DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular are not mine. They belong to whomever. Although I think it's public domain, the title is taken from Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.
SERIES: Fourth story in the 'An Ever Fixed Mark' series, following Here's Where I Stand, The Mercy of the Fallen and And So this is Christmas.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

An Ever Fixed Mark
By Green Quarter


Part 1

Sam lifted her head from the pillow and looked past Brooke to the red LED display on the clock on the bedside table. Still ten minutes before their day officially began and Brooke had to get up. After a brief internal debate, Sam reached over, turned off the alarm and quietly slid out of bed, saying goodbye to those last ten minutes. She pulled on the jean shorts and sleeveless t-shirt that were lying on the floor near the bed and padded through the apartment out to the tiny galley kitchen where she removed a bag of coffee grounds from the freezer. While waiting on the percolating coffee, Sam leaned against the sink and ran through her mental to-do list, there was a lot to get done today.

She brought a steaming mug into the bedroom and knelt down on the floor next to Brooke's sleeping form, holding the cup out towards her and waiting for the aroma of the freshly brewed beverage to do the alarm clock's job. She didn't have to wait long. Brooke's lips twisted into a grin and her eyes opened, and Sam was struck, as she was every morning, by the natural beauty of the sleepy woman before her.

"So much nicer than the alarm clock," Brooke said as she stretched and sat up, then took the mug from Sam. Sam leaned in and kissed her. "And that was even more nicer."

Sam smiled at Brooke's early morning grammar issues. "I'll be back in ten," she rocked back on her heels and stood up.

"'Kay," Brooke nodded and hid a yawn behind her hand.

Sam shoved her feet into flip-flops and grabbed a few dollars and her keys and was out the door in a minute. As she walked down the hallway, she could hear the Today show blaring through the door of Mrs. Paradisi's apartment, and thought she heard the woman reading the horoscopes out loud, probably to her Pomeranian, Checkers, since it was way too early for company.

Out on the street, the sun shone brightly even at this early hour, indicating that it would be another hot one in Manhattan today. Sam loved her West Village neighborhood at this early morning hour, when all the garbage had been magically removed during the night, and the streets were scrubbed clean, and the day was filled with promise. To her, Morton Street was an oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic and at times, unforgiving city, and she felt lucky to have landed here in this place at this moment in her life. The nine months she had spent in New York City with Brooke had been among the happiest she had ever known. She had spent several years up until this point as a modern-day nomad, rootless and searching the world over for what she had finally found with Brooke. Now was about the time that her old self would be getting itchy feet and checking airfares for her next destination, but she didn't think there was a reason in existence that would compel her to leave New York. Brooke was the star to her wandering bark.

At the corner she stopped at the newsstand and bought the paper, then continued on to the bagel place for some breakfast provisions. She turned back towards home and made a mental note to confirm their rental car for Monday, which then led to a slew of other things she had to remember to do before they left the city.

She heard the shower running as she entered the apartment, and Brooke doing her best Robert Smith impersonation, "Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick, the one that makes me scream she said…" An oldy but goody, Sam smiled; Brooke must be in a very good mood. She had only heard singing in the shower a few times since she came to live here, and couldn't remember any singing back when they lived together as teenagers.

She slathered cream cheese on a bagel and set it on a plate on the small café table that served as their dinette set. Brooke had purchased the table and two wrought iron chairs for next to nothing from the French bistro down the street when it went out of business, and they were just the right size and scale for the square-footage-challenged apartment. Sam went into the bedroom and retrieved Brooke's coffee cup and topped it off, while pouring some for herself. She set the cups on the table, then sat down and opened the paper.

Moments later, Sam watched Brooke from over her newspaper as she emerged from the bathroom in a terry cloth robe and a towel wrapped around her hair. Brooke smiled when she saw that Sam had returned and was sitting at the table. Sam lowered the paper as Brooke came and sat down in front of the bagel and took a bite. Brooke picked up her coffee cup, then grinned at Sam like a loon. "Someone's in a good mood today," Sam said, returning her grin.

Brooke's eyes sparkled. "Only five more hours and I'm free for two weeks!"

"But you still have those meetings on Monday and Tuesday."

Brooke groaned. "Don't remind me," she monotoned, then she brightened. "At least I'll be out of the office, and we'll be out of the city. I can't wait."

Sam looked at Brooke's mouth, where a little smear of Cream Cheese was clinging to her upper lip. "You have a little something there on your lip, let me take care of that for you," she said, and swiftly pressed her lips against Brooke's and used her tongue to remove all traces of cream cheese from the vicinity.

"All gone?' Brooke asked huskily after a few moments.

"Yup," Sam replied, not moving away from Brooke. She inhaled the soap and shampoo smell that enveloped her, "You smell good. All fresh and clean."

"You smell better," Brooke said with a leer, "I can smell myself on you."

Sam blushed, but also felt a surge of heat between her legs. That was all it took.

"Much as I'd like to continue playing "101 ways to make Sammy blush," I can't," Brooke sighed. "The sooner I get to work, the sooner I can come home, and then, maybe..." Brooke wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

"You know there is nothing I would like better, but have you forgotten about the 'rents and Mac?" Sam asked as she moved out of Brooke's very tempting locus.

Brooke's smile faltered a little bit. "No, I haven't forgotten, just wishful thinking, I guess. What time are they due to arrive?"

"They should be here around four."

"Right," Brooke nodded. "I have to change," she said, and got up from the table.

Shortly after that, the hair dryer went on, and Sam knew that Brooke was almost ready. This vacation was sorely needed. Brooke was working incredibly long hours lately. The bank had promoted her and she was now working in a new department that she didn't like so much. So besides all the work she had to do there was also the pressure of learning her new role while on the job.

Sam wished she could find a job where she and Brooke worked the same hours, which would leave them more free time together, but the restaurant where she worked as a server provided a good steady income while she looked for other opportunities. The job market was tight, and a position that involved any kind of editorial work was scarcer still, so Sam used the free time not devoted to seeking employment to working on a travel memoir that hadn't a hope in hell of being published. At least she was writing. She knew this was temporary, and she wouldn't be a waitress forever, but snatching only brief snippets of time with Brooke every few days like ships passing in the night was not what she wanted for them. Sam promised herself that she would redouble her efforts to find a real job when they returned from vacation.

Brooke breezed back into the room looking like summer. She wore pink gingham Capri pants and a short-sleeved white linen top, and a pair of white strappy sandals. Casual Friday was her favorite day of the week. Sam watched her gather her stuff together and head towards the door. Then she stopped and turned around, coming towards Sam and smacking her lips on Sam's cheek. "See you later," she said a bit distractedly, already in work mode, and turned back towards the door.


Brooke looked back as she opened the door to go. Sam picked up her coffee spoon and held it aloft in a wordless declaration. Brooke smiled and was momentarily back with Sam, not preoccupied by a million other things. She blew Sam a kiss before closing the door behind her.

Sam sighed and set to putting her mental to-do list on an actual piece of paper.

Brooke stood on the subway, holding onto a railing, crammed between some sweaty tourists and a Verizon repairman, who appeared to be sleeping standing up. The heat on the train was like a physical presence, and Brooke felt limp and deflated. The thought of getting out of the city was all that was keeping her sane this week. She had accomplished everything she needed to do at the bank, where she worked as a financial analyst in mergers and acquisitions. It was only a little after two in the afternoon, but it looked like the whole world was escaping work early on this beautiful June Friday, and it might as well have been rush hour. She should have been happy that she had tied up all her loose ends and was free to enjoy her vacation, but her family's impending visit was weighing on her mind.

Although she and Sam had been together for a while now, they had not told their family about their relationship. They hadn't felt comfortable with making an announcement at Christmas, when they had gone back to California for a short visit, and it had been easy to ignore the issue when they were so far away here in New York. Neither Brooke nor Sam had a clue what Mike and Jane's reaction would be, although the parents had congratulated Brooke on getting Sam to hang around the States for an extended period of time. As far as they knew, Manhattan was just another stop on Sam's tour of the world.

Brooke and Sam had agreed that they needed to take care of this while the family was in town this weekend. Mike and Jane would only be in the city for the weekend, their sole purpose in coming was to drop off Mac, who would be joining Brooke and Sam on their vacation. The parents would then continue on, leaving on Sunday for a Mediterranean cruise.

Their flight got in this afternoon, and they would only stop to check into their hotel before coming to see the apartment for the first time, and Jane had made reservations for the whole family at a nearby restaurant she wanted to try. Tomorrow Mike had planned a circle line tour, a trip to the theater and more family fun time. Brooke didn't know when her father had turned into Clark Griswold, she was just glad she didn't have to endure his manic spurts of forced familial togetherness very often. She did feel sorry for Mac, though. It had been her idea to offer Mac the choice between joining her parents' "Treasures of the Mediterranean" extravaganza and spending quality time with her sisters. It was no contest, as Brooke well knew. Mac idolized Sam and would jump at the chance to spend ten minutes with her, much less two weeks. So everyone was happy. Her father and Jane were happy that they wouldn't have to drag a truculent tween across Europe, Mac was happy that she wouldn't be subjected to two weeks of Greek ruins and renaissance architecture, and she and Sam were happy that they had two unadulterated weeks to spend in each other's company. Well, nearly two weeks. Brooke had been unable to reschedule some meetings with a client in Boston, so Sam had come up with the idea of getting a place on Cape Cod so that Brooke could easily join her and Mac once she was done.

When the train came to her stop, she neatly sidestepped the tourists, and climbed the stairs to the street, where the air was noticeably a few degrees cooler. Everything was going to be fine. Her dad and Jane loved her, and they loved Sam. What could possibly be wrong with her and Sam loving each other? Only the social stigma, the lesbian issue, the perceived incestuous-ness of the thing, etcetera, she listed grimly in her mind. Brooke had been over and over it, and had even considered therapy to help her see her way clearly through all the societal junk that attached itself to her feelings for Sam. She had told Sam from the very beginning that she would need help overcoming her own prejudices and hang-ups, and Sam had been very supportive, being available and willing to listen whenever Brooke needed her. Sam assured her that she had done a lot of thinking about many of the same things, most of it done the summer after they graduated high school, when she realized not only that she was gay but also that she had feelings for her stepsister. Brooke marveled at the emotional maturity Sam had shown at such a young age, and wondered what it said about herself, that she had ignored and fought her inclinations for so long. Sam refused to let her beat herself up about it, and although she was still taking baby steps out of the closet, Brooke could honestly say that she was adjusting pretty well to her new life.

But the telling the parents thing was huge. Brooke knew that Jane was used to all kinds of outrageous behavior from Sam, and her stepmother had taken all of Sam's decisions in stride, with graceful aplomb, but her dad was another story, and she was seriously worried about his reaction. She and Sam would just have to come up with a way to tell them that would minimize the freakout factor, she thought as she mounted the steps to her building.

When she entered the apartment, she could immediately tell Sam had been a busy girl while she was gone. The place was spotless. It looked as if Sam had wiped everything down with a whiteboard eraser, lifting a layer of grime that Brooke hadn't even been aware of. The kitchen floor had never looked that clean. Brooke was stunned, and a little surprised that she hadn't known that Sam was so house proud. They had both done their share of cleaning and tidying up, but this was far beyond that. Just then the door opened and Sam appeared with arms full of shopping bags and fresh flowers.

"Sam! This place didn't look this good when I moved in. You've done an amazing job."

"It cleans up nice, doesn't it?" Sam was pleased with her reaction. She put the flowers in the sink and started taking things out of her shopping bags. "I never really had a place of my own to clean, you know? And I couldn't let my mad chamber maid skillz go to waste, could I?"

"No, I guess not," Brooke laughed. "Well, what can I do to help?'

"You want to handle the flowers?" Sam asked. "I'll do food prep."

While they were busy at their tasks, Brooke brought up strategy for the announcement. "So, how do you think we should go about telling them?"

Sam reached into a bag and pulled out a bottle. "This is your dad's favorite Scotch, right? I got plenty of wine for my mom, too. I figured we'll just get them so liquored up they'll be beyond caring." Sam laughed uneasily.

Sam was nervous about it too, Brooke realized.

"No, seriously," Sam continued, "I think we should just wait for a natural opening in the conversation and take it from there. What do you think?"

"That sounds good, but what if there is no natural opening in the conversation?"

Sam stepped up behind Brooke where she was standing at the sink snipping off the stem ends of a bunch of Gerbera daisies. She put her arms around Brooke's waist and said, "Then we'll tell them minutes before they get in the cab to go to the airport." She made a pretend speech. "Mom, Mike, thanks for coming to visit. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed the Lion King and, by the way, you know those t-shirts that say, "I heart NY?" Well I have one too, but it says, "I heart Brooke" on it. Bye! Enjoy the ruins!" She kissed Brooke's neck. "Do you think they'd get it?"

Brooke smiled and leaned back against Sam. It would do no good to worry about something they couldn't control anyway. Sam was right; they should just relax and let it happen naturally. "We should've made t-shirts like that and just answered the door wearing them. Then we wouldn't have to worry about it at all." Brooke felt Sam smile against her neck. They stood like that for a few moments

"Brooke, you know that whatever reaction they have, it's not going to change anything, right?" Sam suddenly turned serious.

Brooke turned around so that she was facing Sam. She reached up and cradled Sam's face in her hands. "Yeah, I know," she said, and kissed Sam tenderly.

Sam reluctantly tried to pull away from Brooke. "That cheese plate won't make itself," she said.

"Oh, who wants cheese, anyway?" Brooke didn't let go of Sam and went in for another kiss, this one having a bit more heat.

"Suddenly, not me," Sam muttered, surrendering to Brooke's assault.

And inevitably, the doorbell chose that moment to buzz.

"Oh God, that's them," Sam jumped at the angry sound of the buzzer. "You go down and get them, and I'll finish these flowers," she said as she pushed Brooke away from her.

Brooke grabbed Sam by the shoulders and looked her in the eye. "Everything is going to be fine. Don't worry. I love you." She gave Sam a kiss on the lips, like a final stamp of approval, and then went to the intercom and said "Hi! I'll be right down." Then she was out the door.

Sam had placed the flowers on the table and was hurriedly finishing the cheese plate when Mac sped through the door left open by Brooke.

"Bathroom?" she asked, urgently.

"Right through that door," Sam pointed. Well, that was a fine greeting for not seeing her younger sister in six months, she thought, chagrined. But she didn't have time to think about it because Brooke was entering with their parents. Jane was carrying a huge purple bow with a philodendron plant attached to it, and Mike had a bottle of champagne. Hugs and greetings were exchanged all around, and the tiny apartment became very crowded.

There was a flurry of activity while Brooke dragged the two dining chairs over towards the sofa so everyone would have a place to sit. Sam fetched drinks for everyone and put the cheese out. Once the hosting duties were accomplished, silence descended on the room.

"Mom, Mike, how was your flight?" Sam asked, trying to fill in the quiet.

"Oh fine," Mike replied, "pretty uneventful." He took a sip of his drink. "It's pretty muggy today, isn't it?"

"Brooke," Jane interrupted, "I love how you've decorated your place. Why don't you give us a tour?"

"Well," Brooke responded, "Pretty much what you see is what you get." She got up and stood to one side. "This, of course, is the living room, and over in that corner is what we call the dining room, the kitchen is through there, the bathroom you can see when it becomes unoccupied by Mac, and the bedroom is here." She motioned behind her to the opened French doors and the small room beyond.

Mike got up and poked his head in the bedroom. Sam saw him sizing up the queen-sized bed and furniture that took up most of the space. "Nice," he said. "Where's Sam's bedroom?"

"Dad, come on! This is Manhattan. A second bedroom would add a thousand dollars to the rent, easily. We couldn't afford that in this neighborhood," Brooke said, a little defensively.

Sam immediately saw where Mike was going with this.

"So where do you sleep, Sam? That couch looks mighty uncomfortable," Mike said nonchalantly.

Sam looked at Brooke. Was this the opening they were looking for? It was so soon. She saw Brooke nod imperceptibly. She took a deep breath. Here goes nothing.

"The couch is uncomfortable, Mike. But I haven't slept on it for months. I sleep in Brooke's bed, with Brooke." Sam looked at her mother's noncommittal face, then Mike's perplexed expression, and decided to push on so there would be no misunderstanding. "We share the same bed because we're in a committed relationship with each other, and I love her very much."

It was immediately following this statement that Mac swung the bathroom door open. "Mom, Dad, you have to see what they have in the bathroom-" She looked at the stunned faces of her parents and the uncomfortable looks on her sisters' faces. "What? What is it?"

Brooke recovered first. "Hey Macky, would you do me a huge favor?" She walked over to the front door and took a small key that was hanging on a hook next to it. "Did you see the mailboxes down in the hallway on the first floor?" Mac nodded. "Would you go get the mail for me? It's box 2F."

Mac took the key from Brooke and then looked back at the rest of the family. "Okay, but please don't say anything important 'til I come back." Then she walked out the door and down the hall.

Brooke went to stand next to Sam, and grasped her hand. "It's true, Dad, Jane. I love Sam, and she loves me. We wanted to tell you at Christmas, but we didn't know how. We still don't. We know it's a lot to take in, and it will take some time to get used to, we just hope you'll accept us and love us like you've always done."

There was silence in the room for a good five minutes.

Mike finally found his voice. "But you're sisters," he said uncomprehendingly.

"No Mike, not really," Jane said. "Officially, we never went through with the adoptions all those years ago, and unofficially, well…" Jane trailed off; everyone knew what she was getting at.

Sam looked at her mother gratefully. She watched as Jane tried to process the information.

"It shouldn't be taking Mac this long to get the mail," Jane then said with a frown on her face.

"I'll go get her," Sam volunteered.


Part 2

Sam found Mac near the bank of mailboxes in the vestibule of the building holding onto a rhinestone-encrusted leash attached to a tiny brindle-colored Pomeranian, who was showing signs of ennui as he sat diffidently on the linoleum. She looked at her ten-year-old sister with affection. The sandy-haired girl looked more like a McQueen than a McPherson, and had sprouted another few inches since Christmas. She was entering that awkward, coltish stage of adolescence, all gangly arms and legs. At the moment Mac was squatting, her arms hugging her knees, as she talked quietly to the dog.

"Hey Mac-attack. I see you've met Checkers," she said with a smile.

Mac looked up, surprised. "Brooke doesn't have any mail," she said shyly.

It broke Sam's heart that Mac was so shy around her for the first few days whenever they were together. It meant that they repeated the "getting to know you" stage every time, and by the time Mac was comfortable, Sam was leaving again. She envied the easy relationship that Brooke had with Mac, but knew she had no one to blame but herself. She had selfishly put her own needs and desires first during Mac's formative years, and was hardly ever around while she grew and rarely took part in her upbringing. And now, the price she paid was barely knowing her sister, and Mac barely knew her. When Sam thought of her younger self, a teenager holding Mac when she was an infant, she would never have guessed that she would feel so far away from her sister ten years later. She wanted to rectify her mistakes, and was determined to be a better sister to Mac.

"That's okay, Brooke might've been popular once, but nobody except the bill collectors really likes her these days," Sam joked.

"I like her," Mac declared indignantly.

"Sorry, bad joke. I like her too," Sam said gently, then directed her attention to the dog. "Well, Checkers, what do you have to say for yourself?" she knelt down next to Mac and patted the listless dog roughly on the head.

"I think he's sick," Mac said worriedly.

"Nah, not Checkers. He's just as lazy as the day is long, and spoiled rotten," Sam replied. "And he's a Sagittarius," she added, as if that explained everything.

Mac giggled at that.

"But don't ever give him Snausages. You don't have any on you, do you?" Sam asked warningly. "Because he can smell 'em from a mile away. He goes crazy for those treats."

"No, I don't have any Snausages," Mac rolled her eyes and looked at Sam like she was an idiot.

Sam tried to keep a straight face. "Well, good. The last guy who tried to give Checkers a Snausage lost his arm up to the elbow. It was so sad," she said regretfully.

Mac looked doubtfully at Checkers' miniature mouth, then up at Sam's grinning face.

"Sam!" Mac protested, but couldn't hide her own matching grin.

"Where's Mrs. Paradisi, anyway?" Sam needed to get back up to the apartment. She didn't want to leave Brooke there alone with the parents for too long.

"The lady whose dog this is?" Mac asked. "She's out there."

"Well, let's give ol' Checkers back before he becomes too attached to you." Sam opened the front door to see a woman of a certain age with hair the same shade as Checkers' fur. A lit cigarette was balanced delicately between two fingers, as she stood there on the stoop in her housecoat, haranguing the super about the sorry state of the recyclables. "Hi, Mrs. P.," she interrupted.

The woman swung around, forgetting all about the super, who saw his chance and scurried away. "Oh hiya, doll," she croaked in a voice obtained only by a lifetime's supply of Kent menthols. "I met your sister." She nodded at Mac, who was leading Checkers out onto the stoop.

"Yeah, she's an International Crime Fighter, just in from Minsk," Sam winked at Mac, as the girl handed the leash back to its owner.

"That's nice, doll," Mrs. P was distracted by Checkers, whose leash was getting tangled.

"She has to be getting back to her busy crime-fighting schedule, so we'll see you later, Mrs. P."

Mac looked up at Sam and grinned.

"Okay, doll. Nice meeting you, dear, thanks for keeping an eye on my Checkers," Mrs. P. waved them away, and looked around for the super.

When they entered the apartment once again, Brooke and her dad were sitting side by side on the sofa, and Jane was collecting her purse.

"Sam, Mike wants to talk to Brooke alone," Jane reported. "Why don't you, Mac, and I go get some air?"

Sam didn't think this was a good idea. She thought they should put up a united front, but when she looked at Brooke she saw that she was fine with it, and was wordlessly pleading with Sam to understand. She nodded at Brooke and picked up her keys.

"Maybe we can see if Checkers wants to get some exercise, Mac," Sam said, as she followed her mom and sister out the door.

As the door closed behind the rest of their family, Brooke tried to gauge her father's reaction. She knew that Sam wanted to discuss this together, to show solidarity, but she thought she owed it to her father to hear what he had to say. He had a sober expression on his face, and his eyes looked a bit glazed, but other than that, he looked pretty calm.

She decided to launch into an offensive before he could get started.

"Dad, before you start talking I just want to say a few things. First of all, Sam did not 'turn' me gay, if that's what you're thinking. She didn't come to New York and put some kind of spell on me. In fact, I was the one who declared my feelings first," she saw her father flinch at this, "and it was the scariest thing I've ever done. Secondly, I didn't enter into this lightly, at all. Every day I think about the implications of our decision, about what it will mean to our family, you and Jane, and Mac, too. But I've never been happier, dad. Isn't that what you want for me?"

She waited for her father to say something.

"Brooke," Mike began, "I've always loved the closeness we had when you were growing up. I felt so lucky to have this great kid in my life, this amazing person who never stopped surprising me, and I love you more than I'll ever be able to tell you. And I know I haven't always been the best father, and things were really rough for us for a while, but we made it through the troubled times, and look at you now. You're this bright, successful, beautiful, charming woman, and I couldn't be more proud of you."

Brooke was warmed by her father's flattering words; however, she sensed there was a 'but' coming.

"But I want you to think very carefully about what you're doing. Lesbianism," he choked out the word as if there hadn't already been one lesbian in the family for years now, "is a very difficult way of life. You'll meet with every kind of discrimination; you'll have to endure people who make judgments on you based purely on that one thing, not to mention the inequality of rights. How can you have a family? What about healthcare? The military?" Mike realized he was straying from the point, and concluded, "It will be a very lonely life, Brooke."

"I'm curious, Dad," Brooke said casually, "did you say all this to Sam when she came out?"

"You know I have a different relationship with her than I do with you." He replied, somewhat defensively. "Jane has always handled anything that had to do with Sam, that's the way both Jane and Sam wanted it. I don't pretend to know why Sam does the things she does, or makes the choices she does, and it was clear from the first that she didn't want my input on her life. I know she loves me in her way, and I love her. I did the best I could with Sam." Mike looked at Brooke. "But you are my daughter, and if you do something that may be harmful to yourself, I feel duty-bound to say something, no matter how old you are."

"Well, it's clear to me, despite what I just said, that you do think that this is Sam's fault," Brooke said coldly.

"I didn't say that, Brooke," Mike's voice rose in agitation.

"But what's okay for Sam isn't good enough for me?" Brooke's voice matched the volume of her father's. "How can you be so hypocritical? This is the woman I love, Dad, and you are making her sound like some skanky dyke who swooped in and hypnotized me, your poor defenseless daughter! Not to mention that she's been living as your daughter for ten years now!"

"Brooke, please, " her father's voice cracked, and he reached up to press his forehead with his fingertips, "I've just had all the hopes I had for you come crashing down around my ears. Please, just…" he closed his eyes and let his head fall back on the sofa. "I think I need a drink."

Brooke was contrite; she didn't know why she always went for the basest way of conveying her point in an argument. Her father suddenly looked very old. She had pushed way too hard. "I'll get it," she got up and went to the kitchen, and reached for the scotch Sam had bought. If she had any hope of salvaging this conversation, she had to try a different approach.

"I don't get it, Brooke," Mike said, as Brooke returned with a good four fingers in a highball glass. "All those boyfriends, you've always had them. Why the sudden change? Why now?"

"It's not something that just magically happened out of the blue, Daddy," she said gently. "I don't think I can pinpoint when it started, but it was a long time ago, probably before you and Jane got married, which may have been a factor in why I suppressed it for so long. Yes I had boyfriends, but didn't you ever notice that none of them lasted? None of them ever made me feel the way that Sam does.

"All the things you are worried about, I worry about them too, except for maybe the military issue," she gave a half smile. "I could be married with 2.3 kids, have all the money I could ever need, and be fulfilled in my career, but it wouldn't mean much if I wasn't happy. It would be the easier row to hoe, sure, but at what cost?"

Her father had stopped gulping down the scotch like it was the elixir of life. "Brooke, I do want you to be happy, I do, but--"

"Dad," Brooke interrupted. "I know this is hard. I know I'm probably not doing a very good job of stating my case. But do you think that maybe we could just stop talking about it for now? You did a good job raising me, you've given me all the tools I need to be a useful, productive person, a good person; but my happiness is my own responsibility. Maybe you could have faith that I know what I'm doing, that I'm an adult and I've made a decision after giving it a lot of thought. Maybe what we need to do is step back and let some time pass, so we can figure out how we feel." Brooke already knew how she felt, but she thought that using the collective 'we' would make her father feel better, like they were working on a joint project.

Mike looked relieved that an end was in sight to this conversation. "I think that's a good idea, honey. You know that I love you," he leaned over and gave her a hug. "I only want what's best for you."

What's best for me is Sam, Brooke thought, but all she said was, "Thanks, Dad."

Sam and her mom were sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, as the late afternoon sun cast long shadows over the warm concrete. They were watching Mac slowly follow the perimeter of the central fountain behind Checkers, who in turn was sniffing at weeds and trash to his heart's content. Sam had endured a silent walk to the park, and was growing weary of waiting for her mother to speak. She studied her mother's profile and noticed quite a bit more gray hair intermingled with her usual raven-colored tresses, and the crow's feet around her mother's eyes were more pronounced than she remembered. Neither of us is getting any younger, she thought, when she recalled observing fine lines appearing near her own eyes not too long ago. And we'll just sit here getting older if she doesn't open her mouth, Sam thought impatiently.

"Mom, if you don't say something soon, I'm going to challenge one of those old guys to a game of chess," Sam motioned to the stone tables where several men gathered, somberly concentrating over their black and white pieces.

"Well, Sam, just what exactly do you want me to say?" Jane said, exasperated with her wiseass daughter. "You are an adult. You've been making your own decisions, some crazier than others, for a long time now."

That shut Sam up. Her mother had never commented on her life choices before, but then, Sam was asking for a comment, wasn't she? Her mother had also never nagged her about settling down or finding a proper job, and had been wonderful when Sam announced she was gay, but she could tell Jane was disturbed by their bombshell, if only because she had been silent for so long.

"But I will say this: If you hurt Brooke, what will happen after that? Did you even think about our family? Do you think you two will just be able to go back to a normal friendly relationship and be all 'please pass the cranberry sauce' at Thanksgiving if this doesn't work out?" Jane asked.

Sam's blood rushed to her head, she could feel it pounding in her ears. "What makes you think I'd be the one to end it?" she asked hoarsely. "That I would be the one to hurt Brooke and not the other way around?"

"Sam, I don't want to make you feel bad," Jane cast a sidelong glance at her daughter, "but you've never been in a serious relationship before. You mention a girl's name in one email, and then it's a new one in the next."

Sam was stung by her mother's casual callousness. "Mom," she began, her voice low and full of emotion, "If not for Brooke telling me the way she felt last fall, I would be in some foreign country right now, still trying to ignore the fact that I've been in love with my stepsister for years." Sam's eyes were shining with angry unshed tears. "Years!" she repeated fiercely. "Why do you think I could never be in a relationship for more than a month or two? This would never have happened if not for Brooke. Don't you think I know how weird it looks? I fought it for such a long time, I would've gone a lifetime without telling her how I felt, and I would have been miserable every damn day." She swiped her hand over her eyes in consternation. "And it's all so new to her, and she has just embraced it, embraced me, like it was something she was born to do. I don't know if she's really brave or just innocent. Sometimes I lie awake at night and worry that she'll change her mind. If she'll suddenly decide that being gay isn't worth it, that loving me isn't worth it, and she'll end it. And, Mom, believe me when I say, that would kill me."

Jane was taken aback by the outburst. Her usually stoic daughter was known for playing her emotional cards close to her chest. She looked at Sam, finally understanding the impetus behind her rootless existence of the last several years, and she was ashamed of what she had said.

Sam had regained some equanimity. "So to answer your original question, I would never knowingly hurt her. If it's up to me, there will never be a Thanksgiving when we are not together. She makes me happy, Mom. It's been a long time since I've felt anything close to this, maybe since Dad." She paused. "And I know it's a lot to ask, but I would really appreciate… not your blessing," Sam struggled to find the words, "an acknowledgement, maybe. Because I love her, and I love you, and I can't bear the thought of you not being okay with this."

"Oh, honey," Jane pulled her grown-up daughter into her arms and rocked her like a baby. "You have to know that nothing you could ever do would make me not love you. I'm sorry I said what I did." They sat there like that, Jane still reeling from the implications of Sam's heartfelt declaration, and Sam just drinking in the feeling of her mother's closeness, which she hadn't realized she had missed so terribly. After a moment Jane shook her head and laughed. "Boy, Sam, I think you need your own appendix in the Mom handbook. The things you throw at me. I thought I could put away that book where you were concerned, but I guess a mother never can."

"You never needed a handbook, Mom, you were just naturally brilliant at it," Sam said as she sat up.

"Sometimes I wish there was a handbook, believe me," Jane returned. "I am going to try to be okay with this," she resolved, "I love you and Brooke the same. How could I not want you both to be happy? And if you're happy with each other… as strange as that sounds to me, who am I to stand in your way? I guess a McQueen just knows not to pass up a good thing when it comes to a McPherson."

"Thanks, Mom." Sam took her mother's hand in both of hers. Relief washed over her. She felt drained, like she had just run a marathon.

"You know, if I'm honest, I should probably tell you that I suspected something at Christmas," Jane admitted.

"What?" Sam was aghast. They thought they had done such a good job of passing as only stepsisters.

"It's just that you two were so," Jane looked at the sky and tried to find the right word, "loving towards each other. At first I thought you were just entering a new phase of adult friendship, but there was something I couldn't put my finger on that was different about it. Guess I know what it is now," she said, slightly chagrined.

"God, we thought we were being so tricky, too. Wait 'til I tell Brooke."

"Speaking of, we should probably go back and see how they're doing," Jane stood up and called out to Mac.

Mac had been sitting on the fountain ledge for a while now. She turned when she heard her mother, but made no move to get up.

Sam thought she knew what the problem was. "Uh oh, what is up with that stupid dog, now?" she asked rhetorically as she and her mother walked over to Mac.

"He won't get up," Mac said plaintively, when they got closer.

There was nothing wrong with Checkers, he was just contrary, and had tired of sniffing and walking. Sam had found out about this charming personality trait early on in her relationship with him, but had forgotten it. Sam thought little toy dogs like Pomeranians were supposed to be energetic and yappy, but Checkers evidently had not gotten the memo. "Come on, Checkers, " she smacked him lightly on the behind, "don't you want to go home?"

Checkers looked at them pitifully.

Sam stood up and put her hands on her hips, looking at the far side of the park. "Maybe you want to go in the dog run with those two Dobermans," she threatened, "I bet they'd love to get a piece of you, ya big baby."

Checkers didn't bat an eye.

Sam sighed. She picked up Checkers and held him in her arms like the baby he apparently was. "Let's go," she said.

Mac sat silently between her parents in the back of a cab that was heading uptown to their hotel. Things were weird. Things were always weird when the whole family was together, when Mac's little family of three suddenly expanded to include her two big sisters, but things were definitely weirder than normal.

She and her mom and Sam had returned to the apartment to find Brooke cleaning the kitchen, which already looked pretty clean to Mac, and her dad sitting on the sofa with a drink in his hand. As the rest of the family retook their places in the living room, Mac had wandered around the small apartment. She was pretending to explore, but was really trying to overhear what the rest of the family was talking about, without them realizing what she was doing. Back in her Harriet the Spy days, she learned she could find out a lot more if she pretended like she was disinterested. After a bunch of really long pauses, all they had talked about was boring stuff like plays and restaurants, so she tuned them out, and really did start to investigate her surroundings.

The apartment was small, and there weren't many places to go, so she had gone back in the bathroom first and lowered the toilet seat and sat there for a while. The bathroom was all white tile, but kind of a yellowy white, like it was faded. There was a claw-footed tub, a kind that Mac had never seen before. Everything looked really old and there were some cracks making a spider web pattern up the wall, too. She had stared at the tiny hexagonal floor tiles until they got all crazy and started to move around, and it made her dizzy. She shook her head and studied the shower curtain, which was what she wanted to show her parents earlier. The curtain was made of clear plastic and it had a map of the world printed on it, the countries were in a bunch of different colors. There were little black X's made with a magic marker on a lot of the countries, all the places that Sam had been. Mac had a map hanging on the wall in her room at home too, and when Sam went somewhere new, she and her dad would find the new place on the map, and put a thumbtack in it. Someday she wanted to do cool stuff like that, go to foreign places and have adventures and stuff.

When she had tired of the bathroom, she meandered into Brooke's bedroom, still no good conversation happening in the living room. She moved past the bed to look out the window and saw a fire escape. She had seen them in the movies and on TV but had never seen a real live one before. It looked rusty and dirty but she wanted to go out on it anyway. Mac wanted to make believe she was high up in the crow's nest of a pirate ship, where she would lean out over the deep blue ocean and put her hand to her forehead and call out "Land ho!" even if they were only on the second floor, because everyone knew that the crow's nest had to be at least a hundred feet in the air.

The window was open because it was way hot outside, and Mac had briefly entertained the notion of crawling through. She decided not to try and lift the screen because she knew she'd only get yelled at, so she went to the closet and opened that instead. Brooke had the coolest clothes. She wished this stuff would look good on her, and then she could look as pretty and nice as Brooke did, but she would only look stupid.

"Hey, Mac. What're you up to?"

Mac twirled around to find Brooke standing in the doorway. She guiltily closed the closet door, but Brooke didn't seem mad. In fact, Brooke reopened the closet door and scrutinized the clothes inside.

"See anything you like?" Brooke asked. "You know, you're the smart one, hanging by yourself. It's like watching paint dry out there," she rolled her eyes and gestured to the living room. She went over to her jewelry box and said, "We're going out for dinner soon. You want something to dress up your look a little? This is Manhattan, after all." She rummaged through her collection and when she found what she was looking for, she held them out to Mac.

When Mac saw what it was, she unhappily said, "I don't have pierced ears. I can't get them until I'm thirteen." Mac thought this was grossly unfair. All her friends had pierced ears.

"I know, I couldn't either," Brooke made a face, and then smiled. "But these are clip-ons." She sat down on the bed and helped Mac put them on. "Sam didn't get her ears pierced until she was fourteen, but it wasn't because your mom wouldn't let her," she disclosed, "it was because she was a big old fraidy cat."

"No!" Mac couldn't believe that. Sam? Scared?

"Yes!" Brooke laughed. "And then, a year or so later, apparently over her fears, she tried to get her nose pierced, and that was a total disaster," Brooke smirked at the memory. "Don't tell her I told you, she'll kill me. There, they look good on you, Mac."

Mac stood up and looked in the mirror over the dresser. They looked awesome. "Thanks, Brooke, these are cool!"

"What's cool?" Sam walked into the bedroom and sat down next to Brooke. Mac watched through the mirror as Sam slipped her forearm under Brooke's forearm and entwined their fingers together. They looked at each other for a moment and then Brooke put her head on Sam's shoulder for just a second.

"Mac's new earrings." Brooke said.

Sam stood up and inspected Mac, nodding. "Yeah. Looking good, Mac."

"I was just telling her about how you were too scared to get your ears pierced," Brooke casually mentioned.

Mac looked askance at Brooke. Hadn't she just said not to say anything? But Brooke appeared to be about two seconds away from bursting out laughing.

Sam said sourly, "I wasn't scared, I just didn't have time to get them done."

"What thirteen-year-old girl doesn't have time to get her ears pierced?" Brooke asked disbelievingly.

"I was very busy that year," Sam declared airily to Mac, then turned to Brooke. "I'm never telling you anything ever again," she said and shook her fist at Brooke.

Mac could tell Sam wasn't really mad. In fact, both of them were smiling.

Sam looked down at Mac "So are you guys ready to get some grub?"

So then they had gone to dinner, walking for about ten minutes before arriving at the restaurant. As the family walked, Sam and Brooke took the lead, their heads together and talking seriously about something, and her parents had fallen behind, equally wrapped up in their own conversation. Mac was left by herself between the two groups. She had felt like the monkey in a tag-team game of Monkey-in-the-Middle, until her sisters had slowed down to allow her to catch up with them.

Dinner itself had taken forever, with more long gaps between conversation, until Mac employed a tried and true method of getting her sisters talking. She asked them questions about high school. She loved hearing them talk about when they were younger, even if she had already heard most of the stories. It made her feel like she knew them better. Brooke and Sam got on a roll, and tried to outdo each other with one story more outrageous than the next. Soon everyone was laughing, even her dad, who had been uncharacteristically silent for most of the night.

As the cab pulled up in front of their hotel, Mac thought to herself that she was happy that she was here with her family, and even happier at the prospect of a vacation at the beach with her sisters. But something had happened today and although she didn't know what it was right now, she was going to find out.


Part 3

Brooke sniffed suspiciously at the spout of the carton of milk in her hands. It was probably good now, but it wouldn't be when they got back, so she poured the milk down the drain and binned the carton. She was getting rid of all the perishable items before they left. It was six in the morning, and she was waiting for Sam to come back with their rental car. They had planned on letting Mac sleep until the last possible moment before waking her up and throwing her in the backseat. It was essential that they get on the road early to make it to Boston by lunchtime; Brooke's meetings began at one.

The past weekend with the parents had both flown, and passed in tortuous sluggishness, if that was possible. After the unending dinner on Friday night, which Mac had saved from being the worst night in McQueen/McPherson family history with a few well-placed queries about their checkered high school history, she and Sam had practically sprinted back to the apartment. It would almost be worth going through the agony of telling the parents about themselves again if it would result in the incredible sex she and Sam had that night. They had arrived home and tore their clothes off as if they hadn't touched each other in months. After their first frenzied coupling, they had come together again slowly, languorously, every caress fraught with meaning. The anxiety they had been suppressing over the thought of losing each other ebbed away as they took comfort and reassurance from each other's bodies through the long night. The sun had been rising by the time the two were satiated, and they clung together in sleep, grateful that they had each other, and relieved that they had looked on this tempest, and were not shaken.

Sam had to work a lunch shift the next day, so Brooke had to endure the Circle Line tourist cruise from hell without her. It actually worked out okay, because while they slowly looped around Manhattan, and her father and Mac got all geeky about being on a boat, she and Jane had been able to have a good conversation about their situation. Jane had promised to help smooth the way with her father, but had spoken frankly about her concerns for both Sam and Brooke herself, should their union not work out. Brooke did her best to set Jane's mind at rest, but had the feeling that only time would really do that. She was deeply touched by the apprehension Jane felt on her behalf; she really loved Jane. The difference between her talk with Jane and the conversation she had with her father was like night and day. She didn't blame her father for that, but was glad he had the tempering hand of someone like Jane in his life.

Sam had met up with them that evening for the Lion King, and was grudgingly impressed, as was Brooke. Mac had absolutely loved it, and insisted on buying the soundtrack right there. It had already worn out its welcome. If Brooke heard "that wonderful phrase," Hakuna Matata, one more time, she thought she would go ballistic.

Yesterday they had brunch at their parents' hotel before her dad and Jane left for their cruise, and then they took Mac and her stuff back to their apartment. Sam worked her last dinner shift before their vacation last night, while Brooke treated Mac to the movies and then Frozen Hot Chocolate at Serendipity 3.

Brooke heard the key in the lock and Sam entered quietly. "Hey," she whispered. "I'm double-parked downstairs. Are we about ready?"

"Yep," Brooke softly replied, tying up the garbage bag. "Why don't you go wake Mac, and I'll start down with the luggage."

Sam walked over to the sofa and softly said, "Mac-a-doodle-doo, time to get up. The beach is waiting, it's time to hit the road." She gave Mac a change of clothes and then sent her into the bathroom. She straightened the couch, took a look around the apartment. If it wasn't already packed, it wasn't coming. Then Mac was ready, and helped Sam with the rest of the bags.

As they drove out of Morton Street, Mac sleepily said from the backseat, "Can we play the Lion King?"

"Later," Sam replied, "try and get some sleep." She smiled and rolled her eyes at Brooke and took her hand, using the other to turn the wheel towards the Tri-borough Bridge.

Sam drove slowly down an unpaved lane, the wheels of the car creating clouds of dust in the rear-view mirror. She and Mac had left Brooke in Boston and had made their way up the Cape. They stopped in Wellfleet to pick up the key, and were now trying to locate their home for the next two weeks. "It's got to be around here somewhere, Mac, keep your eyes peeled." She craned her neck to get a look at the house numbers as they passed. "It's number twenty-four."

"There it is," Mac said from the passenger seat, pointing to a small sign nearly camouflaged by a full, green, deciduous hedge, dotted with small purple flowers.

"Good eyes, Macky," Sam said absently as she angled the car through an opening in the wall of shrubbery and parked the car in the driveway.

Sam was very pleased with the stereotypical Cape Cod cottage she saw before her. The pictures Brooke had shown her from the agency's website didn't do the rental justice. The small house was clad in Cedar shingles, weather-beaten to a silvery-gray color, with crisp white trim on the windows and shutters. They left the bags for the moment and ascended the porch steps to the front door. Sam struggled with the lock on the heavy Oak door and finally pushed it open to reveal an open floor plan, the large kitchen windows at the back of the house showcasing a view straight out to the Atlantic Ocean. The place was decorated minimally; the only adornment to the white bead-board covered walls was a few wooden shelves nailed into the studs, holding tattered paperbacks and jars of shells and sea glass. The furniture had seen better days, but the overstuffed chairs and sofa were spruced up with awning-striped canvas slipcovers, and the various wooden pieces, although scarred and nicked, were serviceable and clean. The kitchen had open shelving, as well, and aged, but clean and serviceable appliances. The feeling of space and light Sam got from the building was in direct contrast to her cramped but cozy apartment in the city.

This couldn't be any more perfect if it was art directed by Hollywood, Sam thought, and wondered if a backlot somewhere in Burbank was missing its Beachfront Cottage. She wished Brooke were here with her right now; she will absolutely love this place. Sam thought back to not three hours before when she had said goodbye to Brooke in the forecourt of her fancy hotel in Copley Place. She had felt like a hole was opening up in her chest as she watched Brooke walk away, pulling her little black wheelie suitcase behind her. God, get a grip, you big sap, you'll see her again in less than two days, she had thought.

Mac crossed the scuffed Mahogany floor and sat down on the sofa, she picked up a conch shell displayed on a side table and held it to her ear. "What now?" she asked Sam.

Sam directed her attention to Mac. This time apart from Brooke was a good thing, she told herself. Now she could put Operation Be A Better Sister into action. "What now?" she repeated. "I think we should go check out the beach, don't you?" She held out her hand and noticed a bit of reluctance on Mac's part, as the girl stood and took her hand and walked with her out the back door. "What's wrong?" she asked, concerned.

"Nothing," Mac shrugged.

Sam decided not to push it. As they exited the house, she looked around. This place just keeps getting better. The kitchen door opened onto a large flagstone patio, which had several pieces of outdoor furniture, a large picnic table and a pretty substantial grilling area. "We are so going to put this to good use," she smiled at Mac and pointed at the grill.

"You know how to cook?" Mac asked dubiously.

"It's grilling, not cooking! What's to know?" Sam asked, unconcerned. She and Mac walked across a small yard of scrubby beach grass to a precipice that dropped about thirty feet to the pebbly beach below. A timber staircase connected the property to the beach. The view was stunning. Not a cloud in the sky, and the late afternoon sun made the blue ocean sparkle. "Doesn't the ocean look great? Wanna go for a swim?" Sam was visibly excited.

Mac, however, was not. "Isn't there a pool?"

"A pool?" Sam's brow furrowed. "I don't know, Mac. We could check around, I guess. Why? Don't you like the ocean?"

Mac shrugged noncommittally.

"Tell you what," Sam said easily, putting her hand on Mac's shoulder. "The ocean will still be there later, or tomorrow. Why don't we bring the bags in and go get supplies?"

"Supplies?" Mac asked, relief clearly etched on her face, as they turned around and walked back towards the house.

"Yeah, supplies, Macintosh. Like food and drink, and some new CD's, so we can give Simba and all the creatures of the jungle a break." Sam tousled Mac's hair. How does one be a good big sister, she wondered. That would probably start with not messing with the sister's hair. "Sorry about that," she said and hastily tried to straighten Mac's tangled locks.

"You're weird," Mac said, with a small grin.

"The defense rests on that very fact," Sam intoned, like she was a judge.

They dragged the luggage in from the car and hauled it to the second floor, where there were two bedrooms. Mac was excited about the bunk beds in the smaller room, declaring that she would sleep on the top bunk. Across the hall was the master bedroom, which had a very spacious king sized bed, Sam saw with much satisfaction. It also had a view of the ocean, and quite a respectable master bath. Brooke did such a good job picking this place out, Sam thought, as she looked out at the view. It's a good thing she didn't leave this to me, I would've booked three beds in the hostel in Truro and called it a day. But then, Brooke probably knew that, she thought ruefully.

"Is Brooke going to sleep in here with you?" Mac asked, from the doorway, resting her cheek against the doorjamb.

"I think so, Mac," Sam replied. She damn well better, she thought. "Why do you ask?"

"I don't know, 'cause you guys slept in the same bed last night too."

"Yes, we did," Sam acknowledged, waiting for Mac to continue, but hoping that she wouldn't.

Mac looked at Sam speculatively, then said, "So are we going shopping, or what?"

Thank God, Sam thought, relieved. "Yes, we're going shopping. You ready, yet?"

"Hellooo, I've been waiting for you while you've been staring out the window," Mac said, exasperated.

"Alright, already, let's go!"

Deciding that they were too famished to shop without eating first, Sam and Mac drove into Provincetown and found a parking spot near the far end of Commercial Street. The historic fishing and whaling town at the very tip of Cape Cod was now a gay tourism Mecca, and rainbow flags and tea dance fliers were the decorations of choice for many of the shop windows that lined this main thoroughfare. While the street was open to cars, it was pretty much taken over by pedestrians that represented the whole range of the Kinsey scale, a few more outlandishly represented than others. Sam loved it, but wondered if it was too much for Mac. Her fear lessened when Mac didn't even appear to notice some of the more bizarrely clad denizens, but wanted to stop at every two-bit t-shirt shop going. Sam was more drawn to the many art galleries on the street, and made a mental note to return for a more leisurely perusal of the numerous local artists' work. She did take a minute to pick up a postcard, she wanted to surprise Brooke and have one waiting in their mailbox when they arrived home.

They stopped in at a pizza place and got a couple of slices, and found a table near a window that looked out onto the street. They sat and tried various techniques to get their pizza to a reasonable temperature for consumption, but Sam was impatient and burned the roof of her mouth anyway.

"You should've waited longer," Mac said primly, as she watched Sam reach frantically for her soft drink, "or blown on it some more."

"Gee, thanks, Mom," Sam answered sarcastically, taking a long pull from her straw.

Mac merely smiled and looked out the window. After a moment she said, "There are lots of rainbow flags around here, does that mean there are a lot of gay people here, too?"

Sam eyed her sister as she pulled napkins out of the dispenser. Mac had been aware of Sam's orientation for quite a long time, probably since before she knew what it meant to be gay. Sam and her mother had told Mac together, when she was seven, and had used the flag to illustrate the idea of tolerance. But she hadn't really been around to follow up on any of the questions Mac might have had about it. She had left that task to her mom. Now Sam felt guilty.

"Yeah, there are," Sam said carefully. "There are some places that are very welcoming to gay people, and this town is one of them. Does it bother you that there are so many around?"

"Nah, the only thing that's bothering me is how your onions got on my pizza," Mac said disgustedly, as she flicked some wayward onions onto her plate.

"Sorry," Sam chuckled.

"I think it's nice," she added.

"Me too," Sam smiled, relieved.

"Are you and Brooke a couple?"

Sam blinked. Oh God, no. Please don't make me do this by myself, she begged. She and Brooke had known that they would have to tell Mac eventually, but had been so worried about their parents that they hadn't formulated a plan for Mac, hoping that they could do it at some future date, a really far away future date. "A couple of what?" she stalled.

Mac pursed her lips and stared at her silently.

If there was one thing Sam remembered from being a kid, it was how much she hated it when adults lied to her "for her own good." She decided she would never be guilty of that with Mac.

"Brooke's not here to speak for herself, but I don't think she would mind me saying that, yes, we are a couple."

"Can sisters be in a couple together?" Mac asked, with a slight frown.

Sam scrunched up her napkin and wiped her lips, she needed to choose her words very carefully here. "Well, Mac, typically, no. Two blood sisters would not be a couple. But you know that Brooke and I aren't related by blood, the way you and I are, and you and Brooke are. We knew each other before our parents knew each other, we were friends," Sam inwardly cringed at this white lie; they were hardly friends in the beginning. "After Mom and Mike got married, both Brooke and I came to separate decisions that it wasn't a good idea to like each other, in a romantic way." She paused to look at Mac, to see if she got the distinction. "Brooke wasn't even aware that I liked her, and I didn't know that Brooke… well, that's complicated. Anyway, a long time passed and neither of us had stopped liking the other, in fact, we loved each other but we were afraid."

"Afraid of what?" Mac asked. She was hanging on Sam's every word.

Sam did not want to go into that. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that we were finally brave enough to tell each other, and now we are happier because we did. And we sleep in the same bed together because we love each other, and want to be close to each other," she finished, referring to Mac's earlier question back at the house.

"Is that why everything was so weird before, and Mom and Dad were so wigged out? Did you tell them?"

"Yes, you're very observant, Mac." Sam was parched, and her hand shook slightly as she raised her cup to take a drink. That was so much harder than telling the parents, she thought.

Mac smiled bashfully at the compliment, but then the frown returned. "So, why are Mom and Dad so mad about it?"

"Well, they're not really mad about it, they are just really surprised right now. Even if Brooke and I don't see each other as sisters, Mom and Mike do. To them, there is no difference between Brooke, and you, and me. They just need to change their perception a little bit. And you could see that it was getting a little better by the time they left for their cruise, couldn't you?" She watched Mac solemnly nod her head. "They just need a little time to get used to the idea." Sam prayed that she was telling the truth.


"So are you okay with this?" Sam asked, hesitantly.

"Yeah," was all Mac said.

Sam waited for more, but that was all she was going to get. She nodded. "Good. Let's get out of here. Ready?"

As they were walking back to the car, Sam leaned over and grabbed Mac around the shoulders in a one-armed hug. "I love you, Macky baby."

Part 4

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