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: Chapter 5 of the series, Common Ground. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 3, Episode 2, Fear Strikes Back.
THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta, assistance in story and character development, encouragement, and meticulous attention to detail.
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ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To FOLfan[at]ymail.com

Common Ground
5: A Tale of Two Classes

By Slave2Free


Robert Gideon stood at the entrance to his classroom, anxious to meet his students. He had worked as a journalist for only three years, but he had been successful enough to easily beat out the competition for a teaching position at one of New York State's finest preparatory schools. He would rather have begun his teaching career at a boy's school, like nearby Bates Academy, but the only position available was at Eastland.

Robert had thought that he would enjoy being a journalist, but he had romanticized the profession. As a reporter, he had been forced to work for men who lacked his Ivy League education. He thought things would change once he became a correspondent, but his colleagues were invariably gruff men who were more interested in high ratings than in getting the facts straight. In the classroom, Mr. Gideon was certain that he would receive the respect he deserved.

Robert smiled to himself as he recalled his mentor's last piece of advice. "School is like a prison, Bob. You need to pick out the toughest inmate on the first day you arrive and put him in his place. You won't have any trouble with the rest of them after that." Robert felt he had an advantage since he already knew the name of the worst bully on Eastland's campus. He knew the girl most likely to challenge his authority before he even met her.

Other teachers spoke highly of the intelligent Bronx native attending Eastland on scholarship, but they also acknowledged her quick temper. The information Robert had gained from students was even more enlightening. Jo Polniaczek had not only attacked a student at Bates the year before, she'd been in a gang fight over the summer. 'She'll probably think she can intimidate me just because this is my first year teaching', thought Robert, 'but I'll show her who's in charge of my class'.

Mr. Gideon smiled as each girl groaned when he handed her a seating chart. He'd been certain that he'd be able to spot the troublemaker immediately, but he was surprised to see the young girl who had shown the least resistance to the seating chart take the seat assigned to Miss Polniaczek. While other girls had punctuated their groans with dramatic eye rolls, Jo had slightly shrugged upon seeing the seating chart and quietly taken her seat. Not only had Miss Polniaczek refrained from complaining to any of the other students, she didn't speak to any of her classmates.

Once the girls were seated, Mr. Gideon introduced himself, taking time to make sure his students understood his impeccable qualifications so that they could appreciate how fortunate Eastland had been to retain his services. He was wrapping up his oratory when a pretty young blonde girl walked into class.

"Hi, Mr. Gideon, my name is Blair Warner and I'm the student body president. I was meeting with Mr. Parker this morning and that's why I'm late to class. I have a note from Mr. Parker."

The bubbly blonde handed Mr. Gideon her note and presented him with a friendly smile. Seeing that the note was indeed from the headmaster, Robert had no choice but to forgive the student's tardiness.

"Try to keep your meetings with Mr. Parker brief in the future, Miss Warner. I don't want you to make a habit of being late to class."

Blair smiled at her new teacher, ignoring the reprimand, and walked over to the desk directly in front of Jo and sat down. Jo leaned forward and whispered into Blair's ear.

"You can't sit there, Blair. We have a seating chart."

Blair smiled politely at Cindy Baker, who was sitting at the desk beside her. Blair knew that Jo had no interest in the girl who had kissed her the previous school year, but that didn't mean she was content to have Cindy constantly in Jo's line of vision.

"Pooh, I can't sit in the back of the room. I need to be able to see the board. Besides, no one else was sitting here."

"Come on, Blair, just do what you're told for once. Gail said that I could learn a lot from Mr. Gideon. I can't do that if you sit right in front of me."

Blair giggled and twirled her hair before leaning even closer to Jo to whisper.

"Don't be silly, Jo. What could I possibly do to distract you?"

Mr. Gideon's voice boomed forth.

"Is there something you'd like to share with the rest of the class, Miss Polniaczek?"

Unfortunately for both Jo and Mr. Gideon, he mangled the pronunciation of her name.

"It's Polniaczek."

Mr. Gideon scoffed.

"You're pronouncing it incorrectly. It doesn't matter, however, since I'll be referring to each of you by your first names after today. Surely you won't be able to complain about my pronunciation of the name Joanna."

Everyone in the class giggled while Jo blushed. Blair, who felt guilty for bringing Mr. Gideon's wrath down on Jo, explained.

"Her name is Jo. It's not your fault that no one told you. None of our teachers call her Joanna."

Mr. Gideon didn't like the way the brunette was glaring threateningly at the nice blonde girl who was trying to assist her. Yes, he definitely needed to teach the brunette bully a lesson, the poor blonde girl looked terribly upset by the surly gang member.

Blair looked at Jo apologetically as she obediently took her assigned seat next to Julie Sable. Julie rolled her eyes and shifted her papers as if she expected Blair to copy her notes, infuriating the blonde who considered herself ten times more intelligent that Julie Sable.

As the class progressed, Mr. Gideon took every opportunity to embarrass the sullen brunette girl whose true personality was beginning to emerge. By the end of the class, the girl who had willingly accepted the seating chart was staring angrily at Robert.

As he watched his students exit his classroom and saw the brunette pull the sweet blonde girl to the side to whisper something he was certain would terrify the pampered debutante, Mr. Gideon knew that he had made the right decision in selecting Jo Polniaczek to demonstrate his lack of tolerance for non-conformity in his classroom.

"We have time to go by the student center before math class, Jo. It will give us a chance to catch up with everyone."

"You mean it will give them a chance to grill me about my summer. No thanks. I need to check in with Mrs. Muldoon at the library. I wasn't able to find one of the books on Gail's reading list."

"Jo, you're not supposed to read every book on the reading list."

"I know, but I like the books she recommended. You go to the student center and I'll go to the library. Save me a seat in class if you get there first."

Blair hesitated. She didn't look forward to the questions she would certainly get about Jo's injury either, but she knew she'd have to face her friends sometime.

Blair was relieved when the first friends she saw in the student center were Molly and Nancy. Molly could be irritating, but she adored Blair and wouldn't be asking any uncomfortable questions about Jo. Whenever Jo wasn't around Blair, Molly liked to pretend that Jo didn't exist.

Blair was even more relieved when Nancy was so excited about her own news that she didn't give Blair or Molly much of a chance to talk. Nancy's boyfriend Roger had been a regular visitor at Eastland in the past, but Nancy was thrilled to tell her friends that Roger had finally been accepted at nearby Bates Academy.

"I can't believe I'm going to be able to see Roger every day. I think my heart might explode with joy."

Blair and Molly laughed. Nancy was always melodramatic when gushing about Roger.

"He's going to room with Jimmy Landon."

Blair frowned at the mention of Jimmy's name.

"I thought Jimmy roomed with Harrison?"

"Not anymore. Harrison is going to room with Jeff Morgan this year. Isn't it wonderful? Jimmy has had a crush on you for three years, Blair. You won't believe how much he filled out this summer. You'd make a great couple. Please think about going out with Jimmy this year. It would be so much fun for the four of us to double date."

Blair was enjoying Nancy's enthusiasm, until Sue Ann, who had joined the group unnoticed, broke the mood.

"Speaking of filling out, I see you have a weakness for French pastries, Blair."

"Not all of us had the privilege of spending our summers shoveling cow manure, Sue Ann."

Blair countered.

While Sue Ann was trying to think of an appropriate retort, Cindy and Margo joined the small group of friends. Cindy was the first to speak, scanning the room for Jo.

"Hi, Blair. I thought Jo would be with you. Is she still recuperating?"

No one was surprised when Margo barged into the conversation without giving Blair a chance to answer Cindy's question. Margo usually liked to dominate the conversation.

"Hi, Warner. I hear you managed to get yourself grounded before classes even started."

Forgetting Cindy's question, all eyes turned to Blair for an explanation while Margo cagily took a step back in order to observe from outside their circle.

"Blair, what happened?"

"Listen, you can't go around talking about this. Mrs. Garrett is doing me a huge favor by punishing us herself instead of turning us in. Mr. Parker would expel us if he knew."

Nancy's brow furrowed.

"Us? Was Jo behind this?"

"No. I mean, yes. Yes, Jo was grounded, too. No, it wasn't her fault. I brought back a couple of bottles of wine from Paris and decided to throw a small party the night we returned to Eastland. You know the rules about alcohol, so don't let this get out."

Sue Ann chuckled.

"You're too much, Blair. You're the only person I know who could get into so much trouble so fast. Tumpy would be proud."

Blair rolled her eyes at the mention of her friend who had been expelled for drug possession two years earlier.

"Getting caught with a bottle of wine is very different from being caught with pot, Sue Ann."

"They're both illegal, for us anyway. I can understand how you might get caught, but I would have thought Jo was too savvy to get busted at a drinking party."

Margo giggled.

"Blair and Jo didn't get caught. The way I heard it, Tootie got smashed and almost passed out in front of Mr. Parker."

Sue Ann was shocked. Two years earlier, Blair had done everything possible to keep Sue Ann away from Tumpy's drug parties.

"Blair! I can't believe you would give alcohol to little Tootie."

"I didn't give it to her. I didn't even invite her to our party. She found one of the bottles and decided to have her own party. Tootie and Natalie are grounded, too. I'm not proud of my actions, but I would never intentionally get Tootie drunk."

Tootie and Natalie happened to be walking by when Tootie heard her name.

"Hey, Blair. Were you talking to me?"

"No, but you've obviously been talking to everyone who would listen about our, um, situation."

Natalie glared at Tootie.

"Have you been gossiping about yourself, Tootie? I'll glue those lips shut before I'll let your tongue get me kicked out of school."

Margo stepped forward, draping her arm around Tootie's shoulder.

"Don't give Tootie a hard time."

Margo loved the surprised expressions on her friends' faces. She loved teasing her friends, and she enjoyed teasing Blair the most. She turned to Tootie and offered the younger girl her best smile.

"I never knew you were such a party girl, Tootie. You'll definitely be invited to my next party."

Tootie almost giggled with excitement, but Blair was furious.

"She's not going anywhere near one of your parties, Margo. She's too young."

"She's the same age as Molly." Cindy pointed out.

Upon seeing Blair's brown eyes, filled with regret, turn toward the little redhead, Margo felt bad about teasing her friend. Margo removed her arm from Tootie's shoulders and shrugged.

"Sorry, Tootie. Blair's right. Molly is the only exception to the rule."

Margo winked at Molly, making the younger girl feel special.

Tootie started to whine, but Natalie, who knew a lot more about Margo's parties than Tootie, took the opportunity to grab Tootie's arm and pull her away from Blair's friends.

Not long after Tootie and Natalie walked away, the remaining girls disbanded and began walking to their various classes.

"You did that on purpose, Margo. Why are you always trying to create drama?"

Margo sighed.

"That's the pot calling the kettle black. I'm not the one who's grounded. Come on, Warner. I'll walk you to math class."

Blair left the student center with Margo, still glaring at her friend.

"You're incorrigible, Margo. I thought we were calling a truce this year?"

Margo wrapped her arm around Blair's waist and smiled into fiery eyes.

"No one bothered you with questions about Jo's old gang and what happened to her this summer, did they?"

Blair had forgotten how easily Margo could manipulate her friends. She sighed deeply, happy that Margo was once again on her side.

Blair was the first to arrive at their math class and she saved Jo a seat as she had promised. Whenever possible, Blair always saved Jo a seat in front of Blair, as opposed to having her girlfriend sit beside her. Having Jo in her line of vision as she faced the front of the classroom was just as distracting for Blair as Jo had indicated that watching Blair would be for her, but Blair didn't mind the distraction. Unlike Jo, she didn't have to worry about keeping up her grade point average in order to maintain a scholarship.

Later that day, Gail Gallagher stood at the entrance to her classroom, anxious to greet her students. Gail knew most of the girls who would be attending her senior literature class. She had taken the time to talk to each girl's English teacher from the year before, trying to determine the best approach to take with each student.

Gail had always dreamed of one day being a teacher, and a position at Eastland was the culmination of years of study and preparation. Although it was only her second year at Eastland, Gail had earned the respect of both her colleagues and students. Everyone at the preparatory school enjoyed spending time with the gifted young teacher.

Gail smiled to herself as she recalled her favorite teacher's advice. "A preparatory school should prepare students for more than continuing their education. It should prepare them to enter the world with confidence and a sense of social responsibility." As Gail waited for her students, her thoughts were on one student in particular. Gail hadn't anticipated the bond she felt with Jo Polniaczek, but she found herself drawn to the outwardly abrasive, yet inwardly gentle young student.

Gail was pleased that so many of her fellow teachers had also noticed Jo's special abilities and potential. She worried that the rumors associated with Jo's summer activities might taint Jo's reputation among the Eastland faculty, but was reassured by the fact that most of the other teachers based their opinions on personal experience with students and not on gossip spread through the rumor mill.

'Jo probably thinks she offended me when she reacted so strongly toward Brad', thought Gail. However, Gail had been touched that Jo cared enough about her teacher to become so concerned about Gail's welfare. 'I'll have to show her that it's okay for her to disagree with me. She needs to learn that arguments fought with words don't have to damage a friendship.'

Gail spoke to each girl as they entered her classroom, calling each by her given name. She was thrilled to see so many enthusiastic smiles on the girls' faces, having learned that students looked forward to her classes.

Gail didn't begin her class by discussing the summer reading list, which had been distributed to all of her students before the summer break. She didn't talk about her credentials, her syllabus, or her test schedule. Instead, Gail began her class by telling her students an electrifying story. Toward the end of class, as all the girls listened intently, looking forward to the dramatic conclusion of the story, groans were heard throughout the room when the dismissal bell rang.

Gail held up her hand to prevent the students from exiting class immediately and withdrew a small paperback book from her desk.

"Your assignment is to find out what happened to the two girls in the story I was telling. The answer is in this book. There's a copy for each of you at the door. Pick one up on your way out of class."

Gail beamed as students excitedly gathered around the small stack of books near the classroom exit. When Jo picked up her book and glanced back at Gail, giving her teacher a brief nod of acknowledgement, Gail winked at the young girl, producing a magnificent smile.

Tootie, who began the school year feeling left out, felt worse when she found out that Natalie had received permission to take two senior level classes with Jo and Blair. Natalie's keen reporting skills and dedication to the Eastlander newspaper garnered her special privileges that other underclassmen were denied.

Not only were Jo and Blair treating the younger roommate like a kid, her best friend Natalie was going along with the two older girls. Tootie was still steaming over Natalie's agreement with Blair that Tootie was too young to attend Margo's parties. Margo Roberts' parties were legendary at Eastland and Tootie knew that she'd never get another invitation.

The thirteen-year-old freshman turned up her nose at her three roommates when she entered the room. Natalie was sitting on the floor, leaning back against the foot of Blair's bed. Jo was lying across Blair's bed, her head resting on Blair's pillow and her legs crossed at her ankles. Blair was sitting cross-legged, Indian style with one knee pressed snugly against Jo's hip as she read aloud to her roommates.

At first, Tootie intended to complain, but as Blair continued reading Tootie became as engrossed in the novel as Jo and Natalie. Tootie climbed onto the top bunk and closed her eyes while listening to Blair's singsong voice, thinking that there were worse ways to spend the few precious hours before having to report to the kitchen in order to help Mrs. Garrett prepare for dinner.

By the time Mrs. Garrett entered the room, Tootie, Natalie, and Jo all had their eyes closed while Blair continued to read. Mrs. Garrett stood in the doorway for several minutes, charmed by the scene. She considerately waited for Blair to finish the chapter before clearing her voice and gaining the girls' attention.

"Jo, the doctor's office just called and told me that they had a cancellation and that you could have your stitches removed today if you'd like, instead of waiting until later in the week."

Jo enthusiastically nodded, looking forward to putting her injury behind her.

"We have to hurry so that I can be back in time for dinner, so you won't have time to change out of your uniform."

"That's okay, Mrs. G. I don't mind."

"I don't mind, either."

Blair added, slipping into her shoes and heading toward the door as if she'd been invited to go with Jo and Mrs. Garrett. Edna Garrett glanced at Jo for approval. Jo shrugged nonchalantly and slipped into her loafers as well. As Mrs. Garrett and the two older girls were leaving the room, Tootie jumped from her bunk bed.

"I want to go, too."

Mrs. Garrett pressed her lips together and shook her head. She knew Tootie was going through an awkward stage, but the whiny attitude was trying the normally indulgent older woman's patience.

"Tootie, this is not a pleasure trip. Blair and I will probably spend the entire afternoon waiting in the lobby. Perhaps Natalie will play a game of cards with you?"

Mrs. Garrett looked imploringly at Natalie and the good-natured girl smiled at her young roommate and reached for a deck of cards.

"Let them go, Tootie. I know some neat new card tricks. I'll show you if you promise not to tell anyone how I do them."

Tootie grinned and joined Natalie on the floor.

Mrs. Garrett was pleased when the nurse asked if she and Blair would like to join Jo in the doctor's office. Doctors sometimes didn't like for family members to be in the room during a procedure.

When she and Blair entered the procedure room, Jo was wearing a pale blue hospital gown, open in the back where the doctor would be removing her stitches. She rolled her eyes when Blair and Mrs. Garrett entered the room.

"No wisecracks about my fashion sense, Blair. This is the first and last time you'll ever see me wearing one of these ridiculous gowns."

Mrs. Garrett turned toward Blair, expecting a snicker or snide remark, but instead saw a very apprehensive expression on Blair's face. If Mrs. Garrett hadn't known better, she'd have thought that Blair was the one who was going to have stitches removed.

When the doctor arrived, he smiled reassuringly, telling Jo that the process might pinch a bit, but that it wouldn't be any more uncomfortable than the constant itching she'd endured for the past several weeks.

As the doctor reached toward Jo's back, Blair reached for her girlfriend's hand. Jo made a face at Mrs. Garrett, hoping to signify her amusement at Blair's behavior, but she didn't try to stop Blair from holding her hand. Jo tried her best to look confident as Blair seemed determined to maintain eye contact, much the way she did when she and Jo would cross the narrow part of the ledge at Cooper's Rock. Mrs. Garrett was touched by Blair's solicitous behavior toward Jo, reminded of Blair's sensitive nature.

The doctor was right, it didn't take long for him to remove the stitches and although Jo winced once during the process, she quickly covered the reflex. Blair listened carefully when the doctor gave Mrs. Garrett instructions on how to apply the antibiotic cream he prescribed for Jo, fully intending to be the one to nurse Jo back to health.

Mrs. Garrett was pleasantly surprised when she returned to the cafeteria and found Natalie and Tootie already performing their pre-dinner duties. Edna invested a great deal of time and energy into the girls under her supervision, but seeing them behave so considerately toward her and one another made all the effort worthwhile. She began to consider changing the length of their punishment from two months to one.

After her roommates were in their respective beds for the night, Blair sat on the edge of Jo's bed and read the last two chapters of the novel Miss Gallagher had given them in class that day. By the time she finished, she had almost lulled all three of her roommates to sleep. Having assured Mrs. Garrett that she was capable of administering Jo's antibiotic cream, Blair nudged her groggy girlfriend and whispered for her to roll over onto her stomach. Jo complied and Blair gently lifted the back of Jo's shirt and began to tenderly apply the cream to Jo's wound.

It was the first time Blair had seen the wound up close. When she had looked at it the first time, it was bandaged. In the doctor's office, her eyes had been glued to Jo's. Those same brown eyes filled with tears as Blair saw the full extent of the damage to Jo's back. She was careful not to sniffle, not wanting Jo to discover her tears, but her heart ached to think of how painful the injury must have been for Jo, both physically and emotionally.

Ignoring the fact that her other two roommates might still be awake, Blair leaned forward and pressed her lips to Jo's ear and whispered.

"Promise me that you'll never do anything like this again, Jo. It breaks my heart to see you hurt."

Jo rolled onto her side and gazed into the widest, most adorable eyes she'd ever seen.

"It's not that bad, Blair. It's not as if anyone is going to see the scar. Heh, heh, except for you, of course. Heh, it's not as if it was my face."

Blair wasn't at all reassured by Jo's response.

"Jo Polniaczek, don't even joke about a thing like that!"

Noting the moisture from Blair's concern still lingering on her eyelashes, Jo nodded affirmatively to her girlfriend.

"I promise, Blair. I'll never do anything to put myself in that kind of danger again. Don't look so worried. Nothing bad is going to happen to me. I promise."

Jo's words seemed to appease the compassionate blonde, who leaned forward and pressed a tender kiss to Jo's cheek before putting away the cream and going to her own bed. Once she was under her sheets, Blair rolled onto her side to gaze over at Jo, who was watching Blair with an expression of such a unique mixture of gratitude and desire that Blair found herself momentarily incapable of breathing.

It wasn't until Jo's soft green eyes began to blink repeatedly that the spell was broken and Blair was able to close her eyes as well.

As the week progressed, the girls fell into an evening routine. Since Mrs. Garrett's restrictions prevented the girls from watching television, Blair would read a few chapters from their latest reading assignment and then administer antibiotic cream to Jo's back.

Although Jo was restless, unable to fully participate in fall sporting events, Blair was enjoying the new school year immensely. She was finally beginning to feel secure enough in her relationship with Jo to let her guard down and enjoy the extra time being grounded gave them to spend with one another.

Jo called Bud and thanked him for driving her bike to Eastland. She was glad that Bud hadn't been offended by her behavior on the day he had delivered the bike and was reminded of how lucky she was to have such a wonderful uncle and cousins. Jo and Blair had come to depend upon Jo's bike to get around and a fully recovered Jo was looking forward to their upcoming visit to the Peekskill Retirement Center. Although Jo had to do some creative engineering to figure out a way to fit both Blair and her puppets on her bike, she wasn't about to give up a chance to once again ride through the streets with Blair's body pressed snugly against her back.

As soon as Blair and Jo entered the recreation hall with Blair's puppets in tow, Mrs. Treadwell and Mrs. Thatcher were there to greet them with hugs and questions about their summer. Blair's description of her trip to Paris was unusually detailed, confirming Jo's suspicion that Blair was trying to fill up the conversation so that Jo wouldn't have to gloss over her dramatic summer experience.

The girls enjoyed talking with the two elderly ladies so much that they lost track of time. Residents of the retirement center had already filled the recreation hall by the time Blair began removing her supplies from her bag. Unfortunately, the princess puppet was more fragile than her barbarian counterpart and Blair could see that the dummy would require extensive mending before making an appearance.

She groaned as she began working feverishly on the puppet, not wanting to delay the show.

"Geez, Blair. Can't you do that any faster? Some of these guys look like they're gonna nod off if you don't start soon."

"I'm working as fast as I can. Maybe you could tell jokes or something until I get things ready?"

"Give me a break. If you wanted a comedy act to begin the show you should have called Geri or brought Natalie with you."

"Jo, please. Isn't there anything you can do?"

Jo scanned the room, her eyes landing on the piano in the corner. She sighed reluctantly as she looked at Blair's distressed expression.

"You're gonna owe me for this, Blair. Oh, and you can't tell anyone else."

Before Blair could express her confusion, Jo was already walking away. Confident that Jo would think of some way to distract the senior citizens while she repaired the princess puppet, Blair returned her attention to the little doll's disheveled appearance.

When she heard the first notes being played on the piano, Blair thought someone else had arrived to entertain the seniors. She was stunned, however, when she heard Jo singing. Looking up, she saw Jo sitting at the piano. The smile on Jo's face as she played and sang was one of pure delight, causing Blair to wonder why Jo had kept her talent a secret.

It was difficult for Blair to focus on the task of repairing the puppet when the seniors clapped enthusiastically for Jo, encouraging the talented brunette to continue. Blair listened as Jo played a mixture of old classics and new standards, beginning with Moon River and ending with the Barry Manilow tune, Can't Smile Without You.

Halfway through Jo's impromptu concert, Mrs. Treadwell elbowed Mrs. Thatcher and nodded toward Blair. Mrs. Thatcher smiled knowingly at her companion after noting the look of sheer adoration on Blair Warner's face as she watched Jo play the piano and sing. When Jo stopped playing and turned to Blair, her shy smile and uncertain expression conveyed her desire for Blair's approval, which she received in abundance. Blair couldn't have contained her brilliant smile if her life depended upon it.

Halfheartedly, Blair carried her puppets onto the stage to begin her show. Jo was going to be an impossible act to follow, but Blair was happy to have her girlfriend's singing outshine her puppet show.

Jo and Blair turned out to be the perfect combination for the retirement center. Jo's songs not only entertained, many of them brought back memories for the senior adults who were youngsters when some of the classic songs were first recorded. The sentimental songs sometimes brought an emotional tear to one of the senior's eyes. Blair's show, on the other hand, produced tears of laughter.

Blair began her show as usual, interacting with the barbarian puppet. When she produced the princess puppet, the audience was enchanted, even before the puppet spoke. Blair explained that the princess was lost and that she was staying with the barbarian until she could find her way back to her kingdom.

The barbarian puppet, however, scoffed at Blair's explanation.

"She's not lost. They probably banished her for snobbery in the first degree", complained the barbarian.

Blair jumped to the defense of the princess, telling the barbarian that the princess wasn't a snob, she was simply discriminating.

The barbarian puppet snorted.

"She's the reason we started late today. Did you tell them that?"

Looking at the audience, most of whom were watching the barbarian puppet instead of watching Blair, the barbarian continued.

"We rode here today on Jo's motorcycle and the delicate little flower wouldn't come on stage until Blair fixed her hair."

In response, the princess puppet tossed the yellow strands of yarn around in what the densest observer could clearly identify as a classic Blair Warner mannerism.

The barbarian went on to describe how miserable his life had become since the princess had moved in with him. He pointed out that they disagreed about everything and that the princess was constantly criticizing him for eating his food before it was completely dead.

Blair suggested that it might be helpful if the barbarian received advice about how to get along with his new roommate from people who had been rooming with one another for many years. The ventriloquist asked for volunteers to help the barbarian deal with his pampered new roommate and a host of hands waved eagerly in the air. Apparently half of the senior citizens at the center believed that they were also rooming with barbarians and had plenty of suggestions for the gruff little puppet as to how he could improve his behavior.

Some of the funniest lines in Blair's puppet show came from various residents of the retirement center as they described how they deal with one another's idiosyncrasies.

While the ventriloquist show was in full swing, Edna Garrett strode swiftly into the retirement center. She'd been promising Blair that she was going to take time to watch her act for over a year and had never made good on her promise. She intended to rectify that oversight immediately. She knocked on Amy's door, not surprised to see that the director of the center was hard at work on a Saturday.

"Hi, Amy."

"Hello, Edna. Did we have an appointment today?"

"No, I wanted to drop by your office on my way to the recreation hall to see if you needed any supplies for your kitchen."

Amy smiled in appreciation.

"Thank you for offering, but we have everything we need."

Amy checked her watch.

"Are you giving Blair a ride home after the show?"

Edna blushed, having not realized how late she had arrived.

"I had hoped to catch a glimpse of her act, whatever it is. I don't even know how long it usually lasts."

Amy grinned.

"You haven't seen Blair's act?"

"No, I haven't. I was hoping to see it today."

Amy glanced at her watch again.

"I think you're in luck. For some reason, Blair started later than planned. She should still be performing, but you'd better hurry."

Edna nodded and walked briskly down the corridor toward the recreation hall.

As one resident after the other gave the barbarian advice on how to treat a princess, Blair was enjoying her puppet show more than the seniors she was supposed to be entertaining. Unexpectedly, however, Mrs. Thatcher stood up, drawing everyone's attention. Of the two ladies who had been rooming together as long as anyone at the center could remember, Mrs. Thatcher was the quieter, less intrusive of the two. Therefore, it surprised the other residents when she stood in order to be heard.

"What about the little princess there? Shouldn't she have to adjust to the barbarian as well? After all, it is a partnership and I can think of several things that she could do to make the barbarian happier. The goal is for BOTH of them to be happy, right, not just the pampered little princess?"

Blair, who had been speaking for herself and both puppets, was speechless. A loud "Yeehaw" from a cowboy near the back of the room confirmed that the barbarians in the audience felt it was their turn to talk.

Blair tried to facilitate the discussion as multiple roommates began expressing their opinions at once. When the audience participation portion of Blair's show appeared as if it might become a free-for-all, the barbarian puppet silenced his advocates by asking that the princess be given a chance to speak.

Blair was pleased that the barbarians in the audience responded positively to the puppet without seeming to realize that she controlled his comments. Feeling like she had regained control of the show, Blair allowed the princess puppet to vent her grievances about living with the barbarian.

As the princess reached the climax of her speech, Jo walked onto the stage and took the barbarian puppet from Blair. Blair found Jo's behavior odd, but didn't see any reason to stop the dialogue she had practiced for the princess.

Without a word of warning, in the middle of Blair's dialogue, Jo thrust the barbarian toward the little princess. As the crowd cheered and giggled, Jo made several loud smacking sounds with her lips, in order to convey the level of passion in the kiss between the two puppets.

Blair's lips, which had barely moved during the entire performance parted as she stared at Jo in dismay. The only person more surprised by Jo's stunt than Blair Warner was Edna Garrett, who put her hands to her mouth in order to silence the gasp that would have otherwise been loud enough to draw the attention of everyone in the recreation hall.

"And that", pronounced Jo, "is how you silence a princess."

Amidst whoops and cheers, Blair stood up and took a bow, nodding for Jo to join her, which she did. As the seniors continued to applaud, the two girls locked eyes and smiled before taking another bow.

Edna Garrett slowly stepped backwards, hoping that no one had noticed her arrival. Her head was swimming with confusion. How many times had she seen Jo and Blair look at one another that way and ignored her own intuition? How long had she refused to see what was blatantly staring her in the face?

When Amy came around the corner and saw Mrs. Garrett, she was immediately concerned, leading the older woman to the nearest chair and offering to get her a drink of water. Mrs. Garrett declined, asking Amy not to mention to Blair that she'd been there, since she had missed the show anyway.

Edna Garrett was an uncommon woman. She had served in the Peace Corps for two years upon obtaining her nursing degree and had since left the nursing profession and offered her services as a nanny to wealthy families in order to travel the world. Edna believed in living life to the fullest. She also believed that nothing was as important as offering love and support to members of her family. Edna's dilemma was in deciding what constituted support toward two young girls who were so far over their heads in love that they could easily drown in the consequences of their actions.

Jo sat on the edge of the stage with her legs dangling over the side, occasionally glancing over at Blair, who was putting away her puppets.

"G'head, Blair. You're dying to say something."

Blair's smile brightened and her eyebrows rose.

"Barry Manilow?"

Jo leapt from her position on the stage and started pacing back and forth.

"I knew it was a mistake to help you. That's what I get for trying to be nice."

Blair giggled as she stepped from the stage and followed Jo back and forth, trying to get Jo to look at her.

"Jo, why haven't you told anyone about your talent? You should be enrolled in the music program at Eastland."

"Why haven't you told anyone that you're a ventriloquist?"

Blair had answered the question before, so she understood that Jo was trying to make a point.

"It doesn't fit the image of an heiress."

Jo nodded her head.

"Can you imagine the amount of ribbing I'd get if my friends heard me playing sappy love songs on the piano?"

Blair was suddenly struck by how much of themselves she and Jo felt uncomfortable sharing with even their closest friends. She stepped closer to Jo, whispering despite the fact that they were alone in the recreation hall.

"I loved listening to you play the piano, Jo. I, um, thought it was sexy."

In light of the compliment, Jo had difficulty looking directly into Blair's eyes.

"Come on, Blair. You don't have to say something like that. There's nothing sexy about playing sappy love songs."

Blair reached for Jo's hand, holding it up for examination. The lotion Mrs. Garrett had given Jo had helped restore Jo's hands to their natural youthful state, but Jo still seemed a little self-conscious about them.

"Your fingers are strong enough to take apart an engine, yet sensitive enough to play the piano beautifully. That's very sexy."

Jo swallowed hard, amazed at the impact Blair's words had on her. She touched her index finger to Blair's lips, tenderly outlining them. When Blair slightly opened her lips, extending her tongue to gently caress Jo's finger, Jo moaned with pleasure.

Blair continued to kiss and suckle Jo's fingers. She was thrilled with the intensity of Jo's response. When Jo finally withdrew her hand, Blair's breath was ragged when she spoke.

"I hope you'll play for me often."

Jo hedged.

"Mrs. Garrett doesn't have a piano."

Blair pointed to the piano in the recreation hall.

"You could play for me when we come here. You could play for everyone. They loved hearing you sing as much as I did. Please."

Blair drew out the last word of her request, causing Jo to press her body closer to her girlfriend's.

"I guess it wouldn't kill me to play a few songs for the residents every now and then. I don't want to get too rusty."

Still trembling, Blair continued the conversation as if her heart wasn't pounding and her arms weren't aching to show Jo exactly how sexy she found the talented brunette.

"Did you take music classes at your old school?"

Jo snorted.

"My old school didn't have any music classes, Blair. I learned to play at the bar where my mom waitresses."

Blair bit her lip, trying not to show any sign of disapproval.

"Hey, it's not a dump or anything. It's just . . . well, she can make more money in a bar."

Blair knew how sensitive Jo was about her mother and her mother's profession.

"I didn't say anything like that. I think it's great that you had access to a piano, no matter where it was."

Jo smiled and then leaned forward to gently kiss Blair's lips.

"I'm glad you had access to a mirror, princess."

Blair made what Jo considered a goofy face and rolled her eyes.


During the weeks that followed, Edna Garrett paid close attention to Blair and Jo. They argued and fought as they always had, but Edna noticed that after most arguments Blair and Jo would grin at one another, as if they knew a secret to which no one else was privy. She also stood at their doorway at night while Blair read to her roommates. Jo's facial muscles, normally fixed in a permanent scowl, appeared to relax as soon as Blair began to read, as if simply the sound of Blair's voice was enough to calm Jo's mood.

Most of the behaviors Mrs. Garrett witnessed weren't new, only her new perspective cast a different light on them. Jo was always carrying things for Blair and opening doors for the debutante. Blair was always checking her watch whenever Jo was late returning from her job at the library.

The most surprising discovery should have been the most obvious, but Mrs. Garrett rarely followed the girls outside of the cafeteria before her curiosity about their relationship had been sparked. Feeling somewhat like a snoop, she followed Jo and Blair into the garage one day as they were leaving for the retirement center. The girls waved to their guardian as Jo drove past her on the way out of the garage. As she watched the girls leave, Mrs. Garrett noticed for the first time that Blair's initials were on the back of her helmet. The helmet was so simple in design, an exact replica of Jo's with inverse coloring, that Edna was certain Blair hadn't purchased it for herself. 'How could I not have anticipated this?' pondered Edna.

Day after day the evidence stacked up, leading the tenderhearted guardian to conclude that the two girls who had captured her heart had captured one another's hearts as well.

Edna had been especially concerned about the living arrangements. The fact that Blair and Jo shared a bedroom had to complicate their relationship. Edna made a point of finding reasons to be in the girls' room when they were changing into their pajamas or into more casual clothes after classes and she was pleased to see that Jo and Blair had apparently set boundaries beyond the norm for roommates. Jo seemed particularly careful to avert her eyes when Blair was not totally dressed, increasing Mrs. Garrett's fondness toward the girl she considered the worldlier of the two.

The volatile confrontations between the two, which usually erupted shortly after one of Blair's many dates, made a great deal more sense in light of Edna's new understanding of their relationship. If they hoped to keep their sexual orientation a secret, however, it made sense to Edna that at least one of them would have to maintain an active social life that included dating boys. It saddened Mrs. Garrett to think that the girls felt they had to hide their relationship, but she understood the importance of keeping the nature of their friendship private.

Edna thought of Eddie Brennan and sighed sadly. She liked Eddie, but considered him far too mature for Jo. She had never considered the chaste kisses she'd seen him share with Jo as reflective of the sort of relationship a boy and girl who planned to elope should share. 'Poor Eddie', thought Edna, wondering if he had any clue that his girlfriend was a lesbian.

Edna had been pleased at the beginning of the school year with how much more peaceful it was in the cafeteria. She had wondered if the peaceful atmosphere would be broken once her ban on dating was lifted and her question had been quickly answered. She had grounded the girls for having alcohol on campus, but she had lifted the ban that morning and immediately ascertained that Blair's pretense of being boy crazy was adversely impacting her budding relationship with Jo.

It concerned Edna to hear the two girls arguing so vehemently again. The more Edna thought of the two girls as a couple, the more suitable she considered Jo as a partner for Blair. Despite her prickly exterior, Edna had often seen the tender, caring side of Jo Polniaczek. Jo's strong convictions and loyal nature would serve Blair well, especially when it came to dealing with Blair's overbearing father. However, those same characteristics would cause trouble between the two if Blair resumed her active dating schedule.

Edna's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the two lovebirds yelling at one another at the top of their lungs. She was about to go upstairs and confirm her suspicions about what had ignited their most recent argument when the phone rang.

Edna listened as Mr. Parker spoke, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. All thoughts of the young couple upstairs and how she might help them to one day acknowledge their feelings toward one another took second place to thoughts of how she might keep them safe.

Jo was livid. Princess Grace couldn't wait one lousy day. She couldn't wait just one lousy day! Blair was prowling for a date to the costume party only minutes after the ban Mrs. Garrett had placed on dating was lifted. Jo snapped at Blair.

"I'm telling ya, it was NOT my fault!"

Jo tried to walk away from Blair in order to cool her temper, but the irritated blonde wouldn't back down.

"He was just about to ask me when you descended on us."

Jo resented Blair's close proximity, suspecting that Blair was standing so close to her because she knew the effect she had on Jo. Jo struggled to steady her breathing as she watched Blair's chest rise and fall with the fury of her anger.

"I was riding by, and besides the sidewalk is public property."

"You scared him off."

'I'll do more than scare him the next time the twerp makes a move on you,' thought Jo.

"Scared who?"

Tootie usually didn't get in the middle of one of Blair and Jo's arguments, but it had been a long time since they had gone at it with such vigor and she was interested in what had caused the sudden eruption.

"Michael Sampson." Jo practically sneered when she said his name.

"From Bates?"

Jo hated that Tootie recognized the name of the popular Bates athlete.

Blair and Jo had been standing toe to toe during their argument, but when Tootie interrupted, Jo took the opportunity to try to walk away again. Blair, however, was not to be deterred. She followed Jo to the other side of the room and stood directly in front of the angry brunette as she continued to hurl accusations. Jo kept trying to count, as Miss Gallagher had taught her, but every time Blair moved into Jo's line of vision, Jo's mind was assaulted with depictions of Blair smiling sweetly at Michael Sampson.

"He was going to be mine for the party if it hadn't been for you."

"What did I do?"

Jo feigned innocence, knowing exactly what she had done to anger Blair.

"He was up to 'Blair, would you like to go to the —' when you practically ran him over with your hopper."

Jo licked her lips and glared at Blair. She had to move again, her body was screaming at her to reach out and grab the feisty blonde.

"The word is chopper."

"Hopper, chopper, what's the difference?"

As Jo walked past Blair, she noticed a slight tremor go through her girlfriend and was gratified that Blair was also having trouble ignoring the attraction between them while they fought. Hoping to press her momentary advantage, Jo decided to try to charm her way out of their argument.

"I can't help it if he goes speechless every time he sees me. Face it, Blair, it's just some kind of animal thing."

After delivering her remarks, Jo strutted across the room, knowing how much Blair loved to surreptitiously watch Jo walk. Jo didn't think it was her fault that Michael Sampson was a coward who practically wet his pants when he saw Jo heading towards him on her motorcycle. Granted, she wasn't supposed to ride on the sidewalk, but she couldn't resist the chance to show Blair what a pansy her new boy toy was. Now, Blair was blaming Jo for ruining her chances with thick-headed Michael Sampson from Bates Academy.

Blair was not amused that Jo was enjoying her predicament. It was far too late to get another invitation to the costume party and Jo knew that Blair's mother insisted that Blair continue dating boys. Given the choice, Blair would happily limit her social activities. She and Monica had agreed, however, that Blair could continue to see Jo as long as Blair didn't limit her prospects exclusively to Jo.

"Hey, what movie stars are you guys going to the party as?"

Tootie was happy to change the subject. She had forgotten how irritating it was to listen to Jo and Blair squabble with one another.

"Only the most dynamic woman in the world today, Jane Fonda."

Natalie couldn't see any resemblance between Blair and Jane Fonda, in looks or personality.

"Jane Fonda? Why are you going as Jane Fonda?"

Blair tossed her hair and walked over to the mirror as she spoke, admiring her reflection.

"Because she's committed. She's dedicated and she's liberated, like me. Besides, someone was already going as Bo Derek."

Jo could barely keep the grin from her face as she attempted to appear offended.

"You can't go as Jane Fonda."

"Why? Who are you going as?"

Jo waited a beat to make sure Blair was paying attention, then delivered her bombshell.

"Peter Fonda."

Blair went ballistic when she discovered that Jo was going to the costume party as Peter Fonda. It was going to be impossible to explain THAT to her mother.

Tootie and Natalie found the coincidence hysterical and couldn't refrain from laughing.

"A brother and sister act. Look out!"

Blair marched toward Jo, once again crowding her personal space.

"You realize, of course, you'll have to pick someone else."

Jo was able to mask her expression, but her eyes twinkled with delight as she continued to argue with Blair.

"Not on your life! I've already got my leather jacket, my boots, and come this Friday night I'll be Easy Rider."

While Jo was talking, she slipped on a pair of sunglasses, snapped her fingers, and treated Blair to what she considered her sexiest, most confident strut. Jo had been right about her animal magnetism. Blair was speechless for several seconds. When she was able to talk, she couldn't believe the absurdity of the words coming out of her own mouth.

"You can't go as Peter Fonda, he's a man!"

As Jo and Blair stared at one another in stunned disbelief of the dialogue between them, Natalie quipped.

"She was always a whiz at biology."

At that point, Jo's mask dropped briefly and Blair realized that Jo had been manipulating the situation all along so that she and Blair would wind up attending the party together. As much as Jo had pretended to be upset about the coincidence linking their costumes, Blair suspected Jo was secretly thrilled by how things were working out.

Blair's suspicions were correct. Earlier that day, Jo overheard Blair telling Nancy and Margo that she was going to the party dressed as Jane Fonda. As far as Jo was concerned, it was an odd choice, but it gave Jo a wonderful opportunity to rein in the flirtatious blonde. It didn't hurt that Jo's choice of costume was also going to make it clear to Michael Sampson that he was walking on thin ice any time he was walking near Blair Warner.

It was easy for Jo to sell herself as Fonda's easy riding brother, Peter. She already had most of the gear she would need for her costume.

The argument between Jo and Blair would have continued into the evening, but Mrs. Garrett entered their bedroom with some disturbing news.

"Girls, I have to talk to you."

"What is it, Mrs. G?"

Concerned by the seriousness of Mrs. Garrett's tone, Jo removed the sunglasses she had donned earlier when flirting with Blair as she looked toward her guardian.

"Something's happened in town. You all know Mrs. King?"

"Sure, the headmaster's secretary."

"This evening, on her way to her car, a man attacked her. She was raped."

Jo looked directly into Blair's anxious eyes, wanting to reassure Blair, but unable to show the kind of physical affection she felt the situation warranted. The argument that had seemed so relevant a few moments earlier seemed insignificant in light of Mrs. Garrett's revelation.

Later that night, looking for an excuse to be close to Jo, Blair asked if Jo would like for her to rub some of the cream the doctor had prescribed onto Jo's back. It had been several days since Blair had administered the cream, but she was distressed over Mrs. Garrett's news and needed the physical contact with Jo.

Jo, sensing the reason for Blair's offer, agreed that the cream made her feel better and thanked Blair for suggesting it. There was a full moon that night, so Blair turned off the bedside table lamp before beginning to apply the cream. As her fingers gently stroked Jo's back, Blair stretched out along Jo's bed, gazing into her girlfriend's eyes.

"Jo, can I ask you something about the night you were stabbed?"

Jo was surprised by the question. She knew Blair's mind was on the rape, but she nodded affirmatively, wondering where Blair's question was leading.

"After you were stabbed, could you see what was happening around you, or did you pass out?"

Jo swallowed hard before answering. It was difficult for her to talk about that night, even with Blair.

"I was face down on the floor, so I couldn't see anything, but I could hear what was going on around me."

"What happened while you were on the floor?"

Jo tried to keep her voice as quiet as possible, she could hear Tootie and Natalie tossing and turning in their beds. None of them could sleep well after hearing about what had happened to Mrs. King.

"I could hear Jessie screaming orders to some of the other Young Diablos. She yelled at someone to move me and then two girls, I don't know which ones, grabbed my arms and dragged me behind the counter."

"Were you afraid?"

Jo's brow furrowed.

"I'd have been crazy if I hadn't been afraid in that situation, Blair. Even after I heard the sirens and knew that the police were on the way, I didn't feel safe until the policewoman who found me was leaning over me. She held a towel to my back with one hand and she held her gun with the other. I felt safe with her watching over me."

"She should have taken you straight to the hospital."

"It wasn't her call. Her sergeant made the decision to send me to jail. The policewoman treated me with respect. I'd like to meet her again one day so that I could thank her."

Blair stopped pretending to rub cream onto Jo's back, allowing her fingers to trail up and down Jo's arm as they whispered to one another.

"I can't imagine going through something like that. I can't imagine going through what happened to Mrs. King, either."

Jo leaned up on her elbow, her green eyes glistening with intensity.

"Don't try to imagine that, Blair. Nothing like that will ever happen to you."

"You can't know that, Jo. You were stabbed and Mrs. King was raped. Those things could have happened to any of us."

"Look, I shouldn't have gone to that pool hall. I put myself into a dangerous situation. Mrs. King didn't do anything wrong, but she was alone and you're not going to be alone, Blair. I'm going to be with you and I'm not going to let anything happen to you."

When Blair sighed, Jo leaned forward and pressed her lips to Blair's ear, whispering so softly that Blair could barely hear her.

"Believe me, Blair. Believe IN me. I'll never let anyone hurt you."

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

Jo stretched, looking around the room to determine what had awakened her. There was a full moon that night, filling their bedroom with soft light, tinted blue by the full length windows that spanned two walls of the room. When Jo didn't see Blair, she started to get out of bed, but her movements alerted her to her lover's location. Blair had apparently fallen asleep in what Jo considered a uniquely interesting position.

Jo smiled as she flexed her leg muscles again and watched for Blair's reaction. The slight movement was enough to cause the sleeping beauty to wrap her arms and leg more possessively around the leg she was cuddling while resting her cheek on Jo's thigh.

"What are you doing down there, Blair?"

In her half-asleep state, Blair mumbled her reply.

"If I have to tell you, then I must be doing something wrong."

Jo chuckled.

"Have you been there all night?"

"Mmm, I fell asleep."

"Heh, so did I, but I still found my way to a decent pillow. Get up here or else your neck will be sore tomorrow."

Jo sat up in bed and reached for Blair's shoulders, half lifting her in order to help the sleepy woman into a more suitable sleeping position. Blair was a very energetic woman, but when she was tired, she would nod off in the oddest places. Jo would often turn the television off after watching a movie with Blair, only to find Blair sleeping soundly on her shoulder. When Blair was working on legal briefs, Jo sometimes found her sleeping at her desk. More recently, she'd find Blair in her art studio late in the evening, asleep at her easel.

It wasn't surprising to Jo that Blair would be exhausted after the reunion banquet. Of course, weariness wasn't the only thing that could cause Blair to fall asleep in a variety of locations. For Blair Warner, making love with Jo was a more effective sleep aid than any drug on the market. Fortunately for Blair, once she and Jo moved into their own apartment they had limited most of their lovemaking to the bedroom. Jo would often, however, turn to her lover to whisper some endearment while her own heart was still racing and her face still flushed with pleasure, only to find Blair contentedly sleeping next to her.

It was an immensely satisfied smile that greeted Jo as she fluffed a pillow for Blair.

"I thought you only nodded off like that after I made you happy."

Blair yawned and turned her head, stretching her neck muscles.

"Making you happy makes me happy, too. Haven't you noticed?"

Jo chuckled.

"It's hard for me to notice much of anything when you're making me happy, Blair, but the fact that you fell asleep down there leads me to believe that I wasn't the only one you were making happy last night."

Blair smiled and snuggled her face into Jo's neck.

"Do I make you happy?"

"You did last night."

Blair groaned and pinched Jo's ear in disapproval.

"I always make you happy."

"You keep talking dirty and you're gonna have to make me happy all over again."

"I am not talking dirty."

Jo laughed. Blair hated it when Jo used terms Blair considered vulgar, but otherwise Blair had no inhibitions about telling Jo exactly what she wanted Jo to do to her, and what she planned to do to Jo. Jo found their current 'happy' talk amusing.

"I was being sarcastic, Blair."

Blair pulled away from her lover and frowned.

"Are you making fun of me?"

Jo maneuvered her ear away from Blair's fingers and grinned.

"Will you get all hot and bothered if I say yes?"

Blair yawned again.

"Probably not."

Jo smiled, in spite of her disappointment.

"I'm sorry, baby. I know you're tired, but I couldn't let you sleep with your neck twisted like a pretzel. Try to go back to sleep."

When Jo didn't hear a response from Blair, she knew her lover had indeed fallen asleep. She smiled as she cradled the sleeping woman in her arms. It wasn't until Jo closed her eyes in an effort to drift back to sleep that she realized why she had been unable to sleep earlier. Blair's warm breath caressing Jo's left breast was just as distracting as it had been when it was caressing her inner thigh. 'Out of the pan and into the fire,' mused Jo.

Since she couldn't sleep, Jo thought back fondly on the banquet. Her only disappointment was that their friends seemed less interested in discussing Blair's upcoming art exhibit than in categorizing Jo's announcement as a romantic gesture on Jo's part. Jo would have argued the point, but after seeing how thrilled Blair had been by their friends' idealistic perception of Jo, Jo accepted their praise gracefully.

Nancy wasn't the only one of their friends Jo overhead expressing an opinion as to how lucky Blair was to have such a considerate partner. Looking down at the nude body of the woman she loved more than life, her beauty enhanced by the gentle light of the moon, the often cynical Bronx native reasoned that she was the lucky one.

Jo studied her partner. Blair appeared exceptionally vulnerable while sleeping. The happy expression on her face was indicative of her obliviousness to anything other than the sweet dreams that had lulled her back to sleep. 'Lucky Blair' was the phrase Jo had used to tease her lover earlier that evening, but no one knew better than Jo that Blair was not always lucky.

A few days earlier, Tootie had asked Jo about the details of the kidnapping attempt during which Blair was injured and E.J. was traumatized, but Jo had brushed off the question. While Jo, the painfully honest novelist, had written about some horrifying experiences in her gritty portrayal of a female NYPD detective, Jo, Blair's partner, doubted she would ever be able to discuss what had happened to Blair and E.J. without breaking down in tears.

Jo had tortured herself following the attack, believing that if she had only gone to New York with Blair and E.J. that day things would have worked out differently. It should have been a joyful day for Blair and Jo. Their family had made plans to help Bailey move into her dorm room at Langley that morning. Jo recalled how delighted she and Blair had been that Bailey chose to enroll at their alma mater.

Blair had a meeting at the Warner Foundation in New York that afternoon, so she decided to take E.J. with her while Jo, Garrett, and Mrs. G. helped Bailey move her belongings. Blair considered it a grand opportunity to take E.J. on an impromptu shopping spree. When Blair's father found out that his daughter and granddaughter were coming to New York, he invited them to have lunch with him after their shopping excursion.

While Jo tortured herself with regrets for not being with Blair and E.J. in New York, Blair tortured herself with regrets for accepting her father's invitation. Blair, however, had no way of knowing about the threats David Warner had recently received after aligning himself with a controversial group of foreign investors.

After lunching together, Blair's father had offered to take Blair and E.J. to the Warner Foundation in his limousine. During the short trip, six men, riding in two SUV's, tried to block the limousine and abduct the high profile entrepreneur. As gunshots riddled the limousine, the driver lost control, turning the car on its side. E.J. and David Warner were uninjured, but Blair's leg was pinned in the wreckage and a blow to the head caused her to slip in and out of consciousness.

David Warner had considered his three agent security team excessive, but the three men trailing the limousine in a second automobile were no match for the heavily-armed assailants. The security team leader, Donald Riff, directed the two other agents to remove the injured limousine driver and two uninjured members of the Warner family from the car and escort them to safety in a nearby building. Since they were unable to extract Blair from the car, Mr. Riff remained in the limousine with the injured heiress as the assault on the car intensified. Blair's first sense of awareness after the limousine careened out of control was of her daughter being forcibly removed from her arms. It was only the calm voice of Donald Riff, explaining that E.J. was being taken to safety that convinced Blair to willingly release her six-year-old child, who was hysterically clinging to her mother.

Although her mind was fuzzy, Blair recognized Donald Riff's voice; he'd been a constant presence throughout her life. It occurred to Blair, as she lay immobile in her father's abandoned car, that she had never had a personal conversation with the man who remained by her side, at great risk to himself. The continuous sound of bullets pounding the exterior of the limousine made it almost impossible for them to communicate, but Donald Riff didn't need words to convey the urgency of their situation.

The assault lasted less than ten minutes, but the repercussions would last a lifetime. Knowing that police units would be arriving within minutes, but realizing that they would probably be too late, Donald Riff made a decision that would forever alter Blair Warner's behavior toward her employees and staff members. It was the last decision he would ever make.

Blair had been floating back and forth between painful awareness and blissful oblivion, when she felt the additional weight of Donald Riff's bulletproof vest as he strapped it over his injured client. During the entire assault, Donald Riff never fired his revolver. In his position, it would have been impossible to ensure that bystanders were not already taking cover from the barrage of bullets from the SUV, leaving them vulnerable to any shots fired from the limousine. Donald Riff's only option, short of abandoning his post, was to stay with the injured woman and defend her as best he could until help arrived. Help did arrive, only seconds after the heroic security officer was killed.

The police were eventually able to capture all six gunmen, two of whom died shortly thereafter from gunshot wounds they received during the standoff with police. In the aftermath of the crisis, David Warner hoped to lessen E.J.'s distress by allowing her to see that her mother was okay. Except for a concussion, Blair's injuries were limited primarily to her knee, but Blair's unconscious state only frightened the inconsolable child.

Jo's heart pounded as she recalled the sense of dread that had paralyzed her when she learned of the attack. She leaned forward in bed, trying to shake the fear of that day from her mind. Jo didn't realize that after she leaned forward, she'd begun to subconsciously caress Blair's knee, waking her sleeping partner.

Blair removed Jo's hand from her knee and pressed it to her lips. Knowing that Blair was usually a sound sleeper, Jo was concerned that her caress had hurt her partner.

"I didn't mean to wake you. I didn't —?"

"No, you didn't."

Blair gently stroked Jo's shoulder.

"I woke up because you moved my pillow."

Jo leaned back in bed, extending her arm so that Blair could rest her head in the nook of Jo's shoulder.

"We have so much to be grateful for, Jo. When I notice my scar, I don't think about those gunmen, I think about Mr. Riff and what he did for me."

"For us." Jo corrected. "What he did for us."

Jo turned onto her side, facing Blair. Then Jo opened her mouth to speak, but changed her mind at the last minute. Blair didn't move, mesmerized by Jo's contemplative mood and penetrating gaze. When Jo leaned forward, there was no playfulness in her kiss. Her lips gently tugged at Blair's for several minutes before Jo's tongue sought Blair's. There was no teasing between them as Blair followed Jo's lead, allowing her lover to communicate the depth of her emotions silently, slowly, during kiss after kiss.

As she listened to Jo's breathing become more and more labored, Blair felt her own body trembling. It had been a long time since they had kissed one another for so long without escalating the contact and the effort it took to refrain from reaching forward and pulling Jo against her accentuated the poignancy of the kisses. Occasionally, Jo would pull away for a few seconds to catch her breath and gaze into Blair's eyes, but even in those moments she never lost contact with Blair's lips.

Jo never touched the slightly visible, much older scar on Blair's forehead, giving that area of Blair's face no more or less attention than any other part of her lover as she burned her gaze into every inch of the receptive blonde's beautiful face.

Jo Polniaczek had been kissing Blair Warner for over twenty five years, yet her chest hurt from the effort it took to breathe evenly without gasping for air. When Jo felt the moisture welling in her eyes, she wasn't embarrassed. She was with the one woman in the world who understood why Jo's emotions sometimes overwhelmed her. Jo knew beyond a doubt that Blair would welcome Jo's tears as they fell on her lover's face as easily as she had welcomed Jo's kiss on her lips, as easily as she would welcome Jo's hands on her body, Jo's fragrance as she expressed her passion, Jo's weight when she no longer possessed the strength to hold herself above her lover, Jo's gentle breath on her breast when she would finally rest her mind, body, and spirit against the reassuring beat of Blair's heart.

6: Fear Strikes

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