DISCLAIMER: Popular and its characters are the property of Ryan Murphy. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: MAJOR props go to faechick for the awesome beta.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Just a Little Insight
By Misty Flores



In certain moments of extreme generosity, clarity, or sappy sentiment, Brooke McQueen would admit to herself that having Sam forced into her life had actually changed her for the better.

When she was at her worst, having a bad day, or completely livid because somehow Sam had managed to wipe half of her MP3's off of her IPOD, she would declare to the world that Sam McPherson had ruined her life.

There were two sets of extremes, both equally volatile and utterly sincere, and at first, Brooke had some trouble reconciling them.

Lying in a hospital bed, in the groggy sort of dispirits that came from spending two months in a coma because she had been run down by her best friend trying to murder her, Brooke had time to contemplate them both.

She remembered a tenuous truce struck, a hesitant sense of euphoria that came with that freedom, secret smiles and laughter in the midst of that whole mess with Harrison. She remembered admitting to herself that she loved Sam, and somehow shifting loyalties from blonde to brunette. She remembered a fight with Nicole for the sake of Sam, and it was never a question of choosing, just a question of when Nicole had pushed her enough. She remembered the line in the sand, drawn because Nicole had chosen to hurt Sam just when Brooke understood that she loved her.

It was because of Sam that she walked away from Harrison that night. Because of Sam that she realized she didn't CARE that Harrison had chosen her, that all she really cared about was the fact that Sam had tears in her eyes, and none of it was what Brooke wanted.

It was because of Sam that Nicole's headlights came burning down on her, and two months of her life were eaten away.

"I brought you something," Sam said, a forced cheerfulness in her voice that sounded fake and contrived. She cringed inside, just hearing it, and she hated that she couldn't help herself. The sight of Brooke, brown roots over taking the long blond strands that lay listlessly around the angular face, face sallow and tired and so... spiritless, brought out the inner cheerleader Sam had been horrified to discover that she had.

Brooke didn't even lift an eyebrow, turning her head from the blaring TV to watch her come into the room. "Hi," she said. "Is school over already?"

Sam paused, taking a moment to glance at blinds purposely closed, shutting out the sun intentionally. "It's a little dark in here," she said pointedly.

Brooke glanced at the blinds, then back at Sam. "The light was hurting my eyes." Her tone was even, almost annoyed.

Sam kept her place in the doorway, and made herself take a deep breath in. "Okay, but I think a little light would be good in here."

"It's a hospital room, Sam, not a spa."

"True," she acquiesced, "but I know he might appreciate it," Sam responded, and produced a little betta in a huge champagne glass. "His name is Little Bleu," she continued, coming forward with the little fish, swimming around in the swishing water with rapidly flickering velvety blue green fins. "Not B-L-U-E, but B-L-E-U. What do you think?"

"You got me a fish?" Brooke asked, in a tone that made it impossible to determine whether or not it was welcome.

Sam made a dramatic roll of her eyes. "No, blockhead, not just any fish. This is Little Bleu! He's a fighter. He's scrappy. And beautiful. Just like you." She offered a nervous smile before continuing, "And you don't have to worry about feeding him or changing the water, because I will be here every day to do that. He's pretty!" She finished her sales pitch with a little hop and a wave of her hands, positioning the little betta on the stand right next to her bed.

It was a struggle, to deal with this new Brooke, just when she had finally made her peace with the old one, but Sam had never been one to back away from a challenge. She had challenged Brooke before, back when she had decided she hated her, and had pretty much done every damned thing she could do to make that the case. While her current resolution was decidedly the opposite, Sam's resolve was no less distinct. Post Coma Brooke was different, but it wasn't her fault. Sam was pretty sure if she had been mowed down by her best friend on prom night and left in a coma during the entire summer she'd be a bitch on wheels too.

"Sam... I..." Brooke seemed to finally give up on the television, at least, reaching up to flick it off with her remote. Her expression, however, looked more exasperated than anything else. "Thank you, but... "

"But what? It's cute! And he's smart. Okay? He swims around and when it's feeding time, he nearly has a cardiac arrest." When Brooke just stared, Sam blushed. "Trust me, it's cute."

"What are you doing, Sam? You don't have to spend every day here."

"I know I don't." Brooke's face was impossible to read. "Look, I brought your college apps that came in the mail," Sam continued, feeling oddly desperate as she began to shrug off her pack. "And Mike signed you up for the same day as me for the SATs...."


"I figured we could study together-"

"Sam, stop. You're trying too hard."

It was excruciating, and as the words came out of Brooke's mouth, Sam found herself slumping forward, rubbing long fingers into her eyes. "God, I know. It's pathetic."

"Extremely," Brooke said, but not unkindly.

"I don't know why," she said, fingers curling into her lap. Sinking onto the bed, she ran her tongue over her bottom lip, a nervous tick. "I'm not saying it was ever easy," she began suddenly, eyes darting up to stare into the crystal clear orbs of Brooke. "But even when it was hard... it wasn't like this."

Brooke raised her knees to her chest, hugging them to her. "So why are you trying?"

The question was startling. "Why aren't you?"

Brooke's look was long, careful, and closed. With a small smile, she merely shrugged and looked away, reaching for the remote and turning away. "Thanks for the fish," she said, and with that, completely dismissed Sam.

The ache that flared inside of her was something Sam would never forget.

Brooke would never know if Sam understood exactly what happened in her hospital room that day. Honestly, she wasn't quite sure she understood it herself. All she knew was that Sam was a source of conflict and extremes, and it wasn't something she wanted to handle, not when Sam was trying so hard to be a source of calm, and through no fault of her own, failing miserably.

Cutting off whatever Sam was doing at the knees was what was best, and there was some relief that came from it. Brooke recovered at her own pace, now that Sam wasn't stopping in every day acting like her own personal misguided cheerleader. She studied in those long hours and learned the prep books that Sam had left behind backwards and forwards. When Harrison and Carmen and Lily and Josh came by she was polite and friendly, and when Mary Cherry stopped by with her tremendous story about her drag queen father and gangbanger sister, she really laughed for the first time in a while. She had a curious sedateness, and it suited her.

It was when Sam was around that she really would feel, and for some reason, the reaction frightened her. Sam would stop by, but only with Mike and Jane, and when Brooke was finally allowed to go home, impossibly skinny and a complete brunette, she and Sam had unconsciously reached a different kind of truce. Sam was considerate, sweet and distant, and Brooke was the same.

She didn't know if she blamed Sam for the accident, Brooke didn't want to be that closed minded or selfish. She didn't even know why she had chosen to freeze out Sam when she also missed her. There were moments when they would slip, both of them, either erupt in a horrible fight that would make Jane and her dad even crankier now because of little Mac, or fall into a moment where the veil of formality would slip and there would be a genuine smile, a genuine laugh, a minute second of sincere emotion.

It would always happen when she wouldn't expect it, like the day she was sitting on the couch and Sam came in carrying little Mac against her shoulder, bouncing her nervously because Sam always was a little afraid of the baby. Brooke had only looked up for a second, but the image touched her in a way that had her suddenly staring, and when Sam caught her looking, her step sister did the one thing that disarmed her completely: she smiled. The rush of emotion that came to her surface was nearly painful, and it wasn't long before the comfortable intimacy became uncomfortable awkwardness, and Sam had exited stage right, leaving the stale quiet behind.

In Brooke's room, Little Bleu swam around in circles, hiding among the soft bristles of the little fake plant Brooke had gotten on a whim.

He was just a fish, but Brooke could admit that she loved him.

"Honey, are you sure you want to try and take that fish with you?"

"Dad, I checked with the dorm. It's no problem. We're allowed to keep a small aquarium."

"I know, honey, but you have enough here, why don't you leave it for now and when you get settled, you can pick up the fish."

"It's not just a fish, Dad, I'm not leaving Little Bleu."

"I'm not saying you have to, just for the week."

Sam hadn't meant to eavesdrop. She had only meant to stop in and say goodbye, before heading back to her room to figure out how the hell to stuff an entire wardrobe into three suitcases. Still, there was something in that angry lilt that Brooke had in her tone, an angry bit of emotion that made Sam take pause. When she walked in, she saw Brooke hugging the over-sized champagne glass against her chest, brown hair pulled away from her face to reveal a resolved expression.

When they both glanced at her, she felt a little guilty, stepping back as if to ask permission. "Sorry, I was just ... coming to say good-bye."

"It's fine," Mike said, hands on his hips, as if annoyed he was even being forced to argue over a fish. "Maybe you can try to talk some sense into Brooke, here-"

"Mike, the stubborn apple does not fall far from the stubborn tree. You're not going to win this argument. Little Bleu goes." The smile she got from Brooke was the first real one she had seen in days.

"Jane!" Mike tried, just as her mother swept in behind her. "About this fish-"

"Mike, what do you have against the fish? It's Brooke's fish. She can take her fish."

Sam grinned, and was suddenly rewarded with an armful of Mac. "Mom-" But her mother was already gone, followed by a suddenly grouchy Mike, who complained loudly about the women to men ratio in the house.

"What's his problem?" Sam asked Mac, struggling to hold onto the slippery toddler as she tried to weave out of her grasp. "I think Daddy has a serious case of betta envy."

It was only when Brooke chuckled that she realized her stepsister was still in the room.

"So..." Sam began, licking her lips and coming forward with her acrobat little sis. "Need any help?" Brooke's bedroom was sparse now. An open luggage case sat on the perfectly made bed, and the little glass bowl that held Little Bleu was now next to an open zip lock bag, obviously being made ready for transport.

"No, I think I'm all set. But thanks anyway." Brooke wore a smile that was hard to look away from, and formalities over with, Sam found herself struggling for words.

"Brooke," she said finally. "I know we haven't really been close this year-"

"Sam..." came the soft, whispy voice. "You don't have to-"

"Yes, I do." The tears that sprang told her that, and she juggled Mackenzie and couldn't wipe at them as they stung. "I don't know what happened, Brooke, but I just... I need you to know that... that, for what it's worth, I-"

"Sam, please." Her vision was blurry, and still, her eyes shut tight when soft fingers began to wipe at the salty tears that stained her skin. "Your mascara."

"I'm sorry," she whispered, a gentle ache. "I'm sorry that I made you hate me."

"Oh, God, Sam... I don't hate you. I love you." Brooke's voice was rough, different than before, and Sam laughed pathetically, eyes opening to discover a pitying expression, a palm against her face.

Between them, Mackenzie squirmed, and Sam shook her head. "Remember when you hated me? God, Brooke, one word and I would crack that mask you wore, and for a second, I would see the real you. I may have told myself I hated you, but... but at least that was real. And it made me feel real. And then... before the accident it was... even with the Harrison madness-"

"Sam, you don't understand-" Brooke was so close now, eyes bright and moist, and it was more than Sam could bear, because she was sure Brooke pitied her now, and she still didn't know how it happened, why it happened.

"You're right, I don't." Stumbling backwards, she moved away, from the look on Brooke's face, from the flaring pain in her chest, from all of it. "And I don't want to. I just wanted to say good-bye, and to tell you that... you forced me to take a look at myself, and made me realize, I wasn't who I wanted to be. You changed me, Brooke, and I'll never forget that. For that, I'm thanking you. Give Little Bleu a kiss for me."

With a crooked smile, she carried Mac out of Brooke's room, and told herself she had said everything she needed to, and just like Brooke, she could move on.

Brooke dyed her hair blonde the first semester at USC. She rushed one of the sororities, and made it through the hazing even after she got snapped at for disagreeing a little too vocally about some of the more ridiculous demands placed on them by the sisters.

She dated one of the linebackers, a blonde, surprisingly sensitive jock named Adam, and thanks to that, found herself in the crux of the social circle at one of the biggest football campuses in the nation.

Her classes were large and somehow still intimate, and Rodeo Drive was only twenty minutes away.

She emailed Sam, at her new Northwestern University address, and in it she tried hard to explain the twisted logic behind the falling apart of their sisterhood. She tried to explain what Sam meant to her, and how she struggled between extremes, and couldn't quite seem to let go of the bitterness that came with it, because what she was living now was everything Brooke had wanted to achieve when she was a starry eyed sixteen year old and it wasn't enough.

What she wanted, she wrote Sam, was to feel again. To sit beside Sam like they did in chemistry and speak without speaking, with gestures and looks. To have that thrill she couldn't quite explain when she realized people were starting to see them as 'Sam and Brooke' and not just individual entities. She wanted the thrill that came with loving Sam, because Sam was beautiful and secure in herself, and Brooke came alive around her.

And, she also wrote, she hated Sam a little for that. Because all this stuff that was all so interesting before Sam wasn't interesting at all, and Brooke had begun to realize that it was really all she had, and she was looking at the rest of her life being bored stiff, because it was what everyone expected and Brooke had gotten run over when she had tried to push against it.

She wrote to Sam that it was wrong that Sam made her feel this way, because there was something twisted that her step sister was putting her through all this emotion, and sometimes it was easier not to feel. That was why she kept her at arms length, because the uncontrollable emotion that came from loving Sam nearly killed her.


She tried to explain that she didn't know what she wanted, or how to control it, and wouldn't know for a while and it was easier to shut her out completely, and she wanted to tell her that watching Sam break down with little Mac in her arms had stayed with her and buried deep down inside of her.

She told Sam she was beautiful, that she had always thought so, and what she had really wanted was to forget Harrison and just go to prom with Sam.

She wrote it all, and when it came time to send it, Brooke's own survival instinct kicked in, and she closed the window and didn't save the draft. Instead, she CC'D Sam on her email to her parents, and hated herself just a little bit.

Little Bleu would get excited to see her, and wag his little tail when he saw her enter the room. Brooke knew there was a logical reason for it, he associated her with food, but she still smiled at him, talked to him, and forever branded herself as 'the Fish Chick' in her sorority because of her insane love for her betta.

Jane called her a week before Thanksgiving break, asking her when she was driving the forty minutes it took to get home. She included some general updates, and when Brooke hesitantly asked what day Sam was getting there, got a quiet pause and a response that Sam wasn't going to be able to make it back until Christmas.

Jane asked Brooke to call Sam, try and convince her to come back for the holiday, because Jane said she was sure the only reason Sam was staying away was because she was afraid, and if Brooke and Mike and Jane could only convince her that they were all perfectly fine with her being gay then maybe Sam wouldn't be so afraid of bringing her girlfriend home.

Brooke had been so stunned she hadn't been able to make a sound, and Jane thought she had been hung up on. It had taken five minutes of phone tag and mortified apologies and explanations on both ends before Brooke could close her cell phone.

It wasn't until then that she realized she was shaking.


Part 1. Step One. You Say We Need To Talk

"You know, next time Sam decides to get you an animal, I'm going to ask her to get you something that's a little more portable."

Brooke smiled, wrapping fingers around the plastic bag that held the little blue betta fish, trying hard as she could to keep it from bobbing too much with the motions of the car.

"I don't think I'm very capable of taking care of much else," she told Jane, who smiled in response, turning the wheel as they bumped up into their driveway.

"Well, the way you take care of both Mac and Little Bleu, I seriously disagree with you." Jane shrugged, pulling the keys from the ignition. "At least I've got a chance of get grandkids from one of you."

Hesitating, Brooke hugged the plastic bag against her body, and turned her head as she watched Jane open the back door and begin fussing with Mac's car chair.

Little comments like that had a habit of flushing an icy chill into the pit of her stomach, and Brooke always told herself it was on behalf of Sam. As okay as Jane seemed to be with Sam's little bombshell, there had seemed to be a couple moments, where Brooke could see Sam's mother struggling.

"Jane," she tried, fumbling for the car door and trying to keep her fingers tied around the little bag that held Little Bleu and sling her backpack onto her shoulder at the same time. "You know, just because she's... gay, it doesn't mean that..."

Jane straightened, hoisting the baby onto her hip. Dressed for the cold, the toddler looked like an overstuffed teddy bear. She could barely move. Brooke smiled when the baby gave her a gummy grin.

"-there are ways," Brooke tried again, feeling her cheeks flush uncontrollably.

"I know," Jane answered, and had the graciousness to appear ashamed. "I'm okay with it, Brooke. Really, I am. I want Sam to be happy. But I can't help thinking that... you know Sam, she tries so hard to be different-"

"I don't think Sam would tell you about this if it really wasn't what she wanted," Brooke said carefully, retrieving Little Blue's champagne glass from the bottom of the seat, closing the car door with a careful nudge of her hips.

"Well, did you have any idea?" Fishing for her keys, Jane tossed her an inquisitive look. "Did she say anything to you?"

Responding with an awkward chuckle, Brooke averted her eyes, making sure not to squish her fish. Her smile was almost bitter. "Jane, you know how I found out."

It had been a slap in the face, to find out that her step sister was gay from her own step mother in a passing phone call. Not that Brooke expected a personalized coming out telegram, but for all their issues, Sam had started to trust her.

At least until the accident, and in those months that followed, Brooke knew she had no one but herself to blame for the disintegration.

But still, it stung. Especially considering...

"I know, but you two were getting close. I just hate to think that she had to figure this out on her own."

"You know Sam," Brooke mumbled, nodding her thank you as Jane held the door open. "Miss Independent."

"Well..." Jane sighed, and Mac let out a little baby giggle and a bubble as Jane plopped her on the counter, going to work on the zipper that held together the baby's enormous coat. "See if you can talk to her. Maybe... I don't know. There's only so much she can say to her mother. Maybe her sister..."

"I'm not... Okay," Brooke said, barely a whisper, somehow annoyed. When Jane looked at her, she shrugged, avoiding the questioning stare to look down at Little Bleu, who obviously seemed more than a little stressed with the current move. He gave a little flips in his water, little beading eyes staring up at her with a pathetic expression. "I better get him into some decent water."

"Okay, that's fine. Are you going with us to pick up Sam from the airport?"

Back unreasonably tense, she turned around and forced a smile. "You know, I think I'm going to unpack. I kinda... want to unwind, if that's okay."

"Of course that's fine, sweetie!" Jane's smile was kind, and not at all suspicious. "Oh, and Brooke?"

She pressed her mouth together, waiting in anxious silence.

"Welcome home, honey."

Little Bleu swam in a gentle circle, happy to be back in his little home. Brooke could hardly say she felt the same.

Flat on her back, she morosely plugged her earphones into her ears and set the IPOD on high, eyes closing as the almost blistering loud music slammed into her brain.

She wasn't much of a brooder. Brooke preferred to be proactive, to actively solve her insecurities with solutions, or, in some cases, starvation. She had never been used to delving into her own psyche, instead wanting to take action, any action, to activate some sort of change. A semester in college had forced her to realize that everything she did was an effort to avoid her own thoughts, and she hated that feeling.

She also, coincidentally, hated freshman psych for putting that thought into her head.

It had taken a lot to become comfortable in her skin, and towards the end of junior year, Brooke thought she was on her way to getting there. A relapse of her eating disorder and Harrison's cancer withstanding, Brooke had things she had never had before: confidence in herself that wasn't founded in her own superficial appearance, an identity. She had friends that cared about her, and while she didn't have Harrison, she had Sam, her sister, who she was sure she loved.

Brooke hadn't wanted to think too much of her sexuality. While something had always been missing with Josh, she had really come to care about him, so much she didn't care about the sex. And with Harrison, it had been nice. There hadn't been much there in terms of attraction, but Brooke didn't want that anyhow. She wanted Harrison because he was sweet and kind and sensitive, and in a weird way, kinda of like a girl.

Brooke winced, forehead wrinkling together before she brought her fingers to her skin and forced herself to smooth it out.

That day they were all locked up in the Novak when Lily had admitted she was confused, it had felt almost liberating, to say it out loud. She had thought about it. She had flashes and images and caught herself staring too long at Nicole's breasts in the locker room and twice, had some very embarrassing dreams that involved Sam and being naked and woke up flushed and scared.

Of course she had said it quietly and only really Nicole had heard her, and Nicole didn't believe her, and after her moment of weakness, she was glad no one had. It was too much, too soon, too fast.

So she didn't think about it. That fuzzy feeling that came with Sam was something she copped to being sisters, and throughout her sophomore and junior year, that became her constant. Yeah, her and Sam fought all the time, but there were moments where she could just stop and stare at Sam and suddenly be really, really happy that it was Sam sitting across from her at dinner, sitting on her bed, begging for help in chemistry because the Claw hated her, sprawled on the floor delivering their sister. She didn't have to hesitate to tell Sam that she thought she was beautiful, she could talk to Sam about sex and be gratified Sam was coming to HER, she could even bring up the idea of her and Harrison and Sam all going together to prom and it not being weird at all because they were sisters.

Everyone thought it was the coma and the accident that had changed Brooke, and to a point, it was true. But it wasn't just that.

It was the sharp realization, sitting at that dinner table, as soon as Harrison had chosen her and Sam's eyes welled up with tears, that for all her protestations of sisterly love to the world about Sam, she was incredibly, hopelessly, desperately, IN love with her.

There was enough difference in that statement to completely destroy any sense of stability she had. It was that moment that caused her to jump up from the table, to walk away from Sam. It had been her moment of panic, her overwhelming need to get away from Sam and her newfound feelings, that had blinded her to the oncoming car until it was too late.

Two months later, she had woken up in a hospital bed and nothing had changed and everything had changed. Nicole had gotten off with minimal punishment. Harrison was still there, waiting for his chance. Lily and Josh were still together and Carmen was now the most popular girl in school, with Mary Cherry as her sidekick. And Sam was there, in her hospital room, trying to be everything she could be and nothing Brooke wanted her to be.

It had taken a semester at USC to prove to Brooke that whatever she was doing, her little push to get back any sense of normalcy she could, wasn't working. That night wasn't going to go away, she knew, and it was more that ache in her hip that wouldn't go away on really chilly nights and her inability to try out for song girls because she didn't have the flexibility she used to. It was the fact that despite Brooke's attempts to move forward and forget everything, she was living in the past, and it was never more clear than now that she was the only one doing so, because Sam had clearly moved on, and not seen fit to tell her.

Now it was Christmas, and Brooke was hours away from seeing Sam again, and facing this, whatever it was, head on. It wouldn't be fair, she knew, to blame Sam for not loving her. It was already twisted, and she had hurt Sam, she knew, by not being the sister that Sam had wanted her to be.

Brooke hadn't been what Sam needed, not in that last year, and Sam had adjusted accordingly.

Eyes opening, Brooke stared up at the ceiling and considered her options. She could continue the polite freeze-out, until she couldn't take it anymore and react in the worst possible way, and she had the strong suspicion that would end up with another stint in her favorite place, the eating disorder wing at the hospital.

Rubbing her palm along her flat stomach, Brooke grimaced at just the thought. She wasn't going there again. She had promised herself.

She could also be an adult about this and admit that she had reacted badly and selfishly, and apologize to Sam and hope she could at least be friends with Sam again.

There was another option, one she didn't even want to think about, that involved the truth, and Brooke's heart throbbed at even the idea. Just because Sam liked girls didn't mean she liked HER, and if Brooke even entertained that thought it would just get her into a really bad place.

No. Option two was the best idea. That decided, Brooke closed her eyes and let out a hot breath.

When her bed bobbed with an unseen weight, it had been completely unexpected. Heart jackknifing into her throat, Brooke's eyes jerked open and she nearly tumbled off of it, muffling a screech when she discovered a longer haired version of Sam staring down at her, cross-legged on the bed.


"Holy shit!" Sam said, nearly flailing off the bed at Brooke's violent reaction, ducking to avoid Brooke's long legs, swinging at her unintentionally as Brooke tried to right herself. "I'm sorry! I should have knocked!"

Hand pressed to her chest, Brooke blinked at her, jerking off her earphones to stare at the brunette. Cheeks still flushed from the cold, the other girl was now unraveling a scarf from around her neck, half perched on the bed.

"Sam," she said dumbly, too shocked to say anything else. "You're here."

"What a great observation," Sam answered dryly, and Brooke nearly rolled her eyes, trying to get her breathing down to normal. "My flight was early. Mom and Mike wanted me to come get you. We brought chicken." That said, Sam flashed her a shrug and a smile, and backed toward the door, scarf in her hand. Dark eyes flickered toward the bowl on her nightstand, and Sam offered the swimming fish a nod. "Lil' Bleu," she greeted, in her best 'Finding Nemo' impersonation, before heading out of Brooke's room as quickly as she came in.

Brooke stayed on the bed a second longer, trying to process the brief reintroduction of Sam into her life.

Shaking her head, she found herself chuckling oddly at the unconventionality of it.

With Sam, it wouldn't be any other way.

"So, do you girls have any big plans for the break?"

It was Jane's polite way of trying to engage the crowd into some sort of dinner conversation, interjecting the question as carefree as she could without trying to sound obnoxiously nosy.

Still, it made the chicken stick a little in the back of Brooke's throat, as she looked up and caught Sam fussing with her mashed potatoes, obviously not in the mood for any sort of chat.

Forcing down the lump of chicken, Brooke took in a small breath, and offered a small smile. "Well, there's a Christmas party that a couple of my sorority sisters who live in Laguna are throwing, but... nothing special." Sam could barely contain the roll of her eyes at the idea, and tongue pressed into the corner of her mouth, Brooke didn't elaborate.

Mike, in the middle of bouncing Mac on his lap, tried to look suitably interested. "That's nice. And you, Sam? Hanging with Carmen and Lily?"

Putting down her plastic fork, Sam also offered her own version of a strained smile. "Actually, um... Carmen's with Mary Cherry in the Alps, and Lily went to visit Josh's family, so... I don't really have a lot of plans. It's cool... I'll see if Harrison's doing anything and swing by the old record store and see if I can pick up some hours."

"Oh, you shouldn't have to work on your break!" Jane chided, and Brooke mentally agreed. "Sam, why don't you spend some time here? You weren't here for Thanksgiving, and it'll be nice to have you home."

"Mom, I... it's nice to be home, but... I'm trying to save up some cash to go to Florida for Spring Break with Rebecca...."

Rebecca. The name caused an awkward reaction, and Brooke found herself choking on her chicken.

"Brooke honey, are you all right?"

"Fine," she wheezed, and fumbled for her water, trying to hack up the lodged piece. "Just... went down the wrong tube," she managed, recovering. Everyone was staring at her, and Brooke felt oddly like she was putting on a performance. "Hey, Sam... I need to go pick up a few things tomorrow. You know, last minute Christmas shopping. Do you want to come with me?"

It was a dirty tactic, bringing it up in front of the parentals, and Brooke knew Sam didn't think much of it. Her expressive mouth turned downwards and she openly hesitated, shaking her head unwillingly.

"Brooke, I did all my Christmas shopping early for a reason..."

"Oh, come on, Sam! You should keep her company!"

"Yeah, Sam, why not? It'll be fun." Mike paused long enough to blow a raspberry on Mac's tummy. "That's my girl!"

"Dad, that's gross to do at the table," Brooke told him, and he gave her a wink in response. "Please, Sam? I'd like to spend some time with you."

Sam's eyebrow's narrowed suspiciously, but Brooke thankfully had the family on her side, and when Jane gave the unsociable one an arched eyebrow, Sam gave up with a fork thrown on her plate.

"Fine," she relented. "But if we're there more than three hours, I'm going to hurt you."

She couldn't help her small smug grin. "Fair enough," she said, and then eyed her chicken warily, not quite ready to dive back in. No wonder she stopped eating. She was really bad at it.

Shallow as it was, Brooke was slightly relieved that Sam's coming out hadn't precipitated a full out dyke make over. Eyebrows were still plucked, foundation, the Bare Minerals Brooke had bought her for her last birthday, was still applied, and her hair was neither crew cut looking or looking at all like a boy.

In fact, Sam was as beautiful as ever, in her slightly tighter jeans and her casual fitted tee, hat squished over her head. The only real noticeable difference was a little less lipstick and a more natural shade of eyeshadow, and honestly, it only made her look better.

The scowl on her face, however, didn't add anything to the natural beauty Sam possessed, and Brooke had half a mind to tell her so, as they drove to the mall. In the passenger seat, Sam had her arms crossed, and she was looking everywhere but at Brooke.

"Thanks for coming," Brooke said, when Sam said nothing at all. "I wanted to catch up."

"So strong-arming me in front of the 'rents was the way to do it?" Apparently that still wasn't sitting well.

"Would you have come any other way?"

Sam finally looked at her, a half glance before glancing away. "Touche." Brooke smiled slightly, adjusting her glasses before turning on the signal light. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course," Brooke said, and took in a small, steadying breath. Option B was a commitment, and she found it easier than she thought it would be, to be as nice as she could, despite Sam's stares that made it clear she thought she had been lobotomized.

"What's with the Stepford act?" Brooke's mouth became a thin line. "I mean, I leave and you can barely look at me, and now, we're suddenly ..."

"Suddenly..." she repeated, when Sam paused.

"Just tell me what's gong on," Sam said flatly. "I'm not up for three weeks of this. It's not why I came home."

"Why did you come home?" Brooke asked, and nearly smacked herself for answering the question with a question. Somehow, it was still easier to deflect all of this, Option B be damned.

Clearly, Sam wasn't a fan of it either. Throwing her another glare, Sam settled further into her seat. "Because if I didn't Mom would kill me. And I wanted to see Mac."

"Oh." Brooke couldn't exactly hope for more than that.

"And you're avoiding the question."

"I know. I'm sorry." Turning into the mall parking lot, she tried to focus on finding a spot. "It's just... I had all these things I wanted to say to you, and ... I didn't exactly want to do it while I'm fighting some hummer for a compact spot..."

"It can't always be about what you want, Brooke."

"I know, I just..." Anxiety was building, and Brooke closed her eyes, suddenly incredibly frustrated. Slamming on the brakes, she jerked the car into park and turned to face the girl she was in love with. "Look, Sam, I know it's not enough. But I'm sorry. I'm sorry for shutting you out, and I'm sorry for hurting you. I should have been there for you and I wasn't, and I don't have any explanation for it, except that... prom night really messed me up."

Sam was staring at her like she had grown a second head, and it wasn't helping. Longing for a sudden sense of fogginess, Brooke tore off her glasses, and began to fiddle with them, now staring at her hands.

"I just... you were so nice, and I didn't... it was easier to push you away. But you're... I know I didn't act like it, but you were my best friend... not counting the one that ran me over." A hesitant glance up, she realized Sam was still just staring at her.

"You realize that you have about six cars behind you waiting to murder you right now, right?"

It was then that Brooke realized she had just stopped in the middle of a parking lane, in the midst of a cacophony of honking horns. "Oh, God..." Fumbling with the gear shift, she pressed on the gas. "Sorry, I just..."

"So why the change of heart?" Sam said quietly, watching when a car swung out from behind them and flipped them the bird.

Biting her lower lip, Brooke contemplated the own swelling emotion in her chest. She stayed quiet, simply driving, turning into another parking lane. "Do you remember when you came to me about George? You wanted him to be your first, and you came to me, and you asked me advice, and I showed you a porno." Her tone devolved into flat resignation at that last statement, and beside her, Sam snorted at the absurdity of it.

"Yeah," she heard. "That wasn't pretty."

"I loved that," she admitted. "That you came to me. That I could help you. It just... it made me so happy. And I guess, I just... when I found out from Jane that you were..." Her cheeks were burning, and she couldn't look at Sam, right then. "I couldn't believe that I hadn't been there for you. I hated myself for that."

A blanket of somber quiet settled in the car, and beside her Sam seemed to finally come to life, agitated sigh exhaling from her body before she turned in her seat, away from her.

"You didn't miss much," Sam muttered. "There wasn't much talk about it. It kinda just... happened. And you can say it. Gay."

"Gay," she repeated, as if trying to get used to it, the way it sounded on her tongue. "Gay."

"Gay," Sam said again. "Lesbian."

Coming to a pause, the car in front of them blinking their signal, obviously waiting for an exiting car, Brooke's own emotion seemed to rise and fall within her, leaving her curiously empty. Shifting, she stared at the beautiful girl in the car beside her, staring listelessly out of the window. "You know that I'm fine with it, right? That I ... love you..."

A bitter smile floated on Sam's list. "Thanks," she answered dryly. "That was my Christmas miracle. Acceptance from Brooky."

The car in front of her crawled into its space, and she swallowed harshly, hands back on the wheel. "I wanted to be your first."

"You what?" The tone was odd, and Brooke forced down the choked emotion swelling inside of her.

"Your first," she repeated, and stared into startled dark eyes. "The first person you told." Sam only kept staring at her, and suddenly, she glanced away, sinking deeper into her seat. "But I'll settle for being your friend again. If you'll let me. I know the sister thing is... "

"Shot for now," Sam breathed flatly.

"I'll make it up to you, Sam. I promise." Her words were sincere, her resolve fierce, and knuckles tightened against the steering wheel, she didn't care about what was in front of her, only what was beside her.

Sam was quiet for the longest time, obviously waging some inner battle with herself, and Brooke's insides felt like they were wrapped in a coil, stretched paper thin.

"You've missed like, five open spots," Sam said finally, and pointed a finger toward the other lane. "Head over there before you miss another one or we'll be living in this stupid garage."

It wasn't an answer, but it was good enough, Brooke smiled gratefully and followed the pointing.

"Thanks," she said meaningfully. Sam glanced at her, and for one minute second, Brooke wanted to tell herself she saw tears.

"I needed to get something for Mac anyway," Sam said, non-committal. "Can we do lunch at In-N-Out? I've starved for it. No pun intended."

"Sure," Brooke said, weak with relief. It wasn't much of anything, but Sam had given her a small hint of a chance.

She might as well have given her the world.


Part 2. Smile Politely Back At You

Brooke was absolutely positive that Sam was going to die from clogged arteries.

There was no way around it, the way Sam would eat. As if the fries given to them weren't already salty enough, thanks to the packet of it that she had poured over her portion, Sam had to go and also pour a second packet directly into her ketchup.

Wrapping fingers around her lettuce wrapped hamburger, Brooke couldn't hide her disgust. "Sam, you're going to have a heart attack when you're thirty."

The warning didn't have the desired effect. Instead of being properly frightened at the possibility, Sam instead gave her a wicked grin, grabbing yet a third packet of salt and opening her burger, sprinkling it on her lettuce as well. "At least I'll go happy and salty. Is that all you're having?"

Brooke stared down at her own meal. "What's wrong with it?"

"Nothing," Sam said, already digging over the table for her fries. "I'm just gonna steal some of these, if you don't mind..."

"Wow," Brooke noted, as the thin fries were dunked into the salty ketchup and then shoveled into the open mouth. "You really were starved for this stuff."

Mouth chewing, Sam nodded, sighing miserably. "One thing I failed to note upon accepting Northwestern, In-n-Out is a strictly a California thing. Over there, people stared at me like I had a second head when I suggested trying to find a place slightly healthier than White Castle."

"I guess it is a bit of an oxymoron," Brooke noted, and took a bite of her burger, lettuce crunching in her mouth deliciously. "There is an advantage sticking close to home, I guess."

"Mmm," Sam said, too busy chewing to really respond. Licking the dripping ketchup off her fingers, she shot Brooke a quizzical look. "How is good ole' SC? Dating the star quarterback yet?"

Flushing, Brooke began to pick at her lettuce wrap, trying to gather the lettuce together. "No," she said, a bit indignantly. "He's just a line backer."

"Oh, God," Sam's eyes nearly disappeared into the top of her head. "Blonde? Goes by the name of Sean or Riley or something?"

"Adam," Brooke answered, annoyed. "And he happens to be very nice."

"Totally," Sam said, nodding and then smiled, obviously in the middle of a joke that Brooke clearly wasn't getting.

"What?" Brooke asked, a little edgier than she wanted to come off.

"Nothing, it's just..." Sam shrugged and tore off a chunk of meat and bun. "Sounds like you're exactly where you wanna be. In a sorority, dating a football player... at USC, premiere football university on the West Coast..."


"It's just a little predictable," Sam finished, and looked at her, dark eyes twinkling merrily. "Gonna join the Song Girls too?"

"Predictable?" The condescending tone was beyond infuriating, and Brooke felt an uncontrollable urge to grab Sam's big honking soda and fling it all over her brown enlightened head. "What, just because I didn't suddenly decide to go all lesbo I'm being predictable?" Sam's smile froze. "Look, Sam, just because you decided to have some major lifestyle change doesn't mean there's anything wrong with going the traditional route." Flinging her disintegrating burger onto her plastic tray, Brooke buried her fingers into her blonde locks. "And for the record, I can't join the Song Girls, because I can't do the splits anymore, thanks to stiff joints and decreased blood flow that occurred during my two month long coma."

A mounting headache helped ignore the quiet girl on the other side of the table, and Brooke sniffled somewhat angrily, unsure why she was suddenly so needled by Sam and her 'gayer than thou' attitude.

Soft fingers suddenly brushed against hers, so light and quick she wasn't sure it happened at all, until she glanced up and discovered a somber gaze staring back at her.

"I'm sorry," Sam said quietly. "I didn't mean to ... demean that. If anything I'm happy for you."

"You're happy for me?" she repeated.

"Well, that's what you wanted, isn't it?" Sam asked. "Back to basics? I mean, that's kinda the impression I got when..."

Breathing out raggedly, Brooke bit down on her bottom lip. Her fingers were still tingling where Sam had touched her, and she rubbed her index finger on her other hand over the spot.

"Honestly?" she began, a hesitant smile floating on her lips. "I'm so bored, Sam." Sam's eyebrows came together in response. "I mean, you're right. It's just so... predictable. And not that there's anything wrong with my sisters or with Adam, but... it's all the same, you know?"

Sam's fingers went to her long hair, pulling it behind her ears. "Not really." A crooked smile appeared on the beautiful face. "Everything for me is different. Everything."

Of course it would be. New school, new living arrangements, new friends, new sexual orientation.

"How are you coping?" she asked, gently as she could.

Shrugging, Sam's fingers came together, kneading with each other. "Okay, I guess. Rebecca's been really great, you know about... dealing with me."

Rebecca. The name had a curious effect on her, and Brooke had to bite down the uncomfortable lurch in her stomach. Her smile wobbled, but thankfully, Sam wasn't looking up at her to see it.

It was really weird, to be jealous of just a name, but looking at Sam, Brooke knew it was more than that. It was more than the feeling that turned her into a back-stabbing bitch when she decided she wanted to take Josh from Carmen, when she decided she wanted Harrison before Sam could have him. What she was feeling was sadder than that, a little hopeless, and the envy inside of her touched her in a place where she ached, because Rebecca had a piece of Sam that Brooke had never seen before.

"How'd you guys meet?" She tried to be casual, curious, and nothing else. Sam glanced up and when their eyes locked, she smiled politely. Brown eyes studied her carefully, but Brooke must have appeared sincere, because the other girl only drew out a long breath and grabbed a fry, chewing on it thoughtfully.

"In class," Sam said. "She's a sophomore, but she was taking this GE because she had put it off, and you know, I understand why, because Geology is heinous. But we ended up as lab partners."


"So, then she invited me to a party, and um... it was full of lesbians." The embarrassed smile on Sam's face made Brooke choke just a little. "Apparently I pinged. So there was this big confrontation when everybody thought we were together, and she was incredibly cool about it, and then one thing led to another, and before I knew it, I had kissed her."

Chest tightening, Brooke found it a little hard to swallow the last bit of her hamburger, especially since it now tasted as if it were made of sand. "Wow." She had kissed Rebecca. She inhaled sharply and took another breath out. "And that did it?"

"Not necessarily, but it was really nice, and um... and I kinda went with it. So... four months later, here we are."

Here they were. Brooke nodded a little too energetically, feeling oddly like a chicken. "So... if it's only been Rebecca, how can you be sure that... you know..."

"That I'm gay?" An amused smile curled on Sam's face, obviously aware of Brooke's uncomfortable state.

"Yeah," she admitted.

"I don't, I'm not. I'm still trying to figure it out." Grabbing a napkin, Sam began to methodically rip it to shreds. "But I'm more comfortable and... passionate about Rebecca than I was ever was with George. I realized, it shouldn't be that much work. And it's not. And you know, now that I'm with her, I've been able to look back and view things a little differently. It puts a new perspective."

"What kind of things?"

Sam was lost in thought, and suddenly she glanced up, and smiled tightly. "Doesn't matter."

An intense sort of quiet lingered over the table. Suddenly fragile, Brooke studied the lines and features of her step sister, and felt suddenly like crying.

"Sam," she said, a rough whisper as she gathered together the remnants of her burger. "Thanks. You... didn't have to tell me all of that."

There was a quiet pause. "Yeah, well, I guess I've been wanting to get it out." Grabbing the trash onto a single tray, Sam shimmied out of the booth and headed toward the garbage can.

Sam didn't let her back in easily. The drive back from shopping was done in silence, and when they were home, Sam had buried herself into her room, obviously wanting to be alone.

Brooke got a call from Stephanie, the fellow rushie who lived in Laguna, and was given details about the pre-Christmas beach party.

"Thank God it's Cali!" she chirped in Brooke's ear. "Where else could we have a party on the beach on December 23rd! I bet the other girls are so jealous of us!"

Brooke wasn't so sure. Christmas parties with a promised shirtless stripping Santa didn't really seem like her idea of getting into the spirit, but she supposed that was why she had come home. The house smelled like cookies and chocolate, and Jane asked her to make the fudge, since only Brooke had the patience to stand for twenty minutes over a hot stove, stirring the thing.

At a year and a half, Mac was at the precarious stage where she could walk but preferred to crawl, and because of that, the house remained continually spotless, with Jane being almost ridiculously meticulous about baby gates and her Swiffer sweeper. Each room was over flowing with toys, and Brooke seriously suspected that between the four of them, Mac stood a very good chance of being spoiled rotten.

It didn't stop her from feeding little Mac-y a bit of chocolate, when the little girl toddled her way to her and wrapped her chubby arms around Brooke's leg.

"Yum!" Mac tooted happily, and Brooke giggled at the little brunette head, quickly brightening in color. Scruffing at the fluffy bangs, she thought she looked a picture of Sam.

"God, she's getting so big." Glancing, Brooke spotted a supremely casual Sam stepping into the kitchen, wiping her palms down on her jeans, eyeing the baby.

"Yeah," Brooke noted. "Can you believe it's been more than a year since we delivered her?"

"Umm, I delivered her?" Sam noted. "You freaked out."

"Semantics," Brooke said, and then couldn't help the small grin when she noticed Sam's eyes twinkling in response.

"So you got stuck with fudge duty again, huh?" Sam asked, hiking herself up onto the counter, watching her intently.

"Keep me company?" Brooke smiled, stirring methodically. "It's taking longer than I remember."

Sam agreed wordlessly, preferring to make funny faces as Mac, face half buried in Brooke's leg, stared suspiciously at her.

"Wow," Sam said, laughing a little uncomfortably. "I don't even think she remembers me."

"Of course she does," Brooke said, reaching down to pat again at the soft downy hair. "She's just shy."

"Right," Sam said, obviously not believing her. "God, I didn't even think about it, going away for college. I missed her first word, I missed her teething."

"Oh, trust me," Brooke said, interrupting her. "Be glad you missed that. I was only here on weekends and Jane and Dad were both so testy I took my clothes to the Laundromat rather than be here."

"Another perk, free Laundromat," Sam added.

"Well, you get snow," Brooke said, keeping one eye on her pot and another on little Mac. "And you get to experience something different. And you're not called down every other weekend to babysit."

"True." Sam's heels banged against the cabinets, and she leaned forward, sticking her tongue out playfully at the still staring Mac. "She looks just like you."

"Really?" Brooke stared quizzically down at the baby. "I thought she looked more like you."

Hopping off the counter, Sam leaned into the little face, poking the baby in the ribs. Mac giggled in response, wrapping tighter around Brooke's leg. "Well, maybe she was meant to be the bridge," Sam said. "Oh, God, is this what our baby would look like?"

Sam sounded horrified, but just the thought made Brooke's smile slip just a little. Staring down at Sam, now sitting cross legged on the floor, and Mac, one hand clutching onto her sweats and the other sneaking hesitantly toward Sam, she felt a rather pronounced longing.

Clearing her throat, she straightened both eyes now on her pot. "Well, in a way she is. She's half ours, at least. We did deliver her. I think she's as close to being our baby as we'll ever get."

Unable to keep her gaze away, she turned and found brown eyes locking onto hers intensely.

"Wow, it smells great in here!" Jumping slightly, Brooke nearly dropped the spoon into the pot. Jane paused, staring down at the floor. "Sam, get up off the floor, and grab Mac while you're at it. I haven't mopped at all today."

"Relax, Mom," Sam grumbled, gathering Mac into her and hoisting her up.

"Almost done?" Brooke found herself burning ridiculously, and she smiled a little too widely when Jane looked over her shoulder. "Looks good."

"Yeah," she answered hastily. "Looks great."

"Honey, why don't you go ahead and let me take over. Do you guys mind putting in a movie for Mac to watch? She's really into those Wiggles guys, but I think Mike and I might shoot somebody if we had to watch it again."

"No problem," Sam said, already moving toward the livingroom.

"Oh, Brooke?" Calling her back, Jane smiled at her, wrapping an apron over her midsection. "Can you stay for a second?"

Arms wrapped loosely around her torso, Brooke nodded. "Sure," she said, a little breathlessly.

"How'd it go?"

Glancing toward the closed door, Brooke cleared her throat, trying to loosen the tension in her shoulders. "It went fine."

"You seem like you're getting along," Jane said, grabbing a pair of oven mitts. "Is she talking to you?"

"Umm... a little bit. I don't really..."

"Oh, don't worry," Jane said, waving her away. "You don't have to share. I'm just glad you two are acting more like sisters, is all."

The word caused a decisive tumble in her stomach, and Brooke only smiled stiffly and turned away.

"I'm going to die." Crossing her arms, Sam stared at the screen, utterly horrified. "I'm going to seriously die."

Between them, Mac giggled and clapped her chubby hands together, bouncing in her seat.

Brooke couldn't help an exasperated smile. "You ever wonder how much alcohol these guys drink to stay sane?"

"Good Lord," Sam shook her head. "How lucky was I to miss this before?" Onscreen, The Wiggles grinned happily, doing their little dances, surrounded by toddlers.

"They had a concert in LA," Brooke said. "Jane actually made Dad go."

"Okay, this is seriously creepy."

Hiding a smile, Brooke clapped along with Mac, as the baby screeched happily. Sam continued her horrified stare.

"She watches this? This is what they're feeding her? What happened to Sesame Street? Kids Incorporated? Barney!"

"Barney?" Brooke interrupted, amused. "You'd pick Barney over this?"

"Hey, I learned what pumpernickel was thanks to Barney," Sam scoffed.

"You'd pick a big purple dinosaur that magically shoots up when the parents go away over four grown men who want nothing more than to hang around with little kids." Sam stared at her, and the idea sunk in. She shivered. "Okay, point taken."

"Gross." Crossing her legs, Sam stared down at Mac. "Gross, Mac." Mac grinned at her, and smacked her on the thigh. "Ouch."

Shifting in her seat, Brooke rubbed her finger on her ear thoughtfully. "So... are you doing anything on the 23rd?"

Sam glanced at her. "Why?"

"Well... there's that party I was telling you about..."

"Oh." Sam frowned, tongue sliding out to moisten her bottom lip in thought. Brooke had to look away, uncomfortable when she realized she was following the movement a little too closely. "What about Adam?"

"Oh, he's back home in Indiana." She felt awkward, and a little exposed. Curling her fingers together a small fist, she looked down at her lap. "We don't have to be there very long..."

"But you need to make an appearance?" Sam asked flatly.

"It wouldn't hurt," she admitted.

"Didn't you say you were bored with it?"

She did say that. Brooke's cheeks were hot, and she shuffled in her seat, blowing out a ragged breath. "I don't have any other friends right now, Sam." Glancing up, she shrugged. "Harrison- he's your friend, and... Mary Cherry is in the Alps with Carmen and Nicole..."

"Tried to kill you, got it." Nodding, Sam stayed quiet, moving only to steady Mac when she got too excited over the Wiggles. "Sure, why not," she responded.

Relief fluttered over Brooke, and she placed a palm on Mac's thigh. "Thanks," she said to the tv.

Dressing up for a sorority party on the beach was tricky. There was a dress code, but it was a function only in association, not formality, and because of that, Brooke thought she could get away with some nice jeans and a pea coat that could be peeled way to display a nicely tight top.

She was oddly apprehensive, as she stepped into the bathroom, ready to finish up her make up. In the week that had passed, the truce struck up with Sam had become something like the friendship they had developed before, and for that she was grateful. Evenings found Sam splayed on her bed, talking about things to her that Brooke sometimes wished she didn't know that much about. She now knew Rebecca's last name, and her favorite kind of take out, and the fact that Rebecca wanted Sam to move in with her into the dorms.

Brooke had taken small comfort in the fact that Sam wasn't ready to embrace the U-Haul quite yet.

"Besides, I'm thinking about doing a semester abroad," Sam told her that Wednesday, laying so comfortably on Brooke's bed that it made her ache just a little. "Don't want to make it anymore complicated."

"Really?" she asked her. "Where to?"

"Dunno," Sam responded. "Maybe Italy?"

Brooke had the same idea, and when Sam had mentioned it to her, an idea had begun to germinate. Still, there was enough delicacy in their tentative friendship that she didn't think horning in on Sam's travel plans was quite appropriate.

She had missed Sam. She understood it, and she was jealous of her too. Sam seemed to be open, comfortable, and a little relieved to be able to share every part of herself with Brooke. There was still a part of her that held out. Moments when Sam seemed on the verge of spilling too much, and then her mouth would shut and she would smile sheepishly and clam up.

Brooke didn't blame her. The year of the polite-freeze out was still fresh on both their minds, and Brooke felt like she was trying a little too hard to erase it.

Staring into the mirror, Brooke tried to look at herself. Sam said that Rebecca thought she had pinged. Did Brooke ping? Eyes narrowing, she looked at the curled waves of hair that cascaded down her shoulders, at the diamond earrings that hung delicately from her ears, the make up applied just so it looked a little better than natural.

"What are you doing?" In the mirror, Sam appeared behind her, and Brooke's mouth suddenly went dry. Dressed in dark colors, Sam was always obliviously stunning. In a halter top and dark jeans, she looked like a gothy sort of cheerleader, and it was an incredibly sexy look. Fussing with an earring, Sam smiled at her through the glass. "Looking for blackheads?"

"No," she said, a rough whisper. Straightening, she smoothed down her clothes. "You look good."

"Good enough for Pi Phi party?" Sam grinned, doing a mock turn. "Don't think they'll kick me out for not wearing pastels, do you?"

"I think you're going to get hit on left and right," Brooke told her honestly.

Blushing modestly, Sam shrugged. "Yeah, well, can't. Taken. Whatever. You look good, too. I like your hair long."

"Thanks." Hand rising self consciously to her curls, Brooke smiled. "I can do more with it."

Turning to rest her hip on the bathroom counter they now shared without complaint, Sam reached forward, fingers threading through the blonde curls. Stiffening, Brooke held her breath, suddenly tense as Sam played with it, fingers just rasping along the sensitive column of her neck.

"I like it," she said again, and then dropped her hand to her side. "You ready to get going?"

Recovering with a timid smile, Brooke nodded mutely. As Sam turned, Brooke reached up and cupped her neck, suddenly breathless.

"Brookie!" A small blonde plowed into Brooke's arms, peppering kisses on both cheeks. "You're here! You guys! Brooke is here!"

Beside her, Sam offered a weary grin, and Brooke patted Stephanie's shoulders. "Someone's obviously started drinking early."

"Oh, my God, you guys, this party RULES!" Stephanie hopped up and down in the sand. "Jason got a glow in the dark volleyball, and we're playing beach volleyball right over there! And Troy got sumo outfits and some guys are surfing!" Gushing over, she finally got sight of Sam. "Who're you?" she asked, genuinely curious.

"Oh, Stephanie, this is Sam," Brooke said, as Sam smiled in response.

"Oh, my God! The cute gay step sis!" Stephanie said, and Brooke immediately winced. "I'm so glad you came! Brooke is forever talking about you!"

"She is?" Sam asked, and Brooke's eyes closed, cursing Tequila and Stephanie's running mouth.

Shrugging helplessly, Brooke tried a pathetic smile as Stephanie immediately turned away, shouting at whoever would listen, "You guys! Brookie brought her cute gay sister!"

"Oh my God," Brooke breathed, horrified as the crowded party immediately began to inspect Sam like she was a zoo animal. "I'm sorry," She whispered hurriedly. "Someone was there when I got the phone call from Jane, and it just... spread."

"It's okay," Sam said, but clearly, it wasn't. Sam looked a little bit more tense, her mouth was a thin line. "But if any frat guy asks for a threesome or some bi-curious straight girl hits on me, I'm outta here."

Staring at the already tipsy crowd of both frat boys and curious straight girls, Brooke inwardly groaned. "Why don't I just get you something to drink?"

They were there only thirty minutes before Jamie and her boyfriend James approached her and Sam and both hit on her AND eluded to a threesome.

Thankfully, by then, Sam had already consumed two glasses of a very strong rum and coke, and one shot of kamikaze.

Because of that, Sam only stared at them, and Brooke, determined to keep USC's party crowd from collectively ruining Sam's perception of her forever, led her away quickly, holding tightly onto her hand.

The party was rambunctious and crazy, and Brooke determinedly remained sober. She was a little surprised at how quickly Sam was downing the drinks, but she strongly suspected it had less to do with Sam's drinking habits than it did just trying to get through the party where she was repeatedly stared at as if she was some sexy educational experiment.

"I'm sorry," Brooke said, for the twentieth time, moving them out of the house. "They're not all this bad, I swear."

"I know," Sam said, eyelids fluttering, obviously exhausted. Still, she was good-humored enough to smile. "At least the house is pretty."

They were still holding hands, and since Sam seemed to have no inclination to let go, Brooke intertwined their fingers, keeping their palms pressed together. "Have you seen the beach? It's amazing. Stephanie's dad owns this whole stretch, so it's private. One night after a formal, we call came over here and had a midnight naked swimming party."

"Nice," Sam said, and when she wobbled slightly, Brooke grinned, kicking off her shoes.

"Come on, let's walk some of that rum off." Swinging their hands between them, Brooke stared at Sam, as the other girl closed her eyes, and breathed in the salty air. With the moonlight flickering down on her, she seemed to almost glow. "You know, they probably would stare at you like that even if they didn't know you were gay," she said quietly, as her feet sank into the cool sand. "You look really beautiful tonight."

Sam gave a little snort, concentration focused now on trying to make it through the sinking sand. The sounds of the party now were more distant than before, as the tide hung back and the cool breeze felt a little wetter. "I really doubt I'm anybody's type in there."

"You'd be surprised," Brooke said, and then stopped unceremoniously when Sam suddenly plopped down, forcing her to stumble and nearly plow into her. "Guess we're sitting," she said breathlessly, steadying herself against Sam's shoulders.

"Yeah, siddown," Sam said, grinning up at her, and yanking on her hand. Curling up beside her, Brooke shivered a little, telling herself it was from the cold when Sam's cheek fell against her shoulder, nose burying into her throat. "I missed you," she said quietly.

In that moment, Brooke's insides seemed to liquefy, and she closed her eyes, breathing in unsteadily as her fingers wrapped even more tightly against Sam's, moved her chin slightly so feel the nudge of Sam's face against her sensitive throat, hot breath against her skin.

"I missed you too," she whispered, words barely heard above the crashing waves.

Sam's eyes were closed, and she appeared almost asleep, free hand reaching out to run along Brooke's forearm, an incredibly tender touch. Eyelids fluttered, Brooke was captivated.

"You know, I think I had a crush on you." Sam said it so methodically, and Brooke's heart nearly burst, eyes opening to stare down at the brown head, the warm body relaxed so sweetly against her. "Looking back. I think that was why I had such a problem with Mike and Mom getting married. I just... I couldn't figure out what was so creepy about it, but I think that was it." Brooke couldn't move, entire body and mind focused on simply hearing Sam's drunk confession.


"And later, after your accident," she continued, as if she hadn't heard her at all. "I thought you had figured it out. That you figured it out and were disgusted and that's why you didn't want to be with me anymore."

"Sam, I would never-"

"It's okay." Sam's head lifted, and Brooke was suddenly treated to two glittering orbs, sincere in their emotion. "I never expected anything. I'm with Rebecca now, and I'm happy. I'm just glad we're friends again. That's all I want from you, Brooke. That's all I need."

With that, Sam curled into her again, and closed her eyes, content with the crashing waves and the distant music wafting over. In that moment, Brooke knew Sam had found her peace.

Glancing up at the moonlight, Brooke's tongue swiped out and she tasted salt on her cheeks. She told herself she wasn't crying, that it was just the ocean's moist air.

Wiping at her cheeks with her free hand, she held her best friend and watched as the waves crashed into the sand, only twenty feet away.


Part 3. You Stare Politely Right On Through

It was hard to ignore the irony, in what Brooke discovered the day before Christmas Eve. While Sam didn't say she was in love with her, she did admit to a crush, and that meant that there had been some point, some chance, where something could have happened.

Brooke honestly didn't know if either of them would have been ready for it, if it would have happened at all, but awareness of it led to a long sleepless night, where she stayed up and reconsidered every look, every touch, every intimate moment that passed between them.

She closed her eyes and in her mind she saw the moments taken a step further, where she had gone from just looking at Sam to kissing her, and she imagined soft lips against hers, breathless whispers and dark eyes staring at her, so deep she thought she could drown in them.

Turning in her sheets, she stared at the bathroom and imagined Sam on the other side, and she buried her face into her pillows and curled her fingers around her sheets, making fists. She went through so much emotion, from anger to sorrow to a brief moment of exhilaration because Sam had actually LIKED her, had actually WANTED her, and maybe some bit of her still did.

Still, Sam hadn't wanted her enough to kiss her, like she did Rebecca. And Sam was her step-sister, and Sam had no idea that Brooke even wanted her. It was all so wrong and messed up and Brooke hated that.

Sam hadn't exactly been falling down drunk. She had drunk just enough to be happy and carefree and a little too rambly, and Brooke couldn't fault her that. She didn't know Sam's drinking binges well enough to know if Sam would even mention what she had told her the next day.

Brooke wondered how weak she was, for wanting to kiss Sam in that state.

As the sun peaked through the windows and she turned her exhausted body over to stare up at the ceiling, Brooke was no closer to understanding how to process what she now knew. It was better to ignore it, she knew that. To pretend Sam hadn't said it and continue on with Option B, because Option B didn't exactly leave room for weakened longings of lust for her step sister.

Somehow, her exhaustion must have overcome her thoughts, because it was close to 10AM when she heard rustling in the bathroom, as bleary eyes woke up to a foggy version of her side of the bathroom door opening.

"Knock much," she slurred, more of a habit, than anything else, when she closed her eyes again, not able to do much with the sleep induced weight pressing her into her bed.

"You okay?"

The voice was Sam's, and Brooke licked her dry lips and inwardly groaned, reaching to grab her extra pillow and curling it over her head. "No. I didn't sleep."

"Oh." The bed bobbed with unseen weight, and Brooke kept her eyes determinedly closed, holding her breath when she felt Sam spread out alongside her. "Yeah, me neither."

The warmth of the back against her own was comforting and frightening at the same time. "You okay?" she asked, digging further into her covers.

"A little headache," Sam responded, a second later. "Thanks for taking care of me."

"Anytime," she managed carefully. Two plops on the floor signaled that Sam had kicked off her shoes, and Brooke's heart beat began to accelerate. Without a word, she shrugged herself out of her cocoon and threw the other half of the covers to the other side of the bed. A shimmy of the warmth alongside her back and the small poke of an ass against hers indicated Sam had taken her up on her unspoken offer.

Closing her eyes, she released the breath she hadn't been aware she had been holding.

A few quiet minutes past, in which Brooke found herself hauntingly aware of every curve of Sam's back, the feel of the warm body in her bed.

"Hey, Brooke?"

"Yeah," she whispered, eyes fluttering open, staring at the champagne glass that held Little Bleu.

"Do you remember what I said last night?"

Stiffening slightly, Brooke's eyes fluttered in emotion, and she tried to calm herself, gripping the sheets around her tighter. "Yeah." It was almost deadly quiet now, and Brooke wasn't sure what she was waiting for. Turning around, she raised herself onto her elbow, and looked down at the other girl in her bed. What she saw, once she was able to concentrate beyond the furious pounding of her heart, was a frightened girl. It broke her. "Hey." Curling an palm around a slender shoulder, she forced gently onto her back, to look into a nervous face. "It's okay. Really."

She smiled, as comfortingly as she could, and as carefully as she would handle Little Mac, she snuggled into the warm body, and burrowed her face into Sam's shoulder. "I love you, Sam," she admitted, and the stiff body underneath her almost seemed to melt.

Slowly, as if she were still scared, Sam's hand slid up her shoulders, and Brooke unconsciously shuddered when Sam held her, as tenderly as she dared.

Closing her eyes, she smoothed her palm along a flat stomach, and told herself it was enough, when Sam said in a breathless whisper, "I love you, too."

Thankfully, Jane had seen fit to let them both sleep in, and it wasn't until after noon, when voices were heard in the distant part of the house, that Brooke began to stir, wiping accidental drool off the corner of her mouth, lifting herself from the sweaty portion of Sam's shoulder.

The mussed brunette hair cascading against her pillow was heartbreakingly easy to see, and she smiled at the sleepy droopy eyelids that fluttered as Sam yawned, producing a stinky bout of morning breath.

"Cinderella time," Brooke said, patting her step sister in a friendly way, before she stretched her back and scooted off the bed, determined to leave any residual weirdness behind. "Do you want the bathroom first?"

"Umm… sure." Sam took a second longer, obviously still half asleep.

Lingering doubt had her keeping her eyes off the bed, and she busied herself with pulling the bottom drawer out from her desk and grabbing hold of Little Bleu's pellets. The bedsprings creaked and she bit back a bittersweet smile, as she carefully measured out the proper amount and turned to discover the little fish swimming around excitedly.

The action made her smile. "Yes," she said, coming forward and scattering the food around the bowl. "You're hungry, aren't you?" The curious feeling of a spectator made her glance up, and she caught Sam staring at her, a bemused smile on the beautiful face. Suddenly self conscious, Brooke glanced away. "What?"

"Nothing, I just… I'm just glad you like him, that's all."

"Sam." Raising her head, she offered a gentle, sincere smile. "Thanks for the fish."

Brooke hoped the sentiment behind the repeated statement made up for the flippant disregard she had shown the last time she said it.

The softness in Sam's face, the hesitant smile, and the almost bashful turn away made her believe maybe it had.

It was Christmas Eve, and after ten hours of baking, cheery holiday singing, and wrapping, Brooke was thoroughly grateful her father had given her the go ahead to head to her bedroom.

Crawling four-legged over the bed, she flopped over and stared at the ceiling.

"Merry Christmas," she said to nobody in particular, and too exhausted to sleep, reached for her IPOD. Her suspicion that Little Mac was going to get spoiled rotten was well on its way to be proven correct, as the entire pile surrounding the tree was already dedicated to her. The baby, stuffed with too many cookies, and Brooke's fudge, had stayed up an entire two hours past her bedtime, thanks to the sugar rush that had been plied into her.

Brooke had taken a call from Adam, and had even gotten to speak to the mysterious Rebecca, when she had accidentally walked in on Sam in mid-phone call. It had been as awkward as she'd thought it would be, and she had been relieved when Sam took the phone back.

Rebecca had sounded nice enough, what two minutes she had heard from her, at least as far as disembodied voices went.

It was almost interesting, from a freshman psych point of view, how much Brooke wanted to hate her.

"Hey." A tentative knock on her bathroom door distracted her from fiddling with her IPOD, and Brooke discovered her stepsister, lingering in the doorway. "Didn't know if you'd still be up."

She smiled, sitting up in a direct invitation to come in. "How's Harrison?"

"Oh, you know," Sam said, already taking off her earrings, depositing them into the purse she carried. "The same. You should have come."

She smiled awkwardly. "Thanks, but… Harrison and I… it's still weird." She didn't need to say much more than that. While she still considered him a friend, she had never quite been able to explain to him why exactly she had walked away from him that night. She was sure a part of him still blamed her for the rejection that came from that. "Besides, I'm sure he wanted to spend some time with you."

"Oh, you know Harrison," Sam said, blowing out her breath and rolling her eyes, sinking down onto the bed. "He wanted to tell me how horrible college is and how all the girls are only into jocks, and how he could have sworn that THIS time it would have been different…"

"Sounds like Harrison," Brooke admitted, curling her knees into her chest and hugging them to her. "Did you tell him? About Rebecca?"

Sam seemed to hesitate, and with a small shrug, she smiled sheepishly. "I chickened out. I know," she added, when Brooke arched an eyebrow. "I suck. I wanted to tell him, but I just… augh." Her face flopped into her bedspread, brown hair puddling around her. "It's so weird," she mumbled.

"Well, you don't have to tell everyone right away, Sam," Brooke said quietly. "You have time. Unless you want a coming out party." Sam's head inched up, fingers poking through her bangs to peek at her. Brooke's smile widened teasingly. "I could throw you one. Little gay hats and little gay banners."

"Gay hats?" Sam asked, and Brooke's grin grew absolutely wicked. "What do gay hats look like?"

"All sparkly," Brooke said, fingers twiddling. "With a disco ball stuck on top."


"And a gay cake."

"A gay cake?" Sam responded, giggle erupting.

"Sure. All purple and pink and stuff. And Jane and Dad and I can wear those GLAAD pins-"

"Oh, please no," Sam chortled.

"And we can get a little GLAAD t-shirt for MAC! It'll be awesome!" A pillow flung at her head cut off any other on the fly party ideas, and Brooke burst out into laughter, falling back on the bed. "Oh come on," she said, grabbing hold of the pillow and hugging it to her. "It would be great."

"Don't you dare," Sam warned, but there was laughter in the back of her voice. Unceremoniously, Brooke whacked her with the pillow. "Ouch!"

Too tired to fight back, Sam only flopped down beside her, half heartedly slapping one end of the pillow onto Brooke's chest. Sighing raggedly, she stared up at the ceiling.

Breathless, Brooke glanced over, discovered a solemn face, as if Sam was searching the ceiling for some answer to some unasked question.

"What?" she asked, and then stopped talking, as Sam reached over and entwined their hands, pulled her closer, until they were shoulder to shoulder.

Shaken by Sam's unexpected intimacy, Brooke kept silent, and waited, unsure and aware and heartbreakingly anxious, until Sam suddenly turned into her and threw an arm around her stomach, curling into her body.

"Can I stay here tonight?" Sam breathed, and Brooke's eyes shut tightly, completely torn.

"Why?" she managed tightly. "Miss your girlfriend and you need a replacement?"

She regretted the sentence as soon as it came out, and wincing, she opened her eyes and turned to Sam immediately, ready to take it back. But it was too late. Sam's frame was already stiffening, obviously hurt.

"No, I just… forget it."

"Sam… I didn't –"

Scooting off, Sam just shot her a wounded look and shut the door to the bathroom, locking Brooke in.


Two steps forward, three steps back.

The closer she would get to Sam, the more frightened she was, and of what, she still didn't know.

Of herself? Maybe. Brooke had always thought herself a paradigm of self control, but she had been known to take that to the extreme, and she supposed her eating disorder was direct evidence of that. She had sworn to herself that she was going to be what Sam needed, and that was fine, until Sam decided what she needed was a cuddle buddy.

Hyperawareness of her feelings had created a terribly insecure woman. Brooke was attractive. She sincerely believed that. She knew other people believed that. For so long, she had thought it was her only true merit. Most of the time, if she wanted a guy, it had only taken a matter of time before she would snag him. Josh was a notable exception, but she took a small amount of comfort in the fact that she had dumped him first.

But Brooke had never wanted anyone the way it was becoming increasingly clear that she wanted Sam. And she had never been more aware that the situation was impossible. No amount of seduction or manipulation would get her what she wanted. She wasn't even sure if she would have been ready for what she wanted. Who was to guarantee that if Sam kissed her Brooke wouldn't take her unresolved sexual issues and completely combust?

And there was Little Mac, and Jane and her father, and no one would understand, because the longer they lived together, the more people saw them as sisters, and there were LAWS against those kind of things happening between sisters. God, Brooke had even fooled HERSELF into believing it was a sisterly love she felt for Sam. And even if she could convince herself it wasn't incestuous, there would forever be explanations and judgements and Brooke didn't think she could handle that.

Not to mention, Sam didn't even WANT her. Sam wanted a sister. Sure, maybe, once upon a time, she had thought she had a lingering crush on Brooke, but what did that mean now? Nothing. Sam was with Rebecca, and she certainly talked about the other girl enough in front of Brooke to make Brooke think it had to have been real.

Sam had made it clear in her drunken ramblings: she wanted a sister. She wanted a friend.

And Sam had no idea that she was giving Brooke panic attacks. She didn't know that just by curling into her shoulder, offering a wiff of lavender and the scent that was uniquely Sam, she was turning Brooke into a hyperactive panicky… horny toad. She had no idea that everything she did was being analyzed and scrutinized, and every single moment she was within a foot's reach, Brooke was honestly thinking about throwing each and every reason not to ruin this out the window by pressing a kiss against Sam's lips.

Brooke was so messed up, and it was Christmas, and somehow that just made it all worse.

She must have looked as miserable as she felt, when she trudged into the living room early Christmas morning, into the quintessential family scene of Mac surrounded by her parents and a pile of wrapping paper. Still in her pajamas, she pushed the glasses she had lazily grabbed in favor of contacts, and settled into the lounge chair, eyeing the still form of Sam on the other couch, slender fingers curled around a coffee mug. The other girl caught her questioning smile, and glanced away.

"Someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning," her dad said, obviously noting her less than cheery expression. "Merry Christmas, Honey!"

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, she pasted on an appropriate smile. "Merry Christmas, you guys."

Jane was practically hopping, and she noted ruefully that while Mac's parents were obviously in a tizzy, Mac seemed to be more interested in the shredded wrapping paper than the expensive toys currently being shoved in her direction.

"Okay, Christmas ritual over, can we go back to bed now?" Resting her chin on the top of her knee, Sam looked sincerely underwhelmed.

"You guys! Come on! Where's your Christmas spirit!" Jane slammed her hands on her thighs. "We're just getting started! Come on. Remember that great party you two threw a couple years ago?"

"Oh, you mean when we had friends who were actually in town that hadn't tried to kill us?" Brooke asked, uncharacteristically dry.

"Well, that's no reason we can't have our own nice dinner, just the five of us." Mike grabbed hold of Mac and hoisted the baby on his shoulders. "Come on, you guys! Who wants to make sugar cookies!"

Sam visibly winced at the good will. "This family is entirely too chipper." Brooke shot her a sympathetic smile, one that Sam warily returned.

"Oh, come on, you two. We have presents for you too!"

"Yay," they announced lamely, in perfect sync, and because Brooke was closer, she got the smack from Jane as punishment.

"Ow," she muttered, rubbing at her head ruefully.

"Come on, you guys! Who wants Christmas pancakes!" With that, Jane and Mike both rushed out, taking little Mac with them and leaving a mountain of wrapping paper and two sullen girls in their wake.

Sam stayed quiet, staring glumly at her coffee. Biting her lower lip, Brooke took a breath and sighed. "Hey." Glancing up, Sam looked at her without expression. "I'm sorry," she said, and felt like she was capable of saying nothing else. Did every conversation they had had to start with an apology? "I don't know why I said what I said last night. I was just…"

"Being Brooke?" Sam asked, eyebrow arching. The venom however, wasn't there, and Brooke blew out a relieved breath, shrugging.

"Bitchy goes with the territory, I guess."

"You're lucky I'm used to it." A hint of a smile curled up Sam's lips, and her expression was almost bemused. There was a shared moment of regret, and then Sam broke the silence by pushing off the couch, setting her coffee to the side and reaching under the tree. "Might as well get this over with." Shimmying over to Brooke, she laid a silver wrapped present onto her lap.

Rectangular in size, the box was small, but it was the expression on Sam's face that made it priceless. "Thank you," she breathed, and wrapped her fingers around it possessively, pressing it against her chest. On her knees, Sam looked up at her kindly, and Brooke was captivated. "I have something for you," she whispered, and then as gently as she could, nudged Sam aside, falling gently to the floor and reaching for a delicately wrapped gift, tied together with a gaudy gold bow.

Turning, she offered Sam a nervous grin. "Merry Christmas."

Sam was surprised, and Brooke felt a small hint of shame at that. But still, she reached forward and took the gift from her, fingertips sliding against hers, drawing it into her lap.

"You first," Sam said, and Brooke's hesitant smile grew wider, moving her attention to the present sitting in her lap. Careful with the wrapping, she took her time, until she glanced up and noticed that Sam was staring at her with some irritation. "Anytime now."

"Sorry," she whispered, and then rolled her eyes, and managed to pull out the jewelry box. Heart in her throat, she snuck one more look at Sam and then separated the top from the bottom. Nestled inside was a silver charm bracelet, and hanging from it was simple charm.

"It's a betta fish," Sam said, when Brooke said nothing. Plucking out the bracelet, she spread it between her fingertips, displaying the dangling charm. "I special ordered it. I figured, you know, since you keep taking that fish everywhere, this way, you can always have him."

Brooke was overwhelmed. At a loss, she simply shook her head, absurdly over emotional.

"Okay, do you hate it? Cause, I can exchange it-"

"I love it," she breathed, and quickly reached for her sleeve, revealing her bare wrist. "Can you-"

"Oh, sure!" Sam looked relieved more than anything else, and Brooke held her breath. "Why are you trembling?" Sam whispered and it was then that Brooke realized she was, actually trembling.

"Sorry," she said, and Sam neatly clasped the bracelet, skin warm against the sensitive inside of her wrist. "Thank you," she managed, and brought the bracelet clad wrist to her chest, covering it with her other arm, her limb suddenly precious. Sam's gaze was intense, and fighting tears, she blinked away her emotion, voice husky as she nodded to the present still sitting in Sam's lap. "Your turn. I don't think it'll compare, but… "

Sam reached for it anyway, and with more enthusiasm than Mac, ripped the carefully constructed bow off and tore at the wrapping paper. Two hard cover books fell into her lap.

Confused, Sam clearly didn't know what to think at first. Picking up the first, she rubbed at the spine. "Leather!" she said, bewildered, and then read the title, "Fingersmith. By Sarah Waters."

Clearing her throat, Brooke began to explain. "I umm… I did some research, and umm…. There was this website, and they said, that that author was really good. And you know…" Brooke was sure her face was now a deep shade of crimson.

Sam met her gaze, bemused smile now curling up her lips. "What website?"

Flushing, Brooke shoved a finger along her ear, pushing her bangs back. "Afterellen.com."

"You got lesbian romance novels because they were suggested by Afterellen.com?"

"Umm… yes?"

Sam stared at her for a full minute. "You are quite possibly the cutest, nerdiest step sister in existence."

Well, at least, she was the cutest, nerdiest step sister in existence who was also the color of the tomato.

"Well, I figured if you liked them, we could get you the movies, and maybe watch them. I know there's a couple out there-"

"Brooke." Sam saved her from further embarrassment with a simple touch. "I love them. Thank you."

Her grin was ridiculously big and cheesy, she knew that.

She couldn't help it.

"So when are you flying out?" she asked on New Years Eve, as they sat together on the couch and watched another painfully boring rendition of Dick Clark's Rockin' Eve. Little Mac had long since gone to bed, and her dad and Jane, party animals that they were, hadn't made it past the eleven o'clock hour. They had retired, with strict instructions to wake them up at midnight. Brooke was pretty sure they would be snoring well before.

It had left her alone with Sam, watching television, in what was quite possibly the tamest way she had ever spent the New Year since she had turned sixteen. They shared a bottle of wine, with their parents' blessing, and an assorted series of junk food. To be honest, she had been glad for it.

Three weeks had gone surprisingly fast, and while Brooke was painfully aware that her feelings for Sam were a mess of complication, the truth of the matter was, she would miss her, desperately.

"Around 6," Sam said, and offered her the bowl of popcorn. Grabbing a handful with a grateful smile, Brooke took another sip of wine and stared at the countdown clock.


"Should we bother to try and wake them up?"

Brows furrowing, Sam contemplated the thought, and shrugged. "Remember the earthquake?" she reminded her. "Mike wouldn't even wake up when the glass in the bathroom shattered."

"Point taken. There's no point." The crowd in Times Square was getting increasingly rowdy, and Brooke shuddered in her pajamas. "Who in their right mind would go over there on New Year's Eve? It's frigid. It's crowded. No one's going to get home until maybe four am because of all the traffic-"

"Wow, college has turned you into quite the party animal, Brooke," Sam said, lips quirking in amusement.

Brooke rolled her eyes. "I'm just saying. Why spend your New Years like that? You can go get drunk and party anywhere. I think the New Years should be spent in contemplation. Think about what you've accomplished and what you want to accomplish. And plan accordingly."

"You mean resolutions."

"I mean real resolutions," she corrected.

"And your real resolution, Brooke?" Sam asked her, turning to face her, genuinely curious.

Brooke considered her year, and her many mistakes. Beside her, Sam was fresh faced, beautiful, and for the moment, Brooke understood, she was at least, content. "To have fewer regrets." Sam mulled the thought. "I'm going to miss you, Sam."

Distracted, Sam locked glances with her, dark eyes burning into her own. Lush mouth opening, closing, Sam suddenly moved the bowl of popcorn away. "Come to spring break with me."

It was a unexpected request. "What?"

"Seriously. Come with me. You can meet Rebecca, and hang out and… it would be nice… I think."

The countdown had started, and Brooke jerked her gaze away from intense stare of Sam to the ball beginning to drop.


Mind suddenly whirling, she sucked in her breath, and turned to a raven beauty, with dark broody eyes and a wide, pouting mouth.


The countdown resonated within her, and when the New Year came, the television exploded in a cacophony of sound, and yet Brooke heard none of it. Her focus was clearly on the face before her, and here, on New Years, was a brief moment of clarity.

Reaching forward, she found herself tracing a thumb alongside the curved cheek, discovering the vitatily of her senses all over again, and she smiled, the feeling pure ambrosia.

"Happy New Year, Sam," she whispered, and caught up in the moment, she saw no reason to repress herself.

In a second, lush lips connected with her own, and the sounds of the television drowned out her moan, as she kissed Sam, at the magical twelfth hour. Fragile, tender, she released Sam gently, eyes still closed, until they fluttered open and she discovered a face, a mouth, a soft hint of breath, dangerously close to her own.

"You guys didn't wake us?!"

Like a cascade of cold water, the voices intruded onto her sacred moment of naked emotion. Jerking back, she forced a smile onto her face, and without another look at Sam, she rose from the couch, and quickly went into her father's arms, kissing him soundly on the cheek.

"Happy New Years!" she cheered, and ignored the furious beating of her heart.

When she finally could look at Sam again, she knew the moment had passed, and she knew, Sam could have simply passed it off as a boozy New Years kiss.

But her mouth burned, and in her weakness, Brooke had discovered that knowing what Sam's kiss felt like was an entirely worse form of torture than imagining it.

What a way to start the New Year.

Part 4

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