Thanksgiving day dawned gray and overcast. Wind whipped at the corners of the house and moaned softly between the outbuildings. Sam woke early and helped Tommy deal with skittish cows; the animals were disturbed by the turn in the weather and needed a firm hand. Their father appeared to make comment on their performance, content to let his sons handle the hard work for a change. By the time Sam returned to the house it was to find Cindy serving coffee to her guest and his nephews wrestling with the bright red kite that Tommy had repaired the night before.
"Be careful," their mother warned as they vanished into the bluster of the day. "And come back if it starts to rain ..."
Their answer was inaudible, much as boys have answered their mothers throughout history. Al grinned at Sam, who grinned back.
Boys will be boys. And some of them never grow up.
Like ex-astronauts who had orange and gold sunsets painted across their shirt. Sunsets that came complete with the silhouettes of cowboys riding into them.
"Come on, Tomcat," he said. "Bring your coffee. Weve got work to do."
Abbie - sitting opposite the Commodore and watching him with fascination - pouted disappointment.
"You gonna help me with the pumpkin pie?" Cindy suggested, amused at her reaction. The disappointment vanished instantly.
"Me, me!" Thelma piped up with insistence, and her sister poked her. Hard.
"She asked me, squidge," Abbie declared. Cindy laughed and shooed the men out of her kitchen; they went back to the paperwork in the parlour, sharing an amused look at the sounds of altercation that rose behind them.
They worked for an hour or two; it must have been close to eleven when the shriek interrupted them. A despairing, oh, noooo, kind of shriek that lifted both of them to their feet and hurtled them toward the kitchen. Sam got there first. He pulled to a halt in the doorway -
- and started to laugh.
Al almost ran into him; he slapped his lovers butt with manful irritation, and Sam moved aside to let him see. There was a disaster waiting for him.
The kitchen was ankle-deep in water; Cindy stood in the middle of it, a soaking Becky scooped up into her arms, while Abbie wrestled to put a bucket under the cascade that emerged from the bottom of the washing machine. Thelma was bouncing up and down on a chair, giggling excitedly.
"Ah - need a hand?" Sam asked, once hed recovered his breath. Cindy shot him a look. The sort that would kill if it came with sharp edges.
"I can manage, thank you," she pronounced with feeling, wading over to drop Becky into the high chair. "Abbie, leave that, its not going to do any good."
Abbie dropped the bucket, and sidled away so that her mother could get at the offending machine.
"She didnt know, Mom," she protested. Cindy snorted.
"And you did, and didnt stop her?" she asked sarcastically. She reached behind the machine, turned something sharply, and the cascade subsided into a trickle. Then she turned - slipped, and ended up on her butt in the middle of the flood. "Shit," she swore with resignation. She looked up - met the eyes of her audience in the doorframe - and began to laugh. "I should have known," she chuckled, waving at them both to stay put. "Dont come in - youll only ruin your shoes."
"What - uh - happened?" Al enquired cautiously. Sam was busy working out the volume of water required to fill the kitchen to such a considerable depth.
"I took my eyes off the holy terror." The explanation included a glance in Beckys direction. "Did you know that unscrewing the fluff filter on this particular model - while the machine is halfway through the first wash cycle - tends to unleash its entire contents on an unsuspecting world? Well, it does. And she did, and now Im going to have to clean this up, and I really needed to go to the mall ..."
Sam and Al exchanged a look. Anyone else in the room might have heard the sound of armour being donned and valiant swords drawn.
After you with the dragon, my friend ...
"I," Alonzo announced gallantly, "have the fastest car in Indiana parked out in the yard. We can fetch you whatever your heart desires."
Ah. Good thinking, Tomcat. I was about to volunteer for the mop.
"Would you?" Cindy looked grateful. "Its only a few things, but - Ill give you a list, okay? And please dont mention this - " Her hand encompassed the deluge, "to anyone, will you? Its pretty embarrassing to flood your own kitchen when youre the most qualified plumber in Elk Ridge and Bentleyville ..."
"Cindys a plumber?" Al asked the question as he unlocked the door to the Lotus. Sam grinned.
"Uh-huh. A damned good one. Tommy met her when she came to unblock a cistern at his apartment. While he was at college."
"Right," the Commodore noted, shooing a tabby cat off the car bonnet before sliding into the drivers seat with accustomed ease. "Came to inspect his ballcock, stayed to - "
"Al ..." The reaction was automatic. Alonzo looked suitably hurt.
" - wash his changes, rather than change his washers ... Sam, what did you think I was going to say?"
You know damned well, Tomcat.
Sam folded himself down into the leather upholstery, stretching out his legs and taking in a deep and pleasured breath. The inside of the car smelt of warm leather and a hint of cigar smoke, all wrapped up in the beeswax scent of polish. Honey and sandalwood; Al liked to keep the interior of his cars as clean as the exterior, and he lavished as much attention on that as he might on a sleek sports model of an entirely different kind.
"So, when did you succumb to this particular beauty?" he asked, closing the door and pulling down the inertial seatbelt.
"Month ago." The answer held a note of pride. "Like it?"
The passenger glanced around the interior, at the sleek curve of the dash and the dark red leather of the seats, then out at the gleaming curve of the hood, its white paint shining, even under the lowering cloud. "Love it," he decided with a sigh. "Pity these things drink so much gas."
"Yeah." Al gunned the motor into life and reached to wrap his hand around the stick shift. Samwise made sure his knee was in the way.
"Cut that out," the Commodore growled, slapping the offending knee with friendly irritation. Sam laughed and slapped back; the look that Al threw him held more than a threatening hint of when I get you alone ...
"One of these days," the scientist considered thoughtfully, "Im going to have to build you a car that doesnt offend your obligations to the environment."
"Sure," the driver acknowledged acerbically, putting the car into first and dropping the parking brake. "A staid little runabout with electric power and no guts. No thanks, Sam." He slammed down the accelerator and the car leaped forward in instant response. Al drove the way he probably used to fly - with impact and passion - although he was also one of the safest drivers Sam had ever met.
"I could convert something. A Ferrari - maybe even a Jag. Youve always wanted a Jag, right?"
"I cant afford one. This baby isnt completely paid for yet. I might pick up a Testarossa second hand ..."
A scarlet Ferrari, or a black Jag? Either would do - but a Jaguar would be more apt. A sleek cat for my Tomcat, huh? Im gonna have some time to kill while they install some of the major plant down in New Mexico ...
His mind went to work on the idea, measuring possibilities and options. Something with a powerhouse under its hood to impart a suitable kick in the butt. The Lotus ate road and startled Elk Ridge as it did so; they reached the mall within fifteen minutes. Sam didnt think theyd broken any laws, but he wouldnt have wanted to bet on it.
He sighed, and went to face the market, Cindys list firmly clutched in his hand. Al prudently decided to stay with the car, which was probably wise, since even their arrival had attracted attention. By the time he got back, the attention had become a crowd; a were not really staring crowd, all desperately trying to look as if they had legitimate business in the parking lot. At least a dozen of them were High School seniors, the kind that gravitated to the mall at any opportunity. They were staring, the boys with open envy, the girls whispering among themselves and snatching giggly sideways glances. Alonzo was leaning against the drivers door with nonchalance, smoking the inevitable cigar, while his long, tailored topcoat fluttered around him in the wind. He looked, Sam decided, studying the effect from a suitable distance, a little like a well-heeled Italian Mafioso come to collect protection money. The sort that Hollywood would have you believe came complete with broken-nosed heavy and an Uzi in the trunk of the car.
Youre the most exotic thing Elk Ridge has seen in years. The place will be buzzing by this time tomorrow. And you know it.
Rumour and gossip; it would become a major talking point, and no-one would ever figure out the truth.
Theyll put you in the Secret Service - because of what you gave Abbie for show and tell. Or, if they ask Tommy, he'll tell them youre my colleague, and the rumour mill will instantly have me under armed guard, or working for the CIA ... Even if they find out who you are - and thatll have them reeling in the aisles - theyll suspect its just a cover story. Hell, Sam grinned to himself, I could probably waltz right up and kiss you in public, and theyd swear it was to hide the real reason you were here ...
Not that he would, of course. Right now Al was eyeing up a blonde cheerleader type, who was blushing furiously under his expert scrutiny. If any other man Als age looked at an eighteen-year-old that way hed probably get himself arrested, but the Calavicci sweep of appreciation was never a threatening one, and the girl concerned would probably go home feeling on top of the world.
Even if she decided to stalk across and slap his face first ...
It was beginning to rain, a spattering of drops that drove many of the onlookers back into the shelter of the mall. Sam hurried over to rejoin his companion; he knew that, like a great many Tomcats in the world, Al had an aversion to getting rained on more than he had to.
They dropped the bags into the trunk, and Sam folded his long legs back into the low-slung seat. The threat of rain became a promise; it danced across the windshield and drummed onto the paintwork as they pulled out of the parking lot and back onto the road.
Take it easy, will you, Al? These roads are going to be treacherous in this kind of weather.
The Commodore seemed to have come to the same conclusion; the drive back was a lot more sedate than the outward journey. They turned off the main highway and into the back roads that led to the farm, visibility reduced by the gray impact of the rain. Sam was idly watching the land roll by on his side when Alonzo slammed on the brakes.
The Lotus swerved sideways in the slick of the rain; Sam was thrown forward against his seatbelt, as they slid to a dramatic halt.
What the - ?
"Damned dog," Al started to swear, then stopped. "Sam? Isnt that Littlejohn?"
Sam looked. It had been Sneakers that they had so narrowly avoided, the car slewing round so as to angle across the mud-slicked road; running through the standing seedcorn in pursuit of his pet was the unmistakable figure of Sams elder nephew.
"Yeah. He should be heading home. Hey, Littlejohn!"
Hed thumbed the electric window as hed spoken, and put his head out into the rain. The boy swerved toward him, crashing through the stalks, his face white and anxious.
"Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!"
The obvious distress in the youngsters voice pulled Sam from the vehicle; the boy arrived beside it, breathless and gasping.
"Billybob," he managed to get out. "Tangled his kite - up the tower. Told him not to, but he - wanted to - get it. He cant get down ..."
A cold hand clenched around Sams stomach.
"Where is he?" Sam demanded urgently, looking across the rain-washed landscape that had spawned the child. Littlejohn waved in the general direction of the backfield.
"Up the tower ..."
The tower? There were no towers on the Beckett property, were there? Apart from ... Comprehension spasmed the cold hand into a rigid fist.
Oh, my god ...
He was running as soon as understanding hit him, powering across the field, heedless of the grasp of cornstalks, ignoring the lash of rain as it tumbled from the sky. Somewhere behind him he heard Al call his name - an anxious question, a plea for explanation - but he had no time to stop. No time at all.
Hold on, Billybob.
Im coming ...
At the very edge of the backfield, right on the periphery of the Beckett property, Tom Beckett had earned the farm a little money by leasing a piece of it to the government. On that little corner of nowhere, USA, the hand of the nations Uncle Sam had built a steel tower. A tower seventy feet high, bristling with antennas and dishes at its apex, and used to relay microwave transmissions and communication signals across the open country. It was an ugly thing that added nothing to the landscape; it was supported on four girdered legs that sloped together to hold up the angled column above them, a stark expression of functionality without a single redeeming feature.
Sam pounded through the cornstalks and half-paused to look up as he reached the turf edge of the larger field. In the best of weather, the towers openwork shadow loomed over the field with ominous presence; in the slanting half-light of the rain it was little more than a lurking shape, blurred and hidden among common greys. High up, just below the upper rim that sported its spiky headgear, two spots of colour were pasted against the grim skeleton: one was a scarlet flutter of fabric, a gaudily decorated tail whipping back and forth below it in the wind; the other was a huddle of blue and brown, a tiny mannequin clinging to the girders.
Horror slammed Sams heart into his throat; he didnt stop to think, didnt even falter in his steps. Instead he lengthened his stride, crossing the field and vaulting the rail of the intervening fence in one continuous motion. He reached the nearest leg of the tower and began to ascend with determination; his eyes were fixed on the huddled figure far above him, and he ignored the bite of cold steel against his hands, the slick impact of the rain in his face.
Im coming, Billybob. Hold on. Just hold on ...
A portion of his mind was calculating the implications: the height of the tower, the childs weight, the impact of a fall. His ascent was rapid, his hands grasping for the next hold, his feet pushing him upward, all powered with the flood of adrenaline that was burning through him.
Dont fall, his mind insisted. Dear god, dont let him fall!
Past the angle of the supporting leg, a twist, and he was onto the main tower, going up hand over hand, climbing the ladder of steel the way the child must have done, but lifted on arms honed to a practical fitness. The wind was fitful, tugging at his jacket, cutting through the dampened surface of his shirt.
"Uncle Sam?" The call was plaintive, the boys voice filled with terror.
"Im coming, Billybob. Just stay right where you are."
"Im scared, Uncle Sam ..."
I know, I know ...
He was still looking upward, judging his route, edging closer to the child. Billybob hadnt reached his kite. That was anchored on the point of an aerial, some ten feet higher still.
What were you thinking, William Robert Beckett?
He knew. Knew that the youngster hadnt really thought at all. Hed just wanted his kite and had thought it would be so easy to fetch. The tower was built for it, wasnt it? Straight up and straight down. Nothing to it, really. Until it had begun to rain, until an eight-year-old kid had found out just how high up he had managed to climb ...
Another step up, then another. He was on a level with his nephew now, could see the boys face, stark white and terrified.
"Its okay," he told him, edging along the girder edge, sliding his hands across to take him that little bit closer. "Its okay ..."
He really thought it was. Thought that all he had to do was reach the child and hed be able to bring him down, would be able to help him face the long descent.
And then Sam Beckett compounded the mistake hed made in rushing to the rescue without assessing the situation in the first place. He looked down.
Down into infinity, at the dizzy drop beneath him, at the darkened shadow of the ground so far away ...
Oh, my god ...
Hed not realised how high the boy had climbed. Hed not stopped to consider his own reactions. He was sixty feet up, clinging to a rain-slicked surface, with nothing under him but steel knives and empty air ...
Oh, god, oh, god, oh, god ...
His arms clamped themselves tight to the angled metal; his stomach heaved; the world seemed to tumble away, to spiral beneath him so that his balance went entirely. Panic slammed in to replace his earlier horror; it seized the adrenaline that had carried him upward and turned it into bands of solid ice. He couldnt move. Couldnt breathe ...
And a little voice somewhere at the back of his mind asked - quite calmly and with decided sarcasm:
Okay, Sam. You got yourself up here. Youre the genius. Now what are you going to do?
Al had followed Sams precipitate progress with less speed but with just as much alarm. Hed grasped some of the situation from Littlejohns anxious words, and the rest of it was only too clear as he emerged from the cornfield onto the more open land. He registered Billybobs predicament with a curse; then cursed a second time as he realised that Sam had already started to climb the looming structure. Straight up without a moment to think. Leaping in before hed assessed the situation, as usual.
Damn you, kid. Thats no way to go about this. There should be a service ladder or something somewhere.
The angry thought was followed by one of total consternation.
What the hell, are you doing, Sam? You dont have a head for heights ...
He crossed the field at a run, Littlejohn trying to keep up behind him. Mud sucked at his feet, and the rain cut into his skin; it was getting heavier every second, and the metal surface beneath Sams hands would be coated and treacherous.
If you fall, kid, Ill never forgive you.
He pushed that thought away, concentrated on following the mans athletic ascent instead. There was no sign of hesitation in the haste-driven climb; Sam went up with confidence, his eyes fixed on his goal. Als heart slid into his mouth; going up was no problem. It was the descent that did it every time ...
Oh, jeezus, Sam. Why didnt you just think, for once?
He paced the base of the tower, looking up into the impact of the weather, trying to gauge the situation as best he could. He saw Sam reach the required height, watched as the lanky frame edged its way along the steel toward the terrified child -
- and recognised exactly when the comprehension struck, when the reality of his position registered with the would-be hero.
His heart stopped; he had to force himself to breathe. For an impossibly long second he had thought the figure above him was going to fall. When it didnt, he closed his eyes for a moment and counted softly down from ten to calm his own internal panic.
"Is Billybob gonna be all right, Commodore?"
He looked down, finding Littlejohn staring upward with wide and frightened eyes.
Hes - what? Eleven? Twelve? Scared as hell, and feeling totally helpless. Thats his brother up there. And Sam ...
Goddamn it, Sam!
If the man had only taken a moment to think ...
Samwise had acted without thought, responding to the situation through some inner instinct, driven by his natural gallantry, his impulsive need to correct the mistakes of the world; where he was perfectly capable of calculating effect and implication down the nth degree, his ability to apply judgment in those kind of situations was decidedly less intellectual. He was the archetypal White Knight, not unaware of his limitations, but disinclined to take them into account when need called. Usually it didnt matter. God took as good care of fools and madmen as he did of his chosen saints. It was sometimes hard to say into which category Sam Beckett fell, but he generally fell on his feet most of the time.
It was just that - on this occasion - falling was the very last thing he was going to want to do.
All of that - and a whole lot more - went through Alonzo Calaviccis mind as he stood there in the pouring rain. Hed learned to assess his options and make snap decisions at an early age; the Navy had taken that skill and had honed it to a level that few could match. When the lives of an entire squadron could depend on your next command, when NASA was prepared to entrust several billion dollars worth of equipment to your judgment, you either proved yourself or you screwed up bigtime; the Commodore had a track record that had earned him commendations, and had never screwed up on a command decision. Not once.
Even if he still felt responsible for matters that he had had no control over whatsoever.
He shrugged out of his coat, draping its weight and warmth around the youngsters shoulders; Littlejohn stared at him in bemusement.
"Hang on to that, willya kid?" Als request was delivered with a wink and a grin; hed kicked into high gear with barely a pause for breath. Fear, anxiety, apprehension - all that got pushed to one side in order to concentrate on what had to be done. Once youd earned your wings, combat training taught you to handle matters with efficient, effective action; adrenaline was something that gave you the edge, not drove you over it.
And - even if the situation was desperate - this was one occasion when he was certain of the edge.
The one thing in his life hed never been scared of was heights.
Sam closed his eyes and desperately tried to calm the pounding of his heart.
This is crazy. Im not going to fall. I know Im not going to fall ...
He didnt feel convinced. Not convinced at all.
The wind tugged at him. At him and the tower which, this far above the ground, had an alarming tendency to sway with measurable effect. Rain hammered into his face; his hands were ice-cold - and there was a shivering child barely a reach away, clinging with equal terror to their mutual support.
Just hang on, Billybob. Ill be all right in a moment or two ...
He inched a little further towards his nephew, sliding himself along the suspect surface with determination. His progress was slow and fraught with terror; his arms locked around the supporting steel and he dared not so much as lift his feet as he carefully shifted his weight from one to the other. His heart was jumping like a jackrabbit inside his chest, and the rest of him was trembling, inside and out.
Who are you fooling, Sam?
He had too active an imagination. Could picture the result should his grip fail and gravity assert its natural right to his company. The doctor in him was reeling off the potential injuries, the likely causes of death, while the physicist was calculating the rate of impact, the size of the hole hed make in the ground ...
Shut up, he screamed inwardly, but the thoughts went on tumbling through his head. The thoughts and the images, the sensations and the yawning terror that had seized his soul and would not let go.
If I fall, will I know when I hit the ground?
It was not a question he wanted to contemplate right there and then. He risked a small glance at the boy whose agitation echoed his own, and cursed the impulsiveness that had got them both into this situation.
One more step and I could reach him ...
He willed his fingers to uncurl one more time, but nothing happened. It was as if they had been welded together, the driving rain a flux that bound him and the steel into one single entity. Billybob was crying. He could hear him, a small whimpering sound that tore into his senses and echoed in his soul.
Oh, god. Im sorry. Im so sorry ...
He closed his eyes again, resting his cheek against the smoothness of the metal, and wondered what he was supposed to do next. Pray, perhaps?
Dear god -
What came after that? Give me the inner strength to conquer this?
It might be there, if he reached deep enough. Strength enough to get himself down, perhaps. But not the child. Not this time.
I need a miracle, lord. Just one, huh? Not for me. For Billybob.
But miracles didnt just happen, did they? Not when you were sixty feet up and scared to death. The heavens didnt open and send you angels.
"Anybody up here order a pizza to go?"
Sams eyes shot open in startlement. He looked up, and focused, with decided disbelief, on the most welcome sight in the world.
Al? Oh, my lord, Al!
Alonzo was leaning on the rail that marked the upper platform, the gold and orange of his shirt a bright splash of colour against the storm-laden sky.
How did you get up there ...?
He didnt really care. Hed prayed for an angel, and got a Tomcat instead. Or perhaps they were one and the same.
"We - we werent planning on a picnic, Al." His voice sounded squeaky, even to his own ears. The familiar face creased into an equally familiar grin.
"Pity," its owner decided. "You get a wonderful view from up here ..."
Oh, come on, Al ...
The grin widened a little; the man ducked under the rail and scrambled down the girders with the agility of a monkey. Sams heart thudded to a halt as he watched him do it.
One slip and hes a footnote in the history books ...
He didnt slip; he arrived halfway between man and child, anchored by the hook of an elbow, leaning out to assess the distance that lay below them. Samwise closed his eyes with a shudder, and his hands clenched reflexively.
"Sam," his lovers voice said softly, all hint of banter stripped away, "Im gonna get Billybob down from here. Whatever you do - dont move until I come back for you, okay?"
Come back ...? The thought of abandonment stirred his sense of panic. He pushed it away angrily. Al was right. Billybob was the one in most danger, and the reason he was up here in the first place. Maybe - if the boy was safe - he might even ...
Oh, god. The concept of movement had become a foreign language to his frozen frame.
"Okay?" The request was repeated with emphasis. Sam swallowed against the tightness in his throat and nodded his agreement.
Im not going anywhere, Al.
But if the man took Billybob down, then he was going to have to climb back up again. Sixty feet in an ice-cold wind was bad enough. But twice?
"Hey, kid," Al was saying gently, swinging round to join Billybob with nonchalant ease. "How ya doing?"
The boy looked up, his face white and his hair plastered down by the impact of the rain. "I - I just wanted my kite ..." There was a tremble in his voice, a threat of panic overlain by a childs determination to be brave.
"Yeah?" The response was sympathetic. "Well, I tell ya what. You come down with me now, and Ill build you a better one. How bout that?"
"Will you?" The boys body was shaking, but the hope and expectation in that question turned Sams heart over.
Promise him the moon, Tomcat. Just get him the hell outta here ...
"Sure will. Whaddya say?"
Billybobs eyes darted downward, and his arms tightened their desperate hold. "Its - a long way down."
Sam winced as Al leaned out to confirm this statement, let out a tense breath as he pulled closer to the steel.
"That little drop? Thats nothing, kid. Looking at the Earth from orbit - now, thats a long way down."
The boy looked at him with disbelief. What? his mouth said, and the ex-astronaut laughed.
"Ill tell you all about it. Once were on the ground. Right now - " He paused, considering the situation, then slid in as close as he dared. "You think you could put your arms around my neck and hold on real tight?"
Be careful, Tomcat. Please. Be careful ...
Sam watched as the man manoeuvred the child onto his back and began the cautious descent; after that he couldnt watch any more. Looking down made him dizzy. He could feel the world tilt sideways, threatening to spill him from his perch, and his arms were going numb. Water washed across his face and embraced every part of him; he was perched in the sky and drowning by inches.
Pinned by his own terror, like a fly held in a steel spiders web ...
Billybobs weight had become a leaden yoke around his neck and shoulders by the time Al got both of them to the ground. Hed talked all the way down, inconsequential things, things a child of eight might find distracting; promises to take him out in the Lotus, to show him his official issue pen - the one that would write in zero-gee - even threatening to get him aboard a shuttle simulator should the opportunity arise ...
Al Calavicci, one of these days youre gonna promise something you cant deliver ...
He dropped the last couple of feet, lifting the boy over his shoulders, holding the trembling body close in heartfelt relief. Billybob hugged back, with feeling. Littlejohn rushed over, his anxious face creasing in a grin of delight as he realised his brother was safe.
"Here." Al dragged his coat from the older boys shoulders and wrapped it around the shivering youngster instead. "Keep an eye on him, willya?" His head jerked skyward with an attempt at amusement. "I gotta go back for your Uncle Sam ..."
Littlejohn nodded, encircling his little brother with determined arms. Sneakers was whuffling at Billybobs feet, and Al was relieved to see the boy reach down and pat the animal between the ears.
Kids are resilient. Hell get over this.
He sighed, surreptitiously easing his back and shoulders as he walked back toward the service ladder hed located at the side of one supporting leg of the tower.
I hope to god I do ...
He was tired; he knew he was tired. The climb up had been nothing, even if the impact of the storm had added to the effort. But bringing the boy down had cost him, and going up a second time was going to be harder still.
Quit complaining, Calavicci, he told himself severely. You know damned well youd climb to the moon and back if Sam needed you to.
And right now the kid needed him. Needed him to act like the Tomcat he thought him to be, all devil-may-care and full of bounce.
No matter how hard it might turn out to be.
He took a deep breath, wiped rainwater out of his eyes, and put his hands back on the ladder. His arms complained, and his shoulders protested.
Youre getting old, Bingo.
He frowned at the thought.
The hell I am ...
Tired, yes. Cold, maybe. But old?
No way - !
He used the kick of his inner anger to drive him upward again. A hard day on the squash court was more exhausting than this, and he did that for pleasure, didnt he?
Well, he had to grin to himself, as much for the pleasure of the massage afterward ...
Danni, thats her name. Danni ...
With a tumble of sun-blonde hair, and a body built to be nice to. Hands as gentle as thistledown, voice like a spoonful of honey. She smiled so sweetly, too. She was cute. Real cute. And he liked to flirt with her because she knew he meant it as a compliment, not the way some of those other nozzles at the sports club did.
Hed miss Danni when he moved to New Mexico. He liked to think maybe shed miss him a little too. But then, he sighed, pausing in his ascent to look up and reassure himself that the reason for this self-inflicted torture was still clinging to the steel above him, Id rather miss a hundred like Danni than lose one day with Sam ...
The comprehension of that never ceased to amaze him. How a gorgeous girl like that could stir the fire in his belly when she walked across the room -
- yet the mere mention of Sams name could stir him all the way to his soul.
And the kids gonna be the death of me if he goes on pulling stunts like this.
Not a complaint. Simply a resignation to the way things were. The way he wanted them to be.
The ladder led all the way up to the aerial platform; the upper length of it was hooped for safety and meant he had to climb all of it in order to escape from its confines. The wind hit hard as he emerged onto the grating a second time, but he ignored it, just as he ignored the warning notes of fatigue that whispered through him. Instead he crossed to the rail on the appropriate side of the tower, slid under it, and dropped back down to where his beleaguered lover still clung to the angled structure. The knuckles of the mans hands were white - almost as white as his face.
The longer youre stuck up here, lover, the harder this is going to get.
He manoeuvred across carefully so that he stood behind Sams tensioned frame, reaching his arms to anchor him on either side, his body pressed against the shivering curve of the mans form. "Okay," he announced, taking the opportunity to catch a little of his breath. "One Beckett down, one to go."
The taut figure shuddered reactively, and Alonzo silently cursed his choice of words. "Its all right," he murmured softly, much as he had done to the frightened child he had already returned to the ground. "Im not going to let you fall, I promise."
"I know." Sams response was strained, half self-anger, half hysteria. "Al, Im sorry, I - "
"Hey." Al pulled himself closer with deliberate intimacy, pinning his companion against the angles of the struts, holding him there and offering him his warmth. Not much warmth, since the wind cut through both of them like a knife and the rain was a weight of ice that filled the air. "Youre only human, Sam. You cant be perfect all the time, you know?" He rested his chin on a rigid shoulder and blew gently against his lovers cheek; it half-turned the distraught face in his direction. Sam found him a watery smile.
"I try," he said in a small voice.
Yeah, I know, kid. You try your damnedest, and you dont need to. Youre so far ahead of the crowd that it hurts to see you struggle just to gain that extra pace ...
"Well, right now, youre going to try and climb down from here, right?"
The mans hands clenched convulsively on their support. "I - cant," he bewailed, the admission angering him, shaming him. Al let go on one side to lay his hand over a tightened fist that had moulded itself to the steel.
"Yes, you can," he announced with authority. "Because if you dont, Im gonna pry these fingers free one at a time and throw you off."
Sams eyes went wide.
"You - wouldnt ..."
"Yes, I would. Might throw myself after you, but youre going down one way or the other, Sam." The Commodore slid his hand from ice-touched skin and ran it down the length of his lovers arm and the tenseness of his side, down over the denim-clad hip and rain-soaked groin until his fingers could curl, tantalising and intimate, over the curvature of his companions crotch.
"Aaalll ..." Sam protested, squirming at the contact as much as he dared. Al grinned to himself, deliberately tightening his hold.
Trust me, willya, lover? You aint gonna move until you can let go of your expectations, and if this is what its gonna take, then this is what youre gonna get ...
He might have used the trick on anyone, since the distraction of indignation would have been enough to break the cycle of fear long enough to start the long descent, but he wouldnt have been so teasing about it, nor would he have let his hand linger any longer than the initial realisation of his intent took to register. They were sixty feet up in a howling gale, and both their lives depended on their next move; this was neither the time nor the place for play - but the nature of their relationship allowed for a little distracting reassurance he could have offered no-one else.
"This isnt - " Sams reaction was fierce, the anger he was holding against himself directed outward, a burst of irritation that effectively snapped the cycle of anxiety that pinned him in place. "Youre a bastard, you know that, Calavicci?"
"Yeah," Al breathed. "So move your butt, or Ill make use of it. Capisci?"
The blond head turned to consider him properly, an indication of recovered confidence its owner wasnt aware of. Rain had slicked his hair into a tight helmet, and water ran down his face to drip off his nose with inescapable insistence. "You would, too, wouldnt you?"
"Uh-huh." The growl of confirmation was affectionate. "Mainly because itd be the only way Id have to keep the most important part of my anatomy from freezing up here."
That resulted in a more recognisable smile - a wan one, but still a smile. "On one condition," Sam requested softly.
The smile grew a little wider. "That Im the one that gets to warm you up later ..."
"Sam," Al responded patiently, "you can damned well set me on fire if you want to - once we reach the ground, that is."
"Its a deal," the scientist noted, starting to crane his head to look past his companys shoulder. Al shot his hand up to intercept the movement, turning the mans chin up and back with authority.
"Uh-uh," he insisted. Business as usual, lover. "You keep your eyes on the heavens, Sam. Ill watch where you put your feet, okay?"
"Sure," Sam acknowledged, taking a breath with determination. His hand slowly unclenched from the angled line of the girder and reached down to re-anchor itself on a lower support. The Commodore pushed off with one foot, hanging unconcernedly from one hand beside the tensioned figure so as to give him the room he needed. Sam glanced sideways and could not avoid another shudder. "If you fall ..." he muttered. Al grinned.
"Ill just have to bounce. I wont fall, Sam. Gods sake, I was climbing worse things than this before you were born. Drainpipes at the orphanage," he explained, since the look he got was a clear question. "It was safe on the roof. Away from the bigger kids. And so much closer to the stars ... A little lower. Thats it. Put your weight on that."
Sam did as he was told, moving them both that little bit closer to the ground.
"Thought you might have some tale about second storey work, or something," he suggested, pausing to take another breath before lifting his other foot free.
"Well - " Al considered the idea with a wry grin. "Im not one to boast, Sam ..."
It earned him a glance of exasperation and a descent of several feet. He waited until he was sure that the man was secure before he scrambled down the matching distance so that they could repeat the process. The wind was picking up strength and tugged angrily at the two of them on their exposed perch. Despite his air of nonchalance, Al was desperately worried about the whole business. The metal was slick with water and ice-cold to the touch; his hands were going numb, and he knew Sam would be similarly affected. Rain was driving into his eyes, making it hard to see, and one wrong step, one slipped contact or grip ... well, the ground was a long and unforgiving way down.
"This would be easier in zero-gee," he muttered, leaning out to pick the best route and catching sight of Littlejohn and his brother, staring up at them both from far below. Sam looked across with anxious eyes.
"Are you okay, Tomcat?" he asked softly. The man in question answered him with a deliberate Cheshire Cat grin.
"Are you kidding me, Sam?"
Im tired, Im bitterly cold, Im soaked right through and I cant feel my hands any more. If we hang about here much longer its almost gonna be a relief to fall, but Im not about to tell you that, am I ...?
He guided his companion down with careful words and anxious consideration; Sams descent was understandably cautious, and the slippery surface of the tower was a danger to both of them. Alonzo was shielding the younger man from some of the impact of the wind, picking a route that gave them greater security while enduring the sharp impact of the weather on his more exposed frame. He could have let it sap his determination along with his strength, but he simply pushed the considerations to one side while doing what had to be done. Endurance - real endurance - was a matter he had mastered long before, and he drew on that experience with unconscious proficiency.
Inch by anxious inch they descended into the storm. Sams face was pale, but his features were set in determined lines.
Guess all that martial arts discipline is good for something ...
As were long hours of athletic training, and muscles honed to deliberated fitness; there was no sign of the scientist weakening his grip or losing his breath as he edged slowly downward.
He went up here like greased lightning ...
Wrong thought. The skies chose that moment to speak; a shiver of light along the horizon was unleashed with delighted violence, a crack of thunder that sent the steel ringing in sympathetic tones.
Jeezus! As if this wasnt bad enough ...
Sam had grabbed convulsively at the girders, hugging himself to them with shaking arms. Als instinct was to immediately drop that extra foot or two to join him, to redirect the sudden flare of terror before they found themselves back at square one ...
... and the footing that he sought slipped out from under him, so that he flailed out into the air, anchored by no more than one arm, which twisted as he twisted and cracked with painful fire.
Ohmigod - !
His mouth opened in a silent scream, a reaction he fought, even as he fought to regain his equilibrium. He swung intolerable pressure on the injured limb in order to grope out with the other - and found nothing to hold onto.
Nothing at all.
Everything slowed to a stark moment: the impact of pain and the inevitable way his hand was opening, his own weight pulling him down, the ice-slicked steel sliding beneath his fingertips ...
Then he fell.
A short sharp descent into terror that was suddenly intercepted by an extended hand, by a strong arm that pulled him close and held him while he scrabbled for much needed support ...
Hed closed his eyes. No point in watching the inevitable. Now he opened them again to find himself face to face with the eyes of a saint, their hazel green depths filled with abject alarm.
Hed been over three feet away and five more down ...
Jeezus, but the kid can move fast when he has to.
Which just went to prove that love can be a stronger force than fear.
Or else that Sam Beckett was far more of a hero than he believed himself to be right there and then.
Either way he had reason to be grateful.
He risked a glance down at the waiting ground.
Real grateful ...
"If youre trying to impress me, Tomcat," Sam was gasping, hugging him in against the knife-edged steel, "you really dont have to, you know ..."
"No," Al gasped in equal measure, leaning into the mans support with relief. His heart was pounding somewhere round about Mach 2, and his whole left arm seemed to be aflame.
Stupid, Calavicci. Stupid!
He looked up into those impossibly beautiful eyes. They were framed by a pale face, and he found himself weighing up the situation with the same kind of rapid assessment he had once used to issue orders under fire.
If I tell the kid I might be hurt here, hes gonna be more on edge than ever ...
But if I dont, am I gonna reach the ground, or hit it?
He measured the tightness in those eyes, took a command decision. "Im fine, Sam. Really. Just a little winded. Can we take a minute?"
"Sure," Sam answered, clearly uncertain if the request was a genuine one, or simply offered for his benefit.
Keep thinking along those lines, lover ...
He eased the protesting arm over an angled girder and surreptitiously wriggled his fingers; they moved, at least. The action also hurt, which sent a wave of nausea spinning through him.
The sooner were outta here, the better.
He took a deep breath, filling his lungs with water and ice, and found his company a determined smile. "Lets put down our landing gear, shall we? Before this damned storm decides to kick both of us off with a couple of thousand volts."
Sam quirked his own smile at that; he made the rest of his descent delivering a detailed lecture on the nature of lightning and its expected behaviour when associated with tall metallic structures in an open field. Al punctuated it with tersely delivered directions and pithy disbelief; the words helped him focus his mind, just as Sams helped counter the reactive terror which still haunted the scientists every step.
They were still some ten or fifteen feet above the ground when everything started to go fuzzy on him. He could remember the relief he felt when Sam finally touched home base, and the helping arm his lover extended so that he could drop the remaining distance. He could also remember the hug that followed his arrival on the ground; a rain-soaked, reactive hug of gratitude that swallowed him up with enthusiasm. But he never did recall just how he managed to push Sam away in the direction of his anxious nephews, nor could he remember telling him to take the damned car keys and get those kids home - its just a two-seater, Sam, Ill catch up with you - but he must have done it, because he found himself walking back across the fields, the rain sluicing down without remorse, his protesting arm cradled against him, the only point of warmth left in his entire frame.
It wasnt far to the farm, just far enough to allow Sam to arrive ahead of him, to let him bundle a chilled Billybob out of the Lotus and into his mothers arms, while Abbie ran to fetch her father and Littlejohn stuttered out an explanation to their grandfather. When Al reached the porch it was deserted, the Becketts having moved en masse to scold and comfort and minister to the soaked and shivering children in their midst.
Sam among them, Al half-grinned to himself, wondering why the world had such a hazy edge to it. Havent felt this woozy since I kicked the drink ... The thought drew his attention to the flame that devoured his forearm and wrist. It had hurt just like that then ...
He shook the memory away and climbed the stairs with careful steps. Hed be okay if he could just lie down for a while. He was just tired, right? Tired and cold, and - god - he was dripping all over Cindys carpet ...
Beckys voice penetrated the fug that had enveloped him; he looked down, to find her barring his way and glaring at him with three-year-old fervour. Her hands were on her hips, her lower lip was pouting, and her indignation was practically radiating heat.
"Icky," she announced, looking him up and down as she did so. He leaned his weight on the nearby banister rail and considered her with weary confusion.
"So?" he drawled with an effort. "You want to make something of it, pumpkin?"
She nodded her head with enthusiasm, then squealed with infant delight as he reached out his undamaged arm and flicked cold drops of water at her.
Jeez-Louise, but Im cold ...
He levered himself upright and headed for the guestroom, leaving Becky staring after him with disappointed eyes.
Later, pumpkin, okay? Soon as the world stops going round ...
Samwise wasnt entirely sure whether he should be expressing concern, exasperation, or merely embarrassment. Hed reassured Cindy as to Billybob and Littlejohns health - a little shock and exposure, thats all, nothing a bit of TLC wont cure - but that hadnt stopped her wrapping both of her sons in motherly arms and hugging them half to death while she berated them with angry words. Tommy had been equally emotional about the affair, arriving breathless and fraught, and hugging his brother with a gratitude Sam knew perfectly well he didnt deserve. It was left to the eldest Beckett to take practical action; John shepherded his family into the warmth of the kitchen, handed both his youngest son and his daughter-in-law a vast towel - one for each shivering child - and put the kettle on to boil. That done, he shooed away a curious cat, picked up a third towel, and took charge of Sam, who submitted to his ministration with very little protest.
As a matter of fact it felt good to have those competent hands help him shuck the ice-cold cling of his jacket and shirt and roughly massage heat into his shoulders with the aid of the towelling. It was a gruff expression of caring, of a fatherly affection Sam had thought soured forever; John Beckett berated his elder son with the same exasperated words that Tommy was addressing to Littlejohn, but they were words of love, not anger, and Sam let them sink in with understanding.
"Crazy, bone-headed kids," his father muttered, rubbing warmth back into rain- and wind-chilled limbs. "Never stopping to think. I warned Tommy about that tower. I told him - dangerous place to put it, I said. Temptation incarnate, thats what it is. Youd have been up it like a shot, Sam, if wed had it back then ... Just like that time you and Tommy went walking on the ridgepoles of the barn ..."
His vigorous action slowed; he reached out and turned his son toward him, his eyes narrowed in sudden suspicion. "Youve been antsy about heights ever since, havent you son? How did you manage to get Billybob down, anyway?"
Me? There was a sudden shaky laugh in Sams stomach, a rerun of the fluttering fear that had caught and held him so far above the ground. Wasnt me, Dad ...
"Uncle Sam went up the tower like a rocket, Granddad." Littlejohns voice held respect; hed not been able to face it all, thank god.
"Not looking before you leap, huh?" The patriarch shook his head and went back to his energetic rubbing. Sam looked down at the floor, biting at his lip in embarrassment.
"Guess so," he muttered.
I do it all the time.
"But Mom - " Billybobs protest was heartfelt. "All I wanted was my kite. And its still up there. The Commodore said hed build me a better one. You will let him, wont you? Please say you will ...?"
Cindy snorted. "He shouldnt make promises like that," she said. John Becketts eyes went cold, and Sams stomach clenched in a sudden knot.
Dad - please dont ...
"He only said it so youd let go," Littlejohn accused with petulance. "Fraidy-cat. Thats what you are."
"Uncle Sam was scared too," his brother pouted. "Werent you, Uncle Sam?"
"Yeah," Sam admitted. "I was, Billybob. Real scared." If it hadnt been for Al ... Come to that, where the hell is he?
"Well, the Commodore wasnt." Littlejohn was in a mood for bravado. "He went up twice. He did, Dad," he added, at the look this elicited from his father. "Once for Billybob and once for Uncle Sam."
A startled silence descended on the Beckett kitchen. John Becketts hands tightened on his sons shoulders, and Tommy turned to stare at his brother with wide eyes. Cindys expression was equally disconcerted.
"Al went up that tower?" she questioned faintly. "But - "
But what? Sam thought with sudden indignation. He may be older than I am, but that doesnt mean a damned thing.
"Yeah," he declared with heat, pulling free of his fathers hands and glaring at all of them. "He went up the damned tower. He went up because I froze up there, and he got both of us down, okay? Hes an ex-astronaut, for gods sake. What did you all think, huh? That hes an out-of-shape city slicker with an eye for the easy life? He might sleep in late, and like a little luxury, but he deserves that. Hes earned it. He put up with tough shit when he was a kid, and he put up with even tougher shit when he was in Nam; hes an honest-to-god genuine hero, and I - " The explosion ran out of steam as its originator collided with a comprehension of the days events. " - I could have got him killed today ..."
The kitchen was suddenly the wrong place to be entirely. Samwise turned on his heel and half-ran for the door, slamming it behind him so that he could stand in the hall and shake. Reaction had finally caught up with him, and he didnt want to face anyone with it. He wasnt even sure he could face it himself.
How could I have been so stupid? If I hadnt been so quick to react, if Id just thought for a moment, Al could have gone up and got Billybob down, and that would have been it. But nooo, I have to play the hero and put both our lives on the line ...
"Icky," Beckys voice announced from somewhere close by his knee. He looked down to find the youngest Beckett child poking at the sodden denim of his jeans.
"Yeah, sweetness," he acknowledged tiredly. "I know."
"Unca Al icky too," she informed him sagely. "All icky. Yuk!"
That having been settled to her satisfaction she flounced away, leaving Sam staring after her. Unca Al ...?
His eyes darted toward the upper landing, and then he was going up the stairs two at a time.
Couldnt you face it, Al? All that family togetherness? Havent you figured it yet? It doesnt mean anything to me any more. Not unless youre there to share it.
The door to the guestroom was open; he barreled through it - and pulled to a halt, his half-formulated words sticking in his throat. Hed thought to find his lover getting changed, perhaps filling the room with much-needed cigar smoke.
He sure as hell didnt expect to find him flat on his back on the floor.
Oh, my god!
"Al?" He dropped to his knees, reaching with alarm. Als eyes popped open, and a small smile twitched at the corner of his mouth.
"Hi, kid," he said. "Starting a new fashion?"
Sam glanced at the towel that still draped his otherwise naked torso and scowled, partially from exasperation but mostly from concerned relief. "Hardly," he muttered. "What the hell are you doing down there?"
"Waiting to faint," Alonzo announced with matter-of-fact resignation. "Hoping not to, of course ..."
His instinct was to catch at the mans wrist, thinking to check his pulse. Al was looking very pale ...
What it resulted in was a decided wince of pain. Sam froze at the reaction, slowly releasing his grip and replacing it with a tentative fingertip examination instead. He found swelling and signs of bruising along both wrist and forearm; possibly a fracture, almost certainly a sprain.
He sat back on his heels and stared at the man he treasured above all others with a decided frown.
A moment of terror; the lightning flaring across the sky, and a threatened fall halted more by luck than by anything else. A mans weight taken entirely on one arm ...
Damn it, Al. You lied to me.
You said you were okay ...
The worst of it was that he knew why the man had kept his silence; he cursed him and loved him for it, while cursing the reasons behind the decision. Cursed himself, because he had been the one responsible.
"Is it - broken?" Al enquired wanly. He had a vaguely embarrassed expression on his face; Sam found a smile curving onto his own.
You dont have to be so goddamned brave, Tomcat. It mustve hurt like hell. And lying down was a damned good idea, because you probably would have fainted when the shock caught up with you.
"Might be." Sam shifted his hand to check the pulse in his patients throat instead. His lovers skin was ice-cold, but his heart was its usual strong self. "Im gonna need an X-ray to be sure. And you need to get out of those wet things before you freeze to death on me."
"Yeah, well ..." Al rolled over, lifting himself up onto his undamaged arm. "You sorta promised to warm me up, remember?"
Sam reached to support him, hugging the line of his damp shoulders with affection. "You bet," he said softly. "But I got to play doctor first, okay?"
"Okay." Al glanced back over his shoulder, his dark eyes seeking Sams own; they expressed volumes without saying a single word. They included a totally unnecessary sorry, along with a great many other things.
Yeah, I know. Love you too, Tomcat.
It didnt take long to help him strip away his sodden clothing, nor to bind and support the injured limb; by the time a knock came at the door, Sam was perched on the edge of the bed, sliding into his dry pair of jeans. Al was leaning back against the bedhead, wrapped in the warmth of a bathrobe and offering helpful comments, most of which were making their recipient blush furiously; the fact that his Tomcat was prepared to be both flippant and outrageous with it reassured Sam more than any serious exchange might have done. While he might feel guilt at recent events, he knew Al had long since forgiven him. Had, in fact, always forgiven him for his impulsive nature - simply by including it among the things he cherished.
I dont deserve you, you know.
The interruption was unexpected; Sam got to his feet with almost defensive reaction.
"Who is it?" he demanded warily.
"Pipe of peace," his fathers voice answered him from the other side of the door.
Pipe of peace ... The old phrase, the words offered by either of his parents on those moments when the world had not understood his reactions or his needs and he had sought refuge in his room, a beleaguered child with the mind of a genius and the incomprehensions of youth.
If only things were as simple as they used to be.
He went to the door and opened it, schooling his face into neutral lines. John Beckett stood in the hallway, his arms encumbered by a tray. The scent of coffee curled into the room.
"Hi, son," his father said. "When you didnt come down, I sort of figured Id bring this up ..."
Yeah? Checking on me, Dad? I told you - what I do with my life is my business, not yours.
"Coffees good," he allowed tightly. He hesitated, then stepped back to allow the man to enter the room; Al was watching the two of them with concern. "Im just getting changed. I gotta take Al to the hospital."
"Hospital?" John Becketts reaction was startled; he glanced toward the figure on the bed and the startlement became a frown. "Something wrong?"
Sams lips tightened in quiet anger. No, Dad. We just felt like taking a drive in this lousy weather.
"I took one step too many up there." Als remark was offered with gentle self-humour. "Forgot I needed a plane if I was planning to fly. Fortunately," he added, glancing warmly at Sam as he said it, "there was someone hanging around to catch me."
More by luck than judgement, Tomcat. But Id never have forgiven myself if I hadnt.
"He took his full weight on one arm," Sam explained, moving over to place a proprietary hand on his lovers shoulder. He knew his voice was challenging, but he couldnt help it. The words his father had thrown at him the day before still stung. "Its badly strained, may even be fractured. Im gonna need an X-ray to be sure."
"And you left him walking back across the backfield?" The indignant reaction was not the one the mans son had expected at all. "Sam - I thought you said you - that you and he - well - thats no way to treat a hero, now, is it?"
Of course it isnt. I didnt know, did I? It was only because he was being such a stubborn-headed hero.
"You didnt seem to think so yesterday," he pointed out tersely. Al threw him a warning look, but he ignored it. John Beckett Senior placed the tray firmly on the side table, and turned to glare at his elder son with a look that Sam remembered as belonging to days of skipped homework and goofing off school because he was getting bored. A patient look of theres lots of ways to behave, son, but only some of them are right ...
"Samwise Beckett," his father pronounced with firm authority, "will you just forget what I said yesterday?"
Can I? Sam wrestled with the thought, with the remnant of the hurt that lingered in his heart. You only agreed to his staying here because you didnt want to drive me away. And the only reason I didnt leave was because he insisted I stay. Because I love my Tomcat, and because he thought we should work this out. Whats changed, Dad?
"I hope you dont mind it black and sweet, Commodore." The practical man was concentrating on practical matters, passing across the steaming coffee - which was, Sam had to admit to himself, just what both of them needed right there and then.
Al clearly thought of a smart comeback to that - just as clearly decided against voicing it. He accepted the proffered mug carefully, and sipped at its contents with appreciation. "The Navy teaches you to drink this the way it comes," he remarked easily; his eyes shot a second look of anxious entreaty in Sams direction, and its recipient sighed, accepting the concerns it expressed and the appeal for peace it represented.
I guess if he can deal with it, then I can too.
Pipe of peace, huh?
Stupid of me to resent my father when hes trying so hard.
After all, I only got mad with him because I love the both of them so much.
"Thanks, Dad," he muttered, wrapping his hands around his own mug as it was thrust in his direction. John Beckett smiled with more than a hint of relief.
"You get that down you, son, and Ill go fire up the pick-up."
Sam faltered, a mouthful of hot coffee burning his tongue. What?
"You dont want to be driving that expensive car in this kind of weather more than you have to," the gruff voice was saying. "And its quicker to County General if you know the back roads around here."
"You - dont have to ..." Sams protest was cut short by a patient frown.
"Sam," his father scolded, sharing a look of exasperation with the man beside them both, "just what kind of man would I be not to take care of my guests? Particularly when I happen to owe the man here as much as I do."
Al grimaced in reflex embarrassment; Sam merely stared.
Owe him, Dad?
"The kid mighta got down by himself." Alonzos suggestion was meant to deflect a measure of anticipated mushiness. He wasnt, Sam knew, above trawling a little praise when he deserved it, but now didnt seem to be the time.
"Maybe," John Beckett acknowledged. His heavyset features creased into a halfway friendly smile backed by a hint of remorse. "But then - I wasnt just talking about Billybob."
It was the nearest thing his father might ever come to making an apology. Sam stared at him.
Did you just say ...?
He had. He was also right. Tommys words had helped, but they hadnt really swayed Sams decision. If Al hadnt been so determined not to come between the two of them, hadnt insisted that Samwise stay and deal with his fathers resentment, then they wouldnt be having this conversation. John Beckett would be seething over the man he thought had stolen his son, and Sam - Sam would have let the matter rankle, would have nursed it as a festering wound, perhaps until the day it had driven him away from the man whom hed been prepared to place before his family.
And Billybob might have fallen from that tower while Littlejohn searched desperately for help.
Cause and effect; a complex interlacing in which one tiny change might make a major difference. The comprehension clicked yet another piece into the multi-dimensional puzzle that a part of his mind was always working on.
All because he loves me enough to want to put the way I feel above his own needs. Id have given all of them up for you, Al. I would have, if youd asked me to. But youll never ask me, will you? You were prepared to walk away if you had to. I wish I had your strength of heart. I could never give you up for anything. Never. Not after this.
Thanksgiving dinner had always been something special. A time for togetherness, for thankfulness, and an opportunity to celebrate in a way that reaffirmed the core of their family. With reverence. With a seriousness laced with sufficient warmth to make it fun.
Suit and tie were compulsory, of course. The women dressed up, and much was always made of the new dresses and the touches of glamour that marked the occasion. Sam got changed for the evening meal with a sense of excited trepidation. This so nearly hadnt happened that he didnt quite believe it was actually going to.
Only it was, and the reason for it stood watching him as he slipped into the smart cut of his jacket.
"Needs a little - something," Al decided, assessing the effect with an expert eye. Sam held his breath. With Al, that something might range from a pair of diamond cufflinks right up to a tie you needed sunglasses to look at. "I got just the thing." He dipped his unencumbered hand into his pocket, produced a small box, and tossed it toward his companion with a casual gesture. Sam caught it automatically, then opened it.
Inside lay a tiepin. An intricate tiepin, wrought in silver and gold and scattered with tiny gemstones, fashioned together so that a number of crystal spheres encircled a central cluster in a series of concentric and overlapping orbits.
Thats the particle structure of an atom in a state of quantum flux, Sam recognised, admiring the workmanship. Very nice, Tomcat.
"You dont mind if I borrow this?"
"I dont mind if ya keep it," Al grinned. "I got another one made to match. Thats the project pin, Sam. Our project?" he teased, knowing that Sam was unlikely to forget.
Our project. The reality of it was still hard to grasp; to accept that all the things he had worked for were really going to happen. He clipped the pin to the dark length of his tie with hands that trembled a little as he did so.
"How do I look?" he enquired, and the teasing grin widened into warm appreciation. The kind that required the sweep of admiring eyes from head to toe and back again. The look Al normally reserved for women with outstanding qualities.
"Its - a little hometown, but, uh - that goes with the territory, right?"
"Right," Sam acknowledged, returning the compliment of the look. Hometown were the last words hed ever use to describe his company; Al might have managed to produce a dark suit and a white shirt, but the suit had lapels made of checkwoven satin, and the shirt had a glitter of diamond studs set into the points of its collar. Even his tie had the barest hint of silver sparkle threaded through the otherwise black silk; the look was subdued, discreet, and oozed style. Even with one arm supported under the jacket in a sling. A pristine white one. Of course.
Just a simple sprain, thank god.
The trip to the hospital had been an experience; not just because it had brought back memories of other times, but because of the way they were received when they got there. Doctors falling over themselves to help the renowned Doctor Beckett, his father insisting on telling all and sundry how the damage had occurred - somehow managing to do so without implying any failing on the part of his son - and Al flirting outrageously with all the women on the staff, and pretending the whole business had been nothing. Nothing at all .
Even though Sam knew the shock and the exposure were catching up with them both, and his Tomcat was shaking inside.
Youre still a little pale, Al. You really feel up to this?
He didnt ask the question. He knew the answer hed get, whether it was the truth or not. Al had earned his place at the Beckett family table, and he wouldnt want to miss the experience. Sam didnt really want him to, either. He stepped a little closer, reaching to adjust the drape of the jacket, to check that the sling hung comfortably underneath it, and the Commodore chuckled softly.
"Youre getting as bad as my fourth wife, Sam. She was always adjusting the details. Of course," he shrugged, "I used to think it was just because she couldnt keep her hands off me."
Why do you think I do it, Tomcat?
Oh, what the hell ...
He leaned forward to plant a playful kiss on his lovers nose. Al grinned, his free hand hooking into Sams belt to pull him closer.
"You want to say that like you mean it?" he asked, a light dancing in his eyes, a teasing promise written in their depths.
Do I? They were standing as close together now as they had been on the tower, close enough to share a common warmth. Sams arm slid around his lovers waist, making the distance no distance at all. Only for the rest of my life ...
He dipped his head to prove it. Their lips met with tenderness rather than passion, but the feelings the contact expressed were conveyed so much better that way. If there was one thing his Tomcat had taught him, it was that there was a definite pleasure in an old-fashioned smooch.
And, oh, boy, could Alonzo Calavicci smooch ...
The discreet cough sprang them apart with startled guilt. Tommy stood in the doorway, an embarrassed grin written on his face. "Gods sake, Sam," he advised, not entirely sure where to look, "dont let Dad catch you doing that. He still goes pink if he finds me and Cindy in a clinch ..."
Sams face was burning; he suspected that hed gone pink. Almost as pink as Tommy had done, in fact. Al glanced from one brother to the other and shook his head. "Choirboys," he muttered disparagingly. "You Becketts are too much alike. Kates just as bad."
"Yeah?" Tommy was curious. "She ever catch you two doing that?"
Sam looked at Al; Al looked back - then both of them burst out laughing.
Not exactly, shrimp ...
The younger Beckett eyed them both with confusion, then shook his head, obviously deciding to let the matter go. "Dinners ready," he announced. "So youd better get down there before the hordes clear the table ..."
There was almost too much to eat; cornbread, golden-basted turkey, roast potatoes, buttered squash, peas, lashings of stuffing, and oodles of cranberry sauce ... Followed, inevitably, by sweet pumpkin pie and cream. Abbie argued with her elder brother over who had the last potato, and Billybob demanded extra cream on his pie, but on the whole the youngsters were polite and as well behaved as they were probably expected to be. The most dissension appeared to have taken place before dinner - and that over which of the Beckett boys got the honour of sitting next to their guest. Cindy had solved it by putting one on either side of him - with an apologetic smile at Sam, whod smiled back and taken his seat on the other side of the table. Al had thought this was funny - and had actually been a little relieved. He didnt mind Cindy intercepting his plate to ensure that everything on it could be tackled with a fork, but he hadnt really wanted Sam doing it.
John Beckett presided over dinner with patriarchal pride. He got to carve the turkey, of course, but he asked Abbie to say grace, and let Tommy pour the wine, frowning as his son allowed his eldest grandchild half a glass of the sparkling white beverage. Al found himself glancing at Sam as the mans brother tipped the bottle over his glass but his doctor merely smiled and found him an almost imperceptible nod.
Just one, huh, Sam? I guess this is a celebration. You look so happy sitting there ...
He lifted the glass as John Beckett proposed a toast of thanks, watching the mans eldest child over its rim as he sipped at the contents. It was as if the storm that had wracked his lovers soul had never been; happiness spilled out of him like a warm glow, reflected in the comfortable merriment that spun around the table. Family. A sense of security, a certainty that might be shaken but never entirely fail ...
Some things are worth fighting for, right, kid?
The talk and the laughter went round the table; the evening slid into mellow contentment. After the pie, and the coffee, while Cindy took her youngest children to bed, Sam and Tommy chased the older children out into the yard and helped them shoot hoops, a process that involved a great many yells and shrieks of laughter. Al went out onto the porch to watch them, a bunch of kids letting off steam as if the traumas of the day had never happened.
He grinned to himself and dipped his hand in his pocket for his after-dinner cigar. The night air was sharp but clear, the last of the rain swept from the sky, and the wind whispered into stillness with the end of the day. Stars were sparkling overhead, bright and clear. A good night, mellow with the last echoes of fall, sharpened by the hint of winter yet to come.
He clamped his lips on the cigar and groped in his pocket for his lighter. A flare of flame beside him attracted his attention.
"There you go, Commodore."
John Beckett was standing in the shadows, lighting a spindly cigarette; he held out his lighter flame and Al used it to coax the cigar into life, watching its owner warily as he did so.
"Sam keeps telling me to give these up," the older man commented, moving over to sit on the porch seat and breathe out a wreath of smoke. "I have cut down, mind, but theres a comfort in them the boy doesnt understand. One or two a day, now. Theres some things a man just cant give up."
Al smiled at that, a self-depreciating smile. "Yeah," he agreed, leaning back against the wall of the house and savouring the mix of night air and mellow tobacco. "I know what you mean ..."
The farmer turned to look at him, a calculating expression on his face. "He mind you smoking those things?"
Als smile became a wry grin. One addiction at a time, John. I kicked the drink for him; hes never mentioned the smoking. Not once. I guess he figures there are worse habits I could have.
"Hes never said so."
"Mm. Maybe hes learning a little sense as he gets older. About the way things are." John Beckett paused to glance at the roisterous assembly in his yard. "About living with the smell of cows. If you want to raise cows that is ..." He glanced at the man beside him and he smiled, an unexpected curl of his lips that conveyed a sense of modest reticence in the admission of his feelings. The same shy - and slightly goofy - smile that both his sons possessed. An honest, open smile, with nothing hidden behind it.
"Had a bull once," the farmer went on conversationally, while Alonzo dealt with his sense of astonishment, with the sensation of sudden acceptance where before there had only been hostility. "A feisty thing, all bully and bounce. Scared the hell out of most folks. Thought he was a killer. Told me to sell him for beef."
He paused, drawing a slow breath through the narrow tube of tobacco.
"That damned bull was just show and impudence. Back off and hed bully you. Stand up to him - and hed treat ya soft as butter, as gentle as they come. Thelma used to sit Sam and Kate up on his back, and hed take real good care of them. Best damned bull I ever had ..."
Al eyed him sidelong, wondering where this was leading to. He had a damned good idea, and he wasnt sure if hed just been complimented or insulted.
"You got a point?" he growled, a deliberate imitation of their conversation the previous day. The farmer blew a perfect smoke ring and sighed.
"Maybe," he answered. "Depends. On whether a man wants to accept surface impressions - or is prepared to look a little deeper before he makes up his mind."
The weathered face turned in his direction, regarding him with shrewd assessment. "My family is important to me, Commodore. And rank and medals and stuff like that dont mean a damned thing far as Im concerned. But - " He turned back to study the night sky, leaning his weight into the chair, "Sams no fool. So I guess I shouldnt be, either. You take care of him, you hear? God knows," he sighed, almost under his breath, "someone has to do it."
Simple as that ...
Perhaps it was. Al grinned to himself, considering the tumble of figures in the yard, the energy and the warmth that this family generated, the strength they drew from the security it gave them. Caring was the thing these people did best. Whatever it took, no matter what the cost.
Because it mattered.
"Phew." Sam peeled out of the crowd and threw himself down onto the steps, bright-eyed and happy, panting for breath and grinning fit to bust. "I dont know where they get the energy. Im beat."
His father chuckled, shooting a grin of amusement in Als direction. Al met the look with a matching one of his own. In that one glance the two men exchanged an understanding, a common comprehension of just how precious this bright soul was to the both of them.
"Face it, kid," Al growled warmly, "they got you outmatched right down the line. Right, John?"
"Right," John Beckett agreed, just as genially. Sams head swiveled around in astonishment. "Mind you, might have more to do with you being pretty exhausted to start with ... Its been a long day, son. Id call it a night if I were you."
Sam climbed to his feet, turning to eye his father warily. "I would, Dad, but I cant go to bed until everyone else has done."
"That so?" John Beckett also got to his feet, the action of a weary man at the end of an overwhelming day. His eyes flicked from his son to the man leaning against the wall. "You two have an argument?"
"No," Sam denied, his face creasing into puzzlement. His father frowned at him.
"Well, then," he growled, "dont go talking nonsense, boy." He harumphed, and headed for the inside of the house. "Nothing wrong with the guestroom in my house," he muttered as he opened the door. "Perfectly good bed ... youd think my kids would have more sense ..."
He vanished into the hall, still muttering softly. Sam stared after him with a look of complete astonishment. Al suspected his own expression wasnt that much different.
Did he mean - ? Yeah, he did.
Approval? Or just acceptance?
Did it matter?
He threw a look in Sams direction, a questioning one, backed with a little expectation. If they didnt pick up the opportunity right there and then, Sams moral sense would kick in and spoil everything.
The scientist was still staring after his father, the astonishment settling into doubtful lines.
Damn. Time for a little dissemblance here.
"Saaammm?" The kid wasnt the only one who could manage the plaintive look; if he tried hard enough, Alonzo knew he could look decidedly pathetic.
If he thinks Im gonna let him act like a martyred saint after that, hes kidding himself. Come on, Sam. Think, willya? This isnt about - you know what. Its about a chance to be together for once.
It wasnt that much dissemblance anyway. He was pretty tired himself, and his arm hurt, and the day had been somewhat overwhelming ...
Sam reacted with instant concern. "You okay, Tomcat?"
Al shivered. Convincingly. "Just a little cold, Sam. You mind if I go to bed?"
Sam glanced back at his brother, still demonstrating the finer art of shooting hoops to his excited children. "Sure," he decided softly. "Give me a minute, huh? Ill come tuck you in ..."
The minute was closer to forty five by the time Sam had helped Tommy shoo the kids back indoors and assisted in the business with the hot chocolate and the marshmallows. Cindy hooked two more mugs out of the cabinet and filled them without comment; when her brother-in-law turned to her, ready to phrase the inevitable question about washing dishes, she thrust both of them firmly into his hands and smiled sweetly at him.
"Sam," she murmured, "take the Commodore a nightcap, will you? He needs a little pampering, after today."
"Sure," he found himself answering, and moments later was climbing the stairs, the steaming mugs clutched one in either hand.
Is this whole family conspiring against me, here?
Or was that conspiring for him?
He stepped over a ginger cat, pushed the door to the guestroom carefully open with one hip, and slid inside the room, turning with a bright smile as he did so.
Al was sprawled abandonedly across the comfort of the quilt and its attendant pillows, still dressed in his pants and shirt -
- and he was fast asleep.
Sam grinned to himself, tiptoeing across to place the mugs of chocolate on the bedside table. It was clear that sleep had crept up on the man unawares; he looked kind of cute like that, all relaxed and at peace with the world.
Guess today took more out of you than you let on. But I cant let you stay like that all night. All that cold rain, and the chill, and then sleeping in your clothes - youll seize up for certain. And you wont thank me for that tomorrow.
He carefully rested his butt on the edge of the mattress and reached to shake his lovers shoulder gently.
"Hey," he whispered. "Youre hogging the bed, Tomcat."
"Mmm, baby," Al murmured, without waking. "You can do that for me anytime ..."
Sam smothered a snort with difficulty.
Just what - or who - are you dreaming about, huh? And why isnt it me?
Maybe it was. But baby was not a term of endearment the man had ever used to his face. Or any other part of him, for that matter. Samwise twisted across and laid a butterfly kiss to the sleepers mouth.
Well, it worked for Sleeping Beauty.
Dark eyes fluttered open reluctantly, focused on his own with bleary effort. "Oh," Al registered. "Hi, kid. What kept you?"
"Nothing much." Sam smiled down at him. "You look exhausted."
"Yeah?" The question was followed by a yawn. "Guess I am, a little. Its all this good food, y'know."
Sure. Nothing to do with risking your life in a thunderstorm, huh?
"Here," the scientist insisted. "Let me give you a hand." He reached for the mans collar button and then the one below it. Al grinned up at him with sudden wickedness.
"If you remembered to lock the door," he drawled suggestively, "you can make that a little more than a hand ..."
Sam paused in the progress of the unbuttoning, thinking about it. Thinking about it very carefully.
I know Dad said ...
Could I? Should I?
His Tomcat was eyeing him with irresistible appeal. And theyd made a bargain up there on the tower, hadnt they?
... that Im the one who gets to warm you up later ...
Cold rain, ice in the wind; muscles stretched to the edges of endurance would benefit from an attentive massage, right? And after that?
I thought you were tired, Tomcat.
Als undamaged hand was insinuating its way along the curve of his leg, stirring interest and distraction with equal measure.
He allowed an echo of that wicked grin to slide onto his own features. "Dont move," he ordered. "Ill be right back."
He locked the door, turned off the main light, and returned to his self-appointed task with a smile. Somewhere out in the hall, Littlejohn could be heard pretending to be a bull moose; over the echo of it, Tommys voice demanded a little quiet. Please!
The bull moose went into overdrive. Billybob joined in, trumpeting loudly, imitating the Fourth of July parade. Sam ignored all of it, concentrating on the pleasures of warm skin beneath his fingertips, on the need to be gentle - oh, so gentle - as he eased silk over damaged tendons and tender flesh.
"Turn over," he suggested softly, dropping the shirt to the floor, breathing on his hands to warm the palms. Al chuckled and did as he was told, settling into the ease of the mattress.
"You get me too comfortable here, Sam, and Ill probably fall asleep on you again ..."
"No, you wont," his lover promised, sliding one hand over the curve of muscle and shoulderblade. He leaned forward, following the line of that caress with a soft breath and then the barest kiss ...
Cindy thought you were in need of pampering.
I dont think she quite had this in mind.
You saved my life today. Does that make us even, now? Or just deeper in each others debt?
I owe you so much. So much ...
Should I voice my thank yous, Tomcat, or should I thank you like this ...
- or this -
Or this ....
The sounds in the hallway faded away; everything faded away. There was just sweet warmth and sensation, taste and touch and pleasure; the slow dance toward paradise.
And the peace that follows the fury of the storm ...