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Strangers in the Night

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For the briefest of nanoseconds, I winked out of existence.

At least that's how it seemed to me. One minute I was...well, somewhere. Somewhere definitely different from the place I suddenly found myself in.

I blinked, several times. Didn't help. I was in one of those generic, all-night diners, the kind with the individual jukebox at each booth, ceiling fans, and pictures of scenery on the walls. The kind of diner that could be anywhere from 1970 to 1999.

Why did that thought make me feel so funny?

I was on the inside of one of the booths, wearing a white sweater and a...skirt. No, this can't be right! It may seem crazy to you, but you see, I might not know who I was or where I came from, or even where I was...but I was certain I wasn't a woman.

The man next to me, the one with his arm draped around my shoulder with too much friendliness for my comfort, obviously thought so.

I'd made the former observations in the blink of an eye. With the next blink, I understood much more.

Leaping...

Okay, that told me what, but not why.

Sam!

I glanced around the diner, but there was no sign of him. I knew I was searching for him, although the circumstances of my stepping into the Accelerator--if that's even how it had happened--were totally Swiss cheesed to me.

He had to be around somewhere, didn't he? I racked my brain furiously for the information. Something told me I had to just sit tight until we ran across each other, whether it be there, or in another leap.

Sighing in disappointment, I turned reluctant attention back to my temporary situation. There weren't any plates or menus in front of us, so we were obviously waiting for our food. Looked like I'd leaped into the middle of a double date. Sitting across from my 'companion' and I was this knock-out blond, in a low-cut red blouse. I was instantly jealous of her date, a rather nerdish-looking guy with red hair. Her arm was around him, fingers playing with his hair. He squirmed, looking as uncomfortable and out of place as I was. I changed my opinion, feeling a kinship of sorts. Besides, he had a likable face. He actually reminded me of the model of geek I'd always tried to pin on Sam. Seeing the contrast, I realized how wrong I was.

Jarring me back to matters at hand, the beefy arm around me pulled me closer. "Let's have a toast to computer dating, Ryan," my date said to the nerd, picking up his glass of water. "If not for it, we wouldn't have met two such beautiful ladies as Joan and Bambi."

Water... if they were still automatically putting water on the tables, it was probably somewhere before the late '80's.

Bambi batted her long eyelashes, laughing coyly as we toasted. She was flirting with my date, but I didn't think it was on purpose, her type flirted with anything in pants. Besides, she was still trying to play with Ryan's ear. He would periodically bat her hand away.

She raised her glass again. "And here's to Quinn and Bambi's anniversary, four months today, isn't it?"

I'm Bambi?? I spit out water, giving Ryan a bath in the process. "I--I'm sorry," I stammered through a coughing fit, while Quinn patted me on the back. "Went down the wrong way."

"It's okay," Ryan assured, grabbing the napkin out of Joan's hand before she had a chance to zero in and 'help' him.

After that the conversation lagged, with Joan and Quinn providing most of it, and Ryan and I adding something here and there. True to form, Ryan was the quiet type. At least someone was being predictable.

I decided to play some music the same time Ryan did. We both reached for the selection knob of the box, almost colliding. He pulled back with an apologetic smile, dropping in the coins for me. Three plays for one dollar--I had the year almost pinned down, now. I smiled a thanks and chose three songs: Tequila, Every time you Go Away by Paul Young, and Lennon's Imagine. They must have met with approval, Ryan nodded slightly and smiled at me.

To my utmost relief, dinner finally arrived. Quinn had a healthy appetite and Joan was too busy trying to be dainty about eating her fried chicken, so there wasn't much conversation.

Somewhere during the meal, I noticed Ryan watching me. He had an odd loneliness about him that made him seem very vulnerable. Maybe that's why Joan was attracted to him. I wondered what I looked like though, to distract him from her. If I'd been brave enough to face the ladies room, I would have investigated.

I filed quite a bit of information away that evening. Bambi and Joan were best friends who'd been matched up with Quinn and Ryan, using the computer Ryan had access to at his job...something in the computer field, but I hadn't caught what. The men had been close friends ever since high school, when Ryan saved Quinn's butt by tutoring him when he was failing in Math and about to be kicked off the football team. I--Bambi--was an eighth grade teacher and it was summer vacation, hallelujah. Not bad for a couple of hours work.

It took twenty minutes and an excuse of a migraine that became reality, before I managed to convince Quinn to say goodbye at the door with only a kiss on the cheek.

How did Sam manage all those leaps?!

 

XXX

 

After taking a shower and slipping into a welcomed pair of sweat pants and over-sized man's shirt with paint stains, I climbed into bed and turned out the light. The soft quiet felt good, as I relaxed and contemplated my situation. I'd found out my full name was Bambi Wyler, I was twenty-six and lived in Darien, Connecticut. It was August 9, 1985.

Last night was Sam's birthday...

I wondered where he was and what he was doing, prayed to God he was okay. Memories of some of the birthdays he'd shared with me kept me company in the darkness, making me feel closer to him. I hoped he could sense my presence, even though I wasn't with him, and take comfort in that as I was.

The phone rang, cutting into my private time. When I said hello my mood must have been evident, because the voice on the other end of the receiver was hesitant.

"Bambi? Did I call at a bad time?"

I recognized it as Ryan's voice. No need to take it out on him, he had his own problems. "Nah. What can I do for you?"

"You weren't asleep, or...were you?"

"No, I wasn't asleep, or," I told him haughtily.

"I'm sorry to bother you, but I've got this problem, and..."

"What's wrong?" I prompted when he didn't continue.

"I broke up with Joan tonight."

"I'm sorry." But not surprised.

"You're her best friend, I was hoping you could help..."

"I may be her best friend, but there couldn't possibly be two more different people."

"That's for sure." He laughed a little.

I wondered if Ryan had noticed any abrupt change in Bambi's personality. Maybe I wasn't as adaptable as Sam, I found it hard to be anything but myself. Especially when I had no idea what Bambi was like.

Then I wondered if this phone call had something to do with why I was in the leap. To get them back together? To keep them apart?

"Can I ask you a question, Ryan? Why do you want her back? She's really not your type. I don't mean anything by it, just seems you'd be happier with someone a little more...subdued."

"That's what I've been wondering..."

I heard the uncertainty in his voice. Poor guy, I knew the type. Easy prey for a manipulative woman like Joan. She'd eat him alive. She belonged with guys...well, guys like me. Who would handle her.

Unfortunately, I wasn't in any position to handle her at the moment.

And there I was, letting my own personal opinions lead me. I guess, like Sam, I had to just follow my instincts and hope for the best.

Wasn't there supposed to be someone else here, providing me with information?

"I'm...kind of confused right now," Ryan mumbled.

That makes two of us, I almost said. "What do you feel, in your heart?"

He was silent for a long while. "I probably shouldn't...I mean, I should at least give it a try. It's not her fault I'm not...wasn't as responsive last night as she wanted."

"Maybe it was. Sometimes a woman doesn't realize that coming on too strong can intimidate a guy."

"It's not...that, exactly," he sighed.

"Then what's the problem?"

"I don't want to talk about that," he said suddenly. "I just wish you'd help me think of a way to get her back."

"This could take awhile," I warned him.

"I don't mind, if you don't. I kind of...feel like having someone to talk to tonight. Someone like you."

I admit, that's when I started to suspect. I wondered if he really wanted help thinking of ways to get her back, or just an excuse to stay on the phone with me.

We talked for a long time, and it was the easiest conversation I've ever had with a stranger. We discussed how he could handle his problem with Joan, and I gave him the straight dope. It might have sounded strange, advice like that coming from a woman, but he had a right to know.

I woke up somewhere near dawn, the receiver making a permanent crater in the side of my face and the soft, distant sound of snoring in my ear.

It was, in retrospect, slightly embarrassing.

 

XXX

 

Ryan had a crush on me--Bambi--me?--Ryan had a crush on one of us. I wasn't sure which, but in a crazy way it was kind of flattering. The only question was what to do about it. I really liked him, he was a nice guy and all, in another reality we could have been buddies. But I wasn't too sure I wanted to lead him on romantically...even if that was the reason for the leap. I had enough trouble keeping Quinn-boy at bay for the next couple of days.

For that very reason, I turned down all of Ryan's bids to go for a cup of coffee together and limited our interaction to phone calls only. Much the same way I was doing with Quinn, and that was just fine with me.

Except it probably wouldn't get the leap done and me out of there. And the quicker I got out, the sooner I might find Sam.

For that reason, I reluctantly accepted when Quinn asked me to go to the single's dance with him.

 

XXX

 

The place was a little over-decorated, gaudy even. The men were milling about like hungry sharks; the women looking over the available men like hawks choosing the best worm. Each looking for different things, but in the same place. And that's the mystery of why the sexes don't get along.

And speaking of not getting along...

It hadn't been a pleasant evening so far. Quinn had been picking at me ever since we left my apartment, little things that masked his real gripe. I guess he was expecting me to nag him about it, that's what a woman would have done, but I just ignored his barbs, perfectly comfortable with the atmosphere. The alternative would have been two lovers getting along.

Finally, Quinn got disgusted enough with my indifference. "Okay, what's going on, Bambi?" he asked as we sat at our table with glasses of punch in front of us.

"Going on?" I asked, smiling inwardly at the coy tone of my voice.

"You don't even care that I'm pissed at you. It's true, isn't it? There's something going on between you and Ryan?"

I almost choked on my drink again. "What makes you think that?"

"Don't get funny with me. I've heard the rumors."

"What rumors?" I sputtered. The only people who knew about our contact were Ryan and me...unless he let my name slip when talking to Joan. Who of course would run right out and consult Quinn about it.

"First off, Ryan and I are just friends. Second, you and I have only been dating for four months, and I think that's way too soon to get serious. Third--"

"Third," Quinn interrupted, "I have to fight for you, huh?" He grabbed my hand and led me onto the dance floor. I was wrapped in a solid embrace and whirled around the floor. It was a weird feeling, I can tell you.

The inevitable was upon me, and I guess, leap-wise, it was how it should be. I only hoped I'd survive it with my dignity--and everything else--in tact.

Sinatra had just started singing Strangers In The Night, when Ryan walked in the door, looking quite dashing in a white-on-white suit and holding a red rose in his hand. The way his face lit up when he saw me said it all. I knew that look. Determined, a man who'd made up his mind what he wanted and was going to do something about it.

Moments later, Ryan was tapping Quinn on the shoulder. "May I cut in?"

Quinn turned, looking like he wanted to cut something, all right. For a moment I thought he was going to rebel, but he just glared at both of us and stalked off.

"They're playing our song," Ryan said, beaming at me as Frankie sang.

Strangers in the night, exchanging glances, wondering in the night, what were the chances... Ryan held out the rose, and I took it. "No thorns," he added meaningfully.

I studied the rose. "What'd you do, peel them all off one by one?"

"Someone as terrific as you shouldn't have any thorns in your life."

I was absurdly touched. In some way...maybe some way I didn't want to examine too closely, he was getting under my skin. "You have this insidious way about you..."

Little did we know love was just a glance away, a warm embracing dance away...

Ryan grinned as if it was the highest compliment. "I'm glad you didn't mind me cutting in like that. I think about you at night," he said softly. He might be a tad shy, but give him the right woman, and he'd be dangerous.

Was Bambi the right woman?

"I don't mind," I said, and found myself smiling back.

Ever since that night, we've been together, lovers at first sight, in love forever...

"In that case," he held out his arms. "May I have this dance?"

When we touched, it was like a jolt of electricity. And I don't mean the sexual kind...as Ryan transformed before my unbelieving eyes... into Sam. We stared at each other in total shock.

Sam, all the time, it was Sam...

Then, before I had a chance to say anything, his eyes widened and he bolted out of my arms and into the men's room. Where for once, I couldn't follow him.

Do be, do be, do.

With nothing else to do, I wandered back to the table to wait, and hope that Sam would eventually join me. I don't know why, but I couldn't help smiling a little at the crazy situation. I could sympathize with Sam, too. I remembered how I felt during his leap as Samantha...and I'd known it was Sam. This had to be quite a shock for the poor guy. Me, I was too relieved that I'd found him to care about anything else.

It took Sam awhile, but he finally emerged from the bathroom and came over to me, looking very red-faced. It took all my will power not to crack a grin. I was determined to take it easy on him for once.

The first thing he did was grab my drink off the table and down it in one gulp.

He was really trying my self-restraint... "It's only fruit juice," I warned, but too late. He grimaced slightly. "Maybe we should go somewhere private and talk?" I suggested. Sam nodded, and I followed him outside.

We didn't talk until we were sitting in Ryan's car. "What are you doing here?" Sam finally asked, staring straight ahead.

"Looking for you, what else?"

"How'd you get here, use the Accelerator?" he asked.

"I don't really know. I think I've got a bad case of Swiss-cheesing I don't seem to remember much, except that I was looking for you. Whether we couldn't lock on to you, or I couldn't contact you through the Imaging Chamber for some reason, I don't know."

"It's just another leap to me. Except that you weren't here as a hologram, and somehow...I thought maybe you wouldn't be back." Sam's voice broke slightly at the end.

"Was I there for the leap before this one?"

Sam shook his head. "I don't experience time the way you do. They aren't in any order for me, they just are. I don't remember any others that you weren't in as a hologram, though."

"That's what was missing," I realized. "How long have you been in this leap?"

"Eight days." Which meant he'd leaped in three days before I did.

He wasn't talking much, besides answering my questions. "Look Sam," I began. "Don't get all bent out of shape about what happened earlier. You thought you were dealing with a beautiful woman. It's okay, I understand."

"Do you know why we're in the leap?" he interrupted.

Oh boy... "Ah...not really, no. I thought it might have to do with...Ryan and Bambi...but I guess not," I added quickly.

"Then all we can do is keep plugging around and hope we figure it out," he said, sounding bleak.

I'd been so worried--and so determined to find Sam, it hadn't registered until now. "We have to figure it out!" I told him. "I'm not spending the rest of my life as a chick, named Bambi!"

For the first time Sam smiled slightly, glancing at me. "Cosmic justice."

"I don't like this leap," I pronounced. "I better not have screwed things up by getting Quinn mad at me. Because if I have to get him and Bambi back together..."

"It was my fault," Sam said, low.

"Not entirely."

"I'm tired," he announced suddenly. "We can't do anything more tonight, and I want to go to bed. I'll call you in the morning and we can talk."

I could also read what he wasn't saying. He wanted some time alone. "You're gonna have to give me a ride home, my date dumped me," I told him with a smile to ease the tension.

"Sure," he agreed, but didn't say anything else.

"I'm glad I found you," I tried to coax him out.

To that, he didn't reply at all.

 

XXX

 

I got ready for bed, glad to be out of that dress, and especially those heels. Sam was right though, leaping into a woman gave a guy a new perspective on the situation. Especially when his best friend was hitting on him.

I walked over to the vanity, my eyes falling on the vase with the single red rose Sam had presented me--Bambi with. I reached out and cupped my hands around it gently, remembering his eager, shy face when he'd given it to me.

"S'crazy," I muttered, heading for the bed. I was actually feeling kind of sorry that I'd disappointed Sam.

Ah well, he'll get over it, I thought to myself, getting into bed and pulling the blankets up around me. Drove you around the bend for awhile, didn't it? a little voice said to me.

"Oh--shut up!" I yelled aloud to the gremlin, turned over and punched the pillow, closing my eyes resolutely.

 

XXX

 

I didn't hear from Sam until early the next evening. We went to the diner for dinner, discussing our different experiences with other people and trying to come up with a reason for the leap. I'd hoped he would have gotten over it, but he was still reticent and distant. Every time I tried to gently sway the topic in that general direction, he promptly yanked it back. I knew we had to have a long talk eventually, and planned on making it later that night at some private location.

We were halfway through dinner when a young couple joined us, who obviously knew Bambi and Ryan. Uninvited, I might add. Maybe they'd heard the rumor and wanted to find out for themselves if it was true.

It wasn't exactly a welcome interruption, but they didn't seem to notice. Just chattered away about various friends we had in common and what they were doing.

I was just about to excuse the two of us and escape, when I was head off at the pass. Quinn walked in the door, saw us, and made a bee-line over to our table.

"My, my, don't you two look cozy," he snarled, glaring at Sam. Sam just continued eating his California burger. "You stole my girl, the least you can do is look at me, you coward!"

The other two watched, fascinated.

Sam looked up, and I didn't like the expression in his eyes. He was a master of martial arts, true, but when his emotions were involved, he tended to fight with them instead of his brain. And Quinn was built like a bulldozer.

"Cool it, Quinn," I begged. "We're just having dinner. Why don't you sit down, and we can talk this out?"

"There's nothing to talk about, you're his girl now, I can see that plain. What I want to know is he gonna show some guts for once in his life?"

"Just sit down--"

"I asked you a question," he said, shoving Sam in the shoulder. "Do you have the guts to kiss her right in front of me, or do we step outside right now?"

"Quinn--" I said ineffectually as things spiraled out of my control.

"C'mon, wimp, what's it gonna be?"

Sam was about to go outside and get his face bashed in. So I kissed him. Oh god, did I kiss him... The minute our lips touched it was like liquid fire running through our veins. We pulled each other closer, mouths almost but not quite open. I think that was when we both realized what was happening--and how fast--and broke away.

Sam immediately found his french fries worthy of intense interest, and Quinn turned and walked out of the diner without another word.

My head was still spinning. The kiss had been incredible. Suddenly, looking at him, I realized something I was amazed I hadn't figured out before. After all this time of looking... So silly, not to have seen it before.

The other girl, Tammy, patted my hand. "You two look so cute together anyway, better than you and Quinn did." Sam kept his head firmly in his hamburger.

"I think so," I boldly agreed.

"I'm not very hungry," Sam said, putting the burger down.

"Me, either. Take me home, Ryan."

Sam nodded and got up, still not looking at me.

 

XXX

 

Once we were outside, I suggested we take a walk through the park. To my surprise, Sam agreed. We strolled along in silence for awhile, me feeling wildly elated and terrified.

I followed Sam as he wandered over to a set of swings and sat next to him. Finally, he spoke. "That was pretty horrible."

"Coulda been worse," I said. "I could have had to kiss Quinn."

"Not your type, huh?" Sam tried to joke.

"No, as a matter of fact, he wasn't." Sam looked so pathetic, and cute...and my pants were still tight from that kiss. I wanted to grab him by the hand and drag him into the bushes. But I knew I had to handle this one carefully. I reached over and put a hand on his thigh.

Sam abruptly fell backwards off the swing.

A smile tugged at the corner of my mouth, until I saw that he was okay. Then, I couldn't help it. I started laughing. At the whole situation, and both of us.

Sam got up angrily, misinterpreting my response and started to stalk away. I grabbed him by the arm and jerked him around.

"Geniuses can be so dense," I muttered. And pulled his head down and kissed him. He didn't resist long--hell, he didn't resist at all. He melted into the kiss almost immediately. This time, our mouths did open for each other. The feel of his tongue sent shivers of pleasure through me.

"Al..." Sam whispered emotionally when we parted for air.

"We gotta do something about this situation," I told him.

"What are you saying?" he asked, fearful even after the kiss we'd shared, that he'd read me wrong.

"I'm saying I love you, Sam Beckett," I said loudly, a sense of freedom seizing me. I took his hand and pulled him towards the bushes after all.

He followed willingly. Once there, we wrapped our arms around each other and fell into another kiss. Somehow sliding to the ground in the process.

"How long has this been going on?" Sam asked while we were divesting each other of some of our clothing. In an insecure tone, still needing reassurance.

"A long time," I admitted with a sigh.

"I hate girls who play hard to get," he countered wickedly.

For that, I bit the part of him closest to my mouth. His neck. He moaned, throwing his head back for more.

I liked it, what I was doing to him and his response. I pulled him down on top of me and we rolled around together. Having his big, solid body covering mine was just perfect, thank you. So was the orgasm which jolted through me a few minutes later, seconds after he'd sobbed my name and came all over me.

"Who the hell am I?" I asked with genuine amazement when I could breathe again.

Sam looked at me with that devastating look of his. "You're the man who loves me," he said quietly.

"Oh," I answered. "That's right, I am." He looked so happy. I'd put that look on his face. Satisfaction didn't begin to cover it. After watching him get hurt time and time again, I'd found my ability to really do something about it.

"I'll never hurt you," I told him solemnly, drawing him near for another kiss.

"I know," he said and the simple words were so full of certainty they choked me up.

I'm a man of few words, so I just kissed him again.

 

XXX

 

“I guess I owe you some explanations,” Sam told me a little while later.

“Only if you want,” I said. I was too happy, about having found him, about our finally admitting our feelings for each other, to really concern myself with water under the bridge. Especially when we had no idea how long we'd have together... or what would happen when the leap was through.

“I was really angry with you when I found out,” Sam admitted, and I could tell he was ashamed of that. “I felt... I thought I was in love with Bambi and you'd taken that away from me.”

“It wasn't Bambi,” I said gently. He had to know that now. It was our bond with each other the whole time, even when we didn't know it.

“Yes,” Sam said. It looked at me intently. “It was you. Always you.”

 

XXX

 

After we got dressed again we walked together, enjoying each other like two kids without a care in the world. Leap or no leap, it just was just us.

Without warning, we had a very unexpected visitor. Gooshie suddenly appeared in front of us. We both jumped back, startled, then looked at each other.

"Sorry it took me so long to get here," Gooshie explained. "We were having some technical difficulties, and Ziggy also had to fine tune the hologram projection so that both of you could get a clear reception. But no matter, you completed the leap without Ziggy--which she isn't at all pleased about."

"We did?" I asked, wondering how much Gooshie knew about the situation.

"You were here to get a couple named Ryan and Bambi together. Apparently you did, because they get married, have two kids and live happily ever after."

"That's great," I said beaming at Sam

"They aren't the only ones," Sam said, very low.

"You should be leaping any time, fellas."

Sam turned to me, life and mischief twinkling in his eyes. "Come leap with me, Al?"

He had to ask? As I felt the leap effect starting, he reached out and I took his hand.

And we leaped. Together.

 

the end

8/11/93