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The lecture hall was already crowded when Sam got there, but he managed to find a vacant chair up front when someone changed their minds and left. Not that he could blame them. He hoped this wouldn't be another of those long, boring ramblings; he wasn't in the mood. His time could have been much better spent studying, or going out with Darlene.

On the other hand, he always liked to keep up on current affairs, and this one seemed promising. Their guest speaker was going to be one of the future Apollo astronauts. Sam had always had a spot in his heart for astronomy. The universe out there reminded him much of the universe within. Since quantum physics was his main field of study, he was also drawn to 'the final frontier'.

A barely discernible hush fell over the crowd and he knew it was about to begin. He looked up to follow their guest's entrance with interest.

Sam's reaction to the astronaut wasn't at all what he expected.

His breath caught in his throat at the first glimpse of the man. A giant shock wave ran through his system, making him momentarily light-headed. He stared at the figure in confusion. The man was a stranger to him; just an average guy. He was on the short side, with black hair and twinkling brown eyes. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to cause such an extreme reaction.

Maybe it was the heat getting to him, the air conditioning didn't seem to be working very well... or maybe it was working too well, it would explain the cold sweat he'd broken out in. He shook his head to clear it, shrugged in dismissal, and settled down to listen.

The man introduced himself as Lieutenant Commander Albert Calavicci. He began talking about some of the things involved in training to be an astronaut. His love of the subject was transmitted through his voice, and the speech was interspersed with light humor. Sam found himself transfixed, knowing he could listen to this man talk forever.

When the Lieutenant was through...which was all too soon for Sam...he took questions from the audience. Sam wracked his brain to come up with something to ask that would sound reasonably intelligent, while his heart pounded in his chest at the mere thought of opening his mouth. He tried to force himself to calm down...what the hell was wrong with him?!

Someone asked Calavicci how he'd felt upon seeing Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. A shadow of pain passed over his smooth features for just an instant. Sam didn't know if anyone else noticed it, but he had. Then the Lieutenant answered that he'd been a prisoner of war in Vietnam at the time; however, watching a tape of it had moved him just as deeply as if he'd been there when it happened. It brought a strange feeling of kinship in Sam. He remembered that night, staying up to watch the event, while thinking of Tom, off in boot camp. His brother had done a tour and come home safely. Sam felt an odd stab of guilt for this poor man who hadn't been as lucky as Tom had been.

Too soon, clapping announced the end of the lecture. Calavicci disappeared out the side door, as everyone rose from their seats.

Spurred on without conscious thought, Sam struggled through the crowd to the doors as quickly as he could. Out in the hall, there was no sign of the man. Ignoring an odd let-down feeling, he nevertheless sprinted down the hall.

Then, Sam caught sight of his quarry up ahead. He made a last ditch jog, and suddenly found himself right behind Calavicci. He grabbed the man's arm to get his attention. The Lieutenant turned around to see who had so forwardly invaded his personal space, raising questioning eyebrows at Sam.

And suddenly Sam realized, he had no idea what he wanted to say. "I, uh..." he stumbled awkwardly.

"Is there something I can do for you?" Al asked politely, glancing down at the hand that was still on his arm, meaningfully.

Sheepishly, Sam let go of his arm, and fell into step beside him. "I...just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your lecture."

"Thanks," Al said, genuinely pleased. "Are you an astronomy major?"

"Physics," Sam admitted.

The eyebrow inched higher. "Yeah? Me too."

“Huh?" Sam asked, not sure he understood. "You mean you're going for a college degree, and also training to be an astronaut?"

"Actually, it'll be my second degree. I got my first in engineering, years ago." At Sam's amazed look, he smiled; Sam found it a very warming sight. "I figured it's good to keep busy."

"I thought I was bad," Sam mumbled.

"What?"

"I'm working on my third and fourth doctorates."

Al held his hands out. "I'm just studying part time, while getting ready to go up into space. What are you, some kind of genius or something?"

Sam shrugged, inexplicably embarrassed. "Yes," he replied in low voice.

"Yeah?" Al responded with a trace of awe. "That's a kick in the butt. How many degrees do you plan on getting?"

Sam squirmed under the scrutiny. "I don't know, how ever many I feel like, I guess. What about you?" he asked, anxious to the topic from himself. Are you going to school full time when you come back from the mission? M.I.T. is a good school," he added with growing enthusiasm.

"I was thinking about it."

To Sam's dismay, he noted they were fast approaching the door. He didn't know why, but he couldn't let this man out of his sight just yet. He had to think fast. "Uh, listen, could we...would you like to get a cup of coffee or something? I'd like to talk more about the lecture...” Jesus, it almost sounded like he was begging for this man's attention. Maybe it was stress, his friends were always telling him he worked too hard. Maybe he should seriously consider a vacation.

"I don't know..."

Sam babbled on. "I'm sorry, I haven't even introduced myself. My name is Sam Beckett."

Al froze abruptly, hand on the doorknob. He turned to stare at Sam, almost as if he was seeing a ghost.

His long silence made Sam nervous. "Mr. Calavicci?" he questioned.

That seemed to break him out of his trance. "Jeez!" He winced. "Call me Al, please!"

Sam smiled widely. "Okay, Al. So, how about it?"

“Sure,” he answered, without a trace of hesitation.

 

XXX

 

The restaurant was small and quiet. A nice place for easy conversation. When Al had said he hadn't eaten yet and suggested they go for dinner instead of coffee, Sam agreed readily. Now, he was sitting there listening to Al talk about space... and eating his second dinner of the night.

Al drained his cocktail and ordered another. "You know, when I heard your name, it sounded very familiar... Are you famous, too?” he teased.

“Not yet," Sam replied with a sly smile. He thought for a moment. "Maybe you know my brother. He was a Navy Seal in Vietnam, '70 and 71. Thomas Beckett."

"Doesn't ring a bell. I guess maybe your name just reminded me of that playwright.”

“People are always asking me if I'm any relation.”

There was a lull in the conversation and Sam fought to think of something to say that would hold the astronaut's attention. He felt inadequate and stupid – which was a totally new experience for him. What could he possibly have in common with this man to talk about? Al had seen and done... and suffered so much. Sam could see into the man's eyes, it was as if he saw into his soul. And it was crying out....

Once again he shook himself out of his musings and focused on Al's voice.

“So, what are you planning on doing with your life, besides being a professional degree collector,” Al asked, as if he was really interested.

Hesitantly, Sam began to tell of his hopes and ideas. As he talked, he gathered courage and momentum, pouring out all this crazy dreams to this stranger.

When he finally ran out of steam, Al was looking at him, seeming a little dazed. “Do you really think you can make time travel a reality?”

“Sure, with the right research, and of course, money. It's not so far fetched, really. I guess you probably think I'm one of those mad scientists though.

“No.”

Sam's head snapped up and he stared.

Al smiled. “Why should I? You're talking about traveling through time. Which is, basically speaking, the same as traveling through space – something I'm about to do."

“Yes!" Sam sat up in his chair, excited as he hadn't been in a long time. This man really did understand what he was talking about.

After that, he didn't have to worry about any more lulls. They talked animatedly, finally taking their discussion back to Sam's apartment for more comfort.

 

XXX

 

They sat in the small apartment, drinking beer and chatting amiably. Sam was pleasantly buzzed, face expressive as he talked. “It frosted my family all to hell that I spent my first two years at M.I.T getting a doctorate in ancient languages. I thought my brother Tom was going to strangle me when he found out.” He grinned at the remembrance. "That's not what I sent you to a school like MIT for,” he mimicked. "As if he personally was responsible for everything, including my I.Q.” He paused. “Come to think of it, maybe he was, maybe I got all the brain allotment for the male Beckett children.”

Al shook his head in amusement. “But you made it all up to them, by getting a medical degree. Why didn't you stick with medicine?"

“I got that degree because...well, it's always nice to have a doctor in the house. I need to learn. I can't just sit back and stick thermometers down patients throats. There's a whole world out there to explore, that's why I went into physics. It's what I really wanted to do all along, anyway.”

Al smiled. Despite Beckett's flippant attitude about clashes with his family over his studies, Al's first assessment had been correct, he'd gone into medicine to make up for his earlier faux-pas. He was a nice kid. A little too flippant maybe, he could stand to take life a little more seriously. It was like a game to him, but Al could tell beneath all that lay a much more complex man than anyone knew. Chances are he'd hidden that part of him far away from everyone, family included. With a mind like his, he'd need to protect himself.

And Al could understand all about protecting yourself. He'd hidden behind a carefree, tough-guy facade until he'd made it real. It had gotten him out of the orphanage and through that excruciating time in military school...which was pretty much the same thing, as far as he was concerned.

Now this kid was starting to get under his skin, in one evening. Looking back, he couldn't believe the speed with which they'd gotten acquainted. Of course they did have a lot in common, field-of-interest wise. He had to admit the thing that hooked him in the first place was that name. As soon as he'd heard it everything changed. He couldn't have heard it before, yet would swear he had... and not in relation to a playwright. It was weird, unexplained. He had to get to know Sam Beckett.

It just went to show, life was full of strange quirks. It made life interesting.

Besides, Sam deserved to have someone take him seriously. Someone to spur him along and let him know he wasn't alone, even if it felt like it. The kids at the orphanage had gotten a big kick out of Al's announcement that he was going into space one day. In those days space travel was science fiction to the general population.

Like time travel was now.

Al glanced at his watch, cursing in surprise. “Holy shit, it's one o'clock. I gotta get going.” He rose.

Sam got up too. “It was great talking with you. Maybe we can do it again sometime soon,” he continued hesitantly. “I mean... it's a relief to have someone to talk to that understands what I'm saying,” he explained hastily.

“I wish I could kid, but I'm flying out of here for Florida in the morning.”

Sam's face fell in visible disappointment. “Oh yeah. Well, uh, have a nice flight. And good luck with your mission. I'll be watching you on T.V.”

Sam stood there looking so lost, Al had to feel sorry for him. Sam was what, twenty-three? Yet, standing there shifting from foot to foot nervously, he reminded Al of an overeager teen, as anxious to please as a puppy.

“Listen, why don't I give you an address where you can write to me? Who knows, maybe I will go to MIT. I'm sure you'll still be there,” Al said teasingly.

Sam brightened. “Great. I'll give you my address, too.”

 

XXX

 

In bed that night, Al remembered where he'd heard the name before. It was from his dream. The weird one, where he was in a strange room, dressed in a white outfit... and there was a man standing over him. His uncle??

“Sam Beckett – remember that name. Sam Beckett.”

 

XXX

 

After Al left, Sam got himself another beer and sat on the couch staring into space for a long time. The apartment was quiet and still; Al had taken much of the life from it when he'd gone.

Sam had never reacted like this before, and had to admit it disturbed him. He was irresistibly drawn to Al Calavicci as he'd never been to anyone, not even girls. He just wished he could figure out why. Sure, the man was one of the few who understood what he was talking about, and didn't think him crazy for wanting to travel in time...that was a big plus right there. It had gone a long way to finishing the process that had started the minute he saw him.

And there was more. Being a genius, Sam wasn't easily impressed. Al had captivated him with his tales, and he was fascinated with the man. The Lieutenant only made vague references to his personal life – seven years MIA! He'd grown up in an orphanage, and gotten himself into military school as soon as he was old enough. And being poor, he'd done it entirely on his brains. Sam wanted to know more of this amazing person. He sensed a strength, courage, ambition, spirit, and love of life in Al that made him a very unique person.

Unfortunately, none of it explained his near faint when he'd first caught sight of Al.

Sam dreamed that night, too. Strange vague images swirled around in his head, that he didn't understand. At the center of it all...was Al. Bits and pieces of scenes combined to form a collage. In one of the oddest, Al was standing on a sidewalk somewhere, singing 'Let It Be Me' to Sam and showing him a photo of a bikini-clad girl sitting on the hood of a car. How the hell was he supposed to interpret that one?!

He couldn't remember much about the dreams the next morning, but given what he did recall, he wasn't sure he wanted to remember.

 

XXX

 

The days were passing excruciatingly slowly. Sam was mortified. His grades were actually slipping, from A's to B pluses. Not a good sign. His teachers complained that he was distracted. He was having trouble concentrating. He sent a letter off to Al, and anxiously checked the mail box each day.

He was a mess.

logically, he knew this was not sane. He'd only spent one evening with the guy, now he couldn't get him out of his head. It bordered dangerously on obsession. And it scared the hell out of him. It was almost as if... he couldn't allow the thought to form, but it nagged at the back of his mind anyway.

Finally in desperation, he sought out the school psychologist. With embarrassed reluctance, he explained about their evening and his dreams. Carefully leaving out his emotional response to the first sight of Al. He couldn't bring himself to admit that one.

She talked to him about hero worship, but that didn't seem to pan out too well as a theory. Then she tactfully asking him if he'd had any...sexual feelings for the man. Or any men.

Sam bolted out of her office and never went back.

 

XXX

 

Sam sat in the park, watching a couple of kids playing Frisbee. It was early March, still chilly, but he needed the fresh air to clear his head. Al had written pretty regularly, all things considered. Keeping Sam abreast of what he was doing, and asking about his studies.

It wasn't enough. If he was really honest with himself, he wanted to see Al again. Needed to see him.

Sam had done a lot of thinking about what the psychologist had said to him. His feelings were not rational, that he couldn't deny. He'd poked and prodded at his emotions, trying to figure out if she was right. Was he gay? He'd never even had to consider the question until now. But straight guys didn't dream of a man they met once, or wait by the mailbox in anticipation, or almost faint at the mere sight of him. Or think about him almost constantly.

And now he'd broken up with Darlene Their physical relationship had gone downhill after Sam's visit to the psychologist. Rationally, he reasoned it could be just the idea, now implanted in his head and taking up too much of his thoughts, that was causing these problems. When you dwell on something, you give it power. That didn't explain his feelings for Al though, they'd started long before then.

Like the minute he....

Sam jumped up abruptly, striding out of the park. It was ludicrous, it implied some sort of love at first sight...something he didn't believe in, not even where women were concerned.

It was only Al he felt this way about. After much self-analysis and a painful experiment, he knew he wasn't gay. At least he didn't have any desire to have sex with men.

But he also had to be honest and admit that his behavior reeked of a crush – a big one. Was there such a thing as being in love with someone emotionally, but not physically? Or was it only a matter of time before he turned gay?

His family often reminded him that he'd had a big case of hero worship for his big brother from the time he was a baby. And it was true, he'd idolized Tom in those days. That might be all it was with Al... but he was an adult now, and looking up to a brother was a far cry from this obsession.

These questions were driving him crazy, and no matter how hard he thought, he could come no closer to answering them. The only thing he knew was that all of it centered around Al Calavicci.

That was where his answer lay.

 

XXX

 

Sam stood uncertainly on the doorstep, cold feet at the last minute making him unsure of whether he'd ring the bell or bolt down the street. Surely his insanity was getting worse...to pull a stunt like this was straight-jacket time.

While he was still trying to make his decision, it was taken out of his hands by Fate. The door opened abruptly and a woman started out. He backed up a step. She looked up and noticed him. "Yes? Can I help you?" She would be Ruth, Al's wife. More accurately, his fourth wife.

Sam's courage deserted him. "Hi, uh, I'm selling magazine subscriptions to help pay my way through college. But I can see you were about to go out, so I'll come by some other time."

Ruth's face lit up with surprised recognition. "Sam Beckett?"

He stared at her dumbly, and nodded.

"The Sam Beckett?"

Another nod. Maybe he was famous, after all.

Ruth grasped his arm. "It's great to finally meet you. Al will be so thrilled!"

She was pulling him inside, and he had no choice but to let her lead him. He hoped she was right about Al being thrilled. He hadn't exactly called first.

"Al!” she yelled. "You have a visitor."

No chance to run out the door, with Ruth's hand still firmly on his arm. In a moment of panic, Sam wondered if she was psychic or something, and knew of his desire to escape.

Then she let go of his arm, offering her hand. "I'm Ruth."

Sam smiled and accepted it. "Yeah, I know, hi." He wished he could say, 'I've heard a lot about you', it was the usual comment in situations like this one. Except it wasn't true. He knew her name, the number wife she was, not much else. It only served to remind him how much a stranger this man was that he'd just barged in on. It wasn't like they were best buddies, their letters weren't even that frequent... Al's, at least.

Sam looked up from his contemplation of his feet as Al walked into the room, unprepared for the rush of happiness seeing the man again caused. For that moment alone, he was glad he'd come.

"Holy shit!" Al exclaimed, face lighting up in surprise. "Sam!"

The next thing Sam knew, he was being enveloped in a bear hug. An uncontrollable smile split his face as they moved apart, relief making his knees weak. "Hi, Al."

"It's Sam!" Al exclaimed unnecessarily to his wife.

She gave him a smile of loving patience. "I know, dear."

"What the hell are you doing in this neck of the woods?" Al asked, slinging an arm around his shoulders.

Uh oh. "I...it's spring break. Where else do college students go on spring break?"

"So you're staying in Daytona Beach then, or what? How long can you visit? C'mon in then," he pulled Sam into the living room.

Sam's head was spinning, slightly nonplussed by the enthusiastic welcome. His paranoid imaginings hadn't included this scenario. "I should've called first," he mumbled anyway.

"Nonsense," Ruth spoke up. "Do you like beer, Sam?"

"What kind of question is that?" her husband asked. "Of course he does."

Sam smiled politely and nodded to her. She disappeared toward what he guessed was the kitchen. He obediently sat in the chair offered, watching Al collapse in a recliner with a casual sprawl.

"Are you staying in Daytona?" Al repeated again.

"Oh, uh, yeah, a couple of guys I know have this beach house, and they said I could crash with them for a couple of days." He was becoming a regular Pinocchio. Which, with his nose, he couldn't afford.

"You don't strike me as the type of guy who'd go in for all that adolescent stuff. If you'd rather stay here, you're more than welcome," Al suggested in what sounded like a carefully neutral tone of voice.

"Do you really want me?" Sam blurted. He bit his tongue, and gratefully accepted the beer Ruth was holding out, covering his blunder by concentrating on opening the bottle.

"Of course, we'd love to have you stay with us," Ruth assured him.

But that's not who Sam needed to hear it from. He dared glance up at Al.

"Great! We'll have a ball." Al winked, breaking out into one of those roguish smiles of his, that could make him look so boyish and carefree. The sight warmed Sam, going straight to his heart.

“Oh boy..." he mumbled into his beer.

 

XXX

 

It was late at night. Sam was pacing the guest room, unable to sleep.

Al was only a man. A man with faults, who wasn't perfect, not a God. Human, fallible, probably with some nasty habits which would eventually annoy Sam to the point of violence. He had to stop trying so hard to...to kiss up to this guy. Al liked him, that should be enough. This bout of insecurity was worse than when he was mooning around over Lisa.

And look where that had gotten him. A crazy elopement in the middle of the night, and just as quick annulment when their families found out. It proved yet again that rash decisions were usually the wrong ones. Did that stop him? Never. He was doomed to make them over and over again.

A light knock at the door startled him out of his thoughts. He went over and opened it a crack.

Al was standing there in his pajamas. "I was on my way back from the bathroom, and I heard moving around in here. Whatsa matter, can't sleep?”

"I guess not. I'm sorry, hope I didn't disturb anybody," he added, chagrined.

Al waved it off. "Naw. besides, Ruthie wanted me to check on our guest, make sure you were comfortable. Wanna watch TV or something? I don't have to be anywhere tomorrow, and there's still a case of beer in the fridge. What do you say, how's it sound?"

With you?  Sam smiled. "It sounds great."

Al beckoned him with almost childlike delight, and he followed to a room he hadn't been in before. It was decorated with emphasis on comfort. There was a TV, radio, and a bar in one corner.

This time Sam didn't have to be prompted. He flopped into a big, overstuffed chair, and caught the beer Al threw to him. "I hope Ruth doesn't mind--"

Al was shaking his head. "Just because she gets tired early, doesn't mean she expects everyone else to." He threw the TV Guide to Sam. "Pick something."

As Sam looked through the listings, Al lit a cigar and continued talking. "The only place in the house I'm allowed to smoke," he explained. "This den is my sanctuary from the world. I even brought a woman here once," he told Sam with a suggestive wink.

It brought Sam's head up from the guide sharply. "You cheat on your wife? In your own home?!" he asked incredulously. Al had talked enough about women in their one conversation and various letters to reveal he was a incorrigible, skirt-chasing sexist, but Sam always assumed his tales were from between wives.

"A man's gotta have some excitement in his life," Al responded mildly.

"Like getting his brains bashed in with a frying pan?" Sam asked. Well, here was something. A hint of glaring imperfection in his friend. Maybe now he could treat this person as having serious faults.

"How'd you know about the frying pan?" Al grinned devilishly. "I had a headache for a week."

"Serves you right!" But Sam found himself smiling back.

"That was the last time I pulled a stunt like that," he agreed.

"Don't tell me --now you stick to fleabag motel rooms?" Sam actually quipped .

"Now you got it," Al agreed. "I'm hopeless and I know it. Like that song says, women gonna be the death of me, but what a way to go!"

What more could Sam hope for? Not only was Al callously uncaring about fidelity in a marriage – something Sam believed strongly in, but he was a terminal ladies' man who probably thought homosexuality was a disgusting disease. And Al drank too much, he'd noticed that, too. All in all, certainly not idol material for Sam Beckett. Finally he should be able to relax, and settle into being friends with this man...if he didn't find out there were too many glaring differences to allow a

friendship to grow.

 

XXX

 

Sam spent the entire break the Calavicci home. The two spent long hours locked away, discussing Sam's theories, or some other subject of interest to them. Al even talked as if Sam's idea for traveling in time was going to come about, as if he was certain of it. He brought up some details Sam hadn't thought of, and together they began hammering out the finer points.

By then there was no doubt, Al deserved to be in on the project, should it ever become reality. In fact, being the main people responsible for it from the beginning, they were in effect, partners. Sam liked the thought...a lot.

Al said that his connections in the military and government might just be able to help Sam, at the very least, get him a job. There were plenty of military projects looking for a brilliant scientist like him. Al promised to look into it, and see what he could do.

Al himself, bitten by the science bug, made his decision to go to M.I.T for his degree in physics. Things were moving along full speed ahead; Sam was amazed at how much had happened in that small amount of time.

As far as Al's imperfections went... they were just all part of what made Al, Al. Sam found not the slightest problem accepting them in anything but exasperated, tolerant humor. There was so much more to this man, so much good and special about him, to worry about minor character flaws.

In essence, Sam had no trouble ignoring anything negative Al Calavicci could do, blind to everything but the good parts he wanted to see.

Wasn't that what love was all about?

 

XXX

 

They talked on the phone every week from then on. Al would be coming to Boston the following semester, to start his studies. Sam could hardly wait. Unfortunately, he wasn't sure he'd still be there. Once Al showed Sam to them, the Navy was very interested in getting him to work with them. The sooner he could start, the better. If he had to finish his studies while working on a project, they didn't mind. He wanted to hold out for awhile, to have a chance to pal around with Al on campus. He'd even started dreaming about it already...the two of them raising hell, studying together, even one about Al's aborted pick up of a deaf girl in his chem. lab. Sam hoped maybe these dreams were just premonitions of the future; at least he felt less uncomfortable thinking of them as such.

His obsession was still going strong, but now that he'd accepted it, it didn't bother him...much. And the growing excitement of the future loomed ahead, to eclipse all worries. He just accepted the fact that his feelings for Al were on the extreme side, called him on the phone all he wanted, shamelessly wrote him every day if he felt like it, and blamed it all on their exciting career plans.

Al was very indulgent, making it easy to let loose. Truth be told, he encouraged it. Anything Sam wanted was okay with him. Sam didn't kid himself that it would extend to sex, but for now it seemed platonic emotional love was enough. Everything was going to be perfect. His dream was going to come true, thanks to Al. What more could he want?

 

XXX

 

It was early evening. Sam was flopped in his favorite chair, drinking a can of beer and reading Al's latest letter. It was pretty long, his usual blend of seriousness and flippancy, but there was something else about it that Sam couldn't put his finger on. Something seemed... off.

He was almost finished when the phone rang. Absently, he reached for the receiver on the table next to him, and brought it to his ear. "Yes?" he said, part of his mind still firmly on the letter.

"Sam?" a familiar voice said, in a low tone.

He was about to greet the man enthusiastically, with a comment about the coincidence, but the words died on his lips as he realized something in Al's tone was very wrong. "Is everything okay?"

“...No." Al hesitated. "Sam, Ruthie's... she died this afternoon."

Shock numbed him while another part of him cried out in pain for his friend. "Oh my God... I'm so sorry, Al!"

"Yeah,-me too. Listen, do you think you can get away this weekend? I'll leave plane tickets for you at the airline. I just... I don't feel like being alone right now.”

"Don't worry about the plane tickets – don't worry about anything. I'll be there," Sam promised. "Soon as I can."

Thanks." Al fell silent, seeming to run out of things to say. His pain was oozing through the telephone line, from the too many miles which separated them.

Sam cursed his helplessness at being able to talk to his friend, but not offer the physical comfort so obviously needed. He knew Al didn't want to hang up and be alone, but the sooner they did, the sooner Sam could be there.

"What's new in academia?" Al asked listlessly, trying to make conversation.

"Okay," Sam answered distractedly. With a sudden idea, he grabbed the phone, took it into the bedroom with him and began to pack. "How are you doing?" he asked, not really knowing what to say. In person would be much easier. There was a silence, then when Al's voice came, it was barely above a whisper. "I'm used to it."

"Used to what?" Sam asked, throwing clothes into his suitcase in a random frenzy.

"People leaving..." Al coughed, and when he spoke again he was trying very hard to sound normal. "I'm okay, Kid, don't worry about me. I've handled worse than this."

"I know you can handle it."

"Yeah, what makes you so certain?" he asked, with just a trace of amusement.

"You're not alone."

There was a longer silence this time. "Thanks," Al said in a small voice. He started to say something a few times, but stopped. "Listen Sam, I don't want to keep you any longer, and I gotta.. do some things. I'll see you in a couple of days, okay?"

"You're sure?" Sam knew what his friend was trying to do. It was too much to handle on the phone, he had to hang up.

"Yes. Don't worry," he stressed.

"I'll see you soon, Al."

The connection was cut.

 

XXX

 

Several hours later, Sam was ringing Al's doorbell. The door was opened, and Al smiled tiredly at him, not seeming all that surprised. He looked terrible; dark circles under his eyes and his clothes rumbled, as if they'd been slept in. The sight tore at Sam's heart.

Without a word, he pulled Al into his arms for a hug. They stayed that way for awhile, more communication in the act than any words could accomplish. There was no need for them.

Finally they parted. Sam stepped in and closed the door. He followed his friend into the living room. Al motioned to the open bottle of whiskey on the table, silent invitation. He ignored it, going to the refrigerator for a can of beer. When he came back, Al was sitting almost primly on the couch. He sat down beside his friend.

"I thought you were supposed to come down this weekend?" Al asked. Still, he showed no surprise.

There was no answer necessary to that, so Sam didn't give any. "What happened?" he asked, instead.

Al splashed some of the whiskey into his glass. "She was sick for a long time, kid."

Sam's eyes widened in surprise.

"We... knew it was coming. Leukemia. But she was doing so well until a week ago...." he trailed off, agonized.

Sam slid an arm round his shoulders. Some things made sense now: Ruth's tiring easily, her husband's easy concession to the no smoking in the house rule. Why didn't you tell me?" he whispered, just a wisp of hurt flashing inside.

“It was her wish that things be normal. Besides, what could you have done, except worry or feel bad?"

"Be there for you."

Al turned his head, smiling a little. "You are. And I want you to know it..." he stared into his drink. "Means a lot to me."

“You mean a lot to me," Sam admitted, carried away by the emotion of the moment.

"Knowing someone cares..." Al jumped abruptly, wandering around the room aimlessly. Sam knew he was uncomfortable with the emotional talk. Al was a very private man, who didn't admit his pain easily.

“Is there anything I can do to help?"

“You're doing it.” Al paused over a picture of his wife. "Her people were real big on family stuff. They really knew how to have fun, too. For the first time in my life, I had a family. It was really great." He smiled in fond remembrance.

"You're still family," Sam ventured.

Al shook his head. "I'm just an ex in-law, now. I know how these things work, you all agree to stay in touch, and really try. But there's just too much pain, too many reminders... not enough reason. Eventually you drift apart. I didn't just lose a wife, Sam. I lost a family." His voice broke a little. “Dammit!” he suddenly yelled, slamming the picture frame on the table, face down.

Sam's eyes watered in response. He rose and went over to the man. "You've got me, Al."

Al turned around and pulled him closer. "I don't know what the hell you ever saw in me – but I'm glad you're my friend."

There was so much Sam wanted to say, but all he could do was hold tighter. He could feel the tiredness in Al's body. He pulled back to take a good look at the man's face. He looked exhausted. "When's the last time you slept?" he asked suspiciously.

Al shrugged. “Haven't had much chance for that, in the last few days. Between the base and the hospital...."

Silently, Sam cursed his best friend out, for not telling him sooner. But there would be time to kick his butt for it later. "Why don't you get some rest?" he coaxed.

"I don't know if I can."

“Sure you can. You're not alone, now." It would have been so much harder for Al to rest in an empty house, silent but for echoes of a voice he'd no longer hear. No one there to hold, should a nightmare strike. "I'll be right here if you need me." He was already leading his friend into the bedroom.

Al was too spirit-weary to protest.

The bedroom was in semi-darkness, but Al didn't bother with a light. The one in the hall was enough. Sam stood by awkwardly, feeling like he'd run out of things to do for him. "Can I get you anything?" he asked.

"Maybe a glass of water...."

Happy to have a purpose again, Sam went into the bathroom to comply. When he brought the drink out, Al was still standing next to the bed where he'd left him. There was no sound or movement in the man.

After a moment, he stepped closer. "Al?"

Suddenly, a dam burst. Al's shoulders began heaving with no longer suppressed grief. "What did I do?!" he cried, tears coursing down his cheeks that Sam could see clearly, even in the half-light. "What horrible thing did I do, not to deserve even a little happiness in life?!"

He'd never seen Al like this before, and it cut him like a knife. He reached for his friend, and pulled him close yet again. "Oh, Al..." The man struggled in his arms, but he held on. He was not going to let Al try to gloss this over; it was something he needed to let out.

The embrace seemed to help him unload himself. "My old lady didn't want me, or my poor sister...and my dad went and died on us. Then, Trudy died before I could help her. My first wife, Lisa, died in a car crash. My second had me declared legally dead, while I rotted away in that POW camp, dreaming about coming home to her sweet love. My third took off after three-months; with a Hell's Angel. Now dear Ruthie...What is it about me? Is there some law somewhere, that says Al Calavicci isn't worth loving?!"

Sam thought his heart was going to break. He rocked the man in his arms, and cried with him. "It's not true!" he stated vehemently. "They're all out of their minds – you are worth loving! I love you...."

Al raised red eyes to his. They almost seemed to plead with him, for help escaping this wall of misery.

Sam was failing. Words weren't enough, an embrace seemed too inadequate to heal the wounds bleeding all over him. Spurred on only by his desperation to smooth away the lines of pain on the handsome face and see it smile again, he bent his head forward, and captured Al's lips with his own.

For a moment, the lips were still beneath his. Then, Al's arms went around his waist and pulled him closer, returning the kiss with equal intensity. All Sam's feelings of love and empathy rushed together, pouring into his system with a strength unlike anything he'd ever felt before. It made him cry even harder, and their tears mingled as the kiss continued.

Then Al pulled away abruptly, with a strangled gasp. "Oh God...." Hand over his mouth, he ran into the bathroom and pushed the door between them. Sam stood there for a moment, staring in the direction Al had fled. What had he done....

Horrified with himself, Sam bolted into the living room, perching on the edge of the couch. He was shaking in fear, even while his groin ached from what had passed between them in the bedroom. Unsteady hands uncapped the whiskey bottle, and he poured a generous amount into Al's discarded glass, downing it all at once.

What could he possibly have been thinking, to do such a stupid thing? Al needed a friend, someone he could trust to provide a shoulder to cry on. Sam had taken advantage of his weakness, and betrayed that faith. It was unforgivable.

And now, Al probably hated him. The reality of that possibility sent more violent tremors through him, knowing he couldn't bear the thought of losing Al. Yet, Sam couldn't blame him if he did turn away. He had revealed his obsession and perversion for what it really was. Al would probably think the friendship was a sham as well, just a way to get to his ultimate goal.

Was that true? Was he only pretending to be Al's friend? He genuinely wanted Al to be happy. He loved the man with an intensity he hadn't begun to realize, until tonight. He would never have pulled such a thoughtless stunt otherwise. But he liked Al, too. They had fun together, and genuinely respected each other.

Until tonight.

Suddenly he realized that Al still hadn't come out of the bathroom. A trickle of worry filtered into his self-pity. The man's emotional state was highly unstable, and Sam had made it worse. He'd been in there an awfully long time....

Sam jumped up and ran into the other room. "Al!" he called as he opened the bathroom door, then halted. Al was sitting cross-legged on the floor, head down on folded arms that rested on toilet seat. What had been going on was obvious. Al was so horrified with him, he'd thrown up. He was hurting with the pain of losing his beloved wife – and what had Sam done for him?

Sam's knees gave out and he knelt on the tiled floor. "Are you okay?” H silently berated himself for this stupid question. "I'm sorry, Al," he whispered. ''God, I'm so sorry! I wouldn't blame you if you hated me. But I want you know that if you need someone, I'd...I'd still like to be there for you," his voice broke. “I promise I won't do anything like that again. Please!"

Al sighed. "Ah Sam...." He lifted his head slowly, picking up a glass of water that was on the floor beside him, and taking a sip. He leaned against the wall, head back.

Sam decided maybe he didn't hate him too much -- after all, he hadn't kicked him out yet. He dared lean back too, but was careful to keep as much distance as he could in the small confines of the room. He waited silently for his penance, his punishment.

Nothing came. The silence stretched on like a rubber band, until he thought it would snap. He was a bundle of nerves, yet Al seemed... almost relaxed, leaning against the wall that way, with his eyes closed.

"I know it was a terrible thing to do. I just... wanted to take the pain away...”

Al opened his eyes, and actually smiled slightly. He reached out and touched a finger to Sam's cheek gently, brushing away the tears there. "Yours, or mine?" he asked softly. There was no condemnation there, only an odd tenderness.

Sam met his gaze, knowing he couldn't hide the intensity in his own eyes. “Yours is mine," he whispered.

Al nodded. The wide, warm smile he gave made Sam's eyes tear up again “You're a kick in the butt, Sam Beckett." He leaned forward, and brushed his lips against Sam's.

Sam froze, not daring to move, for fear he'd once again screw things up with the wrong action. He successfully held in the whimper which wanted to come out at the feel of Al's mouth, controlled the trembling that wanted to rip his frame apart, and kept his hands firmly at their sides.

Al pulled back, with one last caress, and a sigh. "You're a real piece of work," He moved closer to Sam, with a business-like air. "It wasn't the kiss that made me sick,” he explained. "It was just that, suddenly I realized... it was the bed."

The bed he had shared with Ruthie, Sam realized with clarity. He nodded. Still, decided to try silence as a virtue, for once.

“I'm not sure that this would be right," Al continued. "But I think maybe we could both use a little love right now." His pause spoke volumes. "Especially me. What do you think?"

Sam stared, hardly able to believe his ears. Was Al really saying what he was hearing? "Do you really want to...."

"Make love with you?" Al asked silkily, with a sly smile.

Sam blushed, ducking his head.

Al's hand brought his chin up. "I can't promise anything... I mean, just so you know up front that I'm not a good bet. I'm not gay, Sam."

"Neither am... neither was I," he had to state.

"Two friends, feeling some love together, instead of pain?"

Sam could see the need in Al's eyes as well, now. It was what he needed, to feel loved, cherished, to have that hole inside him filled up with something besides pain.

"You're my partner. I'll always be here, Al," he vowed.

Al smiled an almost sad smile, as if he wanted to believe the words, but couldn't. Sam didn't blame him in that either. Without another word, Al got up and held a hand out to help him up. Together, they went into the guest room.

 

XXX

 

It was darker there than in Al's room, and Sam was thankful for it, Now that they were actually there, about to... his nerve was fast deserting him. He sincerely hoped he wouldn't react the way he had during that aborted experiment...the guy had gotten no farther than putting his hand on Sam's crotch, before he was bolting out the door like a scared virgin.

But this wasn't a stranger, it was Al. And Al had never been a stranger, not even the first time they'd met.

Then Al was stepping into his arms, and his doubts evaporated under an onslaught of almost painful tenderness. He melted into the embrace, breathing a huge sign as all the tension in him disappeared. That ache in his groin was back, and growing. When their lips met again, he couldn't stop himself from thrusting against Al's crotch.

Al moaned at the contact, and the sound of appreciation fanned Sam's flames. It made him feel special, omnipotent, to know that someone like Al Calavicci wanted him – desired his body. The thrill was a high in itself.

Al caressed his shaking arms almost soothingly. "We'll just take it slow. Won't do anything we don't want to do." He gave Sam another kiss, then began unbuttoning his shirt.

"Have you ever...." Sam asked hesitantly.

Al didn't answer right away. Finally, he nodded. "Sometimes, in the war... but it didn't feel like this," he admitted breathlessly. Encouraged, Sam reached to copy his actions. They undressed each other slowly, letting the clothes drop silently to the floor. Al's hands ran down Sam's chest and stomach, leaving a tingling in their wake. When warm fingers finally closed on his cock, his knees almost buckled.

Sam did his own exploration, marveling at the feel of the smooth chest with its slight covering of hair; the fact that this was a man, like himself, yet he was getting pleasure out of the touching... the closeness. "I've never touched another man," he said quietly, then cried out as the deft fingers found a particularly sensitive spot.

"You like that?" Al whispered into his ear.

All he could do was nod, as he was coaxed into the bed. He recognized the beginning of passion in himself, as all rational thought fled. Consumed with the building heat, he covered Al's body with his and threw himself into the center of the storm.

For a moment, Al stared up at him in surprise at the sudden aggressiveness. Then he grinned and abruptly reversed their positions, now on top of Sam.

They played at the age-old game lustily, each vying for dominance as hands groped and tongues clashed. It ignited fires in Sam he'd never known before, giving him a heady feeling of freedom. This was a man who wasn't afraid of a taste of competition in bed. He could let loose, didn't have to worry about being overly gentle, or going too fast. This man was his match.

The game took an edge of desperation, as they neared completion. Sam moaned, begging for release. The pace quickened almost unbearably. There was an endless moment in the eye of the storm, then the world exploded in bright flashes behind his closed eyes. The yell torn out of his throat almost drowned out Al's.

As exhaustion claimed him into the hands of Morpheus, Sam knew a soul deep contentment.

For the first time in his life, he felt complete.

 

XXX

 

Sam was awake before Al. He lay in his friend's arms, basking in the warm feeling flowing through him. He'd felt things last night he never knew existed. It was an amazing world of new discovery, and he was anxious for Al to wake up, to see what would happen next.

Soon the man in question stirred, and opened his eyes. Sam smiled shyly. For a moment the eyes were confused, then awareness filled them. And, something like guilt.

With a touch of dejection, Sam realized he could read Al's thoughts clearly.

“Sam...”

He covered the mouth with his hand. Whatever Al was going to say, he knew he didn't want to hear it. "Don't say anything, Al. Last night was... important, please don't spoil it. You needed me and I was here for you. There's love in friendship, too," he added. He felt Al smile, and removed his hand.

"I was just going to say, good morning."

Sam accepted the lie. It was daylight now, and the night was gone.

Al reached out, and squeezed one of his hands.  "I don't know what I'd do without you. Thanks... for everything."

Sam watched as Al climbed out of bed, saying he was going to grab a shower.

As far as Sam was concerned, they'd made love. But Al had made his intentions entirely clear, the night before. So there would be no misunderstandings, he'd said. And the loving hadn't changed his mind. It was just something special between friends, nothing to change one's life over.

Let Al delude himself for now; one day Sam was sure he'd realize what he already knew.

They were in love with each other.

Al couldn't handle it now, that was to be expected. Maybe Sam couldn't either. The time wasn't right. For now, they had their friendship.

It was enough.

 

THE END

1993