Junior

by Lorraine Anderson

"No! You can't come in!" Al jumped in front of the woman coming in the door. Futile, he knew, but maybe some miracle...

She walked right through him, carrying a cold washrag to cool Sam's forehead. Sam, bright-eyed and feverish, looked up at her. Al had already glanced at the thermometer. 103 degrees.

"How are you feeling, Tommy?" the woman said, smiling down at her son. "Are you being Mommy's good boy?"

"Mom," Sam smiled, then frowned and shook his head. "Mom... what... uh.. what are you doing here? Where's Dad?"

"Dad's... out doing chores." The woman seemed hesitant.

"But Mom... you shouldn't touch, uh..." He closed his eyes.

"Sam!" Al was jumping up and down. "Tell her to get out of here!"

Sam opened his eyes again and looked at Al. "Mom, Al wants me to tell you something." He shook his head, realizing what he just said.

"No, Sam. . ."

The woman glanced around, as if looking for somebody. Her eyes narrowed, her forehead puckered, her mouth in a frown. "Al...?" She looked at the sick man on the bed. "Sam...?"

Al looked at her. "No. Can't be." He looked at Sam. "Sam! Touch your mother!"

Sam shook his head. "You told me not to..."

But the woman was already reaching out for Sam. As soon as they touched, she morphed into another woman.

"Alia," Al said grimly.

Sam looked up at her. "Alia?"

Alia chewed her lip. "Zoe," she said to her side. "I'm Sam's mother? This is who you wanted to give Rubella to?" She closed her eyes. "Oh, no." She looked distressed, then Leapt. Mrs. Beckett looked confused, then looked down at who she thought was Tommy and continued to wipe his forehead.

Al looked at the handlink. The horrible statistics were rapidly going up. Sam's mother was pregnant with Sam, and if she got Rubella... no more Sam. Ziggy had projected a ninety percent certainty. He dropped the link into his pocket, then put his hands over his face. He couldn't bear to look. He couldn't imagine a world without Sam...

It was cold comfort that he wouldn't know the difference.

He suddenly realized that he was sitting down. How could he sit down without knowing it? Was it reaction, or could the timeline have changed that rapidly?

"Tommy! What are you doing there with your hands over your face?"

Al looked up with a start. Sam's mother was looking--down at him! How could...?

Involuntarily, he moved his legs and hit his knees against something hard. He looked down. He was seated at a table, sitting on a plywood box. The shirt he was wearing was white and blue checkered and short sleeved. He was wearing blue jeans. Blue jeans? He distinctly remembered putting on a high-necked, violet shirt and black slacks in the morning.

"Well, I'll be a son of a..." He looked up at Sam's father, who was just entering the kitchen. "...buck." He said lowly.

John Beckett raised one eyebrow at him and sat down at the table. "Good choice, Tommy," he said, steel in his voice. "You know I don't want you bringing home some of those words you hear at school."

Mrs. Beckett sighed. "I don't think he's hearing them at school, John. Those Chupp kids he's been playing with..." She set a plate of fried eggs on the table.

Al looked the table over. Eggs. Bacon. Hash browns. Toast with real butter. Not only did it look yummola, but he could smell it. And he shouldn't be able to. He looked at Sam's parents, who were still debating on the merits of the Chupp children and their parents, and decided to dig in while he tried to figure all this out.

He had Leapt. Somehow. That was obvious. He also seemed to have kept much his memories, unlike the last time he had Leapt. He remembered his name -- Calavicci -- and he remembered the Project. Hell, he even remembered Beth and the gentle pain he still felt when he thought of her. And Sam.

He dug into his eggs and chewed thoughtfully. He had to be here to give Sam a second chance. He looked at Mrs. Beckett. She didn't look pregnant, but suddenly Al knew she was. With Sam. And he was there to prevent her from catching Rubella, which Ziggy had predicted would cause a spontaneous abortion of Sam. Oh, God. What a thought. How could he prevent this?

Thelma Beckett looked at him, concerned. "You look so pale," she said, reaching out a hand to touch Al's forehead. Al pulled back, remembering Alia.

"Keep still for your mother," John Beckett growled.

Al looked at him. He had never met Sam's father, who had passed away long before Al had met Sam. He always regretted that -- he must have been a remarkable man. Well, now he was sitting before him, and it was giving him the willies. John Beckett looked a lot like Sam. Well, in 1953, Mr. Beckett was probably close to Sam's age in 1999.

Al felt a cool hand touch his forehead, and he shied back, relaxing when he realized that Sam's mother had not morphed into another person. She leaned back and smiled at him. "Well, you don't have a temperature."

Al sighed. "Nightmare," he muttered to himself.

"What?" Mr. Beckett said, busy buttering his toast.

Al suddenly remembered who they thought he was--and if he were Tom, he should be around six -- or seven, he couldn't remember which. "Nightmares, sir," he said. "I had nightmares last night. Dreamt you all turned into pod people."

Mr. and Mrs. Beckett looked at each other, amused. Mr. Beckett rolled his eyes. "You were the one who wanted to go to those weird movies, boy."

"Yeah, Dad."

"Eat your breakfast."

Al looked at the spread before him. In spite of himself, he was hungry... and Mom Beckett always did put on a good meal. The meal before him was cholesterol city, but he supposed one or two or three meals like this wouldn't do any harm. Damned shame it was breakfast. Her dinners were wonderful. And the festive meals, like Christmas, oh, my God...

He dove in with a passion. Mrs. Beckett smiled at him.

Sam would be giving him the Look, right about now, but Al couldn't let this meal go to waste, could he?

Mrs. Beckett was clearing the dishes, and Al was chewing on his last bite of buttered toast when he heard something behind him. His eyebrows knit. Sounded a little like the Imaging Chamber door... "Sam?" he said lowly, hopefully.

"Oh, my God," said a startled voice behind him.

Al spat out his toast and spun around in his chair.

Mr. Beckett looked at him. "What the... tarnation is wrong with you, Tom?"

Al was staring at the stranger behind him, holding... was that a hand link? More like a palmtop computer. Who was this?

The man looked around, then looked at Al. "Oh, jeez. You're Tom." He shook himself. "I have to talk to you, Al. Tell Mom and Dad that you forgot to do some chores. Tom's young. They'll accept this."

"I... um... forgot some of my chores."

John Beckett got up and slapped Al on the shoulder. "You're getting better, kid. Didn't have to remind you today."

Al smiled thinly. "Yeah." He got up carefully out of his chair, mindful of his knees, then motioned the man -- the hologram? -- to follow him. As he passed the man, he noticed that the image looked fuzzy at the edges and tended to flicker. His voice sounded a bit distant, too.

Al got to the door and stared back. The man was looking longingly at John Beckett, who was helping his wife pick up dishes. He caught the hologram's eye and waved him out the door. With reluctance, the hologram vanished. As Al turned, he saw him ahead of him, on the drive between the house and the barn.

Al walked across the short space to the barn, motioning the hologram to follow. He was, by God, going to get some answers. The man sighed and disappeared.

As Al closed the barn door, he noticed Mom Beckett looking at him out the window. He closed his eyes and pushed the door shut. The woman could be eerie sometimes -- she was almost as psychic as Sam. Well, he couldn't help it.

He turned around and looked toward the center of the barn at his companion. The man was simply dressed -- a light blue utilitarian shirt and blue jeans -- real blue jeans, not the rags so many kids were wearing. Almost six inches taller the Al. Brown eyes. Darkish brown hair. A slight scar across one lip. And, God help him, the Beckett nose.

He could be Sam's brother.

But he wasn't Tom.

Who the hell was he?

The man was turning slowly around, looking with rapt attention at the contents of the barn. The cows turned and glanced at the movement, then turned their attention back to their feed. Al sneezed at the sharp odor and wished he were a hologram.

"Al, we're home," the man said reverently. "I never thought our first Hop would take us here. Jeez, this takes me back."

"I'm glad." Al's voice was flat.

The man turned to look at him, then broke into a big grin. "It works, Al! Project Hopscotch works! My experiment works."

Al raised his eyebrows and looked at him. Project Hopscotch? "Yes, it does."

The man slowed down and stared at Al's face. "Well, it's yours, too... What's wrong, Al?"

Al circled the image, looking him up and down. He punched a fist through the man's chest, then stood back and nodded to himself. The man was a hologram, and not that... other... Sam told him about once.

He hoped.

Just for luck, Al said a quick Ave Maria to the ceiling, then pulled himself into Admiral mode. The man grinned, and Al wondered what exactly he was seeing -- Al or Tommy. "Who the hell are you?"

The man's mouth dropped open. "That putz Gooshie was right!"

"Gooshie. Short guy with bad breath."

The man snorted. "You remember Gooshie, and you don't remember me?"

Al's eyes glinted. "Humor me."

The man was trying not to look hurt. "I'm John. John Beckett."

"We just left John Beckett. Try again."

The man's eyes narrowed and his mouth set just like Sam's. If he wasn't a Beckett, he was a close imitation. "I'm John Beckett, Junior. Jack."

"Jack Beckett," Al repeated thoughtfully.

"For Heaven's sake, Al! We've known each other for twenty years!"

Al inclined his head in acknowledgement. He had a funny gut feeling about this, and he really didn't expect an answer to the next question. "Where's Sam?"

Jack smiled. "You remember Sam. I should've known you wouldn't forget Sam, after you said he reminded you of Trudy..." He closed his mouth at the stricken expression on the Admiral's face.

Sam and Trudy in the same breath?

"I want to see Sam."

"But, Al, this is Top Secret..."

"I want to see Sam. A picture, a video..."

Jack backed up a step, stared at Al with a blank expression, then looked up. "Gooshie, get Sam and bring him here. He's in my quarters with Donna... I don't care about regulations, I need him here now!"

Al sat down on a bale of hay. "I'll wait. And I don't want to talk."

He needed to think. But his thoughts kept revolving in circles. He hoped his instincts weren't accurate, but he was chillingly afraid they were.

Five long minutes later, Jack turned his head to one side. "Sam! Come here, buddy. I want you to look at something... never mind what, you goofball; it's a surprise."

Another image came into Al's view as Jack grabbed Sam's hand. Both images dimmed slightly. A huge grin split Sam's face, and Al saw him say something. He reached out to Al as if to hug him.

"God." Al's eyes burned, and he turned his head. He tried to will the image away by force of mind. He had seen enough. It was Sam. Definitely him. That little streak of white hair was gone, but Sam had told Al once that it was due to some childhood experiment -- an experiment the man in front of Al would never be able to do. The one glance told Al that there was no glint of intelligence in his friend's eyes. Only love.

Like most of the other mentally impaired.

"Al." Jack's voice was steel. "You're hurting Sam's feelings."

Al opened his eyes and grimaced sadly. Sam was poking a finger into his right eye, trying not cry. Al forced a smile, and Sam smiled hesitantly back. Al raised his hand to Sam, and Sam tried to grab it. He looked surprised at his hand, then jumped through Al, dragging Jack with him. Al saw him giggle, then say something.

"He said 'Angel Al'," Jack smiled. "Amazing. He can see you! I thought he'd see Tom, like I do... or mostly do."

Al smiled back. "Yeah. Angel Al," he said ruefully, trying not to let his mood reflect on his face. "You see me?"

"Yeah. Poor Al." Even Al could lip-read that one.

The image flickered strongly. "Say bye-bye, Sam," Jack said. "Power drain."

Al saw Sam wave. He smiled, and waved back until the image disappeared. Then he slumped. "Oh, God."

Jack waited a minute, apparently watching Sam exit the room, then whirled. "Al, will you tell me what this is all about? You're upsetting me, you're upsetting Sam, for God's sake. What's going on?"

Al looked Jack over. "I really don't want to tell you."

Jack sighed. "C'mon, Al. We've been friends too long for you to pull crap like that."

Al looked him over. Jack was definitely a Beckett, which meant he was smart, he was nice, he had good moral values... and he had a stubborn streak a mile wide. He would get it out of Al sooner or later, or figure it out. He had to be intelligent -- he was the head of Project Quantum Leap... Project Hopscotch.

He wondered, irrelevantly, whether this meant that he was now Hopping, rather than Leaping.

But, Al thought as he looked at the flickering image before him, Project Hopscotch obviously had some execution problems. He wondered if they had a decent retrieval program.

But that was neither here nor there. He closed his eyes and ran his hand down the side of his face. How do you tell a man that he doesn't exist? Carefully. He pulled himself up straight and stared Jack in the eye. "Ok, Jack. I'll tell you, but you have to humor me, first."

Jack visibly relaxed. "What do you think I've been doing?" he said, reserved.

"What year is it -- where you are, I mean."

"Nineteen ninety-nine. December 26."

Al raised an eyebrow. "The day after Christmas."

"Yeah -- that's why Sam's here. We really couldn't leave the Project, so I got Sam out of the home, and you got special permission to get Sam in here so we could give him a party."

Al paced across the barn. It was also four years later than when Sam started Quantum Leap. Interesting.

"Where's your mother now?"

Jack frowned. "She passed away six years ago. Worn out. We never could convince her to let Sam go to a home."

Sam's mother was still alive in Al's timeline.

"How many siblings do you have?" My God, was Katie even born?

Jack sighed. "First was Tom." He looked at Al sadly. "He was killed in Vietnam."

Al looked at him, startled, then started pacing again. Of course. In this timeline, Sam hadn't Leaped, therefore he couldn't have saved his brother in Vietnam.

Jack looked at the wall. "Then there was Sam. Mom was infected with Rubella while pregnant with Sam. That's why Sam's... the way he is." He smiled. "Not that I love him any the less. But..." He left the sentence hang and went on.

"Two years later -- 1955 -- I came along. I guess they realized Sam would never be normal, and they wanted another son." He inclined his head. "Katie was born in 1957. The year of the big flood."

Two years after Sam was born. Al leaned against a wall. Mrs. Beckett had told him that they were just realizing that Sam was a prodigy about a year after Sam was born. They had been busy keeping Sam from tearing the house apart. He had wanted to see how things ran. They must have been too busy for another baby.

And when they had more time, it was too late for Jack.

"Al?"

Al sighed. "Jack... you say we're good friends?"

Jack's forehead furrowed. "Ever since Starbright, and I found you..."

"...Smashing a pop machine to pieces."

Jack shook his head. "No, demolishing your office."

God, so many parallels.

Well, God apparently wanted him here!

Al stood up and faced the other man. "Jack, what if I told you that I'm from a different timeline? One in which..." No. He couldn't tell Jack that he didn't exist. "...in which Sam -- your brother Sam -- was the genius behind a government-backed time-travel project called Quantum Leap?"

Jack stared at Al, then he started punching at his palmtop. "Oooh, my God. Gooshie, retrieve Al, right now! Don't argue, he's not himself... No smart cracks, Gooshie!"

"Oh, no, you don't" Al felt... something... flicker over his skin. He concentrated with all his might. He never was sure whether that was what did it, but he felt the Leap effect skitter around him.

Jack looked at him, then noisily clattered at his palmtop. "Gooshie, what do you mean the retrieval program isn't working?" We tested it, dammit!"

Al smiled as the Leap effect disappeared. "But on an unwilling subject?"

Jack scowled at him, then looked to his left. "Donna, I thought you were taking Sam back..." He looked puzzled. "Algernon? Sammy, who is Algernon?" He shook his head. "What do you mean, you're flowers for Algernon?"

Jack's mouth dropped open, and he looked at Al. Al felt a shock go through him as he remembered the story of the mentally handicapped man transformed into a genius by a series of operations. There was no doubt of what Sam was saying. "Oh, my God," Al said. "He remembers, doesn't he?"

"I... don't know," Jack said. He turned back to the invisible Sam. "Ok, buddy. I understand. You can go now... yes, you can have some ice cream." He smiled wanly.

He turned back to Al. "Well, it seems Sam backs your story up." He closed his eyes. "We have a dilemma, don't we? I'm sorry, pal. I still think you're suffering from Hop shock."

Al started to answer when Jack looked up. "Yes, Donna?... Ok, put him on." Jack listened, then spun towards Al, looking annoyed. He glared at Al, but kept his voice gentle. "Sam? Go with Donna now, ok?... I love you too." He waited a second, then stalked towards Al. "Al, you set him up, didn't you? This is some big practical joke."

Al's face set and his eyes turned hard. "You stubborn son of a... Beckett," he said lowly, softly. "If you know me so goddamned well, do you really think I would pull such a cruel joke at a time like this..." Jack's mouth opened. "And involve an innocent like..." his voice broke "...Sam?"

Jack closed his eyes and turned away. "No," he whispered. He stood still for a long moment.

Al sighed and came up behind him. "I'm sorry."

Jack snorted. "For telling the truth?"

"One truth, anyway." Al walked around Jack to look him in the face. "What did Sam say?" Jack looked at him oddly. Al shrugged. "I can only hear you, remember?"

"Oh. Yeah." Jack smiled. "He said that Angel Al was a neurological hologram, and that he was created by a sub-atomic agitation of carbon quarks turned to the mesons of my optic and otic neurons. Donna then asked him whether he understood what he just said, and he said, 'Sure. Means it's all in my mind.' After that he said slowly, 'mustn't forget. Memory go bye-bye. Keep Mommy from getting Rubella.' Then he asked to play with the old Sega."

Al chewed his lip. "Jack. He's remembering the other timeline. Holograms were his invention, and he's used that explanation for the sub-committees lots of times..."

Flash.

Al turned pale and sat down heavily.

"What's the matter?"

"You and Sam and I went to Disneyland last month. We rode the Matterhorn and Space Mountain and Splash Mountain and the Dumbo ride... Sam was fascinated by the Mylar balloons, so we had to get him one and it's still in his room. We had to drag Sam out of the place because he didn't want to leave."

Jack smiled. "You remember." His smile faded. "What's wrong?"

Al pounded his fist on a bale of hay. "That's what he meant about 'mustn't forget!' He knows that he and I will gradually adjust to this timeline and forget the other."

Jack breathed in and out forcefully. "How did he know about the Rubella?"

Al turned away. "Because that's why he Leapt into Tommy in the first place. It was a... preventative measure. We knew that Tommy got Rubella about this time, and we knew that we had to keep Thelma from getting it." He sighed. "Trouble was, he thought he was immunized against it... it must've been one of those bad shots. By the time anybody knew about it, he was buried deep into Project Quantum Leap and probably missed the news." He looked at Jack, and decided to leave out Alia's part. He had a hard enough time explaining himself, much less another Leaper. "He found the carrier in Tommy's class, treated the little girl for a cut, then took her to the nurse. He got Rubella and gave it to your mother. Then time shifted, and I found I had... Hopped... into Tommy." Jack nodded, paused, and apparently came to a decision. "Damn my policies. If we can change time, we must give Sam his chance. You said he was a genius?"

"Off the scale."

Jack looked away and chewed his lip. "But if Sam invented the project, then just where do I fit in?"

Al knew the question had to come, and he had a lie all ready. But as he looked into Jack's clear blue eyes...

"Damn it, Jack, my friend..." Al dropped his eyes and turned his head. "You were never born."

"I'm sorry."

Jack stared glassy-eyed out of the barn window toward the house. "Not born? Me? Donna?"

"Married to Sam."

"Katie? Katie's born, isn't she?"

"Yes." Flash. "She's had the same history that she had in this timeline."

"God. She married that stinking Chuck there, too?"

"Yes. But Jack, your mom is still alive -- and Tom is alive. Sam saved him in one of his Leaps."

Jack looked at him, startled.

"Sam's done a lot of good in the past few years."

"Hopping?"

"Leaping. Yeah."

Jack smiled ruefully. "I wonder what not being born feels like."

"Huh?"

He stared down at his link. "We still have to give Sam his chance."

"I'm sorry."

"It's not your fault." Jack looked up to the ceiling. "I hope God won't leave me hanging out to dry."

"Maybe not," Al said. "I dunno." The barn door opened. Al saw Jack's face collapse.

"Dunno about what?" Mr. Beckett asked.

Al whirled, startled. "Nothing. Just talking out loud."

"Trouble in school?"

School? Oh, no, he's gonna hafta go to school tomorrow. Al shook his head. Hafta? Was he synergizing with Tom? He suddenly realized that he hadn't answered Mr. Beckett. "No, not really."

Mr. Beckett looked at him sharply. "Wilson kid beating you up again?"

Al kicked at a post. He never knew -- come to think of it, Sam did say that Tom was a late bloomer. Probably why he joined the Seals. He had to prove himself when he was a kid, so it carried over into his adult life. "I can handle him."

Mr. Beckett smiled. "Don't let your Mom know I trained you." He glanced around. "Ready for school?"

"I guess." No, not really, but he didn't suppose he could beg off sick. After all, Sam hadn't gotten away with it when he had tried it.

"Don't sound so enthusiastic, Tom."

Al grinned, and Mr. Beckett tousled Al's hair. "Now go pick up your lunch and wait for the bus." He steered Al out of the barn door. As they left, he saw Jack deliver a kick to Mr. Beckett's shin, his face drawn and hollow.

Oh, God. What had he done?

As Al shivered out by the road, waiting for the schoolbus, he concentrated on Sam, and, not for the first time, he wondered about the miracle of the clothing. Mrs. Beckett had insisted that he put on a heavier jacket. As she held it toward him, it looked much too small, but he obediently slipped it on -- and it fit.

Ridiculous.

But useful. Sam had impossibly fit in all sorts of clothes, even Samantha Stormer's dresses, even the chimpanzee's diapers, for God's sake! Even if he hadn't liked heels...

Aw, Sam.

Jack had disappeared after the kick, his face grim. Al hoped he wasn't telling Donna. Poor Donna. He wondered how Jack had managed to get past Donna's fear of commitment...

Flash.

Al remembered. He had stood as best man for Jack's wedding. And Jack had been jilted, just as Sam had. But, unlike Sam, who had just become bitter at Donna, talking with her only once after that; Jack, less patient, had traced her, confronted her, and had convinced her he was never going to leave her voluntarily. And he never did.

Which was why Al had been the one who had "Hopped," rather than Jack. Donna had never said no to Jack... she could see that he wanted to be the first one and had even encouraged him to go... but he had stuck by his promise.

Of course, he kept his promises. He was a Beckett.

Damn them. They were just like puppies. Loyal to a fault.

Al sighed, and watched his breath float upwards. He didn't mean that. It was a Beckett that saved him from the alcoholic sandpit. It was a Beckett that gave him a purpose. it was a Beckett...

Jack or Sam? Sam or Jack?

Sam. Sam was the original timeline. Sam was smarter than Jack. Sam was more accomplished...

But Jack was a good friend, too. Different from Sam, but the more Al remembered -- just as good a friend. And Sam's -- Al's Sam -- existence meant Jack's oblivion.

Surely God wouldn't be so cruel.

But that bitch Alia would -- well, maybe not Alia, but her companion. Zoe. Damn. Something to look forward to. Or would they even show?

Al stomped his feet. It may not be too cold for a seven-year-old, but he was much older and he was freezing! Where was the damn bus?

Al heard the bus long before he saw it. It roared up in front of him, and the ancient bus driver inside unsmilingly opened the door. Al got on, grateful to get out of the cold, but even more grateful for the interruption. A babel of noise met him at the top of the stairs, and he winced. No, no thinking on this bus.

He headed down the aisle, looking for an open seat. One of the younger children glanced at him, then looked up, dumbfounded. A few others stared at him. The youngest ones. The rest ignored him.

"Uh, oh," Al muttered.

"What's that funny man doing on the bus?" one small boy said shrilly.

A number of children looked up at him, some of the younger ones looking at him uncertainly, as if they weren't sure of what they saw. Idly, Al wondered whether what the children saw was tied to their intellectual development. Probably.

A boy of ten started laughing. "Pete, you cootie, that's just Tommy Beckett." Soon the whole bus was roaring, including the ones that Al was sure saw him as an adult. Peer pressure. God help them.

Pete's face collapsed in embarrassment. Al slid into the seat beside him and said, "Pete -- you're right and they're wrong. But that's our secret, right?"

Pete looked uncertain. "Secret?"

"They're pretending to see me as Tommy."

"Why?"

Al squeezed his eyes shut. "Good question." There were no reasonable explanations, so Al decided to make up an unreasonable one. "Because I'm a spy, in disguise as Tommy, and I help people, and they don't want to blow my cover."

Pete smiled. "A spy? Really?"

Al smiled. "Cross my heart and hope to die." His smile faded. "But you can't tell anybody."

"Ok." Pete looked smug, and Al knew that this secret would carry the kid through the rest of the day, despite all the teasing. "I promise. Can I watch?"

Al shrugged, then thought better. "No, you had better not. It's dangerous." He saw Pete's face fall, and felt sympathetic towards the poor kid. Sam had helped Pete somehow in the original timeline, but Al hadn't been there. Maybe this was the same line that Sam had gave him... Al didn't really know. "Tell you what. If you see a woman that you know doesn't belong here, you tell me. Ok? A woman with brown hair." Couldn't hurt to have a spy along for Alia.

Al felt something hit the side of his face, and Pete giggled as a paper airplane landed beside him. Al picked it up and turned around, but only saw innocent faces. He turned back slowly, then whirled and caught a quick grin. It was the boy who had made fun of Pete. He picked up the plane and studied it. With the proper push, it should be a good flyer. He peered back, under his arm, then let fly -- just as Jack came through the Imaging Chamber door. Jack looked down at his chest, startled, as the plane disappeared through him. Al craned around him and saw the plane hit the boy on his forehead.

Jack shook his finger. "I'll tell old Gus on you!"

Pete looked at Jack, his face pale. "A ghost!"

Al looked at Jack. "No, he's a spy, too."

Pete looked incredulously at Al.

Al made an "X" over his heart. "Cross my heart; hope to die." He grinned at Jack. "Top Secret technology."

"Really?"

"Really."

Pete raised a hand. "Hi, ghost."

Al crooked an amused eyebrow at Jack, who smiled back at him. "My name is Jack."

"Hi, Jack."

"Pete," Al said. "I want to talk to Jack. Can you keep looking at me so I won't look silly talking to myself?"

"They can't see him?"

"Uh-uh."

Pete giggled. "Ok, Al. But these kids think you're silly, anyway, talking to a kindygardener."

Al looked at him. This was one smart kid. Al wondered whether maybe the brain wave transmissions were close to his, which would explain a lot. Then he shrugged. Probably, with Jack's substandard equipment, the field was broader.

Jack crouched beside him.

"Get over your sulk?" Al muttered. "It's a good thing your father couldn't see you."

Jack grimaced. "How would you feel if somebody told you you hadn't been born?"

"Like sh..." Al glanced at Pete. "...sugar."

"You could have lied."

Al shook his head. "I couldn't lie. Much as I wanted to." He looked at the front of the bus. "Tell Donna?"

"No. Thank God, she didn't ask. I did tell her about Sam, though. Had to, after those polysyllabic words."

"And?"

"All for it. Of course, she didn't know the cost."

"Of course."

The noise from the rest of the bus swelled, and both men winced. "You did this all through school?"

Jack grinned ruefully.

"For the first time, I'm glad I went to the orphanage." Al felt something wet hit the back of his head and whirled, his hand automatically going up and retrieving the wet mass from his hair. A spit wad. Of course. He was highly acquainted with spit wads. In fact, he could lob a wad a hundred feet with deadly accuracy... another lesson he learned at the orphanage. He glared at the kid. Just who did he think he was dealing with? He split the wad in two and ripped it away, one rapidly following the other. They struck either cheek of the bully. Al smiled.

Jack rolled his eyes. "I don't think... uh-oh, here comes Gus."

Al felt a painful tug at his ear, and, for the first time, realized the bus had stopped.

Jack grinned. "You're in for it now! A little bit of school bus punishment."

Al glared at him, then at Gus. He went into automatic Admiral mode, then bit back what he was about to say. It certainly would be effective... but not appropriate for an seven-year-old.

Gus caught his small grin, and tugged Al's ear harder, forcing him into the empty seat behind the driver's position. Al had noted earlier that the seat was empty... now he knew why.

"I don't want to hear one more thing out of you, if you know what's good for you."

"But he started it!"

Jack laughed. "Oh, good defense, Al. Was that your excuse in the Navy?" He looked at Gus, then back to Al. "You know, Gus will spank."

Oh, great. Al looked up at Gus. He could probably take the older men and put him over his knee... but, once again, his cover would be blown. Then he looked again at Gus. The man was worried; he was just doing his job, and he obviously thought that children wouldn't listen unless he yelled. Somewhat like impressing new recuits that yes, they actually could get killed if they didn't know what they were doing. Most new recruits believed they were immortal. Even he believed it at that age. He sat back and clamped his mouth shut.

"Good move," Gus said. He smiled slightly and moved back into the driver's seat. The bus started with a jerk. Al looked out the bus window, alarmed at the rate of speed the bus was going, then up at Jack.

"You know, Gus died in a car accident ten years from now."

Al stared at Jack, then dropped his head into his hands and shook his head. It was gonna be a long ride.

Al was wrong. It was a long morning. He stood with his back to the wall of the schoolhouse, and wished he had an aspirin. Or three or four. Or the whole bottle. Miss Eisenhower... Tom's second grade teacher and an ancient biddy who probably never had any fun in her life, much less a man... was apparently Gus' counterpart, but without the empathy. He touched his ear. It felt normal,but he was sure he looked like an overgrown elf. Maybe after lunch, he should offer up his other ear so that he would have a matching set.

"Rough time?"

Al looked up. Jack was looking at him sympathetically, but with a twinkle in his eye. "And I thought Attila the nun was mean." Al sighed. "Modern technology has me spoiled. Do you realize how long it's been since I've had to know the multiplication table?" Jack opened his mouth. "Don't answer. And Jack and Jill ain't exactly Penthouse reading. The chairs are uncomfortable... and, to top it off, half the kids aren't sure whether I'm Tom or some grown up. They keep kicking me."

Jack looked bemused. "Kicking?"

Al sighed. "If you figure it out, let me know. I don't dare retaliate. Can you imagine the uproar if I tried to spank them?"

Jack started to say something, stopped, then started over again. "Miss Eisenhower had retired by the time I went to school. You mean you can't tell her about it?."

"That battle axe? I tried. She punished me for tattling." Al sighed. "Tommy Beckett is not having a good day."

Jack punched his palmtop. "So... have you seen the kid with Rubella?"

Al shook his head. "No, damn it. Nothing good has happened this morning."

Jack looked sympathetic. "Well, at least you're not infected yet."

"I wouldn't get it, anyway. I've already had Rubella."

Jack sighed. "I just left Sam, and he's his same sweet lovable self. So there must be some other factor."

Al looked around the playground. "I don't see any sick... uh-oh."

Little Petie was walking toward Al, his head down. He had bright red spots on both cheeks. Al left his spot on the wall and started for the kid.

"Al, Jack... I don't feel so good and I can't find my teacher." He was about to walk into a big rock in the playground. Al caught him as he stumbled. Then Al looked down at the rock. At the angle Pete would have hit it, he could have had a nasty gash in his knee.

Jack looked down at his palmlink and his eyebrows rose. Al resolved to ask him later what that meant, but at the moment, he literally had a sick child in his heads.

He sat Pete down and felt his forehead. "Kid, you're burning up." He picked the child up, not caring how it looked, then looked around for a playground monitor. Pete was right, there were none to be found... one came out of the doors as he watched. He carried the sick child over to the monitor, who was gaping at the pair. "Petie's sick," was all he said. "Could you take him in to the nurse?"

The monitor felt Pete's forehead. "Tommy, you're right." She took the child.

"You be good, Petie."

Pete smiled slightly, then his lip trembled. "I'm sorry I didn't help you."

Al smiled. "That's all right kid. You may have helped more than you thought."

As the pair disappeared into the building, Al turned to Jack. "Any change?"

"Instead of being a small town newspaper reporter, Pete becomes an international correspondent."

Al smiled. "I didn't know you looked him up."

Jack shrugged. "Couldn't hurt."

"But that's not what I meant."

Jack closed his eyes. "There's no change. So it must be something else."

Al felt a shock of recognition, almost of deja vu, then closed his eyes. "Oh...sh..." He looked around at the children. "...sugar."

"What?"

"Alia."

"Who?"

Al leaned back against the rough brick wall, feeling very tired. "Alia. She's another Leaper."

Jack's face was a study in contrasts. "My God, how many people did your project send out?"

Al was scanning the playground, wondering if Alia had already Leapt in, then shook his head. What good... or bad would Alia do here?

Jack stepped in front of Al. "I know that look. You're worried about something. Who's Alia, and why are you worried about her?"

Flash.

Al glanced at Jack and chewed his lip. Jack was a literal man, not given to superstition. Nonetheless, he went to church almost every Sunday. Al called him "the Reverend", to which Jack would snort, and respond with a dirty joke. Jack's memory, while not eidetic like Sam's... the other Sam's... had a stockpile of jokes Al had never heard of... which was going some.

Jack smiled dangerously. "Al, you're stalling."

Oh, hell. "Jack, Sam and I called Alia the "Evil" Leaper. She is not from Project Quantum Leap." He paused a moment to let a group of giggling kids walk by. "What we tried to make right, she and her... hologram... tried to make wrong." Al had a thought. "Tell me, why is Sam mentally impaired?"

"Because Mom caught Rubella from Tom while she was pregnant with Sam." Jack narrowed his eyes. "I told you that."

"Yes, you did. Now check with your computer to verify that."

Jack screwed his mouth up as he entered the data, then his jaw dropped as the display lit back up. "Oh, my God. It's changed since I came in."

"What?"

"Now... Mom was pushed down a flight of stairs... by Dad. The fall made her..." he gulped. "...abort the fetus. My Dad is put into prison for attempted manslaughter... and dies two years from now. Sam was never born. Katie was never born." he looked up, stark. "Alia?"

Al's eyes were bright. "Alia. She must have Leapt in already... probably as your father."

"Wait... cross sexual Hopping?"

Al inclined his head. "Much as Sam would hate to admit it... yes." He regarded Jack for a second. "Wait a minute. If your Dad was in prison during the time you were conceived, why are you here?"

Jack consulted the link, then blushed. "Apparently, security at the prison was a little bit slipshod."

Al barked out a laugh. "They managed a quick..."

"Conjugal visit. Yes."

Al smiled. Jack, despite his memory for dirty jokes, he remembered... damn the double memory... was as shy at such things as... um, Sam is. Al's mood suddenly turned sober. He had almost lost Sam's timeline for a moment. He turned on Jack. "When does this happen?"

Jack consulted the palmtop and paled again. "Thirty minutes from now."

Al stamped his foot. "My God, what are we waiting for?" He stomped towards the entrance of the school.

Jack ran to catch up with him. "Geez, Al, you're seven-years- old. What are you going to do... steal a car?"

"Exactly!"

"Al!"

Al got past the playground monitors by claiming that he had to go to the bathroom really, really bad. From the bathroom... Al wasn't quite lying, even though the smaller facilities gave him some trouble... it was an easy job to sneak down the hall. He had seen Miss Eisenhower go out to her car for something, then had seen where she put her purse. He had smelled the cigarette smoke and he bet that she was in the teacher's lounge, smoking and complaining about that little Beckett brat.

Jack was one step behind him, acting as lookout. As Al entered the room, Jack suddenly looked uncomfortable. "You know, I just had a dumb idea. Why couldn't you just act sick and have Mom come in and pick you up?"

Al turned and looked at him. He was so focused, that he had almost forgotten that Jack hadn't the experience that he and Sam had. "Because Alia has already Hopped... Leaped in. I know full well that she will prevent your mother from picking me up, and she won't bother to come. We have found that just touching the other Leaper blows away any of this physical aura stuff. I want to catch Alia by surprise."

"How?"

"What Sam and I have always done... punted." He moved towards the desk. "How about watching out for Attila?" Jack moved to the door and peered out. "You don't have to peek, you know."

"Oh. Yeah." He stood out in the hall. "Al, just how long have you and Sam done this?"

Al was searching through the drawers. "Hmm? Oh, about four years."

"And Sam can't get home, can he?"

Al looked at him, startled. "How did you know that?"

Jack looked confused. "I'm... not sure."

God. Another psychic Beckett. "Sam will get home." Al's voice was final.

"You've been tearing yourself apart, haven't you?" He glanced at Al, not waiting for him to answer. "I wish I could help you." He thought for a minute. "I wonder why I can't remember about Dad? I grew up with Dad. He was never in prison..." He thought a minute. "Temporal dislocation. Because I'm attached with you, the memory won't change until later."

Al grunted. Attila had a small purse and a very messy desk. He couldn't find it... what if she had taken it with her?!... No, she hadn't. There it was. He opened the purse and very carefully took the keys out, being careful not to jingle them. He moved out by Jack. "Got it. Anyone coming?"

"No."

"Go ahead of me." He looked to the front door of the building. It was a fairly new building, with the classrooms strung out on one straight hallway. The front door had a crossing guard leaning against it, waiting for Kindergartners. The back door opened out by the principal's office. He chose the back door. He walked normally down the hall until he got to the junction. Taking a glance at the playground monitors, he ducked down until he was under the line-of-sight of the principal's window, then looked at Jack.

Jack looked at him, then looked in the window. "Not a soul... wait... Mr. Miller is working in the back office. Go for it."

Al crawled below the window, then carefully opened the back door enough for him to slip out. He ran over to the brickwork under the other open windows, then ducked to keep from line-of-sight from the inside of the building in case some conscientious teacher was still in her classroom. As he moved parallel of Miss Eisenhower's car, he ran as fast as he could, opened the door... which was unlocked, thank God, the fifties weren't as paranoid as the nineties... and jumped inside, again ducking under the line-of-sight of the school.

Jack was beside him in a minute. "Learn that in Vietnam?"

Al snorted. "Actually, in the convent." He put the key in the ignition, remembering the clutch at the last minute.

Jack looked at him. "You can sit up... your image still isn't in line-of-sight of the school."

Al grinned. "Oh." A quick get-away or a slow one? A quick one. "Hold on!"

Jack's hand passed through the handle. "To what?" He quickly pressed buttons on the palmtop. "Go!" Al backed out, squealing the wheels, then rapidly jumped forward. "Al! The speed limit's twenty-five!"

"And I'm seven-years-old, Jack!" Al grinned. "I'm not supposed to be driving, anyway!" He sobered. "How much time?"

"Twenty minutes."

"And how far away is home?"

"Fifteen. If you don't get stopped first."

Al went faster. "They'll have to crash the car to get me to stop."

Jack closed his eyes. "If you don't do it first. Can you see?"

"Of course."

"I see a small boy with a maniacal grin who can't see over the dashboard and who's feet can't reach the pedals... yet the pedal is moving by itself."

"Sorry." Al thought a moment. "Why don't you check on your Mom?" Flash. "Oh. you can't. The computer isn't built that way."

"And yours is."

"Yes."

"Jeez. Sam is a genius."

Flash. "God, I'm sorry, Jack."

"Nothing you can do about it, Al. It can't be helped."

"Yes, it could."

Jack's tone was final. "No."

Al squealed around the corner. "I'll remember you. Does that help?"

Jack smiled slowly. "A little."

"And, for what it's worth, Sam would do the same for you, if the situation was reversed."

Jack kept smiling. "I know." He glanced out the window. "Stop here."

Al obediently slowed down, then looked around. They were still a half-mile from the Beckett farm. "Why?"

"I thought you wanted to sneak up on Alia. Can you do that if you squeal your teacher's car into the yard?"

Al felt stupid. "Well, no. Good point." He got out of the car and started walking. "How long?"

"Twelve minutes. You drive fast."

Al started jogging. "You haven't seen me move yet."

Jack appeared ahead of him. "Al," he said, peering down at the palmtop, "The closer you get, the less time you have." He shook his head. "I mean..."

"I know what you mean," Al said shortly. He put on a burst of speed. It meant that his presence would precipitate events... possibly even panicking Alia.

Jack appeared ahead of him again, but said nothing as he passed. He looked pale. Perversely, Al couldn't help but think that he must look a lot like this of some of Sam's Leaps... oh, God, Sam.

It was a cold comfort that he would not know the difference if he failed. Al grinned. That's what he thought when Sam failed. God had had a backup plan.

Suddenly, Al was in the yard... on the porch... through the screen door. "Thelma! Thelma!" he yelled, forgetting himself.

He heard a startled noise on the second floor, and he ran towards the stairs. "Thelma?"

He saw her at the top of the stairs. "Tommy? What in the world...?"

He started running up the stairs. "Thelma, get back..."

Suddenly, she was falling towards him. "No!" Grabbing on to the rail, he caught her with one arm. His forward momentum caused her to sit down rather suddenly, slipping down just one step.

"Oh!" She shook her head and glanced at him with wonder. "Tommy, how...?"

"Wheaties." Al rushed up the rest of the stair. He had seen a large figure ducking down the hall. "Where the hell..." He burst through the farthest door.

His "father" looked up, startled. "He" looked to one side, then put a stern expression on "his" face. "Thomas Beckett, you're supposed to be in school."

Al had a wry expression on his face. "Zoe's dead wrong on that one, lady." He lunged forward and grasped Alia by one arm.

As he suspected, he watched Alia as she morphed from John Beckett into a beautiful young woman. "Lord in Heaven," breathed a voice beside him.

"You can see her?"

"Enough."

"Another Lea... Hopper?" Alia said to the empty air beside her. Hopper? Oh. Maybe since in this timeline, the machine was Jack's invention...

He heard a noise from the door and automatically turned his head.

"Al, look out!" Al's arm came up to deflect the lamp coming towards him, but not fast enough. He had just enough time to think, oh, no, not again.

He woke up suddenly, staring up at the white ceiling, then remembered. Alia! He sat up, ignoring his headache, and looked around.

This wasn't the Beckett house.

This was the Accelerator Chamber.

Tina and Donna came rushing in towards him. Donna had traces of recent tears on her face. He looked her, puzzled, afraid to ask. "Jack Hopped into you," she said.

Jack. Then...

He jumped to his feet, striding down the hall towards the Imaging Chamber, leaving the two puzzled women to scramble after him. He grabbed a palmtop from Gooshie, then entered the room, yelling for Gooshie to center him on Jack.

The scene came up slowly, almost wavering, like bad TV reception. Jack was chasing after Alia through the barnyard, finally catching her in the barn. He smiled as he got her in a lock. "So, tell me... do you destroy families often, or just mine?"

She twisted in his arms, snapping at his wrists. He grasped her tighter, like a lover's embrace gone wrong. "I'm stronger than you are, and undoubtedly smarter, so let's just give up, hmmm?"

"Never." The voice came out as a moan. "If I give up, I'll fail. If I fail, I'll never get home."

"But," Jack said slowly, "you can't win on this one. This is your second chance to destroy Sam... remember?"

Al stood before the two. Jack looked up at him and grinned. "She may not, Jack..."

"Sam?" Alia's face fell as sudden recognition came into it. "Oh, my, God... Sam! I'm destroying Sam!" She turned her face to one side. "You may control the rest of my life, Zoe, but you can't tell me how to feel... What do you mean, who's Sam?"

Jack spoke low into her ear. "She may not remember him, Alia. But you and I do. You and I do."

Alia's voice came out in a sob. "Sam's the only one who's shown me any pity in this nightmare." She turned her head. "I can't do it, Zoe. I can't destroy Sam. I can't do it..." A shock of light filled the barn...

Al found himself by Sam's bedside. Sam looked up at him, feverish, then at his father, who was at his bedside, putting a cold cloth on his forehead. "Dad... Mom shouldn't see me..."

John Beckett smiled. "Mommy went to visit Grandma while you were sick, remember? We didn't want her and the baby to get sick." He sighed. "At least your fever's broken. Thank God. I'll go call Mommy, ok?"

Sam smiled. "Ok." He closed his eyes sleepily. Mr. Beckett smiled and left the room.

Al found his hand grasping the handlink and punched it. He smiled broadly. "God, Sam, it's good to see you."

Sam looked up at him, puzzled. "Al? You've been here all along. What are you talking about?"

"Say something technical."

Sam looked blank, then said, "The sum of the squares of two sides of an isosceles equals the square of the third side. The Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz. More or less. My eidetic memory isn't working well right now."

Al inclined his head. "Yeah, well, Sam, you've been sick."

Sam closed his eyes. "Tell me something I don't know." He opened his eyes again. "Did we do it?"

Al dropped his eyes and thought of Jack. Poor Jack.

Sam came up on one elbow, looking concerned. "Al..."

Al composed his face, then smiled. He heard the bedroom door open, but ignored it. "Yes..."

"...you did," came a new voice.

Al whirled and felt his jaw drop open. "Jack...?"

Jack smiled a little sadly. "It seems God had some plans for me."

"But..."

Jack smiled at Sam. "I was caught in Time when the change came, remember?"

Al thought of the scene in the barn. "Yes. You were."

"Well, apparently Time can keep a Hopper like myself going. I've been Hopping about a year now."

"But... I just left you."

"You know better than that, Al."

Al thought a moment. "Yes. I do." He grinned, then looked at Sam, who was looking at the interchange with mounting confusion on his face.

"Who...?"

Jack smiled. "I'm your little brother."

Sam shook his head. "I have no..." He looked at Al. "We didn't succeed the first time, did we?"

Al took in a breath. "Ah... no."

"And time adjusted. Just like it did when St. John appeared in your place."

"You remember?"

Jack looked puzzled. "Why shouldn't he remember? I remember everything." His mouth dropped open. "Wait a minute. Memory loss was indicated by our computer, but we were able to correct that problem." He laughed. "And I thought that Quantum Leap was the better project."

Sam looked a little ashamed. "Well... I was hurried." He looked at Al. "I thought those were dreams. I remember Jack, Al." His forehead furrowed. "And something about Disneyland, and something about a Sega." He shook his head, then smiled up at Jack. "And I have a little brother."

"And I have a big brother who is well and whole." Jack sat down on the bed and hugged Sam. Sam looked shocked, then squeezed his eyes shut and hugged back. "And Tommy is alive, and Mom is alive..." Jack bit his lip, and his eyes got moist. "When you get back, give everybody a big hug for me, huh? Especially..."

"Jack."

Jack looked up at Al, puzzled. Al shook his head. "Especially Al."

Sam smiled slowly. "I will. And I hope you will, too."

"I will surely try. I will." Jack looked inward. "And now I think it's about time for me to Hop. Be good, Sam." He disappeared in a blaze of light, smiling broadly.

Sam looked at where Jack had been sitting. "Al... he was Leaping without replacing anybody."

Al dropped his head. "Sam, he's without a Project. Where would the people he replaced go?"

Sam closed his eyes. "I wonder if we'll see him again." He looked up at Al, then, he, too, Leapt.

Al found himself looking at the blank Imaging Chamber walls. He lifted up his handlink and looked at it. It remained blank. "I don't know, Sam. I just... don't know."