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: Common Ground: Chapter 16. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 3, Episode 5, Front Page.
THANKS: To Stacey (aka BetaPup) for the Beta, assistance in story and character development, encouragement, and meticulous attention to detail.
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Common Ground
16: Front Page

By Slave2Free


"Would you like another cup of tea?"

"Thank you, Gail. I can't tell you how upset I was this afternoon when I saw Polniaczek's locker. I've often heard her talking to the other girls about you, so I thought you might be the best person to help Jo deal with what happened. According to her, you're the best thing that ever happened to this 'snooty' school. She doesn't realize how much influence she has over the younger girls, but every underclassman on the field hockey team is counting the days until they will have the opportunity to sit in your class next year."

"I'm sure you're exaggerating, but I'm glad you decided to confide in me about what happened."

Coach Cooper snorted.

"Unless I can find the culprit and deal with it quickly, this little incident is going to be the furthest thing from confidential. I can count on Jo and Marissa not to say anything about it, but Cindy won't be able to hold something like this in for very long. I cleaned the locker fast enough, but the only way to keep a lid on something this scandalous is to find whoever did it and prevent it from escalating. Polniaczek is going to need to talk with someone and since she doesn't seem to want to talk to me, I'm hoping she'll turn to you."

Gail stared into her cup of tea, searching her mind for ways to help Jo.

"You said that Jo handled it well."

"As well as anyone in her position. I'm worried about her, though. The kid has barely recovered from the knife attack. Now she has to deal with an emotional attack. It's not fair. She's such a great kid."

Gail smiled.

"Yes, Jo is special. Um, if rumors start circulating about Jo's sexual orientation, true or not, do you think there will be any backlash from faculty members? You've been at Eastland a lot longer than I have and surely something like this has happened before."

Coach Cooper frowned.

"Nothing as blatant as this has happened since I've been here, Gail. There was an incident a couple of years ago when Blair Warner objected to the way Cindy Baker touched her while they were practicing for the Harvest Festival field day events. Some of the other students thought that Blair was insinuating that Cindy was a lesbian, but Edna Garrett nipped it in the bud before anything came of it. I have to hand it to our nutritionist; she's worked wonders with the Warner brat. She even had Warner apologizing to Baker before it was all over. It may have been the first time in her entire life that Warner apologized to anyone for anything."

Gail found Coach Cooper's revelations riveting, but she knew Blair would be working to prevent the spread of rumors, not encourage them.

"What about our faculty?"

Coach Cooper's hand trembled as she placed her teacup on the table beside the sofa. If she'd had any doubts about speaking with Gail, they were alleviated by the direction of Gail's thinking. The coach was satisfied that she could express her greatest concerns to her fellow teacher.

"As I'm sure you are aware, most of our faculty members are very open-minded. I've heard things about Bob Gideon that concern me, so I'm not sure about his reaction and I know Polniaczek is in his class. He's already got it in for her. No one knows why."

Gail had more insight into Mr. Gideon than she was able to reveal to Coach Cooper. She'd been furious when she learned that the journalism teacher she had so highly recommended to Jo had been saying snide remarks about Jo's athleticism and less than feminine mannerisms.

"Carolyn, I hope you don't take this question the wrong way, but why come to me with this? Yes, I am close to Jo, but so is Mrs. Garrett and you obviously admire her."

Carolyn Cooper groaned as she placed her keys on Gail's coffee table and stared at them.

"Mrs. Garrett is too fond of Jo to hear what I have to say without losing her temper."

Gail braced herself for whatever might be coming, certain that anything that would rile Mrs. Garrett's temper on behalf of Jo would challenge her to keep her own.

"What's the first thing Mr. Parker told you when he gave you your set of faculty keys, Gail?"

Gail's answer was immediate. It was a question every faculty member could answer without hesitation.

"I was told to keep my keys with me at all times. I am never to lend my keys to anyone for any reason. If a student gains access to my keys for any reason, I could be terminated."

Coach Cooper gazed somberly into Gail's eyes.

"Mrs. Muldoon had a special lock installed at the library and received permission from Mr. Parker to give Jo a key to that door. Jo's key isn't like our keys; it only opens the library. No student on this campus has a key that will unlock the gym and I never forget to lock it."

Gail's voice sounded strange, even to herself.

"Our faculty keys will unlock all the doors."

Coach Cooper stood and began pacing.

"I'm not sure about how I should handle this. Mr. Parker isn't going to believe that a faculty member could do such a thing. I can't believe it, either, but what other explanation could there be?"

Gail reached for her telephone and began dialing.

"Who are you calling?"

"Mr. Parker."

"Now? He's at home with his family. It's far too late to disturb him."

Gail sighed. She had been too patient in the past; she wasn't going to make the same mistake again. Mr. Gideon's homophobic remarks about Jo were so thinly veiled that he was transparent to even the least perceptive students. The remorseful teacher only wished that she had paid more attention to rumors about the bigoted man earlier. Perhaps she could have prevented both Jo and Annie from being hurt.

"There are things I'm not at liberty to tell you, Coach, but I'm certain Mr. Parker will want to hear this news as soon as possible."

Coach Cooper caught the flash in Gail's eyes. She didn't need the details; she left Miss Gallagher's home feeling confident that by talking with the young English teacher she had done everything possible to help her star athlete.

Natalie, Tootie, and Blair stood at the foot of Jo's bed, staring at their sleeping roommate. Jo was always the first one up in the mornings. Normally, the energetic brunette had showered, changed into her uniform, and was in the cafeteria setting up for breakfast before Natalie and Tootie rolled out of their beds.

"Is she sick?"

Blair shook her head at Tootie and sat down on the side of Jo's bed. She sighed deeply as she noted the dark circles under her girlfriend's eyes. The concerned blonde had watched Jo toss and turn most of the night.

Natalie wondered if Jo's lackluster behavior had anything to do with the newspaper article Jo had written about Mr. Gideon, but she didn't want to mention the article in front of Tootie.

"Shouldn't we wake her up?"

"No, let her sleep a while longer. If you and Tootie will serve breakfast without us, Jo and I will serve dinner tonight."

It was a great deal since serving dinner was twice as much work as serving breakfast. Natalie quickly tugged at Tootie's arm. She was anxious to go down to the lounge anyway. Natalie had been second-guessing her decision to print Jo's article for the newspaper and she wanted to get Mrs. Garrett's opinion as soon as possible.

Once her younger roommates were gone, Blair pulled the covers from Jo and curled up beside the sleeping brunette. Blair loved watching Jo sleep. She loved resting her chin on Jo's shoulder so that her face was close enough to feel Jo's breath caressing her cheek. Jo looked so peaceful, but Blair knew her girlfriend's expression would change dramatically as soon as she awoke.

Blair gently caressed Jo's hair and pressed tender kisses to her cheek. Jo's eyes fluttered open and her brow furrowed in confusion. Blair always found Jo's tendency to wake up frowning adorable, so she giggled at the image.

"Good morning, Joey."

Jo glanced around the room, slowly registering the bright sunlight and unoccupied bunk beds.

"Geez, why'd ya let me oversleep?"

"Because you needed to rest."

Jo leaned forward and kissed Blair on the lips, smiling as she withdrew to gaze into beautiful brown eyes.

"It's nice to wake up next to you again. I've missed this."

Blair snuggled closer, pressing her lips to Jo's neck.

"One day, it'll be like this every morning."

Jo grunted as she threw her legs over the side of the bed.

"Not soon enough, Princess. We're late for breakfast."

Blair pulled Jo back into bed as she explained.

"I traded with Nat and Tootie, breakfast for dinner."

At Jo's scowl, Blair placed another kiss on Jo's cheek.

"I know it was a bad deal, but it was the only way I could get them to leave, and I wanted to have a little time with you this morning before . . ."

"Before I have to face Gideon in class again?"

Blair chewed on her lip and softly caressed Jo's arm.

"Don't worry so much, Blair. I ain't gonna lose my temper if he yells at me. I'm gonna be real civilized about the whole thing."

Blair resumed her task of placing gentle kisses along Jo's neck, basking in the intimacy of snuggling in her girlfriend's bed.

"Blair, if what happened in the locker room yesterday afternoon gets out and kids start talking about it, I don't want you to interfere."

Blair impulsively hugged the somber brunette.

"My stomach is in knots, Jo. If I had been paying more attention to what was going on around campus, maybe I would have heard something."

Jo leaned back on her pillow and stared at the ceiling of their room. She'd hadn't been exaggerating when she told Blair how much she had missed waking up next to the soft curves of Blair's body. Jo closed her eyes, concentrating on the sound of Blair's heart beating so close to hers. 'I'll never take this for granted,' thought Jo.

"No, it's not your fault, Princess. Whoever wrote on my locker was probably acting alone. You had no way of stopping it and I don't want you running around trying to fix things again like you did that day Cindy kissed me."

"Well, I admit that I can be a tad controlling."

Jo burst out laughing.

"A tad."

Blair tugged at her hair and batted her eyes while wiggling closer to the amused brunette.

"You have the most amazing laugh, Joey. You should laugh more often."

Jo sighed as she reluctantly untangled herself from Blair's arms and rolled out of bed.

"I should take my shower now. If Gideon insists on humiliating me in front of everyone again, I should at least try to look my best."

"Does that mean you plan to actually run a comb through your hair this morning?"

"Hardy har har."

Jo stopped midway to the door and stared into Blair's eyes, recalling the texture of Blair's soft curls as she had combed through her girlfriend's tousled hair with her fingers. They didn't speak during that moment, but both girls knew the other was thinking about the previous day on Cooper's Rock.

As soon as Jo left their room, Blair took the back stairway down to the kitchen. While Tootie and Natalie were serving the other students in the cafeteria, Blair prepared a cup of hot chocolate and grabbed a bagel for her girlfriend.

Jo allowed the hot water to pound her shoulders longer than usual. The truth was that she dreaded going to class that morning. She dreaded facing the man who constantly belittled her. Worse, she had a better understanding of the extent to which Gideon had been slanting Blair's grades and her suspicions of his motives made her blood boil.

Jo was going over a mental checklist of appropriate responses to inappropriate questions when she heard the bathroom door open and close. She and her roommates rarely locked the door before showering and the breeze that wafted through the room as Jo turned off the water prompted the self-conscious brunette to peek around the shower curtain to see if anyone had entered the bathroom unannounced.

Jo didn't see anyone in the bathroom when she looked around, but she smelled hot chocolate, which lured her gaze to the countertop where a bagel was also resting. Beside the mug of hot chocolate and the bagel was one of Blair's luxurious, thick towels. Blair herself only used that particular type of towel on special occasions, complaining that it took them too long to dry. Jo smiled as the image brought back the memory of the first time she and Blair did the laundry together. Life might get a little more complicated at Eastland now that Gideon knew he had been reported for unfair grading, but with a girlfriend who gave her hot chocolate and fluffy towels, Jo felt a badly needed boost.

Blair and Jo were holding hands as they stood at the top of the stairs leading down to the lounge.

"Are you ready?"

Jo chuckled.

"It's not as if I'm facing a firing squad, Princess. Who knows, maybe you're right? Maybe no one will know about the locker room incident and maybe Gideon will see the error of his ways and be nice to me today."

Jo stared at their entwined hands for a few seconds before extracting her fingers and flashing her girlfriend what she hoped was a confident smile.

Being the center of attention was heady stuff, even for a levelheaded girl like Jo. It was especially intoxicating for someone who had been certain that the attention was going to be negative, only to unexpectedly find herself the object of praise and admiration. After having been shunned by half the student population for the past couple of weeks, Jo was suddenly surrounded by friends. The icing on the cake was that the campus buzz over Robert Gideon had either overshadowed the scandalous word that had appeared on Jo's locker the day before or Cindy and Marissa had kept silent about the incident.

Jo hadn't known that Natalie had published her article until she and Blair walked into the cafeteria that morning and everyone stood up and applauded. Jo had originally been elated, but she would never forget the look of hurt on Blair's face as the stunned debutante turned on her heel and hastily retreated. Jo tried to run after Blair, but her new fans had quickly surrounded her, congratulating her on the story of the decade.

"Thanks. Thanks a lot. Heh, heh."

Jo was practically strutting through the cafeteria, enjoying the accolades from fellow students who had also felt the sting of Gideon's snide remarks. She wished that Blair had stayed long enough for her to explain that she was unaware that Natalie had printed the article, but she felt sure that Blair would get over her anger once she heard Jo's side of the story. In the meantime, the joyful brunette was full of excitement as she sat down at the table with her editor.

"I can't believe how great this looks. The headline practically takes up the whole page. 'Teacher Busted' —."

Natalie deadpanned her response. She'd been apprehensive about printing the article and after talking with Mrs. Garrett, she was sure she had made a mistake.

"Don't remind me."

Jo understood why Natalie was nervous; it had been a courageous decision to print the article, but from Jo's perspective, the positive result should alleviate Natalie's fears.

"Come on, we're a sensation. The whole school's reading the paper."

"I asked you not to remind me."

As soon as Natalie left the table, Cindy plopped into the chair beside Jo and scooted it closer to the object of her admiration. Cindy had been devastated the day before, as fearful for her own reputation as she was for Jo's. She reprimanded herself for doubting her hero, feeling that she should have realized a girl as brilliant as Jo would figure out a way to turn everything around and come out on top of the situation. Jo was the most remarkable person Cindy had ever met. Jo had not only given fellow students a far more interesting topic to discuss than locker room vandalism, she'd put Mr. Gideon in his place. Mr. Gideon had offended Cindy on more than one occasion and he'd been especially nasty toward Sue Ann, whom Cindy adored almost as much as she idolized Jo.

"Terrific story, Jo. There's never been anything like it in the school paper."

Jo shrugged her shoulders in mock humility.

"Yeah, it's all in a day's work."

As usual, wherever Cindy landed, Sue Ann was never far behind. She sat in the chair on the other side of Jo, also impressed by Jo's article.

"Who would have thought our Mr. Gideon would be involved in drugs? And you uncovered it. Honestly, Jo, you're a celebrity."

Sue Ann was not only impressed by Jo's article, she liked being seen with Eastland's renegade reporter. Sue Ann's mood was dampened only by Cindy, who slid her chair closer to Jo and gazed lovingly into Jo's eyes. When she spoke to Jo, Cindy's voice was soft, insinuating a bond between the two that didn't exist.

"Just between us, how did you ever find out about Mr. Gideon?"

Even though she was somewhat inebriated by her newfound celebrity, Jo had enough clarity to respond to Cindy's overture in a way that couldn't be misinterpreted as any indication that they were more than mere classmates.

"I've got my sources."

Cindy bowed her head in disappointment, while Sue Ann picked up the conversation.

"If I had found out, I'm not sure if I would have reported it. I mean, he is a teacher."

"Um . . . that's true, but —."

Seeing how positively everyone was responding to Jo's article, Natalie couldn't resist taking credit for her part in publishing the sensational news story.

"It was a gutsy call, but I made it. In the business of news, there is no room for cowards."

As Natalie was inserting herself into the conversation, Blair returned to the cafeteria with Tootie. Jo expected Blair's disapproval, but she suspected that Blair's abrasive tone had more to do with Cindy's proximity to Jo and the fact that their arms were touching than it did to the fact that Blair might be under the misconception that Jo had gone ahead with the article without discussing it with her. Blair's voice dripped with sarcasm when she spoke.

"Well, if it isn't Lois Lane and her crusading editor."

Natalie cautiously approached her roommates.

"Hi, guys."

Tootie glared at her friend who had jeopardized her reputation as the Rona Barrett of Eastland.

"Don't 'hi, guys' me. The biggest news of the year and I have to read about it in the paper."

Jo interceded on Natalie's behalf.

"Sorry, Tootie, but when you've got an exclusive, you have to keep it exclusive."

"Do I look like a security leak to you?"

Natalie and Jo answered in unison.


"Okay, all I wanted was an answer."

As Tootie and Jo talked, Cindy's hand somehow managed to bump up against Jo's and stay there, prompting Blair to deliver one of her most caustic glares. Cindy noticed and quickly distanced herself from Jo. Although Blair had apologized for the remarks she had made to Cindy two years earlier, Cindy often felt Blair's disapproval whenever she demonstrated any affection toward Jo.

"Well, Jo, I hope you're satisfied with your hatchet job."

Jo desperately wanted to explain to Blair that she hadn't broken her promise to tell Blair before she decided to go ahead with the article, but she couldn't do that in the crowded cafeteria. At the same time, she felt the need to defend the article she had written.

"I didn't need a hatchet. Haven't you ever heard that the pen is mightier than the sword?"

"Especially when it's dipped in blood."

Blair's words stung and Jo had no way of knowing that Blair's vehemence was grounded more in fear than anger. Blair knew what happened to students who openly defied teachers.

After Blair's scathing reprimand, Jo felt an uncharacteristic need for approval so she approached Mrs. Garrett.

"Hey, Mrs. G., what's shakin'?"

"The whole campus, thanks to your story. That's all anybody can talk about."

Jo could see that Mrs. Garrett didn't approve, but she believed the compassionate woman's feelings of sympathy were misplaced.

"You noticed. Look, I know I stepped on some toes and you probably feel sorry for —."

"I'd feel sorry for anyone who was unfairly treated by the press."

Natalie's ears perked up as soon as she heard Mrs. Garrett's accusation.

"Did she say 'unfairly'?"

Jo ignored Natalie's concern and defended herself.

"Look, Gideon was arrested and I reported it."

"Mr. Gideon was arrested, that's true, but he was released one hour later. There was no evidence that he had used cocaine."

Natalie closed her eyes, horrified by Mrs. Garrett's news. She'd felt the same thing the night she'd gotten into the school van after Jo had hotwired it. Natalie immediately began beating herself up for allowing Jo to bully her into yet another disastrous decision.

"I'm getting that sick feeling again."

Mrs. Garrett continued to explain.

"The police didn't even press charges, but I didn't read that in your story."

As quickly as Natalie had jumped onto Jo's bandwagon, she abandoned her friend.

"Yeah, Jo!"

Natalie's attitude irritated Jo. She was disappointed in her fair-weather friend.

"And what about you? You're the editor, you're in this."

"Dragged in. Towed in."

Mrs. Garrett was also displeased with Natalie's attempts to put all of the blame onto Jo.

"Locked in. As the editor, you made the final decision."

Sensing the seriousness of her error and knowing that the consequences might be severe, Jo let her friend off the hook.

"Nah, I bullied her. It's my story. It's my responsibility."

Jo left the cafeteria without speaking to anyone, intent on setting things right with Gideon.

Several hours later, Blair found her girlfriend looking over the panoramic view of Eastland's campus from on top of Cooper's Rock.

"Hi. I thought I might find you here."

"Did you come to say 'I told you so'?"

Blair touched Jo's chin, gently turning it toward her face.

"Of course not. Natalie explained what happened. I know that you weren't aware that she was printing the article until after the newspaper came out. I came to tell you that you shouldn't feel responsible for getting Mr. Gideon fired. It's not your fault. He did it to himself."

"He was innocent, Blair, and my article cost him his career. You were right about me. I was out for blood and it had nothing to do with reporting the truth. I wanted revenge and I got it."

Jo looked at her hands as tears filled her eyes.

"The pen is mightier than the sword. That's what I told you. It's true. I haven't changed at all, I'm still a bully. I've just exchanged my fists for a poison pen."

When Blair tried to wrap her arms around Jo, the remorseful brunette pulled away.

"Don't touch me. I don't deserve you. I'll never deserve —."

Blair shook her head and pushed Jo toward the sheltering limbs of the nearby oak tree.

"Sit down."

Jo reluctantly sat down under the oak tree, in the exact spot she'd asked Blair to sit the day before. Blair sat behind her disgruntled girlfriend and began gently massaging Jo's shoulders, increasing the pressure gradually.

"Hey, where'd you learn to do that?"

Blair laughed.

"Well, during our family vacations, I always had a choice. I could spend my day with nannies and babysitters or I could go to the spa with Mother. Of course, I chose to be with Mother. I've probably spent more time observing the finest Parisian masseuses than anyone. Once I became a teenager, Mother started booking spa appointments for both of us when we traveled. She and Daddy were divorced by then."

Jo pulled her knees to her chest and leaned forward, luxuriating in the backrub as Blair firmly soothed the knots out of her muscles.

"Geez, Blair. This is almost as good as kissing ya."

Blair's hand's stilled momentarily before her thumb dug into an exceptionally sensitive area below Jo's right shoulder.

"Ouch! I said almost."

Jo turned her head and grinned mischievously at the offended blonde.

"Nothing on earth compares to kissing you, Blair. I just meant that this feels great. I had no idea you knew how to give a proper backrub. I'm gonna sign you up as a trainer for the field hockey team so you can do this for me after every game."

Blair giggled.

"I'm sure the entire team would enjoy a massage, Jo."

"Uh, on second thought, I can wait until I get back to our room. No point in tiring yourself out giving massages to the whole team."

"I appreciate your concern, Jo, in not wanting to tire me."

"You can't imagine how good this feels, really."

"It would . . . um . . . feel even better . . . if . . . um . . . well, you know what people usually wear during a massage, right?"

"Yeah, Ma and I used to go to the spa every other weekend. What do y'think, Blair? Do you have to have a special outfit for this like everything else you high society types do?"

"Actually, there's no outfit at all, Jo. If I were giving you a real massage, you wouldn't be wearing your uniform . . . or anything else."

Jo shrugged, somewhat embarrassed.

"I know that. I'm not really a Neanderthal."

"I wasn't criticizing you, Jo, I was . . . um . . ."

Jo chuckled.

"What? Were you trying to seduce me out of my bad mood?"

Reminded for the millionth time that she couldn't get anything over on Jo, Blair punched Jo in the arm, perhaps a little harder than she had intended.

"I do not have to seduce anyone, Jo Polniaczek."

Jo turned, tilting her head and grinning in a way that sent tingles down Blair's spine.

"You're right about that, Princess. I'm what the uncouth boys at Bates would call a sure thing, at least where you're concerned."

Blair batted her eyes and coyly twirled her hair, suddenly embarrassed.

"I'll remember that when we're in a more appropriate setting, Joey."

Now that Blair was retreating, Jo took the offensive.

"What's wrong with this setting? This is about the prettiest place in Peekskill. The view is better than anything you'll see on Park Avenue, the grass is as soft as a blanket, and this big ole tree guarantees privacy."

Blair opened her mouth to argue, but everything Jo had said was true. While Blair struggled with her emotions, Jo sobered upon seeing the look of longing and sadness on Blair's face.

"You're afraid I'm gonna get kicked out of Eastland and this might be the last chance we have to be together, aren't ya?"

Blair didn't deny it. She'd known classmates who had been kicked out of school for far less offenses than publishing a slanderous article about a faculty member. Blair had worried about the consequences for Jo and Natalie when she thought that Mr. Gideon had been charged following the drug raid. Now that she was aware that no charges had been filed against the boorish teacher, her concern for her girlfriend and her roommate had doubled.

"I won't let them kick you out of Eastland, Jo. The Warner name may not mean anything to you, but it means something to Mr. Parker. I've already called my mother and told her about what happened. She's the president of the Eastland Alumni Association and she's the one who organizes the Eastland fundraisers. She and I have already decided to donate a portion of our inheritance from Granddaddy Blair to Eastland for a new library. Mr. Parker will do anything my mother asks of him and —."


"Don't shush me, Jo, I'm —."

Jo lightly pressed her fingertips to Blair's lips and pointed to her ear with the other hand, signaling Blair to be quiet and listen. It wasn't long before Blair heard voices in the distance.

"Are you sure they came in this direction, we're almost to Cooper's Rock?"

Tootie stopped to catch her breath before responding to her roommate.

"Sue Ann said she saw Blair walking toward the hiking trail a half hour ago."

Natalie groaned.

"We're looking for Jo, not Blair."

Tootie looked at her friend as if Natalie had lost her mind.

"What's wrong with you today, Nat? Since when don't you understand that finding Blair is just as good as finding Jo?"

Natalie rolled her eyes dramatically.

"You can't expect my brainwaves to function when I'm under so much stress. Are you forgetting that I made the editorial decision to print Jo's article?"

"Don't worry, Nat. If you were in trouble, Mr. Parker wouldn't have sent us to find Jo; he'd be talking with you."

"They're probably sitting in the lounge sipping lemonade while we're roasting on this mountain."

"I don't think Mr. Parker is waiting for Jo to sip lemonade with him, Nat. Which direction do you think we should go now?"

Natalie leaned forward and gasped for breath.

"Well, only a mountain goat would try to climb up to that tree up there, so I think our best bet is to backtrack until we get back onto the trail. If Blair is with Jo, there's no way Princess Warner would veer away from the trail."

Tootie's voice faded as she argued with her roommate.

"I'm not the one who missed the last trail marker. Stop blaming me for getting us lost up here in the middle of nowhere."

Jo and Blair watched their younger roommates from their higher vantage point until the other two girls wandered off in another direction. As soon as Natalie and Tootie were out of sight, Jo and Blair began hiking back down the hillside, dreading the meeting with Mr. Parker.

"Blair, I don't care how cute your nose is; you have to keep it out of my business. I don't want anything from any Warner, ever."

"You think my nose is cute?"

Jo rolled her eyes, sometimes it was very difficult to keep Blair focused on a specific topic, especially when it was something Blair didn't want to discuss.

"You know I do, Goofy, but I'm serious about what I said. You have to respect me enough to stay out of this. Love is about more than hugs and kisses. It's about honesty and trust. Now that we're together, we have to be able to trust each other. I love you, Blair, not the Blair Warner."

"Jo Polniaczek, you can't possibly believe that I would ever lump you into the category of people who only pay attention to me because of my name."

"And I ain't ever gonna give you a reason to doubt it, Princess."

Jo stopped walking and held out her hand.

"Let's make a pact not to interfere in one another's lives."

"You can't be serious, Jo. The only good thing about arguing is making up. You want to make up with a handshake?"

"Well, how else are we supposed —?"

Jo never had an opportunity to finish her thought as Blair's lips met hers. 'Yeah,' thought Jo, 'this beats the hell out of shaking hands.'

The kiss was brief, because of their location and awareness of the fact that Natalie and Tootie were still searching for them. From Blair's perspective, the kiss was 'making up' after their disagreement. From Jo's perspective, the kiss was a way of sealing their deal not to interfere in one another's lives. After the kiss, both girls smiled contentedly, convinced she had won the argument.

Mr. Parker rose from the sofa when Jo and Blair entered the lounge.

"Hello, Jo. Did your roommates tell you I wanted to speak with you?"

"Blair and I took a walk. I haven't spoken to Nat or Tootie."

It wasn't the entire truth, but it wasn't a lie. Mrs. Garrett nervously stepped aside and pointed to the sofa, urging Jo to take the seat beside Mr. Parker.

"Jo, I sent Natalie and Tootie to find you because Mr. Parker needs to talk with you. Blair and I will give you some privacy."

Mrs. Garrett gently placed her hand on Blair's arm to lead her from the room, but Jo intervened.

"You don't have to leave. Anything Mr. Parker has to say to me, you may as well hear it now. It'll save me from having to repeat everything later."

Mrs. Garrett wasn't surprised when Blair crossed in front of her to sit beside Jo. Edna sat in a nearby chair, worried about how the two girls would fare if Mr. Parker expelled Jo. For a moment, the compassionate woman thought that Blair might hold Jo's hand, but the anxious blonde stopped short.

"I guess you're pretty upset about the article I wrote and I don't blame you. I talked to Mr. Gideon earlier and I don't think you should fire him because of my mistake. If anyone should be punished, it's me. I just hope you can find your way clear to let me stay at Eastland."

Blair's heart sank as she listened to Jo's confession. Jo's noble nature was one of the things Blair loved about her girlfriend, but she felt it often cost Jo too much. Blair closed her eyes and waited for the worst when Mr. Parker cleared his throat.

"The article was . . . unfortunate, Jo, but understandable . . . um . . . under the circumstances."

All three women gawked at the headmaster, shocked by his leniency. Mrs. Garrett was the first to speak.

"What circumstances?"

Mr. Parker's voice became a whisper as he leaned toward Jo.

"I'm here to talk to you about the incident in the locker room yesterday."

Jo glanced apprehensively toward Mrs. Garrett and Blair took it upon herself to elaborate.

"Someone vandalized Jo's locker yesterday afternoon. Jo was very upset. She probably wasn't thinking clearly yesterday. That's why you're not going to punish Jo, right, Mr. Parker? She was temporarily insane when she wrote that article about Mr. Gideon."

Jo's jaw dropped. She started to say something sarcastic to Blair about watching too many episodes of Hill Street Blues, but refrained. 'She wants me to plead 'temporary insanity'! My girlfriend is crazy.'

Mr. Parker smiled at Blair's enthusiastic defense of her friend.

"Well, I'm sure that Jo was upset and she had every right to be angry."

He addressed the rest of his explanation directly to Jo.

"We've discovered the culprit and I need to ask if you want to press legal charges. I'd do it myself, but I don't want to do anything that would upset you further."

Mrs. Garrett spoke up, confused.

"Isn't expulsion the proper punishment for vandalism, Mr. Parker? I've never known you to involve the police in something of this nature."

Mr. Parker lowered his head momentarily before answering.

"The culprit wasn't a student at Eastland. Jo, we really should speak privately."

While Mrs. Garrett and Blair's brows wrinkled in confusion, Jo knew exactly who had targeted her.

"It was Gideon, wasn't it?"

Mrs. Garrett audibly gasped and was about to reprimand Jo for the outlandish accusation when she saw Mr. Parker blanch.

"Yes, Jo."

"Is that why you made him resign?"

"No. If I had known about your locker at the time I gave him that option, I would have fired him on the spot."

Blair leaned forward.

"If you didn't know about the locker, why did you force Mr. Gideon to resign?"

"Primarily, because of his grading practices, but there were other infractions as well."

Jo's voice hardened.

"What kind of infractions?"

"I can't talk to you about those, Jo. They involve another student."

Jo jumped up from the sofa and began pacing, her face flushed with anger.

"I knew it. He was pressuring girls to put out for him in order to get good grades, wasn't he?"

Mrs. Garrett gasped again and Mr. Parker fidgeted with the knot of his necktie.

"I'm not going to speculate about Mr. Gideon's motivations, Jo, but after conducting an investigation, it's clear that your grades do not reflect the quality of your work. Another English teacher will review your papers and your grade will be adjusted accordingly."

Mrs. Garrett stood and touched Jo's arm.

"I'm so sorry that I didn't listen to you, Jo. I feel like I've let you girls down."

"Don't beat yourself up, Mrs. G. You have too good a heart to suspect someone like Gideon of being a jerk. Besides, Blair and I were handling things just fine."

"Are you going to press charges?"

Mr. Parker stood and walked closer to Jo.

"I feel I should warn you, Jo. If you press charges, the newspapers will run with the story. They won't reveal your name, but since you are our only scholarship student from the Bronx, I don't think it will be difficult for your friends and family to figure out who Mr. Gideon victimized."

Blair, who was still sitting on the sofa, spoke softly, almost as if she were speaking to herself.

"The reporters can print what was written on Jo's locker?"


Mrs. Garrett drew Jo into her arms.

"Jo, I wish you had told me about this. What did that terrible man write on your locker?"

Jo looked over Mrs. Garrett's shoulder and made eye contact with Blair, silently communicating her decision before telling Mr. Parker.

"Aw, it wasn't that bad, Mrs. G. I'm not gonna press charges. Mr. Parker, thank you for telling me about this. I figure you could have kept me in the dark and I really appreciate you being truthful."

"You're welcome, Jo. I'm very sorry that this happened. I feel responsible for hiring Mr. Gideon. Please accept my sincere apology."

Jo nodded and extended her hand.

"He had a lot of people fooled, Mr. Parker. Don't blame yourself."

Blair finally stood and looked anxiously at the headmaster.

"Does this mean that Jo isn't going to get into trouble over the article?"

Mr. Parker's smile grew.

"We need more students like Jo at Eastland. I'm sure that once Miss Gallagher finishes reviewing Jo's journalism assignments, her scholarship will once again be in good standing."

Anxious to find out if Jo would be suspended or expelled from school, Natalie and Tootie almost toppled Mr. Parker as he was leaving the lounge.

"Well, what's the verdict, Jo? Should we go upstairs and help you pack?"

Natalie had shifted into reporter mode, something she did when a topic hit too close to home and she was trying to detach her emotions.

"Nah, Mr. Parker let me off the hook. He's actually a very nice fellow, once you get to know him."

Natalie and Tootie's eyes widened as they stared at Jo in shock. Natalie, in particular, was stunned. Mr. Parker had a good heart, but he strictly enforced Eastland's rules and Jo Polniaczek had broken one of the biggest. Natalie smelled a new story and persisted.

"There's something you're not telling us. You know I have a nose for news. You can tell me now or I'll find out on my own."

Jo almost laughed out loud when Blair wrapped her arm around Natalie and gently pulled their friend to the side. Batting her big brown eyes and extending her lower lip in a full pout, Blair spoke softly.

"Come on, Nat. You don't really want Jo to get kicked out of school, do you?"

Natalie squirmed. It always made her feel a little funny when Blair paid special attention to her.

"Of course not."

"Then please don't run around asking a lot of questions about this. It would be best for Jo, for all of us, if we forgot about that article. After all, you're the one who made the final decision to publish it and we wouldn't want Mr. Parker to appoint a new editor for the Eastlander, would we?"

Blair's pouty lips morphed into a smile as she squeezed Natalie's shoulder and fluttered her eyelashes.

"Well, uh . . . I wouldn't want to do anything to get Jo into trouble. I guess this is one news story I can pass up."

"You are an incorrigible flirt, Warner."

"I don't know what you are talking about, Polniaczek."

"Are you gonna pretend that you weren't snuggling up to Nat in order to get her to stop snooping into why Mr. Parker didn't punish me for writing the article about Gideon?"

Blair's jaw dropped in mock surprise.

"Are you jealous of Natalie again? How many times do I have to explain to you that Natalie is not gay and we are just friends?"

Jo rolled her eyes.

"Give me a break. Nat ain't the one doing the flirting, Blair. You just can't help yourself, can ya? You flirt with everyone, gay girls, straight girls, and don't get me started about how flirtatious you are with boys."

Blair sighed, it was the sound she made when Jo nibbled at her neck and it never failed to derail Jo's train of thought. The flirtatious blonde moved to the side of Jo's bed and trailed a path along Jo's lips with her index finger.

"You don't see me complaining about Roy."

"Roy? Give me a break!"

"He calls you his little cupcake . . . Brussels sprout . . . celery stick . . . cinnamon roll."

Blair teased Jo's ear, nose, and neck as she continued to go through the list of names she'd heard Roy use in reference to Jo.

"He flirts with you constantly, but you're the only one allowed to flirt with me, Joey."

Jo raised her eyebrows, no longer interested in arguing with Blair.



"In that case, uh . . . how about we take a little hike back up to Cooper's Rock? This time no one will come looking for us and we can finish our . . . conversation."

Blair giggled and flipped her hair.

"That's a brilliant idea. I love conversing with you, Joey."

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

The knock on the door was so timid that Jo barely heard it.

"Come in."

Tootie cautiously stuck her head in the door. When E.J. had taken her on a tour of her parents' home, the young child had omitted two very private areas from the tour. Her mother's art studio, which occupied the entire third floor of their home, and her mom's study.

"Um, Mrs. G. and Alex left and Natalie has gone to bed. Blair asked me to check to see if you wanted anything."

Jo leaned back in her chair and smiled, noticing Tootie's eyes as they flitted eagerly around the room.

"Nah, I don't want anything to eat, but if one of those cups of hot chocolate is for is for me, I'll be happy to take it."

Tootie smiled and entered the room. As she approached Jo, the writer stood and waited for Tootie to hand her the hot chocolate before gesturing to a chair that was positioned beside Jo's desk, facing Jo. Noting that the chair was the only luxurious piece of furniture in the room, Tootie deduced that it was there for Blair.

"You can look around if you like, Tootie. I'm not hiding any dead bodies in here. Well, except for the ones in my books, heh."

Tootie relaxed in the chair, drinking in the atmosphere. Tootie greatly admired the home Jo had built for Blair, but hadn't seen many signs of the Jo she remembered in any of the rooms she'd been shown. Even the garage seemed more like it was designed with Blair in mind than as a place where Jo would be comfortable. Jo's study, however, reminded Tootie of the friend she'd loved as a sister while growing up in Peekskill.

Tootie beamed at Jo. This was the perfect place for her to apologize to Jo for the trouble she and her family had caused.

"This is my favorite room in your whole house, Jo."

Jo laughed.

"You've got to be kidding."

Jo was sitting in a simple wooden chair. Her wooden desk was scarred with age. If Jo's laptop had been a typewriter, Tootie would have felt as if she'd gone back in time to Eastland. A twin bed, which held an uncanny resemblance to the one Jo had slept in at Eastland, occupied one corner of the room. Other than the bed, the chair in which Tootie sat and Jo's desk were the only furnishings in the room. On the headboard of the bed sat Jo's old toolbox and two helmets, one of which Tootie recognized as the racing helmet Jo had been wearing when she and Blair had raced their motorcycles the week before.

Although the furnishings were stark, the walls were covered with colorful artwork and pictures, much like Jo had papered the walls of her bedroom while attending both Eastland and Langley.

"This room suits you, Jo."

Jo shrugged.

"Monica decorated most of the house. I think living here helps Blair feel closer to her mom because of it. It's not exactly what I would have chosen, but I can tell that Monica tried to insert a little of my personality into most of the rooms. This study and our bedroom are the only rooms that Blair and I furnished on our own."

"Did Blair tell you that I might be staying on in Peekskill for a few more days? I'm thinking about purchasing the old playhouse."

Jo chuckled.

"To say that she mentioned it would be an understatement. Blair and I think it's a great idea."

"Are you sure it's okay if Beverly and I stay here while I sort things out?"

"Of course it's okay, Blair and I love company."

While Jo sipped her hot chocolate, Tootie walked across the room and stared at the largest painting.

"Did Blair paint this?"

Jo nodded, giving Tootie time to find herself in the picture. As soon as it happened, Tootie turned to her friend in amazement.

"That's me!"

"Of course it's you. Blair included everyone important to me in the painting."

Jo joined Tootie in front of the montage.

"I recognize Charlie and Rose, and there's Mrs. G. and Beverly Ann."

Pointing at an area of the picture filled with dark haired, green-eyed men and women, Tootie raised her eyebrows in question.

"You've met Uncle Sal and those are my cousins Bud, Paul, and Terry. Uncle Sal was married to my pop's sister."

Tootie pressed her face closer to the painting, trying to get a better look at the Largo family.

"Bud is Garrett and E.J.'s father, right?"

"He donated the DNA. He's more like an uncle really, but the kids know that he's their biological father. They are much closer to Uncle Sal than they are to Bud. It bugs Charlie that they call Uncle Sal their grandpa, but Sal has earned the title. He's been great for the kids, especially for Garrett. I don't think Sal has missed one of Garrett's sporting events. Paul and Terry don't have any kids, so Garrett and E.J. are Sal's world."

"What about Bud, does he have any other kids?"

Jo wasn't thrilled with the way Tootie had asked the question, but she didn't complain.

"Bud's never married."

"You have a good relationship, though, right? You and Blair and Bud?"

Jo smiled.

"Yes, it's a good relationship. Bud's always been half in love with Blair. Sal has, too, for that matter. Sal loves our kids just as much because they're Blair's children as he does because of the Polniaczek/Largo genes they carry."

Tootie wrung her hands.

"I can't tell you how sorry I am about what happened last night, Jo. It was unforgiveable, but I hope you'll forgive us. I've spoken with Beverly and I hope you can accept her apology. I can assure you that she won't cause any more trouble."

Jo ran her fingers through her hair. This was hard for the protective brunette. She already felt guilty for not having adequately monitored Beverly's interaction with her children. She'd seen the simmering anger in the teenager and felt that she should have taken steps to make sure that Beverly's anger wasn't directed at a member of her family. On the other hand, Tootie had stood up to Pete Dawson in Blair's defense earlier in the day.

"Thanks again for helping Blair deal with Pete today. He's not a real threat, but he scares E.J. I hope you're right about Beverly, Tootie. If Beverly ever said anything to E.J. like she did to Bailey, I couldn't be as understanding."

"She won't."

Jo simply nodded. Tootie didn't have to know about the measures Jo had already taken in order to make sure Beverly didn't have any more opportunities to hurt one of her children.

Tootie continued to stare at the large painting that dominated the room, fascinated by the number of people she didn't recognize.

"Eddie Brennan? Blair included Eddie?"

"Don't act so surprised. Eddie was a big part of my life. The picture wouldn't be complete without him. We didn't see one another for years after I found out that he'd deceived me, but Blair eventually convinced me to forgive him."

"Blair did that?"

"She's very forgiving, Tootie. She's much more forgiving than I am."

Jo tugged Tootie's sleeve, pulling her away from the larger painting to several drawings of buildings and homes. Tootie immediately recognized one of the homes as Jo and Blair's. The detailed drawings were precise and Tootie surmised they were Bailey's.

"Bailey drew those. Did Blair and I tell you that Bailey is studying to be an architect?"

Tootie nodded absently, already moving toward another set of drawings. These were obviously drawn by Bailey, Garrett, and E.J. when they were small children. Some of them were framed Mother's Day and Valentine's Day drawings the children had created for Blair and Jo.

"Sometimes it seems like Blair has everything, the perfect children and the perfect mate."

"You're kidding, right?"

"No, it's true. Bailey was a holy terror before she came to live with you and now she idolizes Blair. Garrett almost broke his neck this afternoon running in front of Blair to make sure he was there to open doors for her and God forbid she might actually lift something without his assistance. Even little E.J. went into protective mode when she thought Mr. Dawson was making her mother uncomfortable. Then there is you. You gave her a prayer tree for crying out loud. You built her this home. You are the perfect partner."

Jo shook her head and chuckled.

"You lived with me long enough to know how far from perfect I am, Tootie. I guess I can see how you may have been confused though, because I am perfect FOR Blair and she is perfect FOR me. We're not anywhere close to perfect, but we are perfect for one another. As far as our kids go, well, our kids are my life, Tootie, and I think they are magically wonderful beings, but they are not perfect, either. If you stick around a while, you'll see a great deal of evidence confirming it."

"It doesn't bother you that you didn't give birth to any of your children?"

Jo sighed, wondering how many times she would have to answer that question.

"The only thing that bothers me is that so many people have such a hard time comprehending that my love for our children has nothing to do with DNA."

Tootie wasn't trying to be argumentative, she just wanted to understand. At least that's what Blair had told Jo the night before.

"I apologize for what Jeff said last night. I think it was his insensitive comment that originally upset Bailey."

Jo returned to her desk while Tootie continued to gaze at the drawings.

"Bailey knows how much Blair and I love her. We've always been very open with our children about their biological makeup and what it means, or doesn't mean, to us as their parents."

"Can I ask you a very personal question about that?"

Jo laughed.

"You can ask, but I'm not going to promise an answer."

"Why did you and Blair select your cousin as your sperm donor? I mean, you've said that DNA is irrelevant to you. Why didn't you adopt?"

Jo swiveled her chair left and right while she considered how to respond.

"Well, I'd love to pretend that it's because Blair believes that I'm the most beautiful, sexy, talented, intelligent woman she's ever known and she wanted to pass along those traits to our children via Cousin Bud, but that would be an oversimplification."

Jo paused, choosing her words carefully.

"Blair and I would have been happy adopting, but that can get complicated for a lesbian couple, especially fifteen years ago, so we agreed that it was best for one of us to be the biological mother. After a little scare we had with Bailey, we didn't want to risk having our kids taken away from us by some homophobic judge."

"You almost lost Bailey?"

"That's a long story. The point is that Blair and I had to put a hell of a lot more thought into planning our family than most people. Money can make reasonable people do insane things and Garrett and E.J. will one day inherit an insane amount of money. If anything ever happened to Blair . . ."

Jo stumbled over her words for a moment before regaining her composure.

"We had to prepare for that possibility. Unfortunately, some judges still make their decisions about child custody based more on biology than on what's best for the kid. We've done everything that can be done legally to protect my rights, but with David Warner's resources and biological connection to Garrett and E.J., Blair wanted me to have as many advantages as possible if she wasn't around to help me deal with her father. That's the main reason we asked Bud to help us out, so that I'd also have a biological connection to our kids in the eyes of the law. Well, heh heh, that and the fact that he's exceptionally handsome and bright, like me."

"You can't really believe that Blair's father would try to take your children away from you if anything ever happened to Blair."

Jo grunted and stood up. Her gaze was so tender that it seemed to Tootie that Jo's eyes were caressing the family portrait Blair had painted the year before of the couple with all three of their children.

"You have no idea what that man is capable of, Tootie. So now maybe you can understand why it upsets me so much when people consider me less of a mother to our children than Blair. That type of attitude is one of the reasons we've had to work so hard to ensure that my rights to my own kids are protected."

"I didn't mean it like that, Jo."

"But that's the implication when people ask me how I feel about not having given birth to them."

Jo returned to her chair and Tootie continued to move around the room, studying the artwork while she pondered Jo's words. Most of the drawings and paintings in the room were Blair's. They included drawings of motorcycles, cars, a variety of landscapes, views from Cooper's Rock, images of friends and family, and some more abstract paintings that Tootie didn't quite comprehend.

When Tootie picked up Jo's tool box, it made Jo nervous.

"Why don't you keep your tools in the garage, Jo?"

Jo reflexively stood up, as protective of her toolbox as she'd been as a youngster.

"Uh, I don't use that box for tools any longer, Tootie. Blair and I keep our personal papers in it."

By personal papers, Tootie assumed Jo was talking about tax receipts and real estate documents, so she didn't realize the extent of her intrusion until she opened the box and began leafing through the pages. Opening one of the letters, Tootie realized her mistake and immediately returned it to the toolbox. Jo walked over to her friend and gently touched her arm before retrieving a stack of papers from the toolbox. Jo sifted through the letters until she came across the one she wanted. Smiling, she cocked her head to the side and questioned her friend.

"Are you curious about Blair and me? I mean, about how we fell in love when we were still kids?"

Tootie nodded mutely, stunned by Jo's question.

Jo opened the envelope she'd selected and pulled out a letter.

"Blair has kept every letter I've ever written to her, and that's saying a lot when you consider how many I've written over the years. This toolbox is too small to hold all of them, but these are the ones I wrote when we attended Eastland."

Jo grinned mischievously at the younger woman.

"Blair kept them in my toolbox so that you and Natalie wouldn't find them when you were snooping around our room. It was the only place where we knew they would be safe from prying eyes."

"I didn't mean to pry, Jo."

"It wasn't an accusation, Tootie. We should have had this talk a long time ago."

"Blair makes you happy?"

Jo had sensed that Tootie wanted to have a private talk with her ever since her sentimental younger friend had arrived in Peekskill, but Jo had avoided it. Jo had been hurt by Tootie's questions the day before and she'd walked out on her friend, but Blair had encouraged Jo to listen to everything Tootie had to say. Reminding Jo that the years of friendship they'd shared with Tootie shouldn't be easily discarded.

Blair's point had been driven home by Tootie's stellar performance at Edna's Edibles that day, prompting Jo to push past her shyness and speak more frankly with her friend.

"Blair makes me exceedingly happy, Tootie. She always has."

"It's just that I feel like I might have lost sight of myself a little when I married Jeff. He sacrificed everything to move to London with me, something he reminded me of constantly, but he was always trying to change me. He seemed hurt any time I confided in Natalie, telling me that I should be able to share things with him instead. Eventually, it became easier to avoid an argument than make the effort to keep in touch with everyone back home. Once we returned to the states and moved in with Jeff's parents so that they could watch over Beverly when we were traveling, I felt even more isolated from my friends. I haven't even seen my parents in over six years."

Jo wrapped her arm around Tootie's shoulders, while they stood staring at the paintings on the walls of Jo's study.

"Blair and I would be happy to invite your parents to come visit us next weekend, Tootie. Would you like that? Blair and your mom run into one another sometimes when Blair's work takes her to D.C. It would be a treat for both of us if you'd let us organize a little family reunion for you."

"Oh, I wasn't hinting about that, Jo. Besides, it's been so long, I'd feel strange."

"Waiting longer won't make it any easier, Tootie. I suppose you're telling me these things because you want my advice. In my opinion, you should call your parents and invite them up for the weekend."

"It's more complicated than that, Jo."

"It always is, but you have to start somewhere. Natalie, Blair, and I would give anything if we could see our mothers again, don't let another day go by without calling her, Tootie. You can't take for granted that she'll always be around. Did Blair tell you where I went today?"

"She said you had work to do at the motorcycle dealership."

"I did, but I also stopped by the cemetery to put flowers on Monica's grave. For her birthday, y'know? Blair had a chance to say goodbye to Monica. I never got that chance with Ma. Don't make the same mistake I made, Tootie, don't let anything keep you from staying close to your mother. Jeff seems like a nice guy, but he's going to have to learn to share you. Blair and I aren't going to let you shut us out of your life again, not now that we know it wasn't entirely your decision to do so."

"Why do you always do that?"

"Do what?"

"You always say 'Blair and I'. It worries me that you don't ever speak for yourself anymore. It bothers me that this is the only room in your house that seems to belong to you."

Jo squeezed Tootie's shoulder and shook her head in frustration.

"Do you think that you might be projecting some of the things that are wrong between you and Jeff onto Blair and me?"

"Don't be condescending, Jo. I know that Blair is nothing like Jeff, but you have to admit that everything in your life revolves around her."

Jo had intentionally arranged to speak with Tootie in her study, hoping that the intimate atmosphere would help put her old friend at ease. Jo scanned the multitude of pictures that decorated the room before responding.

"She is my life. She always has been and she always will be."

Tootie frowned.

"You shouldn't sacrifice your dreams for hers. You should be true to yourself."

Jo smiled at the irony.

"Trust me, Tootie, Blair and I … um, okay, I see what you mean. I'll just talk about me for now. I've fought too hard for the privilege to be true to myself to take a comment like that lightly. If anyone has made sacrifices for our relationship, it's Blair. And before you even ask, I'm not talking about financial sacrifices, although the extent of the fortune she gave up in order to be with me would stagger your imagination. What makes you think I've compromised myself?"

"You've changed."

Jo chuckled, hoping to break some of the tension in the room.

"I hope so. I'd be a pretty pathetic adult if I still acted like a teenager, wouldn't I? Tootie, growing up and selling out are two different things."

"It just doesn't seem like the two of you have an equal partnership."

Jo didn't point out to Tootie that the old Jo, the one Tootie missed so much, would have ripped her head off by now. She could tell that her friend was hurting and felt that Tootie might be hoping that Jo would better understand Tootie's situation if she had gone through similar experiences. Jo wanted to help Tootie, but allowing Tootie to maintain an unrealistic impression of Jo wasn't the way to help.

"I want us to be close again, Tootie, but you're going to have to meet me halfway. I have changed a lot over the years. I like to think I've changed for the better."

"You have, Jo. You're still a great friend."

"So, what aren't you saying?"

Tootie gazed around the room, hoping not to offend Jo.

"Even when we were in school, you always catered to Blair. I thought that having lived together for all these years, you'd be a little less solicitous of her."

Jo laughed, long and hard.

"Why are you laughing?"

"Because it's funny. The press has been portraying me as an opportunistic gigolo for years and you act as if Blair has put me under some sort of Svengali spell."

Tootie rolled her eyes.

"I know Blair hasn't hypnotized you."

Jo's laugh was sincere.

"Well, sometimes when she wears those fringed cowboy shirts she likes so much, I still drift into a trance for short periods of time, but I usually come to my senses after a few hours."

Tootie's jaw dropped, surprised that Jo would be joking during such a serious conversation.

"You enjoy it, don't you? You like doing things for her as much as she likes for you to do them."

"Heh, probably more. Don't get me wrong. Blair is a very independent woman. She doesn't need or want anyone to treat her like a fragile china doll. She does like attention, though, and I dearly love giving it to her. Sometimes when I wake up beside her I have to pinch myself just to make sure I'm not dreaming."

Tootie smiled, wishing she still felt that way about Jeff.

"Blair always wanted to be the center of attention, but she doesn't seem to thirst for it the way she used to."

Jo grinned and winked.

"That's because she's been drinking from the fountain of Jo for so many years she's forgotten what it's like to be thirsty."

Tootie cackled, captivated by Jo's logic.

"I see that you still don't lack for confidence, Jo Polniaczek."

Jo pointed to the two empty chairs and waited for Tootie to sit down before lowering herself into her chair.

"I owe Blair a huge apology, don't I?"

Jo nodded.

"Oh, that's gonna be easy to fix. Do you know how to make strawberry shortcake?"

Part 17

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