DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Beauty Crowds Me: Chapter 16 of 16 Chapters. The last chapter of the Beauty Crowds me Series. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 2, Episode 16, Brian and Sylvia. Season 6, episode 26, The Interview Show, is also referenced in the post series flash forward, Tootie Returns to Peekskill.
MEDIA LINK: http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=192C5D50428674AB
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To FOLfan@ymail.com
THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta.

Beauty Crowds Me
16: Leaving 'Home'

By Slave2Free


Jo looked down at her hands, her voice barely a whisper.

"Cindy kissed me."

Blair's irritation morphed into terror as her stomach began to churn. Jo's soft words hit her like a thunderbolt. She felt sick and quickly rolled off the other side of the bed, racing toward the bathroom. Jo jumped to her feet just in time to catch Blair before she could reach the door.

"Don't go, Blair. We need to talk."

Blair's world was reeling, she didn't want to talk. Blair pulled away from Jo and once again attempted to leave the room.

"Blair! You have to let me explain."

"You don't have to explain. Haven't you humiliated me enough?"

"What? No, no, no, no, no! I didn't want Cindy to kiss me. She just did it, that's why I'm so wet."

Blair sat back down on the bed, her legs weak with fear.

"I ducked under the awning to the lawn equipment shed when it started raining and Cindy ran up beside me a couple of minutes later. Her hair was wet and it was hanging in her eyes so I reached over and pushed it out of her face. I wasn't making a pass at her, Blair, I swear. She must have thought I was because . . ."

Blair's mind was racing with all the possible explanations for Jo's actions while Jo struggled to find the right words to explain what happened.

"All of a sudden, she was kissing me. I wanted to push her away from me, but I remembered what happened with Gloria and I couldn't bring myself to do it. So, I, um, I let her kiss me and I didn't try to stop her."

Jo stood up and started pacing back and forth in front of Blair, who hadn't yet recovered from the initial terror of believing that Jo was breaking up with her.

"I didn't want to kiss her back, but I guess that letting her keep kissing me was sort of like kissing her back. I don't know how any of this happened."

Jo's hands were flailing up and down as she paced.

"I feel awful. I was so scared of hurting her feelings by pushing her away that I let her think I liked it. I mean, I didn't hate it, but I—."

Blair's expression told Jo that she'd better stop trying to explain what had happened before she made a bad situation even worse. When Blair finally spoke, her voice was hoarse with emotion.

"How did you get so wet?"

"When it was over, she, uh. She told me that she loved me and I ran away. I messed up again, Blair. I only let her kiss me because I didn't want to hurt her feelings, but I'm sure I hurt her feelings when I ran away. I'm such an idiot."

"At least we agree on one thing, you are an idiot."

Blair was flexing her fingers, trying to reduce the numbness which had crept through her body moments earlier.

"You believe me, don't you?"

Blair stood up and waited, knowing that Jo needed to hold her. When Jo hesitated, Blair held out her arms. Within seconds, Jo had her in a fierce bear hug.

Blair's voice was strangled, gasping for air within Jo's embrace.

"I believe you. Let me go before I pass out."

Jo instantly released her grip, but kept her hands on Blair's hips and her body pressed firmly against her girlfriend.

"I spent the last half hour walking around in the rain, afraid to come home to you. I don't know why I keep messing things up between us. I don't want you to leave me again, Blair."

"I'm not going to leave you, Jo. I'll never walk out on you."

Jo released the air she had been holding and kissed Blair's neck.

"I don't want you to stop wearing my shirts."

Blair chuckled, more from relief than amusement.

"I should have asked for your permission first."

"No, you can have anything I own."

Jo gazed lovingly into Blair's eyes before pressing her lips to Blair's for a lingering, intimate kiss.

"Mmmmm. I'm sorry, Blair. I thought I'd never, we'd never. I'm so sorry."

Blair kissed Jo again, leaving no doubt that their relationship was still on firm ground.

"What are you going to do about Cindy?"

Jo looked panic-stricken.

"I don't know. I guess I'll avoid her. I'll quit the field hockey team if I have to, Blair. I'll do anything to prove to you that I don't like Cindy the way she likes me."

"You can't quit the team the day before the championship game. Even if you could, you can't avoid Cindy. That would break her heart."

"You're not saying that I should—."


Blair's answer was swift and firm. She softened her tone as she continued.

"No. You can't go around kissing girls just because you're afraid that you'll hurt their feelings by rejecting them. Do you understand?"

Jo nodded, finding a little humor in Blair's statement.

"Yes, sweetheart."

Blair rolled her eyes and gave Jo a brief kiss on the cheek.

"I'll break your neck if anything like this happens again."

"It won't."

Jo grinned, running her hands up and down Blair's arms.

"You looked so damn cute earlier in your bra and jeans, glaring at me like you were going to throw me out the window. I almost kissed you right there in front of Natalie and Tootie."

Blair's eyes sparkled.

"You've been impulsive enough for one day."

Blair took Jo's hand and sat down on her bed.

"You have to go talk with Cindy."

"What? No way."

"I don't like it either, but you have to do it. You have to tell her that you're not interested in her as a girlfriend."

"I think she figured that out when I ran away."

Blair swallowed hard. She was nervous about sending Jo to see Cindy, but she didn't want Cindy continuing to pursue Jo.

"Not necessarily. You have to explain to her that you aren't upset about what happened, but that it can't happen again."

"What if she thinks I mean that I'm only interested in boys?"

Blair sighed.

"Reassure her that you aren't going to tell anyone about what happened. That might make her feel better, but you don't owe her an explanation about who else you might like."

"What if she asks me if I'm in love with someone else?"

Jo brought Blair's hand to her lips and kissed her fingers.

"I am, y'know. I'm in love with you, Blair."

"You can't tell her that you and I are together."

"Why not? She's not gonna tell anyone else."

Blair was stunned. Jo was always cautioning Blair about outward displays of affection any time someone else might be watching them, but she was ready to confide in Cindy simply because Cindy had kissed her.

"Can't you just explain to her that you're not in love with her and leave it at that? I don't want you to tell Cindy about us."

Jo lowered her head.

"Will you come with me?"

"No, Cindy isn't going to want me hovering while you talk with her."

Jo stood up, but didn't walk away.

"I guess that I'd better get it over with."

Blair quickly stood and embraced Jo, kissing her on the face and neck.

"Don't be an idiot, Jo."

Jo frowned at Blair's anxious expression.

"I promise. The only girl I'm going to be kissing from now on is you."

At first, Natalie thought it was her imagination when she noticed Margo whispering to another girl and then staring in her direction, but as time went by it became clear that she and Tootie were the topic of conversation.

"Tootie, have you noticed that Margo is watching us?"

Tootie looked around the room.

"Yeah, but I thought I was being paranoid."

Before Natalie had time to consider Margo's motives, the condescending girl was standing in front of them.

"Well, if it isn't Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen. Are you here to sniff out the latest news?"

"I'm covering the ping pong tournament for the Eastlander and Tootie is going to take pictures. Are you competing?"

"No, I thought I'd leave that to the super jock. So, where is Jo? Why isn't she here showing off for everyone?"

"Uh, I don't think Jo plans to compete. She and Blair aren't coming."

"We'll see about that."

Margo scanned the room until she found her target. She glared at Natalie and Tootie before zooming in on Sue Ann, who turned pale and ran from the room after Margo whispered something into her ear.

Natalie pulled Tootie toward the door.

"Hey, I thought we were covering the tournament."

"The tournament can wait. Did you see the look on Sue Ann's face when she went tearing out of here? We have to let Jo and Blair know that Margo is up to something."

"Jo's the one Margo wanted to see. Why do we have to say anything to Blair?"

Natalie smiled patiently at her younger friend.

"Trust me, Tootie. When it comes to Margo Roberts, Blair is the only person who has a chance of stopping her from whatever hateful thing she's doing to Sue Ann."

Blair was still at the window, where she had anxiously watched Jo walk toward Cindy's dorm, when she saw Natalie and Tootie running across campus. She laughed at the sight of Natalie pulling the younger girl along and decided that Tootie would be able to keep up better if she were wearing her old skates.

Blair headed for the stairs and arrived in the lounge at the same time as Natalie and Tootie.

"Where's Jo? We have to talk to both of you."

"She's not here."

"Where is she?"

Blair laughed again, puzzled by her friends' behavior.

"She'll be back soon, she went to the dorm."

"Which one? Who did she go see?"

Blair frowned, something was wrong.

"She went to find Cindy. What's wrong?"

Natalie rocked back and forth on her feet mumbling to herself.

Blair stepped forward and placed her hands on Natalie's shoulders to hold her still.

"Come on, Nat. Why do you need to talk to Jo?"

"Uh, it's just that Margo said something to us about wanting to see Jo and then she walked over to Sue Ann and said something to her. Then Sue Ann turned white as a ghost and ran out of the student center."

It took Blair less than a second to figure out what Margo must have told Sue Ann. The lawn equipment shed was located along one of the busiest paths on campus. Blair began chewing her lower lip, realizing that Margo must have seen Cindy kiss Jo. 'Of all people,' thought Blair, 'Why did it have to be Margo?' Margo hated Jo with a passion. If Blair couldn't think of a way to stop her, Margo would twist the kiss into something sinister and use it against both Jo and Cindy.

Tootie started to say something, but Blair was out the door and running toward the dorms before she could begin. Natalie and Tootie looked at one another for half a second before running after Blair.

When Jo knocked on the door to Cindy's dorm room, Sue Ann answered.

"Hey, is Cindy around?"

Sue Ann placed her hands on her hips and glared at Jo.

"Why, do you want to humiliate her some more?"

Jo looked past Sue Ann and saw Cindy sitting on her bed crying. When Jo stepped forward, Sue Ann tried to block her path, but Jo easily nudged her out of the way in order to enter the room.

"Cindy, we have to talk."

"Go away, I don't want to talk to you."

Jo walked over to Cindy's bed and sat down beside her distraught friend.

"I'm sorry that I ran away like that."

Cindy turned hopeful eyes toward Jo.

"You are? I was afraid that you were mad."

"I'm not mad."

Cindy reached out and took Jo's hand, but Jo pulled away from her and stood up.

"You are mad."

"No, I'm not mad at you, Cindy, but I don't feel about you the same way that you feel about me."

Sue Ann stomped across the floor and stood precariously close to Jo.

"Then why did you kiss her?"

"Uh, I didn't kiss her."

Cindy jumped off of the bed and stood beside Sue Ann.

"Yes, you did, Jo. I may have started it, but you kissed me back. You can't deny it."

Jo felt caught. Sue Ann was glaring at her while Cindy's eyes were pleading with her to admit that she had returned Cindy's kiss. Jo honestly didn't know if she had returned the kiss or not. She had been so surprised by Cindy's advance and so determined not to offend Cindy that she hadn't paid much attention to the kiss.

"Cindy, I'm sorry if I led you to think that I liked you that way. I'm not gonna tell anyone else about what happened if that's what you're worried about, but I can't let you think that we are ever going to be anything more than good friends."

Cindy started crying and Sue Ann began shouting at Jo.

"Don't keep lying to us, Jo. How many people did you tell?"

Jo was dumbfounded.

"I didn't tell anyone. Why would I do that?"

Sue Ann was screaming at Jo.

"Then how did Margo find out?"

Jo sat on Sue Ann's bed, her heart pounding.

"Margo knows?"

When Blair, Natalie, and Tootie arrived at Cindy's dorm room, a small group of girls had gathered outside of Cindy's room and were trying to listen to the conversation taking place inside. As soon as they saw Blair headed in their direction, they scattered.

"Natalie, you and Tootie wait for me here."

Natalie nodded as Blair knocked on the door.

"Go away!"

"It's me, Blair. Let me in before you have the entire dorm down here."

Sue Ann opened the door for Blair and looked apprehensively up and down the hallway.

"They left when I got here, but you had an audience outside when I arrived. What's going on? Natalie told me that Margo upset you."

Sue Ann closed the door behind Blair and went to console Cindy, who was still crying.

"Margo saw Cindy and Jo kissing."

When Blair didn't act appropriately surprised, Cindy shot Jo an accusing glare.

"You said you wouldn't tell anyone."

Blair jumped to Jo's defense.

"Cindy, you're missing the point. Margo is going to make it sound like the two of you were having sex on the lawn."

Sue Ann continued to hold Cindy's hand as her best friend continued to cry. Sue Ann's next words shocked Blair.

"This is all your fault, Blair. You're the one who brought that . . . girl into our group. She's been hitting on Cindy all semester. She's been winking at her and touching her every chance she gets. Now that she's tricked Cindy into falling for her, she's pretending like Cindy's the one who has been chasing her."

Jo shook her head at Blair, amazed at Sue Ann's venomous accusations. Meanwhile, Cindy wrapped an arm around Sue Ann, trying to cool her anger.

"Blair, can you talk to Margo? You used to be friends. Maybe she'll listen to you."

When Blair didn't respond, Sue Ann turned to Cindy.

"It's okay, Cindy. Everyone knows Jo's been flirting with you. No one is going to believe that you kissed her back."

Blair was livid.

"Let's get one thing straight, Sue Ann. It's no one's business who Cindy or Jo kisses. Margo is the problem. Margo hates Jo and she'll try to use this to turn other girls against them."

Cindy nodded, but Sue Ann frowned and glared at Jo.

"Margo isn't the only problem, Blair. What about Cindy's broken heart? She's been falling in love with Jo for months."

Jo hung her head.

"I didn't know Cindy felt that way. I was shocked when she kissed me."

Blair positioned herself beside Jo, presenting a united front.

"Sue Ann, I know you are only protecting Cindy, but there's no reason for you to be angry with Jo."

"Why do you believe Jo? According to Cindy, Jo was as into the kiss as she was, until she'd gotten what she wanted."

"Give me a break! Cindy, tell them that's not what happened."

Cindy shook her head and started crying again. Seeing her friend so broken-hearted, Sue Ann lashed out at Jo again.

"You're finished at this school, Jo. I'll make sure everyone knows how cruel you are."

Blair could tell by the change in Jo's body language that her girlfriend was about to lose her temper. She stepped between Jo and the other two girls with her hands upraised.

"Everyone needs to just calm down. The first thing we have to do is deal with Margo. Cindy, I'll make sure Margo stays quiet. You don't want Sue Ann telling people about what happened between you and Jo, do you?"

Cindy smiled her appreciation. She knew that Blair was still trying to make up for the mean things she had said to Cindy the year before.

"I don't want to be the subject of rumors, especially if Margo is trying to make one innocent kiss out to be something nasty."

Blair shared eye contact with Jo for just a moment, but it was enough time for Jo to realize that Blair was about to do something drastic. Jo shook her head at Blair, knowing that Blair would recognize her disapproval, but fearful that Blair would ignore her.

Blair refused to make further eye contact with Jo as she ran toward the student center, which Jo interpreted as a very bad omen.

Natalie and Tootie were pacing up and down the hallway outside of Cindy's dorm room trying to appear disinterested in the stares they were receiving from other girls on the hall when Blair stormed out of the room with Jo, Cindy, and Sue Ann close on her heels. Both Jo and Sue Ann were attempting to gain Blair's attention as the angry blonde marched toward the student center. It wasn't until Blair stood outside the door of the student center that she turned to the group of girls following her.

Although the comment was toward all the girls, Blair looked directly at Jo when she spoke.

"I have a few things that I need to discuss with Margo and I don't want any of you interfering. This doesn't have anything to do with the rest of you."

Cindy started to say something, but Sue Ann interrupted her.

"Blair's right."

Jo wasn't as easily deterred. She took Blair by the arm and pulled her to the side and whispered.

"This doesn't have anything to do with you, Blair. No one believes half the crap Margo spews anyway. If you ignore her, this will all blow over. Stay out of it."

"I am not going to let Margo or anyone else start rumors about my friends."

"This doesn't concern you, Blair."

Blair stared at Jo in dismay.

"Everything that happens at Eastland concerns me. The girls in this school don't breathe without my approval. If I let Margo Roberts run around talking about my friends, then everyone else will think they can get away with it, too."

It was Jo's turn to be dismayed. Her voice rose in anger as she argued with Blair.

"You're not doing this for Cindy. You're doing this for yourself. You're mad because Margo dared to defy the great Blair Warner!"

Tootie leaned over to Natalie and whispered.

"Do you know what's going on between Margo and Blair?"

Natalie looked back and forth between Blair and Jo before answering.

"Not yet, but I will. Margo and Blair have been arguing about one thing or the other all year."

Every girl attending Eastland knew that Blair had hit Margo in the face with a pie at the beginning of the school year. Since that time, the conflict between Blair and Margo had continued to escalate. If the two girls didn't associate with the same tight-knit group, it would be easier for them to avoid one another, but they were constantly being thrown into situations where they were required to get along. When Blair walked into the student center and headed straight for Margo, the room buzzed with excitement as every girl waited for the ensuing confrontation.

Margo, who had been making fun of the girls who were participating in the ping pong competition, dropped the paddle she'd been using to mock the other girls when she saw Blair and her entourage. Blair could see Cindy tremble slightly as they approached Margo and she stopped briefly to squeeze her friend's hand.

Seeing the action, Margo approached Blair, followed closely by Nancy and Molly. Purposefully standing uncomfortably close to Blair, Margo smiled, but her voice was hard.

"This doesn't concern you, Warner. Stay out of it."

Blair leaned forward, not intimidated by Margo's proximity.

"Everyone keeps telling me that. Perhaps I haven't been paying enough attention to what's been going on around here lately. That's about to change."

Margo pointedly looked toward Jo.

"Maybe you've just been a little distracted."

Blair wasn't happy that Margo seemed intent on dragging Jo into the conversation, especially when they had such a large audience.

"Let's go somewhere and talk, Margo. We need to clear the air about a few things."

Margo glanced toward Nancy and some other girls standing nearby.

"Is there something you don't want our friends to hear?"

"Don't test me, Margo. They'll hear as much from me as they will from you."

Margo hesitated. She and Blair had been friends for many years and they knew too much about one another to get into a shouting match in front of other students. Making her decision, Margo smiled sweetly and clasped the hand Blair had used to reassure Cindy.

"What's up, Warner? Do you want to get me alone so that you can hold my hand, too?"

Margo's comment brought snickers from some of the girls nearby, while other girls began to lose interest in the ping pong tournament in favor of watching the two socialites square off against one another.

At first Blair bristled at Margo's comment, but holding Margo's hand brought back a wealth of unexpected memories. As children, Blair and Margo had held hands as they walked through the park with their mothers. They had given one another manicures and pedicures, experimented with styling one another's hair, and they had taught one another to dance. Blair recalled family ski trips during which she and Margo had innocently snuggled against one another for warmth as they slept. Over the years, they had shared laughter, tears, and secrets. Blair wasn't about to allow Margo to begin spouting any of those secrets in public, but was convinced that she could reason with Margo if she could speak with her unpredictable friend alone.

Blair didn't withhold her hand, instead she leaned so close that Margo could feel her former best friend's breath on her cheek as Blair spoke softly, but loud enough to be overheard.

"I don't like being teased, sweetheart. This conversation is going to be private."

Margo was surprised by Blair's persistence. With the exception of the pie incident earlier that year, Blair had gone out of her way to avoid a confrontation.

While Margo was considering her options, Blair jerked her hand and started to pull her toward the exit, but Margo wasn't ready to give up her audience. Since Margo was physically stronger than Blair, she was able to stop short of the door. Margo's sudden resistance, however, caused Blair to stumble backwards into her, requiring Margo to grab hold of Blair in order to prevent her from falling.

Blair clasped Margo's other hand, which was resting on her waist and held it in place. Taking advantage of Margo's surprise, Blair suddenly pivoted and twisted Margo's arm behind her. Holding Margo's arm from behind, Blair pushed her through the door and into the courtyard. Margo was so shocked that Blair had physically pushed her out of the room that it took her a while to realize what was happening.

Natalie grinned at Jo.

"Blair's been hanging around you too long, Jo."

Tootie agreed.

"Yeah, Margo might get hit with more than a pie this time."

Jo slapped herself in the forehead, aghast at what Blair was doing while their friends stood motionless, their eyes darting back and forth between Blair and Margo.

Seizing upon Margo's continued loss of focus, Blair once again grasped Margo's hand and led her away from the crowd that had followed them out of the student center. This time, Margo offered no resistance as Blair pulled her quickly along the walking path.

Most of the students returned to the ping pong tournament while a smaller group of girls began to follow the two combatants. Realizing that they were being followed, Margo turned around and waved off her friends, prompting Blair to do the same.

Jo stood nervously with several other girls as Blair and Margo walked to the top of a nearby hill, far enough away that they wouldn't be heard, but close enough that they could be seen. As Jo watched Blair and Margo continue to walk up the hill, she also noticed that Nancy, Molly, Sue Ann, and Cindy were standing close to one another, but that they had distanced themselves from Jo, Natalie, and Tootie. Despite her assurances to Blair, Sue Ann was whispering non-stop into Nancy's ear.

Once she and Margo were relatively alone, Blair didn't flinch as she gazed into the eyes of her former friend. Blair was cautious because of Margo's vicious streak, which Blair had seen many times.

Margo wasn't pleased by the fact that she felt outmaneuvered by Blair, but it had been a long time since she and Blair had stirred things up on campus and Margo couldn't help but enjoy the attention their confrontation had received.

"What now, lover? Are you going to try to kiss me?"

Blair scanned the area again, making sure that no one else was listening. She considered the demise of her friendship with Margo. They had already begun to drift apart before Jo had arrived at Eastland, but they had still been friends. The encounter in the cafeteria, when Margo had insulted Jo's mother and Blair had retaliated by throwing a pie in Margo's face, was what finally ended their friendship.

"Why did you tell Natalie that you wanted to speak to Jo and then tell Sue Ann that you were going to tell everyone about what you saw today?"

"Maybe I thought you should know that the little slum rat was cheating on you."

Blair was stunned.

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do. Your girlfriend was cheating on you, Warner. Am I crazy for thinking that she shouldn't get away with that?"

Blair was totally blindsided.

"Is that what this is about?"

"They were kissing right out in the open. They didn't seem to care that anyone could see them. I thought you should know about it."

"So you decided that the best way to do that was to scare Sue Ann to death?"

"I knew that she'd go running to you. They follow you like mindless sheep."

"What about Natalie and Tootie?"

"I thought it would be good for Jo to wonder just how much I knew and what I might do with the information. I was doing you a favor. It was a gift. A gift you threw back in my face, kind of like being hit with a pie."

Blair had expected Margo to conclude that Jo and Cindy were lesbians after seeing them kiss, but she was unprepared for Margo's awareness of her relationship with Jo. She sighed deeply as she cautiously proceeded.

"I've already apologized to you about the pie. I don't know what else I can do."

"Tell me what you're going to do about Jo."

"You saw Cindy kissing Jo. Cindy was confused. Obviously she wasn't thinking clearly at the time. Jo tried to let her down nicely. Why should I do anything about Jo?"

"You've been playing house with her for the past year!"

"Don't be ridiculous. You know I'm not—."

Blair hesitated. The words lingered on Blair's tongue like sticky gum. Seeing Blair struggle, Margo turned away from her former friend and stared at the small gathering of girls at the bottom of the hill.

"Shut up, Warner, before you say something you'll regret."

"Why do you hate Jo so much?"

"I don't hate her. I just don't understand your fascination with her. I could understand your attraction to Allison, but Jo Polniaczek? You must have lost your mind. Of course, I suppose your mind didn't have much to do with it."

Blair remained silent, unwilling to confirm anything about Allie or Jo.

"Lighten up, Warner. I don't care who you screw."

"Don't be crass."

"Tell me, is Jo required to filter her filthy mouth in your presence or is she exempt from that rule as well?"

"What has happened to us, Margo? We used to be good friends."

"Ha, we haven't been good friends since you met Allison. Why would you want to hang around with me when you could be making out with Allison?"

Blair was speechless. She looked carefully at Margo. Although Margo covered it well, there was a hint of hurt in her eyes.

"I never meant to neglect you or our friendship, Margo."

Blair watched as Margo's features hardened.

"Don't flatter yourself, Blair. You're not that special."

Although Blair hadn't been prepared for the conversation to take such a dramatic turn, she felt guilty for having inadvertently drifted away from Margo.

"I've known you longer than any of the girls here at Eastland, Margo. I shouldn't have allowed our friendship to suffer just because of our new friends."

"Come on, Warner, you can't hide from me. I'd have to switch teams if I wanted any of your attention these days."

Blair blanched. She was beginning to regret her efforts to divert attention from Jo and Cindy.

"You have my attention now, Margo. What are you going to do?"

Margo looked at her hand, still resting on Blair's arm and slowly removed it. Her voice didn't sound as harsh when she continued.

"Hey, if I was going to say something, don't you think I would have already done it?"

Blair was encouraged, but not totally relieved.

"Did you really arrange all of this just as a way of making sure that I knew about what happened today?"

Margo fidgeted uncomfortably.


"Did it ever occur to you that Jo might have already told me about what happened? She was caught off-guard. Jo isn't interested in Cindy. If you saw what happened, then I think you know that."

Margo thought back to the kiss she had witnessed. It took Jo longer to catch on than Margo thought necessary, but Jo had eventually pushed Cindy away and seemed upset before running out into the rain.

"Did Jo really tell you about the kiss before realizing that anyone had seen them?"


"And you believe her explanation?"


"You trust her that much?"


Blair's voice was soft, but her answers were firm.

Margo shielded her eyes from the blazing sun to study Blair's face. It had turned into such a beautiful day that it was hard to believe that there had been a rain shower earlier. Margo sat down under the nearby shade tree and Blair joined her as both girls began pulling grass from the ground and absently throwing it in front of them.

At the bottom of the hill, Sue Ann, Cindy, and Nancy sat on one of the benches that lined the walkway while Molly sat on the walking path nearby. Natalie paced back and forth along the walking path. Jo, who had been standing behind Tootie with her hands resting on top of the shorter girl's shoulders, wasn't pleased with the way Blair's talk with Margo was going. When Margo and Blair sat down beneath the shade tree, the pressure Jo was exerting on Tootie's shoulders eventually became unbearable for the small girl.

"Hey, you're hurting me."

Jo released her grip and frowned at Tootie.

"Uh, sorry."

Natalie looked over at Jo, whose face was contorted in anger.

"What's Blair doing?"

"Making a bad situation worse." Jo grumbled.

Hearing Jo's comment, Sue Ann contradicted her.

"I don't think it could get any worse, Jo. Blair knows how to handle Margo. If anyone can keep Margo in line, it's Blair."

Natalie's ears perked up.

"So, what's Margo done to upset Blair?"

Cindy cringed and Jo glared at Natalie, but Nancy didn't seem to notice her other friends' reactions to Natalie's question. Nancy casually answered, smirking at Jo so subtly that Natalie and Tootie didn't pick up on it.

"It's about Harrison."

Nancy's answer was met with shocked expressions from all of her friends, especially Cindy.

"I thought it was about me."

"You? Why would it be about you?"

Sue Ann and Nancy exchanged looks, while Natalie and Tootie leaned closer to Nancy, who seemed to be the only one who knew what was going on. Natalie asked the question that had been nagging at her all day.

"If it's about Harrison, why did Margo tell me that she wanted to talk with Jo?"

Nancy glanced at Jo before answering.

"Margo and Harrison broke up. Harrison escorted Jo to the cotillion earlier this year. Margo was probably just fishing for information from Jo."

Jo was becoming more agitated. She had assumed that Margo was only taunting Blair about seeing Cindy kiss Jo. After the night of the cotillion, Blair rarely mentioned Harrison.

"Does Margo think that Blair had something to do with Harrison breaking up with her?"

Nancy looked at Jo as if the other girl had three heads.

"Of course. Everyone knows that Harrison is obsessed with Blair."

Natalie shook her head, she'd been sure that Blair was attracted to her tough-talking roommate. Natalie reasoned that if opposites really did attract, Blair and Jo were destined to be together. Judging from Jo's reaction to Nancy's information, it appeared to Natalie that Jo had also been under the misconception that Blair had feelings for Jo.

Tootie frowned and pulled Natalie aside.

"That's why Blair was so secretive about her new boyfriend. She's been seeing Harrison behind Margo's back."

Natalie pursed her lips in a pout.

"Maybe. Uh, have you noticed all the glances between Jo and Cindy?"

"Yeah. What do you think that's about?"

"I may have been wrong about Blair, but I still think Jo has a girlfriend."

Tootie's eyes grew wide as she whispered to Natalie.


Natalie shrugged.

"Only time will tell."

Tootie frowned.

"I guess that means that Blair really is in love with Harrison. Yuck."

Natalie nodded.


Jo's hands clenched at her sides as she watched the other girls speculate about Harrison.

"I never would have made fun of her mother if I'd known you had a crush on her, Blair. All I knew was that you were being forced to wear an apron and shovel food in the cafeteria. You were being treated like a common waitress and she was responsible."

Blair considered the likelihood that she had been so enamored with Jo that she couldn't see that Margo was trying to protect her - in a uniquely dysfunctional way.

"I'm sorry I humiliated you in front of everyone, Margo."

"It's not like I was doing anything you haven't done a million times yourself, Blair."

"Yes, I've said much worse things to girls than what you said to Jo. I suppose that makes me a terrible hypocrite."

"That's an interesting word, hypocrite. Yes, I think you're a hypocrite, but not for the reasons you mention."

Blair sighed, feeling a little defeated.

"How long have you known?"

Margo's laugh wasn't vindictive, it was sincere.

"Since forever."


Margo leaned back in the grass, gazing up at the canopy of leaves shading her from the sun.

"We've been having sleepovers since we were born, Blair. How do you think I knew?"

Blair turned to Margo, totally confused.

"I wasn't. I wouldn't. I didn't even know about —."

"Don't be offended. I'm just saying that I knew you were into girls before you knew that you were into girls. You weren't exactly shy, Blair. When we were younger, I don't think you realized enough about what you were feeling to know that you should hide it."

"Are you messing with my head?"

"I'm not talking about anything physical, but you seemed to have a lot of crushes on other girls. It was all very innocent, but it caught my attention. That's all I'm saying."

Blair had barely expelled her sigh of relief when Margo laughed and added.

"Of course, you really liked to cuddle."

Blair was mortified by the insinuation.

"I have never in my life been attracted to you, Margo. You're imagining things."

"Calm down, Warner. You've always been a very physically affectionate person, but I am just messing with you now."

Blair tried to ignore Margo's remarks that Blair may have acted on her feelings before she even recognized them, but the suggestion bothered her. When her brow furrowed in concentration, Margo tried to reassure her.

"Blair, don't think about it so much. If I'd known it was going to upset you so much, I wouldn't have teased you."

Blair leaned back in the grass and put her hands over her face.

"I'm sorry if I ever made you uncomfortable."

Margo leaned over and removed Blair's hands from her face, looking directly into her friend's eyes.

"You never made me uncomfortable, Blair. Like I said before, I don't care who you . . um, kiss."

Blair defensively crossed her arms over her chest.

"I don't. I mean, I'm not like—"

Margo laughed.

"Are you trying to tell me that you're not like me? Just because I told you about letting Jimmy Roche feel me up in the sixth grade doesn't mean that I sleep around . . . much."

Blair relaxed and Margo's mood shifted.

"I don't think that."

Margo leaned toward Blair and whispered.

"The question is – have you allowed Jo Polniaczek to feel—?"

Blair abruptly stood up and began walking away, but Margo jumped up and grabbed her arm.

"Come on, Warner. I know you like her."

"It's not like that. We don't—"

Margo chuckled.

"No wonder she acts so irritated all the time. You are such a tease! You're probably driving her crazy."

"Grow up, Margo. We're not five anymore."

Natalie had positioned herself as close as possible to Nancy, the only source of information.

"What do you think they're saying to one another?"

Nancy studied the two girls in the distance.

"Blair's probably denying any involvement with Harrison, like she did with Roger."

Jo groaned.

Sue Ann speculated further.

"Margo is probably threatening to tell Harrison something embarrassing about Blair. Blair's been mooning over Harrison since they were six years old. I'm sure it crushed her when he started dating Margo."

When Blair rose to leave and Margo grabbed hold of her, Jo automatically started walking toward the two, but Cindy called out to her.

"Jo, please give them a little more time. I think they may have more to talk about. Please."

Jo stopped. She already felt guilty about not noticing Cindy's crush in time to prevent her friend from making an embarrassing mistake.

Hearing Cindy's plea and seeing Jo's reaction to it confirmed Natalie and Tootie's suspicions about the couple. They looked at one another and silently nodded, half of the puzzle had been solved. Natalie still wasn't convinced, however, that Harrison was the object of Blair's affections.

Viewing the other girls from her vantage point at the top of the hill, Blair was relieved when Jo turned back to their friends.

"What else did you want to talk to me about Margo? If you've known about Jo and me for so long, why bring it up now?"

"I don't like Jo, but I know that she watches out for you. I thought that you might break up with her and then you'd have to start watching out for yourself more."

"What are you talking about?"

"Listen, Blair, I don't know what happened between you, Jo, and Harrison, but he's obsessed with you. He thinks you threatened his manhood or something equally as stupid. You should stay away from him."

"I can handle Harrison."

Margo persisted.

"No, you can't. I mean it. You stay away from him."

Blair considered her friend. Margo wasn't easily intimidated, but she was very guarded when talking about Harrison. Remembering how aggressive he had been with Jo, Blair became concerned about Margo.

"Did Harrison hurt you?"

Margo scoffed.

"No. I've dealt with worse, but he's not fixated on me the way he is on you. He talks about you constantly. Even when we were dating, all he did was ask questions about you. I didn't think that much about it at first, except that maybe he was trying to use me to get to you. If you're not paying much attention, it sounds like he likes you, but . . . It's hard to explain, there's something off about him."

Blair felt bad for not warning Margo about Harrison, but she had assumed that he would never treat someone of equal social status the way he had treated Jo. Besides, Margo had known Harrison as long as Blair.

"Harrison took Jo to the dance because he thought she would be willing to have sex with him. He didn't take no for an answer, so Jo clocked him."

Margo laughed.

"Maybe she's not all bad. I'm glad to know that she can handle him. Words don't work with Harrison, Blair. Don't try to deal with him by yourself."

Blair nodded, but she thought Margo was overreacting. Blair wondered what it was about her that made Margo and Jo feel like they had to be so protective of her. She didn't consider herself a weakling.

"I'll be careful around Harrison, but I'm not a wimp."

Margo playfully punched Blair in the arm and Blair, forgetting that they were being watched, dramatically fell backwards laughing.

Tootie was getting bored. She didn't like sitting around waiting for Blair and Margo.

"Let's go, Nat. They're going to be up there all day."

Natalie frowned.

"Don't you want to wait and find out what's taking so long?"

Tootie snorted.

"The only reason I'd wait this long is if it meant seeing Blair look like Rocky Raccoon again, but I don't think she's going to get another black eye today."

Molly giggled.

"Yeah, I was going to take a picture of it, but Blair threatened me."

Jo hadn't taken her eyes off of Blair since she and Margo had left the group, but her head jerked around at the mention of Blair having a black eye.

"What are you talking about?"

Natalie bounced toward Tootie in an effort to gain her young friend's attention before she said more than she should, but Natalie was too late.

"Last year, Blair got socked in the face. She had a black eye for days. She tried covering it with a patch, but that made it look even worse. You know how Blair is about her face; you'd have thought she'd been permanently scarred."

Natalie pinched Tootie and shook her head vigorously. Leaning close to her friend's ear, she whispered.

"Don't forget what Jo did to Neil just because he talked about me. What do you think she'll do to someone who hit one of us?"

Jo swallowed hard, trying not to reveal how upsetting it was to think of someone hitting Blair, much less hitting her hard enough to give her a black eye. She tried to make her voice sound casual, but the quiet way Jo spoke was so out of character that it produced the opposite effect.

"Who hit Blair?"

Tootie looked around frantically, knowing that the question was for her and realizing that the two girls responsible for Blair's black eye were sitting on the bench nearby, listening to her response. When Tootie didn't answer, Jo looked around at the other girls, all of whom shifted uneasily.

"I'm just curious."

Jo continued to speak softly, but no one was fooled. Finally Cindy spoke up.

"It was my fault."

Sue Ann was quick to jump to her friend's defense.

"Cindy and I were fighting and Blair tried to stop us."

Cindy moved from the bench and lightly touched Jo's arm, causing Natalie's head to almost bob off of her body.

"Sue Ann didn't mean to hit Blair, she was aiming at me."

Jo looked at Sue Ann, who was biting her nails.

"That's true, Jo. You know that we'd never hit Blair on purpose. That would be unforgivable."

Jo felt the tension leave her body. Hitting Blair would be an offense Jo couldn't forgive, but she believed it was only an accident. Jo returned her gaze to the top of the hill just in time to see Margo punch Blair in the arm so hard it made Blair fall backwards. It didn't take Jo long to spring into action.

"Now look what you've done, Jo's coming."

"Oh, I forgot that she was watching. Is she going to punch me?"

"Of course not. I can control Jo."

"Ha, I saw what she did to Neil Richards, not that he didn't deserve it. I hear that was nothing compared to what she did to Steve."

"Steve who?"

"Steve who got arrested trying to drag you into his van last year, that's who."


"Yes. You've hooked up with Rambo, Warner. Whatever you do, don't tell her that we used to cuddle, I don't want a broken jaw."

Blair glared at Margo as Jo and Sue Ann approached.

Jo's voice was harsh as she confronted the girl who had insulted her mother, cost Blair the student council election, and generally took every opportunity to make life difficult for her girlfriend.

"I hear that you've been looking for me, Margo. Is there something you want to say to me?"

When Blair attempted to catch Jo's eye, Jo wouldn't look at her, choosing instead to follow Blair's earlier example and ignore their silent method of communication. Before Margo could respond to Jo's question, however, Blair spoke up, shocking everyone, including Margo.

"Jo, would you mind giving Margo and me a little more time to ourselves? We have some more things we need to discuss."

Emboldened by the fact that Jo didn't instantly attack her, Margo sidestepped Sue Ann and wrapped her arm around Blair. Blair frowned at Margo, but didn't make an effort to pull away from her; instead, she continued to address Jo.

"Everything is fine. We're not angry with one another, but we have some things to work out. It won't take much longer."

Sue Ann expelled a sigh of relief.

"Does this mean that you are calling a truce?"

Margo cocked her head to the side and smiled at Sue Ann.

"No, I think it means we're going steady."

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Margo isn't going to mention what happened earlier today. Isn't that right, Margo?"

Margo nodded her affirmation, but didn't remove her hand from Blair's waist. Noticing the deepening of Jo's scowl every time she touched Blair, Margo decided that if she wasn't going to be allowed to torment Jo with her accusations, she'd torture her in another way. The more Jo fumed, the more Margo enjoyed her game, counting on Blair to protect her if Jo lost her temper. Margo continued to flirt with Blair as they spoke, lightly rubbing Blair's back with her fingers and often touching Blair's face and hair with her other hand.

Blair eventually separated herself from Margo.

"Cut it out, Margo."

Margo shrugged and put her hands behind her back while Blair's eyes pleaded with Jo.

"It's okay, Jo. Margo is going to be on her best behavior. Trust me."

Margo practically hissed in response.

"Your guard dog seems to have an obedience problem, Blair."

Blair glared at Margo.

"Shut up, Margo."

Jo was tempted to slap the smirk from Margo's face, but instead she tried to find out more about Margo's motives.

"Nancy said that you and Harrison broke up. Is it true?"

Margo stepped forward.



"That's none of your business."

"Nancy said that you blame Blair for the breakup."

"That's between Blair and me."

Blair stepped between the other two girls.

"Give us five more minutes, Jo. Please."

"You shouldn't step between two people when they are arguing, Blair. From what I hear, you should have learned that lesson last year."

Blair glared at Sue Ann, wondering what else Jo might have learned while Blair was busy talking with Margo.

"You and Margo aren't going to fight, Jo. I'll answer all of your questions as soon as we're finished. Okay?"

Jo was angry and confused. She'd expected Blair to be grateful for Jo's protection, instead Blair was defending Margo. Without another word, Jo turned and marched back down the hill, with Sue Ann trailing behind her.

Blair glanced nervously toward Jo, who was almost at the bottom of the hill.

"Come on, we'd better go. I shouldn't have asked Jo to wait any longer. She's been unusually patient."

Margo hesitated.

"One more thing. I . . . well, I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry about Cynthia."

Margo swallowed hard and closed her eyes before continuing.

"I used her. I'm a bitch, but I never intended for anyone to get hurt like that. I hope you believe me."

"I do, Margo. I wasn't very nice to her either. For what it's worth, I don't think she knew that she was being used."

Margo opened her eyes to gaze at Blair.

"It's worth a lot. Thanks."

Blair held out her hand.


Margo ignored Blair's hand and started walking back down the hill.

"I'd get a kick out of knocking your self-righteous girlfriend off of her throne. She acts like she owns this school . . . and you."

Blair walked alongside of Margo.

"Can't you admit that you're not the bitch you pretend to be?"

"I've spent a lot of time cultivating this image, don't blow it for me or I might do something drastic."

Blair chuckled.

"I miss you, Margo."

Margo grinned mischievously.

"Are you trying to seduce me away from the dark side?"

"The dark side? Are you going to start calling me Luke?"

"Nah, you're more like Han Solo. You'll never be a true Jedi like Skywalker."

"You'll never be Darth Vader, either."

"Maybe not, but I don't want to be a do-gooder. It's not my nature to be nice."

Blair kept reminding herself of the nicer things she'd seen Margo do over the years.

"That's not true, Margo."

Margo sighed and looked wistfully at her friend.

"That's your problem, Blair. You're too willing to believe that everyone wants to be one of the good guys."

"You are one of the good guys."

"No, I'm not. Don't expect too much from me, Blair. I'll wind up disappointing you."

When they reached the bottom of the hill, Jo was the only one left waiting. Sue Ann had encouraged the other girls to disperse when she had returned from talking with Blair.

Margo withstood Jo's glare only long enough for one last comment before leaving.

"Tell Jo what I said about Harrison."

"What was that about?"

"Margo thinks Harrison still likes me. She wants me to stay away from him."

"I want you to stay away from Margo. You shouldn't have said anything to her. She's a manipulative bitch and I don't want you anywhere near her."

Blair felt emotionally drained. Learning that Margo knew that she was a lesbian, that Margo had known for years, added one more level of stress to an already dreadful day. From Blair's perspective, few things were worse than rejection and she had made Margo feel rejected. It made sense to Blair that Margo would take her anger out on Jo, which made Blair feel even guiltier.

"You can't tell me who I can and can't hang around with, Jo."

Blair's words stung. Jo couldn't understand why Blair was being so defensive of Margo.

"You can't go around defending me either, Blair."

Blair hung her head and sighed.

"I couldn't let Margo hurt you, Jo."

"It looked to me like she was trying damn hard to hurt you."

"We were playing."

Blair was referring to her overdramatization of Margo's playful punch, but Jo thought Blair looked upon the entire afternoon as a game.

"You always do this. You're always trying to manipulate people. Why can't you just let things play out? You can't control everything that happens, Blair. The universe doesn't revolve around you."

"It worked, didn't it? Margo isn't going to talk to anyone about what she saw."

"So what? She just wants something to hold over you, that's all."

"I don't believe that. Aren't you just a little bit grateful that you and Cindy aren't going to be the hot topic of conversation for the rest of the school year?"

"You shouldn't have talked with Margo. I could have handled it."

Blair was exhausted. She hadn't felt well since earlier that day when she thought Jo was breaking up with her. When she spoke, her weariness got the best of her.

"What would you have done, Jo, punch her? Do you think that would help? You get upset with me if I so much as smile at you in public, but you thought it was just fine to play tonsil hockey with Cindy out in the open where anyone could have seen you! Margo didn't force you to kiss Cindy."

Jo was more hurt than angry. She had been distraught after Cindy kissed her and had worried that Blair wouldn't trust her, now she was becoming suspicious of why Blair had been so willing to forgive her.

"Give me a break! That bitch had her hands all over you and I didn't see you worrying over who might be watching."

Jo took a step forward, inches from Blair's face.

"Don't play with me, Blair. Margo is a hateful, conniving bitch. Have you forgotten about how she treated Cynthia? Not to mention all the crap she's been saying about me since the first day I came to Eastland."

Blair sat down on the bench by the walking path, trying to figure out how to explain to Jo that Margo wasn't the evil witch Jo imagined her to be.

"Margo is doing me a favor, Jo. We've been friends a very long time."

Jo wondered just how good a friend Margo had been and continued to be.

"Great! So, this is all about you. I was wrong. The universe does revolve around you, Blair."

"Are you trying to blame me for this?"

Jo was angry at Cindy for kissing her, angry at herself for not anticipating it, angry at Margo for seeing it, angry with Blair for her allegiance to Margo, and angry at the world for making her feel like she had to hide her true identity. Jo looked around briefly, trying to find an outlet for the rage building inside her.

When Blair tried to approach Jo, the angry brunette jerked away. Falling back on old habits, Jo turned from Blair and stormed away, her curses lost in the roaring sound of distant thunder. Blair wanted to race after Jo, but her legs felt like lead. She sat down on the bench again and waited for the queasiness that had plagued her throughout the day to pass. Blair needed a quiet place to reflect on all that had happened that day. She walked in the opposite direction, toward Cooper's Rock.

Natalie and Tootie couldn't wait to get back to their room so that they could openly speculate about what was going on between Blair, Margo, Harrison, Jo, and Cindy. They were very unpleasantly surprised, however, when they entered the lounge and found Miss Gallagher sitting with Mrs. Garrett.

Edna Garrett stood when the two young girls entered the room.

"Which of you girls would like to explain why you have been following Miss Gallagher?"

Natalie and Tootie looked at one another in confusion.

"We haven't been following Miss Gallagher."

Gail Gallagher cleared her throat, reminding the girls of her presence and contradicting them at the same time.

"Um, not exactly."

"What exactly were you doing?"

"I'm working on a story about how faculty members spend their free time and Tootie and I just wanted to find out a little more about Miss Gallagher. Right, Tootie?"

Tootie nodded appropriately.

"Why didn't you simply ask Miss Gallagher some questions?"

Natalie, who was out of explanations, looked at Tootie. When neither girl could think of a response, Mrs. Garrett continued.

"Since I exempted you from working in the cafeteria in order to work on your newspaper assignment, I fully expect you to work double shifts for the next few days. You can start by mopping the floor in the cafeteria."



Tootie opened her mouth to object, but Mrs. Garrett's disapproving gaze stopped her.

Natalie mumbled to herself as she and Tootie went to the cafeteria and began gathering the wash buckets and mops they would need.

"I wish you had never overheard Jo and Blair talking. Everything we've done since then has gotten us into trouble. I can't believe you had me convinced that Jo was interested in Miss Gallagher."

Natalie frowned as she dipped her mop into the wash bucket and contemplated their current situation. Investigative reporting was more work than she had anticipated.

As it had earlier in the day, the rain didn't begin gradually, it poured down in a sudden crash of thunder. Jo laughed ruefully at finding herself roaming aimlessly in the rain for the second time in one day. Blair was the one who had overreacted to Margo's threats. Blair was the one who had flirted with Margo all afternoon. Blair was the one who started an argument by defending Margo. Why should Jo be wandering around in the middle of a rainstorm when Blair was the one at fault?

Jo wiped the water from her eyes and headed back toward Eastland's campus. She hadn't been paying attention as she'd walked, so she hadn't realized how far into Peekskill she had traveled. As she made her way through the downtown streets, she was still distracted by her thoughts, paying little attention to her surroundings. By the time she heard the sound of the car engine, her reflexes were too delayed to avoid the red blur barreling down on her.

Fortunately for Jo, someone else was paying attention. Before Jo's body could react to the oncoming car, she was forcefully pulled to safety. Seconds later, Jo found herself wrapped within a strong and oddly familiar embrace. Stepping back to look up at her rescuer, Jo was stunned.


"Are you okay? I stopped in town to pick up a box of those chocolates you like when I saw you. I called out, but you didn't hear me. When I saw that car, I was afraid I wouldn't get to you in time."

"Eddie, what are you doing here?"

Eddie Brennan smiled lovingly into the eyes of the girl he loved.

"You didn't think I'd miss watching you play in a championship game, did you?"

"You came all this way just to see me play field hockey?"

"Where else am I gonna go? You're still my girl, aren't ya?"

When Eddie resumed his embrace, Jo leaned against his chest, allowing his taller frame to shield her from the drenching rain.

Natalie and Tootie were still waxing the floor in the cafeteria when Jo and Eddie arrived.

"Hey, watch your step. I just waxed there."

Jo responded to Natalie's warning by stomping her feet, throwing more water across the floor. Eddie helped Jo out of his raincoat, which he had insisted that she wear, as she shook water from her hair. Tootie's face lit up when she noticed Eddie and she ran to hug the young sailor.

"Eddie, it's great to see you."

Eddie laughed under all the attention.

"It's great to see you, too. I came to see my girl bring home the championship trophy. I hope the weather is better this weekend than it is today."

Tootie walked over to Natalie and punched her in the arm.

"Did you hear that, Natalie? Eddie came to see his girlfriend, Jo, win the championship."

Another clap of thunder reminded Eddie that he had better get to his room at the local Y before the storm worsened.

"I'd better get going, Jo. I'll stop by tomorrow morning, if that's okay."

"That'd be great, Eddie. I'm, uh, glad you came."

Eddie leaned down and placed a quick kiss on Jo's lips before waving goodbye to Tootie and Natalie. As soon as Eddie was gone, Tootie lightly punched Natalie in the shoulder again. As Jo continued to shake water from her clothing, Tootie complained.

"Hey, be more careful. Nat and I have been waxing the floor all afternoon, thanks to you."

"What'd I do?"

Natalie tripped over her wash bucket trying to get her hand over Tootie's mouth, but Tootie was too tired and too irritated to filter her remarks.

"Natalie heard you and Blair talking about your girlfriend and the genius reporter thought it was Miss Gallagher. So I wasted an entire day following Miss Boring around and now I get to waste another day doing extra chores as punishment for being nosy."

Jo was still digesting Tootie's comment when Mrs. Garrett entered the cafeteria.

"Jo, thank goodness you're back. Where's Blair? Isn't she with you?"

Jo intentionally shook more water from her hair as she answered.

"Hey, maybe she decided it would be a good day for a swim."

Mrs. Garrett frowned.

"Don't joke about that. The weather station has issued a severe thunderstorm and flood warning. Blair almost drowned in the flood last year when she and Tootie went down to the stables. That child should know that I would be worried."

Noting Tootie's concerned expression, Mrs. Garrett reassured the young girl.

"Don't worry, Tootie. This warning is only for the low lying portions of campus. The dam isn't going to overflow again."

Jo sobered.

"Have you called the dorms?"

"Yes, I've called all the housemothers. No one is allowed to leave their assigned rooms until the flood warning is lifted. Several areas of our campus are in the flood zones."

Mrs. Garrett furrowed her brow.

"Can any of you girls think of somewhere Blair may have gone?"

Tootie and Natalie shrugged apologetically. Then Natalie started waving her arms in her excitement.

"She might have gone to Bates, to see Harrison. Blair stole Harrison from Margo, that's why they were arguing today."

Mrs. Garrett nodded.

"I'll contact the headmaster at Bates. Perhaps Harrison will know something."

"Would you like for us to go look for her?"

"No, you and Tootie should finish mopping the floor. You're lucky Miss Gallagher didn't report you to Mr. Parker. I'm going to break the two of you from snooping into everyone else's business if it kills me – and you."

Jo's features hardened as Mrs. Garrett left the room.

"You've been spying on Miss Gallagher because you thought—? What were you thinking?"

Natalie squirmed.

"Well, you told Blair that you were having trouble with your girlfriend."

Jo tried to think of anything Natalie could have overheard, then remembered the night Blair asked Jo to the auto show. Jo was sure to scatter as much mud from her shoes as possible as she approached Natalie.

"You've been eavesdropping on Blair and me?"

"Uh, no. I was just walking down the hall and I couldn't help but hear you talking."

Jo's features darkened.

"If I had a girlfriend, would I be telling Blair?"

Tootie punched Natalie in the arm again.

"That's what I told her. I can't believe I have to work extra shifts for the rest of the school year because of you."

"Stop hitting me and stop whining. Don't be such a baby."

"I'm not whining."

"You're always whining."

Natalie and Tootie were interrupted when Mrs. Garrett returned.

"Blair isn't with Harrison. I'm sure she found a place to wait out the storm, but if any of you think of anything, let me know."

Despite Mrs. Garrett's assurances, Jo could see that the older woman was distressed. She followed Mrs. Garrett into the lounge.

"Why are you so worried? Blair knows better than anyone not to go into a flood zone during a storm."

"You're right, Jo. I know I'm overreacting, but Blair knows how upset she made me during the last flood. She knows I'd be worried. It's not like her to be out this late without telling me."

Jo looked out the window. The pouring rain was accompanied by flashes of lightning.

"Jo, where did you find Blair when you went looking for her during the snowstorm?"

Jo hesitated. Surely Blair had more sense than to go to Cooper's Rock during a storm. Smacking herself in the head, Jo considered that Blair hadn't had enough sense to stay away from Cooper's Rock during the snowstorm.

Jo smiled at Mrs. Garrett.

"Don't worry, Mrs. G. Blair isn't in a flood zone. I'll go get her."

Mrs. Garrett looked out the window and frowned.

"It's only water. I'm not going to do anything stupid. I'll bring Blair back and you can knock some sense into her."

Mrs. Garrett handed Jo a flashlight and nodded as Jo donned a raincoat and started for the door, only to be stopped by Tootie.

"You should wear boots, Jo."

"I'm not crossing the river, Tootie. I don't need boots."

"I know, but Blair had on boots when we went to the stable and that's why she was able to walk across the rocks without falling. Mr. Bradley sprained his ankle and Blair had to help him."

"I don't have any boots, Tootie. I don't need them anyway."

Mrs. Garrett placed her hand on Jo's arm and nodded toward Tootie.

"If it will make Tootie feel better, you should wear a pair of Blair's boots."

"I'd break my neck in a pair of those silly things Blair calls boots."

Tootie started for the basement.

"Not those boots, her riding boots. I know where they are, I'll get them."

Jo didn't want to wait. If Blair had gone to Cooper's Rock, she'd have returned if she wasn't in trouble. Fortunately, within minutes Tootie returned with a pair of boots Jo considered appropriate for hiking up the path to Cooper's Rock.

"Do you want one of us to go with you, Jo?"

"Nah, I know where I'm going and Blair's going to be embarrassed that anyone was worried when she's just been sitting around watching it rain. There's no point in more of us getting drenched."

Even with the flashlight, it was difficult to navigate the path to Cooper's Rock in the rainstorm. Jo wanted to get to Blair as quickly as possible, but she continued cautiously along the trail, knowing that she couldn't help Blair if she injured herself and grateful for Tootie's suggestion that she borrow Blair's boots.

"Spoiled, selfish brat." Jo mumbled under her breath as she climbed the last slope. "Running up here every time she gets a little upset about anything. Worrying Mrs. G. all the time. Rescuing horses in the middle of a flood. Ignorant, blonde airhead."

Jo stopped just beyond the edge of the tree line, recalling the night of the snowstorm. She pointed the flashlight over the ledge, but the distance was too great for her to see all the way across.

"Blair! Are you out there?"


Jo turned her face toward the sky, allowing the rain to wash over her as she let out the breath she had been holding. As she started across the ledge, she yelled out to Blair.

"This is about the dumbest thing you've ever done, Blair. When I get my hands on you, I'm gonna—."

"Jo, stop! Don't cross the ledge!"

Jo stopped walking and moved the flashlight back and forth over the ground in front of her.

"What's wrong?"


Jo sucked in her breath as she scanned the ledge.

"I don't see anything. Maybe they went away."

She heard Blair toss a rock onto the ledge and then heard a rattle. Jo stepped back, looking for a long stick that she could use to clear her path. Finding a small limb, she broke off part of it and swiped it back and forth along the path in front of her as she approached the ledge.

"Blair, are you hurt? Did it bite you?"

Blair's voice was much calmer than when she had first yelled a warning about the snakes.

"No, I'm okay, but, um, I think I've sprained my ankle. I fell when I saw the snakes."

Jo stopped walking and tried to wipe the water from her eyes.

"Did you see more than one?"

"I saw three. One big one and two little ones. What are you doing?"

"I'm gonna come get you, just try to relax."

"No! They'll bite you."

"Not if I can help it, they won't. If only I had a whip and a torch, this would be a lot easier."

As Jo inched her way further onto the ledge, she was finally able to see Blair on the other side. Shining the light along the ground near her girlfriend, Jo finally saw the cluster of snakes resting at the far end of the ledge.

"All the water from the rain that fell this morning must have flooded their nest."

"I'm going to use this stick to sweep them off of the ledge, Blair. Stand back as far as you can."

"I tried that, Jo. It only made them mad."

"You must have used a flimsy stick, this one will work. All I have to do is get it under one of them and then lift it over the edge."

Jo waited until Blair backed out of sight and attempted to leverage the largest snake over the edge of the cliff. Every time Jo thought she had the snake caught, it would slither off of the stick. Giving up on the larger snake, Jo tried to lift one of the smaller snakes, but it was so small that it fell from the stick and back to the ground before Jo could move it over the edge.

"Okay, Blair. I'll have to try something else."

Thinking that the snakes might be afraid of the light, Jo used her belt to fasten the flashlight to the end of the stick and held it in front of her. It gave her a better view of the snakes, but the light didn't seem to provoke them.

"What are you doing now?"

"I'm thinking. How did you get past those things in the first place?"

"It was cloudy and I didn't see them until I was almost all the way across. Maybe you should go get some help."

Jo noticed movement along the ledge.

"Blair! Stop talking!"

As the larger snake began inching in Blair's direction, Jo knew that she may not have time to get help before Blair would be cornered. Jo stepped further onto the ledge. Careful not to slip on the wet rocks, she stomped her foot, trying to gain the snake's attention. It worked, and the snake turned back toward the sound.

Blair spoke, but tried to soften her voice.

"Jo, are you wearing my boots?"

"Give me a break. This is not the time to start complaining about me borrowing your boots."

"I'm not complaining, you Neanderthal. The snakes can't bite through those boots."

Jo looked down at her feet, gauging the thickness of the boots.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. You can walk across the ledge and then carry me back to the other side."

"Huh? I can't carry you across that thing."

"Indiana Jones did it, so can you."

"That girl was like a toothpick! You'll get both of us killed if I fall off this stupid cliff with you on my back. How would you know what Indiana Jones did anyway? You had your eyes closed the entire time he was in the snake pit."

"Do you have a better idea?"

Jo considered her options.

"I can toss the boots over to you, and you can walk through the snakes."

"Is that how you plan to rescue me? You want me to walk through the middle of those slimy things?"

"Why not? You said that they can't bite through the boots."

"What if you throw the boots and they fall into the middle of the snakes or off the cliff? Then I'll still be stuck here and you won't have any shoes."

"I ain't gonna try to carry you across that slippery ledge, Blair."

Blair frantically searched her mind for another idea. She didn't want to get anywhere near the rattling creatures; she could barely look at them.

"Maybe you could walk over to them and kick them over the edge."

"That's a great plan. Then one of them can wrap itself around my boot and slither up my leg."

"Well, just stomp on it and kill it."

Jo looked skeptically at the large snake, curled into a tight ball in the center of the ledge.

"I don't think that's a good idea."

Blair sighed.

"If only we had a spear or something."

Jo smiled, jumping into action.

"We do. Stay still and don't make any noises. I'm gonna fasten my Swiss army knife to the end of this stick. That big snake won't be able to slither away this time."

Jo opened all three blades on her knife and secured it to the end of a stick. It took several attempts, but eventually she was able to jab the blades into the largest of the three snakes and move the stick over the edge of the ledge. Unfortunately, Jo was unable to shake the snake from the knife.

"Don't make it suffer, Jo."

Jo grunted and yelled at Blair.

"It's stuck and there are two more snakes. What do you expect me to do?"

Jo didn't have time to think about her next move because the loss of the larger snake sent the two smaller ones into a frenzy, straight toward Jo's distraught girlfriend. Jo threw the largest snake, stick, and knife over the side of the cliff and, despite her earlier protestations, ran across the ledge toward the two smaller snakes, kicking them out over the edge as well.

Releasing a sigh of relief, Jo went over to Blair, who was sitting as far away from the ledge as she could get. Jo leaned down to help Blair stand, only to find herself being dragged down into Blair's fierce embrace.

"Hey, let go. It's okay, now. Let go, Blair."

Since Blair didn't let go, Jo gave up and fell on top of the other girl, mumbling reassurances into her ear.

"It's over, Blair. You can let go of me. I'm not going anywhere. Take it easy."

Several minutes later, Blair relaxed her grip and offered Jo a quivering smile. Wet strands of hair stuck to Jo's face and the weight of the rain on her lashes caused her to blink often. Blair allowed herself a few moments to take in the sight of the most beautiful creature on earth before struggling to sit up.

"I'm having a bad day."

Jo smiled and hugged her frazzled girlfriend.

"I know you are, sweetheart. I'm sorry."

"I wasn't afraid, Jo. I knew that you'd come for me."

Jo caressed Blair's face and frowned.

"Blair, you're hot. Are you sure one of those snakes didn't bite you?"

"I'm sure. I haven't been feeling well all day and sitting in the rain probably didn't help."

Jo got to her knees and began inspecting Blair's feet and legs, looking for puncture wounds. She didn't find any bites, but Blair's ankle was badly swollen.

"Do you think you can walk?"

"Not very well, but I can walk."

Jo helped Blair to her feet and Blair wrapped one arm around Jo's shoulder as they hobbled across the ledge to safer ground.

"Mrs. Garrett must be worried. Does she know where we are?"

"I told her that I knew where to find you, but I didn't tell her that I'd be coming up here. I didn't think it would take this long. She may call out the National Guard if I don't get you back soon."

"I'm sorry, Jo. I didn't mean to worry anyone. It wasn't raining when I came up here and I never thought I'd get trapped."

Once they were a short distance from the cliff, Jo led Blair to a grassy area beneath a tree.

"I'm gonna wrap something around your foot before we start down the hill."

"Are you still angry with me, Jo?"

Jo sighed.

"Blair, I want you to promise me that you'll never come up here by yourself again. Do you promise?"

Blair's remorse was sincere.

"I promise."

"Good. Now listen carefully, because I can't be telling you this all the time. I love you, Blair Warner, but I have a bad temper and you seem to bring it out more than anyone else. I'm trying to change, but it's hard. I know I ran away before when things got tough, but you have to trust me not to run away from you. We're going to fight sometimes, but it doesn't mean that I'm going to stop caring about you. Right now, I'm furious with you. You scared me and I get mad when I'm scared."

"I know I disappointed you today, Jo."

Jo leaned forward and gently kissed Blair on the lips.

"A lot happened today and we'll have plenty of time to talk about everything, but you've never disappointed me. Okay?"

Blair smiled and pushed herself to her feet. She tried not to lean too heavily on Jo as they began walking down the hillside, but her ankle couldn't support any of her weight. Only a few steps into their journey, Jo stopped to check Blair's ankle for additional swelling. It was obvious to Jo that Blair couldn't walk much further, so she leaned forward and prompted Blair to hop onto her back.

"No. You couldn't carry me across the ledge. How do you expect to carry me all the way back to the cafeteria?"

"The ledge was narrow and slippery. This is different."

"I can't let you do this."

Jo turned to her girlfriend and spoke softly.

"Blair, Mrs. G. is worried sick about you. You can't walk on that ankle. I'm as strong as a horse and twice as stubborn. I'm carrying you down this damn hill and you're not gonna argue with me about it."

Blair obediently climbed onto Jo's back and they continued down the path. Blair decided that talking to Jo might distract her from the burden of carrying the extra weight, so she tried once again to explain her earlier actions.

"Jo, do you remember telling me that you might have wound up like your friend Jessie if your mother hadn't kept you in school and if you hadn't been smart enough to earn a scholarship to Eastland?"


"I think I'd be a lot worse than Margo if Mrs. Garrett hadn't come to Eastland and taken an interest in me. Margo and I were good friends once. I was a lot like her before you came to Eastland."

"You were never like Margo. You might have said hurtful things to people, Blair, but you never enjoyed hurting someone just for the fun of hurting them."

"I should have talked to you about Margo before I barged into the situation today. I know Margo very well. She's impulsive and does things without thinking about the consequences. I didn't know what she might do if I didn't have a chance to talk with her. I just wanted to calm her down and give her time to think about what she was doing. I didn't mean to make it seem like I didn't care how you felt. I do care, Jo."

"I know you did what you thought was best, Blair. Sometimes you act like Eastland is your own private playground, where nothing can hurt you, but you're wrong. It's one thing for me to hear people saying nasty things about me; I've dealt with that before. I just don't know if I could keep my temper if they said those things about you. People might start wondering why you keep defending me. There was no reason for you to risk that, Blair. You keep saying that no one around here would ever suspect that you're a lesbian, but you're fooling yourself."

"You're right. I've been fooling myself. Margo surprised me today. I didn't tell you before because you got so upset when you found out that Geri knew about us, but Margo knows that we're together. She knew about me before you came to Eastland. She knew about Allie, too."

Jo stopped walking to gather her strength.

"When you told me that Geri knew about us, it made me feel like a coward and that makes me angry. I'm not angry with you or with Margo, I'm angry with myself for hiding how I feel. I'll never blame you if someone notices how much you like me, Blair."

"Margo isn't going to tell anyone about us. The only reason she's been so mean to you is because . . . she, uh, doesn't think you're good enough for me."

"Heh, that's funny. She was flirting with you just to tick me off, wasn't she?"

"She seems to enjoy upsetting you."

"She's not a very good person, Blair, but if you trust her then I'll have to trust her, too."

Blair leaned forward and kissed Jo on the cheek.

"I love you, Jo."

"Do you love me as much as you love Chestnut? Didn't she carry you across the river in the last flood?"


"I forgot to tell you. The weather service issued a flood warning."

"No! I feel terrible. Mrs. Garrett is going to be so upset with me."

"She'll be relieved. She called everywhere looking for you. She even called Harrison."

"Why would she call Harrison?"

"After your little talk with Natalie about how it feels to be in love, she started trying to figure out who you were talking about. When Nancy told her that Margo and Harrison broke up because of you, Natalie assumed you were in love with the jerk."

"That's ridiculous."

"Not to Natalie. Why did Margo and Harrison break up?"

"I think it was because of me, in a way. Margo has this silly idea that Harrison is obsessed with me. She told me to stay away from him."

Jo stopped again, breathing hard.

"That's good advice. I've heard that Harrison enjoys starting fights between other guys. He never throws any punches himself, but he encourages others to do it."

Despite the circumstances, Blair found it easier to talk to Jo about awkward topics while riding on Jo's back. She leaned forward again, this time kissing the back of Jo's neck, trying to make sure Jo didn't misunderstand her question.

"Jo, Margo told me that you had a fight with Steve. Is that true?"

Jo didn't hesitate.

"I talked to him the night he was beaten up, but I'm not the one who did it. After I found out about what he tried to do last year, I asked around about him. I can't believe your parents let you date someone so much older. He told me his version of what happened and he said he regretted losing his temper."

"Who do you think fought with him?"

"It had to be more than one guy. Do you know that Steve holds the record for winning the most wrestling matches in the history of Peekskill High School? He's won over a hundred matches and he led the team to the championship every year that he competed. He's built like a truck. If he had meant you any harm, Blair, I don't see how you could have gotten away from him. There's no way that one man would have been able to do the kind of damage to Steve that I saw."

"You saw it?"

"Not that night. I went to see Steve in the hospital when I found out about what happened. I wanted to make sure that he didn't think I had set him up."

"Did he believe you?"

"Yeah. He wouldn't tell me who attacked him, but I could tell that he knew."

"I guess I was wrong about Margo, she's still trying to make trouble for us."

"Nah, she was probably just telling you what she's heard. Lots of girls think I'm the one who did it. Heh, they must think I've got superhuman strength to put a mark on a guy like that."

"I'm sorry that I believed what Margo told me. I should have asked you about it as soon as I saw you."

"I don't blame you. It's not as if I haven't earned my reputation. I convinced myself that I beat up Neil for Natalie, but I only made things worse. People around here will remember what I did to Neil for a long time. Every time it comes up, they'll remember why I did it. I was telling you the truth earlier when I said that I'm trying to control my temper."

"Jo, why didn't you just ask me if you wanted to know more about what happened between Steve and me that night?"

"I, uh. Blair, my mom would never admit that any of her boyfriends hurt her. I should have trusted you to tell me the whole story, but I couldn't. I had to make sure he hadn't hurt you the way I thought he might have. Don't be mad at me for talking to him."

"What would you have done if he had hurt me, like that?"

"I honestly don't know."

Blair smiled as she kissed Jo again.

"When I asked you what you'd do if someone spread rumors about me the way that Neil talked about Natalie, you said that you would kill him. I think you've made a lot of progress in controlling your temper, Jo."

Jo was laughing so hard that she had to stop once again to catch her breath.

"Yeah, I'm just like that guy in the movie we saw last week, Gandhi. The next thing you know, I'll be passing out flowers and chanting."

"Don't change too much, Jo. I was very happy when you killed those snakes for me."

"I was pretty awesome, wasn't I?"

"Yes, you were heroic."

"It's too bad I can't tell anyone about it."

"Why not?"

"Uh, the only reason anyone really goes to Cooper's Rock is to make out, Blair. Even Mrs. G. knows that."

"We can change the location. Tell them that I ducked into the equipment shed and was cornered by snakes. It's not as exciting as what really happened, but at least everyone would know how brave you are."

"I don't care about that, Blair. I only care that you're safe. How are you doing back there?"

"I like traveling piggyback on Superman."

"Uh, don't you mean Superwoman?"

"Don't worry, Jo. I'm fully aware of your girlie parts. Seriously, I'm feeling much better now. I think my fever is going down. I don't want to be sick. We have the game tomorrow afternoon. I hope you'll be okay after spending so much time in the rain today."

"I'm fine. I feel like I've been soaking in a nice, warm bath all day."

"You should do that tonight. You should soak in a nice, hot bath and then you should sleep late tomorrow morning. Mrs. Garrett won't mind letting you sleep in after you rescued me tonight."

Jo slowed her pace as she neared the cafeteria. Blair's reference to the following day reminded Jo of Eddie's surprise visit and she didn't want Tootie mentioning it to Blair before she had a chance to explain.

"Blair, I have to tell you something and I don't want you to get upset."

Jo could feel Blair's body grow tense, her legs tightening around Jo's waist.

"Why would I get upset?"

"I didn't invite him and I didn't know that he was coming."

Blair's heart started pounding. She'd had too many frightening moments for one day, her nerves were on edge.


"Yes. He just showed up. He said he wanted to see the championship game."

"Why didn't he call you and let you know that he was coming?"

"He wanted to surprise me."

Blair closed her eyes and held tightly to Jo. She believed Jo was trying to better control her temper, but Jo was unusually sensitive to any criticism of Eddie.

"Jo, can I tell you something without you thinking that I'm trying to change your opinion of Eddie?"

"I'm not sure, Blair. Eddie is a good guy."

"Yes, but how well does he know you?"

"I guess he knows me better than anyone, except for you."

"Jo, you don't like surprises. I don't understand why Eddie thinks it's a good idea to surprise you by showing up without any notice. He's never told you in advance that he was coming. Wouldn't you have been just as surprised by a phone call telling you that he was coming to the game?"

"What are you trying to say, Blair?"

"Maybe you could ask Eddie to let you know when he's coming to visit you."

"Why would I do that?"

Blair sighed.

"Maybe you could do it for me. It's hard for me to see you with Eddie. I know I've told you that I'm okay with you and Eddie being friends, but it hurts. It may not hurt any less if I know he's coming, but at least I wouldn't feel so . . . insecure."

"You date other guys all the time, Blair."

"I don't love those guys, Jo. You've told me that you love Eddie and I can see for myself how deeply you care for him."

Jo stopped outside the door to the lounge and leaned back so that Blair could climb down. Turning to lock gazes with Blair, Jo whispered.

"I'm in love with you, Blair. I care about Eddie, but I don't want you to feel hurt when you see him. I'll ask him to call me and let me know any time he plans to visit. Do you want me to ask him to leave tomorrow? I don't want to hurt either of you, but if I have to choose—."

Blair pressed her fingers to Jo's lips, tears forming in her eyes.

"That's all I needed to know, Jo. Thank you for asking him to call you next time. I don't want you to ask him to leave tomorrow. I can handle seeing Eddie, as long as I know that he's not going to take you away from me."

Jo smiled, knowing that Blair was censoring her words.

"As long as you know that you come first, that's what you really mean, isn't it?"

"Do I?"

"Yes, Blair. You come first."


"I slay snakes for you and you never even thank me, but you go weak in the knees when I say anything the slightest bit romantic."

"Thank you, Joey. Will you stand close to me while I suffer the wrath of Mrs. Garrett?"

"Uh, I'd rather face the snakes."

Blair Warner was having a bad day. She got caught in a rain shower. Another girl kissed her girlfriend. She made a fool of herself with her former best friend, who was making trouble for her girlfriend. She had a terrible argument with her girlfriend, who later had to rescue her from a slithering group of rattlesnakes. Her girlfriend's boyfriend decided to surprise them by visiting unexpectedly and she had needlessly worried the woman who cared for her as much as any mother loved her own daughter.

"I'm so sorry, Mrs. Garrett."

Edna Garrett gently wrapped a new bandage around Blair's swollen ankle. Upon seeing the girls' condition when they had arrived a short time earlier, Mrs. Garrett had sent Jo straight to the bathroom to shower and change and she had assisted Blair into her bathroom for a warm bath. Once the girls were dry and warm, Mrs. Garrett made hot chocolate and listened as they told her about the snakes that had trapped Blair and how Jo had saved her.

"It's not your fault, Blair. I'm just glad that Jo found you."

Jo smiled as she drank her third cup of hot chocolate. Mrs. Garrett was treating the tough brunette like a returning war hero and Jo was enjoying the attention.

Blair smiled at Jo. Despite how miserable her day had been, knowing that Jo cared enough about her to battle snakes and offer to send Eddie away had brightened Blair's day considerably.

"I don't think anyone else would have been brave enough to take on all those snakes. There were dozens of them."

Jo laughed.

"There were only three, but they had big rattles."

Mrs. Garrett laughed as well, enjoying the warmth her girls were displaying toward one another.

"You girls should go up to bed. I'll take your cups into the kitchen."

Mrs. Garrett retrieved their hot chocolate mugs and left Jo and Blair alone in the lounge.

Blair threw her arms around Jo and buried her face in Jo's shoulder.

"Thank you for rescuing me, Jo."

Jo chuckled.

"Okay, Blair. You're exhausted. It's time to carry you upstairs and put you to bed."

Before Blair could object, she was cradled in Jo's arms and they were on their way up the stairs. Once inside their bedroom, Jo carried Blair to her bed. Leaning forward to gently drop her girlfriend onto her bed, Jo kissed Blair lightly on the forehead before pulling Snuggle Bear from its hiding place beneath the bed and placing it in Blair's arms. "Goodnight, Princess."

Blair smiled and her eyes twinkled.

"Goodnight, Snake Slayer."

The next morning, Mrs. Garrett insisted that Blair and Jo be allowed to sleep late and that Tootie and Natalie serve breakfast to the other students. Natalie and Tootie didn't mind covering for Jo, since the star athlete needed her rest for the big game that afternoon, but they grumbled about having to cover for Blair. Mrs. Garrett, however, was still annoyed at the two younger girls for invading Miss Gallagher's privacy and she quickly put an end to their complaints.

After breakfast, the younger girls were thrilled when Mrs. Garrett suggested that they give Eddie a tour of the campus. Although Eddie expressed his preference to hang around the cafeteria and help Mrs. Garrett until Jo made an appearance, Mrs. Garrett adamantly refused his assistance. Natalie grabbed Eddie's right arm and Tootie grasped his left arm, leaving the young sailor little choice but to be guided away by the enthusiastic girls.

Alone in their room, Jo was the first to wake, her head throbbing and her back aching. Remembering the reason for her discomfort, Jo smiled and looked over at Blair. It was worth all the aches and pains in the world to see Blair sleeping safely. Most mornings, the affectionate blonde would be curled around a lump under her covers, which Jo knew to be Snuggle Bear. Today, however, the covers were thrown aside and Blair slept on her back with her left leg elevated. Jo closed her eyes, recalling the morning when Natalie and Tootie had left early for Natalie's newspaper assignment, which Jo now realized must have been the day the young snoops had followed Miss Gallagher.

Jo had awakened that morning to find Blair curled around her, much the way Blair usually cuddled Snuggle Bear. Jo turned on her side and gazed at her scantily clad girlfriend. She often watched Blair sleep, but the cold-sensitive blonde was usually under a sheet or blanket, whereas the short nightie Blair was currently wearing covered less than it revealed.

Jo's thoughts drifted to that other morning as she recalled how soft Blair's nightgown felt. Allowing her gaze to drift downward, Jo remembered the feel of Blair's bare legs wrapped snugly around her body. It had been a perfect morning, waking up to the sensation of Blair's warm, moist lips nibbling her neck. There were no pink sponge curlers dangling from Blair's hair that morning, her golden locks seemed to beg for Jo's hands to comb through them.

Jo shuddered as the memories overtook her. She hadn't seen Blair's body that morning, but she had felt it; soft swells clinging to her as she groggily emerged from a deep, satisfying dream. Subsequently, Jo often wondered how much of her dream might have been real. She had been dreaming of Blair's hands caressing her, Blair's lips kissing her, Blair's arms holding her, Blair's legs —. Jo shook her head, once again trying to distinguish between illusion and reality during the half-dream state when Blair had slipped into bed with her.

Looking at Blair, so vulnerable and exposed as she slept, Jo remembered how afraid she had felt the night before when she'd realized that Blair was in danger. Hearing the distress in Blair's voice, but being unable to see her had been terrifying. The uncertainty of her ability to keep Blair safe while she was so far from Jo's reach had scared Jo more than anything she had experienced as a gang member or from her mother's boyfriends. Jo recalled the sense of relief that had flooded her body when she'd finally been able to cradle Blair in her arms. Despite Blair's soaked hair and clothing, swollen ankle, scraped knees, and tear-stained face, Jo had been overcome with joy to find Blair relatively unharmed. However relieved she was, it was only when she'd delivered Blair to Mrs. Garrett's door that Jo had allowed herself to relax.

Jo's gaze came to rest on Blair's ankle, which Mrs. Garrett had securely wrapped the night before. Not wanting to wake Blair, she crept quietly from her bed and over to Blair's. She gently lifted Blair's foot from the pillow Mrs. Garrett had placed at the foot of Blair's bed. As she sat on the edge of the bed, she placed Blair's injured foot on her lap. In the process of carefully removing the bandage in order to check the status of her girlfriend's injury, Jo's fingers inadvertently caressed the bottom of Blair's foot, eliciting a loud squeal from Blair, followed by a series of giggles.

"Jo, stop!"


"You're tickling my foot."

"I barely touched your foot. I'm checking your ankle."

"Cut it out, Jo. I can't stand it."

Being careful not to further injure Blair's ankle, Jo intentionally ran her finger across the bottom of Blair's foot, bringing forth another series of uncontrollable giggles. It was all Jo could do to hold Blair's leg in place so that the wiggling blonde didn't harm her ankle. Watching as her girlfriend twisted and squirmed around on her bed, Jo was entranced.

"Heh, heh. You're a little ticklish, aren't you, Princess?"

"That's not funny, Jo!"

"I wonder where else you might be ticklish."

Jo began exploring the rest of Blair's leg for sensitive areas, finding another ticklish area on the underside of Blair's knee. The amused brunette found Blair's appearance adorable as she giggled and rolled. Jo would have considered the movement childlike, except that Blair's nightie failed to conceal the alluring body of the young woman howling in between gales of giggles.

"Stop! Jo! Stop! Pleeeese!"

At that moment, the door flew open and Edna Garrett came running into the room. Her face was slightly flushed and she was catching her breath from rushing down the hallway.

"What is going on in here? I thought you girls needed extra time to rest and I can hear you laughing all the way in the kitchen."

Jo had been so engrossed in watching her girlfriend wiggle that she hadn't heard their guardian running down the hall. She jerked around as soon as the door to their room burst open, feeling embarrassed at having been caught in such an intimate position with Blair.

Released from the giggle fits Jo had been inflicting, Blair was quick to survey the situation. Seeing the disapproval on Mrs. Garrett's face and Jo's correspondingly guilty expression, Blair utilized her most trustworthy diversion tactic. Protruding her lower lip to its fullest pout, Blair whined.

"Mrs. Garrett, make Jo stop ticking my foot. She's supposed to be checking my ankle."

Both Jo and Mrs. Garrett looked down at Blair's foot, still resting on Jo's lap. Having been captivated by Blair's movements, Jo had forgotten that she had begun to unwrap Blair's bandage. Relieved to have an excuse to be sitting on Blair's bed holding her girlfriend's leg, Jo mimicked Blair's whine.

"Mrs. Garrett, make Blair stop moving so I can check her ankle."

Mrs. Garrett sat on the bed beside Jo and reached for the bandage, eliciting another small giggle from Blair.

"I'm sorry. I can't help it. It tickles."

Edna Garrett rolled her eyes at their hijinks. She didn't want Blair moving around on her injured foot and she thought that Jo should be conserving her energy for the upcoming game, but seeing Blair's dazzling smile convinced her that there was no need to reprimand the girls for letting off some steam. It pleased Edna to see Jo and Blair growing closer, they acted almost like sisters.

"My sister, Beverly Ann, is also ticklish. When we were growing up in Appleton, we used to have pillow fights at night and tickle fights in the mornings, just like you girls. Ah, those are memories I will always cherish."

Blair smiled sweetly, certain that the tickle fights Mrs. Garrett had had with her sister weren't anything like the one she'd just had with Jo. Although Blair's giggles were uncontrollable, her movements weren't. After noticing Jo's jaw drop the first time Blair twisted her body in order to avoid Jo's touch, the flirtatious debutante couldn't resist accentuating the wiggles that had so obviously enthralled her girlfriend.

"Thank you for checking on me, Mrs. Garrett. I guess Jo was trying to be helpful, but no one takes care of me like you."

Mrs. Garrett quickly evaluated Blair's ankle and determined that the swelling had reduced dramatically overnight.

"It was nice of Jo to be concerned about your ankle, Blair. Remember, Jo was the one who rescued you last night. You might want to think about ways to express your gratitude now that you're feeling better."

Blair giggled again, even though Jo was no longer touching the bottom of her foot.

"Oh, I've already been thinking about that, Mrs. Garrett."

"That's nice, dear. Now take your time getting ready this morning. You need to stay off of that ankle as much as possible prior to the game this afternoon and I told Eddie that Jo needs her rest after getting to bed so late last night. Tootie and Natalie are entertaining him with a tour of the campus and if I know those two, he won't be back until it's time to get ready for the game."

Once Mrs. Garrett left the room, Jo locked eyes with her girlfriend.

"Now, where was I? I was checking something."

"My ankle, you Neanderthal."

"No, that's not it. Oh, I remember. I was checking to find out where you were ticklish."

Jo grinned mischievously as she began walking her index and middle fingers up Blair's leg.

"Did you call me a Neanderthal? You're gonna have to take that back."

Jo's fingers found their mark and Blair could barely speak between giggles.

"I take it back. I take it back. Jo is not a Neanderthal!"

Blair smiled as Jo stopped tickling and began caressing her leg. Remembering Mrs. Garrett's admonishment to show Jo her gratitude, Blair decided that there was no need to make Jo wait for her well-deserved reward.

"Joooey, can't you think of anything more interesting to do . . . alone . . . in our bedroom . . . just the two of us?

Jo was having so much fun teasing Blair that it took her a few beats to catch Blair's meaning. Her body tingled as she shifted her weight, swinging her legs onto the bed. Leaving space for Blair's injured ankle to rest on the pillow, Jo pressed her hips close to Blair's other leg, using her elbows to brace herself over her girlfriend.

"Good morning."

"Good morning, Joey."

As soon as Blair's right leg wrapped itself around Jo's waist, another hazy memory drifted through Jo's mind. Looking down, she knew that she couldn't have dreamed the exact way that Blair's eyes gradually deepened; green and gold flecks merging into deeper chocolate as her girlfriend's desire heightened.

"Blair, did I do anything I shouldn't have done the other morning? Uh, when you and I were in my bed, I had been dreaming and then I woke up and now it's all kind of mixed together."

Blair's blush was all Jo needed to confirm that she hadn't been dreaming. When Blair started chewing her lower lip, her brow furrowing, Jo regretted her question.

Blair's heart began to race as she remembered the morning she had slipped into bed with Jo, eager to feel her girlfriend next to her as she slept. As foggy as Jo was about the events of that morning, Blair's memories were crystal clear. She'd been nuzzling Jo when strong, lean arms had embraced her, stroking her back and drawing her closer. When Jo's hands slid down to Blair's thighs, pulling her legs around her, the natural response was for Blair to begin kissing Jo's neck. Blair's lips had kept her informed of Jo's rapidly increasing heartbeat as her girlfriend's pulse point throbbed beneath Blair's kisses. Hearing Jo admit to not remembering those kisses caused Blair to remorsefully pull her leg from around Jo's waist.

"I thought you were awake. You were holding me and I . . . I thought . . . I didn't mean to start anything. I just wanted to be close to you and then —."

"Shhh. I was awake, for most of it, maybe for all of it. I was a little groggy at first, that's all. I knew it wasn't a dream, but it just seemed a little too good to be true."

Noting that Blair still appeared apprehensive, Jo stroked her girlfriend's hair, kissing her lips before moving her lips across Blair's neck. Their breathing seemed to echo in the room, the sound magnified by their heightened awareness of one another.

They often held one another tightly while visiting Cooper's Rock, but Blair and Jo were always fully dressed. Jo's thin cotton pajamas and Blair's silk nightgown didn't mask the more intimate details of one another's bodies as they pressed themselves as close to one another as possible. Blair unconsciously whimpered as she held Jo so close that she could feel every inch of her girlfriend's warm body.

Tears began to form in Blair's eyes as she touched Jo's cheek.

"Do you remember anything about the other morning?"

Jo quickly reassured her anxious girlfriend.

"I wasn't asleep, Blair. I was sleepy, but I knew exactly what I was doing and you didn't do anything that I didn't want you to do. Please believe me."

Blair wanted to believe Jo. She didn't want to believe that Jo had been unaware during an experience that had meant so much to her.

"Tell me what you remember."

"I remember kissing you."

"That's all?"

Jo's features sharpened as her gaze intensified. She knew why Blair was so apprehensive, something so memorable should never be forgotten or get lost in a haze of doubt.

"It was a very . . . memorable kiss. It involved . . . lips touching."

Jo leaned forward and tenderly kissed Blair's lips, once, twice, three times.

"Fingers caressing."

Bracing herself on one elbow, Jo softly traced Blair's side from her hip up to the swell of her breast.

"Tongues seeking."

She lowered her head for a deeper kiss, exploring Blair's mouth for several minutes before pulling away.

"Hearts pounding."

Jo gathered Blair's hand in her own and brought it to her chest, so that Blair could feel her heart beating furiously.

"Eyelids fluttering."

Blair smiled when Jo kissed her eyelids, as Blair had kissed Jo that other morning.

"Lips tasting."

Blair moaned as Jo pressed her lips to Blair's forehead, her cheek, her chin, and her earlobe, before inching their way from one side of Blair's neck to the other.

"Palms sweating."

Jo held out her hand for Blair to confirm.

"Knees shaking."

Jo lowered her body onto Blair's, losing eye contact, but pressing her cheek to Blair's so that she could continue to whisper into Blair's ear as she reenacted the experience.

"Legs trembling. Feet tingling. Breath catching. Hips arching. Legs embracing."

Jo pressed her body more intimately against Blair's, reaching for Blair's thigh and pulling it back around her waist. She continued to announce each feeling, each caress, and each kiss.

"Cheeks flushing. Muscles flexing. Body trembling. Lips tasting."

Jo's lips returned to Blair's neck and collarbone, nibbling and kissing. Her fingers continued to flutter up and down Blair's sides until coming to rest on her hips, gently squeezing them as she pressed her own hips firmly against her girlfriend.

Between each kiss to her girlfriend's neck or lips, Jo would utter another phrase.

"Souls bonding. Eyes searching. Lips quivering. Hearts blushing. Tongues exploring. Breasts swelling. Blood rushing."

As Blair began to return Jo's caresses, running her nails gently up and down Jo's back before teasingly dipping a short distance below the waistband of Jo's pajamas, Jo's voice became raspy.

"Hands teasing. Chest expanding. Fingertips entreating."

When Jo leaned back, piercing green eyes locked with soft brown before scanning Blair's face and body. Barely able to speak, Jo separated each phrase with a great deal more kissing and caressing.

"Lips inviting. Fingernails enticing. Passion mounting. Desire swelling. Lips moistening. Air thickening. Mind racing. Neck pulsing. Tongue thrusting. Soul mending . Kissing. Kissing. Loving."

Jo swallowed hard, her eyes burning into Blair's.

"I remember that kiss, Blair. Was there something more you thought I should know?"

It took Blair several seconds to inhale enough air to speak.

"Oh, that kiss. Um, that about covers it."

When Blair smiled, Jo felt the warmth of it all the way to her toes.

"I love you, Blair."

Blair squeezed her girlfriend with all of her strength.

"I love you, Jo."

Jo shifted to her side and the girls spent several minutes simply gazing into one another's eyes.

"I guess we'd better get dressed. Mrs. G. will come looking for us soon."

Blair lowered her eyes, shivering from a sudden burst of insecurity.

"Eddie will be waiting for you."

Jo's lips were warm and tender as they pressed against Blair's. Keeping her lips close to Blair's as she spoke, Jo reassured her girlfriend.

"I love you, Blair. I always have and I always will."

"Jo, you can't promise —."

"Give me a break, Blair. I know the real thing when I find it. This is as real as it gets. You and me. We're in love. You can trust me, Blair. I'd never get this close to you if I wasn't sure about us. I'd never kiss you like this or touch you the way I do. I'm sorry I've given you so many reasons to doubt me, but that's over. Cindy, Margo, Harrison, Eddie . . . our parents - you never have to worry about anyone coming between us. Please don't worry. I can't stand to see you so anxious."

"You saved my life last night."

"Well, that's only fair since you saved my life the day we met."

"You say the sweetest things, Joey."

Jo kissed Blair again before carefully easing around her injured ankle.

"Only to you, Princess. Only to you."

Mrs. Garrett had put aside a meal for Jo and Blair and she presented it to the girls when they cheerfully entered the cafeteria.

"I'm glad to see you in your uniform, Jo. I was beginning to think that last night had taken so much out of you that you'd have to sit out the game."

"Nah, last night was kind of fun. Blair's a pain, but I couldn't let those snakes suck all that blue blood out of her."

Blair threw her napkin at Jo as Mrs. Garrett chuckled. The playful jibes were a pleasant change from the heated arguments she had witnessed throughout the year. The nutritionist smiled as she watched the girls dig into their meals. It always gratified Edna Garrett to see her girls eating well.

"Slow down, girls. You have plenty of time to eat and there are more leftovers in the refrigerator if you want more."

Jo grinned at Blair.

"Thanks, Mrs. G. I'm as hungry as a horse. I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I spent half the night carrying Blair around on my back."

Mrs. Garrett was surprised when Blair reached for a second roll.

"My goodness, Blair. You're as hungry as Jo."

"Riding Jo is much more strenuous than riding Chestnut."

Astonished by Blair's comment, Jo choked on her fruit, requiring Mrs. Garrett to slap the sputtering brunette on the back. Jo was still coughing when Natalie, Tootie, and Eddie returned to the cafeteria.

"Hey, Jo. That's a cool uniform. You look great."

"Oh, hi, Eddie. Did you enjoy your tour?"

Eddie stood by Jo's chair, expecting her to rise and greet him with a hug. When she remained seated, he awkwardly pulled up a nearby chair and joined the girls at the table. Seeing Jo in her uniform reminded Natalie and Tootie of the game and they raced upstairs to change for the event.

Seeing that Blair and Jo had finished their meals, Mrs. Garrett removed their plates and turned toward the kitchen.

"I have some nutritious snacks to prepare for the team so I'll be in the kitchen."

Blair immediately rose and began gathering their cups.

"I'll help you, Mrs. Garrett. It'll give Jo and Eddie a chance to visit for a while before the game."

Jo touched Blair's wrist when Blair reached for her girlfriend's cup.

"Thank you, Blair."

"Stand up, Jo, so I can get a good look at you."

Eddie stood and held out his arms, expecting Jo to rise and hug him. She self-consciously stood and returned Eddie's embrace, but broke free quickly and returned to her seat.

"This game must be a really big deal. Everyone we met was getting ready for it."

"Yeah, it's a big deal. Listen, Eddie, I'm not gonna have a lot of time to spend with you this weekend."

"That's okay. We'll have plenty of time to celebrate after the game. I'm gonna take you to the nicest restaurant in town tonight."

"Eddie, the team will expect me to celebrate with them, if we win."

"Oh. Well, they won't celebrate all night. We can go out afterward."

"I have a curfew."

Eddie fiddled with his hat, unaccustomed to sharing Jo's attention.

"I'm sure Mrs. Garrett wouldn't mind if you stayed out a little past curfew just this once."

Jo sighed.

"I don't want to ask Mrs. Garrett to start making exceptions for me, Eddie. There are rules here and I have to follow them just like everyone else."

"You never worried about that sort of thing before."

"I never had a curfew before. Eastland isn't like the Bronx, Eddie. People here expect more from me."

"What about me? Don't I count?"

"Of course you do, Eddie. You know how I feel about you, but I didn't know that you were coming here this weekend. If you had called me, I could have explained that a different weekend would have been a better time for your visit."

"I wanted to surprise you. You seemed happy to see me last night."

"I was happy to see you. I'm always happy to see you. I'm just saying that it would be easier for us to spend more time together if you called me first."

"I don't understand why that should make a difference."

For the first time in their relationship, Eddie had managed to irritate Jo.

"I don't understand why you're making such a big deal about it. Is there some reason why you don't want to call me and let me know that you're coming?"

Eddie was shocked. Jo had never questioned anything he did. His voice became plaintive as he explained.

"I like surprising you. It makes me feel good to watch your little face light up when you see me. I don't want to argue with you, Jo. I miss you. I never even look at other girls, you know that."

Jo didn't respond at first. She'd spent so much time defending Eddie that she had never taken a good look at their relationship. Jo owed Eddie a great deal, but she not only loved Blair, she trusted Blair's instincts about people. Jo wondered what Blair would say if she knew that during each of his visits, Eddie found a moment to mention that Jo was the only girl he ever dated.

"I don't want to argue with you either, Eddie. I'm sorry that I won't be able to spend any time with you today. I have to attend a team meeting before the bus leaves for the game, so I need to go now. After the game, win or lose, I have to stay with the team."

"That's fine. I'll get to see you run up and down the field with your little hockey stick, it'll be fun. What time should I come by tomorrow morning?"

"I promised Tootie that I'd help her build an electromagnetic field for her science project."

"Shouldn't she do her own project?"

"Tootie's too young to use power tools. That's why I'm helping her."

"I'm good with power tools."

"Eddie, she only needs one helper. Don't be angry. I want to spend time with you, but this is not a good week."

Eddie was a patient man. He'd been frustrated beyond measure when Mrs. Garrett and Jo's snobbish friend had foiled his elopement with Jo, but he'd bowed out gracefully when his young girlfriend got cold feet.

"If it's okay with you, I'd like to drop by tomorrow morning to say goodbye. I'd like to see that project, it sounds interesting."

"Of course it's okay with me. I have to go now. I'll wave to you from the field."

Eddie's smile broadened.

"I look forward to it. We'll talk again tomorrow, right?"


Jo sighed deeply when Eddie left. Asking Eddie to call her before visiting had been a lot more difficult than she had anticipated. Jo decided to contemplate Eddie's overreaction to her request at a later time, needing to focus on the upcoming game.

Blair tingled with excitement as she sat next to Jo. Blair had attended many events where photographers eagerly snapped pictures of the socialites, but she had never felt so much like a celebrity as she did seated next to Jo on Eastland's athletic bus. Blair could tell that the other players had as much respect for Jo's abilities as the fans and she was looking forward to basking in the glow of Jo's athletic accomplishments. Blair didn't mind that she was only on the athletes' bus in order to assist Mrs. Garrett in distributing the snack and dinner boxes that Mrs. Garrett had prepared early that morning. All that mattered to Blair was that she was riding to the big game with Jo.

Blair smiled over at Jo, who was concentrating on some notes the coach had given her to review. While most of the other players were excitedly roughhousing and chatting with one another, Jo was already focused on the game, studying notes the coach had made after Eastland's previous game against Mount Swain. Sensing herself under scrutiny, Jo glanced over at Blair.

"I guess this is kind of boring for you."

"No, I'm enjoying the trip. I've never ridden on the athletic bus before. It's interesting to finally see what goes on before a game."

"Eddie will be at the game, but I told him that I couldn't see him afterward and that I needed to help Tootie with her science project tomorrow."

"Did he understand?"

"Yeah. He's okay with it."

Blair smiled, feeling much less threatened by Jo's relationship with Eddie.

"I, uh, I'd like to talk with you more about him later. Maybe you could give me a little advice about how to . . . let him down easy."

It should feel odd to be asked for advice about Jo's boyfriend, but Blair didn't feel awkward. She was glad that Jo trusted her not to allow her jealousy of Eddie to prevent her from being honest with Jo.

"I'll help as much as I can, Jo. Do you want me to sit with him at the game? I mean, he won't know anyone else. Tootie will be taking pictures and Natalie will be playing sports reporter on the field."

"I think he'd appreciate that, Blair. I hope this game turns out okay."

"It will."

Jo shuffled the papers she was holding and sighed.

"I hope we win. Bus rides home from losing games are never fun."

"You'll win, Jo. This is the best team we've ever had at Eastland."

Jo scanned the bus, watching her teammates laugh and boast about their upcoming victory.

"I never played sports at my other school. Coach Cooper keeps reminding me to trust the other players and not to try to do everything myself, but . . . they're depending on me."

Blair had been enjoying the recognition Jo was receiving so much that she hadn't noticed that Jo didn't seem to be enjoying the attention. Blair reflexively reached for Jo's hand, but pulled back quickly once she realized what she was doing.

"Coach Cooper is right, Jo. You'll be great, you always are. Whether the team wins or loses will depend on how all of you play, you can't hold yourself responsible."

"They're gonna give me the credit if we win. Why shouldn't it be my fault if we lose?"

Blair was no longer surprised by Jo's tendency to feel unusually responsible for others. She knew that on the few occasions when Jo scored poorly on a test, she felt that she'd not only let down her parents, but her entire neighborhood back in the Bronx. Jo seemed to always be trying to justify being given opportunities which her friends had been denied. Blair often argued that Jo had earned every opportunity she'd been given, but Jo still felt a great responsibility toward old friends who appeared trapped in situations from which they couldn't break free. It made sense to Blair that Jo would adopt the same attitude toward her less gifted teammates.

Blair resisted the urge to tell Jo that it was just a game. She remembered how important the student council election had initially been to her and how trivial it seemed in light of Cynthia's suicide. Blair supposed that in the grand scheme of life, high school elections and sports games might not be very important, but if winning the game was important to Jo, then Blair wasn't going to trivialize it.

"Without you, the team probably wouldn't have a chance of winning. That's why everyone credits you with the winning season, Jo. With you on the team, they have a chance to win - if they play well. They aren't going to blame you if the other team plays better."

Blair appreciated Jo's smile, even though it was half-hearted. She leaned over and whispered very softly.

"I love you."

Blair knew it was silly, but she didn't know what else to say and she wanted Jo to feel better. Jo's lips turned upward into a true smile and she winked at Blair before returning her attention to her notes.

As the bus pulled into the Mount Swain parking area, Blair could see Jo's chest expanding as she took several deep breaths. By the time Jo stood to exit the bus, she appeared calm and confident, without a hint of the nerves Blair knew were present. Once again, Blair marveled at Jo's ability to project an image of confident assurance regardless of the situation.

Blair assisted Mrs. Garrett in transporting the prepared meals to the Mount Swain cafeteria while Jo and the rest of the field hockey team went to the locker room. Once everything was set out for the team, Blair happily performed her regular waitressing duties, having grown very comfortable in the role of serving others in the Eastland cafeteria.

Edna Garrett was just as proud of Blair for having learned to perform menial tasks without complaint as she was of Jo for leading the field hockey team to the championship. In years past, the pampered heiress would have used her injured ankle as a convenient excuse not to serve the team members, but Blair limped from one table to the other without drawing attention to her ankle. Mrs. Garrett had hoped that the girls would be a good influence on one another, but on the first day of school she would never have guessed that the heiress would one day be content to serve food and clean up spills while the gruff Bronx native was treated to pats on the back and accolades galore.

It was Blair Warner's nature to insert herself into the spotlight in any situation, no matter how far removed she was from the center of activity, but Mrs. Garrett attributed much of the debutante's willingness to remain in the shadows during the championship game to Jo's heroism the night before. Two years earlier, however, Mrs. Garrett doubted that any amount of gratitude on Blair's behalf would have restrained her from being jealous of the type of attention being lavished on Jo Polniaczek. Mrs. Garrett smiled her approval, giving herself a pat on the back for forcing two such different students to learn to live with one another.

Blair didn't have an opportunity to speak privately with Jo in the cafeteria, wishing Jo and the team good luck as they returned to the locker room in preparation for the game. Once she and Mrs. Garrett had cleaned the cafeteria area following lunch, Mrs. Garrett told Blair to go and join her fellow students. On her way to the field, Blair sighed as she noticed Eddie Brennan in the parking lot, looking out of place at a game attended primarily by girls. A few boys from Bates Academy were attending, but Eddie's uniform set him apart from that group as well.

Although Blair would never be a fan of Eddie's, Jo's willingness to limit her time with Eddie went a long way toward reducing Blair's animosity toward the good-natured sailor.

"Hi, Eddie. Would you like to escort me to the field?"

Eddie smiled agreeably. Regardless of Jo's constant complaints about her condescending roommate, Eddie knew that his girlfriend liked the over-privileged blonde and he always made an extra effort to be nice to her.

"Mount Swain's school colors are blue and white. I hope I'm not mistaken for the enemy."

"You look very handsome in your uniform, Eddie. No one is going to associate you with Mount Swain."

As Blair and Eddie were talking, Harrison Andrews screeched into the parking lot in his red Porsche. Blair rolled her eyes at the approaching vehicle and was surprised to see Eddie's muscles tense as he placed himself between Blair and the oncoming car. Touching Eddie's arm to gain his attention, which was solidly directed at Harrison, Blair nodded her head toward the field.

"We'd better go, Eddie, we don't want to miss the beginning of the game. The best part is when the announcer broadcasts the names of the players."

Eddie hesitated before walking toward the field with Blair, but he glanced back in Harrison's direction several times.

"Do you know the kid driving that car?"

It wasn't like Eddie to be interested in talking about anything other than Jo, prompting Blair to glance curiously back at Harrison. Harrison and several other boys from Bates weren't making any effort to disguise their interest in and open hostility toward Blair and Eddie.

"That's Harrison Andrews and some of his goons. Harrison's a jerk. Why do you ask?"

Eddie turned to face the group of boys gathered around their cars in the parking lot and stared at them until they nervously directed their attention elsewhere. As much as Blair disliked Eddie, she was impressed with his ability to so easily cow the other boys.

"I've seen that car before, or one a lot like it. How many students around here do you think might have a car like that?"

Blair considered Eddie's question. Although most families of students attending Bates and Eastland could afford to give their children expensive cars, few did. Students could easily walk from one school's campus to the other and downtown Peekskill wasn't much farther. Something about Eddie's demeanor alerted Blair that the young sailor's interest wasn't casual.

"I don't know of any other students who drive a red Porsche and I doubt you'll find many Peekskill residents driving one either. Where did you see Harrison?"

"It's nothing, I just thought I might have seen him in town yesterday. A nice car like that is hard to miss."

Eddie stopped talking abruptly; drawing Blair's attention to the fact that Harrison and his friends had caught up with them.

"Hi, Blair. You're looking beautiful today, as always."

"Hello, Harrison. I'm surprised to see you at the game."

Harrison smiled politely.

"Eastland is our sister school. I'm always eager to support both our teams."

Harrison turned his attention to Eddie and extended his hand.

"Hi, I'm Harrison Andrews."

Eddie shook Harrison's hand, but didn't introduce himself. Blair was relieved that Eddie had kept quiet. Even if Harrison didn't associate Eddie's name with Jo, Eddie's accent would certainly identify him as Jo's friend. Blair felt uneasy revealing any information about Jo to Harrison.

"Whatever you say, Harrison, I don't have time to argue with you. My friend and I are late for the game, so we'll be going."

Blair looped her arm through Eddie's and began walking toward the field again. Harrison followed close behind, continuing the conversation.

"If I had known that all it took to turn you on was a uniform, Blair, I'd have joined the ROTC."

"Drop dead, Harrison."

"Where are your manners, Blair? Your low rent roommate must be rubbing off on you. Aren't you even going to introduce your new friend?"

Blair immediately recognized the change in Eddie. She'd seen similar reactions in Jo, just before her girlfriend exploded. Hoping to diffuse the situation, Blair didn't slow her pace as she smiled affectionately at Eddie.

"Ignore him, sweetheart. Our friends are expecting us."

Blair was pleasantly surprised when Eddie's expression didn't reveal a hint of confusion. The young man simply nodded his agreement and kept step with Blair. Blair could hear Harrison mumbling something to his friends, but he didn't continue to follow the couple. When they reached the field, Natalie and Tootie waved at them from the sidelines, pointing to the seats they had set aside for the couple by draping their Eastland blazers over them. Once they were seated, Eddie turned to Blair, his expression unreadable.

"What was that about?"

"I told you. Harrison is a jerk. He only said those things to try to pick a fight with me. Thank you for not letting him bait you into an argument."

Eddie nodded, readjusting his opinion of Jo's roommate. Before the two were able to speak further, the game began and everyone's attention was drawn to the field.

Blair was disappointed to see Margo sitting with Harrison at the game. Blair could only assume that the couple was back together, since Harrison's arm was draped possessively around Margo's shoulders. Reprimanding herself for paying too much attention to Margo, Blair glanced at Eddie. She found it interesting that Eddie shared Jo's habit of continuously scanning his surroundings, always watchful of those around him.

Only a few minutes into the game, it was apparent that the Mount Swain coach was just as aware of Jo's abilities as Eastland's Coach Cooper. Blair frowned as Jo was consistently double-teamed by the best Mount Swain players.

Early in the school year, Blair had enjoyed watching Jo practice with the field hockey team. It had been months, however, since she had watched Jo play. Blair's opinion of Coach Cooper increased considerably as she noted the dramatic improvement in Jo's skills. Jo normally approached all sports, whether it was a team sport like field hockey or an individual sport like motorbike racing, with intensity, passion, and reckless abandon. Blair was startled, however, to see Jo work so well with her teammates. Although Jo set up most of the goal attempts, she was rarely the one to take the shot, consistently passing to another player at the last second.

Everything about Jo's method of playing was more controlled. Jo had always seemed to attract fouls, but now she usually managed to deftly avoid being hit or injured in any way. It had always been a little unsettling for Blair that Jo appeared to enjoy being on the receiving end of an especially aggressive body check as much as she enjoyed giving them. For the first time, Blair saw Jo controlling her impulses, as well as her temper, making her a much better player.

As Blair stared at her girlfriend with renewed interest, she was reminded of the ballet they had attended that winter. Blair had been entranced by Baryshnikov's ability to contain and control his extraordinary strength in order to exact such subtle, graceful movement. 'Graceful,' Blair thought as she marveled at Jo's finesse. One of the reasons Blair had often refrained from watching Jo play was her constant anxiety during the games, worried that Jo would do something reckless and be hurt. She leaned back against the bleachers and relaxed, as confident in Jo's ability to protect herself as in her ability to score.

For the first two quarters of play, Blair simply enjoyed watching Jo move around the field with as much elegance as a dancer. It wasn't until the third quarter, when Eastland led by two goals that the atmosphere changed significantly.

As the intensity of the match increased, the Mount Swain team became more and more aggressive. While Jo's coach normally reproached Jo for over-aggressiveness, she seemed to consider Jo's level of assertiveness appropriate as Jo notched up her physical game to match that of the Mount Swain players.

As the game progressed and the Mount Swain team scored two more goals, Eddie became agitated, often complaining about the abusive treatment being directed toward Jo. Blair was just as aware of the physical toll the game was taking on her girlfriend, but Blair could tell that Jo was enjoying the game. Blair was accustomed to seeing multiple bruises on Jo's shins following tough field hockey matches; Jo's play always improved along with the level of aggression.

Jo was very quick and agile, able to avoid all but the most blatant fouls, but as she attempted to break the tie, Jo's legs were swept from beneath her as the crowd gasped. Although the resilient player rapidly rolled into a standing position, the officials charged the opposing player with a dangerous play infraction, giving Jo an opportunity to hit a penalty stroke. While Blair had watched many heated matches, she had never seen an opposing player behave so recklessly. Eddie cursed when he saw Jo fall. He looked at Blair, enraged.

"Why aren't they stopping the game?"

"Jo will get to take a penalty shot. From Jo's perspective, it's worth taking a cheap shot if it helps her team win."

"That's crazy."

Blair shrugged.

"Not to Jo."

After scoring what would turn out to be the winning goal, Jo waved her hockey stick in the air as the ball passed the goal. Jo chanced the briefest of moments to grin into the stands before returning her focus to preventing the Mount Swain team from scoring another goal in the last few minutes of the game.

"See, she's having fun."

"She'll have bruises all over her legs."

"They don't seem to bother her."

Eddie glared at Blair, shocked by her lack of concern for Jo's injuries.

"I don't think Jo should be involved in a sport like this."

Blair resisted the temptation to encourage Eddie to express his opinion to Jo.

"It's not usually this bad. You saw how fast she is, the other girls usually don't get anywhere near her."

Eddie didn't seem appeased, but it was all Blair had to offer in the way of reassurance. Eddie stood up abruptly, excusing himself as soon as the game was over and the Eastland players began enthusiastically hugging one another.

Jo's eyes found Blair's in the crowd and she waved her hockey stick again, signaling her joy. Blair was shocked, however, when she saw Eddie standing at the edge of the field, trying to elbow his way closer to Jo. While Blair was trying to determine what Eddie hoped to accomplish by pushing his way through the field hockey team, Natalie and Tootie joined her, sitting on the row of seats in front of Blair.

Natalie followed Blair's gaze until her eyes found Jo, still celebrating with her teammates.

"Jo was fantastic, wasn't she?"

"I hope your newspaper article is as exciting as the game."

All three girls turned in unison to stare into the cheerful face of Gail Gallagher. Tootie glanced nervously toward Natalie, still embarrassed at having been caught spying on the popular teacher.

"Um, I'll do my best."

Gail sat down beside Blair and turned her attention to the field. Unaware that Blair had any prior contact with Miss Gallagher, Natalie and Tootie were surprised when the teacher immediately engaged their friend in conversation.

"Now there's something you don't see every day at a sports event between two private girls' schools."

Blair giggled at the teacher's reference to the sailor, standing in the midst of the field hockey team.

"That's Eddie. He's a friend of Jo's."

Tootie instantly corrected Blair.

"He's Jo's boyfriend. They're in love. They were going to get married, but Mrs. Garrett stopped them. Eddie writes Jo love letters and sometimes I get to read them. Don't you think he's handsome? I think he's handsome."

Miss Gallagher raised her hands in surrender as Tootie continued to babble. Once the young girl, who was obviously enamored with the sailor, calmed down, Gail glanced over at Blair.

"Hmm, I don't see it."

Not understanding the comment, Tootie elaborated.

"Eddie's the one wearing the uniform. He's in the navy. Can't you see him?"

Gail chuckled.

"It would be impossible to miss him. I meant that I'm surprised to learn that he is Jo's boyfriend. He doesn't seem to be her type."

Natalie, who was still uncertain about the extent of Miss Gallagher's friendship with Jo, was eager to hear more. Tootie, however, was offended by Miss Gallagher's inability to recognize Eddie's suitability.

"I think he's perfect for Jo. Natalie thinks so, too. Don't you, Natalie?"

Gail could imagine how irritating it must be for Blair to have to listen to her friends speak so glowingly about her competition. Before Natalie could answer, Miss Gallagher interrupted.

"What does Blair think? She's Jo's best friend."

Tootie began to whine.

"Don't ask Blair. She wouldn't like anyone whose name wasn't in the social register."

Blair rolled her eyes and smiled at Miss Gallagher, gratified that at least one other person at Eastland wasn't in awe of Eddie Brennan.

"There's nothing wrong with Eddie, but he's not right for Jo."

Tootie extended her lower lip to pout.

"Any girl would be crazy not to flip over Eddie. He's just like Jo. If he's not Jo's type, what is?"

Gail Gallagher was having fun. She enjoyed challenging people's opinions and she was particularly pleased at the opportunity to support Blair's less popular view of Jo's feelings toward Eddie.

"Well, in a way, Eddie's similar economic background is one of the reasons I wouldn't think of him as Jo's type."

"How do you know Eddie grew up poor? Did Jo tell you about him?

"Hey, I grew up in a neighborhood just as tough as Jo's. Young men like Eddie don't usually join the navy right after completing high school if they have other choices. There's nothing wrong with growing up without the advantages you girls take for granted, sometimes it's an advantage later in life. All I'm saying is that I think someone like Jo would benefit from being with someone very different from herself. Jo doesn't always choose the easy path; she would prefer the more adventurous route, with someone who would always be surprising her. I envision her with someone who would challenge her, intellectually and philosophically. That person would have to have grown up with a different perspective on life. Jo's a very pragmatic, sometimes cynical young woman. If she met someone idealistic, perhaps a creative person, a musician or artist for example, she'd definitely be drawn to them."

Gail couldn't help but feel happy at the delighted look on Blair's face. The smile faded quickly, however, and Gail looked toward the field to discover the reason, realizing that Blair's eyes rarely wavered from Jo. As Eddie lifted Jo in the air and swung her around, Blair's forehead wrinkled for the briefest moment before her mask reappeared.

"See." Tootie exclaimed, thrilled to see Eddie and Jo so happy. "Jo loves Eddie."

Gail studied the couple on the field. Jo didn't giggle and smile when Eddie tossed her around, she seemed awkward. Once her feet were back on the ground, Eddie took Jo's hockey stick, intent on carrying it off the field for her.

'Like Jo can't carry her own hockey stick', thought Blair.

Blair's mouth fell open as Miss Gallagher gave voice to her thoughts.

"Does he really think Jo needs help carrying her hockey stick? Doesn't anyone else see how inappropriate he is for her?"

Seconds later, Blair burst into laughter and was pleased when Miss Gallagher joined her. Tootie was shocked at the teacher's behavior.

"I think it's sweet. Eddie's a real gentleman."

Gail recalled the conversation she'd had with Jo in the library. Jo had tried to explain why she didn't intend to pamper Blair, declaring that Blair deserved better than to be treated like a princess. Gail elbowed Blair in the side and laughed harder.

"He's treating her like a princess."

Blair, who immediately understood Gail's message, doubled over in laughter while Natalie and Tootie exchanged confused glances. Miss Gallagher was still chuckling when she patted Blair on the back and stood to leave.

"It was nice talking with you again, Blair. I hope you'll stop by the house more often next year. I promise I won't quiz you on the books we'll be reading in class."

Blair nodded her head in agreement, understanding why Jo had gravitated toward the easygoing woman. As Miss Gallagher walked away, Natalie lightly punched Blair lightly in the arm.

"Have you been to Miss Gallagher's house?"


"Why didn't you tell us?"

Blair laughed.

"Should I leave you a note every time I go somewhere? What's gotten into you, Nat? I visit Mr. Parker's house all the time. I've even babysat for him a few times. Is it so strange that I've had dinner with Miss Gallagher?"

Natalie was trying to readjust her perception of Miss Gallagher. She had thought of Gail as Jo's friend, never considering that Blair and the lively teacher might also be acquainted.

"When did you have dinner with Miss Gallagher?"

"It's not a big deal, Natalie. We had dinner when Miss Gallagher and I helped Mrs. Muldoon sort books in the library. I'd have invited you if I'd known you were so interested."

Tootie glared at Natalie.

"You are the worst investigative reporter in the world. You couldn't have been more wrong about Miss Gallagher."

Blair was confused by the comment.

"What about Miss Gallagher?"

"Uh, Jo didn't tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

Natalie shoved Tootie, shutting her up, but Blair wouldn't be diverted.

"Tootie, tell me what you know."

"Uh, Natalie had this crazy idea that Miss Gallagher was Jo's girlfriend so we followed Miss Gallagher around one day, but she must have seen us because she told Mrs. Garrett and now Natalie and I are in trouble and we have to work extra shifts in the cafeteria and we're not allowed to snoop anymore."

After speaking, Tootie took a deep breath, ready to begin again, but stopped when Blair's laughter echoed across the entire hockey field. Barely able to speak in the midst of her fit of laughter, Blair managed one question.

"Jo knows?"

As Tootie and Natalie nodded, Blair laughed hysterically, imagining the look on Jo's face when she discovered her friend's ludicrous assumption.

Blair was a little disappointed that Jo wasn't able to sit beside her on the bus ride home from Mount Swain. Jo's teammates kept shuffling the hero athlete from one row of seats to the other, each of them taking time to congratulate Jo on the winning goal. It was only when Jo found herself sitting next to Cindy that Blair resented her placement beside Mrs. Garrett. She didn't begrudge Jo the accolades, but she'd never again feel comfortable seeing Jo near Cindy. Cindy also seemed to feel the tension, smiling shyly at Jo, but saying very little to the game's most valuable player. Blair had to admit to herself, however, that she admired Cindy's ability to put away her emotions during the game. The teamwork between Cindy and Jo was one of the most important components of Coach Cooper's strategy.

Blair released a sigh of relief when the bus rolled into the Eastland parking lot. Hearing the spirited blonde exhale, Mrs. Garrett became concerned.

"How are you feeling, Blair? I'm not sure you should have spent so much time on that ankle, you look exhausted."

Blair self-consciously ran her fingers through her hair.

"I do? Do you have a mirror?"

Mrs. Garrett laughed. If Blair was that concerned about her appearance, her ankle couldn't be causing her any serious discomfort.

"You look as beautiful as ever, Blair. You seem a little tired. I'm not surprised after you spent so much time last night out in the rain."

"I feel fine, really. I'm just glad to be home."

Edna's eyes softened at Blair's reference to Eastland as her home. She'd often heard the heiress, whose family had houses, villas, plantations, ranches, and penthouse apartments all over the globe, refer to Eastland as her home. She wondered how Blair's parents could be so blind to their daughter's need for consistency, but Edna was more than happy to bring some stability to the affectionate girl's life.

After they exited the bus, Jo left with the team for a final meeting before they would join the rest of the student body in the student center to celebrate their victory. Once again, Blair had to settle for a smile from Jo, unable to actually share a word with her girlfriend.

The celebration in the student center was much like the ride home from the game. Jo was the star of the hour and everyone seemed to be competing for her time. Blair tried to limit her glances toward Jo, but it became more difficult as the evening progressed.

"It must be a drag to have to stand on the sidelines and watch your girlfriend get all the attention."

Blair rolled her eyes at Margo's observation.

"She deserves the attention. She played a great game today."

Margo sighed.

"That's true. She's a great athlete. I guess you'd know that better than most."

Blair fixed Margo with her gaze.

"Yes. I would."

"Whoa! I'll bet you've been dying to admit that to someone, even if it has to be me."

"You and Harrison were acting very cozy during the game."

Margo frowned.

"Harrison's not easy to refuse."

As it had the previous day, the inflection in Margo's voice when she spoke of Harrison concerned Blair.

"Margo, you don't have to be with anyone you don't want to be with."

"Is that why you spent the day with the sailor?"

"Margo, if you can't play nice, find someone else to play with."

Margo shifted nervously.

"I was only teasing. I didn't realize you were so sensitive. I'll stop, okay?"

"I guess I'm not as happy on the sidelines as I'd like to think."

"I think you're doing remarkably well."

"That shows what you know."

"I mean it. You're doing great. She's having more trouble than you are, you know."


"She can't keep her eyes off of you, Warner. It's kind of sexy, the way she undresses you with her eyes."

"You're imagining things."

"No, I'm just the only one paying attention. Everyone else is too busy trying to get her to notice them to notice that she only has eyes for you."

"Don't tease me, Margo."

"I'm not. If you would allow yourself to look at her, you'd see her shooting daggers at me right now."

Blair glanced toward Jo and confirmed that she was glaring at Margo.

"See. She's surrounded by admirers, but all she can think about is that you're talking to me."

"Are you talking with me just to irritate Jo?"

"No. If I wanted to irritate her, I'd be sitting much closer to you. Honestly, I'm beginning to see some advantages to having a lesbian couple as friends. I love intrigue and secrecy. I like being the only one to know about the two of you. I am the only one, right?"



Blair only talked with Margo for a short time before circulating with other students at the party. She knew how upsetting it was for Jo to see her with Margo and planned to try to better explain her friendship with Margo once she and Jo were alone again.

As the party failed to wind down late into the night, Blair readily agreed to leave when Natalie and Tootie asked if she wanted to walk back to the cafeteria with them. Since she hadn't spoken to Jo since the game started, Blair didn't think it would seem odd if she pulled Jo away to congratulate her before leaving the party.



"You were wonderful today. I was amazed at how much better you've gotten."

"Coach Cooper is very good. I've learned a lot. This party is kind of weird, isn't it? I don't know why everyone is treating me like some sort of celebrity. It makes me very uncomfortable."

"Aren't you having a good time?"

"Not really. All I can think about is that we only have one more week together and that I'm wasting this whole weekend on a stupid game instead of spending it with you."

"The game wasn't stupid, Jo. Winning that game meant a lot to everyone, including you."

"I know. I guess I didn't realize . . . I mean, it would have meant a lot more if you were standing with me when people congratulated me."

Blair beamed, no longer feeling tired.

"That's really nice of you to say, Jo."

"I mean it."

"I know, that's why it's so nice to hear you say it. Listen, I'm going to leave with Natalie and Tootie, but you should stay and have a good time. Wake me up when you get home and we'll go down to the lounge to . . . talk."

"You don't have to leave, Blair."

"I'm a little tired. It's been a great day, but I guess all the drama from yesterday is catching up with me."

Jo didn't want Blair to leave. Hopes of catching Blair's eye or getting a moment alone with her were the only things getting Jo through the party, but she knew it wasn't fair to have Blair stand around all night just because Jo didn't want to be alone.

"Are you sure you want me to wake you up? We can talk tomorrow."

"I'm sure. I want to see you tonight."

By the time Jo returned to their room, it was well past the curfew Jo had used as an excuse not to go out with Eddie that night. She checked Natalie and Tootie, making sure they were sleeping soundly before sitting on the edge of Blair's bed. Blair's ankle was much better, but Mrs. Garrett had insisted that Blair continue to keep it elevated at night. Jo ran her fingers across Blair's foot and cringed when Blair's giggles erupted, waking both Natalie and Tootie.

"What's so funny that you had to wake me up in the middle of the night, Blair?"

Blair was half asleep as she mumbled an apology to Natalie, feeling miserable for having awakened her younger roommates.

"I'm sorry, Natalie. Would you like for me to bring you a snack from the kitchen?"

"No, I'd like for you to shut up so that I can go back to sleep."

Blair pulled a robe over her nightgown and led the way as she and Jo walked down to the lounge. As soon as they were alone, Jo pushed her sleepy girlfriend onto the sofa and fell on top of her.

"I've wanted to do this all day."

"I've wanted you to do this all day. You can't imagine how sexy you looked when you scored the winning goal."

Jo stopped kissing Blair long enough to remove a charm from her pocket.

"I have something for you. They gave me this at our team meeting. It's a charm. You can wear it on your bracelet this summer."

Jo handed the charm, shaped like a ball and hockey stick with the letters MVP engraved on it, to Blair.

"Jo, I can't take this. It's too special."

"I want you to have it, Blair. I don't wear bracelets, so I don't have anything to hang it from anyway. Besides, I want you to have something to remind you of me this summer, like the keychain you gave me."

Blair took the charm and attached it to her bracelet.

"It's beautiful, Jo. Thank you."

Jo pressed her face to Blair's neck, sleepily nuzzling her girlfriend.

"You're so tired, Jo. It's okay if you go to sleep. I'll wake you up before morning."

"Aren't you sleepy?"

"I've been asleep for hours. It's your turn. I like holding you while you sleep."

"I like sleeping in your arms."

Blair held Jo close to her, running her fingers up and down Jo's arm.

"I love you, Jo."

Blair smiled as she listened to the steady breathing of her sleeping girlfriend. Jo was the most admired student at Eastland that night and Blair's heart pounded with excitement as she continued to caress Jo's arms, occasionally kissing Jo on the forehead as she slept.

Eddie stopped by the next day only long enough to see Tootie's incomplete science project and say farewell to Jo. Blair motioned for Tootie and Natalie to leave the room with her so that the couple could have a private moment to say goodbye, but Jo stopped them, reminding everyone that Eddie could only stay for a few minutes.

The following week of classes passed quickly for Jo and Blair. Neither of them looked forward to their summer, making it even more difficult to listen to Tootie and Natalie talk excitedly about their upcoming trip to Buffalo. When exams were over and as Tootie and Natalie prepared to leave for Buffalo, the awkward silences that had begun to infiltrate the conversations between Jo and Blair became more pronounced.

When the last class was over, the girls tried to show some enthusiasm for the benefit of their roommates. The girls gathered in the lounge to say their farewells. As Jo sat on the armrest of Blair's chair, Blair rolled her eyes and made a face at Jo behind Tootie's back. The youngest roommate had been talking nonstop about her cousin Sylvia and her husband Brian for the last several weeks. Tootie and Natalie had been planning their trip to visit the couple for months and were brimming with excitement as their day of departure finally arrived.

"I thought you had them."

"I thought you had them."

Jo smiled at Blair as they listened to Natalie and Tootie argue over who was supposed to have their bus tickets. Mrs. Garrett was getting aggravated with the two young girls, who seemed more unorganized than usual.

"Well, they couldn't have just gotten up and walked away."

Jo found the situation amusing, cracking a joke that only Blair would fully appreciate.

"It's gonna be tough getting to Buffalo without bus tickets . . . unless you plan to travel piggyback on Superman."

Blair leaned more toward Jo, enjoying the warmth of Jo's arm pressed against hers.

"I don't understand why you didn't just hire a private limousine."

Natalie found it amazing that Blair could be so sensitive to Jo's financial situation and remain clueless that any of her other roommates might also lack the funds to live the extravagant lifestyle Blair often took for granted.

"Because we're cash poor at the moment. All our money is tied up in survival."

Tootie finally found their bus tickets and everyone started saying their goodbyes. The next several minutes were spent sharing hugs.

"OK, Tootie. Are you and Natalie all set to go to your cousin's?"

"We sure are. Bye, Jo. Bye, Blair."

"Bye, Tootie."

"Bye, Kid."

"See you guys in the fall."

"You, too, Nat."

Once the trio left, Jo and Blair went up to their bedroom to change out of their uniforms. Only seconds after the girls entered their room, Mrs. Garrett came rushing in to the room a little breathless, leaving Blair to wonder what had upset the normally unflappable woman.

"Jo, Blair, I'm sorry but after I drop Tootie and Natalie off at the bus station, I have to leave right away to visit my sister. I heard the phone ringing the moment we stepped out the door. My sister just called and told me that she broke her foot last night and can't do anything for herself. I hate to miss your last night here, Jo, but this can't be helped."

"No problem, Mrs. G. Is there anything I need to do around here for you before I leave tomorrow?"

"It's kind of you to offer, Jo, but I'll be back late tomorrow so that Blair won't have to stay here alone on her last night."

"Don't forget that I'm leaving my toolbox in the basement."

"I won't. Don't worry, Jo, it will be fine down there. Oh, I am going to miss all of you girls!"

Mrs. Garrett gave Jo a quick hug and ran to her car, not wanting to be late for Natalie and Tootie's bus. The room took on a sudden stillness after Mrs. Garrett left. Jo looked shyly over at Blair, her grin growing into a broad smile.

"It looks like it's just the two of us tonight."

"It's the first time we've ever had the house to ourselves for an entire night. How do you think we should spend our time?"

Jo shrugged.

"Have you finished packing?"

"Yes, have you?"

"Yeah. I need to change the oil in my bike, but other than that I'm free as a bird all night."

"Want to go into town?"


"Want to go up to Cooper's Rock?"


Blair got up from the desk where she had been addressing some postcards and sat on the edge of Jo's bed.

"Want to play Scrabble?"

Blair's pinky finger tickled the side of Jo's hand as she waited for Jo's answer.


Blair's hand reached out for Jo's cheek as much from habit as a planned action. Jo turned her face into Blair's hand, showering gentle kisses on her palm.

"I miss you already, Jo."

"Ha. You're going to have a great time in Paris. You'll forget all about me when those French guys start chasing after you."

"Don't say things like that, Jo."

Jo turned away, embarrassed by how sad she felt, but Blair continued to gently stroke Jo's cheek. Seeing the depth of Jo's emotions, Blair ceased to use words to communicate how much she would miss Jo. She pushed her girlfriend back onto the bed and crawled on top of her, giggling as Jo squirmed to get in a more comfortable position.

The intensity of the kiss took Jo by surprise. It held a hint of desperation similar to way Blair had kissed her the night Eddie proposed. Blair shifted onto her side, pulling Jo's shoulders until the athlete was on top of her.

Jo broke the kiss and grinned at Blair.

"You like it better when I'm on top, don't ya?"

"I'd like kissing you while hanging upside down from the rafters, Jo, but I look better from this angle."

"Huh? What does that have to do with anything?"

"I want to look my best when I'm with you."

"How do you know what angle you look best from?"

"Because, silly. I took a mirror and looked down into it and then I looked up into it. I look better looking up."

Jo chuckled, breaking some of the tension between them. Jo was constantly surprised by the degree of Blair's vanity.

"You are a funny girl, do you know that?"

"I'll show you funny."

Blair reached down Jo's body and tickled Jo gingerly before pressing her lips to Jo's. As soon as she did it, Blair regretted the playful impulse. She was much more ticklish than Jo and Jo had taken great pains to identify Blair's most sensitive areas. After several minutes of pleading with Jo to stop, the more skillful tickler took mercy on her victim and relented.

The girls were much more relaxed after the tickle fight, both breathing deeply as a few remaining bursts of laughter bubbled forth unexpectedly. They lay on the bed for the next hour, innocently kissing one another and gazing into each other's eyes. Their anxiety about parting the next day lessened significantly by the knowledge that they would be able to spend the entire night together.

"I, uh, need to make a quick trip into town to pick up some oil for my bike. I'll be back in just a few minutes. Okay?"

"I'll make dinner for us while you're gone. Take your time."

Jo wasn't thrilled with Blair's suggestion that she take her time, but she didn't complain because she knew it might take longer than expected for her to pick up all the things she wanted from town.

Jo didn't leave immediately, unable to convince her body to leave the warm embrace of her girlfriend. Jo didn't want Blair to think that she was automatically assuming that she and Blair would be sleeping together simply because they had the house to themselves, but if the night went according to Jo's plan, she'd once again fall asleep to the gentle sound of Blair's heartbeat.

While Jo was in town, Blair took on the task of preparing dinner. She wasn't nearly as good as Mrs. Garrett, but she hadn't worked in the cafeteria for an entire year without picking up a few cooking skills. Luckily for Blair, Jo's favorite meal wasn't a difficult one to prepare. Although her spaghetti wouldn't compare to the Italian version her uncle made, it was something Blair wasn't likely to botch.

The heiress didn't think Mrs. Garrett would mind if they used the fine china from the cabinet in Mrs. Garrett's personal dining room, so she gathered the china and silverware she needed and returned to the kitchen. As she was walking through the cafeteria, Blair didn't think the brightly lit room provided the proper atmosphere for such an intimate dinner, so she slid one of the tables into the lounge and covered it with Mrs. Garrett's lace dining cloth.

Blair had to rummage through the basement to find candles, but it was worth the effort when she found a perfect set. Glancing at her watch, she calculated that Jo should be arriving at about the same time the spaghetti would be ready.

Hearing Jo's motorcycle enter the driveway, Blair quickly dimmed the overhead lights and lit the candles. Jo tucked her packages under her arm, feeling silly about her purchases until she entered the lounge to find Blair smiling expectantly, her beauty amplified by the candlelight.

"What's this? Are we expecting important guests?"

Blair ignored Jo's joke and motioned for her to sit at the table.

"Dinner should be ready in a minute."

Jo started to rise.

"I'll help."

"No. I have everything under control."

Jo smiled as she sat back in her chair and waited, touched by Blair's efforts to make their last night together special. She could smell the spaghetti cooking and was impressed that Blair was making her favorite meal.

'How could anyone screw up spaghetti?' Jo thought as she asked for a second helping of the limp noodles, swimming in what Jo suspected was supposed to be tomato sauce. Jo felt that Blair's smile was worth any future indigestion as she ladled an additional portion onto Jo's plate.

After filling Jo's plate dish, Blair regained her girlfriend's hand. Blair had held Jo's hand throughout the meal, gazing into her eyes, watching the candlelight flicker within Jo's emerald eyes. Jo had a little trouble getting the spaghetti onto her fork using only her left hand, but she somehow managed to clean her plate twice, thrilling Blair.

At the conclusion of their meal, Jo leaned forward and kissed Blair, barely moving her lips as she rested them against Blair's.

"Dinner was wonderful, Blair. Thank you."

"I'm glad you liked it. I made a bit of a mess in the kitchen, but it was worth it, don't you think?"

"Yeah. I'll help you clean up the kitchen."

"No, you need to change the oil in your bike. I'll clean up the kitchen. Let's leave the table where it is for a while so we can have dessert later."

"You made dessert?"

"Uh, ice cream."

Jo hoped her smile didn't convey her relief that Blair hadn't actually attempted to prepare dessert.

"That sounds great."

Blair replaced their dinner plates with dessert bowls before going to the kitchen to clean up her mess. When she returned to the lounge, Jo hadn't yet returned from the garage, so Blair went up to their bedroom to make sure she had packed all the things she'd need for her trip to Paris.

Blair looked around the room at all the trunks holding her many possessions, and then at the stuffed duffel bag at the foot of Jo's bed. Blair had packed most of her things into trunks that would be delivered to her mother's apartment in New York. The rest of her things were packed in the luggage she was taking with her to Paris.

Blair walked over to Jo's duffel bag and lifted it, gauging its weight. She couldn't understand how anyone could survive with so little clothing. Blair would ride to the airport in a limousine while Jo would drive home on her motorcycle. Their differences didn't escape the affluent blonde.

Everything Jo owned was in her duffel bag, except for the toolbox Mrs. Garrett was allowing Jo to leave in her care over the summer. Blair knew it was ridiculous for her to question Jo's return to Eastland, but she found a great deal of comfort in knowing that Jo's most prized possession would remain in Mrs. Garrett's basement for the summer.

Blair tried not to worry about how things would be for Jo when she returned to the Bronx. She knew Jo wouldn't appreciate that type of concern. Blair still hadn't completely absorbed all that Jo had shared with her about the abusive men in her mother's life. She couldn't imagine having to deal with some of the volatile situations Jo had encountered from a very young age. 'Her life at Eastland must be so different from her life back home.'

Jo had told Blair that her mother had broken off her relationship with Jack and Blair hoped that Jo's mother would refrain from getting involved with anyone else while Jo was still in the apartment.

Blair's concerns weren't limited to the possibility that Jo might find herself forced once again to defend her mother from an abusive boyfriend. Jo once explained how difficult it was for a gang member to cut ties with a gang and Blair worried about how Jo's former gang would react to the prep school student when she returned to the Bronx. As much as she and her roommates joked about Jo's former gang, Blair knew that the Young Diablos were dangerous and that Jo could easily get hurt if she didn't deal with the gang carefully.

Even Jo's other friends might resent Jo's acceptance at Eastland. Jo was unaware that her thick Bronx accent had softened, but Blair knew her old friends would pick up on the change immediately. Jo's tough exterior had also softened, causing Blair to fear that it might make her girlfriend more vulnerable in her old neighborhood.

Blair also had to think about Eddie. Although Jo had reassured her that Eddie wouldn't come between them, he'd have three months to spring more surprise visits on Jo while Blair was in Paris. Blair's thoughts were interrupted when Jo returned to the room.

"Damn rotten wrench!"

Jo threw the offending object into her toolbox, then gently retrieved it and started rubbing it with a cloth.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. This wrench is kind of old and warped and the socket keeps slipping off of the nut. I should have been finished a long time ago, but this stupid thing won't cooperate."

Blair's initial response was to ask Jo why she didn't just replace the damaged wrench, but she'd learned to censor her comments to accommodate Jo's financial state.

"I guess those tools are kind of expensive."

"Good ones are expensive, mine are second hand. I can't afford a new wrench, but I'm saving up for some new sockets, I'm missing several sizes."

Blair looked down into Jo's toolbox.

"Those little round things?"

"Yeah, they fit on the end of the wrench. Bolts and nuts aren't all the same size, so you have to adjust your wrench to fit each type."

Jo took her hammer and started banging on one of the little round things.

"Why are you doing that?"

Jo sighed, but answered patiently.

"Because my wrench is warped. I have to bend this so that it'll fit better."

"Won't that damage the . . . round thingie?"

Jo smiled.

"Yes, it will damage the round thingie, but I don't have a choice if I want it to stop slipping off of the end of my wrench."

Jo spent the next several minutes working with her tools and then left to finish changing the oil in her bike.

While Jo was gone, Blair walked over to the toolbox and looked inside. Jo was fanatical about her privacy and nothing was more private than her toolbox. Blair was honored that Jo offered to let Blair keep the letters Jo had given to her in the toolbox, giving Blair permission to open it any time she liked. It was a major concession from Jo and Blair didn't take it for granted.

The only thing Blair had ever seen inside the box, other than the letters she stored there, was Jo's tools. Blair reached in and retrieved a shiny silver tool, uncertain as to what it was or how it was used. She noticed how clean all of the tools were. Blair knew that Jo would return to the room covered in grease, but her tools were always sparkling clean.

As Blair returned the tool to the box, she noticed an envelope folded in the bottom of the box. The envelope hadn't been there before, so Blair knew it must be something Jo intended to keep safe for the summer. She retrieved the envelope and opened it. The first thing she saw was the official letter notifying Jo that she had won "Best New Student". Blair knew that Jo had given the certificate to Charlie the night of the awards presentation. The second was one of the smaller motorcycle drawings Blair had given Jo. The small drawing had remained on the wall near Jo's bed all year and now it had been placed among her most valued possessions. Blair smiled as she withdrew the last items from the envelope, Jo's invitation to the antique auto show and one of the business cards Blair had created. Blair put everything back as she had found it, treating Jo's valuables with the respect they deserved.

Seeing Natalie and Tootie's beds stripped of their linens, Blair was reminded of the privacy she and Jo would share that night. She was a little nervous about spending the night in the house alone with Jo. No one would be home to interrupt them if they got carried away.

Blair had always been the one to monitor their level of physical contact, but she struggled to balance her desire to protect the fragile dynamic she and Jo had worked so hard to establish and her desire for more intimacy with Jo. Blair was still lost in her thoughts when she heard Jo calling from downstairs.

"Hey, Blair! Can you come down to the lounge for a minute?"

Blair descended the stairs, curious as to what Jo wanted to show her. As she entered the lounge, her heart soared. Jo had surrounded the room with candles and was waiting by the stereo.

"Jo, what have you done?"

"Shhh. Listen."

Jo placed the needle on the new Frank Sinatra record she had purchased and Blair immediately recognized the first strands of "It Had To Be You". Jo reached for Blair's hands and pulled Blair into a dance.

"Do you remember?"

"Of course I remember our first dance. This is the song that was playing on the radio that night. Jo, this is so romantic. Thank you."

Blair loved it when Jo's smile reached her eyes; nothing was brighter than Jo's face when it was engulfed in a huge smile. Jo had been afraid that Blair might think it was sappy of her to buy the record and she hadn't decided whether or not to use the candles she'd impulsively purchased until she'd seen the romantic table Blair had set for their dinner.

Jo sang along with Frank as she allowed Blair to take the lead and guide her through the dance.

Some others I've seen, 
Might never be mean
Might never be cross, 
Or try to be boss
But they wouldn't do

For nobody else, gave me a thrill 
With all your faults,
I Love you still

It had to be you, wonderful you
It had to be you

Jo had set the stereo to repeat the song and the two girls continued to dance, neither forgetting that it would be months before they would be able to see one another again. After spending the last several choruses gazing into Blair's eyes, swaying only slightly to the music, Jo leaned forward to kiss Blair's eager lips.

Blair felt her heart breaking as she thought of leaving Jo the following day.

"Joey, let's go upstairs. I need . . ."

"Shhh. I know. I want that, too, one day."

Blair kissed Jo again, this time communicating more than her words had expressed. When Jo broke the kiss to pull Blair into a fierce hug, Blair tried again.

"Why not now? I love you, Joey. Don't you . . ."

"It's because I love you, Blair. Can't you see that? That's why I can wait until you're ready."

Blair was kissing Jo's neck the entire time Jo was talking, making it all the more difficult for Jo to cool things down between them.

"I'm ready now, Jo. I am."

Jo looked into the most trusting face she'd ever seen, but she saw a hint of anxiety that Blair couldn't hide. Unable to tell if what she'd seen was simply nerves or uncertainty, Jo didn't pull away from Blair when the eager blonde resumed her exploration of Jo's neck.

The intensity of the situation only amplified the desire for increased intimacy as Jo's resolve began to melt under Blair's assault. The rhythm of the music, the soft glow of candlelight, the warmth emanating from Blair's body, and the wet trail of tender kisses combined to produce a longing Jo couldn't deny. The setting was perfect.

When Blair began tugging at Jo's shirt, which was tucked into the waistband of her jeans, Jo abandoned all pretense of dancing and moved Blair toward the sofa. Blair held tightly to Jo's back as the stronger girl lowered them onto the sofa, never losing contact with Blair's lips. As the kiss intensified, Jo sank deeper into Blair's body, trembling as Blair's fingernails softly glided across her back, causing her skin to tingle everywhere Blair's fingers touched.

Jo appreciated Blair's preference for wearing skirts when her fingers connected with bare skin as she began caressing Blair's outer thigh. Blair's fingers clenched briefly at the initial contact, sinking her nails deeper into Jo's back for only a moment before lessening her grip and resuming her tender exploration.

Jo leaned back and gazed deeply into Blair's eyes.

"Are you nervous?"

"A little."

"I love you, Blair."

Blair offered Jo a tremulous smile.

"You'd better."

Jo's kiss was as soft as a whisper against Blair's ear.

"I do."

Blair's arms were warm and receptive. Her sighs deep and filled with desire. Everything was exactly the way Jo had always dreamed it could be . . . until the soft music was interrupted by the grating sound of the doorbell.

Jo swallowed hard and captured Blair's eyes.

"I'll get rid of 'em."

Blair smiled and kissed Jo again, until the bell continued to ring.

"Hello, is someone there?"

As an unfamiliar voice invaded the tender atmosphere, Jo felt Blair's body tense immediately. When she looked into Blair's eyes, she saw something resembling terror. Jo tightened her grip on her girlfriend reassuringly, confused by Blair's level of distress until her girlfriend responded to the intruder.

"I'm coming, Mother."

Blair pushed Jo off of her and began adjusting her blouse and nervously smoothing her skirt. Lowering her head, Blair whispered.

"I can't believe this is happening to me again. I can't bear it."

Jo ignored her own rumpled appearance, helping Blair straighten her clothing.

"It's not going to be like that other time, Blair. You're with me now. This time is different. Your mother hasn't seen anything and even if she had, I'm not going to let anyone make you feel bad about loving me. I promise."

Jo was trying to quell the butterflies in her own stomach, but she was almost as tense as Blair. She surveyed the room and began blowing out the candles. After the candles were extinguished, Jo turned off the music while Blair switched on the overhead lights and took a deep breath.

"It's okay, Jo. You're right. It's different this time. I'm ready. Um, are you okay with this? You can leave if . . ."

"Give me a break. You're not getting rid of me that easily."

Blair braced herself before opening the door.

"Blair, darling. I've been waiting outside this door forever."

"I'm sorry, Mother. I didn't expect to see you here. I thought you were flying into town tomorrow and that our flight wasn't until the following day."

"I was, dear, but I persuaded Pablo to let us use his private jet. We can leave for Paris tonight. I started to send a car for you, but then I decided that it might be nice to visit with Mrs. Garrett for a bit and check up on you."


"Haven't I mentioned him? I met him at one of the spring fashion shows. He's a designer. I'm wearing one of his originals, do you like it?"

Jo watched in stunned amazement as Blair's mother twirled and tossed her hair, her mannerisms so much like Blair's.

"It's lovely."

Once she was inside the lounge, Monica's eyes briefly took in her surroundings and then settled on Jo, standing behind her daughter. The look Jo received was a familiar one. Jo had seen Blair inflict it upon those she truly disliked. Monica's scrutiny was far more subtle than Blair's, but the intended effect was the same. Jo felt as if she had been expertly appraised and found thoroughly lacking, just as Monica intended.

Jo, however, was not an insecure debutante. She was not a pampered princess who would quake under anyone's visual scrutiny. Jo squared her shoulders and ever so slightly, yet defiantly, raised her chin.

"Mother, this is my best friend, Jo."

Monica's eyes continued to shift up and down's Jo's body, examining her. Jo couldn't help but feel uncomfortable, but she was doing a fair job of covering it up. After several uncomfortably long seconds, Monica glanced around the room again. Without acknowledging Jo's presence, she turned her attention back to her daughter.

"Blair, sweetheart, where is Mrs. Garrett?"

"Her sister injured her foot and Mrs. Garrett has gone to stay with her."

"What about your other roommates, Natalie and Dorothy?"

"They're visiting Tootie's aunt in Buffalo."

"I see."

Blair was as tense as Jo had ever seen her, so it surprised Jo when Blair once again drew her mother's attention to Jo, determined not to allow her mother to ignore her friend.

"Jo, this is my mother, Monica."

"Hi. Nice to meet you, Mrs.—", it wasn't until then that Jo realized she didn't know Blair's mother's last name. Monica didn't say anything, happy to let Jo squirm.

"Mother prefers that my friends call her Monica."

"I prefer that you call me Monica as well, darling, but my preferences don't seem to make any difference to you."

"Aren't you going to say hello to Jo, Mother?"

Blair placed a shaky hand on Jo's back, steadying herself. At Blair's trembling touch, Jo's resolve intensified. She would not allow Blair to go through another scene like the one she endured the first time her mother had caught her kissing another girl.

Once again ignoring Jo, Monica turned back to her daughter.

"Jo can't possibly be her real name. Is it a nickname?"

"Ever read 'Little Women', Mother? Jo is a perfectly acceptable name. It's quite wonderful, actually, a strong name for strong women."

Monica moved toward Blair and Jo instinctively placed herself between the two. For the first time during their conversation, Monica appeared confused. Blair's friend was reacting as if she expected Monica to strike her daughter. 'Damn Justin Branch', Monica thought. If he hadn't plied her with a second glass of wine, she never would have allowed him to kiss her while on Eastland's campus. If he hadn't followed up by insisting that she join him for a third glass, she would have never lost control of her temper and slapped her daughter in front of her classmates. It was the first and last time she had ever struck Blair, but many of Blair's classmates had witnessed it and Monica had no doubt that Blair's new friend had been told about the incident.

Blair was as confused by Jo's behavior as her mother. Blair had never told Jo about what happened on Parents' Night the year before Jo arrived at Eastland and Jo had never questioned her about it.

"My daughter doesn't need to be protected from her mother, young lady."

"That ain't what I heard."

Jo's voice took on a quality even rougher than her normally gruff tone while every muscle in her body was coiled and ready to pounce. Blair had seen the body language before and placed a calming hand on Jo's shoulder.

"It's okay, Jo. Mother isn't upset with me."

"Why would your friend think I was upset with you, darling?"

"Her name is Jo. I'd appreciate it if you used it."

Monica's features revealed her shock, but she masked it almost immediately. She couldn't believe her daughter was openly challenging her.

"Of course, darling."

Monica looked directly at Jo, who was still standing between Monica and her daughter, and politely extended her hand.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Jo."

Jo's reply was curt, but she accepted Monica's handshake.


After releasing Jo's hand, Monica reached past the defensive brunette and drew her daughter into a hug.

"It's been too long between visits, Blair. I wish we'd had more time to talk in Monte Carlo, but you know how hectic it was for me."

"Yes, Mother."

Monica pulled Blair toward the sofa and they sat down beside one another.

"I know it's short notice, dear, but do you think you can get all your things packed within the hour? I can visit with your friend while you pack."

Monica was sitting near the end of the sofa and Blair was sitting in the middle. Jo surprised both of them by choosing to sit in the small space between Monica and the arm of the sofa instead of taking the larger space beside Blair. Once she was seated, Jo stretched out her legs in front of her and leaned back in what she hoped appeared a relaxed and confident posture.

"That sounds like a great idea, Blair. You go pack your things while Monica and I get to know one another a little better."

Jo smiled sweetly at Monica, but her eyes were narrowed in what could only be interpreted as a threatening glare. Suddenly, Monica wasn't certain that she wanted to be left alone with the abrasive young woman. She had planned on firmly putting the girl in her place once Blair left the room, but Monica had not anticipated the impact of the intense young woman's physical proximity.

Blair was proud of Jo, but didn't want Jo and her mother to get into a confrontation. Jo watched the subtle change in Blair's expression, knowing what it meant, but unable to believe that she was correctly interpreting what she saw.

Blair's voice was a little too loud for their intimate surroundings, but she was convinced that her words might be drowned out by the pounding of her heart if she didn't speak clearly.

"Jo, would you help me gather the candles? I don't want any wax getting on Mrs. Garrett's furniture."

Monica was surprised that Blair would bring attention to the candles and mistakenly interpreted the comment as an error brought on by a case of nerves. Jo wasn't surprised, she was shocked, not realizing that Blair was only acknowledging what she knew her perceptive mother would have already noticed. Jo got to her feet immediately and began gathering candles, but Blair remained on the sofa with her mother.

"This is quite a romantic setting, Blair. I'm tempted to check the closet, to see if you have a boyfriend stashed in there."

Monica expected Blair to blush and stammer, as she had done when Monica and Meagan's father had walked in on the two girls kissing, so she was totally surprised by Blair's reaction.

Blair sensed that her mother had selected her phrasing purposefully to accentuate Blair's embarrassment, but Monica had underestimated her daughter. Blair offered Jo a fleeting smile, noting that Jo was still awkwardly holding an armful of candles. 'I hope Jo loves me as much as I think she does,' thought Blair as she plunged forward.

"Jo doesn't belong in a closet, Mother."

Jo was stunned. She turned and gaped at Blair until remembering that Blair's mother might still be watching her. Monica was more than stunned, she was livid. She prided herself on maintaining her poise, but like her daughter, she had a temper that often couldn't be quelled.

"Doesn't she? She should be accustomed to confined spaces, given her tendency to steal things."

Jo squelched her temper, wanting to spare Blair as much drama as possible. Jo knew that Blair loved her, but she had never been able to suppress the feeling that Blair would be embarrassed to introduce Jo as her girlfriend, as much because of Jo's social status as her gender. Instead of escalating the confrontation, Jo placed the candles on a table and went to stand near Blair.

"Don't do this, Mother."

Monica swiftly turned her anger toward Jo.

"Am I wrong? Weren't you the one who stole the cafeteria van?"

Once again, Jo held her temper. Blair was the one to respond to her mother's accusation.

"WE borrowed it. Don't forget that I was with Jo that night."

"How could I? I had to practically beg Mr. Parker to allow the four of you to remain at Eastland under Mrs. Garrett's careful watch, which isn't nearly as careful as I had expected."

Jo spoke softly, not wanting to fuel Monica's anger, but unwilling to have Blair defend her.

"Stealing the van was my idea. Blair had nothing to do with it. I made a mistake, but I don't do that sort of thing anymore."

Monica smirked and Blair recognized it as a sign that she was about to level a deadly blow. Blair tried to deflect her mother's ire toward herself, but was too late.

"Should I assume that you've graduated to stealing from warehouses, like your father?"

Jo's fists clenched at her sides as she stepped forward and Blair leapt from the sofa, placing her hands on both of Jo's shoulders, silently begging her girlfriend to back off. Jo was furious, but she couldn't add to the hurt in Blair's eyes, so she stepped back.

Blair kept her gaze fixed on Jo, unable to look at her mother.

"Jo, could you please give me a few minutes alone with Mother?"

Jo shook her head.

"I'm sorry, Blair. I'll do anything else you ask, but I won't leave you."

"Jo, please."

Jo's eyes began to glitter, but she didn't move. As each secret from her childhood had come to light this year, Jo had been amazed at Blair's willingness to overlook Jo's background. She wasn't about to leave Blair alone to defend Jo's entire family.

"I'm not running away anymore, Blair."

Blair smiled, tears forming her eyes.

"You don't have to prove anything to me, Jo."

For the first time, Blair's assumption that she could protect Jo didn't seem silly or irritating, it seemed heroic. At that moment, Jo would have willingly flung herself from the highest mountain in the world in defense of her girlfriend.

"I want to stay, Blair. Please don't ask me to leave. I promise not to lose my temper."

Blair took Jo by the hand and led her over to a chair, getting her as far away from Monica as possible. When Blair turned to face her mother, tears had begun to fall down her cheeks.

"Mother, you can't blame Jo for her father's crimes . . . any more than you can blame me for yours."

"Mine? I haven't committed any crimes."

Monica was sincerely confused by Blair's remark and slightly shaken by Blair's tears. Blair rarely cried, even as a small child, and it tore at Monica's heart to see it.

"Is abandonment a crime? If anyone in this room should be accustomed to confined spaces, it's me. How do you think I felt when you left me at that clinic? How many trips to Paris do you think it will take to make me forget that you abandoned me to those bastards who made me feel dirty and ashamed?"

"Blair, no! Those counselors were only trying to help you figure out what you really wanted. Apparently they —."

"Priests. You should have said – 'those priests'. If we're going to talk about this, you should use the correct terms. Is it a crime that they made me want to die? They made me feel so bad about myself that I didn't want to live anymore. How could you do that to me? I cried myself to sleep every night wondering what I had done to make my mother hate me so much that she would abandon me to such brutality."

"Brutality? Blair, you're exaggerating. Your father —."

This time, it was Jo who interrupted as Blair's tears overwhelmed her. Jo got up from her chair and drew her quietly weeping girlfriend into her arms, while staring almost sympathetically at Monica's stricken expression.

"She's not exaggerating. Those priests really did a number on her."

Monica's mind hadn't registered her daughter's earlier reference to the type of clinic Blair had been sent to. Blair, however, had made a point of referencing the priests, knowing her mother's abhorrence of the religious zealots who often condemned the socialite's promiscuous lifestyle.


Monica shook away the fog and looked carefully at her daughter.

"Blair, please."

Monica walked hesitantly toward Blair and gently touched Jo's arm. Jo didn't want to let go, but she could see that Monica only wanted to comfort Blair, so she stepped away. When Monica embraced her daughter, Blair's tears turned into sobs. Jo watched as Monica soothed her daughter, lightly caressing Blair's back and stroking her hair as Blair buried her face against her mother's chest.

"There, there, sweetheart. Don't cry, darling. Mother is here."

Blair sniffled as Monica half carried her daughter to the sofa and withdrew a tissue from her purse to dab at Blair's eyes.

"I love you so much. You are my angel, you must know that. No one in this world means as much to me as you. Please don't be upset, Blair. Everything's okay. I love you, sweetheart. You are my darling, beautiful girl."

Monica continued to tell Blair how sorry she was and how much she loved her. Jo, feeling that they deserved some privacy, decided that she wouldn't be abandoning Blair by leaving her alone with her mother. She quietly went into the kitchen, sensing that Blair would come for her when it was time.

Jo was cleaning the kitchen appliances for the third time when Blair entered the kitchen.



Blair walked over to Jo and pulled her into a gentle embrace. They didn't speak for several minutes, instead they held one another, relishing the short amount of time they had before Blair would have to leave. Eventually, Blair pulled away and smiled into her girlfriend's eyes.

"You didn't run away."

"No, I didn't."

"I know we didn't get a chance to talk about it before I told my mother about us, but —."

"I've never been more proud of you."

"You were right, Jo. This time was different. You were wonderful."

"No, Blair. You were wonderful. I can't believe you risked being sent back to that godforsaken place. You are the bravest person I've ever met."

Jo's smile was sad, filled with emotion.

"I didn't risk anything, Jo. That place doesn't scare me anymore. Not when I know you'd be waiting for me whenever I got out."

Jo could no longer contain her tears.

"Is your mother still taking you to Paris?

"Yes. She and I still have a lot to talk about, but I'm glad I told her about us."

"I'm gonna miss you so bad it hurts, Blair."

Blair reached out and stroked Jo's cheek, causing Jo to close her eyes and tremble.

"Will you help me bring my things down and get them into the car?"

Jo nodded, not trusting her voice. It took several trips up and down the stairs to carry Blair's luggage, but it didn't take nearly as long as Jo had hoped. When the car was loaded, Blair and her mother stood by the door, waiting to say goodbye.

Monica reached out her hand and Jo took it.

"It was nice meeting you, Jo."

Monica made a point of saying Jo's name, trying to mend her relationship with Blair.

"Uh, thank you. It was . . . nice . . . meeting you, too."

Monica smiled.

"I'm sure it wasn't, but it was kind of you to say so. Blair, are you ready?"

"Mother, could you wait for me by the car while I say goodbye to Jo?"

A moment of uncertainty flashed across her face before Monica nodded. When Blair smiled gratefully at her mother, Jo could tell how much Blair had needed her mother's acceptance.

"Your mother is . . . uh, impressive."

"She loves me."

"Yeah. I can see that."

"She said that she wants me to be happy."

Jo smiled as Blair placed both hands on either side of Jo's face and squeezed.

"I told her that you make me happy."

Jo could barely talk, her lips puckered from Blair's hold on her face.

"I'm glad. You make me happy, too. Can I have my face back now?"

Blair laughed and curled her fingers, gently tugging Jo's face toward her lips. Jo held back, looking at Blair's mother, who was waiting for Blair by the car.

"I don't care who sees us, Jo. I'm not leaving here without kissing you goodbye."

They kissed for several minutes before reluctantly separating.

"I'll see you in the fall, Jo."

"You can count on it."

"I am, you know. Counting on it, I mean."

"Yeah. So am I."



"I . ."

Blair opened her mouth to continue, but couldn't. She gave Jo one last hug and ran toward the waiting limousine. Jo closed her eyes, waiting for the fragrance of Blair's perfume to disappear before opening them again. She stood in the doorway for several minutes after the limousine disappeared from sight, staring at the empty driveway.

When Jo finally closed the door and returned to the lounge, tears once again fell from her eyes as she collected the dessert bowls from Blair's makeshift dining table. She returned Mrs. Garrett's fine china to the cabinet and carried the table back into the cafeteria before sitting on the sofa for hours, staring at the keychain Blair had given her on her birthday.

The last place she wanted to be was in their bedroom; the sight of Blair's empty bed creating an ache so deep it was physically painful. Wondering about the lump under the covers of her own bed, Jo gently pulled them back to reveal Blair's parting present.

It wasn't the same as having Blair with her, but Jo appreciated having the little yellow-haired puppet with the pink sponge rollers to keep her company.

Exhausted from her emotional ordeal, Blair slept soundly once she and her mother boarded the private jet which would carry them to Paris. As night stretched into day, Blair awoke and reached for her small carry bag. She didn't want to arrive in Paris with bags under her eyes from the tears she had shed the night before. As soon as she opened her makeup kit, she saw the slip of paper nestled inside. Blair recognized the notepaper before she saw the handwriting. It was just like Jo to know where to place a note so that Blair would be sure to find it so soon.

Blair fingered the note lightly, savoring the moment before opening it to see Jo's message.

Beauty crowds me till I die
Beauty mercy have on me
But if I expire today
Let it be in sight of thee —

E. Dickinson

I love you,


Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill



"Wake up, sweetie."

Jo was being exceptionally careful. She'd been kicked in the face more than once while trying this trick and she didn't want to be sporting a black eye at the upcoming banquet.

"Blair, wake up."

"Mmm. Go away."

Jo's grin made it difficult to purse her lips to blow on the bottom of Blair's feet, but the giggles she knew her actions would produce would be worth the effort. Jo was not disappointed when Blair suddenly curled her legs and began giggling uncontrollably.

"Jo! Stop!"

Jo chuckled.

"It's not funny, stop!"

"If it's not funny, why are you giggling?"

Blair finally sat up in bed, pulling her feet safely beneath her and placing a pillow over her face to block out the early morning sun.

"Come on, Blair. We have a surprise for you."

Blair's face emerged from her pillow. Her eyes were hazy with sleep, just the way Jo loved to see them.

"A surprise?"


"For me?"


"It's not my birthday."

Jo chuckled.

"Come on, Sleepy. Our kids are waiting for us. They've been up all night."

"They have?"

"You really were tired last night, weren't you, baby?"

Blair rubbed her hands over her face and adjusted her eyes to the light. When she ran her fingers through her hair, she frowned.

"I must be a mess. Jo, it'll take me hours to look presentable."

"You don't have to look presentable. You only have to show up."

Jo nudged Blair toward the edge of the bed and then over the side.

"At least give me a minute to brush my hair."

"One minute. That's all you get and I'll do the brushing."

"What about my clothes?"

"Your robe will be fine."

"You're dressed."

"Yeah, but I've been up all night."

Blair sat obediently while Jo brushed the tangles from her hair. It took more than one minute because Jo loved performing the task so much.

"Okay, Beautiful. Let's go."

Jo took Blair's hand and solicitously helped her from her chair. Once the dazed blonde was standing, Jo embraced her and gave her a passionate kiss.

"You can't really expect me to leave our bedroom after that."

"I can and I do."

Jo eagerly pulled her reluctant soulmate from the cocoon of their bedroom, down the stairs and to the back entrance to their home. Before opening the door, Jo stopped and kissed Blair again, deeply, passionately.

"Before we go out there, I just want to tell you how beautiful you look. Sometimes I forget to tell you that you still take my breath away when I look at you. I often wake up during the night and stare at you, amazed that someone so beautiful could be sleeping in my bed. I love you, Blair Warner. I always have and I always will."


Jo opened the door and pulled Blair outside, where Bailey, Garrett, and E.J. stood beneath the large oak tree in their yard. The tree served as a steadfast shelter against the wind and the rain that often swept over the cliffside on which their home was built. It was the tree Jo stood beneath when she watched Blair weeping during a winter storm. It was also the tree where they sought shelter on a rainy night when Jo bandaged her girlfriend's ankle.

Jo released Blair's hand and went to stand with their children, grinning broadly as Blair's eyes glittered with tears of happiness.

The huge oak tree was filled with tiny pieces of paper dangling from its branches. The strong oak was well over twenty feet tall and it was filled, from the tallest branch to the lowest, with what Blair realized must be prayers. Looking at the ground surrounding the tree, Blair could see that some of the papers had already been swept away by the wind. Several more drifted over the side of the cliff as she stood admiring her precious gift.

Blair stepped forward and knelt to pick up one of the papers that had fallen to the ground. She handled it carefully because it almost crumbled at her touch.

Jo explained.

"They're, uh, environmentally friendly. It made it kind of difficult to write on them without making them fall apart, but we didn't want tiny pieces of paper littering the entire town below."

Blair stared out over the cliff at the town she loved and the campus she considered part of her home before returning her eyes to the slip of paper. Her voice was barely a whisper when she spoke.

"Do they all say this?"

"They're all different." Bailey answered.

E.J. grinned and elaborated.

"We stayed up all night making them. Mom said we could write anything we wanted, as long as we knew it was something you'd like."

Blair held the tiny prayer to her chest, overcome with emotion.

Garrett stepped forward and handed his mother a leather bound journal.

"All the prayers tied to the tree are also written in this book. There's a section from each of us. None of us saw what the others wrote, so some of the prayers might show up more than once. Mom said that was okay."

Blair took the book from her son and touched his cheek, much the same way she often caressed his mom's face. Looking up into the emerald eyes of her son, who was fast becoming a man, she pulled his head down so that she could kiss his forehead, then his cheek, then his nose. Although he was embarrassed by his mother's multiple kisses, the young man didn't withdraw, giving Blair the freedom to shower him with as much affection as she liked. It was her day, after all.

As soon as Blair released their son, their youngest daughter bounded toward her, eager to be swept up in her mother's arms. E.J. was not disappointed. Blair lifted the nine-year-old child and twirled her around, E.J.'s feet swinging in the wind as more tiny slips of paper flew past them.

Knowing that Bailey was waiting patiently for her turn to embrace her mother and that E.J. would not willingly leave Blair's arms, Jo stepped forward and coaxed her daughter into her arms, swinging her around as Blair had done.

Because Bailey was older, a young woman of twenty-one, she had a much clearer understanding of the impact their gesture would have on Blair. Chestnut brown eyes with green and gold flecks gazed into chestnut brown eyes with green and gold flecks. Bailey reached forward and used her thumb to wipe the tears from Blair's cheek.

Blair's relationship with Garrett and E.J. was clearly defined. Her relationship with Bailey, however, was multilayered. Blair adored her baby sister. She had been the one to convince her mother to go through with the unexpected pregnancy. She had doted on the child, indulging Bailey's every whim. When the stress of raising a toddler, combined with her failing health, became too much for her, Monica had placed her child in the one place she knew Bailey would be loved and cherished.

While Jo had easily shifted from her role as 'Aunt Jo' to 'Mom', Blair and Bailey had struggled to redefine their relationship when Blair took on the responsibility of parenting her half sister. Blair considered her mother more of a playmate than a parent; she didn't intend to make the same mistake with Bailey. However, as Bailey grew into adulthood, there had been a subtle shift which enabled the two women to add the element of friendship to their relationship.

"I hope you don't mind, Ba. I included a little prayer for myself, that I'd find someone who loved me enough to do something like this for me one day. That I'd meet someone like Mom."

Blair's restraint crumbled as Bailey called her 'Ba'. It was the first name Bailey had used to identify Blair when she was still too young to pronounce her sister's full name. Blair's arms trembled with the force of their embrace.

"It's what I hope for your future, Bailey."

"Well, I already have the good, solid family. All I need now is the romance to go with it."

Blair laughed as both women's eyes drifted to Jo, who was rolling on the ground with E.J., allowing the small child to win the tickle fight they were having. Garrett was leaning casually against the trunk of the sturdy oak tree, his smile the only feature that unmistakably identified him as Blair's child.

"Garrett looks more like Mom every day, don't you think?"

Blair folded Bailey's hand inside the nook of her arm as they walked toward the other members of their family.

"Yes, he does."

"He has your temperament, though. We all do. Thank God."

Blair laughed as Bailey joked about her mom's temper.

"Jo's intensity serves her well in some things, trust me."

Bailey stopped walking and lifted her eyebrows in response to her mother's innuendo.

"No doubt! Are you trying to give me tips on what to look for in a lover?"

Blair's bravado faltered under Bailey's frank acknowledgement.

"Please don't let Jo hear you talk like that, in her mind you'll always be our baby girl."

Blair sat with Bailey in the shade of the oak tree watching the rest of their family.

Blair leaned back, gazing up at the prayers dangling from the tree branches.

"Can you believe she did this?"

"It's no less than you would do for her. Still, it's pretty amazing."

"It's magnificent!"

Bailey stood up and signaled her brother to wrangle E.J. As their children went back into their home, Jo walked over to Blair and sat down beside her, thrilled by the joyous expression that greeted her.

Jo stretched out on the grass, resting on her side while her fingers tugged at the sash of Blair's robe.


"What? No one else is awake yet. Bailey will make sure Garrett and E.J. go straight to bed. They're exhausted from staying up all night, but it was worth it to see your face when you first caught sight of this tree."

"It's the loveliest thing I've ever seen."

"You're the loveliest thing I've ever seen."

"I love you, Joey. This is one of the sweetest things you've ever done for me."

"I love you, Blair. I'd do anything to show you how much."

"We're an odd match, Jo Polniaczek."

"Heh, no one would have ever bet on us making it, that's for sure."

"No one would have ever bet on us getting together in the first place."

"They'd have been wrong. Face it, Blair, you've been hot for me since the first day we met."

"You're not going to start bragging about your animal magnetism again, are you?"

"Nah, I thought I'd just club you over the head, grab a fistful of your hair, and drag you to my bedroom."

"Mmm. That sounds like a lovely idea."

"Or, I could just ravish you right here. It wouldn't be the first time we've made love under this old tree."

"You remember that?"

"Give me a break. I'm not really a Neanderthal. I remember every time we've ever made love, and that's a lot to recall."

"It is, isn't it?"

Jo finally managed to loosen Blair's sash.

"Yeah, it is."

Inhaling deeply, to take in as much of her lover's fragrance as possible, Blair sighed.

"Thank you for my surprise, Joey."

"After watching that video, I couldn't wait to do this. The things you said, Blair, about our family . . . they were beautiful."

"You know that I was talking about us when I said those things, right?"

"That's why it got to me so much. This is the future I wanted, too, but only if it could be with you."

Jo moved closer, draping her leg over Blair's.

"I love that you don't realize how beautiful and unique you are, Jo. You're such a sensitive, romantic, desirable woman. If I can make you half as happy as you've already made me, all those prayers dangling above our heads will be answered."

"Then they've already been answered, because I'm the happiest woman on earth."

The End

(Look for the sequel to Beauty Crowds Me, Common Ground, coming soon.)

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