DISCLAIMER: Characters of Popular are not mine. They belong to whomever. Title taken from Dar Williams' song of the same name.
SERIES: Second story in the 'An Ever Fixed Mark' series, following Here's Where I Stand.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

The Mercy of the Fallen
By Green Quarter


Part 1

"Well look what the cat dragged in," Brooke pulled her door open to see an exhausted, slightly scruffy Sam in the hallway of her apartment building. "How'd you get in the front door?"

"Somebody let me in, which is a miracle, considering I look, and actually am, homeless," Sam replied, removing a very large backpack from her shoulders.

"How was Rome?" Brooke asked.

"Rome was," Sam thought for a second, "Roman," she finished, cryptically.

Sam stepped up to Brooke and put her hands on either side of her face and kissed her, first on Brooke's right cheek, then her left cheek, and again on her right cheek.

"Wow, how European of you," Brooke said, disconcerted.

"When in Rome," Sam said with a dry laugh, as she let Brooke go. She removed her battered leather jacket and laid it across the top of her pack.

"I'm really sorry I wasn't able to pick you up at the airport, I couldn't believe they scheduled that meeting for so late in the day. I only found out about it yesterday," Brooke apologized.

"No problem, I took the subway from JFK. I was just glad I checked my email before I got on the plane."

Niceties taken care of, the conversation ground to a halt. Sam took off her brown, threadbare sweater to reveal a faded red t-shirt with the Coca-cola logo written in a foreign language on it. Thai, maybe, Brooke thought. Seeing Sam's casual dress made Brooke feel uncomfortable and stuffy in her conservative business suit.

Sam was standing in the middle of the room, surveying her surroundings. She nodded in approval. "Nice place, Brooke. You have great taste, but that's no surprise."

Brooke flushed with pride. This was her first real apartment living on her own, after the trials of dorms and roommates, and she had taken great care in surrounding herself with the things she liked. "Let me give you the tour," she said standing next to Sam. She remained where she was and flung her arm out, pointing in several directions as she ticked off, "That's the kitchen, that's the bathroom, there's the bedroom, and here we are back in the living room."

"Thanks," Sam said sardonically

The apartment was admittedly very small. It had been advertised as a one-bedroom, with the exorbitant rent that a one-bedroom in Manhattan commanded. When Brooke saw the apartment she considered it to be a studio with a sleeping alcove, but loved the cute factor. Although it had been biting off a bit more than she could chew, she decided to take it, hoping that in a few years her income would rise sufficiently so that making the rent wouldn't be a worry. She loved her little apartment, but she really loved the neighborhood. Morton Street was a quiet, leafy, brownstone-lined side street in the West Village; close to everything she could need, and a short subway ride to her office downtown. Brooke hoped to be here a long time.

"And Sam, this neighborhood is great for a diehard, seasoned traveler such as yourself. We have Italian, Korean, Polish and Pakistani delis for you to choose from," Brooke joked.

"I noticed," Sam agreed. "Just walking here from the subway I saw about eight different ethnic restaurants. And not just the usual suspects like Chinese or Sushi." Sam wandered around the room, picking things up and putting them down again. She picked up a silver frame that held a picture of herself and Brooke from high school, both girls grinning for all they were worth, Sam holding a plate with a piece of pie in one hand. She looked at it a long time. "This is a great picture. I don't remember when this was."

"Well, it has been nearly ten years since high school."

"No, it's only been," Sam counted on her fingers silently, "eight and a half years since we graduated." She gave Brooke a teasing look. "Exaggerator."

Brooke laughed. The conversation sputtered again. Why is this so hard, Brooke asked herself. Because you've spent maybe a month of combined days in her presence in the last five years, she answered herself. She's pretty much a stranger.

Sam opened the French doors that led to the bedroom. She looked back towards Brooke as she did and kidded, "This is the bedroom? I wouldn't want to get lost in the billiard room or the library looking for it."

Brooke followed her into the teeny room, which barely had space for the bed and a dresser. Sam looked out the window at the evening sky and at a few bedraggled plants sitting on the fire escape, what little remaining vegetation on them whipping in the October wind.

"I was trying to grow herbs," Brooke explained.

"You cook?" Sam asked, surprised.

"I try. But mostly I do a lot of ordering in," Brooke confessed, then remembered her manners. "Are you hungry, Sam? We could get anything you want; you're probably dying for some American food."

"Nah," Sam replied. "I ate on the plane. I shouldn't have been surprised that the food on an Italian airline was better than average." Sam lay back on the bed and propped herself up on some pillows. She looked intently at Brooke who was leaning against the dresser. "You look good, Brooke," she said.

"Thanks," Brooke smiled. "You do too. I like your t-shirt."

Sam looked down at her chest. "Got it in Bangkok. Do you want it?" She looked embarrassed. "I didn't bring any gifts this time; I was running a little short."

"That's okay. It's just good to see you. It's been too long."

"I know," Sam said apologetically, then covered her mouth as she yawned.

Brooke sat down on the end of the bed and started to take off her shoes.

"How's Mac? And the 'rents?" Sam asked the back of Brooke's head.

"Mac's fine. But, she's having some issues with math," Brooke took off her suit jacket and hung it up. "I guess she likes to 'times' better than she likes to do 'gozinta,' as she calls long division," Brooke said, amused. "Did you hear about the whole Tooth Fairy thing? But that was a while ago. Anyway, Jane has had it with baby teeth, she's glad it's over. She said Mac was trying to pull her own teeth out so she could make money for some scheme or another. Jane said you did that too," Brooke smiled and turned around to see what Sam's reaction was, but Sam had curled into a fetal position and was fast asleep.

Brooke opened the refrigerator. It was late and she had planned on eating with Sam, but that was out now. She opened some yogurt, and went to sit on the couch. She picked up the remote and aimed it at the TV, but then thought of Sam in the next room and laid it down again.

She sat and reflected on how long Sam had been in her life, more figuratively than literally, these last several years. In the early days, when they were forced to live with each other, nothing could have made them get along. It was sheer misery for everyone involved: parents, friends, and themselves. After a couple of years, a grudging respect had grown between the two, with only occasional flares of intense arguing or bitter rivalry, and everyone was pretty happy.

Then they had both gone away to college, Brooke stayed relatively close to home with Stanford, Sam went halfway across the country and enrolled at Northwestern. They had seen each other on breaks and during summer vacation, but then Sam had gone abroad during her junior year and fell in love with travel. She reluctantly returned to Chicago to finish her education, but all thoughts of a career in journalism were shelved. Upon graduating from university, Sam left and very rarely came home.

She drifted from one place to another, claiming the need for life experience. And so, the family had begun receiving postcards from all over. Sam had lived in Switzerland and London, worked in Alaska, spent a summer working in a taverna in Greece, fruit-picking in Australia, tree-planting in Canada, a ski resort in Chile, the list was endless. Sam was the most well traveled person Brooke new, and she never asked their parents for a dime.

Brooke loved getting postcards from Sam. Nobody wrote a postcard like Sam did. She felt like she could be sitting next to Sam while she wrote in a smoky café in Prague, or lying on the beach with Sam in Bali as the sun sank slowly over the horizon. And emails were almost as good, but Brooke was mostly just cc'd on the long and slightly impersonal messages detailing her adventures that were sent to her parents. Sam had said that she did this to save time and money in internet cafes, but somehow Brooke got the feeling that sometimes the contents of those emails didn't tell the whole story.

While studying for an MBA here in New York at Columbia, and now at the bank, Brooke had regularly emailed Sam stuff about her boring life hoping to get a reply, which sometimes worked, but usually they were short and rushed. Nevertheless, she usually got a postcard every month or two without fail, and those were better. It was tangible proof of her acquaintance with Sam. They were plastered all over her refrigerator, and what didn't fit on the fridge was in the drawer of her bedside table.

Trying to pinpoint when it was that their relationship went from gradually improving to 'the polite freeze-out' as she now thought of it, the only event Brooke could come up with was when Sam had come out, the summer after graduating from Kennedy High. Brooke had been surprised at the time; Sam had had several boyfriends in high school, one of whom was a volunteer in the hospital where Brooke had recovered from a car accident the night of her junior prom.

Brooke had tried to be supportive of Sam's lifestyle choice, but Sam hadn't looked to her for support. Whenever Sam brought a girlfriend home during a break from school or anything, which hadn't happened very frequently, Brooke was as courteous to them as Sam was to her boyfriends. She didn't think much of Sam's taste in women, though, she thought cattily. But it was none of her business.

Sam had been in her life a long time, and their cordial, respectful relationship was as good as many stepsisters could hope to expect. But sometimes Brooke wanted to break down that icy wall and see the surly, angry, passionate teenager Sam used to be. Maybe if she could reach that old Sam, they could get past this frozen politeness and be closer friends. Maybe Sam would tire of her life of adventure and want to stick around for a while. Yeah, right, Brooke thought ruefully as she got up and headed for bed, who gets tired of a life of adventure?

Brooke stood over her bed, watching Sam sleep. She had thrown a blanket over her earlier, but now wondered if she should wake her so she could change. She decided to leave her alone. Brooke carefully got under the covers, trying not to disturb her poor exhausted stepsister. She set her alarm, rolled onto her stomach, and was asleep soon after.

Brooke suddenly felt an arm slip around her waist. Her eyes widened and she was instantly awake. She took stock. Sam was in her bed. At some point during the night Sam must have removed her jeans and slid under the covers. Now, Sam was pressed against Brooke, her forehead resting on Brooke's shoulder blade, her arm lying heavily on Brooke's hip, her knees pushed up behind Brooke's.

"Sam," she whispered. No response.

"Sam," she spoke at a normal volume.

Sam turned her face from Brooke's back. "Mi dispiace, Paola," she murmured, and snuggled closer to Brooke.

Paola? Who was Paola? "Sam, I need a little room here," Brooke spoke louder.

She felt Sam freeze. "Uh, sorry," she quietly uttered and Brooke again had plenty of room.

Brooke rolled onto her back and turned her head towards Sam, who was now facing away from her and as close to the edge of the bed as she could possibly be without falling off. She suddenly felt lonely.

Brooke had showered and dressed, and was eating another yogurt early the next morning, when Sam groggily came into the living room, wearing the same t-shirt and jeans from the previous day.

"Morning, jet-lag girl," Brooke greeted Sam with a little grin, "sleep okay?"

"Brooke, I'm sorry about that last night," Sam launched into an apology, her voice ragged from sleep. "I shouldn't have been in your bed. You should've kicked me out. I have a sleeping bag; I was going to sleep on the couch."

They both looked at the couch, which was definitely shorter than Sam's height. It was a small apartment; Brooke had small furniture. She gave Sam a doubtful look.

"It's fine. I can sleep anywhere," Sam insisted.

"Let's talk about it later, okay? I've got to go," Brooke looked at her watch. "Why don't you come downtown and meet me for lunch? One o'clock?" She wrote down the address and handed it to Sam. "Take the 2 or the 3 train to Wall Street."

Sam nodded. "Brooke?"

Brooke turned as she was walking out the door.

"Where do you do your laundry?"

"Laundromat at the end of the block," Brooke smiled. "See you at one. You can tell me all about Paola." She laughed at Sam's surprised expression.

Sam sat down on the couch and put her head in her hands. This was going to be a lot harder than she anticipated. The desire to see Brooke had been too strong, and she had been fighting it for months. Usually, an email fix would see her through. Brooke had no idea how much satisfaction she derived from those sweet musings about the bank, or her boss, or what some crazy person did on the subway that day. It was all she could do to stop herself from hitting reply and pouring her heart out every single time one hit her inbox. But sometimes they included information she didn't want to see. Stuff about boyfriends, or what actor she thought was hot. Recently, Brooke had written about some guy named, what was it, Matt, maybe. When she was far away, Sam preferred to delude herself that Brooke lived a chaste life sitting around on Saturday nights playing with her cat. She wished Brooke had a cat. Sam was surprised Brooke hadn't mentioned the boyfriend within the first five minutes of her arriving. Straight girls usually did that around gay girls.

That wasn't fair, she thought. Brooke had been nothing but supportive. It wasn't Brooke's fault that Sam had been harboring a crush on her since high school. Crush? Sam snorted. She had passed from crush into full-blown fixation a long time ago. She was a sick, sad girl. But when she came out she promised herself that she would never foist her attentions where they were not wanted, and Brooke clearly did not want them.

Sam's sexual epiphany came during a large drunken game of spin the bottle at one of the many graduation parties thrown when their class graduated. Brooke had spun, and that fateful bottle pointed at Sam. Brooke had crawled over to where Sam was seated on the floor amid much hooting and many catcalls. This would be good, the stepsisters in a liplock. Brooke had taken a breath and pecked Sam on the lips. The crowd had immediately protested, demanding something more substantial. Well, Sam, Brooke had asked, should we give them a show? And before waiting for a response she grabbed Sam by the neck and planted her lips firmly on Sam's, and changed her life. The kiss had seemed to go on and on, with Brooke slipping her tongue between Sam's parted lips, and massaging her tongue with her own. She could still recall the boozy taste of tequila on Brooke's breath. All was silent for Sam as they kissed; until someone's particularly loud woo hoo brought her back to her senses. Then the noise was crushing and hurtful and dirty. She had to get out of there. She escaped to the porch and tried to regain her shattered composure. Ten minutes later Brooke had run out, barely making it to the bushes before puking. And that's how it came to be that Sam was holding Brooke's hair as she was sick instead of Harrison, whom Brooke was seeing at the time. The next day Brooke had no recollection of the game of Spin the Bottle.

Throughout high school, she had always known there was something off concerning her relationship with Brooke and that night the harsh truth was revealed. She was the thing that was off. Being gay didn't bother her in the least, but Sam had a thing for her stepsister, which was just creepy.

She had learned to live with it by putting distance between herself and Brooke, lots of distance. And a change of scenery always helped. She had yet to find a girl who could extinguish the torch she carried for Brooke, but she tried that too. Not so much lately, though. The emotional toll was draining, as Paola would surely attest.

And now she had come to New York and she was stuck. Flat broke. The money she was waiting on from a job completed months ago had yet to come through, and was looking more and more like it was not going to materialize. She had to find a way to get out of Dodge, and quick.

Because, obviously, things were just as bad as ever. She had practically mauled Brooke within hours of seeing her again. No, things were not going well. She simply had to do what she always did when she was with Brooke. Bury it all deep within herself, so that it never saw the light of day.


Part 2

Sam watched the revolving doors for a sign of Brooke. She felt much better after a shower and some clean clothes, and she had always felt that doing laundry was a peaceful and relaxing activity. Very Zen. She spent the remaining time puttering around Brooke's apartment. Made some breakfast, stared awhile at the cumulative evidence of her recent journeys that was arrayed all over Brooke's fridge. She was touched that Brooke had thought to save her postcards. Sam put time and effort into anything she sent to her. Turning one over and gazing at the miniscule handwriting she employed when she wrote to Brooke, it had looked hopeful and strange.

The building that housed the bank where Brooke worked as a financial analyst was old school Wall Street, although technically located on Water Street. The men leaving the building looked like they had their shirts professionally stuffed, Sam thought.

Brooke exited the building and looked around for Sam. Sam didn't call out in greeting, preferring to watch Brooke undetected for a moment. Corporate attire was a good look for Brooke. She was wearing a black chalk stripe trouser suit today over a white silky t-shirty looking thing. She looked stylish and modern; whatever would the stuffed shirts say? She waved to Brooke, who smiled and walked over.

"Hey. Right on time."

"My navigational skills didn't fail me today," Sam said.

"I'm sure you have an overdeveloped sense of direction, with all the travel you do."

Overdeveloped sense of something, that's for sure. "So, where are we going?" Sam asked.

"Since it's so nice I thought we'd go to the seaport. It's only a few blocks away."

The historic South Street seaport on the Lower East Side had been converted to shops and restaurants, but tall ships built a hundred years ago with timber masts and miles of rigging still sat proudly in the slips. Sam looked at them with awe, as Brooke led her to a food court on the uppermost level. They got salads and snagged a table outside in the unseasonably warm October sun, with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"You know," Sam remarked, "I love the Italians, and I love their food, but there is something to be said for Iceberg lettuce."

"An American original?" Brooke asked.


"How'd you end up in Italy, anyway? Your last postcard was from Haifa."

"Yeah, the kibbutz got old, so a friend and I flew to Rome and hung out at her family's house outside the city."

"Would that be the infamous Paola?" Brooke asked with a smirk.

"Yes," Sam said shortly, making it clear that the subject was not open for discussion. She should have known better than to get involved with Paola when she didn't return the girl's feelings. She had spent their last days together apologizing.

Brooke took note of Sam's shuttered features and changed the subject. "Well, I hope you let Dad and Jane know you left Israel. They were worried."

"They know," Sam said testily. "Besides, we were out in the country-side. The scariest thing about Israel was the security at the airport in Tel Aviv."

"What was the kibbutz like?" Brooke asked, slightly alarmed by Sam's cavalier attitude towards her own safety.

"It was like a summer camp where the most fun activity is hoeing."

"Ho-ing?" Brooke misunderstood.

"Get your mind out of the gutter, McQueen," Sam said with a laugh. "The gardening implement, not the streetwalker. Do hookers ever say, 'It's time to begin my nightly ho-ing?'" Sam asked in a snooty voice.

Brooke nearly choked on her cherry tomato.

Sam pounded her on the back. "You all right there, slick?" she asked, grinning.

"Do hookers ever badly imitate the Queen mother's accent when discussing their work?" Brooke returned, once she finished sputtering.

Sam raised an eyebrow. "You tell me," she busted out laughing at Brooke's expression.

"Oh no you didn't," Brooke said, smiling, glad to see a glimpse of the old Sam.

They sat eating, looking across the East River at Brooklyn for a few minutes.

"Can I tell you my plan?" Sam asked.

"Of course."

"The thing is, I'm broke. Would it be okay if I crashed with you until I get a job and have a little money coming in so I can get out of here, or I find a place or whatever I end up doing?"

"Your plan is to stay with me until you decide on the next part of the plan?" Brooke clarified.

"Yeah," Sam said weakly. "I know you thought it was just for a few days."

"Sure, you can stay, Sam. As long as you like. It'll be fun." Brooke smiled reassuringly at Sam.

"Are you sure it won't interfere with, um, your boyfriend?"

Brooke looked as if she hadn't even considered her boyfriend, Matt, but was considering him now. "Yes, I'm sure. It won't be a problem," she finally said, dismissing the subject. "So what kind of job are you going to look for?"

"The best kind for making quick cash," Sam looked at Brooke quickly and said "and no it's not ho-ing."

"Well?" Brooke prodded.

"Waiting tables," Sam said with a sigh.

Brooke sat in her cubicle at work, procrastinating. Would the world end if she delayed poring over reams of financial data for a little while? This wasn't what she had in mind when she pursued her MBA, dreaming of opening her own business and being her own boss. But living in Manhattan wasn't cheap, she made a good salary, and she had a future here. Safe and Secure. Boring and dreary.

Not like Sam, who lived wildly and recklessly, seemingly on the edge of collapse at any given moment, chewing up experiences and spitting them out. But Sam had landed on her feet once again. After days of searching for a serving job, Sam had a serendipitous moment. She had been canvassing Time Square, the latest neighborhood to undergo the job search assault, and had entered Carmine's, an upscale Italian eatery that catered to the tourist and theater crowds. As she was filling out her application, a heated argument broke out between one of the servers and the restaurant manager. The shouting escalated and concluded with the server storming out in a rage. As it was late in the afternoon and the place already short-staffed, Sam was able to convince the manager to try her out that night. She had experience and she was obviously eager. She started as a runner that night and by the end of a month's time had quickly graduated to her own station, earning the reputation as a competent and dependable worker. Or so Sam had said. Brooke hadn't actually been to the restaurant yet, but she was planning to. And the tips were good. Sam had already given her some money to put towards rent.

Things had been settling into a routine at home, as well. Sam had tried sleeping on the couch, but Brooke had awoken the next morning to find her on the floor in the narrow strip of space between the sofa and the coffee table. Brooke had roused her and put Sam into her bed, feeling terrible that she had endured a night on the cold hardwood floor.

So they talked about it, and Brooke had convinced Sam that the bed was big enough for both of them, and that she was not bothered by Sam's presence in the least. It had become comforting to be lying in bed and hear Sam come home in the wee hours, smelling like sautéed garlic. A feeling of delicious anticipation would run through her as Sam would shower and go through her bedtime ritual, then slip under the covers, the smell of garlic replaced by the clean tang of soap and shampoo. Brooke had decided she had overreacted that first night when she felt Sam cuddling with her, and had tried to show Sam there were no hard feelings by initiating some closeness while they slept. She now considered Sam to be her personal human teddy bear, and she had never slept better. They rarely saw each other during daylight hours, so Brooke thought this was a nice way of maintaining contact, and she thought Sam did too.

Brooke sighed and turned her attention back to her desk. She picked up a phone message from earlier she had yet to return. Matt. She hadn't seen much of Matt since Sam had come home. Their relationship had been a laid-back affair, since they both worked such long hours, and didn't often have time for one another, but she did honestly like him and enjoyed his company. She had been getting messages from him every day now, instead of the usual two or three a week, and guessed he was getting a little impatient with her. She read the message and a light bulb went on. She picked up the phone.

Brooke and Matt walked the few short blocks to Carmine's from the theater. Brooke's only caveat to their date tonight was that they have dinner here after their show. They entered and saw that the cavernous dining room was still very busy, for after 10PM on a weeknight. As they gave the name their reservation was under, Brooke spoke to the host about seating them in Sam's section, and they were led to their table.

A few moments later, Sam stood before them in a crisp white man-tailored shirt and tie, and black trousers mostly hidden by a long white apron. Her hair was pulled back, and her expression was solemn, but polite.

"Hi, Brooke, what brings you to tourist central?" she asked.

"Sam, this is Matt," Brooke introduced, not elaborating on who he was to her, Sam already knew. "His firm gave him some tickets to a play tonight, and we thought we'd stop in to see you in action."

"Well, that's nice," Sam's attention was suddenly caught by something near the kitchen. "Listen, I have a big order coming out. Let me take your drink order and I'll be right back."

"Oh, right," Brooke looked quickly at the menu, at a loss.

"I'll have a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon," Matt decided.

"And I'll have the same, please," Brooke concurred.

Sam nodded and hastened from their table.

"I've heard this place is very good, even though it caters mostly to the tourist trade,' Matt said, as he perused the menu.

"Yeah," Brooke said absently as she watched Sam move to a computer station and key in their drink order. Another server, a tall girl with short hair and funky eyeglasses, came up behind Sam and whispered something in her ear. Sam looked at her and smiled but didn't say anything, then headed to the kitchen.

When Brooke saw her again, Sam was carrying a large tray on her shoulder and was followed by another similarly laden waiter. They stopped at a table of eight or so raucous business men, where Sam proceeded to quickly serve them, bending and reaching around the men to place their meals in front of them as unobtrusively as possible. It looked like she had a system so she knew exactly which plate went with which diner. Sam turned to smile at one of the men as he made a comment, while surveying the table to make sure nothing was forgotten. Her colleague had retrieved the trays and was heading back to the kitchen, but Sam removed a bill folder stuck in the waistband of her pants and dropped it at another table, then visited two more tables to check on their progress. She looked around her section, approached the bus boy and spoke to him quietly. The busboy went to one of the tables and filled water glasses, and then started to clear the plates from yet another table.

It was an art, Brooke thought, as her eyes followed Sam now moving towards the bar, where two glasses of red wine waited. Sam had complete control of her little domain. Brooke had never stopped to actually watch what went into the service of having a meal out. And then multiply that by the number of people eating, it was pretty amazing. She wouldn't have guessed what it took to keep all the plates, excuse the pun, spinning in food service. When Sam neared their table once again, Brooke said, "That was impressive."

Both Matt and Sam looked at her questioningly.

"Your job performance," Brooke clarified.

"That's nothing," Sam dismissed, looking over at her large table. "You should see this place on a Wednesday before the matinees start. It's a blue-haired stampede," she deadpanned as she placed their wine in front of them. "So, what did you see tonight?"

Matt told Sam about the play they had just seen, and Sam told Matt a funny story about serving the director of that play and his mother the previous week. The woman had diverticulitis and was very appreciative of Sam's attentiveness to her dietary requests, hence Sam hearing her life story and all about her wonderful son.

After finishing her story Sam took their order. Then Brooke watched her return to the table of businessmen. Sam placed her hand on one man's shoulder and had a few words with the table. Whatever she said got a big laugh out of the men. Sam was very good at her job, Brooke concluded.

Matt interrupted her thoughts. "She's nice. I thought you two had a shaky past, but you seem to get along well."

"It's complicated," was all Brooke said. He knows nothing about anything, she thought. He's a good guy though, and understanding. He doesn't even hold a grudge when I blow him off for weeks at a time. I don't deserve him.

"I'm sure it was challenging for the two of you to become step-sisters at that high school age," he tried. "How'd she get this job?" he then asked, noticing his previous conversational gambit was not working.

"Luck," Brooke said simply. "And perseverance," she amended. "But she's like a cat, you know, always landing on her feet, and fearless. She's done things in her life that, although you and I may dream about, we'd never have the guts to do."

Matt looked at Brooke. Her admiration was palpable.

"She's been everywhere, lived everywhere," Brooke continued. "She's lived in Europe, and worked all over. Chile, Australia, Alaska," Brooke trailed off when she saw Sam returning to their table.

Matt latched onto Alaska, having been there himself. "Hey Sam," he began conversationally, "did you do any fishing while you were in Alaska? I caught the biggest King Salmon you ever saw when I was there."

Sam put a basket of bread between them. "I didn't do any fishing, but I was intimately acquainted with salmon," she replied with a wry smile. "My job title at the cannery was affectionately known as 'slimer.'"

Brooke was surprised. "I didn't know you worked in a cannery. All your postcards talked about were beautiful scenery, whales and sea kayaking."

"It was actually a frozen fish plant. And slinging fish guts ten hours a day doesn't make for the most poetic postcard, does it?" Sam asked. "I'll shut up now or I'll end up spoiling your dinner, which should be out in a minute." Sam abruptly turned around and walked away.

Brooke saw Funky Glasses catch up with Sam and walk with her into the kitchen. Doesn't she have any work to do, Brooke thought, scathingly. She should mind her own knitting.

Brooke left the restaurant feeling full and strangely empty. She and Matt had enjoyed their meals, and Sam's service had been exemplary, just not… friendly. Or not friendly enough for Brooke's liking, although she had certainly charmed Matt.

They strolled around the corner of the building, Matt trying to convince her to stay out for one more drink. As they passed the alleyway Matt turned his head and said, "Hey, it's Sam." Brooke turned to look and saw Sam stepping towards Funky Glasses and wrapping her in a hug. Brooke opened her mouth in surprise. Before she could stop him Matt loudly called out, "Sam!"

Sam stepped away from the girl and looked towards the street and shielded her eyes from the glare the open kitchen door was throwing. She walked towards them, finally realizing whom it was.

Matt, oblivious, said, "Sam, we're going for a drink. Can you come?"

Brooke looked at Sam and then down at her hand where a lit cigarette was smoldering. Sam smokes? "Sorry if we interrupted anything," she said neutrally.

Sam had noticed her staring at the cigarette and guiltily dropped it, stubbing it out with her toe. "No, not interrupting anything." was all she said. "Thanks for the offer, but I still have my side-work to do, I'm not done here."

"Maybe next time, then," Matt said cheerily. "It was nice meeting you."

"Likewise," Sam replied. "Bye Brooke." Sam looked at her gravely before turning back to the restaurant.

"Bye," she whispered, to Sam's retreating back.

Sam slammed out of the kitchen's back entrance and leaned against the cold brick. She had given them their check, said a polite goodbye, thank god that ordeal was finally over. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She truly was the world's greatest masochist. Life had been unbelievably hard lately, but this was the cherry on top. She didn't know how much more she could take.

Sam 's mind went through all that had happened lately. First Brooke decides she wants to be my snuggle bunny, and then she throws her boyfriend in my face? I can't do this, she thought. When they had talked about sharing the bed, Sam knew it was a bad idea, but she couldn't resist the temptation to sleep so close to Brooke. And the couch was really uncomfortable.

It had been wonderful, yet excruciating. Sam came home the night after they had talked smelling like she had done laps in a pool of marinara sauce. She took a shower and then stood brushing her hair in the darkness looking at the couch, then the bedroom doors, then back at the couch. Hell with it, she had thought, and got in bed with Brooke. They had slept side by side without touching for several nights when one night, Brooke slid over and put her head on Sam's shoulder. Sam tensed, not wanting a repeat of the night of her arrival in New York. Only when Brooke threw her arm over Sam's belly and mumbled a sleepy goodnight, had Sam been able to relax.

And now every morning Brooke extricated herself from a heap of limbs refreshed and happy while Sam was left with the lingering effects of unresolved arousal. The password was frustration. But she would sit on a block of ice all day every day if it meant she could still sleep in Brooke's bed. God, she was pathetic. She had to get out of here.

Also, she had been waiting for the boyfriend to appear. The night when Brooke said she was going over what's-his-name's and wouldn't be back for the night had been the thing Sam was dreading, but it never came. She became complacent and started to doubt his existence, but now he had turned up, the designated bad penny, just like Karen said he would.

Karen had been a good friend, although Sam didn't think much of her waitressing skills. Sam had been filling cruets of oil and vinegar one day before her shift started, completely lost in her thoughts. The need to talk must have shown clearly on Sam's face, because Karen had sat down next to her and wormed the whole story out of her while she folded her napkins.

Karen had seen the look on her face tonight when Mario told her that her latest two-top had requested her. She had lent her support all night, and Sam was grateful. She did suspect Karen of having ulterior motives, however. Sam heard the screen door to the kitchen open and the object of her thoughts was suddenly standing before her. "Are they gone?" she asked.

Karen nodded her head as she shook a Newport Light out of her pack and lit it. "You want a drag?"

Maybe it would help. Sam took the cigarette and inhaled. As she blew the smoke out of her lungs, she resisted the urge to cough. Then she couldn't help but cough a little. She paused a moment. Nope. She felt the same, no material benefit received, she thought, just as she had every other time she had tried to smoke.

"Listen Karen," she said, "I really appreciate you being there for me tonight. You have no idea how hard that was."

"I know, babe. You deserve a hug after that," Karen replied and opened her arms.

Ah-ha. I knew she was warm for my form, Sam thought smugly, and stepped into the hug.


Sam turned to the sound of her name but was blinded by the light of the kitchen. She walked towards the street to see Brooke and Joe Boyfriend staring at her like she had five heads. He asked if she wanted to come for a drink.

No thanks; I'd rather put this cigarette out in my ass.

Brooke glared accusingly at the cigarette and said "Sorry if we interrupted anything," her voice dripping with insinuation.

Sam couldn't help but extinguish the cigarette. She then denied that they were interrupting, and gave them some excuse. Brooke could think whatever she liked. She ignored the meathead while words were coming out of his mouth, but couldn't help feeling sorrow as she said goodbye to Brooke. She felt like they were looking at each other from across a great divide, and she had no idea how to get close.


Part 3

Sam silently entered the apartment shortly after four.

After her shift, while changing into her street clothes, she decided to take the kitchen guys up on their standing offer and went out for a beer with them. She figured she would be coming back to an empty apartment, so what was the rush? She had sat in some dive on ninth avenue near the Port Authority and listened to the line cooks regale her with stories of management's stupidity, then walked all the way back to Brooke's neighborhood. It was a longer walk than she had anticipated, but it gave her time to decompress. The anger and misery she had felt at the restaurant had dissipated, and she could actually step back from her situation and get a little perspective. She had made her own bed; it wasn't Brooke's fault that it caused her pain to lie in it.

Sam had gotten out of the sketchy neighborhood near the bus station and walked down seventh through Chelsea to get back to the Village. It had seemed that only she and the garbage trucks were out and about. The wee hours were awfully quiet for the reputed city that never sleeps, until she got to where several gay clubs were located near 17th Street. The boys had been out in full force. She was glad someone was having fun. As she walked, and the street regained its stillness, with only the occasional cab drifting down the avenue, Sam had thought it was actually kind of romantic strolling the darkened streets. The streetlights created a Stieglitz-like, monochromatic glow on the aging buildings, and she felt her problems recede into the background.

She wasn't tired in the least, the weariness she felt after her shift replaced by a sense of purpose and a need to be productive. On a whim she had stopped at an all-night grocery and bought some postcards. She had neglected writing to friends she had met on the road since arriving in New York, and now was as good a time as any to catch up.

As she placed her keys on the kitchen counter, she stopped to listen. No sound. Brooke wasn't here. Taking off her coat and not bothering with a shower yet, Sam turned on the lamp and sat down on the couch, bending over the coffee table to begin writing.

Brooke was instantly awake when she heard the key in the lock and Sam's subsequent entry. She had tossed and turned for hours, and had managed to doze off for a while, but she had become sensitive to any noise since Sam had come to live with her. Sam was really late. She must've been out with her friend, the lazy waitress, Brooke thought, crabbily. She waited for Sam to begin her nightly ritual and come to bed, but the light in the living room came on instead, and shone through the transparent curtains of the French doors leading to the bedroom. No sleeping with that.

As Brooke opened one of the doors and stumbled into the blinding light, she saw through squinted eyes Sam look up and clutch her chest in surprise.

"Brooke, you scared me! I didn't know you were here," Sam said. She reached over and turned out the light. The room darkened but light from the street illuminated enough for them to see each other.

That was better. "Where else would I be?" Brooke replied grumpily as she sat down next to Sam on the sofa and let out a huge yawn.

"At your boyfriend's?" Sam suggested, a shaft of light from the street lamp through the window crossing her face.

Brooke thought she could detect a hint of annoyance in Sam's voice. What was her problem? She woke me up, not the other way around. "No," she said, "I didn't feel well." Matt had wanted her to come back to his place, but she had pleaded a headache.

"Was it the food?" Sam asked, alarmed.

"No. The food was good. It was great, actually. And you're a good server. I had no idea you were so skilled," Brooke complimented.

Sam bristled. "Calm down, Brooke, it's food and beverage, not life and death. Not all of us can be high-powered Wall Street types, you know," she said sarcastically.

"That's not what I meant," Brooke belatedly realized how patronizing she had sounded. She sighed. The two of them could never seem to meet on common ground. She watched as Sam picked up a pile of postcards and began to leaf through them. She had never felt closer to Sam than when she was reading one of her postcards, she thought ironically, considering the girl was only inches away. Well, she amended, she also felt close to Sam when they were sleeping, when their brains and mouths weren't able to get in the way. But she was so prickly and ran so hot and cold, it was like trying to hug a hornet's nest. Why did she have to make everything so hard? Brooke became peeved at the thought of all the people who would be receiving one of Sam's postcards. She bet Paola would get one, and the waitress too, she thought with childish petulance. It dawned on Brooke that she was only one of many people to whom Sam sent postcards, judging by the stack in the girl's hands. She was one of many. Nothing special. And she wasn't even going to get one of these. Was it unreasonable to want Sam to send her a postcard from New York even if she lived here? Brooke suddenly felt the need to lash out at Sam. To goad her into some kind of emotional response the way she used to back in high school.

Sam had been speaking while Brooke was lost in thought.

"Look, Brooke, I'm sorry I woke you. You should get some sleep; you have to be up in a few hours."

"Yeah, I do," Brooke said shortly. "What's the big idea, coming in so late? You would've woken me up when you got into bed if you hadn't with the lights." She was getting angry now. "God, Sam, you are so inconsiderate."

Sam looked taken aback.

"I really don't need your sex life interfering with my sleeping habits," Brooke added. Whoa, where did that come from?

"My sex life? What the hell are you talking about?" Sam asked, nonplussed.

"That chippy at the restaurant," Brooke said. "Boy, Sam, you're a fast worker. You've got a girl in every port, I bet. Got somebody all lined up in New York already. This port's taken care of, just like all your other ports in a storm." Brooke couldn't seem to stop her mouth from spilling all this ugliness.

Sam just looked at her agog.

"And," Brooke continued indignantly, "You were smoking."

At this, Sam's expression would have been comical if it all wasn't so tragic. Then her face darkened and Brooke prepared for the blast.

"What would you know about a sex life, Ice McQueen," Sam retorted, standing up. "I've been here over a month and tonight's the first time you've been out with your slam-piece, so I'm guessing you and the frat boy aren't getting any." Sam's voice was getting progressively louder. "Unless you two spend your lunch breaks doing it in the copier room, for that cheap, illicit, corporate thrill!"

Brooke felt like her body had seams and they were coming apart. She stood up too and got right in Sam's face. "Keep your voice down!" she practically screamed. "I have neighbors!"

"Fuck the neighbors," Sam spat.

"What? You mean you haven't done them yet?" Brooke asked derisively.

"If you're so hot for him, why do you spend every night with me?" Sam hammered away at her scornfully. "You don't think it's natural for a paragon of straightness such as yourself to wrap herself around someone like me every night, do you?"

God, she made it sound so dirty. Brooke took a different tack. "I think you're just jealous," she hissed.

"Jealous of what? You can't mean your man-candy, Mr. Dick?" Sam sneered.

"Jealous that you'll never have a normal relationship with a guy and get married and have children like good, decent people. You'll always be a scummy dyke!"

All was still. Brooke closed her eyes in disbelief at her own words.

Sam's lips compressed into a thin line. "Thanks, Brooke," she said quietly. "Thanks for finally being honest with me." She picked up her postcards and put on her coat.

"Sam, wait, where are you going? It's the middle of the night," Brooke said hurriedly.

"It's not. It's morning," Sam noted as she looked for her pen.

"Please don't go Sam," Brooke begged. "We have to talk about this. I'm sorry, please, wait," She grabbed Sam's arm and tried to turn her around, but Sam shrugged her off and opened the door.

"It's morning," Sam repeated. "I need a bagel."

Many cups of black coffee had seen Sam through the better part of three early morning hours spent in a diner on Waverly. She sat with her postcards in front of her but couldn't write. So she planned. Working at the restaurant had earned her enough money for a plane ticket to somewhere but not much else. If she took the bus she could make her money last. So she decided; she would go home to LA and stay with the parentals for awhile. God, how dismal. To be twenty-seven years old and living at home was indeed sad. At least she'd be able to spend some time with Mac. Anyway, there was a Greyhound bus leaving tonight at eleven and she intended to be on it.

As she looked out the diner's grease-smudged window at all the poor bastards on their way to work, she thought of Brooke, and how she was probably on her way too, and it was safe to go back to the apartment.

She ran through the argument they had earlier, if it could be called that. It was more like a twisted contest to see who could inflict the most pain. Brooke won. It wasn't that the epithet was so bad; she had heard it a million times, used it herself, even. It was the way Brooke had uttered it with such repugnance that had stung. This brought her masochism to a whole new level, but she found she couldn't hate Brooke. God help her, she still loved her. All the more reason to make like a tree and get the hell out. But first, Brooke had to know everything. Sam would put paid to this relationship and lay it all out there. Brooke would never want to see her again, and it would be over. Then maybe she could have some peace and get on with her life, do something productive with it, and stop wasting time.

Brave as she was when it came to other things in her life, Sam knew she did not have the courage to say those things to Brooke's face. She flipped through her postcards and found the one she wanted. It was a black and white photo of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it reminded her of their lunch at the seaport. She had picked it out especially for Brooke, having thought it would be funny to write her a postcard while visiting her, and then send it through the mail like always. Sam would just hand deliver this one. She picked up her pen and wrote down everything in her heart, thinking she might need a few postcards. In the end it didn't take much, just a few simple declarative sentences.

When she returned home after her marathon sojourn at the diner, Sam gathered up her possessions. She had gotten most of her stuff packed up but she couldn't find her brown sweater and was not leaving without it, it was her favorite. She finally found it in Brooke's sock drawer, rolled up in a ball. Lord knows how it got there. She shook it out and put it on, hoping the wrinkles would come out with wearing it, but she wasn't worried about it. She figured she'd still look more presentable than most of her fellow passengers tonight.

Sam made a quick call to the restaurant and left a message calling out sick for her evening shift. Not quitting was another failure of courage. Then she lay down on Brooke's bed and crashed, sleeping an exhausted, dreamless sleep.

Hours later, she awoke suddenly, completely disoriented. Noting the time, Sam realized Brooke would be home from work soon, and completing the triple crown of cowardice, she decided not to be here for it.

She straightened the bedclothes, got out the postcard of personal pain, as she wittily referred to it, and propped it against the pillow. She was not so spineless that she wouldn't say good-bye to Brooke. She just thought it would be easier to get the hard part out of the way first, Brooke would be eager to get rid of her after that. Sam had some errands to run anyway. When she returned she would collect her pack and make a dignified exit, and that would be that.

Part 4

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