Disclaimer: None of it belongs to me. Just this story.
Summary: Post 'Mirror Image'. Sam meets Al again and learns that there is another wrong he needs to right for him.
A/N: Many, many thanks to cecilegrey for the beta.
Rio de Janeiro
February 17, 2003
One thing that hadn't changed since Sam started leaping on his own and with his own face was the disorientation he felt every time upon first leaping in. At least now whenever he arrived it was in deserted or private spots where no one would see him, for people would be alarmed at the sight of a man appearing out of thin air. But there was always that lag time in which he had to figure out where he was, where he was supposed to go, who he was supposed to help, what wrong he was supposed to put right, all of which were not always easily and immediately apparent.
This time he was standing in the middle of a dense forest, flanked on all sides by lush foliage, tall trees and mountains. Considering the suffocating heat and humidity that immediately accosted him it very well might have been a jungle and he glanced about desperately, looking for signs of civilization. There was nothing and no one other than the sounds of birds and insects. The sun was up but the tree canopy blocked much of the sunlight and Sam couldn't tell what time of day it was. He definitely wouldn't have any luck with the date.
He took stock of his clothing next. Denim shorts, a grey tee-shirt with a design and writing on it, and sneakers that resembled sandals – rubber-soled but open, with Velcro straps that secured them to his feet. Casting his eyes toward the sky he wondered wryly how it was that he managed to begin each and every leap dressed differently. In the place and time he'd just left he'd been wearing a tuxedo, now he was in shorts and a tee. It wasn't as if he changed clothes before each leap, or at least he had no memory of doing so. Yet no matter where and when he appeared he was always wearing the right clothing and haircut for the place and time period, looking as if he belonged wherever he was. And he always had his wallet with him, in the same pocket.
Shaking his head he took in his surroundings again. He was standing on the forest trail halfway up a mountain and since he'd been facing up when he leaped in it was obvious he was meant to be ascending rather than descending.
Figures. I gotta climb a damn mountain now too.
Tugging on his tee-shirt so he could better decipher the upside down, backwards writing he discovered that it had the Olympic logo on it and read Sydney 2000.
"Australia?" he exclaimed.
He'd only leaped outside of the United States maybe seven or eight times in his entire career as a Quantum Leaper, and they had all been leaps into other people. Then again maybe he wasn't in Australia and the shirt was simply appropriate attire that had the added bonus of clueing him in to the time period. Wherever he was he now knew it was the year two thousand or later.
With a sigh he began his climb upward, idly thinking that he must be somewhere tropical. It felt like Florida. Or Vietnam.
His breath hitched as the memory of another leap came unbidden, a leap in Vietnam. He remembered his joy at seeing Tom and knowing he had a chance to save his brother's life, his anguish at the bloodied face and body of Maggie Dawson as she lay cradled in his arms – her life given in place of Tom's, his pure shock and sorrow when he saw the Pulitzer Prize-winning last photo she had taken of a P.O.W. with an all too familiar face.
Sam felt a pang of deep grief in his chest as the thought of his old friend crossed his mind once again.
It had only taken a handful of leaps since he'd left that strange bar in Cokeburg for Sam to appreciate and sorely miss the magnafluxing of his memory, or Swiss-cheese effect as Al had so poetically described it, that leaping used to cause. Being unable to remember much about his life had been deeply frustrating and discouraging but now he realized that in certain ways it had been a blessing in disguise. Intact memories and the emotions that accompanied them were a heavy burden that followed him into each new leap. Vivid recollections and stray daydreams of loved ones and events in his own past, memories of the friend he'd left behind. There were times when it was almost too much to bear.
He supposed it was part of the challenge of the difficult new assignment that damned mysterious bartender had alluded to, and perhaps the memories were necessary now. But it wasn't new anymore, and he was weary and alone. Isolated. He cared about everyone he met on the leaps, about what happened to them, but they weren't people that he loved and who loved him. Once he accomplished whatever he had to and leaped out they likely forgot he'd even been there. Like Stawpah, the leaper in the Cokeburg bar, who was an integral part of a crowd one minute and remembered by nobody the next.
There were too many moments to count when he would have given anything to have his best friend back on the journey with him.
The heat and humidity was oppressive and he was drenched in sweat and panting after only a short time climbing the hill. At least the path wasn't too difficult to maneuver, other than the fact that it was on a consistent incline. Take away the brutal climate and it was actually a pleasant hike through a peaceful forest. Sam threaded his way up the trail, stopping when the trees thinned and he was in a clearing. Here he rested, catching his breath, lifting the tee-shirt up from the bottom to wipe his face. From the sun's angle he could see that it was early morning. Above and off to his right the top of a large rock was visible and a new path led in that direction. There was another trail to his left and no sign of anyone on either.
While he stood there resting and pondering which way to go a distant cry reached his ears. It might have been that of a bird or a wild animal but Sam could have sworn it sounded human. He remained motionless, listening to the sounds around him and after a few minutes he heard it again. The cry of a human voice, filled with anguish. It seemed to be coming from the left and he chose that path, sure-footedly ascending above the tree line. He gasped involuntarily as he reached the large flat rock that topped the mountain and glimpsed the city sprawled out below. So he wasn't lost in some jungle in the middle of nowhere after all.
It was a breathtaking view. He could see the ocean and an endless curving beach. The cloudless sky was bright blue, green-covered mountains loomed in the distance and immediately around the peak where he stood. In fact he might have been on a vacation except that he never was – not really.
Sam still had no idea where he was but he had discovered the likely reason for this leap. The man he found sitting up here was of small build, dressed completely in black including his baseball-style cap, and he was perched at one edge of the rock with his legs dangling over the precipice, his head bent, staring down into the abyss; and making Sam very, very nervous, for he could see nothing but a long dizzying drop beyond the man's knees. A small purple backpack that was faded with age and covered with patches lay on the rock beside his hand. It was flat, as if it had nothing or very little packed inside of it.
There was no doubt in Sam's mind that it was this man who uttered the cries that he heard, and that he'd leaped here for him. Was he contemplating suicide? Judging from the position of his head the man wasn't looking out at the lovely cityscape; he was looking down at the open endless drop beneath his dangling feet. Maybe he had no such intention and was merely taking in the bird's eye view immediately below. Sam might simply be here to stop him from accidentally falling. Usually it wasn't that easy though and more often than not these days the reason for each of his leaps unfolded slowly, over longer periods of time. Leaping on his own had required him to learn to be more patient, too.
Whatever his reason, the guy had chosen to seat himself in an extremely precarious location and position and Sam knew he had to somehow convince him to move to a safer spot.
The man had heard his approach, becoming still and lifting his head but not before Sam glimpsed the almost imperceptible trembling of his hunched shoulders. Sam took a step toward the man, considering how he might begin a conversation.
"It's a beautiful view," he said, keeping his eyes focused on the backpack and away from what was beyond the edge of the rock.
But please. Please back away from the edge…
Much to Sam's relief the man shifted back on the rock as if he'd heard his silent prayer and drew his legs up. Then he grabbed the backpack, stood up and turned toward him, and Sam's heart lurched as he found himself staring into the face of his old friend. He looked the same as he did when Sam last saw him outside the bar in Cokeburg except that he was thinner, if it was possible for the wiry man to be any smaller. Al wasn't crying but even in the shadow of the bill of his cap Sam could see the tracks that the tears he already shed had left.
"Al!" The name was out of Sam's mouth before he could stop himself, before he realized that he'd seen no surprise, no sign of recognition at all in Al's dark eyes.
Al started then frowned and with guarded eyes he studied Sam, clearly trying to place if he knew him and from where.
"How do you know my name?" he demanded after a stunned silence. "Do we know each other from somewhere?"
We should have met by this time but I changed history and we didn't. He never worked on the project and we never became friends. Somehow I still remember it all but for him it never happened. It never did happen. That timeline was erased.
The moment he'd made the choice to put right what went wrong for Al, to change Al's history so that Beth would wait for him and not remarry, Sam knew that it was a possibility. That maybe he would change the path of Al's life so drastically that they would never meet in the new timeline. He knew it, and he didn't regret it; he'd done it for Al, so that he and Beth would have the life they were meant to have together, so that Al would have a chance to be happier. And yet, when actually faced with it now the stark reality of it hit him with the force of a violent blow.
"Sorry…you look like someone I knew…he was named Al, too," he barely managed to stammer.
A wave of panic surged through him. For the first time he was actually thinking through, really thinking through the possible ramifications of them never meeting and his head began to swim.
"Hey, are you okay?"
He could hardly catch his breath. He felt more than saw Al take a step toward him.
"You don't look too good. Maybe you should sit down."
Sam nodded and as his legs turned to rubber beneath him he hastily took a seat on the rock. He drew his knees up toward his chest, dropped his elbows on them and rested his head in his hands. His mind was racing. If he'd changed things so they never met and Al was never his observer, never helped him on all the previous leaps had the outcome of those leaps changed? And if so, what about all the people he'd helped, like Jimmy LaMotta and his family, and Katie McBain, and so many others? What about Tom? It was Al who helped him save his brother's life during the leap into Vietnam, though that change in his own personal history came at such a heavy price. By changing Al's past had he reversed that? Or would another observer have done the same for him? The project still existed even without Al, he knew that. Though the memories weren't nearly as vivid he did have an awareness of an altered Project Quantum Leap in another timeline, with a different hybrid computer – called Alpha instead of Ziggy – and an observer named St. John, also a man of slight build but much more formal in his manner and demeanor, who did his job efficiently but lacked Al's warmth and passion; a colleague who cared about the project and was dedicated to helping him complete the leaps successfully, but not a dear friend who would do anything in the world for him.
But he'd already thought all of this through when he made the choice, hadn't he? Had he just forgotten? Maybe his brain was still more Swiss-cheesed than he realized. Or maybe he hadn't thought about it because he just didn't want to. It wouldn't be the first time in his life that he acted purely on impulse, without considering for a moment the possible consequences. Hadn't he rushed into the Quantum Leap accelerator despite Al's urging him to wait, despite Ziggy saying no, and recklessly hurled himself into the past before everything was ready?
He heard and felt Al take a seat on the ground in front of him, then zippers opening and closing. Sam concentrated on the sounds, his breath coming easier as he did so, the panic that had gripped his chest like a vise beginning to dissipate.
In his mind Sam prayed to God, resigning himself to the fact that he would have to have faith that everything was okay, Tom was fine and all the leaps from before had turned out right. That after all the leaping around in time he'd done, putting right what once went wrong, He wouldn't pull such a cruel hoax on him.
When his head had stopped spinning and the buzzing in his ears subsided he opened his eyes and raised his head. Al sat cross-legged on the rock before him, eyeing him intently with both concern and confusion. He thrust what looked like a juice box towards him and which Sam accepted gratefully.
"Thanks." He could feel Al's eyes scrutinizing him as he read the outside of the carton, which wasn't in English.
"Coconut water. That's better than plain water."
He nodded as he peeled the silver tab off the spout at the top and took a drink. It wasn't something he'd ever drank before but it wasn't bad and it was quenching.
"Keep sipping that. It'll rehydrate you. You shouldn't have hiked all the way up here with nothing to drink in climate like this."
Sam just nodded again and took several gulps of the coconut water.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah," he answered softly, lowering the carton and wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'm okay, Al."
Again the name was pronounced before Sam realized it and Al's eyes narrowed. "It seems you have me at a disadvantage. You know my name but I don't know yours."
"Sam. I'm Sam."
It occurred to Sam that maybe, just maybe the reason Al didn't know him was because this time, for the first time since he'd left Cokeburg, he'd leaped into someone else again, someone who was a stranger to Al. There was no place around here for him to view his reflection. Maybe…
"Sam Beckett," he added hopefully.
Al looked at him curiously. "Like the Irish playwright?"
"Yeah," he said after a moment, deflated. "Like the Irish playwright."
"I guess you get that a lot."
Sam grunted an affirmative and brought the carton to his lips again, gulping more of the drink to try to force away the lump that had formed in his throat.
"How the hell did you even get up here, Sam? The park isn't open yet."
"It doesn't open until eight o'clock."
"Yeah, well. I kinda got special permission to be here whenever I want."
"You snuck in?"
"Huh. You must have a lot of stamina to make it up to Estrada da Canoa without a car."
"I was walking the trail and I heard…" Sam began awkwardly. He wanted to steer the conversation away from himself, back to Al and to the purpose of the leap. "I thought I heard…you sounded…I thought that maybe you needed assistance. Then when I saw you at the edge of the rock like that…"
Al's eyes widened. "You thought I wanted to jump?"
"No!" he replied defensively. That thought had crossed his mind only before he discovered the identity of the man. But he knew Al better than that, though he didn't know him in this timeline. Al Calavicci had lived through hell and come out fighting. He was a survivor not a suicide. "No. But you might've fallen…"
"Oh for God's sake."
"I didn't think…it's just that you had your head bent and you were looking all the way down."
"Yeah, well, sometimes I like to spook myself."
Sam stared at him.
"Did someone send you up here to check on me? My daughter Sam maybe?"
Al ranted for a full minute in Italian, looked up at the sky and made a gesture toward the heavens that Sam had no idea how to interpret.
He shook his head. "I don't know your daughter Sa…Sam. I just thought you needed…help up here." He paused and took a deep breath, then asked, "Are you okay?"
His old friend stared at him. Judging from the expression on his face he was trying to decide if Sam was for real and if so whether or not he was deranged. "Am I okay? You know, maybe you ought to worry about yourself," he said at last. "You're the one that looked like you were about to pass out just now." He gestured to the carton once more. "Go on and keep drinking that. Heat exhaustion is no joke."
Without thinking Sam obediently raised it to his lips and took another gulp then set the carton down.
"You still don't look too good. Maybe you should—"
"I'm fine, Al," he assured him with a small smile. "I just got a little dizzy. It's a long way down…I don't like heights and—"
"You don't like heights but you climbed up to the top of Pedra Bonita?" Al asked, looking astonished.
Sam tried to remember if he had ever heard of Pedra Bonita and where it was. He knew that in Spanish 'piedra bonita' meant 'beautiful rock' but that didn't shed any light on its location.
"That's really something. You don't like heights but you climbed all the way up here because you thought I needed help?"
Al was silent for a long time. Then he finally averted his penetrating gaze from Sam and grunted. "Well, you're a real rarity, that's for sure. You didn't need to worry though. Sam. I wasn't gonna fall. And if I wanted to off myself I would take the gun I own, point it at my head and pull the trigger. All in the privacy of my own home. Much simpler and a lot less work than climbing all the way to the top of a mountain to jump off of it. I just wanted to come up and spend some time alone before everyone else got here."
"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have intruded."
"Eh," Al said huskily with a brisk wave of his hand. "It's okay. Forget about it. You were trying to help." He paused then muttered, almost too quietly for Sam to hear, "I'm better off with the company anyway."
Sam dipped his head and glanced toward Al surreptitiously, trying to study him without appearing as if he was staring at him. The tear stains that he saw on his face before were gone but Al looked haggard. And there was a gravity to him now that Sam had never seen before, a heaviness that seemed to cling to him like another skin and weigh him down. He was certainly…subdued. Even his dress was downright somber, a far cry from the outrageous bright-colored outfits that he had always worn; and that Sam often ribbed him about. The patched-up faded purple backpack he was carrying with him for some unknown reason was the only hint of color and it seemed completely at odds with him. He guessed that Al must have borrowed it from somebody else.
What had happened to him? Whatever it was it was bad enough to draw him here.
His cigar was conspicuously absent too. The Al he had known smoked like a chimney. Not only hadn't Al once taken out a cigar just to fidget with during the time they'd been sitting here, yet alone smoked one, he didn't smell like cigar smoke even. Maybe Beth convinced him to quit a long time ago. Maybe having a child had changed his mind about smoking too.
A daughter! Al had a daughter! There was a timeline, another reality, when Al had no family and Sam would invite him to come with him to his sister Katie's home in Hawaii for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. As grateful as Al was to be invited and made to feel that he was family too Sam knew those visits had also been painful for his friend, for they reminded him of what he didn't have and of everything he'd lost. He was happy that Al had a family of his own now. Once he leaped into a mother of three in the nineteen-eighties. The youngest child, a little girl named Teresa Bruckner could see him for who he was and could see his holographic observer too. Sam could hardly believe how terrific and natural Al was with her, and with other little children in later leaps who could see them both. Maybe it was because in so many ways he was like a big kid himself. There was no doubt in his mind that fatherhood suited Al.
"The resemblance is that close?"
"Huh?" Sam's head jerked up and he looked at Al in confusion.
"When you first saw me you thought I was someone else. The resemblance is that close?"
Al's intense gaze was unsettling. He looked down at his hands so the other man wouldn't see his expression and nodded. "Uncanny."
"Closer than a brother," Sam replied quietly.
"Weird that he's got the same name as me too."
"Yeah, weird," he said, his stomach beginning to knot.
He shook his head slightly and laughed bitterly under his breath at the irony of it all. Through five years of leaping with Al as his holographic observer his Swiss-cheesed brain hadn't allowed him to remember anything – or more than very little – about their friendship prior to his leaping. He knew whatever Al was able to reveal and remind him about. Now he could recall everything about the man who for many years had been his best friend, brother, father, mentor, colleague, collaborator and eventually his guide and lifeline all rolled into one; but Al had never met him and none of that had actually happened. No wonder he'd never leaped home. The home he knew no longer existed. And he'd already known that, too.
Sam was already feeling low since the very start of the leap but this train of thought made his mood plummet.
"If you don't mind me saying you look like you're a little down on your luck," Al commented, his gravelly voice laced with compassion.
With great effort Sam shook off his reverie and blinked away the tears that were beginning to prick the corners of his eyes. He had to stop feeling sorry for himself. There was nothing he could do about the way things were now and he had to focus on figuring out what he was supposed to put right this time. This was a leap, and like any other leap he had a job to do. He was here for Al.
"I guess maybe we both are," he hinted softly, raising his eyes to meet Al's again.
Al frowned at him. "Maybe," he muttered finally and turned away.
Sam followed the direction of his gaze and saw that he was staring up at a monolithic rock that topped another mountain across the chasm from where they sat. It occurred to him that he had seen Al's eyes constantly returning to that spot the entire time he'd been with him and now he understood why. The rock looked like it had a face carved into its vertical side.
His lips curved into a slight smile. "It looks like a face."
"Yeah. That's Pedra da Gávea." There was something in Al's voice when he pronounced it, a meaning that the name seemed to hold for him that Sam couldn't fathom.
"Is it well-known?"
He nodded. "You've never been to Tijuca before?"
Al turned and gave him an odd look. "The park we're in now."
"Or heard of it, apparently."
"What's significant about that rock?"
"The view and the face on the side of it. Seems there's debate as to whether that face was naturally carved by the elements or by pre-historic people."
With that in mind Sam studied the face carefully. "My guess is the elements. Is there archaeological evidence otherwise?"
Al shrugged. "Not that I've heard of, but I wouldn't necessarily hear about it even if there was. I think it's just one of those stories that somebody started. Anyhow Pedra Bonita is the easier trail. That's why it gets busy early. Plus it's the take-off point for hang-gliders. If I do go flying off this mountain it will be on a hang-glider."
"A hang-glider?" Sam repeated, astonished. He turned and looked at him closely. Al had to be close to seventy years old at this point. "You hang-glide?"
"I never have but maybe I'll try it. I was a pilot and I handled more difficult flying machines than a hang-glider. And I've parachuted out of a plane a few times. It should be a cake-walk. There's a ramp where you take off and then you fly over and down onto São Conrado Beach, right over there," he explained, pointing. He paused then added thoughtfully, "It's a great view of Rio. Too bad you hate heights or you could try it while you're here."
"I can live with missing it," Sam remarked dryly.
Al just shrugged again.
"Have you ever hiked up to Pedra…Pedra da Gávea? Is that where the other path…?"
Sam trailed off, taken aback as before his eyes a look of utter profound grief had suddenly and inexplicably darkened Al's visage and the man seemed to physically shrink.
"That trail is difficult and can be dangerous," he finally replied. "I never tried it."
"Oh." Sam was so stunned and dismayed by the sudden and extreme change for the worse in Al's demeanor he didn't know what else to say.
"If you're thinking of trying it, don't go alone." The soft low-pitched warning came out as a growl, as if it was an effort for him to speak. He cleared his throat then and spoke a little louder. "There's a part called Carrasqueira that involves rock climbing…it's only one section but…people have fallen and died. You really need to have stamina. Be careful and go with a guide who knows the trail if you're going."
Al brought a hand up to his forehead and agitatedly raked a hand through his hair with two fingers; it was a habit of his that he knew well.
"I don't know if I will go. But I'll take that advice if I do."
For more than one reason he wanted to keep the conversation going, or more to the point keep Al talking to him.
"Have you been to Rio a lot?" he asked. "You seem to know this park very well."
"I do now," he replied, his voice flat.
"I've never been here," Sam continued, undaunted. "Or anywhere in South America actually."
"You here for Carnival?"
"Yeah, it's in two weeks. Don't tell me you came to Rio without realizing Carnival was starting soon."
He shook his head. "I didn't come for Carnival."
Al was studying him with an amused expression now. "So, how did you decide to come here? Did you throw a dart at a board with country names on it, it landed on Brazil and you said, 'Okay, Brazil it is'?"
"Not exactly," Sam replied, unable to stop the laughter that came. "It's…a little hard to explain exactly what drew me here."
"Yeah, I bet."
"Is that what you're here for? Carnival?"
Sam's laugh immediately faded as he watched that same expression of deep grief flicker over Al's face once more when he answered, "No, I'm not here for Carnival either," and turned back to stare at the face of Pedra da Gávea.
Al's pain was palpable but Sam had no idea how he could help him. Even when they knew each other it wasn't ever easy to draw information out of him if he didn't want to talk about it. Now that he was a stranger to the man it would likely be a daunting task.
As they sat together without speaking he found his eye wandering to the patched-up backpack that lay on the rock beside them. Looking more closely now he noticed that each of the patches contained a different country name and they were sewn on in neat rows. There must have been close to one hundred of them. Almost the entire surface of the pack was filled.
"Did you visit all of those countries?" Sam asked, astonished.
He shook his head. "Trudy did." Again Al's voice was so quiet that Sam almost didn't hear him.
"Trudy?" he repeated breathlessly. Al had a sister Trudy, he knew. She had Down syndrome and had died of pneumonia back in the nineteen-fifties.
Another protracted silence stretched between them before Al finally spoke, through gritted teeth.
"My daughter. This was her backpack."
Sam felt his heart sink. He was too late. Al had another daughter Trudy in this timeline and something had happened to her, had happened before he leaped in. But maybe if Al would talk to him, if he could get more information he could leap back…
"There must be close to a hundred patches on there," he murmured.
"Yeah." Al sighed. He picked up the backpack and set it on his lap. For a long time he stared at it, fingering several of the patches, his expression inscrutable. Then he took another deep breath and kept his eyes on the pack as with great sadness and also great pride he began to talk about the extraordinary young woman who was Trudy Calavicci.
Curious and adventurous Trudy had a zest for life and new experiences that was equal to her father's. Al told him about how she'd left home a year and a half ago to work her way around the world with nothing but a plane ticket to Amsterdam, a backpack and one thousand dollars in travelers' cheques on her person, money she'd saved working. For eighteen months she'd circumvented the world, often working her passage from continent to continent as crew and taking a wide variety of jobs everywhere she went, from teaching English in Japan to picking cherries in France to driving an overland touring bus through Mexico. It never seemed to occur to her that she was taking risks wherever she went. She was fearless.
"Trudy left school halfway through to go traveling. College didn't interest her so she saw no reason to stay. It's not that she wasn't smart. She was. She was brilliant. But she always found school boring, even as a little girl. She wanted to learn about the world by having experiences and meeting different people, not sitting in a classroom. Stepped foot on every continent except Antarctica. In each country she visited she bought a patch with the country name on it and sewed it on. She sewed from left to right in rows, working her way from the top down. This pack became a map of her entire trip. She started here," Al pointed to the Netherlands patch. "In Amsterdam. Venezuela is the last patch she sewed on, down here. Brazil was the last country she came to but she never…I'll buy that one and sew it on for her. Right here next to Venezuela."
Sam didn't need to ask – Al had already told him what happened without actually telling him. This was why the ranger gave him special treatment, allowing him into the park before it opened and leaving him alone up here. This was why he kept staring at the incomprehensible, indifferent face of that rock as if maybe it could give him an answer he was looking for.
Al hadn't come to Rio for Carnival. He'd come for his daughter's remains.
"She didn't go with a guide," he murmured unthinkingly to himself but Al heard him.
"Trudy was extremely independent." Al's eyes were filled with pain, his voice tight. "She wanted to do everything on her own and she didn't like to have to ask anyone for help."
Like her father, Sam thought sorrowfully.
"She was a lot like me. We even shared the same birthday. Maybe she was too much like me. Maybe she would have been better off if she wasn't…" Al brought his hands up to his face and pressed the heels of his hands against his eye sockets. "God, I don't know why the hell I'm telling you about any of this," he muttered gruffly. "I don't even know you."
"I don't mind listening," Sam offered gently.
He lowered his hands and looked at him. "Oh, hell, you must be a shrink."
"I'm not a shrink. I'm just willing to listen if you feel like talking."
"Just a Good Samaritan who happened along at the right time," Al remarked, his mouth twisting into a rueful smile.
Sam gazed at his old friend compassionately. "You did seem like you were very…very low when I first heard you…when I first came up here."
Al laughed a short, sad laugh. "Yeah, well, you didn't look too good then either."
"No, I guess I didn't," Sam replied, smiling abashedly.
"I'm sorry for your loss, too."
Tears filled Sam's eyes unexpectedly and he turned his face away. Al did always have an uncanny ability to read people. Even people he didn't know. He was an astute observer long before he was Sam's literal observer.
"I just miss him, that's all." He shook his head and wiped a hand across his eyes. "I never really got to say goodbye to him."
Al was quiet for a few moments.
"That always makes it harder," he said softly. He paused. "I remind you of him. You look at me and talk to me like I am him."
"I'm sorry. I—"
"Nothing to be sorry about," he cut off the explanation with a shrug.
He met his eyes and said, meaningfully, "He was my best friend. There wasn't anything he wouldn't do for me. And I never really thanked him…I never told him how much I appreciated him."
"I'm sure he knew. And appreciated you, too."
"I hope so."
Somehow hearing the words from Al comforted him even though this wasn't really his Al and it didn't exactly have the same meaning. But maybe, he thought, on some cosmic level this Al understood, even recognized him in some way though he didn't know him.
Still, there were stranger things in the universe. He and Al had only just met in this timeline yet he felt incredibly that they talked fairly easily and had already made a sort of connection. And…different as things were he was still Al.
"A lot of people go through life without ever having such a good friend," Al added, sounding wistful. "You're very lucky."
"Yeah," he said with a rueful smile. "I was."
They both lapsed into silence again. Al continued to eye the face of Pedra da Gávea. Sam stared at it as well, glancing at his friend every once in a while then deciding finally to take the chance, to come straight out and ask him what he wanted to know.
"When did it happen? If you don't mind me asking."
"Last Monday," he answered after a slight hesitation. "She was staying in a hostel and some travelers that she'd become friendly with noticed on Tuesday morning that she hadn't been in her bed Monday night. One person remembered she'd gone hiking in Tijuca so they started looking for her here. They found her body Wednesday morning and I got the call that afternoon. I got here Thursday. We're still…deciding the best way to deal with her remains, whether to cremate here so it'll be easier…and I don't know what I'm supposed to do with all her stuff. Right now it's in our suite at the hotel." His hands and his voice shook. "I was gonna come alone…to bring her back home…but my daughters insisted on coming. I think they were afraid of what I was gonna do. Well, Sam was. My oldest. Thinks she's responsible for everyone, including me. She thinks I've gone crazy. Eh, maybe they all think it. Maybe I am. I've been coming up to the top of this damn mountain every morning since I got here and staring at that ugly face up there."
"I doubt your daughters think anything like that. They're grieving and they probably know how much you are too and…and they're just worried about you, worried about you coming up here all the time and dealing with all of it by yourself. They probably just want you to know that you don't have to…you don't have to deal with the pain all alone."
"Maybe." Al released a shaky breath. "Probably."
"I'm sure of it. Do you spend the whole day here?"
"Just the mornings. The girls are worried about me climbing up here. Sam is the only one who says anything but I know they're all worried."
Sam waited patiently for him to continue.
"She wasn't even twenty-three years old yet. This June." Al rubbed his face with both hands. "God, she went to places where there was terrible political unrest. Made me nervous as hell, especially with everything that's going on these days and her being American. I don't know, maybe I should have talked her out of going. Thing is she might have gone anyway, or ended up resenting me if she didn't go. She was a grown up. At a certain point you have to let your kids make their own choices and let them be who they are. Besides, I was as proud of her as I was worried. And she was okay. Then she came here, a country that was comparatively calm. And right there is the last place that she was alive in this world."
"I'm sorry, Al."
Al released another shaky breath. "At least Beth never had to see this."
"Beth?" Sam whispered.
"My ex-wife. She passed away two years ago."
"Only a couple of years after we split up. She deserved so much better." He rubbed his face again then shook his head, looking disgusted. "God, I'm selfish. Sitting up here feeling sorry for myself. I should be staying with my daughters. I should be worrying about how they feel losing their sister. What kind of thoughtless bastard am I?"
Sam reached out and for the first time in years touched Al's shoulder comfortingly.
"No," he said quietly. "You're grieving for your child. And I know you probably feel like you want to be by yourself, like you want to shut everything out. But maybe you could ask your daughters to come up here with you. They may not want to but maybe asking them will make a difference."
"Yeah. Or I could just stop coming up here. It's not like it's gonna change anything."
Both men were silent again for a time.
"How many daughters do you have?" Sam asked.
"Four including Trudy. The youngest two are identical twins."
He couldn't help but smile slightly at the irony of Al having four daughters in the new timeline instead of four additional wives. But it grieved Sam to learn that even after he'd changed things for his friend, Al's happily ever after with Beth had turned out to be not so happy after all.
After another minute Al stood up abruptly. "Well, I think I've spent enough time up here. I should be getting back to my family so they won't worry anymore."
Sam rose quickly. "Do you mind if I walk down with you? I don't really know my way around."
Al shook his head. "It's probably a good idea. They recommend that people hike most of the trails here with at least one other person. And I still think you don't look so hot. You sure you're okay? Maybe you should see a doctor."
"Maybe it's just that you have yet to get your Brazilian tan."
He grinned. "Well, a sun worshipper I'm not."
"You don't have to be. You'll get tan in this city just by walking around outside."
"Thanks for the drink." A small amount of liquid still sloshed around inside the carton.
"Go ahead and finish that. You need it and I have another one in the pack."
As they made their descent Sam remarked on Al's earlier statement that he was a pilot, guessing correctly that it would get him talking about it. Though he'd already heard so many of the stories of Al's days as a pilot, he relished hearing him tell them again now. He said very little, other than asking questions to encourage him to continue. When Al turned the conversation around and asked him what he did besides coming to the aid of strangers like an overgrown Eagle Scout Sam laughed and simply told him that he was a doctor. As tempting as it was to reveal everything to Al about himself and Project Quantum Leap, and explain to him that in another timeline he was his best friend, he knew he couldn't.
"Vacationing here now?" Al asked.
"Yeah, it's sort of a break from the usual."
They didn't hike all the way down to the exit. When they reached the beginning of the trail a man met them with a car and drove them the rest of the way. He spoke to Al in Portuguese, indicating Sam with a nod of his head and probably wanting to know where he'd come from. Whatever Al's answer it was enough to satisfy the man, who was probably one of the park guides. Sam wondered when Al had learned to speak Portuguese. His fluency in Italian had probably made it easier for him to pick it up even if he'd only just started to learn.
Sadness weighed on Sam as he and Al shook hands and prepared to part ways once they were out of the park. For the first time in a long time he didn't want to leap out. These days his leaps were taking longer, sometimes continuing for three weeks or more. Yet this one, the leap that he wanted to last more than anything, was cruelly the shortest of all. It wasn't fair. He wanted to stay with Al, at least for a little while longer, to just talk to him. They hadn't met on the Starbright Project back in the nineteen-eighties in this timeline but they'd met now, twenty years later. Perhaps they would form a new friendship if he stayed. It wouldn't be the same but maybe…
But he knew he couldn't. There was something he needed to do for Al, and for his family. At least he had to try.
"Nice meeting you, Sam. And…thanks."
Having decided that no matter how foolish he seemed it wouldn't matter once the leap ended, Sam pulled Al into a tight embrace. Al was clearly startled by it but he seemed to understand and patiently tolerated it, even awkwardly reaching around and patting him on the back.
"It was good to meet you, Al," he said in a voice thick with emotion, finally releasing him. "Take care."
"Yeah, you, too. Take it easy. And hey, enjoy your break here." He indicated their surroundings with a movement of his eyes and a jerk of his head. "It is a beautiful city."
"Goodbye, Al," he whispered as Al turned and went on his way, boarding a city bus that would take him back to where his other three daughters were waiting for him.
Sam watched until his friend disappeared from view and then he leaped.