QUANTUM BEAST: Lovers Leap

by Lee Kirkland

 


The last thing Sam remembered was Al, saying good-bye. Suddenly, Sam found himself in the act of shoving a heavy cardboard box onto a high shelf. The box wobbled and he struggled with it.

"Mark? Are you okay?" The voice, close by his elbow, made him turn instinctively. His attention wandered for a split-second too long, and the box slipped from his grasp and began to fall.

"Oh, boy!"

When his eyes opened again, it was to a small, bright, stainless steel and white tile room. Someone was shining a small light into his eyes, and he flinched. His head pounded and he felt sick.

"Mark? Mark, can you hear me?" The man's voice was insistent, and Sam blinked at him, trying to bring things into focus.

Mark. That must be me. "Uh, yeah, I think so," he said. His throat felt dry and raspy. "What happened?"

"A box of books fell on you," the man replied, stepping back and slipping his penlight into the pocket of his pale green surgical top.

"Hospital?" Sam rasped, uncertainly.

"You were unconscious," the doctor answered. "Your friend called the paramedics, who brought you here."

"My friend?" Sam was still trying to catch up.

"She's waiting out in the hall," the doctor replied. "Can you tell me what day it is?"

Through his headache, Sam groped for facts that weren't there. "Uh, no, I guess not."

The doctor frowned. "What's your name?"

Sam made an informed guess. "...Mark..."

The doctor nodded. "Last name?"

Sam had to shrug, and instantly regretted the movement.

"Who's president?"

Sam tried to think. "I don't know. What year is it?"

The doctor gazed at him in disbelief before continuing the examination. "Vision blurred?"

"A little." "How many fingers?" The man waved a hand in front of Sam's nose.

"Two."

"Now?"

"Four."

"But you can't remember what day it is, or your last name."

"Uh, no."

Clearly, the doctor was concerned about concussion and possible brain damage, and Sam couldn't tell him that the reason he didn't know the date was because he'd just gotten here, and that he hadn't had time to learn his last name.

"I'm going to admit you overnight for observation," the doctor said briskly. "You seem alert, so we'll hope this memory loss is temporary." He went to the door. "Miss? You can see him now."

A teenage girl entered timidly, as if unsure of her welcome. "Hi, Mark," she said softly.

She couldn't have been more than seventeen. Warm brown eyes smiled shyly, and she reached for his hand. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but Sam couldn't put his finger on it.

"Hi."

She looked embarrassed. "Oh, Mark, I'm so sorry. I feel responsible..."

"Responsible? Why?" Sam couldn't take his eyes off her.

"Because if it weren't for me and my problems, you wouldn't have been moving those books."

Sam rushed to reassure her. "No, please, it's not your fault." Despite his headache, he tried to smile. "I was careless, I guess."

She smiled, and suddenly, instinctively, Sam knew her. "Teresa?" he asked, incredulous.

The doctor intervened. "Well, I see you still have some memory," he said. "We're going to take you upstairs now, Mark, and a neurologist will look in on you there."

Of course, Sam thought. He's just an ER man. He glanced back at the girl. It must be Teresa. She'd have said something if she was somebody else.

He didn't know how he could suddenly be so certain; after all, Teresa Bruckner had been only four years old last time he'd seen her. He'd lost count of the leaps he'd made since saving her brother Kevin. That had been in 1981; judging Teresa's age now and counting swiftly, he figured he must be somewhere between 1992 and 1995.

It wasn't often he leaped in to see a familiar face, and he squeezed Teresa's hand fondly. When the orderly came in with a wheelchair to take him upstairs, she moved back out of the way, but once he was settled into his room upstairs, she pulled a chair up next to his bed and sat down.

"Is there someone I can call for you?" she asked. "Your family, friends?"

"No." Sam shook his head as far as he dared and smiled. "You're here."

To his astonishment, she blushed, ducking her head.

"Teresa, what's wrong?"

"Mark, we barely know each other." She frowned. "Don't you remember?"

"Uh, no, not really," he confessed, glad that the bump on the head was good for something. "Tell me."

She blushed even more, and turned to stare out the window.

Sam sensed trouble. "Come on, Teresa. You can trust me."

"I know. I already did. Only, it's a hard story to tell..."

Sam stretched out a hand to touch hers. "Teresa?"

"My mom and I started fighting... my brother got kidnapped and almost killed when I was little, and she's always been scared it would happen again, to him or my sister or me. It wasn't so bad when they were home, but they're all grown up now. Kevin works at a bank in Phoenix and Susan just got married.

"My mom won't let me do anything! I'm sixteen, and I'm not allowed to go out unless I'm with a group, and she knows where I'm going and when I'll be back, and who I'll be with..."

"Sounds like sensible precautions to me," Sam offered hesitantly.

"But she's paranoid, Mark! She follows me sometimes, and checks up on me! It's like she doesn't trust me, and I've never done anything!" Teresa's voice was rising. "I couldn't stand it anymore, so I stole money from her purse and bought a bus ticket to Philadelphia." Tears were shining in her eyes. "My dad lives there now and I thought I could live with him. He's married again, and he didn't want me!"

"Did he say that?" Sam asked gently.

She thought a moment, and shook her head. "No, but I could tell. I was in the way. One day I heard his wife talking, asking how much longer I'd be there... so that night, I took my things and left."

"I came here, but I didn't know anyone, and I didn't have very much money. When I met Damon, he said he'd take care of me, and I stayed at his place, but then..." her voice broke. "That's when you found me."

She looked at him and tried to smile. "You know, Mark, at first I thought you were like Damon... it scared me, and I didn't know what to do. But you were so nice, and now I know you won't hurt me."

Despite his headache, Sam managed to grasp the implications of her story. "Did this Damon hurt you?"

Swiftly she shook her head. "No! I wouldn't let him... I think it made him mad." She shivered. "I didn't tell you before, but I saw him this afternoon. I think he was following me."

 

*****

Vincent struck a match, touching its flame to a blackened candle wick. Another day was drawing to a close. The children were sleeping safely in their beds; Catherine was near, and all was right with his world.

"Vincent? Can you hear me?"

The urgency in the voice made him whirl in alarm, growling. The growl died in his throat, however, when he recognized the intruder.

"Albert?"

"Vincent, you can see me!" he said, sounding relieved. "We weren't sure you'd be able to."

Vincent stepped forward. "I am glad to see you, Albert," he began, and reached to embrace his friend. To his shock, his hand went right through the man's shoulder.

"I'm a hologram," Al reminded him quickly. "I need your help, Vincent. Sam's in trouble."

Vincent was instantly alert. He knew how much he owed to Al's friend Sam. "What is it?"

"We don't know. He Leaped. We had just enough time to get a fix on today, New York City, when we lost him! We've been trying for over an hour and can't get him back."

"Vincent? Are you all right?" Catherine's voice, soft with bewilderment and concern, made Vincent remember her presence in the room and he glanced at her over his shoulder.

"Hey! Nice legs," Al commented, and Vincent spun back to face him. Catherine was dressed for bed and Al was eyeing her appreciatively. Vincent stepped in front of him, blocking his view; Al craned to see around him.

"Vincent?" Catherine was clearly worried.

"Put a robe on, Catherine," he said briefly. She frowned, but moved to do so without question. He turned back to Al, ruffled.

"She can't see me or hear me," Al said, abandoning his attempts to see around Vincent's bulk. "I'm a hologram."

Catherine held the front of her long robe closed, regarding Vincent strangely. "Who are you talking to? Albert's been asleep for hours."

He met her wondering eyes in despair. "Oh, Catherine, I can't begin to explain it to you..."

"I think you'll have to, Vincent," Al interrupted. "I think we're going to need her."

Vincent glanced from Catherine to Al and tried to imagine what he'd think if he looked up and saw Catherine holding an animated conversation with empty air. He sighed. "Catherine, please. I will explain what I can in a moment..."

She nodded uncertainly and sat on the edge of the bed. Vincent turned back to Al.

"I have so many questions, I don't know where to begin. How is it that I can see you, and Catherine cannot?"

Al shrugged. "I don't know exactly. Ziggy... you remember Ziggy?"

"A computer," Vincent answered.

"Right! Ziggy explained it once. People who can see me live in a pure alpha state. They're into things like innocence and truth." Al looked down and punched a few buttons on his handlink. "And they believe in impossible things."

From where she perched tensely on the edge of the bed, biting her lip, Catherine watched Vincent looking down on someone who wasn't there. He tipped his head as if listening, and Catherine squeezed her eyes shut, unable to watch any longer. I wish there was a way to get word to Father... I don't know what to do. She stole another quick glance at Vincent, who was actually smiling. He seems so rational, she thought, feeling concerned and a bit slighted. I wish I knew what was happening.

No sooner had she formulated the thought than Vincent was turning, coming toward her. She tried to smile as he sat down beside her, taking her hands.

"Catherine, do you trust me?" His query was blunt, startling her, but her answer was prompt.

"Yes. You know I do."

He looked down at their joined hands. "Catherine, what I have to tell you will sound very strange. I know how unbelievable it seems; I would not believe it myself if I had not lived it. Even so, it sometimes seems a fantastic dream."

"I'm listening."

"Catherine, do you believe in time travel?"

She stared, incredulous. "Do I what? Vincent..." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, I phrased it badly. Do you believe in the possibility of time travel? That in the future, technology might make such a thing possible?"

"Vincent, are you trying to tell me you've been talking with someone from the future?" She searched his eyes.

"Catherine, please. Let me do this my way."

She looked away, biting her lip. "All right. I'm not a scientist... but I'll concede that it might be possible."

"And if someone could actually travel through time, how might they do it?"

She looked at him doubtfully. "Vincent..."

"Please."

She couldn't help a smile. "Well, what comes to mind is H.G. Wells's Time Machine." She shrugged.

"What if I told you that in the not too distant future, someone will develop a method to travel through time, not in a machine, but through something that can best be described as Leaping?"

"I don't understand."

Vincent turned his head, as if listening to something, and nodded briefly. "Catherine, what if this time traveler leaped from place to place, and time to time? And that, during these Leaps, he temporarily occupied someone else's life?"

"Vincent, that's absurd!"

"No," he answered softly. "It's real."

"You're talking to someone from the future, who's leaping around from life to life?"

"The man I've been talking with is simply an observer. He is not really here at all, but somehow, in a way I can't explain, his image, his brain waves, are able to transverse time and exist here, in this room."

She looked around, wide-eyed. "I don't see anything. Vincent, there's no one here!"

Reaching out, he touched her cheek. "Believe me, Catherine, I know how this sounds. Why do you think I've never told you?"

"Vincent, I want to believe you. I do! But how would you know about this time traveling? How can you be friends with someone from the future?"

Before he could answer, the door to their bedroom opened, and a small boy, rumpled and blond, wearing blue pajamas and rubbing his eyes, came in. "Mommy? I woke up," he said, crossing the floor to climb into her lap. "There were noises."

She hugged him close, anchoring herself in the reality of his warm, sweet, little-boy smell. "Did you have a dream?"

"Uh-uh." He shook his head. "Just noises." He snuggled against her. "Mommy?"

"Yes, Albert?"

He pointed. "Who's that man in the funny coat?"

She stiffened, staring at the empty space where her son was pointing. There was nothing there.

Vincent looked as surprised as she felt. "Albert, what do you see?" he asked.

"A man," the child replied. "He has a blue coat with purple lights and he's smoking acigar." He frowned and addressed the space sternly. "Don't you know that's bad for you?"

"Oh, my God," Catherine whispered to herself. "He's real."

"How is this possible?" Vincent addressed the same empty patch of air.

"Kids under five can see me. He's..." Al spent a moment figuring. "...four, right?"

Vincent nodded and Al bent down to smile at the youngster. "Hi, there. What's your name?"

"Albert," the boy answered shyly, burrowing closer to his mother. "What's yours?"

"Well, you know, that's a funny thing. My name's Albert, too."

Vincent looked at his son. "Albert, this is the man you were named for."

Catherine clutched at the child in her lap, hoping someone would pinch her and end this nightmare. "Vincent, how is this possible? I don't understand what's happening."

Vincent saw the consternation in her eyes, and spoke to their son again. "Albert, do you suppose you could let Albert..." he paused, stumbling over the names.

"Vincent, I told you before. Just call me Al. It's easier."

"You could call me Al!" piped the little boy. The idea of a new name intrigued him.

"No fair," the bigger Al protested. "I said it first!"

The boy giggled. "Okay. You be Al. I'm Albert."

"Gotcha." Al held out a hand and Albert slapped at it, laughing in amazement when his hand went right through Al's.

Vincent tried again. "Albert, can you let Al take you back to bed? Your mother and I need to talk."

Catherine had been listening to all the parts of this conversation she could hear, but Vincent's suggestion took her by surprise. "Vincent, do you really think..." she protested faintly.

"Catherine, it will not be the first time I have trusted Alb... Al to keep Albert safe. He did not fail me before." Catherine relented, and let the boy off of her lap, repeating what had become a refrain on this very strange evening. "I don't understand."

"I'll try to explain. I promise." Vincent turned to his son. "Albert, go with Al."

"Okay. 'Night, Daddy. 'Night, Mommy." He started out of the room. "If I can see you but I can't touch you, does that mean you're an angel?" he asked his new friend.

"Well, not exactly," Al replied. "You see, it's like this, kid. Once there was this boy named Sam, and he lived on a farm in Indiana..."

The voices ended when little Albert pulled the door closed behind them.

Vincent reached for Catherine, pulling her into his arms.

"Vincent, I'm worried. I don't know what's happening. What do you see? What does Albert see? How can this man... this Al... know you?"

"He knows me... because one of the lives that has been changed by this project... is yours."

"Mine? How?"

"Catherine, there was another reality, another timeline that once existed." His voice became very soft, and she strained to hear him. "In that reality... you died." Unconsciously, he held her tighter.

"No, Vincent, you saved me. All those times..."

"I saved you, yes, many times. But there came a time when I was unable to find you. And you died."

"Vincent, you've always found me, always! Even when our bond was broken, you came to me..." She broke off at the look in his eyes. "Vincent?"

"The man who came to you in Gabriel's tower, who brought you safely out... was not me."

"Vincent, I saw you! I touched you! You held me in your arms!"

He shook his head sadly. "All I know of that day is what Al was able to tell me as it happened, and what you have told me since. I was not there."

She stared at him, trust warring with logic. Slowly, trust and love began to overcome disbelief. "Then... who?"

"His name is Dr. Sam Beckett. Al tells me he is the scientist who designed the time travel project, called Quantum Leap. I'm told he is a good man." He smiled at her. "Al says he treated you very carefully that day."

"You... he... did," she answered slowly. "But then, Vincent, you are always gentle and careful with me." She looked up at him. "Vincent, you quoted the inscription I wrote in the journal I gave you. Don't you remember? How could this Sam have known that?"

"Albert says he read some of my journals." He quelled her instinctive protest. "Catherine, it was necessary. He needed to know things about me, so he could be me."

"Why? Why did he need to be you? Why didn't I know?"

"Catherine, what I can tell you is what Alb... Al's told me. This time travel experiment I spoke of... they've lost control of it. Al says that now his friend Sam leaps through time, correcting things that once went wrong. One of the things that went wrong was... your death."

Catherine was very quiet, assimilating all she'd seen and heard in the past few minutes. She couldn't help thinking about Alice Through the Looking Glass, when Alice tells the White Queen, '...one can't believe impossible things,' and the Queen answers, 'Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'

I'm Alice, and Vincent is the Queen, she thought. And even though these things are impossible, I have to believe them, because he does, and he would never lie to me. And besides, Albert can see Al. It must all be real.

"What happened to you?" she asked faintly.

"I went... into the future," he replied. "I spent two days there, knowing you were to die, and helpless to prevent it."

"Oh, Vincent." She hugged him, hard. "Why is Al here now? What's happening?"

"I'm not sure," Vincent answered. "But if we ask him, I'm sure he'll tell us."

"Can he go downstairs?" she asked. "I'm not quite comfortable entertaining a strange man in my bedroom, especially one I can't see."

In the kitchen, Catherine made herself a cup of coffee; a pot of tea was brewing for Vincent. She still struggled with the idea of a guest she could neither see nor hear. Picking up a third mug, she turned to Vincent, looking indecisive. "Would he like something?"

"Nah, tell her I'm fine," Al answered, taking a deep drag on his cigar.

Vincent dutifully relayed the message; Catherine nodded and drew her chair closer to him.

Al, using Vincent as a conduit, explained the situation while Catherine waited, listening patiently.

"Let me get this straight," she said at last. "Al can't locate Sam because the connection between Sam and this computer has been broken and the computer thinks that means a head injury?"

Vincent nodded.

"How do they know he's not dead?"

"They don't, not for certain," he said slowly, his expression grave. "But, Catherine, four years ago, when our connection was lost..."

"You didn't know if I was dead or alive, either."

He shook his head.

"Okay. Who am I looking for?" Catherine reached for a pen and paper.

Vincent exchanged a long look with the empty chair beside him.

"What does he look like?" Catherine prompted.

"They don't know."

Catherine's eyebrows lifted. "Don't know?"

Vincent tried to explain. "Catherine, when Sam leaps, he takes on the appearance of the person he's replacing."

Oh. Well, it did make a certain kind of twisted sense. "What about on the other end? Can't Al go see what this person looks like?"

"Catherine, the person who is transported into the future takes on Sam's appearance. It wouldn't help."

"Can't they ask him?"

This required comment from Al, and Vincent bent his head, listening. "Apparently not. Leaping affects the memory. All they know for certain is that he is a man and his name is Mark."

Catherine nodded acceptance; she had given up questioning the odd things Vincent told her. Suddenly, though, something he'd said only a moment ago made itself fully understood. "Vincent? When this happened to you... you looked like Sam?"

He nodded gravely. "For two days, the face that looked back at me from a mirror was not mine."

"What did you think? What did you do?"

He smiled. "Once I recovered from the shock, I wondered what you would think. I wondered if you would like the way I looked."

She touched his hand reassuringly.

He looked as if he wanted to respond to her tenderness, but something else tugged at his attention. "Catherine, I'm sorry, but Al is very concerned about Sam. He wants to know how soon you can start looking."

"Yes, of course." Vincent's reminder of their unseen visitor made her self-conscious and she busied herself taking notes. "We don't know what he looks like, or how old he is, or even what color, am I right?" She looked up to see Vincent's confirming nod and sighed. "Great. All I need to do, in a city of over eight million, is find a man named Mark who has recently incurred ahead injury." Resignedly she reached for the phone.

By calling in a favor with one of the night operators at the city's main computer banks, Catherine had gotten a list of recent police and ambulance calls where a man had been injured. Narrowing it to head injuries had taken longer, but it gave her a place to start. She had called local hospitals, inquiring about recent admissions, which left her with three names. It was not yet dawn when she finished her phone calls and set out to find someone she wouldn't recognize if she saw him.

"This is ridiculous," she muttered. "I can't believe I'm acting as tour guide for a hologram."

"Yeah, well, this isn't my idea of a good time, either," Al grumbled, beside her.

She knew, in theory, at least, that he was there. In fact, that was her sole purpose; to lead Al to each possible Sam. Vincent had tried to explain it, but since Al lacked a complete understanding, the explanation was less than adequate. To the best of Catherine's understanding, the computer in the future, or Ziggy, as Vincent called it, could "center" Al on almost anyone through that person's brain wave pattern.

Still, it felt like an invasion. They're not reading my mind, she reminded herself grimly. It's just an identifying device, like fingerprints. Nothing more.

She pushed through the glass doors of the first hospital on her list and went straight to information.

"I'm looking for a patient? Mark Fitzgerald?"

The volunteer behind the desk gave her the room number and directions and Catherine went to the elevators. As she waited for one, she mulled over the name. Mark Fitzgerald, she thought pensively. It's familiar, but I can't quite place it.

A car arrived, and, stepping inside, she punched her floor. Maybe I've seen his name on something that's come across my desk, or I've met him at some time or another, she decided. Or maybe it's just a common name, and it's reminding me of someone else.

The elevator groaned to a halt and she stepped out into the hallway. Mr. Fitzgerald's door was easily found and she paused for a moment, steeling herself, before she went inside.

And stared. "Mark?"

He stared back, and struggled to sit up. I know her, he thought, groping. Suddenly her name came to him. "Catherine?"

"Mark, what are you doing here? What happened?"

He began to explain the accident; neither of them saw or heard Al, who danced about in a frenzy, waving both hands. "Sam! Sam! Look at me! Sam!"

When Sam remained oblivious, Al turned his attention on the room's fourth occupant, a teenaged girl. Might as well try to find out what Sam was here to do. He moved closer and punched some buttons on his hand-held computer link before giving the girl a second glance;incredibly, he recognized her. "Hey, it's Teresa!" he exclaimed. "Look, Sam, it's little Teresa..."

A glance showed Sam deep in conversation with Catherine, and still unaware of Al's presence. It was clear she knew him, or at least the person he appeared to be. No telling how long it would be before she remembered him. "Gushi!" he yelled. "Center me on Vincent!"

In the blink of an eye, he was gone, leaving Catherine and Sam/Mark talking as Teresa looked on.

"They're going to release me this afternoon," Sam said. "Teresa has to keep an eye on me for a day or two - head injury, you know."

"It's not serious?" Catherine asked.

Sam shook his head. Earlier he'd learned his last name and the date; now he'd remembered not only Catherine's name, but who she was, and was trying to place her into Mark Fitzgerald's life, but it was no use. What he knew of her just didn't fit.

"You know, I thought your name was familiar when I came in," she was saying. "I suppose I've heard your full name, but since most helpers are called only by their first names, you surprised me."

"Yes, I know," he agreed automatically. Helper, he mused to himself. Where have I heard that term before?

"If you like, I'm sure we can find someone to take care of you for a few days," she offered.

Sam glanced at Teresa, who was politely trying to ignore them. "No, that's all right. Teresa and I'll do fine together, won't we?" He shot the girl an encouraging glance and she gave him a small smile in return.

"All right. If you're sure. May I make a call?" Catherine asked him. He nodded and she reached for the phone on his bedside table.

"Hello, Jamie? It's Catherine. Tell Vincent I don't know where Al is, but I've run across Mark Fitzgerald, you know, the helper who's an English teacher... What?"

Sam was listening, trying to pick up whatever information he could and he saw Catherine's eyes widen in amazement. "He's what? Mark?" Involuntarily, she spun to stare at him. "Is he sure?"

In turning, she let the receiver move away from her ear, and Sam could hear a woman's voice, faintly. "Yes. Vincent says it's him."

"All right. Thank you, Jamie." She cradled the phone and glanced toward Teresa.

Sam took the hint. "Teresa? Could you walk down to the nurse's station and maybe get me some juice or something? Thanks."

The girl looked hurt as she left the room and Sam stifled the impulse to call her back. Catherine obviously had something to tell him and wanted privacy. He waited.

"Sam?" He started at the name, and she frowned uncertainly. "You are Sam, aren't you?"

Recovering, he nodded cautiously. "How did you know? You can't possible recognize..."

She was already shaking her head, smiling in relief. "No. I couldn't possibly." She eyed his short dark hair and neat beard. "You don't look in the least like you did last time I saw you."

"Vincent told you about me."

She nodded. "Last night. I didn't believe him."

"But you believe him now."

She nodded again. "I guess I have to. Not only can Vincent see your friend Al, so can our son Albert."

"They can see him? Both of them?"

"Pure alpha state, I'm told." She shrugged. "I don't understand it, Sam. I just believe. At least, I think I believe."

He tried a reassuring smile. "I didn't believe at first, either," he confided. "It takes some convincing." He leaned forward. "You said something about your son..."

"Albert. Named for your friend. Yes?"

"He's..." Sam faltered and started over. "Is he the baby..."

"When Vincent... you rescued me? Yes."

"I've always wondered... what does he look like?"

She looked briefly taken aback, and then fumbled in her purse for a picture. "Here. That's Albert. The baby is Samantha." She tilted her head to look at him quizzically. "Named for you, I'd guess. Vincent insisted."

Sam felt a blush creeping up his cheeks and was grateful for the beard. "Gosh. He's cute. They're both cute." He handed the picture back. "Named your daughter for me, huh? And you actually named a child for Al? You must be crazy."

She looked surprised. "I haven't met him," she said. "I can't see him, but I assume he was with me when I came in."

Sam felt the first stirring of consternation. "When you came in? You were by yourself. Al wasn't there!"

"I think he must have been," she argued gently. "When I called home, Jamie... she's a friend... told me Vincent said you were Sam. He couldn't know that unless Al told him, and Al couldn't know unless he was here to see you."

"But I didn't see him!" Sam almost wailed.

"I don't understand any of this, Sam. But I guess Al and somebody called Ziggy think your accident did something to your brainwaves so they can't locate you. That's why Al came to Vincent."

Sam shook his head. "Al and Vincent. Now that's an unlikely pair." He sighed, thinking. "I have a mild concussion. It must have altered my brain wave pattern just enough so that Ziggy can't pick me up, and that's why I can't see Al."

Catherine looked faintly troubled. "I think you'd better come home with me," she said. "Vincent can act as interpreter so you can talk to Al."

"I can't leave Teresa," Sam said quickly.

Catherine glanced involuntarily toward the door. "Teresa? Why? She's not Mark's family..."

"No, I think they've just met," Sam agreed. "From what she says, anyway." He grinned. "She doesn't know it, but Al and I helped her brother during an earlier Leap, and got to know Teresa quite well. She was four at the time, and could see both of us."

"Like Albert," Catherine said faintly.

"Like Albert," Sam confirmed. "Teresa and I are old friends. And besides, she may be the one I came to help. I don't want to lose track of her until I talk with Al."

Catherine's hesitation was only momentary. "All right. We'll take her with us."

In the cab, Teresa was quiet, almost sullen, and Sam wondered if she wasn't misconstruing Mark's relationship with Catherine, and feeling that he, like her father, was willing to push her aside. Catherine noticed, too, and began to draw the girl out. By the time they reached the modest brownstone on the Upper West Side, Teresa was smiling; when the cab pulled over, she bounded out with all the energy of youth.

"She's a runaway, isn't she?" Catherine asked Sam quietly as she leaned forward to pay the driver.

He nodded. "Yeah."

There was no time for further conversation; Catherine led the way up a flight of wide concrete steps and unlocked the front door.

"Come in," she invited. Inside, another woman, younger and blonder than Catherine, turned to greet them. She smiled shyly.

"Jamie, you know Mark... this is his friend Teresa." Catherine made the introductions swiftly, reminding Sam that he was supposed to know this person.

"Hi, Jamie," he said awkwardly. At his elbow, Teresa nodded a diffident greeting.

"Hi," Jamie said, perfunctorily. She came closer to Catherine and bent her head, as if confiding a secret. Her voice was low, but Sam could just make out the words. "Catherine, I don't want to alarm you, but Vincent and Albert are both acting strangely... talking to someone who isn't there."

Catherine bit her lip to hide a smile. "I know, Jamie. Try not to worry. I think everything's going to be all right."

"Okay." Jamie seemed doubtful, but willing to accept Catherine's reassurances for the moment.

A high-pitched shout came from a room beyond the stairs, and Jamie turned quickly to answer it, coming back a moment later with a blond-haired, blue-eyed toddler balanced on her hip. The little girl reached for Catherine, who took her from Jamie.

"Oh, what a precious little girl!" Teresa exclaimed, all shyness gone. "How old is she?"

"Eighteen months," Catherine replied.

"Is she yours?"

Catherine nodded.

"Oh, may I hold her?"

Catherine smiled. Babies had a universal charm, and her daughter was no exception. "If she'll let you." Catherine bent her head to the child's. "Do you want to go see Teresa?"

The little girl looked solemn, but allowed Teresa to take her.

"What's her name?"

Catherine darted a glance at Sam. "Samantha," she answered.

"Oh, that's pretty. Hi, Samantha!" Teresa was swiftly reduced to chattering baby talk, and it wasn't long before she'd coaxed a smile from the little girl.

Sam watched for a moment, and then caught Catherine's eye. She nodded.

"Jamie, can you and Teresa stay here and watch Samantha for me? Mark and I need to go upstairs for a few minutes."

Jamie nodded instant understanding. "Sure, Catherine."

Absorbed in playing with Samantha, Teresa hardly noticed when Sam followed Catherine up to the second floor. Voices came faintly from behind a closed door and Catherine tapped lightly once before opening it.

Inside, a tall, imposing figure turned, and though they had never met, Sam recognized him instantly. Still, he couldn't help staring as Vincent moved toward him.

"Sam. It has been a dream that one day we would meet."

Somehow, hearing Vincent's voice broke the spell, and Sam grinned. "For me, too."

Vincent was silent a moment. "Mere words could never express how I feel... I will never forget what you have done for me."

There was no good answer for that, so Sam shrugged. To his surprise, Vincent smiled as widely as his unusual features would allow and stepped forward to envelop him in a warm, brotherly hug. Sam hugged him back, and it was probably fortunate that he couldn't hear the disparaging comment offered by Al.

"Geez! Looks like a Kodak moment to me! Leave it to the two of you! A gorgeous woman in the room, and you hug each other! What a waste!" Arms wide, Al wandered in Catherine's direction, demonstrating.

Vincent turned his head, his expression offering a mild reproach, but little Albert was not so restrained. Giggling, he gave his own version. "Mommy, Al thinks you're pretty. He wants Daddy and Sam to hug you, and he wants to hug you, too."

Catherine clearly didn't know how to react and Vincent moved automatically to protect her. "Al, as Catherine cannot see or hear you, it is unfair to make remarks that might embarrass her."

Only mildly chastened, Al voiced a general apology, which Vincent translated more eloquently. Sam couldn't hear the whole exchange because his link with Al was still lost, but he recognized diplomacy when he heard it, and besides, he knew Al too well.

Vincent touched his arm. "Sam, Catherine and I would like you to meet our son, Albert."

Sam smiled at the engaging little boy, who greeted him with a bright smile. "Hi!"

"Hi. Daddy said you would look like Mark, but you don't."

Sam paused. "How old are you, Albert? Four? Then, no, I guess I don't look like Mark."

"Who does he see?" Catherine whispered to Vincent.

"He sees Sam," Vincent explained. "So do I."

In the background, Al was offering another rapid-fire explanation of the pure alpha state, which Vincent ignored by choice and Catherine and Sam ignored because they couldn't hear it. Only Albert was interested.

"Could a dog see you?" he asked. "Or a cat? Or a bird? My friend Mouse has a raccoon;could he see you?"

"Albert, I'm a little surprised that Mouse can't see me."

"Is Mouse your friend, too?" the little boy asked.

"Well, sort of," Al explained. "He probably doesn't remember me."

Albert glanced at Sam and seemed to remember his manners. "This is my friend Al," he said, pointing.

Sam looked where the boy indicated and shook his head. "I can't see Al," he said softly.

"You can't? Mommy can't, either. Or Jamie. Only me and Daddy and Sammie." He giggled. "That's funny. Al has the same name as I do, and Sammie's name is almost like yours."

Sam smiled. "That is funny."

Catherine interrupted, holding out her hand. "Come on, Albert. Let's go downstairs for awhile so Daddy can talk with Sam and Al."

"I want to stay," Albert objected. "I like Al. He's funny!"

Sam leaned close. "You know, Albert, I think you'd better do what your mother says right now. Your father and Al and I have some things to talk about."

"Oh, all right." Albert grumbled, but it was a token protest. At the door he turned for a parting comment. "Don't forget, Al, you promised to teach me that lime poem later."

Catherine looked from Albert to Vincent. "Lime poem?" she questioned.

Vincent turned to Al, who shrugged. "A limerick," he explained.

Vincent drew himself up to his full height; his bearing was suddenly imposing, and Al looked moderately cowed. "It's a different one!" he defended himself.

Vincent was not appeased and Al capitulated gracelessly.

"Okay, okay, no limericks! How about a nursery rhyme?"

"Oh, boy," Sam sighed after Catherine and Albert left. "This is the strangest leap yet." He turned to Vincent. "Does Al know why I'm here?"

Vincent listened a moment. "Al asks if you know where Teresa is?"

"Sure. She's downstairs, playing with the baby. Is she why I'm here?"

Vincent listened. "Al says Ziggy tells him there is a good chance that you are here to make Teresa go home." He paused. "May I ask who Teresa is?"

Sam began to explain, but hadn't said more than a few words when Vincent raised his hands in protest. "Please. I can only hear one of you at a time."

Knowing better than to expect Al to yield the floor, Sam shut up, waiting patiently until Vincent's attitude indicated Al had stopped speaking.

"Is he done?"

Vincent nodded. "An incredible story. You are both certain this Teresa is the same girl?"

Sam nodded. "I am."

Al's answer was apparently also affirmative, and Vincent smiled. "You are crossing paths with many old friends on this leap."

Sam nodded agreement. "Al, what happens to Teresa if she stays in New York?"

Al was a long time in answering; when he did, Vincent translated slowly, with many pauses.

"He says there are many things that could happen to a young girl on the streets of New York..."

"He's stalling, Vincent. Make him tell you what Ziggy says."

Vincent tipped his head to the side. "He says Ziggy isn't certain. She works two jobs to support herself; at the perfume counter at Horne's Department Store, and nights as a waitress in a diner. Beyond that, he doesn't know."

Sam sighed. "It isn't much. What am I supposed to fix?"

"Al says Ziggy doesn't know. He reminds you that he is only two years ahead of us, and there hasn't been time for Teresa's life to fully unfold."

"But it's trouble if she stays in New York, right?"

Vincent listened for a long time. "Al says it is. He says running away is not the answer for Teresa, that she has a family and should be with them. He knows what life as a runaway is..."

Vincent paused and Sam filled in the blank. "Al was a runaway when he was a boy."

Vincent nodded understanding and continued. "Al cares for this young woman very much. He truly fears for her."

Meanwhile, downstairs, Jamie had disappeared, Albert wanted a snack and little Samantha was getting fussy.

"What can I do?" Teresa asked, wanting to help.

"You can..." Catherine paused in the act of slicing an apple. "...take Samantha upstairsand put her down for a nap. It's the second door on the right."

"Okay." Teresa loved babies, and Samantha was an especially engaging little girl. Following Catherine's instructions, she found the baby's room and changed her diaper before tucking her into the crib. Pulling the door closed, she leaned against it, waiting to hear if Samantha was going to sleep quietly, or was going to fuss.

Men's voices came to her through a closed door across the hall, but she ignored them until her own name filtered through her concentration. Frowning, she moved closer to the other door. She heard her name again, and heard Mark say something about sending her home. There were odd gaps in the conversation, and she couldn't make out all the words, especially from the man who wasn't Mark, because his voice was too low, but it was soon clear that she was the subject of this particular discussion.

Like most teenagers, Teresa felt perfectly capable of taking care of herself, and felt her temper rising. As the conversation beyond the door continued, it added fuel to her fury. She didn't know that Catherine had noticed her long absence and had come looking for her. Oblivious to Catherine's cry of protest, Teresa thrust the door open and burst into the room.

Sam whirled at the sound behind him. Teresa stood framed in the open doorway, fury fading as panic and hysteria rose in her eyes. Vincent bowed his head and began to turn away;Teresa took an involuntary step back, bumping Catherine, who blocked her path.

Teresa spun away, giving a small, convulsive cry, flattening herself against the wall. Slowly she realized that no one else was alarmed, and her eyes sought Sam's. "Mark?" she quavered.

Sam spoke slowly, making sure she understood every word. "Teresa, this is my friend Vincent." He looked questioningly to Catherine, who nodded gravely. "He's Catherine's husband."

Vincent was still half-turned away from Teresa, and she stared at his profile in fascination. Sam thought he knew how Vincent felt; he remembered the horror on the faces of men he had subdued in the course of rescuing Catherine. One man had actually fainted at sight of him. It hadn't been a pleasant feeling.

"Didn't your mother ever teach you to knock?" Sam added. "If you hadn't barged in here..."

Teresa had found her voice at last, and seemed to take comfort not only from Sam's introduction, but from the fact that Catherine had pushed past her and was now beside Vincent, touching his arm and speaking in a low voice.

"I'm sorry," Teresa said. "But you were talking about me."

"We mean you no harm, Teresa," Vincent said softly, without looking at her. "We only wish to help."

"I can take care of myself," she said stonily. "I'm not a child."

"Don't let her, Sam," Al exhorted, forgetting Sam couldn't hear him. "Make her go back."

Sam didn't need the advice. "You're only sixteen, Teresa. New York is a difficult place to make it on your own."

"I can do it," she insisted.

"How?" Catherine asked quietly. "What will you do?"

"I'll get a job. I'll find a place to live... I have friends."

"Who?" Sam challenged.

Her pause was only momentary. "Damon," she answered.

It took him aback. "Damon? You said he tried..."

"Maybe I was wrong," she said. "Maybe he is my friend, after all. At least he listens to what I want!"

"Get a last name, Sam," Al advised. "We're willing to listen, too, Teresa," Sam said. "Believe it or not, we're your friends, all of us. We care what happens to you."

"Get a last name on this Damon," Al demanded indignantly. "So Ziggy can run a check on him."

"Teresa," Vincent interrupted gently. "Does your friend Damon have a last name?"

"Does he... sure he does. Newburgh. Damon Newburgh."

"Thanks, Vincent," Al muttered, punching buttons furiously. "Glad someone around here listens to me."

"Teresa, no one here will force you to do anything against your will," Catherine said. "But won't you take some time to listen to us, and think about what we have to say?"

"Please, Teresa," Sam added his voice. "We only want what's right for you."

Teresa gave in grudgingly. "Okay. A day or two. But you're not going to change my mind. I'm not going home."

"All right." Sam smiled in relief. They'd gotten over the first hurdle, and could worry about the second one later.

"Where do I go?" Teresa asked. "Back to Mark's? Or do I stay here?"

Catherine shook her head decisively. "Mark's place isn't a good idea, and here isn't either, but Vincent knows of a secret place where you'll be safe."

 

Sam was amazed that Vincent and Catherine would trust Teresa with the secret of the tunnels, but Catherine explained. "Vincent knows she can be trusted."

Sam went back to Mark's tiny apartment to get Teresa's things. He didn't notice the slight, dark youth who followed him when he left.

Vincent had given him directions to the tunnel entrance nearest Mark's apartment, and Sam stashed Teresa's backpack and sleeping bag while he searched. After only a few minutes, he found it, a rusty iron door set into crumbling brick in the basement of a nearby warehouse; its hinges groaned a protest when he pulled it open. He left it ajar while he went to fetch Teresa's stuff.

Meanwhile, Vincent guided a subdued and silent Teresa into the depths of the world Below. Catherine would follow after the baby woke from her nap.

"I'm sorry," Teresa said suddenly.

"For what?"

"For the way I acted; for barging in without knocking... and for staring at you the way I did."

He made a brief, dismissive gesture with one hand. "It is forgotten."

"Not by me." She kicked at a loose stone on the tunnel floor. "I'll bet Catherine didn't stare like that the first time she saw you."

"No," he agreed; she was surprised to see he was smiling. "She didn't stare. She screamed, and threw something at me."

Teresa stopped dead in the passage. "Really?"

"I surprised her," he explained.

"Wow. I guess I don't feel so bad now. I'm sorry, and I won't stare at you anymore."

"I know you won't. Teresa, tell me about your friend Damon."

"Like what?" she asked, suddenly defensive.

"Who is he?"

"He's just a boy I met; he helped me when I first came to New York."

"How did he help you?"

"I was almost out of money; he let me stay in his apartment for a couple of days. He was going to talk to somebody he knew about giving me a job."

"What happened?"

She was silent, studying the ground under her feet.

"Teresa?" he prompted.

"I'm not sure anymore," she confessed.

Vincent tactfully avoided noticing how her cheeks were flushed scarlet.

"We were just watching T.V. together," she went on softly. "And he put his arm around me, and after a while we started..."

"Becoming affectionate?" Vincent suggested diplomatically.

She nodded. "We were kissing, and he started touching me, and... and... I never felt that way before... it scared me, and I ran away."

"Did Damon try to stop you?"

"No... yes... I mean, he yelled for me to come back, that he was sorry, but he didn't grab me or try to hold me or anything."

"Do you think he meant to hurt you?"

Slowly she shook her head. "I made myself think I did, so I wouldn't feel so bad about running away, but I don't think so anymore."

"What kind of a person is Damon?"

She smiled. "He's quiet and gentle, except when he's mad. Then he yells. He works at a warehouse, unloading trucks, and sometimes he sings on the street corners. That's how I met him. He was singing, and I stopped to listen."

"He is a musician, then."

She shrugged. "He wants to be."

"And you, Teresa. What do you want?"

"I don't know, Vincent." She thought a minute. "I guess I want to feel like I'm needed. I know my mom loves me, but she doesn't need me for anything."

"And you believe you can find fulfillment by staying in New York?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I'd like to try."

"And what of your mother?"

"What about her?"

"I have a brother, Teresa. When he was fourteen, he ran away, and for twenty years we didn't know if he was alive or dead."

"You think she's worried about me."

"What do you think?"

She nodded reluctantly. "I should tell her I'm okay, shouldn't I?"

"I think it would ease her mind," Vincent agreed.

"But what will I do if she wants to come and get me?"

Vincent glanced at her. "Would that be so terrible?"

"I don't want to go back there, Vincent. There's nothing in Scottsdale for me. I ran away for stupid reasons, but I think I'm supposed to be here now."

Vincent looked at her thoughtfully. "Perhaps you are. Here." He led the way into a small chamber, dimly lit by soft gold and blue light streaming through a stained glass window above the bed. "This chamber is where I spent my childhood, and much of my adulthood," he said. "It is where Catherine gave birth to both of our children; it holds many memories, but I rarely use it anymore. You are welcome to sleep here while you decide what to do."

"Okay. Thank you." Teresa looked around uncertainly, and was grateful to hear footsteps in the passage outside.

A rather scruffy-looking young man entered first, smiling shyly at Teresa before addressing Vincent. "Brought Mark," he announced. Sam came in behind him.

"Thank you, Mouse," Vincent said gently. "This is Teresa; she'll be staying Below for a few days."

"Hi," Teresa said, and Mouse blushed.

"Hi."

"I brought your stuff, Teresa," Sam said, dropping it onto the bed.

"Thank you."

There was a rough, sliding noise that only Vincent could hear, and Al stepped through a shimmering portal. "Hey, Vincent," he said expansively. "Place hasn't changed much, has it?"

Vincent looked at him, but didn't answer; Mouse probably wouldn't notice or care, but he didn't want to alarm Teresa.

Al didn't seem to mind; he was busy making a brief inspection tour. "You have the neatest stuff, Vincent," he commented. He bent, admiring the glittering facets of a polished geode. "Hey, it's that kid, what's-his-name!" Al snapped his fingers impatiently. "Squirrel... Rat... Mouse! That's it. It's Mouse! Hi, Mouse!" Oblivious to Al's presence, Mouse was covertly watching Teresa.

"Al." Vincent spoke quietly, and as he'd suspected, Mouse didn't respond. The girl frowned a little, but didn't seem absolutely sure she'd heard anything. Sam heard, and raised his eyebrows in a silent question.

Al reacted with animated attention to the sound of his name. "Vincent, we need to talk. Can you get Teresa and Mouse to take a walk somewhere?"

Vincent nodded briefly. "Mouse, Teresa has just arrived here and doesn't know her way around yet. Would you show her how to find the bathing chambers, the dining hall, perhaps Father's library?"

Mouse flushed; if Vincent didn't know better, he'd think the youth was developing a crush on Teresa.

"Okay, good, okay, fine," he mumbled, and scurried out. After a few seconds, he popped back in again. "Coming?" he inquired of Teresa, and this time, with a backward wave for Sam and Vincent, she followed.

"Mouse will take good care of her," Vincent assured Sam.

"I know he will," Sam answered. "He took good care of me, both today and before."

Vincent was momentarily startled; he had forgotten that Sam had met Mouse on his earlier leap.

"Come on, you guys," Al interrupted. "We've got work to do."

Vincent turned his attention to Al. "What have you learned?"

"Ziggy ran a check on this kid, Damon Newburgh," Al said, waving his cigar. "The kid's bad news. You can't let Teresa get mixed up with him!"

Repeating Al's words for Sam's benefit had become almost automatic for Vincent now, but Sam began to pace in frustration. Sam hadn't realized how much of Al's communication was through expression and body language.

"What kind of trouble, Al?" he asked.

Al punched some buttons. "Ziggy says that right now, this Newburgh kid has been indicted for possession of illegal narcotics, and is awaiting trial." He looked up, his expression grim. "The police suspect him of dealing, but don't have any proof."

"We can't let Teresa get mixed up with drugs," Sam said, more to himself than anyone else. "I must be here to stop her."

Vincent spoke quietly. "When you spoke earlier of Teresa's future, Al, you made no mention of drugs."

"No," Al admitted reluctantly. "Ziggy's looked, and can't find any evidence that she's tried any of that stuff."

"You also made no mention of Damon being part of her life," Vincent continued.

Al pushed more buttons and slapped the side of his computer link impatiently. "Hurry up, Ziggy," he muttered. Finally the computer complied and he perused the results, frowning. "Ziggy says Teresa and Damon don't seem to know each other," he announced at last. "She doesn't have a boyfriend; she has a kind of protector, a father-figure, I guess." He glanced at Sam. "Mark Fitzgerald."

"Yes," Vincent agreed. "Mark is a good man. He would not abandon her."

"Then I don't get it," Sam said. "If nothing really bad is going to happen to Teresa in the next two years, what am I here to do?"

"You gotta make her go home, Sam," Al insisted. "If you don't, she's stuck in a dead-end life."

Vincent translated, and added his own thoughts. "There is nothing inherently wrong with menial work," he said. "Many of our helpers support themselves in this way, and even much of the work here, in my world, requires strong backs more than agile minds."

"She needs to go home," Al said stubbornly.

Sam rubbed his cheek thoughtfully. "Vincent, you sound like you think Teresa should stay here. Why?"

Vincent lifted his shoulders in a microscopic shrug. "I am not certain," he replied. "It is only a feeling I have. On our way down, she spoke of Damon. I believe she cares for him, and I wonder if it is not his destiny you are here to change."

Sam gazed at him, marveling. "Al, have Ziggy run a scenario on what happens to Damon if he and Teresa get back together."

Al opened his mouth, but closed it again when Sam continued.

"Vincent, tell him not to argue, just do it."

Vincent eyes were smiling as he complied. "Al, just do it."

"Okay, but it'll take a few minutes. Ziggy's kind of slow today." Grumbling under his breath, Al vanished.

Sam pulled at his ear. "Vincent, is there some kind of radio around here?"

Vincent shook his head. "No. The rock walls prevent any signals reaching us down here, so there is no reason to have a radio. Why?"

Sam rubbed the other ear. "I keep thinking I hear static, like a radio that isn't tuned. It comes in bursts, and it's been getting louder." He shrugged. "It's gone now. I must have imagined it."

 

Damon Newburgh had spent the past fifteen minutes alternately creeping along rock-walled corridors and flattening himself into shadowed niches and side tunnels to avoid being seen. He had followed the man he knew as Mark Fitzgerald into these tunnels, had watched as Mark was joined by a short, blond man not much older than Damon himself. The man seemed to act as a guide, leading Mark through a veritable maze of twisting, intersecting passages. Damon had been hard-pressed to keep them in sight without being spotted, and eventually he had lost them. By then, he was so far into the maze that he knew he could never find his way out, but the passages here were lit by candles and torches, flickering gently in niches and wall brackets, so Damon knew there would be people. Still, he wasn't sure what sort of community he'd stumbled into, and resolved to proceed with caution.

He couldn't imagine what a respected English professor would be doing in these tunnels, anyway. The few people Damon had seen from a distance had been strangely, almost medievally garbed; the whole place had an other-worldly air.

He peered carefully around a corner; the passage before him was clear, and he slipped into it, proceeding silently toward an opening farther down.

Beyond that opening was a large, multi-level chamber filled with candlelight. Damon slipped inside and paused in the shadow cast by a tall, glass-fronted wooden cabinet. Directly above him was a smooth wooden surface; footsteps scraping the wood indicated that there was a second level here, and when he looked further, he could see the narrow spiral staircase that led upward.

"I've never seen so many books outside a library," someone said from above him. Teresa? he wondered, and ventured a step closer, looking up.

"You look at books," a young man's voice advised her. "Mouse has things to do. Back later!"

"Wait! Mouse!" Teresa tried to call back her guide, but he had scurried away, using a passage that led directly from the loft in Father's chamber.

Damon was sure he recognized her voice, and, casting caution aside, moved into the room until he could see her.

She moved to the railing, but didn't look down. "I wish I knew what to do." She spoke aloud, but Damon thought she was really speaking to herself. She sounded wistful. "If I go home, I won't get to go anywhere, or do anything. I'll have to go back to school..." She sighed. "And Damon isn't there."

Damon had been listening, and started at the sound of his name. Teresa heard and looked down, searching the shadows.

"School isn't so bad," Damon said softly, not wanting to frighten her. "You need an education."

"Damon?" She sounded incredulous. "How did you get down here?"

He shrugged, feeling suddenly carefree. "You can't hide from me, Teresa. Not even down here."

She smiled and managed to look worried at the same time. "This place is supposed to be secret. I don't know what will happen if they find you..."

He shrugged again. "What they don't know won't hurt 'em."

She bent over the railing as if trying to get closer, and he moved until he was directly beneath her.

"Why did you come?" she asked.

"For you," he said slowly. "Because I didn't know where you were, and I thought Mark Fitzgerald could take me to you."

"You were worried?"

He nodded. "Word on the street was that you were with him. When I went to his place and neither one of you was there, I didn't know what to think. I waited, and when Mark came back, I followed him."

"Oh, Damon, I'm sorry I ran away from you the way I did."

He spread his hands and grinned. "I'm sorry I came on so strong. I should have remembered you're just a kid."

"I'm not a kid," she retorted hotly. "I wish people would stop saying that!"

"All right, all right, I'm sorry. You're not a kid, but you're young, and I scared you. I apologize."

Placated, she smiled shyly and bit her lip. "Okay."

"Okay."

They stayed like that, Teresa leaning over the balcony rail and Damon craning up at her.

"Teresa," he said suddenly, smiling an odd, tender smile. "Did you know you're beautiful with the candlelight in your hair and your eyes all dark and mysterious like that?"

She blushed and pulled back. "What? I'm not..."

"Yes, you are," he disagreed, and bounded up the spiral stair to the point where its curve brought him closer to her, and leaned over the banister. "You're very beautiful to me, Teresa," he said softly. "I don't know why I never noticed it before."

She was staring at him with a mixture of longing and disbelief, and when he stretched out his hand, she reached with hers; their fingers touched.

"I think," he said shakily, "that I might be falling in love with you."

Teresa looked as uncertain as Damon felt. "I think I am, too," she whispered. "Oh, Damon, this is scary."

"For me, too," he admitted. "Oh, Teresa, what are we going to do?"

Across the room, Sam and Vincent entered, searching for Teresa. At sight of Damon, they stopped, exchanging anxious looks.

"It won't be easy," Teresa said, unaware they were being observed. "We're young; we're from different worlds..."

Sam opened his mouth to speak; Vincent raised a hand to forestall him and motioned to leave. Realizing they were eavesdropping, Sam turned to follow. Abruptly, their path was blocked by Al.

"Hey! Who's that with Teresa?" he demanded, looking over their shoulders. "Is it that Damon kid? Is this what you call taking care of her?"

Vincent began a placating gesture; Al ignored it and stepped forward, passing through them.

"You can't just leave her here with him," he continued, arms waving. "Look! He's kissing her, Sam! You have to stop him!"

"Al, get away from there! Don't watch..." Sam broke off and looked around wildly. "Al! I can hear you!"

"You can...? Vincent, he can hear me! Sam, that's great! How do I sound?"

"Loud," Sam said, flinching. "You don't have to shout. You're full of static, but I can understand you."

"Can you see me?" To help, Al waved his arms theatrically. Sam blinked and squinted toward the voice. "No," he admitted finally. "Not yet. There's a sort of shimmer, though."

Al jabbed buttons frantically. "Ziggy says the fuzzy reception is because you still aren't over your concussion, but that you should be back to normal soon... Hey, Sam, we've got a fix on you again!"

"Good. Now, what about them?" Sam said, pointing to Damon and Teresa.

No longer oblivious to their audience, Damon and Teresa turned; at sight of Vincent, Damon pushed Teresa behind him protectively.

"It's all right, Damon," Teresa assured him quickly. "He won't hurt you. He's a friend."

None of them noticed Catherine bringing the children in through the entrance below the gallery until Albert flew across the chamber, shouting, "Hi, Al!"

Seizing Damon's hand, Teresa tugged him toward the spiral staircase; he followed ambivalently. Catherine, carrying Samantha, moved toward the center of the chamber, where Sam and Vincent joined her.

At the foot of the stairs, Damon paused doubtfully, aware that all eyes were on him. Teresa pulled at his hand, drawing him forward.

"This is Damon," she said. "Damon, this is Catherine and her little girl Samantha; you already know Mark; this is Vincent; and this is Albert, Vincent and Catherine's son."

During the introductions, Catherine crossed to Vincent's side, and Samantha's little arms went out to her father, who reached for her automatically.

Damon was still grappling with Albert being Vincent's son when the little boy piped up, "You forgot Al!"

Catherine put her hand over his mouth, shaking her head warningly.

"Mommy, don't," he said indignantly, when she released him. "I want to talk."

"I know, sweetheart, but I don't think Teresa and her friend can see Al."

"But it isn't polite not to introduce him, Mommy." His parents exchanged amused glances over his head.

Teresa crouched down to Albert's level. "Is Al a friend no one else can see?" she asked.

Albert nodded. "Except Daddy can see him, too," he said.

"You know, when I was about your age, I had a friend that no one could see, and his name was Al, too! I remember he used to wear this really yucky shirt and he could make dinosaurs appear in the air."

"No, he makes the Cheshire Cat appear," Albert disagreed. "And I like his purple shirt. It has shiny stuff on it."

"That's nice, Albert," she said, suddenly aware she was the center of attention.

Rising slowly to her feet, her eyes met Sam's.

"Teresa..."

"Mark, before you say anything, I want you to know I've made my decision. I'm staying here." Looping an arm through Damon's, she faced Sam with determination.

"Teresa." Surprisingly, it was Damon who spoke. She turned to him and he put a hand on her shoulder. "I don't want you to go, but they want what's best for you... and so do I."

Teresa touched his cheek. "The only one who knows what's best for me is me, and my future is here... with you."

"She's right," Al shouted to those who could hear him. "Vincent was right! You're no there to help Teresa, you're here to help Damon, and by helping him, you help Teresa, too!" Controlling his excitement, Al consulted his computer link. "Before, Damon was going to be a no-good drug dealer. Now Ziggy says there's an eighty-four percent chance that he's going to be able to make a living from his music, instead."

"What about Teresa?" Sam asked.

Al slapped the small plastic box impatiently. "Bingo!" he cried. "Teresa lives with an old lady and helps her out. She goes to school and works part time and her mom sends her some money, too. Damon still works at the warehouse, but in two years he's going to sell a song to a record company." He pressed some more buttons. "And... he and Teresa get married!"

"So we did help her," Sam said.

"You helped both of them," Vincent observed quietly. "Finding someone to share a life with is no small thing." His glance moved swiftly to Catherine and back again. "Perhaps there is a little of Eros in you, Sam."

"Who?" Al demanded.

"Cupid, Al," Sam explained. "Why aren't I leaping?"

Al shrugged, an expansive gesture Sam couldn't see. "Don't know. Maybe because you can't see me yet, or maybe because we haven't said good-bye. Maybe you need to change your name to Dorothy and tap your heels together three times."

Sam threw an exasperated look to where Al's voice had been, only to hear it emanating from another spot. Al had already begun his good-byes.

Sam turned to Damon and Teresa. "Take good care of her," he admonished Damon. "I'll be watching."

"I will," Damon promised.

He looked at Teresa. "You've grown up to be quite a young woman. Your mother would be proud of you." To her surprise, he hugged her. She responded warmly, but as he stepped back from her, she stiffened, looking past him.

Sam spun to look. Little Albert was in the act of exchanging a delighted high five with a ghostly shadow that was Al.

"Al?" Teresa's whisper, soft with wonder and disbelief, made Sam spin back again. One hand was over her mouth; the other reached forward, but when she saw him looking, she snatched it back.

"Teresa, what do you see?"

She shook her head. "Nothing. Nothing at all."

Unconvinced, Sam moved to stand before Vincent. "I'm glad we met."

Vincent inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Perhaps we'll meet again." Catherine waited with her hands on her son's shoulders, and Sam looked up to see an almost-fully focused, clearly discernible Al only inches away from her, leering.

"Quit it, Al," he instructed grimly. "I can see you."

Al turned. "You can? Sam, that's great...!"

Sam ignored him. By the way the air was beginning to buzz, he would be leaping any second. He looked into Catherine's eyes as she smiled at him. "Cath..."

He leaped.

As he opened his eyes, he found her still smiling at him. "...erine," he finished, and stared in astonishment.

 

THE END