Title: Ruminations on Accidents
Rating: MA: L, S
Disclaimer: I don’t own them. I mean no harm.
Archiving: At www.realmoftheshadow.com/harper.htm with the rest of my stuff. Thanks Kim.
A/N: It’s a little long. Hope you enjoy anyway. You can find me at email@example.com.
Brooke was exhausted. No, nix that… she was literally dead on her feet.
Well, almost literally.
“Them’s the breaks.” Nikki Roberts, a resident and self-appointed smartass, snarked, giving Brooke a soft whack with the back of her clipboard as she rolled her eyes at the blonde. “Death warmed over isn’t a good look on you, I promise.” She paused, chuckling demonically, “I told you not to schedule a moonlighting gig after coming off two long calls. You’ve got to be crazy. Like, certifiably insane kind of crazy. You want me to call a psych consult on you?”
“I’d rather you booked me a bunk in the morgue,” Brooke tried to joke, but the words felt a little more true than she would have liked. She’d just finished up a forearm cast, her fourth of the night, and had barely been able to keep her eyes open. She could only be glad that her moonlighting stint that evening hadn’t yielded anything more complicated. “Three more hours then I’m off for two whole days in a row.”
“Whatever will you do with yourself?”
“Sleep,” Brooke deadpanned, unable to work up enough energy to keep up the joking. “Hey, I’m going to head down to the cafeteria, see if I can snag a yogurt. You want anything?”
Glancing down at the stack of paperwork waiting on her attention, Nikki sighed. “I’ve got to finish this up or I’m going to be here until lunch tomorrow. Why don’t you grab me a…”
“We’ve got a code!”
At the shout, the doors to the emergency room burst open, nearly rocking off their hinges, as a team of people spilled into the entrance of the ER. It was a scene of controlled pandemonium; one medic pushed a gurney as another ran beside it, holding up an IV bag, a third struggling to keep up as he rhythmically pumped a manual respirator.
“Shit.” Cursing, Nikki glanced around, scanning the ward quickly and efficiently. “Looks like everyone else is tied up. Can you help me out on this one?” There was a hint of urgency in her voice and she was already moving toward the patient. “I know it’s not your thing.”
Yogurt forgotten, Brooke nodded and followed after her, a surge of adrenalin rushing through her, sweeping away the tiredness. Whipping her stethoscope from around her neck, she jogged down the hallway after the other physician, meeting the gurney halfway.
“What’ve we got,” Nikki asked tersely, observing the general lack of blood on the twitching figure nearly dwarfed by the gurney, shirt cut into two ragged halves to expose a thin, pale chest.
As a nurse took over respiration, one medic took a step back. “Probable drug overdose. We’re not sure what it was. A friend called it in then split. When we arrived, she was having trouble breathing. It was too risky to lavage. We intubated… a few minutes later, she flatlined. We gave her a shot of epi and defibbed. Pulse is thready, pupils nonresponsive.”
“You’ve got nothing on the drugs?” Nikki probed curtly, stethoscope to the girl’s chest.
“Multi-drug, probably, with who knows how much alcohol. From the scene, I’d guess cat, coke or any number of club drugs…”
The medic’s litany was cut short as the body on the bed began to shake violently. “We’ve got convulsions,” Brooke said, alarmed, as Nikki pushed the mass of dark hair covering the girl’s face back as she began to check vitals. “Somebody get me those antidotes.”
“Pupils are still dilated and nonresponsive, lips are bluish. We’re going to need…” Nikki called out, drawing Brooke’s attention.
“Oh shit,” Brooke spat, unconsciously jumping back from the figure on the bed.
“What? What is it?” Nikki asked, feeling adrenalin and a hint of panic hit her at Brooke’s tone. “We’re going to need…”
“That’s… I know her,” Brooke whispered, eyes going wide as she watched the familiar figure continue to convulse.
“Brooke!” Nikki shouted just as a nurse slid the heart rate monitor clip onto the patient’s finger as the team rushed into an exam room. High pitched beeping soon filled the space, fast and erratic. “She’s going into cardiac arrest. We’ve got to defib!”
A quick shake of the head, and she was back in the moment. “I want blood and fluids up to tox stat,” Brooke snapped out, grabbing the defibrillator pads from the crash cart. With quick efficiency, she placed the clear ovals on the girl’s chest then stepped back to the machine, hand hovering over the button that would send electricity coursing through the patient. “Clear!”
A press of her finger and the body on the gurney arched up. “Clear!” she screamed again, hearing an ominous flatline drone behind her. Another shock, and the body on the bed jerked upwards again.
“She’s not responding,” Nikki said urgently.
As the body arched for the third time, the beeping returned, rhythmic and slow, and Brooke nearly collapsed with relief.
“Okay everybody, let’s get her stabilized,” Nikki said shortly, then grabbed Brooke’s elbow. Pulling her into the hall, she stepped in close, voice tense as she asked, “Want to tell me what’s going on here?”
Brooke looked back into the room, observing the way the nurses were competently moving around the now unmoving figure, the reassuring steady beep of the heart rate monitor barely audible in the background.
“That’s my stepsister.”
Sam groaned. Every single muscle in her body felt as if it had been pulled tight and snapped, like a too weak rubber band. She felt the cool dribble of water on her lips, the feel of it dripping down onto her tongue perhaps one of the most delicious she’d ever experienced, and wrapped her lips around the proffered straw.
“Easy,” a distant voice said as she started to choke, and Sam fluttered her eyes open, squinting against even the dim light filtering in through the blinds.
She tried to speak and coughed again. “Brooke?” she finally managed, the word strangled and barely comprehensible.
“Sam.” The other girl’s voice was flat, devoid of emotion.
Struggling to sit up, Sam rasped, “Where am I? What are you doing here?”
“You’re in the hospital.” Brooke held the straw up to Sam’s lips again. “You overdosed.”
Grimacing, head falling back to the pillow as the effort of holding it up became too much, Sam took a deep swallow before trying to speak again. “How did you find me?”
“I didn’t find you,” Brooke said wryly. “You found me. You died on my table, Sam.”
Brooke watched as dark brows crooked inward. “I’m dead? Then why the fuck does it hurt so much?”
The resulting chuckle was humorless. “You’re not dead. And, I can’t take all the credit for saving your life, but given that I kind of actually did, I think you owe me an explanation.”
Brooke rolled her eyes at the scowl her words evoked.
When Nicole decided to use her Jaguar to run Brooke down the night of the junior prom, the world had changed. For Brooke, the changes had been obvious. For the rest of her life, she was going to have to explain, repeatedly, to airport security staff that she had four pins in her leg and three more in her wrist. To potential love interests, she was going to have to explain the ladder of a scar running from her left knee to her hip, the one perpendicular to it stretching across her belly giving the impression of a disconnected T.
It might have been more logical to think that the six weeks that she’d spent in the hospital would have put her off of the place for life. But, when she returned to school, it had been with a new purpose. Gone was her participation on the Glamazons, not that she was capable of acrobatics anymore anyway. Instead, she withdrew into her own secluded world of study, hiding away from the people she used to call friends. Free time was spent in the library or, more amazingly, during the study period she willingly chose to spend with BioGlass. All of the things she’d done before seemed so frivolous in retrospect, like a life spent in the fast lane headed toward nowhere. Cultivating popularity, spending her time fighting over boys… the very thought of it seemed ridiculous.
The contrast was stark, almost as if a different person had resumed her life after the accident. She graduated Kennedy High fourth in her class and attended Stanford on scholarship, finishing in five years with degrees in biology and physics. Four years of med school at the Stanford University School of Medicine followed that and now, at 32, she was just beginning her fifth and final year of orthopaedic surgery residency at the UCLA Medical Center; the dubious honor of being co-chief resident wasn’t doing anything to lessen her work load as she neared the end of her term, unfortunately, despite the fact that things were supposedly supposed to get easier. As it was, she had about nine more months of her residency to complete, after which she’d be heading off to start her orthopaedic trauma fellowship at Cedars Sinai Orthopaedic Center. Moonlighting in the ER at the St. Vincent Medical Center was simply an outlet for extra cash.
Sam, on the other hand, had entered their senior year of high school with a bottle of vodka in one hand and a dime bag in the other. Brooke noticed the change after she transitioned back into life at the Palace. Sam was irritable and even more obstinate than before (though she honestly hadn’t believed it possible). She started her small rebellion by repeatedly breaking curfew, but it wasn’t until she’d been returned home, still bitter and combative, by a far too tolerant policeman who had opted to let Mike and Jane deal with Sam as opposed to taking her downtown for a drug possession charge, that Brooke understood how completely her stepsister had changed. In contrast to her own sterling turnaround, Sam finished off the year with a juvenile record and a C average and barely made it into Northwestern.
Jane had thought that the change of scenery would help. And it had, to an extent, until Sam got sucked into the Chicago music scene. Brooke hadn’t known that Chicago had a music scene, much less any bands worth writing about, but Sam started off by getting interviews and reviews published in industry magazines. By her senior year, she was simultaneously on the verge of nabbing a job with Spin magazine and entering rehab.
She chose the job with Spin.
At first, Sam still made the effort to make it back to Orange County for holidays and birthdays, but after a little while, the appearances stopped. Brooke was actually kind of relieved. Every time she saw her, Sam seemed even more distant and after she left, Jane always cried for the rest of the day.
It was unsurprising, then, that Brooke hadn’t even known she was in LA. They hadn’t talked in over a year.
“Whatever. Don’t tell me, then,” Brooke said with a sigh, rolling her neck. The resulting crack echoed through the room, and she looked down at her wrinkled and dirty scrubs with a grimace. Instead of going home, like she probably should have done, she’d finished off her shift and spent the first day of her precious two day vacation sitting by Sam’s bedside. “I didn’t call Jane. I didn’t want her to see you like this.”
“Don’t call her,” Sam croaked, eyes fluttering open again. Then, after a moment, “You look like shit.”
“Yeah?” Brooke scoffed. “So do you.”
“I died. What’s your excuse?”
Brooke fought down the wave of angry frustration she felt roll through her as she looked down at Sam, skin clammy and pasty under the low glint of the florescent lights, dark circles around her eyes making her look as if she’d been the loser in a particularly vicious bar fight. “You were only dead for a minute. I worked for 36 hours straight and then spent the next 8 waiting for you to wake up and talk to me. Which, I can see now, was a colossal waste of time.”
“So you work here?” Sam asked, voice still a harsh croak, then coughed again.
Brooke put the straw to her lips again, letting Sam take a sip of water before answering. “No, I don’t work here. I work at the UCLA Medical Center. I told you the last time we talked, but since you had probably already taken a half a bottle of vicodan that day, I can understand why you wouldn’t remember. I was just pulling some overtime here.”
“I remember,” Sam protested, shifting under the bedding listlessly. “That’s where I thought I was. God, Brooke… I was just trying to make conversation.”
“Yeah, what better time to catch up, right?”
“Look, if you’re going to be a bitch about it, then just go. I’m not in the mood right now,” Sam shot back irritably then grimaced, the effort of her ire sending a stab of pain through her already pounding head.
Shaking her head in frustration, Brooke reached back to grab her coat, shrugging into it. “Fine. I’ll ask the desk nurse to call me if your condition changes. You can call Jane if you want. I don’t want to have to be the one to tell her about this, okay.”
She was at the door before Sam spoke again, “Brooke, wait… I’m sorry.”
Hand on the handle, Brooke looked back over her shoulder. Sam’s thin form was dwarfed by the bed, her hair spreading out about her head wildly in messy, dark contrast. For a moment, she looked vulnerable. “Yeah, so am I.”
Brooke tugged irritably at her business suit. She hated that part of her clinic days, having gotten so accustomed to wearing scrubs that anything else felt nearly painfully restrictive. She could actually get away with wearing scrubs during clinic, normally, but her current attending had a strict rule. They were doctors, he said, and they were going to dress like doctors. That meant jackets and ties for the men and business suits for the women.
“Finish up your last patient, Dr. McQueen?”
Maggie, the receptionist at the clinic, was always perky, no matter what time it was, but Brooke had come off of a long call the night before and rotated straight into clinic. Currently, she was going on 32 hours without sleep and perky made her feel almost homicidal.
“Yeah. Heading home,” she said with a small smile, hoping that it seemed friendly enough. After leaving Sam’s hospital room, she’d returned to her own small apartment and crashed. But, after a few hours she was awake again, wondering if she should go back. Some part of her wanted to reach out to the other girl, to try and get her to see reason before her next OD had a more permanent ending, but she couldn’t do it. She’d been burned before, they all had, and the last thing her life needed was more complications. If Sam wanted to get better, then she’d get better.
That hadn’t made sleep any easier in coming, and when her schedule had resumed its normally hectic pace two days later, she didn’t feel any of the benefits a two day vacation would normally offer.
“There’s someone here to see you,” Maggie said, catching her just as she was about to make her escape. Brooke frowned, jaw clenching as she worked to keep from snapping at the girl. After all, clinic hours were over, and she’d finished up her patient list.
Seeing the growing thunderclouds, Maggie added quickly, “She’s not a patient. She says she’s your stepsister. I put her in exam 2.”
Brooke felt a scowl pull at her lips. “Sam?” she asked suspiciously.
“I think that’s what she said her name was,” Maggie replied nervously, remembering thinking that the wan girl still sporting a plastic hospital bracelet had been more than sketchy, in her opinion. She hadn’t wanted to bother Dr. McQueen with it, much less admit the girl into an exam room, but she hadn’t wanted to call security either. If the girl was related to Dr. McQueen, she had no doubt that the resident would rather avoid the hospital scuttlebutt that would arise from the attention drawn by security guards and confrontations. Hospitals were microcosms of gossip and intrigue as it was, the horrific hours required by the profession creating a pseudo-community just itching for something to liven up the tedium, but Maggie didn’t want to feed that. At least, not this time.
Rolling her shoulders to release the hint of tension building in them, Brooke took a deep breath and stalked off down the hallway. “Thanks, Maggie,” she threw back over her shoulder, her tone indicating that she meant anything but that. Steeling herself for the upcoming scene, she threw open the door to exam room 2 to see Sam sitting on the examination table, legs swinging off the side, seemingly carefree.
“Brooke,” Sam said calmly, and Brooke stopped short of jumping into a tirade. Sam looked like she was barely able to hold herself up as it was.
“What are you doing here?” she instead asked warily. Sam was wearing a plain white tee shirt and jeans, plastic hospital bracelet still around her too thin wrist, but Brooke was fairly certain she saw a suitcase lurking in the corner.
Sliding down off the table slowly, Sam said quietly, “I need a place to stay.”
Walking around the table so that the suitcase was clearly visible, Brooke said incredulously, “And you want that place to be mine?”
Sam’s jaw clenched shut as she fought the urge to grab her stuff and go, the need to flee instinctive, and forced herself to back down. “Yeah, I want that place to be yours.”
“Where were you living before?”
“With the girl who left me to die on the floor of a hotel room,” Sam said with a disgusted snort, “but who was kind enough to bring me my things in the hospital before she told me she was on her way out of town.”
Brooke took in a deep breath, tried to think of what to say. “Sam, I don’t know…”
“Look,” Sam said softly, breaking into what she knew was going to be Brooke’s refusal, “I can’t go home. I can’t face Mom like this. I can’t go back to my old life. You were right. You didn’t say it, but you were right. If I don’t change…”
“You’re going to die,” Brooke finished coldly. “Again.”
Lips curling up in a wry smile, Sam laughed. “Yeah. Something like that.”
Feeling the beginning of a massive migraine coming on, Brooke sighed, looking down at the suitcase and then back up at Sam. “You’ve got to go to rehab first.”
“Brooke, come on. I’ve been to rehab before. Twice,” Sam said, laughing bitterly. “I know the drill. I can do this without it.”
“No, Sam,” Brooke said sternly, holding out her hand. “My work schedule is crazy and you’re an addict. I can’t be there all the time, and that’s what you’re going to need. Either you go to rehab first, or you find somewhere else to stay.”
Sam felt an itching begin beneath her skin, small tremors telling her to run inching closer in force to seismic waves.
“I can pull some strings and get you in, today probably. You do this, and when you get out, you can stay with me.”
“I don’t need to be watched. I just need a place to stay.”
Brooke simply shook her head, the resolute refusal flat in her eyes.
Sam wanted to beg, wanted to scream and cajole and manipulate, but that look let her know there would be no arguing. So, jaw clenched with anger even as she said the words, Sam muttered, “Fine, but you better come see me. I’m not doing this all by myself.”
“I’ll come see you.”
Brooke used the phone in the room to call the front desk. Maggie transferred her, and a moment later she was connected. “Ty, it’s Brooke McQueen. I need you to do me a favor…. No, it’s not for me. It’s for a friend. I need to get her in this afternoon. Can you do it for me? Yeah… No, I’ll take care of it. Okay… thanks. I owe you one.”
Turning to Sam, she managed a tight smile. “Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Sam asked, wiggling uncomfortably in the passenger’s seat of Brooke’s well used Volvo.
Drumming her fingers on the steering wheel, trying not to think of how surreal it felt to be sitting beside Sam again, Brooke laughed shortly. “Rehab.”
Sam frowned. “Yeah, I got that part. Where? And how do you know this Ty person who can pull all these strings, anyway?”
“Orthopaedic surgeons have access to a lot of pain meds,” she answered wryly.
Sam shot her a sideways, disbelieving glance. “What, you?”
“No, not me, but you’re not the first person I’ve delivered into their care.”
They lapsed into silence again, and Sam’s fidgeting continued. By the time they pulled into the parking lot of an otherwise nondescript looking building, she was about to come out of her skin.
“Grab your stuff,” was all Brooke said as she exited the car.
A staff person was waiting on them as they entered the lobby. “Dr. McQueen, Dr. Tybee is expecting you.”
“Andre, this is Sam. She’s going to be staying here for a little while.” Then, to Sam, she added, “I’m going to go talk with Ty. You’ll be fine here.”
Sam watched warily as Brooke smiled warmly at the tall, imposing man, obviously at ease. It felt intensely strange to her to hear people refer to Brooke as doctor, and to see her stepsister play the part with confident ease. Brooke was Brooke, not Dr. McQueen.
“Uh, sure,” Sam stammered, answering a question Brooke hadn’t asked and looking up at Andre in alarm as he gently lifted the handle of her suitcase from her palm. Brooke was already making her way down the hallway, easing out of her line of sight.
“I’m going to have to go through this,” Andre said and though his voice wasn’t unkind, it was firm. “You’ll get your things back later, I promise. To start, we’ll supply everything you need. If things go well, you’ll be able to earn them back.”
“Earn them back?” Sam nearly screeched, the itching urge to run tugging at her again. “They’re my things.”
“If you’re going to do this, you need to do it all the way,” Andre said quietly, motioning to another staff member. “Amanda will get you started on your intake forms.”
“Wait,” Sam said, looking down the hallway into which Brooke had disappeared, “I want to see Brooke before she leaves.”
“I’ll catch her for you,” Andre promised.
Brooke tapped lightly on the door to Ty’s office, pushing it open with a smile at his enjoinder to come in.
“Hey,” she said with a soft smile, accepting his hug. “How are you?”
He smiled wryly in reply. “Good. Same old, same old around here.”
Taking a step back, looking around the familiar office, Brooke sighed. “Thanks for doing this for me, Ty.”
“I’d say any time, but it might be better for you if you run out of friends you need to put in rehab,” he replied with a chuckle. “Not that I’m not glad to see you.”
“This one is different,” she said, suddenly serious. “I should have told you on the phone, Ty. It might be awkward for you.”
“She’s my stepsister. I don’t know what kind of things you cover in your sessions, but she might talk about me,” Brooke admitted, ducking her head, a little embarrassed by the stories of their adolescent antagonism that Sam might unpack.
Ty nodded in understanding. “Okay. As strange as this might normally sound, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve discussed you in one of my sessions.”
“Maybe,” Brooke allowed, “but with John it was different. We were friends, but we were really more like colleagues. Sam is different. We’ve known each other for a long time, though to be honest, I haven’t really known her for years. I know we’ve talked about this before… she dropped off the family’s radar for a long time. I’m not sure if it’s fate or sheer luck that I ran into her again. I’m sure she’ll tell you this, but she was admitted to the ER at St. Vincent’s while I was moonlighting. She flatlined on my table, Ty.”
“Well, that’s a little dramatic for a reconciliation,” Ty joked lightly, earning a half-strength scowl in return.
“Okay, okay… no more inappropriate joking,” he said with a laugh.
“Honestly, though, she needs this, Ty,” Brooke stressed, serious again. “I can’t believe she agreed to it. Her mother has been trying to get her to do something like this for years, but she always disappears. I want to make it stick this time.”
Pulling Brooke into another hug, placing a soft kiss on her forehead, Ty murmured, “I’ll do my best, Brooke. You know that. But, I can’t make Sam do anything. She’s going to have to do this for herself.”
“So, this is it,” Sam said nervously, looking down at the tan scrubs she’d been given in exchange for her clothes. “This is kind of extreme, don’t you think?”
“It works,” Brooke reassured, unconsciously reaching out to place her hand on Sam’s forearm. “I’m not allowed back for the first three weeks, but as soon as you can have visitors, I’ll come. If you want me to…”
“No, by then I’m sure I’ll be completely sick of all these people,” Sam said with a jittery smile, bouncing awkwardly on the balls of her feet. “This was… this was maybe a bad idea.”
“No,” Brooke said sternly, quickly. “This was definitely the right idea.”
“I don’t know if I can do it,” Sam murmured plaintively, shaking her head in punctuation. “I don’t know if I want to do it.”
Brooke shrugged. “I don’t either, but you’re trying. I could feed you all of the clichés right now, tell you to take it one day at a time, but I’ve never been in your situation and I don’t know what it’s like. But, I have faith in you.”
“Why?” Sam snorted, rolling her eyes in self-disgust.
“I don’t know,” Brooke replied honestly. “I don’t know you anymore, but I remember the Sam that used to make my life living hell and she could have done it.”
“Yeah, well, that Sam hasn’t been seen since Senior year. Last I heard, she was passed out drunk in a back room.”
“Walk you out, Brooke?”
Brooke looked over her shoulder to see Ty lounging in the doorway, messenger bag slung over his shoulder and jacket draped over his arm.
“You’ll make it, Sam,” she said, voice strong with conviction.
“Yeah… I’m glad one of us believes that.”
“I’m fucking dying in here.”
Sam’s voice was thin and reedy, almost vibrating with need. Brooke glanced over at her attending, a small jerk of her head indicating that she was going to take the call in the hallway.
“What’s that?” she asked, pressing a finger to her ear to block out the hospital noise that was a constant presence in her life.
“I’m fucking dying in here. I can’t do this, Brooke.”
“It’s only been three days,” Brooke said patiently, stepping to the side to avoid a passing cart full of specimens. “You know it’s going to pass.”
“Not before I fucking die,” Sam muttered, and Brooke heard the slight thump and hiss of the other girl sliding down the wall.
Glancing distractedly at her attending, whose head was poking out of the room in interested confusion, Brooke turned further into the wall. “Are you calling to whine or am I supposed to be talking you down off some kind of ledge here.”
“I was hoping for sympathy.”
“Well then, I’m sorry,” Brooke said shortly. “I really am. I’m sorry you’re a drug addict and that you’re having to deal with what it feels like to detox. That’s the same kind of pain your mom has been feeling for years, Sam. Yours will be over in a few days, or maybe a week.”
Sam was silent for a long moment, and Brooke contemplated apologizing. “That’s great. Fucking great,” Sam finally said, voice low and gruff. “I’ve gotta go. We only get five minutes on the phone.”
Brooke sighed. “Look, Sam… You can do this.”
“Yeah. You have faith in me. I remember.”
Flicking her phone closed, Brooke turned around to face her attending, face stretched tightly in a strained smile. “Coming. Just had to take care of some family business.”
Sam’s skin still felt like it was going to crawl off of her body, but at least she wasn’t shaking uncontrollably any longer. She was clammy, always cold even as she was sweating, but she’d been reassured that it would pass. She hadn’t had anything in a couple of weeks, but her stay in the hospital had at least been helped along with pain meds and sedatives. They hadn’t been much, but they’d managed to fight off the worst of it.
“Rough first week?”
Sam had laughed when she’d seen the placard reading Dr. Tyler Tybee, quite sure that no one with a name that ridiculous could ever help her.
“Yeah, you could say that,” she said, shifting uneasily in her chair as she chewed on the near bloody nub of her thumbnail.
Tyler Tybee looked young. He looked her age, or maybe younger, with his California tan and wavy brown hair, and she wasn’t sure she could take him seriously.
“You know Brooke?”
Dr. Tybee smiled, and his teeth were as straight and white as a movie star’s. Sam wondered if he got them professionally whitened, figuring it would fit with his stylish, slim-cut suit and his impeccably shined, modern shoes. “We went to medical school together. I was a few years ahead of her.”
Older than she was, Sam decided. Still, it didn’t make him any more credible.
“You date her?”
“I’m not sure Brooke would appreciate us discussing her personal life,” Dr. Tybee said blandly, flashing his bright white smile again.
“That’s a yes, then,” Sam observed shortly. “You’re not together now. Who broke it off, you or her?”
“It was mutual.”
“I thought you said you weren’t going to discuss Brooke’s private life,” Sam snorted snottily.
Dr. Tybee smiled again, and Sam wondered how she could get him to stop. “You’re not a fool, Sam. You picked up on the fact that Brooke and I had something between us in the past. Would you prefer I pretend that we hadn’t? Would you like for me to lie?”
“Yeah, sure. Lie to me, baby.”
Dr. Tybee leaned forward, arms resting lazily on his upper thighs. “What you say in here stays between us. You’re familiar with therapist/client confidentiality. You’re familiar with HIPPA. Do you think I’d risk my license to gossip about what you say in session with my ex-girlfriend?”
“You’re still kind of friendly with your ex-girlfriend,” Sam observed shrewdly.
“Maybe,” Dr. Tybee allowed, “but we’re not that kind of friends. Not anymore. If you don’t trust me, then you can’t talk to me. I need to know if you think you can trust me.”
“Trust you?” Sam paused, laughed. “Look at your shoes. Can I trust a man wearing those shoes? I don’t know.”
Dr. Tybee frowned, looking down. “What’s wrong with my shoes?”
“They’re pretty boy shoes. I need to know that my psychological well-being means more to you than your perfectly tailored suits. Are you all show, or is there any substance, Dr. Tybee?” Sam challenged, switching to her other thumbnail.
He smiled again, and Sam barely refrained from hitting him. “Why don’t you call me Ty.”
“Are you flirting with me?” Sam asked suspiciously.
“Trying to con me into thinking you’re my friend?”
“Then what’s the game?”
“I prefer Ty to Dr. Tybee,” he offered with a shrug. “If we’re going to be talking every day for the foreseeable future, I’d rather you call me Ty.”
“Fine, Ty,” Sam snarked. “Tell me the truth. Who broke it off, you or Brooke?”
“It was mutual,” he reasserted, leaning back and crossing his arms over his head. “We were better off as friends. Why are you so worried about my relationship with Brooke?”
“Do you still want to fuck her?”
This drew a frown, and Sam smiled.
“That’s not appropriate,” Ty chided. “Tell me why you’re here, Sam.”
“I thought that’d be fairly obvious,” Sam scoffed, pulling her feet up onto the base of the chair and wrapping her arms around her knees. She was starting to feel sleepy.
Ty tilted his head to the side, studying her closely. “The purpose of this place is to help you beat addiction and then recover from it. We all know that. It’s the reason you’re here, not the why.”
“There’s a difference between a reason and a why?”
“A big difference,” Ty asserted. “What made you come here?”
Sam was quiet for a moment. “I heard I died.”
“And then it became real to you?”
“No,” Sam admitted, biting her bottom lip nervously. “I woke up in the hospital and Brooke was there. She told me what happened, but it didn’t mean anything to me, you know. I’d survived. So what if she said I’d died. I didn’t remember it.”
“Doesn’t sound like a compelling reason, then,” Ty observed.
Sam shrugged carelessly. “She said she’d been working 36 hours straight, and after that she’d spent the rest of the day waiting for me to wake up. I OD, and she’s the only one there and that’s just by chance. And because I’m me, I find a reason to get pissed off at her and tell her to go, to leave me alone.”
“But she didn’t,” Ty said soothingly, anticipating the story.
Sam laughed harshly. “No, she left. She didn’t come back either. She left me there alone, and you know what? No one else came except for this girl I’d been sleeping with, and she only did that so she could drop off my things before she skipped town. I had no one. I was completely, truly alone. And that’s when I knew.”
“That wasn’t the way I wanted to die. Or to live.”
“Have you tried rehab before?”
Despite the slowly creeping nausea sliming through her insides, Sam smirked. “Yeah. Twice.”
Ty nodded gravely, eyes narrowing slightly. “Obviously it didn’t work.”
Sam raised a brow, sarcasm screaming from the move. “I didn’t really stick around. I did three days in the first time, five days the second.”
“Too tough for you?” Ty challenged easily.
Sam’s eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t a fit at the time.” She paused, then added, “Things here are a little more strict.”
Ty smiled wanly. “You’re free to leave any time you like though I’d prefer you not.” He paused himself, then continued in a measured, though honest, tone. “Rehabs are a dime a dozen out here. Most of the high profile ones exist to keep actors in roles – get arrested for possession or DWI and head to rehab for a little bit of image rehabilitation. There’s no discipline, no concerted desire to treat. We operate under a different assumption. You came here for our help and we’re going to give it. Your satisfaction with our services during your stay here isn’t at the top of our list of concerns. We do hope you leave here with a product you can be satisfied with.”
“Did you write the promo materials?” Sam asked, tone a sharp cut. “You must be turning away flocks of addicts who want desperately to get into such a sterling set-up.”
Ty leaned back, fingers lacing together over his belly. “We do alright.” Then, breaking the seriousness of the moment with a bright smile, he added, “We’ll get you fixed up – then you can write the promo materials.”
The shrill ringing of her cell pulled Brooke out of a deep sleep. It was the most annoying ring she could find, the only one that would wake her up, and every time she heard it, it made her want to kill something.
“What?” she snapped, barely conscious, sleep hanging on to her fiercely.
“You used to date my doc?”
“Sam?” she asked irritably, confused. “What time is it?”
“Five in the afternoon. What are you doing?”
“I got out of clinic at 3:00, and I go in to moonlight tonight at 10:00. I was trying to catch a nap,” Brooke explained groggily, rolling over onto her side and snuggling back down into her pillow.
“You work all the time,” Sam observed. “Is that why you broke it off with Ty?”
“That’s what he said to call him,” Sam offered diffidently.
Brooke sighed, feeling herself slip farther and farther away from sleep the longer she talked. “It was mutual. He told you about that?”
“Not really,” Sam said with a grimace, beyond irritated with mutual. “I guessed.”
“Yeah, well, he’s a nice guy. Don’t be an ass, and maybe he’ll be able to help you.”
“He’s a pretty boy,” Sam grumbled.
Brooke’s eyes rolled behind her closed lids. Deciding to change tactics, she asked, “Still feel like you’re going to die?”
“Not in the immediate future, but it’s still a possibility,” Sam said languidly. “So, you’re in bed?”
Sam smirked mischievously. “Yeah… what’re you wearing?’
“What are you wearing?” Sam enunciated slowly, smirk broadening.
Brooke snorted. “Are you serious?”
“What?” Sam protested. “It gets lonely on the inside. You’ve got to give a girl something.”
“You’re not in jail.”
“Might as well be,” Sam muttered, looking around her. The furnishings were decidedly nicer, but it was most certainly her prison.
Brooke shifted again, feeling sleep creep almost out of her reach. “Look, I’ve got to go. If I don’t get back to sleep now, it’ll be this time tomorrow before I get the chance again.”
“Sure. I understand,” Sam said shortly, voice annoyed.
“Good-bye, Sam. I’ll talk to you later.”
“I want you to know I’m not an addict,” Sam said resolutely, almost glaring at Ty. “That’s what everyone keeps saying, and I rolled with it for a few days, but I’m tired of it. I am not an addict.”
“Interesting,” Ty observed, head tilting to the side as he continued to watch Sam. “Care to explain?”
“Addicts are hard core. They can’t live without it, you know, without the high. I might have gotten high, but I never got hooked. I could have stopped. I just never wanted to,” Sam said defensively, drawing her legs up into her chair, arms wrapped tightly around her shins. “I was a user. It’s different.”
“A functional user,” Sam stressed, eyes narrowed. “I was successful, well-adjusted.”
“But yet you’re here for your third stint in rehab,” Ty pointed out rationally, eyes flicking down to Sam’s nails. They were ragged, almost bloody. “And only coping moderately well.”
“I’ll admit I got into some shit I never should have touched,” Sam admitted, balling her hands into fists. “But, that was only recently. Before that, it was totally manageable.”
“What was totally manageable?”
“Nothing too harsh. Adderol to get me going in the morning, Xanax to calm me down at night. A little liquor, some various other pills, a little smoke now and then. That’s mostly all,” Sam said defensively.
“Some people ascribe to the philosophy that drug use is purposeful and productive,” Ty offered, watching Sam closely.
Sam took in the words, giving them some thought. “What about you? Do you believe that?”
“Actually, to an extent, I do,” Ty said slowly, lips pursed. “In the 40s, methamphetamine was the most commonly prescribed anti-depressant in psychopharmacology. Drugs make you feel good. Is that a purpose? I think so. Is it productive? Certainly, if it’s the only thing that can help you function. But, I don’t believe it’s the only thing. The notion that drug use is a panacea isn’t exactly revolutionary, but I admit it’s functional. Despite that, it is my view that drug use is a maladaptive coping mechanism. It isn’t nearly as helpful as it is destructive.”
Ty was silent for a moment, and Sam could almost see the gears in his mind working. “For example, you pulled away from your family a long time ago. You cut yourself off from anyone who might try to help you.”
“I got busy.”
“I get to cheat here,” Ty said with a slight smile. “I’ve met your family. I’ve heard the backstory. You virtually disappeared. This I know for a fact.”
“I traveled a lot with my work,” Sam said blithely, though she frowned deeply at his words. “I put a lot of energy into my career. Am I going to be crucified for that in here too?”
“Is that how you felt? Crucified? Persecuted, maybe? Were the people who loved you placing an unreasonable burden on you by asking that you keep in contact?” Ty asked, and Sam searched his tone for the hidden taunt. She didn’t have to look far.
“Yeah, you’re funny,” she deadpanned, scowling. “I hurt my family. I know that. I’m going to fix that.”
“Do you know that?” Ty asked, and Sam had a feeling the question wasn’t entirely rhetorical. “I don’t think you do.”
“What kind of therapy is this? I’ll be honest… it doesn’t feel very helpful.”
Ty chuckled. “You’re going to have to face some harsh truths about yourself while you’re here. It’s all a part of the healing process. I just want to help you get a head start.”
“Yeah. Brilliant. Thanks,” Sam muttered. “And fuck you.”
“When did it start, Sam?”
She wondered why he hadn’t asked before. She was already into her third week at the facility, and all of her fingernails were practically gone.
“Did Brooke ever tell you about her accident?”
“In high school?”
“The night of Junior prom,” Sam scoffed. “Junior prom… think about it. How ridiculous did you look?”
Ty smiled, and Sam noticed with some amount of surprise that she no longer wanted to hit him when he did it. “I looked pretty awesome, actually.”
“Yeah, so did I. So did Brooke,” Sam said wistfully. “We had this stupid, adolescent argument over a boy. It was completely idiotic.”
“Is that what caused the accident?” Ty prodded, watching Sam carefully. She’d drawn into herself, body tight with tension.
Sam shook her head. “No, not really. I think it would have happened even if we hadn’t fought. She had this friend, Nicole. Complete and total bitch. Psychotic crazy, you know. She ran Brooke over with her car.”
“I saw it. I saw it all. I heard the snap of her bones, saw the way she flew up on top of the hood and smashed into the windshield. I don’t see how she wasn’t killed,” Sam said shortly, dispassionately, as if recounting a particularly annoying piece of history.
“What does this have to do with you, Sam?”
Sam shrugged helplessly. “She went to the hospital, and I just lost it. I’d like to say it was because I’d seen her almost die, or because I had some epiphany and decided I was going to live every day of my life like it was the last one or some other kind of shit like that,” Sam said with a self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t know why, really. Something changed.”
“It was a very stressful event,” Ty said calmly.
“You think, Doc?” Sam bit out sharply.
Ty nodded. “Yes, I do. I might have mentioned it before,” he said, pausing to give a rueful smile, “but substance use is a maladaptive coping mechanism. You couldn’t cope with what you’d witnessed, and you turned to substances to help you do that. They gave you an avenue for escape.”
“I’ll be you aced psych 101.”
“I did.” Ty leaned forward, face hard. “You think it has to be complicated, right? You think the reasons behind it all have to be complex, beyond the realm of human understanding?”
He looked at her for a moment, then scoffed. “Maybe it was. Maybe it was more than the stress of seeing your stepsister almost die. Maybe it was more than the aloneness you must have felt, with your mother and step-father paying Brooke all of their attention while she was in the hospital. Maybe it was more than you not being able to deal with what you saw and seeking some kind of escape. Or maybe it wasn’t.”
Sam frowned, drawing her arms even more tightly around her shins.
“I could be wrong, Sam, but I bet I’m not that far off the mark. Sure, it’s complicated. Addiction is complicated. The psychosocial correlates of addiction are complicated. The biochemistry of addiction is complicated. But sometimes all these things line up. For you, they did, and now you’re here.”
“Brilliant. Does that mean we’re finished here? You’ve figured it all out and told me all about it, so now I’ll be fine?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Ty said with a laugh, leaning back in his chair once again. “We shoot for quick turn-around here. Two and a half weeks, and you’re cured.”
“This is great. A shrink who thinks he’s funny.”
Ty smirked. “I am funny.” Then, business-like once again, “I think you’re ready to integrate into group therapy. We’ll alternate group sessions with our individual sessions.”
“I don’t think I’m going to like group sessions.”
Sam was pouting when Brooke found her.
“You almost missed visiting hours,” she pointed out, frowning.
Brooke pushed back a wave of irritation, though her voice was strained as she said, “I’ve got a job, you know. It’s a pretty stressful one, and I don’t always get to work the hours I’d like. I got out of the hospital as quickly as I could.”
Sam was still painfully thin, almost swallowed whole by her tan scrubs. Her skin was beginning to regain a little bit of color, though, which made her look less like a corpse, Brooke thought.
Sam wanted to push the argument, wanted to lash out. Today she felt as if there were an army of ants swarming beneath her skin, itching to take her away, and it made her irritable. She knew how she could make them go away – she just couldn’t get to what she needed to do that. “I’m glad you came anyway,” she huffed, then nearly laughed at how pathetic she sounded.
“You look like you’re doing better,” Brooke said carefully, easing out of her heels. Given the lateness of the hour, they were almost alone in the visiting room, and she took the opportunity to relax back into the chair she’d claimed.
“Yeah, well, clean living and all that,” Sam said with a humorless laugh. “No drugs, no alcohol, just shitty cafeteria food, therapy and chores. It’s almost like a spa, if you think about it.”
“They make you do chores?” Brooke asked with a slight smirk.
Sam rolled her eyes. “Yeah, chores. It’s all a part of my rehabilitation. They say I’m going to be a model citizen when I get out of here.”
“Perfect. My apartment needs cleaning. Are they going to teach you how to cook, too?”
“Oh, you’re funny,” Sam deadpanned. Then, “It’s kind of nice, talking to you again.”
Brooke arched her spine, feeling it crack with a release of tension. “Yeah, it is.”
The next time Brooke saw Sam, she was wearing her own clothes.
“Moving up in the world?”
“I’ve been a good girl,” Sam said with a smirk. “I might actually get to have my own shampoo back soon.”
“Good. Your hair looks like shit.”
Sam barked a surprised laugh. “You haven’t changed.”
Brooke smiled slightly, then continued thoughtfully. “I have, actually. A lot. I feel like I don’t know you any more, Sam, and I don’t think you know me.”
Sam stiffened slightly, the ease she had been feeling disappearing in an instant.
Noticing, Brooke reached out, resting her hand on the other girl’s forearm. “For the first time in a long time, I want to get to know you again.”
“Was I really that bad?” Sam asked with a weak laugh, drawing back and crossing her arms over her chest.
Brooke sat back herself, giving the question serious thought. “You were gone for so long. Even when you were still there physically, you’d checked out mentally. My life was chaos from the moment you entered it, and just when I thought I might be getting a handle on who you were, you changed.”
Brooke shook her head in bemusement, the memories more trying than she was willing to let on. “I tried, at first. We all tried, but you were gone. After a little while, it wasn’t worth trying any more. Every time we did, we’d just get hurt. You’d moved on… it was like you didn’t care any more. So, I decided I didn’t care any more. If you were going to ruin your life, then who was I to stop you? I had my own life to live, my own challenges to deal with. It was easier to forget about you when you weren’t here. I was busy anyway.”
“Obviously,” Sam broke in, voice full of forced calm.
Brooke shot Sam a significant look. “I’m just telling you the truth, Sam. You were off being a big shot strung out music magazine writer. Life around here had to return to something like normal. I didn’t even know you were back in town until you turned up in St. Vincent’s.”
“Yeah, hell of a reconciliation, huh?” Sam joked weakly.
“You could say that,” Brooke said with measured amusement. “And after I left the hospital that day, I certainly didn’t expect to see you in my office once you got out, but I’m glad you came.” Brooke paused, then smiled softly, “I’m actually looking forward to getting to know you again. I know it’s kind of crazy to say that. You’re only a month in and I know the statistics, but… I think you can do it.”
“Don’t make me into a sucker, Sam.”
“I’m not going to lie, either, Brooke,” Sam said with a wry smile. “This is hard. I’m not sure I want to do it. I spent the first week and a half I was here thinking I was going to die. I have to put up with the psychobabble your ex-boyfriend seems to be unnaturally fond of and endure group therapy sessions. I just ‘earned’ back the right to wear my own clothes, like I’m some kind of misbehaving child. If I got out of here today, I’d be high within an hour.”
“Okay,” Brooke said cautiously.
Hands held up in supplication, Sam shrugged. “I suppose that’s why they don’t let you out after a month. And, as much as I hate it, I didn’t go through the hell of my first couple of weeks here to quit now.”
Brooke was quiet for a moment. “I was thinking,” she began, then paused to clear her throat, “I was thinking that you might want to call Jane. I know she’s worried about you. I don’t know how long it’s been since you talked to her, but I can tell. I can hear it in her voice.”
Sam slumped back against her seat, dark hair falling forward to shroud her face. “I’m not going to get her hopes up until I know for sure this is going to work. I’ll write her a letter, let her know I’m okay.”
“I think she’d love to hear from you.”
Sam bit her upper lip nervously, then sighed. “I was thinking… it’s stupid, maybe…”
“What?” Brooke prompted, reminded of a much younger Sam in that moment. The image brought with it a sense of wistful nostalgia, and she took a moment to let her mind wander. She had to wonder how things would have turned out if Nicole hadn’t gotten behind the wheel of her car all those years before, if Sam would have been successful and clean. She knew she wouldn’t be where she was, though when she thought about the way she felt on the mornings following her long calls, she decided that might not always be all bad.
“I thought maybe I’d surprise her. Her birthday, maybe,” Sam said softly, pulling Brooke from her mental meanderings. “But before I do anything like that, I need to know that it’s going to last.”
Brooke blinked back a tear, seeing in front of her the girl that might have been instead of the one that was. “I understand.”
“You don’t speak up in group.”
Sam decided that Ty looked like he’d stepped out of an Armani Exchange catalogue, with his button down shirt under his button neck sweater, with his rumpled and stylishly faded jeans. Given his usual style of dress, she surmised that it must be casual Friday.
“Do you dress yourself every morning?”
Ty looked down at his outfit, then back up with a small grin. “I do. Do you like it?”
“Very preppy urban hipster,” Sam allowed. “How long did it take you to cultivate that stubble?”
“Do you honestly think I’m going to be deflected that easily?” Ty said with a chuckle.
Sam grinned in reply, shrugging her shoulders coquettishly. “It’s a tried and true tactic. You do love your clothes.”
“You’ve got me there,” Ty allowed. “Now, back to you. You don’t speak up in group.”
“I don’t like group. I think I told you that was going to happen,” Sam pointed out. “I don’t want to get up in front of the rest of those losers and talk about how low I’ve been.”
“The rest of those losers?”
“We’re all here, aren’t we?” Sam challenged. “We’re all addicts, users, whatever. We all let it get so bad that someone decided we needed help.”
“I thought you decided you needed help,” Ty clarified.
Sam collapsed back against her chair, arms crossed over her chest peevishly. “You’re having a fit over semantics now?”
“Words are your game,” Ty said easily. “I read some of your articles. You have an entertaining, engaging writing style. You’re quite good.”
Sam arched a brow arrogantly. “Yeah, you want an autograph now?”
“Tell me about the first time you used heroin.”
Thrown by the sudden shift, Sam was momentarily speechless.
“How did you know about that?”
“It was on your intake form,” Ty said with a wry smile. “How did you do it? Snort it? Inject it? Inhale it?”
“Snorted it,” Sam choked out, thrown. “I was new at the magazine and they’d sent me out to cover Bonnaroo. I was in the middle of some fucking field in nowhere Tennessee, and it was pouring rain, and the guitarist for the Slapping Daisies invited me onto their bus. I did a line, smoked a little, chilled with the band. I didn’t even know that was what it was until later.”
“And how did it feel?”
Sam took in a deep breath, eyes glazing over slightly. “Nothing at first. Then, maybe 15 minutes later… indescribable. I was the world.”
“And then what happened?”
Sam snorted, eyes refocusing and narrowing. “I fucked the guitarist. What did you think was going to happen?”
“When did you do it again?”
Pursing her lips, trying to push away the memory of the sensation, Sam murmured, “Not for a long time. I didn’t want to chase that particular dragon, if you know what I mean. I’ve seen what it can do, and I didn’t want to be there.”
“But you did do it again,” Ty pushed.
Sam glared, feeling suddenly cornered. “I did a lot of things. Did a lot of drugs, drank a lot of alcohol, fucked a lot of people, did a lot of stupid shit. You’ve heard it before.”
“But not from you,” Ty pointed out. “You like to talk about a lot of things, Sam, but not about that.”
“Yeah,” Sam snorted angrily, “well, I thought you were trying to help me quit. Thinking about it doesn’t make me want to quit.”
“Thinking about all the ‘stupid shit’ you did doesn’t make you want to quit?”
Sam attacked a newly regrown thumbnail with a vengeance. “You can move past stupid shit. I did some things I’d rather not remember. We’ve all done things we’d rather not remember. I’ll never get that half of my liver back,” she tried to joke, but the words fell flat. “I sure didn’t do it because it wasn’t enjoyable.”
“But was it really? Was it enjoyable, Sam? It made you feel good, I’m sure, but was it really, truly enjoyable? Was your life enjoyable?”
“You’re expecting some trite answer here, right Ty?” Sam scoffed. “You’re expecting me to sit back, take a look at it all and realize I was miserable and compensating. I won’t lie… there were some bad times. But overall, yeah… it was enjoyable. It had gotten less so, recently. I missed my family. I wanted more.”
“You’re halfway through the program, Sam,” Ty said contemplatively. “Given what you just said, do you honestly think you’ll be able to leave here and stay clean?”
“I’m going to try,” Sam said angrily, surging forward out of her chair. “And if I don’t, I can always blame it on your shit therapy.”
Sam sat sullenly in her chair, glaring at Ty.
“I’d like to go back to what we were talking about last session,” he said nonchalantly, ignoring Sam’s visible anger. “Tell me what made it enjoyable.”
Sam laughed shortly, then pursed her lips in a frown. “Lots of things, Ty,” she said sarcastically, putting extra emphasis on his name. “Let me tell you about my life. My job… excellent. I get to write, which I love. I get to meet all kinds of people, interesting people, exciting people, powerful people, creative people. I get to feel good.”
“The drugs and alcohol made you feel good,” Ty observed blandly.
Sam shrugged. “They were part of it. Just a part of it, not all of it. My whole life wasn’t about being high.”
“It was about the people, too,” he returned drolly.
Smirking, Sam laughed shortly. “Yeah, the people.”
“Some of them.”
“Some of them.”
“Some of them.”
Ty sat back in his seat, letting silence descend between them. After a moment, he smiled slightly. “I’m not going to try and demonize your life up to this point. I’m not going to try and demonize your friends. There were obviously things about that lifestyle that you enjoyed, else you wouldn’t have lived it for so long. But I think you realized that you couldn’t keep on living that way indefinitely. I think you wanted to change.”
Sam couldn’t help rolling her eyes. “Are you having a break through in therapy, Dr. Tybee.”
“Stay with me for a minute,” he cautioned, holding out his hand. “You’ve got to say good-bye to your old life before you can start a new one, Sam. You have unfinished business… physically, emotionally, maybe spiritually.”
“You think?” Sam snorted sarcastically.
“I gather from our last conversation that you enjoyed an active sex life,” Ty commented easily.
Sam’s brows tightened at the unexpected change. “Yeah, so?”
“So, have you been tested? We can do that for you here.”
“I’ve been tested,” Sam said defensively.
Ty nodded, then added, “In the last six months?”
Shifting uncomfortably, Sam nodded her head no. But then, almost aggressively, she snarled, “Most of my partners were women.”
“Reduced risk for some things, maybe, but not no-risk,” Ty allowed. “And, you did say most. Did you ever inject drugs, Sam?”
She felt a flash of anger rush through her. She wanted to yell at him, to tell him it wasn’t any of his business and storm from the room, but she held herself back. “No,” she asserted defiantly. “I know the risks. I stayed away from that. I’m not completely stupid.”
“Don’t you owe it to yourself to know, then?” Ty asked, head tilted to the side contemplatively. “When you get out of here, you’ll probably meet someone. Don’t you owe it to that person?”
“What, so I’ll get tested. Big deal.”
“Speaking of relationships,” Ty segued abruptly, “what about your relationship with your mother?”
Sam felt herself turn cold. “What about it?”
“You’ve done some damage there.”
“You’re just a fucking genius, aren’t you?” Sam snapped. “You went to school for this? I mean, come on.”
Ty laughed softly, then pinned Sam with a stare. “Do you want me to find you a couch, Sam? Do you want to lay on it and pour your heart out to me while I take notes? Would that make you feel better? Would you rather I treat you like you were fragile? You don’t like to be confronted. You don’t like to deal with, much less talk about, your emotions. You get defensive. You use sarcasm as a weapon to deflect me. I could definitely make this easier, for both of us. I could let you sit in your chair and sulk. I could let you hide. But, that doesn’t seem helpful to me. Does it to you?”
Sam laughed bitterly. “God, you’re annoying.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“I can see why Brooke broke up with you,” she muttered.
Ty smiled. “It was mutual.”
“No, you’re annoying. And gay.”
Sam waited for the explosion, for the denial, for the anger. Instead, what she got was a rather blasé, “Why do you say that?’
“Just look at you,” she scoffed.
Ty took a second to do just that. “What? It’s the way I dress? My impeccable haircut? Are you stereotyping me?”
“You just said impeccable haircut,” Sam pointed out drolly.
“And you just judged me,” Ty shot back, tone still even. “I don’t do that to you.”
“Oh, so now being gay is a judgment?” Sam challenged.
“No. But you used the implication as a weapon. You wanted to hurt me or draw some sort of angry reaction from me, but guess what… I’m just a well-dressed, well-groomed heterosexual man. Live with it. Let it dazzle you. Let it defy your expectations.”
“But, I do appreciate the compliment.”
Sam hated mopping. Actually, she hated all forms of chores. She hadn’t like doing them when she lived at home and her mom mandated them, and she certainly didn’t like doing them in rehab.
Besides, chores gave her entirely too much time to think.
Damn Ty and his therapy sessions and his smile, which she was beginning to find annoying yet again. She saw it in her dreams now, bright and white and seemingly guileless, and he was behind it, always looking charmingly rumpled. She could see what Brooke had seen in the guy… he was even better dressed than the princess herself.
Then again, the last time Brooke had been by to visit had been the first time she hadn’t been coming straight from work. On her downtime, Brooke had shown up in a pair of hopelessly wrinkled jeans and a long-sleeved tee advertising the Stanford Medical Student Association.
“You look like you belong in here,” Sam had laughed at the time, but part of her had liked the look. It made Brooke seem human.
If Brooke had been imposing before, back in high school when she’d been a popularity queen who could apparently do no wrong, these days she was a saint. Fucking overachiever, Sam snorted mentally, mindlessly keeping up a haphazard push and pull of the mop. She could have seen Brooke as an interior designer or weather girl or something like that, but a doctor? Part of her still couldn’t reconcile it.
At least one of them had turned out half-way decent, Sam thought bitterly. She wouldn’t have put money on herself as the screw up back then. Not that it had been all bad for her. Her career had gone through its ups and downs, but on the whole, she was happy with her body of work. She was respected within certain circles. Her work had been read by millions.
Not that she could go back to it.
That had been one of her first realizations, once she’d been able to get her brain to function again after those first few weeks of detox. Staying clean and staying in the music scene were never going to go hand in hand. She had too much history there, just like Ty had been saying in her session earlier. What that meant for her life, she didn’t know. It was almost enough for her to say screw it, to check herself out AMA and forget the whole endeavor. But then she thought about her mother’s sad eyes and how alone she’d felt in that hospital bed, and she wrung her mop out and pushed the bucket further down the hallway.
“You’re going to kill yourself.”
Brooke glared at Nikki unappreciatively.
“No, seriously,” Nikki asserted, glancing down at her insistently beeping pager. “This is the fourth time you’ve moonlighted here in two and a half weeks. Don’t they keep you busy at your day job?”
Brooke was back at St. Vincent’s, having picked up the extra shift after finishing up her day in clinic at the UCLA Medical Center. “Maybe I just missed you,” she said dryly, earning an eye roll.
“Stupid nurses,” Nikki muttered, walking over to the wall phone in the doctor’s lounge. “I think they’ve got it in for me. I was sleep deprived and pissy last night, and I yelled at one of them. Now they call me for every fucking thing.”
“You’ve got to treat them right,” Brooke said sagely, sinking back against the vinyl couch cushion. She was exhausted, and Nikki wasn’t that far off the mark. She hadn’t gotten more than 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep in longer than she could remember.
Nikki rolled her eyes again, then pulled the phone closer to her ear. “Yes, I got a page. This is Dr. Roberts.”
Brooke tuned the other woman’s conversation out, focusing blearily on the muted tv in the corner. “Scrubs. Fucking hell,” she muttered, looking around listlessly for the remote.
“No, I don’t want to do anything now. Call me back if his fever goes up.”
Moments later the vinyl creaked again as Nikki settled back down next to her. “Where were we… oh yeah, you dying.”
“Where’s the remote?” Brooke asked lazily, ignoring Nikki’s comment.
“Fuck the remote. I’m trying to be serious here,” Nikki said with an aggravated sigh. “Why are you doing this?”
Brooke let her head loll to the side so that she was looking at Nikki. “Gotta pay the bills.”
“Yeah, I know they don’t pay us shit, but don’t you think this is a little extreme?”
Brooke flexed her jaw then rolled her head to the side, the resulting crack sending a bolt of relief down her spine. “I appreciate the concern. Really, I do.”
Nikki snorted, snagging the remote from a side table, “I just don’t want the nurses paging me when you code out.”
“Why don’t you talk to your ex-boyfriend and get him to get me a new roommate,” Sam said grumpily. Then, “You look like shit.”
“Thanks. That’s what every girl wants to hear.”
Sam narrowed her eyes, lips pursed. “The scrubs, the red, watery eyes? Come here looking like that, and they’ll admit you.”
Brooke sighed and rubbed wearily at her eyes. “What’s wrong with your roommate? I thought you two were getting along.”
“I got along with Carla. Carla got out last week. Now they’ve got me in with Kyla, who is 18 years old and won’t shut up about her fucking boyfriend.”
“So start telling her stories she doesn’t want to hear. Maybe it’ll act as an object lesson for her,” Brooke said laconically.
“You haven’t met Kyla. You give her far too much credit,” Sam said with a soft laugh. Then, gently, “You really do look tired, Brooke. Are you taking care of yourself?”
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” Brooke asked, unable to work up the energy to inject any affront into her tone.
Sam smirked. “I have a whole institution full of people making sure I do that. What about you?”
“Eh,” Brooke muttered noncommittally.
Prodding hesitantly, Sam asked, “No boyfriend?”
“No boyfriend,” Brooke confirmed laconically.
“Probably for the best,” Sam said lightly. “I think you like them gay.”
Brooke’s arched brow was enough invitation for her to continue. “Oh, come on. Ty?”
“Not gay,” Brooke said succinctly. “Just well dressed.”
Sam rolled her eyes dramatically. “Please.”
“Strange but true.” Brooke shook her head in bemusement. “Be nice to him. He’s a good guy.”
“Then why is he an ex-boyfriend?” Sam asked curiously.
Brooke shrugged. “I’m a sucky girlfriend. I didn’t put our relationship high enough on my list of priorities. I didn’t work on it. He got tired of always being in fifth place, and I was in agreement that he deserved better than that.”
“Right now, I’m looking forward to the day when I never have to talk to him again.”
“Conservative estimates say you have a little over three weeks left of the program,” Brooke observed, resting her chin in her hand.
Sam bit her bottom lip nervously, eyes downcast and shy. “You still going to let me move in?”
“I already bought you an air mattress.”
“Air mattress?” Sam asked with faux affront.
“My place isn’t big enough for another bed,” Brooke said drolly, thinking of her relatively tiny apartment.
“Aw, not going to share yours?” Sam teased, earning a frown in reply.
“I don’t get a lot of time to sleep,” Brooke said crankily, “and when I do, I need to take full advantage of it.”
“Hey, chill,” Sam said soothingly, holding her hands out in supplication. “Let’s not argue before I even move in.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just tired,” Brooke apologized, massaging the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger.
“Yeah, reoccurring theme here.”
“Sorry,” Brooke apologized again, robotically. “And I can’t come next weekend. I’m on call, so sorry again.”
Sam tried not to be hurt by the words. “Not your fault,” she offered placatingly. “It’s your job.”
“I’m still sorry. I like these visits.”
“It must be my sparkling wit,” Sam joked weakly, then sighed. “Yeah, I like them too. But, you’re going to get tired of seeing me soon enough.”
“I doubt it.”
“Only one more week in my excellent care,” Ty said cheerfully, and Sam smiled despite herself. “Are you starting to miss me already?”
“I wish,” she grumbled. “But how can I? I see you all the time.”
“Dreaming about me again?” he teased.
“Flirting is considered inappropriate behavior, I believe.”
Ty shook his head in bemusement. “I think that’s just a subconscious desire of yours manifesting itself in a delusional belief.”
“Too late to break out the fancy talk, Doc. I’m on to your game.”
“Perfect. That means you’ll be willing to play along. Did you make the list?”
Sam sighed, thinking back to their last few therapy sessions. “I don’t need to write it down.”
“I didn’t say you had to write it down,” Ty clarified. “I said make a list. You’re usually not that literal.”
Sam glared at him for a moment, then gave it up. It never had really worked for her. “Either way, I made the list.”
“And how are you going to deal with this list?”
“I don’t know,” Sam admitted. “The whole thing feels a little too 12 steps for me.”
“They don’t have it all wrong,” Ty said seriously, “and actually I think you should look into it. AA or NA, I mean. When you get out of here, you’re going to need more support than you know. It’s going to be tough. Very tough. Find yourself a group.”
“You know how I hate groups,” Sam joked half-heartedly. Lately, just the thought of leaving rehab had made her feel slightly nauseous. She’d managed to clean herself up inside the bubble of its comfortable shelter. The thought of leaving that shelter was becoming increasingly anxiety provoking.
“Do it anyway. And make amends. Do it for the people you’ve hurt, and do it for yourself.”
“Just not all at once, okay.”
Freedom felt odd.
“Don’t expect much,” Brooke said nervously, key scraping rawly against metal as she fumbled with the door.
Sam looking down at her lone suitcase and then back up at her step-sister’s back. “I don’t need much.”
“Then you’re in luck,” Brooke muttered, finally shouldering open the door. “I was going to put up a banner or something, but then I thought that would be kind of cheesy.”
“I agree,” Sam drawled drolly. “I’m kind of anti-banner.”
Sam was quiet for a moment, taking in her surroundings carefully. “It’s cozy,” she said finally.
Brooke rolled her eyes in reply. “I told you not to expect much.”
Another visual sweep of the room, and then Sam let out a bark of laughter. “Jesus, Brooke. I thought you were a doctor.”
“Yeah, well, you take what they pay me and divide it by the number of hours I work, and I make less than minimum wage,” the blonde grumbled. “I figured you could sleep in the living room.”
The living room opened up into the kitchen, the expanse separated by a bar countertop. The combined area was separated from Brooke’s bedroom by a small hallway, only large enough for the doorway leading to the bathroom. It was rather sparsely furnished, as if Brooke hadn’t had the time or inclination to make it feel more like a home.
“Where’s this airbed I heard so much about?” Sam asked lightly, still smiling in bemusement. Cozy didn’t begin to cover her new accommodations.
Brooke pointed to a box in the corner, still unopened. “I didn’t get a chance to set it up.”
“Good thing I packed light.”
They lapsed into silence again, until finally Brooke threw herself on the well-worn couch with a sigh. “I didn’t get a banner, but I brought home some cupcakes from the hospital bakery. They’re pretty good, actually.”
“You get cupcakes at your hospital?”
“One of the many perks,” Brooke said, tone self-deprecating. “Look, it’s your first day out, and my only day for a week and a half. What do you want to do?”
Sam looked around the small apartment and then back at Brooke. “Let’s take a walk. Show me the neighborhood.”
Summer was still a few months away for California, but soon Brooke was sweating in the sun. She wasn’t used to the heat; the temperature inside the hospital was well regulated and enough time spent under the florescent lights there tended to rob her of the sense of the seasons. Days off were usually spent taking care of chores she didn’t have time for otherwise, like paying bills and doing laundry. Almost everything else had long ago taken a backseat, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a walk.
“This is nice,” she noted with surprise.
Sam, caught up in her observations of Brooke’s neighborhood, looked at the blonde with confusion. “What is?”
“Walking… being outside,” Brooke said with a smile, turning her face up to the sun.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Sam murmured, “You don’t get out much anymore, do you?”
“You wouldn’t believe,” Brooke said wistfully. “My world is full of routine. Go to work. Eat. Sleep. Go to work. Repeat endlessly.”
“Sounds… kind of sucky, actually,” Sam said with a laugh.
“Yeah, well, now my misery has company,” Brooke teased.
“Going to go crazy.”
The words echoed around the empty apartment, bouncing off the silent television and swirling down the empty sink. She’d quickly found out that Brooke was a non-entity for long stretches of time. She’d promised that it would be better after the end of the month, when she rotated out of her teaching month and into a clinic month.
“I’ll be back by six every day,” the blonde had promised. “Only two long calls the whole month. And maybe some moonlighting… I don’t know.”
Sam had made it through the first few days by reorienting herself to the world. She pulled her beloved laptop from its padded case, was delighted to learn that Brooke lived close enough to something with an unsecured network for her to not have to go in search of a hotspot, and began to write. It was all crap, random observations and half formulated articles, but the process of writing felt so good that she didn’t care about the results.
It had felt good to be able to lay on the couch all day long, too, flicking aimlessly through cable channels Brooke wasn’t home enough to justify paying for. She had no chores, no therapy or group sessions, and no annoying roommate babbling on endlessly about her loser boyfriend.
She was bored within a week.
“Come on, Brooke,” she’d pleaded one night when the blonde returned home from work to crash on the couch in a pair of badly wrinkled scrubs. “A game of Scrabble, something.”
“I have Scrabble?” Brooke had asked wearily, looking at Sam in confusion.
Eyebrows scrunched in disbelief, Sam had sputtered, “Yes, you have Scrabble. I found it in the closet. How do I know that and you don’t?”
The look Brooke had shot her could have melted plastic had she had enough energy to properly infuse it with her unamused ire. “I don’t really have enough time to play games,” she had said caustically, unable to help the sudden flash of anger. Sleep deprivation often left her cranky.
“Chill,” Sam had snapped back. “And play a stupid game for once, will you?”
“One game,” Brooke had stipulated, then promptly fell asleep mere minutes after the tiles were divided. Sam hadn’t known whether to leave her on the couch or wake her, but when Brooke had jolted awake on her own minutes later, apologies tumbling forth, she’d simply bundled her off to bed and resigned herself to yet another night full of channel surfing.
Not that getting reacquainted hadn’t been amusing. Sam still chuckled when she thought of the expression on Brooke’s face the first day she had come home to find Sam lounging on the couch in a white tank and boxers.
“When did you get that?” Brooke had asked, clearly shocked, as she stared at the elaborate dragon tattoo swirling around Sam’s shoulder and upper arm.
“This?” she’d questioned innocently, looking down at her shoulder. “Few years ago in Japan. Dragons are supposed to bring good luck. It seemed like a good thing to do at the time.”
Brooke had leaned closer, taking in the black and gray ink with interest. “That’s impressive.”
“I’ve got a few more,” Sam had said with a smirk. “A Pali incantation written in Khmer for protection,” at that, she’d pulled up the tank, revealing the black lettering running down her side and slanting onto her back, “and a nautical star, rumored to be a guiding light that will lead me through this life with good luck. And, you know, for a bit of retro camp value.” This one appeared after a tug on the waistband of her boxers, and Sam had smiled at the hint of blush she’d seen on Brooke’s cheeks. “What about you?”
“No,” Brooke had stammered. “None for me.”
But even with the small breaks provided by her largely absent roommate, Sam was bored. Deeply, infinitely bored.
All that free time left her with entirely too much empty brain space, and she began to think. Thinking led to remembering, remembering led to wanting, and after another day and a half of stubborn refusal, she gave in and did the one thing she’d vowed she wouldn’t do. She went online and found a NA group.
Fuck, but she hated group.
“Oh, come on Brooke. We never do anything together.”
The askance look Sam received made her rethink her choice of words.
“I mean, not that we have to do things together all the time just because we’re roomies now, but… don’t make me beg. You’re my main source of social support these days. Come out with me.”
“Okay, first of all, what is capoeira, why does LA have a chapter, and why do they need to have a benefit?” Brooke asked in exasperation, looking down at the small, bright orange flier Sam had presented to her as soon as she’d entered the apartment.
“I don’t know why they need to have a benefit, I can only assume that there are chapters all over the United States and perhaps the world, and capoeira is a Brazilian martial art also known as the dance of war,” Sam explained patiently. “Now, can we go? Please?”
Brooke thought first about her alarm clock, already set for 5:00 the following morning and then thought about her upcoming presentation sitting half finished on her computer. Then she looked at Sam, and was immediately caught by what she had secretly, at that very moment, started calling the puppy dog eyes of doom. Her doom, apparently, because she handed the flier back with a sigh. “Sure. A benefit for the Los Angeles branch of the international capoeria society… I’ve always wanted to go. Really.”
“It’ll be fun, Brooke,” Sam said, the pleading in her tone tugging at Brooke’s gut. She’d never thought of herself as a sucker for big brown eyes and wheedling before that moment, but given the evidence, couldn’t deny it. “We’ll go out for Indian first, make it a whole night out. Go change, I know just the place.”
An hour later, Brooke surveyed her surroundings with suspicion.
“How did you find this?” she asked guardedly, watching Sam use her fingers to tear free a piece of mysore masala dosa.
Popping the crispy, spicy Indian crepe in her mouth with a smile, Sam said cockily, “I know your neighborhood better than you do. This place has good South Indian, which can be hard to find.” She paused, looking down at the largely uneaten dosa. “Are you going to eat some of this or not?”
Brooke wanted to choose the or not option, but aside from the vibrant crimson streaking the dough, couldn’t see a reason not to eat it.
Moments later she smiled widely, then sniffled. “This is amazing, Sam.”
“Save some for the main course,” Sam teased, reaching out to snag a napkin. Passing it to Brooke, she teased, “It’s not too spicy for you, is it?”
“Of course not,” Brooke said defensively, then dabbed at her nose. “It just makes my nose run, that’s all.”
“Then you’d better watch yourself with the pav bhaji,” Sam cautioned as their waiter returned, sweeping away the crumbled remains of the dosa and sliding new plates into place.
“Are those dinner rolls?” she asked, pointing to the bread that had come with the steaming curry. “Maybe I should have ordered for myself.”
“Have I steered you wrong yet? Besides, the lemon rice should be coming out in a second. I got it because I figured you wouldn’t be able to handle the pav bhaji. Plus, it’s really good,” Sam promised, smiling at Brooke’s frown. “Let me show you how these work.”
Moments later she presented Brooke with the bottom half of one of the rolls topped with a heap of the curry. “You can squeeze a little lime on it if you’d like. I think it adds a nice flavor.”
Brooke did as instructed, then looked anxiously at Sam.
“So, eat it now,” Sam prompted, picking up a corresponding half. “Next time we come, we’ll get the thali. You can try a little bit of everything.”
Brooke obediently took a small nibble. “So this is South Indian?”
“Not all of it, but for a South Indian place, their non-Southern dishes are pretty good.”
Eyeing Sam with interest, Brooke prodded, “So you’ve been here before, then?”
Shrugging guilelessly, Sam nodded. “Sure. What do you think I do all day? I can’t eat lunch at the apartment all the time. I go crazy in there.”
Taking another bite, eyes widening at the hint of spice that exploded on her tongue, Brooke nodded, “No, I guess not.”
Smirking, noticing the way the other girl’s nose had immediately started to run again, Sam gestured to the rice dish that had appeared moments before. “Why don’t you try some of the lemon rice.”
Spooning some onto her plate, Brooke strove for nonchalant as she asked, “Are you doing a lot of writing?”
Sam froze for a moment, then shook her head with a sigh. “Not really. I was thinking I should get a part-time job, start paying my half of the rent. You’ve been good about it so far, but I need to start pulling my weight.”
“Sam, you don’t have to worry about…”
“Of course I do,” Sam broke in impatiently. “I can’t live off of you forever. You agreed to help me get back on track, not support me for life. I need to start helping out. I can pay half the rent. I can pay for the cable you never watch.”
Brooke chose not to argue the point, and instead took a bite of her rice.
“What’s the matter?” Sam asked at the look of scrunched confusion on her tablemate’s face.
Brooke chewed experimentally for a moment, then said cautiously, “This doesn’t taste like lemon at all. It’s more… I don’t know, more like lime.”
“That’s because it is lime,” Sam said with a smirk. “It’s called lemon rice because of its color, not because it actually has any lemon in it. Don’t you like it?”
“No, it’s good,” Brooke reassured. “Just unexpected.”
“Unexpected can be good,” Sam remarked easily. “Like tonight. It wasn’t in your plans, but it’s good, isn’t it?”
It hit Brooke suddenly. It was good. It was good in a way that wasn’t entirely the way it should be. It was easy and fun and just a hint flirtatious, and she froze, stunned.
Maybe it was Sam, her brain rushed to explain. Sam had started bringing home ‘girlfriends’, none of them ever reappearing after their initial introduction, toward the end of her senior year. Given that, it only made sense that going out to dinner with Sam would feel like, and here she paused mentally, a date. Sam didn’t mean to make it feel like a date. She didn’t mean to be charming and flirty, didn’t mean to make it feel like there was a bubble of intimacy cushioning them from the intrusive impact of the other people milling around them. It was completely accidental on her part, probably an ingrained way of interacting with other girls, and the onus of the misplaced vibe was completely on herself, Brooke decided. She was the one who was taking something innocent and making more out of it than it was.
A little shell-shocked from the rapid mental deconstruction of the situation, Brooke could only murmur, “Yeah, it is.”
“See, I told you this would be great,” Sam said with a wide smile.
Brooke wasn’t yet convinced of the greatness of the event in question. They had arrived at the venue listed on the flier Sam still had in her possession only to be brought up short in confusion. The building was, oddly enough, an Ethiopian restaurant, and as Sam surveyed the small space, she began to shake her head.
“This can’t be the place,” she mumbled, brows drawn together in frustration.
“Can I get you a table?”
Brooke looked around the largely unoccupied space. “Uh, no. We were here for a capoeira demonstration.”
“Downstairs,” the waitress said, pointing out a barely visible hallway running along the side of the restaurant.
Sam was already on her way before Brooke could protest, once more, that this might not be the best of ideas and so all she could do was follow.
“IDs and $15 each.”
The girl sitting at the table guarding a set of stairs looked impossibly young to Brooke, as if she needed to check her own ID.
“You brought yours, right?” Sam asked, and Brooke noted with some surprise that she was holding out a ten and a twenty along with her driver’s license. She got a thin paper bracelet in return, the material dotted with small Brazilian flags.
As she dug through her small purse, Brooke eyed the bracelet warily. She could hear the thump of bass coming from below, could spy the flashing of lights through the door leading to the stairs, and, interspersed through it all, the quiet clink of glass on glass. Sam had been out of rehab for a month, and now they were at a bar.
“Sam, are you sure about this?” she asked, handing over her identification nonetheless.
As if picking up on her concern, Sam smiled ruefully. “It won’t hurt my feelings if you want to keep an eye on me.”
The music surrounded Brooke like a blanket as they descended the stairs to pause on a landing, and she looked out over the crowd with trepidation. She could only assume by the Brazilin theme to the evening that she was hearing Brazilian music, and the people dancing to it looked uninhibited and free. Each had a smile on their face, a look of pure joy.
“Samba,” Sam said, lips surprisingly close to Brooke’s ear as she spoke, causing the blonde to jump. “You want to dance?”
Brooke looked back at the gyrating crowd, eyes lingering on the incredibly fast and intricate footwork. For the most part, she’d given up dancing after the accident. She wasn’t as graceful as she had once been, and as a result was much more self-conscious. She hated the way that made her feel, that awareness of her body. Before the accident, she’d been able to give herself over to the joy of moving to the music, much like the people swarming on the dance floor below them. Inhibitions and dance didn’t go together in her mind, and the fact that she couldn’t separate what she was doing from fears of how she must look doing it made the enterprise less than pleasurable.
“I thought we were here to see Brazilian martial arts,” Brooke said peevishly, pulling closer to the stair’s railing as people moved past them.
Sam shrugged carelessly. “Apparently there’s dancing before the show. Come on, Brooke. Let’s dance.”
Under the force of the newly named puppy dog eyes of doom, Brooke felt herself grow shy. “I don’t know, Sam. I haven’t danced in a long time.”
She jumped slightly at the feel of Sam’s fingers twining through her own. “Then it’s time you start again,” Sam said with a beguiling smile. “Don’t worry about things so much. You don’t know any of these people.”
“I know you,” Brooke pointed out as Sam began to tug her down the remaining few stairs.
“I don’t count.”
The words were almost lost amongst the music, the volume of it nearly overwhelming as Sam pulled Brooke out onto the dance floor. Letting go of Brooke’s hand, Sam soon fell into the rhythm, and Brooke watched the easy, sensual sway of the other girl’s hips with envy. Sam looked like she was at home, blending into the crowd as if she were a natural part of it. She couldn’t remember ever seeing Sam dance before, but she’d never imagined the other girl as having rhythm.
“Come on,” Sam coaxed, reaching forward to take Brooke’s hand again. Drawing the blonde’s arm upward, she spun around slowly, glancing back over her shoulder to give Brooke an encouraging smile. “Your turn.”
Brooke turned self-consciously, trying not to look as awkward as she felt.
When she completed her turn, she was surprised to see Sam standing only inches from her. Leaning forward so that she could be heard, Sam shouted, “I know you can do it, Brooke. I saw you at the pep rallies.”
“That was a long time ago,” Brooke replied, glad that the music covered the bitterness in her tone.
She jumped at the feel of warm hands on her hips. “Start here,” Sam instructed, guiding her hips in a slow back and forth rhythm, mirroring the one she was making with her own.
Brooke tried to consciously ignore the stiffness of her body and give herself over to the sway of the movement. She was, despite herself, starting to enjoy the way it felt to move with the music.
“That’s it,” Sam said with a wide grin. “You’ve still got it.”
As Sam’s hands left their perch on her hips, sliding over her sides to gently prod her arms up, Brooke hoped that all of the commotion hid the shiver than ran through her. “It’s not all in your hips,” Sam continued, backing away slightly, demonstrating. Brooke was caught by the easy sensuality of her movements once again and immediately flushed, eyes dropping guiltily.
“See, you’re not half bad, McQueen,” Sam teased, moving closer once again. “Now just put it all together.”
The music died off as she said the last word, and it was loud in the resulting lack of noise. Sam looked around with a chagrined grin, then turned to face the front of the dance floor at the sound of a loud whistle.
“That was fun, admit it,” Sam coaxed, hands deep in her pocket to guard against the slight chill in the night air.
Brooke shook her head in bemusement. “It was fun,” she allowed. The capoeira had been fascinating to watch. The combatants, dressed completely in white, danced and feinted around one another, never actually making contact, their movements serpentine and graceful. It looked more like an elaborately choreographed dance-off than any martial art Brooke had ever seen, but she’d been more than impressed by the grace and athleticism of it. The accompanying ritualism of the music and singing had been almost hypnotic in counterpoint to the surrealism of the compact movements of the competitors, and Brooke begrudgingly allowed to herself that she was glad Sam had dragged her along.
“We should do this more often,” Sam remarked off-handedly, taking in a deep breath. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had an evening out without at least having a few drinks to go along with it, and something about experiencing the end of the night sober was refreshingly new.
Hearing Brooke’s resulting sigh, she rushed to add, “I know you’re busy. I know you work all of the time. But you’ve got to have a life outside of the hospital, Brooke. Otherwise, you’re going to go insane.”
If this had been a date, and Brooke couldn’t help continuing to think of it that way even though she knew that it wasn’t, she realized that Sam was asking her on another one.
If it had been a date, she would have said yes.
Unable to stop herself, she did so anyway. “I know. I had fun tonight.”
“So does that mean we can institute a little social time?”
Brooke gave Sam a small, crooked smile. “I’d like that.”
“What is this? It’s almost like a glow,” Nikki teased, shooting Brooke a smirk. “Something you need to share with me, Dr. McQueen?”
Brooke blushed. She hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the night before, about feeling Sam’s hands on her hips and watching the other girl unselfconsciously lick a hint of spice from the tips of her fingers at dinner.
“I remain unconvinced. You’re seeing someone,” Nikki accused.
Brooke sighed, then rolled her eyes. “I’m not seeing anyone.”
“Obviously, because there’s no way you should be here working unsolicited overtime if you’re seeing someone. You should be out having smoking hot monkey sex.”
Brooke frowned, then laughed. “Coming from you, that’s somehow disturbing.”
“I’m not sure if I should be offended by that,” Nikki mused. “And, you should know by now that it’s useless to try and evade me. I will eviscerate all of your secrets, one bloody cut at a time.”
Brooke shot the other doctor a concerned look.
“Sorry,” Nikki apologized. “I got called up to psych earlier for a patient consult. Something must have rubbed off.”
“Obviously,” Brooke snorted. “And I hate to disappoint you, but nothing’s going on. I just got out of the house for something other than work for the first time in months last night.”
“So you did have a date,” Nikki crowed triumphantly.
Brooke rolled her eyes, trying not to blush. “No. I went dancing with Sam.”
“Sam,” Nikki murmured, searching her brain for the reference. “This is the drug addict stepsister that’s living with you now?”
“Ex-drug addict,” Brooke clarified.
“In that case, the glow concerns me.”
Brooke could only secretly agree, though not, perhaps, for the same reasons.
“I’d like an application.”
The boy behind the counter did a double take as he looked up.
Sam allowed the open mouthed stare for a moment, then repeated, “I’d like an application.”
“Oh, yeah. Right. Of course. I’ll get that,” the boy stumbled, eyes never leaving Sam’s face as he fumbled below the counter. She heard the rattle and crash of containers and the scrape of an unidentifiable object before his hand managed to reemerge. “You need a pen?”
“Got it covered,” Sam said with a wry smile, taking the proffered sheet of paper over to one of the empty tables. Dropping in on the coffee shop had been a spur of the moment kind of thing. She always took the same route home from her NA meeting and had seen the help wanted sign posted in the window for over a week. Answering the ad had never entered her mind as an option, but she’d spent the walk thinking back over the conversation she’d had with Brooke at dinner the night before last. It was time for her to start contributing to the household income. Truth be told, it might be time for her to vacate the overly cramped apartment and try to make it on her own, but she needed the stability. When she’d found her way to Brooke’s hospital after being let out of St. Vincent’s, Brooke had taken her at face value. She hadn’t coddled her, hadn’t reprimanded her, hadn’t yelled at her. She hadn’t necessarily accepted her, at least not outright, but she hadn’t turned her away either. It would have been easy to do, to wash her hands of the entire mess and feel justified in doing so, but Brooke hadn’t done that.
Instead, she’d agreed to let Sam live with her after she went through rehab. And, selfishly, Sam was going to take her up on the offer as long as she could get away with it. Her life at Brooke’s was in complete counterpoint to her life before it, and not just because she was sober. Brooke’s ridiculous work schedule meant she had the place mostly to herself, and after years of constant companionship of one kind or another, she found she kind of liked the silence. It wasn’t that she wanted to retreat from society and she’d realized quite early on that silence had its limits, but it was nice living with no expectations. Brooke didn’t seem to want anything out of her other than not screwing up, and Sam was doing a better job at that than she’d anticipated.
Now she figured it was time to take the next step.
“James seems to think I should hire you immediately.”
The gravelly, rough voice pulled Sam from her contemplation, and she looked down at the still blank application before looking up at the person speaking to her.
“I’m not sure what kind of qualifications he’s looking for then,” she said with a wry smile, taking in the grizzled older man looking down at her. He was thin, wrapped tightly in a jacket and scarf, with a knit cap covering his closely shaved hair, and Sam was immediately struck by the kindness in his eyes. “I’m Sam McPherson.”
“Deak Williams,” the man replied, sliding into a seat opposite Sam.
“Short for Deacon,” the man explained with a smile. “I was born in the South, had the standard issue religious baptist family. A deacon is an elder in the church. I guess they had high hopes.”
“Sam, short for Samantha, which I’m told means listener,” Sam said with a smirk. “But I think my parents just liked the way it sounded.”
“Have you ever been a barista before, Sam?”
“What was your last job?”
“Freelance magazine writer.”
Deak nodded contemplatively. Sam merely watched him, drawn by the character outlined in his face. It was one of the most expressive she had ever seen, despite its lack of an expression other than bland curiosity. It spoke of adversity and serenity and a hard won wisdom and she found she very much so wanted this stranger to approve of her.
“Why should I hire you?”
Sam ran down her list of qualifications and came up with none. “Because I need a job.”
“This is a business, not a charity. Give me a better reason than that,” Deak rebuked mildly, and Sam frowned.
“Okay, here’s the deal. I’m a month out of rehab and I can’t go back to my old job because it means going back to my old life. I’m trying to start over and to stay clean and it’s just as hard as I thought it was going to be. I don’t know the first thing about being a barista, but I’m betting that if James can do it, I can do it. There’s no real reason for you to give me a chance, but you seem like the kind of guy who knows the value of chances, so I’m going to ask for one anyway.”
Deak sat back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other with tired ease. He was quiet, but Sam met his eyes, never letting her own waver.
“I need someone on the early shift. You’d need to be in by 5:45.”
Sam almost chuckled with relief. “No problem.”
Brooke almost fell through the door as she opened it. Her moonlighting shift the night before had been particularly brutal, and she’d had to leave St. Vincent’s with no time for breakfast in order to fight off the morning traffic and make it to the UCLA Medical Center by 6:00 rounds. Her attending had been in a particularly bad mood, and she’d spent the rest of the day scurrying after him and trying not to react to any of his more scathing comments.
“Is that food?” she asked with an almost orgasmic moan. The brunette was known to cook on occasion, though often Brooke would dine on something she’d managed to grab from the hospital cafeteria before leaving. She thought about the egg salad sandwich stuffed in the pocket of her white coat and grinned. She’d take home cooking over squished sandwich any day.
She heard the door to the refrigerator close, and moments later Sam’s head popped around the corner of the cabinet, visible above the bar. “It’s a special occasion,” she said with a grin, gesturing to the couch with a nod of her head. “You sit and I’ll bring it to you.”
It turned out to be noodles and vegetables in a spicy Thai peanut sauce, with cubes of tofu scattered throughout.
“What’s the occasion?” Brooke asked, accepting her plate hungrily as Sam settled down onto the couch beside her.
“I got a job.”
“Really?” Brooke asked around a mouthful. “Tell me about it.”
“Early morning shift at the coffee shop three blocks over,” came the excited reply, and Brooke couldn’t help but laugh.
“Early morning shift?” she asked teasingly
“Yeah. You wake me up every morning at 4:30 anyway.”
“You’re a light sleeper,” Brooke said defensively. “I try to be quiet.”
“I’m not a light sleeper,” Sam pointed out. “You’re just unnaturally loud.”
“Whatever,” Brooke scoffed. “I’m really happy for you.”
“It’s nothing special,” Sam said with a light blush, suddenly embarrassed by all of the attention.
“It is. And,” Brooke said, drawing out the pause dramatically, “this food is absolutely delicious.”
“Nothing special,” Sam again protested, then stopped short at the feel of Brooke’s hand on her forearm.
Putting her plate down on the floor with deliberate care, Brooke turned slowly so that she was fully facing Sam. “You have every right to be proud of yourself,” Brooke began, cutting Sam off when it looked as if the other girl were about to interrupt. “You’ve made some major life changes, and look at you. You’re a success. You’re rebuilding your life. You’re still sober. This is a big deal, Sam.”
“It’s nothing,” Sam protested again, blushing even more deeply. “Six months ago I was in New York writing a series of pieces for Rolling Stone. Now I’m sleeping on a borrowed air mattress and celebrating my new job as a coffee shop girl.”
“I know,” Brooke said with a warm smile, “and I’m proud of you.”
Sam glared at the espresso machine with hatred in her eyes. She’d known, in a vague sort of way, that people didn’t just order coffee any more. Now they ordered various types of lattes and could rattle off a list of do’s and don’ts regarding their coffee choice that was almost novel-length, but she hadn’t actually given the reality of what that meant for her much thought.
“Brooke, we’re going to be late. Come on,” Sam prodded, shrugging into her hoodie. “I don’t want to miss the previews.”
“I’m coming,” Brooke grumbled, stepping out of her bedroom, hands lifting her hair out of the collar of her newly donned shirt.
“I preordered the tickets,” Sam said impatiently, anxious to get on the way.
“Fabulous,” Brooke deadpanned. Sam had been looking forward to the release of the movie for over a week, ever since she had found out that it was going to be showing at a nearby theatre. It was some Middle Eastern import Brooke had never heard of, and she wasn’t particularly thrilled to be going. To her tired mind, foreign equaled subtitled and subtitled equaled work. Boring work.
The theatre was only half full, and they managed to slide into their seats with relative ease just as the previews began. Sam placed the soda they’d gotten between them, pointing at the straw pulled up highest and then at herself, before offering Brooke a handful of popcorn, which she eagerly took.
All of the previews were for yet more movies of which she’d never heard, and by the time the start of their movie rolled around, Brooke had worked her way through almost half of the popcorn. Thirty minutes later, when Sam reached in for another handful and scraped her fingers along the bottom, she turned to Brooke with a smirk. Instead of rueful chagrin, she instead caught the other girl’s chin drooping slowly downward, eyes closed, and watched with amusement as Brooke jerked her head upright again, eyes popping open widely as if to deny they’d ever been shut.
Sam turned back to the movie with a wry smile, and was soon sucked back into the action. Out of the corner of her eye, she continued to monitor the up/down rhythm of Brooke’s nods as she tried to fight off sleep, but was still somehow taken off guard when she felt the other girl’s head land softly on her shoulder. Looking down in surprise, she noted that Brooke had finally lost the battle completely.
Moving slowly, afraid of waking the other girl, Sam maneuvered her arm up and back so that it was wrapped around Brooke’s shoulders, pulling her into a more comfortable position for Sam. Instead of waking, Brooke merely snuggled in more closely, so Sam left her arm, returning her attention to the movie.
An hour and a half later, Sam watched the credits roll, Brooke’s soft breath still tickling the side of her neck. She waited, sure that the movement of the people around them would rouse Brooke, but could only laugh as the blonde slumbered on unaware.
“Come on, Brooke,” she murmured, giving the other girl’s shoulder a squeeze.
Brooke took in a deep breath, pressing her face closer into Sam’s neck. “Just a few more minutes, baby,” she mumbled, and Sam nearly jumped out of her seat at the soft kiss Brooke pressed into her skin.
“Brooke,” she tried again, this time a little louder. “Movie’s over.”
This time the words penetrated Brooke’s sleep-laden brain, and she jumped back with a sharp inhale. “I feel asleep on you,” she said breathlessly, mind scrambling to regain composure.
“You missed the movie,” Sam pointed out, gently drawing her arm free.
Brooke shook her head to clear it further, then looked around the now empty theatre. “I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s fine,” Sam said, standing. She’d kept her movements as small as possible with Brooke literally sleeping on her shoulder, and now took the opportunity to stretch her tightened joints. Arms above her head, she arched up, sighing at the satisfying, resounding crack that accompanied the move.
Brooke watched the move with open admiration, then looked away with a blush. “I hope I didn’t drool or snore or anything.”
Sam thought about recounting the snuggle and the kiss, but decided against it. “Nothing too embarrassing,” she chuckled, nodding her head toward the entryway. “You ready to get out of here, sleeping beauty?”
Brooke scrambled to her feet, hoping desperately that her blush would disappear before they made it out into the bright lights of the lobby. “Was it good?”
“I enjoyed it. You obviously did not,” Sam noted humorously. “I should have expected it. You do the same thing at home.”
“What?” Brooke protested.
“Fall asleep. I’m not sure you’ve made it through a whole movie with me yet,” Sam teased.
“I have,” Brooke said with a poke to Sam’s shoulder. “I distinctly remember at least two movies I watched in their entirety.”
“Impressive,” Sam drawled. “You hungry?”
“Let’s get take-out, take it home,” Sam suggested as they left the theatre. She zipped her jacket up against the cold, flipping the hoodie up to cover her head. Brooke couldn’t help but think it looked adorable, and was a little envious. She was convinced she looked like the Unabomber when she tried the same look. “That way,” Sam continued, “when you fall asleep at dinner, I won’t have quite so far to carry you.”
That brought to mind an image of Sam carrying her to bed, which Brooke immediately tried to clear out of her head with a firm shake. She hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that her outings with Sam felt more like dates, as well as the accompanying guilty knowledge that part of her rather wished they were dates. She knew Sam was oblivious to it all, to the absolutely ridiculous fake dating relationship she’d begun to build up in her head. She was shocked by the notion herself, and with the fact that she couldn’t shake it. Even more shocked, perhaps, at how appealing it was to her. But, it felt dishonest, the keeping of this secret she was pretty sure only she shared, and so she was waiting for the feeling to fade away, for her brain to return to normal and to see the relationship as it truly was. She and Sam were friends, maybe even good friends, and nothing more.
“What do you think about Chinese?”
“Sounds perfect,” Brooke murmured, lost in her own thoughts.
Brooke toed out of her shoes with relief, tossing her heavy white coat over the back of a nearby chair. She’d come off of a long call straight into an early morning surgery and had been kept late at clinic the day before only to sleep fitfully that night. Another long day of clinic later, and she was looking forward to having the next two days off. She hadn’t scheduled any moonlighting shifts, despite the little voice in her head whispering that she should take advantage of the free time, and instead planned to spend a good portion of the time sleeping.
“Just in time for dinner,” Sam’s voice called out, and she jumped slightly, caught off-guard. She was so tired she hadn’t even realized the other girl was home.
“What are we having tonight?” Brooke asked eagerly, stomach rumbling as if on cue. “I’m starving.”
“These days, I’ve never known you to not be starving,” Sam joked. “Have a seat, I’ll bring it to you.”
Brooke wondered if she should protest the grand treatment, but she didn’t really want to and so she didn’t. It had become something of a routine for them. Since Sam had started her new job, she’d gotten more proactive about their eating habits. She usually managed to at least leave a few slices of toast out for Brooke in the mornings, though usually it was more likely to be a bowl of cut fruit and a yogurt, and the evenings she knew Brooke would be home, she would manage to pull together some type of meal. The routine had fallen into a pattern, with Brooke collapsing onto the couch at the end of a hard day of work and Sam bringing her a plate, and she felt a little guilty for enjoying the ritual quite so much.
“Hard day?” Sam asked, handing Brooke a large plate almost overflowing with a homemade Greek salad.
“I’m just tired,” Brooke complained, stabbing a juicy chunk of tomato. “I’ve been on my feet too much lately. My hip is killing me. When it gets like this, it feels like everything hurts. My shoulders are tight, my back is tight. God, I sound like an old lady with all the whining. How about you?”
“What, my exciting day as super-barista?” Sam teased. “Pretty good, actually. I managed to save the lives of at least four people today, or at least that’s what they said. ‘Sam, you’re a lifesaver’,” she mimicked, rolling her eyes. “People are alarmingly dependent on their coffee.”
“So things are going better, then?” Brooke questioned, leaning back into the couch with a sigh, glad that she could forego the niceties of food etiquette with Sam. She could still remember the first few weeks of Sam’s new job, when the other girl would come home cranky every day, cursing coffee and all of its associated products.
Sam shrugged her shoulders, taking a bite of her own salad. “I haven’t displayed any violent tendencies toward the espresso machine all week, if that’s what you’re asking. But, if that kid James doesn’t stop trying to flirt with me, I might display some violent tendencies toward him.”
“You call him a kid, like you’re ancient.”
“He’s not even 20 years old, Brooke,” Sam pointed out drolly. “And not even close to being my type anyway.”
It was an opening Brooke desperately wanted to explore, but she held back, far too afraid that she’d find out that she wasn’t really Sam’s type either.
Instead, she changed topics. “This is delicious. Is this fresh feta?”
“Picked it up at that little Mediterranean deli on my way home,” Sam noted.
Brooke kept up more inane chatter as they finished their dinner, trying desperately not to notice just how good Sam looked in her worn jeans and tight, faded tee-shirt. Instead, she focused on coming up with ways to keep the other girl talking.
“I’ll take that,” she offered, liberating Sam’s empty plate from her hands before the other girl could stand. “You can’t cook and do the dishes.”
It didn’t take very long for her to wash and rinse their two plates and accompanying forks, but Brooke used the time to get a hold of herself. Much to her horror, she’d found herself admiring Sam more openly as of late, and was terrified that the other girl might notice.
“Here, let me try.”
Brooke hadn’t realized that Sam had come up behind her, or that she was trying to work out the kink in her shoulder, until she felt the other girl’s hands replace her own. Brooke’s head fell forward almost immediately as Sam’s strong fingers began digging into her tense muscles, and she braced her hands against the countertop. The pressure was painful at first, almost too much, but within minutes the muscles started to give way a little. The relief spread from her shoulders down her back and almost unconsciously, Brooke pressed back against Sam as the massage turned into something more pleasurable than practical, at least for her. Caught up in the moment, she reached back, wrapping her hand around the other girl’s upper thigh, and let out a low moan.
And then instantly froze, stiffening immediately.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, spinning around to face a slightly stunned looking Sam.
“It’s totally cool, Brooke. I know it was an accident,” Sam said placatingly, holding out her hands in supplication.
“But it wasn’t,” Brooke blurted out, then blushed deeply, heart still racing as she tried to come to grips with what she’d done. “I mean, it was, but it wasn’t.” Suddenly unable to hide it anymore, she added miserably, “I feel like I’ve been lying to you.”
“Brooke…” Sam said warningly, a hint of panic in her voice, instinctively wary of what was happening.
“I didn’t mean to, really, but it happened. I’ve been trying to make it un-happen, but I’m not there yet.”
Sam smiled a tight half-smile, then bit her bottom lip nervously. “I don’t really understand.”
With a sigh, Brooke realized she was going to have to lay bare the whole sordid mess. “It’s just… we’ve been spending a lot of time together and I’ve been enjoying all of the time we’ve been spending together. Maybe enjoying it too much,” she admitted shyly, looking up at Sam from under lowered lashes. “I know you don’t feel it and you don’t do anything to make it feel this way, but sometimes, when we’re out together, it feels like we’re out, you know, together.”
It took a few seconds for the emphasis to hit her, but when it did, Sam tried to hide her surprise. She wasn’t completely successful. “Brooke, I didn’t mean to make you feel like… I mean, I didn’t mean to do anything inappropriate…”
“But that’s it, Sam,” Brooke said with a small shrug and a self-deprecating grin. “You didn’t really do anything. It was all in my head. The bad part is that I wished it wasn’t.”
At Sam’s confused look, Brooke sighed miserably. “I wanted it to be real, and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”
“I’m still not sure I completely understand,” Sam said slowly. “Are you saying that you’re attracted to me? Is that what you’re saying?’
Brooke nodded tightly, too embarrassed to look Sam in the eyes.
“Oh, okay. That’s… uh, that’s completely unexpected,” Sam stammered nervously. “Are you sure? Maybe it’s just the closeness.”
“I’m pretty sure,” Brooke admitted wryly. “I’ve been trying to make it go away but it’s not really working.”
“Maybe you’re just confused,” Sam offered, mind racing. “I mean, we spend so much time together, it’s easy to see how you could start to feel things. But Brooke, you’re not even into girls, are you?”
“Well,” Brooke demurred, blushing deeply, “there was this one girl in college…”
Breaking in, Sam snorted in frustrated amusement. “There’s always the one girl in college.”
“And now there’s you,” Brooke finished. “I can’t help it, Sam. I’m totally into you.”
Silence fell between them, and Brooke couldn’t help looking at everything but Sam until finally she couldn’t take it any more. “This is awkward and weird,” she said with a sigh. “I’m so sorry.”
“No. It’s just unexpected.”
“And awkward and weird,” Brooke reiterated.
“Maybe a little awkward and weird, but just because it’s so unexpected.”
“I should never have said anything,” Brooke murmured despondently.
She looked so miserable that Sam took a step forward, quickly enveloping her in a hug. “No, it’s okay,” she reassured, feeling Brooke begin to shiver. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
“No, I messed everything up,” Brooke said, pulling back slightly and sniffling.
Sam smiled weakly at the sight of the other girl’s red-rimmed eyes. “You didn’t mess anything up,” she promised, pushing Brooke’s hair back behind her ears. “It’s…”
Her words were cut off by the pressure of Brooke’s lips against hers. The kiss was brief, barely more than a passion-inflamed closed-mouth peck, but when Brooke pulled away, Sam could only stare at her in silence.
“I figured that since things were already going to be awkward and weird, that wouldn’t hurt,” Brooke offered with a shy, embarrassed smile before taking a step back and putting a little distance between herself and Sam. “Did it hurt?”
Sam blinked rapidly, then cleared her throat in an attempt to pull together everything she was feeling. “It didn’t hurt,” she began slowly, “but if you were going to take the chance, you should have done it right.”
There was a hint of gentle taunt in Sam’s tone, but Brooke noted that her eyes were shy and conflicted. She took a step forward anyway, bringing their bodies together, then glanced up at Sam with a hesitant smile.
“How many chances do you think a girl can have?”
“At least one more.”
Brooke took the words as an invitation and surged forward, capturing Sam’s lips again. Her hands tangled in the other girl’s long hair, the force of her move pushing Sam back into the counter behind her, rattling the cabinets. Tongue teasing along Sam’s bottom lip, she slid her hands down until they cupped the other girl’s buttocks and pulled inward hard, drawing a surprised gasp from Sam as their hips met and Sam reflexively dug her fingers into Brooke’s hips, arching forward.
Determined to take full advantage of her second chance, Brooke broke away from Sam’s lips, kissing her way across the other girl’s cheek to nip at her ear before sliding down to her neck.
“God, Brooke,” Sam gasped, surprised and aroused, the feel of the other girl’s teeth nicking lightly at her skin sending a shiver down her spine. “You don’t… uh, you don’t waste opportunities, do you?”
Pulling back with a low growl, Brooke looked first to Sam’s eyes and then to her lips, swollen and red from her attentions. “Well, I only had the promise of one more,” she said, voice rough as she leaned forward again, catching Sam’s full bottom lip between her teeth.
A strong hand on her chest pushed Brooke back, and she pulled up short, instantly embarrassed. “Oh, my God. I’m so sorry.”
“Brooke, no…” Sam sighed, extricating herself from the small space left between herself and Brooke. “You’ve got to understand. You’ve had more time to think about this than I have.”
“In the romantic version of this moment, you wouldn’t need any time to think about it,” Brooke muttered bitterly, arms wrapping around her midsection in a protective gesture.
Fighting back a sense of itching frustration, Sam said, “This is the real version, not the romantic one. Give me a little time to think, Brooke. I can’t rush into something right now. I just can’t.”
Sam could tell that Brooke didn’t want to leave it at that, that she wanted to say something more, but the other girl remained silent instead.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Sam murmured, a hint of pleading in her tone. “Just give me a little time.”
“Fine,” Brooke said with a huff, drawing herself up to her fullest height. “You can have all the time you need.”
“You going to tell me what’s going on?”
Deak slid a cup of coffee onto the table in front of Sam, and she paused in her work, rag left forgotten on the surface of the table she’d already cleaned three times.
Though Sam and Deak had developed something resembling simpatico within seconds of meeting, neither had really believed it necessary to make a production of the matter. Instead, they had an easy friendship born of cups of coffee shared in relative silence and the occasional brief conversational update. Despite that, she still felt a bit awkward as she muttered, “Girl problems.”
“Girl problems,” Deak echoed contemplatively, taking a sip of his coffee as he eased into a seat.
With a sigh, Sam sat as well. They were well into the mid-afternoon lull, and the place was relatively deserted. “Not a problem, necessarily,” she amended, wrapping her hands around the warm mug. “Brooke kissed me last night.”
“This is the step-sister slash roommate, right?” Deak clarified.
Sam nodded, head dropped in chagrin. “She says she’s into me. It was completely unexpected. I had no idea, really. I mean, I never got that vibe from her. Never even thought about it.”
“Interesting. So what did you do about it?”
“Kissed her back. Freaked out a little. Told her I would need to take things slow,” Sam admitted with a rueful grin. “I stress, it caught me completely off-guard.”
“You not interested?”
Used to the way Deak parceled his conversations out in tiny, succinct packages, Sam tilted her head to the side as she contemplated her feelings on the matter, comfortable enough with Deak to provide him with an honest assessment.
“It’s not that,” she murmured, pausing to take a sip of her cooling coffee. “I’m just now getting to think about it, you know. I mean, we have a good time together. I like spending time with her. I like hanging out and talking and all of those things you should like in someone. I think it could be good.”
“The kiss… was there chemistry?”
Sam thought back to way she’d felt when Brooke had pulled her in close. The memory made her shiver a little, the unexpected passion both exciting and gratifying. “There was chemistry.”
“And now you’re scared,” Deak observed.
“Basically,” Sam admitted without qualm. “I’ve been doing good, Deak. I’ve stuck with this new life thing, and I think it’s starting to work for me. Brooke has been there for all of it. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her, literally. Do I take a chance on losing that? What if this doesn’t work out? I don’t know if I’m easy to be with, and I have a feeling she’s definitely not.”
Deak gave her a small, enigmatic smile. “Love is always a risk.”
“Thanks for the bon mot,” Sam muttered, “but I already knew that. I’m just afraid this one might be too big.”
“What about this,” Deak started, leaning forward slightly, hands cupped around his mug, “do you think you can’t make it on your own? Is Brooke really the only thing keeping you sober?”
“Of course not,” Sam said reflexively, though she wasn’t entirely sure she meant it.
“Then where’s this big risk?”
Deak’s casual shrug seemed to indicate that he could wipe away all of the potential complications with his nonchalance. For a moment, Sam wished that was true.
“You forget, she’s my step-sister. Whether this works out or not, I’m going to have to see her for the rest of my life,” she pointed out, trying not to concentrate too hard on the oddity of the situation when viewed through their familial ties. She’d long ago given up any hold convention might have had on her, but she was still cognizant enough of such things to recognize the rarity and potential awkwardness inherent in their fledgling relationship.
“What, at holidays?” Deak scoffed. “Everybody has relatives they’d rather not see at the holidays but they do it anyway. Your reason would just be a little more interesting, and that’s if you two don’t work out. You’ve got to decide this one for yourself, Sam. Don’t do it for the what-if’s.”
“Easy for you to say,” Sam sighed, shaking her head.
Brooke was in the kitchen when she returned home from work. Empty bags were scattered around the floor, and from what Sam could see of the refrigerator, it was full.
“Stocking up on provisions?” she asked softly, nervously. She’d spent about an hour and a half walking after her shift, working through things in her mind.
“I’ve been leaving it up to you for weeks,” Brooke said distractedly, sliding a carton of nonfat organic milk into place. “It’s time I took some responsibility. You’ve been doing all the cooking. The least I can do is provide the food.”
“You do most of the providing around here,” Sam said with a short laugh. Then, “Brooke, we need to talk.”
“Yeah,” the blonde sighed, pulling her head out of the refrigerator, “but I thought that if I looked preoccupied, you’d take the opportunity and let it drop.”
Sam silently agreed that the avoidance option was appealing. It wasn’t a route she was going to be able to take, necessarily, but the idea still called to her.
“Brooke, look… I wasn’t expecting last night,” she began, only to be cut off by Brooke’s snort.
“I think that was pretty obvious.”
“So it’s understandable that I needed a little bit of time to think about it,” Sam finished calmly, though her insides were twisted tightly in nervous anticipation. She wasn’t sure she was ready for this confrontation.
Brooke sighed. Carefully and deliberately folding the paper bag she was holding, she said softly, “It is. I’m sorry. I never should have said anything. I put unnecessary pressure on you and…”
“I care about you too much to pull my usual shit,” Sam broke in suddenly, irritably.
Brooke closed the refrigerator door with forced ease. “I understand,” she said slowly. “Let’s just move on from this, pretend like it never happened.”
“I don’t think you understand,” Sam said, searching for patience. “The old me would have taken what you were offering last night. I might have taken it for a while, but eventually I would have moved on.”
“So I should be relieved you turned me down?” Brooke scoffed.
“Yeah, actually you should. Brooke, if we’re going to give this a try, then it has to be slow,” Sam said firmly, watching Brooke carefully.
“Wait,” Brooke said suspiciously, “so is this a brush-off or is this not a brush-off?”
“This is a go slow. Which,” Sam acknowledged, “is going to be a little strange since we already live together.”
“You do have your own air mattress,” Brooke pointed out, smiling cautiously.
“I do,” Sam concurred, “and no offense, but you’re officially barred from it for the moment. I mean that slow thing and I think we both need to have some clearly defined space of our own.”
“Geez, Sam, you’re making me feel like a sexual predator here,” Brooke murmured with a slight blush. “I promise not to attack you again.”
“I didn’t really mind the attack,” Sam said with a slight smirk. “But don’t take advantage of that.”
“Okay,” Brooke said slowly, “so what now?”
Sam scanned the room, taking in all of the empty grocery bags. “I don’t know… you cook me dinner?”
“Is this a date kind of thing?” Brooke asked cautiously. “Because if it is, we’re definitely going out. I want to make a good impression, not kill you.”
“If you can manage to stay awake for the entire evening, then I’ll be impressed.”
“Not fair,” Brooke protested lightly. “You ready to go?”
“Yeah, now,” Brooke confirmed. “I’m off today and tomorrow. No call, no moonlighting. We should take advantage of that, right? You’re the one who is always saying we should go out more often.”
“You’ve got me there.”
“So, what happened?”
“Deak, are you asking for gossip?” Sam teased, using a rag to wipe clean the spigot on the espresso machine.
The expectant look on his face told her all she needed to know.
“Fine,” she sighed, bracing her hands against the counter and leaning forward with a mischievous smile. “We went on a date. She picked the restaurant, for once, this Cuban place another resident had told her about. It was pretty good.”
“The date or the food?”
“It was a nice evening. We took a walk.”
“And then we had to get back, because my boss makes me come in at 5:45 in the morning,” Sam said with a smirk.
“No goodnight kiss?”
“A small one, at the door.”
“Just one,” Sam verified. “I told her I wanted to take things slow. I think she understands and respects that.”
“Going on another date?”
“Tonight, and then she goes on long call tomorrow night, so I won’t see her. Which,” Sam stipulated, “I think might be a good thing. Living with the girl you’re dating makes things a little complicated.”
“At first,” Deak teased with a devilish grin.
Sam shook her head in mock frustration. “Mind in the gutter already?”
“Just thinking about how convenient it might be later. You’ll already have your toothbrush there in the morning,” Deak pointed out.
“I’m sure you’re only thinking of my comfort,” Sam muttered, rolling her eyes. Then, “Hey, I’ve been thinking... why don’t you let me take over control of the music in here? This satellite radio shit is about to drive me insane. I could make a few cd’s and bring them in, see what the customers think about it. I think we could use a change.”
“I’ll give you a week,” Deak allowed with a grin. “Keep me updated.”
“Who knew you were such a gossip.”
“What’s that?” Sam asked, eyeing the large brown box sitting on the counter.
Brooke looked up, fixing the box with a wary gaze. “Books. I’ve got to start studying for my boards soon.”
“Scary,” Sam said with a fake shiver. “Have you been sitting on the couch in your pajamas all day?”
“No. I showered and changed about an hour ago,” Brooke clarified. “And, I spent some time working on my presentation.”
“It’s my turn to present a case,” Brooke said with distaste. “But, I don’t want to talk about work. Tell me about your day.”
“That’s work talk.”
“True,” Brooke said tiredly. Then, using her foot to nudge a half folded paper laying on the coffee table, she added, “I tried to find something exciting for us to do tonight.”
“And nothing looked promising.”
“Nothing?” Sam questioned, reaching for the paper. “Surely there was something.”
“Oh, let’s see. We have after hours martinis at the museum marked through. Same goes for the jazz trio at the Uptown Bar,” she drawled, flipping through the pages. “Wine tasting at that new art gallery, spoken word concert at the concept bar on 4th…”
“Sam,” Brooke implored.
“No, it’s okay. You’re looking out for me.”
“I just thought… why deliberately put you in the path of temptation,” Brooke stressed, placing her hand over Sam’s where it still held the paper. “But if you think you’ll be okay, then we can do whatever you want.”
For a brief moment, Sam felt anger well up deep inside her. It almost blindsided her, a sneering, hating thing that made her want to fling the paper against the wall and stomp out. It made her want to have a drink. It made her want to point out that she’d managed to make it almost three months without getting high or otherwise wasted. It fought itself at cross purposes inside of her until she nearly growled with frustration. Instead, she loosened her grip on the paper, forcing herself to bring her ire back into check.
“We don’t need exciting,” she said, as much for herself as for Brooke. “Besides, I think you promised me a Scrabble game a long time ago but didn’t manage to stay away long enough to deliver.”
Brooke looked at her hesitantly, a hint of uncertainty in her eyes. “Sam, we can do whatever you want. We’ll go wherever you want.”
Sam considered it for a moment. She considered taking Brooke to a bar or a club or a concert. She considered making a point of her trustworthiness, of her progress.
“We never really get to spend any time together just talking,” she said finally, offering Brooke a wavering smile. “We’ll order in. We’ll play Scrabble or watch a movie. We’ll do more of that getting to know one another again.”
Brooke seemed to almost deflate in relief at the words, as if she’d been expecting a weight to come crashing down on her head at any moment.
A half an hour later, Sam dragged a piece of still steaming pizza onto her plate. A string of cheese refused to separate itself from the rest of the pie, stretching out until it was almost nonexistent.
“Hey,” Sam protested, eyebrows arching in shock as Brooke snagged the piece of cheese and popped it into her mouth.
“What?” Brooke offered innocently. “It didn’t look like you were planning to do anything about it. I couldn’t let that go to waste.”
Reaching over to pluck a black olive from Brooke’s slice, ignoring the other girl’s yelp of indignation, Sam said smugly, “There. We’re somewhat even now.” She shot Brooke a look that dared challenge as she took a bite of her slice, trying not to wince as the hot cheese hit her tongue.
“I can’t believe I’m sitting here with you eating pizza,” Sam said with a chuckle moments later, watching in something like disbelief as Brooke folded her slice in half and moved through it rapidly. “It’s so… Well, just not something I remember you doing.”
Shaking her head wryly, taking her time to finish chewing her last bite, Brooke finally answered. “I’ve pretty much left most of that behind me. It wasn’t necessarily by choice. Maybe it was more circumstance than anything else. With med school, I had too much on my mind. You would have thought I would have relapsed into old habits given the amount of stress I was under, but I suppose the accident put things in perspective. I didn’t see the need to cause my body more damage than it had already sustained. And now – eating at the hospital? You take what you can get. With the food they serve there, the only reason why I’m not a blimp is that I spend most of my time on my feet. Half of the time, I don’t have enough time to eat a full meal. I grab a yogurt or a sandwich and try to eat it on my way to see the next patient.”
“Such is the glamorous life of a doctor,” Sam murmured, shaking her head in amused consternation.
Putting her slice down, Brooke chuckled ruefully. “It’s certainly not what I expected. I thought it would be all about patient care – helping people, you know. Instead, I spend half of my time on the phone with insurance companies trying to justify another night’s stay for patients that should be in the hospital for another week, at least. When I’m not dealing with them, I’m putting up with crap from my attending or from the residents bitching about the call schedule I’ve drawn up. Everyone is overstressed, overworked and, frankly, underpaid. You don’t realize it when you start med school, but you don’t really start earning money until your mid to late 30s if you go into a specialty. Before that, you spend the prime of your life working 100 hour weeks for the same amount of money that some of your friends in other fields made straight out of undergrad.”
“And yet you still do it,” Sam observed, taking another, more tentative bite, of her pizza.
Brooke shrugged as if to indicate her own cluelessness. “Once you get so far, it doesn’t feel like you can turn back.”
Sam nodded, the feeling familiar. “If you could go back, would you change things? Would you pursue something else?”
Brooke’s first impulse was to say no. The ideals she’d had when she first started were still firmly in place. But, the added measure of experience tempered the instinctive enthusiasm. “Maybe,” she admitted, feeling a little traitorous. After all, she’d spent a great deal of time and money on her schooling. Even thinking, much less saying aloud, that she might have taken a different path, made her feel as if someone was going to jump out from behind a curtain and identify her as an imposter. So, feeling compelled to justify her statement, she rushed to add, “I mean, if things were different, then no. If I could do my job as it needs to be done without having to worry about insurance companies and the hospital’s desired charitable write-off quota, then I’d be happy. I love medicine,” she said honestly, wanting Sam to believe her. “When I’m involved in something that makes someone’s life better or that relieves their pain or that explains what’s happening to them – that’s when it’s worth it.”
Brooke paused, then snorted. “Anyway, as bad as it’s been, it’s about to get worse. I start my fellowship next year. It’ll be like starting all over again as a first-year resident, bottom of the totem pole and on shit-duty for the foreseeable future.”
“But that’s good, right? Professionally – that’s good for you.”
“It’s a lot more work and headache with very little thanks,” Brooke said, tone searing.
Sam’s laugh was slightly out of place. “Your job sucks,” she said succinctly, reaching for another piece of pizza.
“Yeah,” Brooke agreed. “Pretty much.”
Sam surveyed the Scrabble board with disbelief.
“Furgle is not a word,” she said dryly, the look on her face distinctly unamused.
In reply, Brooke offered her best convincing grin. “Of course it is.”
“Then explain to me, please, just what it means.”
Lips working to contain her amusement, Brooke said seriously, “To furgle is to steal a furbie. Officer,” she said in mock alarm, acting out said situation, “I’ve been furgled! My furbie has been stolen by a nefarious criminal!”
“First,” Sam said, holding up a single finger as she arched a brow Brooke’s direction, “I don’t think they even make furbies anymore. This attempt at humor is neither topical nor timely. Two… there is no two. You can’t expect to get away with a double word score for ‘furgle’, honestly.”
“Oh, come on, Sam,” Brooke protested, rolling her eyes. “You’re already winning by 500 points. I think you can afford to let me have furgle.”
Sam considered the point thoughtfully, not bothering to clarify the amount by which she was actually winning. “I think it’s a slippery slope, Brooke. If I let you have furgle, next you’ll want me to let something even more ludicrous slide.” She paused, face serious. “Although furgle is already so ludicrous that I can’t even think of a more outlandish word.”
“Febretzel,” Brooke offered.
At Sam’s confused look, she elaborated. “A pretzel made only in the month of February. It’s popular in Bavaria, or so I’ve heard.”
“If you could tell me where Bavaria was, I might just let you have that one,” Sam said dryly.
Fighting back a grin, Brooke said seriously, “Bavaria is in Europe, of course.”
“Of course,” Sam echoed, shaking her head in bemusement.
Pushing up from her seat on the floor, Sam moved over to the couch and flopped back against its cushions.
“Hey,” Brooke protested, levering herself up off of the floor to join the other girl, “you can’t be on this side of the board. You can see my letters. That’s cheating.”
“I think this game is officially dead,” Sam pointed out, stretching her legs out in front of her to ease the strain caused by her position on the floor. “You have to be one of the world’s worst Scrabble players ever.”
Deciding to be a bit bold, Brooke snuggled up against Sam’s side, ducking under the other girl’s arm so that it was wrapped around her shoulders. “Is that so?” she asked breathlessly, nervous in the face of Sam’s reaction.
Grinning down at the blonde, slightly taken aback by her move but pleased despite herself, Sam allowed the contact. “I’m afraid so,” she said softly.
Brooke took the acceptance of her position and the accompanying grin as a good sign, perhaps even as an invitation, and so stretched upward, eyes narrowing slightly as she moved swiftly and surely into a kiss.
Sam let out a small noise of surprise and quelled her instinctive impulse to pull back. Instead, she let the kiss deepen, moving from light to more intense in unfolding layers. Brooke’s fingers were brushing against her cheeks and then skimming into her hair, tilting her head down slightly so that the blonde had more access.
“Is this okay?” Brooke asked moments later, pulling back. Her eyes were heavily lidded, her lips red and slick.
Sam nodded shortly, feeling a short burst of panic that had nothing to do with the activities in which she was engaging but more so with the person with whom she was engaging in them with. Brooke wasn’t a one-night stand or a casual hook-up. She was a potential relationship, and Sam hadn’t had a functional one of those in longer than she could remember.
The kisses were quite nice, though. So much so, that she let herself forgot about thinking about what was happening for quite some time.
Finally, gently, Sam pushed back on Brooke’s shoulders. By this time, the blonde was in her lap, straddling her thighs, and most of Sam wanted to take full advantage of what the position offered.
“We need to stop,” she said breathlessly, trying to ignore the little voice inside of her that whispered that it made no sense to stop, that stopping was, in fact, the last thing she wanted to do.
Brooke leaned back, contrite. “I’m sorry,” she said, though there was a spark in her eyes that indicated that she wasn’t telling the full truth. “I was moving too fast.”
“No,” Sam protested automatically as Brooke gently removed herself from her lap. “It’s just… it’s been some months since I was with anyone,” she offered apologetically, “and I don’t want to rush into this just because my hormones seem to think it’s the thing to do.”
At the words, Brooke nearly laughed. Months? Try close to two years and then see how much sway your hormones hold, she wanted to say.
“But,” Sam felt compelled to add, feeling as if Ty were sitting on her shoulder, “I want you to know that I got tested when I was in rehab and everything came back okay, so if and when we get there, then, you know…”
She trailed off, embarrassed. She had no idea why she’d felt the need to disclose that particular bit of information. No, she knew exactly why. Ty’s words were echoing in her head. Someday, he’d said, she would be in a relationship again. And now she was tiptoeing dangerously close to one, and the desire to reassure Brooke that she was coming into it with a clean slate had felt somehow necessary.
“Oh,” Brooke said awkwardly, her blush mirroring Sam’s. “I haven’t… I mean, it’s been a while. I should probably…”
Suddenly overcome with embarrassment, Sam groaned. “Don’t. I mean, this was maybe not the right time. I just wanted you to know.” She trailed off again, nearly growling in frustration. “I just wanted you to know that there was nothing left over from my past that you needed to worry about.”
Struggling to find the impartiality of the physician she knew she had somewhere within, Brooke straightened, making sure that Sam was looking in her eyes as she said softly, “And I appreciate it. I owe you the same courtesy.”
“Brooke, I’m sure…”
“Hey,” the blonde interrupted, finger pressing against Sam’s lips to stop the flow of words. “Medicine is my thing, right? I’ll take my own testing recommendations, thank you very much.”
The words were said with a smile, taking any possible sting out of them.
“And this might sound strange,” she added, grinning mischievously, “but honest and responsible is a hot look on you.”
“It is a little strange,” Sam admitted, then let Brooke kiss her again.
Sam felt like she hadn’t seen Brooke all week. The other girl had apologized profusely, no matter how many times Sam told her it wasn’t necessary. This was a hard month, Brooke would say. Her attending was riding her hard. She would leave for work at five in the morning and not return until late evening of the following day before collapsing into bed with barely a short welcome home conversation in between. Then, the next morning she would be back at the hospital first thing in the morning and there until late, though at least when she returned for the evening she was awake enough to have dinner and spend a little time with Sam before falling asleep again. But then, the next morning she would start the cycle all over again, leaving for work one morning not to return until evening of the following day.
Sam thought that she looked horrible, like a haunted and hunted being on the verge of collapse. Her skin had taken on a clammy pallor and her scrubs were hanging loose on her frame. She would return home with a slight limp, and the way Brooke hissed in a combination of pain and relief as she settled onto the couch let Sam know that her arm and shoulder were killing her.
It was one of the most insane things Sam had ever seen.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered one night as they sat together on the couch, the television on but unwatched.
Brooke laughed hollowly, rolling her eyes. “This is nothing,” she muttered. “Next year, I’m going to have whole months of this. I had whole months of this during my first and second years.”
“You’re what?” Sam was incredulous, outraged even.
Too tired to even try and think of a defense for the practice, Brooke said tiredly, “The first year of your fellowship is even harder than the first year of your residency. You’d think it would get easier, but it doesn’t. I’ll have at least two months where I’m on call every third day for the whole month. If I get screwed on the call scheduling, then maybe more.”
Sam scowled, deeply upset by the prospect that Brooke would have to go through the process she’d been witnessing for an entire month, much less more than once. “It’s not worth it, Brooke.”
“It is to me,” Brooke snapped. She was exhausted, her walls down and her emotions on edge. “I’ve been working for this for years.”
“Working for what?” Sam scoffed.
Brooke took in a deep breath, tried to think of a way to convey what she wanted to say. When she’d woken up in the hospital after the accident, body in traction and limbs in casts, she’d been too angry and in too much pain to think about much else. But, as time passed and the pain went away, or at least became commonplace enough to fade into the background, and she began to watch the parade of doctors and nurses that streamed in and out of her room, she began to get a sense of what had happened. She had been broken and they had fixed her. The people checking on her, appearing in her room in their white coats to question her and test her and make sure she healed, made a difference. They’d devoted their lives to helping people, and in watching them, Brooke began to think that might be what she wanted to do too.
It was easy to focus all of her attention on her studies when she returned to school. Her injuries didn’t leave much room for the extracurriculars she’d enjoyed before Sam was causing enough turmoil in the family for anything Brooke might have done to go relatively unnoticed, and so she’d needed something to capture her attention. The thought that she might one day be able to help others the way she’d been helped, that she might be able to take the shattered pieces of a person and put them back together again, was enough to propel her through her last year of high school and the rigor of a pre-med undergraduate course. By the time she was in med school, she was so wrapped up in the excitement of it all that she barely noticed the fatigue.
“It’s not like I’m doing something easy, Sam,” she continued, almost savagely. “It takes a lot of training to do what I do. Would you honestly want someone fresh out of medical school operating on you?”
“No,” Sam snapped back, “but I think I’d prefer someone who’d had more than 12 hours of sleep in the past week.”
She could feel her anger growing like a living thing inside of her, but one look at the exhausted tension on Brooke’s face stopped it short. “I don’t want to fight,” she sighed, reaching over to link her fingers with the other girl’s. “I hardly get to see you.”
“This is the way it is,” Brooke shrugged listlessly. “This is my life for the foreseeable future. It will only get worse before it gets better.”
The unspoken codicil, of course, was the ‘so I can’t make any promises’ and the ‘are you going to be able to handle that’ and the ‘can I count on you’.
If there was one thing that Brooke hated most about being on the other side of the doctor-patient interaction, it was the robes.
“You know there is absolutely no way to preserve any sort of dignity in these things,” Brooke grumped, looking up at Michelle Lombard, one of the gynos on staff at UCLA Medical Center.
Michelle’s grin was repressed, with a hint of devilish. “I didn’t design them,” she said. Then, in a more brusque, professional tone, she noted, “It’s been over three years since your last appointment, Brooke. I see you stopped taking your birth control in the past year.”
Despite herself, Brooke felt like blushing. As far as rebukes went, it was a mild one, but the oddity of having a colleague privy to her medical history had always sat oddly with her. “There wasn’t any need to continue taking it,” she offered, hoping that didn’t sound as pathetic as she thought it did.
“And now?” Dr. Lombard looked Brooke in the eyes as she asked the question, hands moving efficiently through a breast exam, and Brooke tried desperately not to be self-conscious.
“And now I thought it was time to come in for a routine check-up and for testing.” She paused, then added in a rush, “I want the full panel.”
A quirk of a brow was all of the response Dr. Lombard offered. “Is there something in particular you’re worried about?”
“I’m not worried,” Brooke stressed, watching with a hint of unease as the gynecologist snapped on a pair of latex gloves. “But recommendations indicate that you should get tested every six months if you’re sexually active…”
Dr. Lombard held up a hand, stopping the flow of Brooke’s words. “You don’t have to explain anything to me.”
Fifteen minutes later, Brooke finished straightening her clothes, breathing a sigh of relief and glaring at the crumpled gown she’d left on the examination table.
“We’ll draw some blood and let you get out of here,” Dr. Lombard said, eyes focused down on Brooke’s chart as she re-entered the exam room. She stopped, then looked up at Brooke seriously. “And this is the part where I tell you that you should probably consider going back on birth control if you’re still, or about to be, sexually active.”
Not necessarily willing to get into the specifics, Brooke merely nodded. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
As the nurse drew what seemed like a seemingly unending supply of blood from the needle in her arm, Brooke considered that she needed to look into insurance plans that let her go outside of her own hospital for care. She might ought to talk with Michelle about making assumptions, too, while she was at it.
“What are you doing?”
Brooke hadn’t meant for those to be the first words she said to Sam after having not seen her for almost three days, but was a little surprised by the well contained carnage in the living room.
“Oh,” Sam said as she looked up in surprise, pulling earphones down to rest around her neck, “um, making cds.”
Sam’s laptop was out and sitting in the middle of the mess. A stack of unlabeled golden discs were to her left and a few newly opened cds to her right, the plastic packaging scattered around in a wild circle.
“Okay,” Brooke said hesitantly, closing the door behind her.
Distractedly clicking a key on her computer, Sam said, “Yeah, Deak said that I could make a few for us to play at the shop. I was just going to get a few blank discs, but… I mean, I’ve only been out of the scene for a few months, and there’s already so much new stuff out there. And there’s this indie store I’ve seen a few times but never been in, so I stopped by there, too.”
As the explanation petered out, Sam held her hands out guilelessly as if to disavow herself of all connection to the music paraphernalia scattered around the floor.
“Wow,” Brooke said slowly. “You were busy.”
“Yeah,” Sam agreed, then jumped to her feet, accidentally unplugging the headphones that were still draped around her neck. “I’m so sorry,” she said, closing the distance between herself and Brooke to wrap the other girl in her arms, suddenly overwhelmed by a burst of affection as she took in the exhausted slump of Brooke’s shoulders. “You must be tired,” she murmured, placing a soft kiss on Brooke’s lips, “and hungry.”
Brooke felt a sense of exhilarated confusion rush through her at the intimacy. Fingers fiddling with the headphone cord trapped between them, she fought back a blush, suddenly unsure of how to deal with Sam. “A little hungry,” she admitted shyly, “but really just glad to be home.”
“Oh yeah?” Sam chuckled throatily, spurred on by the blush and smirking at the pink tinge in the other girl’s cheeks. “I bet I know why.”
She followed up the words with another kiss, and Brooke wanted to protest that that wasn’t what she’d been thinking at all – in fact, her thoughts had been more sappish than sensual – but she wasn’t about to do anything that might interfere with the way Sam was slowly scratching circles into her low back or with the first overt overture the other girl had made. Instead, she let her backpack slip from her shoulders and wrapped her arms around Sam’s waist, deepening the kiss into something more than the quasi-suggestive welcome home liplock it had started off as.
At the move, Sam pulled back for a second, shooting Brooke a shy yet suggestive smirk.
“Something about this is strangely sexy,” Brooke murmured in reply, fingering the thick headphones still wrapped around Sam’s neck. “And this wasn’t what I had planned.”
“What did you have planned?”
“I’m sure it pales in comparison,” Brooke said with a slight smile, leaning forward to catch Sam’s lips with her own only to pull up with a confused frown as Sam pulled back out of her reach.
In the time she’d been living with Brooke, Sam had gotten used to the stretches of time the blonde would spend at the hospital. She’d fallen into a bit of a rhythm herself, enjoying the silence and peace of an empty apartment for the first half of Brooke’s absence and then growing increasingly restless as the time stretched on. When Brooke was gone, outside of work and the few guilty pleasure television shows she’d picked up, her life was remarkably, well… kind of boring. Given the last decade of her life, boredom wasn’t necessarily something with which she was acquainted, and while the novelty of it had been almost amusing in and of itself at first, she’d found that it quickly lost its luster.
This time, the time had been nearly unbearable. Sam found herself missing little things, like the way Brooke’s eyes would close with joy as she ate whatever Sam had prepared for dinner that night, or the way she’d fight to stay awake as they watched a late night movie. Her attempts always ended in disaster, usually with her slumping against whatever was closest (be it the arm of the couch or Sam herself) and, on those nights when she was particularly tired, Sam found her soft, gentle snores adorable. She missed the enthusiastic awkwardness with which Brooke had thrown herself into the burgeoning relationship growing between them. She missed the not so sly assessing glances and the novelty of a Brooke who didn’t much seem to care what she was wearing any more.
In short, she found herself in the first stages of infatuation and the object of her affection was nowhere to be seen.
“Dinner,” Sam said emphatically, conscious of the odd look she was receiving from Brooke. “I’m fairly sure you need to eat.”
Brooke would have protested but Sam’s words were painfully true. Literally, almost, the gnawing in her belly catching up with her after a long night with little sleep followed by a long day on her feet with few breaks.
“I’ll make something quick,” Sam offered, leaning forward for a soft parting kiss.
Brooke would have argued, but it suddenly sounded like the best idea in the world. “I’ll go take a shower,” she said, a hint of relief in her tone. After spending so many continuous hours in the hospital, it felt like an extra layer of skin.
The shower was long and hot, and when she emerged, Brooke felt slightly rejuvenated. She always felt that way after a long call. As the end of her time drug to a close at the hospital, it felt as if her energy was pouring out of her as if she were a sieve. Getting home would seem like the most arduous task possible though when she arrived, the relief of being home would send a spike of energy through her.
Unfortunately, experience had taught her that the spike wouldn’t last long.
“It’s nothing fancy,” Sam warned, backing out of the kitchen with two plates. She’d tossed some sliced sweet potatoes in olive oil and salt and roasted them while she defrosted and cooked a few veggie burger patties. “I got wrapped up in what I was doing and…”
“I’m sure it’s perfect, Sam,” Brooke reassured, finding the little burst of domestic worry endearing. “You don’t always have to cook for me, you know.”
“Eh, I know,” Sam said, shrugging the words off. “I’m pretty sure you work a lot harder than I do, though, so it’s no big deal. Besides, I kind of like it.”
Actually, Sam had come to view cooking as a kind of therapy. There was something relaxing about the rhythmic movements involved in making a meal. It certainly kept her mind occupied, if nothing else.
After dinner, Brooke curled up on the couch, flipping lazily through the channels as Sam resumed her place at her laptop. Much to her amazement, she’d kept up a running commentary of all of the new finds she’d made, highlighting things she found innovative and not bothering to mask her derision for the things she found derivative. It felt good to dig into music again, in a way that was slightly scary. It almost seemed as if she was listening with fresh ears, as if she’d been away for years instead of months.
When the television settled and remained on a single station, Sam got a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t necessarily because Brooke had finally settled on a show. So, pausing mid-sentence, she glanced over, suspicions confirmed as she took in the slow rise and fall of Brooke’s chest. She briefly considered being affronted but dismissed the notion almost immediately. Instead, she finished up her project and then spirited the remote out of Brooke’s hand, settling on the other end of the couch and drawing Brooke’s legs up over her lap. Flipping through until she found a sufficiently entertaining re-run, she leaned back against the couch cushion and let her gaze wander unhindered over Brooke’s sleeping form.
The other girl had filled out a little since high school, growing into more womanly curves while adding a hint more muscle. She’d always had a golden, sun-kissed tan back in the days of Kennedy though now she was definitely paler. She still wore her hair long, though it was mainly pulled back in a pony tail these days. The tank she was wearing had drifted up as she moved minutely in sleep, baring the pinkish tail end of a scar.
Checking to make sure Brooke was still asleep, Sam reached out tentatively, finger inching up the other girl’s tank slightly further as she traced the line of it across Brooke’s belly. She had seen the scars when they were still fresh and vivid, of course, in those first few weeks and months after the accident. She knew there was another running down Brooke’s leg, the brutal remnant of a badly broken femur. While the one running down her thigh was more regimented, a neat and precise ladder climbing up the skin, the one across her belly was rougher. The skin had been partially slashed open in the accident – a further surgery to repair internal damage had lengthened it.
“Not so pretty, is it?” Brooke asked sleepily, jolting Sam out of the near trance into which she’d fallen.
Voice suddenly rough, Sam husked, “It gives you an air of danger.”
Brooke laughed, for some reason comfortable with Sam’s perusal. Normally, she went to extraordinary lengths to hide her scars. Then again, Sam had already seen them.
“You can barely see this one anymore,” Brooke offered, twisting so that she was on her back, body still half across Sam’s lap. She held her once broken wrist up for Sam to see, the surgical scars left by the insertion of pins now just a crisscross of shadowy grey. “It was after the accident that I decided this is what I wanted to do – orthopaedic surgery. I wanted to work miracles too.”
The soft admission stole Sam’s breath for a moment. After the accident, she’d spent half of her time drunk. Then again, thinking of their divergent paths wouldn’t do any good, not when she would never favorably compare to the golden girl, and so instead Sam focused on Brooke’s face. “I’ll bet you do,” she said with a smile.
“Hardly,” Brooke snorted, though the sound wasn’t as rough as she’d intended.
Rolling her eyes, Sam murmured, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
Brooke’s unassuming shrug was almost embarrassed. “I get to do my fair share, but it’s a lot of small stuff right now. After this year, when I start my fellowship, then I’ll really get a chance.”
“I’ve already had a whole career and yours is only getting started,” Sam marveled, thinking of her career cut short. Then again, at least she’d been able to do what she loved.
“I know,” Brooke said with an exaggerated sigh. “It’s all a sham. You think you’re going to be living the glamorous life of a doctor when you start taking pre-med courses in undergrad. The next thing you know, you’re working for less than minimum wage for hours so long that you forget what sunlight looks like.”
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be able to get some mileage out of it some day,” Sam said with a mischievous grin. “After all, maybe I’ll let you play doctor.”
Despite her exhaustion, Brooke perked up slightly at that. “Oh really?” she drawled, reaching for Sam’s hand. “Maybe I should practice now, then.”
Sam watched curiously as Brooke’s fingers traced expertly along each of her fingers, squeezing and manipulating her wrist with professional ease before sliding further up her forearm. “Everything feels good so far,” Brooke teased before pausing. Dropping the mimicry, she let her nails drag softly back down Sam’s skin to capture her fingers once more, wrapping her own around them tightly.
The light scrape sent a shiver down Sam’s spine. “Tease,” she accused softly, momentarily tightening her fingers around Brooke’s.
A week after Brooke’s visit to the doctor, her test results arrived in the mail. Not quite sure how to broach the subject in a way that wasn’t painfully awkward or contrived, she used a magnet to post her clean bill of health to the refrigerator door and left it at that.
The fact that Deak looked so serious frightened Sam just a little.
“Grab a cup and sit with me,” he said, taking his own steaming mug of coffee to a far table corner, and Sam had to wonder what she’d done wrong. Surely nothing else inspired this kind of solemnity. So, instead of taking the time to make herself a latte of some kind, she grabbed a strawberry lime Jones soda from the case.
“I’ll pay for it later,” she murmured to James as she twisted off the cap, looking down to see the message written inside.
Life changes, it said. She snorted, mentally shaking her fist at the ironic meta-fairy in the sky.
She thought about trying to make polite conversation as she slid into a seat across the table from Deak but took a nervous sip of her soda instead.
“I’ve got something that may be good news,” Deak said, though the somber timbre of his voice seemed to take all of the good out of whatever he was planning on saying. “I’ve got a friend who’s on faculty at Central,” he continued, referring to a local community college. “Fall semester starts in a couple of months and suddenly they’re down a professor.”
Sam felt confusion building inside of her, the physical manifestations of it obviously written clearly across her face. “And?”
“And they need someone to teach a journalism class. I told my friend that I might know someone.” He said the words casually and it took a second for Sam to catch the gist of it.
“Me?” she asked in disbelief, going so far as to point to herself. “You recommended me for the job?”
“You said you were a freelance journalist, right?”
“Yeah,” Sam sputtered. “But, I mean… teaching? I’ve never done anything like that. I’m not qualified to do something like that.”
Deak seemed to think that the best way to deal with Sam’s crisis of esteem was to ignore it. “He said he could see you tomorrow. He said to bring a resume and a sample of your work. Normally they have a grad student teach this course, but they’re willing to consider in-the-field experience as qualification. Do I call him and tell him you’re going to be there?”
“You’ve got to be crazy,” Sam muttered, thumb tracing a nervous ring around the lip of her bottle of soda. “Have you even read any of my work? I might be a hack.”
“I’ve read some,” Deak offered with a small smile. “I looked you up online. I wouldn’t recommend you if I didn’t think you could do it. Not that I potentially want to lose my early morning barista, but from what I understand, this class meets in the afternoon.”
Sam sat back in her chair, slightly flabbergasted. “You’re going out on a limb here? For me?”
“Not too far.” Deak smiled, then shook his head slightly. “It’s a chance, Sam. Are you going to take it?”
“Tell him yes.”
Sam was ready to bounce off of the walls by the time Brooke returned home from a short call that evening. It was nearly 11:00 and Sam was exhausted but too wired to sleep.
“Hey,” Brooke said with some confusion as she closed the door behind her. Sam had started going to bed earlier as she’d gotten more used to the schedule required by her early morning shift at the coffee shop. Since her bed was still situated in the corner of the living room, Brooke tried to make sure that she was quiet whenever she got in late. “Is everything okay?”
“I’ve got news,” Sam said by way of reply, barely able to harness her grin.
Brooke wasn’t sure whether to be excited by proxy or wary. “Good news?” she asked hopefully.
“I hope so,” Sam said somewhat breathlessly, unable to keep the enthusiasm out of her voice. She’d been thinking about Deak’s proposal all afternoon, and the more she’d thought about it, the more enticing it had gotten. She needed some kind of connection with her old life – maybe this was the perfect opening foray into reconnecting with what had been one of the most defining things about her. “Deak lined up a job interview for me tomorrow.”
Brooke’s brow drew tight in confusion. Had Sam been fired? Why would her boss try to find her another job? “Okay,” she said, drawing the word out.
Sam seemed not to notice. “He’s got a friend who’s on faculty at Central. It seems they’re short one journalism teacher. Deak recommended me, and I go in to talk with the guy and the department chair and whoever the week after next.”
When the words registered, Brooke couldn’t hold back her grin. “Sam, that’s amazing. I’m so excited for you.”
Dropping her bag on the floor, she made her way over to where Sam was nearly bouncing in place, wrapping her up in an engulfing hug.
“Yeah, what do you think… Professor MacPherson,” Sam joked, arms wrapping tightly around Brooke’s midsection. “It sounds almost legitimate.”
“I think you’re a shoe-in,” Brooke replied, leaning back so that she could look Sam in the eyes. “And, if you get to play doctor with me, I get to play naughty professor with you.”
After a second of stunned silence, Sam laughed heartily, the sound trailing off into a husking rusk. “Brooke, I’m shocked,” she purred, one brow crooking mischievously. “Of course, it figures that an academic type like you would have all kinds of kinky scholarly fantasies.”
“Now who’s the tease,” Brooke said with a shiver.
Leaning forward for a soft, quick kiss, Sam pulled away. “No one’s a tease. There’s no time for teasing tonight. I have to make sure to get my full, uh, what is it now? Six hours of sleep?”
“Five,” Brooke bemoaned.
Breaking away from Brooke’s hold, Sam wrapped her fingers through the blonde’s, pulling her toward the bedroom. “I raided your closet earlier. I hope you don’t mind. I don’t really have anything to wear to a serious job interview.”
Laid out on the bed was one of Brooke’s ‘clinic’ suits and a slim line white button down. She was immediately certain that the starkly tailored black business suit was going to look absolutely phenomenally sexy on Sam.
“I want to see you in that,” she said with a slightly lusty grin.
Sam eyed Brooke curiously for a second. “I can try it on for you,” she offered hesitantly.
For a second, Brooke pouted. Then, after a moment’s thought, she brightened. “We’ll go out to dinner after your interview. You’ll wear it.”
The words sounded almost like a command. “Yes ma’am,” Sam replied with a quiet laugh and a grin.
Later, after the outfit had been carefully placed back into the closet and teeth had been brushed, Brooke tried for casual as she said, “Hey Sam, you want to sleep in here with me?”
She blushed bright red as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Feeling a need to justify it, she added hurriedly, “I mean, just to sleep. It’s already so late. You have to get up so early tomorrow, and this bed has a real mattress, not an air mattress, and...”
Sam’s chuckle cut through the rush of Brooke’s words. “Sure,” she said, shrugging nonchalantly. “Unless you think it will keep you from getting your beauty sleep.”
If anything, Brooke’s blush grew even darker.
Brooke nuzzled into the soft warmth of Sam’s neck, arm clenching tighter as she eased into consciousness. A slight shift up and she was looking over Sam’s shoulder, the bright red numbers on her clock indicating that she had managed to wake herself up five minutes before the alarm was set to go off. So, taking advantage of her position, surprised by the way she’d gravitated toward Sam during the night, she stretched minutely, feeling the slide of her skin against the other girl’s.
Normally she liked to keep her distance in her sleep. In the past, she would typically turn so she was facing the side of the mattress, back toward the middle and any other occupant of her bed, wrap her arms around a pillow and drift quickly off to sleep. But, the night before, after a few moments of slightly awkwardly maneuvering, Brooke had slid her arm under Sam’s shoulders and pulled her over so that her head was resting on her own shoulder. After a second’s hesitation, Sam had eased over onto her side, one thigh easing easily between Brooke’s, her arm sliding across the other girl’s belly. The easy intimacy of the pose sent a shiver down Brooke’s spine and for a moment she was sure that she wouldn’t get a single wink of sleep that night.
Then Sam had snuggled against her a little more tightly, with a sleepy, “Good night, Brooke.”
Mere moments later, Brooke was out.
She’d been a little surprised by the comfort she’d felt with Sam. It was a definite step up in intimacy for them, one she’d had to work up the nerve to suggest and only barely managed to eek out. Something had felt so right to her, though, so natural and peaceful and easy that she wondered what excuse she was going to use that night when it was time to go to bed.
“Are you up already?” Sam’s voice sounded almost pained in the darkness of the room. “We’ve got another minute.”
“Habit,” Brooke murmured, taking advantage of their position to rub a light pattern against the soft skin of Sam’s belly. Then, unable to keep it in, she added, “This is nice.”
Sam moved easily in Brooke’s hold, shifting so that she was facing the blonde. Reaching out to push a lock of blonde hair behind the other girl’s ear, she leaned in for a soft kiss. “Yeah. Nice,” she said as she pulled back, voice a sleepy rumble.
Whatever else Brooke might have said was lost in the blaring, insistent bleat of the alarm clock, and with a sigh, she rolled up onto her elbow, reaching across Sam to slap it back into silence.
“How about I fix you breakfast this morning,” she offered, trailing a hand down the soft skin of Sam’s back.
For a moment, Sam thought about protesting. But then she smiled, almost smirked. “I’m not turning that down.”
The smirk almost made Brooke want to call in sick. Instead, she pulled herself back with some effort, rolling out of bed and into the flip-flops she always kept handy. “One day,” she said, almost to herself, “I’ll have the morning off.”
“Ms. MacPherson, I’ve heard good things about you.”
Deak’s friend was an artsy hulk of a man, over six feet of splattered paint stains. His name was Aaron Wilson, something she found far too mundane when paired with his presence.
“Call me Sam. It’s nice to meet you,” she said politely, brow raising slightly as her hand disappeared into his only to return with a slight transferred swipe of blue paint.
Aaron looked down at the paint with a bit of a grimace. “Sorry about that.”
By the time Sam was taken to meet the department chair, she’d managed to rub most of it off.
“So, you’re a freelance journalist.”
Melinda Harkness had a bright smile and a head full of barely contained curls. She wore her bifocals on a chain around her neck and looked like someone on the verge of becoming a grandmother when she slid them onto her nose to read through Sam’s resume. Sam tried not to be nervous, and the warmth of Melinda’s office helped somewhat. It was full of clutter, various stacks of paper listing haphazardly across numerous surfaces. The walls were covered with a mixture of photos and what looked to be keepsakes from trips taken across the US and abroad. If nothing else, she seemed to be a collector.
“For the last decade or so,” Sam said, trying to keep her voice cool and even. She didn’t want to appear nervous, didn’t want this woman to know just how important this position had become to her since the previous day. It seemed suddenly like a lifeline, like a perhaps unwarranted shot at legitimacy that she hadn’t been sure would be hers again.
The smile Melinda sent her as she laid the resume down on her desk, the paper soon lost against the scattered backdrop there, put her at ease. “We normally have graduate students from other universities come in and teach this class. The regular instructor had a conflict, I chose not to ask what exactly, and so we’re six weeks short of term and down a staff member.”
Not quite sure how she was supposed to respond, Sam only nodded.
“Aaron tells me that you come highly recommended from a friend of his.”
Again unsure, Sam continued nodding.
“Hiring someone who has been away for academia for a while isn’t our usual style,” Melinda said, and Sam felt her heart nearly plummet, “but you certainly seem qualified. I’ll be honest – I read some of your work when Aaron mentioned your name. I can’t say that I’m facile enough with the music industry to make heads or tails of most of what you were talking about in the more technical pieces, but you’ve got an excellent, concise and quite engaging writing style. I’m willing to hire you on to teach this class this semester. If things go well, we can talk about extending your time with us.”
Sam felt like jumping up and down. Instead, she managed a bright smile. “Thanks so much, Dr. Harkness. You won’t be disappointed.”
The feeling rushing through her was something like a natural high, Sam mused. In the wake of her triumphant interview, it seemed as if everything had shifted into sharp relief. The sky was bluer, the sounds of the birds trilling sharper. She could feel the boost of confidence in her walk, could see it reflected back to her in admiring eyes that traced her path home. She was keyed up, excited and on the point of combusting.
She almost didn’t know what to do with herself. Her world seemed suddenly full of choices. She was giddy with the headiness of it, and she wanted to share.
Much to her surprise, when Sam arrived back at the apartment at 4:30 that afternoon, Brooke was waiting on her. She didn’t ask how.
“I knew that would look fabulous on you,” Brooke managed to say before Sam cut off the flow of her words with a kiss. Brooke nearly squeaked in surprise, Sam’s enthusiastic push pressing her back into the wall.
“I got it,” Sam said, exhilaration rushing through her, focus coalescing as she looked into Brooke’s eyes. She felt a sense of purpose, a sense of future. It was a small thing, in the grand scheme of things, but it was still a step. It was a little bit of the old her combined with what she hoped was mostly the new her. It was something she found herself nearly craving, the desire to be back among words and the people who loved them nearly overwhelming. The joy of it couldn’t be contained.
“I got it,” she repeated, fingers pulling frantically at Brooke’s shirt. All of her energy, all of her triumph and joy needed to go somewhere. She felt fabulously alive and she needed to celebrate it.
“That’s fantastic,” Brooke said, head spinning. Sam’s hands were on her stomach, sliding purposefully upward, and her blouse was being systematically removed. “I’m so happy for you.”
She would have said more, but Sam’s lips were on hers again. The sensation made it difficult for her to think, much less speak, and though part of her mind considered protesting the sudden jump forward that her body was anticipating, she didn’t have the heart to disappoint herself. She wanted this. Badly. So instead of pushing Sam away, she raised her arms over her head, letting the blouse disappear. She pushed her suit jacket off of Sam’s shoulders, throwing the garment blindly in the direction of the couch and took a second to absorb the sight of Sam in the crisp white button down and black skirt before falling into her kiss again.
She felt a little overwhelmed, as if Sam had been holding back before. She didn’t remember the other girl’s kisses as having this sort of mind-blowing intensity, this overwhelming focus. Sam’s fingers were in her hair, holding her head still as she ravaged Brooke’s mouth, tongue flicking and teeth nipping and for a moment, Brooke felt self-conscious and awkward. Her own body was pushing and wanting while Sam’s was a sensuous glide against hers, each sinuous movement seeming to rub in just the right way.
When Sam pulled back to kiss a trail across Brooke’s cheek to her ear, breath hot and rasping against the sensitive skin, the blonde thought she might collapse. The feel of Sam’s tongue teasing the skin, the sharp bite of her teeth, was enough to turn her knees to jelly, and Brooke slammed her palms back against the wall behind her, searching for something to hold onto.
“I got it,” Sam whispered into her ear, chuckling at the sound of Brooke’s moan.
Aware that she needed to take a more active role in the seduction, Brooke struggled to regain her balance. All of her efforts were wiped clean in an instant, however, as Sam took a step back, lowered her chin and looked up at Brooke from beneath thick lashes, then ran her tongue along the plush expanse of her lower lip.
“Let’s celebrate,” she husked, fingers flicking open the line of buttons holding her shirt together, baring the flat expanse of her belly and the duplicitously virginal white of bra. Slipping out of her heels, she wrapped her fingers around Brooke’s, giving the speechless blonde’s hand a tug.
After a second’s hesitation, Brooke followed.
Brooke was surprised she was still conscious. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been on the receiving end of a seduction that was that knowing, that overpowering. Sam had led her to the bedroom only to push her down on the bed, stripping off her remaining clothes in a no-nonsense manner that left Brooke as dry-mouthed as the most sensual of erotic dances. The Sam staring down at her had a confidence and power she hadn’t really seen before. This Sam knew what she was doing and what she wanted.
Brooke felt like she was merely along for the ride. Sam’s growl as she’d descended, full of a sort of animalistic glee, had made Brooke want to melt. And then she was lost, trapped in the thrall of a pair of knowing hands and a set of knowing lips, and by the time she reemerged, she felt as if she’d been branded. She’d tried to return some of that fire, had tried to project a self-assuredness she wasn’t sure she possessed. While it certainly seemed that Sam had appreciated her efforts, Brooke couldn’t help feeling a bit amateurish in comparison. She might have made the first move that night in the kitchen, but Sam had certainly taken the game.
“Perfect,” Sam declared, hand resting possessively on Brooke’s belly.
Brooke wasn’t sure what Sam was referring to and didn’t want to ask for clarification. As it stood, she could apply the superlative to anything she wanted.
“I knew you’d look hot in that suit,” she said instead, voice weary. Outside of her window, it was nighttime.
Sam chuckled, snuggling a little more closely into Brooke’s side. Her body temperature was just returning to normal, the apartment’s air conditioning doing a superb job, aided by the drying sweat on her skin. Reaching lazily for one of the sheets that had been shoved to the side, she drew it up over them. “I thought you promised me dinner,” she said languidly, flexing and releasing the muscles of her thighs to ease away the hint of fatigue she felt.
Voice wry, Brooke murmured, “I was distracted.”
“I think you’re pretty easily distracted then,” Sam said with a smirk. She was shockingly okay with their consummated relationship. The addition of the physical realm to what they’d been building made it feel as if it had more form. In the past, she might have been frightened by the sense of complacency that had settled through her. Now, she was happy.
Shaking her head ruefully, Brooke said, “When the distraction is you, I think that’s probably right.”
Brooke wished that she hadn’t scheduled four moonlighting shifts for that month. As it was, Sam was at home sleeping in what Brooke had come to think of as their bed and she was at St. Vincent’s scarfing down a honey bun from the lobby vending machine.
“It’s there again,” Nikki said suspiciously, one eye on the chart she was writing and the other on Brooke. “The glow… it’s back.”
“Yeah,” Brooke allowed, smiling so widely her cheeks almost ached. “It’s sex. The glow is sex.”
Nikki laughed loudly, the sound of out place in the emergency room. “So, details. Who? What? When? Where? How?”
Brooke held her breath expectantly. Nikki was the first person she’d told, really the only person she felt comfortable telling, and waiting on her response was nerve wracking.
“Sam?” Nikki echoed, confused. “The drug addict stepsister?”
“Ex-drug addict,” Brooke clarified.
“In that case, I’m worried. Also, kind of surprised. Also, a little speechless.”
Brooke shrugged, offering up an innocently helpless look.
Signing off on the orders she’d written with a near delirious flourish, Nikki slammed the chart closed. “How did this happen?” she asked, disbelief warring with curiousity.
Tossing crinkled cellophane in a nearby trash can, Brooke blushed slightly. “It just kind of happened. You know she’s been living with me, and I guess we got kind of close.”
“So, what? One day the two of you look at one another and that’s it? Nookie time?”
“Nookie?” Brooke echoed, shaking her head in wry amusement. Then, giving in to her impulse to share what had happened with someone, she leaned forward, voice conspiratorial. “And no, that’s not what happened. She was very well behaved. I instigated things.”
“You?” Nikki scoffed. For most of the time she’d known Brooke, the other girl’s love life had been a vast wasteland. Before that had been Ty. Nikki had only met him a few times and had thought he’d been quite the hot commodity but Brooke had drifted away from him until the relationship simply sputtered out. Nikki hadn’t understood that any more than she did Brooke’s new love interest. “You made a move on her?”
Brooke blushed slightly, thinking of her surprise attack in the kitchen. “I’d been feeling these feelings…” she trailed off, blushing even more intensely. As much as she wanted to tell someone, she didn’t want to devolve into one of a pair of middle-school girls sharing secrets. “And long story short, yes. I made a move on her.”
It was difficult for Nikki to reconcile the thought of Brooke with the girl who she’d seen only once, and that had been when she’d coded out in the very emergency room they were currently occupying. The whole thing seemed so utterly un-Brooke.
“Not to throw water on the fire,” Nikki said, suddenly slightly uncomfortable with the notion, “but the last time I saw Sam, she’d just died.”
Sighing, biting her bottom lip nervously, Brooke said, “I know. But, she finished her rehab, you know. She’s been clean ever since she left. I told you about how she got that job in the coffee shop, right? Now she’s going to be teaching a journalism class at Central Community. She’s been nothing but responsible.”
Nikki felt the nagging sense that she should say more, that she should somehow warn her friend. But, Brooke was an adult. She had chosen to pursue a relationship with Sam despite her history, and Nikki certainly wasn’t in a position to tell Brooke what to do with her life. She could only hope that she didn’t find herself one day consoling a friend who had put too much faith in someone who might not deserve it.
So instead, she grinned. “I’ll have to say, I’m surprised. I never would have guessed you had it in you. Maybe now you’ll loosen up a little.”
The last little bit was said with a knowing smirk and Brooke punched the other girl in the upper arm, the blow not hard enough to hurt. But, despite the teasing, inside she was soaring. It felt good to share her exciting news with her friend. It made her feel almost like a normal human.
“So, how was the interview?” Deak asked with easy nonchalance, but Sam grinned at the question.
“I was right about you. You are a gossip.”
“So appease me, then.”
She held back for a second but, in the end, couldn’t contain her grin. “I got the job.”
Deak’s small, happy smile was the brightest of congratulations. “See,” he said, voice a faux scoff, “you’ve got to have faith.”
“Or friends willing to pull a few strings,” she shot back, her smile taking the heat out of the words.
“Or that,” Deak allowed. “And, how about Brooke. How are things going there?”
Under the steady, open gaze, Sam felt herself grow suddenly shy. Wiping at a nonexistent spot on the counter, unable to meet Deak’s eyes, she mumbled, “We slept together.”
“Already?” Deak commented, a single brow raised in surprise. “I thought you were just in here going on and on about taking it slow.”
“We did take it slow,” Sam protested. “It’s been weeks.”
“Weeks,” Deak said, and this time there was real scoff in his voice.
“Don’t give me a hard time about this,” Sam grumbled, leaning back into the counter behind her with a sigh. “You know, what’s done is done.”
“And how was it?”
“Fantastic, not that it’s any of your business.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“That’s what you asked,” Sam pointed out rationally.
She could tell Deak was on the verge of sighing in frustration, but somehow managed to hold back. “Was it something more?”
“More than fantastic?”
“Yeah, more than fantastic,” he verified, and Sam felt as if his dark eyes were penetrating through the very soul of her.
“Maybe,” she mumbled, then paused unable to believe she was even saying the words, “It felt like a new beginning.”
“There, that’s better,” Deak chided. “There may be hope for you yet.”
“Oh, come on,” Sam scoffed.
“I say this to you because I consider you a friend,” Deak offered with a gentle smile. “You’re a pretty fucked up girl, but I think you can manage to get your shit together. Start by not screwing this up. And bring your girl around sometime. I’d like to meet her.”
“I’m a little taken aback by that,” Sam admitted honestly.
“Sometimes, things just have to be said.”
Brooke felt as if there were four different versions of herself trying to escape through her skin, each heading in a different direction.
“I love to listen to you,” Sam growled in her ear, the warmth of her breath sending a shiver down Brooke’s spine. Sam was doing something with her fingers, something magical and delicious, and even though Brooke always blushed for days whenever she saw her neighbors after really letting go, she knew that Sam liked to hear and watch it.
So, wrapping her fingers tightly in Sam’s hair, holding the other girl’s head immobile so that Sam’s eyes were focused on her face, Brooke closed her eyes and ignored the internal filters begging her to be quieter and let everything she was feeling find voice.
“Is this weird for you?”
They were laying on the bed in Brooke’s room, skin covered with a light sheen of sweat and eyelids drooping pleasantly, the scent of them mingling together in a perfume that was almost sweet enough to rouse Brooke from her near stupor.
“Weird?” Sam asked, head rolling to the side slightly so that she could look Brooke in the eyes.
“Yeah, weird,” Brooke confirmed, finger tracing an idle path across the plane of Sam’s belly.
Sam took in a deep, steadying breath. “I can only assume that you’re referring to you and I being together.”
Brooke was suddenly acutely aware of the lack of definition in their relationship. They had acknowledged mutual attraction and had acted on it, and even though she suspected that it was something more than that for her, she wasn’t yet ready to let Sam know that. As such, she realized in retrospect that it might have been better to have kept her mouth shut.
Instead, she nodded.
Sam shrugged lethargically. “Yeah, kind of weird. Or, maybe it’s more that it’s unexpected.” She paused for a second, then grinned, warming to the subject. “I mean, let’s look at it this way – let’s start in high school. At the time, obviously, there was a hint of ‘mortal enemies’ going on with us. It was a cultural war and you and I were firmly on opposite sides. By the time I was actually starting to see you as human, we had the Harrison debacle.”
Sam’s grin faded slightly as she remembered what came after the Harrison incident, but after an apologetic shrug of the shoulders, continued on. “When you came back from the hospital, we were both different people than before you went in. You were studying all the time. You were the perfect child – straight A’s, ambitious, hardworking.”
“And you were being hauled home by the police,” Brooke added with a wry smile.
“And I had chosen to take another path,” Sam offered judiciously. “All I really remember about that time was that I was angry. Sometimes it seemed like you’d become even more perfect to spite me. But what did I care, right? I was just biding my time until I could get away. Thus begins a long stretch of years where we had minimal contact – requisite holidays and occasional visits, and every time I see you I get another glowing update of just how on track your life is. By this time, you’re a stranger to me and I imagine I’m a stranger to you. We have that little bit of history between us and a shared family, but that’s pretty much it.”
Brooke had thought that it was slightly more than that, remembering the scattering of good times they’d had throughout the years, but held back. This was Sam’s story.
“I’m off on my own, living my life as far away from your perfect, charted course toward greatness as I can be. I’m both a success and a fuck up.” Sam broke into a grin suddenly. “Maybe we should call Ty. This sounds like the kind of thing he’d dig.”
Brooke glanced down at their bare, entwined limbs. “I’d rather not,” she said dryly.
“I’m pretty sure he’s already seen your girlie parts,” Sam replied, tone equally as dry.
Brooke sighed, shaking her head in consternation. “Not in years. Besides, he hasn’t seen yours, right?”
“I’m afraid that’s confidential,” Sam murmured, smirking.
“The thought is more than disturbing.”
For a moment, it looked as if Sam was going to say something further. There was a mischievous glint in her eye that both intrigued and scared Brooke, and so the blonde was relieved when Sam appeared to decide to return to her story.
“Where were we?” the brunette asked, smiling at the way Brooke seemed to almost visibly relax as she resumed her story. “Oh yes. Let’s fast forward to the present. I wake up in a hospital bed to your less than welcoming face, learn that I’ve apparently been left for dead by a girl who at least had the decency to pack my things in my suitcase and drop them off at the hospital, and piss you off in old school style so that I’m left alone to recover in solitude and misery. I decide this isn’t the best course of action for me and find myself in rehab when all I really wanted was a room. Upon my release from rehab, I learn that your perfect life sucks. I also apparently woo you without even trying to do so.”
“Yeah,” Brooke said wryly. “You’re the effortless seductress.”
Sam stretched out to give Brooke a soft, lingering kiss. “Absolutely,” she concurred, then rolled her eyes. “I’ve forgotten the point of this story.”
“Whether or not you ever feel weird about this,” Brooke reminded her, then wished she hadn’t.
“Weirdness. Right. Sometimes it’s a little weird, I guess. It’s one of those unexpected twists of fate,” Sam allowed, reaching over to push a stray lock of hair behind Brooke’s ear. “It’s good, though. I’m happy. I thought I was finding my sister again but it turned out that I found something more.”
Brooke frowned, brow furrowing. “That doesn’t sound quite right. I would prefer it if you never made that particular analogy again.”
“I don’t think it was an analogy,” Sam said thoughtfully, inching closer to Brooke on the bed, “and certainly not a simile.”
“Either way,” Brooke said warningly.
Close enough now to flip Brooke onto her back and straddle her hips, Sam did so. Pushing up on her hands so that she was looming over the other girl, she murmured, “I’ve done a lot of things in my life. I’m not even sure this is the least socially acceptable.”
“I don’t want to know,” Brooke said seriously, consciously blocking out any notion of the things Sam might have done.
Lowering down so that she could brush her nose against Brooke’s, the gesture one of affection and tenderness, Sam said, “The point is, it doesn’t matter if it’s weird. It’s good, right?”
“Right,” Brooke said firmly, not nearly as reassured as she would have liked to have been but willing to go with it nonetheless. “Maybe this is just the inevitable conclusion of all that fighting we used to do.”
“You’re saying that was unresolved sexual tension?” Sam teased, leaning down to nip at Brooke’s earlobe.
Brooke shivered, arching up against Sam as a shiver ran down her spine.
“Maybe,” she said distractedly, hands gripping Sam’s buttocks and pulling her toward her.
“So what I should have done instead of yelling at you,” Sam pondered thoughtfully, “is this?”
The feel of Sam’s fingers sliding against Brooke’s sensitive skin to dip inside of her briefly elicited a low moan of desire from the blonde. Any other answer she might have given was soon lost, driven from mind by the delicious torture of Sam’s light touch.
The end of residency year party was something Brooke had been forced to attend, with one exception, since her first year. Outgoing residents, each heading off to a fellowship or membership in a private practice or an academic position, were guests of honor at a bash hosted by the UCLA Medical Center, traditionally held at the clubhouse at the Bel Air Country Club. Attendance was both expected and politically advantageous and work was really the only accepted excuse for skipping it.
Unfortunately, that Friday was one of the few Brooke had off.
Dr. Brooke McQueen and guest, her invitation had read, requesting an RSVP. The words had nearly given her a panic attack.
She’d gotten the invitation over a month before and had ignored it, throwing it in her bag and leaving it for later. The later had come in the form of her staff meeting that morning and the stern reminder that the party was only a week away and more than half of them had yet to respond. Now, it was one word in particular that drew her up short.
Guest. In previous years, the word had been innocuous. Either she was dating someone or she was not, and attending alone was no different than attending with someone in tow. No one really wanted to go alone, but everyone understood that the strain of working as many hours as the residents did left little time for outside socializing. Attending alone was in no way a mark of dishonor.
The only problem was that this year she wasn’t alone.
“Cool,” Sam had said, picking the invitation up from where Brooke had carelessly laid it on the table. “Are we going?”
Because if she was going to bring a guest, it would be her girlfriend. Obviously. No questions asked. And how could she go alone if she had a girlfriend?
At the time, though, her brain had frozen. “You want to go?” she’d asked incredulously, snatching the invitation out of Sam’s grasp. She shouldn’t have even brought it home. She should have RSVP’d in that very staff meeting, indicating that she wouldn’t be attending and picked up a moonlighting shift or traded an on-call shift with someone who wanted to go and who wouldn’t be announcing potentially shocking details about their personal life by showing up.
As she’d done neither of those things, she was forced to decide whether or not to lie to Sam and pretend as if she wasn’t going to go or, alternately, explain that she would attending alone.
There’d been a hint of hurt and bitterness in Sam’s voice as she’d crossed her arms over her chest protectively. “No, of course not.”
Brooke had felt a moment of panic. She’d felt herself standing on a very thin ledge with deep ravines on either side. It was merely a choice of deciding which fall would hurt less.
“We should go,” she’d said softly, trying to make her smile and her words seem convincing. “These things are usually horrible – just a lot of boring speeches and less than heartfelt platitudes to the accompaniment of an open bar. Maybe having you there will make it bearable.”
Sam hadn’t seemed convinced.
“Oh, come on, Sam,” she’d said, crumbling in the face of the other girl’s visible disappointment. “I want you to go with me.”
It was the next day before Sam said, “I know you’re not thrilled about taking me, but the fact that you asked anyway means a lot.”
Brooke had almost pointed out that the asking should have been enough, but she’d refrained. In the next moment, her restraint was rewarded.
“I feel the need to say this, Brooke.” Sam paused for a second, face and voice serious. “I’m at a point in my life where I’m not going to settle for being a secret. I’ve been there and done that and I don’t anticipate going back. I don’t know if I want to be involved with someone who would do that to me. In the end, that kind of relationship is destructive and demoralizing. Right now, I’m trying to stay away from negativity like that.”
And in the face of that statement, Brooke had no other recourse.
Sam’s scarlet dress had a halter neck and she’d elected to wear her hair up in a carelessly stylish style that made Brooke want to pull her back into the bedroom. The outfit left her back, shoulders and tattoos exposed, and Brooke wondered how her colleagues would react and which would confound them more – the gender of her date or her date herself. They were normally a fairly staunch crowd, used to socializing in tight knit circles that centered primarily around colleagues. Sam would be a revelation in more ways that one, she imagined, especially since she’d decided that, given that she was actually going to go through with attending with Sam by her side, she’d do so without warning anyone. She was actually anticipating, in an objective observer kind of way, seeing how everyone would take things.
“Posh,” Sam murmured as the valet drove off in Brooke’s battered car, wrapping her fingers through the blonde’s.
“After the years of hell, the least they can do is throw a decent party,” Brooke snarked in reply, a hint of bitterness in her tone.
Sam’s smile was wry. “You mean the 80 plus hours a week you work aren’t full of sunshine and joy?”
Brooke rolled her eyes, acutely conscious of the feeling of Sam’s hand in hers. During the relatively short time that they’d officially been ‘together’, time that Brooke didn’t spend at work they usually spent in bed. There had been a few outings – dinner, a movie or two that she slept through – and the ease with which Sam showed affection in public startled her at first until she realized that doing so was de rigueur for the brunette. She’d probably stopped worrying long ago about the way people’s gazes obliquely followed them though Brooke still found it unsettling. But, she decided, tightening her fingers around Sam’s, if she was going to attend the party with Sam, holding her hand was the least of her anxiety provoking concerns.
“Hey, look!” Sam’s voice was bright, almost startling, and Brooke pulled herself out of her neurosis long enough to follow the path of Sam’s outstretched arm. “It’s Ty.”
And indeed it was Ty, she noted, on the arm of the second year psychiatry resident.
“Look at that outfit,” Sam’s voice was mocking yet affectionate. “The man’s the Justin Timberlake of the rehab community. That’s a Paul Smith London suit, his Spring/Summer collection.”
Brooke looked at Sam, momentarily horrified for reasons she couldn’t explain. “How do you…”
Shooting the other girl a sheepish look, Sam shrugged. “People leave their magazines at the coffee shop. It gets boring there in the afternoon.”
“I’m officially a little worried about you,” Brooke murmured, and though she was trying very hard to remain calm, the hint of tension in her tone gave her away.
Her colleagues were milling about in groups of four or five, each with a drink in hand. Something about an actual release from the hospital and the festive nature of seeing off a cadre of residents who had managed to make it through their time, some less scathed than others, combined to give the crowd an air of barely repressed rowdiness. She knew that after they’d all been corralled around the elegantly set tables for an hour and a half of speeches, awards and platitudes, most of the people there would get spectacularly drunk. There would be loud laughter and the telling of inappropriate jokes and stories. It was almost as if the end of year party was a gathering of individuals recently released from jail and determined to make the most of their first night of freedom. Despite the fact that she dreaded attending every year, Brooke secretly enjoyed seeing her coworkers embroiled in their less than professional revelry.
Tonight, though, she was too nervous to notice that Dr. Hoolihan, the man who had been absolutely atrocious to her during her second year rotation through geriatrics, had already undone his tie and unbuttoned the first two buttons of his shirt and was making an ill-advised and unsuccessful attempt to woo one of the somber-faced servers who seemed to want nothing to do with him.
“Brooke. Sam.” Ty’s greeting was warm if a little confused. Brooke looked up with a start, suddenly realizing that she’d drifted off into her own thoughts. She shot a guilty look at Sam and then a smile at Ty, straightening her shoulders in an attempt to pull herself together.
“What’s up, doc,” Sam said cheerfully, some part of her actually glad to be seeing Ty again. When she’d left rehab, she’d been convinced that she could go a lifetime without having to look at his ever present smile again. Now, he seemed like an old friend.
“Same old. This is Lillian,” he replied, gesturing at the pretty dark-haired physician at his side. “I’m sure you know each other,” he said, looking from Lillian to Brooke. “And this is Sam McPherson.”
Sam untangled herself from Brooke, reaching out to shake Lillian’s proffered hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” she said politely. Then, to Ty, added, “Love the suit.”
He preened for a moment, smoothing down his lapels, before catching the teasing glint in her eyes. “You’re just jealous of my impeccable sense of fashion.”
Sam started to say something, the wickedness of her smile indicating that she was anticipating cutting Ty off at the knees, but was cut off herself by the melodious hum of a bell lyre calling them to dinner.
“We’ll chat later,” she said, winking saucily at Ty. Then, to Lillian, “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Lillian, she noticed, seemed torn between a smile and a question. She chose a polite nod of the head instead, throwing a glance back over her shoulder as Ty lead her off to their table.
“Maybe he does actually date girls,” Sam murmured conspiratorially as she followed Brooke to a nearby table. They’d been divided by program and year, which Brooke felt was a little unnecessary. After all, she saw the people gathered around her daily. She shouldn’t be forced to socialize with them outside of the hospital as well. Though, she mused, she was about to leave these people behind. Maybe she should try to summon up some nostalgia.
To her surprise, Sam engaged in easy conversation with some of the other people at the table while Brooke remained stone silent, answering only questions directed at her.
“Part time writer, part time barely competent barista, and soon to be neophyte professor,” Sam was saying with a bright smile to Ben Chen, one of the nicer residents from her year and the man with whom Brooke shared chief resident duties. Like many of the other guys in her program, Ben had been an athlete for most of his life. Before suffering from a rotator cuff injury that left him unable to compete on a competitive level, he’d been on his college’s swim team. And now, like so many of her fellow residents, he’d instead turned to sports medicine and, in particular, orthopaedics.
”Brooke didn’t tell us she was dating anyone,” Ben was saying, shooting a semi-reproachful glance Brooke’s way.
Sam followed it with a softer gaze of her own. “She’s a little shy, I think.”
Brooke uneasily stabbed a sauteed green bean, biting into it for lack of something better to do.
Much to her relief, the director of residency programs chose that moment to begin the formal proceedings of the evening.
“I just want to remind you all that we have an open bar this evening,” he began, smiling, “in case any of you want to drink away the pain of the past year.”
“So, they promote substance abuse at your hospital?” Sam whispered teasingly, leaning closer to Brooke so that the words fell on her ears alone. “Maybe I should report them to Ty.”
Brooke couldn’t help the shiver that ran down her spine, both from the brush of Sam’s warm breath against the sensitive shell of her ear and the slide of Sam’s slinky dress against the bare skin of her arm. She’d spent the ten minutes prior searching the faces of her coworkers intently. She’d noticed their initial shock, caught a hint or two of guarded admiration when their glances turned to Sam, and observed the general lack of concern from most of them. There were a few sour faces, among them one belonging to a fellow resident who had been convinced that Brooke would be up for on-call room shenanigans only to have been unceremoniously turned down. In general, though, past the looks that let her know that her arrival with Sam was an unexpected surprise, most people seemed to not really care.
It was honestly more than she’d expected.
Turning her head slightly, catching sight of Sam’s full lips out of the corner of her eye, she smiled. It was the first such gesture in which she’d engaged that night, and it seemed to break the tight shell into which she’d climbed as soon as they’d arrived.
After the program, people began to drift off into various cliques. Sam sought out and found Ty after another brief conversation with Ben Chen who was, in her opinion, a little too cute with his dimpled cheeks and dark brown eyes. She briefly wondered if she should be worried about sending Brooke to work with him, given his charming nature, and thought about offering a subtly veiled warning.
Then she laughed at herself.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Ty offered, the corny platitude accompanied by his trademark smile. His date for the evening was mingling with some of the other residents from her year and Brooke had been drawn into a conversation about a patient. The last Sam had seen her, she’d looked pained and irritated.
Before crossing the room, Sam had managed to grab a glass of water. The sight of the open bar, with the bartenders pouring out everything from straight shots of some of the finest whiskeys to bright, elaborate cocktails had tugged at her, beckoning her to pull up a chair and order some of her old favorites, but one glance at Brooke, whose eyes were subtly following her across the room, and she’d ordered the water.
“Long time no see,” she returned, in keeping with his opener, toasting him with her glass of water. “How have you been?”
“Not as good as you, obviously,” Ty said, a single brow arched suggestively. “Did I see you holding hands with Brooke earlier?”
Despite herself, Sam blushed. “You did.”
“I’ll have to admit that the last time I saw you, I didn’t quite anticipate this turn of events,” Ty said with a thoughtful expression. His face smoothed out into his usual grin at Sam’s roll of the eyes, though, and he chuckled. “Although she did say there was the one girl in college.”
Sighing heavily, Sam shook her head. “There’s always the one girl in college. That’s what college is for.”
“And here I thought it was for academic exploration and career preparation. I see I missed the boat entirely.” A second later, Ty’s face turned somber as he leaned closer. “Seriously, though, how are you doing?”
“I’m doing okay,” Sam said, taking a sip of her water and trying not to wince. For a moment, she had been expecting a vodka tonic. The contrast was disappointing. “I’m staying at Brooke’s. I’m working in a coffee shop and just got a gig teaching a journalism class at a local community college. I’m in a new relationship, obviously. I went to a couple of meetings.”
Ty nodded gravely though his eyes were dancing. “I’ve always known I was a genius.”
Sam snorted, then playfully punched him in the arm. She thought about doing it again, a little harder the second time, just to make up for sending her to group therapy. “Tell me about Lillian,” she said instead, taking another sip of her water. It went down easier the second time.
“We met at a conference,” Ty said, though this time his smile was wistful. “She’s pretty great, I think. We’ve only been dating for about a month.”
Despite herself, Sam murmured, “You are a great guy, aren’t you Ty? Everyone kept telling me, but now you’ve gone and proved it yourself.”
At the startled look on his face, Sam added, “I’m just… I don’t know. Grateful, maybe. You know, that you seem to want to treat me like a normal human being.”
Ty shook his head ruefully. “We spent a little time in close contact, I’ll admit. But, I don’t ever expect to see you back in that capacity. Unless you need a booster session,” he rushed to add, “at which point I’d be delighted to chat. Given that, now we’re just two people who share an interesting bit of history and a girlfriend – ex on my account.”
“Which makes it even stranger,” Sam said with a chuckle, taking another sip of her water. Pinning him with a mock glare, she added, “The concept that we might actually be friends is a little disconcerting.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he said easily, reaching up to adjust his tie. “And now I must go and be dashing and fabulous for my girl.”
She followed his line of sight to see Lillian looking at him quizzically and, just because she could, gave him a soft kiss on the cheek and a stern pat on the back.
“I’ll see you around, Dr. Tybee,” she said cheekily, the imprint of her lipstick a bright beacon on his cheek. “Friends only, this time.”
“Are you flirting with Ty?”
Sam nearly leapt out of her skin in surprise at Brooke’s words, turning quickly to see the blonde watching her with a hint of wary amusement.
“A little,” she admitted, taking another quick sip of her water, “but I promise it didn’t mean anything.”
“Lillian’s glaring at us,” Brooke pointed out, shaking her head ruefully. “You’ve made an enemy.”
“I just wanted to make sure she was appropriately attentive to the boy,” Sam murmured, reaching out to wrap an arm around Brooke’s midsection. Without warning, she pulled the other girl to her for a short kiss, drawing a surprised gasp from her companion.
“Well,” Brooke murmured, face slowly flushing deep red, “that certainly laid to rest any questions anyone might have had.”
“Are you kidding?” Sam teased. “The rumors are already making the rounds. I’m your girltoy, Dr. McQueen.”
Brooke eyed the brunette warily. “As much as I think you’re kidding, you’re still probably right.”
“Probably,” Sam seconded with a sigh. “Now, humor me for a second. This Ben Chen – he’s not as charming with you as he was at dinner, right?”
“Ben Chen is married,” Brooke said flatly, rolling her eyes.
“Which has more meaning for some than others,” Sam pointed out. “Where’s his wife?”
“Hugely pregnant. My guess is that she couldn’t stand the thought of sitting through this torture with a baby poking at her ribs and sitting on a kidney.”
Sam considered the explanation for a moment, then nodded decisively. “I still think you need to watch out for him. And maybe Lillian, too. I think she might not like me.”
“No, she probably doesn’t,” Brooke concurred. “But then again, she does have good reason. Perhaps I’m the one who should be worried. After all, you were just flirting with my ex-boyfriend.”
“Harmlessly,” Sam said dismissively. “I was merely enjoying the company of someone who turned out to be a great guy.”
“See, you’re falling under his thrall already,” Brooke teased. “You already admire his fashion sense and now this.”
Sam blushed, then shook her head in disbelief. “I do not,” she muttered defensively. “Anyway, do we need to stick around here and mingle?”
Brooke shrugged, looking around the room. Though it hadn’t been long since dinner ended, a large percentage of the people there were already well into their cups.
“Because I was thinking,” Sam murmured, voice a seductive rumble, “that it isn’t often that you’re conscious this late on a Friday night.”
Brooke laughed, something about the moment making her unabashedly happy. Perhaps it was the fact that her girlfriend had just propositioned her.
“Well then, let’s not let it go to waste,” she said with a sizzling smile.
“Brooke, have any other revelations you’d care to share?”
Brooke had been anticipating this confrontation since she’d returned to work for an evening short call on Saturday. Jack Mayer had been glaring at her, clearly both angry and affronted, and she’d known it was only a matter of time.
Instead of letting him bait her, she chose to ignore him.
“Oh, so now you’re too good to even talk to the male half of the species?”
Closing her eyes briefly as she fought down the urge to say something incredibly rude, she instead went with something only mildly rude. “No, just you.”
There was a moment of awkward silence. When Brooke looked up from the chart she’d been examining, Jack’s face was dark with angry confusion. “You could have just told me,” he said bitterly. “You didn’t have to let me make a fool out of myself.”
Brooke wasn’t sure if it was wounded pride or embarrassment. “You made a fool out of yourself without my help,” she said starkly, not bothering to sugarcoat the words. She’d found it difficult to look at Jack after the scene in the on call room. His arms had been around her and he’d been kissing her before she’d had any inkling of his plans. He was a big guy, strong enough to ignore the way she pushed at his shoulders. When he’d finally pulled back, it had been with an expectant look on his face, as if he fully expected to have won her over despite her protests. When she had not so kindly dismissed him, he hadn’t taken it well. The incident had been the start of a litany of snarky comments and attempts to undermine her in front of their superiors that had yet to end. “And anyway, what I said that day is still as valid. I wasn’t interested then. I’m not interested now. I wish you would move past it and stop acting like an ass.”
“I thought you were interested,” Jack asserted, voice a mix of bitterness and petulance. “You seemed interested.”
Brooke tried to keep herself from looking at him as if he was an idiot. He was a good looking guy, a former college quarterback probably used to having any girl he wanted. Maybe it was the relative novelty of meeting a girl who wasn’t the least bit interested in him that had short circuited something in his brain. Maybe it was like a game she’d used to play as a girl, ‘opposites world’, where the reverse of everything was momentarily true. Either way, even though he’d become nothing more than a minor irritant, she would have preferred it if she didn’t have to deal with him at all.
“I wasn’t interested,” Brooke said firmly. Then, “Can’t we get over this, Jack? I’m willing to forget it ever happened but you keep reminding me.”
Jack really didn’t answer, but he did leave. To Brooke, it was just as good. Even better, maybe.
Sam was nervous. No, maybe she was terrified.
Fifty somewhat attentive faces were looking up at her, most waiting patiently for her to begin class.
Sam thought that maybe she’d made a huge mistake.
No cure for it but to jump in head first, she decided, scooping up the stack of papers she’d abandoned on the lectern when she first entered the classroom. The actuality of starting her new job had prompted what she was fairly certain was a small panic attack, and she’d left the room in search of the nearest ladies’. But now she was back, infinitesimally calmer, and aware of a mounting pressure to say something.
Clearing her throat, going for strong and confident, she said, “My name is Samantha MacPherson. I’m going to be your professor this term.” She paused, then felt some need to preface everything with a disclaimer. “This is my first time, so please be gentle.”
The comment earned a few snorts, and it wasn’t until she reviewed what she said that Sam picked up on the unintended double entendre and had to fight back a blush. “I’m going to pass out the syllabus so we can go over it, but in the meantime, why don’t I tell you a little bit about myself. I’m a freelance journalist. My first real magazine writing job was at Spin. Since then I’ve been a contributing writer at, among others, Rolling Stone, Details, Razor when it was still around, Sideline and even once, believe it or not, the New Yorker…”
Much to her surprise, the first class flew by.
It wasn’t that Brooke didn’t enjoy sex with Sam. Nothing could be further from the truth. She loved sex with Sam. She just had a feeling that Sam was much better at it than she was.
There were times when Brooke didn’t really mind. Take, for instance, the time Sam had pressed her up against the wall in their bedroom, held her wrists together above her head with one hand and used the other to make her scream loudly enough to wake the neighbors. Or, perhaps, the time Sam had come home to find her working on a presentation for work and had ever so calmly pulled her tank top over her head, settled herself in Brooke’s lap on the office chair and proceeded to leave her a shuddering, incoherent mess. Or even the time that Sam had decided to introduce her to toys – every time Brooke sat on the couch she couldn’t help but blush at the mental picture. Her on her knees on the cushions, hands braced against the back of the couch with Sam behind her, hands on her hips. Oh, but that had been a good day.
Then there was the time…
Brooke trailed off with a mental shake of the head. The times were too numerous to count, really. In the heat of the moment, she didn’t really seem to care about much other than finding any way possible to do any and everything she could to Sam. Afterwards, she was often left feeling like a rank amateur. She knew that Sam had more experience than she did, but honestly, it couldn’t explain everything. Now that they were lovers, Brooke saw the sensuality in everything Sam did. It was in her walk, her smile, the look in her eyes. In comparison, Brooke felt like an awkward, clumsy wannabe.
“You’re better at this than I am,” she said, sweaty sheets cold beneath her back. She was watching Sam avidly, fingers scraping a light path across her belly.
Perilously close to sleep, Sam turned to look at Brooke askance. “What?” she asked, totally and completely confused.
“This,” Brooke tried to elaborate, her hand making a sweeping gesture over their bodies. “You’re better at this than I am.”
“Intimacy?” Sam hazarded, not completely willing to expend the mental energy needed to puzzle out what Brooke was saying. She was sated, exhausted, and more than ready for sleep.
Growing frustrated with Sam for her lack of understanding and with herself for even bringing it up in the first place, Brooke growled, “No. Sex.”
There was a moment of silence before Sam laughed, the sound low and throaty. “Trust me. You’re just fine at this. More than fine.”
Brooke blushed, but pressed on. “You always know what you’re doing. I mean, God Sam… you touch me and I fall apart.”
Smirking, rolling over so that she was braced above Brooke, forearms digging into the mattress on either side of the blonde’s head, Sam teased, “Do I look unsatisfied to you?”
Something about the languid look in Sam’s dark eyes led Brooke to murmur, “No, not really.”
“I think,” Sam said, leaning down to brush a light kiss on the underside of Brooke’s jaw before sliding up to trace the edge of her ear with her tongue, “that I just have a better idea of exactly what I want. And you… you’ve given me everything I want.”
“Everything?” Brooke husked, shivering at the light, teasing touch.
Lowering herself down so that she was resting on top of Brooke, pressing the other girl into the mattress, Sam said, “Everything.”
“What are you doing?”
Brooke let her backpack slide to the floor, toeing out of her shoes as she made her way over to the couch. Sam was sitting there, pencil clenched between her teeth, highlighter to her side, and pen in hand. There was a stack of papers to her left and a stack of papers to her right, each of approximately equal size.
“Grading papers,” Sam mumbled around the pencil. Brooke was fairly certain there was a swipe of blue highlighter on the other girl’s chin. It was unaccountably adorable.
“See,” Brooke said slyly, “this is why professors shouldn’t assign papers.”
“What? Because then they have to grade them?” Sam scoffed. “You might be right.”
“Of course I’m right.”
Sam ignored the other girl’s declaration, choosing instead to mutter, “I think I need glasses.”
Brooke privately thought that she’d like that. Seeing Sam in glasses, that was.
“So, what are these anyway?” she asked, easing down onto the scant space left free of classroom detritus.
Capping her pen and removing the pencil, Sam sighed. “I told them to write a series of features on the topic of their choice. This stack,” she said, indicating the pile on her left, “is the first in the series. These I’ve graded,” she continued, indicating the pile on her right. “They have three more to go.”
“And how are they?”
“Uniformly mediocre,” Sam drawled, rolling her eyes, “though there are a few standouts. I think most of my students are taking the course as an art elective.”
“Then you will mold and shape the ones with promise,” Brooke intoned dramatically, shoulders scrunched in a poor imitation of an Igor-like figure.
“I found that a little disturbing,” Sam deadpanned, rolling her eyes.
Brooke sighed. “No sense of humor,” she muttered forlornly. Then, a beat later, added, “So, this is what we’re doing on a Saturday night?”
Sam looked down at her cotton boxers and tee, then to the papers on either side of her. “You want to go out?” she questioned.
Brooke considered the question for a moment. She was exhausted. Her leg ached, her feet hurt, and her shoulders were tight with tension. Her eyes felt gritty and she desperately wanted to take a shower and wash the smell of the hospital from herself. She’d come off of a long call the day before and gone straight in to her regular rotation to assist an early morning surgery. Then, after what felt like only minutes sleep (though it was, at least for once, a full night’s) she got up early again that morning to do so again.
“Actually, no,” she said sadly, leaning back against the couch with a sigh. “I really just want to take a shower and then a nap.”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Sam said snidely, teasingly. “We’ll just watch a movie. You’ll be asleep in minutes.”
Brooke glared. “That’s funny. Really.”
“Take a shower while I pick one out,” Sam directed, gathering her papers together and crisscrossing them in two neat stacks. “I’ll make us sandwiches.”
Brooke grumbled but did what she was told. And, not ten minutes into the movie and five minutes after she’d swallowed the last bite of her sandwich, she was asleep. Sam took in the sight with a smile before easing Brooke down so that she was lying horizontally on the couch. Then, moving silently, she reclaimed her papers, redividing them out into two stacks and relocating her pen, pencil and highlighter. Brooke breathed softly behind her, the sound of the movie muted in the background and Sam chuckled.
The chuckle turned rueful as she pulled the next paper from the top of the pile. “A Day in the Life of an Ex-Reality TV Star,” she murmured, shaking her head at the title. Only in LA.
“Long time, no see.”
Nikki looked exhausted, with dark circles under her eyes that hospital lighting did nothing to improve.
Sliding down onto the couch alongside her, searching aimlessly for the remote that would allow her to find something other than ‘Scrubs’ to watch, Brooke shrugged. “I decided to take a while off from moonlighting. This fellowship thing is killing me.”
“Are you sure it’s not the sex?”
“Yeah,” Nikki confirmed. “The step-sister sex. Or has the sex gone away?”
Brooke thought back to the night before, to the way Sam had sauntered over to her and straddled her lap and proceeded to have her way with Brooke. It had been a pleasant surprise, though the part of her that had been in the midst of studying for her boards protested the interruption. That part, however, was a small part. And anyway, her boards weren’t for another 10 months, so she had a head start.
“No,” Nikki drawled, taking in the slightly dazed look on Brooke’s face, “I’m going to go with… it hasn’t gone away.”
“Oh, yeah… no. Hasn’t gone away,” Brooke said with a wry grin. “What about you?”
“I haven’t gone away either.”
Rolling her eyes in mock frustration, Brooke said, “I mean, what’s going on with you?”
“I work. Here. All the time,” Nikki replied laconically, looking up briefly as the laugh track on the television drew her attention. Looked like JD was going to shower in his shorts again.
Brooke considered this for a moment, then said, voice a tad too serious for it to just be teasing, “Why is it we do this again?”
Nikki laughed sharply, too tired to stifle it. “I don’t know… the money?” she answered sarcastically. “The power? The privilege? The prestige?”
“Yeah, we were suckered,” Brooke concurred. She made less than minimum wage in a job that worked her nearly to death. She had to put up with asshole attendings and patients that didn’t understand she wasn’t a Burger King. Sometimes, you just couldn’t have it your way.
“I think we should quit,” Nikki declared.
“And do what?”
The other girl gave it a moment’s thought. “Become pastry chefs.”
“You know it costs like $50,000 to go to culinary school, right?” Brooke pointed out.
“Okay,” Nikki allowed. “Bad idea. How about private dancers?”
“Dancing for money? Do what you want me to do?” Brooke deadpanned, shaking her head.
Nikki narrowed her eyes thoughtfully. “Was that from the Tina or the Kilo version?”
“Does it matter?”
“Not really. But, I have the Kilo version on my Bootleg Booty cd. If you want to borrow it, is all I’m saying,” Nikki said innocently.
“Do you really have that?” Brooke asked incredulously. “No, don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know.”
Nikki ignored her. “Of course I have it. It’s pretty awesome, actually. Your total party remixed mix of mid-1990s club hits. There’s ‘Boom I Got Your Boyfriend’ and ‘2 Much Booty In Da Pants’ and ‘Dickey Ride’ and…”
“That’s enough,” Brooke cut in, shivering. “What’s sad is that I remember some of those songs.” At Nikki’s look, she added reluctantly, “Okay, so fine. I remember all of them. But, that was like junior year in high school. I can’t be blamed for that.”
“I own the cd,” Nikki reiterated. “Do you honestly think I’m going to hold it against you?”
There was silence for a moment, and then Brooke sighed. “This conversation is ridiculous.”
“That’s what happens when you haven’t slept for 30 hours,” Nikki pointed out. “You have ridiculous conversations.”
“True,” Brooke acknowledged. “I’m glad our patients can’t hear this.”
“True,” Nikki echoed. “Right then. Let’s rewind. Are you still living the good life with your girlfriend?”
“If by good life you mean my incredibly crappy life, only with the addition of a pretty fabulous girlfriend, then yes,” Brooke allowed, narrowing her eyes as the episode of Scrubs ended only to have another begin. Great, a marathon. “In fact, I’m taking her home to meet the parents.”
Nikki blamed her momentary lack of comprehension on her sleep deprivation. “Meet the parents?”
“Yeah,” Brooke replied, grinning slyly. “For my stepmom’s birthday.”
“Oh, I see,” Nikki said dryly. “I get it now. Your parents are her parents, and all that.”
“I thought it was clever,” Brooke said flippantly.
Brooke merely glared.
Nikki thought of all the various things there were to consider about that particular reconciliation and decided not to ask further questions.
“Anyway,” Brooke continued, clearly okay with a segue, no matter how abrupt, “do you really not have anything going on other than work?”
“Oh, that,” Nikki said, waving a hand dismissively. “I’m sleeping with that hottie first year internal medicine resident but that’s nothing.”
“He’s too eager to please,” Nikki complained, sighing. “I get the feeling he wants me to grade him for his performance. Maybe give performance reviews. I don’t know… there’s too much neediness.”
“So break it off,” Brooke said, as if the solution was obvious.
“Eh,” Nikki grunted. “When something better comes along.”
“And that’s a fabulous attitude to have,” Brooke said wryly, then cursed as an insistent beeping erupted from her midsection. Unclipping the pager from her waistband, she checked the number before heading over to the phone on the wall. “I hate this thing.”
“Better you than me,” Nikki muttered, slumping back against the less than comfortable couch, eyes sliding shut.
Sam felt like she’d hardly seen Brooke over the past month. The blonde had started her fellowship, which was arduous enough, and immediately switched schedules so that she’d been taking long call every third day so that she could get an uninterrupted four days off – from Friday to Monday. But now they were on the road, Sam behind the wheel of Brooke’s car while the other girl dozed in the passenger’s seat.
“This is kind of hypocritical,” Sam had said the night before, putting the last of her clothes in her suitcase and not looking at Brooke, “but I’d rather not tell them about us just yet.”
Brooke had looked up from folding a shirt, face carefully blank. She’d been wrestling with the idea herself, unsure how her Dad and Jane were going to handle the news of her relationship with Sam, but after the other girl’s statement during the end of residency year nearly averted fiasco, Brooke wasn’t planning on making any strong statements one way or the other.
In the face of the other girl’s nearly eerie calm, Sam had continued hesitantly, “I want to have a chance to get to know her again before we tell them.”
When she’d started rehab, Sam had made the quiet assertion than she would surprise her mother on her birthday. At that point, she hadn’t been sure that she was going to make it through rehab, much less remain clean after she left, and so hadn’t wanted to contact Jane before she was sure. But, now it was October. It was time.
Sam was aware, though, that showing up at her mother’s house and surprising her with her sobriety was one thing. Showing up and announcing that she and Brooke were also lovers was quite another. One was guaranteed to be a happy announcement, but she wasn’t quite sure how the other one would be greeted. And so, before she found herself embroiled in family drama once again, she just wanted to have a little time to apologize to her mom.
“I’m fine with that, Sam,” Brooke had said, voice neutral. Inside, she’d been relieved, not quite sure that she was ready for whatever would follow that particular announcement. Part of her wondered if she’d ever be ready, actually.
And now they were on their way. The drive down would take a couple of hours, most of those she was willing to drive while Brooke slept. Sam had watched as the other girl had grown increasingly more exhausted over the past week.
“This is ridiculous,” she muttered at one time, watching as Brooke struggled to stay awake long enough to finish her dinner. “There’s no way you can function competently. They’ve got to be crazy for working you like this. You’ve got to be crazy to do it.”
“I’m completely competent,” Brooke had snapped, glaring at Sam from eyes on the verge of closing.
Throwing her hands up in surrender, not willing to get into an argument over it, Sam had said, “I’m not saying you’re not. But this is too much, Brooke. You can barely stand when you get home.”
“This is the way it is,” Brooke had nearly growled, pushing her plate back, suddenly no longer hungry. “I’m going to bed.”
Sam had seriously considered resuming her place on the air mattress that night, but at the last moment had slipped into bed alongside Brooke. The other girl stirred briefly, scooting over so that she was pressed against Sam’s back and sighed. “Let’s not fight,” she’d murmured drowsily, barely awake. “I don’t like it when we fight.”
They’d been on the road for close to two hours when Sam reached over, hand shaking Brooke’s shoulder gently. “Brooke, we’re here. Come on, Brooke. Wake up.”
The blonde grumbled unhappily but opened her eyes nonetheless, stretching her arms up over her head and pointing her toes. “We’re here already?” she asked groggily, looking around in a vague state of confusion.
Despite herself, Sam found Brooke’s actions adorable. “Another five minutes or so,” she confirmed.
“I slept the whole time,” Brooke muttered, smoothing down her wrinkled shirt front. “You should have woken me up, Sam.”
“You needed the rest,” the brunette said, trying to fight back the butterflies she could feel racing through her stomach. Panicking for a moment, she considered that the whole thing had been a horribly bad idea. She shouldn’t surprise her mother like this, not on her birthday. What if her return wasn’t heralded with opened arms like she expected? What if her mother had passed the point where she wanted to see Sam?
“Hey,” Brooke said, hand resting on Sam’s thigh comfortingly. “It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be more than fine. She’s going to be thrilled to see you.”
Brooke had been aware of Sam’s growing anxiety. The other woman had done a fair job of keeping it hidden, but Brooke had seen the occasional self-doubts and self-recriminations. She knew that Sam was afraid of being rejected after all this time, and no matter how much Brooke had tried to reassure her, the slight wariness hadn’t left the other girl’s frame.
It had been a while since Sam had been to the palace. There was a basketball hoop positioned alongside the driveway and she had the vague notion that the shutters were a different color. Other than that, everything looked just the same as it had when she’d left for college.
“I’ll bring her out,” Brooke said, hauling both of their suitcases from the trunk. Sam wanted to protest, wanted to take the burden from her, but was too nervous to do much of anything.
A bead of sweat started to trickle down her temple as she stood outside waiting. She had the almost overwhelming urge to get back in the car and drive back to LA, but she could already hear her mother’s voice as the front door opened.
“You can’t fit my gift through the door?” Jane was teasing, head turned so that she was looking at Brooke and not at Sam, though Sam could see Brooke’s look of unbridled support over her mother’s shoulder.
“Well, it’s not exactly that,” Brooke said, then trailed off as Jane turned.
“Sam!” she gasped, stopping short. Not quite sure what to do with herself, Sam shoved her hands in her pockets and hunched her shoulders shyly, smiling up at her mother.
“Sam’s been clean for almost eight months, Jane,” Brooke murmured, placing her hand on the older woman’s shoulder. “She wanted to surprise you.”
“Well,” Jane said, twin tears running down her cheeks, “I’m surprised. Oh Sam, I was so worried about you.”
And then Jane was hugging her, arms wrapped tightly around Sam’s shoulders as she rocked gently from side to side. She appeared to have no intention of letting go, and after only a second’s hesitation, Sam returned the embrace, burying her face in her mother’s neck.
“I’ve missed you, Mom,” she said, voice rough with repressed emotion. “I’m so sorry. I love you. I’m so sorry.”
She kept repeating the words, the apology a mantra that had been running through her head every time she’d thought of her mother for the past few months. She knew she’d put Jane through hell. If she wasn’t completely incommunicado then she was involved in something that made Jane worry even more.
“I love you, too,” her mother said, face shiny with tears. “This is the best gift I could have gotten.”
Mike had been a little less enthusiastic at her return, but Sam had seen Brooke pull him to the side and talk to him. After that, he seemed to relax infinitesimally, though he still watched her with wary eyes.
She couldn’t blame him. Sam imagined that he’d been the one who had to pick up the pieces every time she hurt her mom – she’d apologize to him when the time was right.
Mackenzie was just so glad to have both of her sisters home at the same time that she appeared to be unaware of everything else that was happening. She’d immediately pulled Brooke and Sam up into her room to show off her recently won 13-14 year old league basketball championship.
“Starting forward,” she’d said proudly, chest puffed out with pride. “I’m a killer outside shooter. I’m trying out for varsity next year.”
Sam wasn’t entirely sure she knew what that meant, but she’d made what she hoped were appropriately impressed noises.
After dinner and cake, Brooke had led her father and Mackenzie off into the living room for a game of Trivial Pursuit. Sam had sarcastically asked if she anticipated staying awake long enough to be competitive, but was glad for the diversion. It left her alone in the kitchen with her mom, and after a second’s hesitation, she took the older woman’s hand, pulling her out onto the porch. Keeping the light off, they settled into the swing there, the air around them cool and dry.
“I’m sorry I’ve been out of touch for so long,” Sam said, hands twisting together in her lap. This was really the first time she’d actually had to make amends. Brooke had seemed to accept her actions as apology enough, but Jane deserved more. “Brooke wanted to tell you, but I wanted to make sure that I was going to stick with it before I said anything.”
They hadn’t discussed the particulars over dinner, though Sam could tell that her mother was dying to know.
“Did Brooke help you?” her mother asked cautiously, and Sam could hear the hint of pain in her voice. Not that she’d gone to Brooke, per se, but that she hadn’t gone to Jane.
“It was complicated,” Sam said slowly. “I was admitted to the hospital where Brooke was working.”
Jane gasped, and Sam closed her eyes. She’d told herself that, no matter how hard it would be, she wouldn’t keep the truth from her mother.
Not sure how much detail she should provide, Sam said tersely,“I had overdosed. My girlfriend at the time called 911 and then split. Apparently I went into cardiac arrest. Brooke saved my life.”
Sam hadn’t thought about the incident in some time, but looking back on it, she could feel some of the horror Brooke must have felt when she figured out just who was dying on her table. She was sure that, over time, the notion of death must become commonplace in a hospital, but if nothing else, Brooke would have known that she would have been the one left with the burden of telling Sam’s mother.
“Oh my God,” Jane said, a hint of tears in her voice.
Steeling herself to continue, Sam said, “Yeah, I know. Anyway, when I woke up, Brooke was there. But I was a total bitch… I snapped at her and she left, and I can’t blame her.”
Talking about it was harder than Sam had imagined, and she flexed her hands into fists, fighting the urge to run. “When she left, I was alone. There was no one. I wasn’t going to call you. I didn’t want you to see me that way. I didn’t know that many people in LA and the ones I did know had vanished. That wasn’t the way I wanted things to be, so I decided that I needed to change. When I got out of the hospital, I went to find Brooke.”
Sam paused, then laughed bitterly. “She wasn’t very happy to see me. I told her I wanted to get myself together, to get cleaned up and I asked if I could stay with her while I did it. She said yes, with one condition – I had to go to rehab. I tried to get her to change her mind, but she said that I needed more support than she could give me. It was kind of an ultimatum.” She paused, then sighed. “So, I went to rehab.”
Sam took another moment to look out at the darkness, aware of the soft sounds of her mother crying silently beside her. “That was in March. When I got out, I went to stay with Brooke. I’ve been clean ever since.”
“I’ve been worried about you,” Jane said, voice subdued with the pain of not knowing that she’d carried with her for months. “Brooke said that you were probably fine, and I got your letters, but I didn’t like going so long without hearing from you.”
“I needed to know that it was going to last,” Sam stressed. “I couldn’t get your hopes up and then fail.”
There was resignation in Jane’s voice when she said, “I always worried that the worst was going to happen.”
At the words, Sam couldn’t help the wave of guilt she felt washing over her. Her mother had been through enough in her lifetime without the added stress Sam had caused. “I know. I’m sorry.”
“What are you going to do now?”
Sam thought that it might have been the perfect time to tell her mother about everything that was going on in her life, about her relationship with Brooke, but she didn’t want to go there. Not yet.
“I’m good. I’m living with Brooke. I work in a coffee shop five mornings a week and teach a journalism class at a community college on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” The last bit was said with a wry smile. Sam couldn’t believe just how much in her life had changed.
“It sounds like you’ve got everything together,” her mother said softly, and even though she couldn’t see it, Sam could almost feel her smile. “How is Brooke?”
“She works too hard,” Sam said immediately. “It’s crazy. Sometimes it feels like I hardly see her at all. She’s always in the hospital.”
Jane sighed again, leaning back in the swing. “Ever since the accident, she’s been so focused on medicine. I’m glad you’re there with her. I think she could get too wrapped up in it.”
With the segue into more banal topics, Sam couldn’t quite believe that the apologizing part of the evening was over. But it seemed as if Jane wanted to move forward instead of dwelling in the past and, for the moment, Sam was going to appease her. It didn’t mean that she felt she was fully done with apologizing, but there was only so much emotional vulnerability she could take in a given amount of time. She imagined that she, along with her mother, had hit up against the upper limit of that.
So instead, thinking of all the nights she’d spent alone while Brooke had been working, Sam muttered, “She does get too wrapped up in it. I can’t believe it’s all worth it, but it seems to make her happy.”
Jane was silent for a moment, apparently agreeing with Sam. And then, a slight hesitation in her voice, asked, “And what about the girlfriend?”
For a moment, Sam stiffened. “What girlfriend?”
“The one you were with before the… before…”
“Oh,” Sam said, relieved. “She’s gone. I haven’t seen her since.”
It was too late, though. Her mother had picked up on the moment of confusion and, true to form, wasn’t going to let it slide. “You’re seeing someone new?” she asked, the question a statement as much as anything.
She’d somehow known the question was coming as soon as she’d made the verbal faux pas, but nonetheless, Sam felt trapped. She’d been the one to bring up not telling their parents and Brooke had agreed, but she didn’t want to lie to her mother. Not now.
So, she said hesitantly, “I’m seeing someone.”
“Maybe you’ll bring her around,” Jane said, tone carefully non-threatening. “Now that you’re back, Sam…”
She trailed off, but Sam thought she understood the sentiment. Before things had started going wrong, she’d had a close relationship with her mother. They’d shared things, sometimes more like friends than mother/daughter. And now that the subject had come up, she felt horrible about keeping that part of her life, such a huge part, from her mother. She wanted to rebuild their relationship on openness and trust, not on secrets and lies of omission.
“It’s complicated,” she said in resignation, hoping that Brooke would forgive her. “After I came to live with Brooke, we became… close.”
Jane’s startled gasp let her know that her mother had understood exactly what she was trying to say. Regardless, she felt as if she needed to say the words.
“We’re together,” Sam murmured, the words painfully inadequate. “We’ve been together for close to four months now. We had agreed not to tell you or Mike – at least not yet. It just seemed like too much to take at once.”
For a long moment, there was nothing but silence. Sam stared resolutely forward, afraid to look at her mother and see the other woman’s reaction to the news. Having your daughter back in your life was a good thing, or so she imagined. Having her break the news that she was romantically involved with her step-sister – well, probably not so much.
“I’m definitely surprised,” Jane said, voice measured and cautious. “Brooke, uh… I didn’t know…”
Feeling some need to make sure that her mother didn’t feel as if she’d somehow coerced the blonde, Sam mumbled, “She was with another girl before me, some time in college. But, it was unexpected. For both of us… maybe me more than her.”
She paused for a moment, then said carefully, “We’re really happy. I hope you can be okay with that.”
Shaking her head in wry bemusement, Jane murmured, “You just don’t know how to make things easy for yourself, do you.” The words were said with a hint of affection, which Sam chose to see as a positive thing. “I can’t even imagine how Mike is going to react. He worries about her. He worries about her being alone in LA. He worries that she’s working too hard. He wants her to find someone to share her life with.” Jane paused, then added, “He liked Ty. Have you met Ty?”
Sam sat back against the swing with a groan, its pained creak seeming to match her mood. “Ty was my therapist in rehab,” she said starkly, rolling her eyes. “And anyway, he’s moved on – I saw him with his new girlfriend last month.”
Jane laughed softly, but then turned serious as she said, “I imagine Brooke will want to tell him herself.”
Sam was fairly sure that telling Mike was the last thing Brooke really wanted to do, but she agreed nonetheless. “It would probably be best. But, I don’t know if she’s ready.”
Quite frankly, she wasn’t sure if she was ready either.
Trivial Pursuit had given way to a movie. Mackenzie was seated on the floor, feet away from the television screen, legs crossed and chin propped on her hands. Mike had settled onto the couch beside Brooke, sharing a comfortable silence. He didn’t get to see her as often as he would like and though they’d never really enjoyed an overly chatty relationship, it had always been a close one.
“So,” he said cautiously, voice pitched low enough so that it could only be heard by Brooke, “you want to tell me about Sam?”
For a moment, Brooke was thoroughly convinced that her father was a mind reader. She and Sam had been careful in their behavior toward one another, making sure that they didn’t seem too familiar. After all, they’d agreed to keep their relationship on the down low, at least for the time being.
“Brooke?” Mike prodded, looking at her with some concern.
“Tell you what about Sam?” she asked in a rush, looking over at her father with wide, startled eyes.
Taking in his daughter’s uncharacteristic response, Mike said slowly, “About how she came to be living with you?”
Breath leaving in a relieved huff, Brooke said, “Oh, that… It’s kind of a funny story, actually.” She paused, brows drawn inward. “Well, actually not really funny at all. I was doing a moonlighting shift at St. Vincent’s when she came into the ER. She’d OD’d and went into cardiac arrthymia soon after arrival. I had to defib.”
Memories of the incident were nearly enough to leave her in a cold sweat. She’d seen enough harsh reality in the hospital to know that Sam was lucky to still be alive, and the mere notion of what could have happened was enough to make Brooke’s heart skip a beat. She’d almost lost Sam before she’d even really found her.
“Jesus,” Mike hissed, pulling Brooke out of her remembrances. “If you hadn’t been there honey…”
“Then some other physician would have done the same thing, probably with the same outcome,” Brooke broke in, voice overriding what she suspected her father had been about to say.
“So after that…” Mike prompted, the look in his eye indicating that he didn’t quite agree with Brooke’s assessment.
“After that,” Brooke continued, skipping a few of the in-between parts, “she came to see me at the UCLA clinic. I guess the near death experience had finally put things into perspective. She told me she wanted to get clean and that she wanted my help.”
“And that was that?” Mike scoffed, the bitterness he felt toward Sam for the pain she’d caused Jane seeping through.
Looking at her father askance, Brooke said slowly, “Not really. Her idea was just to stay with me while she got herself clean, but I knew she was going to need more support than that and that I wouldn’t be able to give it to her. So, I told her she could stay with me after she got out of rehab.”
Mike was silent for a long moment, and Brooke began to think it was the end of the conversation. She let herself be drawn into the movie they were watching, picking up the plot with little difficulty.
“Jane is thrilled.” There was a hint of defeat in her father’s tone. Taken aback by it, Brooke turned to look at him, noticing for the first time that night just how tired he looked. Wrinkles were beginning to spread out from the corners of his eyes, faintly etched cobwebs that probably normally gave him a distinguished look. In the flickering, gray light of the television, they just made him look old. “She hasn’t talked about it in a long time, but I think she’d given up hope,” he continued, shaking his head lightly. “It was almost better that way.”
“Daddy,” Brooke gasped softly. “You can’t mean that.”
When his eyes narrowed, the wrinkles turned somehow sinister. “It’s the truth, Brooke. Getting the letters was beginning to be enough for her. She knew that Sam was out there somewhere and that she was doing relatively okay for herself. But now, now that’s she’s back, she’s gotten Jane’s hopes up again. I don’t want to think about what’s going to happen when she disappears again.”
“She’s not going to disappear again,” Brooke said firmly, the words as much for herself as they were for her father.
“Are you going to watch after her forever?” Mike scoffed bitterly, jaw clenching. “You can’t guarantee that she won’t be back up to her old tricks in a month or six months or even a year.”
“Sam isn’t going to do that,” Brooke protested, throat tightening as she contemplated the possibility. “She’s not.”
“You can’t know that.” There was a hint of finality in Mike’s words, as if this outcome was preordained, that sent a chill down Brooke’s spine.
“You don’t know her like I do, Daddy,” Brooke whispered, tears pricking the corners of her eyes unbidden.
Mike’s chuckle was harsh, unforgiving. “She’s fooled us all before, Brooke. You’re no different.”
Brooke wanted desperately to defend her lover, to fight back the few uneasy tendrils of doubt and fear that her father’s words had engendered. Instead, she whispered, “She won’t do that, Daddy. I know she won’t.”
“You can’t know.” The words were almost a snarl. “Don’t let yourself get caught up in this, Brooke. She’ll just hurt us all again, in the end.”
Since Mackenzie had moved into Brooke’s bedroom, Sam’s room had been turned into an all-purpose guest room. Jane had apologized profusely about the lack of accommodations, offering up their air mattress with an apologetic shrug.
“It’s the best I can do on short notice,” she’d said. “You girls fight it out.”
“How was the talk with your Mom?” Brooke asked, snuggling up behind Sam and rubbing her nose against the nape of the other girl’s neck, the air mattress propped against the wall, unoccupied.
“Umm, good,” Sam said, wiggling her hips a little, smiling at the barely audible moan the move evoked. “We got some things out in the open. She let me off the hook pretty easily, actually. I don’t feel like I’ve really been able to apologize to her fully.”
“Maybe she doesn’t need an elaborate apology,” Brooke suggested, hand sneaking under the hem of the thin tank top Sam had worn to bed. “Maybe whatever you said was good enough.”
“I feel like I owe her more,” Sam muttered, reaching back to dig her nails into Brooke’s thigh in appreciation of the other girl’s touch. “And,” she hesitated, not sure if she should confess, “she knows about us.”
Brooke froze, hand instantly going limp. “She what?”
“She knows,” Sam repeated, voice a plea for understanding. “She was asking all of these questions, Brooke. I didn’t want to lie.”
Breathing shallowly, feeling as if she was on the verge of a panic attack, Brooke said slowly, “I thought we had agreed.”
Shifting smoothly, turning so that she was facing Brooke, Sam sought out the other girl’s eyes in the darkness of the room. She could feel Brooke’s panic like a tangible thing, like a growing, rushing darkness. “I didn’t want to lie to her,” she stressed again. “If she hadn’t brought it up, I never would have mentioned it.”
“Oh,” Brooke snapped, voice tight, “so she asked you directly if the two of us were, what… sleeping together?”
Scowling, body stiffening in anger, Sam snapped back. “Of course not. Fuck, Brooke… You tell me which should bother me more, the fact that this is so obviously freaking you out or the fact that you decided to characterize what we have together as just sex.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Brooke said sullenly, scooting back so that there was a physical distance between herself and Sam. “But Sam, we agreed.”
“You’re right. We agreed,” Sam spat, sitting up suddenly and pushing herself back so that she was resting against the wall. Her eyes were black pools in the darkness. It made her look faintly evil, Brooke decided. “But I’m trying to rebuild my relationship here. Do you honestly think I should start out by lying to her?”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Brooke said harshly, pushing up to a seated position herself. Wrapping her arms around her shins, she looked over at Sam, face blank. “I talked to my father tonight.”
Slightly thrown by the change in topic, Sam said, “Oh yeah?”
“He hates you, Sam,” Brooke said starkly. “He does.”
“So you told him?”
Brooke shook her head ruefully. “No. You don’t understand. There’s such bitterness there, such anger. He doesn’t trust you. He expects you to fail.” She paused, grimacing. “How am I supposed to tell him that we’re together? How do I do that to him?”
Feeling herself go cold, Sam said softly, “Is that what you think, too? Do you think I’m going to fail?”
“Of course not,” Brooke said harshly, almost angrily. “I know you won’t.”
Sam’s laugh was a rough pantomime of the expression. “Well, this is perfect. What do you suggest we do?”
“We wait,” Brooke said immediately. “Let him see for himself that you’ve changed.”
“Oh, I see,” Sam scoffed. “And then, if and when this magical day comes, then we tell him? How well do you think he’s going to take it when he finds out that we’ve been lying to him? And what about my mom? Is she supposed to lie to him too?”
“That wouldn’t be a problem if you hadn’t told her.”
“I can’t do this,” Sam muttered, pushing down the bed until she was sliding off the end. Pulling on her jeans jerkily, she said, almost to herself, “I can’t.”
Feeling a bolt of icy panic shooting through her, Brooke scrambled out of the bed so that she was standing in front of Sam, blocking her exit. “What do you mean, you can’t do this?”
“I mean, I can’t do this, Brooke,” Sam snapped, hands held up in a gesture of frustrated futility. “I’ll make it easy on all of us – you don’t want to tell your father, I don’t want my mom to have to lie to him. So, if there’s nothing to tell, then nobody has to worry, right?”
“You can’t mean that,” Brooke gasped, aghast. “Sam, please…”
She gripped the other girl’s forearm, willing to physically hold her in place if necessary.
“I thought you believed in me, Brooke,” Sam said sadly, tugging herself away with a hard jerk. “I really did.”
Stunned, Brooke took a step back. “I do believe in you.”
“I just…” Sam trailed off, lower lip held in a death grip by sharp white teeth. “Maybe this was a mistake.”
A tear streamed down Brooke’s cheek, followed closely thereafter by another. “You don’t mean that, Sam,” she said, voice barely a whisper. “This is… you don’t mean that. This is a setback. This is an argument. This is a disagreement. This is not over. This is not a mistake.”
“I think it would be best for everybody if I just left,” Sam said on a sigh as if she hadn’t heard, stepping over to where her suitcase was laying open. She’d unpacked only her sleep clothes and toothbrush, and so, with a kick, she closed it, zipping it shut.
She’d opened the door to their room and stepped out into the hallway, leaving a motionless Brooke behind her, when she heard Mike’s low voice. “I knew it,” he said, the bitterness of having been proven right heavy in his tone. “I knew it.”
“Mike,” Sam said, voice low and measured.
“I’m not going to let you leave,” he said, stepping forward so that he was partially in the light. He’d heard the raised voices coming from the other end of the hall and had slid out of bed, leaving Jane sleeping and blissfully unaware, sure that he’d find exactly what he had – Sam slinking out with her tail between her legs, her supposed attempt at reformation nothing more than lies and ashes. “You’re not going to break her heart again. You are not going to leave.”
“Daddy, please.” Brooke’s voice was resigned, features drawn as she stepped out into the hallway to stand behind Sam. “It’s not what you think. It’s not her fault.”
“Don’t cover for her, Brooke,” Mike said, animosity almost rolling off of him in waves. “I told you this would happen.”
“But it didn’t happen,” Brooke stressed, taking a step forward. “Daddy, you don’t understand.”
“What is there to understand?” he asked roughly.
“Don’t worry about it, Brooke,” Sam said bitterly, defeated, tightening her grip on her suitcase. “He’s probably right.”
Sam had gone from an emotional high to a nose-dive crash into the valley and her ears were still ringing from the sudden drop in altitude. Brooke had approached her, had started the whole relationship to begin with, and now she didn’t want to deal with the reality of it? She knew it was a delicate situation, but she’d told Brooke weeks before – there had been a time in her life when she was willing to be a secret but that time had passed. And maybe it wasn’t fair to Brooke, maybe it would put a strain on her relationship with Mike, but Sam wasn’t going to start over with her mother by lying to her. If Brooke’s reaction had been nothing else, it had been an upfront indicator that the blonde was more than willing to lie, and continue lying, to her father. And Sam knew that it was probably irrational to think that the willingness to lie was part of something larger, was evidence of Brooke’s lack of belief in her, but that’s the way it felt. If Brooke cared for her and if Brooke believed that she had turned her life around, then telling Mike would be unpleasant. It would cause a, hopefully temporary, rift but it would be something Brooke would be prepared to do. Because she wanted to be with Sam. Because she wasn’t ashamed of her. Because she believed in her.
“Sam, no,” Brooke gasped, taking a step forward and wrapping her arm around Sam’s waist from behind, determined not to let her go. She could feel the tension in the abdomen beneath her arm as she tilted her chin up, looking her father in the eyes. “She was leaving because of me. She was leaving because I didn’t want to tell you that she and I are together.”
Mike heard the words and saw the intimately familiar pose, but he couldn’t quite believe it. “Brooke, honey, no,” he said, pleading in his voice.
Stepping around so that she was facing Sam, Brooke took the other girl by the shoulders, eyes begging and voice solemn. “Promise me you won’t leave.”
“Promise me.” The words were intense, a barely repressed shout, and Sam sighed.
“Fine. I won’t leave.” Yet, she added silently, jaw tightening as a wave of messy emotion swept over her.
Turning slowly, Brooke looked at her father in silence for a moment. Then, voice breaking, she said, “Daddy, let’s talk.”
It was darker, now, on the porch than it had been earlier when Sam had been sitting on the swing with her mother. This time, though, the darkness was a relief. With it, Brooke didn’t have to see the disappointment and hurt in her father’s eyes.
“How long?” he asked, his voice barely more than a croak.
The words felt lodged in her throat. “Nearly four months,” Brooke said, her voice small in the openness of the night. And, before he could even ask, she added, “I started it. I approached her.”
“Brooke,” Mike said brokenly, head falling forward to rest in his cupped palms. “How could you do this?”
Brooke felt like crying, the heartbreak in her father’s voice enough to make her feel like a scolded little girl. “It just happened,” she said, sighing. “She’s changed. I promise. Things aren’t like they were before.”
“I know you want to think that,” Mike said in defeat, leaning back, the soft creak of the swing’s chain echoing eerily. “She’s already done so much damage to this family. What about when she breaks your heart? What are we supposed to do then?”
“I kind of hope it doesn’t come to that,” she tried to joke, but the words fell flat. So, taking in a deep breath, trying to steel herself, Brooke said softly, “I know this is hard for you in more ways than one,” they hadn’t even talked about the fact that Sam was a girl, or her step-sister for that matter, “but, you have to trust me on this. Sam’s made a lot of mistakes. She’s caused a lot of grief. But, Daddy, she’s trying to change things, trying to make up for things. Give her another chance. Let her show you that she means it. And trust me enough to make this decision for myself and accept any of the possible consequences.”
“I don’t want to see you get hurt,” Mike said, shaking his head. It was almost too much for him to comprehend – Sam’s return, her supposed reformation, her relationship with his daughter. “And that’s what she does, Brooke. She hurts people.”
“I’m willing to take that chance,” Brooke said, a hint of sympathy in her tone. She’d known that it had been hard on her father, having to deal with the emotional flotsam left behind by Sam’s reappearances in and disappearances from Jane’s life. She’d even sensed, before having it confirmed earlier that evening, that he resented Sam for all of the trouble she’d caused. And honestly, she couldn’t find it within herself to blame him for it. “You’re just going to have to trust me on this. And if I’ve made a mistake, then just know that I’m strong enough to live with it.”
“I don’t want you to have to live with it,” he said gruffly.
Shrugging her shoulders helplessly, Brooke said, “It’s too late, Daddy. I’ve already made my choice.”
Mike’s arm was around her shoulder, pulling her in close, and Brooke instinctively snuggled into his warmth like she had when she was little girl. “I know,” he murmured in defeat, bending over to place a kiss on the crown of her head. “I know.”
They stayed that way until Brooke began to doze.
Her father walked her back up to her room, dropping her off with a pained smile. “I’ll trust you,” he said, the words not quite as sure as the sentiment.
“I love you, Daddy,” was all Brooke was able to say in reply, her heart swelling with emotion as she watched him watch her for another second before turning and heading back to his bedroom.
Inside her own, Sam was sitting nervously on the edge of the bed, fully clothed and with her suitcase still packed. Brooke felt an aching emptiness blossom inside of her at the thought of what that meant. “I don’t want you to go, Sam,” she said tiredly, walking over so that she was standing directly in front of the other girl. “Please, don’t.”
Sam didn’t want to go either. She’d spent the time alone thinking about what her life would be like if she left, finding nothing good in what she imagined. She had little doubt that if she did leave that night, she’d soon find herself enmeshed in old habits no matter how good her intentions might be. The thought left her feeling, among other things, empty and sick.
So, she said simply, “I don’t want to go.”
Too exhausted to do anything else, Brooke let Sam get undressed once again before latching onto her, holding her firmly throughout the night.
“Good morning, girls.”
Sam heard the voice as if from far away and struggled to swim to the surface so that it became clearer. It took several strong strokes to pull free of the undercurrent holding her back from consciousness, but as she broke clear, it was with the sudden awareness that she’d managed to wrap herself around Brooke at some point during the night.
“Mom?” she asked, voice sleep rough and scratchy. Squinting against the light of the sun streaming in through the windows, she rolled over onto her side, her mother’s face coming into view. “What time is it?”
For a moment, she considered pulling the sheet up around them self-consciously, well aware of her mother’s gaze. Instead, she disentangled herself from Brooke a little more, sliding her feet off the edge of the bed so that she was sitting, trying to ignore the fact that she was wearing nothing more than a thin tank and a pair of bikini underwear.
“Time for breakfast,” Jane said, shaking her head wryly at the picture her daughter and step-daughter made, one of familiarity and intimacy. Then, voice a little softer, she added, “Mike told me about what happened last night.” Another pause, this one laden with meaning. “I’m glad you’re still here.”
“Me too,” Sam said truthfully. Looking over at Brooke, she turned back to her mother with a fierce expression on her face. “I’m not going to mess this up.” The multiple meanings of her words were clear, and she meant every single one of them.
The expression on Jane’s face was just as fierce as she said, “I’m planning to hold you to that.”
“I owe you an apology.” Sam stopped for a moment, face breaking out in a self-deprecating smile. “No, I owe you several apologies.”
Mike was silent, watching from the sidelines as Brooke attempted to take on the apparent basketball whiz that was their younger sister. Her mom was in the kitchen, having run all of them out earlier so that she could put the finishing touches on dinner in peace and Sam had taken the opportunity to sidle up alongside Mike. She hadn’t known where to start, and had spent the first few minutes with her hands shoved awkwardly in her jeans’ pockets, occasionally bouncing lightly on her feet. Mike was, by all appearances, completely at peace with ignoring her, but Sam felt the need to say something.
When he didn’t reply, Sam pushed on. “I’m not sure I deserve to have another chance at making things right with my Mom and I probably don’t deserve Brooke, but such is life. You’re more than entitled to all those thoughts you’re having, all those reasons you’ve thought of for why and how I’m probably going to hurt them both, once again. But, uh…” she trailed off, wistful smile gracing her face for a second as she watched Brooke clap in appreciation of one of Mackenzie’s shots, “I’m not going to do that again. I know you’re not going to believe that until you see it and I’m okay with that. I need to show you. I need to show myself.”
When Mike did speak, his voice was tired. “Jane and Brooke are… well, they’re two of the most important things in my life. I don’t trust you to take care of them, but I don’t have much say in the matter. Brooke is an adult. She’s made her decision. And Jane…”
His voice faded. He was unable to find the words to articulate the bond between Sam and Jane. To Jane, Sam would always be her baby. She’d never give up on her.
“Your trust,” Sam said with more conviction than she felt, “I’ll earn it.”
Eyes sad, Mike turned briefly to look at her. “I hope so, but I doubt it.”
The sun was so bright as it hit the horizon on its downslope that Sam almost willed herself to be warmed by it, disappointed instead by the faint chill in the air. She’d managed to escape after dinner, needing a little bit of time to herself. After the night before, she’d spent the morning emotionally and physically exhausted and the afternoon trying to ease back into a family life that had evolved into something new without her. Mike and her Mom had a different rhythm with Mackenzie than they’d had when she was living at home. Brooke seemed to know the rhythm, seemed to know how to fit into dinner conversation and family ritual and Sam wanted the ease that she displayed.
Not that Brooke was quite her normal self either. She was a little more subdued, eyes sad and hopeful all at the same time as she watched her father. Mike was stoic and reserved, a change from the ebullient man Sam had slowly come to accept as a step-father during adolescence. Her Mom was like a newly released spring, all of the tension she’d been under for so long suddenly let loose. There was an almost exhausted joy in her movements and her smile was unfettered and free.
“I thought I saw you head out here,” Brooke said, breaking the calm on the porch. She’d wrapped a jacket around her shoulders and was hugging it close, closer than the slight chill in the air dictated. She eyed the seat on the swing beside Sam hesitantly for a moment before approaching.
For a long moment, they were silent, nothing between them but the faint scrape of their feet keeping the swing in motion and the rhythmic squeak of the chain that marked their back and forth passage. Then, with a sigh, Brooke entwined her fingers with Sam’s, resting their joined hands together on her thigh. Leaning over so she was pressed tightly against the other girl’s side, Brooke placed a soft kiss on Sam’s cheek.
“I was worried,” she confessed. “I’ve always been his golden girl and I knew that this was going to knock me off of his pedestal. And then when we got here… I hadn’t realized just how angry he was, Sam. The thought of telling him about us terrified me.”
She paused, took a deep breath. “But that was nothing compared to the way I felt when I thought you were going to leave. Maybe it’s too soon to say this. Maybe it’s too late.” Turning, she waited until Sam tilted her head to the side, until she was looking into deep brown eyes. “I love you.”
The words took Sam’s breath. She’d known instinctively that Brooke felt that way, but to hear them said was something different. Sam hadn’t had a relationship she believed in years. The one she had with Brooke was different from the majority of ones littering her past, too. There was stability and trust and there were expectations and promises made and kept. There was intimacy and comfort and a sense that Brooke’s tiny one-bedroom was home. They had both a past and a future.
So, for the first time in a long time, she wasn’t lying when she said, “I love you, too.”