DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em, just playing with them. Thanks for the loaner!
CHALLENGE: Written for Passion & Perfection's Big 5000.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL/SERIES: Sequel to Learning to Dress.

By the ghost


"Hey Tootie, let's take a ride." Jo suggested one afternoon.

Tootie looked up in surprise. "How come?"

"I've got somethin' I wanna show ya," the tough girl replied. "Come on, you can wear my helmet."

She had to admit, she'd always wanted to ride Jo's bike. "Ok!" She closed her sketch book and jumped up in excitement.

"Better lose the skates," Jo suggested.

Forty minutes later they were pulling in to a little cut out on the side of the highway. Jo swung easily off the bike, resettling her backpack as she asked. "Enjoy the ride?"

"Will you show me how to drive it?" Tootie asked in excitement.

Jo laughed. "In about three years. Come on, give me the helmet, we're walking from here." Jo locked the helmet into the seat and led off down a trail.

Tootie followed. "Where are we going?"

"You'll see," the older girl replied evasively.

It didn't take too long before they came to a small pond. Jo led Tootie a bit off the path to a nice dead log on a small incline, surrounded by thick moss. Tootie took a deep breath, smelling the pungent odor of damp earth and rotting leaves. "Wow, it's really nice here."

Jo looked around. "Yieh. You know I found this place on my second day. I felt kind of alone then, you know?"

Tootie nodded, remembering how angry the three of them had been with Jo. "Yeah, I bet you did."

"Anyhow, it kinda became my special place. The sort of thing that I don't share with anyone, just keep to myself." Jo reached into her bag and pulled out a leatherbound book. "Kinda like a journal is, you know? I figured since you've read this, you might as well see it all."

Double stuffed uh-ohs. Tootie thought, staring at the book.

It started after she had run out of the kitchen, having just screamed at Mrs. Garrett. "You think it's a terrific thing giving a black girl a white education, and white friends. Nobody cares that I'm going to wake up one morning and not know who I am. Well, I care, and I won't let that happen to me. I just won't."

She'd stormed upstairs to cry herself out. Nobody else could understand. They couldn't! She threw her pillow at the wall in a fit, overbalancing Jo's open toolbox. That stopped her completely. She was still fairly intimidated by the older girl. If I broke something, oh god. Frantically, she began picking tools up, stuffing them into the box in a more-or-less orderly fashion. The sprocket set had flown apart, rolling all over the floor.

Tootie stretched out full length on the floor, stretching to reach the sprockets that had rolled under the bed. Hey, what's this? She pulled out a handsomely covered brown leather book. Jo has a journal? Idly, she leafed through it, stopping suddenly when she saw the line at the top of one of the pages.

"How do you find out who you are?"

Yeah, how do you? It so closely echoed her own thoughts, her own current turmoils. Dark skin, white culture. Fred had accused her of forgetting her roots. But what roots? How many generations back did she have to go to find a slave, or an african native? Was she a sell out? In denial? Mind awash with conflicting urges, Tootie eagerly devoured the entry, hoping to find some resonance that could help her navigate her own feelings.

Tootie felt her eyes widen until they were the size of saucers. Gender experiment? Jo was one of those, what-do-you-call-ems, like on the Donahue show? A combined sense of disappointment and relief hit her as she read the next sentence.

Footsteps in the hallway made Tootie hastily replace the journal under the bed, and scoot back a couple of feet, gathering a bunch of sprockets in her hands as she turned towards the opening door. Sure enough, Jo and Blair were entering together.

Jo looked at the tools gathered in Tooties hands before asking, "Whatchya doin?"

"I'm sorry Jo, I knocked your toolbox over," Tootie replied anxiously.

"Don't sweat it kid," the older girl replied, reaching over and tweaking one of Tootie's pig tails. "Stuff happens."

Her calm response made Tootie feel even worse. Jo was always kind of nice to her, in a sort of roughly absent way, and Tootie had gone and done something that was pretty rotten, reading her diary like that. "I think a few went under the bed," she said dejectedly.

"Hey, really, it's no big deal. I'll dig 'em out. Got a bunch of junk under there I need to clean out anyway, before Mrs. G gives me a lecture."

Tootie looked over at Blair, kind of surprised when the blonde didn't make a snarky comment about the mess. Come to think of it, Blair and Jo had been cozied up playing backgammon on Jo's bed earlier. She tilted her head a little in thought. You know, they always kind of stand close together, even when they're not fighting, like they're comfortable in each other's space. She shook her head dismissively. Oh Tootie, give it up. You're so confused about who's what right now that you're making things up.

"I uh, it was kind of an accident the first time," Tootie explained. "I didn't read much, and I felt so bad about it I knew I was never going to do it again."

Jo threw a stick into the pond without looking at the younger girl. "So, what happened?"

Tootie felt uncomfortable admitting to this part. "Look, I was a little mixed up, Ok?"

"Yeah, and?"

"I was angry after that remark you made about the ice cream. You know, we don't care what flavor, chocolate or vanilla?"

Jo shrugged. "Kinda dumb, but I was tryin' to be sensitive."

"I know that now. But then, I felt like you were picking fun at the biggest, most personal dilemma of my life." She hung her head. "So I went looking for something personal of yours that I could ridicule."

"Ah," Jo replied.

Honesty compelled Tootie to continue, "And, well I was curious. Especially after I saw bruises on your hand." She went on, "And you and Blair coming back in together that night."

Jo reflexively stuck her fists in her pockets, her face turning red as she remembered the night Tootie was talking about.

It had taken a while, but she'd finally gotten the outfit right. The mustache had gone back to the costume shop, to be replaced by a wig and the barest hint of sideburns. It itched, but it was better than answering questions about chopped hair. With Nat and Tootie at a Spielberg marathon, and Blair at a party with Veggie, her latest handsome/rich accessory, Jo figured she was fairly safe from being recognized as an Eastland student at the Bates dance tonight. Not being recognized as a Bates student however, had its own problems. Just figure that out on the fly, she'd thought to herself while riding to the school.

Luck was on her side. Fixing a flooded Pontiac in the parking lot earned her an acquaintance named Dan and an invitation to meet some of his friends, gathering behind the locker room. Jo had remembered her sense of triumph as she followed him to the secluded spot.

"Hey guys," he said to the group of students gathered there. "Meet Joe, he's just transferred in. Joe, this is Tom, Imad, Tim and Reggie." Jo's eyes widened as she shook hands with the last guy. Dark wavy hair, expertly cut. Expensive gold watch. Yeah, if this was Veggie, she might have a problem. Tim's first words confirmed it.

"Hey Reggie, what'd you do with that stylin' piece of ass you arrived with tonight?"

Reggie pulled out a packet of ZigZags. "Gaggle of 'em went to the john together, figure that gives me at least fifteen minutes before she's anywhere to be seen," he answered before hanging the corner of the wrap off his lip.

Dan shook his head. "Too rich for my blood. Two dates would bankrupt me."

"Harrison claims to have already gotten the tour under that skirt," Imad commented. "Said the ride was worth the price of admission."

Tom spoke up doubtfully. "I dunno if you can believe him, he also claims to have done her roommate. Some wildcat from the Bronx." Jo's blood pressure skyrocketed. Why that no-good, lying, smug piece of...

"Find out tonight," Veggie replied out of the side of his mouth while pulling out a dime bag. "Folks are in Spain and she's been all over me tonight. She can walk home if she's been playing me." He quickly rolled a joint, taking the first toke and passing it to Dan.

Dan took a draw and made to pass it to Jo. She casually waved him off, so he handed it over to Tim, while Reggie pulled another plastic bag, this one full of pills out of his jacket.

"How about you buddy? Ever gotten hot with a nekkid woman?" Dan asked as he chased the toke with a pill.

Jo laughed, thinking about the summer that the air conditioning went out in the Y. That was one steamy locker room. "Once," she replied in an off-hand manner. "Hey, where's the john? My teeth are floatin'."

Dan, feeling the effects of the drug, found that hilarious. He giggled as he pointed her in the right direction.

I gotta find Blair, before she leaves with that creep. She thought anxiously as she headed for the gymnasium. What's she doin' here anyway? Thought Veggie was taking her to some party tonight.

The blonde was in the middle of a group of girls, undoubtedly waiting for their beaux to return from their illicit recreation. Without thinking, Jo shouldered her way in between the punch table and Blair, grabbing the blonde's elbow and urgently whispering. "I gotta talk to ya."

"Jo!" Blair turned in surprise, "What on ear..." She visibly stopped herself as she caught up to the situation. "Jo," she said in a different tone for the benefit of the circle of observers. "It's been forever, how are you?"

A redhead pushed herself forward. "Who's your handsome friend Blair?"

Jo felt the red crawling up her cheeks as Blair introduced them. "Jo, this is Katie. She goes to Parker over in Johnston. Katie, this is my friend Jo."

Katie latched herself onto Jo's arm. "Wanna dance?"

"Erg," Jo replied intelligently, all thought emptied from her head as the slim young woman pressed against her side. Oh god, I wasn't planning on...

"Actually," Blair smoothly extricated Jo from Katie's grasp. "This is my dance, we need some time to catch up."

"Quick thinkin', thanks." Jo muttered as the blonde pulled her towards the dance floor. "If we head towards the other side, they'll never know we didn't dance."

Blair didn't reply, but instead stopped in the middle of the floor, turning towards Jo. She put both arms on Jo's shoulders and swayed forward. "You wanted to talk," she murmurred.

"Erp," Jo replied as brown eyes held hers intently. "Blair," she whispered desperately. "I don't know how."

"Put your hands at my waist."

Did Blair's voice get deeper? Jo wondered as she complied with the command. "That's not...look I just need to talk to you for a second."

Blair pulled Jo closer, her response tickling Jo's ear. "Look," she purred. "I hid your secret. Now don't blow my reputation. Just dance Polniaczek."

Jo gulped as she tried to unglue her feet from the floor, not quite convinced that she wouldn't just topple over if she succeeded. Blair laid her head against her shoulder, swaying just a little further into her. When did her feet get so big? But when Jo wrapped her arms around the blonde, something inside her relaxed a little. The crazy noise that was always in the back of her head just shut up for once. Suddenly, she wasn't worried about her disguise, Blair's problem, or even if people were watching while she clumsily tried to dance. It was just easy to follow Blair's movements.

"You look good," Blair murmurred. "I'm glad you eliminated the mustache."

"Thanks," Jo replied, simply enjoying being relaxed for the first time in months. "You do too. I like this purple thing," she moved her hands along the material, enjoying the silky smoothness.

"Gift from my mother," Blair stated simply.

A long, quiet moment passed before Blair asked. "So, what did you need to talk to me about?"

"Huh? Oh, right." Jo mentally shook herself back to reality. "Your date sucks. He's planning on getting laid tonight."

Blair didn't miss a beat. "I have been trying to give him that impression."

"What?" Jo pulled back, pushing Blair forward by the hips so she'd meet her eyes. "You hardly know the guy."

Blair sighed and moved back into Jo's embrace. "Keep dancing."

I don't wanna dance, I wanna know what the hell is wrong with her. She doesn't sound right.

Blair spoke into her neck. "Please Jo."

Jo wrapped her arms back around the blonde, her body moving even as her mind started whirling again. "Tell me why," she quietly demanded.

"Why not? My mother loves him; he's good looking, wealthy, a gentleman. It has to happen sometime."

"Your mother loves him, great. What about you?"

Blair hummed into Jo's pulse point, causing vibrations to travel up and down the brunette's neck. "What I want hasn't mattered for quite a while."

"Blair, you always get what you want."

"Are you certain?" Blair queried. "Is it what I want, or what the world expects me to want?"

"You're confusin' the hell outta me Blair," Jo replied. "But I know one thing, you're never gonna get your first time back. Don't waste it on some pothead who figures on dumping your ass on the side of the highway if you don't put out." She gripped just a little tighter, "Look, just let me take you home, alright?"

"You're sweet," Blair replied. "But..."

A hard hand gripped Jo's shoulder and yanked her around to face angry brown eyes. "What the hell is this?" Reggie was clearly fully tanked up, eyes dilated and unfocused in an oddly disturbing manner.

Blair's glued on smile suddenly appeared as she moved towards Reggie. "There you are. Jo was just keeping me company while I was waiting for you." She turned and blazed him with a dazzler as she laced herself onto his arm. "A Warner never cools her heels waiting, Reggie. You know that."

He shook her off angrily. "Oh, you decided to teach me a lesson? How'd you manage to convince him to let you crawl all over him, did you promise to blow him too?" he crudely shouted as blotchy color suffused his face.

One look at Blair's normally polished visage made Jo lose it. Oh crap, it's true, and this jerk just...A straight right from the shoulder that landed squarely on the creep's jaw was a release. Noise roared in her ears, her blood pumping, kids cheering. The crowd started to push forward to get a better view, increasing the sense of pressure within and without the brunette. As the pressure built, Jo stepped forward, that punch had felt so good she knew she needed to do it again.

Blair forced herself between Jo and Reggie, preventing Jo from picking the idiot up off the floor for another round. The blonde litterally hung from the lapels of her jacket, dragging her to a stop. "Jo!" She shouted over the din. "Jo! We have to go, NOW!" Jo looked around and spotted the faculty members beginning to move towards them. She's right, Jo suddenly realized how much trouble she was courting as sanity slowly reentered her brain. She grabbed Blair's hand and took off at a half run towards the nearest exit, dodging kids who were all trying to gather around Reggie.

She unlocked the helmet and tossed it to Blair. "Just sidesaddle it," she commanded gruffly as Blair's tight skirt kept her from straddling the machine. Jo hopped on and kicked the engine over with a roar, tearing out of the lot as fast as she could with the awkwardly balanced weight clinging tightly to her. The drive was one to remember, as cool air abraded Jo's overheated skin, highlighting the cozy warmth of Blair clinging desperately at her back. Her heart raced irregularly as she pushed everything out of her mind, trying to focus completely on just getting Blair home.

When they arrived, Jo helped her roommate off the motorcycle with a sense of pride. Whatever else, she'd gotten Blair home safe. She felt about twelve feet tall and covered in spines. She was probably in a world of trouble, but at that moment, it didn't matter. Jo gestured toward the door with her chin, hoping Blair couldn't see the intensely personal and inappropriate joy she felt at that moment. Especially since Blair was probably ticked about Jo interfering, and again behaving like a 'neanderthal' in front of her rich friends.

"G'wan in," she encouraged the silent blonde, whose non-expression was making her even more edgy, as she dealt with the ragingly primitive feelings running through her. "I gotta change."

Blair handed the helmet over. "If you don't mind, I'd rather wait."

"Suit yourself," Jo shrugged, working hard on looking nonchalant as she shouldered her pack and headed towards the woods. Surprisingly, Blair followed.

Jo looked over her shoulder at the quiet debutante, who certainly should have been yelling about something by now. A good snark fest with Blair would help get her grounded. "Could you say something rude? You're beginning to scare me."

Blair clearly wasn't in the mood. Instead of rising to the bait, she asked. "Did you learn what you wanted to?"

One thing Jo knew, she really didn't want to go there. "What do you mean?" She evaded as she ducked behind a bush to change, releasing herself from the need to meet Blair's gaze.

"Jo, please don't. I'm not asking you to tell me what's going on behind that vacant cave-man stare," That's more like it, Jo thought as the blonde continued. "but I'd feel horrible if I got in the way tonight."

"Dunno what I wanted from tonight," she emerged from the bush wearing jeans and a t-shirt. "Doesn't matter. It was a dumb idea anyway."

Blair bit her lip as she carefully pulled a sideburn off Jo's cheek. "Dumb or not, I'm glad you were there. Gentlemen are hard to find." With a searching look, she laced her hand through Jo's and headed toward the dining hall. Jo felt her chest swelling up again, and found herself putting a little strut into her walk.

Silence was her only reply, and Blair's hand stayed where it was all the way to the front door.

Tootie nervously looked at Jo, her voice pulling the bronxian out of her own memories. "I didn't really understand your entry though, it was all feelings without explaining what happened."

Jo sat down on the log, continuing to look across the water. "It wasn't written for you."

The young girl sighed. "I know that. But," she hesitated.

"You're in this deep kid, might as well lay 'em all out."

Tootie took a deep breath. "Well, I'm actually kind of glad you know. Now I can say thankyou."

Startled, Jo turned to look at her. "For what?"

"One thing I did understand, was what you said about Blair," Tootie explained. "It kind of helped me get over some things."

Jo looked at her quizzically. "Huh, don't think I said anything too profound."

Tootie grabbed the diary and flipped through it, until she got to a particular page. "There."

"Yeah, I guess I can see how that might apply to you." Jo said.

"See, my nosiness was a good thing." Tootie explained.

Jo suddenly stood up, and turned Tootie by the shoulders to face her. "Look kid, this isn't a joke. You ever poke your nose inta my business again, and I'll remove it."

The younger girl gulped. "I got you," she said in a small voice.

The End

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