Slow Dancing in Paradise: Part Two

Penelope Hill

He didnít want to wake up. To wake up meant climbing away from the soothing nothingness, meant facing the fire and the pain and the effort of being alive. Voices disturbed him; he had vague memories of being lifted and carried, of hands that touched and stirred his pain and then took it away altogether ...

... and weíll need a full spinal X-ray, stat ...

... refresh that IV. Somebody keep an eye on his blood pressure ...

... motor response is poor in all the lower extremities, Doctor ...

.. doctor ...

...doctor ...

...

..

.

"Doctor Beckett? Can you hear me, Doctor Beckett?"

The voice came through the fog. A hand touched his shoulder, then lifted his wrist. His arm felt heavy. He felt heavy.

Iíve been drugged, he realised with an odd sense of distance. I was hurting, and theyíve given me something for the pain.

His sense of self was peculiar. He could feel support beneath his shoulders, could sense the lift of air into his lungs, recognise the touch of professional fingers at his wrist. But beyond that was little more than an awareness of being there, and that only in disjointed snatches. There was an ache, a buzz of irritation spiralling down his back, and an insistent throb in one hip, and it seemed that there was ice under his buttocks, numbing sensation into nothing. He couldnít feel his feet at all.

Oh, god.

I canít feel my feet ...

I canít feel ...

The comprehension jerked him fully awake, the sudden sense of panic making him tense his shoulders and try to lift his head in alarm. Pain flared in response, across his torso, through his lungs; he did not resist the hands that reached out to hold him down.

"Take it easy," the same voice advised. "Itís okay. Youíre safe. Youíre in hospital. Do you remember what happened?"

He blinked, focusing on the face that loomed over him, its professional smile not concealing the concern that lurked in the manís eyes. A south-east Asian; his round features were composed into an attempt at reassurance, and his white coat helped reinforce his air of authority.

Do I remember ...?

I was going back. I made a stupid mistake and I was going back ...

That wasnít all of it. That couldnít be all of it. Thereíd been something else ...

Al. And Kate.

Oh, god ...

"I was - in an accident ...?"

The doctor nodded; the concern did not leave his eyes.

"Very good, Doctor Beckett. Iím afraid you have been quite badly hurt, but we have hopes that most of the damage is purely temporary. You sustained major trauma between the lumbar and cervical areas of your spine, and ..."

Samís hand jerked up to catch the corner of the coat, to halt the flow of words.

"Iím paralysed, arenít I?"

The professional face slipped a little, revealing a worried man beneath.

"Well - "

"Arenít I? I canít feel my feet, doctor. Donít lie to me. Iím qualified. I know what major trauma is ..."

"Please. Doctor Beckett. Itís very early days yet ..."

He let his grip slip away, and his shoulders slump. Even that movement took effort, stirred pain.

"Did I break my back? How many fractures?" His mind slid into scientific detachment while his soul went on screaming. "I can move my arms, so - "

"Doctor Beckett, please." The doctorís interruption was firm. "There is no skeletal damage at all. The major injury is something akin to severe whiplash; the muscles in your back have been strained and torn, and your spine has suffered severe bruising. Until the contusions subside we have no way of measuring the true extent of the damage. Iím sorry," he went on sympathetically. "But these things take time ..."

Time ...

How can I hope to free myself of its chains if Iím a prisoner in my own flesh?

God, what have I done ...?

"Spare me the bedside manner," he requested wearily. "I donít want it. Just the truth."

The doctorís name was Chui-Lin. At least, that was what his namebadge claimed. He sighed, thrusting his hands into his pockets as he did so.

"Doctor Beckett, I have given you the truth. If you think it over, you will see that. You are in shock, and disorientated from the drugs. It will take a while for you to come to terms with your condition, but the long term prognosis is good, I can assure you."

He didnít want to hear it. He turned his head away, concentrating on the absence of his senses, on the nothingness that made up himself.

I had control, his heart insisted on reminding him. All that work to balance my chi, to master myself, and itís gone.

All gone.

What good am I to anyone like this ...?

"Your sister is here," Chui-Lin was saying. "She has been here every day for the three days you have been in our care. Do you wish to see her?"

Kate?

It would be good to see Kate, wouldnít it? Sheíd take care of him. Sheíd always taken care of him, had helped his mom nurse him through colds and fevers and that time heíd bumped his head when Tommy had pushed him out of the barn ...

How can I bear for her to see me like this?

A stark memory surfaced: Kate in a manís arms, the two of them absorbed in each other, laughing, while he stood alone ...

She stole my Tomcat. She took him from me ...

Confusion welled up inside him, emerged as a prickling of tears. He lifted his hand - oh, god, that hurts - and wiped at them with desperate fingers.

Sheíll tell me to be strong. Sheíll tell me to be brave.

And all I want to do is die ...

"Sam?"

Kateís voice. Strained and tentative.

If I donít look, will she go away?

"Please, little brother. Everythingís going to be all right, I promise. Doctor Chui-Lin says you can come home tomorrow, and Iíve arranged for the physio to come every day, and Iím going to take real good care of you ..."

Like a child. Like a useless cripple.

And itís all my fault ...

"Please, Sam. I know you feel bad right now. But Iím here. Iím not going to let you down. We can deal with this, I know we can ..."

He finally turned his head, seeing her standing there, her face anxious, her eyes too bright. Three days, did he say?

"Whatever you say, Doctor," he agreed tonelessly. Why should she care, anyway? Who wants to bother with a guilt-ridden fool and his self-inflicted wounds ...?

Her expression tightened; she dropped her hand to enfold his where it lay exposed on the bedcover.

"Donít you trust me, Sam?"

... you know what I want ...

Sheíd betrayed him. Theyíd both betrayed him.

And where was Al, anyway?

Maybe he couldnít bear to come ...

A sudden cold horror clutched at him. What if Al couldnít bear it? Heíd have known the reason that Sam had been out on that road. What if guilt had driven him away? Or worse? Back to the bottle, maybe, or ... or ...

Shattered glass dripping scarlet ribbons ...

Why did he have to remember that?

"Kate," he asked with urgency, "is Al - did he - will he be there?"

She smiled, an oddly exasperated smile, at odds with the way her hand clung so tightly.

"You know something, little brother?" she said. "I couldnít pry that man from your side with anything less than a squad of Marines. And even then theyíd have severe casualties. Heís been right here the past three days, making sure I got enough sleep, and not getting any himself. He finally keeled over about three this morning." Her lips quirked. "Might have had something to do with what I suggested the nurse use to sweeten his coffee ... Right now heís tucked up nice and neat two doors down from here. And yes, heíll be there when you come home tomorrow."

Her words settled the panic that had caught at his heart.

He was here. He was taking care of Kate.

His world was torn in two; a part of him embraced that thought, held it close and used it to find strength - and then a greater part of him pushed it away, with bitterness and anger, and a sense of despair.

Does it matter? Does anything matter now?

Iím just going to be a burden to both of them.

There were too many thoughts in his head, all crowding for attention. He couldnít untangle them, couldnít focus on the emotions that hammered and tore at him. He closed his eyes and tried to think of nothing at all.

"Sam?" Kateís voice was anxious, but he ignored it. He wanted her to go away.

He just wanted everything to go away ...

The police came and asked him questions. He answered them in monotones, laying no blame on anyone other than himself. Lono had vanished into the night, it seemed, leaving him to be helped by the startled occupants of the car that had narrowly avoided them. He didnít tell them why heíd gone to windward, just that he had; that heíd hitched a lift back, and no, the rider hadnít had helmets, and he didnít really remember very much ...

That was a lie. He remembered it all. Remembered the hurt that had driven him out of the house, the anger that had sent him down into the ocean of the night where the sharks lurked; remembered, too, the self-disgust that had made him refuse the expectant hunter that had snared him. That self-disgust still lingered, kept his words to short, pained replies as Kate hovered beside him and the officer made thoughtful notes on his paper pad.

Just routine, they told him.

As if potential Nobel Prize winners made fools of themselves every day of the week in Honolulu ...

Kateís hand had sought his own, and the touch of her fingers was a warmth he couldnít ignore, no matter how much he wanted to. He didnít want anyone to offer him pity, or show concern. If someone did that, then he was going to have to care, and that would be too much, too hard to face ...

The policemen thanked him and left.

And then Alonzo arrived.

Actually, he didnít so much arrive as explode into the room as if driven by a tornado, his eyes full of anxious fire and his features torn between fury and anguished disquiet. Samís heart leaped at the sight of him, at the sudden flare of colour and life that his appearance brought - then his soul cried out, and his heart broke, and he had to turn his head away.

Iím not worth it, Tomcat.

I let you down, just like everyone else has done ...

"Kate Beckett," he heard Al growl as he closed the distance, "you and I are going to have words later, you understand?"

Kateís answer was defiant.

"You donít have the authority to court martial me, Commodore. And I have every right to make that kind of judgement call where my brothers are concerned."

Al sighed; there was a pause, and then he moved round to smile down at Sam, schooling his face into cautious reassurance.

"Hiya, kid," he offered gently. "How ya doing?"

Donít, Al. Please. No  ...

The manís hand dropped down to enfold his own so that he was held suspended between the two of them, his sister on one side, his friend on the other. There was nothing in the middle, only a sense of pain and a gulf of guilt.

Donít. Just donít. I canít bear to hurt you like this.

Even though you hurt me ...

Determination seized him, a cold anger, mostly at himself, that gave him the strength to strike out. He snatched his hands away from both of them and stared bitterly at the ceiling.

"Why the hell should you care?" he demanded, unable to keep the shake from his voice.

The two of them glanced at each other, over his head, exchanging unspoken words. Easy communication, mutual concern, a common fellowship that his anger could snatch at, could use and redirect to hack at the support they were trying to offer him.

The support he feared, because it would make him want to live again ...

Itís her he wants, not me. Why shouldnít he? Sheís got looks, and sheís whole - and sheís the woman Iím not ...

"Kate," Al said softly, "do you want to give me a minute or two here?"

She hesitated, then she rose to her feet.

"Iíll go get some coffee," she offered. "Unsweetened," she added, and left, closing the door behind her.

Al waited until the echo of the soft click had died away.

"Okay," he said, his voice quietly challenging. "You got something you want to say to me, Sam?"

There were too many things; a part of him was yammering against the steel he was wrapping round his soul. Heíd been angry; heíd been hurt. Hurt by the sense of betrayal, by the fragility of something heíd foolishly expected to be perfect.

Yet, under the pain and the despair, under the guilt and the sense of hopelessness, he knew that that longing still burned; understood all the reasons why he had pushed the shark away.

If only ...

It had been his wounded pride that had driven him to desperation, his angered self-pity that had, in turn, driven him to this; lying in the aftermath of his own actions, stripped of his strength, stripped of hope.

And the one thing he might have wanted to live for now seemed forever beyond his reach.

Maybe I can drive him away so I wonít have to face this. I wonít have to fight ...

The thought was a strangled one, overlain with raw and conflicting emotions.

"Thereís nothing to say," he breathed, focusing on the anger, on the bitterness, because the pain of that was easiest to bear. "Is there?"

"Sam, I - "

The anger exploded, a sudden surge of white-hot passion that overwhelmed his sense of emptiness. His hands clenched on the coverlet and he found the strength to turn and look at the man.

"Youíre one hell of a bastard, you know that, Calavicci? Donít give a damn about anyone else, so long as you get what you want, right? Was she worth it? Did she make you howl, Tomcat? Sheís my sister, damn it! Couldnít you keep your goddamned hormones under control just once?"

He was hoping for resentment, for equal anger or defensive reaction. What he got was a resigned sigh.

"Sam," Al considered softly. "I donít think that now is the time to deal with this."

"You want to forget it? Maybe I want to forget it, but I canít, can I? Iím the one lying here with nothing else to think about ... I thought you were my friend. I thought we might have something more than that ...

"God, Iíve been such a fool ..."

The resignation deepened, emphasising the lines on the other manís face. Guilt lay there like a weight that no-one could take away, but it was backed by something else, something that Samís anger would not let him see.

"It happened." Alís words were quiet, matter-of-fact. "I canít go back and change time for you, Sam. I wish I could. It was just that once, no more, I swear. Iím not about to make excuses, because there are none."

A part of him wanted to believe that. Wanted to listen and understand. But the pain and the anger were burning deep, blinding him, consuming him. The drugs theyíd given him had filled his mind with shadows, and the manís words registered as little more than noise, as confusing as the frantic stir of Samís thoughts.

"So now youíre sitting there because you feel guilty, right?" He struggled against the chaos that beleaguered him, but all that emerged were heated words, echoing his inner hysteria. "You donít have to. Or are you just showing concern because it impresses Kate? What do you really feel? Sorry for me? The poor mixed-up kid who thought you might be worth saving - once?"

The wince was inevitable. Somewhere in Samís heart a piece of him was bleeding at each bitter blow he struck. He really didnít want to hurt this man, but it was almost as if he couldnít stop himself.

"You used me, Al. Used me the way you use all of your conquests, just like youíre using Kate. So take your piece of flesh and get the hell out of here. Why bother to stick around? Iím not gonna be much fun anymore ..."

Iron settled in the Commodoreís eyes; a steel certainty that was almost frightening in its intensity. His hand went out and caught at Samís own, caught it with a strength that could not be denied.

"Okay," he said. "You want to bite my head off? I can take that. I probably deserve it. But if you think thatíll mean me walking out of here, youíve got me all wrong. Iíve got this rope, remember? You threw me one end of it a good six months ago. You remember what you said then? You can throw all that anger and that pain at me if you want, and I will not let go? Well, you didnít. And thereís no way Iím going to abandon my end now. Youíre stuck with me, kid, whether you like it or not. Savage me all you like. Iím not going anywhere."

He didnít want to hear it, didnít want that lifeline tugging at his heart, just wanted to drown ...

... but his hand shifted almost without volition, turned and opened from its rigid fist. Strong fingers laced into his, caught him, held him, anchored him.

He wasnít yet ready to offer forgiveness, since it was himself he would have to forgive, but he let the anger go, watched it trickle away into nothingness.

"I hurt, Tomcat," he whispered despite himself, his words an admission of need.

"I know, kid." The acknowledgement was soft, the sympathy fervent. "I know ..."

They took him back in an ambulance; Doctor Chui-Lin checked him over before he signed him into Kateís care, and he was lifted into a wheelchair and taken through endless corridors before emerging into the sun and being loaded carefully into the waiting vehicle.

He let it happen. Half of his body screamed at the imposition of movement; the rest did nothing at all. It didnít seem to matter much. He was lifted and moulded like a Gumby doll, handled like fragile goods rather than a human being. He took in the good advice, the medical instructions, without paying much attention; there was a clinical part of him that registered the implications of such an early release, the lack of immobilising supports or the padding of collars, but his heart read it as resignation, not hope. The damage was done, and they were packing him away, conserving their efforts for those they could help. He thanked the doctor anyway, a flat monotonous muttering of the words expected of him, and the man watched him go with a tight, unhappy expression.

Aloha, Sam thought with a surge of bitterness.

It felt like a long ride.

Al and Kate had left the night before, and only Kate had come back to collect him. Sam wondered if his words had cut home after all; the manís absence added to the interminable journey, an endless progression of time from nowhere to nowhere. Kate tried to talk to him, telling him about the arrangements she had made; a nurse to come in twice a day to attend to his physical needs, the physiotherapist who would visit every morning, and that they were thinking of rigging a video, and how Al had muttered something about maybe getting him some computing power ...

He didnít really listen.

He didnít want to listen. To listen took effort, and effort cost him strength he had no desire to reach for. He was safe; nothing could touch him in his cocoon of nothingness, where he could exist without needing to interact with the world. Heíd become an object, and it was easier to behave like one, to let event wash over him, rather than try to direct it.

If he let things happen he wouldnít have to care about what they were. Wouldnít have to struggle, or face the pain of trying for a control he no longer had.

Wouldnít have to admit how much he was afraid ...

They wheeled him into the house eventually, manoeuvring him into the guestroom rather than the room he had occupied before. The journey had been exhausting and he relaxed into the bed with a distinct sense of relief. The thought of sleeping where his Tomcat had slept cheered him briefly, only to be overwhelmed by a resignation of despair.

He doesnít need this bed. Heís probably sharing with Kate.

His mind painted him the inevitable picture, the memory of the two of them together, laughing and intimate. The thoughts that had inspired anger before no longer stirred his heart so strongly; instead they filled him with an aching sense of regret.

You blew it, Sam. Youíve no one to blame but yourself.

When the paramedics had gone, when the bustle of his arrival was over and he was once again flat on his back and staring at a ceiling, Kate came in and kissed him, telling him she had to report to work for a while, and not to worry, because sheíd taken care of everything - and then she was gone.

Iím alone, he thought with a sudden surge of panic. Thereís nobody here and all I can do is lie back and be helpless. I could be screaming and nobody would ever hear me ...

Which was just what he was doing - inside.

"So, kid." The voice was a wry interruption to his frenzied thoughts. "You want to talk, or you still want me to go away?"

Al? Oh, thank god.

Maybe he did want him on the end of that rope, after all ...

"I donít care," he muttered, wishing that he didnít. "Do whatever you please."

"Uh-oh," Al noted, walking into the room and pulling over a chair. "That doesnít sound too good a start. Whatís the matter, kiddo?"

Are you crazy? Everythingís the matter.

"Nothing."

The man stared at him for a moment or two, then dipped into his pocket and thoughtfully unwrapped a fresh cigar.

"Nothing, huh? Okay. So what do you want to do?"

"Nothing," he repeated; even the word took an effort he didnít want to meet. He closed his eyes and half-hoped the man would go away. Even though he didnít want him to.

There was a pause, in which the scent of cigar smoke drifted over to register in what remained of his senses.

"Youíre a long way down, arenít you, kid?" The observation was gentle. "Youíre lying there, thinking nothingís worth making an effort over, because in order to make the effort you have to care, and caring comes so damned hard ..."

Sam winced inside. That was it. That was it exactly.

"So why donít you just go away and leave me alone ...?"

Donít. Please. Donít.

"Because I think thatís the last thing you want. Iíve been there, Sam. Remember? Oh - maybe not exactly where you are right now, but Iíd be willing to bet it was close. Real close. And you know something? Itís a load of caca. Pure and simple. Self-pity and empty solace. Shut out the world. Turn it all off. Make it go away ...

"Youíre better than that, Sam. And you know you are."

No. Iím not. This is all my fault, and I deserve every moment of it.

"Now," Al went on conversationally, "I could sit here and give you the grand pep talk, all about overcoming setbacks, and facing new challenges, and all the rest of that garbage the nozzles tend to trot out at opportune moments ...

"But Iím not going to. I donít think youíd listen, and I donít think thatís the way you tell Sam Beckett anything anyway. Heís a stubborn-headed, idealistic dreamer who takes the troubles of the world to heart and whoís too damned sensible to wallow in his own misery overlong. The way I see it, you got two choices. You can lie there and make an art of being miserable, or you can accept the situation and start living again.

"Itís up to you. So think about it. Let me know what you decide, huh, kid?"

The chair moved back as the man got to his feet.

"Yell if you want me. I wonít be far away."

Al? Donít leave me, Tomcat ...

He opened his eyes. Too late. The door closed with a definitive click and he was alone.

Completely alone.

No-one here but Sam, Sam ...

Silence descended like a curtain, its presence a heavy weight that he could neither ignore nor push away. He tried to defy it, tried to recover that sense of nothingness that had been his protection, but his friendís words had opened too many cracks in his defensive shell.

... Iíve been there ...

The remark echoed with insistent irony; the man had implied that - while he understood how Sam might feel - the last thing he was going to offer was indulgent pity, or even pointless sympathy. Since Sam had wanted those things - wanted them expressed so that he could reject both them, and the man offering them - a brief surge of irrational hate boiled up inside him, its bitter fire driving away some of the shadows in which he was submerged.

How dare he?

But it was because he did know, wasnít it? Knew what it was to find himself adrift and drowning. Filled with self-hatred and a sense of worthlessness. Drowning in guilt because nobody cared that he cared so much ... And perhaps Al felt guilty now, after event and circumstance had conspired against them both.

He doesnít need to feel bad.

Sam faced this thought almost with surprise.

I got mad and I ran away, rather than face things.

The more he looked at it, the more obvious it became.

If Iíd stayed, I could have dealt with it. I should have dealt with it.

Or am I so ashamed of what I am, of what I feel, that I donít think heís worth fighting for ...?

So what? another part of him chimed in. It happened. Youíre no good to anyone now. Just a helpless cripple. You canít fight. Youíve nothing left to give.

Why bother ...?

Why indeed? He considered the question from several angles, none of them very rational ones. His mind seemed oddly distanced from his pain. Heíd never been much of a man, had he? Too immersed in his books to bother much with anything else. Before the days of Senior High - when heíd at least proved his worth at basketball - the kids in Elk Ridge had made fun of him; when theyíd taunted him heíd pretended to ignore it and run home to his mother ... And later, when he was older, heíd been so easily drawn into Chelseaís twilight world, tempted there by feelings heíd never truly understood as a child. Feelings the common world condemned, labelled as failure and offence.

I couldnít hold on to Chelsea, either ...

Heíd loved him, hadnít he? Or thought he had, with the passion and intensity anyone might bring to their first encounter with that most treacherous of emotions. Chelsea hadnít cared. Not so much, anyway. All heíd wanted to do was take life in both hands and cram it down as fast as he possibly could ...

While Sam Beckett hovered at the edge of things like a scared kid, too fraught with imagination to take the plunge into the real depths that life could offer.

Only that once ...

And what had become of that? It had brought him here, a broken parody of a man, a victim of his own irrational jealousies, his own self-delusions. Everything he touched seemed to turn to dust. The world saw a young Midas on the throne of academia, while in reality he cowered like a leper in the ruins of his personal failures. Nothing he had ever done had been worth anything. Nothing.

His head turned - about the only part of him that could - his eyes settling on the bedside table and the clutter of cartons that Kate had left there.

A handful of pills to cure all ills ...

Of course. It was the pills that had dimmed his senses, distanced his mind from events. And if one or two could do that for him, then a few more would be even more effective ...

All he had to do was reach out and take them. One by one, a sweet escape from the pain and from everything else. The world would mourn him for a little while, and then everyone could forget that Sam Beckett had ever existed. No longer a burden on his friends and family.

His hand went out, a reach of pain he ignored because soon there would be no pain at all. His left hand, reaching for the temptation of oblivion -

- and the memory that had come to him in the hospital - and the reason for it - slammed back into his heart with stark recollection. A broken bottle and a spattering of scarlet blood ...

"Oh, god ..." he gasped, dragging his hand back to his chest, his lungs heaving in sudden consternation and his shoulders screaming in protest.

What was I about to do ...?

So close. That night had been so close.

What had he said then? Nobody has reason to do themselves this kind of damage ...

He hadnít understood at all, had he? Hadnít understood how the onslaught of anguished desperation could make the greater darkness seem so easy a solution.

And heíd been about to take that final step almost without thinking about it ...

His agitation flared into a fraught and desperate need.

"Al! Al - !"

Alonzo appeared in the doorway, almost as if he had never really left the room; he strode across with hurried, anxious steps, and when he reached Samís side he looked down at him with tight concern.

"Sam?"

His Tomcatís presence was an anchor of reassurance in the sea of sudden panic that had overwhelmed him. He groped for the manís hand and it curled into his with comforting strength.

"I - " He suddenly felt very foolish, like a child crying for its mother because it had woken in the middle of the night and been frightened by the dark.

Thatís it, isnít it? Iím scared.

But I donít really think I want to die ...

"It was - nothing," he apologised, turning his head away and staring at the wall in preference to meeting those dark eyes. Al knew he was lying - of course he knew he was lying - but all he did was tighten his hold on the captured hand with understanding acceptance.

"Sure, kid," he breathed softly. "You need anything? Some juice?" His voice paused, then offered, even more softly, "A little company?"

Donít ... Sam wanted to protest, but his heart was no longer in it. He did want the man to care. He wanted to care.

Suddenly he wanted to care so very much ...

It wasnít that easy, of course. Not easy even to lift himself out of the pit of depression into which he had sunk, let alone face the longer haul back to health. Over the next few days his mood swung from deepest despondency through angered frustration, up into over-forced cheerfulness and back down into bleak resignation. He hurt, and he hated it. He hated his sense of helplessness and the need to be totally dependent on others. Sometimes he swore and he cursed and he bit back screams; other times he would lie and stare at nothing at all, swallowed by an aching sense of emptiness. He could barely eat - or else wouldnít - and each day that passed felt like an eternity. But they did pass, and with them came a slow return of his faith and optimism, an awareness of his dreams and the inner fire that had always driven his desire to achieve.

You canít answer for the whole world, his mother had chided him once, amused at his intensity over some minor issue or other. But he knew that it was facing the challenges that made him feel alive, even if it opened him to hurt and heartache. Heíd made the mistake of turning his back on the world once - and the memory of what that might have cost helped face down the temptation to do so again. If his helplessness also tempted hopelessness he countered it by setting personal goals he knew he could achieve. The seeds of reason and determination had been planted, and he nurtured them with little victories, with each minor triumph that would have been second nature to him barely days before.

Like this morning, lying in a bath of his own sweat while the physiotherapist nodded her satisfaction with that dayís session. It had been another four days, and it was still impossible to tell if he would ever regain any of the feeling in his lower limbs. But there were signs of some response, and the twisted ache in his back and shoulders had eased a little. Just a little.

Enough for him to forget it for the brief seconds that he could lie completely still.

Heíd actually slept through much of the time - as much as rest enforced by measured drugs could be called sleep - but, in between his scheduled trips back to the hospital and those moments he was meant to be resting and could occupy only with troubled thoughts, the remainder had been filled with attentive company. Kate woke him each morning, bringing him breakfast and checking him over with professional care. The nurse would arrive soon after, helping him to deal with his personal comforts, and then the physiotherapist would appear. The hour with her was punishing, but it was rapidly becoming a matter of pride to want to push that little bit further each time. A rest period after that, then lunch, and then came the afternoons ...

The afternoons had somehow filled themselves with work.

Hard work, addressing theoretics and arguing constructs, and just thinking, but in academic terms, which was easier than dealing with the emotional currents which still disturbed his peace of mind. Alonzo sat at his bedside and distracted him with knotty problems, challenged him with current scientific opinion and came up with the craziest of concepts, until sometimes Sam just wanted to scream and throw things at him. Which was probably the reason why he did it in the first place.

If Sam had really thought about it, heíd have probably had to admit that it was actually kind of fun.

Even if it was exhausting.

Which was probably another of the manís reasons for it.

Heíd sleep again until Kate came home, and then theyíd all spend a quiet evening at the poolside, pretending that there was nothing wrong, that there were no undercurrents of concern, no tensions between any of them ...

Which there were.

There had to be.

Whenever the depression resurged to clutch at Samís heart, it brought with it remnants of his anger and his suspicions. His little victories had been spaced with major setbacks; there were times he lay alone, wrapped in unrelieved pain, and felt as if the world and his determination to match its challenges were a long way away ... Kate would always smile and be pleased with his progress, but he knew it to be a doctorís pleasure, not that of his sister, whose eyes withheld her anxieties from him. And Al - Al would bully him, chivvy him, and growl at him, while he lent him his strength with a gentleness and consideration Sam felt he had no right to accept.

And none of them had actually talked to one another.

Not about the things they really had to talk about ...

But then, why should they? He was just extra weight, right? They had each other now and were caring for him out of duty. Al and his sister? Why not, if that was what they wanted? Maybe things were better that way. Less complicated. Part of the natural order of things. He might even manage to get used to the idea. One day ...

Heíd made a mistake. He shouldnít have let it happen again. Chelsea had taught him how people could hurt him, but heíd ignored that lesson, and this was the price he was paying now.

Itís the caring that gets to you. If I didnít care so much, no-one could hurt me.

So why doesnít that make me feel any better?

Why is it that I do care so much?

Just because sheís my sister, and heís my friend? Or because I canít help being in love with either of them ...?

Today had been no different from the days before. After the therapist had left, Sam had tried to sleep, achieving his usual drift into distant aches and a world without dreams. He hadnít dreamed since the accident; he wasnít entirely sure that heíd really slept since the accident. Just been sedated, which helped, but not all that much.

When heíd surfaced from that, it was to face the bundle of papers that Al had requisitioned from the university library; a wonderful mismatch of academic disciplines that ranged from ancient Hawaiian archaeology to the latest data from the radio telescope on Molokai. As usual there was an unspoken space between them; despite surface appearances Al always seemed a little uneasy around him now, and Sam had resigned himself to that, had accepted that their dance had gone astray.

At least weíre still friends.

That was his hope; that event and circumstance had not changed that, even if the kind of partnership heíd thought they might share now lay shattered among the wreckage of his life. Despite his angered - and confused - words in the hospital, heíd never really laid any blame for event on his Tomcatís shoulders. He might have been jealous - he had been angry. Maybe still was, in those darker moments he kept to himself, but he was determined to live with that. Needed to live with that. There was a layer of guilt trapped inside the other manís eyes that Sam could not quite face; a hint of discomfort he dared not question. He suspected he ought to reach out somehow, ought to breach the wall that stood between them, but the words - and the opportunity to speak them - had not yet presented themselves.

They would.

He was sure they would.

I hope ...

So they argued black holes until the nurse arrived for her second visit of the day, and Al flirted with her, the way he always did.

I wish you wouldnít do that, Tomcat.

Only he didnít. Not really. He liked to watch Al work his easy charm, liked to see the woman dimple and flap her hands at the man as she drove him from the room. There was a certain expectancy in the performance, a reassurance in its ordinariness. And today he welcomed the nurseís arrival, because heíd planned a little surprise all of his own for afterward ...

She helped him into the chair, and then into the bathroom, her complete professionalism a barrier against what could have been humiliating for both of them. He was getting used to her now, as she was with him; she treated him with motherly brusqueness, and he won one more concession from her, managed one more thing on his own ...

Then she tucked him back into bed, dressed in his jeans and his teeshirt as heíd asked, his body clean and smelling of soft soap.

And left him there.

He waited until he heard Kate bid her good evening, waited until his sister had left the hallway and gone elsewhere. Then he carefully lifted himself up on his arms - strong arms, trained as meticulously as the rest of him had been - and reached, ever so carefully for the wheelchair.

Inch by pained inch, he slid himself into its embrace. His back protested, his body complained, and he would not surrender to its demands. He did not relax until the whole of his weight was contained in the steel and fabric support, and when he did so it was with a distinct sense of triumph. Heíd been determined not to wait, not to have Al come to collect him for their evening gathering.

This time heíd deliver himself, and he couldnít wait to see the looks on their faces ...

He wheeled his way carefully through the narrow doorway, along the hall and up to the lounge windows. They are going to be so proud of me, he thought with anticipatory pleasure. The sound of voices drew him to a halt. Kateís words were heated. Al was trying to keep his temper and only just succeeding.

What the hell ...?

"... and whatís so wrong with his staying here? I can take care of him, get him the best of help - "

"Just like that?" Al interrupted her angrily. "Youíve made up your mind, so everythingís decided. Is that it? Doesnít Sam have a right to be consulted?"

Oh, god. Theyíre arguing about me.

"Sam will understand. He needs constant attention ..."

They were standing by the pool, almost as if theyíd deliberately sought a place where he would not overhear them. Kate was in uniform, staring down her opponent with determination, her hands on her hips, and her eyes flashing. Alís side of the argument was more mobile, a passionate exposition of hands and body language that spoke eloquently of building fury. The dramatic colours of his shirt added emphasis to his movements, scarlet orchids spilled across emerald green from collar to cuff.

"He needs to be working, damn it! Not mollycoddled, not wrapped in cotton, and not treated like an invalid."

"He is an invalid. And heís my brother. Donít you dare think that one night in my bed gives you any rights in this, mister. Because it doesnít, do you hear? This is family business. And none of yours, friend or no friend."

Sam winced inwardly at that. That wasnít fair, and Kate had no idea why ...

Wait a minute ... One night? Just one? Oh, god, Al, and I didnít believe you ...

"This is my business Kate." Alís words were tight. That is not a happy Tomcat. What has she said to him ...? "Not least because the whole damned thing is my fault."

Oh, nooo. Donít go on blaming yourself, Al. Please, not that. I was stupid, I got mad.

I didnít mean all those things I said ...

"Your fault? Come on, Commodore. I can damn well screw whoever I want, and my little brother is gonna have to learn to live with it. I donít feel guilty about what we did, so why in hell should you?"

"Because - " He saw Al turn and take a pace away; saw him set his shoulders and then throw his hands wide in emotional explosion. "Because," he growled, turning back toward her with a look that almost made her take a step backward, "I love him. And Iíll tell you something else, sister. Heís a damned sight better in bed than youíll ever be."

Silence. A stunned, impossible silence. Alonzo stood frozen in place, as if only just realising what heíd said. Kate had gone stark white, her hands slipping from her aggressive stance to dangle dumbfoundedly at her sides.

And Samwise pushed back from the window and forced himself to take three deep breaths because, for one long moment, heíd forgotten that he could ...

He loves me. Oh, god. He said he loves me ...

Understanding flared through the darkness that had obscured his heart, the same way a shaft of sunlight could disperse a stormcloud. It was as if a weight he hadnít known he had been carrying had been lifted from his soul.

No wonder Al had been so uptight ever since the accident.

Iíve been so selfish, Sam realised, with a surge of pain unconnected with any physical damage. I was so wrapped up in what Iíd assumed, I just never bothered to reexamine the evidence. So busy hurting myself, I hadnít really noticed the rest of the casualties.

Iíll make it up to you, Tomcat. I promise.

No, I swear ...

"You and - my brother ...?" Kateís words were strangled with doubt. "My brother ...? Is this some kind of a sick joke?"

"No." All the fury had gone from Alís voice, replaced by weary resignation. "No joke, Kate. Iím sorry. I didnít - quite - mean that to come out the way it sounded. But Sam and I - " He paused to take a breath, let out a slight, shaky laugh. "I guess I have a thing for doctors called - Beckett ..."

"You bastard!" Kate spat, advancing on him with sudden anger. Al took an involuntary step backward. "How dare you! I knew what I was doing, damn it. But to take advantage of Sam ...!"

"Kate!" Samwise made his entrance just in time. She was looming over Al like a blonde Valkyrie, poised for blood.

"Sam?" She turned, her exclamation a mixture of surprise and concern. The look that Al threw him was one of anxiously contrite relief. It said help and it said sorry, and it was totally irresistible ...

Oh, Al. How could I have been so blind ...?

"You lay so much as one finger on my Tomcat," Sam growled, "and, so help me god, Iíll disown you."

"What?" She glanced from one man to the other, her anger fading into confusion. "Sam, I donít - "

"Shut up, sit down, and listen," he ordered forcefully. She stared at him a little longer, then folded herself down onto the nearest sunbed with a decidedly dazed expression. "Tomcat?" he asked quietly. "Would you mind fetching me some iced water? And get Kate a vodka, or something. She looks like she could use one."

Alís eyes narrowed at the question. He glanced from sister to brother, then back again before letting comprehension settle on his face. "Sure," he breathed and started toward the house. Sam put out his hand as he passed, letting his fingers brush the manís arm; Al looked down at the contact, clearly aware of the woman who watched them both.

I love you, Sam mouthed, willing the truth of it into his eyes. His Tomcat looked a little startled, and then he smiled. A slow, wry smile backed by more than a hint of embarrassment. He half-turned to consider Kateís anxious attention, paused for a second, then backed the smile with pure mischief. Without the slightest hesitation he bent down and planted a confident kiss on Samís cheek.

"See ya later - lover," he murmured, winked, and practically bounced away. Samwise watched him go with an odd sense of breathlessness. He loves me. And he isnít afraid to admit it ... God, is this what it feels like to be alive ...?

Kate was staring with total bewilderment.

"Sam," she said cautiously, "am I entitled to an explanation here?"

He turned his attention back to her and sighed, manoeuvring the chair so that he could meet her eye to eye. "I suppose," he said softly, "I should have told you about me a long time ago. It just never seemed the right time, somehow."

She wrestled with his words. "Youíre saying that - youíre gay," she concluded, the realisation hard to grasp. "I guess - I could accept that. But - " Her hand lifted to indicate the house and the man it had swallowed. "He - "

He caught the hand, held her eyes with his own. "Leave Al out of this for a minute, will you? Thatís - a little more complicated."

"Complicated?" Her expression was distraught. "Sam - "

"Uh-uh." He silenced her firmly. "I asked you to listen. Will you?"

She nodded, subsiding back onto the sunbed and watching her brother with anxious eyes. She wasnít hostile. Just confused. That was a good sign. He hoped.

"Okay. You remember Mom - and Tom, teasing me about never having a date? Well, there was a reason for that. A good reason. Iíve never been attracted to girls, Kate. Not really. I guess I was born this way, and Iíve never wanted to change it. I didnít understand exactly, until I got to college, and then - well, letís just say I found a few like-minded people who showed me I wasnít alone."

"I never knew," Kate muttered. "Sam - why didnít you say something? Oh - not to Dad. Heíd never understand. But to me - or Tom. Does Tom know?"

He shook his head. "Nobody knew, Kate. Itís - just something I am. Something that doesnít affect anyone else. Matter of fact - "  He grinned self-depreciatingly, "Iíve been celibate a good part of my life. I can count my lovers - my serious lovers - on the fingers of one hand. The work was always more important. And then," he shrugged, "thereís always AIDS, lurking to catch the unwary."

She frowned, reaching to catch his arm. "Youíre not - ?"

"No." He dismissed that with a wry smile. "Iím careful. I hope you are."

"God, yes," she shot back, then laughed a little shakily. "Youíre right. Iím a fine one to preach morals, arenít I? I didnít know, Sam. But I guess - it does explain a few things, right?"

"Right," he agreed, relieved to find she wasnít as taken aback as she might have been. "Kate - I know this isnít easy, but - I canít change what I am, or the way I feel. Youíll just have to accept - "

Her hand silenced him, a sympathetic touch to his arm. "Itís okay, little brother. Iím a grown woman, and my brother is gay. I can cope with that. Guess Iíll have to cope with that. But - I want to know the rest of it. And I want the truth." Her eyes drifted back toward the house with inevitability. "If heís gay, then Iím a virgin. And we both know thatís a medical impossibility."

Sam sighed, turning his chair so that he could contemplate the view. "I said it was complicated."

"So, tell me. Damn it, Sam, I spent close on a good week manoeuvring that man into my bed - and he wasnít reluctant, just ... circumspect. I didnít know he would be cheating on my brother for godís sake. And you nearly got yourself killed over it. Are you and he - well - ?"

Sam grinned. "Not at the moment, no."

"Sam - !"

He laughed, buoyed by her tentative acceptance, by the warmth that had settled in his heart. Sure, it was complicated. Even more so with his tortured back and a future he could no longer guarantee. But his Tomcat loved him, and that was all that really mattered ...

"Okay," he acquiesced. "But - this is personal, Kate. It doesnít go any further than this unless he and I agree, all right?"

She placed her hand over her heart. "Hippocratic oath, Doctor Beckett. Consider it a medical conference if you like."

That reassured him. He leaned back in the wheelchair and he told her; told her about days on campus and the arrival of an exotic, world-weary pilot, of his own arrogant plotting and the success heíd never expected to get. Heíd not understood about the legacy of íNam back then, not been aware of the manís shattered first marriage, or the disaster of the second; not known how vulnerable a soul he sought to conquer. And having conquered, moved on without a backward look. Well, he admitted, hardly a backward look.

Kate frowned at that, not entirely liking what it might imply. Her frown became even deeper as he spoke hesitantly of the rest. About his reaction on meeting the man again, after so much time, and the long months when heíd ignored what his conscience was telling him; and then about that night, the night when Chelseaís message had finally pierced his defences and sent him out, like a determined knight errant seeking wrongs to right.

He tried to keep his tone clinical. Medical conference, sheíd suggested, and he tackled it like one, laying out event and diagnosis with an attempt at detachment. The severe symptoms of alcoholism, induced by depression and guilt; his reaction to it, and the results of that thoughtless rejection. Detachment broke down with inevitability; there were times when perfect recall was more of a curse than a blessing.

Kateís hands clenched around the edge of the sunbed as the emotion crept into his voice. She was a doctor, sheíd been a nurse in íNam; she knew the kind of self-inflicted damage he was talking about, and her eyes drifted to the open windows, no doubt reassessing her opinion of the man they had swallowed.

"He needed help, Kate. Help - and a friend. That was all I offered him, I swear ..."

Her eyes narrowed in shrewd assessment; sheíd known him a long time, and she was nobodyís fool. "But you wanted more, right? Sam - "

"No." He held up a hand to halt the threatened words. "Hear me out, okay? Yes, I wanted more, but I didnít expect to get it. Why should I? Iíd betrayed him that way once, and Iíd known it was wrong then. That was why Iíd got out, why Iíd simply slipped away. Guilt, Kate. Pure and simple. Iíd thought heíd hate my guts. Maybe he did, for a while."

She quirked a humourless smile. "I would have done. Look, Sam - I know the guyís got his attractions - "

He threw her a look, and she had the grace to squirm.

" - but Iím not sure I understand all of this. He implied that you and he were ... and youíre saying that you didnít ... Are you, or arenít you ...?"

"His lover?" The question held the words she couldnít quite encompass. "Yes."

Yes. Oh, yes. And he said he loves me ...

Her eyes held scepticism.

Whatís the matter, Kate? Canít accept he might find me as desirable as he did you ...? It isnít like that, Sis. It isnít like that at all. You seduced the Tomcat. I got the man.

Why didnít I see that before ...?

"But you said - "

"I said that I offered him friendship. Would have settled for that, if Iíd had to. I love him, Kate. Love him too much to ask for something he couldnít - or wouldnít - give. It happens sometimes, you know? Maybe more often than people might think."

"A gay guy falling for a straight one?" She was sceptical. Extremely so.

"Yeah. Come on - you just told me that he had his attractions ..."

"That was lust, not love," she defended uncomfortably. The admission brought a thoughtful frown to her face. "Okay. I can see that you might be - attracted. You took care of him when he was sick, and probably put up with a lot of shit doing it ..."

No, Sis, I didnít. You see the hard-bitten Tomcat, all worldly-wise and confident, and you think thatís all there is. Underneath thereís a lost little boy with a pocket full of hope and a heart of gold. He just takes a little effort to find, thatís all.

Damn it, and he calls me kid ...

She must have wondered why he smiled.

"... but I still donít see - unless ... Sam? You donít think he might - because he feels obligated? Do you?"

"Yes." He backed his second affirmation with a grin. She looked a little shocked. "No. I donít know, Kate. How it happened - why it happened. It just did, okay? And it didnít have to."

"Do you think he meant it?"

"Meant what?"

"About you being better in bed than I am ..."

That was funny. Sam threw back his head and laughed until the tears came. After a moment Kate joined in, not quite seeing the joke, but accepting that there might be one ...

"Oh - boy," Samwise gasped after a while, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. "Kate - here I am, pouring out my soul to you, and you worry about something like that ... Jeezus, youíre as bad as he is." He schooled his expression down into an affectionate smile. "Maybe thatís one of the reasons I love both of you so much ... Sis - Iím sorry. I saw you both together and I got mad, and I had no reason to. No reason at all. You didnít know, and he - hell, I donít call him Tomcat because of the way he sings."

"You could," she shrugged, looking vaguely embarrassed. "I guess it might have been that he didnít want to hurt my feelings ..."

"Uh-uh," he denied. "Donít start defending him unless you mean it. I donít own him, Kate. And Iím gonna get nowhere by being jealous when he starts listening to his hormones. Which he will. Lots of times, I guess."

"Samwise Beckett," Kate said with decided sincerity, "you are one of the noblest, kindest, and most decent guys I have ever had the privilege to know. You are also a jerk, and a geek, and far too forgiving for your own good. You need someone like the Commodore looking out for you, and heíd damned well better do it right, or, so help me, Iíll punch his lights out." She lifted herself up to throw her arms tight around his shoulders. "I love you, little brother," she whispered.

He returned the embrace, ignoring the shiver of pain that the movement stirred along his spine. "I love you, Kate."

And thank you for understanding ...

Al sidled back out onto the patio a little later, looking somewhat like a boy whoíd been caught with his hands in the cookie jar; cautiously, as if uncertain of his reception. His eyes flicked from brother to sister before he felt confident enough to walk the rest of the way. Heíd clearly been thinking about what heíd let slip, and when he carefully put the tray he carried down onto the poolside table he scuffed at the paving beneath it with the toe of his shoe, not wanting to look directly at either of them. Sam fought down an impulse to laugh. Kate was less sympathetic - or else less self-controlled. She smothered a chuckle behind her hand, and the manís circumspect expression turned into one of wounded contrition.

Which made Sam laugh. In spite of himself. Fortunately, Al didnít seem to have noticed.

"Youíre not forgiven, you know," Kate announced, climbing to her feet and studying the contents of the tray.

Al swallowed hard. "Iím not?"

"Uh-uh." She shook her head, reaching to fill one of the glasses from the pitcher of ice water heíd brought. "You manage to blurt out my brotherís best-kept secret and insult me, all in one breath. I hope youíre a little more discreet with all this top-secret work you do, Commodore."

He winced, and Sam had to dip his head to conceal his reactive grin. It wasnít often that Al looked as vulnerable as he did right then; his Tomcat wore a vaguely hunted look that was tinged with definite guilt. The man didnít want to meet Kateís eyes, and by looking down he was probably reminded a little too keenly of the events that had started all of this.

"Kate - " he tried. "I - "

"Donít you start offering apologies," Kate interrupted firmly, putting down the jug and taking a step toward him. Al stepped back. "Iíve had enough of those from Sam. And, speaking of my brother - I think you ought to save those Ďsorriesí for him, donít you?"

Another step forward, her hand lifted in admonition. Al retreated further in front of the onslaught, his eyes desperately darting in search of his friendís support. Sam threw him a neutral look; inside he was bubbling with laughter.

Donít look at me, Tomcat. You deserve this. In fact, you started it.

"You listen to me, and you listen good," Kate continued forcefully. "My little brother seems to think you might have some redeeming qualities, although god knows why. So, despite my better judgement, Iím going to let him go home with you. But if I hear so much as one rumour that you arenít treating him with the respect and the care that he deserves, then Iím gonna come looking for you - and you wonít want me to find you. Understand?"

Sheíd jabbed home each word, advancing as she did so, and heíd backed away until he was poised on the very edge of the pool with nowhere left to go. His head jerked round and then back, identifying his predicament, and a wicked smile flashed briefly onto Kateís face, wiped away as he returned his attention to her.

"Understand?" she repeated firmly. He swallowed hard and nodded rapidly.

"Sure," he registered. "I mean - I wouldnít - that is, Kate - Iíd never - "

"Cheat on him?" A stab of the finger. "Seduce his sister?" Another jab. "Break his heart?"

His expression was all the answer to that that Sam would ever need. The look of total consternation that settled there at that suggestion was soul-wrenching. The watching man almost felt sorry for what he knew was coming next. Almost.

"Hell of a hero you are," Kate concluded with relish. Her face split into a wide grin. "Solid gold and certified by Congress - right, Sam?"

"Right," her brother agreed, his own grin equally wide. Hell, Kate, when did you look up his service record?

Al looked startled by the sudden change in tack. Just enough, in fact, for Kate to take the advantage she was looking for.

"By the way," she observed sweetly, "After this youíre forgiven ..." And she pushed. Hard. A flat-handed impact against which he had no defence. His body moved backward. He teetered wildly on the edge for a moment, then went back with a cry of protest and flailing of arms. He hit water with a spectacular splash, and went under completely.

"You - you ..." he spluttered as he resurfaced, outrage wrestling with several other emotions. Kate was laughing so hard so she was doubled over, and Sam was fighting for breath. He took one look at his loverís indignant expression and the threatened hysteria just boiled over. Al trod water for a moment longer, staring at the two of them, then succumbed to a grin, and after that a chuckle. Finally, he gave up altogether and rolled back, laughing just as hard as both of them ...

"You know," he observed with feeling, "after all that time in the Navy youíd have thought I might have learned to swim ..." He snapped up a mock salute and immediately sank with pantomimed dignity.

"Al!" Sam exclaimed in concern as he slipped beneath the surface for a second time. For one brief second, muscles he couldnít quite feel tensed at his command - then the sensation fled with a surge of pain that flared like fire. He sat back, white and shaking, a reaction Al registered as soon as he resurfaced in the water.

"Sam?" He immediately struck out for the poolside, hauling himself out with distracted energy. "My god, Sam, I was joking. Kate?"

Sheíd turned at the concern in his voice, and was already by her brotherís side; her hands reached down and gently examined the rigid tension across her patientís back and shoulders. "Easy," she advised, her fingers easing away some of the tightened pain. Sam looked up at her anxious face and found her a wan smile.

"Sorry," he murmured. "I guess Iíve been pushing a little hard."

"Damned right, mister," she snapped, her eyes denying her apparent anger. "You are going straight back to bed." She frowned, as if only just realising something. "Who gave you permission to get up in the first place, anyway?"

"I did," he winced. "I just wanted to show - "

"Show, my ass," she interrupted firmly. Somewhere on the other side of him, Sam heard Alonzo choke at the suggestion.

You never miss a thing, do you, Al?

He turned his head, finding the man crouched beside him, his eyes shadowed with anxiety, the remnants of water gathering in his hair somehow emphasising the hint of curl that lurked in the shortness of his cut. Samís reach was involuntary; the back of his hand brushed damp cheek before his fingers were caught and held with reassuring strength.

He looks like - like a bedraggled tomcat. All tousled and forlorn. How can anyone be so strong and yet so vulnerable, all at once ...?

"Youíre wet," he said, quirking a smile that he hoped would be reassuring. It was. Alís expression collapsed into affectionate abashment.

"Yeah," he acknowledged, glancing at Kate as he did so. "Guess Iíll dry. You okay, kiddo?"

Samwise drew in a careful breath before he answered that question. "Just - tired, thatís all."

"Heís going back to bed," Kate announced. "Right now." Her eyes had been drawn to that moment of contact, the unspoken communication between the two men, and her expression was pensive. "Al - why donít you go get towelled off while I get him settled? You can sit with him later, if you like, but he needs to rest."

Sam squeezed his hand and then let go, adding his own emphasis to the suggestion. Al hesitated, then nodded sagely and stood up so that Kate could wheel the chair past him. The invalid glanced back as he was pushed away, seeing his loverís anxious stance, and the way that the soaked fabric of his outfit clung to him with miserable persistence.

Let her get used to the idea, Tomcat. Sheís reading whole new meanings into things she never even noticed before.

And goddamn my aching back, because otherwise Iíd just love to come give you a hand right now ...

Alís mind was not entirely on what he was doing as he stripped off his sodden clothing and towelled himself dry. Perhaps that was why he didnít stop to think about what to wear next; he simply grabbed the first shirt in the suitcase and slipped it on over damp skin. A short-sleeved shirt, one of the ones heíd bought for the abandoned boat trip, where he had expected propriety to be of little importance. A pair of dark red ducks completed the hasty outfit; he prowled back into the living room in bare feet and anxiety just as Kate slipped out of Samís sanctuary.

She lifted a finger to warn him to silence and beckoned him back out to the patio where they could talk without disturbing her patient. He followed her, but not without a backward glance at the door she had closed behind her. A backward glance, and a return of his earlier trepidation.

What the hell am I supposed to say to her now?

She stalked across to the table and retrieved the drink heíd brought out for her. He felt a sudden surge of longing for the comfort of a good whisky - or maybe a strong vodka - and pushed both away with determined reaction. The last thing Sam needed right now was for him to break that particular promise.

"So - " he offered cautiously, since she seemed disinclined to open the conversation. "Heís okay, right?"

She took a thoughtful swallow from the glass. "Right," she agreed distractedly. "As right as can be expected, anyway. These things donít correct themselves overnight."

"I guess not." He moved a little closer, reaching for the jug of ice and juice as an excuse for occupation. The awkwardness between them was almost tangible. She may have said sheís forgiven me, he winced inwardly, but sheís still not entirely sure.

She looked down at his bare arm, and a sudden frown creased her expression.

"What?" he queried with suspicion.

Her hand shot out, catching his left wrist, lifting and turning his hand so that the marks that lay along his forearm were exposed to the sun. He nearly pulled away from her grip, but the look in her eyes stilled the reaction.

Oh, god, Sam. What exactly did you tell her ...?

She looked down, at the still-livid scars that recorded his darkest hour, then up at his defensive expression. Sheíd not thought to comment on them before, not after that simple reference to where the other scars he carried came from; but these were not old wounds. They were recent ones, and her expression told him she knew the how of their existence. He waited for the smart remark or the scathing comment, even the knowing pity he might expect from her. What he got was unexpected sympathy.

"Oh, Al," she sighed, her fingers reaching to trace the line of the damage. "Were things really that bad?"

He thought about how to answer that, not wanting to meet her eyes.

"I guess - they felt that way." He retrieved his arm, folding it against the other defensively as he half-turned away from her. It wasnít something he was proud of, that he could have been driven to such extremes. Kate moved closer, laying her hand to his shoulder as she did so.

"My brother - " she began to say. He glanced back at her, and the look that went with it silenced whatever might have come next.

"I donít have to talk about it," he said. His words came out clipped and efficient, as if he faced a debriefing officer.

"No," she agreed, her touch gentle but insistent.

But you and Sam are too alike, arenít you? Youíre not going to leave it alone ...

"Iíll tell you this much," he decided after a moment. "I meant what I said earlier. I love your brother, and itís not just because of what he did for me. Heís a goofy kid, and he has these dreams and - someone has to take care of him. I guess I got elected somewhere along the line."

And itís about damned time I started taking that duty seriously, too ...

"Is it really that simple?" she asked. "Can it be? I mean - your friendship I can understand, but the rest - Iíd never have thought ..."

He found he could smile after all. "Neither would I. Hell, Kate, I donít know. Itís - maybe itís something to do with the way he is. Now, I look at you - " He did exactly that, eyeing her up and down with a subtly suggestive leer that brought a hint of reactive colour to her cheek, and he laughed softly. "See? Iíve never looked at - guys - that way, and I donít intend to start. Samís - an exception. The way he is in a lot of things."

She echoed the laugh, closing the last of the distance to wrap her arms around him with friendly affection. "He always has been. Al - itís okay. I donít really understand, but - I love my little brother too, you know? And whatever he - whatever you do in private, well, thatís your own affair."

"Guess so," he grinned, wondering if sheíd realised quite what sheíd said. Our affair ... Oh, Kate. I have those all the time. Theyíve never meant anything. Not the way Sam does ...

"Just so long," she added firmly, "as you remember he loves you, too. Because he does, you crazy Tomcat. God knows why ..."

He turned in her arms, returned her embrace with deliberated strength. "You want another demonstration, sweetheart?"

She chuckled, looking down at him with amusement. "You want another swimming lesson? I could, you know ..."

"I know youíd try," he growled. Her closeness stirred him a little, but only through habit, not real desire. They had passed that, somewhere in the shift from stranger to friend. Close friend, a tie forged from common concern and mutual devotion to one man. "But I think Iíll pass. Might be a little too much like fun ..."

"Aaal," she groaned, starting to push him away; then she grinned and pulled him close instead. "For that," she threatened warmly, "Iím gonna demand a proper apology for what you said earlier ..."

"Oh," he registered, then pushed her away himself, warned by the look in her eye. "Doctor Beckett," he pronounced with feeling, "isnít that how we got ourselves into trouble the last time ...?"

"Uh-huh," she agreed, and laughed. She had been joking, and he heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief.

See what you do to me, Sam? A woman as hot as your sister propositions me, and I turn her down.

I just wish Iíd been smart enough to do that in the first place ...

Continued in Part Three ...
Return to the Archives
Disclaimer:This story has been written for love rather than profit and is not intended to violate any copyrights held by Donald P Bellasario, Bellasarius Productions, or any other holders of Quantum Leap trademarks or copyrights.
© 1997 by AAA Press. Written and reproduced by Penelope Hill. Artwork by Joan Jobson