"Al, I want to talk to you."
She knew. Her face wore the same look of anger and hurt that Sam's had worn when he'd remembered her existence, and realized that Al had kept the knowledge from him. He debated begging off, using the press of work as an excuse, but knew that that would merely postpone the inevitable confrontation. Better to get this out and over with.
He suppressed a sigh, hoping his smile didn't look as strained as it felt. "Sure, Donna, c'mon in. I needed a break from this crap anyway." He waved a hand over the computer discs and flimsies littering his desk, the ubiquitous administrative garbage that never seemed to lessen no matter how much of it he finished.
Donna didn't return his smile. Closing the door behind her, she stalked up to Al's desk, dropping a computer disc on top of the clutter in front of him. Its color coding identified it as a personnel file. Even before he read the name on it, Al knew whose it was.
He looked up at Donna, gesturing for her to sit, but she remained stiffly standing, ignoring both gesture and chair. "When were you going to tell me that Sammy Jo is Sam's daughter?" she asked abruptly.
Al winced inwardly; Donna had never believed in pulling her punches. He sat back in his chair, fingers nervously toying with the disc. "How did you find out?"
She shrugged wearily. "Does it matter? I did. If I hadn't, would you have ever told me?"
"No." Al winced visibly this time; how had that simple word come out sounding so harsh? Donna dropped into the chair she'd earlier rejected, staring at him as though he'd struck her, face bloodless. Alarmed and contrite, Al jumped up and hurried around to her, pouring out a glass of water and pushing it into her hand. Her fingers automatically curled around it; otherwise, she seemed not to notice that she held it.
"I see, " she murmured. Her voice rose and sharpened. "And you never thought that maybe I had a right to know?"
"Donna--" Al began, but she cut him off.
"Forget it." She sighed, rubbing her throat as if it ached. "All water under the bridge now, isn't it?" Suddenly aware of the glass in her hand, she raised it and took a gulp. A wry smile twitched at her lips. "I could use something a little stronger."
"Me, too," Al muttered. He went back behind his desk, opened a drawer, and reached inside, pulling out a bottle of amber-colored liquid. Alcohol was, of course, against Project rules; but then again, so was smoking.
Uncapping the bottle, he splashed a generous amount of the liquor into the remaining water in Donna's glass. She tasted, lifting an appreciative eyebrow. Al poured some, neat, for himself, settling a hip on the edge of his desk, and they sipped in a somewhat companionable silence.
"I met her on my way here," Donna said (Al didn't have to ask who). "I wonder why I never saw it before, but she's a lot like Sam. Oh, not in appearance, but in how she is."
Al knew what she meant. Sammy Jo was the living image of her mother, Abigail, but her temperament, personality, and especially, her brilliant intellect, were all Sam's.
"I take it she doesn't know," said Donna.
Al shook his head quickly, emphatically. "No, of course not."
"What about Sam?"
"He did, but I'd guess that leaping probably swiss-cheesed it out of him."
Donna made a non-committal sound, looking down into the depths of ther glass and gently swirling its contents. "I know," she began, "from things you let slip, that Sam's been...involved with the women on his leaps. I won't say it never bothered me at times, but I knew they couldn't touch that part of him that belonged to me. I even reassured him, that time he leaped home, that I'd never felt betrayed by anything he'd done." She paused. "I couldn't say that now."
She swallowed the rest of her drink, set the empty glass on Al's desk, then stood with an abrupt finality that made the vague uneasiness Al had felt while listening to her blossom into a terrible certainty. He quickly came up off the desk, one hand shooting out to grasp her arm.
She glowered at him with renewed anger, lips compressed, but didn't try to free her arm. "Don't what?"
"Leave the Project. Leave Sam." To his dismay she made no attempt to deny it. "Well?" he pressed, an accusatory tone creeping into his voice. "Isn't that what you're going to do?"
Bristling, Donna said, "I don't see how that's any of your business."
"Anything to do with Sam is my business," Al retorted, flaring himself. "And you just can't desert him like this!"
"Uh-uh, Al," Donna said, jerking her arm from his grasp. "I refuse to feel guilty about this, not when I'm the one who's been living in an empty house these last few years." As she stormed to the door Al's anger quickly dissipated. He took a step after her.
"Donna, wait, please--"
She stopped, her back to him, every line in her body taut. "What is it?" she said tightly.
"Just... I'm sorry. For everything." It sounded hopelessly inadequate, but if she really meant to leave, Al didn't want these bitter, hateful words hanging between them.
"Is that on your behalf, or Sam's?" Her wintery tone made it plain that this wouldn't go easy for him.
"Mine, mainly," he said. "But if Sam were here, he'd say it, too." He drew closer and rested his hands on her shoulders, just in comfort now. "He loves you, Donna, and I know the last thing he'd want to do is hurt you."
Donna's body drooped slightly, and Al thought he heard a muffled sob. In the next instant, however, she straightened up again, and Al knew he'd lost her. He let his hands fall as she turned to face him. The anger had faded from her eyes, leaving a shimmer of tears and a bleakness that made Al's heart ache. "But he has, Al," she said.
There was nothing Al could say to that, and with a weary shake of her head Donna turned to go. In a last-ditch effort the Observer threw out, "Have you talked to Verbena?"
Donna gave a short, sharp snort of mirthless laughter. "Hardly. Verbena can be very persuasive, and I don't want to be talked out of this."
"Would that be so bad?" Al asked.
"If I wound up resenting a bright young woman who wouldn't deserve it, yes." She turned back toward him. "Al, I really need some time and some distance to come to grips with this, and to think about a few other things as well."
"Such as how much longer I'm willing, or can afford to, keep my life on hold like this."
Al frowned. "'Afford to'?"
Donna sighed. "I may be Co-director, but the Project is all Sam's ideas and work, and a scientist's professional life depends on their producing their own work. I had a career and reputation of my own before I married Sam, and if I stay I might not even have that." She smiled wanly. "So you see, this isn't all about Sammy Jo, though she was the catalyst. But even if I hadn't found out about her, I think it still would have come to this." She reached for the doorknob.
Resignedly, Al asked, "What should I tell everyone?"
Donna shrugged, a show of indifference that didn't fool Al in the least. "Whatever you feel comfortable with," she said. "Not that it really matters; they'll believe what they want anyway."
Al nodded. "I know," he said, " but I'll try to make them understand."
"Thank you." She leaned forward suddenly and kissed him, a quick, shy brushing of lips across his cheek. "Take care of yourself, Al." Her voice faltered. "And...take care of Sam."
"I can't do anything else," Al said quietly. Donna nodded, opened the door and quickly left, as if afraid of weakening if she remained any longer.
"Goodbye, Donna," Al murmured after her. He closed the door, went back to his desk and picked up his neglected drink, knocking it back in one swallow. He was tempted to have another, but knew where that would lead, so he put the bottle away instead. But he couldn't work anymore either. He didn't know how long he simply sat there, confused thoughts chasing themselves around in his head, before a faint beep from his wristcom jarred him out of it.
He sighed gustily. It was time to see if Ziggy had managed to dig up any new information about this leap, and to check in on Sam, though that was the last thing he wanted to do now, with this secret weighing on his heart. But, just as he'd kept various others over the years, he'd keep this one, too. For as long as he had to.
He got slowly to his feet, feeling, for a moment, every one of his nearly sixty years. Then he squared his shoulders and headed for the Imaging Chamber, lighting a cigar as he went out.