By the time he'd eaten his fill, which surprisingly was not the entire contents of the bowl, Sam was feeling much improved.
Lillian conceded to the nurse's attestation that his ordeal would have caused his stomach to shrink somewhat, so that his appetite exceeded his capacity to eat at this stage. The nurse also insisted that despite his long sleep, he still needed lots of rest to regain his strength.
Sam confirmed this opinion by using a line he'd read in an interview with Stephen King, though he didn't reveal its source:
"Yeah, I have all the energy of a boa-constrictor that's just swallowed a goat."
Lillian Parnell agreed to leave him to sleep, and also promised to look in on Becky-Lou, whose father was keeping vigil at her bedside. Before she left, she fussed at his pillows and sheets and asked him a dozen times if he was comfortable and if there was anything else he needed. He reassured her that he was fine, only tired, and returned her enthusiastic 'nap-time' hug with all the strength he could muster, which was admittedly very little. He did manage a wide smile, and this finally sufficed in heartening her enough to allow her departure.
"Sleep well, honey." She ordered in parting, giving Sam a kiss on the forehead. "I love you."
"Love you, Mom." Sam reciprocated sincerely, still feeling the filial bond.
Lillian let herself be ushered out by the nurse, who ordered Sam to get some sleep as she closed the door to his room, leaving him alone with his invisible friend.
Sam sighed wearily.
"You okay pal?" Al was aware he was sounding like B-J's mother, but his concern was as genuine.
"How can I have slept for two days and still be so tired, Al?" Sam asked with a yawn.
"Well, I dunno, how 'bout you tell me Doctor Beckett? Let's see – maybe because you very nearly died out there!" Al scolded.
"I would have if not for you, Al…" Sam told him gratefully.
Al made a dismissive gesture, forestalling Sam's thanks. "I'd better go too, they're right, you need to rest and get your strength back." He reached for his hand-link to summon the door that would take him back to the future.
Sam raised a leaden arm to bid him stay.
"Don't go yet, Al," he wasn't pleading, yet his tone still conveyed a real desire not to be entirely alone.
Al aligned himself with a holographic chair in Sam's hospital room and simultaneously with a solid one in the Imaging Chamber and took a seat beside his friend.
"I'm here as long as you need me, buddy. You know that. Shall I stay 'til you fall asleep? You want me to tell you a bedtime story?" Al's teasing was gentle and as much as anything was an expression of the relief he was feeling that Sam had clawed his way back from the very brink of death. It earned him an exasperated raising of eyebrows, followed by a huge grin.
"Matter of fact, I do." Sam replied unexpectedly. "I want to hear all about your visit with Ruthie. How is she?"
As he spoke, he shifted position in the bed, trying to get more comfortable. A frown crossed his features.
Al looked at him questioningly, not needing to voice his renewed concern.
"I'm okay, Al. I'm just stiffer than an Englishman's upper lip!" Sam joked to set his friend's mind at rest.
Al spluttered with laughter. "Good one!" he conceded, glad of the change of subject.
Sam rubbed and squeezed at his left shoulder, collarbone and neck with his right hand, then mirrored the process on the other side. He rotated his shoulders and winced.
"Take it easy, Sam. You're bound to have some soreness."
"My muscles have got more kinks than your sexual practices." Sam complained as he continued to massage his aching shoulders, a pained expression accompanying his actions.
Al pretended to look shocked and hurt for a second.
"I should take umbrage at that, pal." He rejoined. Then he waggled his eyebrows up and down suggestively. "But you know what they say 'Practice makes perfect!' Besides, it sure is fun!" He chortled; his eyes alight with wicked merriment.
Sam smiled indulgently. His friend may be incorrigible, but he was still the best friend a man could ask for. "You're such a ham, Al!" he teased.
"Maybe that's why Ruthie couldn't stomach me!" Al muttered, "I wasn't kosher enough for her."
"Ahem," Sam cleared his throat pointedly, "Talking of Ruthie, Al. You were going to tell me what happened with Ruthie?"
Al looked away, and for a moment Sam thought he was going to clam up again and put on his 'don't intrude into my private life' façade.
"You did go to see her?" Sam pressed.
Al had indeed been hoping that Sam would have forgotten all about him unburdening himself back in the snow cave. It was annoying that the Swiss cheesing of his brain made Sam blank out completely on the important stuff, yet retain with clarity the things Al would rather he forgot. Things like Al's uncharacteristic opening up on a deeply personal matter. He could see that the self-appointed social worker he had taken as his best friend would not be fobbed off, though, so he capitulated.
"Yeah, I went to see her." He stated flatly.
"And…?" Sam felt this was harder than pulling teeth from a cantankerous crocodile with a pair of tweezers, and he was pretty sure it wasn't just because he still felt so exhausted. He gave Al a withering stare that ordered him to stop prevaricating.
"Okay, okay." Al sighed. "At first it was like I predicted, she was comatose, and it felt like a waste of time being there. But I talked to her like you told me to. It wasn't easy. We've been divorced a whole lot longer than we were married, y'know?"
"I understand Al. But you did the right thing in going."
"I guess so. At least her being out of it gave me time to think about what I wanted to say, without her interrupting me. I don't think I got to finish so many sentences in all the time we were married! When she finally woke up, she was distant at first, almost hostile, but she seemed to appreciate the fact I'd been there." Al allowed himself a little smile, which wasn't lost on Sam.
"We got under each other's skin quite a bit, just like we always used to. By the time I left though, I suppose you could say we were on the way to being friends again."
"I don't like to say 'I told you so'…" Sam began, pleased for his friend.
"Then don't!" Al tried hard to sound cross, but the sparkle in his eyes betrayed him. Boy Scout Beckett had struck again, and Al felt better for it.
"Is she gonna be okay, Al?" Sam needed to know. He didn't want the man who was like a second father to him to have found a new understanding with an old flame, only to lose her again before he'd had a chance to savor it.
"The Doc says she's off the critical list, but it's too early to say about her long term prognosis. She sustained spinal damage at – what was it the Doc said? - at level T10? Does that mean anything to you?"
"Uh huh." Sam's medical knowledge did not fail him. He was well aware how serious an injury this was. Less so than a C5 like Jill Kinmont had sustained, but potentially seriously incapacitating nonetheless.
"What else did the doctor tell you?" Sam didn't want to paint the picture himself, especially as he wasn't in possession of the full facts.
"You know me, Sam. I can't be doing with all that medical mumbo jumbo. No offense."
"None taken." Sam smiled. Al understood a lot more technical stuff than he usually admitted to, but he believed in 'plain speaking'.
"Her legs were pretty bashed up, Sam." Al looked pale and sorrowful as he said this; his feelings toward Ruthie ran deeper than he would ever confess, probably far deeper than he even realized. "Her face was all bruised and swollen. She was a mess."
"Internal injuries?" Dr Beckett inquired.
"Not as bad as they expected apparently." Al said positively.
Sam nodded thoughtfully.
"They promised to keep me updated with her progress." Al told his friend, with an air of finality.
Sam shot him a disapproving glare.
"You are going back to see her again." Sam stated rather than asked.
"Oh, I dunno, Sam. What would be the point? It's not like either of us is looking to get back together or anything."
"I never suggested you should, Al." Sam hastily reassured him.
"Well then…" Al gave him a 'what do you want from me' look, complete with a shrug. He considered the matter closed.
"Just cos you don't plan to remarry her, doesn't mean you're not allowed to care about her, Al. Even as a friend. She needs a friend right now."
"Al," Sam persisted, "You're still listed as her next of kin. Why do you think that is?"
"Cos her parents are dead and she never re-married." Al shot back, a little too glibly.
Sam tilted his head and gave his friend a knowing look.
"What d'ya want me to say, Sam?"
"Bottom line," Sam was too tired to drag this out, "I want you to promise that while I'm between leaps, you'll go back and see Ruthie. Spend some time with her, talk with her, take her a present – and not just flowers and grapes. Something to tell her that you're rooting for her, that you genuinely care about her recovery. Something meaningful that she can hang onto during her long convalescence when you aren't there anymore and she's alone and despondent. It's gonna be tough on her, Al. Chances are it's gonna be an uphill struggle, and she's gonna have to come to terms with whatever limitations her condition imposes. She needs something to give her strength and hope and courage.""Wow, that's quite a speech Sam, and quite a tall order. Any idea what this miracle gift should be?"
Sam considered for a few moments."I think maybe I can help you there, Al." Sam shifted position in the bed again, and once more showed discomfort on his face, but he dismissed it.
"I met a fascinating neurologist at a symposium once."
Al looked at his friend askance. He was used to Sam's genius brain leaping off at a tangent, but this seemed so unrelated to anything that had preceded it, Al wondered if the intense cold had damaged Sam's grey cells permanently.
"Bear with me Al. This guy – Clements - no Klawans that was it, he wrote lots of books about the workings of the brain and various neurological conditions, based largely on case histories in his files. Inspirational. Anyway, one story he told me was about a student of his. She had MS, but remarkably spent years in remission and had no really serious disability from it. He debated whether it could be put down at least in part to a gift a classmate took to her in the hospital after her first major attack."
Al's curiosity was piqued in spite himself.
"Okay, I'll take the bait. What was it?"
"Have you heard the Jewish folklore surrounding Rachel's tomb just outside Jerusalem?"
"No, but I'll bet Ruthie has."
"Exactly." Pronounced Sam. "Tradition has it that if a blue ribbon is wrapped around Rachel's tomb and a certain prayer is said, pieces of that ribbon will preserve the health of the owner."
"You don't believe in that, do ya Sam?" Al was usually the superstitious one; Sam the Scientist was more skeptical as a rule.
"Doesn't matter what I think, Al. Ruthie might just believe it. That's what's important. Besides, as Harold countered when confronted with the same negativity – The atomic physicist Bohr was said to hang a horseshoe over his door, which earned him ridicule from his peers for his acceptance of superstition. Bohr replied that he'd been told they worked whether you believed in them or not!"
"I dunno, Sam, it's a bit uh hokey don't you think?"
"Well, put it this way," Sam persisted, "What harm could it do? And if it's a comfort to Ruthie, then it'll have done some good, won't it?"
"I suppose so." Al conceded. "But now you're not only proposing that I take more time out to go back to Texas, you're suggesting I detour via Israel!"
"If that's what it takes, Al."
"What if you leap quickly? You don't always spend days in limbo y'know."
"Stop making excuses, Al. You'll be back when I really need you, you always are. Just promise me you'll go back and see her again." Sam yawned again, though he tried to stifle it.
"If I agree, will you do like you're supposed to and get some sleep?"
"Yes, Poppa-bear. I'll be good." Sam gave him an endearing little boy look, "I promise, now how bout you?"
Al put his hands up in surrender. "You win, Sam. I promise. Now go to sleep, y'hear? Don't make me get Momma Parnell back in here, cos she'll like as not tan your hide for ya!"
Sam sniggered, and pretended to look scared, though he knew it was an idle threat. "No doubt!"
Then he hunkered down under the covers, and let out a few fake snores.
"I'm asleep, see?" he muttered. "Fast yawn asleep."
Before Al could contradict the statement, Sam had indeed begun to drift into that desirable state.