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


Part 10. Things You Told Her All Along

"You could say it's a rash."

With an irritated sigh, Brooke's eyes shifted from the mirror image of herself to that of her step-sister, standing right behind her. Arms crossed, Sam looked like a chastised little girl.

Focusing again on the hickeys, Brooke furrowed her brow, lifting her chin to inspect the smudged skin further. There was still some visible redness, but the cover up had benefited from a good twenty minutes of blending, and while her entire neck was pancaked with make up, the hickeys weren't THAT discernable.

"Maybe a collar," she decided anxiously, shoulders straightening.

"Or a scarf."

"You really want me to die of dehydration, don't you?"

Sam shrugged. "It's your hickey, I'm just trying to help." Moving to her side of the mirror, Sam began to powder her nose, and added helpfully, "And not a huge bulky scarf. One of those little teeny silky scarves."

"I never wear those," Brooke pointed out. "If I did go out there with one on Jane would zero in on it like I had an arrow pointed to these."

Brown eyes studied the area intently, and Brooke found herself flushing under the attention.

It was easy to slip into the two extremes – the feeling that came with what had transpired the night before, and the squabbling that was comfortable, easy. Both were a reaction, and Brooke bit her lip and looked away, somehow embarrassed by her lack of control.

She nearly turned away, ready to go lock herself into the room, and figure all this out by herself, when she caught sight of the other girl in the mirror, and in a flash, remembered three words, said in the heat of the moment.

She had told Sam she loved her… and she had meant it.

Shuddering erratically, she turned back, fingers pressing against the counter. "Listen… Sam." Fingers in her hair, Sam faltered, glancing back at her. Flashing a hesitant smile, she tried to gather her courage. "I know we haven't really had a chance to talk about this, but…"

And of course, that was when Sam's phone rang, right beside Brooke's fingers, buzzing against her for effect.

Heart sinking, she blinked at it, staring down at the little roach looking thing as Sam eyed her, obviously unsure how to take the call.

"Here," she said, grabbing the phone, ready to hand it to her, until the LCD screen blinked the name of the caller.

The name was unexpected, and it shouldn't have been, but still, the shock of it slid deep into her, stealing her breath and her movement.

Her frozen impersonation must have been a little too obvious, because Sam reached forward, and snatched the phone from her fingers.

"I can get it," Sam snapped, in a low, flat voice, and then glanced at the phone. The caller registered on her face, in the quick shift of her eyes to Brooke's before she glanced evenly away. Opening the phone, she turned away from Brooke, and shut the door.

Crossing her arms, Brooke wondered how it felt like she lost Sam, when she never really had her.


Jane's voice had lilted up, obviously on the edge of her patience, when Brooke scuttled into the kitchen, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible.

"I'm here!" she said, rushed to Little Mac's side, placing a distracted kiss on the baby's head. Concentrating on the handful of Cheerios currently scattered on her baby seat tray, Mac hardly noticed. "Sorry."

"How late were you up till last night?" Jane said, brandishing a spatula like a weapon, glancing up from her hash browns. "I checked in on you at midnight and you weren't even in your room."

A deep crimson blush flushed through her. "Umm… pretty late. I was talking to my friend Stephanie on the phone until like, 3. And then I didn't sleep much."

"Something wrong?" Jane paused, glancing up suspiciously. "Sam didn't do anything to you, did she?"

"Oh…" Brooke found the sudden heat intolerable. Crossing the kitchen, she opened the cupboard and pulled out a glass, suddenly craving an ice water. "No, Sam didn't… she didn't do anything. Just you know…" Turning on her heel, she blinked, swallowing when her throat went dry. "I was just thinking that today might be a good day to tell Dad. You know… before I left."

Heart lodged suddenly in her throat, Brooke waited for Jane's reaction, as her stepmother glanced up from the sizzling hash browns to give her a sad, contemplative look.

Her eyes suddenly widened.

"What on EARTH is on your neck?!"

Oh, dear God.

Hand slapping to her neck, Brooke felt suddenly like a gutted fish on a pier, gasping for air. "Um…"

"It's a rash." The words were said quickly, rushed, as Sam stood in the open doorway, eyes wide and sincere. "Right? Brooke?!"

"Right," Brooke babbled, head bobbing. "It's a rash. It's really not that bad-" she added, cornered against the fridge when Jane came to inspect. "I was hoping it wouldn't show because I didn't want to worry you-"

Jane tilted her chin up, staring at the smudged make up.

"Brooke, if I didn't know better-"

"But you do!" Sam said. "You know how sensitive Brooke's skin is. I think it was 'cause she borrowed my wool pj's."

"Yes, wool makes me itchy."

"You borrowed wool pj's in the middle of spring?"

Brooke gulped. "I was uncomfortably cold."

"And besides, Mom," Sam said, fingers curling her bangs over her ear. "When would she have time to get a hickey? She's been with me all evening."

Brooke tried to bite down the whimper.

Jane still looked unconvinced. "Well, is it all over your body or just your neck? Do you need to see a doctor?"

"No doctor!" she squeaked. "Really, Jane. It should clear up in a couple days, I'm sure it's fine. I just have to remember to stay away from wool. Because it's itchy."

In the corner of her eye, she could see Sam nodding avidly.

It was flimsy logic, but thankfully, the kitchen was on her side.

"Your hash browns are burning," Sam noted, which made Jane hiss and jump away, an attempt to save her potatoes.

Sighing in relief, Brooke glanced at Sam, and discovered a somber, conflicted stare. Sam looked away.

Hands dipping in scalding water, Brooke almost felt numb, skin flaring in slight protest as she rinsed the dishes, wiping off the soapy residue.

"So…" Jane said, when it was just the two of them, as Sam had decided to take Mac for a changing. "You really want to do this today?"

Mouth pursing in unintended angst, Brooke sighed, and watched her hands dip into the soapy water.

"Not that I won't support you," Jane continued, "Or not be by your side when you tell him, but it's happening awfully fast. Are you sure you've had enough time to process it?"

"Not really," she admitted, and her eyes fluttered and she remembered going too far, too fast, feeling Sam inside her. Unsteadily, she opened her eyes and turned to her stepmother. "How did he react about Sam?"

Pausing midwipe, Jane's mouth tightened. "Honey, I don't know if it's the same." Brooke's eyes went back to the water. "You're his little girl, and he could never be disappointed in you, but –"

"But he will be," she breathed.

"He'll be surprised," Jane enunciated. "Sam… she does things. You… you always seemed very clear with what you wanted."

"Yeah," she said, suddenly bitter. "Like when I was stuffing things down my throat and then throwing them back up. God, I'm sorry," she managed, slapping her hands into the water. "I'm sorry, that's not what I … I just don't want to… I don't want to lie anymore, Jane. I've done so much hiding and so much being afraid, and for what?" Staring into the murky water, she felt her eyes begin to sting. "I almost died, Jane. I almost died and I woke up and I was still dead inside."

Soft warmth enveloped her, and then there was a press of motherly lips against her forehead and the feel of cotton against her cheek. Brooke didn't know how starved she was for the affection until she felt it.

"We'll tell him tonight," Jane promised, in the quiet aftermath of her outburst. "You and me, and Sam, if you want her there."

God… she was so close, so close to being free, and yet, she wasn't.

"Thanks," she answered mutely, heavily.

From: Alover@yahoo.com

To: Bmcqueen@usc.edu

Subject: Hey.

Hi, Brooke. I know this is weird, me emailing you, but I wanted to see how you were doing. I know the last time we saw each other things were a little insane, and God help me, you gave me a conscious.

Hope you don't mind the stalker routine. My cousin goes to SC and I had him look up your address in the campus directory.

Anyway, hope you're doing okay. I'm not sure how much Sam has told you but the Spring Break was pretty much shot after you left. Not that it's your fault.

It's just… all so weird, you know? I mean lesbian drama has never been my thing to begin with, but it got borderline crazy. But it doesn't mean I wouldn't change what happened.

Okay, maybe I wouldn't drink so much. At least then I could remember more about what happened.

Anyway, give me a bump back if you feel like it. I don't know how you feel about being friends, but I'd like to hear from you again.


Oh, right and tell Sam to go to hell, huh?

The email had been waiting in her inbox when she logged in that afternoon.

Brooke reread it twice, before she sighed, pulling her leg up to cradle it against her chest, and rest her chin on her knee.

Beside the laptop, Lil' Bleu Too rested on the glass beads of his bowl, delicate fins rippling slightly when he shifted his position. He wasn't Lil' Bleu, he had his own, slightly laid back personality, and while Brooke knew she should have been above it, he was, at this time, just a fish.

Still, she smiled slightly, and rubbed the glass with her index finger, petting him in her own way.

"Hey, silly too too," she said, in a soft high pitched voice. "I know you don't know much about me… I'm 19, but I feel older. I had an eating disorder and it never really goes away, but I'm stronger about it now. My mother left me and my dad and it really messed me up, and I was the most popular girl in school until my dad went and started dating the mother of my high school nemesis. So Sam and I became step sisters and even though I hated her I wanted her to like me for some unfathomable reason. We fought over everything and even though after a while we realized we kinda liked each other, we still didn't know how not to fight, and then I realized I was actually IN love with her and kinda gay and then I got hit by a car."

The fin rippled.

"I know. It's a total soap opera."

"Who are you talking to?"

Arching her neck and looking over her shoulder, she discovered Sam standing in the doorway, palms smoothing down her jeans. It looked like a nervous tick.

"The fish," Brooke replied, and then turned back to the computer, clicking out of the email. "What's up?"

Sam wavered, and Brooke felt curiously numb inside.

"I … um… okay…" Sam's face was flushed, ears tinted pink, and she began to poke her tongue outside her mouth, the very Sammy thing to do when she was unsure. "I just wanted to tell you that… if you're coming out to your dad today… I can be there."

Brooke stared at her. "Thanks."

Sam nodded, and began to step back, ready to leave her room. "You're welcome."

"Sam." Brooke glanced at the floor, and discovered her heart in an odd place, some sort of resignation that felt much like the place she was before… after the accident.

"Yeah?" Her crystal eyes must have looked exhausted, because Sam looked immediately concerned. "What's wrong?"

Brooke found herself suddenly overwhelmed, and she forced a smile. "I was thinking about taking a photography elective when I got back to school."

Sam looked completely confused, but had the good grace to go with it. "That's good, Brooke."


"Yeah, you're good at it. I mean, you made me look beautiful."

She managed a soft smile. "That's because you are beautiful, Sam."

Her expression was sincere, as her eyes locked onto Sam's and her beautiful lover wavered, mouth trembling before she smiled tightly.

"You're the beautiful one, Brooke. You always have been."

Sam was sitting on her bed, in the tension that filled the moment, Brooke remembered what they had done, how it had felt to take complete possession of Sam, and that was why it had changed everything.

"I don't know why it's so hard," she finally admitted. "I don't know why it's so easy to fight or to…" she glanced at the bed, and sighed raggedly, "And I can't say what I want to say to you. I don't know how."

Across from her, Sam just slumped back onto the bed.

"At least you're trying," she heard.

Brooke smiled darkly. "Are you getting back together with Rebecca?"

There was a long pause. "I don't know."

It was a fair answer, it was an honest answer, and yet even Brooke couldn't have understood why it disappointed her so much.

"She's comfortable, Brooke. She doesn't have… all … this."

"You can talk to her," Brooke said numbly.

A long, breathless sigh exhaled from her lover.

"I guess that's the trouble, right?" Brooke said, staring at her fingers. "I mean, with all this emotion comes all these extremes… that's all we're going to have."

"Brooke…" the words were choked. "It doesn't mean…"

"No… it doesn't," Brooke agreed. "But it doesn't change the truth. There's so many feelings and words and ideas and situations piled on between us and everything's so new and raw and there's just so much change that we could keep doing this and just end up resenting each other for it because neither of us wants to give in."

"So where does that put us?"

"That's the point, I guess," Brooke answered, tired, sad. "There is no us." That said, she pushed off the chair and glanced at the stunned woman on her bed. Sam's expression was hard to gauge, but her eyes were moist, and Brooke never felt more in love than she did then. "I think you should get back together with Rebecca," she managed thickly, and then left the room.

Sam wasn't there when Brooke told her father, but then again, Brooke didn't really expect her to be. She wasn't sure what she expected, when she sat down at the kitchen table after dinner, with Jane on one side and Mike on the other.

Her father wore a tight half smile, and Brooke guessed he must have been afraid that maybe there had been some sort of complication with the coma, as the doctors had warned a year ago, or the eating disorder had reared its ugly head, or something equally frightening.

Brooke was fairly sure that when she finally admitted it was her sexuality on the table, Mike nearly had a heart attack in relief.

He doubled over, let out a long breath, and then without warning lunged across the table and gathered her so tightly in his arms she nearly choked.

"Oh, my baby girl," he breathed, as Brooke blinked, and gasped a little, and Jane looked at them both like she had just sat through a marathon of Steel Magnolias, Beaches, and Prince of Tides. "It's okay. It's okay. I love you!"

And that was quite possibly the most uneventful part of her coming out.

Brooke would adore her dad forever for it.

To: Alover@yahoo.com

From: Bmcqueen@usc.edu

Subject: Hey

Hi! To be honest I'm actually really glad to hear from you. I know it was a really awkward set of circumstances that brought us together, but I'm not going to regret that I met you. Maybe I would have done things a little differently but you forced a lot of change in me.

Well, maybe it wasn't just you, but because of you and what happened, I finally came clean about myself to Jane. I mean, granted, I was a sobbing hung over wreck when I did it, and I nearly caused a four lane accident, but I did it. And she was amazing about it. And then I ran into my old 'boyfriend' from high school and now he knows too. And I called my sorority sister and now she knows.

And then Sam came home and I came out to her, and well… that was more complicated. But despite all the weirdness with Sam, my dad now knows. You know a lot of things have happened to you if your dad is actually relieved that the only 'problem' with you is that you're gay.

Anyway, that's kind of where I'm at right now. In the midst of a lot of change. I'm still in love with Sam, but I don't know what to do with that, now.

Wow, I'm sure this was more than what you wanted to hear, right? Sorry, I've come out to so many people in the last few days (even my new fish knows) that shutting up just doesn't seem to work around anyone but Sam.

It's weird. I know nothing is ever going to be the same again, and I don't know how I feel about that. I want to be truly free, but even with all this weight taken off… there's still a tangle of complication.

I guess that's what happens when you're in love with your asshole stepsister.

Sorry for the long rambling thoughts, but it honestly really was great to hear from you. Do you have AIM? Maybe we can chat sometime.


Oh, and tell Rebecca to kiss my ass.

"You know what? You're such an asshole, Brooke."

Glancing up from the book currently opened and laid out on her bed, Brooke barely had a chance to register that before Sam MacPherson charged into her room from the bathroom, jerking the door closed and then heading to her bedroom door, and flipping the dead bolt.

"What are you doing?"

"You're an asshole!" Sam repeated, looking like some furious warrior princess, brown eyes wide and blazing. "You give me some bullshit speech about how we can't ever communicate and then the second we start trying you shut it down."

Biting down on her lower lip, Brooke sat up, crystal eyes following the form of her lover as she began to pace her room, back and forth.

"I mean, FUCK, Brooke! You get into a coma and I do nothing but blame myself for months and then you wake up and pretty much turn into a complete bitch and ignore me for a year. Then you find out I'm gay and you spin some bullshit yarn about how sorry you are that you ignored me and tell me you want to make it up to me, and then when I, like an idiot, believe you and invite you to Spring Break with me, you go and hook up with FUCKING ABBY of all people and then tell me you're in the middle of a sexual identity crisis! And THEN instead of sticking around to actually face the shit vacation you just ruined you up and leave in the middle of the day, and make me look like a complete asshole to my friends and I had to have Abby, ABBY of all people, announce in front of everyone that you told her you're in love with me!" Brooke blinked, barely processing that bit of new information before Sam plowed on, shoving a furious finger in her direction. "And then, because I'm an IDIOT I tell Rebecca I'm worried about you and have to make sure you're okay and actually follow your ass over here, which cost me nearly a grand, by the way, money I HAVE TO CHARGE, I get here and Mom thinks I'M the asshole. And then you tell me you're suddenly gay and then your fish dies and when I try to comfort you, you make out with me! Knowing how I felt about you! And then you tell me you're in love with me and then just leave me with that! FUCK, Brooke!"

Furious tears had begun to slip down Sam's cheeks, and Brooke found herself aching suddenly at the sight of them.

"What was I supposed to do? What was I supposed to do, Brooke?! In a span of three days you take everything I thought I knew about you and you fling it out the window - how am I supposed to keep up?! You knew how I felt about you. You KNEW! You could have had me anytime you wanted and instead you wait until I'm fucked up and confused and angry and would do anything to just move ON from you." Pausing, Sam blinked, and turned back to her. "I'm sorry, Brooke, if I don't know what to do. Up until last night I didn't EVER think I would ever sleep with you, and now I have and honestly? Yes, I love you. But I don't trust you. And it's still entirely fucked up! Our parents are married and you came out like, a minute ago and you're going to SC and I'm at Northwestern and we don't even LIKE each other half the time and it's a fucking mess. But it's not all my fault. Because you're an asshole."

In the aftermath of Sam's long, rambling confession, Brooke felt winded.

"Well," she said finally. "At least you're finally being honest."

Sam stared at her disbelievingly, and then suddenly, she began harsh, broken chuckle, and Brooke had no choice but to get off the bed and come forward, as tenderly as she could.

"Hey," she began, and Sam shook her head furiously, stepping away from her, as if she was afraid. "I don't want to hurt you, Sam," Brooke whispered. "I'm sorry that I'm broken. I'm sorry if I don't know how to love you, but it didn't change the fact that I do."

"That doesn't mean much, Brooke," Sam sniffled, and Brooke smiled sadly at the truth of that.

"Sam, it doesn't change anything," she whispered softly. "If we had kept on not talking about it then last night would have just kept happening and that would be all we would know how to do. Fighting and... fucking." She winced, the word rancid on her tongue. "And God, Sam... what else could we have? I don't want to be a torrid secret we have to hide. I've done enough hiding."

"Brooke..." Sam stared at her, tear-streaked and still willful, and then suddenly her little lover moved into her arms and pressed her lips against hers, in a passionate, desperate embrace.

Just the touch of Sam, the feel of her, brought with it that electric jolt, and Brooke's instinct followed before her brain could catch up. Soft lips plundered her own, and a firm tongue swept inside her mouth to claim her own, in a dance of desperate passion.

It was too easy to fantasize that it was more than it was, when she let Sam push them both to the bed, until her knees hit the back of the bed, and she fell back, Sam falling with her, until she was on top.

Trembling fingers fumbled with her shirt, and Brooke sighed raggedly, lifting her torso from the bed to allow slender palms to slide up her ribs. The shirt went over her head, snagging on her chin and nearly choking her in the process, and Sam offered a short apology before she captured her lips again hotly and slid arms around Brooke, holding her tightly.

Painting a trail of kisses down her body, from her jaw to tip of her left breast, Sam sucked in a lungful of air.

It was a ragged breath, unsure, unsteady, and Brooke's head fell back when she felt Sam's mouth descend on her nipple.

Sam was right, she was an asshole. If she was anything else, she could have stopped it.

Curled into her, Sam was beautiful, tired. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was even, but her thumb rubbed alongside Brooke's, and when Brooke shifted, body still humming from the intense lovemaking, she shimmied closer, almost unconsciously.

Brooke watched her, utterly enraptured.

"I want to tell Jane and my Dad."

Sam's eyes fluttered open, and then closed again. "No, Brooke. It's not going to make it any easier."

"But it would make it real."

"It's not real enough?" came the whispered, raspy reply.

"No," Brooke responded, and leaned forward, thumbing a bang away from her lover's face. "Because I'm going back to my sorority and my school and you're going back to Northwestern and to Rebecca."

"You told me to go back to her."

Brooke's eyes shut tightly at the flat response. "I know. It's not that I want you to." Sam's eyes opened. "Sam, you saved my life."

"What are you talking about?"

Brooke kept her mouth purposely shut, and she buried her head further into the downy pillow and cursed her own weakness.

Tomorrow was going to change everything. She was going back to school and she was doing it as a lesbian. Stephanie was never one to keep things quiet, she was sure Maria knew, she was sure the whole sorority knew by now.

There was no going back, and everything was different and for the first time since the coma, Brooke felt reborn.

Sam was beside her: the unknown catalyst to Brooke's own private metamorphosis.

What had Brooke given her in return but her own confusion?

"Sam," Brooke whispered. "We'll figure this out."

"From across the country?"

"We seemed to do better over email and AIM, anyway."

"Healthy," Sam remarked dryly, eyes still closed, and Brooke blanched. It all left a sour taste in her mouth, and that was the last thing she ever wanted to associate with Sam.


Part 11. Where Did I go Wrong, I Lost a Friend

Brooke wrote in her diary as her temporary lover slept through the night.

Despite her exhaustion, Brooke found she could not sleep, and instead moved to her desk, using what little moonlight there was to scrawl delicately and quietly on the small notebook she still kept. In between thoughts, she lingered on the figure that was turned away from her, and resented Sam her ability to sleep.

Maybe it was the dying romantic in her, but Brooke realized that part of the reason she could not was the fact that she didn't want to sleep with Sam if she couldn't wake up with her.

Finishing her entry, Brooke flipped idly through the pages, from the beginning to the sophomore year to the six month gap that happened at the end of junior year. She took back up the journal writing at the beginning of senior year, and there, she noticed, came a marked change. The entries were shorter, to the point. No longer was there any discussion of her feelings. Where before she rambled on for pages of her troubled emotions for Harrison and Josh, what existed after the coma was almost an outline, a point by point report of her day and her subsequent reactions to that.

Frowning, Brooke brushed her bangs from her face and peered closer at the entries, flipping through the pages until she could determine just how many blank pages were left in this particular notebook.

She was nearing the end, and the awkward scribblings were shorter, more pointed, as if even unconsciously, she realized it.

Closing the book, Brooke found herself suddenly trembling, as she exhaled loudly and lowered her head, suddenly on the verge of tears.

"What are you doing?"

The soft, sleepy voice cut through her quiet devastation, and her head rose, fell upon a beautiful girl in a large bed, slender fingers keeping strands of tousled hair out of her face, as curious, inquisitive eyes stared at her.

Arms around her knees, Brooke gnawed at her raw lip, eyes on Sam.

"Why am I so afraid to feel?"

Sam's brown eyes burned into her own. In the silence, Sam only had the moonlight, the shadows playing across Brooke's face, and the shallow breathing to try and determine what it was Brooke was really asking.

Pushing up, Sam gave an audible sigh, holding the sheet against her torso.

"I don't know," Sam admitted, quiet. "Maybe because you've been hurt so much. Maybe because you spent your whole life trying to be someone else you're afraid no one will love you for who you really are. Or maybe you're just scared."

"So that makes me a coward?" Brooke sniffled, wiping at the moisture in her eyes.

"No, it makes you human," Sam corrected softly. "And that's okay, Brooke."

The pressure building in her chest was almost unbearable, and she shut her eyes, tried to relieve it with another soft whimper.

"Come on," she heard, and felt the bed sheets rustle. "It's okay."

It wasn't, but Brooke wanted to desperately to believe the lie that she numbly came forward, until she slid into the outstretched arms, and felt the fabric of her blankets close around her, her step-sister cocooning her into a warm, soft embrace.

"I thought you were sleeping," she muttered, as Sam snuggled closer into her, thigh sliding between Brooke's, breath tickling the side of her ear.

Sam was quiet, until she shifted and she heard, "I wanted to watch you. I didn't want to forget."

Brooke McQueen knew better than to think she was imagining the stares when she grabbed hold of her bags and lugged them up the driveway and into the sprawling Victorian house that housed her sorority.

Sets of blue eyes and brown lingered on her, and her housemates all collectively stopped whatever it was they were in the middle of doing and stared, as she moved through the hallway.

"Hi," she said, in an impatient tone, when Hazel, their ever chaste Christian sister, stood at the foot of the stairs, looking at her as if she had grown a second head. "Hazel, would you mind?"

"I do mind," Hazel began, arms crossing. "I've heard some really bad things about you, Brooke, and I just want you to know, that we won't stand for it."

"Oh, Good God." Tromping down the hallway, Becky, a skater girl with a cute short cut, leaned against the hallway door. "Like anyone cares."

"I care!" Hazel squeaked. "What if she starts hitting on me?!"

"You can't even get the SC waterboy to hit on you," Becky responded dryly.

A small smirk floated on Brooke's face. Turning toward her judging sister, she arched a playful eyebrow. "Trust me, Hazel. You're not my type."

The snicker behind Hazel was almost comforting, when Maria shoved past the other girl and grabbed hold of Brooke's bags. "Okay, enough, leave her alone. Brookie, we have a lot to talk about."

Relieved to be out of the suddenly gay limelight, Brooke gave her friend a small grin and tossed Hazel a cool look. "Excuse me."

Huffing slightly, Maria dragged her luggage, thumping the designer bags against the stairs and glancing back at her quizzically.

"So… you've had quite a week."

"I'm sure you did too," Brooke responded. "How was Cabo?"

"Oh, crazy!," Maria said, bumping her hip against their door and nearly falling inside. "We went snorkeling, right? On this fake pirate ship? And the Mexican boys there were totally trying to hit on us, and since I was the only one who spoke Spanish-"


"Well, let's just say I had an extra bead on what they really thought of us," Maria finished, dropping Brooke's bag on the floor and flouncing back to her bed. "I did meet this skuba instructor guy, though. He was cute. I almost got some until I got a panicked phone call from Jenny freaking out about Lil' Bleu."

The name of her little fish brought a sudden rush of pain, and Brooke's mouth twitched. With a ragged sigh, she glanced at the empty space beside her dresser.

"I'm really sorry, Brooke," Maria said gravely, and blinked, her face flushing suddenly. "I actually cried when I found out. "

Brooke glanced away, and began to zip open her bag, suddenly wanting desperately to look busy. "Yeah, me too."

"Where's the other guy?"

"Oh, you mean Lil' Blue Too?" Brooke responded, and Maria rolled her eyes upward, commiserating with her at the complete idiocy of that plan. "He's home, I let my step-mom keep him for Mac. It's a lot of work to bring him back and forth."

"Sure," Maria noted, and then suddenly squeaked, "You're gay now?!" Blinking, Brooke glanced back. "Oh, like you're surprised?!" Maria retorted, bouncing on her bed in enthusiasm. "You know Stephanie can't keep a secret to save her life."

Groaning, Brooke sank down on her bed, head in her hands.

"Oh, please! Please! You have to spill what happened. What girl rocked your world so hard she ruined all men forever! It was me, right?"

Brooke's head came up immediately. "What?"

"I KNEW you were checking me out!" Maria looked particularly gleeful, and struck a seductive pose. "It's all the walking around naked that did it, right? Did I turn you gay?"

"No," Brooke said, incredulous. "You didn't turn me gay."

"But I'm a tease, right? I'm a total tease?"

"Do you WANT to be a tease?"

"Oh, come on, Brookie!" Maria stood up, and with outstretched arms, proceeded to give a twirl.

"You're insane."

"But I'm a hot insane tease, right?"

"Oh my GOD!" Brooke snorted, trying to control her laughter. "Yes, okay? It was you! You ruined men forever for me with your hot smokin' bod!"

"Oh, God, is Maria hitting on you already?" Stephanie's brow arched, entering the room and shutting the door behind her.

"Why wouldn't she?" Brooke said without thinking. "I'm hot."

"She's a hot tease," Maria offered, and then burst into laughter.

It was a release, from the pent up emotion that had buried in her the second she had woken up alone in her room that morning, and when the tears came, she welcomed them, nearly hysterical as Maria fell back on her bed hyperventilating, and Stephanie stared at them both as if they had chosen to wear Payless Shoes.

"You are both so weird!"

"Oh, you're just jealous that you didn't turn Brooke gay."

"Are you okay?" Stephanie asked her.

Leaning against the hard bark of the trees in the sprawling quad beside the Communications building, Brooke glanced up, distracted by the sounds of her IPOD and the book in her lap.

"What do you mean?"

"You haven't seemed yourself." Her friend was a shallow, but sincere, and when Stephanie bit her lip in an uncharacteristic frown, Brooke knew she was actually serious. "Is it Hazel and the other girls?"

With a ragged sigh, Brooke's hands fell to her sides, head falling back to rest against the broad trunk. "No," she admitted. "I knew they would react that way. Honestly, as a whole, it's better than I expected."

"Well, thanks for giving us so much credit," Stephanie mumbled, rolling her eyes before she turned on the grass, trying to get as much of the sun as possible.

"You know what I mean."

"I honestly think the Greek system doesn't get enough kudos for what it is."

"Well, for what it's worth, you've been great."

"But not great enough?" Stephanie's tone was curious, almost offended. "What's up, Brooke? You have this look in your eyes, when you think no one's looking."

Biting her lip, Brooke swallowed, glanced away. "It's nothing."

"It's Abby, right?"

Surprised at the mention of her new friend, Brooke sat up straighter. "Abby? No, I just... Nothing's really wrong, I just... I miss someone."

"So, not Abby..." Stephanie frowned. "You know, I don't like prying, Brooke. We're your sorority sisters, and I like to think it's more than just having keggers and philanthropies. You can tell me what's bothering you. Anything to get that kicked puppy look off your face."

Brooke didn't have much a defense to that description. The two weeks since she had left Sam behind had gone by quickly, but she had been haunted by the shakiness of what they had shared.

The distance between them was killing Brooke, and too afraid to the break the shreds of trust that existed between them, she was left helpless; unsure how to even attempt to fix ... whatever it was they had.

"It's complicated," was all she allowed, when Stephanie glanced at her expectantly. "What?" she said again, unreasonably annoyed at Stephanie's exasperated look. "I'm allowed to keep things to myself, Stephanie, okay?"

"Oh, God, you're such a martyr, you know that?" Sitting up, Stephanie gathered her books, rising up. "Didn't you say you came out because you wanted to stop putting on a mask?" Pushing long blonde bangs out of her face, Stephanie gave her a pointed look. "I gotta get to class."

As her friend tromped off, a little heavy-footed in her emotion, Brooke stayed put, lost in the sun and the grass and the people moving around her.

Across the quad, there was a girl with dark black hair, sitting on a bench, looking right at her.

Feeling uneasily naked, Brooke gathered her books and got to her feet.

Old habits were hard to break, Brooke understood that.

She told herself she came out because she wanted to stop being afraid, but it was fear that paralyzed her now. It kept her from emailing Sam, it kept her from signing onto her AIM, it kept her from living...

Sam was at Northwestern, and that was all Brooke knew. There had been no more talk of Rebecca, or Abby or what would happen when they had separated, and because there was no understanding, Brooke felt oddly like a gutted fish, flopping and gasping for air.

That feeling came with a tightness in her chest, a pressure, and Brooke knew Stephanie was right, when she said it was affecting her physically.

Lovesick, said her professor one day during class, in a large hall with three hundred other classmates. Brooke wrote it down, and found herself staring at her own handwriting, as if she could make sense of her emotion simply by understanding the word.

She was lovesick, and she was afraid.

Brooke wasn't sure what the rules were, but she was pretty sure she was breaking them when she decided to call Sam, late that night, alone in her room while Maria was at yet another mixer. Because she was a coward, she waited until it was late, until she was sure Sam would be asleep.

Even though Sam's cell phone was saved in her address book, Brooke dialed the numbers, one by one, until the 9 digits were recognized and Sam's name appeared in the 'dialing' window. She heard the chirp of the phone ringing, and with each sound the tightness in her chest just increased, making her light headed.

She closed her eyes as she waited, and then the phone clicked.

"Hi, it's Sam." Her heart jumped in her throat, making her suddenly speechless. "I'm not available, so leave a detailed message, and I'll get back to you."

The voicemail. She barely had time to register both her disappointment and relief before the telltale beep came on, fading into silence.

"Hi," she managed finally. "It's me. Brooke." Shuddering, Brooke closed her eyes, horrified at her own ineptness. "I just... I don't know why I'm calling, but... I miss you. I do, Sammy. I miss looking at you, and talking to you, and God... I don't know..." Fingers rising to the bridge of her nose, she tried to control herself, understand what it was she wanted to say. "I can't help feeling that whatever happened, whatever is left behind... somewhere in the middle of all this I lost my best friend. And I just feel so stupid because I'm the one that threw you away first. I did, because I was scared and I was hurting, and it's not an excuse but it's what happened." Her eyes opened, and looked at the ceiling. "Tell me how to fight for you, Sammy. And I'll do it. I'll do whatever you want me to."

A half second pause, and then came the beep, cutting her off for good.

Smiling bitter, Brooke turned on the bed, and curled into herself, momentarily overtaken.

It was almost silly, to be optimistic as she was. What had followed the heartbroken message of needy desperation was a decision, and Brooke had decided that she needed to stop being afraid.

Something had needed to be done, and Brooke had done it. Maybe it would have been better if there had been an actual conversation, but Brooke had been honest, and open, and it felt... it felt almost satisfying.

"You coming to class, Brookie?" Slinging her bag over her head, Maria looked at her expectantly, unusually bright-eyed considering the way she had teetered into the room the night before.

"What are you on?" Brooke asked, pulling on her shirt. "Really?"

"Duh. Rockstar," Maria said, grabbing hold of the big can and shaking it at her. "One of these puppies and who needs sleep?"

"I do."

"LAME!" Rolling her eyes, Maria gave her a thumbs up. "I'm gonna make a bagel. You want?"

"Thanks, but I'm not really hungry." Settling into her chair, Brooke shot her a distracted smile. "I'm gonna check my email. I'll be down in a minute."

"Lame and nerdy," Maria amended, heading for the door. "You're lucky you're hot."

Waving distractedly, Brooke typed in the email account and opened the webpage.

There were two emails the following morning: one from Abby, and one from Harrison.

None from Sam.

Brooke told herself she should have expected it. Sam was probably busy and the message Brooke had left her...

Maybe she hadn't had time to hear it. That had to be it, because while Brooke and Sam could both be self admitted assholes, Sam had told her she loved her... and that counted for something, didn't it?

Sucking in a lungful of air, Brooke tried hard to push down on her burgeoning hope, and clicked quickly on the emails, intent to read them and get them out of the way before class began.

From: HunkyNerd@gmail.com

To: Bmcqueen@usc.edu

Subject: Hey Stranger.

Didn't think I'd actually be emailing you, huh? Give me a buzz, Brooke. Let's hang out. I figured out over the lunch we had the other day, there's no point in being an asshole to the prettiest girl in high school, gay as she may be.

How're things with Sammy? Haven't heard from her in a while.


The last sentence caused a bittersweet pang, but Harrison was still the sweet, sarcastic little unknowing hearthrob he had always been.

She would respond when she had time, she decided. Invite him up for the weekend. San Diego State wasn't far away, and truthfully, she had missed his friendship.

From: Alover@yahoo.com

To: Bmcqueen@usc.edu

Subject: Go Trojans!!

Okay, not really, but I really hate subject lines, and I didn't really know what else to put.

Anyway, I'm really glad for you, Brooke. To be honest, I'm actually kinda jealous. I didn't think parents like yours actually existed. If Jeapordy had an answer like, "Things That Are Wrong With Abby", my dad would get each and every one AND the bonus round.

I guess things didn't go too well with Sam, right? I mean, I'm not going to pry or anything, but with Sam and Rebecca getting back together, I kinda figured not.

Anyway, I guess I just wanted to say that I'm sorry. Give me a call if you can, I'd like to see how you're doing.


The words were there, printed in black and white.

Brooke didn't want to believe them.

They hit something inside of her, harder than she had ever been hit before, and for the moment, she was literally left breathless.

"Brooke? Are you coming or what? Brooke?"

Wordlessly, Brooke stared up at her roommate, paralyzed.

"Brooke?" Maria repeated. "You okay? Come on, we gotta go."

Because she had no idea what else to do, Brooke got up, and closed the laptop, grabbing her books.

She got a phone call, in the middle of the day, in the middle of the same quad.

The caller ID said 'Sam'.

She stared at the phone, somehow unsure if it was real, and then she closed her eyes and braced herself.

"Hey, Sam," she began, and her voice sounded thick and full of emotion. She winced at the sound of it.

"Brooke," said her lover, and she shuddered, because she didn't sound happy or hopeful. "I got your message."

"Okay," she responded, and she swallowed. "I umm... I meant it, Sam."

"God... Brooke..."

"What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know." Sam's voice was soft, like she was trying to keep her voice down. "I don't know what we can do."

"We can try, Sam," Brooke said. "Don't you think it's worth trying?"

"Trying what? A barrage of phone calls and emails? Sneaking around behind Mom and Mike's back on vacations home? We made our choices, Brooke. You made yours when you shut me out, and I made mine when I decided to move on."

It was so... final. Brooke sucked in her breath, and blinked away from her tears. "No, Sam, listen, okay? I'm not saying it would easy, but what has been about us? Isn't it worth it to try? At least say that we cared enough to give it shot, and if we fail... okay... but..."

"Brooke, we already FAILED. Every time. We've had chance after chance to get it right and it just-"

"No, we haven't. You know that." Heart racing, Brooke didn't care about the people walking by her. She gripped her phone and buried her fingers in her hair. "I love you, Sam." There was a heavy sigh in return. "No, listen to me - we're young and stupid and yes, you make me feel things and you make me react and sometimes I don't know how to handle that. But I'm learning, and I can do it right this time. I know I can."

"Well, maybe I can't."

"You can't or you don't want to?"

Again, there it was, that heavy, exasperated sigh. "Look... Brooke. I don't know if we can even be friends, right now, let alone... what you want. I don't like who I become when I love you. I get mean and selfish and..."


Her heart ached, and her blood raced, and she had the world beating down on her, and Brooke held onto her phone so tightly she heard the plastic creak a little.

"Maybe we can... we can still... email or something-"

"No," she interrupted, wiping at her tears. "No, we can't."


"No, Sammy! I can't just pretend that this conversation didn't happen! If you want move on, then fine. But you have to let me do it too."

"So, what? It's all or nothing with you? Are you that selfish, Brooke?"

"What do you want from me, Sam? I mean, honestly, what do you want?"

The long silence was answer enough.

The world tilted, stopped, and in that second, Brooke felt it start to move again.

"Okay," she answered herself. "Okay. I'm going to respect that you don't want me. In return, I ask for the space to move on from you. I already lost you, Sam. You've confirmed that. You have to let me deal with that."


"What else can you say, Sam? Look, you may not like who you become when you're with me, but to be honest? You made me a better person. You made me look at myself and realize that there were parts of me that I hated so much I tried to starve them away. If I hadn't met you, I would pretended forever, and I would have never lived. Just know that. You saved my life, Sammy."

She clicked off the phone, numb inside, but somehow, precariously, intact.

"I'm okay," she told herself, lifting her tear streaked eyes to the sun. "I'm okay."

"So this is the inside of a sorority, huh?" Harrison looked lanky and boy-like, and Brooke smiled at the familiarity of him, as he stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. "I always wondered what the inside of one of these looked like."

"They're highly overrated," Brooke responded. "I can't even get Maria to vacuum on a daily basis."

Harrison's expression was highly skeptical. "With that body, she doesn't need to vacuum, unless she's doing it naked."

"Oh, believe me, that wouldn't be hard. She loves being naked."

Like a true boy, Harrison's interest was immediately piqued. "And you've never set us up, because?"

"Because you're much too good for her," Brooke answered flatly. "She cheats like crazy."

"I think you're overestimating me." Flopping down beside her, Harrison shoved at her firmly, causing her to shimmy over. "I'm perfectly willing to be cheated on."

"No, you deserve better," Brooke said firmly, moving on her side, to look down at the pretty boy with the sparkling brown eyes and too big ears. "And you and I both know it."

Staring up at her, Harrison didn't respond. Instead, he simply looked, the searching expression in his gaze disquieting her. "What?"

"You're still the most gorgeous girl I've ever seen."

The compliment was unexpected, and she flushed, glancing away from the intense stare. "Harrison," she managed, an awkward laughing coming from her.

"Sorry," he answered, and he at least had the decency to look embarrassed. "It's true, Brooke."

"Well, thanks, but..." Pushing out a frustrated breath, Brooke fell onto her back, until they were shoulder to shoulder on the teeny bed. "I don't really feel that way." He stayed quiet, and she bit her lip. "Have you ever felt ugly on the inside, Harrison? That's how I used to feel. Ugly on the inside, like there was nothing inside of me worth anything. So I starved myself to make myself look beautiful and for what? I was always alone. Always afraid. I was sick, Harrison, all because all I was this ugly person that everyone said was beautiful."

"You're not that person, Brooke." Harrison's tone was sweet, sincere, and she smiled bitterly at his soft tone. "Look, we all make mistakes. We're all capable of being ugly people. That's called being imperfect. And those imperfections make us beautiful."

"Look at you, Mr. Psych 101." It was light, but there was too much depth in Harrison's words to even try to take them seriously. She couldn't deal with sincere emotion. Not now.

"Communication, actually." Turning, Harrison eyed her, and she found they were in an almost exact mimic of the position they were in before she had taken his virginity. "I talked to Sam."

The name caused a rupture in her heart, and she sighed raggedly, trying to contain it. "Harrison, I don't want to-"

"I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry!" she snapped. "Just... don't. Don't feel sorry for me."

He tried to touch her. She shrugged him off.

"If it helps," he said, in the silence that followed. "I know what it's like to think you're going to end up with her. To think that it's meant to be."

"Stop," she managed, eyes closing. "Please, don't..."

"You move on, Brooke."

"I don't want to!" Her eyes opened, liquid pools of fevered emotions. "I don't want to move on when we haven't had a chance, Harrison! It can't be over just like that."

"But it is, Brooke. And you have to accept it."

"WHY? Why should I?"

"Because you can't force things."

It was the truth, and she didn't want to hear it. But Harrison was staring at her with those big brown eyes, and he looked so sad, and she didn't want to be him.

"God... DAMMIT." The outburst was full of anger, and then defeat, when Harrison reached out, and she couldn't help but curl into him, and let him hold her.


Part 12. As She Begins to Raise Her Voice

"You know," Brooke began as she opened the microwave door, wrinkling her nose as the buttery smell of the popcorn hit her full on. "Not that I mind, but when you said you were coming into town and wanted to do a 'Girls' Night Out', I thought we'd actually be... you know... going out."

Caught with a morsel of chocolate in her mouth, Carmen Ferrera actually looked a little apologetic, eyebrow arching as she tried to swallow, gulping down the last bit of the little treat.

"Oh, me too," she sighed, "But I think Mary Cherry hasn't quite given up hope on sinking her claws into Harrison quite yet." With a conspiratory look, she motioned to the living room of the penthouse she and Mary Cherry had rented, eyes rolling heavenward as their shaggy-haired friend shot them a panicked 'Help Me' look when Mary Cherry firmly planted herself in his lap. "She thinks a scary movie and 'a bit of cuddlin' will finally wear him down."

"Oh, Joe!" Aside from gaining a bit of weight, the shallow cheerleader didn't look a bit different. "You haven't changed a bit! Look at your hair! My word! It's like pettin' a little terrier!"

Brooke smiled at the sight. "I can't believe that you two are still roommates. And that you still haven't killed each other."

"I know, right?" Offering her a bowl, Carmen grinned merrily. "Luckily the kind of crazy she drives me, there's medication for. Besides," she added, reaching for the ice cream cartons. "Mama Cherry thinks I'm a good influence on her. I can't give up free room and board. I never would be able to afford Stanford otherwise. I keep Mary Cherry out of trouble, and she keeps the creditors off my back. Aside from having to beat off the succession of personal trainers Mama Cherry has coming to the house, it's a pretty good deal."

"You can't beat free tuition," Brooke agreed, dumping the steaming hot popcorn into the bowl, wincing slightly when the steam caught a bit of the flesh on her palm.

"Yeah..." Hesitating, Carmen sighed. "Besides, Mary Cherry's got a good heart. It's just hidden really really really REALLY deep... underneath all that... fur."

"Well, you would know," Brooke agreed. "You guys did spend a lot of time together senior year." The brief mention to their last year at school drove the small kitchenette into a somber silence. "Come on," Brooke said, laughing a little dryly. "One of us had to mention it."

Pressing her lips together, Carmen gave her a knowing glance. "You were going through a lot," she said finally. "I mean, Brooke, you spent months in a coma after Nicole tried to kill you. If that didn't change you a little bit, I'd have been more worried."

The rationalization, even in retrospect, didn't help. Her returning smile was a small one. "Well, I nearly ruined every real relationship I had."

Carmen crossed her arms, leaning her shapely body against the counter. "You mean, you and Sam."

Faltering, Brooke's mouth twitched. "Am I that obvious?"

"Harrison told me some," Carmen admitted. Glancing up, Brooke nearly dropped the popcorn she was carrying, flashing a look back at her friend, currently struggling with a lap full of Mary Cherry. Carmen shifted, apologetic. "Don't kill him, I wormed it out of him."

She sighed raggedly, suddenly nervous. "How much did he tell you... exactly?"

Biting down on her lower lip, the guilty expression gave much of it away.

"So... everything," Brooke muttered, suddenly hot, placing the bowl of popcorn on the counter, and sighing heavily.

"He was worried about you, Brooke."

"Is that why you two came down here?" The thought was suddenly infuriating. "Because I'm not a charity case."

"No one is saying that!"

"Oh, my God... did our little Brookie figure it out?" Popping her head over the couch, Mary Cherry offered Harrison a somber frown. "Brookie, it ain't what it looks like. I love the gays!"

"Oh, God. Harrison." Turning away, Brooke glared at her friend. "We're not friends anymore."

"Brooke, I was worried, all right? Maria says you're this close to inactive status, and you don't even care!"

"Who is Maria?!" Mary Cherry demanded, pointing a finger at Harrison's nose. "Some Latin whore?!"

"Brooke, come on!" Fingers catching her wrist, Carmen's grip pulled her back. "We're your friends, okay? And you've had quite a year. We just wanted to reconnect. You were one of the nicest people at school, and..."

"And you're gay now!" Mary Cherry supplied helpfully. "So we're watchin' Judy Garland!"

Head lowering, Brooke closed her eyes, overwhelmed.

"All we wanna do is... hang out. That's all. No support groups, no interventions. We just wanna be here for a friend. Because that's what friends do." Hands squeezing hers, Carmen's expression was warm and sincere. "And we know you'd do the same for us."

Biting down her frustration, Brooke tried to swallow her anger. "Look... I appreciate that, Carmen. But I'm fine, okay? You don't HAVE to do this."

"No but we want to," Harrison said, managing finally to shove off his lap buddy, nearly falling over the couch. "Come on, Brooke! What ever happened to having fun? You remember fun, right? You are a sorority girl."

"That's a stereotype," Brooke said pointedly. "Sorority girls are allowed to be boring."

"Awww, but Brookie! Lookit you! Lookit what you've become! You're... wearing generic cotton!" Mary Cherry got to her feet, shooting Harrison a murderous glance before she pushed her blonde hair out of her face and straightened up. "It's just not right. Now you let me and Carmen and Joe here put you right. And if it'll help, I'll even buy you a stripper! With ratty dark hair, just like Spam's!"

"I could go for that," Harrison said immediately.

The inappropriateness of her old friend struck an unintended smile, and shrewdly, Carmen saw her way in. "Come on. You know what? Screw this. This isn't about being at home. You know what this is?" Rushing over the bar, she dug out a bottle of champagne and began to fuss with the top. "This is a celebration. For our dear friend Brooke, who, I hear, has traded in her pompoms for a camera."

"Yes!" Harrison agreed immediately, hand on Brooke's shoulder, drawing her affectionately into his side. "I also told them about your new job at Daily Trojan and your application to the Annenberg School of Journalism. Miss photojournalist!"

Carmen fiddled with the champagne cork. "And after we have our toast, we're going to go out, and we're going to dance the night away." Amused despite herself, Brooke crossed her arms, waiting. Carmen shot them an embarrassed glance. "It's harder than it looks."

"Oh, gimme that!" Mary Cherry said, snatching the champagne out of Carmen's hand. "Honey, before you get that thing open, we'll have died of thirst." Tongue on the side of her mouth, she worked the top and suddenly Brooke shrieked, ducking as the cork popped and blasted straight for her. "Got it!" Mary Cherry said triumphantly, grinning maniacally. "Now where's the best gay bar in town! Brookie's going carpet munchin!"

Since coming out, her actual lifestyle hadn't changed for the gayer. When one of the girls at the sorority house floated the idea of a GLBT mixer, Brooke had been uncomfortable with the idea. She wasn't a fan of being singled out just because of her orientation, and had been relieved when it was nixed by Hazel. Thankfully, it was the worst act Hazel had committed, as she preferred to completely ignore the fact that Brooke was gay.

In all honesty, it was just fine with Brooke. Heart raw and still overwhelmingly depressed following her pseudo-breakup with Sam, she wanted nothing more than to bury herself into her classes and consume herself with work.

She had picked up her camera again, attending functions as the sorority's historian, and found herself increasably addicted to her lens. There was an odd sense of security in seeing the world from behind a camera.

Her first time at the Girlbar, had come about when she had been forced to go by a well intentioned Maria and a worried Stephanie, who told Brooke that the 'frigid' rumors were coming back full force. The experience had been overwhelming and incredibly uncomfortable, as her sorority sisters proceeded to gawk at every women in the place and push her toward anybody that might had looked like she was interested. Then of course, Maria had hooked up with one of the several straight guys who had arrived. Brooke herself had spent half the night in the bathroom, looking after Stephanie, who had gotten just a little too drunk and a lot too sick.

There wasn't much about that night that was memorable, and Brooke hadn't been back since.

"You know what scared me?" Carmen asked her in the limo ride over, ignoring Harrison and Mary Cherry, who appeared to be squabbling over Mary Cherry's attempt to hand feed him grapes. "When I first saw you today, you had that exact look that you gave me in the hospital room when I first saw you after you woke up."

Startled, Brooke glanced at her. "What do you mean."

Shrugging, Carmen glanced outside the window, lost in thought. "You weren't all there, Brooke. It was like you had purposely shut down. And it reminded me of what Sam said one day to me, when you got sick and were in the hospital before."

The mention of her former lover struck a still raw place, and Brooke bit back the pain, expressionless.

"She said when she went to see you, that you had stopped caring. That you had shut down and there wasn't really any..." Brows furrowing, Carmen tried to express the words, hands moving in an attempt to mime it out. "Life," she said finally. "That spark that made you Brooke McQueen, it wasn't there. Somehow, it had gone out. I didn't know what she meant," Carmen continued, as Brooke glanced away, "Until I saw you in that room after the coma. And then I got it."

"What was Sam like?" Carmen blinked, surprised at the abrupt turn of conversation. Flushing, Brooke brushed her bangs out of her face, sighing raggedly. "Harrison said that when I was in that coma... Sam was... She blamed herself. Is that true?"

Mouth pressing together, Carmen kept quiet, dark eyes searching. "It hit all of us hard," Carmen said, "But when you were in that coma... it was like Sam was there with you. I don't think anybody realized how close you had gotten until that summer."

The emotion got the better of her, and she cursed herself, wiping at her eyes as she sucked in a painful breath. "And I just threw that away. Like an idiot."

"Brooke... you have to stop blaming yourself for what happened with you and Sam. There's two of you in this relationship. And Sam isn't perfect." Carmen's smile was crookedly sheepish. "Even I'll admit that, and we used to be really close."

Curiosity overwhelmed her own defenses. "You haven't heard from her?"

Shrugging, Carmen sighed. "No. You know how it is. You grow apart." To her credit, Carmen seemed aggrieved at the thought. "You deserve to live, Brooke. You deserve to be happy. You believe that, right?"

The streets of West Hollywood swept by them, lit up in color and life.

Carmen's hand covered hers, and squeezed. "We'll talk later."

"So much for talking," Carmen shouted in her ear, and Brooke grinned in response, unreasonably excited. "It's so loud in here I just felt an ear drum burst!"

Her friend clutched onto her like she was a life jacket, and Brooke kept her close to her, weaving her way through the crowded eclectic group of people currently populating the gay bar.

She was intimidated, and overwhelmed, but somehow, being here was exhilarating in a way she hadn't felt since Spring Break and Sam.

"So..." Harrison's eyes were as round as saucers, taking it all in. "You come here a lot?!"

"Just once before," Brooke admitted, grinning when Mary Cherry gave them a gleeful thumbs up from the dance floor, dancing crazily with a short haired butch girl with glasses. "The girls wanted me to give a coming out... thing and we landed here."

"I really like it," Harrison said, openly staring at a couple making out in the corner.

"So this a Hollywood gay bar, huh?" Carmen sidled closer to her, glancing at the crowded bar and the almost unrealistically good looking women dressed in barely there outfits, serving drinks. "It's... Nice."

Nice wasn't quite the spin Brooke put on it. Wishing suddenly for her camera, Brooke took in the atmosphere, imagined the shots of life spurting up around her, in the form of loud music, and every type of person imaginable.

Women packed the place so there was barely room to walk, and they came in all shapes and sizes, from Hollywood chic to flannel wearing, crew cut sporting, self professed bull dykes. Couples abounded, either there for the dancing or to glance curiously at the clusters of gorgeous women who seemed perfectly happy dancing suggestively in groups. The music was loud, pulsing with the strobe lights, and as Brooke let it seep through her, she was suddenly staring right into the eyes of a cute brunette.

"You're adorable," she heard, and blinked, thrown at the frank interpretation.

"Thank you!"

"You're straight," Came the next sentence as the other girl looked at her appraisingly, eyes dragging from her to Carmen. "Aren't you?"

Blinking, Brooke suddenly grinned. "What do you think?"

"Straight," came the confirmation, and Brooke laughed, shaking her head as the girl tossed her a wink and moved away.

"I think I just got hit on," she told Carmen, awkwardly excited by the idea. Her friend arched a curious eyebrow.

"You just let her think you're straight," Carmen reminded her. "Go after her - tell her the truth!"

"I'm not quite ready for that yet," Brooke admitted, and then grinned as she waved a finger toward Harrison, now in a conversation with a very pretty boy with a tight t-shirt. "Harrison's making friends."

A fur-covered sweaty version of a make-up smeared Mary Cherry nearly collapsed into her. "Oh, Brookie! Carmen! Ya gotta come dance! The place is a-twitter with so much girl power I've got me an uncontrollable urge to start burnin' my bra!"

"Uh... Okay..." Carmen shot her a wild-eyed glance, before both of their wrists were suddenly grabbed in a forceful grip and they were yanked forward.

A sudden clanging in the air diffused the situation, when a male announcer shouted over the PA. "It's that time again!"

Brooke glanced back, as the crowd surged toward the bar next to the dance floor. "Oh, God, I remember this!"

"What?" Carmen said, squealing when she was nearly overrun by a girl rushing past them, "What's happening?!"

"You guys! Some guy just asked me for my number." Harrison appeared behind them, ears tinted pink. "I gotta get out of here!"

Grabbing his hand, Brooke grinned. "Trust me. For this? You need to stay. Come on."

Maneuvering through the crowd, Brooke got as close as she could as her friends crowded around her. As the song pulsed, the hoots and howls became near screams when every female bartender made her way to the top of the bar.

Grinding against each other and the table tops, the bartenders danced suggestively, and the largely female crowd shouted their appreciation, waving dollars, in hopes it would draw a dancer near.

Sneaking a glance toward Harrison, Brooke nearly laughed. "Well?"

His eyes had glazed over. "I love you."

"What'll it be, sweetie?" The bartender, a brunette with smoky eyes and a gorgeous figure gave her a polite, but hurried smile.

Oddly star-struck, Brooke found herself at a loss, blushing on reflex. What was the proper etiquette when dealing with a dancer/bartender/really-hot-girl-with-dollar-bills-in-her-short-shorts?

"Um... two cherry cokes, please," she stammered, startled into politeness.

Winking, the bartender turned to do her duty, and elbows against the wood, Brooke brushed her hair back self consciously. The girl was a professional, already almost finished with the easy order when a group of women packed themselves in besides Brooke. One girl, tall, with an incredible figure, boldly reached over the bar to poke the bartender in the shoulder.

With a glance, the bartender immediately leaned over, ready to hear the order when the other woman, grinning wickedly, planted a kiss on the corner of her mouth. Brooke's mouth immediately dropped, somehow horrified at the inappropriate gesture. The bartender seemed to take it in stride, arching a disaproving eyebrow at the other woman and shaking her head.

Still, Brooke's expression of outrage must have registered, because the dark eyes locked onto her own, and with a grin, she mouthed the words, "Happens all the time."

Blushing furiously, Brooke glanced away. "Oh."

The cherry cokes were pushed toward her. "Here you go, Gorgeous," said the brunette with a wink, and then moved away, already preparing other drinks.

"Wait!" Blinking, Brooke glanced down at the fistful of cash she had ready. "How much do I owe you?"

The other woman glanced back, for the moment staring. "Don't worry about it," she said, winking again, and then she was gone, moving on to the other drinks.

Unexpectedly thrilled, Brooke flushed, and without another word, left a five dollar bill on the counter.

"I think I just got a free drink," she announced to Carmen, when she had finally reached the other girl, handing her her drink.

"Well, why wouldn't you?" Carmen said prettily. "You're gorgeous!" She glanced down into the drink, suddenly confused. "There's like... ten cherries in here."

Giddy, Brooke arched a proud eyebrow. "You bet your ass there is."

The line to the bathroom was atrocious, and Brooke found herself inwardly wincing, crossing her arms as she took her place against the wall, behind a rocker looking chick dressed in dark jeans and a fitted black tank top.

For lack of anything else to do, Brooke studied the curious, sinful tattoo snaking its way up the taller girl's forearm, reaching all the way up to her elbow. That led to a rather nice appraisal of the way she filled out the jeans, and with that, Brooke realized she was actually leering at the woman's ass.

Coughing in embarrassment, she was unprepared when the dark-haired girl turned, and immediately locked eyes with her. The coughing turned into an unexpected choke, and suddenly she was nearly keeling over in an attempt to get a good breath.

"Are you okay?!" Grabbing her outstretched hand, the other girl began to pound her back good naturedly.

"Fine. Fine," she managed, red-faced, as other women were now staring at them both. "Sorry. Thanks." Straightening, she tried to salvage what was left of her dignity. "You don't have to..." Her hurried apology faltered when she realized the girl was staring intensely at her. "What?" Her hand went up to her face. "Do I have something in my teeth?"

"What? NO. Um..." Crossing her arms, the other girl bit her lip in sudden recognition. "Brooke McQueen, right?"

The familiarity of her name coming from the pretty stranger's lips threw her offguard significantly. "Yes?" she managed, startled.

"From Richardson's class? Mythology 101?"

Her eyes widened. "Oh my God! You go to USC?"

"Yeah! I see you in class all the time!"

"Oh!" Brooke felt suddenly embarrassed. "I'm sorry... I don't..."

"You wouldn't. I sneak into the back."

But the face did have a striking familiarly to it. Her eyes narrowed, and the recognition hit her. "You sit in the quad after class."

"Umm... Ladies? Line's moving," came a dry voice behind them, and Brooke blushed, moving forward dutifully.

There was a moment of silence, and the dark-haired girl turned around again. "I'm Dusty."

Taking the outstretched hand gingerly, Brooke's brow furrowed. "Dusty?"

"I know, I know... My mother named me after Dusty Springfield and then promptly regretted it when I turned into Joan Jett."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Brooke said simply, and Dusty sighed dramatically.

"Tell my mother, the Republican." A lapse of silence fell between them.

The bartender who gave her the free drink moved past them, and catching Brooke's eyes, shot her a smile.

"Nice," Dusty said, and Brooke rolled her eyes humbly.

"She gave me a free drink," Brooke admitted. "Probably because I was nice enough to be horrified on her behalf because a lady took liberties."

"Hmm. Well, just wait until the end of the night."

"What happens at the end of the night?"

"They throw water on themselves," Dusty said, eyes sparkling mischievously. "And on everyone else."

"Wow," Brooke responded, intrigued and scandalized at the same time. "I might have to stay for that."

Eyeing her, Dusty's eyes narrowed, lost in thought. Brooke grinned, self conscious. "What?"

"I just... I didn't expect to see you here," Dusty offered, smiling in apology. "I mean, you're in a sorority, right?"

"Ah... so sorority girls can't be gay?" she asked good-naturedly.

"Bi-Curious, maybe. Full out gay? It's an oddity," Dusty remarked, leaning against the wall and grinning. "Though I was never one to type-cast. I get it enough because of this damned tattoo."

"You don't give a damn about your bad reputation?" Brooke replied, eyes sparkling.

"Oh, that was bad," Dusty remarked, laughing despite herself. "That was really bad."

"I know, I'm sorry. I couldn't help myself."

"Ladies? Seriously. Just get each others numbers or go dance, but friggin' MOVE if you're not going to use the bathroom!"

Brooke blinked, glancing behind them, and with a secret smile at Dusty, she took one step forward.

Shimmying in beside her, Dusty leaned into her ear. "Wanna dance after this?"

A burst of excitement pinged inside of her, and she fought to contain her smile. Leaning back, she stared into the dark eyes and the gorgeous smile.


Dusty was in a band. She was the lead guitarist but she didn't quite have the pipes to sing lead, so she settled for playing the best guitar she could. She was in the music program at USC, studying classical guitar on a scholarship. She landed in Brooke's mythology class on a whim, because she had always been fascinated with the gods and goddesses of that culture, and lived off campus, busy trying to get gigs for her band and working a part-time job at Hot Topic.

She was also absolutely beautiful, in a husky voiced, rocker chick kind of way, and when Carmen suggested she join them for an after hours snack, Brooke had absolutely no complaint.

"So, this is going to sound really dumb," Dusty said, digging her hands into the pockets of her jeans, lingering behind Brooke's friends as they made their way through the parking lot towards Jerry's Deli. "But are you okay?"

Thrown off guard by the concerned question, Brooke's steps faltered, turning toward the other girl. "What do you mean?"

Dusty actually looked nervous. Pushing her dark hair out of her eyes, she rocked back on her heels, and let out a frustrated little grunt. "Okay, I have to be honest."


"I hang out in the quad, you know that."


"Well, you were talking on the phone this one day..." Lips pressing together in thought, Dusty looked acutely embarrassed. "And you looked so upset, and I had no idea how to go up to you and ... I felt like an asshole but I didn't know what to do."

Shivering, Brooke's smile fell from her lips, and she remembered exactly the conversation Dusty was referring to.

"Oh," she began.

"I'm sorry," Dusty said again. "But I always kinda hated myself for not going up to you to see if you were okay, and I just... I had to make sure..."

"Umm, wow." Stepping back, Brooke tried to process it, and found herself smiling tightly, purposefully ignoring the painful itch in her heart. "No, it's... It's fine, I just... um... You caught me at a really bad place."

"I figured. If you want to forget it..." Dusty now seemed fidgety, burying herself further into her leather jacket. "I don't usually pry. I hate that shit, but... You looked so sad... And it kinda... It's kinda turning me into a rambling idiot."

"No," Brooke said, licking her lips and reaching forward with her hand. "No. It's fine. I'm fine." She smiled painfully. "I'm getting there," she answered, more honestly. "Thank you for caring."

Dusty looked genuinely relieved, and for that, Brooke leaned forward, and pressed a gentle kiss on the other girl's cheek.

Dusty's skin was soft, and her eyes were deep and dark. Brooke held her breath as she stared at her.

"You're beautiful," Dusty said, a hoarse whisper, and Brooke believed her.

"So..." Up to her elbows in soap and water, Jane eyed her from above the kitchen sink. "What's the word? Are you coming here for summer vacation or not?"

Clearing her throat roughly, Brooke felt suddenly exposed, glancing from Mac to Jane. "Oh." Buying herself some time, Brooke carefully measured out a spoonful of Gerber's graduates, and fed it to her baby sister. "Well... I'm not sure yet."

There were a multitudes of 'what-ifs?' associated with that answer, and Brooke didn't feel prepared to deal with any of those. She hadn't spoken to Sam since their last conversation, and while Sam had sent her a couple emails in the months that had passed, Brooke's responses had always been awkward, formal.

How did you deal with someone who thought being with her made her a horrible person?

Brooke had just begun to feel like she had raised her head above water. Selfishly, the thought of drowning again was unappealing.

"I was thinking of staying at school, you know? The paper could use me for the summer staff and I could go out on assignments... There's a couple summer classes I'm supposed to take. My journalism professor really wants me to try to catch up on my photography basics and there's this course..."

"Brooke, I'm not going to lie to you, I can't stand the thought of this place being empty during the summer. I know you have your classes and whatever, and I know you're both desperate to get out of the house, but can't you do some of this from home? It's not far away! I'll pay for the gas!" It was a surprising outburst.

"Wait," she blinked, spoon full of food pausing mid air. "Sam isn't going to be here?"

"No, she wants to stay on campus this summer." A sudden burst of unexpected disappointment flooded her stomach. "Honestly, I don't know what it is with you two! What's so horrible about being here for a couple months? Your father and I are not the Devil."

Mac made a sudden cry of distress, and Brooke shook her head, startled back into movement when she realized her little sister was using gymnastic like tactics to try to get at the spoon, held just out of her reach.

"Oh, God, Sorry, Mac!" Smiling guiltily, she fed her little sister, shameful at the look of infant outrage on the tiny face. "You're not the Devil, Jane," she acknowledged. "I'm sorry, I didn't know..." Straightening, she forced a smile. "Look, I was hoping to save money anyway. I was thinking about doing an overseas semester next year."

Jane eyed her suspiciously. "Stay here for the summer and you got a deal."

Brooke grinned. "Italy?"

"Wherever. But you stay here and you help me with Mac this summer. And you clean out that fish's water. I hate that job."

"Deal," she said.

It was a good thing Sam wasn't coming, she told herself, as the kitchen lapsed into silence, interrupted only by the clank of dishes and the occasional outburst from Mac. It meant Sam didn't want to see her, that nothing had changed, and if that was the case, Brooke didn't want to see her either.

It was easier not to think about Sam when she didn't have to deal with her. It had become habit to push the feelings Sam brought out deep down inside of her, and Brooke didn't need that habit broken.

Not when she was starting to believe she was actually getting over her.

"You can stop being a pissy little girl about this," Brooke said, pulling to a stop in front of her house, and shooting the other girl a grin. Sighing dramatically, Dusty pulled her sunglasses lower on the bridge of her nose and shot her a half hearted glare. "You had to meet them eventually."

"I don't meet parents," Dusty grumbled, and fumbled with her seatbelt. "They don't like me."

"Why wouldn't they like you?" she asked, as Dusty glared at her from over the car.

"Because I have a tattoo!" Dusty answered, pointing emphatically at the snake entwining her fore arm. "And my hair is dyed and I wear entirely too much eye-make up."

"Yes, we've already discussed that," Brooke said.

"Shut up," she grumbled. "Not to mention, I'm in a band, and you know those rock people have all sorts of questionable habits and breed bad people."

"Okay, stop," Brooke said, giggling as she reached the back of her car. Reaching for Dusty's hand, she drew the other girl nearer to her. "Straighten up," she added, when Dusty rolled her eyes, smirk playing on her mouth. "You said you wanted to meet them."

"And you said, you'd only be bringing a few things back for the summer," Dusty retorted, staring at the overflowing pile in the trunk. "We both lied."

She laughed in spite of herself. "You wouldn't have agreed to help if I had actually told you the truth. You should have known." Curling a hand around Dusty's waist, she reached up to once again attempt to brush the stray lock of black hair out of Dusty's eyes. Unreasonably, it fell back into place. Brooke decided she liked it that way. "Come on. We don't have to tell them we're dating."

"Hmmm... Good idea." Dusty answered playfully, looking relieved as she slid possessive palms around Brooke's waist, bringing her in closer. "I could lure them with my nonthreatening charm and then when they fall in love with me, we'll lay it on them."

Pressed against Dusty's body, she found herself sighing raggedly. Forehead falling against her own, Brooke gave her a quick squeeze. "There is a flaw in your plan."

"What's that?"

"You're hugging me kinda close for just friends, honey."

"I know. Somehow I can't seem to let go."

Grinning, Brooke snuck a quick peck on the other girl's lips, rubbing affectionately at her shoulders.

"Brooke! You're here!"

The sound of her step-mother's voice, coming behind her caused Dusty's eyes to widen suddenly. "Uh-oh. Busted The family's here."

"Jane's the nice one," Brooke said, palm pressed against Dusty's cheek reassuringly. "Relax. You get in good with her, my Dad is in the bag."

"Uhuh, and what about the brunette staring daggers at me?"

Her smile froze. "What?"

Dusty nodded behind her, hands dropping to her side, polite smile frozen on her face.

Swallowing hard, Brooke turned slowly around and discovered Jane standing on the sidewalk, a very familiar, expressionless brunette beside her.

The world teetered, and Brooke found her world eclipsed by one word.


Part 13

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