Slow Dancing in Paradise: Part Three

Penelope Hill

He lay in the night, listening to the sounds of the world he no longer quite belonged to. Theyíd left him to sleep, as if he could after everything that had happened in that short space of time. His body worked out the sedative Kate had given him; it released its hold slowly, while his heart went on repeating the words that comforted him far more than the painkillers ever could.

He loves me.

He loves me.

It wasnít the most classic of mantras, but it was almost certainly the best.

There were voices in the main room for a while, familiar sounds, restored now to their rightful places in his universe.

His sister.

His Tomcat.

Together ...

But there was no jealousy now, no threat, no anguish.

Only the two people he loved most in the whole world ...

Eventually he heard Kate say goodnight, and then the sound of her door closing. One before the other, just as it had been every night. His suspicious imaginings had been just that, and if heíd been paying attention he would have realised it sooner. The light in the main room lingered for a while, then that went out and the other door snicked open - and just as quietly shut again.

Heís right next door ...

He always had been. Three days in the hospital, hovering at his side - until Kate had intervened - and then four days since, there, the way Sam had once been there for him.

And for the same reason ...

Sam lay in the darkness, trying to ignore the insistent ache of his back and shoulders. The nights were the worst; he spent them embraced in persistent pain, unable to escape its insidious presence. It drained him, left him without respite, something he would never admit to those who cared for him. It wasnít that he wanted to be strong, so much as he hated his own sense of weakness. Hated, too, the sense of helplessness that engulfed him.

Damn it. I donít deserve this, do I?

Maybe he did. The warmth that had so empowered him earlier slowly ebbed away into the night. What right did he have to burden anyone with what he had become? His own stupidity had wrought his fall, his own emotions driving him to act without thought. For one of the most intelligent men in the world, he was damned good at leaping in with both feet and letting his heart rule his head; heíd done it that night, and heíd done it before ...

And if I ever get back on my feet Iíll probably do it again.

If.

That was the word that taunted him. It gnawed at his spirit, here in the dark; failure was not something he could deal with well, and never and canít were words he didnít like to include in his vocabulary. They were words his mother had not liked to hear him use.

Iím glad youíre not here to see me like this, Mom.

But I wish you could have met Al.

Youíd have liked him. I know you would ...

He shifted his shoulders to ease the nagging ache, and the movement stirred other pains that tightened the tension across his back. By leaving him to sleep, Kate had done him a disservice; normally by now heíd be deep in the embrace of the painkillers she prescribed last thing at night.

Maybe Iíll get hooked on those, he contemplated gloomily. He knew the drug well, could quote dosages and side-effects with abstracted ease. They always say that doctors make the worst patients.

His shadowed thoughts were interrupted by the quiet sound of an opening door. His door, moving softly aside to let a sense of presence slide into the room, carefully, as if hoping not to disturb its occupant.

"Al?" The question was half hope, half bewilderment; maybe he was dreaming ...

"I thought youíd be asleep, kid." The familiar tones were gruffly quiet, perhaps embarrassed at being caught sneaking around. "I didnít mean to wake you."

"You didnít." Sam put out his hand in the dark, felt it caught by another, warm and reassuring. Not a dream. "I - donít sleep that well at night."

His visitor rested his weight against the edge of the mattress, gentle fingers caressing the curve of captured palm. "You should let us know when it hurts," Al remonstrated softly. "You donít have to be brave for the sake of it."

The strength of his touch helped drive away some of the shadows. Sam sighed, and shifted his aching body with care. "I donít like to be a burden, Al," he admitted wearily. The answering chuckle was warmly affectionate.

"This from a man prepared to babysit a no-good drunk through the DTs," his comforter observed with exasperated amusement. "Youíre not a burden, Samwise Beckett. Youíre a hurt and scared kid whoís too proud to let anyone know ..." He paused, as if considering options. "You gonna move over, or what?"

"What?" Sam didnít understand the request for a moment. Alonzo chuckled a second time.

"Guess I didnít phrase that very well," he apologised. "Here - " He slid to his feet, carefully laying Samís hand back across its ownerís chest. Sam half-protested at the apparent abandonment, then gasped in surprise as strong arms reached beneath him and lifted him bodily to the far side of the bed.

"Just relax, willya?" his companion murmured. "I donít wanna hurt you." The mattress shifted - and Sam suddenly understood. He held his breath with expectation, and was rewarded by the closeness of anotherís body sliding in against his own. Alís arm curled beneath his shoulders, supporting him as he turned into that reassuring curve of warmth and holding him as he settled into the proffered comfort.

"Are you crazy?" he whispered, tucking his head down onto the manís shoulder, resting his cheek against silk warmed by the body beneath. His Tomcat smelt of freshly showered skin, of warm musk and just the right amount of cologne. "What about Kate ...?"

"She can find her own company," Alís voice growled softly. "Youíre hurting."

"Not any more," Sam breathed with contentment. He was centred in that supporting warmth, cradled and protected against the ache and the protest of his injured frame. He laid his arm across the curve of a muscular stomach, making the embrace a mutual one. "But suppose she comes in ..."

"Let her. After today, sheís hardly going to be surprised, is she?"

"No, but - "

"Saaam ..." His protests were silenced by the curl of a palm over his mouth, a gentle insistence on silence. "Go to sleep, kid. You worry too much."

He kissed the palm and it slid away, caressing his cheek, settling on his shoulder. He was tired, and he let sleep wash over him, closing his eyes and relaxing into it. He felt safe, secure in a way he hadnít felt since he was very young.

No-one had ever held him like this.

Not even Chelsea.

Not even in his dreams ...

Al lay awake for most of the night, Samís soft breath of sleep a reassuring companion. It had been a long time since he had spent a night this way, with an injured man cradled in his arms, desperate for comfort, for human warmth and nothing more. If he closed his eyes he could almost be there: cramped in the inhuman tiger cage, Billy McCluskyís trembling and fevered frame pressed against him. If he closed his eyes ...

He kept them open, preferring to watch the quietness of Samís slumber to the images the memory brought. He didnít want to think about Billy. Didnít want to recall how the boy had shivered and wept, and died in his arms ...

Didnít want to remember the long week after; locked in with a cold corpse while the young manís ghost crept into his own fevered dreams and begged him to hold him, one last time ...

Had that been the reason he hadnít pushed Sam away that night, so long ago now, yet so close in his heart? Sam had been Billyís age then, a gawky, hesitant colt with his flop of dark blond hair and his bright, eager eyes. As for him ...

Just a short time back from hell, torn inside by Bethís desertion, torn again by the woman whoíd thought to comfort a hero and had mistaken it for love ... He hadnít wanted to be alone. To be alone allowed the ghosts to come. So when that friendly puppy had tagged onto his shirt tails that evening, he hadnít had the heart to kick him away. Other company had been thin on the ground; the invitation back for coffee had been no big deal, no more than a need to be with someone that night.

The night he should have spent with Beth.

The night of their anniversary ...

Sam hadnít known, of course. How could he have known? He was a young and headstrong prodigy, the boy wonder, Midas himself. Everything he wanted he got. Tragedy had not yet touched him, not yet marred his sense of wonder, nor shattered the naïveté of his dreams.

So innocent a soul.

Too innocent; planning to vanquish the jaded and exotic hero whoíd systematically seduced and charmed his way through practically every eligible woman on campus. Planning it - as if he were another achievement to be pinned to Samwise Beckettís wall of conquest, like his innumerable degrees and his endless scholarships ...

I guess I was something back then, Al thought with quiet irony. All mask and confidence. Flattered by the hero worship, amused by the kidís genius, willing to encourage him in his reaching for the stars. And inside? Empty and brittle; afraid of shadows in the dark.

And clinging that night to the brilliance of a young manís life, a little too drunk to understand the direction of his campaign, a little too lonely to be totally appalled when the realisation finally came.

Only it had been the words that had really damaged his defences; Samís carefully planned persuasion overlaid with memory and regret ...

Do you mind if I hold you, like this? Only Iím cold, and you feel so warm. Maybe you should hold me, too ...

Just hold me ...

Billyís words.

His last.

Billy McClusky had died in his arms, in the sweat and the hell of the jungle; and that night, his last on campus, a young man with the future in his eyes had laid his ghost to rest for a little while ...

Damn you, Sam Beckett.

You reached right in and stole my heart while I wasnít looking. Iíd locked it up so tight, too. Real tight, away from feminine wiles and lustful fantasies. I just never accounted for the quiet thief, the one that asked, not for flattery or admiration, but for simple human comfort in the night ...

Heíd been drunk, vulnerable, hurting. Sam had taken that, had drawn him into something heíd never have dreamed of doing elsewhere, elsewhen. And then heíd gone, as if it had never happened, as if he too were a ghost, banished by the coming of the sun. For a long time afterward Alonzo had tried to pretend it had never happened. Tried to make out that he was the epitome of a man - in two more disastrous marriages and a whole string of meaningless affairs.

But when the nightmares had slipped back, in those dark moments when he couldnít avoid being alone - and even in the depths of space they had crept in to remind him of his vulnerability - it was no longer Billyís face that he recalled, but Samís. Sam, shivering and scared, sweating and delirious. Sam, pressed against him in the cramped confines of the cage and weeping. Sam a cold corpse, rotting in the jungle heat, while the maggots came and gave life to his eyes ...

A squirm of bodies, crawling, old nightmares distanced by the drink and given unholy life by its poisonous retreat ...

Al shuddered involuntarily, and the man in his arms stirred in quiet protest but did not wake. He reached gently for the curve of his loverís throat, and let the soft repetition of life he found there calm the disquiet in his soul.

His lover.

Now, there was a turn-up for the books.

Their reunion that day at Project StarBright had been an unexpected one. His ghosts come to haunt him in the flesh, with a pained recognition - with startled hope - and a determined turn away. Too many barriers, too wide a gulf for either of them to cross; and the guilt that had been eating inside him had bitten down hard and shattered his life into shards of broken glass.

After that heíd sought escape. An escape that led to a cage as cramped and unforgiving as the ones he had once vowed would never trap his spirit. In íNam, heíd been free. For a long year and a half heíd built his own prison with bloodied hands, afraid to admit it, afraid to look beyond its confining walls.

Dreaming there of something heíd once touched and thought lost to him forever.

Drowning himself in liquor and the meaningless lusts of strangers.

Dreaming of the reassurance of an undemanding embrace ...

Afraid he was no longer deserving enough to warrant it.

How could he explain that to this innocent creature in his arms? How could he express the depths of what he had come to feel? It wasnít the sex - though, god knew, that had been a revelation in itself. It had been there all along, a response to something more basic even than that.

There was something special about Sam Beckett. Something innocent and uncorrupted, even after all this time. The grace of saints and angels ... Heíd had that drummed into him in his early years, the concept of a strength that went beyond the sin-stained hearts of normal men. Heíd never found it; never wanted to find it - until it had found him, had reached down into his wretchedness and saved him despite himself.

Parsifal, seeking the Holy Grail. Don Quixote, tilting at windmills and searching for his impossible dream ...

And Sam Beckett, alchemist of the elementary particle, questing for his philosopherís stone in the patterns of time ...

If he glanced behind himself now - not that he would do so all that often, not with his eyes so fixed upon his goals - heíd find his faithful follower, his patient Sancho, looking out for his interests in a world where dreams held little influence and less value.

Good old Al Calavicci - war-torn, battered and scarred.

Iíll be there, kid. Your faithful Tomcat, keeping the dogs at bay ...

Okay, so he might stray occasionally, but he wouldnít wander far. Not even if there were kicks and harsh words in the years to come. He knew where he was needed. Right beside the hand that had held his own in his darkest moments. At the heels of the knight errant and his inspired quest. And if there had to be pitfalls on the road, then heíd be there for those too.

Like now.

When setback threatened, when he was hurting, then heíd find one soul, at least, prepared to offer what he could.

Even if that was just a tender warmth and closeness in the dark ...

Nothing had changed ...

Everything had changed.

Sam Beckett woke from a dream he couldnít remember, to a recollection of discomfort and the glory of his loverís arms ...

And found himself alone.

There was a brief moment or two in which he considered the possibility of the drugs he was being exposed to inducing too vivid dreaming; then he shifted slightly on his pillow and caught the unmistakable scent of a cologne he never used ...

"Morning, kid." Alís greeting was cheery; he leaned in the doorway dressed in a pair of casual slacks and a shirt that looked as if it had been made from an Egyptian wall painting. His hair was combed, his chin clean-shaven, and his eyes were alight with mischief. "You were so fast asleep it seemed a shame to disturb you."

"Oh." So you slipped away real quiet, huh? "What time is it?"

"After ten. Iíve been fending your nurse off with coffee, but the physioís here, so I guess Iíd better stand down from guard duty."

Guard duty? Oh, Al ...

"I guess youíd better. Say - Al?"

Heíd started to turn away, looked back with a questioning expression. "Yeah, Sam?"

"You think we might take a break from work this afternoon? Iíd - kinda like an hour or two by the pool." With you. Alone.

The Commodoreís smile was all the answer he really needed.

"Sure. Why not? See you later, kid." He winked as he left, and Sam leaned his head back into his pillows with a sense of quiet satisfaction.

He really loves me.

I wasnít dreaming.

All of which made the rest of the morning a little easier to bear.

The nurse was her usual cheerful self, the physio as encouraging as ever; it was still an effort, and it still hurt. In fact, when the session was over, he hurt everywhere - as much as he could feel everywhere, anyway. He rested for a good hour afterward, then carefully manoeuvred himself into the waiting chair, as determined as ever to achieve what small victories he could.

Al was juggling eggs in the kitchen. Not literally, of course, although Sam wouldnít have been surprised if he was.

"Hi, kid," the Commodore acknowledged, as the occupant of the chair arrived at the kitchen door in triumph. "Thought we might have omelettes for lunch. Whaddya think?"

"Sounds great to me." Sam had to smile; there was a cat perched on the kitchen table, and another sitting hopefully at the cookís feet. Both were watching the man with rapt attention. "What are you paying the fan club?"

"Mímm? Oh - yeah. Cheese, mostly."

"So thatís your secret, huh? Bribes and titbits. And I thought it had something to do with your magnetic personality ..."

Al grinned, dipping his hand into a bowl and distributing largesse; both cats pounced on his offerings with enthusiasm. "It just pays to know what works, kid," he noted with amusement. "Cats ... women ... Becketts ..."

"Yeah?" Sam teased. "So, what works on Italian astronauts?"

The grin grew a little wider.

"Now, that," the man in question answered, "is for me to know - and for you to find out ..."

Oh, I will, Tomcat. I will ...

They had lunch, and then moved out to the poolside, where Al carefully helped Sam out of the clumsy chair and into the support of a lounger. It was a warm day, but it felt good to lie there in the sun, feeling its healing heat on his skin.

"Youíre gonna fry like that, Sam," Al noted with concern. "You want to lose a couple of layers?"

Sam smirked. "Wore my trunks, just in case," he announced. His company sighed.

"Geniuses," he remarked regretfully. "Take all the fun out of spontaneity ... Oh, well. I still get volunteered for the sunlotion, right?"

"Right ..." I hadnít thought of that. Despite the constant ache of muscles and the absence of most of his lower self, Sam felt a sudden fluttering in the pit of his stomach. The professional massages administered by the physiotherapist were necessary evils he endured with martyred patience. But the thought of his Tomcatís hands paying that much attention to his skin was disconcerting, to say the least ...

"Okay." Al didnít seem to have noticed his hesitation. "But if weíre going to be out here a while, Iíd better get changed too. Will you be all right here for a moment or two?"

"Sure. Just donít be long. I might melt."

He was left to wait in suspended expectation, leaning his head back against the lounger and trying to calm the eager pounding of his heart.

Come on, Sam. You donít really exist below the waistline. How the hell can you be affected like this?

It was easy. Too easy.

Think of icebergs. Stellar masses. Particle equations ...

Damn. He was probably the only man in the entire world who found particulate physics elegant enough to be sexy ...

A shadow fell across him, and he opened his eyes behind his sunglasses, drawing in a slow breath when he did so. Al had got Ďchangedí all right.

Into forest printed Bermudas and a matching short sleeved shirt. Which was open. All the way down ...

Oh, boy.

He clenched his fist to stop it from reaching, the temptation of his Tomcatís dark-brushed pelt only inches away. He still couldnít be sure of the manís reaction to intimacy, couldnít risk a stumble in their hesitant dance.

Not now.

You just have to know what works, right? On Becketts in particular ...

I wonder if he knows what heís doing to me right now?

"Just relax, okay, Sam? And let me know if anything hurts."

Anything - yeah, sure, Al. Sure. Never thought thereíd be a bonus in being so helpless.

Like needing to be undressed so carefully ...

The manís touch was gentle; he unfastened buckle and buttons and zipper before slowly easing the weight of denim off unresponsive legs. Sam might have been numb in the lower extremities, but there was feeling in his buttocks and hips; he ignored the whispers of pain that the action stirred so as to savour the touch of anotherís hands as they encouraged the fabric to slide away.

"You want help with your shirt?"

Oh, yesss ...

"Do you mind?"

"Are you kidding, kiddo?" There was affection in the quiet laugh. "You know, in other circumstances this could be kinda fun ..."

Other circumstances? This is kinda fun right now, Tomcat ...

There were careful fingers to undo each button, and an arm to lift him so that he could shrug out of the shirt; it did hurt, but oh, god, it still felt good ... He was lain back on the contours of the lounger, and he was trembling, but it wasnít with effort.

"You okay, Sam?"

"I - Iím fine. Really."

He watched as his companion picked up the bottle of lotion and gave it an efficient shake. "I used to charge for this, you know," Al remarked conversationally as he tipped a little of the liquid into the palm of his hand.

"Charge?"

"Yeah." The smile threatened one of those salacious reminiscences which Sam never quite believed. "You wouldnít believe what a woman will pay to be oiled up by an expert. Of course, the job isnít exactly a chore in the first place ..."

He rubbed his hands together and set to work with tempered enthusiasm; light, easy strokes that applied the magic lotion evenly, without missing an inch. His claim to expertise was not an exaggeration, and Sam tilted back his head and sighed with quiet contentment as the gentle massage slid over his skin. Neck, shoulders, arms - each right down to the curl of his fingers - then back to his chest and stomach, a slow pleasure which he savoured with careful breaths. The featherlight contact slid across his flesh with an easy confidence, slow enough to tease the senses, firm enough to stimulate more than simply skin. His eyes closed with languid delight as his mind focused its concentration on the sensuous luxury. Muscles which, under the attentions of the therapist, always tightened and knotted in protest, relaxed for the first time in days.

"Youíre good at this," he murmured as the attention slid lower, caressing the tension of his thighs.

"Told ya," Al said smugly. His touch was encouraging; a subtle tingle followed the application of his fingertips, around the curve of Samís legs and down, toward the absence of his calves and the non-existence of his feet.

Oh, god, that feels so good.

That feels ...

That feels ...

Feels?

He half-jerked upright in shock, dropping back down when the protest of his body registered at the unexpected movement. Alonzo was close beside him in an instant, holding his shoulders, his face taut with concern.

"Sam? Are you okay? Did I hurt you? I - "

"No." Sam had to struggle for the words, torn between pain and delight. He reached up and caught at the manís arms, wrestled for breath. "No. I could feel what you were doing. I could feel, Al. I could feel my feet ..."

Al stared at him.

"Youíre sure?"

He nodded.

"Youíre certain?"

Another nod; a breathless grin. His heart was pounding its way out of his chest. His soul was doing somersaults.

I can feel my feet. Iím gonna beat this damned thing yet ...

The anxious stare became a slow smile; then a wider one. The grip on his shoulders was so tight it hurt. And he didnít care.

I can feel, damn it. I can feel ...

And he pulled the man down, and he kissed him. Hard. He was laughing and crying at the same time, shaking with reaction, filled with pain, and it was the most wonderful feeling in the world ...

Then the kiss became that little bit more than just spontaneous reaction, and Al pulled away from him warily.

"Take it easy, huh, Sam?"

The fire went out of Samwise instantly.

Damn. I forgot what I was doing.

"Iím sorry," he sighed. "I didnít mean - "

Dark eyes rolled in sudden exasperation. "Oh, yes, you did," their owner accused with gentle irritation. "Sam - sometimes you act just like an over-principled choirboy. Now, think a minute, willya? Youíre supposed to be good at that. You really wanna go bingo, bango, bongo in the middle of your sisterís garden with your back in the shape itís in? I donít think so, somehow. Do you?"

He did think about it, adopted a chagrined look.

"I guess not."

"Okay." A pause. Al looked down at him with sudden mischief. "You wanna do it in the pool?"

That threw him completely. He lay and gaped, somewhat like a stranded fish.

Did he mean that, or didnít he?

Oh, god, Tomcat. I want to, but I donít think I could ...

The mischief broke out into a gruff chuckle. "Some other time, maybe, huh? When youíre up to it." A well-oiled hand slid down his stomach and across his trunks with confidence. Sam expressed a quiet gasp, nothing more. There was sensation, a stirring of reaction there, but it was reluctant and uncomfortably distant. The hand slid away, its owner considering him with sympathy. "Itís only been a week, Sam. You always try to run before you can walk."

But I will walk. I know I will ...

"Youíre right. And Iím still sorry. Al, I - I said a lot of things ..."

"Forgotten, kid."

"But - "

"I said, forget it. Okay?" His look was challenging. Sam sighed.

"I donít want you to do anything youíre going to regret, Al. I never wanted that ..."

The ex-astronaut looked skyward, as if seeking heavenly assistance. Slowly, he counted to ten under his breath.

In Italian.

Then he looked back, his eyes dark with determination.

"You listen to me, Sam, and you listen good, okay? There is nothing - absolutely nothing that I am ever going to regret when it comes to you. I only got two conditions. First, that you understand that I might sometimes get tempted where the fairer sex is concerned, and thatíll be purely hormones and conditioning and itíll have nothing to do with you and me. And secondly - you screw around on me, Samwise Beckett, and I will kill you. I swear I will."

He wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. He didnít think the man really meant his last condition, but then, he didnít have to make it in the first place. Forever, right, Chelsea? At least I know heíll never be unfaithful to me with another man.

"Youíll never have to, Tomcat. I promise. Not unless thereís another Al Calavicci out there somewhere ..."

"Oh, hell," his lover shrugged expansively. "You ever run into one of those, you got my blessing, kiddo." Heíd been crouched beside the lounger, balanced on the balls of his feet. Now he dropped carefully to his knees so that their eyes were on a level with each other. "You feeling better?"

Samwise nodded. The surge of pain had faded now, and that soft tingle still lingered in his lower legs. "Yeah. You want to finish oiling me up?"

"Love to. Just one thing though - " His hand lifted Samís from the edge of the lounger. "You remember I said I used to charge for this service?"

"Yeah?"

His lips quirked. "Guess I still do." He kissed the hand, then moved it down, past the line of his chest, then lower still. Samís fingers trailed across that silken pelt the way he had wanted them to earlier. They hit fabric; then unexpected firmness ...

Oh, boy ...

Their eyes met; Alonzoís were shyly apologetic.

"Nothing wrong with my back," he pointed out. "And you got one hell of a body, kid. Just thought youíd like to know ..."

Sam stared at him. Smiled slowly.

"If you move a little closer," he said, "I can always ... pay a little on account."

Come here, Tomcat. Youíre not the only one around here whoís good with his hands, you know ...

He matched his offer with a caress of fingertips, watching the man as he drew in a breath of response.

Good job Kateís fence is so high.

The second caress moved him forward just enough ... Samís other arm curled out, pulling his lover back into the kiss they had abandoned earlier, and his fingers slid down between flesh and fabric, encountering trapped heat and eager expectation.

Caught between need and affection, Alonzo could do nothing except surrender. But Sam made quite sure he took his time in negotiating the terms ...

He wouldnít let them tell Kate. It was easy to swear Al to secrecy, to include him in a conspiracy of silence, and then he persuaded the therapist, who agreed that it was early days, and maybe Doctor Beckett shouldnít get her hopes up just yet ...

The hospital concurred.

It wasnít that he didnít want his sister to share his quiet triumph. Far from it, in fact; he was still wary about how extensive his recovery was going to be, and he wanted to save the news for when he was sure. In the meantime he savoured each slow regaining of sensation, knowing it wasnít the careful work of the therapist, however well-intentioned. It was the far more gentle attentions of his lover, whose touch could relax and ease his tortured muscles, who waited until late in the night to slide his warmth down beside him and cradle him into the sleep he so desperately needed.

No more drugs than I have to. I want to live again ...

And the long lazy days in the sun didnít hurt much, either.

He insisted on spending longer out by the pool, getting the therapist to work with him in the cool water and to leave him out in the sun afterward, immersed in a book or some other work. The nurse did less for him; he did more for himself. And he made quite sure that Al took some time for himself, sending him out for those interminable mornings, the better to share the precious afternoons ...

Hey, Tomcat, maybe I canít go sightseeing or visiting, but that shouldnít stop you. Bring me back the news, and the souvenirs. Look up some old friends, why donít you ...?

And out of that he got the postcards and the pictures - and the presents. Hand-carved bowls and woodwork, carefully chosen custom glass for his apartment back home, crafted leather belts and even Chinese puzzle pieces, bought to please, to intrigue, and to distract him. Which was exactly what they did. Alís personal sense of style might be questionable in some peopleís eyes, but the man was more than capable of judging just what might suit Samís more conservative tastes. And the joky gadgetry was meant to be just that - a joke. Although Kate just adored the silly wall clock he found, with its map of the islands and the dolphins that leaped out of the water on the hour, every hour ...

By the Friday of his third week on Oahu, Sam was definitely feeling better.

"Stand by me
Oh, oh, stand by me
Wonít you stand, stand by me ..."

The familiar words of the classic song spilled out of the radio like liquid prayer. Samwise, settled into the support of his poolside chair, had looked up at the first unmistakable notes of the music, its insistent rhythm striking a resonant chord somewhere in his heart. He dropped the book on the side table and leaned back to enjoy the sound.

"... just as long
As you stand
Stand by me ..."

Alonzoís voice began to croon along with the words, layering an enthusiastic gruffness to the mellow notes. It was sheer music to Samís ears, and he turned his head to watch as his Tomcat appeared from the house, reacting to the melody and swaying into it with unselfconscious pleasure. Heíd been getting changed after spending the morning visiting a friend in Pearl, and had shucked his casual smartness in favour of ocean-splashed Bermudas and an open, short-sleeved shirt painted with a brilliant sunset. Nearly three weeks in the Hawaiian sun had added a warmth of bronze to his skin, and the effect helped emphasise his Latin ancestry. He half-shimmied, half-danced the distance to the poolside, relaxing into the song with comfortable confidence.

The man has no shame, Sam thought with amusement, savouring the spontaneous performance with a quiet smile.

I shall dance for him, one day ...

Al softshoed to his friendís side, an exhibitionist to the core, and Sam just had to chuckle at his ebullience. That only encouraged him and, after a moment, Samwise picked up the melody and added his own easy tones to the performance.

"Stand by me
Whoa-whoa, stand by me
Wonít you stand, stand by me ..."

Their shared amusement slid into something deeper. There was significance in those words, in the sentiment the song expressed, and as they sang to each other it was with a sudden understanding that they meant it.

The music faded away, leaving only a background of insignificant voices which neither of them heard. Their eyes were locked, sharing an intensity of thought that went beyond simple words. Slowly, Al extended his hands and Sam took them, trusting the man, trusting the moment -

- and, just as slowly, he was lifted to his feet.

I can stand ...

I can do anything - as long as he is here beside me.

Walk. Dance. Maybe even conquer time itself ...

It was a trembling victory, underscored with effort and discomfort, but it was victory, and the smile that lit his face was nothing compared to the light in his supporterís eyes. For the first time in days, Samwise looked down at his lover and the man looked back with mischief and delight.

"Sam!"

Kateís cry of astonishment turned both their heads; then Sam staggered, and Alís arms were around him, lowering him back to the chair with gentleness and concern.

"Easy," his voice murmured. "One step at a time, huh?"

Sam clung to him, snatching the chance to share his warmth, to feel his strength. "One small step for Sam," he misquoted with deliberate tease, and his Tomcatís laugh was a rumble of reassured amusement.

"Are you both crazy?" Kateís indignation was driven by concern as much as by anything else. She glared at the Commodore, directing him away from his charge with a savage stab of her finger. "If that idiotic stunt has done any permanent damage - "

"Kate - " Sam caught at his sisterís hand. "Iím okay. Really. Iíve had neural feedback in my legs for the past couple of days. I wanted to surprise you," he added, at the look this revelation earned him.

"Surprise ...? Sam, you nearly gave me a heart attack!" She paused, looking down at him, comprehension slowly replacing her sense of shock. "You stood up," she realised.

"Uh-huh."

"Sam - you stood up!"

"Mím-hím." He was grinning idiotically, he knew, but he couldnít stop.

"Sam, thatís wonderful ..." She threw her arms around him, hugged him with heartfelt abandon. He hugged back, as elated at his success as she was. "Iíve just got to ring Dad and tell them ..."

"Whoa - " He held on to her precipitate escape. "Just how much do they know already?"

She looked as abashed as he had just a moment before. "Well - when you were in the hospital I had to tell them about the accident. Iíve been calling every day from my office."

"Kate," he repeated, suddenly anxious - not about the news of his health, since his family had every right to know about that - but about the rest of it. "Just how much do they know?"

She frowned at him; then her eyes flicked to where Al stood watching them both, and understanding dawned. "Nothing. I swear, Sam. I told Pa about what had happened, and how youíve been doing - and Tommy thinks - " She coloured faintly, "that if Iím not having an affair with your best friend, I certainly ought to be ..."

He laughed, glancing at his lover with affection.

"Sis," he remarked thoughtfully, "Iím not sure we should risk letting the Tomcat here meet our baby brother, are you?"

She swallowed a snort of laughter, while Al threw him a suspect frown.

"Iíve no intention of racking up the hat trick, if thatís what you mean, kid." He folded his arms with deliberation. "One Beckett is quite enough for me."

They both looked at him, and his expression collapsed into a teasing grin. "One at a time, that is ..."

"Heís just looking for another swimming lesson," Kate remarked, once sheíd stopped chuckling.

Yeah, I know, but the next oneís gonna be a lot more fun.

"Let me call Dad, will you?" Sam requested, remembering how this line of conversation had started. "I ought to speak to him before I go home."

Home. Do I mean that? Back to StarBright and my work, certainly. But then, Elk Ridge isnít Ďhomeí, either. Being careful around the project is bad enough, but small-town Indiana would just stifle me ... Life isnít fair. Here I am, in love, and Iím scared rigid my father is going to find out about it. Because he couldnít cope.

I want to shout it to the world.

But the world isnít going to look at it the way I do.

"Okay," Kate was agreeing. "Listen - I told the Old Man that my little brother was leaving town in two daysí time, and he promised me the weekend off. You want to celebrate, or something?"

The weekend off, or my leaving ... oh, that.

Yeah. I want to celebrate all right.

By dancing ...

"You know what Iíd like?" he decided after a moment.

"What?"

"Iíd like to go down to the beach, with a huge picnic basket, and a bottle of champagne - and watch the sunset with my two favourite people in the whole world ..."

So they did just that.

It turned out to be the perfect Hawaiian evening, with the ocean whispering along volcanic sand, and the sunset painted in glorious colours of purple and gold. The picnic was delicious, and the wine chilled just right ...

And in the morning, he went back to the hospital for one final time ...

"You need a hand there, Sam?"

He looked up at the unexpected question, finding Alonzo leaning in the doorway, watching him with a pensive smile. Sam was briefly tempted - then shook his head. "I can manage," he said.

Slow and easy. Hands locked on the wheel rims, lifting up to stand on unsteady feet. A careful turn - not too fast - and then down, back locked with concentration until the support of the mattress was firm and certain. A small victory. One step further toward the end of the war. A few months, theyíd said. Retraining reluctant nerves and stubborn muscles. And at the end of it -

Good as new. Maybe even better.

At least I can feel again.

He lowered himself onto the bed, letting the effort shake out of him.

Just another frontier to conquer, Doctor Beckett.

Yourself.

"You okay?"

Alís query was hesitant. Sam turned his head and offered him a smile.

"Sure. I thought youíd gone shopping with Kate."

The denial of that held a hint of embarrassment. "Nah," the man said, moving into the room and looking down at the wheelchair with a small frown. "She got a call from the base. Some nozzleheaded Admiral stubbed his toe or something. She wonít be back for hours. How did - the session go?"

"Great." Sam eased himself up onto the pillows and patted the edge of the mattress in invitation. "Tomcat? You okay?"

Al sank onto the indicated spot and sighed. He was wearing an impossible short-sleeved shirt printed all over with a riot of coloured fish. A little like wearing the view from a glass-bottomed boat, Sam thought with an inner grin. On him it looked great. Particularly since he hadnít bothered with the top three buttons ...

"Weíre going home tomorrow, kid," Al said.

"I know. Al - Iím sorry. We had such plans for this vacation, and ..."

"Forget it." The interruption brooked no argument. "Thereíll be other vacations. Wonít there?"

Was that what was bothering him? Did he really think that, after all this, there was any question where they were concerned?

Perhaps there was, at that. One more careful step in the dance, Sam. Back on the mainland things might be different. Would have to be different. Timed with meticulous care ...

But then, isnít anticipation half the pleasure? All he has to do is ask ...

Or maybe itís about time I did.

"How about Aspen in February?" he suggested, sidling his hand across the coverlet and using it to caress the curve of leg and buttock that was just within reach. "You know - nice cosy ski-lodge, roaring fire, roads blocked for days ...?"

Al looked down at the contact, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. "Sam - " he growled softly, "Iím not sure you should - "

"Iím sure," Sam insisted, sliding the hand up under the drape of the shirt. The skin beneath his fingers was warm. "Listen, Tomcat. I may not be up to anything athletic, but Iím damned if Iíll let the last day of my vacation go by without some reward for all my suffering. You just said Kate wouldnít be back for hours. Iíd hate to waste all that time ..."

The frown didnít go away entirely. "Youíre supposed to be taking it easy, kid."

"Yeah." His fingers tangled in the fabric of the shirt, tugged hard. "So come here. You can do all the hard work." The man had to follow the direction of the jerk, otherwise something would have torn. He dipped forward and Sam reached up to pull him down the rest of the way. "Hey, Tomcat," he murmured. "Wanna smooch?"

Al chuckled softly.

"Thought youíd never ask," he said.

Their lips met. Just like that moment on the beach; a quiet magic, a moment of promise. Only this time there was no desperation, no demanding force. This time it was right.

Gentle.

Tender.

Experienced ...

Sam closed his eyes and savoured the contact, the scent of his lover, the soft certainty of his mouth. A slow, teasing kiss that gently encouraged sweet pleasures from touch and taste. The barest flutter of tongue that eased into an open mouth; deliberately paced, carefully progressed. Nothing forced, just seductive temptation, second by exquisite second ...

No wonder he drives the girls crazy.

No wonder he drove Kate crazy ...

A pause for breath, and then a return to the siege of the senses. Sam had never smooched with a girl in the back row of the moviehouse, never snatched moments of teasing pleasure in parked cars or darkened doorways. Heíd not known what he might be missing.

Until now.

A slow dance; step by step, matching the roll of pulse and breath. Closer than a waltz, steamier than a tango, as erotic as a hula ...

Sensuous as heaven.

And what the hell is he doing with his - hands ...?

Oh ... boy.

And I thought I had something to teach him ...

Passion. Thatís all we had before. Just need - and passion ... Oh, god, donít stop, whatever you do ... This - this is something else.

This ... is ...

"I love you, you crazy kid. Never forget that. No matter what. You promise?"

Oh, god, Tomcat ...

"I - promise."

Donít stop... donít ...

Not now, not ever ...

I love you.

And I want us to dance this way forever ...

Convergence: February, 1997

:

Alonzo Calavicci dropped his uniform cap down onto his desk, and he sighed. The memories were as fresh as yesterday, which was disconcerting, since he also remembered that they hadnít existed yesterday.

Take care of him, Tomcat, Kate had whispered when it was time to say goodbye. As if heíd needed reminding.

As if heíd ever do anything else ...

The evidence of Samís influence on his own past was starkly demonstrated in the photograph that now hung on the wall among the Commodoreís other souvenirs: a glossy image of himself flanked by a pair of Doctors Beckett. Sam and Kate, the two of them leaning one on each shoulder while he stood between them with proprietary pride. Not taken in Hawaii, but the following year, when Kate had organised a fortnightís liberty; they had joined her in California for a week and a half, and Al had managed to wangle them a visit to ILM and the Skywalker ranch ...

They had made that visit in the original timeline too, although the vacation had been more fun in the second. Kate had been a willing and perfect smokescreen for the two of them, and had continued to be so almost right up to the day of her wedding ...

You wondered if it was worth it, kid? Three years of my life for the rest of your sisterís?

I didnít know when I made the choice, but I do now.

Without Kate theyíd spent another year skirting the issues of their relationship. A whole year of uncertainty. And heíd had the privilege of her friendship, and the support of her understanding in the time since. In many ways he really did consider her his own sister; a woman whose love for her brother was almost as strong as his own ...

She was worth it all right, Sam.

You were worth it.

If I hadnít had those extra three years in hell, I might never have met you.

And thatís a price I hope I never have to pay ...

He sighed a second time, and unbuttoned the line of his dress jacket with care. He hardly ever wore the uniform, but it had seemed the only thing appropriate over these last few days. With one hand he extracted a fresh cigar from the box on the desk. With the other he reached for the phone and dialled a number he knew by heart.

And hadnít known at all the day before.

"Kate? How ya doing, Sis?"

"Al?" Her voice was warm and totally familiar. "Hang on a minute, Tomcat. Iíve got the kids screaming in the other room ..."

Tomcat, huh? Yeah, thatís right. She picked that habit up from Sam. And he and she are the only ones I ever let get away with it.

And the kids. Oh, god, Sam. Her kids ...

" Okay. So - howís my favourite astronaut?"

"Better for hearing you."

She laughed. "Flattery will get you everywhere," she said. "And howís my little brother doing? Working hard?"

"Yeah," he breathed. "Heís fine, Kate."

Just fine ...

But I wish heíd come home.

See, I get to see him almost every day.

And every day I miss him like hell ...

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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