Author’s Note: Written for Birene for Yuletide 2009. Thanks SO much to mari4212 for the very prompt beta, and Medie for the much needed cheerleading/butt-kicking without which this probably would never have gotten finished in time. To my recipient, I’m extremely sorry I wasn’t able to write slash for you (it’s one of the few fandoms where my muses absolutely refuse to consider it) but I hope it didn’t hurt your enjoyment of the story too much! Happy holidays! 🙂
If it hadn’t been nearly deserted, one would never know to look at Project Quantum Leap that it was only two days before Christmas. No decorations hung from the sleek silver walls: there was no way to hang them even if the Project’s status as a military-funded operation hadn’t precluded it. There’d been a tree in the cafeteria too, one year, but that had been before Sam leaped. No Christmas carols rang down the empty hallways this year either, although there was a time when the place had often been filled with music. Right now the only sound was the click of Verbena’s heels, underscored as always by the comforting, ever-present hum of Ziggy running in the background.
A lot of things had changed since Sam’s first Leap, Verbena reflected ruefully. For one thing, her final errand tonight before heading home herself would have been unnecessary. The Al she’d first known would never have passed up a reason to celebrate, but that was before he’d become Sam’s only lifeline.
The Admiral’s office was, like all of them, unmarked, but Verbena had visited it often enough that she would’ve been able to find it easily even if it weren’t just down the hall from her own. Since Al consistently refused to come to her, even when she could tell the toll a leap was taking on him, the mountain had been forced to come to Mohammed more than once.
Not that she minded. The people at Project Quantum Leap were more than patients to her; she considered them friends as well. And while that might be unprofessional by the standards of the outside world, here in this place, miles under the New Mexico desert, it was the only way they’d survived. If they hadn’t been such a close knit family, more than likely the Project would’ve fallen apart in the days after Sam first disappeared into the past. And considering it was Al who’d held them all together…well, holding him together by hook or by crook felt like the least she could do.
Although Verbena hadn’t voiced that thought, Ziggy seemed to share it: the door to Al’s office slid open as soon as she reached it, instead of requiring her to announce her presence first as usual.
She wasn’t surprised to find Al still at his desk, poring over a mountain of paperwork that they both knew didn’t have to be done until after the New Year. The grim, almost haunted expression on his face contrasted starkly with the bright red suit he’d worn for this last day of Sam’s leap.
Verbena sighed. “Go home, Al.”
The Admiral didn’t respond immediately: it took a minute for her words to sink in and draw him back from whatever mental edge he’d been walking this time. “Huh? Oh, hey, Verbena.”
“Contrary to what I know you generally believe, I’m not just saying this to hear myself talk.” Verbena took a few steps further into the office. “I mean it, Al. Go home. Tomorrow’s Christmas Eve: you can at least take two days off.”
She saw Al take in her outfit–the festive red sweater, green skirt and dangling snowflake earrings–probably seeing it for the first time. Not that Verbena could blame him on that count: Al’s own rather unique sense of style had bled over to the rest of them over the years, so except for the earrings the ensemble wasn’t really that unusual.
Nevertheless, Al still shook his head. “Not when Sam could leap in any time.”
Verbena sighed. He’d used those words as an excuse so many times that the truth in them had almost ceased to matter to her. “And if he does, then Ziggy will call you, just like she’ll call the rest of us.”
Al opened his mouth to offer yet another familiar excuse, but Verbena cut him off, the tone of her voice shifting just enough to let him know she wasn’t going to dance these steps with him. Not this time. “I can make it Doctor’s Orders if I have to.”
He scowled, but there was also a rare honesty in his expression. “What difference is it gonna make? So I worry about Sam at home instead of here: big deal.”
Verbena’s face softened. “Do you really think Sam would be happy to know you’re using him as an excuse to shut yourself away from life? Especially this time of year?”
Al looked at her. He opened his mouth once or twice in helpless agreement, before finally sagging in defeat. His gaze remained sharp and perceptive as ever, though. “You know, I didn’t think it was possible, but you play dirtier than my fourth wife.”
Verbena suppressed a smile. “Come on. I’ll walk you out.”
“What, you don’t trust me?”
“Not as far as Sam can throw you.”
Al relented with a sigh. Retrieving his hat and overcoat from beside the door, he tipped the red fedora onto his head and shrugged into the coat before gesturing to the door. “After you.”
Verbena’s intentions were good. They always were, but shrink or no shrink, she still just didn’t get it. Hell, Al sometimes thought it was because she was a shrink that she so often managed to miss the point so completely. Whether it was her training or just her nature, Verbena seemed to like to put things in boxes. Boxes labeled ‘guilt’ or ‘depression’ or ‘duty’ or ‘obligation,’ or whatever the hell she thought was motivating him this week.
Usually the truth was a lot simpler and a lot more complicated at the same time.
Christmas just wasn’t Christmas without Sam. Not anymore. Hell, he was the closest thing to family Al had left, and what was the point of celebrating a holiday for families all by yourself? Or putting up decorations no one else was going to see?
Staying at the Project, at least he’d’ve been as close to Sam as it was possible to be between leaps. He thought more than once about turning around and going back, but knowing his luck Ziggy would probably decide Verbena was right and lock him out.
Two days. What the hell was he supposed to do with himself for two days?
You might wanna start by stocking the fridge, Al reflected wryly. As much time as he did spend at the Project, most of what food he’d had at home had probably gone stale or sour in his absence. There was a reason Project Quantum Leap was pretty far from civilization: for the most part, it kept civilians from asking too many questions about strange blue lights in the sky or, for that matter, strange blue lights on the ground. But as a result, the Project was also more or less entirely self-sufficient. At least if you didn’t mind the cafeteria food.
Driving into Alamogordo just to go to the grocery store was going to be a pain in the ass, especially this late at night. But it was going to be a necessary one unless by some miracle Sam Leaped into his next mission a lot faster than usual.
Much as Al might want that for himself, for Sam’s sake he still couldn’t bring himself to wish for it. Besides, he saved wishing for the really impossible things. Like Sam coming home for good.
By the time he’d reached the grocery store and stocked up on enough TV dinners and junk food to get him through three days without the Project cafeteria, the winter thunderstorm that had been threatening all day was pounding down full force. Al swore under his breath. He’d never cared much for rain, but since coming back from ‘Nam, he hated it. Not that this rain was anything like southern Asia’s idea of a tropical downpour, but hot or cold, it didn’t matter. These days, though, he spent so much damned time underground (or in the Imaging Chamber, where any rain that did fall couldn’t touch him) that it hadn’t even occurred to him to stick an umbrella in the car.
“Spare some change, man?” a voice slurred beside him. Al glanced over to see a homeless man slumped up against a pillar. He had a battered cardboard sign in his hands, with a few words printed shakily on it. The writing would’ve been hard enough to read when it was dry, but the moisture in the air had made the sign so limp he could barely make out one word.
That word was chilling enough, though: it was “veteran.”
Al shivered, but not from the cold or the rain. He wondered if this was what Sam must feel like, looking in the mirror and seeing another face even though he knew it was still him inside there. The scraggly beard, the blood-shot eyes, shaking hands and alcohol-slurred speech: Al knew all too well how easily that could’ve been him. Hell, if not for Sam, it might have been him. God knew if he’d washed out of the Navy and out of Star Bright, there would’ve been no one else to pick him up out of the gutter. Even Maxine had given up on him by that point.
The rain suddenly forgotten, Al shoved a hand into his pocket, scrabbling for a bill. His hand clenched around a twenty. “Just do me one favor.”
The guy looked up at him with a guarded, wary expression as if waiting for the lecture, or at least an admonition not to waste the money on booze. “Spend it on any damned thing you want,” Al told him instead, tossing the bill into the astonished man’s lap. “God knows I sure as hell have no right to moralize.”
The guy just stared for a long moment at the crumpled Andrew Jackson in his hands. Then, just as Al was turning away to brave the storm, he looked up again and said in a tone of bewildered disbelief: “Al?”
Al’s world tilted. His vision shifted as if he’d just stepped into the Imaging Chamber – the beard vanishing, the face lengthening and becoming impossibly familiar. When he finally found his voice, it was as ragged as his breathing, “Sam?”
Leaping into a new time and place was in a way very much like waking up from a deep, dreamless sleep. The difference was that the first moment of disorientation never completely went away, because he almost never found himself safely in familiar surroundings. And even when they were familiar…they were the wrong familiar. Leaping into his sixteen-year-old self on the last Thanksgiving before Tom went away had felt like a dream at the time, but it had quickly become a nightmare as every attempt to save his family from the grief in their future unraveled.
Like now. There was Al, standing right in front of him. From the outfit he was wearing, this was the Al of Sam’s present too – or at least awfully close to it. And he’d just tossed Sam a twenty, which meant he was really here, corporeal, not just a hologram. But in spite of that, Sam only had to look at the stunned, almost aghast look on Al’s face to know that this didn’t mean he was home. To be so close…
“Sam?” Al repeated, his voice resembling sandpaper even more than usual. “Jesus, Sam, don’t just sit there.”
“As opposed to what?” Sam asked dryly. He tried to clamber to his feet, but discovered quickly that various body parts were as stiff as if he had been sitting in the same spot for hours.
Al reacted immediately, reaching out a hand to clasp Sam’s. An electric thrill shot through Sam at the affirmation the contact provided. He was right, Al was really here. Once he was unsteadily on his feet, Sam’s first instinct was to reach out and hug the lifeline he hadn’t been able to touch in years, but a brief glance down at himself quickly ruled out that idea. The clothes he was wearing were filthy: hadn’t-been-washed-in-forever, could-probably-stand-up-by-themselves filthy.
Al didn’t seem to care. Sam found himself pulled into an embrace so tight he could barely breathe. “Jesus, Sam, what the hell are you doing here?”
Sam coughed. “Funny, I was just about to ask you the same thing. Where am I?”
The look in his friend’s eyes was dark and unreadable. “Close to home. Damned close.”
“But not close enough,” Sam confirmed aloud what he’d both known and dreaded before. “Why am I here, then?”
Al grunted. “How the hell should I know? The Project’s shut down for the holidays. Skeleton crew only. Verbena kicked me out.” He scowled and muttered under his breath, “Though that self-righteous explosion of Legos you call a computer helped.”
Shut down for the holidays? That must mean – “Christmas?”
“Two days from now.” Al cracked a rueful smile and looked Sam straight in the eyes. “I’ll give you three guesses what was on my wish list, and the last two would be redundant.”
Sam’s ribs seemed to contract painfully. Much as he might wish otherwise, it couldn’t be that simple. They weren’t allowed to interfere with their own lives. That rule didn’t change, no matter how often they tried to break it. “I need to find out why I’m here,” he said reluctantly.
Al’s eyes flashed dangerously. “It can wait two damned days.”
“And if it can’t?” Sam challenged him.
Al flinched a little in acknowledgment, but remained firm. “Then it can at least wait long enough for us to get you home, cleaned up, and something to eat. Don’t believe me?” He gestured to the sky, in the direction of the cloudburst that had mysteriously stopped while they were talking. “How’s that for proof?”
Sam laughed. “All right. You win. I do have to admit…” He glanced down again at what he’d leaped into. Oooooh boy. He had a feeling he had his work cut out for him with this one. “A shower sounds really good right about now.”
“I thought you said it was two days before Christmas?”
Al dumped the last of his rather meager groceries carelessly on the counter then followed the sound of Sam’s voice into the very bare living room. “Yeah. Didn’t all the ridiculous light displays we drove past give it away?”
Sam paused in the corner where, in past years, Al’s Christmas tree had stood. Funny how Al hadn’t felt the absence of it until that moment.
Sam looked at him. “It’s just that I have this vague memory of you putting up some pretty ridiculous light displays yourself. Both inside and out.”
Hell, he’d done more than that back when it had mattered. Once upon a time Al had decorated with the same aesthetic abandon he now mostly reserved for his wardrobe, and they both knew it. He looked away. “Who was going to see it: Ziggy?”
“Tina?” Sam guessed with a shrewd look.
“Since when have Tina and I ever had a ‘spend Christmas together cozied up by the fire’ kind of relationship?” Damn, that came out sounding a lot more defensive than he’d intended.
“Right. I keep forgetting you two have been having a casual fling for the past five years.”
Al snorted. “If it’d been serious, we would’ve probably married by now. And divorced, come to think of it. Which means casual is saving me a hell of a lot of money.”
“Is that what this is about?” Sam gestured around him to the bare walls and absent tree. “Saving money?”
Al just looked at him. He didn’t say that he hadn’t really felt much like celebrating until Sam showed up. That went without saying, didn’t it?
Sam’s expression softened, and for a moment it was almost as if they carried on an entire conversation about how rough the past few years had been on both of them without exchanging a word. What the hell had Ziggy put in those neural chips that let them see each other, anyway?
A little rattled, Al gestured vaguely down the hallway. “You know where the bathroom is. Towels are in the cupboard under the sink. Might wanna think about shaving that bush off too, while you’re at it.”
Sam’s expression strongly suggested he wasn’t ready to let this go, not really, but for the moment he grudgingly accepted the change in subject. “Bush?” he asked, one hand going to his smooth chin.
Right, Sam hadn’t looked in the mirror yet. Al waved a dismissive hand. “You’ll see what I mean.”
By mid-morning on Christmas Eve, they’d pretty much figured out that whatever Sam’s mission was, it wasn’t urgent. No future version of Al had appeared in the past eight hours and there’d been no call from Ziggy to say there was a new Visitor in the Waiting Room. Even though he knew better, a part of Al couldn’t help but hope that maybe, just maybe, all Sam was here to do was fulfill his Christmas wish. That he’d leaped into someone else and not himself…well, maybe that was just God or Time or Fate or Whoever’s way of reminding them both that it wasn’t permanent.
He’d be lying if he said he didn’t care, but if there was one thing Al had learned over a lifetime of disappointments, it was not to take for granted the time you had with people. It could slip away so easily without you even noticing.
They’d spent the morning getting a tree, at Sam’s insistence. Al had put up only a token protest. His reason for not getting into the holiday spirit no longer existed, after all. And even if pickings were more than a little slim, he was glad he’d waited. If he’d decorated weeks in advance, he wouldn’t have gotten to share this moment with Sam. Christmas aside, the experience of trying to figure out how to transport a six-foot fir tree in a two-seat sports car was too ridiculous not to share. By the time even Sam’s once-in-a-generation mind accepted that it couldn’t be done and they arranged to have the tree delivered, both of them were laughing harder than they probably had in years.
Probably not since Sam had first Leaped.
“Do you remember the first time we did this?” Sam asked as they were climbing back in the car. “You commandeered a truck from the Project, complete with Marine driver, and told him if anyone gave him any trouble about it to say he was acting under orders. Then you bought the tallest tree the lot had and had it hauled back to put up in the middle of the cafeteria.”
Sam’s eyes sparkled with the memory, and for the first time in a long time Al found that it didn’t hurt to remember the same. He chuckled. “Of course I remember. I’m not the one with the brain like Swiss cheese.” Al looked over at his friend and smiled. “We really had the kid going, didn’t we? He probably thought we were going to run off to Area 51 to steal parts for Ziggy or something.”
“You did ‘forget’ to mention we were after a Christmas tree,” Sam pointed out.
Not just a tree, the way Al remembered it. They’d also hauled about six or seven dozen ornaments in boxes back to the Project and what had felt like a mile of lights and tinsel. Not to mention the menorah, kinara and assorted other non-Christmas related decorations that Sam had insisted on buying so that no one who worked for Project Quantum Leap would feel overlooked. (Not that Al had minded. He remembered all too well what an obnoxious time of year December had been for Ruthie. That didn’t make it any less extraordinary, though, that Sam had thought of it.)
Al had long had a tradition of buying new decorations every year, then after New Year donating what he’d bought to an orphanage or hospital or other children’s charity. There was nothing left of the Christmas of his childhood: when his father died, Al had been too young to dictate how Vernon Calavicci’s belongings were disposed of. He’d started building those memories again with Beth, or had tried to the one Christmas they’d actually spent together. But even if she’d saved any of his possessions after marrying Dirk, he’d been far too proud to ask for them.
Hell, even the one possession he’d ever really treasured in recent years – the handlink that connected him to Sam – had a tendency to break and need replacing. He couldn’t afford to get attached to things, even if he’d wanted to.
People kept leaving him too, but in spite of himself Al still couldn’t help getting attached to those. And hell, at least he saw Sam every day, even if in some ways that just made it harder.
With Sam here and tangible, he could ignore the fact that everyone around them saw someone else. As long as they stayed away from mirrors, anyway.
The rest of the day passed in a warm, vivid haze of activity. They hit up the local Coach House Gifts for decorations, which miraculously still had some left on Christmas Eve. After that, it was back to the grocery store for something a little more seasonal than the half a dozen random TV dinners he’d thrown in the cart last night. If they went a little overboard with both, well, it was a special occasion (and Al didn’t mean the holiday).
The subject of gifts never came up, though Al knew Sam was thinking it. But what was the point of giving Sam a gift he’d just have to leave behind? The last thing he needed was another reminder that his friend was still out there.
By the time they finally returned to the house, the stars were already beginning to rise in a clear desert sky already recovered from last night’s rain storm. Sam closed the passenger door and stared upwards with a smile that was both wistful and nostalgic. “Al, look at this!”
Al shut his own door and glanced up, trying to follow the line of Sam’s finger. He circled around the car to stand beside his friend, still not seeing whatever it was he was supposed to see. “Look at what?”
Sam looked at him. “You know where to find Orion, right?”
Al raised an eyebrow. “After almost a decade with you around? I’d better.”
Sam pointed again, and this time Al could tell he was indicating the constellation Orion. “You see how the constellation seems to be lying on its side? How the belt is just about vertical instead of horizontal?”
Al squinted, but finally saw what Sam was looking at. “Yeah?” he asked expectantly.
“Follow the diagonal line of Orion’s ‘shoulders’ and ‘knees’ up from there. Do you see how they seem to slope up to a point way at the top? That faint star over there?”
Sam turned back to him again with a smile warmer than every wool coat Al had ever owned. “Doesn’t it look like a Christmas tree? Dad used to point that out to Tom and Katie and me when we were little…it’s one of the things that got me interested in astronomy.”
Now that Al looked at the lopsided constellation with Sam’s eyes, it kinda did look like the outline of a stick-figure Christmas tree. But there had to be more to it than that. He knew Sam too well to think anything his friend saw in the night sky had so little significance.
“You telling me I didn’t need to spend a hundred bucks on that one after all?” Al joked to cover his embarrassment that he couldn’t figure out what Sam was saying. He waved one hand to the still-bundled tree that stood on the porch, leaning heavily against the house.
Sam gave Al the look he usually reserved for when he was leering invisibly over some woman or other in the Imaging Chamber. “No. I’m telling you that maybe there’s a way we can share Christmas even when I’m not here.” His voice softened as he gestured upwards. “By sharing that.”
Al swallowed hard and looked up at the sky again, the pattern of stars above him now burning indelibly into his mind. To his embarrassment, he found himself blinking back tears. “Thanks, Sam.”
It was over too quickly. Christmas Even and Christmas Day blurred together into a haze of light and music and color. A blur that Sam knew could all too quickly fade once this leap ended. He’d mentioned that fact only once to Al; Al’s face had clouded over for a moment and he’d said, “Don’t worry, kid. I can remember for both of us.”
There had been no point in mentioning that Al already had to remember too much for both of them. Better to just enjoy the unexpected respite while it lasted and not worry about the future. Or in his case, the past.
There had been no brightly wrapped packages under the tree once they got it up on Christmas Eve, but that didn’t matter to Sam. The gift of time shared was more priceless to either of them than any physical present would’ve been under the circumstances. Sam sometimes thought that he and Al grasped just how fragile and precious a thing time was in a way that most people couldn’t. Just as they both knew from experience how easy it was not to treasure that most invaluable gift until too late.
So this time they’d clung to every minute, singing Christmas carols together and swapping stories late into the night. Sam thought they’d both sensed instinctively that when Christmas was over, the spell would break.
Sam opened his eyes slowly the morning of the 26th. Something in the air had changed, and he’d been doing this long enough that he knew what it was: the thing that he and Al had been anticipating and dreading ever since he’d first looked up into his friend’s face outside that grocery store in Alamogordo.
“Hey, Sam.” It didn’t surprise Sam to look up and see Al standing at the foot of the bed. Nor did he need to see the handlink in Al’s left hand or fail to smell the cigar in his right to know this wasn’t the Al he’d spent the last two days with. Not any more.
Sam sat up. “It’s time, isn’t it?”
“Almost, yeah.” Al nodded. “Would’ve been here sooner, but we had to get Prescott sobered up before we could get anything out of him, and by that time I already had new memories of spending Christmas with you.” Their eyes met for a moment and Al smiled ruefully. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“There’s a first,” Sam quipped, falling back on the wry banter that had helped both of them cope with the reality of Leaping.
Instead of bantering back, though, Al’s expression turned even more serious. “Honestly, Sam, I don’t know if you have any idea what that meant to me -”
“Yeah,” Sam interrupted softly. “I think I do.” A long silence fell between them, nearly long enough for this Al’s corporeal past counterpart to wake up. “Is that why I was here? For you and me, I mean?”
“Partly, yeah. And for Tim.”
“Tim?” Sam asked, although he suspected he already knew the answer.
“Timothy Prescott, the guy you leaped into.”
Sam took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Much as a part of him still hated the idea, it was time to let go of the illusion he’d been living for the past two days and get back to business. “So what do I need to do?”
“Nothing,” Al said with a shrug. When Sam shot him a disbelieving look, he explained: “You already did it. The rest, well…that’s up to him.” He gestured in the direction of his bedroom. “I mean me. The past me.”
Sam frowned, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“Never stopped to wonder why I threw you that twenty before I knew it was you?” Al asked.
Sam felt his face heat. Honestly, no, he hadn’t. But then, all he knew about the man whose name he’d just learned was Timothy Prescott was that the man had been homeless. There were a lot of questions he’d failed to ask in the rush of being able to spend Christmas with Al.
“It was because he reminded me of me,” Al explained in a rough voice. “Only more what I could’ve been than what I am. But if you hadn’t leaped in, it would’ve stopped with that twenty. I would’ve gone on with my life and never given him another thought, never known just how much we had in common.”
Sam swallowed. “How much?”
“He joined the Navy at eighteen, after his parents and younger brother were killed in a car crash. Six months out of boot camp, they sent him to Saigon. Came home for good five years later to find no one waiting for him.”
Sam shivered. Al was right: he and Prescott did have an awful lot in common. The details were different but the emotional impact would’ve been the same.
“And it doesn’t stop there,” Al continued with a somber nod and a frown. “None of us who came back from ‘Nam came back completely right in the head, especially those of us who didn’t have someone to come home to. Prescott went through a string of increasingly destructive relationships, all the while digging himself deeper and deeper into the bottle. He finally washed out about ten years ago, used up what was left of his savings a couple years after that and has been on the street ever since.”
He looked Sam straight in the eyes then. “You want to know the real difference between me and Prescott? This crazy kid I hired sight unseen to work on Star Bright because he had a reputation Einstein would kill for. Didn’t know me from Adam, but that didn’t stop him from taking the time to pull a total stranger out of a tailspin and help him get his life back on track. Prescott never had someone take a chance on him like that.”
“Until now,” Sam said softly.
“Until now,” Al confirmed.
Sam took a deep breath and looked deliberately at the face in the mirror, the face he’d mostly ignored when he wasn’t shaving it. “What happens to him?”
“He gets his life back under control. Hooks up with AA – I’m his sponsor – and one of those long-term shelters that provide job training for residents who are really serious about getting off the street.”
“So he’s going to make it?” Sam asked.
Al looked at him again, and in that look was everything Sam needed to hear before he could let go and move on. “We both are,” he promised.
With that knowledge burning securely in his gut, Sam closed his eyes and leaped.