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 4

Brooke waited at the elevator for her day to be over. It was late and she and her colleagues had worked very hard, and then had to have dinner with the client, the owner of one of the largest construction concerns in the northeast, in this case. Once she got to her room she was off the clock. All she wanted to do was take off her shoes and call Sam. She shifted her briefcase into her other hand and looked at her watch. After eleven, she sighed.

"Brooke McQueen, is that you?" a voice behind her inquired.

Oh God, what now? Brooke wearily turned around and her eyes widened in shock. "Nicole… Julian?"

Before her stood the person who had tried to end her life, and nearly succeeded, ten years ago, when she was in high school. Brooke had not seen Nicole Julian since the day of her junior prom, and could have happily lived her life without seeing her ever again. After the incident where Brooke met with the front grille of a drunken and bitter Nicole's car, it was as if the girl had disappeared off the face of the planet. No one in school knew where she had gone, but then, no one had tried very hard to find out, either. Although it had been a long time, and her appearance was slightly different, Brooke would have recognized her former friend anywhere.

Nicole was now wearing her hair longer, in a business-like pageboy that reached her chin, and the platinum color was replaced by her natural dirty-blonde shade. Brooke could see some aging around the eyes and mouth, but the most telling difference was the expression she wore. The usual look of smug condescension that had been so familiar to Brooke in high school was now replaced by one of dispirited sadness. The hardness in her eyes was replaced by a certain world-weariness. Some things hadn't changed all that much, however. Nicole's makeup was as flawlessly done as Brooke remembered, and she was dressed in what looked like a Valentino suit from this year's collection.

"Do you know what I recognized first when I saw you here waiting for the elevator, Brooke?" Nicole asked, a friendly smile on her lips, but visibly apprehensive as to what Brooke's as yet unknown reaction would be.

Brooke shook her head; she was still speechless.

"Your posture," Nicole disclosed. "You always stood like you were about to do the runway in Milan, even if you were only on line in the cafeteria, or standing in front of a mirror in the Novak. I saw this person standing there and it reminded me so much of you that I had to see what they looked like. And it's you," she said, disbelief tingeing her voice.

"Yes, it's me," Brooke replied, finding her voice, but still at a loss.

"I know I don't have a right to ask you this, I don't have a right to anything where you're concerned, in actual fact, but I would really like to know how you are doing. Would you let me buy you a drink?" Nicole asked, motioning to the hotel cocktail lounge on the other side of the lobby.

Brooke contemplated the woman who stood before her. She should be angry. She should be yelling and screaming and causing a scene. How dare Nicole even think of talking to Brooke? After causing so much damage and pain and suffering, Nicole now wanted to hoist a beverage in her company? Ten years and not one word, no apology, nothing, Brooke thought. But Brooke didn't feel the anger she thought she should have; in fact, she was strangely devoid of feeling. It was such a long time ago, her life was so completely different, and she found that she was also curious as to what fate had befallen her once very close friend. Yes, she would have a drink with Nicole; what could it hurt?

Ten minutes later saw them seated at a red leather banquette, Nicole with a glass of club soda before her, Brooke with a glass of red wine.

"So, Nicole, what twists and turns have brought you here, where our paths have collided once again?" Brooke asked dryly, wondering briefly about her sanity, and what Sam would have to say about this.

"Oh, only the dissolution of my marriage and my livelihood," Nicole said breezily, but the pain in her eyes belied the lightness of her tone.

Brooke was taken aback by the bald statement, and floundered for something to say. "I'm sorry?" she finally said.

"Maybe I should start a little further back, " Nicole said, "wait, let me start at the beginning. I owe you an explanation for that night. I do," she insisted, when she saw Brooke begin to shake her head.

Brooke actually didn't know why she was shaking her head. She did want to know if Nicole had a reason that could be considered in any way valid, but at the same time, she didn't want to know. She didn't think much about that summer she had spent in traction, with a broken leg and collarbone, several broken ribs, some minor internal injuries, and head trauma that left her unconscious for several days at the beginning of her convalescence. Brooke had put it all behind her and was afraid to stir it all up again.

"And now that I say that," Nicole continued, ruefully, "I realize that I don't have an explanation. There is nothing I could say that would excuse the horrible thing I did to you." Nicole shook her head, seemingly at a loss. "I hope you realize why I never got in touch," she said earnestly. "I just didn't know how to face you, after what I did."

"Why don't you start with after that," Brooke said, letting her off the hook. She was actually relieved that they weren't going to go there. "What happened to you? You just disappeared."

"Well, it should come as no surprise that my mother wanted no part of dealing with the accident, to her it was just another skeleton that needed to be stored in the closet. She threw me into rehab so fast I hardly knew what happened, and had my sentence reduced to time served there. And it was a militant rehab where they practically tattooed the twelve steps onto your ass upon arrival."

Good to know that Nic had not lost her ability to turn a creative phrase, Brooke thought.

"But it worked. They broke me down and ground me into paste. I don't know if I had a drinking problem before I went to that place, but I sure don't have one now. I haven't touched a drop since that day," Nicole continued. "Anyway, my mother enrolled me at the Harbor School for my senior year, it had a good reputation but was lousy with rich troubled teens who had been kicked out of nearly everywhere else. You would think that I would fit right in, but my personality type was already well represented and I was just one of the crowd. So I did the unthinkable. I studied. I had nothing better to do. No friends, no football team so no cheerleading, no distractions, and I was pretty much an outcast. I became the April Tuna of the Harbor School. I did well, grade-wise, but not well enough to cancel out the army of black marks on my permanent record, or an actual criminal record. So my string-pulling mother came to the rescue once again. She knew a trustee on the board of a very prestigious college and got me in, but it wasn't one that I would have ever picked for myself." Nicole stopped after this monologue and took a long drink.

"Well?" Brooke prodded, "Where did you go for undergrad?"


"You went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology?" Brooke couldn't believe it. "What was your major?"

"Chemical Engineering."

"You're a chemist?" Brooke was having trouble wrapping her head around the thought of her former friend spending time in a lab, in a lab coat, probably, with all the brains that went to M.I.T. The Nicole she used to know wouldn't be caught dead in a lab coat.

Her incredulity must have shown clearly on her face, because Nicole smiled knowingly and said, "I know it's a stretch from the girl you used to know. But even back in Glass's chemistry class I secretly had a knack for it, I just hid it well."

"Wow. I never knew. You really did hide it well."

"Yeah, I really do have a talent for it," Nic said without modesty, "but you know me, why try to synthesize a cheap energy alternative or produce a chemical vaccine for mad cow disease when I could devote my time to something frivolous like perfecting a long lasting lipstick?"

"Oh my God! Julian Cosmetics! That's you?"

"Yes," Nicole was impressed. "You've heard of us? We're still really small time, mostly just mail and Internet orders to the trades, so far."

"But you're poised," Brooke said excitedly, "and I read in the Journal that all the makeup artists in Hollywood swear by your product."

"The drag queens love us, too," Nicole said proudly. "You saw that article in the Wall Street Journal?"

"Yeah," Brooke thought of something. "But you weren't quoted in the article, or else I might've put it together, that you were, well, you."

"Mark does all the PR for the company, at least he did," Nicole looked away, biting her lip.

"Mark?" Brooke prompted.

"My ex-husband, as of yesterday," Nicole turned back to Brooke, with tears in her eyes.

"I'm so sorry, Nic," Brooke really did feel bad. She didn't know how it happened, but she felt like Nicole was her friend again, and she wanted to help.

Nicole wiped her tears with her napkin, taking care not to ruin her mascara. "We met on campus, Mark was taking a satellite course while doing his masters at U Mass. He was so high energy; he completely bowled me over. I fell like a piano from a twelve-story building for him. We were so happy. And he believed in me, told me I could do anything I put my mind to. We started the company right after I graduated, I worked in the lab and he handled all the business, and we were just starting to put a dent in the big corporations' bottom lines when he told me he wanted out. Out of the company and out of my life," she finished bleakly.

Brooke patted Nicole's hand sympathetically, she didn't know what else to do. "So is this where you're staying until you get everything sorted out?"

Nicole looked at her oddly. "No, I live and work in Los Angeles. We have business offices and a lab on Wilshire downtown, but we incorporated in Massachusetts so I had to come here to see lawyers and sign some papers. The divorce finalizing yesterday was just an added bonus," she said bitterly.

"Oh." Brooke watched as Nic struggled to pull herself together.

Nicole took a deep breath and directed her full attention to Brooke. "Enough about me and my boring sob story, Brooke, tell me about you."

Where to start, Brooke thought. She decided to skip over her recovery and her senior year at Kennedy. "I studied English at Stanford, then got my MBA from Columbia, and was recruited by Leviathan & McStuffy for a position as a financial analyst. I've been there ever since," Brooke summarized.

"Wow, impressive," Nicole smiled. "They are only like the most prestigious firm on Wall Street, Brooke. Do you like it?"

Brooke shrugged noncommittally. "I'm only a small cog in a very big machine. I'm in Mergers and Acquisitions right now, which isn't really my thing. Most of the time I feel like Igor, helping his master Dr. Frankenstein create a monster. Assisting large corporations in the buying and selling of smaller companies doesn't really seem very productive to me. Don't get me wrong, I like my job, and I'm good at it, but…" It was hard for Brooke to explain. "What I used to do was analysis for potential IPO's. I liked that quite a bit. When a company would actually make it to the end, and had gone over all the hurdles and through all the red tape and was really going to have an Initial Product Offering, I felt like a proud mother sending her child off on the school bus for the first time. When I was able to help these companies it felt like I was doing something good instead of something, well, less good. I'd rather feel like proud mama than Igor any day, you know?" Brooke took a sip of wine.

"So you know all the ins and outs of taking a company public?" Nicole queried intently.

"Yeah," Brooke sighed, "it's pretty complicated. But, like I said, I don't do that anymore."

Nicole let the subject go. "I'm assuming you live in New York?"

"Yes," Brooke smiled, "we have an apartment in the Village."

"We?" Nicole was curious. "There's someone in your life?"

"Yes. And I've never been happier. It's someone you know, actually. Someone from high school."

"Really?" Nicole breathed, her eyes huge. "Who is it?"


"Sam? Sam who?" Nicole frowned, thinking. "Was he in our class?"

"Yes, she was. Sam McPherson." Brooke watched Nicole for her reaction.

Nicole still had a frown on her face, then realization dawned. Her already wide eyes nearly bulged out of her head. "Spam?" she asked uncomprehendingly.

Brooke smiled. "I prefer to call her Sam."

Nicole simply stared at Brooke.

"We've been together nine months and I don't think Sam would mind me saying we are extremely happy together, blissful, really," Brooke's tone bordered on smug.

"Oh, please, Brookie, don't make me toss my cookies."

Brooke burst out laughing, delighted. It was almost like old times. She hadn't realized how much she had missed hearing Nic call her Brookie.

"So you're together, together," Nicole wanted to clarify, "like in a girl-on-girl preferring, pot-luck dinner having, Indigo Girls listening, Home Depot shopping, softball playing kind of way."

Brooke nodded.

"Brooke McQueen parks on the other side of the street, I can't believe it," Nic marveled. "Wait a minute. You've known each other how long? And you only just got together nine months ago?"

"Well, it took us a while to get on the same page," Brooke conceded. "We had a few issues to iron out."

"I'll say," Nic averred. "Do Ma and Pa Kettle know?"

"We just told them, actually."

"How'd they take it?" Nic was curious.

"I think they'll live to tell about it," Brooke said, her voice hopeful. "Hey, when do you go back to L.A?"

"Tomorrow, why?"

"Because Sam and Mac are waiting for me on the Cape," Brooke thought briefly about what Sam's reaction to this might be, but plowed on anyway. "Why don't you change your flight and come stay for a few days? It'll cheer you up." She was feeling magnanimous; her life was roses compared to Nic's. She wanted to spread the love around.

"Aww, Mac is there? God, she must be, I don't know, how old is she?"

"She's ten."

"Ten! I don't know Brooke, I wouldn't want to barge in on family time. And Sam has never liked me," she omitted the fact that the feeling was mutual.

"She'll love it," Brooke dismissed, thinking that she could convince Sam to love it. She could convince Sam of anything if she had a horizontal surface and ten minutes alone with her.

"Okay, hi, has Sam really changed that much?" Nic asked suspiciously.

"No," Brooke grinned, "but she likes to keep me sweet."

Nicole laughed. "All right, but just a day or two, I don't want to ruin Sam's entire vacation."

Brooke smiled to herself in the elevator on the way up to her room. She looked at her watch; it was far too late to call Sam now. Although she had started to become worried about Sam's reaction, she was glad she could do this for Nic. She found that it was easy to forgive, especially when she was so happy in her own life. A more cynical person, like Sam, would ask why she thought she owed the woman who almost took her life anything. And Brooke would say to that person that she didn't owe that Nic anything, but she wanted to give something to the Nic who was her friend, the girl she once knew who was like a bulldog for her, always in her corner; well, for most of the time, anyway. The girl that Brooke once knew was hurting, and if it was within her power to help, why not extend a little human kindness and reach out to her.

Sam was on her way out the kitchen door when her cell phone started ringing. She picked it up off the kitchen counter and saw from the caller ID that it was Brooke. She smiled.

"Hey," she said.

"Hey, yourself."

Sam heard the smile in Brooke's voice. "So, how's it going there? How are you?"

"Tired. I was up late last night. You?"


"Oh, please, I bet you and Mac are having a great time."

"Yeah, we are," Sam admitted. "Oh, guess what? She knows. About us."

"What? How?"

"She asked me. Flat out. She's a little smarty. You would have been so proud of me, Brooke. I was brilliant. The words just came to me."

"What did you say?"

"I don't have a fucking clue."

"Sam! You better not be cursing in front of Mac," Brooke scolded.

"I'm not," Sam said defensively.

There was a pause, then Brooke said, "Wow. That's huge. How'd she take it?"

"Okay, I think. She didn't say much."

"Wow," Brooke said again, then changed the subject. "So how's the place?"

"Oh, Brooke, it is so great! You are going to love it. It feels like one of the Kennedys may drop by for martinis and touch football, or something.

"Good," Brooke said, then, "I miss you."

"I miss you, too. The bed's too big without you, really." Sam thought of something. "Brooke, what's up with Mac and swimming?"

"What do you mean? She swims all the time in the pool at home, she's a fish."

"How about the beach? Does she go in the ocean?"

"I can't remember, it's been forever since I've been to the beach with her. Wait, hang on."

Sam could hear a rustling noise as Brooke was distracted by something.

"Listen, I can't talk much longer, we're only on a fifteen minute break," Brooke said hurriedly when she returned to the line.

"Okay. Are you still coming back today?"

"Yes, my ferry gets in at," Brooke paused, Sam could hear more rustling, "five-twenty this afternoon. You'll be there?"

"Nothing could stop me."

"Oh, and Sam? I'm bringing somebody with me."

"What? Who?" Sam was surprised.

"It's someone you know. A face from our past," Brooke said mysteriously.

"Who is it?"

"It's a surprise. I've really got to go. Can't wait to see you, love you."

"Love you, too," Sam said to the dial tone.


Part 5

"You ready to hit the beach?" Sam walked out the kitchen door to find Mac sitting at the picnic table, listening to a CD Walkman. The hell? If she had a CD player, why have I been listening to the Lion King, she thought.

Mac heaved a long-suffering sigh. "I've only been waiting out here for five songs worth," she complained.

"Well, I'm glad I missed "The Circle of Life," yet again," Sam deadpanned.

"I'm not listening to that," Mac informed her, "I got tired of it."

"Thank God. If I had to hear Sir Elton asking me "Can I Feel the Love Tonight" one more time, I was going to have to smack him," Sam joked. "So, whatcha got?"


"Nirvana?' Sam's eyebrows rose. "Old school, huh? From the Lion King to Nirvana. Interesting. Wait, let me see that," she reached for the jewel case and flipped it open. There, scrawled across the liner notes was "Property of Samantha McPherson" in the handwriting of a snotty fifteen-year-old. She had inscribed her entire collection thusly right before moving into the McQueen residence. What an asshole I was, Sam thought. As if Brooke would ever listen to Nirvana in the first place. The two of them must have twenty boxloads of stuff in their parents' basement, which is obviously where Mac got the CD.

"Are you mad?" Mac asked.

"Mad?" Sam asked, deliberately misunderstanding. "Heck, no. This is a big improvement. It was definitely time to put Simba and company away for a while. And you have good taste, I'll say that for you," she added, with a grin. Mac could have all that stuff in the basement; she had no use for it.

They collected the beach chairs Sam had found in a shed on the side of the house and carried them down the steps to the beach, along with towels, sunscreen, books, and snacks. The beach wasn't large, and all of the homes along the lane had access to it, but they had it pretty much to themselves for the moment. They scrambled over the pebbles and got closer to the water, where the beach became sandy. Once they were settled, they began to feel the hot sun beating down on them. Sam got out the sunscreen and made Mac apply it liberally. They sat for a little while in comfortable silence, Mac looking out at the water and Sam listlessly reading a magazine, and the two sisters began to sweat. Sam could feel droplets forming on her forehead and upper lip. She was itching to get wet, but didn't know what was up with Mac and the ocean. She decided to try something.

"Hey, Mac, do you remember me telling you about my friends Carmen and Lily, from when I was a kid?"

"Yeah," Mac affirmed.

"Well, one year, when I was about your age, my very good friend Carmen Ferrera invited me to a birthday slumber party at her house, like she did every year, along with my other very good friend, Lily Esposito. We stayed up late, made popcorn, watched movies," Sam tried to think what else they did at those parties, "and, um, braided each other's hair, or something. It was fun. But that particular year, we watched Jaws. Have you ever seen it?"

"That old movie about the shark? No," Mac said, as if it were too lame to even contemplate.

"Good. Don't. It may be old, but it's scary as hell. Oops, heck," Sam corrected herself. "So the next day, Carmen's mom dropped me, Lily, Carmen, and her brothers off at the beach so we could continue her birthday celebration. Everyone went into the water, joking about sharks, but I was terrified that I was going to get eaten by a shark. Really," she said to Mac's disbelieving expression. "Petrified. Carmen's brother Leo noticed my fear and played the meanest trick on me. While I was nervously wading out to join Carmen and Lily, who were making fun of me for being so slow, Leo swam between my legs, and I swear to God, I thought he was a shark. I flipped out and ran back to the shore and wouldn't get back in the water for love or money. Later, Leo apologized to me and revealed that he was the stupid shark and I felt like the biggest idiot. The next time I went to the beach I remembered how scared I was, and I was still a little bit scared, but I wanted to go in the water and prove to myself that I could do it. So I did. And you know what?"

Mac shook her head.

"To this day, I have never been eaten by a shark."

Mac smiled and said, "I know what you're trying to do."

"Oh, I'm that transparent, am I?" Sam asked, oh well, at least she tried. Score a big fat goose egg for Operation Big Sister.

She sat back in her chair and thought about Carmen and Lily. Somehow, she had lost track of both of them. The problem with traveling all the time is that it's so easy to let people slip away. One missed Christmas card or a wrong address and they are gone. Sure you meet new people, but holding onto the old friends is really important, and she had failed at that. She wondered how hard it would be to track them down, through their parents, maybe.

Mac interrupted her thoughts. "I'm not afraid of sharks, you know."

"Is there something else that you are afraid of?" Sam asked gently.

Mac exhaled in frustration. "I just don't like that I can't see the bottom. And there's all those rocks and shells that hurt my feet, and I'm scared that I'll get bit by a crab."

Sam bit her cheek and tried not to smile. "Well maybe we can do something about that. I'll be right back," she said and was out of her chair and up the stairs in a moment. When she came back, she was carrying Mac's white canvas sneakers, her own navy Chuck Taylor low-tops, and a cheap plastic raft they had picked up at the store yesterday.

"You want me to wear my shoes in the water?" Mac asked incredulously.

"Well, yeah," Sam replied, "that way the crabs won't get you." She put on her own sneakers in a show of sisterly solidarity, and then started to blow up the raft.

Mac was waiting for her at the water's edge when she finished, squatting with her arms wrapped around her knees, examining a gnarled piece of driftwood. Her vertebrae were visible under the straps of her bathing suit, making Sam think of a vulnerable little turtle. They walked into the surf together, and once they were waist deep, Sam motioned for Mac to get on the raft. She towed Mac out beyond the breakers until they were bobbing in relatively calm water.

"Are you doing okay?" Sam asked.

"Yeah," Mac responded, verbose as ever.

"Good, shove over," Sam pulled herself half onto the raft sideways, and Mac moved over so that their torsos were side by side, and they were lying perpendicularly across the raft. They sat there for a little while, just enjoying the rolling motion of the water. Sam maneuvered the raft so that they were facing away from the beach, and the ocean stretched out before them.

"Where do you want to go, Mackerel? If we start kicking we could go to Brittany, or Liverpool," Sam squinted into the horizon. "If we went a little bit this way," she adjusted their course slightly, "I bet we'd hit the Azores. I've never been there."

"Sounds like something Annabella would do," Mac looked over at her sister.

"Yeah," Sam smiled, pleasantly surprised. This was the first time Mac had ever mentioned the fictional character Sam had created for her.

When she had started traveling, years ago, and Mac had been a beginning reader, Sam had wanted to do something to keep in touch with her sister, but didn't think a little girl would appreciate a normal letter or postcard enumerating the minutiae of her daily life. So she had invented Annabella, an adventurous and resourceful young girl who traveled the world having rollicking escapades, and who, remarkably, had many similar physical features and personality traits to her sister, Mac. It wasn't an accident that the location of Annabella's exploits just happened to coincide with where Sam herself was residing at the time. Sam had given Annabella a sidekick as well, a snooty, uptight penguin, because Mac had a thing for penguins, named Horace. Sam would write incredible tales of high adventure, astounding bravery and narrow escapes from the clutches of evil on thin, crinkly onionskin paper, and send them off in blue airmail envelopes, trying to make them as exotic-looking as possible. She would write them as if Annabella was writing to her close personal friend Mac, and she would include the address of a poste restante where Mac could write back. She still had every drawing and letter Mac had sent to Annabella, they were among her most prized possessions. As Mac got older, she knew that Sam was the letter writer, but it was a pleasant fiction they both kept up, until Sam had arrived in New York, nine months ago, and had neglected to send anything to Mac.

"Sometimes I think about her. I wonder how she's doing," Mac remarked wistfully.

I am the lamest sister in the universe, Sam thought, shamed by her behavior. She had no idea that the letters meant so much to Mac. For her, it was just a way to let Mac know that she was thinking of her. But if she held everything she had received from Mac dear to her heart, it only made sense that Mac might feel the same about what she had sent. She had just never realized it before.

"Mom helped me make a scrapbook of all her letters, and we put some of your postcards in there too," Mac continued.

"Mom knows about Annabella?" Sam was surprised.

"Oh yeah. She loved reading them almost as much as I did. Brooke has read them too. A while ago, Mom photocopied all of them and sent them to a friend who make's children's books," Mac disclosed.

"She sent them to a publisher?" Sam's eyebrows disappeared into her hairline. She digested this bit of information. "Well, how do you like that? I wonder why she never told me."

"She didn't want to get your hopes up, she said." Mac informed her.

"But you don't mind getting my hopes up?' Sam grinned.

"I think they're good. Maybe if she told you, you would write more of them, and I'd be able to find out what happens to her in the end." Mac looked over at Sam pointedly.

"I will, Mac," Sam promised, soberly. "I'm sorry I left you hanging."

Mac smiled, but had acquitted herself of the topic already. She was examining her fingers, which had become wrinkly and waterlogged. "Why is it that water can come out of us, like when we sweat, but water doesn't go into us, like when we're in water?"

Sam tried to keep up with the rapid subject change. "Um, I dunno, Mac," she tried to think back to high school biology. "I think it's because we have a semi-permeable membrane, or something? Does that sound right?" she ventured uncertainly.

"I'm asking you," Mac pointed out.

"Sorry, Mac, you've stumped me. Maybe Brooke will know."

"Yeah, she probably will. She's coming today, right?" Mac said.

Operation Big Sister has officially crashed and burned, Sam thought glumly. She nodded, "Yep, we'll meet her ferry later. She's bringing somebody with her, by the way."

Mac looked at her. "Who?"

"I don't know, she said it's a surprise. You may have to share your bunk beds, Macaroon."

"What if it's a boy? I'm not sleeping with any boys," Mac said vehemently.

"Me neither," Sam smirked. But Mac had a point. Who could it be? Who could Brooke have possibly met while in Boston that they both knew? She guessed she'd find out soon. "Don't worry, any boys will have to sleep outside on this raft, 'kay?"

Mac nodded.

"So, what do you say, prune-girl? You ready to get out?"

Brooke and Nicole stood at the railing of a Boston/Provincetown ferry, watching the dock come closer as the boat approached land. There was a crowd of people waiting at the dock, but Brooke couldn't make out any individual faces. She took her camera out of her bag and looked through the telephoto lens and quickly spotted Sam and Mac. Mac stood with her arms folded on the dock's guardrail, and Sam stood behind her with her hands on Mac's shoulders. They were scanning the faces on the boat, just as she and Nicole were searching the ones on land. Brooke depressed the shutter of her mother's old Nikon and heard the mechanical snick of the aperture opening and closing. She took the camera away from her eye and pointed out Sam and Mac to Nic, then held it up once again, hoping to take a few more shots of the sisters. But Sam must have really good eyesight, Brooke thought, because when she adjusted the focus she saw that Sam had locked onto herself and Nic, and she did not look at all pleased. Oh boy, maybe this wasn't such a good idea.

Mac ran up to Brooke and gave her a hug as they materialized through the crowd of people.

"Hi, Mac," Brooke exclaimed, as she bent down to return her embrace. "Look at you, already started on your tan! Have you been having fun?"

"Yep," Mac replied, then looked at Nicole, who had been standing at Brooke's side.

"Mac," Brooke introduced, "this is Nicole, she's an old friend of mine and Sam's, from high school."

"Not my friend," Sam said coldly, as she got close to the little group. "Brooke?" she asked, the one word a demand for an explanation.

"Hi Sam," Brooke said sheepishly. She hadn't seen Sam this angry in a long time. Brooke pulled her into a hug and whispered in her ear, "Please, please don't be upset. I'll explain everything."

Sam drew away and simply looked at her for a moment, never once glancing towards Nicole. She picked up Brooke's bag and stomped off, with a "Car's this way," tossed over her shoulder.

Brooke looked at Nic and sighed.

"I'm not going to say 'I told you so,' but that's what I said in the first place," Nicole said regretfully.

"It'll be all right, she just needs to get used to the idea, I should have told her on the phone," Brooke said.

Mac stood between them, looking at one face and then the other, as they spoke, like she was watching a tennis match.

"Maybe I should go, I can get right back on the ferry," Nic suggested.

"No. You are my guest. Come on," she took Mac's hand and they all followed Sam through the congested parking lot to the car.

As they prepared to depart, Sam and Brooke in the front, Nic and Mac in the back, Nicole said, "It's good to see you, Sam," meaning to extend the olive branch.

Sam turned in her seat and looked Nicole in the eye. "Listen," she said savagely, before her eyes slid over towards Mac and she swallowed the torrent of foul language she was about to unleash. She looked at the ignition key in her hand and gave it to Brooke. "Here," she said, "I'll walk back," and she slammed out of the driver's seat and started walking.

"I'll be right back," Brooke said opening her car door. "Mac you'll be okay with Nic?" she asked turning back to look at her sister. When she saw Mac's mute nod, she was off and running.

Nicole looked at Mac. "Well, that wasn't too uncomfortable" she said, chagrined.

"You knew my sisters in high school?" Mac cast a sidelong glance at Nic.

Brooke caught up with Sam, who had only gone a few cars lengths distant. "Sam!"

Sam wheeled around to confront Brooke. "How could you invite that would-be murderer here, Brooke?" she asked in disbelief, her brown eyes nearly onyx with fury. "What the hell were you thinking? Oh wait, you totally weren't! She tried to kill you! What makes you think she won't try it again?"

"Sam, please, calm down," Brooke said placatingly. "You're turning all purple and blotchy. She's not going to try it again."

"How could you possibly know that?" Sam spoke in a quieter tone, trying to get a hold of herself.

"I just do. She's in really bad shape. Her life is a mess. I feel sorry for her."

"She deserves it," Sam snapped, "for everything she did to you."

"Maybe she does," Brooke acknowledged. "But I couldn't just leave her in that hotel and not try to do something to help her. You and I, Sam, we have so much. We've always had so much more than she ever had. I think she needs our help, and I think we owe it to ourselves to help her. You know, be the better person, and all that. Plus, we'll get some serious karmic brownie points."

"But Brooke, you nearly died," Sam fiercely beseeched, the rage in her eyes commingled with terror-filled remembrance.

Brooke realized that Sam's anger was coming from a place of fear, and didn't really have much to do with Nicole. "I'm right here, Sam," Brooke soothed, and grasped her around the upper arms, and looked into her eyes. "Alive and well, although a little pale among all these tanned bodies. It's certainly not going to kill me to be nice to Nicole for a few days. What happened is in the past, and that's where it needs to stay." She hugged Sam again, and this time she did not pull away.

Sam's shoulders sagged, the fight gone out of her, and she looked confounded. "How can you be so good?"

Brooke knew it was over, she had disarmed the bomb Sam had nearly become, and she didn't even need to get horizontal. "Easy," she said, but didn't explain any further. She took Sam's arm and began walking her back to the car. "Now, Nic's going to take us out to dinner, can you be civil for a little while?"

Sam stopped her. "I'm doing this for you, Brooke, not her, because you want me to," she looked soberly into Brooke's eyes. "And I'm ordering the most expensive thing on the menu," she added in total seriousness.

"Fair enough." Brooke couldn't hide a smile. She grabbed Sam's shirtfront and gave her a very thorough kiss. "Thank you." She took a step back from Sam and smoothed her now wrinkled shirt. "So, how are you and Mac doing?"

"Ah, I don't know. I think she's really glad you're back. Now that she's had some solid time to get to know me again, I don't think she likes me very much," Sam was dejected.

Brooke didn't believe it. She knew that Mac thought Sam hung the moon. "How could you possibly know that?" she repeated Sam's earlier question, and adopted the haughty tone she had used.

Sam smiled in spite of herself, she hated how Brooke could so easily get her to cave to her wishes. She was so utterly whipped. "I just do," she echoed Brooke's response.

"Come on, I'm starved."

When they got back in the car, they were surprised to hear gales of laughter, coming from Mac.

"… So Brookie took this bottle of ketchup and squeezed it all over Spam, sorry, I mean Sam. Then Sam took a cup of hot chocolate and threw it in Brooke's face, and that's how these two started the biggest food fight in Kennedy history," Nic waggled her thumb towards the front seat, nearly dissolving into hysterics herself.

"Oh god, she's telling tales," Brooke realized.

Sam started the car. "Then we better find somewhere to eat fast. She can't talk if her mouth is full. And somewhere in this town is a big expensive slab of cow with my name on it."

Part 6

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