I carefully stuffed the ring down into it, making sure that it was deep enough into the stuffing that it wouldn't be accidentally found.

***

I did my best to smile and talk to Bingo, and later, just to please him, I managed to force down half a cup of soup. It seemed like a waste of food to me, but it made him smile when I ate it. He would have stayed with me, but had a late meeting of some sort with some brass flying in from Washington for whatever reason.

Hiding my relief that he was going to be gone, it took every ounce of will power I had not to say the good-bye I wanted to give him. But with Al's words at how selfish I had been in keeping the project running for my convenience, and all the other selfish acts I'd committed during those years powering me, I kept my tone light and affectionate when he left.

Neither Michael nor I wanted Al to watch him die, but neither of us were willing to go to a hospital either. For Michael, it would have been a cage that would have made his suffering worse. For me the risk that I would babble about the wrong thing to the wrong person during my final delirium. Besides I had known a lot of joy in this bed; it was a good place to leave from.

During the ramblings of my mind that long, long night, I often wondered if Mike would Leap back here after my death or stay in my place in the future. It would be hard for him and Al in this time, this place, and I didn't know if Bingo would have the courage to confess that he was in love with Michael. I wasn't sure he'd admitted it to himself, yet, or if he ever would.

In Al's time, things were better, though, and Mike was someone who could and would appreciate the blessings of it - I would have given anything to see his reaction to the Internet. And the charge it would give Al to see him making a life for himself there might give the old skirt-chaser the courage to be truthful about what he felt.

More than once I wished he had been truthful with me earlier, rather than spew it like acid during a fight. I had always been so wrapped up in the momentum from the Leaps that I seldom if ever gave thought to the people of the Project, what their lives must be like, how hard it must be to keep the money coming in and the politicians out. Especially Al; for him it had to be worse than being a physician on call. Once the Leap started, I pretty much demanded his full time attention 24/7 until it was done. When you added how petulant and childish I could be, it was a wonder he put up with me this long.

For the first time the Leap made sense, and I understood what I had to do. The ring had been important because it made Al tell me the truth, so I would know what he needed. It wasn't me and my never-ending journey; it was Mike and the love that never had had a chance to flourish the way it deserved. And to give Al that, to make sure he was happy and not alone, I was more than willing to end my Leaps this way.

Oh, I was so scared, and I had never felt so alone. There weren't memories of happier times for me to call up and take solace from. My swiss-cheesed brain refused to give me more than occasional flashes of my own past, and the few days I'd had with Al here were too bittersweet. So I curled up into the corner of the bed, making as small a ball as possible next to the wall, and concentrated on not thinking or feeling anything.

Eventually I heard Al in the room with me, probably more or less shoved into going back into the Imaging Chamber by Ziggy. But the room was very dark, and I made no effort to turn on the light or admit I knew he was there. I deliberately let myself drift toward unconsciousness, ignoring him with very little effort.

He called my name repeatedly, at first practically apologetically, then with growing frustration and anger. I heard him tell Gooshie to literally center him right on top of me, and that allowed him to yell right in my ear, but I shut him out. By now Ziggy had to know I was dying and that Michael was in remission; I wasn't going to let her guilt Al into helping me Leap. This decision was mine; freeing him was the right thing to do.

After a while he went away, and the silent dark closed around me, almost comforting.

In the gray dawn Bingo came home long enough to shower and change, whispering a good morning to me and asking how I felt. It was easy enough to muster enough alertness and cheer to convince him I was okay, all things considered. He apologized for being gone all night, saying he'd gotten into an poker game and hadn't noticed the time. By the smell of the cigarette smoke and booze on him, I didn't doubt that, and I laughed and asked how much he'd taken everyone for. His look was smug though he wouldn't tell me, then he was gone and I gratefully huddled back into my corner.

Knowing Al would be back sooner or later to try to get me to Leap, I went to sleep, welcoming the blackness of it the same way I had accepted the dark the night before.

Al followed me into that emptiness, harassing me with his voice like he had so often before. Nagging and demanding, threatening and pleading, finally begging with a heart-breaking quiver in his voice, he chased me through my dreamscape until a simple, heartbroken "Sammy, please," pulled me back to wakefullness.

I could tell from the agony in my bones that this was the last time I'd be lucid. The last coma before death already had steely pins anchored in me, but I wasn't quite ready to give into it, yet. I couldn't say goodbye to Bingo; there wasn't any reason not with Al. Though it was my last, selfish wish, it would help him, too. Otherwise he might blame himself because we'd fought or because he'd think there was something he should have been doing instead of being with Mike.

So I cracked open an eye and tried to smile. "Hey, no shouting. There's a sick man in here," I mock-scolded.

"Sam! Thank God! Where's the ring?"

That hurt. That hurt. That hurt. Almost by instinct I found the cranny I had made and stuffed myself into it, face to the wall. "Got rid of it like you said," I mumbled, willing my last sleep toward me.

"How? Throw it out the window? In the trash? Where is it, Sam?" Al was frantic, but I didn't answer. He muttered, "Too sick to have gone far with it, so it has to be close by."

Mystified why he would want it back now, I repeated tiredly, "You said get rid of it."

"Sam, I was wrong. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I should have trusted you." Al was as close to me as he could get, close enough that I could pretend that he was really there.

"Hey, 'sokay," I mumbled. "Weren't expecting it, 'sall."

"It's not okay, it's not. Look, when I showed up not wearing my ring, Mike asked me what happened to it, and mentioned that he was glad I'd found the receipt for it in his coat pocket. It was the one thing that that he hadn't been able to do, and it had been bothering him that I wouldn't get it. You found the receipt and picked it up to give to Bingo, didn't you, Sam?"

It was getting very, very cold and his words were starting to fade in and out, not really making any sense. "You said get rid of it." I was pretty sure I'd said that before, and it was important but I couldn't remember why.

"How, Sam, how'd you do it?" Al sounded scared, and I wanted to tell him that he didn't have to be, everything was all right, but I was too coldto get my lips to form the words. "Sam!!"

He really sounded bad, so I managed to push away the cold long enough to to tell him, "It's okay, Al. Really. It's okay. Love Michael good for me, will you? Let him love you the way I wanted to."

"Listen to me! I mean it, listen to me you stubborn, aggravating... Sam, Mike is dear and precious to me, and I cherished the time we had. But I was never in love with him."

Sighing, I wandered back toward sleep, murmuring, "He's supposed to live; that's why I Leaped here. Leaps are over. No more squandering tax payer dollars and wasting the lives of the people at the Project. Go live a normal life, Al. And give Mike a chance."

"If the average taxpayer knew what you were doing back here in Time, knew the good you're doing, they'd ante up out of their pockets if they had to," Al argued fiercely. "And there isn't a single person at Stallion's Gate that would give up the chance to help you do what you're doing, espcially me. I was angry when I said those things, frustrated because being with Mike was making me miss you so much."

Softly he begged, "Sammy, look at me? Please? I know it hurts to move, but, look at me?"

I'd been telling him the truth when I said I had trouble saying 'no' to him. Somehow I got myself turned enough that I could look into his eyes. They were bloodshot, tear-filled, and agonized. "It's Mike's time, and he's at peace with that. It's not yours, I know it's not. God, Sam! Don't leave me! It hurt when I lost, Mike, but it's going to kill me to lose you. I love you too much!"

Just like that I was warm, and I blinked, not sure if I was delirious again. "Al?"

Swiping at his face, he asked softly, "Where's my Christmas present? I'd really like to see it."

Afraid to look away from him, wanting to ask him to repeat what he'd just said so I'd be sure of what I'd heard, I dug at the rip in the mattress with numb fingers. He saw what I was doing and held his breath, visibly fighting the need to help me. It took three tries, but I did get it out eventually, and put it on my chest to pry it open. "Read the inscription," I panted. "That's the part from me."

Al bent so that he could squint at the circle laying in its bed of velvet. "S.B. to A.C. Merry Xmas," he choked out.

"Going to tell Bingo the shop screwed up the engraving and there was no time to fix it," I said. "Didn't think he'd mind."

"I won't, I won't. Mike won't mind, either. Thank you, Sam. It's a wonderful present." Al was openly crying, hand hovering over my face as if to wipe away my tears.

"Yours was better." The well-known buzz of a Leap was beginning to vibrate inside of me, but I took my time to give him the rest of it. "I love you, too, Al."

He closed his eyes at that, and when he opened them again a split second later, all the pain was mercifully gone. "You don't have to..."

"I do, and don't be surprised if I tell you again on the next Leap and the next and the next," I said strongly, knowing that he could see the buzz becoming a light streaming out of my body. "I'm in love with you and all I want is Leap home and into your arms. Promise me you won't let me forget that I've held you. Promise you'll say it again."

"I promise. Love you, Sam Beckett."

I Leaped, but Al kept his promise and for the rest of my journeys he always used those words to greet me and to wish me on my way again.

And I *never* forgot those few days when I was free to touch and love him.