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Bright Lights
By misty flores


Part VI

Something's in this world you just can't change
Something's you can't see until it gets too late


"Well, I will say this for you," Natalie Green announced, chewing on her thumbnail, wide-eyed. "You've had a hell of a night."

Natalie and Tootie were seated across from her, mimicking an impromptu slumber party. They hadn't moved for an hour. That was how long it had taken Natalie (with Tootie's occasional help) to get past Jo's defenses, which came in the form of surly answers and short, mean quips.

Thankfully, Natalie's nosiness had pushed past any lingering sensitivity to Jo's conflicted nastiness, and Jo, at the moment missing Blair and still stinging from her best friend's parting, didn't have the strength to keep her perpetual Greek Chorus at bay.

She wouldn't admit it, but it was almost a relief to finally let it go, to hear it out loud, and not have it be this sordid secret that existed in her and Blair's twisted version of intimacy.

"I need to say something," Tootie Ramsey decreed, sitting cross-legged on Jo's bed, hands folded neatly in her lap. "Just to get it out of the way."

Focused on Natalie's hand folded tightly in hers, Jo glanced up with red-rimmed eyes.

"You know what the Bible says about homosexuality..." Tootie began, and Jo looked away, wincing, even as Tootie continued quickly, "I just had to mention it. I know we're all thinking it-"

"Oh to hell with all that, Tootie!" Natalie's fingers tightened over her fingers. "This is Jo and Blair we're talking about!"

Fingers tangling nervously in her fingers, Tootie opened her mouth, and then closed it again. To her credit, she looked ashamed. "I'm just saying..." she managed, weaker than before. "It's something Jo should consider."

Jo knew better than to take it personally. Tootie, as awkwardly as she had come off, had a point, and her friend always had been known to be dramatically picture perfectly inclined.

"Believe me," she managed, "I've considered it. You think I want to be a screw up?"

"Falling in love isn't screwing up," Natalie interjected carefully.

"How about cheatin' on your husband?" she asked, New York accent thicker in her exhaustion. "How about wreckin' your marriage?"

Beaten, Natalie's shoulders slumped. "Well, yes. That is screwing up."

"God," Jo breathed, and held up a warning finger to Tootie before she could be reprimanded for taking the Lord's name in vain. Letting go of Natalie's hand, she fell forward, face falling into her sheets.

Warm hands settled hesitantly against her back. "It'll be okay, Jo."

Eyes shut tight, Jo responded by wrinkling the sheet against her cheeks, closing herself further off.

"I mean it. Look, you and Blair will work through this. And ... as far as the Rick thing..."

"Do you still want Rick?" Fingers moving, Jo snuck a look at a dubious Tootie. "I'm just saying!" Tootie began, stammering quickly. "I see Jeff as my true love, and I have absolutely no inclination to start making out with Natalie anytime soon. No offense, Nat," she added, as an afterthought.

Natalie shot her a dry glare. "The feeling is completely mutual," she drawled, and then turned her attention back to Jo. "But Tootie does have a point. Also? I think you should pick Blair."

The statement, said so frankly and completely out of nowhere, forced her to sit up, lips curling into an unintended snarl. "What?!"


"Well, I'm sorry! I know I'm supposed to be impartial and non-judgmental and objectively, I really am. But... it's Blair! I love Blair. And I know Blair loves you. And... it's all so lesbian and sweet and sordid and romantic- oh God - I could write a story about this!"

"Hey - keep my misfortune out of your pages," she growled.

"You write what you know," Natalie responded, getting ahead of herself now that she was in the throes of literary inspiration. "And what I know is Jo and Blair, sittin' in a tree-"

"Knock it off, will ya?!" Jo's cheeks began flaming red as soon as Natalie burst into song. "No one's sittin' anywhere!"

"Did you, or did you not, spend the better part of last night making out with her?"

The truth, blatantly put out there, brought forth another deep flush and a sigh from Jo. "We didn't start doing it until 4. The making out," she added, when Tootie looked scandalized. "Look, it's just all happening so fast, you know?"

"True love usually does," Natalie offered helpfully. "Look at Mrs. Garrett."

"That's true," Tootie grudgingly admitted. "She fell in love and then forty-eight hours later she was out of here." She made a face. "Is that really all it takes to want to leave us?"

"If that's the case we need to find Beverly Ann an out-of-towner," Natalie cracked.

"Natalie." Tootie's tone was warning.

"Oh, relax, Hitler. I was kidding." Hopping on the bed, making it jiggle, Natalie turned her attention back to Jo. "But seriously, pick Blair."

She was living in a farce.

Pick Blair.

Really. Pick Blair?

Natalie was insane!

Like it was that easy.

It wasn't that easy. There were things to consider.

First of all, it wasn't as if Jo was in a position to PICK anyone. This wasn't a fork in the road, it was a whole friggin' intersection. It was more than an intersection; it was a cliff, or a side of the building, and Jo was standing on the ledge looking down at the splattered remains of her old self.

She had been on a side of a building, recently as a matter of fact, clutching with desperate fingers and yet refusing to leave the other women who had forced her out there.

Of course, Blair had got wind of the situation, interrupted at the most inconvenient time, and starting 'helping' by blabbering on about how there was no shopping when you were dead, and begging Jo herself not to jump because she loved her.

Jo remembered wanting to kill Blair, because, hello, she was trying to talk someone off a freaking ledge here! She didn't really remember what she had said to Blair after that, but she remembered the look in Blair's eyes, the sincerity and honesty of the simple statement that, for a second, drove deep inside of her before common sense kicked in.

Who woulda thought, after all these years, that it would be Blair in that window, trying to talk her down from suicide?

And here she was again, on a stupid metaphorical ledge, and instead of leaning out and holding out a hand and telling her that she loved her, Blair had gone and told her she had put herself on the damned ledge and she could very well talk herself back down.

The irony in that was something only Natalie could appreciate. Jo as hell didn't.

Jo saw things as black and white. She lived for her causes. She liked to think that she could die for her causes. When she was a felon, she went and did it properly, and when she was reformed, she was a friggin' saint.

It didn't matter that she wasn't happy. It didn't matter that her job with the Center caused more headaches than it cured, and that she hated feeling so powerless, hated working under Casey, hated being stuck in a room where there was so much bad out there that she knew she could help fix.

She was proud of her work. She knew that somehow, someway, she was making a difference. It didn't matter that any schmuck could do her job. There was no saving grace in seeing the grey lines in between, and she had worked her whole life to make good.

She was a social worker, for Christsake! Not a cheating married lesbian!

And yet, that's what she was. That's what had happened, in this bed, and if she wanted to be honest with herself, she had wanted it bad. She still wanted it bad.

Before Natalie and Tootie came in, while she was in here with Blair, all she knew was what it was like to really hold Blair, to shiver with anticipation at the feel of lips gliding eagerly against hers, to understand what it meant to ache for something, and the giddy feeling that came with the frustration of wanting to be with someone.

For the first time since Jo had become a married social worker, her life planned out for herself with pretty roses and no twists and turns, kids and a husband and a steady job laid out for her, planned for the rest of her life, Jo felt alive.

And that was dangerous.

It was dangerous like it was dangerous to take a turn too fast on her bike, feeling the wheel skid under her, kicking up gravel and feeling the bike shake dangerously underneath her. Dangerous and addicting, to play with her reality, shake it up so badly she couldn't recognize it anymore.

Sitting on her bed, Jo twitched, nervous and excited and frightened beyond all belief, because there was more to this than falling for Blair.

She wasn't ready for it.

Jo couldn't stay in her room forever. She had to leave it. She had to step outside and face her own reality, and she knew for certain, nothing would ever be the same.

There was no perfect road. There was only a ledge.

Pick Blair.

Staring at the closed door, Jo snorted at the thought.

She was going to kill Natalie someday.

Jo had the sense to call in sick.

It bought her a day; one day to sit in her room; one day to process; one day to hide.

One day meant Blair was safely in New York, out of reach.

There would be no last minute ditches to the train station, or showing up unexpectedly at an Eastland Board Meeting, with an infuriatingly needy Jo begging Blair to take some responsibility for all this and not put the whole blasted thing on her.

One day meant Rick had time to absorb this. He had time not to be so angry, and maybe, just maybe, Jo could look him in the eyes and ask her handsome, sweet husband what to do, because she had no idea.

One day meant Beverly Ann, knocking hesitantly at her door and leaving sandwiches and heated soup from a can at the door when she didn't answer.

It meant finding little folded notes with 'PICK BLAIR' written in Natalie's scrawl and colored notes swished in right after that said 'DON'T LISTEN TO HER- THINK OF JESUS' written perfectly by Tootie. And then finding another one slid in an hour later, in identical handwriting, that read 'BUT BLAIR'S SO NICE AND IT WOULD BE AMAZING IF YOU TWO DID MAKE IT WORK BECAUSE THEN WE'D NEVER HAVE TO REALLY BE APART AND JEFF AND I WOULD HAVE A PLACE TO VISIT IN NEW YORK - MAYBE GOD COULD MAKE AN EXECPTION."

One day meant not having to face Casey, who she was sure would know everything, and would give her that mean, angry look that she'd been giving him since she had come back from New York.

For one day she could pretend that nothing was different and she wouldn't have to call her mother, and hear the disappointment in her tone when she found out how badly she had messed up the happy ending her mother wanted so badly for her to have.

Jo wasn't a coward, but in her weakness, she allowed herself one day.

When it was over, after a sleepless night in a bed that was haunted by Blair's obnoxiously sweet smelling perfume, Jo got up, got dressed, and left her bedroom.

She was still scared as hell, but at least she was doing something about it.

There was a note for her, when she got downstairs. That was all. Just a note.

No guy dressed like a chicken, no big production with show girls and a poster board, and maybe a bunch of balloons. Rick had sent her a simple envelope, with none of his bravado and humor.

It had been left on the table, and there was a slight smudge mark of ash on the corner which told Jo that someone (Natalie, more than likely), had gone through the trouble of attempting to read it over a candle and had only succeeded in burning it slightly.

Jo found the idea humorous rather than offensive, and the small smile that flitted through her numbed features brought forth a rush of emotion so fierce she nearly broke into tears.

Sniffling, she tried to hold it together, as she slid a fingernail underneath the flap of the envelope and pulled out the handwritten note, in Rick's messy, nearly illegible writing.

"Dear Jo," it began, formal and polite and nothing at all like her hooligan. "There's not much to say and I'm going to spare you the pain of having to say it. To be honest, I know you better than you think I do, and knowing you and your stubbornness you'll do something stupid like try to stick this out, and I'd be dumb enough to let you. And honestly, the only way it would ever work would be to ask you not to see Blair again, and there's no real point in that, because I know you wouldn't.

When it comes down to it, that really says it all, doesn't it?

I'm leaving early for my tour. I think, all things considered, that's what's best. Casey knows a lawyer. I gave him a call this morning. He says we have grounds for an annulment. I've given him my information. He knows how to reach me. I'll sign whatever I have to.

I don't know if we can be friends, Jo, so please don't ask. I need time. Maybe I'm chickening out by refusing to fight this, but you were always the fighter anyway.


That was it.

Hot tears stung, and she turned the page over, hoping for some sort of joke, some limerick, some teasing parting line that proved to her it was really Rick that wrote this.

There was nothing.

"He dropped that off this morning," a voice interjected, and Jo discovered Beverly Ann, standing nervously beside the stairs, large palms smoothing down her dress. "I told him you were home, but he said he didn't want to disturb you."

Focused again on the note, Jo could only manage a phantom of a smile. "Well, why would he? It's only the end of our marriage…" The hand fell, and Jo shut her eyes, shuddering. "It just happened so fast."

"Oh, Jo…" Fingers came around her shoulders, and unable to resist the warmth of a maternal figure, Jo slumped into Beverly Ann's skinny frame, shuddering as the other woman held her tight, shushing her like a baby. "Jo, I'm sorry."

Jerking her head away, Jo began to sniffle, rubbing her shirt sleeve against her nose, blinking at her tears. "No," she managed, trying hard to keep herself together. "It's all right. It was me. I messed it up. It never would have been right after what I did." Jeweled eyes clouded at that, and Jo shrugged. "I messed up, Beverly Ann. I did. I know it."

"It takes two people to end a relationship, Jo."

"Well, then if that's true, I ended it first." To acknowledge that, what she had said to Blair, before she had leaned forward and kissed her friend, gave her back a measure of power, of stability. "It's for the best."

"I thought you loved him, Jo." Poor Beverly Ann didn't understand, and how could she? Her divorce destroyed her, and Jo had done to Rick exactly what had been done to her. It didn't matter if the marriage had lasted months or years.

"I thought I did too," she finally admitted, folding up the paper and drying her eyes. "But turns out, I don't know as much as I think I do."

It was stupid to think that things would look differently at the Center.

Jo's world had turned upside down, but true to Blair's twisted wisdom, the Center had chugged along at its own leisurely pace.

The same old group of kids were playing at the foosball tables, and there was the same TV blasting with the same group of seniors crowded around it.

Aside from a few 'Hi Jo! Hope you're feeling better!'s, no one gave any indication that they knew that Jo's short-lived marriage had fallen apart thanks to a torrid affair with a female.

Jo's desk was as cluttered as when she left it, and for a moment, she had that to focus on, sorting the piles and cursing the bills, before a somber, curly-hair man stepped up to her desk, and stared at her.

"My office," she heard Casey order, when she looked up and met his steely glare. "Now."

Casey was tense. The vein underneath his jaw pulsed, and his teeth were vividly clenched. He shifted in his chair, and he flexed and unflexed his palms for a full three minutes.

"Whatever you have to say," Jo sputtered finally, losing her patience. "Just say it."

"I'm trying!" he snapped, and in a huff of exasperation, stood up, driven to pacing. "You know if you were a man, I'd punch you in the face," he spit.

The New York honesty drew a rather inappropriate smile on her face. "Don't let me stop you."

"I'm not gonna," he wheezed. "You're a chick. I don't hit girls. Even girls that cheat on my best friend with my girl."

He was half right.

"She's not your girl." Jo's eyes glittered with resolve. "You had your chance, Casey. And you let her go."

"And now that you've got yours, you're not gonna, is that is?"

"Blair isn't my girl," she snapped, fighting an inward wince at the idea. "She's just a girl, and she's a great one, who deserved better than you wanted to offer."

"And what you're offering is so much better? Life as a dyke?"

She had expected the word eventually. She didn't expect it to sting as badly as she did, the verbal recoil, as if she had been slapped.

She took small comfort in the fact that Casey, at the very least, seemed sorry he said it.

"You don't know what the hell you're talking about," she finally managed, oddly cowed, pushing up from the chair.


"I'm quitting." The words came out before she could stop them, and she stood, frozen at the door, startled.


She turned, eyes wide. "I'm quitting," she said, feeling the words in her mouth, tasting them intimately. Her heart sputtered. "I'm not happy here."

He got to his feet, palms spread wide. "Jo, come on. Look, yes, I'm pissed, but don't take it out on the Center. It needs you."

"No," she managed, struck at her own nerve. "No, Casey, it really doesn't. And you know what? I can do better. I want to make a difference, but in my own way."

"What the hell did Blair do to you?"

She swallowed away the lump in her throat. "This isn't about Blair, Casey. This is about me. And what I want."

He stared at her, looking at her like he was seeing a stranger. "So that's it? You're leaving?"

As if it were that simple.

Hand on the doorknob, Jo stared at him, with his strong, handsome job, and dark, rich eyes.

Maybe it was.

"Yeah," she answered, and exhaled slowly. "That's it."

She turned the knob, and exited the office.

"Blair Warner's office."

Leaning back on a worn, comfortable couch, Jo found herself smiling affectionately. "Hey, Felipe. It's Jo Polniaczek."

"Miss Polniaczek!" He sounded warm and happy to hear from her. "How are you?"

"I'm …" the word stuck in her throat. "Getting there," she settled for. "How's the racing?"

"At this moment, not happening," said the foreign voice. "I took a spill, broke my arm."

"Oh, man." She hissed in sympathy. "Got a cast?"

"All over my left arm. It itches. It makes it really hard to type, but Miss Warner says I just need to learn to type one-handed, because she's not typing those letters herself."

"That sounds like Blair," she remarked ruefully.

"Otherwise she's been very accommodating."

"And the biking?"

"As soon as the cast is off. Nothing is going to keep me from that track."

"That's a good point of view. Hey, I'd like to see you compete sometime."

"Yes! Let me know the next time you come to New York!"

Stalled, Jo hesitated. "I will. Listen, is Blair there?"

"She's right in her office. One second," he answered, and Jo immediately heard the tone click into a really bad version of Bruce Springsteen's 'Dancing In the Dark'.

Jo twined the chord in her fingers, curling her feet underneath her, as she straightened up, feeling oddly nervous, bracing herself for the velvety voice of her best friend.

When the song cut off, she heard Felipe's apologetic voice. "Miss Polniaczek, I'm really very sorry but Blair had a last minute meeting she had to run to-"

Eyelids drooped, and her chest tightened at the obvious lie. "Right."

"I can leave word."

"That's okay." She managed a carefree tone that sounded a little pathetic, when her voice cracked at the end of it. "I um… I'll call her later."

"I'm sorry, Jo."

"Yeah," she breathed. "Bye, Felipe."

She was still in the same position, staring at her hands, sitting on her couch, when she heard the keys jingle and her mother walked into her tiny apartment, holding a bag of groceries.

"There you are," Rose said, voice chipper and lighter than Jo was used to, an obvious attempt to keep things… buoyant. "I heard you stopped by at the diner."

"Yeah," she said, waiting a beat before getting up and taking the bag of groceries from her mother. "I was on my way back from an errand and just wanted to see if you had a few minutes free."

"I'm sorry I missed you," Rose answered politely, pulling out a stalk of celery and a bag of apples from the bag that Jo placed on the tiny table. "As you can see, I had an errand of my own to run. I was thinking about chicken soup tonight. What do you think?"

"I think it sounds great." She pulled out the freshly bagged chicken, garnered most likely from Ralph, Rose's preferred butcher, and glanced up uneasily at her mother. "Mom? I went to the Precinct, today."

Rose's movements faltered. "Didn't commit a crime you had to turn yourself in for, did you?" she asked pointedly, but her eyes smiled kindly.

Jo laughed lightly in response. "No. Actually I was there to take a test."

"To take a test?"

"Yeah…" Balancing the can of chicken broth between her fingertips, she stared at the label. "You see, if you want to join the Force, you gotta take this test. And if you pass, then you have to take some more tests. And then there's a background check… and a date to get into the Academy…"

"Hold it." Rose crossed her arms, her voice hard. "Joanna Marie Polniaczek. Tell me you did not go and just decide to be a police officer."

Losing strength, Jo chuckled nervously, and looked away. "Okay, I won't tell you."

The room was deadly quiet.

"Is this some sort of post-teen crisis I never heard about?" Rose asked sharply. "Move in with Mom, join the Academy-"

"Don't forget trashing your marriage," she joked weakly.

"That's not funny."

She sighed, unable to take her eyes off the linoleum. "I know."

"Jo?" Comfortable, matronly sneakers stepped into view, and then maternal fingers forced her chin up to regard kind dark eyes. "Is this what you want?"

She blinked, that lump in her throat impossible to ignore. "I think it's a start," she managed.

"Are you sure?"

Her mom had asked her that question thirty times since she had landed on her doorstep two weeks ago.

"Yeah, Ma, I'm sure."

Throwing her hands up in surrender, Rose turned on her heel, and grabbed the chicken. "Heaven knows why I'm even surprised anymore. What does Blair have to say about this? Plenty, I'll bet."

It was easier to pretend she and Blair were still friends than to explain to her mother why Blair was avoiding her. Hell, it was easier to avoid Blair than to think about what it meant to want to see her as badly as she did.

It had taken Jo a month to work up the nerve to make that call.

"You think?" she asked, grabbing the celery and a knife.

"Well, I highly doubt your best friend would want you tramping off after hoodlums at some God-forsaken hour of the night! She would probably tell you you were insane! Have you told her? I bet she already has."

Jo couldn't fight her smile. "No, I haven't told her. I'm gonna though. I'm gonna see her tomorrow."

"You are?" Rose seemed politely distant, focused on the slippery chicken. "That's nice."

"I want to see her," Jo admitted, and a ripple of satisfaction curled up her spine as a result.

Gripping her knife, she attacked the celery, cheered at her own resolve.

Part 7

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