DISCLAIMER: The characters of Popular do not belong to me, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story began as an homage to the play, Cyrano de Bergerac and the works that it inspired, most notably the movie Roxanne and the TV series, My So-called Life. However, it eventually veers away from its inspiration. The title is taken from the song "Mexican Wrestler," by Jill Sobule. Thanks, as always, to Junebug.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To green_quarter70[at]yahoo.com

I Can Crack All Your Ribs, But I Canít Break Your Heart
By Green Quarter


Part 3

Dear Brooke,

Thinking of you used to be something I tried to avoid. If I allowed myself thoughts of you at all, they were quickly locked away in a small, hard place, as dense and impenetrable as an avocado stone. Now it's as if I've suspended them in a glass and given them free reign to develop and mature. Soft, tender shoots have broken through and grown into tensile tendrils, finding fertile ground in which to take root.

Okay, that avocado metaphor may be a little overdone, but it doesn't change the fact that my desire for you is now firmly entrenched. My thoughts… I can't unthink them; I can't unlearn what I know about you, so I am writing it down, getting it all out. And hopefully you won't mind if I offer them to you in this letter.

I want so much to be able to touch you. To feel with my fingers the soft skin on your arm when the little hairs there glint in the sunlight would, I think, make me giddy. I would like to know what that place in the middle of your upper lip feels like; I'm thinking smooth and warm like the nap of finest velvet. I'm sure there is a name for that place, but not knowing what it's called doesn't make me want to cover it with my own lips any less. I want to intimately know your entire body – from the peach fuzz curves of your ears to the hardworking roughness of the soles of your feet.

If you were to think of me, let it be as one mesmerized by a very pleasant daydream. Maybe looking out a window somewhere, hand under my chin and supporting my head as it grows heavy over my preoccupation with you. And if time were money, I'd consider all the hours spent thinking of you a very wise investment.


"Whatcha got there, Brookie?"

"Nothing, Nic." Brooke quickly folded the letter and placed it on top of her textbook.

"Doesn't look like nothing. You were reading that thing so intensely it looked like it might be pictures of next season's Versace collection. What gives?" Nic sat down at their usual table and gazed at her expectantly. It was lunchtime, although neither girl had eaten anything yet.

Brooke slid her eyes over at Nic. She hadn't been able to stop reading this second letter since she had found it poking out of her bag after third period. Not knowing what to do and needing to talk about it with someone, Brooke decided to open up to the girl now checking for shine with her compact mirror. "It's a letter. From Josh."

"Josh?" Nic closed her compact and frowned over her ignorance to this development.

"It's a love letter." Brooke handed it over.

Nic quickly read it, then glanced at Brooke before reading it again. After an extended pause, she cleared her throat and said, "That's sweet. I didn't know Josh was the hearts and flowers type." Handing the letter back to Brooke, she added, "Congratulations, hon. I always knew Kennedy's premier power couple would be restored to their rightful place at the pinnacle of the social pyramid. Although I am surprised that you didn't tell me when it happened."

"But we're not together again. He just started sending these letters out of the blue."

"Letters?" Nic asked. "Plural?"

"This is the second one."

"So what did you say to him?"

"Nothing. We haven't talked about it," Brooke's face reflected her confusion. "What should I do?"

"That depends. Do you want to go out with him again?"

"Before I got these letters, I would have said no, definitely not. But now," Brooke looked at the page wistfully, "I don't know. I really love what he's saying here, but how much of that will carry over into reality? I have so many doubts. And I broke up with him. And what about the disaster that was taking our relationship to the next level? Just when I think it's time to move on, he writes these amazing things that make me want to try again."

"Well, I think that answers the question. Doesn't it say something that he's trying so hard to win you over?" Nic said reasonably. "It's creative, it's thoughtful, and sort of sexy in a 'How do I love thee, let me count the ways' kind of way."

"You mean, like poetry?" Brooke said dreamily, then shook herself out of her sappy musings. It's not poetry," she clarified, "but it makes me feel like I'm reading a poem. Like ordinary words have new meanings. He just seems so sincere."

"Yeah, well, he's not Shakespeare, but it's not bad. I should have known a guy who does musicals would have a bit of poetry in his soul."

"Yeah," Brooke replied distractedly. She was clearly not paying attention.

"So what are you going to do?" Nic asked after a moment.

"I'm going to go talk to him." Finally reaching a decision, Brooke got up and walked out of the cafeteria, knowing exactly where to find Josh.

"Did you give it to her?" Sam couldn't stop herself from asking, lunch was almost over and Josh had been studious and quiet and distinctly unforthcoming today. She was feeling a bit unappreciated after providing him with another letter, an unsolicited one at that.

"Yes. I stuck it in her bag when she was walking to third period. She didn't even notice me," Josh replied. He was experiencing vague feelings of guilt regarding the second letter. The first was fine, a spur of the moment idea that hadn't paid off, as he had received no response from Brooke. When Sam gave him a second letter this morning, he found he was willing to try again, but was a little bewildered by Sam's voluntary submission. It felt wrong to continue to take credit for Sam's letters, and why was Sam writing them anyway? It was all slightly strange.

"She must have read it by now," Sam muttered, almost to herself.

"Hey guys, mind if I sit?" Harrison dropped into a chair at their table without waiting for a reply. I have a David Copperfield vocab quiz period after next. Do either of you know what 'pecuniary' means?" he asked, pulling from his backpack a notebook and a well-thumbed copy of the book in question.

"Nope," Josh returned to his history book.

"It means having to do with money." Sam said briefly before turning back to Josh. "What did she say about the first one?"

"Nothing. We haven't talked."

"Who? What are you guys talking about?" Harrison asked.

"Nothing." Josh and Sam spoke in unison.

"Okaaay," Harrison backed off, this was obviously a touchy subject.

There was silence at the table as the three worked independently until,

"Josh, can I talk to you for a minute?"

Three heads looked up at Brooke, who had eyes only for Josh, standing by their table.

"Sure, Brooke," Josh smiled and leaned toward her.

Brooke glanced at Sam and Harrison. "In private?"

Harrison watched Sam watch intently as the pair walked to the far side of the room and disappeared into the stacks.

"What's going on?" Harrison asked Sam.

With a concentrated effort, Sam tore her gaze from the bookshelves that now hid the couple. Her voice was hard and hollow. "Brooke and Josh are getting back together as we speak."

"I got your letters."

Josh nodded and gave Brooke a tight smile. They were standing beside a window at the end of a narrow passageway created by two floor-to-ceiling bookcases. Dust motes swirled in the shaft of light that fell on them.

"They were beautiful. I loved what you said in them. I didn't know you still felt that way, Josh."

"Listen, can we not talk about the letters? They don't mean anything-"

"Of course they do. For the first time I'm getting some insight on how you really feel." Brooke searched Josh's down-turned features for some kind of evidence. "Is it… how you feel?"

"You know it is, Brooke," Josh replied. "I told you that the day you broke up with me."

His hurt tone ruffled Brooke's feathers. "But since then you've rejected an attempt I made to get back together and you've gone out with another girl. What am I supposed to think of that?"

Josh had no answer. He sat down on the window's wide wooden sill. "I don't know. I was really hurt; I didn't know what I wanted. I guess I just needed time to figure that out, and now I know it's you."

He sounded so certain, and Brooke was so far from certainty herself. "I don't know, Josh. I just don't know if this is the right thing. For either of us." She gazed keenly at him, trying to divine what was really in his heart.

Knowing he had some heavy-duty convincing to do, Josh became desperate and said the first thing that came to mind. "Look. I think we need to draw a line between what happened before and what is happening now. Make a line of marcation, or something."

Brooke's eyes softened. If they were going to try, this seemed very sensible. And it told her that he was serious about this. "That's a good idea, Josh. The past is past."

"Yeah," Josh sounded relieved.

"But if we're going to try again, I want to go slow. Baby steps. I'm talking glacial pace, here. We rushed into some important decisions last time and I don't want that to happen this time. We both need to be sure every step of the way." Brooke sat down next to him on the windowsill, their hands touched.

Elation surged through Josh when he felt Brooke's hand cover his. This was going to work! He put his arm around Brooke and pulled her into his chest.

Brooke leaned her head against his shoulder, admitting to herself how good the weight of Josh's strong arm felt. Suddenly she felt his lips on her cheek, and then he took her completely by surprise, grasping her upper arms, turning her towards him and kissing her forcefully, his tongue pushing into her mouth.

Although he had never before given her reason to fear him, Brooke panicked at Josh's effortless physical dominance. She brought her palms up, pushing as hard as she could against his chest. "Didn't you hear what I just said? I said SLOW!"

Josh stared at her, speechless.

Brooke gazed back, trying to get a handle on her confusion and instinctual distrust. She tried to reconcile the earnest voice in his letters with the actual boy in front of her – and couldn't. "This was a mistake," she muttered, backing away from him.

"No, wait! Brooke, I'm sorry," Josh called after her, but she was already gone from sight.

Sam and Harrison looked up to see Brooke rushing by their table on her way out of the library. A few seconds later, Josh emerged from the stacks, looking grim.

"What happened?" Sam demanded.

"I kissed her."

"But that's good, right?" Harrison wanted to know.

"Then why did she just run out of here like you're Wile E. Coyote and she's the Road Runner?" Sam didn't wait for Josh to answer Harrison. Something was not right. She could feel it.

"We were talking, it was going well," Josh reported. "We decided to try again, and she said she wanted to go really slow. I put my arm around her. Then, I just had to kiss her; it was like this unstoppable urge. So I did. And it was too much. Too fast. She changed her mind. Just like that." He snapped his fingers, it sounded like a whipcrack in the quiet library.

"Just because you kissed her? That makes no sense. It's not like you haven't kissed her before, I've seen it with my own eyes." Sam said, trace amounts of bitterness detectable in her voice.

"Yeah, well, she wasn't ready for it. I pushed too hard," Josh spoke savagely, looking right at Sam. "It's my fault. And why do you care so much, anyway?"

"So you're just giving up?" Harrison asked, totally invested in this soap opera now.

"No, he's not giving up," Sam answered for him. She turned to Josh, "Are you?"

"No, but-"

"The bell is going to ring any second. What class does she have now?" Sam asked Josh, in total planning mode.

"Drafting," Harrison replied, shrugging when Sam and Josh turned to him in surprise.

"Brooke takes drafting?" Josh wondered.

"Yeah, it's part of that interior design kick she's been on," Sam said, only knowing this fact because of her talent for eavesdropping on her mother's conversations with Brooke. "Go meet her at her class and try and talk to her. Apologize, grovel, do what it takes."

Just then the bell rang that signaled changing classes. None of them made a move to leave; they were all too caught up in Josh and Brooke's drama.

In the silence that followed the bell, Josh said, "She won't listen to me, Sam; she's pissed."

"That's why you have to do it now, before the anger sinks in. It's like a grass stain. If you don't shout it out now, it'll be even harder to remove later." Sam thought for a minute, then turned to Harrison. "They use computers in drafting, don't they?"

"Yeah, I took it last semester. We did some stuff on AutoCAD."

"Josh, you could email her. Or better yet, IM her." Sam suggested.

"Right now? She won't have her email open, or instant messenger," Josh protested. "And anyway, I hardly ever use email. I don't think I've emailed Brooke more than a few times. I always just call her."

"Well, she can't take your calls in class and desperate times call for desperate measures."

"Wait. Emory is in that class. I'll text him to tell Brooke to open an IM client right now." Harrison pulled out his phone and quickly sent a text message.

"Do those computers even have instant messenger on them?" Josh was still unsure.

Harrison smirked. "Look around. There's three class labs plus the machines in here, and one tech for the whole school. It takes three seconds to reinstall after he removes it. The dude really needs to use better security." He moved to one of the library workstations and sat down. "Josh, what's your user ID?"

Josh and Sam went and stood behind him. "jfordqb2000," Josh replied.


Josh hesitated a moment before saying, "Mickey mouse, no space."

After a few keystrokes Harrison said, "Look. Ready and waiting. A little yellow smiley face next to 'blu_brookemcq.' Who do you think that might be?" He stood up and pulled the chair back for Josh, who then sat down.

"She's there?" he asked.

"Yep. All you have to do is type," Harrison replied.

Sam and Harrison stood behind Josh, the thought of giving him some privacy never entering their minds. Sam especially appeared to be a bit on edge; her arms were crossed over her chest and she gnawed on a thumbnail while waiting for Josh to put the keyboard to use.

Finally, after thirty seconds that passed in super slo-mo, he began to peck with his two index fingers.

Jfordqb2000: Hi Brooke, r u there?

A few moments passed, then, in the IM window appeared:

Blu_brookemcq: Josh, I don't have time for this. I'm in class.

Josh stared at the screen. "See? She's mad. I don't even know what to say to her."

"Tell her you're sorry," Sam urged.

Dutifully, Josh typed:

Jfordqb2000: I know, I'm sorry.

Sam couldn't help interjecting, "No! That sounds like you're sorry for interrupting her in class. You need to apologize for what happened here and tell her why you're sorry."

Harrison and Sam watched as Josh typed with painful slowness.

Jfordqb2000: And I'm sorry for what happened in the library. It's just that you're so hot and you looked so awesome and you smelled so good. I couldn't help it.

Harrison rolled his eyes and Sam just barely stifled a groan.

Blu_brookemcq: Are you saying it's my fault?

All three of them could hear the iciness in Brooke's reply.

Josh held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I can't do this. I have no idea what to say."

"Get up," Sam said. When Josh didn't move, she put her hand on his shoulder and repeated, "Get up. I can fix this."

"Wait Sam, what are you doing?" Harrison looked at her askance.

Josh got up and Sam slid into his seat and quickly began to type.

Jfordqb2000: Is it your fault that I lose hold of my senses when I'm in your presence? Is it your fault that I feel drawn to you with the inevitability of a moth to a naked 100 watt bulb? That my hands disobey my brain and reach for you when I know it could mean my downfall? Maybe you won't like this answer, but yes, it is your fault.

Sam slapped the enter key and Josh clapped his hands on his head.

"Oh god, she'll hate me!" he exclaimed.

"Let's see what she makes of that," Sam said, not sounding as sure of herself as she was ten seconds ago.

Harrison simply looked from Josh to Sam in silence, trying to decipher why Sam was calling the shots and why Josh was allowing it.

A message at the bottom of the window told them Brooke was typing a reply. They didn't have to wait long to see:

Blu_brookemcq: Go on.

For Sam, those two words were like the drawbridge opening up, her permission to enter the castle. She hunched over the keyboard and went on.

Jfordqb2000: What I feel for you is strong. So strong that sometimes my actions are pure instinct. And my instincts don't always follow the path of politeness and manners. At the basest level, my response to you is violent, immediate, and fierce. But it is also the truest expression of what is in my heart. My feelings towards you are not ambivalent and I find it impossible to subjugate them – even for your sake. Please accept my deepest apology. I can't promise it won't happen again; you are as powerful and potent as any drug and I am a hopeless addict. But I want nothing more than to honor your wishes and I'll try with all my heart to be what you want me to be.

Sam sat back while Josh and Harrison leaned in closer, waiting for Brooke's response.

Blu_brookemcq: Meet me at the water fountain by the Novak. Now.

Sam, unthinkingly, was halfway out of her chair when Josh shook her shoulders in triumph, effectively pushing her back down.

"Thanks, Sam! That was so awesome! I totally owe you." He scampered back to the table and collected his belongings before exiting the library.

"Don't screw it up this time," Sam muttered.

Harrison pulled a chair over to Sam's workstation and sat down beside his longtime friend, who now sat staring sightlessly at the computer screen before her.

"Would you mind telling me what you think you're doing?" he asked. "That's pretty mean, don't you think?"

"Mean?" Sam turned to look at him, bewildered.

"Yeah, mean. You're manipulating things between Josh and Brooke, and the reason can't be good. Is this another stunt in your war against the popular crowd, the results of which I can't begin to fathom?" Harrison was Sam's staunch friend, but even he was losing patience with her unreasonable aversion to certain members of their class. Admittedly, she hadn't done anything lately, but that didn't mean she wasn't taking the longer view.

"I'm not being mean. Josh asked me for help and I'm helping him."

"He asked you to help him get back together with Brooke? I find that a little hard to believe, since you extremely hate her."

"I do not hate her," Sam said defensively. "So I wrote a couple of love letters for him, what's the big deal?"

"You wrote love letters? For him to give to Brooke?" Josh asked incredulously.

"I think she really liked them," Sam said faintly.

Harrison just stared. He didn't even know where to begin. Did Sam all of a sudden have a personality transplant, or was she simply abducted by aliens and replaced by someone who looked and talked like Sam, but was actually a pod person from a Sci Fi channel series. "Don't you think that's a little personal to do for someone else?"

Sam gazed right into Harrison's eyes, revealing something huge for the first time. "Not if I feel the same way."

This cleared up nothing. Harrison was completely confused. "You mean you were writing the letters to Josh?"

Now impatient for him to catch up, Sam said, "No. I was writing the letters to Brooke. Every word is true. I was being completely honest."

"So you wrote love letters to Brooke? But she's a girl. And you hate her."

"No, I don't hate her. The opposite, in fact." She was calm; it felt kind of good to finally get it out. "And yes, she's a girl," Sam confirmed the obvious for Harrison.

"So you like her? Like, like her?" Wait. That would mean… "You mean, the way my mom likes girls?" Harrison was having trouble wrapping his mind around this.



"I know it's a lot to take in. I hardly knew how to process it myself."

Sam liked girls. Harrison's shoulders slumped as the realization sunk in. What was it about Sam? And Brooke, too, for that matter. Somewhere in a secret place inside him he had always thought that a woman who combined the best attributes of both Sam and Brooke would be the girl to whom he would completely lose his heart. Brooke had never been an attainable goal, and now Sam was off limits too. He decided to think about that later and get back to the situation at hand. Poor Sam. And poor Brooke. "Sam, you have to tell her," Harrison grabbed Sam's arm and spoke in an urgent tone.

Sam laughed like it was funny. "I can't tell her, I could barely tell you, and I'm not ready to come out."

"No. You have to tell her that you wrote the letters, not Josh."

"No I don't. She'll never know it was me. I can work out a little angst and Josh gets the credit. Neither Josh nor I have a problem with that."

"But Brooke might have a problem with it."

Sam was silent. She had never thought of that. Then she came to a decision. "No. If I told her, she would hate me. Well, hate me even more than she already does. I absolutely cannot tell her. And this is the only way I have of showing Brooke how I feel and I'm not prepared to give it up yet."

The irony of Sam's attraction to the girl she tried so hard to despise was not lost on Harrison. He thought he now understood what was behind Sam's attacks on all that Brooke held sacred. It was the lesbian high school equivalent to dunking her pigtails in an ink well, although a lot more twisted. "Ah, Sam, that's totally sad."

"So you understand my predicament."

Did he ever. If he had zero chance of achieving the time of day with Brooke McQueen, then the probability for Sam was somewhere down in the negative triple digits. "Yeah. Normally I wouldn't say this to a girl, but I think it's appropriate in this case: you poor dumb bastard."

"Yeah," Sam bleakly agreed.


Part 4

The girls' gym was empty. For a brief window of time, from just after the dismissal bell rang until about twenty minutes past three, when the gymnastics team started trickling in for their practice, Brooke could usually count on this giant space to be as private as a confessional. She stood in her glamazon workout gear, leaning against a waist-high stack of practice mats, waiting for her tryst to begin. A moment later the heavy door slammed shut and the rhythmic click of cleats could be heard crossing the polished wood floor.

Josh approached in almost complete uniform; he carried his shoulder pads, and his scrimmage jersey was draped over his t-shirted shoulder. The sight of his dear face made Brooke smile, and he smiled back. It had been about six weeks since that first letter, and they were well and truly together again. It was not like before, when Brooke had been plagued by insecurities and always had half her mind on the image the two of them were presenting. She did not care about that anymore. All that mattered was this beautiful boy coming towards her. He had opened up to her in the only way he could, by sending her the contents of his heart in Times New Roman on cheap copy-paper, and she loved him so much for it.

They never talked about the letters; Josh made it clear in the beginning that they were not to be discussed. She received about two a week, always typed now after the first handwritten one. Although a hand-penned love letter was the standard, Brooke was secretly relieved not to have to stop and decipher Josh's illegible penmanship every few lines.

When Josh reached Brooke he touched her arm and hopped onto the mats, letting his legs dangle. "Hi," he said. "How was your day?"

Brooke wanted a kiss, but Josh did not presume anymore. "Fine. Lots of homework over the break, of course."

"Yeah, me too." Josh ran his hand up and down her back for a moment. "You're still having practice today even though there's no game tomorrow?"

"We have our cheering competition Friday, remember?" Brooke had told him; why couldn't he remember things that were important to her?

"Oh, yeah. I can't believe there's no game tomorrow. First time in I don't know how many years there won't be a game on Thanksgiving. We're going to my grandmom's. Be gone until Sunday night."

"You won't be around at all this weekend?" Brooke was bummed, although she didn't know why it mattered; she would be gone the whole time as well. She was leaving early Friday for the competition in San Diego and wouldn't be back until Sunday either.

"Nope," Josh shook his head.

"And I can't even call you. When are you getting a new cell phone?"

"As soon as I make some money to pay for one," Josh had left his phone in his jeans pocket and his mother had sent it through the wash.

"Can I call you at your grandmother's?"

Josh looked pained at the suggestion. "She's kind of weird about the phone bill and stuff."

"Instant messaging?"

"She doesn't have a computer."

"So we're incommunicado until Monday?"

"Looks like it."

"Will you write me a letter?" Brooke asked coyly, wrapping her arms around one of his.

The pained expression again. "Brooke, I thought we weren't going to talk about the letters."

Brooke couldn't understand why Josh refused to discuss his ardent, romantic letters with her. She knew he was both modest and shy, but to hide this remarkable talent under a bushel was such a shame. She supposed his fervent declarations were not very macho, and directly opposed to the jock image he successfully cultivated. It bothered her that he was happy to be perceived as stupid when he so obviously wasn't. "I know, but I can't help it. I just love them so much, and love knowing what you really think, and I want to be with you all the time."

"I'm glad. I want to be with you too," Josh looked into her eyes. "Can I kiss you?"

"Yes please," Brooke smiled. She lifted herself onto the practice mats and faced Josh. Their lips met in a tender kiss, a little more than chaste, but without much urgency. Nice and comfortable, Brooke thought, a cozy comfortable kiss. The kind of kiss I could spend the rest of my life with, she assured herself. Ever since that time in the library, Josh had been very solicitous of her feelings, not allowing himself to go too far. Brooke appreciated that.

When they separated, Josh lay back against the mats and stared at the ceiling. Brooke reclined on her side and supported her head with her hand, studying him. Something had changed in his demeanor and he looked morose. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," he replied in a monotone. Josh wanted nothing more than to make Brooke happy. And what made her happy was receiving the letters that he had been forced to continue accepting from Sam. He wanted to be the kind of guy who could write that kind of letter, to fashion a beautiful sentence that would explain how he felt about her, and know that the appreciative expression in her eyes was earned. He wasn't that kind of guy, but Brooke obviously loved them, and he wound up feeling guilty as hell. What could he do?

Brooke mistook his glumness for something altogether different. "Maybe one of these days we could both ditch practice after school and go somewhere to be alone. Would you like that?"

"Of course. I always want to be alone with you."

His genial response confused her. Wasn't he being moody because she wasn't putting out? She knew he was thinking about it; his letters skirted the issue but it was there, between the lines. And even though they hadn't been back together for very long, she wanted to be more intimate with him. Perhaps then they could be as close as she felt she was to him when she was reading his letters. "I was thinking about a different kind of alone. The kind that involves a hotel room, candlelight and a big bed," Brooke looked meaningfully at Josh.

Josh sat up on his elbows. "Really? You really want to?"

"Yes," she said simply, enjoying the sight of his dawning pleased expression. "Why don't we do it next week, after Thanksgiving and the competition, and after you come back from your grandmother's?"

"I think that's the best idea I've ever heard," Josh grinned.

"Good." Brooke leaned in and gave him a quick kiss. "I have to go; we're not practicing tomorrow so today's is going to be extra long."

"Okay. Will I see you before I leave tomorrow?"

"I don't know. Call me tonight if your practice finishes before ours," Brooke said collecting her gear and heading for the door. "Or you can always write me a letter," she added, over her shoulder.

Josh laughed uncomfortably. "Maybe I will," he replied, knowing he would not.

"Happy Thanksgiving," Sam simultaneously knocked and pushed on the ajar door to Brooke's room. The sight of Brooke sitting on her bed reading one of her letters made Sam's heart leap a little.

"Hey, Happy Thanksgiving," returned Brooke, folding the letter and tucking it into a book. She stood up and faced her housemate, waiting for her to state her business. When she didn't, Brooke prompted her, "Did you want something?"

"My mother wanted me to ask if you wouldn't mind helping out with some of the dinner preparations. She's got the turkey in the oven but I guess that's just the tip of the iceberg," Sam said wryly. "Don't worry; I'm not getting out of it either. We'll both be slaves for the day."

Brooke looked at the clock on her night table. It was ten in the morning and they weren't eating until five. Were there really seven hours worth of kitchen tasks to accomplish? "I was just going to start packing for tomorrow. Can I come down in, like, an hour?"

"Sure, whatever," Sam replied nonchalantly. "Where are you going?"

Brooke sighed at Sam's nosiness, but answered politely. She should at least try to keep the peace on national holidays – for her father's sake. "I have a cheering competition in San Diego. I'll be gone until Sunday night."

The snarky comment she was expecting from Sam didn't come. In fact, there had been a distinct dearth of snark coming from the McPherson camp lately; she wondered why Sam was falling down on the job. Lack of inspiration, maybe?

"Oh. Good luck with that. See you later," was Sam's simple reply, and then she left.

Several hours later, after Brooke had procrastinated helping in the kitchen as long as possible, she went downstairs to find Jane putting on her coat.

"Oh good, Brooke, Sam could use some help," Jane reached for her purse as she imparted her instructions. "There's a list of things to do on the counter, if you wouldn't mind pitching in. I just have to run to the store and pick up a few more things. I shouldn't have left the shopping to your father. He bought canned cranberry sauce! Is that what you usually have on Thanksgiving?"

"Um, we usually just go out," Brooke said.

'Well, not this year. See you in a little while." Jane was out the door a minute later.

Brooke continued into the kitchen to find Sam at the newspaper-protected kitchen table, engaged in the process of separating a large number of potatoes from their skins.

She waved her potato peeler in greeting. "I hope you like mashed potatoes; we're going to have massive amounts of leftovers."

"What should I do?" Brooke asked, a bit uncomfortable with the prospect of being alone with Sam while Jane was out.

"Why don't you grab another peeler? I still have about," Sam gauged the quantity of potatoes that remained in front of her, "three pounds to go."

Brooke settled herself at the table and picked up a potato. She watched as Sam attacked the one she was holding, flicking at it rapidly with her peeler, sending brown bits of peel in all directions. Approaching the task with less frenzy, Brooke carefully and slowly worked the peeler, coaxing long and curly strands from the outer layer of the potato. They worked in silence, neither knowing how to initiate a civil conversation.

Sam observed Brooke covertly as they worked. She tried to analyze just what it was about Brooke that had captured her heart so thoroughly. Of course, Brooke was beautiful, but Sam thought her beauty was something incidental, a physical manifestation of her goodness. Sam saw how Brooke treated everyone else in the world except for her. Even to the lowliest and most socially unconnected of her classmates, Brooke was polite and considerate. Parents loved her; she was respectful without being obsequious. It was only Sam whom she treated with anything less than decorum, a fact for which Sam – if she were honest with herself – could not fault her. Did she want to emulate that goodness or merely bask in its glow? She didn't know the answer to that question, only certain that she wanted some of that goodness to flow in her direction.

Distracted as she was, Sam didn't notice that Brooke had been making her own appraisal of her housemate. Brooke thought Sam slightly goofy as she sat with her legs wrapped around the rungs of her chair, hair done up in a loose, lopsided bun on the side of her head, tip of tongue slightly protruding from between her lips in concentration as she assaulted the potatoes. Once she was finished peeling, she carelessly dropped each one into a pot of cool water, usually splashing herself in the process. Where was the fearsome opponent she had come to regard with knee-jerk distrust?

There had been times since their forced cohabitation had begun when Brooke had absolutely loathed Sam, and then times when she had felt sorry for her. Once she remembered briefly feeling admiration for her, when she had done some selfless thing that Brooke would never have considered doing, but then Sam would commit the inevitable foul deed that would earn Brooke's suspicion again. After all the back and forth and up and down, Brooke could not manage the upheaval of reforming her opinion of Sam every few days; instead she now adopted a habitual, composed indifference – and that generally worked – except for the times when she had to swing back towards antipathy for one of Sam's malicious stunts against her.

Still, Sam seemed vulnerable right now; for once the girl had dropped the arrogant, blustery swagger she normally assumed. Perhaps, Brooke mused, Sam suffered from multiple personality disorder, and the dominant persona, that particularly aggravating one that so easily got under Brooke's skin, got the day off on national holidays. The absurdity of that notion struck Brooke as funny, and she smirked to herself. Sam, however, was busy counting the remaining potatoes and missed it.

Racking her brain for something clever to say had produced nothing for Sam except the beginnings of a headache. For reasons unknown to her, she picked up a large potato and pressed it against her forehead, then pushed it against her nose, enjoying the gritty cool feeling of dirt and earth on her face as she smushed it right against the tip, flattening it down to the cartilage. Realizing how strange she must appear, trying to merge her face with a potato, she didn't have to look to know that Brooke was regarding her with curiosity and perhaps concern for her sanity. Without removing the potato, Sam cut her eyes over to Brooke's and casually commented in a nasal voice, "I'm considering rhinoplasty. What do you think?"

Brooke looked surprised for half a beat, then she broke into loud guffaws, dropping her own peeler and half-naked spud onto the table helplessly as the mirth took hold. For some reason, she found Sam and her potato nose hilarious. Tears streamed from her eyes as she gurgled with laughter and pointed at Sam, even though Sam had lowered her potato-prosthetic. Sam was giggling and grinning at her accomplishment, which while not the suave witticism she had planned, had satisfactorily broken the ice. More than that, it was one of those rare moments of exquisite silliness that can reduce two people to simpering heaps. For the next ten minutes all they had to do was glance at each other and another wave of gleeful cackling commenced.

When Brooke had regained the power of speech, she said, "Miss Potato-head, charmed I'm sure," which unsurprisingly sent them back into paroxysms of giggles.

After their laughter died down and they were sufficiently relaxed, abdominals aching from the workout, Brooke caught Sam's eye. "You have some dirt just there," she reached out and Sam leaned in as Brooke brushed at her forehead.

Sam gloried in the contact, reluctantly pulling back after Brooke returned to her half-exposed potato.

"That really was funny, Sam," Brooke said. "I didn't know you had such a good sense of humor."

Sam thought about that for a minute. "Neither did I," she confessed. "I'm not normally known for bringing the funny." She didn't really think what she had done was all that funny; it was just a weird coincidence that they had both been so amused.

"You hide it pretty well, at least when I'm around," Brooke said. "Too busy cataloguing the injustices of the world, maybe."

Sam acknowledged Brooke's diplomatic way of calling her humorless with a nod of her head. Why argue with the truth? She guessed she really did need to lighten up. "My dad was a total cornball, always making jokes and cracking people up, my mom most of all. Maybe it's a latent trait that will develop."

"Do you take after your father in other ways?" Brooke asked, regarding Sam speculatively.

"Well, obviously, there's the journalism thing."

"Yeah, but do you think you began to write because he did? Or would you have been a writer even if you had never known that your father was?" Brooke had been thinking about some things lately that paralleled her question to Sam; it was what made her interested in Sam's answer.

"I do feel like it's more natural for me to write words down instead of saying them," Sam replied. "I get a lot more nervous just talking to someone, and do a lot more self-censoring. I feel freer to write what I truly think when there is that separation between me and the person I'm communicating with." Sam soberly gazed at Brooke. "Does that make sense?"

"I think it answers my question. Writing must be in your genes."

"If I couldn't write it would be like losing one of my senses," Sam said, cringing at the dramatic turn of phrase. But she was determined to be honest now, even though so many of her dealings with Brooke were undertaken with the aim to obfuscate. Sam was thrilled to be having such a personal, serious discussion with the object of her affection. Somehow, they had both let their guard down at the same time, like opposing soldiers meeting in no-man's land on Christmas day to share smokes and a chat. For however long it lasted, Sam was determined to keep the conversational peace. "Did you inherit many of the qualities of your parents, do you think?"

"My dad and I are a lot alike, I guess," Brooke said, her eyebrows furrowed. "But I honestly don't know about my mother." She stopped what she was doing and gazed levelly at Sam. "Do you think I'm destined to be like her?"

Sam took her time considering the question, watching Brooke carefully. She didn't know how to answer and didn't want to get it wrong.

"I mean," Brooke elaborated, taking Sam's circumspection for confusion, "do you think it's, like, a predetermined thing? That it's not possible for me to be a good wife and mother because she failed at is so miserably?" With everything that was happening between her and Josh, she needed reassurance that she could do right by him. While Sam was not the ideal person to ask, and perhaps she would regret it later, this fleeting atmosphere of openness allowed her to disregard her natural distrust. Besides, there was no one else to ask. This was not a question Nicole would ever take seriously.

"I think what your mom did was make a choice," Sam said gently. "Her choices don't pass down to you genetically. She is responsible for the things she has done, and you are responsible for the things you do. Because you have witnessed the damage her actions have done, I would think you are even less likely to behave the way she did."

"Really?" Brooke asked, looking at Sam with relief, and watched her nod emphatically. She thought she owed Sam some explanation for the heavy turn the conversation had taken. "You know that Josh and I are back together, right?"

Sam nodded hesitantly, not wanting to devote even one word of this precious conversation to the subject of Josh.

"I would just hate to think that I was going into a situation with the odds stacked against me, you know? Because it's not just me I have to think about, Josh deserves someone who can be the best wife and mother she can be."

"Whoa, wait. You're getting married?" Sam was incredulous.

"Not right away!" Brooke laughed. "But eventually, yeah."

"But how do you even know that he's the right one?" Sam asked, thinking it a valid question despite her intensely vested interest.

"Ever since we got back together it's been so different than it was before," Brooke gushed. "He's the same in many ways, but he's also showing me this other side, this mature, loving, romantic, private side. It's amazing!"

"Wow. That was almost like a cheer. Put your pom-poms down, Miss Cheerleader, we're just talking here." Sam said.

But Brooke had warmed to her subject. "He deserves his own cheer! Sam, you would not believe how different he is underneath the jock exterior. He is the most beautiful person. So warm-hearted and generous and kind – and the soul of a poet. He's smart too; you know that after tutoring him. He probably just needed you to help him focus, because I know for a fact that he is brilliant. He sends me these incredible, miraculous letters. And handsome," Brooke chattered away. "With those gorgeous blue eyes and broad shoulders, his children are going to be adorable!"

"He sounds perfect," Sam said dejectedly, realizing that Brooke had fallen in love with her brain and Josh's body: the recipe for the ideal man. The tangle of implications her secret communications to Brooke caused was beginning to hit home, but Sam couldn't stop to think about them as Brooke continued.

"You know how people think women shouldn't be just stay-at-home moms and homemakers any more? I think that's a lot of crap. What could be more fulfilling than devoting your life to taking care of your husband and raising his children? It's the ultimate expression of love, don't you think?" Brooke dreamily asked.

"No, I don't think," Sam answered, a bit annoyed. "You are totally intelligent, Brooke. Why in the world would you want to waste your brain being a Stepford wife?"

"I don't expect you to understand, Sam. We all know who the go-getter is in this family. It's not what I want. I would be perfectly content in the cute little house with the white picket fence, loving wife and mother, raising 2.4 children."

Sam wrestled with the impulse to continue arguing with Brooke, then decided to let it go in favor of keeping this newfound peace. "If that's what you want then I hope you get it," she said sincerely, feeling guilty that Brooke's perfect image of Josh didn't quite match up with his reality.

"Thanks," Brooke appreciated Sam's support, unlikely though it seemed. She collected a new potato and began peeling. A thought suddenly occurred to her. Josh might expect her to make Thanksgiving dinner one day, here was a perfect learning opportunity. "So what do we do once we've peeled all these potatoes?"

Although a lingering sense of dismay at the largeness of the monster she had created remained, Sam was glad to move on to a topic that didn't involve navigating layers of subterfuge. "We boil 'em until you can stick a fork through them. Then mash 'em up with lots of butter and cream and salt and pepper," she replied. "But we still have…" she reached over and plucked her mother's list from the counter, "… a casserole and the stuffing to make, not to mention dessert."

Just then Jane returned, walking into the kitchen with a bag from the grocery store, and surveyed the scene. She immediately began to marshal her forces. "Hi girls. The potatoes are almost finished? The store was still crazy with people buying last minute things for dinner." She looked into a pot on the stove. "Sam, would you add some more water to the giblets? And Brooke, do you want to make the cranberry sauce?"

"Yes, Jane. Will you teach me? I probably should know how to do it," Brooke jumped up to help with the groceries.

Jane was surprised at Brooke's change of heart. She thought the girl had been exhibiting signs of reluctance when she left. But she welcomed the help. "Sure, Brooke." Jane looked to where Sam was finishing the last potato. It was more familiar for Jane to order her daughter around. "Then Sam, after the giblets, you want to start chopping celery and onions for the stuffing?"

"Okay," Sam obliged. She was a little sorry that the dynamic in the kitchen had changed, but was relieved too. Her conversation with Brooke had given her much food for thought, but at that moment all she wanted was to not think about anything except the mindless instructions on a recipe card. But while she was not thinking, she could enjoy the view of a happy Brooke moving about the kitchen, and tell herself that she was partly responsible for that happiness.

Part 5

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