DISCLAIMER: These characters belong to Ryan Murphy and the WB. No infringement is intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many thanks to Redlance for being my angst guinea pig. To report unnecessary Sam abuse, dial 1-866-POORSAM...that number again is 1-866-POORSAM.
CONTINUITY: This is next in line after 'How Lily Found Out, Parts I & II', 'Her Favorite Fantasy', 'Christmas, 2:33pm', and 'Christmas at the Palace'.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Afterglow, 11:57pm
By Quatorz


The last guests had left The Palace, and all that remained was to tidy up the mess of what was-on the surface-a completely successful holiday get-together.

But there were different kinds of messes. The cups, plates and wrapping paper-that was the easy part. Lily-who'd departed without saying goodbye-had upended Pandora's Box all over the kitchen floor, and she and Sam were left to deal with the consequences.

Brooke was glad it was over. The argument with Lily left her emotionally drained and in no mood to be festive. Sam had returned a few minutes later, and did her best to mingle with their friends. But Brooke knew her well enough by now to know her heart just wasn't in it.

During the night Sam chanced little glances her way, but Brooke avoided her gaze. She finally came face to face with the brunette as she entered the kitchen and almost ran right into her. Sam cocked an eyebrow and smiled at her in a way that softened her brown eyes and warmed Brooke's heart.

But she remembered what Lily had said, and knew Sam was testing her, to gauge if Lily was telling the truth. Lily warned that Brooke's feelings were obvious in the way she looked at Sam, and Brooke was terrified of what she might unconsciously reveal.

"I think we're out of chips, Spam."

The effect was instantaneous. Sam's expression barely changed, but Brooke could see the damage she'd done-the hurt visible behind those beautiful brown eyes.

Sam avoided eye contact for the rest of the night, and she felt bereft over the loss.

Gone was the openness and the trust that had developed between them and that she'd come to rely on over the last few months.

That she cherished.

She had no one to blame but herself. She'd hurt Sam intentionally-but was too afraid she might betray her feelings. She'd hid behind her cowardice because that's what came naturally. She couldn't expose herself to being hurt-her mother had taught her that lesson over and over again.

People who claimed to love you naturally disappointed you.

So the two of them went through the motions of saying good-bye and performing their duties as hostesses, all the while their hearts were breaking for different reasons.

After the clean-up Sam disappeared. Brooke officially wandered the house aimlessly while surreptitiously searching for her.

She found the brunette in the dining room looking through an assortment of family photos. Brooke knew Sam's father was represented amongst the gallery, and she had a good idea whose picture Sam held in her hand.

Brooke remembered meeting Mr. McPherson earlier that day (God, was that really today?) and experienced a twinge of guilt. She should apologize to him for how she treated Sam. Of course, if she could ever get the courage, maybe she should apologize to Sam first...

The brunette replaced the picture on the shelf, and fixed Brooke with an unreadable expression. "I was just heading up to bed," she said-and looked like she had more to say but struggled to articulate it.

"Merry Christmas, Brooke," she finally added. And Brooke heard in her voice the regret for everything that could have been but wasn't.

Sam was walking away, and-terrified as she was-she couldn't let tonight end like this. "I heard you and Lily," she blurted out. She hadn't planned to reveal that-simply wanting to say something-anything-that would make Sam come back. "I was eavesdropping," she admitted.

Sam froze in place, and Brooke could see her shoulders tense.

"I know, Sam," Brooke continued. "I know how you feel-about me."

Sam turned slowly, at a loss for what to say. "Brooke--"

From the radio came the string arrangement heralding her favorite Christmas song-the Nat King Cole classic that bore that simple title.

"Dance with me, Sammy," she smiled.

The brunette took tentative steps to meet her, her expression wavering between hope, longing and apprehension. Shimmering cymbals, the strum of the low bass and Nat King Cole's melodic voice crooned as she took Sam's hand in her own. Arms wrapped around each other, and they stepped together.

It burned in the nicest way where their hands met, and their bodies touched. It took only a few hesitant dance steps for the barriers between them to melt completely, and Brooke felt herself falling into Sam-and vice versa. Sam's body pressed against hers felt like nothing else in the world ever had. She laid her cheek against Sam's hair and closed her eyes as they swayed in tandem. At that moment, she honestly couldn't tell where Sam ended and she began.

God, it was heaven. It was all of the little touches magnified a thousand fold, and she instinctively shut off the part of her brain that would ruin it by overanalyzing her reaction-trying to attribute a meaning to it or rationalize it or come up with a label for it.

She just wanted to feel this: to know this euphoria even once in her life-if only for a song. She could think about what it all meant later. Just give them this one--

"Oh God!" The brunette stiffened in her arms.

"Sam?" What had happened?

"This is it, isn't it...?" Sam's voice was barely a whisper. "All I'll ever have is this one dance?" She looked at Brooke beseechingly, daring-begging-the blonde to contradict her.

She couldn't. Brooke turned away-the look in Sam's eyes was too intense.

Sam separated herself even though it appeared to cause her physical pain. It did to Brooke-it rent her heart in half.

"All because I can't be what society says I should be. I can't ever be your Josh Ford."

"Harrison said something stupid to that effect once," Brooke huffed. The brunette had hit a nerve. "Why would you want to be Josh Ford? Then we'd have broken up for good a year and a half ago-and there'd be no chance for us. Josh wasn't the one-neither was Harrison.

"Just be Sam McPherson..."

"Is that enough for you?" Sam asked, and Brooke knew what that cost her: what she was laying on the line.


"I don't know," she replied instead.

"What do you mean 'you don't know'?" Sam pleaded. Brooke could hear the agony in her voice.

"I mean--" she faltered, searching for the right words. "I-I don't know what I mean. You told Lily that you began to suspect last year that you might be..."

"Gay?" Sam challenged.

"Yes, Sam, gay," Brooke spat back. "Don't throw it in my face like I'm afraid of it! But it takes time. You've had months to come to terms with it. This is new for me, Sammy."

Sam glanced at the picture gallery, and Brooke could see the lamplight reflected in her watering eyes.

"Do you know you're the only person who calls me that?" Sam related. "And you say it in a way that makes me feel so special-like I mean so much to you." The brunette wiped tears from her cheek.

"You say it like I belong to you. Like we've been together forever, like we're old and gray and we've spent a lifetime together-and I still love you like the day I laid eyes on you.

"And it kills me inside because I'll let it--" the brunette's voice shook. "I'll let that one little word fool me into thinking that it might possibly come true."

She looked at Brooke, and there was something resolute in her eyes. "I can't convince you-reason with you-to love me. Either you do or you don't. But I think that no matter what your heart tells you your head won't listen...

"I love you, Brooke," she smiled through her tears. "There: I can say I said it-at least once." She shook her head. "But I can't live like this anymore. It's tearing me apart."

"Sammy--" Brooke reached out, and regretted it immediately when Sam flinched.

"Please don't!" she pleaded. "I don't want your pity, Brooke.

"Just..." the brunette was fighting to hold it all together. "Just go, Brooke!" Sam's voice broke, and Brooke saw her tears splashing on the shelf where sat the captured memories of happier times.

And Brooke did the only thing she knew how to do:

Hating herself more than she ever thought possible, she turned away-leaving the person who meant the most to her in the entire world to shatter into a million pieces...

The End

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