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 13. You Lower Yours

Brooke had never had the misfortune of being punched in the gut: she had always preferred to internalize her pain. She had, however, once had a conversation with Josh in which he described the feeling.

He said that beyond the pain, what really left you crippled was the fact that for the moment, you couldn't breathe. He said it was the ultimate humiliation because a punch to the stomach was something done to suckers, the least suspecting victims that had all the breath pushed out of them and were left to scramble on the floor, helpless and floundering.

She never really understood what he was talking about, until she caught sight of Sam.

Rooted to the ground in frozen amazement, Brooke clutched onto Dusty in such a forceful way the other girl audibly hissed in surprise.

"Sam decided to spend the summer with us after all," Jane said, filling the silence with a cheery smile and an outstretched arm. "We haven't met."

Speechless, Brooke dragged her eyes from the cool dark gaze of Sam to her bewildered girlfriend. Thankfully, Dusty managed to keep her senses when Brooke's had flown out the window.

"Hi," Extricating herself as well as she could from Brooke's clutches, she met Jane's hand in a firm handshake. "I'm Dusty."

"This is Dusty," she repeated weakly, a little too late. There was an awkward silence, as she became the unwanted recipiant of two bewildered glances. Flushing, she looked away.

"Dusty, I'm Jane," Jane's voice was warm. "The brooding young lady behind me is Sam. Thanks for helping Brooke with her things!"

"Well, you're welcome," Dusty said good-naturedly. "But to be fair, had I known how much stuff there actually was, I may have reconsidered."

On the surface, she was charming, and funny. A minute glance back at Brooke, colored eyes were clouded with doubt, revealed the vulnerability behind the mask.

It was that second of fragile pleading that forced her attention away from the still quiet Sam. Shoulders straightening, she inhaled deeply.

"Well," she said, drawing her fingertips reassuringly down the inked curve of Dusty's forearm. "Score one for me, then."

With gritted teeth and a determined smile, she unlatched the door and jerked up the trunk.

Her step-sister had returned a gothy, repressed mute.

Sam's dark brown hair was shorter than Brooke remembered. She was back to wearing heavy eye make-up, hiding the simple beauty of Sam's round eyes. The shirt she wore was fitted and tight over dark blue jeans. Her mouth was lined darkly with a dark plum lipstick and her ever expressive tongue seemed permanently wedged in the corner of her mouth; a permanent pout.

At the dinner table, she offered no hospitality, and instead kept her eyes on the food she wasn't eating. Every so often, dark doe eyes would venture up to linger on Dusty before returning once again to her uneaten pork chop.

Sam was thinner than she remembered, with pale skin and dark fingernails.

It all added up to something that was very wrong and Brooke's heart ached at the very presence of the troubled girl.

Still, she was recovering from the shock of seeing Sam ages before she would ever be ready, and because of that, Brooke wasn't afforded the luxury of nursing her wounded emotions in private.

It made her needlessly cranky, and in an effort to salvage the evening, Brooke resolved to ignore her completely.

Dusty was already nervous enough to seem almost perky. Posture uncomfortably perfect, her rocker chick was trying hard to carry a conversation with a valiant Jane and a stuttering Mike. In between small bites, Dusty pulled at her sleeves, an obvious self conscious attempt to hide the tattoos.

That tiny action flooded her with unexpected warmth, and it was because of it that she pushed past her own own turmoil, deciding instead to do her best to try to make Dusty feel as comfortable as possible.

"Dusty's in a band," she announced in a lapse of conversation. Almost immediately, Dusty's head whirled, messy bangs falling in her face as she gave her a rather frigid glare. "She's really good," Brooke continued, patting her girlfriend's lap reassuringly. "I'm taking the promotional pictures for their website."

"Well, we actually really suck, right now," Dusty said quickly, narrowing her stare at Brooke meaningfully. "I mean, we just play in these dumpy dives-"

"Oh really? What kind of music do you play?" Mike seemed more than politely curious. "I used to play a little rock 'n roll myself, back in the ole' days."

"Oh, please for the love of God, don't get him started," Jane pleaded, dropping her fork on her plate. "The last time I had to hear about the "ole" days we blew a fuse out in the garage."

The memory brought a sincere smile. "Dad's old guitar is back there," Brooke explained.

"The fuse blew because the amp was old," Mike said, peeved. "I'm sure Dusty can appreciate that a Fender needs some real power behind it."

"Uh... I don't know." Dusty cleared her throat, and Brooke felt the warm touch of her palm spread over her thigh. "I'm a Gibson girl myself."

The sudden loud clang of silverware against glass was enough to make even Mike jump.

Sam stood, a sour expression on the pretty face. Stunned, Brooke felt a sudden chill, when brown eyes locked on hers, blazingly furious.

"May I be excused?"

Sam didn't wait for an answer.

It was an awkward silence that followed.

"She's had a rough week," Jane said quietly, before smiling at Dusty. "More potatoes?"

The ease at which Sam and her behavior had been dismissed was startling, and immediately, the tension bubbling in Brooke's stomach erupted in fury.

"Wait, what?" Fingers curling into fists, Brooke's eyes narrowed angrily at her step mother. "That's all she gets? A tough week?"

"Brooke," Mike began.

"We have a guest," she seethed, through gritted teeth. "And Sam is acting like a spoiled bitch."

"Brooke, that's enough," Jane snapped. "And behave yourself." A stern glare went meaningfully at Dusty, and Brooke's eyes snapped shut tight, frustrated beyond belief.

"Is there a bathroom?!" Dusty asked suddenly, her voice a squeak.

Mike was immediately on his feet. "Yes, of course." He smiled warmly. "Come on, I'll show you where it is."

Brooke's girlfriend's expression was uncomfortable, and for that Brooke regretted her outburst. Her smile as she passed was bittersweet, apologetic.

As Dusty and Mike left the kitchen, Jane's was anything but.

"Is it really the end of the world to sit down to dinner, and expect you two to behave yourselves?" her step-mother asked quietly.

"Why didn't you tell me she was coming?" Eyes glittering with anger, her tone was low, furious. "Was this your idea?"

"I wasn't aware I needed your permission to allow my daughter to come home for the summer, Brooke."

Digusted, her silverware dropped to her plate. Pushing away from the table, Brooke threw her arms up, surrendering. "No, you know what, Jane? You don't. You and Sam are welcome to this place."

"What is THE MATTER with you, Brooke? She is your sister!"

Something about the words, said at that time, in that situation, incensed her. She couldn't hear it. She didn't want to hear it. Shoulders rolling with the force of her reaction, she whirled. "She is NOT my sister!" Brooke's eyes were a blazing torrent of hurt and frustration. "You can't force us together and expect us to believe that, Jane. You can't! Why do you keep doing it?! WHY?! Sam and I are never going to be sisters. We're never going to act like sisters, so why can't you just DEAL with it and let us BOTH move on?!"

The tirade left her breathless. Crumpling against the table, she pressed her palms over her face, not wanting to see Jane's reaction.

"Well, forgive me, Brooke." The tone in Jane's voice was hurt, tired. "But I can't give up on wanting to see the two of you together, and do you know why? Because you're amazing when you're together."

It was the last thing she expected to hear, and the surprise forced the hands away from her face.

"The two of you... exhaust so much energy and focus on hating each other than you never realize how amazing the two of you are when you really connect. You're both passionate, powerful women and when you two work together there is absolutely nothing you can overcome. I've seen it, Brooke. I've seen what happens when the two of you forget that you hate each other. There's a connection there that it's so deep that you seem to complete each other."

Brooke's soul twisted inside of her. Eyes riveted on the table, she stared at her palms, and struggled to breath. A warm hand settled on her shoulder, meant to be reassuring, as Jane moved into the chair beside her.

"It just seems so ridiculous, to let that go to waste. Not when Mike and I both see it. You don't have to be sisters, Brooke. But if you were friends..."

Head lowering, Brooke closed her eyes, and tried to work past her furiously beating heart.

"Sam needs you, Brooke. She's here because she had nowhere else to go. She's not doing well in school, since after Spring Break..."

Her eyes opened again, shooting Jane a surprised glance.

"What do you mean?" Brooke's voice was rough.

Jane's mouth trembled in a shaky smile. "You don't have to be Sam's sister, Brooke. But I would really love it, if for this summer, you could be her friend." Squeezing her shoulder, Jane rose. "You seem to be in a much better place than she is."

Afraid to get up for fear her knees would give out on her, Brooke wasn't so sure.

"So, your step sister is an absolute treat."

Sitting in silence, parked in the red zone outside Dusty's Hollywood Hills apartment complex, Brooke could only offer a bittersweet smile.

"I'm sorry," she managed, fiddling with her key chain, jingling on the ignition, turning to eye the woman slumped in the seat across from her. "I think you managed to catch everyone at their worst."

"Hmm." Dusty's head pressed back against the headrest, as she contemplated the thought. "Is it wrong that it actually made me feel a little better?"

Brooke's brow arched in a curious response.

"If you guys were perfect," she explained, "I think I would have been scared out of my mind. As it was, I think I came off pretty well."

Sighing raggedly, she stared out into the darkness, watching the flash of headlights as cars drove by. Soft fingers meshed with her own, bringing her back to the lovely face of Dusty.

"You okay?"

It was a straightforward question, and as Brooke absorbed it, she shook her head in bewilderment. "Yeah," she breathed, oddly surprised by the realization. "I mean... I bring my girlfriend home and my step-sister freaks out and my stepmother completely pulls out the rug from under me and yet, it's STILL better than waking up from a coma."

"Imagine that," Dusty said sarcastically, and Brooke smiled, squeezing her fingers lovingly. "You are going to tell me what the hell that's all about, right?"

She studied the fingers currently in her grasp, and without thinking, brought them to her mouth.

"Where would you want to start?"

They smelled of lotion, and there were calluses on the tips, from years of plucking strings.

"We could start with the coma," Dusty began. "And then lead into why your step-sister wants to kill me."

"Do you really want to know?" Brooke asked. Dusty stared at her silently. "I might not be worth all this trouble," she whispered unsteadily.

Moonlight filtered into the car in stripes, and half of Dusty's face was hidden in shadows. Still, the crystal eyes were illuminated with an intoxicating sort of depth.

"I think it's little too late for me to think you're anything but."

Reaching forward, the other girl cupped her chin lovingly; a gentle caress. There was a lingering moment, and then Dusty leaned forward, covering her mouth in a demanding, possessive kiss.

Eyes closing instinctively, Brooke lost herself in the moment, opening her mouth and her heart.

It was late when she slipped into the kitchen, shutting the door as silently as she could behind her before rubbing her palm against her swollen lips and heading for the refrigerator.

She was too tired to think, and was grateful for that. Grabbing a glass from the cupboard, she pressed it against the ice maker, slumping against the cool metal of the fridge door for support.

Light flooded the kitchen as she was filling her glass with water, and it was so startling she nearly sent the entire thing crashing, salvaging it by splashing liquid all over the place.

"Dammit!" she hissed, turning and fumbling with the slippery glass, grimacing at the wetness before turning a startled gaze to her unwelcome intruder.

Naturally, it was Sam in the doorway, barefoot in a flannel pajama top and tiny shorts, looking sullen and sleepy and intoxicatingly sexy.

Swallowing hard, Brooke decided she wasn't in the mood.

"Don't worry," she snapped, when Sam failed to speak. Licking at her wet fingers, she ventured toward the sink and deposited her glass. "I'm leaving."

"Was that your girlfriend?" The short, desperate tone was oddly off-putting, and Brooke's annoyance only grew when she felt the telltale ache in her heart.

"We're dating," she confirmed matter-of-factly, arm dropping to her side as she leaned her hip against the counter. "Sam, I really don't want to do this right now. It's late. I'm tired."

Walking as fast as she could, she tried to brush past her ex-lover, determined to end this night without the added drama of a confrontation.

With one palm against her stomach, Sam stopped her. "Wait."

Brooke's eyes shut tight, and she stayed put. "What?" she breathed, eyes opening and turning her head, to look deeply into dark, intensely beautiful orbs.

Mouth turned down, Sam's face was clouded with conflict. "I'm sorry," she said finally. "I shouldn't have acted that way."

It had been months since she had been alone with Sam, and the last time they had been together, they had been naked, curled together as the sweat cooling off their bare skin formed goosebumps. Brooke's mouth had been fresh with the taste of Sam's sex and she remembered Sam's mouth luxuriously planting warm kisses against her lips, her chin, her cheeks, licking the essence away.

In an instant, her heart began to race, and she felt the goosebumps return, wrinkling on her skin at the pressure of Sam's palm against her stomach, at the burning look of Sam's intense gaze.

Sam's mouth was a perfect pout, and she remembered how her lips had clung so sweetly to hers.

It would have been so easy, to lean forward, to capture that mouth with her own. To feel that again.

But her lips were swollen with another girl's kisses, and the memory of Sam's last words to her before tonight haunted her as vividly as the feelings she arose within her.

"I'm sorry too," she said honestly, before reaching up covering Sam's hand with her own, ignoring the burning touch. Grasping with her fingers, Brooke tore her gaze away from Sam's mouth and pulled away from Sam's intoxicating hold.

She let out a heavy breath as she left Sam behind, and teetered up the stairs.

Brooke was acutely aware of one truth: she had missed Sam terribly.

Despite the heartbreak that had occurred when Sam had ended things for good, Brooke had to admit that there had been one or two positives.

For the last month, she hadn't felt like she was being torn apart. Every date with Dusty had been easy, complicated only with the usual uncertainties that happened when something was new. There were awkward conversations rife with sexual tension and there was lingering glances over tables and the decision about whether or not they were comfortable enough to hold hands in public. (Dusty was, Brooke was not.)

She discovered that she and Dusty didn't have a terrible amount in common, but there was enough to find a common ground. Dusty had enough of the club scene when she played, and trips to gay bars were rare. Despite her ragged outward appearance, she preferred light fare: dinners, movies. She wasn't used to quiet, and they weren't quite at comfortable silences yet, but they were getting there.

She found out from the bass player that Dusty's friends called her 'Princess' when she wasn't around and it bothered Dusty. And she also found out from the bass player that she was sorry they did it, because Brooke had apparently won them over with her offer to take some promo pictures with her camera and put their gig in the Daily Trojan events calendar.

They now called her 'Princess' to her face and the same bass player was dating Maria, who accompanied her on Friday nights to The Gig, a small club for small bands where Dusty's group 'Elphaba Thropp' had a regular gig.

Dusty had groupies, which Brooke found amusing, apart from the fact that they all seemed to hate Brooke. They would throw murderous glances her way whenever the set would finish and Dusty would greet her with a sweaty smile.

Those were her complications.

Not once had she lied in bed agonizing over how to talk to Dusty. Tossing and turning over admitting her love because to think of it was wrong. Not once had she gotten into a conversation with Dusty and ended up throwing food in her face or been tossed on the bed to engage in angry, desperate lovemaking.

It didn't change the fact that one second alone with Sam led to Brooke wanting to bury herself inside of her and never come out. Nor did it change the way she reacted to Sam, the feelings that ripped through her the moment she laid eyes on the other girl.

Her feelings for Dusty were different than they were for Sam, and it was safer. It was... Easier.

Lying in her bed, wide awake, Brooke found herself understanding Sam and Rebecca in a way she had never bothered to before.

Shifting, she punched the pillow into a ball and stuffed it under her head, restless in her thoughts.

Jane's words lingered in her head like an impossible echo.

Rubbing at her chest, Brooke took a hard swallow and stared at the bathroom door.

Flopping over, Brooke curled the sheets into her body and ignored the image of Sam in this bed with her.

The gauntlet had been thrown, and that night, Brooke told herself she had to make a decision.

Whatever Jane had said didn't change what Sam had told her.

The bathroom light clicked on, she heard it, saw the shift of darkness in her room.

Holding her breath, Brooke didn't move, paralyzed with anticipation.

No one came to her door, and when the light shut off again, Brooke let out a long breath, unsure if she was relieved or disappointed.

She decided she was relieved.

Little Mac was growing, and although she teetered when she walked, she had never seemed more sure of herself.

There was no way a baby could have as much energy as Mac did. It had to be abnormal.

It made changing her diaper an Olympic feat.

"Mac, come on!" Brooke pleaded, half joking, when the baby curled herself over, flopping onto her belly, naked bottom up in the air. "Stay still, for like, a second."

"NO!" Mac growled, giggling, trying to crawl away.

"Oh, no you don't," Brooke retorted, grabbing hold of the baby by her hips, pulling her back. "We're changing this diaper."

"No!" Mac cried again, exploding into childish laughter. "Nonononono!"

Biting down on her lip, Brooke struggled, trying to flip her over as gently as she could. The chubby legs and arms flailed in the air.


"That looks like fun."

Glancing up, she discovered Sam in the doorway, palms rubbing down the thighs of her sweat pants, eyeing her nervously.

Caught with an armful of baby, Brooke didn't have the energy to maintain her cool demeanor.

Blowing her bangs out of her sweaty face, she gave up, letting Mac sit up, victorious. "This kid is like your Mini-Me, borne and bred to say no to anything and everything."

"NOOOOO!" Mac shrieked, and Brooke winced.

"Little help here?" she added, when Sam arched a bewildered eyebrow.

"Uh... sure." Dropping to her knees, Sam scuttled forward. "What should I do?"

"Just hold her shoulders. Keep her flat on her back," Brooke instructed. "And I will do the fastest diaper wrap in history. Wanna time me?" She tossed the other girl a challenging glare.

The small smile on Sam's face was answer enough. "Ready?" she said, grabbing hold of the baby and keeping her flat. "GO!"

"Oh, God," Brooke said, erupting in laughter when Mac's legs flew in the air, kicking her in the chin.


"Yesyesyes!" Brooke chattered back, grabbing hold of the chubby legs and sliding a diaper underneath her bottom as quickly as she could.

"You're doing amazing so far," Sam said dryly.

"Shut up," Brooke snapped. "Like you can do better."

"I can always do better."

"Fine, narcissist. Next time, this job is all you." She struggled, curving the diaper in between Mac's legs and wrapping as well as she could.

"But you need the practice!"

"Oh, shut up!" The last strap was secured and Mac sprang free, weaseling out of Sam's grasp and getting unsteadily on her feet.

"Noonononononono!" Yelling at the top of her lungs, the baby tottered her way out of the living room, presumably to the safety of Mike and Jane in the kitchen.

"I can't believe that kid actually made me break a sweat!" Shaking her head in wonderment, Brooke flopped back. "Thank God that kid is getting potty trained."

Sam didn't respond, and the silence that followed her statement forced her to lean up on her elbows. The other girl was still there, but she was fidgety, a weird mimic of herself. Her tongue floated in and out of her mouth, and Brooke recognized the gesture. It was Sam at her most self-concious.

It was hard not to follow suit. Sighing, she settled into a more comfortable position.

"What? Come on, Sam," she continued, when her step-sister hesitated. "Just say whatever you want to say."

Dark eyes closed, and Sam erupted in a bitter laugh. "It's not that easy."

"No," Brooke answered carefully. "That's where we're both wrong. It is that easy. What's not easy is listening to what we have to say."

Brown eyes caught her own, an intense stare. "And what do you have to say?"

Fingers curling instinctively, she managed nonetheless to keep her face carefully closed. "I already said it."

Sam's eyes were curiously moist, her demeanor seemed almost small, so different than what she had remembered.

It made her want to care.

"You're avoiding me like I have the plague."

The sentence seemed to come out of nowhere, and Brooke glanced up, genuinely surprised. "Probably because the last time I talked to you, you told me that being around me made you a bad person."

It still hurt, to hear it out loud, and she found herself suddenly emotional, shaking her head and shifting suddenly.

"God... Brooke, I'm sorry." Pale, flawless skin seemed now mottled with emotion, and slender fingers reached toward her hand. "I can't believe I said that to you. I wanted to hurt you, and I don't know why I did..."

Jerking away, Brooke shuddered, mouth a tight line. "Because you meant it."

Sam stared at her, eyes intensely locked on her own. "I was in a really bad place, Brooke. Maybe I meant it then, but if I did, it was only for a second. I've regretted what I've said to you ever since."

It was as close to an apology she would ever get. Brooke supposed she should have been grateful. She wasn't.

"Did you mean what you said?"

Brooke smiled sadly. "I hope you know me well enough to know I did." But she still pulled out of Sam's grasp.

Sam's mouth trembled slightly. "But not anymore, right?"

Brooke let out an uneasy breath. "I asked you to let me move on, Sam."

"Yeah," Sam said, nodding mechanically, smile fake and plastic, "I guess I just can't understand how the hell you did it so easily."

"Oh, God," Brooke breathed, infuriated. "So that's what this about? You can't stand the fact that I got over you?" Struggling to her feet, she shook her head. "You know what? Screw you, Sam. Getting over you was the hardest thing I ever had to do. And that includes getting through comas, and car accidents and eating disorders." Moving toward the doorway, she hesistated, whirling around. "And you know what? You really are one to talk. What about you and Rebecca?"

"What ABOUT me and Rebecca?!" Sam said, scrambling up.

"Don't play dumb, Sam," she sneered. "Abby told me all about it."

"Oh, God, FUCKING ABBY AGAIN." Hands on her hips, Sam had never looked so angry. "What the hell did that angel tell you?!"

"The truth!" Brooke's arms crossed over her chest. "That you two were getting back together-"

"Rebecca and I never got back together!" Sam snapped, brown eyes wide with impatience and frustration.

The news hit her hard. "What?" she breathed.

"Yeah. The closest I ever got to Rebecca after spring break was when I got really drunk at her place miserable over the fact that I was completely in love with you and then crashed in her bed." Droplets began to appear on Sam's cheeks, and Brooke found herself frozen in horrified amazement. "But what the hell do I know? If Abby says it it must be true."

Pushing past her, Sam exited the room.

Brooke was lost, left behind as the words did their damage.

"Oh, God," she breathed, head falling to her palm.


Part 14

"Brooke, there you are!"

Speechless, Brooke stared mutely as Sam's mother strode into the living room, a wiggling Mac propped up against her hip like a sack of flour.

"I've been looking for you everywhere!"

Wearing a distracted frown, Jane unceremoniously swung her into Brooke's arms.

"Do you mind watching Mac for a couple of hours? I can't find Sam anywhere and I have to show a house in twenty minutes."

Surprised, Brooke could only stutter. "Umm... sure?" she squeaked, before Mac twisted like a pretzel and very nearly slipped out of her grip.

Jane's brow burrowed. "Are you okay? You look a little pale."

"Fine," she managed quickly, almost a little hysterically. Skeptical, Jane studied her for a moment. "You're going to be late," Brooke added, and it was enough to give her step-mother a well-meaning push, as Jane flashed a thankful smile and turned on her heel, leaving the sisters to fend for themselves.

"Dinner's in the oven," she tossed over her shoulder.

Left behind in silence, Brooke felt as if she had been pulled in and out of a hurricane.

"Down!" Mac squealed, and Brooke gasped, forced away from her whirling thoughts when faced with the very real threat of dropping Mac on her head.

"No, Mac!" she said, more forceful than she intended. Feverish with sudden emotion, Brooke didn't want to contemplate the horror that would befall her and Mac if she actually let that little bundle of energy get hurt.

Clamping Mac to her, she swallowed, afraid to move for fear her knees would give out and betray her weakness.

In a dirty sandbox, Little Mac was the picture of bliss. Grinning gleefully, she shot a proud glance at Brooke, palms slapping against the mounds of sand, before babbling incoherently and returning to her game of piling as much sand as she could into a pile on her legs.

Inwardly wincing at the verbal lashing she would get if Jane ever became aware of the fact that Brooke let her little sister play in a public sandbox ("Those places are a mecca for disease!"), Brooke nevertheless shot her sister a reassuring smile and reached with shaky hands for her cellphone.

Sandboxes were Mac's weakness. She liked to build, and Jane and Mike would often muse that they had a little engineer or architect on their hands.

Brooke didn't have the discipline to ponder Mac's ultimate fate. Too much energy was already focused on Mac's older sister.

Getting out of the house had been the coward's option, but at the moment, in charge of a baby, it seemed the only viable one. Charging after Sam and ordering her to open the door, all the while juggling an antsy Mac and her own volatile emotions, wouldn't have worked.

She knew it.

And still, she didn't trust herself not to do just that.

So to the playground she went.

Shivering in her coat despite the heat, Brooke flipped open the cellphone and searched for Abby's name.

The number popped up obediently, and Brooke stared hard at the number displayed, before wincing and pressing 'send'.

Her eyes stayed on Mac, as the baby toddler happily buried her sand over her shoes, grabbing fistfuls of the stuff and sprinkling it down on her mound.

She envied Mac's innocence.

Abby's voice clicked into her ear. "Brooke! What's up?!"

The cheerful tone created an unexpected shudder of anger, and oddly numb since Sam's outburst earlier, the feeling fueled her.


She tried to offer a greeting, but the words clogged in her mouth like bile. Swallowing down the rancid taste, she pressed her palm to her forehead, and closed her eyes. "Why did you lie to me?"

There was a pause. "What?" Abby sounded bewildered.

She wasn't in the mood for games. "Don't, Abby, okay? Just don't. You know exactly what I'm talking about."

"Clearly, I don't, Brooke."

"Goddammit, Abby! REALLY?!" Mouth clamping together in disgust, Brooke became aware of the disapproving stares of the other mothers and sitters, of little Mac suddenly staring at her in alarm. Flushing, she only shook her head. "How could you do that, Abby? You lied to me."

Abby wasn't stupid, and while Brooke was sure she had been taken by surprise; it didn't take long for the other girl to catch up.

A long, ragged sigh emanated in her ear, and Abby's voice took on a resigned tone. "What do you want me to say, Brooke?"

She was hurt, she would admit that. "So you did lie to me."

"No," Abby's voice was firm, almost a little desperate. "I didn't lie to you."

"You said they had gotten back together!"

"At the time, I thought they had!" Eyes stinging with unshed emotion, Brooke refused to close them. She stared hard at Mac, willing herself to listen as Abby began an earnest explanation. "Look, when I emailed you that they were getting back together, Sam had just spent the entire night in Rebecca's room? What the hell was I supposed to think?"

"And what?" she asked angrily. "You couldn't wait to tell me?"

"No, that wasn't it-"

"And what about when you realized it wasn't true!"

"I tried to tell you, Brooke, okay?" Abby's voice flared in angry defense. "But by then Sam had already fucked it all up with you by telling you she didn't want to be with you because you made her a bad person. You remember that?"

"Abby…" she began, a warning.

"No! Listen to me. You want to hear the truth? Here's the whole damned truth: You told me you didn't want to hear shit about Sam after what she said. Not one word. So I didn't tell you. And to be honest? The girl is such a bitch to me I didn't feel tremendously inclined to lobby on her behalf. I mean, FUCK, Brooke. I'm not a damned saint, and I never pretended to be, but that girl has hated me forever. I'm not going to be everyone's damned pariah just because I had the audacity to sleep with you or Rebecca."

It was a rant, one that Brooke was sure had been building up in Abby for quite some time.

"God," she breathed, palm falling to her head. "Bitter much?" There wasn't much bite in the words, there couldn't be.

Brooke could have just as easily been speaking to herself.

Phone to her ear, her eyes once again found Mac, rising unsteadily to her feet. Brooke automatically followed.

Abby's choked laughter was almost bitter. "You try being complacent with always being a second choice."

"You weren't a second choice," Brooke said, and it was a complete lie.

She hated herself a little for it.

Sandbox exertion had worn Mac out, and Brooke struggled with the little tyke, trying to maneuver her way into the house with the toddler stretched out over her torso, dribbling drool all over her neck and shoulder.

Wincing a little at the moisture seeping through her collar, Brooke did the best she could, winding her way around the counter and bravely managing the stairs.

She climbed, and while she did, she considered the odd place she was now in.

She had never before realized how badly she had wanted to move on from Sam and all she had represented. She had never considered how the happenings in Spring Break had affected everyone else involved, including Sam.

Especially Sam.

She knew precious little about what Sam had gone through in the months that had followed.

She knew what Sam had told her – in the form of a hurtful phone call where she had decided to end everything because to have it any other way would have been too hard.

She knew what she had gleaned from Abby – emails and sporadic phone calls that held no mention of Sam at all, because Brooke had wanted it that way.

She had chosen to not deal with Sam because it would hurt less. She shut her out and refused to understand her. She had used her broken heart as an excuse and conveniently forgotten that they were family.

Because it was easier.

In other words, she had done exactly what she had done to Sam less than a year before.


Feeling dizzy from her imaginary carousel, Brooke wiped sweaty palms on her jeans and stared hard at Sam's closed bedroom door.

She could dimly hear the sound of music floating from underneath the wall, angry rock that pulsed the door a little, making it seem alive and emotional.

Brooke hesitated. Awareness of what she had to do was hampered with the cynical realization that she had done it once before: gone to Sam searching for forgiveness, pledging to be a friend and a sister in every sense of the word.

She had failed miserably before, weak in her emotions and her intentions.

Sucking in a miserable breath, Brooke curled her fists together and rapped on the door gently.

"Sam?" Her voice was pitchy in her nervousness. Leaning forward, ear millimeters from the door, she waited. Nothing but that same music, now louder.

She grimaced.

"Sam? Please? I'd really like to talk to you." The music was now obnoxiously loud, and it was angry and bitter. Brooke's eyes rolled heavenwards, but her resolve was firm. "I'm not going away, Sam." Her arms crossed in front of her. "Sam, open the door or I'll find Jane's key."

The door swung open, a furious blast of loud guitar nearly splitting her ear drums open. In the doorway, Sam stared at her, furious and beautiful in her emotion.

"Can't take a hint?" she sneered, looking smaller than before in her oversized 'Northwestern' sweatshirt.

Brooke's mouth pressed into a thin line, and she forced herself to take a deep breath. "You're not going to push me away this time."

Brooke had to admit, it did sound a tiny bit ironic.

Sam looked incredulous. "Push YOU away?!"

"I know," she muttered, and then when the music hit a particularly ear splitting guitar solo, a ripple of emotion shuddered through her. "Can we turn that down!?"

Sam blocked the doorway, arms crossed over her chest, her expression fierce determination.

Brooke could have easily looked at the obviously angry woman and walked way, written this relationship as one past saving.

Sam's eyes, however, haunted her. They were soft and moist, obviously hurt.

The pain in that glance was enough to take her breath away, make her ache.

Closing her eyes, Brooke forced herself to bring her arms down, to ignore the music making her ears bleed. "Please, Sam. I just want to talk." Sam's mouth twitched, but she didn't move. "I meant it, Sam," she said, louder and more firm than before. "I'm not leaving. I'll stand here all night and when Jane and my dad ask me what the hell I'm doing I'm going to tell them the truth."

It was emotional blackmail, but it was a hook, as Sam's nostrils flared in reaction. "You would," Sam growled, before her arm fell and she walked back into her room, heading for the stereo.

The relief that flitted through her when she realized Sam was actually allowing her in was overwhelming.

Doing what she could to straighten her expression, Brooke stepped gingerly into the room, feeling a bit like she was walking into a cage with a skittish panther.

Sam looked frightened and small, and the realization that her step-sister, her lover, was actually almost afraid of her created an unexpected surge of tenderness.

This wasn't her Sammy.

She suddenly wanted to move forward and do nothing but hold Sam, until she wasn't afraid anymore.

Warily, Sam's wide mouth pressed into a frustrated frown. "So?"

"So," Brooke repeated, suddenly breathless. Heart beating so fast it was distracted, Brooke glanced about the room. Uninhabited except for Sam's brief visits, it was neat and tidy, anything but lived in.

"Brooke, are you just going to stand there like an idiot or are you going to say something?"

Jerking her attention back to Sam, Brooke realized she was stalling. Steadying herself with a ragged inhalation, she smiled sadly. "I'm sorry."

Her words were sincere, simple, and they took Sam by surprise. That lush mouth opened, closed again, for a millisecond, the defensive posture slacked into an uncertain slouch.

"That's all I got," Brooke confirmed, when Sam looked ready to say something else. "I'm sorry. I swore I would never do to you what I had done before, and I did it. I was so afraid of hurting that I cut you out, and yes, you broke my heart, Sam, but it doesn't mean I stopped caring about you."

Sam's brown eyes were dark and bottomless. The sight of them, boring into her own caused an unintentional lump in her throat, and Brooke tried to painfully swallow it down, because this was Sammy.

Sammy was arrogant and proud and meek and humble. She was beautiful and ugly and generous and mean spirited. She was frightened and brave. She was everything Brooke wanted to be and everything she despised.

She was Brooke's hero and she was Brooke's nemesis. She was Brooke's equal and opposite.

She was her walking contradiction and bonded to her in life and love and blood.

It was then that she truly understood why her relationship with Sam hit such highs and lows.

They were indefinable, co-dependant, and complicated as all hell.

"I was so focused on you hurting me that I didn't want to think about what I had done to you." She sighed, eyes fluttering in self-disgust. "That once again I abandoned you-"

"Brooke…" the word was meek, soft, but like always, her name on Sam's lips held a different meaning than when it was said by anyone else. "Stop it. I did the same thing to you. I wanted to hurt you. And I did."

A bitter, faint smile floated onto her lips. "Is that your version of an apology?"

Sam's careful constructed expression fell apart slightly, with a pained twitch of her lips. "I already apologized." Breath rushing out of her, the brunette flopped down onto her bed, curling her legs underneath her. Bangs falling forward, Sam focused on her bedspread, picking at loose strands. "I didn't know how to deal with you, Brooke. So I pushed you away. And that was when I finally got it."

Brooke blinked, unsure. "Got what?"

Large brown eyes met her own intensely. "Why you did it. Why you pushed me away."

Sighing raggedly, Brooke's mouth closed, lips forming a tight line.

The broken laughter that came from Sam was painful to hear. "I spent the entire last year being so angry at you, Brooke. Even when I thought that I wasn't, it was still there. And it was just too much. To be that in love with you and still hate you for what you did… the anger overwhelmed and I wanted to hurt you. I wanted nothing to do with you. For a split second I wanted nothing to do with you."

Sam was finally being honest, but to hear the words caused a rampant pain, and she fought to not get angry. Her fingers twitched, and so she curled them against her body, hiding them in her crossed arms.

She owed it to Sam to hear her out.

When she looked at her uncertainly, Brooke's mouth pressed together into a thin smile. She nodded shortly.

"And then I had what I wanted," Sam breathed, and her eyes sparkled with emotion, making her beautifully tragic, captivating. "You had cut me out. And that was ten times worse."

"I know," she interrupted softly. Coming forward, unable to resist, Brooke sat down beside her Sammy, palm falling against the hot back of the other girl. "I do."

"How do you know?"

"Because the same thing happened to me." It was choked admission, and Sam stared at her, startled.

The brown eyes darkened and Sam jerked away, wiping furiously at the tears that insisted on forming.

"Dusty might have a problem with that."

It was an impossible situation. She knew it.

"Sam," she began, frustrated beyond belief. "I thought you had chosen Rebecca!" Sam winced, glancing away. "I was incredibly depressed and immensely anti-social- if Harrison and Carmen hadn't dragged me to that gay bar-"

"Harrison and Carmen did WHAT?!" Bangs flinging her direction, Brooke was met with a disbelieving stare. "Oh, that's just great. Real loyalty."

"Sam, they were worried." Sam's lower lip quivered, and Brooke suddenly felt irrationally guilty. "Look, I thought you were moving on. I didn't think there was a chance anymore. Honest, what did you want me to do?"

Dark eyes suddenly pierced into her soul. "What do you want to do?"

It was frightening, the way her heart could lurch the way it did right then. The lust that rose inside of her made her breathless, and she struggled to breathe when her eyes fixated on Sam's mouth, the undeniable invitation.

God… how could she want this all so badly?

She felt dizzy, intensely aware of Sam's body, so close to hers.

Fingers curling into the bedspread, she bit down on her bottom lip, and struggled to keep her resolve, even as she felt Sam's body lean into hers, ever so slightly.

Sam's eyes glistened with desperation.

It was for that reason, Brooke stayed put, sucking in a lungful of air.

"I want us to be friends, Sammy," she sounded broken. Sam shuddered, and immediately she reached for her, grabbing hold of her wrist. "I want us to figure out how to relate to each other the way we used to." Dark eyes flickered away from her, and she let Sam go, intensely frustrated. "If we don't, if we don't have any boundaries, we're going to keep doing this to each other until we kill all the love between us and there's only hate." At that, Sam finally stared at her. "I don't want that to happen," Brooke finished, as sincerely as she could. "I don't know if I could live with that." She felt her chest tighten with emotion. "I love you too much."

Sam's brown eyes shined at her like fractured mirrors. "So you love me," she clarified, tone bitter and resigned. "But you don't want to fuck me."

It would have been so easy to get hurt.

She wouldn't let it happen.

As honestly as she could, she tried again. "I think that being with you is the most emotional experience I've ever had, and it overwhelms me, Sammy." Dark eyes studied hers intensely. Fragile, she managed as loving a smile as she could give. "It doesn't make me rational and I'm not sure I know how to handle it. I love you, and I love…" Hesitating, she struggled with the carnal interpretation of their coming together, "fucking you… a little too much."

"Does it freak you out?"

Heart in her throat, she nodded.

Sam closed her eyes, overwhelmed. "Yeah, me too."

Sam had always been stunning. Her features had always been picture perfect, marred only by attitude and insecurity. A simple beauty, and capable of taking her breath away.

Her voice was hoarse with emotion. "I wanna be your friend, Sammy. With boundaries, maybe we can start learning how to trust each other again."

Her eyes stung with tears, and in the long silence as she waited while Sam struggled with the implication, she feared she had said the wrong thing.

Tongue darting out, bathing her lower lip in an uncertain expression, Sam finally glanced up, and managed a trembling smile.

"You know what?" she replied, sounding surprised at herself. "Me too."

It was then that she felt safe enough to reach out a tentative hand, grasp hold of her step-sister's fingers. The soft skin was smooth to the touch, and when Sam grabbed hold of her painfully, her eyes flooded with tears.

A brunette head lowered to her shoulder, and they sat together in silence for a long time.

It was late when she returned to her bedroom, emotionally spent and still fragile. The evening was still sacred, still precious and because of that she walked slowly, into the nursery.

Little Mac was still asleep, thumb half in and half out of her mouth.

Overwhelmed, Brooke felt the tears suddenly spring into her eyes. Clamping her palms to her mouth, she began to silently sob, choked with the sudden torrent that overwhelmed her now.

Crumpling against the crib, she shut her eyes and hid from Sam, her family, the world.

She wasn't sure why she was sobbing, but as the tears wracked her thin body, Brooke became aware that the wall she hadn't known she had built to guard herself from her own vulnerability, had just as unknowingly been torn down.

Alone with her camera, Brooke considered the angle of Lil' Bleu Too, swimming in a rather expensive looking filtered aquarium. The colorful fins shone brightly under the fluorescent light, and they rippled like silk.

Brooke wasn't used to semantics, but she found herself peering through the view finder, setting the macro, curious about the resolution she could get away with.

At first, when her phone began to chirp and buzz, she ignored it.

It didn't stop, and annoyed, she lowered the camera and reached for the cell phone, flipping it open.


"Where the hell have you been? I've called you like, ten times."

Dusty's familiar voice caught up with her, and Brooke found herself blinking, guilt rising as she remembered her girlfriend.

"Oh, God… I'm sorry." Inhaling sharply, she looked at the time. "You had a practice today-"

"Yeah, and you were supposed to come!"

"I'm sorry!" Suddenly feeling horrible, she swallowed. "I had to babysit Little Mac-"

"And what? You couldn't call?"

"I could," she admitted. "You're right. But then I had a minicrisis with Sam, and… I think I really got through to her, Dusty."

There was an annoyed pause. "Do you have any idea how pissed at me the guys are? I made them fucking wash their hair, Brooke."

The thought caused an inappropriate smile to emerge. "I'll make it up to you." There was a sexy connotation in her voice that she had used more than once with Josh, Jamie and Adam, and it was rather gratifying to learn it seemed to work with her sex as well.

She could almost see the dirty thoughts starting to emerge in Dusty's head. "You better," she grumbled.

Smiling victoriously, Brooke glanced thoughtfully at Sam's door. "Dusty, can I invite Sam to your gig this Friday?"

"Who?" Dusty asked, obviously thrown at the change in topic. "Wait," she responded just as quickly, making the connection. "Your step-sister who hates me?"

"She doesn't hate you," Brooke responded automatically.

"Right," said the dryly sarcastic girl. "Baby, if it helped I think she would have peed on you."

It was an odd statement, coming from her girlfriend, who still had no idea that she and Sam had ever been intimate.

Still, Dusty was sharp and observant; Brooke had realized that rather quickly.

"I don't know what you're talking about," she answered, as calmly as she could.

There was a moment of quiet, and then Dusty sighed audibly. "Right. Whatever, bring her. I don't care."

Brooke had quickly come to learn with women: whatever never meant 'whatever'. It was always something, and Brooke should have discussed it, really hashed it out.

Selfishly, she didn't want to. Not at that moment.

"Thanks," she answered. "I really am sorry."

If Dusty knew what she was really apologizing for, she made no mention of it.


Part 15. Drive Until You Lose The Road

Brooke McQueen wasn't sure how 'together' she really was, all things considered.

Still, when her eyes drifted open, she awoke with a rather unique sense of calm.

Uncertain, Brooke kept still in bed, buried underneath her covers, and stared up at the ceiling. She took a deep breath, and discovered no hitch, no pressure building inside of her.

Sam was in the room across from her, and even so, there was no impending sense of doom.

Cheek sliding across her sheets, Brooke curled into her side, catching sight of the beta fish on her desk, fins fanning lazily.

Nothing ever seemed to happen casually for her. Her life was an awkward whirlwind of extremes, and the presence of Sam in her life only exacerbated that.

But now, Sam was sleeping in the next room, and while Brooke was intensely aware of that, there existed an inexplicable optimism.

Brooke hated to think of herself as an after school special, but she wondered briefly if she was growing as a person.

A tepid knock at the bathroom was enough to make her sit up.

"Come in."

She watched with a full heart and a growing smile when chubby fingers clumsily reached through the opening crack, and two matching sets of brown eyes and brown hair stared tenuously at her.

The two sisters were a picture-perfect sight, and Brooke found herself suddenly looking for her camera.

"Well, hello!" she said, suddenly sappy beyond belief, as she threw off the blankets, waiting as Sam brought the still sleepy-eyed toddler to her bedside. "Hey there, munchie!"

"Ah, yes." Sam said, growling good-naturedly, trying to keep a hold of the slippery baby. "There was a bundle of Mac that was thrown on my stomach this morning. It was the best way to wake up ever. We're babysitting," she added, a half-hearted explanation. "Mom's showing a bunch of houses."

"That's fine with me," Brooke breathed, pulling her camera off the nightstand and fussing with the lens cap.

Settling on Brooke's bed, Sam's eyes narrowed, nearly letting go of their monkey of a sister's waist as the baby bounced happily up and down on the bed.

"… What are you doing?"

"Oh, come on," Brooke breathed, concentrating on attaching her lens. "This is a Kodak moment if I ever saw one."

"Uhuh. Maybe for Mac. I still have crud in my eyes."

"It's nice crud," Brooke amended. In an impossibly good mood, even Sam's ever present pout was almost criminally adorable. Bringing the camera up, she looked through the viewfinder, and discovered the beauty of her step-sister all over again.

At the action, Sam glared at her, and immediately hoisted up Mac until the baby was pressed against her cheek, blocking her from the shot.

Lowering the camera, Brooke arched an annoyed brow. "Hey, now. None of that."

"I mean it," she heard, muffled behind Mac's amused giggles as the baby kicked her booty-ed feet. "I look like crap."

It was on the tip of her tongue to tell Sam that no matter what she was wearing, she was always gorgeous. Brooke's palm tightened around her camera, and she felt a curious block of awkward emotion. Swallowing hard, she breathed out slowly and too casually, lifted the camera back to eye range, effectively covering her face.

She waited as Mac struggled with her mid-air pose, and then the moment the shot came, as Sam finally lowered the growing baby, she took it, the frame cemented as she saw a flash of amused-against-her-will smile come from Sam.

"Bitch," Sam mumbled, and Brooke grinned.

"Get dressed," she said, and reached for Mac. "We're heading out."

Clad in a kicky little hat and an entirely too expensive dress from Baby Gap, Mac looked like a little fashionista. She was arguably the best dressed of the three, and yet, Brooke didn't mind.

Dragging around a thirty pound camera bag didn't allow for dainty heels or nifty little boots, and Brooke had always preferred a simple, classy look.

Sam, on the other hand, always had liked to have an edge, and her dark jeans, black tank top with the skull with a bow on it, and Converse were accentuated with a tangle of black bracelets, silver hoops, and dark-colored nails.

They must have made quite the trio, sitting together as the tram made its way up the track to the Getty Museum.

"Really?" Sam chortled, leaning her head back as they climbed slowly through the hills. "A museum?"

Keeping a steadying hand on Mac, who had her face pressed against the glass, obviously consumed with the view, Brooke shot her a mock glare. "Have you seen the gardens? They're gorgeous. And there's a photography exhibit I've been really wanting to see."

Dark eyes moving to the camera bag sitting at Brooke's feet, Sam appeared contemplative. "You really took that back up."

Blowing out a haggard breath, Brooke shrugged. "I love it, Sam. I don't know what really triggered it, but there are some things I see and… I just have to capture it. They're more than photographs to me. They're…" she struggled, trying hard to explain it. "Alive."

Sam's dark brown rose in response.

Suddenly embarrassed, she laughed awkwardly. "I don't know."

"No, I think it's cool." Crossing her arms, Sam glanced outside the window, taking in the view. "You were great at school, Brooke, but you were always looking for something else. You weren't ever really satisfied."

It was surprisingly insightful, considering Sam's usual dismissal of her in those days. Straightening, Brooke studied her carefully, feeling fragile. "Is this what it's like to be you?"

Dark eyes met her own, thoughtful and engaging. "I'm not sure you wanna be me right now, Brooke."

The heaviness behind the statement made her heart sink, but her ex-lover only smiled at her thinly, and reached forward, pulling Mac into her lap.

Mac was an awkward walker, but she had absolutely no problem pitching herself forward to roll down the sloping green lawn with the other kids.

Brooke had nearly hyperventilated at the sight, but thankfully a five year old had taken it upon himself to look after the tyke, and as Mac giggled and rolled, he was right there beside her, carefully warding off the other enthusiastic children like a stern older brother.

It left Brooke and Sam free to maintain a watchful distance. Sam had sprawled on the grass carelessly, plucking blades of grass with her slender fingers and pulling them apart. Brooke kept her camera in her hands, snapping shots of her little sister, trying to capture the innocence and courage that only babies had. It was only that mixture that could cause such fearlessness.

"So…" Turning back to Sam, Brooke discovered the other sister prone, one arm slung lazily over her forehead, an attempt to foil the sun. Sammy looked like a vexed vampire. "Why wouldn't I want to be you?"

Raising her camera, she focused on the other girl through the viewfinder. As one eye opened to squint at her in mild irritation, she snapped a picture.

Brooke took another glance at Baby Mac, and when the baby waved gleefully at her, she waved back, turning her attention back to Sam.

"Oh come on." Getting on her knees, she adjusted the focus, until she had a gorgeous shot of Sam's frustrated, fiery expression. "You didn't think I was going to let that one go, did you?"

Seemingly resigned to be Brooke's pick as a model, Sam turned into her side, and eyed her carefully, directly staring into the camera.

Brooke shot the frame.

Glancing back towards Mac, Sam's tone was low, guarded. "Why would you want to? You know what you want, and you're where you want to be to get it."

The camera lowered an inch. "And you're not?"

Grabbing a pair of sunglasses from her pocket, Sam slipped them on, masking her eyes. Brooke thought it was only fair, as she lifted up the camera and shot another frame.

The audible click of the camera forced a barely-there shift of Sam's head. Dark eyes pierced into her camera, and heart suddenly in her throat, Brooke pressed the shutter button.

It matched the beat of her heart.

"I don't know," came the honest answer. "This semester really sucked, Brooke. And I don't know if it was because of us…" Brooke's heart hammered a hard thud, "Or the fact that I completely alienated half of my friends on Spring Break and they all took Rebecca's side, but… I felt really alone, and … you know… Mac is growing up so fast and I'm terrified that she's not gonna remember me and…"

"It doesn't feel like home," Brooke whispered. Dark orbs glittered with sudden intensity, and for the moment, Brooke was overcome.

"Sammeee!" The childish laughter broke into the moment, and as Sam turned, she was suddenly tackled by her baby sister.

The unexpected laughter that came from her depressed love brought a sudden charge into her chest.

Reflectively, Brooke captured the moment, a series of stills that she could only hope would appear cleanly with the sudden movement.

Brooke understood that her and Sam's alliance was tenuous. While she liked to think they were acting like sisters, the truth of it was that they were acting more like polite acquaintances. Every action that passed between them was careful, too careful, because there was a line drawn in the sand that Brooke was intensely aware, could only too easily be crossed.

She had tasted Sam, she had held her, and she had been inside her.

She and Sam had only been lovers a total of two nights, but the emotion that had coursed through her at the feel of Sam thrusting fingers inside her, the pure overwhelming sense of need that had occurred the first time she had pushed Sam's legs apart to taste the deepest part of her…

She now understood why some people went mad with passion, and she understood what it meant when all those dumb Harlequin novels went on and on about sensations and fulfillment.

It was because of that, she kept her hands to herself, and she adored Sam through the safety and intimacy of her camera.

She had made Sam a promise, and while Brooke had proven herself frighteningly good at breaking promises, she told herself she wouldn't break this one.

The only problem was, she didn't trust herself.

Things were too new. They were too raw. And despite herself and her good intentions, it was hard to forget the complete devastation that had occurred when Sam had broken her heart at her most vulnerable moment.

It was that fear, and the awkward awareness of Dusty in her thoughts that kept her hesitating as they drove back to their house.

It was quiet. Worn out by the day's activities, Mac had crashed in her seat, head leaning to the side, plastered against the side of the car seat. In the passenger seat, Sam slunk back in her chair, glasses on, looking the very picture of indifference.

Brooke knew better.

Fingers tightening around the wheel, Brooke questioned the sanity of what she was doing.

"Sam," she said suddenly. Dark hair and dark glasses turned her way. "You know, USC has a great Journalism program." Sam continued to stare at her. "Maybe you could consider transferring."

Sam remained silent, and it was impossible to gauge her reaction.

Breathing unsteadily, Brooke kept her eyes on the road. "You got in before. Why not now?"

Sam's voice was uncharacteristically weak when she responded, "That might be an idea."

It was out there, and Brooke couldn't take it back. She wouldn't. If Sam was struggling, and wanted to be closer to home, it was an ideal solution.

If Brooke could manage to completely ignore the tension that seemed to mount between them, then it would have been a perfect solution.

As long as there was an understanding.

Sucking in her breath, she trudged on. "There's a gig tonight. Dusty has this gig. At the Gig."

The mention of her girlfriend gave her a rather absurd flush of relief and anxiety. She pasted on a bright smile and glanced over to her step-sister. "I'm going to go. I was thinking that maybe you'd like to come with me."

She was trying. She was. What Sam needed was a friend, and although the pain was still there and Sam still effected her profusely, she wasn't going to screw this up. Not again.

A slow, odd smile floated on Sam's face as she kept her eye on the traffic. "Thanks, but I've got plans with Harrison."

She felt a pang of disappointment. Licking the moisture onto her lips, Brooke tried again. "I just think you two could be friends. You both have a lot in common, and…"

What followed was an audible sigh. A beat, and then the glasses came off, and Sam emerged, with brilliant dark eyes and a sad, conflicted smile.

"Brooke, I'm not ready to be her friend," came the honest, broken answer. "Okay?"

Sam was absolutely breathtaking and absolutely not ready for this.

Sucking in a ragged sigh, Brooke found herself blinking away sudden tears. She kept her eyes on the road, determined not to let Sam see her sudden devastation.

This just completely sucked.

"Okay," she managed, and when her words seemed to lack conviction, she nodded. "Well, if you change your mind…"

"It's fine." Sam crossed her arms against her chest, posture uncharacteristically perfect. "I'm hanging with Harrison."

Nodding again, feeling absurdly like a bobble head, Brooke found she could think of nothing else to say.

It was unfair, she knew, to compare Dusty to Sam, because she told herself there were different kinds of love and the love for Sam was altogether too complicated and had too many permutations. She and Dusty were new, and passion was an obvious factor.

There were long sessions of making out, hot breath and steamy windows. Dusty's fingertips were rough with calluses, but her lips were soft. Brooke had found an affinity for reaching for Dusty's nape of hair, so black it shimmered purple, and tangling her fingers in it.

She always closed her eyes, when she kissed Dusty.

She told herself the reason why she wasn't ready for sex with Dusty was because she was determined to go slow. A one-night stand and a torrid affair with your step sister hardly counted as relationships and the intimacy with both happened so fast. She barely remembered Abby. Sam would stay with her forever.

When she made the decision to move on from Sam, Brooke knew it wouldn't be the same. Sex with Sam wasn't sex – it was a violent explosion and a culmination of need. It was looking into a familiar face and knowing every part of it, it was sliding into wet folds and shuddering at the response, the feel of it.

Dusty was new. Dusty was different. Dusty was passionate and fun and incredibly attractive.

It didn't make her any less terrified to find out how different it would be.

When she came to Dusty's door, dressed as hot as she could make herself, ready to play the role of supportive girlfriend groupie for the night, she was feeling particularly nervous and desperate.

Thankfully, her girlfriend had more important things on her mind, like her incredible nerves before each and every performance.

"I'm going to suck tonight," Dusty said matter-of-factly, the minute she laid eyes on her. "I'm a quarter beat behind the measure and I can't stick the solo. It's three fucking minutes long and I can't stretch my fingers long enough to fit over seven frets in a half second. It's not going to happen."

Dusty was a nervous shade of green.

Coming forward, Brooke curled her fingers around the taller woman's face and placed a gentle kiss on her mouth.

"If you get nervous," she said simply, "Just look for me. You'll be fine. You're always amazing."

A gleam of desperation in her eyes, Dusty had never looked more vulnerable. Fingers locking around her neck, she pulled Brooke closer to her, locking a forearm around Brooke's neck and planting her lips against hers.

It was a searching kiss, and despite a brief moment of unexpected panic, Brooke obliged, opening her mouth and feeling a hot tongue slip between her lips. It was pleasurable, it was different, and Brooke shut her eyes in determination, allowed herself to feel.

Elphaba Thropp was one of 7 bands playing tonight, and thanks to being a marginally talented LA group, they weren't on until third to the last.

"Not quite headliner," Dusty admitted, as they weaved their way through the eclectic crowd, but it's a start, right?"

"Princess." Johnny, the bass player, always looked at her like he was ready for a sexual harassment suit. "Where's my girl?"

Johnny and Maria had struck up the oddest relationship Brooke had ever seen. While Johnny was never going to give up his groupies, the open monogamy seemed to work on both ends, and thankful that at least Dusty didn't feel the same way, Brooke was in no real place to judge.

"Hey," she said, waving politely, unslinging the camera bag from her shoulder. "I think her and Stephanie were gonna stop by later. They're coming from another party first."

"Allright, allright. That's cool." Tipping his beer at her, he took a swig. "You want one?"

"Dude, what the hell are you doing?" Coming forward, one hand slipping unconsciously on Brooke's hip, Dusty glared at him. "After the gig. Never before. I've already talked to you about that shit."

"Hey, Nazi. Relax. It's just one. And I'm not the one who served them out!" Johnny protested. "Caleb did!"

When an accusing eye went to their other guitarist, he just rolled his eyes. "Hey, you're the one having the problem with the solo," he snorted. "I'm having no problem keeping the beat."

Seeing Dusty blanch, Brooke sighed. "Come on, Caleb."

"Nah, don't worry about it," Dusty said, grabbing hold of her hand. "He's always like this when he drinks. He'll sober up pretty soon."

Johnny winked. "Don't forget. After party tonight. Booze and orgies and groupies."

Suddenly irritated, Brooke glanced back at Dusty. "You really know how to get a girl going, Johnny."

"So, what's up?" Lounging on the bar, in a dimly lit corner away from the stage, where the fourth band was finishing its set, Dusty looked desperate to be distracted. "You look a little tense."

"Oh." Toying with the cap of her water bottle, Brooke offered her a muted smile. "I spent some time with Sam and Mac today."

Arching a curious brow, Dusty leaned forward, trying to hear her from above the crowd. "Bonding time?"

"Something like that." Sighing raggedly, Brooke shot her a glance. "Sam's having some problems at school and… I brought up the idea of her transferring to SC."

Dusty took that in, expressionless. "I thought you said you were thinking about going to Italy the second half of sophomore year."

"Well, yeah, but that has nothing to do with Sam. Annenberg is a great school. I was lucky to get into journalism, but she's REALLY good, Dusty. They'd want her like crazy. I'm sure she wouldn't have an issue."

Dusty absorbed that and a small smile flashed onto her face. "Well, I'm glad you two are getting along."

Elphaba Thropp got decent applause, and when Dusty stepped onto the stage, there were both a few whoops and an incredibly shrill couple of screams. Her groupies were an attractive set, Brooke would admit that, but there was a small bit of catty satisfaction in knowing that Dusty was looking for her.

When the other girl actively scanned the crowd, she caught her eye and offered a supportive wave. With a tight smile, Dusty slung her guitar over her shoulder, obviously ready to play.

She wasn't ready for the male hand to sling around her shoulders, jerking her in.

"Hey, can I buy you a drink?"

Brooke let out a small shriek, whirling around and accidentally whipping Harrison in the face with flying blonde strands. "Oww!"

"Oh, God, Harrison! I'm so sorry!"

"Those things are friggin' deadly machines!" Rubbing at his eyes, he blearily opened one to glare at her.

"I'm sorry! You sneaked up on me!"

"I offered to buy you a drink! Not molest you!"

Fighting her ridiculous smile, Brooke shrugged. "I'm sorry!" she said, trying to look as sincere as she could. "But what are you doing here, Sam told me that you were picking her up-"

"He did."

Heart jumping into her throat, Brooke whirled and once again nearly blinded Harrison as she found Sam behind her. Wearing a slightly embarrassed smile, her step-sister had never been more gorgeous.

Forgetting to breathe, Brooke found herself overwhelmingly happy. Palms flattened against her jeans, she couldn't help but stare, overtaken by the subtle beauty in the women presented before her.

This was Sammy. This was Sammy trying.

"You came," she managed, heart full. She must have looked like an idiot, with the too wide smile on her face and her eyes wide as golf balls, but it didn't matter.

Nodding self consciously, Sam looked openly uncomfortable. "Yeap," she said, slightly sheepish. "I'm here. Harrison dragged me."

"Oh. Harrison!" Whirling again, Brooke's eyes widened even more when she realized that once again, she had whipped Harrison across the face. "Oh, God!"

"Get away from me!" he mumbled, stumbling back.

Still rubbing his eyes, Harrison had taken up a self-pitying stance with Stephanie and Maria, who cooed at him and rubbed his shoulders, attention that Brooke and Sam's sometimes ex seemed to adore.

Brooke found she had no complaint. It left her alone with Sam, and Brooke found herself utterly absorbed.

"So that's Dusty the rocker, huh?" Fingers curling around the coke, Sam eyed the stage.

Seated close to her, Brooke found herself having to turn to catch her girlfriend, concentrating hard on the beat, arms and face already glistening with sweat under the harsh light. "Yeah," she breathed. "She's good, isn't she?"

"A little more hardcore than you usually go for," Sam noted with a grin. "The music, I mean."

"Oh." Bringing her shoulders up to shrug, Brooke blushed slightly. "Honestly, I'm not a fan of this stuff, but when she plays classical guitar, it's pretty amazing."

"Oh." Glancing down, Sam's fingers slid against the condensation of her glass, watching the water pool against her fingertips. "She seems nice though."

An unexpected jolt of emotion lodged in Brooke's throat. "Yeah," she managed roughly. "She is."

Mouth quirking in a phantom ghost of a smile, Sam nodded.

Hands in her lap, Brooke's fingers laced together, suddenly nervous. "Was it a mistake to ask you to come?"

Dark eyes met her, on Sam's face a startled expression.

"I just…" Licking her lips, Brooke tried to voice her thoughts. "When I saw you and Rebecca together… it was hard. And um… I just… I just want to make sure…"

"It's not easy, Brooke, if that's what you're asking." Sam's eyes were clear, and her stare was unwavering. It burned through her. "But when I said I wanted us to be friends, to trust each other, I meant it."

It was Sam at her most sincere, and staring at her, Brooke felt her heart burst into a sudden ache.

She couldn't stop her hand reaching over, grabbing hold of Sam's. The touch was soft, and for Sam, unexpected, but as Brooke's eyes shined at her, Sam's grip tightened.

"Can I talk to you?"

Blinking, Brooke turned away from Sam, suddenly surprised to see Dusty staring at her.

"Hey!" she said, dragging unsure eyes from the stage back to the bar. "You guys finished fast! You remember Sam-"

"Brooke, I need to talk to you." Grabbing hold of her wrist, Dusty only glanced at the other girl before yanking on Brooke's hand impatiently.

Suddenly annoyed, Brooke glanced back at Sam and Harrison. "I'll be right back."

Following Dusty, Brooke kept her mouth shut, until Dusty led them into a corner near the backstage. "What the hell are you doing?"

Surprised at the heated question, Brooke found herself completely at a loss. "What are you talking about?"

Dusty looked visibly upset. "You know, Brooke? When you said 'Look for me', I thought you meant that shit. I didn't think it meant 'Look-For-Me-And-I'll-Be-Holding-Hands-With-My-Gay-Step-Sister-Who's-Obviously-In-Love-With-Me'."

Blinked, Brooke found herself at a loss for words. "Sam? What? No-"

"Oh, God, don't think I'm fucking stupid, Brooke, okay? I've seen how she looks at you."

The realization of what Dusty had seen, what Brooke should have been doing, and what she DIDN'T do floored her.

"Oh, God…" she whispered, palm raising up to meet her forehead. "Dusty, that wasn't… I'm sorry, but it wasn't what it looked like."

"No?" Her girlfriend wiped furiously at the sweat on her neck. "Which part?"

"I didn't think Sam was coming! The fact that she did is a huge deal-"

"What about the fact that I was shitting bricks around tonight? About my solo-"

"I know! I know!" Grabbing hold of Dusty's shoulders, Brooke felt like a complete asshole. "I'm sorry. I am." Dusty's head lowered, obviously conflicted. "Dusty, I heard you. You did great."

"Yeah, no fucking thanks to you," she sniffled.

Jaw clenching, Brooke forced herself to take a breath. "I'm sorry that I wasn't there for you." She swallowed down the sense of panic in her fluttering chest. "The thing with Sam-"

"Oh, Fuck, you know what Brooke? I don't want to hear it."


"Do you want to be with me?"

Inhaling sharply, Brooke stared at her. "What?"

Dusty was a picture of anger and fear. "Do you want to be with me?" Head lowering, Dusty shivered, like a wet dog. "Just tell me yes or no."

Heart hammering inside her chest, Brooke ached. She wanted to look, back at Sam, back at the room, anywhere but at the frightened eyes that were staring at her.

She could consider it. She could think this through and think of all the reasons why she shouldn't have been with Dusty and all the reasons why she couldn't be with Sam and she could think it over forever and it wouldn't change anything.

"Yes," she managed, pushing past her doubts. "Yes, okay? I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

Dusty's jaw clenched, tightened, and those dark eyes burned into her, as if the tortured artist was trying to see into her soul.

Suddenly her girlfriend deflated. "I hate this," she heard, as a palm went to Dusty's forehead. "I hate this. I'm not like this. I'm not a jealous freak. Oh, God, Brooke-"

Stiffly, Brooke felt lost. She hesitated, and then without another word, she stepped forward. Dusty's arms came around her immediately, pulling her in close.

The body was sweaty, and warm.

"I'm sorry," Dusty muttered, words muffled against her neck.

"Shhh," she whispered, and rubbed at the back of her head, tightening her grip. "I'm sorry too," she whispered, an intimate whisper against Dusty's ear.

After a long moment, she could feel the other girl begin to relax.

"I'm not used to this," Dusty managed. "I don't know how to do this."

Stiffening, Brooke pulled back, and let her palm drift across a sharply angled cheek.

"So we learn how to do it together."

Locked in a spinning whirlwind of emotion, Brooke found herself incredibly vulnerable, relieved and depressed.

She had been handed a beer, and she had downed it, frustrated with her own weakness and with the reality with which she was presented with.

Dusty was falling for her. Dusty, with her rock star hair and black etched tattoos and tweener groupies, wanted her.

It wasn't casual anymore.

For some reason, the very idea frightened her to hell.

Pushing through the mass of people gathered around the stage, she searched the crowd with wild eyes, looking furiously for a brunette with dark hair.

When she found her, Sam was leaning against the bar, deeply engaged in conversation with a gorgeous blonde. The other women was leaning into her, with her too wide smile and one foot curling on the floor.

Brooke's chest tightened immediately into a painful, ugly ache.

She watched, unable to breathe, as the other women only kept getting closer to Sam, until she saw fingers digging into pockets and a pen borrowed from the bartender. On a scrap of paper, the blonde girl etched what could only be her phone number, and with a smile that Brooke hated, she grabbed hold of Sam's hand, fisting them together. The paper crumpled between their palms.

It was then that Sam saw her, ten feet away, and as she leaned in close to speak to the girl, Brooke felt her pulse quicken and her fists clench.

She swallowed hard, and held her ground.

"Hey." Sam said, when she had worked her way through the crowd. "I tried to find you-"

"That's okay," she said stiffly. "I can tell you kept yourself busy."

Blinking at her, Sam looked confused. "Brooke-"

Slipping her fingers into her pockets, Brooke pasted on a polite smile. "So, listen. Dusty wants to go to this after party with the guys, and Johnny was our ride so… I'm gonna head out with them…"

Brow furrowing, Sam considered the statement. "Brooke, you sure that's a good idea?"

Still unreasonably angry, Brooke inhaled sharply. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, after their set, those guys drank A LOT."

Her heart sank within her, but Brooke refused to register that feeling. "Sam, they had one drink each."

"Uh… no they didn't, Brooke! The guy with the dreads took like, three shots in like a minute, okay?"

"I didn't see that."

"Well, yeah!" Sam sneered, exasperated. "Because you and Dusty took off back stage forever doing who knows what-"

A terribly, ugly feeling of triumph invaded her before she could stop it. "Oh," she said, shoulders straightening, suddenly justified. "So this is because of that? Sam, you said you would try."

Sam blinked at her, mouth agape. "What, you think I'm jealous?"

"Honestly, yeah."

Sam stared at her. "Brooke, this isn't about JEALOUSY. The guys were drinking! Just let me and Harrison drop you off or something-"

"No! Okay?" Hands flinging out of her pockets, Brooke stepped back. "Look, I can understand jealousy, okay? But her friends aren't drunks-"

"I didn't say that-"

"I'll see you tomorrow." Stepping back, Brooke gave her a muted smile. "That blonde girl you were talking to is staring at you."

"Brooke! Come on!"

Shaking her head, Brooke turned on her heel, determined to walk away from Sam, and toward Dusty.

She wasn't in the mood for a party. Ears ringing from the loud music, Brooke was in an incurably bad mood. Plastered in the backseat with Dusty, Maria, and Johnny, she felt nearly claustrophobic.

Her girlfriend was faring now better. Dusty was exhausted, and unusually quiet. Completely distracted, Dusty kept her eyes closed, obviously lost in her own thoughts, one hand half heartedly holding her own.

The flash of petty emotion had given her an unmistakable rush, but now her thoughts were consumed with Sam, and as they drove away from the club, Brooke found herself staring back at it.

She had been jealous. She had been jealous and stupid and mean. She hadn't listened to Sam, and now, she realized she could smell the alcohol on Caleb's breath.

"Hey, guys?" Moving between the seats, she tapped at the guitar player's arm. "Maybe we should slow down-"

She was the first to notice when Caleb barely slowed at the stop sign, and she was the first to scream a warning, just before they were plowed into from the side.

Part 16

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