DISCLAIMER: Other than a seven-year-old Saturn and an underfunded pension, I don't own anything, let alone the rights to a television show.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is written without having watched the reunion show. I generally don't like those much because what the producers and writers choose is seldom what I have imagined. This, then, is what I imagined. It's roughly 2000, and Jo and Blair have not seen each other for some time. Tootie--sorry, Dorothy is an actress and a married woman. Natalie is an investigative reporter with Newsday. Blair is running the family business. Jo is an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
The Autumn Leaves
An hour later, Jo wound her way out of the city, headlights slicing through the darkness. It was almost 10:00, and she was trying to find one mansion among hundreds nestled along blacktops and in wooded enclaves. The Warner mansion hugged the shoreline. Jo stepped out of the car, fighting the desire to get back in and drive away from this place. It was too much Blair, too much their shared past, too much the feelings she could never completely shake. But, she had promised.
Blair opened the door, backlit by the light in the entrance hall. Diane was right. Her hair was shorter than Jo had ever seen it, slightly shaggy, and not as blonde as before. Her laugh lines were gone, replaced by just a hint of bags under the eyes. But, when she smiled at Jo, the years faded away.
"It is so good to see you," Blair said, as she pulled Jo into a hug. Jo dropped her suitcase and her purse and let herself respond, wrapping Blair's too-slight figure in her arms. "You look great, Jo, every inch the crusading District Attorney.
"Assistant District Attorney," Jo replied, smiling at her friend's enthusiasm.
"Just wait. One of these days...." Blair pulled Jo further down the hallway and into one of the rooms
They stood in the well-lit room, looking at one another. Blair still held Jo's hand. She glanced down and began to loosen her fingers. Jo tightened hers in response. She looked at Blair, seeing, even all those years later, the beauty that took her breath away. Tears, too close to the surface when she thought of Mrs. Garrett, threatened to spill over now that she and Blair were in the same room.
"Why...." Jo found herself unable to finish the question
"Why what, Jo?" Blair turned so that they were face to face, their linked hands in the space between them. Her brown eyes glistened. "Just ask me. You deserve to know."
"Know what?" Jo managed to ask. Her voice thickened and grew weaker as she began to stutter. "Why you walked away? Why I didn't know your marriage was in trouble? Why I had to find out from MuffyDiane--whateverthat your father was sick? Why you didn't visit Mrs. Garrett once in the home...not once."
Her voice faded and she focused on Blair, who looked at once broken and angry. Before Blair could respond, Jo held up her handthe one not still clinging to Blair's. "Then again," she began, "you could ask why I faded out of sight. Why didn't I call you and ask where you were or what had happened?"
Jo tilted her face slightly, meeting Blair's eyes. "The answer, the short answer, is that I was afraid." She smiled tentatively, brushing a lone tear away. "I thought I had lost you. I guess I didn't want to know for sure. I'm sorry, Blair. I've been a lousy excuse for a friend. I'd like a chance to be a better one."
"You always manage to short circuit my anger," Blair said softly. "But, none of this is totally your fault. I did withdraw from you...from all of you. I haven't seen Dorothy or Natalie for years either. I haven't gone to see Mrs. Garrett because I'm a coward. Watching my father die by inches has been enough, Jo. I couldn't watch her fade away too." A noise from the stairs interrupted them.
"Blair," a woman's voice slid down from the second floor. "Blair, your father is almost ready to go to sleep if you want to say goodnight."
Blair let go of Jo's hand, pushed her hair back, and began to walk out of the room. "I need to go say goodnight. Theresa, she's the night nurse during the week, does all the medical procedures, but I try to be here to pull up the covers and turn out the lights. He seems to appreciate that.
She stopped in the doorway. "I think he'd like it if you'd come upstairs and said hello. He always liked you." Her eyes caught Jo's for a millisecond. "You don't have to if you don't want to, though." She turned away, letting her hand run along the walnut of the door, looking almost as though she were leaning on it
"I'd love to see your father again. I'm not sure that he always liked me, though," Jo joked as she stood behind Blair. "I wasn't always as respectful as I should have been."
"That's probably what he liked best," Blair quipped. She steadied herself and headed for the staircase.
David Warner's bedroom was not quite what Jo had expected. If there had been opulence, it had long since been replaced by practicality. A hospital bed, IV stands, a computer on what had been a night stand, two pedestrianif comfortable lookingrecliners, a desk covered in papers and pill vials, and two wooden chairs furnished the space. The curtains were drawn, and the overhead lights were dimmed.
"Blair, come to say goodnight to the old man?" A surprisingly cheerful voice broke the stillness.
Blair stood in front of Jo, not quite shielding her from view. "Not old yet, Daddy," she said.
"Old enough," he said. "Who is that trying to hide behind you? Have you brought me a visitor?"
"It's...." Blair began to speak.
"It's Jo Polniaczek, Mr. Warner." Jo stepped out from behind Blair and approached the bed. "I'm sorry I haven't been by to see you before. It was very rude of me."
"Nonsense," he answered. "Blair has kept me informed of your cases. You've been quite busy. No time for you to drive all the way up here."
"I should have made time," Jo said. "I should have made time for any number of things."
"Maybe so," he said. "But, you're here now. Blair, would you excuse us for a moment. I would like to speak with Jo alone. Do you mind, Jo?"
"No, sir, but anything you need to say to me...."
"This is important, Jo. Please, Blair, excuse us for a little while." His voice was weak, his breathing labored.
"Okay, Daddy. I'll be in the hallway." Blair seemed almost stung by her father's request, but she acquiesced.
As the door clicked shut behind Blair, Jo steeled herself for what she was afraid was coming.
"She doesn't look well, does she?" he asked.
Jo tried not to show her surprise. She came nearer the bed, grasped one of the rails.
"She looks exhausted, sir."
"It hasn't been a very good few years for her, Jo. She runs the company now, you know."
"No, sir, I didn't. I hadn't seen her in the papers recently, so I thought...."
"You thought she'd walked away? No, she didn't. It's a family-owned business, Jo. There are no stockholders, but there is a board of directors. They weren't happy when she stopped making personal appearances."
He stopped speaking for a moment, then looked directly at Jo. "I was selfish, Jo. I never thought to ask her what she wanted. I just expected that she'd want what I wanted. She never wanted to run the business. But, it's what she was groomed to do. She was expected to marry money and produce an heir."
His breathing was slowing, his voice fading, but he continued. "Michael is a good man. He was a good husband. But, she didn't really love him. I knew that. I know my daughter, Jo. She married him because he wanted her and because he was what she was supposed to want. But, it broke her. She did what she was supposed to do, what I wanted her to do, and it broke her."
He began to cough, a deep racking cough that shook the bed and the IV stands. Jo reached out, her hand supporting him as he struggled to sit up. She found the controls for the bed and pushed the button that tilted the bed. Then, she used pillows to support him in a reclining position.
"Thank you," he said.
"No, it really isn't. It is...more ironic than you can imagine, you helping me. I'm ashamed of myself, Jo. I know you think you hide what you feel, but it's a good thing you don't play poker."
Jo's lips twitched, a smile beginning to form.
"What's amusing?" he asked.
"Your daughter said something similar to me the night before her wedding. That's all."
"She came to see you?"
"I didn't think she'd do that. Maybe I didn't know her as well as I thought I did."
"That makes us even. It turns out I didn't know her all that well either."
David Warner stilled. His eyes focused on Jo, his hands clutched the blanket covering him. "I'm sorry, Jo."
"I'm not some manipulative father out of a Henry James novel. I was raised a certain way...marry to cement the family's status. Have a child to pass on the family wealth. I raised Blair that way because...because it was all I knew."
He was speaking much more easily now, his voice less forced, his breathing less labored. Jo watched, felt all the anger she felt towards himfor herself, for Blairslipping away. Maybe Mrs. Garrett had been right all along. Maybe people really were just trying to do the best they could.
"She came to me after the rehearsal dinner," he continued. "She was a mess. She'd been drinking and looked so much unlike herself."
"I remember," Jo spoke softly, but he heard her.
"She told me she didn't want to go through with it, that she didn't want to marry Michael. I told her not to be a fool, that we'd be the laughing stock of New York society. I told her I'd be ashamed of her if she did that." He paused, his hands holding on to the blanket even more tightly. "As if I could ever be ashamed of her."
The coughing began again, but he waved her away when she reached her hand out to help him.
"I thought she just had cold feet. I almost ran away the night before my wedding, but my father talked me out of it. I said the same things to her he had said to me. Worked too. I wish it hadn't. I wish I'd told her to just leave, wish I'd told her I'd take care of everything. But, I didn't. I did what I was supposed to do. So did she. Look what it got us. She's never been miserable, Jo, but she's also never been happy. Not really happy, not like she would have been with someone else." He stopped as the coughing racked him, forced him to sit up, and then collapse from the exertion.
Jo held his hands down on the bed as she fitted the oxygen mask over his nose and mouth. She held his shoulders as his breathing eased.
"I'm sorry," he said, his voice muffled by the mask and thinned by exhaustion.
"It's okay," Jo said. She shook her head almost angrily. We were all trapped, she thought. Blair by her father's expectations, David by his father's. And, me? I was frozen by fear. "It really is okay," she smiled as David Warner drifted away, his breathing eased by the oxygen, the pain numbed by morphine flowing through the IV.
The door opened and Blair appeared. She stood in shadow, holding on to the doorknob as if it were a lifeline.
"Jo," she began.
"He's asleep, Blair," Jo interrupted. "He's asleep." She moved from the bed to the open door. "You can get some rest now." She captured Blair's hand, still resting on the doorknob, and surrounded it with her own. "You need to get some sleep. We have to leave by nine."
"I can't go, Jo," Blair said. "I have to stay..."
"Call the nursing service and the hospice and arrange for respite care for two days. That's what they do, Blair. You need to come with me. You need to finish this with the rest of us, to...to say goodbye. She deserves that much from all of us."
They stood in the doorway, Blair leaning against one doorjamb, Jo leaning against the other, their linked hands connecting them.
Blair looked up, straight into Jo's eyes. "You look hungry," she said. "Have you eaten tonight?" She tugged at Jo's hand. "I may not be the best cook in the world, but I can warm up leftovers. The cook made soup and bread for supper, but I wasn't very hungry."
They were halfway down the stairs, still holding hands.
"I could eat," Jo said, her fingers slipping out of Blair's grip, then reconnecting when she threaded them with Blair's. "I think I could handle soup. Is there a sandwich in my future? I could really handle soup and a sandwich."
Blair led them into the kitchen of the mansion. It was warm, Jo realized, very warm. The walls were a buttery yellow. The appliances weren't the stainless steel she had expected, but cream. There was a large farmhouse table in the middle of the room, surrounded by mismatched chairs.
"Mrs. Mallory wouldn't let Daddy redo the kitchen after she came to work here. 'I know what I like,' she said. 'And I like it like this.'"
"So do I."
Blair busied herself pulling containers from the refrigerator and dishes from various cabinets. She set a simple table then poured the soup into a saucepan.
"There are two or three different kinds of sandwich meats there, Jo. The salad stuff you hated so much is there toolettuce, tomatoesand mayonnaise and mustard. The bread's in the box next to the refrigerator if you would grab that."
Before long, the two of them were sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down vegetable soup and roast beef sandwiches. Jo had found milk in the refrigerator as well. She was washing down the last of her sandwich when Blair spoke.
"When I came to see you that night, I...." she stopped. She picked up the plates and bowls and utensils and took them to the dishwasher. Jo waited, not moving from the table, afraid to even acknowledge the words. Afraid if she breathed too heavily or arched an eyebrow, or even nodded that Blair would stop.
"I didn't know that what I felt was possible," she said. "I don't mean that I didn't know about women, Jo." She finished loading the dishwasher and turned, looking directly at Jo. "I don't mean that I hadn't realized about you. Not that you might want me," she held out a hand to stop Jo's response, "if you wanted me. But, that what I kept imagining could actually happen.
"I knew about you, knew about the bars and the other women," Blair added.
"New York is a surprisingly small town," Blair smiled. "People just thought I'd want to know everything about you. It didn't matter that I was in grad school in Cambridge, people kept calling to tell me about you. Apparently, you liked a certain type of blonde."
"God, Blair, I didn't know...."
"It doesn't matter. I wouldn't have known what to do, what to say to you. I couldn't walk into a restaurant and confront you. We never spent any real time together anyway. It seemed...safer to say nothing at all. Then, Michael came along. He was funny and smart and beautiful and he loved me. Can you imagine that? He loved me."
"Blair, lots of people loved you...love you."
"Really? It didn't seem that way. It seemed they loved the money or the cars or the ski lodge in Aspen. Or, even, this place. Mrs. Garrett loved me, and Natalie and Dorothy and, for a time anyway, you."
"What do you mean, 'for a time'?"
"You faded away, Jo. You were always too busy to visit me, always in the middle of a test or a paper or an internship at some law firm. You didn't return my calls. It took me a long time to realize that the only time you would see me was when we were with the others. That hurt. I didn't know what I'd done to you to make you not like me anymore. So, I just stopped trying."
"I never stopped, Blair," Jo stuttered. "I just didn't know...and, then, Michael?"
"Yes. He just kept asking me. He was perfect, Jo. He didn't push me to do anything I didn't want to do. I had tried before. You had your blondes in the city. I found men in Boston who were willing. They tried. It just never really worked for me. Then, there was Michael. He didn't know about them, but he knew I never seemed to want to go beyond a certain point. He was willing to wait, and he kept asking when I was going to marry him. Finally, I just said yes."
She wiped at her cheek. Jo was surprised not to see mascara mixing with the tears. She started to stand up, but Blair's posturedefiant and, somehow, defeatedstopped her.
"He loved me. After that night, after I made an ass of myself in front of you, I decided to try to love him too. Our honeymoon wasn't a disaster. It just wasn't spectacular. That's what the marriage was too...it was pleasant. We each did what we were supposed to. I worked at modernizing Warner Industries and Michael ran the philanthropic branch of his family's business.
"From time to time, we'd try. We went to Venice, to Barcelona, to some resort in the south of France. It was always...pleasant." She walked back to the table and sat down. "He deserved better than pleasant," she said. "He deserved someone who felt about him the way he felt about me. About three years ago he found her."
"Blair, I'm sorry that...."
"Don't be. We've all been very discreet about the whole thing. He has a small place in Manhattan. She has an apartment in the same building. I kept the brownstone. It's all just so civilized." She rubbed at her eyes. "I was tired of everything. When Daddy got sick, I just packed up and moved here. I can run the company from the study. Day-to-day decisions, memos, business plans, all of them can be done by e-mail or by conference call." She smiled. "People probably think I'm hiding because my marriage fell apart. I'm not. I'm hiding because I don't know how to go about getting what I want. I have no idea how to even begin."
Jo stood and reached for her hand. Blair started, but let Jo take her hand. Then, she began to cry. "I don't know how to tell you," she stuttered.
She dropped Jo's hand and turned away. "I know I must look awful. You must be so sick of watching me fall apart." Her voice stopped and she took several steps away from Jo, her hands splayed out on the nearest wall, fighting to control her breathing and her overwhelming desire to simply cry.
Jo's hand froze in mid-air as she reached for her friend's shoulder. She allowed herself to graze the soft blue sweater. Then, she let her right hand rest on Blair's shoulder. Finally, she stepped forward, standing only millimeters behind Blair.
"Your hair still smells the same," she said, her breath stirring the hair on the top of Blair's head.
"Ridiculously expensive shampoo, but I like it," Blair laughed.
"Turn around, Blair," Jo whispered.
"Yes, you can. Turn around."
Blair slowly revolved. Her face was still lowered. Jo's hand slipped under her chin and raised it slowly, incrementally, until Blair's face was tipped slightly up. Jo allowed her hand to explore the contours of Blair's face, mapping the dips and curves of her skin, skimming along the jaw line and lingering over the cheekbones.
"So beautiful," she breathed. "Still so unbelievably beautiful."
Blair's eyes opened. She was met with blue eyes so dark that they seemed black. "Thank you," she said as she stepped further into Jo's embrace. "Thank you," she whispered into the skin at the base of Jo's neck. She pulled slightly away. "I'm sorry for not telling you."
"Telling me what?" Jo asked as her hand slid along Blair's back. She noticed that she could feel the vertebrae. She looked into Blair's eyes. "That you were going to walk away? You couldn't do that, Blair. You weren't ready. And, I'm not sure what I would have done. I don't know that I was ready."
Blair's hands had begun to trace the juncture where Jo's neck flowed into her shoulders. She let one hand dip under the crisp white shirt, the ridges of her fingers barely brushing the skin covering Jo's collarbone. "Are you ready now?" she asked.
"For what?" Jo laughed. Then, Blair's fingers spread and she began to move her palm lower, moving her hand in concentric circles.
"For me to tell you that I love you." Blair's hand stopped moving. To Jo, everything seemed to stop moving. "It may be too late, Jo, but you deserve to know that I do love you."
Jo once again froze, afraid to move. Blair's eyes met hers. This time there were no tears. There was no apprehension. This time it was Blair's hand moving across Jo's face, tracing the exquisite bone structure and gliding a thumb across lips. It was Blair, after all this time, who slid her hand into the hair at Jo's neck and pulled their faces, their mouths, together. It was Blair who kissed Jo, softly at first, then with an almost desperate urgency. Finally, Jo pulled away.
"Wait," she breathed.
"For what?" Blair gasped. "For another 20 years?
"No." She pulled Blair back into her arms. "No, just another 48 hours or so. It's almost one. We need to leave by nine. We need sleep."
Blair allowed herself to be convinced. "Fine," she said. "Let me show you the guest room. But, you have to at least kiss me goodnight."
"Okay, Princess," Jo laughed. They climbed the staircase side by side.
To Be Continued
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