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Reunited

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I couldn’t sleep.

No matter how much I tossed and turned, I just could not find a comfortable position. It had been a long time since I’d slept on a hard wooden floor in a sleeping bag, and apparently I was out of practice.

It was more than that, though.

I sat up quietly, blinking rapidly as my eyes adjusted to the darkness of the room. I could just make out the outlines of my friends, all softly ensconced in their sleeping bags, except for one – Kristy was fast asleep in her own bed nearby, her arms flung out on either side of the mattress. The room was silent, save for the deep, regular breathing of my slumbering friends. We’d been up half the night, gabbing and snacking and laughing – but, just as with everything else, we were out of practice. Back in junior high, we could stay up all night long, entertaining each other with stories and games and fashion experiments.

Now, we could barely make it past one am.

Not that I blamed my friends for being totally zonked. It had been a long day: first the graduation ceremony at the high school, followed by a huge party, thrown by Pete Black’s parents in the field behind the country club, and then our own little impromptu gathering here at Kristy’s. I could almost see the relief on everyone’s faces when Kristy announced that she wanted to have a sleepover, even though we hadn’t had one since the eighth grade.

I sighed, glancing up to Kristy’s window. Eighth grade felt like it was ages ago. Everything was simpler then – when the Baby-sitters Club was the center of our collective universe. Before Dawn moved back to California for good. Before Mary Anne’s house burned down. Before Mallory went off to Riverbend. But then…things changed. People changed. Friendships changed.

Even now, things still aren’t the same. We used to joke that one day we’d have a Baby-sitters’ Babies Club, but these days, we couldn’t even get all of the former members of the BSC in the same room. Dawn was still in California. Mallory was still at Riverbend. Jessi and Abby and Logan and Shannon were also gone, having long drifted into their separate interests.

But somehow, this was fitting. I was spending the last night of my high school years with the first three friends I’d ever made in Stoneybrook. We’d been through a lot together, and somehow, we’d found each other at the end.

So why was I sitting here, alone in the dark?

I shrugged. Maybe getting up and moving around would ease my restlessness, I thought. I reached for a ratty old SHS sweatshirt, slipping it on before carefully untangling myself from the sleeping bag. It was the same one I’d used when I was thirteen, faded pink and less fluffy now than it had been then. With another furtive glance at my still-sleeping friends, I very quietly exited the room, closing the door behind me.

There was another reason I was glad we’d held the sleepover at Kristy’s house: it’s huge, and you can walk around it for what seems like hours and still have plenty to see and explore. The rest of the house was as silent as Kristy’s room – it was four am, after all, still pitch black outside – but I was on guard nonetheless, not wanting to accidently awaken one of Kristy’s younger sisters. They’re nice enough, but they’re also loud, and Karen still hasn’t outgrown her excitement about staying at “the big house,” even though she’s in middle school now.

I knew my way around pretty well, so even though I was pretty much walking with no destination in mind, I still found myself pushing open the heavy oak doors to the library downstairs. It was a huge, spacious room, filled to the rafters with old leather-bound books. Watson’s richly colored mahogany desk stood as the centerpiece, complemented by other luxurious pieces of furniture. I settled myself on a velvet-topped chaise in front of the floor-to-ceiling window and opened the curtain a little bit.

I wanted to think, and there was no place better suited in the entire house than here.

I leaned over the arm of the chaise, resting my head against its softness as I studied the scene just beyond the window. Soft light from a full moon illuminated the grounds, but a gentle rain shower had started, tapping rhythmically against the heavy glass windowpanes, obscuring the sight of the carefully manicured gardens.

Nevertheless, I just sat and stared, trying to clear my head from the racing thoughts that cluttered my mind. I had almost lulled myself into a light sleep when I heard the door creak open ever so slightly.

Immediately I froze, my senses awakening fully once more, my hand flying to my side, where my insulin meter hummed softly. I didn’t want to alert anyone to my presence, but it was already too late.

“Hey, Stace,” came the soft voice from my left.

I glanced up, relief flooding through me when I caught sight of my visitor. “Hi, Sam,” I returned, sitting up straight and brushing the hair out of my eyes. I couldn’t help it – anytime he walked into a room, even at four am clad in little more than pajama bottoms, a little part of me was twelve years old again, sitting in the kitchen of the Thomases’ old house on Bradford Court, trying desperately to look cool while drinking a glass of milk.

He pushed a hand through his dark, curly hair. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked wryly, rounding the corner of the room and approaching the chaise where I sat.

I shook my head. “No,” I sighed. “You?”

He grinned as he stepped into the soft, reflected moonlight in the window. “Nah,” he replied. “I’m too wired. Six time zones can really fuck with your body clock.” He sat down beside me, leaning back against the opposite arm of the chaise. “Why so glum, chum? Didn’t you just have the best day of your life?”

I smiled, shifting slightly so that I faced him. “I guess…” Graduation had been wonderful, but it had also been totally draining. My voice trailed off as I shook my head. “It’s just what comes next that bothers me.”

Sam lifted a brow. “Wait a minute, is this Stacey McGill I’m talking to?” he joked. “The same Stacey I’ve known for nearly half my life? Because I find it hard to believe that she’d be intimidated by anything.”

I averted by eyes, a flush rising up the back of my neck. “You’d be surprised,” I muttered.

I was startled when I felt his hand over mine, glancing over to see him lean forward. “Would I?” he inquired, the light and teasing tone slipping out of his voice.

I swallowed hard as my eyes met his. There was no one under this roof who knew me better than him, and he knew it. We had been attracted to each other since the moment we’d first met, with mutual crushes turning into casual dating before growing into something much more serious and intense in high school. We’d both had other relationships in the five years we’d known each other, but we were always in each others’ orbits. When Robert Brewster broke my heart in eighth grade, Sam was there for me. When Ethan Carroll dumped me in ninth, Sam was there for me. When my relationships with Rick Chow and Pete Black and Trevor Sandbourne had soured, Sam Thomas was always waiting on the other side.

I’d done the same for him. I was his last-minute date to the prom one year, when his girlfriend devastated him with a surprise break-up only a few days before. I sat through more harried phone calls and crazy drama with his family when his father suddenly turned up again, wanting a relationship with him and his siblings. He helped me deal with the chaos of my life – my diabetes, my dad remarrying, my mother’s sudden and intense interest in her career. It didn’t matter how messy or inconvenient or ugly it was. We’d seen each other at our absolute lowest points, and we still loved each other.

His touch was warm and secure now, his fingers curling around mine in perfect measure. I couldn’t hide my feelings from him, no matter how much I wanted to. “Everyone thinks I’m strong, because of everything I’ve been through,” I murmured. “But even I get scared sometimes.”

He furrowed his brow, scooting closer to me on the chaise. “And what’s scaring you now?” he asked softly.

“The future,” I replied. “The uncertainty.”

He tilted his head, his eyes narrowing slightly as he studied me. “Aren’t you going to college?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “It’s always been my dream to go to Columbia. But, that’s not what I’m worried about.” I paused, drawing my lower lip between my teeth as I searched for the right words. “I can handle school – it’s just everything else. Moving back to New York, leaving my friends…”

“Hmm,” Sam mused, squeezing my hand.

I didn’t even have to look at him to know he understood. I loved New York, but it felt less like my hometown than Stoneybrook did these days. So many of my trips there since eighth grade had revolved around drama with my Dad (and later, Ethan) or hospital stays, that it was little wonder I wasn’t exactly dying to go back. I barely knew any of my old friends from Parker anymore, and hadn’t really spoken to Laine since the horrible fight that ended our friendship in eighth grade.

Still, the city was in my blood. I thrived when I was there, when I was able to get away and be alone and find my center. I was still sophisticated Stacey, originally from New York City, even after five years in Stoneybrook. I’d never given up hope of attending Columbia or NYU after graduation, and had continued to work hard to keep my grades up so I’d get in – even when that meant giving up a bit of my social life, which was totally not cool when you’re on the cheerleading squad and a member of the cool kids’ clique.

Not that I had much of a social life anyway, not after a huge health scare my junior year landed me in the hospital yet again. My diabetes lived up to its brittle moniker, becoming totally uncontrollable on injections alone, and I had to have a continuous-use insulin pump implanted in my abdomen. I was out of school for two months, and going through that changed my life in more than one way. It was a hard lesson to learn, but at least I knew who my true friends were.

And, now that I’d found them, I didn’t want to give them up.

I glanced at Sam as the silence stretched between us, and was surprised to find that he was staring at me – or, more precisely, at my chest, a little wry smile playing on the corners of his mouth. I bristled, pulling the collar of the oversized sweatshirt back up onto my shoulder over my pajamas, and the movement broke whatever reverie he was lost in.

“I was just thinking…” he mused aloud, his eyes rising to meet mine. “Do you remember when I gave you that shirt?”

I glanced down, eyeing the old, cracked lettering of the logo. “Yes,” I murmured. “I was just thinking about that, actually.” It had been during my ill-fated stay at the hospital, in fact. I’d been miserable and lonely until my old BSC friends surprised me with a visit. I hadn’t really talked to any of them, except Claudia, since junior high, and I couldn’t really put into words what it had meant to me that we could rekindle our friendship, even after years of differences and distance. And then Sam had shown up, like he always did, giving me the sweatshirt as a gift because he remembered that I was always complaining of being cold.

“Did I ever tell you that it used to be mine?” he continued, his eyes sparkling as his cheeky smile grew.

“No,” I laughed, “but I figured as much. It smelled like you.”

He pulled me closer, leaning down over my shoulder and breathing in deeply. “And now it smells like you,” he murmured, reaching up with his free hand to brush aside my hair. “Perfect.”

My heart began to race, pumping even harder when I felt the soft kiss he pressed at the base of my neck. He let go of my hand, wrapping his arms around my waist instead, trailing kisses up the column of my throat and along the line of my jaw. I closed my eyes, wrapping my arms around his neck as his mouth found mine, so warm and comforting and achingly familiar. I leaned back against the chaise, bringing him down with me, his body a welcome weight on mine.

“You know,” he whispered between kisses, his hands warm as they slid against the bare skin of my back, under my pajama top, “you’re always welcome to come to Hawaii with me.”

I could tell by his tone that he’d meant it as a joke, but I couldn’t reply in kind. “It’d probably be easier than going back to New York,” I sighed. At least in Hawaii, I’d have you, I added silently.

He glanced up at me, his hands stilling their caresses. “Is that what’s bothering you?” he asked me. “Leaving?”

I shrugged, pushing my hands through his hair. “The last time I moved away – really moved away…it was horrible,” I admitted, shuddering as unwanted memories of being shunned at the end of sixth grade inundated me. I’d been happy to leave then, ready to get away from a world of people who just thought me a weird, unwanted freak because I couldn’t control my newly-discovered diabetes.

“I don’t talk to those people anymore,” I continued. “And honestly? I didn’t even like the people I left in New York, not the first time around.” I sighed, feeling tears beginning to well behind my eyes. “I don’t know if I could give up the friends I’ve worked so hard to win here.”

“We don’t all give up on friendship so easily,” he reminded me, his hands moving in slow, soothing circles over my back.

I touched his face, bringing his eyes back to mine. “Why did you do it? Why did you leave, and go all the way to Hawaii, of all places?”

He exhaled sharply, closing his eyes and resting his head against my chest. “Because I needed it,” he confessed, his words reverberating through me. “I needed to get away from this craziness I call family and just find myself, you know? Figure out who I am, other than ‘Sam Thomas – Middle Child.’”

I nodded silently, even though he couldn’t see me, still threading my fingers through his hair.

“And you know what I realized?” he continued after a moment. “My friends are still my friends, even from six time zones away. My family is much more bearable with a little distance between us.”

His assurances were doing nothing for the heaviness still lingering behind my eyes. I absolutely detest crying, but this was what real fear did to me. “I don’t know if I could be so brave,” I managed to choke out.

Sam lifted his head from my chest. “Are you kidding me?” he replied incredulously. “You’re the bravest person I know.”

The muscles across my torso constricted as I struggled to meet the intensity of his gaze. “You’re just saying that,” I whispered.

His hands drifted from my back to my waist, one closing over the juncture on my abdomen where my insulin meter met the connecting catheter. “No, I’m not,” he argued quietly.

For a long moment, all I could do was stare up at him, my eyes searching the depths of his – for what, I don’t know. We were not really the type to make promises to each other; it was good, it was great, and even when it wasn’t, we could never really let it go. Outside, I could hear the swell of rain, falling harder and more insistently against the window beside us. How ironic, I thought, that it had been such a beautiful, sunny day – not a cloud in the sky for the graduation ceremony that morning, nor the class party that afternoon – and now the weather was as mixed up as my own feelings.

I urged Sam closer to me, spreading my hands over the planes of his back. “Maybe I will visit you in Hawaii,” I said softly, drawing him into another kiss. This one was a little less comforting and a little more urgent. I raked my nails across his skin. “On one condition.”

“Oh yeah?” he replied, his breath heavy and hard on my neck. “And what’s that?”

I caught his eye once more. “That you visit me in New York.”

He gazed at me intently, and I watched as understanding dawned across his features. “You’ve got yourself a deal, Stacey McGill,” he drawled, a slow smile curving his lips. He ducked his head into the hollow of my neck, pressing a lingering, inviting kiss just under the collar of my sweatshirt.

“While we’re handing out conditions,” he murmured, his hands sliding down the backs of my thighs and coming to rest behind my knees, rolling his hips suggestively against mine, “come upstairs with me? I’ll even sneak you back into Kristy’s room before the others wake up.”

I considered his offer. I considered the fact that I wasn’t tired, and would most likely just lie awake anyway. I considered the fact that I didn’t want to disturb my friends, and there was no way I could go back to Kristy’s room now, feeling unsatisfied. I considered the fact that that the last time I’d had sex with him, it had been the start of a very intense and romantic relationship, something that had been lacking from my life for an inexcusably long time.

“Okay,” I agreed, wrapping my arms around him as he lifted me off the chaise.