Comments on this story can be sent to:

Last Echo of Gunfire


Doreen Tracy

        The sound of the leap ended, the blue light fading. Crashing into my consciousness was the sound of automatic weapons. I was lying face down, by an apple-red car, my back covered with glass from the shattered car window directly above my head. All I could think of was to lie motionless until all sound stopped. Nerves tensing, I felt my hands clench...around a gun.

        I managed to make it to my feet, just as a car--police car--turned the corner and disappeared from my vision. I could just barely make out the barrels of weapons being drawn inside its interior before it speeded out of my sight.

        "Oh boy," I breathed, shoving the gun into its holster. Moving cautiously, I watched for a sniper, or anyone else that could be shooting at me. As I came around the opposite side of the red car, I took in the sight that greeted me. A dark-haired man lay on the concrete by the driver's side in a pool of blood which was rapidly spreading. Police officers were running from all different directions towards him.

        Ignoring the others, I ran to the injured man. Doctor's instincts kicked in as I knelt by the unconscious form, trying to figure out what to do first.

        "Right here, Hutch."

        My eyes met those of a policeman handing me a first aid kit. "What the hell happened?"

        "Uh, we..." I felt myself grimace, trying to give all my attention to the patient. I didn't really know what had happened, outside of the fact that we'd been shot at. Tearing apart the blood-soaked shirt, I applied pressure to every spot I could see blood oozing out. This guy, whoever he was, was in a mess.

        "Ambulance on the way." Another cop. Somehow, even with this fragile life under my hands, I managed to glance around. The place was swarming with uniforms and other officers--their faces grim and angry.

        The man on the ground shook once, then was still. Cardiac arrest. I applied CPR, letting my medical training take over. Mouth to mouth, forcing air into the man's lungs, making him live. The wail of sirens threatened to break my concentration as the ambulance arrived.

        "Hutch!" A heavy set, black man shoved through the surrounding crowd. His eyes were wide and frightened, and not a little angry. The moment he saw the injured man, I saw his rough expression fade and tears filled his eyes.

        Al walked right through him. The moment he saw the blood that drenched my hands, and the officer beneath my hands whom I was forcing to live, he made a face. "Just once," he said, wrinkling his nose, "couldn't we have a nice, normal leap instead of all these weird ones?"

        "No such luck," I said quickly as the man beneath my hands began to breathe again. I moved aside as the ambulance attendants set up their equipment and took over.

        Strong hands pulled me forcibly away as the paramedics did their work. The dark face was friendly, but grim. "What happened, Hutch?"

        "Tell him three guys in a marked police car, no license plates, tried to kill you and your partner--David Starsky." Al crouched near me. I was still sitting on the concrete, the dark man on the other side.

        I dutifully repeated the information, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. They were trying desperately to stabilize this partner of mine--Starsky? Lifting him onto a stretcher, they whisked him into the emergency unit and flew out of the garage as if dogs were on their heels.

        "Sergeant Hutchinson?" A man in a white coat--another paramedic--squatted in front of me. Before I could object, he was shining a light in my eyes. "Are you all right?"

        "Everyone keeps asking if I'm okay--and I'm fine, damn it!" I hadn't meant to snap, but with Al hovering on one side, the big guy on the other, and a paramedic in the middle, it was getting a bit close here.

        "Captain Dobey?" The paramedic turned to the black man. "I advise that you take Sgt. Hutchinson into White immediately. He may have a concussion."

        "Let them do it, Sam." Al was checking out the link for any further information. "An examination room is nice and private. We can talk there." He hit the commands for the Imaging Chamber door to open and close behind him.

        I allowed Captain Dobey to help me up. One question was answered--I was a police officer and...Al would fill me in on the rest.

        I figured that Hutch would want to check on his partner's status as soon as they got to the hospital. The ICU was bustling with nurses and doctors, all running in different directions at once. I'd noticed, by the landmarks we'd passed and the distinctive skyline, that I was in Los Angeles. White Memorial was one of the bigger hospitals, nearest Parker Center.

        The doctors could tell me very little. Starsky had just been brought in with three gunshot wounds to his upper body. His chances of survival, even after surgery, were slim. They wouldn't allow a visit.

        After yet another cursory examination, I went into a men's room to scrub the blood from my hands. From the reflection in the mirror, Hutch was a tail, attractive man in his late thirties. Blond, almost white hair came nearly to his shoulders, with a scruffy little mustache just above his upper lip. The blue eyes that reflected back looked tired. I leaned forward for a better look and came nose to nose with Al.

        "It seems to me," Al commented, coming through the mirror and washstand, "that we spend a considerable amount of time in bathrooms."

        "Why am I here, Al?"

        "You're here to save someone named Jeffrey Bates. It seems he works for the guy that tried to off you and your partner." Al frowned at the link and gave it a smack for good measure. "Problem is, we don't have any information yet on who that might be. Ziggy's working on it."

        "Starsky isn't expected to live." I dug my nails into a bar of soap trying to get the dark substance out from under them. There had been so much blood. "Is he going to make it?"

        "Oh yeah, sure, for now." Al nodded. "Hutchinson, though...."

        "What happens, Al? Ziggy digging through newspaper files, finding this out, or what?"

        Al continued looking at the link. "Well, Ken Hutchinson.... That's you, of course. He's attacked here at the hospital. Ziggy is having trouble digging up information because of the quake...y'know, the one in '94." Receiving a confused look from me, Al shrugged. "It was the big one, took out most of the downtown area, shut down computers, erased records, that sort of stuff. Not a pretty sight. That's the problem Ziggy's having. This is May 5, 1979. Apparently, these two detectives are fairly well-known local celebrities. They just returned to the force after quitting. Broke open one of the biggest drug rings the U.S. ever had to deal with. That was national news, Sam. We can corroborate that. Apparently, they stepped on some well-heeled toes. That shooting had all the indications of a professional hit--unmarked police car, ease of escape, you name it."

        "And I have to save Jeffrey Bates, but you don't have any information on where he is or who he's working for?"

        "Okay, here it is, Sam." Al squinted at the readings, as if they were running backwards. He sighed. "All the information we have is that Bates will die in 48 hours. Some kind of poisoning. The stuff we're digging into comes from San Francisco--they have their own peninsula now. It sort of makes investigative research a little rough when most of the reports you need are at the bottom of the Pacific."

        "I need to watch my step here," I began, but he cut me off.

        "And protect your partner." Al hit the link again, gaining a screech and not much else. "These two guys were legends, Sam. Best friends, partners for twenty years. Ziggy is projecting an 85% chance that if you don't save Bates, this guy who hired the hit will be released from custody almost immediately. Starsky is killed here in the hospital, just before his release. No info on that. And Hutchinson...." His face darkened. "He commits suicide."

        I left the men's room feeling empty and worried. Until Ziggy could bungle through what was left on Bates I had to sit here on my hands and wait.

        Starsky was brought out of surgery, still deep in a comatose state. Another man had joined the watch, among assorted officers and Dobey. The police captain kept calling him "Huggy," and he lived up to his name by being a regular mother hen.

        I watched the by-play between him and Dobey, feeling detached. What was the real Ken Hutchinson thinking now, in the Waiting Room? His last impression before I had entered his body had been the shots and maybe yelling for his partner to get down, or take cover. He was probably scared and wanting to go home as badly as I did.

        I spent the better part of three hours in front of the ICU room that Starsky had been settled in. The window offered me a fair view of Hutch's curly-headed partner. Life support was attached to him, the steady, rhythmic beat of his heart could be heard without entering the room. It was obvious he was a handsome guy, smaller than Hutch was, but muscular. His body had suffered massive damage; some things that couldn't be corrected, the doctor had said.

        Dobey and Huggy came up behind me. They, too, knew the verdict the doctor had handed down. I was getting antsy, knowing that Hutchinson would want to be out looking for the killers, and would be torn between that and waiting for his best friend to survive.


        The other two men had moved off, talking amongst themselves. I greeted my friend with a tired smile.

        "We've got trouble. Ziggy went nuts--says there's a hitman here in the hospital and you've got about five minutes to find him or Starsky's dead."

        I got up from the chair I was straddling and glanced around nervously. Dobey was giving me an odd look. I ignored it. "Where?"

        "He's...." Al frowned. "He's in the men's room--or going into the men's room....

        Suppressing the urge to run, I made myself walk to the bathroom, giving Dobey a quick explanation that I needed to use the john. Just as I reached the door, I collided with a man entering at the same time. He was a scraggly character, dishwater blond hair, uncombed, falling over his face. I had no way of knowing if this was the right guy or not, but the usual rule is play it by ear. "You here to see someone?" I asked, gripping the man's arm tightly.

        The watery blue eyes panicked for a moment, and he wrenched himself out of my grip and tore down the hall. Not wasting a moment, I ran after him, sensing others following who had noticed the brief struggle. I managed to knock the man down in a flying tackle and hold him there until the other officers arrived.

        "Careful, Sam!" Al anxiously cautioned. "He's got a knife!"

        In one quick move the hitman slashed the blade into my wrist. Grabbing his knife hand, I practically broke his wrist to force him to release his grip on the weapon and let the cops take over. Stepping back from the scene, I watched as the man was cuffed and led away.

        Al's face was ashen. "You're bleeding."

        "Only superficial." Gripping my injured wrist with my good hand, I gave Al a reassuring grin.

        Dobey was moving like a man unused to running, Huggy at his heels. They looked as frightened as Al was. The captain took in my blood covered arm and froze. "You're going to get that cleaned up. Good work, Hutchinson."

        "Starsk would be proud of you." Huggy patted me awkwardly on the back as I walked over to a waiting doctor.

        A bed had been set up in Starsky's room and I was forced to curl up on it and rest after the doctor had bandaged my wrist. Al stood nearby, watching every move I made, alarmed at the suddenness of the attack and frustrated at our lack of information.

        "You wanna tuck me in, or what?" I said, eyes wide, looking up at Al.

        "That's a distinct impossibility, even if I wasn't a hologram." Al crouched by the side of the bed, glancing over at the other two inhabitants of the room. The nurse was too engrossed in her book to notice that I/Hutch was talking to himself, and Starsky. "We re still piecing together information you can use to leap, Sam. Ziggy reassures me that there's enough background intact that he can pinpoint your killer in three hours. You'll have plenty of time to save Bates and then it's adios amigo."

        "I heard some stories." I curled over onto my side, watching Hutch's partner across the room. "He's really well-liked, kind of childlike, but sort of a mother hen to all these guys. Hutch is the smooth, silent type. They make a good team. Why does Hutchinson commit suicide?"

        "I don't know." Al sighed. "It could be any number of things, but it does occur just after his partner is murdered. In the original timeline, Hutchinson arrests whoever is responsible, but the guy gets away scott free. No jail time, Sam. It doesn't take him long to rebuild his power, or whatever and hire someone else to finish you two off. Another hypothesis, courtesy of your hybrid computer, is that Hutch's death is made to look like a suicide, to cover up a murder."

        "And how is our friend in the Waiting Room?"

        "Confused and mad enough to bite nails. Wants his partner, keeps demanding Starsky. Or Captain Dobey. Wants us to call LAPD and get a line on who was shooting at them. We won't give him any information and he's getting more frustrated than a merchant marine who hasn't had leave in six years."

        "Maybe I can beat Ziggy to the punch. If I have that Huggy character drive me home, maybe Hutchinson has some paperwork there that could help us."

        "It's a shot in the dark, Sam. Ziggy says Starsky's in the clear, for now anyway."

        The look "Huggy" gave me when I asked to go home was a surprised one. Not that I'm not used to that. Maybe I'm not doing what Hutchinson would've done, but I had to find out something more concrete before I proceeded on my merry way.

        Huggy dropped me off at Hutch's place and said he'd return soon, saying he had to check out The Pits--whatever that was. As I entered the apartment I was struck by the same feeling I always get when I enter a host's home--a feeling of intrusion, as if I'm a robber stealing a part of their life. In this case, going into a cop's apartment.

        I checked the desk, the drawers of his dresser, and couldn't come up with anything on their last case. Strange thing was there wasn't much around to say, "I'm a cop." Lots of pictures of Starsky, I noticed. I looked at one in particular. It was in the bedroom, lying face down on the side table. The two men were nose to nose, grinning, arms draped across each other's shoulders. They looked like two people in love. Suddenly, things seemed to add up. Hutchinson committing suicide, the way Huggy had looked at me when I wanted to leave the hospital.

        "Did you find anything?"

        "Al, we have to talk."

        "Great. I love that as an opening line. You only use that when something's up. Spill it, kid, I can take it."

        "First of all, how's Hutchinson?"

        "Nuts." Al shrugged, and I could see he'd been through the wringer with the guy. "He's driving Verbena crazy, so she had to sedate him. We put him to sleep for a while. I think he's borderline, Sam."

        "I think he's gay, Al." I lifted the photo I'd found and held it so Al could see. There was a strange look on his face, I'd almost say embarrassment, and something else, too. Maybe he has an aversion to homosexuality and I swiss-cheesed it, but the look wasn't repulsion or disgust. It was uneasiness.

        "I guess that explains why he flipped out like he did."

        He was playing it cool, but I could see him tense up. This wasn't good.

        "I think I should get back and tell Verbena...."

        He was punching the controls of the link, ready to make his escape. I couldn't let him go. Something strange was nagging at me, too. "There's something more, isn't there?"

        His head came up sharply, eyes wide. I'd made him stop. Now what?

        "Uh, Ziggy is still doing a search of available records. Nothing yet."

        "That isn't it, Al When I said Hutchinson was gay, you went as tense as an electric wire. Tell me, please...."

        Al turned the link off. Off. I had never seen him do that before. His face went tight as he did it. "The Committee will have my ass," he mumbled. "I knew this would happen eventually," he began.

        Sitting down on the edge of the bed, I looked up at him. We were alone, really. No Ziggy, no monitoring. Just as I leaned back on the bed, the hole in my swiss-cheese mind filled. It's sort of like a curtain rising, and it'd been happening more and more lately, like eventually, I'll have all my memory back. What I remembered was a doozie, and not something I was likely to accept for a moment. It was like when I remembered Tom, only more intense. I'd had the memory of a brother--then the feelings for him, and the memories of him came full force.

        Al was watching me, and I could tell he was upset. "You're remembering, right?"

        "You and I...." I knew I must have looked like an idiot, staring up at him like I was.

        "We were lovers, Sam." Al brushed a hand over his face, as if an enormous weight had lifted from his shoulders. "Five years, up until the time you leaped. That's what hurt so much, when you left. You didn't tell me you were going to do it. We'd had a fight--over the Project, because things were getting crazy. I took off, went into town, came back, and you were leaping. When you swiss-cheesed...well, you didn't say anything, and I figured it was a gone issue."

        "No one else knows." I knew that, and why he'd turned the link off. "If they did...."

        "It was always just between us, Sam. Private." Al's jaw was clenched. The intensity of his feelings was mostly in his eyes, and I could now remember what that look meant. Suddenly, I was missing him a lot more than I had a few minutes ago. Up until the last moments, I had remembered the friendship, and how much I cared about him, but not the love. And I did love him, more than anyone in the world.

        We had an open relationship and Al made time with women. Quite a few, but I was always number one. My female was Ziggy and the Project. After Donna and the broken wedding, I didn't care about a relationship with a woman anymore. Something happened between Al and me, which, I was afraid, was not included in the hole that had been filled.

        "I can remember nights when I was alone." I let him see the expression on my face. "I can remember the nights together, too. You should've told me, Al."

        "Right, and have you want to be home more than you do now?" He was looking shaky, as if he might start crying, and I didn't want him to do that. More than anything I wanted to touch him, hold him. God. I reached out and he backed away, as if I'd burned him. The lump in my throat threatened to choke me.

        He switched the link back on and opened the IC door. Before I could say another word, he was through the opening and it shut behind him. Something made me curl into a ball on the bed; I felt like crying. How was I supposed to help Hutchinson when I was a wreck myself? Maybe it would add to the character of the situation, but emotionally, I was screwed up, and just wanted to go home.

        After several minutes of intense self-pity, I pulled myself together and changed my clothes. I had to get on with the leap, regardless of what had happened between Al and me. When I walked into the living room, Huggy was sitting on the couch with a worried expression on his long face.

        "Who were you talkin' to, Hutch?"

        "You've been here for a while, I take it?" I decided to play it cool and went to the kitchen for a glass of water. It wasn't the best, from the tap, but I needed it for my dry mouth.

        "You never drink city water, and you were talking to yourself." Huggy was leaning on the island, his eyes watching every move I made. "Talk to me, Hutch."

        I set the glass in the sink and leaned over the counter for a moment. Something told me Huggy knew about Starsky and Hutch, and didn't care. They were his friends, and that was all that mattered. "I guess," I explained, "I was going over what to say to Starsky, when he comes around. Does it matter?"

        "Nope, except I don't think Starsky's first name is 'Al'." A slow smile played across his lips. God, he was on to me. "You got an imaginary playmate or what?"

        The phone rang and I almost sighed in relief. I picked it up at the counter and listened to Dobey's tense words on the other end. Starsky had gone into code. Not good. Slamming the receiver down, I ran for the door, Huggy at my heels.

        By the time we arrived at White, he was alive and the doctor seemed flabbergasted. After things had settled down, I cornered Dobey and got the info on their last case from him first hand, feigning loss of memory. I got a few names from him, and the name of a lawyer that was about to arrange for the release of the man we'd nabbed in the hospital. I needed Al. This lawyer could be the key to lead us to Mr. Big, or Ms. Big, depending on your point of view.

        Huggy arranged it so I could borrow Dobey's car and insisted on coming with me when I refused the captain's offer of a police backup. We checked out the lawyer, stole a page or two from his appointment book, and hoped for the best. Still, no Al.

        We uncovered the fact that the man who was arranging the bail for the hitman was one James Gunther. Damn it, I was getting mad. Lovers or not, it didn't make a difference. The Leap was at stake, and my chance of going onto wherever was growing slimmer by the minute. If Al didn't show up soon, I was sunk. Here I was, with all this information, and no one to tell me if I was on the right track.

        Huggy seemed to sense I wasn't doing well. At the mention of Gunther's name he looked sick. He explained that the guy was one of the biggest of big tycoons in the country, and he couldn't understand how I didn't know that. More curious, wide-eyed looks, but I simply had swissed that one right out.

        Gunther was in San Francisco. First of all, I made Dobey break a few rules, which he wouldn't have done before, and keep the hitman in lock up until I could return from the north. Secondly, I managed to shake Huggy, insisting that he stay with Starsky until I returned. There was no time to gather information on Gunther with a 1979 computer--I had to play my hunch and hope Dobey could back me up once I invaded the domain of this bigwig.

        I took a flight to 'Frisco, scared and unsteady. All I could think of, besides the Leap, was Al. Where was he and what was he thinking? He had Tina now, and maybe that made a difference. Maybe he hadn't wanted me to remember "us," and, when I did, he ran. I guess if I had been in his place I would've had a problem dealing with it, too.

        God, I missed the hell out of him. The plane was practically empty--the stewardess offered me some dried fruit and nuts and a soda--I couldn't force it down. I did manage to catch a few winks during the flight. When we landed I didn't know if I had succeeded in keeping Bates from dying, or if he was dead already. No Al, no info. Regardless of personal feelings, even when we'd had a fight, he still came through, and I was counting on that, now.

        I hit the men's room and hoped to god he'd show up and give me the low down. What I couldn't stand was the thought that kept racing through my head that this might be a wild goose chase. I had no idea if Gunther had someone named Bates working for him, or not. I could be charging in on some old, rich man and get Hutchinson's butt kicked into the next century. My hands were shaking as I washed them.

        The sound of the IC door opening and closing was the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard in my life. Al looked wasted. Not drunk, but torn up, rumpled, sick.

        I guess I let my anger take over. It was a mistake, but I was so furious at him for making me do this guesswork, risking a man's life because he was having an emotional breakdown. The first thing out of my mouth was "Where the hell have you been?" and I could see the slash of pain cross his face.

        He didn't say anything, and he looked damned guilty. And hurt. I hadn't wanted to hurt him, not that. Right now, my mind wasn't on our relationship, but on the case at hand. "I've got a name, Al. James Gunther."

        He fed the data into the link without looking up. It only took a moment, and he nodded.

        "Good job, Sam. That's your boy and you've got about two hours to get to his place and keep Bates from being killed."

        I slammed out of the bathroom and left the airport by cab. Al would have to wait, until later.

        I made a quick phone call to Los Angeles before I invaded Gunther's mansion. The place looked like the White House and just as formidable. Fortunately, Dobey had me covered. They had a lot on the old guy, from drug smuggling, to tracing him to the deaths of several federal investigators and a witness that Starsky and Hutch had been protecting. It all tied in and the San Francisco police were more than willing to assist in his arrest.

        His butler met me at the door as if I were expected. Word got around here fast. I had his arrest warrant in my hand, and that's how I walked into his office. Bates was his assistant according to what Dobey had told me, and I made him wait outside while I served Gunther the warrant. He seemed relieved, sagging against the wall as I entered the office.

        It was all old wood and leather. Expensive. The man was standing just behind his desk, fussing in one of the drawers. I was prepared for anything but what happened.

        Al was at my shoulder just at the moment Gunther pulled the gun. "Down, Sam!" he shouted, and I fell to the floor.

        The bullet missed me by inches. I crawled along the floor, thanking the gods for Al, for the chairs, for anything that kept me from getting shot. I grabbed the .357 from my shoulder holster and tried to make my way to the desk without giving Gunther another opportunity to blow my brains out.

        There was another shot and a hot sword of pain cut through my left leg. I brought the gun up and aimed and fired. The old man caught the bullet in his shoulder and fell back against the wall, dropping the gun. It got real quiet and then the door burst open and a bunch of San Francisco's finest poured into the room.

        "He's dead," one cried out, leaning over the old man's body.

        "Great." I rolled over onto my back and looked up into Al's face. "Close one," I managed. God, those dark eyes were so filled with pain.

        "I should've been here sooner." Al pressed his lips together tightly, like he does when he's trying to keep his emotions in check. "You could'a been killed."

        "Not necessarily," I returned softly. "And I'm not dead, Al."

        I got a free trip to the hospital, and James Gunther went to the morgue. Bates, ready to turn over any information the cops wanted, practically jumped at the opportunity to turn state's evidence.

        As the doctor checked me over, and treated my leg wound, a minor one, I wondered why I hadn't leaped. Maybe I had a loose end to cover in L.A. As they bandaged me up, and insisted I rest before catching my flight, Al appeared in the room. He had that mother hen look on his face, and didn't seem quite as tired as he'd been back at Gunther's.

        I was left alone with Al. He was puffing on one of his obnoxious cigars and not looking too happy. It looked like I would, as usual, have to make the first move.

        "I love you," I said, trying hard to keep from reaching for him. The touch was impossible anyway.

        He'd pulled the cigar out of his mouth and was looking at me like I was the Moon, his head tilted to one side. "I miss you," he said, and his voice was barely above a whisper. The link was blinking in his pants pocket and I knew we were being monitored. He reached over and switched it off, again. This was important.

        "I've been thinking a lot about things." It was getting hard for me to keep my voice steady. "I think, for now, it's enough just having you here. You're alive, and real, and I just discovered today what it would be like if you weren't around. I can't live with that, Al."

        "But you figured it all out, without the link, or Ziggy--or me."

        I could see where this was leading. He was going to suggest that I might be able to Leap around the cosmos without him. I couldn't let that happen. It was fine when I didn't remember what we really meant to each other--it was safe just being a buddy--but once I remembered the finer points of our relationship he couldn't stand seeing me. Me, I longed for the sight of him now. More so than before.

        "We're partners," I said the words decisively. "I couldn't have gone into Gunther's house or made the bust without your back up. Hutch would have died if you hadn't told me to get down. There isn't another person who can think like I do, or can tell when I need advice No one. Just you. I won't accept a substitute."

        I pushed myself off the table and limped over to his slumped figure. My hand passed through his shoulder, but it made his head come up. He was crying. There were tears on his cheeks and his whole body was trembling. Maybe I was the first person he'd loved like this since Beth. Now, I wasn't there and he was alone. I was a ghost, just as much as she had been. Something he could visit, but never touch.

        "God,'s been hard." Al was shaking his head again. "I can't keep the link off forever and there isn't enough time in the world to tell you everything. Hear me out, okay?" He wiped his face with the back of his hand. "I won't leave you in time alone. I promise you." He was fairly shouting the words, as if convincing himself that was his decision. "Before today I could forget the other stuff--I made myself swiss-cheese. When you...remembered...I had to remember, too. It wasn't easy, and no one back home could figure it out. Beeks is at her wit's end, and Gooshie wants to know why I shut the link off. He has to make reports, every detail, and...."

        His hand went down and switched the link on. Something impulsive took over in me. Leaning down, I touched his image with my lips, covering his mouth with mine. There was nothing there, but he returned the gesture. It was more symbolic than anything, but I felt better.

        "I love you, too," he said gruffly. Then, it was back to business as usual. Maybe it was the kiss, but he seemed to be more of his own self. We couldn't make love, or hug, but we could touch in other ways, emotionally if not physically.

        He was worried about my leg and I convinced him it was fine. Then I leaped. It was if the gods or god in charge wanted us to have those moments together. The blue light blurred over his image as I went on to the next Time....

The End


The following story is a sequel to this one.  Starsky & Hutch are not the focus of this story, but it deals with issues from "Last Echo of Gunfire."  It's here so readers may follow the continuing story line.   Enjoy! -- Flamingo


Lover's Leap


Doreen Tracy

        The moment the Leap ended, I felt the hot wind whip into my face. For a moment I was disorientated, but quickly caught my bearings. The grey coverall and patch I wore told me I was working for the Forest Service, and the smoke that stung my eyes and burned my throat was from a fire. Great.

        As a kid, I had idolized Cory Stuart, one of Lassie's errant owners. Somehow, at the time, I tried to imagine myself as a forest ranger, working in Yellowstone, helping the eco-system, though we didn't call it that, then.

        Well, time to implement Plan A. Adapt. I joined a group of men dressed as I was. One of them stuck a shovel in my hand and I joined in, digging a firebreak. It was hard work, and usually after a Leap I felt like falling over and taking a nap. Each shovelful of dirt was an effort, but I did my part, hoping that Al would show up soon and give me some idea of why I was here.

        Usually, I try very hard to focus on the situation at hand. It's unusual, during the course of a Leap, to have the luxury of time to ponder the Leap before; the people, changed lives, or whatever I've done to alter history. The digging was mindless work and I could think while I did it. The Leap before this one had radically altered my thoughts, rediscovering the relationship Al and I had shared.

        We'd been lovers. Christ, even in the limbo of mid-Leap intense images flashed on my mind. Al's face, when he'd clarified our relationship, his touch before--thank god I now had the memory of that.

        We finished the firebreak, and, after a short rest, we went through the forest putting out hot spots. It was a lot of digging and dumping water, hosing underneath campsites, and so on.

        I took a long drink from my canteen, after finding out my name was Cain Rostock. It was printed on the khaki over-wrap on the canteen. Just as I drained the last drops of water, I saw Al He was eyeing the link, busying himself with the buttons and flashing lights. Pointedly, I noticed, trying hard not to look at me.

        His timing was perfect. The group around me had apparently been working for hours and it was quitting time. Camp, I was told, was a brisk two mile walk, if I elected to take it, and I did. That would give me a chance to talk to Al and get the low down on this mission.

        He strolled up to me as I walked down the road. It was a straight shot to camp, and either I had gotten used to the smoke, or it was clearing out.

        "Look at the treetops, Sam." Al squinted as he stared upwards. "Wind's changing direction. That's why you're here."

        "Uh, Al, I can't change the weather."

        "No, silly." Al was back on the link "Your name is...."

        "Cain Rostock. Got it."

        "You're twenty-four years old and this is your third year as a forest reserve firefighter. We're in Southern California, just on the edges of the Angeles Forest, near Strawberry Peak.

        "In the next twenty-four hours you have to keep your eyes open for a trainee named Jake Franidin. Young guy, green, and wet behind the ears. He's in your camp. He's going to die when you fight a wild fire, buffeted by the winds changing flow and a few other things...." Al hit the side of the link. "I don't quite know yet."

        "How are you doing?"

        "Uh...." He was not doing well. Somehow, he looked older, and tired. "Fine. I'm just fine. Y'know, this place kind of reminds me of my...."

        "Which wife, Al? Or girlfriend?" The light patter was beginning to get to me. I stopped walking, and half-expected Al to just open the IC door and leave. He stood there behind me, looking down at the ground, and the link, avoiding eye contact. "I didn't forget the last leap, and what happened, Al. We have to talk"

        "Damn it, Sam." His chest was going up and down fast, his expression twisted and upset. "I've been through hell the last week. Tina and I...." Pressing his lips together, he gazed off into the forest.

        Characteristically, he was closing up. If I didn't press, he'd leave and observe, strictly without emotion, the rest of the Leap. I'd seen him do it before when things got too close, and it just wasn't pleasant.

        "Tell me, Al."

        From the look on Al's face it wasn't good news. "Tina and I had a falling out. She quit the Project, went to her mother's. She suspected a few things, but it wasn't us. Not only that, but I had a lot of explaining to do about switching off the link--told 'em it was malfunctioning and I had to shut it off or it would overload. Dumb explanation, and it won't work again, so let's just drop whatever we were talking about and get on with this Leap."

        "I don't want to just drop it, Al." I put myself into stubborn mode, not moving an inch. "And, there's no reason to switch off the link. You can talk to me about anything as long as...."

        "Not that." Al was going into himself fast and it was only a matter of moments before he'd go back to the IC. Running away. I was beginning to remember other things, too. An all-nighter we pulled together in the early days, trying to coordinate some paperwork. Al was never big on computers, more into administration. We got a little...close. I wanted him so bad it hurt, but...there were other people around. I didn't give a tinker's damn if they knew, and Al said he didn't either, but it was private. For home, only.

        "Al, I want to tell you...."

        His head snapped up, and the saddest look came into his eyes. "I know, Sam. And I do, too, but not now." He hit the controls on the link and the door opened. "There will be plenty of time, later...." His voice altered as he entered the white light. "When you come home."

        He was gone. I pulled myself together and made it to camp with no problem.

        Jake Franklin was a real likeable kid, married, no children. It seemed that he and Cain were friends. That made my job a little easier. He was from Indiana, so we had some common ground there, but Cain was from New York, so I had to act like I was a little more worldly.

        Darkness came on a little sooner than expected. As Al predicted, the fire was spreading because of the wind change, and instead of turning in, we were put in trucks and taken to the fire line. The heat was intense and the water supply wasn't much to speak of. We were fighting the fire with dirt and praying for rain. There had been a drought in this area for years though, so we were fighting a losing battle. I kept an eagle eye on Jake and insisted he stay at my side.

        The tinder was dry as bone and the flames licked up the trees like matchsticks. I took my eyes off Jake for an instant, and in a sudden burst of fire, he was gone. It took a few minutes for me to find him again. Dropping the shovel, I took off at a dead run, just barely managing to knock him clear from a failing tree.

        We were both pretty badly singed, but I carried Jake over my shoulders and hit the road and help within a few minutes. As they loaded Jake into the ambulance, Al appeared at my side.

        "Are you all right?"

        I could hear the anxiety in his voice. Waving off the emergency personnel, I waited to leap, keeping my expression tight. Fine. If he wanted to keep it all business, that's what he'd get.

        Certainly, in this Leap, things had happened fast, and within moments I'd be overcome by the blue light and on to another adventure.

        After a few minutes, I realized I hadn't leaped yet, and it was a good chance that I wasn't here for just Jake. Al was standing behind me, looking a little angry, and scared. Turning quickly, I faced him. "Do you think for one minute," I said, forcing back the emotion in my voice, "that I would jeopardize your rank, or the Project, with our relationship? What am I to you, Al? Your lover, just some casual fling, or what? Is that why you always bring up the number of women you've been with, or how many marriages you've had? Maybe you're trying to prove to me what a man you are, but I don't think so."

        His eyes were lit by the fire. It intensified the anger that was building between us. God, or time was giving us a chance to fight it out. Or let it die. I didn't want that, because the thought of Al, now, was enough to make me cry. I missed him so much and I was willing to do anything to win him.

        I saw his shoulders slump. His face was etched in pain. Suddenly, I could see why he switched off the link, why he was so private about our relationship. And I was pulling our relationship apart by not remembering. I was his kid, the only thing he really loved in the world.

        "Christ, Sam, what do you want from me?" The words were a whisper, wrenched from him. "I can't be anything but what I am. I thought you understood that. I've never been the 'huggy' type, or someone to restrict you with a smothering love. You were never that way with me. I don't want to share you with anyone. Not the Project, not people. It was those times, Sam, when I could pull you away from the place, get you home, take care of you, just be together. Us. Those were the times when I could say what you want me to say now. You know I love you." The words were barely audible, and the link was blinking madly, as if having trouble with the flow of the conversation.

        My eyes were burning, probably from smoke, maybe from tears. A couple of the guys I'd met at camp were headed towards me, looking concerned. Al followed as they drove me back to camp where the doc looked at my minor burns and bandaged my hands where they'd touched the burning tree just before I'd grabbed Jake.

        I was a hero among these guys. It took some doing to convince them that I was okay and all I wanted to do was sleep. The fire, I was informed, was three quarters of the way out, and fire planes would be here in just a few hours.

        In minutes I was going to Leap and I'd be alone again, without the safety net of Al to catch me until I landed in someone else's life. I was scared and it must've shown through the face I wore. The others had moved off so I could sleep. Al knelt at my side, glowing softly like a nightlight. The ground was so hard, but I knew, regardless, I'd sleep well tonight, unless I leaped before the sun rose.

        He was holding the link in his hands, his fingers caressing the side instead of slamming it. The link was something I'd created. Sure, Gooshie had made up some of the software, but the links were something I'd built in the Lab, while working on the accelerator. My design.

        Maybe I could register Al's range of emotion by the way he treated it, but right now, I didn't know what to think or say. I was ashamed of the words I'd said to him, this so private man that really loved the hell out of me. How could I say those things to him?

        It was getting warm inside the sleeping bag, and I carefully took off my shirt, trying hard not to dislodge doc's bandages on my hands. I'd slipped off my jumpsuit before sliding in.

        Al just knelt there, watching me silently. I felt like looking away from him, still terribly ashamed, feeling like twelve different kinds of heel. Finally, I said, "I know this might be a lame excuse, but I forgot, Al. Those nights at the Project, when you pulled me away. Hell, I was ready to go at it in my office, but you always managed to find something else to do, or make me go home. Work is work, you'd say. You never talk about your past to anyone else there, just me."

        "We've been together twenty-two years, Sam. I never touched you until five years ago." The

        link was shoved in his jacket pocket and I knew the meaning of the frantically flashing red lights. Ziggy was having trouble with transmission. Tough. "You wanted me to. You were sick with the flu. I was rubbing your back and...."

        "We sort of went on from there," I whispered. Now I recalled the first time. It had been so natural, like a culmination of a lot of things; Al had never had a male lover before me. I hadn't changed him by wanting him--he said it was progression and I was the only man he'd ever love.

        I broke down. I hadn't cried when I'd been Hutch, or even the first time he'd gone when the pain of remembering had been overwhelming for him. This was the first time I cried for myself and wanting, like a little kid to go home. I knew now why I hadn't leaped yet. This had to get out of my system, or I wouldn't function as a Leaper.

        "Aw, Sam." I had turned over onto my side, away from his gaze and the sadness there. It hurt to look at him and know we couldn't be together for a while--and god only knew how many months we'd already been apart. My eyes drifted down to my bare chest and I saw Al's hands there. He was in the bedroll with me, his arms wrapped around me, face resting against my bare back, or so I imagined.

        His hands played across my chest, and even though I couldn't feel him, I remembered what his touch had been like. Electricity flowed into my body and I felt the warmth of his cheek on my skin, I sensed his tears on my back, and somehow knew that the memory was enough for now.

        I felt so secure in his arms. There had been times when I'd get frustrated with some aspect of the Project--a system crash, having to go backwards and repair a simple thing, and he'd drag me home. Canned soup and god-awful coffee. He'd watch me eat, with those eyes of his taking in every nuance of movement. Sometimes he'd look so intense, and I'd wonder why he stared so. Maybe he was thinking over some private problem, or just tired and dozing with his eyes open. Now, I knew. Al had an idea that I wouldn't be around much longer, and it might be a long time before he could be with me again, take care of me, watch over me like a mother hen. Maybe he was memorizing those times together.

        A rock was digging into my side, and I had to turn over onto my back. Of course, I went right through Al's arms. His eyes opened for a moment, and he snuggled as close as a hologram could get without touching. I just put my arm through his chest and brought my hand over his shoulder. It was like how we'd slept at home, except I'd usually have him using my chest as a pillow most nights. That was impossible here. Al was out like a light, just dead asleep. Never knew anyone like him that could crash just about any where. The Imaging Chamber floor wouldn't be all that comfortable, but here he was, snoring softly and just out of it.

        I looked up through the trees and wished I could see a star. The fire had caused the sky to be quite hazy and a real mess. The burns on my hands were throbbing, and I didn't think I'd get much sleep, as tired as I felt.

        My mind drifted off to the day I'd Leaped. I couldn't remember details about the fight Al and I had. It must've been a doozy, to make him leave. He was never one to walk out on a good fight, and we'd had our share. Usually, we'd make sense of both sides of the argument, then compromise. I'd been so desperate--but I never mentioned what I was really thinking that day, and how much I wanted to use the Accelerator. Deep down, I think he knew I'd do it. It hurt to imagine his reaction when he arrived home and saw what was left of me on the floor. That had to have happened. My body is still back at the Project. What does he do now? At least he can touch that.

        "What are you thinking about?"

        He was awake, and looking at me with those dark, observant eyes. "Not much," I said, trying to sound rational. Frankly, the thought of Al sitting with my body in the waiting room, like it was some kind of wake, was very unsettling for me.

        "I know that look, kid." He sat up and cocked his head one side. "Heavy thoughts. What's bugging you?"

        Couldn't hide a thing from the man. "I guess I was worried about you, for the first time. I'm thinking about the time I'm not there...."

        "I don't dwell on it, and you shouldn't either. Kid, I don't spend every waking hour wishing you were home because that's an impossible thought. For now, anyway. For pete's sake, I spend as much time with you as I did before you Leaped. So, we've got this problem, and it's called contact. Hell, I can talk, you can, too. It's just not that often we can sit around like this and do it. Usually, you're off on the Leap at hand, and I'm spilling information as quick as you can assimilate it." He pulled the link out of his pocket and punched a few of the buttons. A frown creased his forehead. "Ziggy says you haven't leaped because there's something here you still need to do. He's searching the records for information and will get back to us as soon as possible. With a million ziggabites, you'd think it would spill stuff a lot faster."

        "It's just a computer, and can only work as fast as the people giving it information."

        "If that's a reflection on my abilities...."

        "Al...." I felt so warm and comfortable just basking in the conversation, that I didn't feel like arguing. I guess Al felt the same way. He tilted his head to one side, with one of those "what am I to do with you?" looks. If I thought hard enough, or imagined enough, I could believe we were home together, camping in the woods or something. All I wanted was the touch of his fingers on my skin, and god, I couldn't have it.

        "I know what you're thinking, Sam. It's impossible. Instead of getting ourselves worked up into a situation we can't do anything about, I should get my can back to the Project and shake a few screws loose."

        He hit a few buttons and tried to look neutral, but I wasn't buying it. I unzipped the sleeping bag and, as cold as it was, I gave him full benefit of the view. It was just enough to make his eyes widen before I pulled it back over myself and turned my back to him. Fine. You want to leave, do it, or stay.

        When I first started leaping, Al saw me as the person I leaped into. As time passed, it seemed he was seeing more and more "me," than the aura I projected. When I leaped into the beauty queen, it was a turning point. That was when I discovered he saw Sam Beckett instead of a stranger.

        There was a high blush on his cheeks and he shoved a cigar in his mouth, which could've been Freudian, but I wasn't about to say that. It was obvious he'd seen what I wanted him to see, and he was uneasy about it.

        "That was pretty pointless, Sam."

        I kept my back to him, and I felt the first of the shakes. It had been impulsive, and not very nice. Closing my eyes, I wished away the gesture, the whole damn thing. Maybe if I pushed away what I remembered of Al's and my love, it'd hurt less. Wishing away my first dive into the Accelerator, everything, wasn't going to help. I'd done the deed and now god or whoever was punishing me for prior sins.

        "Kid?" He moved to sit right by my side. "Let me in. What's going through your head?"

        "I never spent enough time with you. There were days you were bored, towards the end, when it was up to me and Gooshie to get things done. You spent a lot of time sitting on your hands. A couple of times you managed to drag me home, but sometimes I pushed you away."

        "Is that it?" Al sighed. "Christ, Sam, do you think I hold that against you?"

        "Of course not. You understood, better than a wife would've. It was your Project, too. I hold it against myself. I had no idea how much you meant to me...."

        "Shit." The curse came out sharp and angry. "You did care, Mr. Beckett, more than you realize. Hell, every minute we were together was precious--you told me that. I knew you wanted to get in the Accelerator. You hadn't perfected retrieval, and those nozzles in D.C. were ready to pull the plug. It was obvious you either had to leap, or see our little outfit in the desert pull up the rug. There were jobs at stake, losing your computer, if the jerks fought for it. You'd put that together, with Gooshie's help, from nuts and bolts. Hell, Ziggy is as much our kid, as anything else."

        "What did we fight about the night I left?"


        I rolled over and watched Al chew at his lower lip, keeping his eyes on the link. The cigar had disappeared. "What about her?"

        "You weren't making me break it off, but it was getting close to her findin' out." Al looked pensive, a dark frown clouding his features. "You don't remember much about it, eh?"

        "Something tells me it was important." It was frankly driving me nuts. "Like it was the biggest thing that came between us."

        "It was, I guess." Al smacked the link for effect, and shoved it in his pocket. "I locked you in your office. There, that's it. We blew up in the computer room, and the next thing you knew, I was shoving you down the hall. Gooshie was off somewhere, I dunno, just around, and we were alone. Late as hell. Usual shit."

        The memory was a blank. I flopped Onto my back, feeling like someone had yanked the scene from my mind like a bad tooth. "Locked in my...."

        "Don't remember, huh?"

        "We'll start fighting again."

        He shrugged. "Well, what's past is past, right?"

        "I promise you, Al. No fight, okay?"

        "I'm a hologram. You can't slug me this time."

        "I hit you?"

        "No way." He looked a little upset at the dismay in my voice. "You just threaten, like a little kid. You told me to get out of your face or you would belt me one, and that's when I dragged you down the hall."

        "Al." I was getting mildly annoyed at his segues into other parts of the story, except the section I needed to hear.

        "You were going to leap, then and there. You were in the permasuit. Standing there, programming Ziggy for your little walk in the park. You'd thought I'd left. I'm not that naive, Sam. Christ, you did everything in the book to distract me from what you wanted to do. When I walked in you looked like the kid with his hand in the cookie jar."

        Al had never talked about that time before, at least the nasty details. My idea was, since I couldn't remember the facts, that I'd left and there had been no chance for him to catch me at it. Again, my memory was faulty." It's still swiss-cheesed, Al."

        "Well, I sauntered in, and asked you what the hell you thought you were doing. In our own amiable fashion--you were on permanent PMS then, towards the end--you told me to get off, go play, or whatever."

        I could tell it was a hard thing for Al to remember, disturbing, and difficult to talk about.

        "There you were, standing in that suit, ready to die for your Project. I fought like hell with you, Sam, and locked you in your office. It's not pretty being the one finding the body, later. I didn't want to be the one, damn it. Up until then I had my cake, and anything else I wanted because you allowed it to go on."

        "You needed outside interests."

        "Yeah, right. You had the Project, and that big number cruncher, I had paperwork and you--and those other things. Hell, you encouraged my dates, just to keep me occupied. Well, sort of. There you were, in that damn room, getting ready to leave me. Self-sacrificing, as always."

        "I...." Suddenly, it hit me. What I needed to tell him. "I loved you, Al." He tried to interrupt me, but I kept talking. "I loved the dream, too. I had to carry through, I think. Sort of a holy obligation."

        "Your 'holy obligation' almost got you killed!"

        The words were a shout, stunning me into silence. He was angry, even after all these years of leaping, he still wanted my butt.

        "You weren't there when I arrived and found your body on the floor, Gooshie crying.... God, Sam, your heart had stopped. You weren't breathing. Just a shell. The med team got you back, but there were a few moments...." A shudder passed through him, visible and frightening. "I saw my life pass before my eyes, kid."

        "I must've broken out of my office."

        "No shit. I'd had words with you, and you got stubborn. Just like a mule, and it annoyed me past the point of reasoning with you. You might've been strong, but I thought I knew how to handle you. We practically slid down the hall, but I kept a solid grip on you until we hit your office. I tossed you in and coded the door. The last look I had of you was total fury. You wanted to kick my ass, and I wasn't about to let that happen because you'd do it and regret it later. That door slid back, solid. I figured I'd use the same trick I used at M.I.T. during spring rush. Something should've told me that wouldn't work with you."

        ''Then you went to town."

        "I'd been out before, to some damn reception. Those Navy things you hated. After I locked you in the office, I went for a drive to cool off. I figured once I vented a little, you'd mellow out and we could talk it through. No such luck." He rubbed his hand across his forehead, probably because he was getting a headache. I just knew it. Bad memories had a tendency to do that. "There was some girl on the road away from Alamagordo. I picked her up, gave her a ride. A real looker, as I remember. Next thing I knew the sky was lit up like the Fourth of July with the blue light. Leaping. I dumped her with the guards at the first checkpoint and practically put my car through the front exit to get there in time. I didn't make it. Damn it, Sam, why didn't you wait for me?"

        My head was aching from forcing the memory forward It was becoming a little clearer. There was a feeling that I hadn't wanted to see Al's face--that I was afraid of that last goodbye. It wasn't so much that he'd keep me from leaving, but that I hated saying goodbye. Tom, Dad, all those others I'd never said that to. It had been a good shot that I'd never see Al again. Anger had gotten the best of me, and maybe that was part of it, but the other reasons....

        "I didn't want to say goodbye to you, Al."

        "No excuse." Al shook his head, not accepting it. "It was sure suicide. Beeks tried to tell me other stuff, but I was too angry to listen to explanations except to fire up the Imaging Chamber and hear it from you, yourself. Once you'd leaped, and swiss-cheesed, I figured I'd never find out. I'd pushed you over the line, made you crazy to get in there."

        "I was crazy to do it, and I'm glad I did. 'We did it,' were the first words out of my mouth. Then...."

        "It was the adventure, wasn't it, Sam?" Al's expression softened. "You mean you didn't do it because I pissed you off?"

        "It had nothing to do with you, Al. Not a thing. I didn't want to leave, but if I didn't, would we have ever known that it worked? Would you take back one of these days? With all that's happened, good and bad? I wouldn't."

        "I'll be damned." Al shook his head in wonder. "It wasn't because of me?"

        "You have too much ego, Al. You could've drugged me, or better yet, made love to me right there in the Chamber and begged me to never leave your side and I think I still would have."

        "You were never one of those 'married to your job' types, Sam. Someone in trouble, or if I needed you for something important, that came numero uno. The Project, second. Of course, you forgot it was Christmas from time to time, not to mention your own birthday, and your mother calling."

        I was beginning to get sore there on the ground, and rolled over to a more comfortable position. I felt every ounce of pain that Al was projecting, not that he was aware of it, or doing it on purpose. I was the cause of that hurt, leaving him like I had.

        "If I ever make it home, Al," I promised. "I'll never leave you again."

        "Aw, Sam." He cocked his head to one side, half-smiling. "Don't make promises you can't keep."

        I sighed, knowing he spoke the truth. Inside, I wanted to keep the vow, and I was determined to do so, once I got home. Instead of trying to argue with him, and not accomplishing anything, I stretched my arms out to him. "Stay with me," I said softly, in a way I could remember would make Al shudder.

        He pressed his lips close together and glanced at the link, as if Ziggy had the answers. "I gotta go back, Sam," he said, his eyes bright. "The last time--god, Sam." With a touch of a button, or switch, whatever, he opened the door to home and slipped through quickly. I winced at the sound of it shutting behind him.

        In a few minutes I managed to doze off. It had hurt when he'd left, but maybe I deserved it. The message from him was loud and clear. It hurt so much for him to make love to me without actually being there. Maybe I could handle it, but he couldn't.

        The sound of people stirring roused me from slumber. I slid into my jumpsuit and wandered back to the main tent for breakfast, still wondering why I was there. Jake was still in the hospital, so that was out. It wasn't often I was in a place where more than one thing needed to be fixed. Well, often enough, I guess.

        As I picked at my eggs and toast, I wondered what Al was doing. The guys around me did their lively patter and made me feel like part of them. I could've enjoyed myself more if Al had been there, like always, giving me advice, making obscene comments about this or that. Anything but this new distance that had developed between us since last night.

        When he finally showed up, he was wearing the same rumpled clothing he'd been in the night before. Unshaven, eyes bright, unsteady gaze. I had to watch what I said, knowing full well that he'd been drinking and he was at his worst when that was going on. Stubborn, and not able to listen to reason

        He made a face at my plate. "Powdered, I bet," he commented.

        "Not bad." I lifted a forkful and took a bite. The eggs were okay, but that wasn't what I wanted to talk about. "Why am I...?"

        "Still here? I know, I know." Al glanced down at the link, a tiny frown between his dark eyes. "I had to nurse Ziggy all night. Why did you give it an ego, Sam? A royal pain...."

        Shrugging, I kept my eyes on my plate, knowing full well that even though the others around me were involved in their own conversations, they'd worry if I started talking to an invisible friend. I wiped my mouth with a paper napkin, and got up. "I'll see you around back, Al," I said, sotto voce.

        The large tent was right on the edge of the woods. I walked up a path, meeting Al not too far along. We were alone, and could talk.

        I sat down by a tree and picked at the bark that was flaking off the ancient pine.

        "Ziggy says in the original history, this group of firemen makes it through the day unscathed. There's a fire plane coming sometime this morning and it crashes, starting a new outbreak of fire."

        "So, what I need to do is make sure they either don't take off, or talk them into giving the plane a good looking over before they leave."

        "Sounds good. I'd go check with the foreman now." Al's eyes were on the link, as if he couldn't or wouldn't look at me.

        "Al?" I stood up, wanting so much to place my hands on his shoulders and make those dark eyes come up to meet mine. "I love you so much." It was mush, but it entailed everything I felt that I knew Al should know.

        He swallowed hard, eyes still averted.

        I guess it hurt. He was pushing me away, just working as Observer, and trying very hard not to go into personals. I'd bared my soul to him, and he was emotional, but not expressing it verbally. Turning away, I went to the foreman. My persona was respected, and well-experienced. The man in charge took my advice--that the plane posed a danger if it should crash into the dry tinder.

        As I came out of his office, I knew in my bones I'd been successful. Soon, I'd be leaping into someone else, or, slim chance, leaping home. Al was standing there as I walked out, hands shoved in pockets. No sign of the link.

        Christ, he was crying. It wasn't obvious, but his eyes had that wet look, crinkled into a wincing pain.

        I hurried over to him. As his head lifted, I could see what I meant to him. His eyes took me in like a thirst in the driest desert. I knew, damn it, and it was as if my heart was torn from me. I was his life, all he loved in the world, and it cut him to the bone when he couldn't touch me, or love me in the way he wanted. Pushing me away was his only means of staying sane.

        "Sam." His voice was shattered glass in his throat. "I guess you'll leap now."

        Carefully I wrapped my arms around the hologram. As gently, he leaned against me. There were no tearing sobs, no desperate pleading. We had the hellish gap between us, and being together would have to be enough for now.

        The first strains of the leap touched my mind. In that moment, I felt a warmth touch me, strong arms encircle my shoulders and the quick scent of cigar and light cologne. Al's wet face pressed against my chest, then the blue light took me, denying my senses further touch.

The End