Penelope Hill

Elk Ridge, Indiana: November, 1989:

The threatened rain had begun to fall as he reached the barn; he ducked through the partially open door and paused to regain his breath. Outside, thunder pealed with sudden insistence and the skies opened with spectacular effect. Alonzo shivered, glancing out into the world he had just left; the sudden onset of the weather held echoes of older experiences, things he would rather not dwell upon.

At least I wasn't out in it when it broke ...

Tommy had assured him Sam would be found within the depths of the feed barn, and the news he brought really didn't want to wait, so he'd left the younger Beckett shuttering the henhouse against the rising wind and braved the threat of the stormclouds that had followed him ever since he'd crossed the State line into Indiana.

"Sam?" he called into the grayness of the storm-touched barn. The building was well-packed, bales of straw and hay piled high toward the arching roof, and the serried ranks of bedding and sacks of fodder divided the interior into a whole series of labyrinthine rooms and staircases. The sound of his voice spurred movement among the bales; he caught a brief glimpse of at least one tabby tail as its owner sought a refuge from which to study the arrival of a stranger.

"Al?" The question came back faintly from high within the golden battlements. "Is that you, Tomcat?"

A few moments later Samwise Beckett's face appeared over the edge of the upper hayloft, peering down with puzzled delight.

"It is you. Where the hell did you spring from?"

Another peal of thunder split the air and Al winced; it had cracked practically overhead.

"Washington," he called up, once he was sure his answer might be heard. "I drove across overnight."

"You what?" It was Sam's turn to flinch as another rumble shook the rafters. "I'll come down ..."

"I'll come up," Al interrupted, gauging the quickest way to join his colleague. There was a chill wind cutting through the barn door and it carried the weight of the downpour with it. The roof looked solid enough and the interior felt a good deal warmer than the outer edge he currently occupied.

"Okay," the king in the castle acknowledged, and ducked back into his nest. "Be careful," his voice admonished as the other man began his ascent.

Careful ... Al grinned to himself as he climbed the staggered staircase of bales and binding. He might not be the farmboy Sam was, but then nor did he suffer from vertigo either; Sam's ascent had probably been cautious and his descent would have been an anxious thing to watch. The seasoned pilot went up without concern, judging distances and stability with a combat veteran's eye and a sense of balance honed in zero-gee. He was less athletic than Sam, of course, and his route wasn't spectacular, but it certainly got him there.

A hand snaked out of the loft as more lightning possessed the space beneath the eaves with brilliance; it drew the arriving Commodore into a warm space filled with the scent of hay and a dazzle of afterimages.

"Hi," Sam greeted him, waiting with a bemused but delighted grin. "What on earth are you doing in Elk Ridge, Indiana?"

Al grinned back. "Looking for the director of Project: Quantum Leap," he announced, trying to sound nonchalant and only succeeding in sounding smug. Sam's bemusement became first shock, then comprehension. The light that dawned in his eyes outshone the flare of lightning across the sky.

"We got it?" His grip on his companion's arm tightened reflexively. Alonzo didn't even notice; his grin widened into one fit to grace a Cheshire cat.

"We got it," he affirmed. "You can start to recruit the week after next - and they approved the site you wanted. You did it, kid. You got the green light for the adventure of the century."

"Oh - boy ..." Sam's delight was almost too much for him to know what to do with it. He broke into a grin that more than matched Al's own, hesitated in distracted indecision - then wrapped the smaller man into an exuberant bearhug, his laughter rumbling stronger than the thunder overhead. "You - are - amazing," he decided, while his captive pummeled his stomach muscles in a light tattoo of mutual delight.

"Nah," the Commodore denied, embarrassed by the praise. He draped his own arms around the scientist's waist and looked up as he pulled him close. "Just - doing what I said I would. You were the one that convinced 'em kid, not me."

Samwise looked down, his eyes still laughing - then dipped to kiss him, firmly and enthusiastically. His lover kissed back with equal intensity, caught up in the moment.

I knew you'd be happy about this, Sam.

He'd wanted to deliver the news in person, had driven non-stop from the capital in order to do so, despite the fact that he'd not been able to get away until close on two o'clock that morning. He'd left the meeting at the Pentagon with the last seal of approval stamped indelibly on the final document. The rest of the paperwork had already been neatly bundled in the briefcase in the back of his car, and its presence had carried him through the depths of the night - and most of the following day - like a beacon. It was the culmination of well over a year's hard work - the precursor to much harder work yet to come - and it represented the crystallisation of dreams and hopes that had taken a lifetime to formulate.

Sam's lifetime. The project he had wanted to pursue for longer than he could remember. And for Samwise Beckett, who had photographic recall and an IQ written in telephone numbers, that was a very long time indeed.

The world's greatest living genius came up for air grinning fit to bust. His bearhug tightened that little bit further and he threw himself backward, so that the two of them tumbled into the depths of the loose hay that lined the loft. Alonzo landed with a gasp, his body cushioned by that of his company, and he had no time to protest as Sam rolled over and pressed him into the soft support with a far more passionate intent.

"Sam - " he tried to splutter, but there were demanding lips in the way. His surrender was not entirely reluctant, since the man's enthusiasm was infectious, but on the other hand ...

This isn't exactly the place, lover ...

But it was the time. They'd not seen each other for two whole months, Sam having been spending his time on the final surveys in New Mexico, while Al sweet-talked half of Washington into their crazy dream. The scientist had sought refuge with his family rather than face the prospect of everything falling apart at the last minute; Thanksgiving was only a couple of days away, and the holiday had given him an excuse not to be there when the final verdict was delivered.

Alonzo had understood that, had understood just how much the realisation of the project had come to mean to his friend and lover. It was why he had fought so hard to make it all happen, why he hadn't protested the man's absence; he'd not been without entertaining company in Washington, and it always seemed easier to charm senators' wives when he didn't have his lover watching him do it. But that didn't mean he hadn't missed him, and it didn't mean he hadn't wanted him.

In fact, the longer they'd been separated, the less attractive the partying had become.

God, kid, if you knew what you did to me ...

Apart from the obvious, that was. Sam's hands were an encouragement in a way that only perfumed flesh and soft curves could compete with - and the women he pursued never quite delivered that spark that tipped the experience from basic pleasure into sublime event. The man's presence was less immediately arousing, but his desires had become irresistible; they were an expression of love and trust and need. There was nothing more sensual than being wanted by someone you esteemed beyond measure -

- and trusted with your life.

"Sam," he half-laughed, as the man nuzzled his kisses into the curve of his throat, "I know you're pleased to see me, but - "

"But what, Tomcat?" Sam purred, one hand sliding beneath the ruby cut of his jacket, the other popping the matching shirt buttons with practised ease. "Never been seduced in a hayloft before ...?"

He had, actually; a long time ago, and in circumstances he wasn't sure Sam would believe, but that wasn't what he'd meant, and the memory only served to confuse the situation further.

Sweet-smelling hay, and the rumble was of passing aircraft, not thunder, but she was something else, and she knew it ...

"It's not just any hayloft," he managed to formulate, not entirely sure why he was objecting in the first place. "It's your father's ..."

Sam's caress froze, his lips poised to demand another kiss, his body touched with heat. For a moment they were eye to eye, the impetus of everything suspended; the world held its breath in trepidation.

Lightning flared overhead with white-hot insistence. Thunder shattered after it, a reverberation fit to wake the gods themselves.

"Jeezus - !" Al reacted, hearing the sound of impact, of explosive force delivered to the ground. Sam's head jerked up in equal surprise.

"That was close," he registered.

A sign? Or a warning ...?

"This place got a lightning rod?" the Commodore asked, trying to make it a joke and not quite succeeding.

"Yeah," his lover breathed, letting the tension out of his body with a slow sigh. "We're quite safe in here ..."

The thought brought Sam back to the immediacy of the situation. He looked down at his captive and an equally slow smile played over his face. "Quite - safe," he repeated, tenderly blowing away the wisps of hay that the cessation of movement had settled onto the man's cheek. "Tommy used to court Cindy up here, you know? I'm willing to bet at least one of their kids was conceived here." The smile widened into an almost shy grin. "Mom always told me I was, too."

Alonzo laughed, reaching out to pull him down, to pull him close, their mutual warmth held against them by the hay. "Well," he growled, "in that case ..."

You really wanna celebrate, Sam? You know - if I'd known this would be your reaction, I might've broken a few more laws getting here.

He sought the softness of the man's mouth with his own; his hand slid down the promise of his lover's back until his fingers could slip teasingly across the tight snatch of denim in search of taut muscle and firm flesh. Samwise pressed against him in response, stirred by the contact, by the choreographed dart of tongue and fingertips.

For a man with such a strong sense of morality, Sam, you sure know how to cut loose when you want to ...

But it wasn't inhibition that more often than not discountenanced the man in his arms when publicly confronted with matters of intimacy. It was the import that he placed on those aspects of himself, the treasured nature of what lay within his gift to give. And when he gave, he gave utterly of himself, not holding anything back. It had taken some time for Alonzo to understand that, to stop confusing his wary and embarrassed reactions with high-minded and uptight attitudes and comprehend that it came from a very real sense of virtue - in the truest sense of the word. It had never stopped him from teasing the man - since his own attitudes were based on a much more earthy and upfront approach - but it had allowed him to direct his gentle ribbing so that it no longer distressed his lover; turning it toward the reinforcing of their relationship and using it as a warm reminder that - while it wasn't the physical side of their partnership that had inspired his loyalty and love - he held a connoisseur's appreciation of the more intimate moments that they shared.

He'd been involved with a great many women in the course of his life. Most he remembered with fondness, some with regret, a few with reminiscent delight. He'd learned when to offer sweet-talk, when to be quiet, when to cuss, and when to inspire arousal by the use of language that would turn his current company bright red from head to foot ... Sex like that - sex for the sake of it - was hot, raunchy, action; he adored it, craved it occasionally, in a manner he just could not explain to the saint to whom he'd committed his soul. But that was all it was, and it was nothing - absolutely nothing - when compared to the transcendent moments which this man - his lover - had gifted with himself.

Not that those couldn't be hot, too ...

Like now, his skin inflamed to infinite sensitivity and his body reacting to impassioned caresses - to the sensory overload of touch and taste. Sam's arousal was reckless and fierce, an expression of the distance that had kept them apart for too long; he responded to it with equal fervour - despite the fatigue that he'd been holding at bay for the past few hours. Their dance was always sensual, whether it involved vigorous interaction or slow indulgences, and the soft support of the yielding hay held a tactile experience all of its own.

This - this - is ...

Beyond rational thought, beyond mere words; it was written in the warmth of breath and the tenderness with which it was asked for and given in return.

Captured in the pounding of his heart; in the sheer pleasure of being the focus of his lover's need.

God, but I love you, Sam ...

Overhead the lightning flashed again, the thunder that followed it spaced and fitful, a far more distant sound,. The rain was a constant hammer on the roof, a waterfall of white noise that neither man registered. They tumbled together in the hay, sharing warmth and desire in equal measure, unheeding of the storm that raged all around them ...

"I'm glad you came, Tomcat," Sam whispered softly, his breath a gentle impact against his lover's cheek.

"Yeah," Alonzo chuckled softly, deliberately misconstruing the remark. "So am I ..."

"Al - !" Samwise sat up and tipped a pile of hay over the man's recumbent form with exasperation; the Commodore didn't even move.

"I think I got to be dead before you can legitimately bury me," Al remarked, suppressing a yawn as he did so. "God," he realised, "I could sleep for a week ..."

Sam brushed away his handiwork and looked down at the man with an affectionate frown. "Well," he said, "if that's the effect I have on you ..."

"Not you, Sam," Alonzo denied around a second yawn. "Just close on seven hundred miles - not to mention endless committee meetings, and late night lobbying at interminable parties ..." The third yawn fought its way out with enthusiasm; he closed his eyes and settled comfortably into the warmth of the hay. "Just wake me when the millennium comes, willya, kid?"

"Hey," Sam laughed, giving him a little shake. "Comfortable as this place is, it really isn't the best place to bed down for the night. It's November, remember? We might even get a frost."

"So?" Al merely snuggled a little lower in his cocoon. "Hay's the best damned insulator going, Mr-know-it-all-genius. I'm as snug as a bug in a rug ..."

The scientist shook his head with fond amusement. "You really are tired, aren't you?" he registered. "Did you stop on your way from Washington?"

"Nope." Al's answer was succinct - and distanced. Sam shook his head a second time.

"You're crazy, you know that? Come on, Tomcat. If you're going to fall asleep on me, let's at least make it in a comfortable bed." He reached down and lifted his friend up so that he rested on his butt - well, Sam considered, smothering a grin, mostly on his butt. The rest of his weight dropped, along with his arm, around his company's shoulders, a support into which he leaned with sleepy satisfaction.

"Just stay right there, lover," he murmured. "You're pretty comfortable as it is."

"Front and centre, Commodore," Samwise snapped, still trying hard not to laugh. "If we don't get back to the house soon, someone's gonna come looking for us."

"Right," Al agreed with an effort, pulling himself together and fighting down another yawn. "Spot inspection?"

"Spot inspection," Sam agreed, helping the man to his feet and brushing him down. It wouldn't matter if he arrived back home covered in hay, since he'd spent the day ensconced in the warmth and privacy of the loft, but it might be hard to explain why his unexpected visitor was equally decorated.

But we did have something to celebrate, right?

My project. Our future.

He reached to tease the betraying wisps from his lover's hair, not protesting as the man wrapped undemanding arms around him and rested his weary head on his shoulder.

All the way from Washington ... Hyped up on the news and adrenaline. I bet you didn't even think about what you were going to do once you got here.

Sam chuckled quietly at the thought, considering the warm afterglow that he was treasuring.

After that, I mean. Well, Tomcat, I finally get to bring you home to meet the folks ...

He finished his inspection, planted an affectionate kiss atop Alonzo's dark curls. "Time to face the world, Al," he murmured, and watched as the man drew his concentration together, as he figuratively stepped away from the intimacy that was their private domain.

"Sure," Al sighed, his weariness clearly hard to shake. "I'm sorry, Sam, I - "

"Hey." He interrupted the apology. "Dad and Tommy will understand. You're exhausted, you need to sleep. No way are you heading for a hotel tonight. You can have my bed, and I'll make do with the couch. I expect Cindy will want to spoil you, anyway. She's been asking when she might actually get to meet you."

"She has?" The information brought a smile to his friend's features. "So that's why she went all flustered when she realised who I was."

He laughed, guiding the man out of the loft, and gingerly led the way down the stacked staircase toward the outer door. "Maybe. Al - "

"M'mm?" His lover turned in his direction, the smile still settled on his face: a warm smile, one of quiet happiness. Sam reached out and hugged him gently.

"I really am glad you're here," he said. "Something tells me this is going to be the best Thanksgiving I've ever spent ..."

Breakfast in the Beckett household was an orchestrated anarchy that somehow managed to be not only survivable but reassuringly enjoyable at the same time. This morning Littlejohn was wrestling with Abbie for possession of the cereal box; every now and then a few more wheat flakes would exercise the right of every American and vote for a change - most of them ended up on the floor, where half a dozen cats in various colours competed with Sneakers's attempts to vacuum them up as quickly as possible. Some of the flakes even managed to alight in one or another of the cereal bowls.

Tommy and I used to quarrel like that. Mom never stopped us either.

Sam spread butter on his toast and turned the page of the journal that lay in front of him. It was surprisingly easy to tune out the hubbub; he was, after all, used to thinking on several levels at once.

On the other side of the table, Thelma was making faces at Billybob; he was nose-deep in a comic book, pronouncing the innumerable sound effects with relish in between his mouthfuls of oatmeal. As he didn't always bother to swallow before coming across yet another exciting combination of multiple vowels and unlikely consonants, the spectacle was not one for the weak of stomach.

He got that from his father. Tommy was always trying to do three things at once. I suppose because I could ...

Becky - at three, the youngest Beckett in the room - was running a marathon. Round and round the table, waving a piece of toast in the air and screaming as she did so. Well, not quite screaming exactly - more a high-pitched sound somewhat akin to a siren giving warning of the approach of World War III.

I should come home more often. Just - it got so hard after Mom died, and recently I've been so busy. Maybe once I've got the project started ...

He sighed, crunching into the toast. He knew better than that. Once the project took off - really took off - then the work would bury him so deep his family would probably wonder if he was still alive. If it wasn't for Al keeping a worldly eye on him, he'd have disappeared into the netherworld of research and science long ago.

If I lose track of time, he always remembers. Christmas. Birthdays. Anniversaries ...

He chuckled softly, reaching out to pick up his coffee cup.

Maybe he should have been listed on the project plan as my social secretary ...

Instead of Co-Director, Military and Government Liaison Officer, and Project Spokesman?

When the time comes, he'll probably insist on acting as Project Observer, too. Just to keep an eye on me.

The chuckle became a chortle which he fought down with difficulty. It would be very hard to explain why he found an article on the nature of indeterminacy funny.

When the time comes ...

That was the whole purpose of his proposal. Not the major advance in AI which he'd promised, no matter how revolutionary he was planning that to be - and it was going to be far more revolutionary than anyone thought. Time. That was the issue, and the reason he had to build an intelligence capable of handling the complexities of his physics. A mind that wasn't just able to reason, but to think. To feel, perhaps, although he wasn't sure how he was going to manage that just yet. And the most important factor? The one that would enable his dream to reach reality?

It was going to have to have imagination.

"Becky, be quiet!" Tommy's request was delivered in resigned tones. It never had any effect, but he somehow felt he was failing as a father if he didn't say something at times like this. Sam heard Cindy snort from somewhere under the sink. The waste disposal was blocked again, and she was working on freeing whatever prize one of her beloved children had forced down it this time. Tommy glanced in the direction of her feet and sighed, turning his attention back to the waffles he was making.

"You going to help me down in the West Field today, son?" John Beckett was seated amidst the chaos in unruffled splendour, the morning paper laid across one knee and a large cup of coffee nestled in his right hand. Sam and Tommy looked up - then grinned at each other.

"Mine!" Abbie shouted.

"Mine!" Littlejohn yelled back.

More wheat flakes joined the exodus. Sneakers wagged his tail and thrust his nose back under the table. Cats fled from his enthusiasm; one of them arrived on the table and Sam reached out distractedly to shoo it down again.

"I ought to finish fixing those fences along the Morrison boundary," Tommy remarked, laying another waffle onto the hotplate.

Mending fences, huh? There are some things about life on the farm I don't miss.

"Uh-huh," his father noted, glancing up from the stock prices to consider his elder son with warmth. "How 'bout you, Sam? You gonna tear yourself away from those books of yours for a while?"

Sam smiled, reaching for another piece of toast and starting to spread it with honey. "Well I am, Dad, but it won't be to catch hogs down in the west quarter. Al brought the budget approvals with him, and we're going to have to start putting some flesh on the project plan. You mind if I set the portable up in the parlour, Tommy? We're going to need some space to spread the paperwork."

John Beckett frowned - not seriously, but enough to convey a level of disapproval. "You're meant to be on vacation, son," he remarked, stretching out to remove the sugarbowl from Thelma's inquisitive fingers. "What's so important that this - friend - of yours has to come all the way from Washington to deliver it, anyway?"


"Lizard breath!"

The fight had got to the name-calling stage. Billybob abandoned his comic book to watch his siblings instead. Real life obviously had greater appeal than mere printed words. Sam smiled, biting into the toast.

"I told you, Dad. Last night. We got the go-ahead on the major development I've been trying to get off the ground for years. My own project team - my own research facilities."

"Not to mention the nice, crisp - and blank - government cheque," Al's voice added over the general hubbub. Sam half-turned, finding the man himself standing in the interior kitchen doorway, a somewhat nonplussed expression on his face.

Welcome to my world, Tomcat.

Actually, his first reaction - suppressed just in time - was to give vent to a low whistle of approval. Alonzo had obviously been spending money in Washington, since there wasn't a single thing he was wearing that Sam immediately recognised - but the overall effect was worth every dollar that he'd probably paid for it. When he'd arrived the day before he'd been dressed for the city in his blood-red suit and the white silk shirt with its crimson edgings, but he'd obviously given some thought to finding himself on a rural spread and had rigged himself out accordingly.

Well - as accordingly as Al Calavicci was ever likely to get, that is. He was never going to be a member of the dungarees and teeshirt brigade.

He was wearing black chinos tucked into tooled boots and a casual jacket cut from panels of dark ochre suede; under that sat a silk shirt overprinted with a rainforest. A real rainforest by the look of it, the print a mist of greens and photographic images. His tie appeared to be snakeskin - or maybe it was a snake. Sam couldn't quite tell from where he was sitting.

But he looked gorgeous ...

A tousle of short, dark curls and a disarming - if slightly wary - smile completed the look; an expensive one on first impression. Not that Al ever considered cost where his wardrobe was concerned; he just knew what he liked and bought accordingly.

"Hi," Sam called, waving the man into the room and indicating the empty chair beside him. Al hesitated, his eyes flicking to the white-haired patriarch whose presence dominated the room. John Beckett was staring at him with suspect attention.

Oh, yeah - I forgot Dad hasn't actually met him yet.

His father had been out the previous day, spending time with one of the neighbours, and had come home a good hour after Sam had ensured his exhausted Tomcat was tucked into the comfort of the guestroom bed. He'd arrived accusing Tommy of having lost his mind; he'd been somewhat taken aback by the explanation that the sleek sports car parked in the courtyard did not belong to either of his sons.

A gasp of triumph emerged from under the sink, and Cindy after it, brandishing her wrench like a victory baton.

"Got it," she crowed. Her hand snaked out, intercepting Becky's screaming progress; in one smooth motion she tossed the wrench onto the draining board, dropped the child into her high chair, extracted the cereal box from between the two combatants, removed yet another cat from the table, and arrived in front of her guest with a beaming smile.

Sam smiled at the look Al gave her; a glance that measured everything, from the faded denim that hugged her slender legs up to the wisps of fine hair that had escaped from the restraint that gathered their fellows. Cindy was pretty rather than beautiful; her tomboyish figure would win her no prizes in a pageant, nor could the straightforward cut of her mousy locks be described as anything other than practical, but her smile was warm, and her features pleasantly distinctive. The look was appreciative; but then Alonzo Calavicci could probably find something to appreciate in almost any woman, given enough time to look. And he liked to look.

"Good morning, Commodore," she said brightly, waving him into the room as she did so. "We were beginning to think you might miss breakfast altogether."

"Good morning, Mrs Beckett." Al's smile was laced with charm; it brought the hint of a blush to Cindy's normally unflappable cheek.

"It's Cindy," she insisted, ushering him into the empty seat at Sam's side. "I told you that yesterday."

He slipped out of his jacket and draped it over the chair before he sat down. His shirt really was a photographic print; the illusion of depth it imparted was disconcerting. "Well, yes," he acknowledged slyly, "but yesterday your husband wasn't in the room."

She laughed, and coloured that little bit more; Tommy looked up from the hotplate and grinned.

"I wouldn't worry about that," he remarked. "She never pays that much attention to me anyway."

"I do, too," his wife protested. "Littlejohn, sit down, will you? And behave yourself. We have a guest." Littlejohn looked rebellious, but did as he was told. Abbie took the opportunity to stick out her tongue at him. "Coffee, Commodore?"

"Yes - thank you." Al had been distracted by the youngsters; both Billybob and Thelma were staring at him. Hard.

"Stop that, Billybob," Cindy admonished as she moved away to fetch the coffeepot. "It's rude to stare."

Billybob? Al mouthed disbelievingly at Sam, who grinned.

This is Indiana, Tomcat.

"You haven't met the horde yet, have you, Al?" He started with the eldest of his brother's children and worked round. "This is John Joseph - otherwise known as Littlejohn, so as not to confuse him with his grandfather - Abigail Margaret - "

"Abbie," Abbie insisted.

" - Abbie," Sam continued, unfazed by the interruption. "William Robert - "

"Billybob," Billybob and Abbie chorused.

" - Thelma Mary, and Rebecca Ann. And this - " he added smoothly, as his introductions reached the head of the table, "is my father, John Beckett Senior. Dad - "

His father got to his feet with the politeness expected of his generation and thrust his hand across the table. Al did much the same. Their hands met over the sugarbowl, as did their eyes - John Beckett's wary and slightly narrowed within the weather-beaten frame of his face. The handshake was firm, two men assessing each other with the benefit of years of experience.

"'Bout time I got to meet you, Commodore," the head of the Beckett household considered gruffly. "Seems as if you got a hand in everything Sam does these days."

Sam watched his lover smile at that, suppressing a quiet grin of his own. We're a team, Dad. A damned good one.

"I wouldn't quite put it that way, Mr Beckett, but - I consider it a privilege to be able to work so closely with your son. He has a great deal to offer the world."

"H'mm," was the response to that, the older man returning to his seat and eyeing his visitor with scepticism. "So everyone keeps telling me. All I know is that I rarely see him - other than on magazine covers, that is."

"Dad," Sam protested with a hint of embarrassment. "You know how busy I've been just lately."

"Too busy to go to California? Or Paris? How about Tokyo? And Stockholm?"

There was an underlying note of resentment in the question, one that his father had not expressed over any of the previous three days he'd been home.

Dad? Have I done something to upset you?

Al laughed, accepting the cup of coffee Cindy handed to him. "Guess we have been globetrotting just recently, kid," he declared. "Do you know how many science conferences get held around the world in one year?" he went on, addressing the question to the general gathering. "Thousands. And he - " A jerk of his thumb in Sam's direction, "gets asked to practically all of them."

"Really?" Cindy was fascinated. "I didn't know you were in such demand, Sam."

Sam felt a warmth of colour rise in his face. "I'm not really," he denied, although the Commodore's claim held more than a grain of truth. "But they do offer an opportunity to find out current trends in thought. And I had to go to Stockholm, Dad. They sort of expect you to when they give you a Nobel prize."

Summer nights in Sweden, the approbation - and jealousy - of his peers. Drinking chilled champagne and eating caviar. Discovering the joys - and temptations - of a proper sauna. And then - driving north into the mountains to make love beneath the midnight sun ...

Oh, yes. Stockholm had been something special.

John Beckett harumphed, and held his cup out to Cindy for a refill. His eyes still held that hint of wary animosity.

"You got a snake round your neck, mister." Billybob had finally worked out what was puzzling him. Al glanced down, smoothing out the line of his tie as he did so.

"That's not just any snake," he confided, grinning at the youngster. "That's an anaconda. Could wrap you up and swallow you whole."

"Could not."

"Could too. Some of these suckers reach over thirty feet long."

"Wow." Littlejohn looked impressed. "Really?"

"Really," Sam confirmed. "But they don't tend to inhabit the breakfast table. Goes with the shirt, right, Tomcat?" Alonzo nodded, sipping at his coffee with pleasure.

"M'm-huh. Picked them both up at that fundraiser I told you about. The Amazon evening?"

The Amazon - ? Oh, of course. The environmental dinner. You had a hand in organising that, didn't you ...?

"Oh - yeah. I was sorry to miss that."

"It was okay." Al shrugged. "I didn't spend as much as I expected though." He grinned wryly. "I actually came home with a dollar change from the first thousand. Cheap at the price."

Somewhere at the end of the table, John Beckett spluttered into his coffee.

"Time for school, kids," Tommy announced, placing the plate of steaming waffles onto the table. "Help yourself, Commodore. I think the ravening hordes have left a little food in the house."

"I'll take them, son." The family patriarch got to his feet - more slowly than Sam might have liked, but with determination. "You need to get started on those fences. And I feel like getting a little air."

"You sure, Dad? Thanks. Come on, Littlejohn. Billybob, don't forget your homework, and Abbie ..."

Abbie had slipped from the table and into the parlour. At her father's call she ran back, looking anxious. "I don't have anything for show and tell," she protested. Cindy rolled her eyes skyward.

"Heaven's sake, young lady, why didn't you say that last night?"

"Take Sneakers," Littlejohn suggested, patting his dog on the head and giving him the last piece of toast from his plate. Billybob picked his backpack up from the floor, dislodging an indignant calico cat as he did so, and stuffed his comic book into it. He didn't appear to mind that the bright purple fabric was liberally sprinkled with wheat flakes.

"Bad idea, son." Tommy grinned across at Sam, who grinned back. They'd tried that once - smuggling a half-grown mutt into school on a dare - and the resultant chaos had nearly got John Beckett's brilliant son suspended.

"I could take Uncle Sam ...?" Abbie suggested slyly. Her mother laughed.

"Nice try. Not an option, I'm afraid."

"'Fraid not, shrimp," Sam confirmed. "I got work to do. But if we're still here on Friday, you might persuade Al to join you ..."

Al looked up from helping himself to waffles and threw him a look, half-frown, half-affection. "Sure," he growled. "As if I'd ever done anything worth telling kids about."

Like flying the space shuttle, perhaps? Or an F14 or two? Don't be so modest, Tomcat. It's not like you at all.

"Tell you what, sweetheart," the Commodore went on, smiling at Abbie as he did so. "How about you take this?" He put down his fork and reached around to extract something from his jacket pocket.

Abbie sidled around the table and looked at the piece of paper he held out with suspicion.

"Go on," Al encouraged with amusement. "It won't bite. But - ah - don't go using it for nefarious purposes, okay?"

She took the paper cautiously and unfolded it. Sam saw her eyes go very wide. "Oh, gee," she breathed, looking up at her benefactor with decided awe. "Is this for real?"

He laughed. "Sure is, princess."

"Come along, Abbie," her grandfather snapped, opening the outer door so that the boys - and at least four of the cats - could file out into the sunlit yard. She grinned, thrusting the precious paper into her bag, and turned to go after them. Then she turned back and wrapped an enthusiastic hug around the Commodore's shoulders.

"Thanks, mister," she whispered. "'Bye, Mom. 'Bye, Uncle Sam. 'Bye, Dad ..."

She scampered after her brothers; John Beckett closed the door behind her with unnecessary force, and three pairs of adult eyes turned to fix the visitor in their midst.

"Never fails, does it, Tomcat?" Sam remarked, picking up the maple syrup and pouring a generous helping over the man's plate.

"What?" Al asked innocently. His eyes were laughing.

The Calavicci charm. That indefinable something that makes women melt at your feet. Me too.

"So - just what," Cindy asked, "have you sent my daughter to school with?"

"M'm?" Alonzo was paying attention to his breakfast. "Oh - just a piece of White House headed notepaper."

Tommy - who had been collecting the children's plates to put them into the sink - nearly dropped the dishes he was carrying. "Just - ?" he choked.

"Al," Sam enquired, leaning back in his chair and eyeing the man fondly. "What exactly were you doing with that in your pocket?"

As if I didn't know ... How many hours have you spent stalking the corridors of power on my behalf? I half-suspect that Congress appointed the committee just to get you out of their hair - and they probably signed the approvals for the same reason. You went all the way to the President, huh? I wonder what he made of you ...

On the basis of the résumé? Time out of a busy schedule, and a nervous moment waiting to meet a man whom his predecessors had honoured on more than one occasion.

"I just needed a piece of paper in a hurry. For a telephone number," Al dismissed, attacking his waffles and syrup with appetite.

"Yeah?" The scientist couldn't resist a smile. "Was she blonde or brunette?"

"Redhead, actually." The gesture that followed was self-explanatory - figure like an hourglass, just the way he liked them. Sam chuckled, no longer driven to jealousy by his Tomcat's indiscretions. They were a part of his nature, and an inevitable result of leaving him to his own devices for too long.

Cindy was shaking her head in disbelieving amusement. "She'll get brownie points for that one," she remarked, meaning her daughter, not the unidentified redhead - who'd probably got a lot more than mere brownie points. "I wonder what's got into Dad this morning? He's not normally that grumpy, Commodore. I'm sure he didn't mean to be rude."

"He wasn't," Al assured her, while Sam frowned to himself. As a matter of fact, his father had been extremely rude - as much by what he hadn't said as what he had. Where had been the welcoming manner, the warm - if wary - generosity that he always offered to any stranger that crossed the threshold of his domain? John Beckett had never been a man to make snap judgements and he usually thought the best of everybody until they proved otherwise. So why had he offered his eldest son's best friend the Indiana equivalent of a slap in the face?

I feel like getting a little air, he'd said. As if the room had suddenly become intolerable. As if he couldn't bear to be in the same space as his guest.

What the hell was he thinking of?

"And it's Al," Alonzo was insisting to Cindy, who grinned. Sam pushed his vague concerns to the back of his mind and focused on more immediate matters. Like having his Tomcat next to him at breakfast and watching his sister-in-law succumb to the man's easy charm.

You want to be careful, Al. We Becketts can get very jealous, you know.

Not that Tommy showed any signs of that as he moved around to plant a gentle kiss to his wife's cheek.

"I'd better get on," he announced. "You going to be okay today?"

"M'm-huh," Cindy assured him. "I've only got three appointments ... Oh, Sam - I was going to ask you - would you mind watching Thelma and Becky for me this morning? I'd take them with me, but I'm going to the Hasdens, and I'm never entirely happy about that dog of theirs ..."

"I don't think it's a problem," Sam assured her, glancing at Al as he did so. "You mind babysitting while we do the paperwork, Al?"

The Commodore looked up from his plate, then across at where Thelma was sitting, still staring at him with wide and fascinated eyes. "Sam," he drawled, "since when have you known me turn down the chance to spend the day with a gorgeous girl or two?" He winked at the child while he said it, and she giggled and hid her face in her hands, exhibiting an unexpected shyness.

Tommy laughed, reaching to ruffle Becky's hair as he passed.

"Try two monsters from hell," he corrected, taking his coat down from beside the door. "I'll be back for lunch, I expect. I'll see if either of you've survived."

It wasn't quite how Sam had planned to spend the morning. It turned out kind of fun, so he had no real reason to complain, but they didn't get much of the paperwork done. Even for a man credited with the finest living mind of his century, it's hard to focus on work schedules when you have a three-year-old chattering away at your feet, and even harder when your Co-Director is sitting cross-legged on the floor playing cat's cradle with her five-year-old sister.

Becky wanted to be into everything, and at one point even crawled up onto Sam's lap to paw at the keyboard of his portable computer. The staffing schedule he was reviewing suddenly demanded the appointment of a Senior Constvb,bvn;lsdfz cxf at a per annum salary of $2.nq43vfa, and he removed her eager fingers with a wince and called a milk and cookie break.

That over, they sat the two of them down in front of Sesame Street - correction, the four of them down in front of Sesame Street - and learned all about the letter H (for House and Hello) and the numbers 5 and 7. Becky then decided to turn into a tornado and whirled about the house with abandon; her sister and Sneakers joined in the mayhem with delight, much to the indignation of the household cats, and it took a good ten minutes to restore any semblance of order. Al reappeared in the parlour with a wriggling three-year-old under his arm to find Sam acting as a climbing frame for her sister. Sam looked across at him with long-suffering resignation, and then they both burst out laughing.

"Fine project we're going to build," Al remarked, dropping an excited Becky onto the nearest easy chair, "if we can't even babysit two bambinas for half a day."

Sam grinned, disentangling himself from Thelma's grip. "Two imps, you mean. Beckett imps, what's more."

"Yeah," his friend chuckled. "I bet you were a real handful, Sam. Still are," he added, throwing his lover one of those looks. Sam felt himself go pink.

"Al," he hissed. "NIFOTC, Tomcat."

It earned him a briefly puzzled look. By the time Al had worked it out, Becky had climbed off the chair and started to vanish under the lounger.

"Oh, no, you don't, pumpkin." A rainforest-clad arm shot down and hauled her out with determination. "I'm getting too old to chase girls under sofas. Girls your age, that is."

That remark was a little less suspect, but it brought another smile to Sam's face.

You'd have made a damned good father, Al. You know that? Guess you never will be now.

Barring accidents, of course. Or some major shift in cosmic determination somewhere. It was most unlikely that the man's current partner would ever become a mother. Except, maybe ...

Another piece of Sam's unfinished jigsaw clicked into place. He'd been thinking about logic circuits and quantum calculations, focusing on molecular analogues of neural processes - but why not go the whole hog and create actual neurons? Use DNA-determined structures to recreate a silica/organic structure that wasn't just like a human mind, but might almost be a human mind? All he'd need was the base material to work with, a little gene-mapping technology - and a whole load of revolutionary approaches.

If god made man in his own image, why shouldn't I build my brainchild in mine?

And maybe - just maybe - stir in a little taste of Italian sauce ...

"Mission Control to Samwise Beckett. Are you receiving me? Over?"

He blinked and focused, finding his lover grinning at him with knowing amusement. He didn't tune out of things that often, but it had been happening enough lately for Al to both notice and understand the reasons for it.

"Sorry," Sam apologised. "I was just - "

"A mile underground in New Mexico. Yeah, I know, kid. Look - why don't you get back to work, and I'll drag this terrible twosome off somewhere. And murder them," he suggested, making a mock-threatening face at Thelma as he did so. She giggled and hid behind her uncle's knee, peeking round it to poke out her tongue.

"Sounds good to me," Sam decided. "You sure, Tomcat? I wouldn't want - "

Al hefted Becky up so she was perched on his shoulder and found his lover an affectionate frown. "Sam," he said softly, "you're about to become an executive. Make a few executive decisions, huh? Like delegating things occasionally? I've been in the Navy, you know. I do know how to follow orders from time to time."

Follow orders - and keep your promises, huh, Tomcat? You're too good to me sometimes.

"Okay," Sam announced with businesslike determination. "As your official Project Director, I hereby order you to vamoose. With nieces. Priority directive - keep 'em quiet for at least ten minutes. And god help you, Tomcat, 'cos I sure can't."

Al snapped a smart salute, which Becky attempted to imitate. "Aye-aye, sir!" He held out his hand and Thelma curled her own into it; then the three of them vanished into the hall and up the stairs. The last certain thing Sam heard from that direction was Al's voice asking, with wary curiosity, "Do either of you two young ladies know a guy named Dr Seuss?"

Sam chuckled, throwing himself down onto the couch with a sigh of relief.

Mom would tell me off for that. Shirking my responsibilities, she'd say. But Al's so good with kids, and I'm hopeless. He knows how much this work means to me, and now we've got the go-ahead there's just so much to be done.

Before the real work could even begin, that was. The site to construct, the design teams to assemble, the new equipment to design and test and install. They'd be a good year just preparing the foundations, and after that ...

He slid across to where the portable still sat and closed down the file that was open on the screen. Then he keyed open a new document and began to jot down the concepts that had started to take shape inside his head. Just notes for now, a scribble of electronic words designed to retrigger the line of thought that had spawned them, but enough for him to use, to add to the growing specifications that would turn a wild dream into reality.

The thoughts - and the ideas - came with fluid ease. His fingers machine-gunned over the keys, his hands pausing occasionally as he waited for the machine to keep up with him. He'd taught himself to touch-type - as much from need as from a desire to master the skill - and one of the notes he made in passing concerned the nature and speed of his new computer's interfaces.

Something more responsive, more immediate. Something a musician could play perhaps ...

Along with a measure of interactive voice input and access to external electronics, of course. His baby wouldn't just need to talk. It would need to talk to everything.

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow - "

He dropped into concentrated mode, a certain portion of his mind entertaining itself with music while he worked.

"There's a bright golden haze on the meadow;

The corn is as high as an elephant's eye ..."

The choice of song was entirely subconscious, reflecting his mood and probably partially triggered by his surroundings.

"And it looks like it's climbing right up to the sky ..."

Later biographies would claim that Samwise Beckett sang while he worked because he used music as an aide memoire; that he encompassed complicated melodies in order to facilitate some complex mathematical process in the depths of his mind.

"The cattle are standing like statues -

Oh, the cattle are standing like statues ..."

His family asserted he did it because, when he became so totally absorbed, the songs emerged as some kind of safety valve, a means of ensuring he didn't burn out through sheer concentration.

"They don't turn their heads as I boldly ride by -

But a little brown maverick is winking his eye ..."

Sam himself would have said it kept him occupied at all levels - a means, perhaps, of bringing his full intellectual capacity to bear. If he ever thought about it, that is.

"Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh, what a beautiful day -

"I got a glorious feeling everything's going my way ..."

Ah, hell, Alonzo would probably laugh, if anyone thought to ask him. It just means the kid's happy doing what he's doing.

And right now, Sam was feeling on top of the world.

Continued in Part Two ...
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