Forever Young

| Day Like Any Day | Hindsight |

Author: Megan

Disclaimer: I don't own any of the things related to the show 'Popular'. They belong to other people. Or companies.

Feedback: Yes, please: shy_grrl@hotmail.com

Archiving: www.realmoftheshadow.com/megan.htm (Thanks, Kim)

Summary: Takes place in two timelines. In one Brooke finds out she's pregnant. The second one is set six years into future, wherein Brooke struggles to raise her child. And Sam does her best to help.

Author's Notes: Sorry about the lax pace with which I'm writing this. The story just holds a special place in my heart, and I won't do anything to ruin it. That means I won't force it if it doesn't wanna be told.

And another note: Thank you, Carla. I couldn't write this without your help.


Day Like Any Day

Wake up call is at six thirty. She starts the morning with a visit to the bathroom. A short shower, fix the hair and apply makeup. She tops it off with a quick weighing and leaves before the Stepsis appears. Back to the bedroom. Choose an ensemble carefully. Stylish yet sensible. Keeping up appearances still matters. Straighten out the bed and move in for a final checkup in the mirror.

Once everything is in its place she grabs her ready packed bag and heads downstairs. Breakfast is a necessary evil. She is never hungry but food has to be consumed. For the sake of greater good. Yogurt is the way to go. Easy to get down and quickly finished. That way, if she's lucky, she can avoid meeting a single person whole morning. The Dad is usually already gone by then, and the Stepmom, like the Stepsis, is usually a few minutes behind her.

She leaves the house no later than seven o'clock. That gives her an hour to get to school, run a few laps, take another shower and refreshen her look before the classes. Again with any luck she'll be able to do it all without running into anyone. And if all the morning routines have been performed with the required precision, the rest of the day is much easier to handle. She'll usually have gathered enough confidence to pull off the cheerful act convincingly in front of her friends.

Classes are easy enough with the distraction the teaching provides. The few exceptions are the ones where she is seated close to the Stepsis. Nothing ever happens but somehow she is always left holding her breath, fearing that any given second the brunette will jump up and scream away her secret. That is no way to spend a day.

By lunch hour everything should be all right. She can chat up a storm with her friends at the cafeteria. She can even joke around with the Ex-Boyfriend. She is quite far in denial by then. And denial is what gets her through the school. That, and the Best Friend, who she knows will be watching her back. The blonde girl may have her own agendas and she may even be cooking up some scheme together with the Stepsis, but if she was going to shoot her down at school it would've happened already.

After school comes cheerleading practice. Always fun. Again she has the Best Friend there for cover. Anyone so much as hints that she is preoccupied, or doing something wrong, or, God forbid, has gained weight, the Best Friend will bite their heads off. She is in very good shape at the moment. The moves come easier to her now. But in the back of her head there's always the nagging thought that it's only a matter of time before it's all gone. Couple of weeks probably. Cheerleading is the first thing that has to go. If only for purely aesthetical reasons.

It's already well past four, closer to five, when she returns home. The Stepmom is usually there, together with the Stepsis. The Dad not quite so often. But it isn't unheard of by any means.

"Brooke?" he calls the second she closes the door behind her, "Could you come to the living room?" he's standing across the hall, and quickly turns and disappears out of her sight.

She follows hesitantly. Something is not right. And the second she enters the room, and sees the whole family gathered there, she knows what it is. It's the Stepsis. The girl has spilled her guts. "What's up?" she still plays along, though.

The Stepsis doesn't have the decency to even look her in the eye. She's a little disappointed, but surprisingly not that angry with the brunette. In her heart she knew this was how it would play out eventually. There really was no way around it.

"Are you pregnant, Brooke?" the Dad asks straight up.

The Stepsis finally lifts her eyes from the floor and turns to look at her.

"Actually, Dad," she talks to him but looks back at the brunette girl, "Yeah, I am," she says calmly. And smiles a little.

***

Mornings are always the same. It doesn't matter whether it's a workday or not, it's always the same. Brooke's brain is built so that it always wakes her up at six. She can try to sleep more on weekends but it's extremely rare that she succeeds. Katie's another matter altogether. She would sleep till summer if Brooke let her.

But she doesn't. She puts on her bathrobe and strides into her daughter's room. She pulls the covers off the girl and rudely shakes her awake. Katie grumbles a weak protest and curls into a small ball to keep away the cold. "Come on, Kitty!" Brooke encourages her daughter, "It's Tuesday already. Only a couple of more and it's weekend," she goes on, "I'll make you toast."

"You always make me toast," Katie whines but still agrees to sit up, "I'm tired, Mom," she says swinging her legs over the side of the bed.

"Yeah," Brooke replies, "Tell you what. Cause you have to come to the diner with me, I'll let you order anything you want from the menu."

Katie doesn't answer.

Brooke walks out of the room and heads for the kitchen. Her daughter toddles a few steps behind her, decked in her favorite butterfly-patterned jammies. Brooke makes her way to the counter next to the fridge and starts opening doors and drawers. Katie wobbles on her shaky feet to the kitchen table and awkwardly climbs to sit on a chair. "You want this toasted or not?" Brooke asks with her back still turned. There is no answer. She pops the bread in the toaster and pours a glass of orange juice. And when she turns around with the drink she finds her daughter swaying in and out of sleep at the table. The small head slightly dropping forward every once in a while and then jolting back up. "No cartoons today?" Brooke asks to hide the guilt growing inside her.

Katie turns her droopy eyes to Brooke, "I'm tired, Mom," she says. Almost begs for her mother to let her go back to bed. Katie doesn't get cranky when she's tired, not like some kids. She becomes quiet and depressed. Jaded to the extent that Brooke has trouble recognizing her. Obedient to a fault, like she were a robot.

Brooke carries the glass to the table and pulls her own chair right next to her daughter. "I'm sorry," she mumbles quietly as she sits down. She circles her arms around Katie and hugs the exhausted girl to her chest. It is her fault. Brooke is the reason Katie has to stay up so late. Has to wait till midnight till she gets to sleep. Everything is always her fault. "I'm sorry," Brooke again whispers. Though, she doubts Katie hears her anymore. The girl's breathing has steadied down, and Brooke suspects she has fallen back asleep already.

Coffee for her. Toast and cartoons for her daughter. On a usual morning. They are not always the same. Though, sometimes it feels like that to Brooke. Like she's stuck in an endless loop. Repeating the same routines over and over again. Living the same day after day after day. But then something happens which breaks the spell. Sometimes it's something that Katie does. She will snub her nose at a meal that has until then been her favorite. Or she'll refuse to watch Power Puff Girls, even though she's always loved the show. Or she'll only smile thinly at her mother's idiotic joke, where just yesterday she would've laughed outrageously. Small changes that never actually happen over night. Like Brooke sometimes falsely thinks. They happen gradually. But she doesn't notice them. Not until one day, when she's shocked to find her daughter just the tiniest bit more mature. That's when she's pulled back to the horrible, horrible reality. Where Katie is growing up. And even though a part of her is awfully excited to see just how the girl will turn out, a bigger part desperately wants to stop the process. That part of Brooke wants to be in the endless loop. Because, despite its flaws, she has a pretty damn good life. It may be hard, but at least she has her daughter. And when Katie's grown up, then what? Then there's nothing.

Suddenly Katie shifts her position in her sleep and almost slides off the chair. Brooke startles back to her senses and catches the girl just in time. She blinks her eyes furiously and quickly glances at the clock. "Shit!" she shouts and shakes Katie from the shoulders, "Wake up! We're late!"

Katie groans disappointedly but doesn't start to argue. She gets up from the chair and leaves to go clothe herself. Brooke grabs the already cold slices of toast and quickly swipes jam on them. Thirty minutes they slept at the table. Or Katie slept, and Brooke was lost in thought. None of that now, though. Busy, busy morning. She tosses the bread on a small plate and storms out of the kitchen. And into her daughter's room. "Eat when you've got the time," Brooke orders in a stern voice. She places the plate on the bed and exits as quickly as she entered.

Katie watches after the woman a good while. Sitting on the floor. She's in her light blue dress already, though it still needs to be buttoned. One sock on and the other one half up. Her fingers are grasping the rim of the sock and she's staring at the empty space her mother left. She's frozen.

In the room across the hall, Brooke has managed to scramble into her own clothes. Jeans and a white pullover. Her favorite pullover. Her brush is desperately giving quick, hard strokes to her hair. A few times she catches a good-sized tangle and winces from the pain as she ruthlessly pulls the brush through it.

"I wanna put on jeans too, Mom," Katie quietly mumbles from the doorway. Fully dressed now.

Brooke glances at the girl briefly and leans to study her reflection in the mirror, "Your jeans are too small. You know that," she says and brushes the hair some more.

Katie hovers on the spot for a time. She lowers her gaze to the floor. Skates are too big and jeans too small. Nothing ever quite fits her. It's depressing. "When can I get new ones, Mom?" she talks to her own feet.

Brooke gives her hair one more stroke and then takes another look in the mirror. Good enough, she decides, and puts down the brush. She sighs and turns to look at Katie. "We'll see," she says. And smiles when the girl looks up. "You can wear the beret."

Six thirty is when they SHOULD be out the door. That would leave Brooke ample time to drop Katie off at the kindergarten, and then get back down a couple of blocks to the diner before seven. That's how it works in theory. Reality is much different. Even on good mornings they leave no earlier than twenty to seven. Then they have to hurry, but Brooke still usually makes it in time. At the bottom, there are the late mornings. Fifteen, even ten to seven. Brooke runs like a sprinter and she's still late. Doesn't matter much. She makes up for it at the other end. Working late. Doing extra shifts when needed.

"Why are we going this way, Mom?" Katie asks when they hit the street, and Brooke immediately starts rushing northwards. The woman doesn't stop to answer. She hears the question but doesn't give it much merit. "You said I'd get to come to the diner with you today," Katie goes on.

"Oh, that's right!" Brooke breathes out in surprise and stops on her tracks so fast that Katie almost bumps into her. "Thank you, God," she says and spins around. She won't be late, after all. What good news. Weird, how the whole thing slipped her mind so.

The diner is a block down and a few to the west, whereas the kindergarten is four up and still almost as far to the west. Brooke knows her way well around the Village. She knows the nearby streets like the back of her hand. But soon as they have to go a little farther, she's in trouble. Her world is very small. Her life is very simple. And she likes it that way.

And she hates the way Josh has come here and made it feel TOO small. She can squeeze Sam into her tiny world, she can even fit the few people she knows from work, who she likes to call her friends. But Josh? Josh is too big. He takes up so much space, and makes Brooke feel claustrophobic. Makes New York feel too small. Makes her feel like there's something better somewhere else. Her life may be very simple, but sometimes she wishes it were even more so. Sometimes she wants it to be JUST her and Katie. Nothing more. Not a thing.

Inside the diner. Brooke greets peppily the two other waitresses who've made it through the cold morning. She instructs Katie to take a seat at the booth in the far corner. But to sit on the aisle side so that she'll be visible at all times. Brooke loads up the coffee machine and flips it on. Even as a customer walks in. A middle-aged man, who runs a bookstore across the street. They see him in the diner at lunch time quite often. Rarely in the mornings, though. "Hello," Brooke smiles cheerily. Seems the man's own percolator is broken, so he needs two coffees to go. Brooke is happy to serve. She fills up two plastic cups from a thermos, one of the other girls has brought in with her. She snaps on tops to the cups and comments that, "Yes, it," indeed, "Has been a cold morning. Though, not as cold as yesterday."

"That's true," the man agrees with a nod as he pays up, "Well, see you later," he says.

"Bye," Brooke smiles and watches him go. She then turns and informs her daughter that she'll be in the back, changing into her uniform. Katie doesn't even answer, only stares out the window. Looking awfully lonely. It's a sad sight, but Brooke has little choice. "Katie?" she again calls a little louder. The girl turns her head enough to give her a reassuring look and a small nod. Brooke has to fight to repress the feelings of guilt, which are trying to resurface. There is no time for them. There's work to do. Keeping busy is a good way to keep all the negative thoughts at bay.

On her way to the back room she runs into Lucy. A thirty something waitress she only knows a little. They don't share many shifts. Nevertheless she smiles sweetly and tells the woman she put on a fresh pot of coffee. Inside the small changing room she finds Lisa, the third member of their morning team. A talkative black girl, with her hair cut real short. Twenty-five years of age. Only two more than Brooke. She likes Lisa. Because, even though she talks nonstop, it's rarely about anything personal. It's about everyday stuff and always with a positive spin to it. Even when proclaiming that Tuesday really is the worst day of the week, it's with a smile on her face. It's quite entertaining and most definitely distracting.

"I know a lot of people hate Mondays, but to me Tuesdays are much worse. I mean, you've still practically got the whole week ahead of you, and you've already wasted all your energy on Monday."

Brooke retrieves the yellow and white dress from her locker. She sits down on the bench and glances at the other woman, who is preparing to go back in. "Yeah, I see what you mean," Brooke says and starts to undress, "But I feel that by Tuesday I already have the momentum going, and so the rest of the week will kind of resolve itself..." she talks and doesn't even know herself what she was going for. And so she adds with an embarrassed smile, "Or whatever." Lisa  smiles back to her and bangs her own locker door shut. "I don't know exactly why, but I still hate Mondays the most. Call me old fashioned," Brooke says.

Lisa already turns to head for the door, but then stops, "Hey, is that from a song?" the woman asks and faces her again. Brooke shakes her head slowly. Lisa doesn't pay her attention, just goes on thinking out loud, "No, it doesn't go exactly like that... more like... Tell me why... I hate Mondays... I think. And then there's a line about shooting the day down..." the woman wrinkles her brow.

"Oh, right!" Brooke suddenly remembers. And starts talking excitedly, "It's... Tell me why I don't..."

"Like Mondays!" Lisa joins in reciting the end with her, "Right," the woman nods, "It's real old, though."

"Yeah," Brooke agrees. Quite pleased with herself. She didn't think she still carried around such long forgotten knowledge, "From the eighties, I think."

"Way before our time, hey?" Lisa smiles and quirks an eyebrow, "You don't remember who sang it, do you?"

"Nouu..." Brooke breathes out amusedly, "I think it was a guy. But I'm not even sure about that."

Lisa shrugs and again turns to go, muttering on the way, "Maybe I'll ask Lucy. She grew up in the eighties. I think."

"Lisa?" Brooke stops her once she reaches the door. The woman glances back at her. "If it's not too busy, could you maybe see if Katie wants something? I promised her she could have anything from the menu," she says.

Lisa nods and smiles and disappears into the diner side.

So begins another work day. It is what it is. Taking orders, pouring coffee, carrying trays. Handing out bills. Smiling and thanking for the tips. Time goes by so slowly at first. Even with Katie there, it feels like the day will never end. It's always the same. Thankfully the minutes start to tick faster the further the day advances. Every chance she gets, Brooke takes a pause and goes to sit with her daughter. Katie's mood starts to improve once the weariness finally leaves her body. She smiles more, talks more, and even laughs a couple of times.

And then asks the question Brooke has been expecting all morning, "Why am I here, Mom?" Katie asks, when Brooke again sits down across the table. She knew Katie wouldn't remember. It was settled just yesterday, but she has already forgotten. Katie forgets things quite quickly when she wants to. Things that are unpleasant. Or things that are convenient to forget, Katie does. Either that, or she fakes it. But it's always the same.

It's a little past eleven. Through the window Brooke sees the reason. She has been waiting for them for a while now, "Because of him," she says to the girl and waves her hand to the man who has also seen them from the other side of the glass. And she waves to his wife, too.

"Oh, right," Katie mumbles and turns to look just as Josh lightly raps his fingers on the window.

Katie waves too. Under her mother's close scrutiny. Brooke sees that it is a forced effort, and that Katie is not excited about the meeting. But she's more inclined to chuck it up to the exhaustion. Not for dislike for her father. Katie seemed quite smitten with Josh and Lily yesterday. So Sam said, and so Brooke gathered herself from the evening conversation on the way home. Katie does like Josh, but is just too tired to care now. And that is Brooke's fault. And she feels bad for Katie. And a little bad even for Josh.

"You gona be okay today?" Brooke asks her daughter while Josh and Lily are in search of the entrance, "Without Sam, I mean? Just the three of you?"

"Sure," Katie nods. And smiles quite sweetly, putting most of Brooke's fears at rest for a short time. They'll return soon as the girl is gone. But at least now she'll be able to let her go, "Dad said he'd take me to an amusement park," Katie says. Pronouncing the word `amusement' weirdly.

And it makes Brooke grin, "That's right," she quickly says, "To Coney Island. That should be fun."

Katie never gets to answer. Her father arrives. With his wife. And it's time for greetings. And goodbyes. Time for pleasantries and fake smiles. Well, if there's one thing Brooke is good at, it's faking it. Hiding behind whatever mask is appropriate at a given time. She can't remember a time in her life when she hasn't had to conceal one or two of her true feelings. Emotions or intentions. From her father. Her friends. Then from an entire school. From Sam. And most recently from Katie. Because, even though the relationship with her daughter is the most honest one she's ever had, there are things the girl just cannot know.

Josh sends Katie out to wait with her wife. And a small piece of Brooke's heart breaks again when she studies the girl's distancing back. It doesn't matter. It'll mend again once she comes back. "About the visit to California..." Josh starts.

Brooke shoots him a threatening glare, "Not now," she says harshly and intends to return to her work.

"Yes, now," Josh says half blocking her way with a sidestep, "Katie was very excited last night, when I mentioned it to her."

"You shouldn't have done that, not without my permission!" Brooke replies too loud. She attracts unwanted attention. "I have work to do," she goes on more quietly and tries to move away.

"How can you deny it from her, if she really wants to come?"

Josh's words stop Brooke. She pauses for a second and then turns a smug face to the man, "You have no idea what Katie wants. You don't know her," a slightly cruel grin twists on her mouth. "You seriously think she'll want to go anywhere without me?" she talks in a calm and quiet voice, "I am her LIFE," hiding perfectly her inner turmoil.

There's a short silence. Josh looks at her with a blank face, "You say that like it's a good thing. It isn't," is his parting comment. He makes for a quick exit.

But it is a good thing. Brooke believes it with her whole heart. Three fourths of a heart. Half of her heart, at the very least. There is no such thing as too much love. Nor too close a relationship between mother and daughter. There can't be. Not when her love is so pure. And possessive...

"Hey, Brooke? It's the Boomtown Rats," Lisa suddenly calls out to her across the counter. Some five yards away.

"What?" Brooke replies and shakes her head in confusion.

"The band that plays the song...? The Monday song?"

"Oh, right!" she smiles. And heads closer to the counter, "So Lucy knew it?"

"No, a customer did... I've been humming it the whole morning," Lisa says with a winning smile. It makes Brooke laugh. But of course the girl doesn't stop there. She talks on, like is her habit, "But it isn't, you know, one question... like `Tell me why I don't like Mondays?' You know what I mean? `Tell me why?' is the question. And `I don't like Mondays' is the answer..."

"Okay," Brooke says and nods, "I have no idea what you're talking about, though," she goes to retrieve a menu from the counter with the intention of attending to the customer who has just walked in. "It's a song. You hear it the way you want to hear it," she says and starts walking across the diner, alongside the counter.

Lisa doesn't care about her words. She only goes on. Follows her on the other side of the desk and talks, "Also, the melody is quite upbeat. So you think it's a happy song, right? But the lyrics... the guy said they are not that happy... I can't remember them, you know, other than the chorus... Do you remember them, Brooke?"

And the day goes on. Slightly slower now that Katie is gone. But time does not stop. And eventually she will get off duty. And head for the library. For another session. Her life may be one big struggle, but if she consumes it in small portions it is manageable. She just needs to remember to draw strength from the good things. And not dwell too much on things she might be doing wrong. Or on problems that might come along with time. Or on problems that are already here. Things will sort themselves out. They always do.


Hindsight

Sam sits on her bed, quietly staring into space. Things are spinning around in her mind. Promises, lies, phrases, words. Looks, expressions and images. Of her family. The one she never even wanted. And now it means so much to her. Of course, now that it is so close to self-destructing itself, she becomes emotionally involved in it. That's how it goes with Sam. She always finds herself rooting for the underdog. And right now their modern day version of the nuclear family is it. It's like someone's holding an axe over it, ready to split it in two just to see how big of an explosion it'll create.

But Sam isn't completely without hope. She still has a few cards in her hand. And she's ready to play them. Even though she has to admit that the high rollers in this household are the McQueens. And it is the McQueens who will ultimately decide their fate. Sam can only whisper devious suggestions in Brooke's ear and hope she has some influence over the stepsister...

... only fifteen minutes ago it seemed like she managed to, at least, delay the doomsday...

"You think he bought it?" Brooke asks Sam, who follows the blonde into her room some minutes behind her. Brooke is seated by the desk, staring into the large mirror on it. And is studiously brushing her hair.

"He didn't, Brooke," Sam replies in a defeated voice. She walks to the middle of the room and meets her stepsister's eyes in the mirror.

Brooke stares back at her for a few moments, first slightly worriedly. Then indifference takes over and the girl only shrugs her shoulders and turns to look away. The brush hand, which has taken a short pause, also resumes its task. "It was that stupid outburst I had at the birthday dinner," Brooke talks after a while. Mostly to herself but some of the words are meant for Sam, too, "I mean, how could he NOT know what I want after that?"

"And how could you NOT even argue your case?" Sam asks back annoyedly. She hates the way Brooke is behaving. It scares her.

"Argue my case?" Brooke frowns, "What do you think this is? A court of law?" a small chuckle escapes the blonde's mouth.

"But if he knows you were lying, then he KNOWS you want to keep it..."

"And he knows I'll still obey his orders," Brooke finishes Sam's sentence. "I told you once already, Sam. I know him too well."

Sam is frozen in place. It is a crucial a moment. One that could very well decide what is going to happen next. "But you gotta try, Brooke," Sam begs quite desperately. She surprises even herself with the honest voice. Brooke's fate means the world to her. "You can't just give up without a fight. And you're gona have me and my mom on your side," she talks more bravely this time. But still unable to move. She wishes she could go to Brooke's side. Lay a comforting hand on the blonde's shoulder. And convince the girl it would be okay, "We can make it work," if Brooke would only accept her help.

Brooke stares icily at her through the mirror. She has again stopped brushing her hair. And Sam can feel intense hatred directed at her in that stare. Such a familiar feeling. Though, it isn't exactly hatred. Only anger. And it proves Sam that she is right. "I am fighting," Brooke talks through gritted teeth, "Just not your way."

"Running away is not fighting, Brooke," Sam says.

"Who's running?!" Brooke shouts back, "I'm brushing my hair."

But Sam knows better. If Brooke says she knows her father, Sam believes her. But she knows Brooke herself. So well by now, it scares her a little. Brooke's words aren't always to be trusted. Her stepsister lies well. Hides some of her lies in plain sight, so that everyone knows when she is not being honest. Lulling all of them into fall sense of security. So that no one guesses to dig deep enough for the more important secrets.

No one but Sam, who is sure she knows Brooke inside out by now. "Please don't leave, Brooke," she again begs.

Brooke keeps staring at her. The eyes soften a touch. She sighs deep and tilts her head slightly. Then looks away, "I won't," she says quietly.

And Sam believes her...

... unlike ten minutes before, downstairs...

"So... What's it gona be?" Mike McQueen ends a long silence with a calm voice.

In a very different way from what Sam expected. She is sitting slightly behind the man and more to his side, so that she can only see the profile of his face. But even that is enough. It isn't the face of a concerned father. It is the face of a disappointed man. A betrayed man. One who will not make compromises. Sam can't quite believe it that Brooke knew all along. She can't quite believe it that she, herself didn't see it.

"You mean I get to choose?" Brooke asks in a similarly calm tone.

Everything is different from what Sam expected. She expected shouting and screaming. And hugs and kisses in the end. There's none of that. Only the few words exchanged between the father and the daughter.

Mike nods a little, "Of course. You want an abortion, I'll help you with that," he says with a straight face, "Or if you want to give birth and then give it up for adoption, I'll stand by you during that, too."

`What if I want to keep it? Sam prays Brooke'll ask the question. She wills the other girl to do it with all her strength. Brooke needs to bring it up with Mike. They need to discuss it now. That is why she told the parents. So that all the necessary plans can be made in advance.

"Okay," Brooke says.

Okay! Sam wants to scream in the face of the dysfunctional father- daughter pairing. She wants to go over and shake some sense into Brooke. Instead she takes a deep breath. "Oh, hey," she chirps, "Just out of curiosity, what if she wants to keep the baby?"

"She doesn't," Mike answers with an angry glance towards Sam.

"Shouldn't we at least discuss the option," Jane pipes up. And gains great heaps of respect from Sam. "I mean, Brooke, you might regr..."

"No!" Mike quickly interrupts the woman with a loud shout. His eyes are tiny slits now. He is very angry. "With all due respect, this is between me and Brooke," Mike says.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Jane huffs, angry herself, "My mistake. I thought we were a family."

"We are," Mike states quite unconvincingly. "But I know..."

"Abortion!" Brooke suddenly yelps, cutting off her father and ending the promising fight. She fidgets around on her feet a while, when they all turn to look at her. "I want an abortion," she states, nodding her head once. Then turns around and flees the room.

***

"Katie?" Brooke wakes up in a jolt. She's in a strange bed. In a strange room. Naked.

Oh no, no, no... No!

A head is buried beneath a heap of brown hair on the pillow next to her. She struggles to remember, but things come to her in the form of photographs. Moments frozen in time that have no meaning separated from the context. There she is working in the library. Here she is having a chat with Sam. Throwing back a shot of clear liquid. Laughing at a man's incredibly funny joke.

Brooke takes another glance at the sleeping figure next to her. And winces when she realizes her head is being pounded with a hammer.

Katie. Yes, Katie. She grabs hold of that thought and throws her legs off the edge of the bed. She stands up and staggers slightly. The alcohol is still clouding her mind. She glances at her watch. Ten to  six only. Thank God. Katie must still be sleeping. With Josh! Yes, that's it. Katie is spending the night with Lily and Josh. Thank you again, God. Now, if she could only remember where she is herself.

Her clothes are lying haphazardly on the floor. Quickly she puts on her underwear, throws on a t-shirt and pulls up her jeans. She picks up her sweater, too, but leaves it off. It's quite hot in the room, she feels flushed.

Two doors lead out of the room. Both are open. There's a bright light shining from the closer one, and Brooke opts for that one first. It takes her to the bathroom, where she catches sight of herself in the mirror.

It's bad. Even to her slack standards. Her hair is greasy and bundled, and not just from the sleep, either. It hasn't received enough attention in a long time. Her skin is dry. Her teeth have a taint of yellow in them, she doesn't always have the energy to brush them anymore. And her eyes... they look so very awful. Like two hollow black holes... It's just the shadow the fluorescent light is casting.

She bends over the sink and splashes water on her face...

... and remembers...

A bar. Dark table in the corner. Smoky air lazily hanging around it. Sam across from her. Next to the girlfriend... Rr...achel.

And then there's the guy. Sitting next to her. Brooke knows the guy. Brooke was supposed to go out with the guy, but not last night. Thomas is his name. Dark brown hair that flows freely to his shoulders. The face is good-looking enough for Brooke. And then there are the blue eyes she found the most interesting at first. They reveal a kind of downplayed intelligence and a friendly joviality. She finds herself both attracted and repulsed by them now. The same way she finds herself reacting to him as a person, too. He's more than an okay guy, he's better than Brooke could ever hope to get. And maybe in a weird way he's better than what she wants. Hence the repulsion.

But tonight in the murky bar the attraction is heightened by the influence of alcohol in her blood, and the loathing seems to have dissipated. And Brooke is quite eagerly listening to his smooth voice.

"... but you know, cause she's my sister, it's impossible for me to keep my mouth shut when I KNOW she's making a mistake..." the guy is saying.

And, though, Brooke completely missed the beginning of the story she starts laughing and nodding her head. "Sam is exh-ACTLY like that!" she shouts triumphantly and empties the pint in front of her. "She can NOT keep her mouth shHUT," she finishes the thought, turning her gaze to her stepsister.

Sam smiles amusedly. Though, Brooke thinks she can detect a hint of irritation, too. "You're really enjoying that Guinness, aren't you, Brooke?" says the brunette girl.

"Yesss..." Brooke replies, closing her eyes for a second and nodding her head, "Actually... I think I might enjoys another one," she says and smiles back happily.

"And I think you might've enjoyed a few too many already," Sam says, holding onto her smile.

"Oh, SEE?!" Brooke again laughs. Now she turns towards the guy, who responds acceptably with a huge grin, and then towards Sam's girlfriend, who is also laughing. "You DO love me like a real sister!" she goes on to say to Sam. Then she slowly rises up from her seat, leans over the table to give a hug and a kiss to the disheveled girl. The kiss is meant to be on the cheek, but Brooke stumbles slightly and it lands half way on Sam's mouth. She isn't too disturbed by it herself, only sits back down with a foolish grin on her face.

Sam smiles back an embarrassed smile and glances to her side at Rachel.

"So, what's the story with you two, anyway?" Thomas says before the silence has time to grow into awkward proportions, "You're, what? Half sisters?"

"No. Step," Sam replies quickly. She, too, finishes her drink, "Barely even that."

"What do you mean?" he asks.

Sam glances at Brooke, who is looking back at her with a more serious expression plastered on her face. As serious as she can muster in her intoxicated state. "Well, our parents only met when we were seventeen. And then Brooke was gone so soon we didn't get a chance to really form any kind of a bond," Sam says, turning back to the guy.

Brooke keeps staring at the brunette, but she doesn't say anything. They are almost true. Sam's words. But she doesn't quite agree. They share a bond. Not necessarily a sisterly. Not even that friendly. But it is a strong bond, none the less. It's hard to classify it, but it is the second most important relationship in her life, right after the one with her daughter. And she doesn't like how Sam's belittling it so.

"Where'd you go?" Thomas asks from Brooke this time.

She takes a half glance his way, "Away," she says bluntly. Her voice is much more coherent all of a sudden. Nothing like a good reminder of her past to sober Brooke up.

"Okayyy..." he says with a short laugh, "Changing the subject. What did you think of the band?"

"Crap," she says and agrees to grin. Yes, the guy can be annoying as hell some of the time. But at least he doesn't insist on talking about anything serious. "Complete and utter crap," she says.

"Really?" Sam's girlfriend, Rachel, talks. With a smile on her face, too, "Cause they're really popular among the students at NYU."

"Well, that's the problem with you college people," Brooke goes on. Already shaking off the gloomy mood that was threatening to take her over. Replacing it is the earlier joviality, "You don't know NOTHING about real life or real music."

"Yeah, they only really teach us unimportant stuff. Like not to use double negatives," Sam says.

Brooke turns to gape at her stepsister. Slightly angered at first, but then quickly grinning again. "Are you saying I'm stupid, Sam?" she says, trying to sound more offended than amused.

"Hey, you insulted my taste in music," Sam says, "Which is way worse."

"Way worse?" Brooke repeats, rolling her eyes, "They teach you to use that in college, too?"

"No, no," Sam can't keep from smirking anymore, "Just trying to speak in terms even you can understand."

"Oh!" Brooke scoffs and starts giggling. "If you're getting nasty, I'm gona need another drink," she says, squirming out of her seat. She heads past Sam and lightly punches the girl on the shoulder on her way. She makes her slightly unsteady way across the almost deserted establishment and to the bar. There she asks the slightly older gentleman behind the counter for the time.

"One forty-five," he replies instantly, "You want another one?"

"Yes," Brooke nods her head exaggeratedly, "Guinness, please."

And then Sam's there by her side. Like Brooke knew she would be. She sensed it immediately, that the brunette got up to follow her when she passed by.

"You sure about that, Brooke?" Sam says leaning on the counter next to her, "Shouldn't you be heading home already? You got work tomorrow."

"Sam, please," Brooke says smiling to the stepsister, "You're not responsible for me."

"Okay," Sam says, looking straight ahead at the bartender, who is in the middle of the delicate procedure of filling a glass with ale from the tap.

"Come on," Brooke goes on despite Sam's agreeing, "I mean, you convinced me to come in the first place. Now you want me to leave?"

"I said okay," Sam replies with an edge to her tone. She slides to sit on the stool next to her and finally turns to look at Brooke, "Though, I only convinced you to come see the band. Not to get plastered," she mutters under her breath.

When Brooke decides to let the comment pass they both fall silent for a few moments. It's not that Brooke doesn't want to comment. She does. But she also knows Sam is right. She should be going. But she doesn't want to yet. She knows that as soon as this night is over it's back to the same routines. And as comforting as they are, everyone needs a break sometimes. She knows it's going to be a horrible day tomorrow. But it's going to be that no matter when she leaves, so why not enjoy the night a bit longer?

"So, anyway," Sam breaks the silence. She sounds a bit tired. Resigned, really. "Rachel and I are gona go," she says, "You going to be okay on your own?"

"Yeah, sure," Brooke quickly answers, nodding a couple of times. "You're going?" she smiles a little sadly. Sam only nods in response. Then gets up and waves a hand towards their table and Rachel. Brooke watches how the other girl stands up and says her goodbyes to the guy. Then starts to slowly walk their way. "Sam?" Brooke quickly says, gaining the brunette's attention, "I'm sorry I left you... you know, back when." She throws her arms around Sam, giving her another hug.

"It's... okay," Sam quite awkwardly stammers, startled by the sudden contact. "You sure you're gona be okay?" she goes on asking when the hug refuses to end as briefly as the previous one.

"Yeah, don't worry, Sam," Brooke says, finally pulling back, "I'll be fine..."

... She winces at the mirror again. Rapidly runs her fingers through her hair a couple of times, trying to gain some control of the mess atop of her head. With lousy results. She promptly gives up the effort, and tiptoes out of the bathroom. And to the second door leading out of the bedroom. Carefully she pulls it all the way open and takes one last look at the sleeping figure. It hasn't moved an inch as far as Brooke can tell. She heads through the doorway to another room...

... and she remembers...

Staring into a mirror. Self-reflection has never been easy for Brooke. She has always needed a visual aid to do it. And that is why she has spent devastating amounts of time looking at herself in mirrors. In California in her father's home. Here in New York in her own home.

And now here, in the semi-crowded restroom of this stingy club on Sixth Avenue. Brooke has already forgotten the name of the place. It means nothing to her. The location is much more important. So she knows how to get home. Which will hopefully come sooner rather than later.

The girl in this particular mirror is not a happy one. She's nervous. Looking around at the other, more confident customers of the toilet. Hoping that none of them will notice the coffee stain in her worn-out jeans. Or that she's sweating bullets in the hot, white sweater, her first ever Christmas gift from Sam. Older than her daughter. Oh, she wishes she won't ruin it today. It's her favorite piece of clothing.

The door leading back to the club opens again and Brooke's ears are flooded by the insufferable rock music. The newcomer is Sam. She enters sideways, pushing the door with her shoulder while dangling two shot glasses in her hands. "What are you doing?" the brunette asks irately after the short moment it takes her to locate Brooke by the mirror. "You're missing the whole concert."

"Yeah... I don't feel so good, Sam," Brooke mutters back, when Sam comes to her side. She looks down at the sink in front of her.

Sam places one of the shots on the table and frowns. "No wonder," she still talks with the annoyed edge to her voice, "Lose the damn sweater. It's a hundred and fucking ten degrees in here," Sam says and starts tugging the hem of the shirt.

"Stop it!" Brooke gripes and smacks Sam's hand away. She looks uncomfortably around at the other patrons and almost makes a move to flee the room. And the club. But manages to hold still.

"What?" Sam asks, following Brooke's gaze around the toilet.

"You shouldn't have forced me to come," Brooke says.

Sam chuckles and pulls back a little, "It's not like I held a gun to your head," she says, shaking her head slightly.

Brooke glares at the brunette under her brow. No, Sam didn't hold a gun to her head. Yes, Sam did kind of force her. Not physically, but she did convince Brooke that everything would go okay, and that she would have good time. Everything's not okay, and she certainly isn't having a very good time. She feels guilty over leaving Katie with Josh for the night. Scared that the girl may be bonding with her father right this moment. And then more guilt over the fear. "I should just go get Katie and go home..." she says flinging around rapidly, "She... she's never been away from home overnight..."

"Not true. She's spent nights at my place," Sam quickly counters Brooke's hasty argument. "Just relax. You said yourself she was excited to sleep in a hotel."

"Yeah, but a lot of the times she might sound excited and then..." Brooke starts babbling. She even takes a step towards the exit.

But Sam quickly grabs her by the arm and pulls her back, "Josh won't kidnap her, Brooke," the brunette says with a small smile. "And it'll do Katie good," Sam says.

"You think?" Brooke asks, giving a pleading look to the other woman.

"Yeah," Sam nods once, "You tend to be a bit too overbearing, Brooke," she says.

Brooke nods too. She knows. The most important thing she'll ever do, probably the only important thing she'll ever do with her life, and she's screwing up even that. Raising her child all wrong because she has no idea how to do it right. No, no, no. She IS doing an okay job with Katie. Maybe not a perfect job, but Katie's turning out well enough. The girl will have a fighting chance when she grows up. She won't be spoiled beyond repair. She won't have any irremovable emotional scars in her. It won't happen. These are crucial times they're living now. Katie's turning six and starting school the next year. Brooke could, perhaps, use some sensible advice. Though, she's not sure what Sam could possibly know about the subject.

"So it's all good, Brooke," Sam goes on, holding out the drink and picking up the other one on the table. "Drink up," she says.

Brooke a little hesitantly accepts the glass and looks at it warily. "What is it?" she asks.

"Your favorite, of course," the brunette smiles, "Vodka, straight up. Without any kind of twists."

Brooke wrinkles her nose. Alcohol. She hardly ever touches the stuff anymore. During the six or so years in New York she's never once gotten really drunk. Only worked her way through the occasional wine bottle.

"Here's to you reentering the wonderful world of dating," Sam says clinking their glasses together and then throwing back the shot.

Brooke follows suit. One vodka shot isn't gona harm anyone...

... A telephone. Mounted on the wall next to the kitchen doorway. Her coat flung to the table inside the kitchen. She picks up the cordless phone on her way and walks to the table. Sits down and rummages through the pockets of the coat. Finds her wallet. And a piece of paper inside it with a set of numbers scribbled on it. She dials the number and proceeds to wait...

... and she remembers...

"Hello?"

"Josh, Hi... It's Brooke."

"Oh... Hi, Brooke. What's up?"

"Uhm... I was just calling to see how it's going. You guys having fun?"

"It's going great, thanks. Katie's having a really good time."

"Good. Good, that's... great..."

"Did you want something, Brooke?"

"Yeah... umm... I felt a little bad about what I said to you in the diner earlier... I shouldn't have done that."

"Oh... well, that's good to hear... So, you're ready to reconsider, then? About letting Katie come to California with us?"

"... Yeah, maybe... We can talk about it, just... not now... What I was thinking, though... You're flying back tomorrow, right?"

"Right..."

"So, if it's okay with you guys... and Katie... maybe she could spend the night with you in the hotel? Just so, you know... she'll get more used to the idea of being around you and Lily... if some day, you know... she does come to California..."

"..."

"Josh...?"

"No, right. Right. Sure. That would be awesome, Brooke. Wow... Seriously. I just didn't expect anything like this after the diner incident..."

"But only if it's okay with Katie..."

"Of course... She's in the restroom with Lily right now, but we'll call back as soon as she gets here."

"Okay then... Bye?"

"Yeah, bye for now."

Brooke lowers down the receiver and turns towards the three expectant faces across her work desk. "So?" asks Sam, shrugging her shoulders anxiously.

"So... it's okay with him..." Brooke replies and looks away.

"Great!" the dark-haired guy next to Sam shouts enthusiastically, "You'll come with us?"

"Only if it's okay with my daughter," Brooke says nodding her head forcefully. "And for future reference, I hate being ambushed like this. We were supposed to go out tomorrow," she says more than a little angrily. She won't even have enough time to go home and change. Not to mention put on some makeup. And, really, the idea of going out on a date after working sixteen hours... it's insane. She would never have agreed to it if Sam wasn't there insisting she come... "Sam put you up to it, didn't she?" Brooke suddenly says, when a thought hits her head.

"What?" the guy asks and frowns.

"She told you to ask me out in the first place. Last week?" Brooke goes on, very sure of herself.

"Are you high, Brooke?" Sam says, shaking her head furiously, "I've never even seen him before today."

"Yeah, Brooke," Thomas says, "I told you, we met in the ticket line. I bought the last ones from right under..."

"Their noses. And then just happened to offer them two tickets, cause you had bought extra ones for your friends... How stupid do you think I am?" Brooke says glaring at the three students. Or only at two of them, since Sam's girlfriend hasn't done anything to upset her.

"Well, that's what happened," Thomas says, sounding disappointed. "I'm sorry if you don't believe me. I just wanted to do something nice for you."

He looks so sincere that Brooke actually wants to believe him. Hard as it is for her to accept such coincidences. It sounds just like something Sam might do... or not really. Sam's never actually fixed her up with anyone. And this would be the weirdest time to start. Maybe it is just one big fluke. And admittedly it is much more comforting to go out with the guy knowing she'll have Sam there on her side. "Well, all right," Brooke grudgingly agrees, "I'm sorry. But you have to admit it sounds like horse shit."

"I can vouch for them, Brooke," Rachel jumps into the conversation. "And you're right. It was a surreal moment, when Thomas said he was planning on asking out this librarian named Brooke. You should've seen Sam's expression," the girl laughs a little, "Priceless."

Brooke smiles back and nods her head. What does it even matter in the end? It's not like she was forced to go out with Thomas, when he asked. She agreed because it felt like the normal thing to do. And she might as well go out with him a couple of more times, just to see how it feels. Then she can decide if that part of her life is over or not. She has long since given up on delusions of ever falling in love. Ever marrying anyone. The most she expects from this is to have a few laughs and then go her separate way.

"You played Josh nicely, by the way," Sam says with a mischievous smirk. "Making him think you're doing him a favor and not the other way around."

Brooke squints her eyes and angrily glowers at Sam. "I didn't play Josh," she says bluntly, appalled by Sam's choice of words. Like she's pawning her daughter off with the man just so she can go out and dance the night away. She would NEVER do that. If even a small part of her thought she was doing some harm to Katie she'd instantly cancel the whole deal.

"Oh, come on," Sam still goes on, "You so made it sound like that."

"Sam..." the girlfriend says, trying to intervene.

Brooke, though, can't just let her stepsister's comments slide. "Katie's not some burden I'd just toss aside when it suits me," she says vehemently.

"I know that," Sam says, "But it is a little interesting that you didn't mention your own plans to..." Sam is cut short by the phone, when it starts to ring. "Josh," she finishes.

Brooke waits for the second ring. "I'll only come if it's okay with Katie..." she then says determinedly and picks up the receiver. "The NYU library," she answers.

"Mom...?" says the distant voice of Brooke's daughter...

... She gives up after too many rings and decides to give it another try at home. If she has the time. It's six o'clock now. An hour before work starts at the diner. Maybe she'll just head there straight away. Shows up on time for a change. She'll ask Josh to bring Katie there. Yes, that'll work beautifully. Thank God it's Wednesday and she doesn't have to go to the library. She made some lousy decisions last night, more than she probably even remembers. But nothing catastrophic happened. She's almost certain. Sleeping with Thomas, disgusting as it makes her feel, is not the end of the world. She just needs to make it through today and life will go back to normal.

Brooke stands up, puts on her sweater and coat. And sneaks to the front door. Quietly she exits the apartment and prays in her mind she never has to see the guy again.

< tbc >

Thanks for reading,
Megan


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