DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life or any of the characters portrayed in the show aren't owned by me. They're owned by some other lucky person who isn't me. There's no profit being made and no money is exchanging hands. This is a strictly-for-fun endeavor.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By Del Robertson
It was nineteen eighty-something, Jo recalled, ducking beneath the yellow and black caution tape as she stepped onto the doorstep of the building that was once Edna's Edibles and then, in later years, Over Our Heads.
Out of habit, she cast a practiced eye overhead. The sign was still present, albeit covered over with layers of bird droppings and rust. The 'S' from 'Heads' was missing. And, judging from the discoloration of the paint on the backboard, it had been for quite some time. A combination of copper rust and black soot distorted the rest of the letters, rendering them almost illegible. A stiff breeze blew up, causing the sign to swing, the rusted metal brackets holding it in place groaning in protest.
The large display windows that had once stood prominently facing the main street were now covered over by plywood panels. Graffiti rapidly sprayed in colors of black and red sporadically covered the boards. Examining the boards, Jo noted the nails were hammered in crooked, rust covering the exposed heads. Guess they didn't hire George to do the final boarding up. Fingering the edge of the board, she briefly considered getting a claw-hammer from her toolbox.
If someone asked her later, she wouldn't be able to say what had made her think of it. It certainly wasn't a conscious decision to step up to the door and try the handle. Common sense dictated that it would be locked. Her eyebrow arched in surprise when her hand closed upon the rusted knob, and with one solid push, she felt the door give. Wood severely swollen from excessive moisture and water damage, the frame scraping along the edges, the heavy door creaked open. The brass bell still hanging above the frame tinkled ominously in the eerie quiet, as if to announce a presence after all these years.
Jo stepped inside, leaving the door only slightly ajar. Boots hesitantly stepped forward, leaving clear shoeprints in the coating of ash on the floor. Hands thrust into the pockets of her leather jacket, she strode purposefully to the center of the room. Pivoting, she slowly turned in a complete circle, taking in the entire scene.
The once white walls were now a dull, dingy grey. There was evidence of damage where the water had settled, receding into the corners and soaking into the walls and floor alike. A few of the display racks were still left, including the main gondola, complete with shelving and peghooks. The merchandise was long since gone, having been cleared out as soon as the inspector had deemed the business a total loss.
A small, round table was still intact, in its customary place upon the elevated floor in front of one of the large, boarded up display windows. Amazingly, both chairs had survived, as well, and were pushed beneath the table as if merely awaiting their next occupants. The table top was a pitch black, the napkin holder a melted mass of indistinguishable remains.
"Come on, Princess," Jo cajoled, "It can't be that bad."
"My life is over, Jo! It's just over!" Blair repeated for what Jo guessed must have been the tenth time.
Jo nervously glanced out the window, momentarily distracted by George loading up Mr. Avery's pickup truck with sheets of plywood. She briefly considered excusing herself to go help George out. She bit her bottom lip, carefully contemplating the errant thought.
George could always use the extra hand. And, it was physical labor. She could handle that. But -
Blair needed her help, too. The thing was, Blair's problem was always an emotional, girly-girl drama. And, even though she'd grown somewhat more laidback since her move to Peekskill, there were still certain things that made Jo uptight. Blair's boyfriend-of-the-week dilemmas being one of those key things. Let's face it; Jo Polniachek just wasn't the type to do 'sensitive chats'.
Especially when it comes to Brad, Jo thought, There's something about that guy that gives me the creeps. And, not just in the usual 'every guy Blair dates gives me the creeps' way.
"My life is just over!" Blair reiterated, snapping her fingers. "Just like that. Call the Times; make sure they use a suitable picture when they run the obituary column."
Sensing a fresh set of tears were surfacing, Jo hastily reached over, grabbing another napkin from the sunshine yellow wire holder perched along the edge of the table. With a flourish of her wrist, she extended it to Blair.
With a weak smile, Blair reached out, taking the napkin, her fingers barely brushing against the top of Jo's fingers. The brunette fought to suppress the shiver she felt edging up inside her. Trying to ignore her body's reactions, she masked her emotions with a well-placed flippant remark.
"Listen, Blair. If Brad doesn't wanna take you to the Spring Fling, screw him!" A devilish grin broke out on Jo's face at the shocked, wide-eyed look from Blair. "Twice!" she added.
"That's easy for you to say. It wasn't you he was going to take to the dance, then turned around and dumped for Cherry Waters."
"That's because Cherry's a sure thing." At the innocent expression on Blair's face, Jo leaned across the table, whispering conspiratorially. "You know what the guys say; her cherry's gone, but she's still got the box it came in."
Blair's expression remained impassive, staring uncomprehendingly at her friend. She pursed her lips together, scrunched her eyebrows in concentration. Then, as it dawned on her, a smile lit up her face, immediately followed by a look of utter repulsion. "Jo!" she admonished, "That is positively disgusting!"
"Yeah, but you got it." Jo smirked and winked at her. "I'm proud of you, Princess."
"Well, let me tell you, I'm simply delighted to know that I've finally sunk to your level of crassness," Blair retorted.
"Look, Blair." Jo suddenly turned serious, "All I'm saying is that you shouldn't worry about Brad. You're a lady. And, if he's too blind to see that, you don't need to be going out with him, anyway."
"But, it seems like everyone wants a Cherry Waters these days," protested Blair.
Jo stared at the black and white checkered tabletop, her fingers absently tracing over the tiles. She bit her lip in contemplation, wondering just how much she should say. "Not everyone." She risked raising her gaze just long enough to look at Blair.
"Right." Said in Blair's sarcastic Now tell me there's no gold in Fort Knox undertone. She reached out again, catching Jo's hands within her own, gently holding them, lightly caressing. "Thanks for trying, Jo."
"Blair, it's true." Jo exhaled loudly, heart trip-hammering in her chest. "Girls like Cherry are a dime a dozen. Anyone would give their eye teeth to take you to that fancy party."
"You know something, Jo?" Blair's nose crinkled up in that adorable way when she smiled, her dimples flashing. "You are absolutely right!" Jo's breath caught in her throat, her heart stopped beating as Blair jumped up from her chair, threw her arms about Jo, hugging her fiercely. She felt a set of lips placing a chaste kiss against her cheek. "Any guy would be lucky to escort me. And, I'm going to go call one of them right now and let them know I'm unexpectedly available." She abruptly released Jo from her affectionate hug. "Thanks again, Jo," she said before turning and hurrying towards what Jo assumed was the location of the nearest phone.
Sitting there in stunned silence, Jo glanced out the large window, catching her reflection in its surface. A set of perfectly outlined lips in Blair's trademark color was clearly apparent on Jo's cheek. She felt herself blush at the image. Her hand somehow lifted of its own volition and traced the heated flesh where Blair's lips had been scant moments before.
"Don't mention it, Princess," Jo's words echoed her whispers from years gone by as her mind suddenly came back to the present.
A sentimental smile formed on her lips as she thought back over that encounter. Turning away from the familiar scene, her gaze focused on the countertop lined with display cases. The glass was broken out now, leaving only fragmented shards in the case. Only empty bins remained, coated in the same layer of grime and dust that covered everything else in the shop. She remembered there used to be candy in the case, filled to overflowing.
Natalie was always over-ordering those gummy worms. And, we would have to resort to a clearance sale to move them out. What did we call it? Oh, yeah: Bait Sale - get your worms cheap. That used to bring the kids in droves. We'd have a line from the register to the back of the store.
Jo slipped behind the counter, moving into position. She stood behind the blackened register, fingers reaching out, reverently touching the metal. Her index finger traveled over the surface of the ruined keys, touching the ravaged, melted mass that used to be the no-sale key. With a distorted 'ding', the drawer flew open.
"Hurry up, Blair!" Jo shouted, pushing her way past a line of kids to get near the register.
Jo fought her way behind the counter, to stand behind Blair. The blonde was methodically keying in numbers on the register, using just the tip of her manicured nail to depress each key. Jo watched the tortuously slow process, the muscles in her cheek twitching with barely constrained annoyance.
"Geez, Blair! My granny could cashier faster than you!" She complained, reaching past Blair, grabbing a paper bag. She snatched the purchased items off the counter, thrust them at the kid. "Here ya go. Thanks."
To her growing consternation, the customer didn't move off right away. Her eyes narrowed in frustration, she was about to bark at the teenager to move until she realized the reason why. He was politely waiting as Blair dipped her long fingers into the till, attempting to extract his change. It was a frustratingly time consuming process as she had to slide each coin to the edge of the tray and coax it up with the pad of her finger. Jo gritted her teeth as she painstakingly watched Blair count out ninety-seven cents in change.
The entire process repeated itself over and over again, Jo's obvious irritation continuing to grow with each transaction. She fought the urge to scream as Blair tendered another sale for just over a dollar and the young boy handed her two brand new, crisp one dollar bills.
"For Pete's sake, Blair!" she shouted, drawing curious stares from the line. "Can't you go any faster?"
"I'm doing the best I can, Jo." Blair gingerly closed the till. "But, I've got to be careful. Mr. Wong just set and filled my nails this morning. And, he said I needed to be gentle with them until they had a chance to properly harden."
Jo felt the words fighting their way out between her tightly clenched teeth. "You . . . " she breathed deeply through both nostrils " . . . had your nails done. . . " the growl in her voice at a dangerously low timbre " . . . the morning of the big sale . . . " another deep breath " . . . knowing you're the cashier?"
"Of course I did, silly. I couldn't very well do this after hours. They wouldn't have been set for my date with Dayle tonight." She turned away from the register, leaving the next customer standing there with her hand extended, money ready to pay for the candy. "Aren't they just fabulous?" she cooed, holding out both hands for Jo's scrutiny.
Dumbly, Jo found herself standing there, actually staring down the end of her nose at Blair's fingernails. They are nice, she had to admit. She could just imagine those nails caressing her arm, sliding over her shoulders, down her bare back. She took a deep, shuddering breath, steadying herself. Yeah, they're very nice.
But, the fact was, they weren't for her benefit. They were for Dayle. And, his date with her tonight. She mentally shook herself, focusing her attention back on the matter at hand.
"Ah, just ring up the customer, would ya, Princess?" she growled, shoving Blair's hands away.
This went on for over an hour. Blair delicately ringing up each transaction, gingerly taking the tendered amount and offering up the customer's change. Jo at her shoulder, bagging the product, attempting to push the completed sale out the door.
In retrospect, she couldn't believe she'd controlled herself for so long. The fact that it took so long for her to finally snap said a lot about her growing maturity. Sure, looking at it from Blair's perspective later, she could see how the Princess might be a tad upset. But, to Jo, her actions certainly seemed justifiable at the time.
"Blair, please." Jo whimpered, holding her head in both hands. "Please, hurry."
"I've already told you, Jo. Repeatedly, I might add," Blair sniffed haughtily, tendering the five dollar bill and reaching in the till for change, "I can't. My nails - "
"Your nails!" That's when Jo literally snapped. Jamming her hand into her jeans pocket, she pulled out her trusty army scout knife, quickly flicking it open. Grabbing Blair firmly by the wrist, before she had time to react, Jo had trimmed every fingernail on that hand with her nail clippers. "Maybe ya shouldn't have nails if they're gonna interfere with your work!"
With a smirk, Jo let go of Blair's hand, folded her knife, and confidently dropped it back in her pocket. She stood there, arms folded over her chest, smugly watching Blair's reaction.
Her hand was held out in front of her, eyes wide as she stared at what had only moments before been her flawless manicure. Her breathing was coming in short gasps, her chest heaving violently as her body shuddered. Jo worried she might actually be close to hyperventilating.
"My nails." Her voice was little more than a whimper. "My beautiful nails." Jo fought back her smirking laughter as Blair clutched a hand over her heart as if she'd been mortally wounded.
At the sound of Jo's muffled laughter, she looked up, eyes narrowing as she glared at the woman responsible for her current state of distress. "You!" she shouted, pointing a finger in Jo's face. "Heathen!" Jo snorted in defiance as Blair spun on her heel, hand held high in the air and stormed towards the area of the stockroom, screaming "Mrs. Garrett!" at the top of her lungs.
The look on Princess Warner's face! Jo's gaze was fixed on the far wall, vividly remembering Blair storming off in a huff to find their caretaker. That stunt cost me my bike for a month. Still, looking back, it was worth it.
It seemed like at that point in her life, she wasn't happy unless she was making Blair miserable. More so than when she first crashed into the heiress' perfect life, nearly running her over with her motorcycle her first day at school. Blair had just been an annoying stranger then, someone to trifle with. But, after years together, they had grown close and she knew what made Blair tick. And what would hurt her - as deeply and as often as Blair hurt Jo.
In fact, things had gotten pretty bad at one point. Blair had taken to working opposite shifts from Jo in the shop. And, going out practically every night when Jo came home. It got to the point that even when they were both in the same room together, they were barely speaking.
These thoughts plagued her mind as Jo pushed her way through the swinging door that led from the shop into the main part of the house. She froze in her tracks, taking in her surroundings. She hadn't been in here since - it happened, she realized. Not even to come back to see if she could retrieve any of her stuff. She knew it had been bad. But, she hadn't been willing - or able - to face the destruction at that time. So, she did what she always did; ran and hid and acted like the problem never existed.
She wasn't prepared. The sight kicked her in the gut.
She thought they'd cleared away the debris. And, indeed, focusing on the thirty-two gallon trashcan standing in the middle of the room, filled to brimming with trash, ash, and broken bits of charred wood, someone had indeed made the attempt at some point. Legs weighing like lead weights, she felt herself stumbling farther into the room.
The wooden table was gone. As were the chairs that were once around the dining room table. The sofa was charred and blackened, the cushions missing. The back and arms of Beverly Ann's rocking chair were gone, leaving only the seat and legs. The television was a melted mass of plastic and wiring.
Her gaze flicked to the fireplace behind Beverly Ann's chair. Charred remains of wood still rested in the grate. Looking up past the blackened mantle, her gaze settled on a mirror hanging above the fireplace, its length as wide as that of the hearth. Taking a bandana from her back pocket, she tentatively stepped forward, boots crunching upon scattered debris. Raising her hand, she deftly wiped the dust of ages from the mirror's surface.
She was in a bad mood when she stormed into the house, slamming her helmet and keys down on the table near the door. Some jackass had nearly run into her, causing her to lay her bike down in a heap on the asphalt. Never mind that it took forever to right the bike. Part of the frame was bent, requiring her to walk it the six blocks back to the house. Add to that the sudden thunderstorm and it was no wonder she was pissed.
Stupid, ignorant jackass! He's lucky I didn't get his license number! I'd have gone to his house and -
Her tirade broke off as she caught sight of Blair. The blonde was standing in the living room, in front of the fireplace, staring at her reflection. She was wearing a red and black form fitting dress that clung to her in all the right places. Jo stood, watching quietly as Blair turned this way and that, seemingly modeling for the mirror.
The blonde bit her bottom lip, a dissatisfied frown marring her features as she studied her reflection. Reaching back, she unzipped the back of her dress. Jo's breath caught in her throat as Blair yanked down the top part of her dress.
She was wearing a demi-cup bra. Her black one with the lacy trim. 36C. Jo was familiar with this one; she knew. Scarcely able to breathe, she watched, mesmerized as Blair unhooked the front clasps, sliding the straps over her shoulders and down her arms.
Jo's eyes latched onto Blair's breasts. They were - magnificent. Pert and just the right size, the light-colored nipples standing erect. Jo audibly swallowed.
Blair jumped at the sound, a hand reflexively darting to her throat. "Oh, Jo. It's just you," she laughed, tossing her bra on the couch, quickly pulling her dress back up, "You gave me a scare."
"Yeah, well you shouldn't be stripping in the living room, Blair!" Jo was suddenly angry. "Anyone could have walked in. What if it hadn't been just me?"
Blair arched an eyebrow at the suggestion. "The door was locked," she answered haughtily, "Now, come zip me up."
She told herself to just stay put. Who did Princess think she was, trying to order her around like one of the servants? Her legs rebelled against her mind, instantly moving, bringing her to stand behind the heiress. Blair helpfully held her blonde tresses up off her neck in the grip of one hand. Jo's arms and hands treacherously joined in the mutiny, coming up of their own accord so her fingers could latch onto the zipper.
No! her mind screamed, even as her eyes stared transfixed on the smooth flesh beneath her gaze. The only sound to be heard in the quiet house was a distinctly audible zipping - and the sound of her own rapid breathing.
"How do I look?" Blair asked, twirling about as soon as she was confident the zipper was securely back in place.
"Beautiful," was the simple reply.
Blair beamed at the one-worded answer. "Thank you, Jo," she whispered, her pleased smile reaching all the way up to her eyes. "I hope Greg appreciates this as much as you do!"
Greg. The name left a sour taste in Jo's mouth. "I thought you said you weren't going to put so much importance on what your date likes anymore," Jo accused. Not since that incident with Brad.
"There's nothing wrong with dressing to impress." Blair didn't care for the suddenly hostile manner emanating from her friend. "Not that you would know about that."
"Is that why you're going without?" Jo asked, flippantly, picking up the discarded bra off the sofa, holding one strap by the tips of two fingers. "To impress?"
"And, what business is it of yours, Jo?" Blair's hands were now placed firmly on both hips, daggers shooting from her eyes. "What should it matter to you?"
"It doesn't!" Jo shot back. "I'm just wondering what to expect next!"
Blair just stared at her. "And, what is that supposed to mean?"
She knew she should just walk away. Gather her gear and be going. Nothing good could possibly come from this. Instead, Jo found herself answering, "Ever since Brad dumped you for Candy, you've - been horrible. And gotten worse. You've been on a string of dates, one right after the other! And, your dress, your actions get more provocative with each date!"
"So, I've been on a few dates!" Blair defended herself. "I've always been popular."
"You've been working your way through the alphabet with every eligible stud in town!" Jo shot back.
"And, what if I have?" Blair's tone turned stone cold, her arms folded over her chest, she gave her best Ice-Princess glare. "And, I reiterate; What concern is it of yours?"
"I'm just checking so I know what to expect when you get to the J's!" Jo clutched the bra firmly in her fist. "Are you even gonna be wearin' panties by then, Blair?"
The slap was instinctive, the sound resonating throughout the room. It was over and done with so quickly, only the throbbing in Blair's hand gave testament to the fact that she'd just struck the brunette across the face. "How dare you?!?" she barely managed to gasp out.
Jo stood there, blankly staring at her, her hand surreptitiously rubbing her cheek. She was unable to answer, unable to even move as Blair reached out, snatching her bra from Jo's limp grasp. Stuffing it angrily into her clutch, she grabbed her silk shawl off the sofa, and settling it about her shoulders, stormed out the front door.
Ouch! Yeah, you certainly know how to make it sting, don't ya, Princess? Jo thought out loud, her thoughts momentarily bringing her back to the present.
Somehow, she found herself standing in the middle of the living room, in front of the mirror, rubbing a spot on her cheek that she could still swear stung some twenty years later.
She glanced in the direction of the kitchen. The swinging door was gone, consumed by the blaze. Caution tape still stretched across the frame, barring entrance into the room. Jo felt herself drawn to the barrier, hovering with her hands shoved deep in her pockets, unable to bring herself to remove the tape and step into this cordoned off section of the house.
The curtains covering the tiny window above the sink were gone. As were the appliances that once littered the countertops. For that part, most of the counters had been reduced to ashes. The walls were blackened from floor to ceiling, whole sections consumed. Looking up, Jo could see where the flames had licked at the ceiling, chewing their way through to the floor above. Cocking her head to the side, craning her neck, she was able to see a portion of the wall of the upstairs bedroom.
This was where the fire started, she realized, noting the extent of the damage. Of course, that wasn't the only fire that was started in this kitchen.
It was late. Somewhere well past midnight when Jo crept in the front door, helmet tucked beneath her arm. She had killed the engine and walked her bike up the drive so as not to disturb Beverly Ann and the other girls sleeping upstairs. She dropped her helmet and keys in their customary place near the door. Shucking off her jacket, she quietly opened the closet door, hanging it inside.
Turning from the closet, heading towards the stairs, she thought she heard a noise. Pausing in midstep, she cocked her head to one side, listening intently. There it was again. Her eyes narrowed, quickly scanning the darkened room. Alert ears followed the direction of the sounds.
Curious, Jo crept along the floorboards. Coming closer, she noticed the tiny stream of light shining beneath the edge of the kitchen door. Pausing with her palm pressed against the wooden panel, she tilted her head, carefully listening. Just barely audible, she heard the sound again; like something resembling a sniffling sound.
Uh-oh. She started to walk away, eager to put some distance between herself and whoever was on the other side of the door when she heard the sniffling begin again in earnest. With a deep sigh and a roll of her eyes, she stopped, casting a look back at the door. Warily, she pushed the door open, peering inside.
Blair. Sitting at the kitchen table, nursing what suspiciously looked to be a brand new tub of ice cream. A shiver ran through her frame, followed by a sniffle. A dainty handkerchief dabbed at her eyes, hot tears running down her cheeks.
Jo moved slightly, starting to back away.
"Don't go, Jo." She froze at the sound of the tiny voice, bit her bottom lip in contemplation of the request. "Please?"
Rubbing a hand over her face in resignation, she resolutely pushed the rest of the way through the door. Exhaling loudly, she slid into the chair opposite Blair. A tightening in her chest, her heart in her throat, she stared at the blonde.
"Yeah, wha'd ya want, Blair?" Jo asked in as gruff a tone as she could muster.
It came several decibels below her best growl. She glared, trying to stay angry at the heiress. She had to. Blair had slapped her the last time they'd been alone. Blair had hurt her. And, the only way she could be certain she wouldn't be hurt again was to stay angry with the woman that had cut her heart to the quick.
Blair looked at Jo, doe brown eyes blinking back another stream of hot tears. "I've never had to beg you to sit with me before, Jo."
"Yeah?" came the brusque growl. "Well, things change."
"It's been months, Jo." Blair waited for a response. She hadn't expected one. But, taking Jo's continued presence as a good sign, she continued. "I've missed you."
"It's not like I've gone, anywhere," Jo groused, "Seems to me you're the one staying out most nights." Suddenly, her own words seemed to dawn on Jo. Blair was home. And, she was the one coming in late. "Say, why aren't you out on a date?" she asked.
"I decided to call it an early evening."
"You were dressed to the nines when you left." She suspiciously eyed Blair's swollen, puffy eyes, the baggy terrycloth robe that covered her frame. This evening's dress was clearly visible beneath the edges and gaps in the robe. "What happened, Princess; He dump your ass?"
Blair initially flinched at the crassness of the word. Then, her anger began to surface. How dare Jo - "For your information, I dumped him," she haughtily replied.
"Uh-huh." The sarcasm fairly dripped off Jo's tongue. "Then, why are you sitting alone in the kitchen in the middle of the night, huddled up in a robe, eating Rocky Road ice cream straight out of the bucket?" She couldn't keep the broad grin from her face. "Face it, ya got dumped, Princess."
"Don't call me that!" Blair screamed, hands balling into tight fists, her entire body shaking with barely restrained anger. "I left him! I left him! Did you think I would just let him - " Her voice broke off in an anguished, strangled sob as hot tears streaked unchecked down her cheeks.
Jo instinctively reached out a comforting hand, but stopped short, letting her shaking digits fall to the table. "You wouldn't let him do what, Blair?" she asked, eyeing the blonde suspiciously.
Blair wouldn't answer. She huddled over the table, staring into her bucket of ice cream, refusing to look at Jo. An icy cold fist punched Jo in the gut as a feeling of dread settled over her. Aww, no! With shaking hands, she reached out past Blair's defenses. Ignoring the reflexive shrinking from her initial approach, Jo pushed on, latching onto the front of Blair's robe, holding the sides open in tightly bunched fists. "Geez, Blair!"
The once beautiful dress was ruined. When Jo had spied it earlier, it was a solid black number with gold tassels decorating both shoulders and ornate, gold buttons lining the front. Now, the left sleeve was ripped, the golden tassel gone, exposing the creamy flesh of Blair's upper arm. Already, dark bruises were beginning to mottle the fair skin, the distinct impression of fingers clearly embedded on the flesh of her shoulder.
"What the Hell happened, Blair?" she demanded, jumping up from her chair, fists bunched at her sides.
Blair stopped crying, pausing to look at Jo incredulously. Surely that should be obvious! "I said no."
"And, what? He had a problem with that concept?" Why am I taking this out on her? Hands balled at her sides, fists clenching and unclenching, Jo stalked the length of the kitchen, attempting to redirect some of her angry energy.
"Apparently," Blair nodded.
Stopping in mid-pace, Jo halted, turning to look sidelong at Blair. "My God, Blair! You didn't - I mean, he didn't -" She audibly swallowed. "I mean, you weren't - "
"No, Jo." A sad, melancholy smile. "For all that it's worth, my virginity remains intact."
"Well, thank God for that," was Jo's automatic response. Then, as if suddenly realizing what she'd just said, she blushed beet red, attempted to backpaddle. "I mean, I'm glad that you're - that - " Jo stopped pacing, came to stand at the sink, arms locked, palms braced against the stainless steel; her back to Blair. When she spoke again, her voice was a hoarse whisper. "Who was it?" she asked.
"Jo, leave it alone." Blair's voice was surprisingly calm and steady for someone who had just spent the better part of the past hour drowning her troubles in a tub of Rocky Road.
"Who was it?" Jo repeated, her voice dangerously low.
"It's over and done with, Jo." Blair slowly rose from her chair, firmly retied her robe closed; To be a victim was one thing, but to look like a victim was another matter entirely. She warily crossed the room, placing a reassuring hand on Jo's shoulder. "Let it go."
"Damn it, Blair!" Jo shouted, slamming one hand down forcefully on the edge of the sink. "Tell me who the fuck he is!"
"Why?" pressed Blair. "Are you going to go beat him up in some bizarre attempt at defending my honor?"
Jo turned on her, fairly screaming. At this point, she didn't care if the entire household heard. "Yeah, if you wanna know the truth; then fine, I am!"
"To what end, Jo?" Blair was furious. "Three months ago you didn't believe I wore panties, let alone had any virtue to defend!"
"Yeah? Well, no one should treat a lady like that!" She was standing toe to toe with Blair now, looking her in the eye, refusing to back down. "Tell me who he is, Blair. Now."
Jo's teeth clenched, her fist balled in frustration. "Because I'm gonna go beat the hell out of him, that's why!"
"Why?" Blair asked again.
"Because he's got it coming!" Why was Blair determined to make this so difficult?
"And, after you beat him up, what are you going to do? Beat up the next guy who tries to get rough? And the next?"
"Yeah, if I have to."
"You don't have to," Blair threw her own words back at her. "I'm not your concern."
"I'm making you my concern!" Jo stated vehemently, grabbing Blair by both shoulders, shaking her. "Damn it! I love you!" She leaned in, planting a fierce kiss on Blair's lips. "And, I'm not going to stand by and let some guy - "
Jo's words suddenly died in her throat as she realized what she'd just admitted to. Maybe Blair didn't notice, she prayed.
"You - " Blair's eyes went wide. " - love - " she covered her mouth in shock " - me?"
So much for that thought. "Yeah, I guess I do." Though she'd known it for some time now, it was the first time she'd ever admitted it out loud.
"All these months - all these years - "
Uh-oh! Jo caught the spark in Blair's eyes. The one she always got just before she blasted Jo with both barrels.
"All these years, I've shared with you. Confided in you." Then, as if suddenly remembering their long-standing rooming situation, "Gotten undressed in front of you!"
"Blair - "
"All this time; you've been watching me, wanting me, and never said a word to me!" All the pieces of the puzzle finally coming together in her mind, Blair unleashed her full wrath upon Jo. "Now I know why you were always mad at me! You never wanted me to go out - no one was good enough for me, you'd say! Because they were never you, were they?"
"Blair - " Jo pleaded, reaching out a hand towards her.
"Were they?" Blair screamed, knocking that hand away. "You - "
"Blair, please." Jo tried again, attempting to reach her. "I love you," she repeated, capturing Blair in a hug, wrapping her arms about her. She thought if she could perhaps just hang on, Blair would see.
"Jo? Blair?" Beverly Ann's voice called from the doorway. "I heard your shouting over Natalie's snoring. Something going on?"
Blair shook herself out of Jo's grasp. "Nothing at all, Beverly Ann." She moved past the older woman, stopping only long enough to catch Jo in her cross-hairs before she pulled the trigger. "Nothing I'd care to discuss." She flipped her blonde locks over her shoulder. "Ever."
Wow. That was harsh. I'd forgotten just how much that had hurt. Not that what came next was a barrel of laughs.
It'd been three months since the 'kitchen incident', as it was quickly becoming known. It was bad enough that Beverly Ann had interrupted them, giving Blair an easy means of escape before Jo could plead her case. She knew if she'd just had two more minutes, she could have made an attempt at downplaying the whole incident and somehow salvage what was left of their tenuous friendship. As it was, not only had Blair used the opportunity presented by Beverly Ann to flee that night, she also had the presence of mind to be certain she was never backed into that situation again.
Beverly Ann walking in on them had not been good. Not good at all. But then, Jo could console herself with the knowledge that if Beverly Ann hadn't actually seen anything - and she was quite positive no one else had been privy to that kiss, then, she knew the scatterbrained, older woman didn't have a clue.
Yeah, we'd never have been able to pull one over on Mrs. G like that. She'd have had us spilling our guts in a minute flat. And, then put us on cleanup duty for the next six months for waking her in the first place.
Whereas Beverly Ann may have been oblivious, the same couldn't be said for their remaining housemates. Natalie had always had a calculating mind to begin with. And, Tootie - well, although somewhat naive, she was still apt to follow Natalie's lead in most things. Add to that the fact that Jo and Blair's shouting match had reached epic proportions that night -
Well, it was obvious that they knew. And, they were both taking Blair's side, casting her in the role of the helpless princess and Jo as the villainous fire-breathing dragon. Never mind that I was the one trying to save her from the knight in not-so-shining armor. Neither of them would actually come out and say it, of course, but it was painfully clear that they blamed Jo. The way conversation would cease when she would enter the room, the icy replies whenever she asked a question, the little trips to the mall and such that they no longer asked her along on.
And, then, Blair -
Things had been strained between them before. Ever since the incident with the bra and the panty remark, things had been uncomfortable between them. But, this - this was torture at its best.
She'd never imagined she'd miss the blonde's endless chatter. Until it was replaced with stony silence. If she'd said three sentences to Jo that first month, well that was three sentences too much. If pressed, Jo couldn't remember any words directed towards her other than 'move' and 'leave me alone'.
The silence was bad enough. But then, Jo had decided that even if Blair wasn't going to speak to her, she could still talk to Blair. Whether Blair chose to listen to her or not was out of her hands. But, Jo decided she could still plead her case - every day if need be until Blair gave in.
Should have known it wouldn't be that easy with Princess.
After the second day, Blair countered her attack. Silence was one thing. Jo had learned how to deal with that. Now, not only was there stony silence, there was also blatant avoidance. Whenever Jo would enter the room, no matter what else was going on, Blair would bolt for the nearest exit.
How do you talk to someone who isn't even there? Oh, she had tried. Had even chased her out the door and down the sidewalk the first time or two. But, after catching Blair by the elbow and spinning her around - their eyes had locked. She had seen the pain in their depths, slowly replaced with a burning hatred, before Blair's gaze slipped away and she jerked out of Jo's grasp. And, you were just too proud to chase after her again, weren't you?
Jo abruptly jerked her gaze away from the charred remains of the kitchen and the painful memories the sight invoked. Hands shoved in her pockets, she carefully picked her way back through the wreckage. This was a bad idea. She had every intention of leaving. There was really no reason for her to be there. Not any more.
She had just made her way back through the living room when her gaze drifted to the banister. And, the piano. Or, rather, what was left of the piano. It was in shambles now. The bench was gone, having been quickly consumed in the fire. No doubt the rest of the piano would have been devoured, too, if the flames had been just a little faster. As it was, one of the legs was badly scorched, causing the piano to lean awkwardly to one side, balanced at an odd angle against the wall. The once ivory keys were now mottled a crisp black.
Jo took a hesitant step closer. Her hand worked its way free of the tight jeans pocket, the fingers extending of their own accord. The pad of her index finger stroked down on a familiar key, sending a mournfully off-key pitch resonating throughout the room.
The sound took Jo back again, to another time. She'd been playing the piano.
Jo had heard the sounds long before she'd entered the room, slipping quietly into the shadows before Blair noticed her. No fear of that. Blair was engrossed in the music, oblivious to everyone and everything about her. Jo stealthily moved along the wall, careful to stay hidden in the shadows until she came to her familiar haven. She shifted position, leaning against the wall, feeling the cold brick press against her back as she settled into her spot behind Beverly Ann's potted palm.
The thing had started out as a small cutting sent by Mrs. Garrett to her sister. Beverly Ann hadn't expected the sprig to last more than a month in her care. But, she planted it in a pot and made it a home in the corner of the living room so she could nurse it frequently throughout the day. To everyone's surprise, the scrappy little plant had taken root and grown. Into the perfect camouflage, Jo added, sparing a glance at the plant that was now as tall as she was. Leaning forward, fingers gingerly spreading the leaves, she peered at her unsuspecting quarry.
Over the course of the past few months, their roles had shifted. Jo was now the one staying out late, coming home at all hours of the night. Not that she had been going out on dates every night like Blair had been. Far from it. Mostly, she just rode around on her bike, trying to take her mind off things. Off Blair, you mean.
While Blair, on the other hand, had started spending most nights in, forgoing any offers of dates that still persistently came her way. As a matter of fact, Jo had done some investigating, discovering that Blair hadn't been out on a date since the kitchen incident. Instead, she was home most nights, taking solace in the piano music.
She's really getting good. Jo had almost laughed it off when Blair had approached her over a year ago, asking Jo to teach her how to play. With a shrug of her shoulders, she had agreed, figuring it was just something else that had caught Blair's fleeting fancy. A couple of sessions and she'd give up. To Jo's surprise, she'd diligently kept up with her lessons and had steadily improved.
An hour a week. That's all that she had promised. And, that's all that Blair had taken. The best hour of my week, every week, Jo mused, thinking back to how they were huddled close together on the bench, hips touching as they both tried to share the music sheet spread before them. Jo would show Blair a simple chord, guiding her fingers to the correct keys. Then another. And another. And another. Until, they strung those chords together to form the first few notes of a song. And, Blair would be so excited when she recognized a tune, she'd swivel around on the bench, launching herself at Jo, wrapping her arms about her in a fierce hug.
And, now here she was, playing on her own. Jo recognized the tune. Indeed, it was one of her favorites. Dark and melancholy, the chords seemed to fill the air with a certain bleakness. Sad songs are all she knows anymore.
Jo closed her eyes, choosing at the particular moment to feel rather than see. She let the music sweep over her, the dark melancholy taking her away, painting her mood. She felt herself drifting on an endless sea of despair, her days bleak and desolate without Blair's smile to warm her.
A sharp sound caused her eyes to fly open. She started to take a reflexive step forward, then remembered where she was, and fought the urge. Willing her ragged breathing to slow, she concentrated on identifying the sound she had heard while her eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness.
Blair was still playing, her fingers flowing smoothly over the keys, her body gliding in fluid, liquid movement as she reached the apex of her composition. Whatever I heard wasn't enough to disturb Blair. A sole lamp was turned on, illuminating Blair and the piano, casting the rest of the room in shadows. The hour was late, judging from the long shadows on the surrounding walls.
Jo's gaze flicked to the French doors leading to the patio, noting the curtains flowing with the breeze, billowing out into the room as the chilled air swept inside. The moon was high in the sky, giving testament to the lateness of the hour. Wait a minute! Jo stiffened as she realized that the curtains were indeed billowing into the room with the night breeze - because the door was open!
The errant thought barely had time to register before she saw the figure step out of the shadows and race towards Blair. Blair must have sensed the danger at the same time Jo did, because she stopped in mid-chord, looking up at the intruder with a shocked expression on her face.
"Brad!" she screeched, "What are you doing here?"
Jo had brushed the palm leaves aside, was just starting to break cover when she heard Blair yell the intruder's name. The name brought recognition - and Jo slipped back into the shadows, suddenly uncertain of how to proceed. Yeah, Brad, what are you doing here?
"I came to see you, Blair," was the husky response as he moved completely into the light of the room.
"You shouldn't have," Blair responded.
Yeah, you shouldn't have, Jo mentally added.
"I needed to see you, Blair," he insisted, taking a step closer.
"I told you I never wanted to see you ever again."
You and me both, pal.
Jo hesitated, every muscle coiled and knotted, waiting for her mind to let her body spring into action. She was unsure. Brad being here this late at night, his obviously having forced his way in - that wasn't right. Blair's body language was wrong; she was tense, Jo realized, seeing how Blair had backed as far away as possible, until the edge of the piano was pressing against the small of her back. But, the words, the tones weren't overly menacing.
Damn it! Ever since our fight, I haven't been able to read her! And, she hadn't. Blair's words no longer matched her body language when she was around Jo. She was a swirling mass of contradiction. She no longer fled from Jo on sight, but she made it abundantly clear that she had no intention of indulging in more than a civilized conversation with the Bronx native. But -
But, she caught the speculative looks when Blair thought she wasn't watching. The way Blair would lick her lips when she was speaking. The way she would lean in closer, her hand reaching up to casually touch Jo the way she used to - until she realized where she was and what she was doing - then that hand would simply fall away.
"Come on, Blair." The plea brought Jo's mind racing back. Brad had put to good use the time Jo had spent in quiet contemplation. He had Blair firmly backed against the wall, both hands cupping her upper arms. "Don't fight this."
"I told you before - " Blair put all her weight behind the attempted shove " - I don't do that!"
The shove had barely budged Brad. "That's what you keep saying, Blair." A smirk plastered itself to his face. "But, I've heard the stories. I know your rep."
"Those are just stories!" Blair protested. "I would never - "
"If that was true," he moved in, using his momentum to force a rough kiss on Blair's lips, "You would have filed charges."
Jo's mind shut down, refusing to hear another word. Through the red haze blocking her vision, she could make out the shadow of Brad, laughing as he thrust a hand beneath Blair's robe. She vividly saw the horrified, pained expression on Blair's face as her mouth screamed a silent "No" and she struggled to fight back. She didn't hear the answering screams or the pounding of insistent feet hurrying down the staircase. And, she certainly wasn't aware that they were shouting at her, screaming at her to stop.
When the pounding in her head had finally lessened and she came back to herself, she was straddling Brad. Hands were reaching for her, grasping her by the arms, pulling her away from him. He was laying curled in a fetal position, hands reflexively covering his battered face. Blair was curled in a corner, Tootie's arm wrapped protectively about her shoulders. Beverly Ann was at the door, speaking with a police officer that had been rapidly dispatched by a 911 call. George and Natalie were sprawled on the floor nearby, breathing heavily, both ready to lunge for Jo in case she tried to launch herself at Brad again.
Wow. Guess I really lost it that time. Jo flexed and unflexed her right hand, idly watching the tenseness in her muscles as she made a fist in painful remembrance. Docs said I shattered several bones on impact. Funny. I never noticed when it was happening.
In the days, the weeks, the months that followed, there were a lot of things that Jo hadn't noticed. Or, maybe she had and her mind refused to acknowledge and process most of them. It had been a tough time for her. And, even tougher for Blair.
Being the son of a rich corporate raider, of course Brad saw to it that Jo was arrested for battery. Never mind the fact that he had broken into their home and tried to force himself on her roommate. He had a slick lawyer with a police report and photographic evidence of just how brutally his client had been beat down.
Blair had never said a word. Merely posted her bail and arranged for her to meet with a professional for a psychological consultation. Jo had adamantly refused, until Blair's lawyer told her it was important for the case. And that she would be referred to the same psychologist that Blair herself was seeing.
She'd thought the trial was strictly because of what she had done to Brad. She never knew until after the testimony that Blair had to go on the stand to defend her and press her own claims against Brad. And, as she sat there in the courtroom, she listened with her heart in her throat as Blair described the incident on her date, and then, the subsequent incident in their home and how her friend had charged to the rescue against an intruder that was twice her size and could have been potentially armed.
Yeah, she really pulled my fat out of the fire that time.
With a start, Jo realized that she was standing in front of the staircase. Or, what used to be the staircase. There was yellow and black caution tape stretched across her path, the ends secured to the wall and the banister. The first five stairs were intact, looking like they could potentially hold her weight. And, the top three stairs looked to be in fine shape. It was the gaping hole that stretched between both sets of stairs that dissuaded her from going up.
Hands braced against the wall and the banister, she felt the adrenaline course through her body. Fingers harshly gripped the wood beneath her grasp as her mind raced back.
It had been just over a year since the attack and subsequent trial. Brad was behind bars on felonious assault charges. Jo's charges were dismissed. And, both girls were back at home, slowly recovering.
Both from their ordeal with Brad. And, their friendship.
Things were slowly beginning to shift back towards normal. Or, at least a semblance of what passed for normal in Peekskill. Neither of them would talk about what happened that night with Brad. Or, the incident in the kitchen, for that matter.
It was a kiss. Jo frequently reminded herself of that whenever she found herself falling back on that terminology. Somehow, she had given 'the kitchen incident' more recognition than it deserved. She had allowed its significance to dwarf her prior friendship with Blair. It was as if nothing before that kiss had mattered. And, nothing would be the same since.
Ah, the foolishness of youth. To place so much on one kiss. Wasn't even my first. Or, the best.
Jo had been out. On a date, oddly enough. Nothing serious. Just one of the girls from the track team. Someone to spend some time with, maybe have a little fun once in a while. Casual and discreet, nothing either woman wanted to draw attention to.
She had hung her jacket in the closet and was inching her way up the stairs, the palm of one hand gingerly caressing her left buttock. That's when she first smelled it.
Beverly Ann probably let her pot of onion tea boil dry again, she thought, retracing her steps back down towards the kitchen. With each step, she felt the sharp irritation beneath her jeans. A smile edged its way onto her face at the bittersweet reminder of her earlier encounter. Ohh, yeah. Next time, Cindy's definitely taking those cleats off before she -
Whoa! Jo hastily backpedaled as the flames caught the draft and leapt towards her as she opened the swinging door. She jumped back, letting the door swing as she bolted for the living room.
"Fire!" She shouted. "Fire!"
Tootie and Natalie scrambled in from the shop as Jo hastily dialed 911. Beverly Ann hesitantly stumbled down the stairs, tying her robe about her waist, still somewhat disorientated.
"Where's Blair?" Jo asked, hanging up the phone.
"Up - " Beverly Ann's eyes darted to the second floor. " - there." There was a pause, a biting of a bottom lip. Beverly Ann's gaze darted to where the flames were beginning to lick at the paneling above the kitchen door. "She was having problems sleeping. I made her some tea, gave her some pills to help her sleep."
Jo instantly knew what Beverly Ann was thinking. The kitchen was directly beneath their room -
"Go on! Get Nat and Toot out of here!" Jo shouted, pushing Beverly Ann towards the door.
"Jo, wait - " Beverly Ann, protested.
"I'm gonna go get Blair," Jo firmly stated, her tone leaving no room for argument.
She didn't look back. She couldn't. All her focus at that point was on reaching Blair. She remembered rushing for the stairs, taking them two, then three at a time. She could smell the smoke, hear the crackling of the fire, feel the heat, see the flames beginning to peek through the cracks in the floorboards. She pushed down all the perceptions her senses were flooding her with, concentrating only on reaching their bedroom. And Blair.
She was in bed, beneath her covers, her body fitfully coughing, responding to the smoke even in her restless slumber. Jo rushed to her side, kneeling by the bed. "Come on, Blair. You gotta wake up," she urged, gingerly slapping Blair's face with her fingertips, "Come on. We gotta get out of here."
Blair's bleary eyes slowly focused on the crouching figure swimming in front of her. "Jo?" her voice cracked out.
"Yeah, it's Jo. Listen, we gotta get out of here."
Jo's voice conveyed her sense of urgency as she looked at a point somewhere past Blair. Puzzled, Blair turned around, her eyes taking in the scene. Flames were licking up through the floorboards, catching onto the fabric of Natalie's comforter, spreading quickly to the stack of books piled at the end of Natalie's bed.
"Jo, we're on fire!" The seriousness of the situation pulled at Blair's dulled senses just enough to make her focus on getting out of bed.
"Not yet, but if we don't move, we're gonna be!" She offered Blair a supportive arm, helping her to stand, slip her robe on. "Can you walk?" she asked.
Blair looked her in the eye, numbly nodded as she concentrated on getting her legs to work. Jo steadied her, supported her as they tentatively made their way out the bedroom door and into the hall. They kept up a steady pace, pushing down the hall, towards the stairs. Somewhere in the distance, the sound of sirens plaintively wailed.
They could feel the heat at their backs as they inched their way along the hall. Both pressed forward, stoically determined to not look back. Blair sensed the subtle tightening of muscles beneath her hand as she clutched at Jo's bicep. Jo abruptly stopped, causing Blair to stumble against her. Confused, she looked up at Jo, then followed her gaze towards the stairs.
The stairs. The flames were spreading rapidly. Jo took a deep, steadying breath, weighing their options. The fire department was on the way. But, the fire had rapidly spread to the second floor and was threatening to engulf the entire upstairs. And, the integrity of the staircase was quickly becoming compromised by the inferno raging throughout the kitchen. Already, the flames were engulfing the steps making up the center of the staircase.
"Hang on, Blair!" Jo shouted, her adrenaline kicking in, allowing her to easily pick up the stunned debutante in her arms. "We're only gonna get one shot at this!"
Blair felt the jarring sensation, let out a startled yelp as Jo hefted her, making her way towards the banister. She thought Jo had meant to make a mad dash down the steps, daring to risk a headlong run through the flames. She was shocked when Jo ambled up to the banister and hopped up, one cheek resting against the smooth wood.
Before her mind could process what was happening, Jo tightened her grip about Blair's waist, gritted her teeth, and pushed off. Blair screamed as they rapidly slid down the banister. They flew the last several feet, coming to land in a tangled heap at the bottom of the stairs.
Before they could even think to move, there were firefighters swarming in the door and someone was kneeling beside them, holding an oxygen mask to Blair's face. Jo felt a similar mask being held in place over her nose and mouth, the smooth feel of oxygen flooding her lungs.
We kind of lost track after that. Beverly Ann moved back home with her sister. Natalie and Tootie moved into the dorms at Langley. I enrolled in the police academy. And, Blair - moved home.
"Hey, I wouldn't go up there if I were you."
Jo felt the sharp nudge at her back, sharply turned around. She'd recognized the voice instantly. But, seeing her -
Here. Now. After all these years -
"Blair. You look - " she audibly gulped " - just as beautiful as ever."
She hadn't meant to say that. She wanted to be casual. To mention that it was good to see her. But, they hadn't seen each other since the fire. And, there were so many emotions kicking around in her gut since that night.
"Naturally." There was the flash of the dimples, the dazzling smile, the pert, upturned nose.
She was a little heavier. But, not unhealthy. She'd lost her baby fat and grown into a beautifully stunning, mature woman. The dress was impeccable, as was her hair color. Still the same shade as it was all those years ago, Jo thought, a self-conscious hand subtly pushing her own grey streak out of her eyes.
"Umm - what are you doing here, Blair?" she asked.
"Same as you, most likely." Blair glanced up the stairs, assessing the extent of the damage caused by the fire and the years. "Digging up old bones."
"Ah." Jo shuffled her feet. "So, you heard they're coming in to tear the place down also, huh?"
"You could say that. My company's handling the demolition." She caught the slight flinch at her words. "I underbid everyone else, Jo. I couldn't let outsiders cover over our past." There was a slight pause as Blair thought over her next sentence. "Is that why you're here now, Jo? After all these years?"
There was an imperceptible nod. "I guess I was looking for some sort of resolution, Blair." How did she know this was my first time back? "I guess I'm looking to bury the past."
"Hmmm." Blair bit her bottom lip in contemplation. "I think I've been looking for a new beginning." She reached out, leisurely catching Jo's grasp within her own. Jo's eyes focused on their joined hands, then glanced up into Blair's eyes. "Know any place around here to get some coffee?"
A smile tugged at the corner of Jo's lips. "As a matter of fact," she suggested, steering Blair by the arm, out into the shop. "There's this little place I know. A table for two." They made their way through the wreckage, towards the front. "Good view." She helped Blair up the single step, escorted her towards the table. She pulled out the chair, extracted a handkerchief from her pocket, laid it across the seat. She quickly moved around the table, sliding into her seat, careful to sit on just the edge of the wood. She leaned forward, catching both Blair's hands in her own. "Better company."
And, as they sat there, staring into each other's eyes, the years fell away. Gone was the charred and burnt remains of a decrepit building. In their minds, they could see the room the way it was. A table for two inlaid with white and black marble, a potted palm in the corner, the large window overlooking the main street of Peekskill. And, two intimate friends holding hands, unable to see anything but each other.
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