DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television. No infringement is intended. Original characters belong to the author. Historical characters belong to history.
SPOILERS: References and some spoilers FOL Seasons 1 5. Reader feedback is welcome.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To zblitzreiter[at]gmail.com

Separate Ways
By Blitzreiter

 

Part 1

June 1986. Eastland Academy for Girls. Peekskill, New York.

Dorothy Ramsey – known to family and friends as Tootie – drew a deep breath.

I will not faint, she thought. Tootie Ramsey does not faint. Tootie Ramsey is a star. Well … a star at Eastland for now … and the biggest star on the planet some day ...

Tootie hadn't expected to feel nervous at her high school graduation. She loved the limelight – always had, since she was a small child. She loved to be the center of attention. She could play characters as varied as Nolie Hawkins and Baron Von Trapp. She could sing the hell out of any musical. She could ham it up … and she could break the audience's heart.

So why is my heart pounding? she wondered. Why are my palms sweating? I'm just sitting here, listening to the headmaster. Well … sitting here not listening to the headmaster. Sitting here ignoring the headmaster and wondering why my palms are sweating. What's gonna happen when they call my name, when I go up onto the stage to get my diploma …?

As it turned out, nothing dreadful happened when she accepted her diploma.

The headmaster read her name, Dorothy Ramsey, right after Helga Rafferty.

Tootie's head felt as if it were a balloon, floating several feet above her body. She felt disconnected, strange. Nerves, she knew. Emotion, she knew. She followed Helga onto the stage, managed to walk across the stage, to the headmaster, shake his hand, take her diploma, and then follow Helga off the stage and back to their seats.

It happened so fast. It felt like it took less than a minute – which, in fact, it had.

Slowly Tootie's head seemed to clear, until it was firmly attached to her shoulders again. She actually started to feel normal. She drew another deep breath. She glanced down at the parchment in her right hand.

Eastland never did anything by halves. The diploma was real parchment. The inscription was in Latin, drawn in beautiful calligraphy. Tootie had never paid a great deal of attention in Latin. Plays and scripts weren't written in Latin – hadn't been for a couple thousand years. That was one class where she had been content to earn C's.

Nat, on the other hand, could read Latin backward and forward. She'd begun studying it feverishly when she decided to become a doctor. Now, having just finished her freshman year in Langley College's pre-med program, Nat could probably read Latin better than Virgil – such was her loyal best friend's estimation, anyhow.

Tootie ran one slender finger over the mysterious letters of her diploma.

Nat will tell me what it says. She'll translate later, at the party.

Because, of course, there would be a party. A big party. That was one of the things the Musketeers and the Lions did really well – parties, for any and all occasions.

Tootie glanced over her shoulder. The Eastland graduates, in their cardinal gowns, filled the front five rows of the audience. Behind them were row after row of parents and siblings and grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends.

It was such a large crowd that Tootie couldn't find all of her loved ones. There was Nat's plump, pretty face, beaming, tears rolling down her cheeks. There was Mrs. Garrett's cheery face, her red bun of hair slightly askew – and she was crying tears of joy, too.

Jo and Blair were there somewhere, Tootie knew, and Portia and her husband Gerald, and Alec, and Natalie's grandmother, Mona, with her boyfriend Sol Silverberg. But they were lost in the rows of people, and Tootie had to be content simply to know they were there, somewhere, wishing her well.

Suddenly Tootie spotted her father. There he was, only a couple of rows back, big as life – Harrison "Rifle" Ramsey. He'd been a star quarterback in college, a star quarterback in the pros, and then an extremely successful lawyer in Washington, D.C., where there was never any shortage of criminal activity to prosecute.

Tootie smiled at her father – I did it, Dad! He grinned and nodded, giving her a thumbs-up sign.

Tootie's mother, Justice Pauline Ramsey, sat next to Harrison. Justice Ramsey was a handsome woman. When Pauline was younger, she had been very beautiful – Tootie had seen the old photos – but she had never looked particularly happy. She was a person who had always taken life very seriously.

Now in her fifties, Pauline's face seemed carved in a grim mask – mouth turned down at the corners, slightly pursed, eyes narrowed, brow furrowed. From behind her heavy dark-framed glasses, Justice Ramsey stared the world down and did not seem overly impressed.

For her youngest daughter, Pauline made periodic exceptions. Once in a great while – at one of Tootie's theatrical performances, for example, Pauline would crack a smile. She had even been know, after one of Tootie's acting triumphs, to get a trifle misty eyed.

Pauline smiled very slightly at her youngest daughter. She slightly inclined her head.

Tootie grinned happily at her mother. From her mother, such gestures were like bear hugs!

Someone on the podium was still nattering on, nattering on … And then suddenly the headmaster was saying something, some ridiculous clichés about the graduates trying to change the world, instead of letting the world change them … And then there was a thunder of applause … And everyone stood up, and started flowing out of the auditorium … And suddenly, by the water bubbler in the back corridor, while her fellow graduates flowed off in different directions …

I've graduated, thought Tootie, feeling stunned. I'm finished with Eastland. It's … this is goodbye …

Tootie had enjoyed her senior year at Eastland, doing well in her classes – except for the ones, like Latin, that she could not remotely connect to acting – and starring in every Eastland production.

Tootie had enjoyed her senior year as she had enjoyed every year at Eastland since she was a little girl. But now …

Tootie leaned against the water bubbler. The room spun a little bit. Girls in long cardinal gowns rushed past her. They were going to meet their friends and family. They were going back to their dorm rooms to do their final packing.

"Goodbye, Tootie!" called Terry.

"'Bye, Ramsey!" called Jenny.

"See you on Broadway, Tootie!" called Anna-Maria.

We're leaving, Tootie thought.

It's really over. We don't belong here anymore …

"Tootie!" cried Natalie, materializing at Tootie's elbow and catching her slight friend in a giant hug. "Tootie, I'm so proud of you! Hail the conquering Eastland graduate! We'll be at Langley together next year! Can you imagine how much fun that's going to be?"

Tootie had been more or less crushed against Natalie during this chipper monologue. When Natalie, smiling brightly, tears of joy glistening in her eyes, finally released her best friend, Tootie staggered back a couple of steps.

"Tootie – are you all right?" Nat asked, concerned.

"Yes, I'm … fine …" Tootie said, leaning against the water bubbler again, feeling light-headed.

"Well you sure don't look fine! Does she look fine?" Natalie demanded of the beautiful blonde and striking brunette who had just joined them.

"Nah," said the brunette. "Looks like she's gonna faint."

Natalie put a hand under one of Tootie's elbows, and the blonde put a hand under the other elbow.

The blonde stepped on the bubbler's pedal; a stream of water arced into the air.

"Take a drink, Tootie," Blair suggested kindly.

"Yeah, drink up," Jo advised. "Like a camel, Stretch. You look kinda dehydrated or somethin!"

"Don't baby me," Tootie objected. Her lower lip began to tremble. "You all think I'm some kind of big baby, and I'm n-n-n-not!"

Tears began flowing freely down Tootie's cheeks.

Jo glanced at her pretty silver Timex wristwatch – the one with the brown leather strap, the one her father had bought for her back in the summer of '83, right before she started Langley.

"Ha!" said Jo, grinning her mega-watt grin. "Pay up, Blair. I called five minutes or less before we got the Camille waterworks!"

"That's, that's, that's so, so tacky!" blubbered Tootie, leaning against Natalie. "Jo – you, you bet on my emotional distress?"

"I sure did, Toot – and let me say, you did not disappoint. Good old reliably dramatic Tootie!"

"I am not dramatic!" Tootie objected, flailing one arm. She turned, buried her face against Natalie's shoulder.

"Sure," said Jo. "Not dramatic at all." She shot a mischievous smile at the beautiful blonde. "Come on Blair, fair is fair. Five dollars. I'll take it now, if you don't mind."

"I do mind," Blair said calmly, "since I only have three dollars in my purse."

"Ha!" said Jo. "That's convenient."

"Yes – it is," Blair agreed.

"You knew this was a bet you were gonna lose."

"I had a feeling," Blair admitted. "But I just couldn't seem to bet against Tootie." She put an arm around the slender girl's shoulders.

"Well, at least someone cares about me," Tootie said, voice muffled against Nat's shoulder. "At least Blair and Natalie are my friends. My true friends."

"Eh, I'm your friend," laughed Jo. "How'd you think I know you so good I knew you'd be a crazy wreck after the ceremony?" The brunette turned to Natalie. "How about you, Green? Time to pay the piper."

"Uh, ixnay on the iperpay," Natalie said, squirming uncomfortably.

Tootie pulled away from Natalie as if the chunky girl had struck her. Tootie shook her head sadly.

"You too, Natalie? You were involved in this betting?"

"Hey, you know me," Nat said, lifting her hands. "I can't resist good odds."

"Bettin on Tootie not havin a meltdown? Those are good odds?" chuckled Jo.

"It's like Blair said," Natalie explained. "I just couldn't bet against Tootie."

Tootie's face softened. She wiped at her eyes. "Nat … That might be one of the nicest things you've ever said to me."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Tootie hugged her best friend.

Blair beamed indulgently at the pair. Fragments of memory streamed through her mind: a very young Natalie, a very young Tootie on roller skates. They'd been through so much together, even before Jo came to Eastland …

"Jeez, is anybody gonna pay up?" complained Jo. "What do we got here, everybody's gonna welch out on their promise?"

Blair shook her head. "Jo. Jo, Jo, Jo. Can't you let these two have their moment? This is a very momentous occasion."

"It's momentous for me too," said Jo. "I don't usually come into ten bucks all at once."

Blair bit back a smile. "You know I'm good for the five," said Blair. "I'll settle my debt later today. After the party. In our suite."

Now Jo bit back a smile. Her eyes danced.

"You, ah, realize," said Jo, "that I'm talkin cash on the barrel head – right? Not, you know, trade-in-kind or somethin."

"And you realize," Blair said unflappably, "that I'm a trifle short of cash these days. Or, as Alec used to say, I'm stony. Between our tuition at Peekskill College, and our rent at River Rock, and that pizza when we visited Jesse and Pauly last week –"

"Cash on the barrelhead," Jo insisted, waving away the blonde's excuses. "A bet's a bet."

"Of course. However," Blair lifted one eyebrow provocatively, "there's more than one way to honor an obligation."

"Is there?"

"There is," Blair said confidently.

"Hmm." Jo's eyes shone. She took a step toward the blonde, then stepped back. The corridor had mostly cleared out, but there were still students straggling here and there, students and the odd family member or friend. It was too crowded to risk getting close to Blair.

Cause if I stand much closer to her, I'm gonna need to hold her, Jo thought. And then I'm gonna need to kiss her …

It was a beautiful June day, and River Rock's grounds were looking lovely. The little gazebo that Jo and Alec had repaired two summers before gleamed white against the green grass and the green trees. The gazebo was twined 'round with roses that Jo had planted, and tended, and pale pretty flowers nodded in the lazy breeze at the gazebo's base.

The girls had strung crepe paper across the lawn, cardinal and royal blue – the Eastland colors – and a long table groaned with Mrs. Garrett's best summer dishes – cucumber sandwiches, cool gazpacho, plates of beautiful sliced fruit, lemon and raspberry ices.

The people that Tootie loved most in the world milled about in their nicest clothes – her mother, her father, her brother Marshall, looking stylish as ever but very tired – his father, never easy on his children, expected Marshall to work long hours at the family law firm, proving his dedication and worth. Tootie's youngest brother Carver was there, pursing his mouth a lot and squinting owlishly and in general giving off the air that as a freshman at Exeter, he was already twice as smart as anyone else in attendance.

Nat was there, of course, running up to hug Tootie every few moments, and to tell her "Congratulations" yet again.

Natalie's grandmother, Mona Green was there; the tiny, elfin woman was a surrogate grandmother to Tootie – to all of the Musketeers, really – and although she spent most of her time chatting and flirting outrageously with her boyfriend Sol Silverberg, Mona found plenty of opportunities to pinch Tootie's cheeks and say "I'm so proud of you, vnooshka!" and "When are we going to see you on Broadway, vnooshka?" and sundry other supportive remarks.

Portia and Gerald had flown up from Baltimore. It always made Tootie smile to see the dreamy-but-fiercely-practical Portia, a lovely, svelte blonde, on the arm of diminutive Gerald with his gingery, receding hair. That, Tootie always said approvingly, is true, blind love …

Tootie squinted across the lawn at the couple. "Is Gerald going bald?" Tootie whispered to Natalie.

"How can you tell?" Nat deadpanned.

"Nat – be nice."

"I'm serious, Tootie! Let's face it – Gerald never exactly had a mane of thick, beautiful David Cassidy hair! But, now that you mention it, I think it is thinning a little bit. I mean, he used to have a very high forehead and now, er, it seems to be all forehead."

"That's what I thought," said Tootie. "Not that Portia minds. That –"

"Yes, yes –' true blind love'," Natalie said. "Like you always say."

"Speaking of which," said Tootie, darting a shrewd glance at her friend, "where's Snake?"

Natalie sighed. "Long haul up to Montreal. But he'll be back tomorrow." She grinned beatifically. "Tomorrow. My Snake."

"Who knew you two crazy kids would go the distance?" Tootie laughed.

"We haven't. Not yet," said Natalie. "But we're hanging in there."

"Maybe someday you'll even tell your parents you're dating him."

"Hey, let's not start talking crazy," Natalie objected.

"Nat … It's been almost two years."

"Year and a half, Tootie. Year and a half. Let's not accelerate things. Let's not, you know, push it."

Tootie glanced over at Mona Green. She had told a joke to her beau, and to Mrs. Garrett and her husband Drake Dante. They were all laughing merrily; Sol's head was thrown back, his bright Roebuckers flashing in the sun.

"Gramma Green knows about Snake – right?" Tootie asked her best friend.

"Of course," said Natalie. "Have you ever tried to keep a secret from that woman? It can't be done."

"And she likes Snake – right?" asked Tootie.

Nat's bright blue eyes narrowed. "Ramsey, why do I get the feeling you're getting at something?"

Tootie shrugged. "I'm just thinking, Nat – really, after almost two years –"

"Year and a half."

"Same diff. You really dig Snake, Snake really digs you, it seems to be getting more and more serious, he's practically living at River Rock – I think it's time you let your parents in on the relationship. And maybe Gramma Green can help, I don't know, smooth things over."

"Ha! Smooth things over? My grandmother is not a smoother-over. She's an instigator, a mischief-maker, the life of the party – not a diplomat. And Snake is not practically living at River Rock."

"Nat … Whenever he's not on the road, it seems like he's visiting you at the house."

"That's right – visiting me at the house. Not living at the house. Everything is perfectly respectable and above board."

"Of course it is," said Tootie. "Who said it wasn't? All I meant –"

"Listen, Tootie, you're my soul sister and I love you like crazy, but when it comes to me and Snake, I have to respectfully ask you to butt the hell out."

"'Butt the hell out'? That's respectful?"

"OK, so let me rephrase it. I'm going to have to ask you to, huh, how would Alec put it? Those British and their gift for euphemisms! Tootie, I'm going to have to ask you to refrain from involving yourself in my relationship with Mr. Snake Robinson."

Tootie shook her head. "Oh, brother!"

"Anyhow, never mind my love life, Tootie – when are you finally going to fall for someone? I'm starting to worry about you a little bit."

Tootie lifted her eyebrows. "Worry?"

"Well, I mean, you still haven't fallen for anyone – hard, I mean. You had your little crushes, but you still haven't gone crazy with a capital 'C' for any boy. Not that there were many to choose from at Bates Academy! But you'd think that with your flair for drama, you'd have been in and out of love twenty times by now!"

"I leave the romantic drama to my friends," Tootie said lightly. "Let's face it – River Rock's always been a hotbed of romance, even for the geriatric set!" She nodded toward Mona and Sol. "Cupid hasn't exactly overlooked our address."

"Sure, but …" Natalie groped for the right words. "In all seriousness, Tootie, hasn't anyone ever floated your boat? You'd tell me if you fell in love, right? You wouldn't keep that kind of news from your soul sister?"

"Of course not." Tootie slipped an arm through Natalie's. "Nat, I promise – when I finally fall hard, you'll be the first one I confide in."

"Promise?"

"Promise."

"Pinky swear?"

"Of course." Tootie linked pinkies with her best friend. "Pinky swear."

They both turned their heads and spat on the grass, sealing the pinky swear.

"Charming," said Alec, appearing at Tootie's elbow. "You're ready to be presented at court."

Tootie laughed. She smiled up at Alec, who was looking particularly handsome in white flannels, his unruly dark curls recently shorn close to his handsome head. He was carrying a glass of scotch – since Jacqueline had returned suddenly to England a year and a half before, he always seemed to be carrying a glass or flask of something, and while never tipsy, he never seemed one-hundred percent sober either.

His sapphire-blue eyes shone keenly as he leaned down and kissed Tootie's cheek in a brotherly fashion. She felt her heart skip. Lately, whenever she spent time with Alec, she felt a sort of fluttering, strange feeling around her heart. It was extremely annoying and she hadn't decided what to do about it yet, so she ignored it.

"Dearest little Tootie – I'm sorry, I know I'm supposed to stop calling you 'little Tootie', but I'm afraid that's always how I shall think of you. Dearest little Tootie, I'm so proud of you. I couldn't be prouder if you really were my sister."

"Well I'm not," she said rather tartly. "And I'm not 'little Tootie'."

"She's 'a full-growed woman now'," said Natalie. Tootie and Alec both stared at her. "What? 'Tammy' was on the late show the other night," Nat explained. "You know –when she drops the locket, and it doesn't fall through?"

"Oh – right," said Tootie. She laughed. "That's a great movie! Why didn't you tell me it was on?"

"I was watching it with Snake."

"Oh." Tootie nodded. "Got it."

Alec shook his head. "As always, half of what the Snoop Sisters say flies over my head at the speed of a jet aeroplane."

"Nat didn't want me to be a third wheel," Tootie explained. "She and Snake were probably smooching."

"And how!" Natalie agreed, cheeks pinking, eyes bright.

"Hmm. I think it's high time you two had a chaperone," Alec told her thoughtfully.

Natalie put her hands on her hips. "Now listen, Alec, I'm nineteen – nineteen – not nine. And I'm a good girl. And if I want to neck with my boyfriend a little bit during the late movie –"

"Exactly," chimed in Mona, strolling up with Sol on her arm. "Sol and I do plenty of necking during the late movie."

Natalie groaned. "Gramma … no one wants to hear that!"

"Why not?" Mona demanded with spirit. "Because we're part of the silver-haired set? Well I've got news for you, vnooshka – life doesn't end at sixty – or even seventy. That's where life begins!"

"Wonderful." Alec turned to Tootie. "Maybe that's when our little Tootie will finally fall in love," he said, eyes sparkling.

Mona wagged a finger at Alec. "Let me tell you something, Lord Wisenheimer: Tootie is a great actress. I mean a great actress. She's like a Sarah Bernhardt or a Helena Modjeska. She's not going to go marry a plumber from Plotnick. That's great for some, but not for Tootie. She's going to have a bunch of loves – great fiery loves. And we simple folk are going to hear all about them on Entertainment Tonight."

"What a feisty mood you're in this afternoon, Mona," Alec said fondly. "And I'm not sure whom you're calling 'simple', but I can assure you none of us here fits that bill. That said –" he glanced admiringly at Tootie, "I concede that our Tootie is likely to be a Hollywood femme fatale. And any fellow would be lucky to love her, even for a time."

Tootie blushed. She ducked her head. Alec never spoke to her like this. He teased her and pulled her pigtails and when he annoyed her she threw blueberry muffins and biscuits at his head. It was strange to hear him say anything about her being a femme fatale or being in love.

"Heavens to Betsy, I've gone and embarrassed the child," he said, fondly pulling the sleeve of her pale coral dress.

That snapped her back to reality.

"For the five millionth time, I am not a child," she complained. If she'd had a roll or little sandwich in her hand, she'd have pegged it at him.

"Of course not," he said in a maddeningly patronizing manner.

"We know you're not, vnooshka," Mona said soothingly. "Lord Nethridge is only teasing."

"Alec is just being Alec," said Natalie.

"I suppose we can't expect any better," Tootie conceded.

"Ouch!" said Alec. "And on that note …" He looked about the lawn, at the smiling guests in their white suits and pastel dresses. "Where are our Jo and Blair?"

Natalie coughed. "They're, ah …" She darted a glance at her grandmother and Sol. "They had a few things to take care of," Natalie said lamely.

"They made a bet," Tootie said, always a better actress than her best friend. "They made a bet and now they're settling it."

"Hmm," said Mona, lips pursed knowingly. "Well, in that case, I would assume they might be awhile. Which means I have dibs on their portions of gazpacho. The early bird gets the gazpacho! Come on, Sol, dear." She tugged his sleeve gently. He followed her to the long buffet table.

"Does Sol know about Jo and Blair?" Alec asked Natalie.

Nat shrugged. "Beats me. The way Jo and Blair look at each other these days, I can't believe anyone doesn't know. Discretion is not part of their vocabulary lately, that's for damn sure!"

"They've been inamoratas for almost three years now," Alec mused. "Naturally they're so at ease with each other that it shows – like a blinding neon sign. I suppose it's just as well they're buried in classes and jobs – separate classes and jobs – and that they only see each other here at River Rock, where it's safe."

"Where' it's usually safe," Tootie corrected. "Nat's parents still don't know about them. And neither does my father, for that matter. Or my brothers."

Alec looked over at Justice Pauline Ramsey, who was biting grimly into a divinely light meringue.

"Your mother knows about Jo and Blair – or doesn't she?" he asked Tootie.

"I'm not sure. I think she knows, but it's not like we've discussed it. We basically discuss my grades and my acting classes. We don't really talk about anything else."

"Your aunt – Sylvia, isn't it? She's of the Sapphic persuasion."

Tootie nodded. "But we don't talk about it," she said. "We don't really talk about much in the Ramsey household. GPAs. Verdicts. Football scores."

"A well-rounded array of subjects, at least," said Alec.

"I guess. It's just how we grew up."

"And speaking of your acting classes," said Natalie, "have you registered yet?"

"I'll get to it," said Tootie.

"Tootie."

"I'll get to it, I'll get to it. I can't decide between Shakespeare and Wilde."

"I always confuse them, too," Alec said drily.

Tootie lightly slapped his arm. "I love Shakespeare, and I haven't had much of a chance to perform it, going to a girls' school," Tootie told Natalie. "But Wilde is the last word in wit; that dialogue!"

"Why not take both classes?" asked Alec. "Simple solution, I should think."

Tootie grimaced. "I'll be a lowly freshman, Alec. In case you've forgotten, Langley makes you take all sorts of dumb required classes – math and science and health – like any of that is going to matter to my acting career! I won't be able to take all the theater classes I want until I'm a sophomore – or a junior, maybe. It's very crushing." Tootie put a theatrical hand to her forehead, miming devastation.

"You'll live," Natalie said.

"Yeah – I will," Tootie agreed in her normal voice, dropping her arm. "You know what's gonna be great? Langley is co-ed. Co-ed, people! I'll finally be performing in plays with girls and boys. I won't have to pull my kisses."

"Maybe that's how you'll meet a nice hunka-hunka," said Natalie, waggling her eyebrows. "I can see it now: Their lips met during the balcony scene of 'Romeo and Juliet'. And the rest … was history …"

Tootie rolled her eyes. "Wow – what a lot of mush! You must be getting really serious about Snake."

"Oh, I am. I am." Natalie's eyes grew dreamy, slightly unfocused. "I can't believe how much I miss him when he's on the road. I think that's the one thing that's going to be tough when we're, ah, huhn – is that the time?" She glanced at her watch, flustered. "Boy, how time flies."

Tootie's mouth fell open. "Nat – you were going to say 'married'."

"What? That's crazy talk, Ramsey."

"You were! You were going to say 'That's going to be tough when we're married'!"

"Please – I'm only nineteen. I'm only going to be a sophomore. Married? How would I be talking about being married?" Natalie was beet red to the roots of her chestnut brown hair.

"Wow." Tootie found one of the little white folding chairs dotting the lawn, grasped the back of it, slowly sat down. "Wow. You're thinking about marrying Snake."

"Well, if I were – and I'm not saying I am, mind you – but if I were, it wouldn't be for, you know, at least a couple of years," said Natalie. "If it even happens. Which I sincerely doubt. But, if it did happen, it would be, you know, after I, ah –""

"After you graduate med school?" Tootie asked, looking up at her best friend.

"Well, no, not that far away," said Natalie. "Because, it's not like we are going to get married, but if we did, we wouldn't wait that long. We'd wait until after I graduated from Langley."

"I see." Tootie nodded.

"But that's so far away," said Natalie. "And who says I'm going to actually marry the big lug?"

"Of course." Tootie smiled up at her friend.

It was one of the funny things about growing up, Tootie realized. Even a few years ago, a year seemed like such a long time. Hell, a month seemed like a long time. Now … three years sounded terrifyingly soon …

"Well, I mean, we're all going to grow up and graduate and get married and stuff," Natalie said reasonably. "It's just a matter of when. The way Blair and Jo are burning through classes at Peekskill College they're going to graduate right on schedule, as if they never lost that year after they got booted out of Langley. And then who knows where they'll go? And, sure, I mean, Snake and I might get married. Someday. And Portia and Gerald will be doing their residency, which means they won't be able to come up for air for years. And Mrs. Garrett's going to have to spend half the year in LA, now that her show's doing so well nationally. We have to face it; in the next few years, we're all going to be going our separate ways –"

Natalie was so wrapped up in her musing monologue that she didn't notice how Tootie's face was growing duller with each word.

"God's teeth, Natalie," said Alec, sounding irritated, "don't you see you're depressing the hell out of her?"

"Oops. Sorry," Natalie told Tootie contritely.

"It's OK," Tootie told her best friend dejectedly. "After all – it's just the truth."

Alec took Tootie's arm, and gently pulled her to her feet. "If it's any comfort, Tootie, dear, I'm not going to get married or go anywhere. I shall remain at River Rock, my usual useless, n'er-do-well self, and lounge about doing no good for anyone on God's green earth."

"You're not useless," said Tootie, leaning on his arm. "Well … not always. Your last report card was actually pretty good. Maybe you'll even graduate."

"Stranger things have happened," he said gravely. He led her toward the buffet table. "Let us fix you a plate, Miss Ramsey. Nothing too heavy – we have a concert to perform later …"


In their suite, at the top and back of River Rock, Jo and Blair lay in each other's arms, sated and still trembling in the afterglow of amazing sex.

The sun reflecting off the Hudson far below danced in wavering patterns on their ceiling. It was like being in the snug little cabin of a ship on a sunny sea.

Jo extended one slender finger and traced Blair's contours, from the top of her lover's shining blonde hair, along her perfect broad cheeks, her kittenish chin, her slender neck, tender throat, along one firm shoulder and arm, down along one generous hip and thigh, along the hollow of one knee, down one calf, one shin, one ankle, finally gently tickling Blair's sole.

Blair smiled. She leaned slightly forehead, so that her forehead touched Jo's, and they gazed lovingly into each other's eyes, milk-chocolate eyes into blue-green eyes, with perfect openness and trust.

"I love you," said Blair.

"I love you," said Jo.

"That was amazing, darling."

"Yup." Jo stretched luxuriously, then wrapped one arm loosely around Blair's lush waist. It was warm in their suite, a comfortable early summer heat, not the sweltering humidity of July or August. "Sometimes," Jo said, closing her eyes in perfect contentment, "I amaze even myself."

"That shouldn't be too difficult," Blair said drily.

Jo lifted one eyebrow, eyes still closed. "Babe … Did you just quote Princess Leia from 'Empire'."

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said with dignity.

Jo smiled. "You did. You quoted 'Empire'."

"Well, don't get used to it," Blair said. "I just happen to be in a particularly good mood." She traced one of Jo's lovely shell-shaped ears with the tip of one finger. Sometimes, like now, when Jo lay in her arms, eyes closed, so beautiful and vulnerable, Blair's throat closed. She couldn't speak for a moment, she could hardly breathe, she was so overcome with love for her fiancée.

"Jo?" she asked huskily.

"Mmn?" Jo was drifting off, sinking into a blissful half-doze. "Yeah, babe?"

"I have something to tell you."

Jo stirred. A faint shadow pierced her luminous bliss. Something to tell you … After almost three years of making love with Blair, Jo had learned that when Blair had something difficult or unpleasant to discuss, she often raised it when Jo was largely unconscious …

Without opening her eyes, Jo turned her face toward Blair's, a faint frown creasing her forehead. "Babe … Don't tell me you're flunkin your classes, like you did at Langley?"

"No. No, darling, I would never disappoint you – disappoint us – like that." Blair kissed the tip of Jo's nose. "I'm not pulling all A's, like a certain scholar-athlete in this bed, but I'm passing."

"S'Okay – good. Then what is it? You didn't get fired, did ya?"

Blair grimaced. "No such luck." Waitressing at the lacey pink Peekskill Tea House was a boring grind after hours of classes and homework – and it was one more thing that cut into her time with her lover. But they needed the money … It always came down to money …

"So … What is it, then?" murmured Jo. She reached out blindly, found her lover's hair by instinct, gently tangled her fingers in the long blonde locks. "You know you can tell me anythin – right? Anythin, Blair. We'll figure it out …"

Blair pressed one palm against Jo's chest, just above the small, firm breasts.

"Tootie graduated, Jo."

"Um … Yeah. Not exactly an earth-shakin bulletin, babe. We kinda knew for years this day was comin."

"Of course. But now … Now it's here."

Jo yawned. She pulled Blair closer, kissed the blonde's soft cheek. "Mmn, you smell good today. I mean, every day, but especially good today. That Chanel?"

"Darling, I haven't been able to afford Chanel since last year."

"Well, whatever it is, it's nice."

"It's plain soap and water."

"Then I guess it's just you. Just your Blair-ness, or somethin." She kissed Blair's cheek again. "So; what's this dire thing you gotta tell me?"

"Just … that Tootie graduated."

"And?"

"And we're all starting to go our separate ways."

Separate ways … Like the Journey song, thought Jo. It wasn't Jo's favorite Journey song – that would be 'Faithfully', one of her and Blair's "They're playing our song" songs. But it was a good song, if sad – "Separate Ways".

"One day love will find us, break those chains that bind us, till we touched and went our separate ways …"

Jo stroked Blair's naked back.

"Sure," said Jo, "it's part of growin up – right? Who knows where we're all gonna be in a few years. But for the next few years, I mean, we're here. Let's enjoy it."

"I know." Blair nodded. "You're right."

"Like always," smiled Jo.

Blair smiled affectionately at the woman she loved. Jo's eyes were still closed, but she knew Blair was smiling.

"You're always so damned sure of yourself, Jo Polniaczek."

"Uh-huh. Always."

"That first day I met you … Do you know how sexy that is, when someone is that confident?"

"Yeah. I know how sexy it is. Cause you're the same way, Miss Warner. It's real sexy." Jo gently pulled Blair in for a kiss. They kissed softly; they took their time, exploring each other's mouths, tongues flicking gently.

"Mrs. Garrett's going to be in Los Angeles a lot," Blair said thoughtfully when they broke the kiss.

"Yeah."

"And Drake will go with her, of course. Those two can't bear to be apart."

"I know how that feels," Jo said. She kissed Blair's shoulder.

"And Natalie's going to get more and more wrapped up in her pre-med studies. And once Tootie starts rehearsing for college productions, we'll never see her. And we hardly see Portia or Gerald these days. And I don't think Jack's ever coming back from England."

"True. And true. And true. And true," said Jo, agreeing with all of her lover's points.

"It's all changing. Even though we still have a few more years together, technically … It's already changing."

Jo finally opened her eyes. She folded one arm under her head, gazed thoughtfully at the ceiling. "You know, Tootie looks so, I don't know, so grown-up today. It's like someone flipped a switch or somethin."

"I know what you mean."

"Ha. Remember when she pinched that vino you brought back from France, and she got all crocked on it?" Jo laughed. "And when she made up that phony boyfriend? And when she – oh, hell – she was always up to somethin, that kid. And now she's practically a grown-up."

"Eighteen isn't a grown-up," objected Blair.

"Said the wrinkled old twenty-two year-old," teased Jo.

"Hey – you're a wrinkled old twenty-two year-old too," objected Blair.

"Mmn, well, you got all your wrinkles in the right places, that's for sure," Jo said appreciatively, kissing the crease where Blair's pale throat joined her pale shoulder.

Blair blushed prettily. "Jo – are you starting to get revved up again?"

"Yup." Jo pressed her lips to Blair's collarbone. "I'm startin to get that nice, down-low tickle, babe. You know what I mean." Jo slid her arms down Blair's torso, cupped the blonde's generous derriere. Jo slipped one of her legs between Blair's, thigh brushing Blair's damp sex, the light brown ("dark blonde" Blair always said) hair between the debutante's legs …

"Oh, Jo," murmured Blair. "My Joey …"

Blair gripped Jo's leg between her own, began rocking slowly, creating a delicious friction. Jo nuzzled Blair's throat, her chest, her heavy pale breasts.

"We … have to … go … to the … lawn party …" Blair said, breath ragged.

"We will," Jo mumbled against Blair's right breast.

"We're … already … so … uh … late …"

"Then another few minutes ain't gonna matter," Jo said, taking a dark nipple into her mouth. She murmured something else, but it was muffled, unintelligible, and in the throes of an electric tingle that shot directly to her sex, Blair couldn't care less what Jo had said …

After they came, they fell asleep for a time, Jo softly snoring, Blair's nose whistling faintly.

Jo was awakened by a damp nose pressing against her face – not Blair's nose, but that of Blair's little terrier, Blue.

Jo chuckled softly. "So, you finally woke up – huh, boy?"

Blue was, in Jo's estimation, a very smart little guy. He always seemed to doze off in his little basket in the sitting room whenever his mistresses were feeling amorous, and he never seemed to wake up until after their lovemaking concluded.

Jo patted the tiny dog, smoothing back his blue-black fur. He wagged his tail, gazing at her with his big black button eyes.

"You hungry, boy?" asked Jo. "You want some scraps, or somethin?"

Blue wagged his tail more enthusiastically, as if he could understand her, which Jo believed he did.

Jo leaned over and gave Blair a kiss on the forehead. Blue, not to be left out, licked Blair's cheek.

Jo pulled on her light white summer bathrobe, slipped her feet into her soft moccasins.

"C'mon, boy." She scooped Blue into her arms. "Let's go see what's left in the kitchen. Which, probably not much, after all the grub Mrs. G whipped up for Tootie's wing-ding, but gotta be somethin left ..."

She found some scraps of roast beef in the kitchen. She put them in a bowl and set it on the floor. Blue dug in ravenously, tail wagging as he ate.

Jo watched him. She leaned back against the big butcher block island in the center of the old kitchen, arms folded across her chest.

She remembered when she gave Blue to Blair. It had been in March of '85, not long after Petal had … after Petal had decided to leave them.

Jo had asked the Georges – Alec's twin half-siblings – to find a couple of things for her. They had been boasting about their amazing detective skills, and Jo had decided to put them to the test. One of the things she wanted was a dog for Blair. A dog could never take the place of Blair's beloved horse Chestnut, Jo knew, but at least it would be a companion, a little pal for Blair, when Jo was at work or in classes, when everyone was out and about, River Rock empty and lonely …

"A dog?" George had asked disdainfully, her lip twisting in disdain.

"Honestly," Sebastian had said, equally disgusted, "you want us to locate a common canine?"

"I want you to find a pet," Jo had corrected severely. "A real good dog. Like – a chum. It can't be all big and slobbery and eat us outta house and home."

"Thank God," George had said, "for small favors."

"Listen, smart-ass, you want the job or not?" Jo had asked point blank. "Cause I'm just as happy to give my twenty bucks to the Snoop Sisters."

"Don't be so sensitive," Sebastian had said. "We'll find a dog. How hard can that be, after all, out in this rural ick? There must be dogs lounging around every tree stump and barn."

"But it's gotta be a good dog," Jo had said again. "Cute. And smart. And cool."

"Bloody hell, are you looking for a dog or a boyfriend?" George had asked.

"She doesn't need a boyfriend," Sebastian had snickered. "She has Blair."

Jo had grabbed the collar of Sebastian's shirt and pulled him close, so that they were nose-to-nose. Everyone in the house was saying how the twins needed understanding and counseling and mothering and all sorts of nice things. In Jo's opinion, they needed a couple of boots in the bum and some military school.

"Don't," Jo said calmly, gazing directly into Sebastian's sapphire-blue eyes, "ever, ever make fun of Blair. Ever. I mentioned 'ever' – right?"

"Er – yes," Sebastian had said in a strangled voice.

"You unhand my brother!" George had said, beating at Jo's shoulders with her pale, aristocratic hands.

"Sure," said Jo, unhanding Sebastian. "Cause he gets me now. Right?"

"Right-o," Sebastian had said fervently. "I say, you really would make a terrific enforcer. You're certain you don't want to join our spy club?"

"I'm certain," Jo had said. "Now, about this dog. The sooner you can find it, the better, cause Blair is really missin Chestnut …"

It had taken the Georges only three days to find a suitable dog. They had smuggled it into River Rock right under Mrs. Garrett's nose and presented it to Jo in the music room, where she was holed up filling out applications to Peekskill College for her and Blair.

It had taken Jo a moment to warm up to the terrier. It was raining outside, and when the Georges presented Blue he was a damp bundle of blue-black fur, wrapped up in a red plaid scarf and trembling all over.

"What is this?" Jo had asked doubtfully.

"What do you mean, what is this?" George demanded.

"It's your bloody dog," said Sebastian, "that's what. And it piddled on my leg, so you'd better be grateful."

Jo looked at the little bundle of trembling dog in the red plaid scarf. "Grateful, huh?" She reached out slowly and tentatively took the terrier. The dog lifted its head and looked at her with big black button eyes. Its tongue lolled out, and it smiled at her.

And that was it. Jo grinned at the little fellow …

When Jo went up to the suite she shared with Blair, the blonde had been sitting rather dejectedly on the sofa, sipping a cup of hot chocolate. She was still depressed about Petal's death; about losing Chestnut; about her and Jo having been expelled from Langley.

Jo had wrapped the dog in her aviator jacket, the buttery-soft, expensive one Blair had given her when they first started dating, what seemed like a million years ago.

"Hi, darling," Blair had said quietly, not really looking up. "Cup of cocoa?"

"Sure," Jo had said, trying to keep the merriment out of her voice. The little dog was twitching inside the jacket, but Blair hadn't noticed anything amiss yet.

Blair poured a cup of hot chocolate out of the silver-belled pot. She set it on the coffee table, and then absently patted the seat next to her. "Sit with me, darling," Blair said. "I'm feeling a little blue …"

"Well," Jo had said, sitting down next to her fiancée, "as far as that goes, babe, I got somethin here, maybe you won't be feelin so blue anymore."

Blair had looked at Jo then, finally registering that Jo was carrying her aviator jacket and that the jacket seemed to be wriggling in Jo's arms.

Blair drew back against the sofa rather apprehensively. "Jo Polniaczek – are you playing a joke on me?"

"What? Of course not, babe."

Blair had sank further against the sofa back. "Jo, is this, is something going to pop out at me, like in that terrible 'Alien' movie you made us watch?"

Jo laughed, remembering how Blair had jumped in her seat and spilled popcorn all over. "Jeez, I forgot about that! Ha! Wow, that would be funny. Er, I mean, for cryin out loud, babe, no, I ain't gonna play a joke on you like that. This is a honest-to-goodness nice surprise. Young Diablo's honor." Jo made an indelicate gesture with one hand, the other hand holding the jacket firmly closed.

"Well … If you say so." Hesitantly Blair had leaned forward. "All right … What is it?"

"Ta-da!"

With a flourish, Jo opened her jacket. Within it was the red-plaid scarf, and tufts of blue-black fur and a pair of bright button eyes.

The dog lifted its muzzle from the scarf, gazed up at Blair and made an adorable little bark. It tilted its head. It smiled up at its new mistress, as if it had been waiting to meet her for some time, and now, here she was.

"Oh – Jo," Blair cried, delighted, looking not at her lover but at the little dog. "Jo, she's beautiful!"

"She's a he, babe," Jo corrected. "But, yeah, he's a pip, huh?"

Blair reached out tentatively and took the little dog in her arms. He licked her face. Blair laughed, delighted.

"Look at you," she cooed to the dog. "Look at you, you handsome little thing. My goodness, what color is this fur?"

"It's kinda bluish-blackish," Jo said helpfully.

Blair took the dog's front paws and held them gently. He licked her face again.

"I know what I'm going to call you," Blair said. "You're Blue. Jo gave you to me when I was feeling blue, and you're kind of blue colored … And whenever you're around, I'm not going to feel blue anymore …"

Jo had felt tears pricking her eyes. Blair likes him. Hell – she loves him! She already named him. And now, she ain't gonna be alone when I'm not around …

Blue had been the first surprise of that evening. The applications to Peekskill College had been the second surprise.

"See, I can take pre-law classes," Jo had explained to Blair as they snuggled together on the sofa, Blue between them, "and you can take, I mean, whatever the hell you wanna take. And if we take a lot of credits, which they're very inexpensive, I crunched the numbers and we can do this, babe, if we take a lot of credits, we can maybe graduate in '87, like we were s'posed to graduate from Langley …"

"Of course," Blair had told Jo. "Of course, darling. I'll study anything. As long as we're back at school together, as long as you're in classes, not letting your beautiful brain go to waste …"

A year and a half ago, thought Jo, watching Blue devour his scraps. Time really was flying faster. It seemed like only yesterday Jo had presented Blue to Blair for the first time …

Alec breezed into the kitchen, looking gorgeous as hell in his white flannels and totally shattering Jo's drowsy reminiscences.

"Artemis – there you are! Are you and Aphrodite ever planning to join Tootie's party? People are beginning to talk, dear, and not everyone understands about you and the fair Miss Warner. If you aren't careful, people will say you're in love." He hummed a few bars of the "Oklahoma" song.

"Eh, everyone can bite my ass," Jo said, yawning.

Blue finished the scraps of roast beef. He licked his chops, and glanced over his shoulder hopefully at Jo.

"Did you feed that little beast my dinner?" Alec demanded, opening the refrigerator.

"He needs it more than you," said Jo.

"Bloody hell – one needs to be a dog around here to get the proper respect!" Alec rummaged about, finally emerging with a bottle of champagne. He closed the refrigerator door.

"Artemis, dear, all kidding aside, we miss you out there. And everyone is starting to wonder where you and Blair have got to. If you could join us soon –"

"Of course," said Jo. "I'm sorry. I suppose it's rude of us. It's just, with all our classes, and all my hours at the garage, and Blair's hours at the Tea House, we don't see each other much. And she looked so beautiful today, I mean, even more than usual, all dolled up for Tootie's graduation. We just sort of, we got lost in the moment."

Alec nodded. He sighed. "I remember," he said. "What it's like, I mean, to get lost in a moment."

Jo touched his hand briefly. It was an unusually tender gesture for the former Young Diablo. Few people saw her at her gentlest and most vulnerable; Alec, her best friend, was one of the rare few.

"Alec … Do you think … Is Jack ever comin back?"

He shrugged. He looked away. "To the United States? Or to Peekskill?"

"I don't know. Either."

He shrugged again. "She tells me it's too sad."

"What's too sad?"

"All of it. Peekskill. Langley. River Rock. The damned state of New York. Jack says everything reminds her of Petal. Makes her sad. We," he shaded his eyes with one hand, "we remind her of Petal. We make her sad. And on top of that, Jack claims she's needed in Angledun. Apparently the whole district will go to ruin if she's not there. Her parents are up in Scotland again, still trying to save their marriage –"

"Christ, what is this mystical healing power Scotland is s'posed to have?" wondered Jo. "Can it really save marriages?"

"Perhaps. Not theirs, I don't think. They're up at that country house every other months, it seems, and never seem to actually work through anything." He sighed. "I … Jo, I miss her so much."

"Yeah. I know." Jo squeezed his hand. He returned the pressure gratefully.

"The one good thing about her being over there is that she can keep tab on the Georges," Alec said.

"So – how they doin?" Jo asked. "They been locked up in the Tower yet?"

"Well, they've earned top marks for consistency," Alec said drily.

"Meanin?"

"Meaning they've been booted from yet another exclusive public school."

Jo shook her head. "I'm tellin you, milord, they need a good military school. They're friggin brilliant – they just need someone to put a boot on their neck and teach em a few manners, is all. And with those two, I think it's gonna have to be someone who's armed."

"You may be right, Artemis."

"Count on it, pal." She cleared her throat. "Look, Alec, I'm sorry if I'm pryin, but is it possible your father, like, would the Duke ever –"

"Never," Alec said firmly.

"But they're his kids."

"My mother will never let my father see them."

"But … they're his kids," she said again. "That's so freakin cruel."

"She'll never forgive him," Alec said, "for having the affair, and she'll never let him see the fruits of it. My dear mater the Duchess, you see, is a trifle jealous. And by 'trifle' I mean out-of-her-mind, green-with-envy, foaming-at-the-mouth psychotic. That kind of jealous."

"Damn," said Jo. "Kinda makes you feel sorry for the little monsters."

"Kind of," Alec agreed glumly. He shook his head. "No – I won't have it, Artemis. This is a celebration of Tootie's academic triumph, and tonight we are going to laugh and dance and have a most delightful time. We are not going to mope or pine or rue."

"Sounds like a plan," said Jo. She gave him one of her crooked, mega-watt smiles. "OK. I'll go wash up and collect the little woman."

Alec grinned. "I wouldn't let Blair hear you call her that."

"Aw, she'd love it. I think. But since I ain't ever gonna say it to her face …"

"We'll never actually know," Alec finished for her. He raised the champagne bottle in Jo's general direction. "To Artemis and Aphrodite – the only two people I've ever met – well, besides Mrs. Garrett and Drake – who share a true, pure love."

Jo flushed faintly. "Ah, thanks," she mumbled, embarrassed.

"I hope I can find that kind of love someday," Alec said. "And keep it when I do."

"You will," said Jo. "And now, belt up, old pal, cause you're breakin your own rule about no mopin and pinin and stuff."

"So I am, so I am." He flourished the champagne bottle. "Very good. We'll expect you outside in not less than half an hour."

"Sure." Jo gave him a funny little salute. "You got it, pal." She whistled lightly; Blue ran to her, tail wagging, and permitted himself to be scooped into her arms …

Alec remained in the kitchen for a moment, after Jo had disappeared upstairs. He found a knife, cut the foil off the champagne cork, opened the bottle with a soft 'pop', poured himself a glass.

He thought about Jacqueline Messerschmitt, whom he'd known since they were both children. She was slightly older than he was; she had teased him when they were young. He thought about her radiant red hair and pretty face and her clipped, well-bred Katherine Hepburnesque tones, and the mannish suits that she favored and wore so well.

He thought about Jo – his very best friend in the world – and how when he first met her, she had stolen a little bit of his heart. She hadn't meant to – it had certainly been the furthest thing from her mind, which was completely focused on Blair – but she had. He remembered her at the Plaza Hotel, in her blue princess dress …

"Alec, what happened to the champagne?" asked Tootie. "Oh. I see." She looked pointedly at the half-empty glass in his hand. "Were you planning on drinking it all yourself?"

Alec tossed down the rest of the champagne. He poured himself another glass, then poured a second glass and pushed it across the counter toward Tootie.

"What's this?" Tootie asked suspiciously.

"It's the nectar of the Olympian gods, my dear – and it's actually a good year."

"I've never had champagne," Tootie said.

"Well, you ought to try a glass today," said Alec. "It's your graduation, isn't it? it's your party, my dear. And you are eighteen now."

"True," said Tootie.

Hmm, she thought. This is … odd. But nice. Finally … someone at this party is treating me like a grown-up …

"Come on now – drink up. There's a good girl," Alec coaxed.

Tootie sighed. Well – at least it lasted for a minute anyway, someone treating me like an adult!

Tootie lifted the glass. She sipped the champagne hesitantly. It was dry … it was bitter … but it tickled her nose in the nicest way …

"Here's mud in your eye, dear," said Alec, lifting his glass to her. "It's your day, and we couldn't be more damned proud. I know we're always teasing you and being hyperbolic, but, all honesty, Tootie, I think you're going to be a great star someday. Film, theater – hell, I think you could walk into a recording studio tomorrow and have a hit record next week. You've a lovely voice."

Tootie felt a rush of warmth flow from her chest to her shoulders to her throat. Alec was always teasing … genuine, serious praise from him was unusual, and it made her feel … odd. She took another drink of champagne.

"What shall we sing tonight?" asked Alec. "Everyone likes the old standards, I know, and Jo always wants to hear 'Faithfully', and I always like to hear Blair sing 'Barbara Allen' – reminds me of dear old Viv. What does your mother like to hear? Something grim, like the 'Death March', perhaps?"

Tootie giggled. "Alec – that's mean."

"But not completely off target, I'd venture to guess."

"My mother likes … she likes serous classical music. Uplifting, complex, serious classical music." She took another sip. "You're classically trained, Alec. You should play something really divine for her. Really show her how talented you are."

He shrugged. "If it will please her, certainly. I live to entertain. But I have a feeling your mother wouldn't give a damn if I played Carnegie Hall. She doesn't like me."

"Well … My mother doesn't like most people. She's … It's hard for her to understand things like 'fun'. She doesn't really get 'fun'. And you, well, you're pretty much all about 'fun', Alec."

"I am," he agreed. "Never understood how anyone could want to cry when they could laugh. Any chance to laugh – that's for me!"

"You always do that," Tootie said quietly. "You talk yourself down, like you're some kind of clown. But there's a lot more to you. Jo sees it. I see it too. That is, we all see it here. That's why we care about you."

He drained his glass of champagne, poured himself another. He tilted the bottle toward Tootie, but she covered the glass with her palm.

"I think one is all I can handle," she said. "I'm kind of a light weight."

"Are you? Pity … I always feel badly for people who can't hold their liquor. It's such a lovely fun thing, to be able to drink."

"You might have had enough for today," Tootie suggested gently.

"Do you think so?"

She nodded.

He regarded her affectionately – Tootie Ramsey, Blair and Jo's young friend. That was how he had always thought of her, until they performed together at the jazz café in Florence. Blair and Jo's young friend, as it turned out, was a hell of a performer, and a lot of fun to hang around with. She had become his friend. His little sister.

"What are you thinking?" she asked him.

He shrugged. What am I thinking? He was thinking that Tootie looked rather beautiful in her coral gown. Grown-up. Too grown-up. It was too sudden. One day she was little Tootie and then the next day, she was wearing a coral gown and looking almost like an adult.

"I'm thinking that I'm getting old," he said lightly. "And that I'd better get another bottle of champagne to bring out, as I've drunk most of this one."

"I'll get one," said Tootie. She opened the fridge, rummaged around. "Here." She pulled out a bottle of the most expensive champagne in the refrigerator. "What about this stuff?"

"Well, Miss Ramsey, you have instinctively zeroed in on the absolute best champagne we have in the house!"

"Let it never be said I don't have good taste," laughed Tootie. "Come on." She put her hand on his arm. He allowed himself to be guided toward the garden …


Blair was awake when Jo returned to the suite.

Blue padded quietly to his basket in the sitting room and, stuffed with scraps, promptly fell asleep.

Jo proceeded deeper into the suite, and found Blair sitting in front of her small vanity, in lacy white panties and lacy white bra, brushing her long golden hair.

The radio was on, playing Bon Jovi's "Livin on a Prayer". Blair sang along happily with the song while she brushed her hair.

"Tommy used to work on the docks … Union's been on strike, he's down on his luck – it's tough … It's tough."

Jo grinned. Blair hadn't heard her enter the suite. Jo leaned against the doorpost.

"Gina works the diner all day," Blair sang with Bon Jovi. "Working for her man, she brings home the pay – for love … for love … She says we've got to hooold on to what we've got, doesn't make a difference if we make it or not – we got each other, and that's a lot – for love, we'll give it a shot – Oh!"

Blair suddenly caught sight of Jo in the mirror and jumped.

Jo laughed merrily.

"Jo! You startled the hell out of me, darling."

"So I see. So I see."

"You shouldn't sneak up on me. How long were you there?"

"You got a beautiful voice, babe."

Blair blushed.

"I didn't know you could sing rock songs," said Jo. She went to Blair, dropped down next to her, kissed her hair. "You sound great. Don't stop on my account."

"You should have let me know you were there," Blair said, still pink.

"Sorry. I just … I like catchin ya off guard sometimes, Blair Warner."

"Mission accomplished, darling."

Jo gently took the silver-backed brush from Blair. "You mind?" Jo asked.

"Of course not." Blair loved it when Jo brushed out her hair. Jo's hands were so gentle. It was, Blair thought, one of the most sensuous things, having her hair brushed by Jo Polniaczek.

"We have to go down soon," Jo said ruefully as she brushed the long golden strands. "People are startin to wonder where the hell we are. I mean, not anyone that really knows us. But Tootie's pop, prob'ly, some of the other guests."

"It is rude of us," Blair said. "You've thoroughly corrupted me, Jo."

"Me? Ha!" Jo's eyes sparkled. "You got some nerve sayin that, Blondie. You're the one's always been late. You've always been late for everythin since I've known ya."

"Fashionably late," said Blair. "Not late to the point of rudeness."

"Well, I don't exactly tie you up and hold you captive," laughed Jo. "You seem willin enough."

"Because you intoxicate me, Jo. You hypnotize me. You turn my head to mush and my knees to water."

"Yeah? I do all that stuff?"

"You do. You know you do."

"Well it's only fair, babe. Cause you do that stuff to me, too."

Jo put the brush on the vanity. She slipped her arms around Blair's waist and nuzzled the nape of her neck.

"Jo," Blair said warningly, "I'm trying to get ready. We have to get ready. You just said it yourself – we need to go downstairs. We need to make an appearance."

"We do," Jo agreed. "However," her hands slid up Blair's torso, cupped the heavy breasts in their lacy bra. Blair moaned. "However," Jo continued, "since we're already so late, is another half hour really gonna be the end of the world?"

"Well … ah … I suppose not," Blair conceded, eyes closing, head falling back onto Jo's shoulder. "Darling … Can we do it here? Right here?"

"Sure." Jo peeled down the mesh of Blair's bra, tenderly touched the bare nipples. Blair hissed in pleasure. "You just sit comfortable there," Jo said solicitously, "and let me see what I can do."

"Jo?"

"Mmn?"

"Even though everything's changing, we're … we're still us. Aren't we?"

"We are," Jo said against Blair's abundant hair. "Always, babe. Now let me love ya, Blair."

"Please," Blair whispered. "Oh … Oh, Joey …"


It was another hour before they made their appearance at the lawn party, Blair magnificent in a summery lavender frock, Jo handsome in her white silk pants suit. They wore their hair long and wavy, no makeup except for a touch of color on their lips and cheeks.

"Snow White and Rose Red," Alec said appreciatively, kissing each of them in a brotherly manner and presenting each with a flute of champagne.

Blair looked around the lawn, at the smiling faces and the cardinal and blue crepe paper fluttering in the early summer breeze. The sun shone. Tootie was surrounded by her family and Mrs. Garrett and Drake. "Everything's lovely," said Blair.

"Pretty swank," Jo agreed.

"Kind of you to join us," said Alec, "before we had to telephone the FBI and put out an all points bulletin."

"We were doing homework," Blair said innocently.

"Of course," Alec said. "On a Saturday. On Tootie's graduation day."

"It ain't easy carryin all these academic credits," Jo said. "And workin. It's a pretty tough haul."

Alec smiled at the couple. They were glowing, lovely faces flushed with vitality and a general joy in being alive.

"Yes," he said drily. "It looks like it's been hell."

"It is," Jo agreed. She beamed at Blair. "I don't know how we stand it."

"Neither do I," beamed Blair.

Alec cleared his throat. "Not to rain on the Jo-Blair parade, my dears, but if you don't dim the wattage a tad, everyone here is going to know about your love which dare not speak its name."

Jo sighed. "Sometimes I don't care. I wish we could just …"

"Of course," said Alec. "But is Tootie's family ready for that? It is, rather, her day – their day. Perhaps you could announce your mythic love on some other occasion."

"Wouldn't that be great?" Jo asked Blair. "Our next anniversary, maybe."

"We'll discuss it," Blair said noncommittally.

"That's a 'no'," Alec told Jo. "Whenever Jack told me we'd discuss something, it was 'no'."

"You don't gotta tell me," Jo agreed. "I know the drill."

"I said we'd discuss it," Blair told Jo, "and when I say we'll discuss it, I mean we'll discuss it."

"Of course," Jo said. "We'll discuss it, and you'll tell me no."

"You're impossible," Blair said, smiling at Jo in fond exasperation.

Alec cleared his throat again. Jo and Blair couldn't possibly look more completely, madly in love than they did gazing at each other this moment.

"Er, Aphrodite, dear, why don't you and our Jo circulate separately? Might be safer, rather, if you don't want to telegraph your passionate love to the whole demmed party – and I gather you don't. It's just that when you and Jo circulate as a couple, you look so, so very much like …"

"Like a couple?" Jo suggested.

"Precisely. Like a couple."

"He's right," Jo told Blair. "We should split up for awhile."

Blair nodded. She glanced over at Tootie and her family – Justice Ramsey and Harrison "Rifle" Ramsey and Marshall Ramsey and young Carver Ramsey, the wise old owl from Exeter Academy. They were flanked by some of Tootie's favorite Eastland teachers, her drama coach, some of her former cast mates.

"I'll congratulate Tootie again," said Blair, "and catch up with Mrs. Baker. She was my favorite history teacher. Darling, why don't you see how Portia and Gerald are doing? They look rather isolated."

"Sure," Jo said agreeably. She lightly punched Alec in the arm. "You come with, milord."

"I should be enchanted," he said, with a florid bow.

"What a dork," Jo laughed …

It was a lovely party. Everyone ate and drank and circulated and talked and reminisced. There was light laughter, there were hugs and happy tears …

The sun began to drop behind the trees, began to drop low over the Hudson far below.

Snake arrived unexpectedly. He looked tired but very happy. Towering over everyone else, the young man stood behind Natalie, his hands on her shoulders; every once in a while he dropped a kiss on her hair. Snake had shaved for the occasion. His long brown hair was pulled into a neat pony tail. He wore the same dark suit he always wore when there was a formal or semi-formal occasion at River Rock. It was a hand-me down from one of his older brothers, worn and rather cheap, but he wore it well.

"So, when are you going to pop the question?" Mona demanded, pouncing on Snake when Sol went to get her another cocktail.

Natalie turned beet red. "Gramma! What the heck?"

"For heaven's sake, how long do you young people court nowadays?" Mona demanded. "You think you're getting any younger? Either of you?"

"Please forgive my grandmother," Natalie told Snake. "She's just a little crazy."

"Ha! She's crazy like a fox," chuckled Jo.

"And you can stay out of this," Natalie told Jo. "It's not any of your business."

"Sure it is," said Jo. "Who originally gave Snake your number? If you guys do get hitched someday, you can thank yours truly."

Snake grinned at Jo. "Hey – that's true," he said in his deep, rumbly voice. "Put 'er there, Polniaczek." He extended one fist; Jo bumped it with her own fist.

"What is that?" Natalie demanded. "Is that a gang signal or something?"

Jo rolled her eyes. "No, it ain't a gang sign. It's a friendly gesture."

Initially skeptical of Snake, Jo had gradually warmed up to the young trucker. She still suspected that he had some kind of gang connections in his youth – the Celtic tats told her as much – but as far as she could tell, any involvement with the Shamrock Lords had ended long ago. The young man seemed to be on the up-and-up; he and his family lived in a crap neighborhood, but the kid worked hard – worked his ass off, in fact.

Snake rubbed Nat's shoulders. "So – what do you think?" he asked her. "Should I make an honest woman of you, or what?"

"Who's not an honest woman?" Nat demanded. "I'm honest. Honest as the day is long. Honest as old Abe Lincoln. Honest is my middle name."

Snake glanced down at Mona. The tiny little woman was smiling fondly at her granddaughter, and gently shaking her head.

"She always been this high-strung?" Snake asked Mona.

"More," said Mona. "Much more. You've kind of mellowed her out, a little bit."

"Gramma!" Natalie protested.

"Well, let's face it dear – there's always been a little strain of Woody Allen in your nature."

"And what does that mean?"

"Jeez, Nat, relax," said Jo. "You're just provin their point."

"I'm relaxed. I'm completely relaxed. Who's not relaxed?"

Snake kneaded her shoulders. "Cripes, Nat, you're all tense. You know –" he glanced at Mona again, "that's partly what I love about your granddaughter. She's always worried about somethin. And I like bein able to, you know, be there for her. I guess I got like a complex, you know, like a knight protector kinda thing."

Natalie's eyes shone. "Like, like I'm your lady in distress?"

"Sure," said Snake. "And I'm here for you, doll. I'll always be here for you."

"That's … that's so sweet," said Natalie. "Snake, that's the sweetest thing you've ever said."

"For cryin out loud," Jo complained. "Nat, you're s'posed be a feminist. 'Lady in distress'? What the hell?"

"I can be a lady in distress and a feminist," Natalie said confidently. She was speaking to Jo, but she was looking up at Snake with dreamy eyes.

"How?" Jo demanded.

"It's part of the feminist mystique. I think," Mona told Jo. "I could never quite get through the book. But we women are richly complicated creatures."

"You certainly are," Sol agreed fervently, appearing at her elbow with a cocktail. "Here, my dear – a Manhattan, just like you like it."

"Thank you, Sol." Mona took the drink, sipped it appreciatively. "Sol, you are very good to me."

"It's my pleasure," said Sol. "A fetching creature like you deserves nothing but the best, Mona – nothing but the best!"

Jo sighed. She stepped back slightly from her friends. Snake and Natalie were gazing lovingly at each other. Sol and Mona were gazing lovingly at each other.

Whereas me and Blair, thought Jo, me and Blair gotta hide how we feel. This effin bites …

Jo looked across the lawn, where Blair was enchanting Tootie's father with some anecdote or other. Blair laughed, a rich, musical sound, and Harrison "Rifle" Ramsey threw back his head and followed suit.

Blair's a goddess, thought Jo. An angel. She's –

"Dammit!" Jo swore aloud.

Nat and Snake and Mona and Sol looked inquiringly at her, their romantic reveries broken.

"Who invited Boots to this shindig?" Jo demanded.

"No one, as far as I know," said Nat.

"Well, there she is," Jo nodded toward the house, "in livin Technicolor."

And sure enough, there was Boots, in black leggings, a long black T-shirt with a skull on it, black combat boots and heavy mascara. Her normally pin-straight hair looked mussed, and there was a dark violet streak in it.

"What did Boots do to herself?" wondered Natalie. "She looks terrible."

"Just her bein here is terrible," said Jo. "I mean, I don't got any problem with her, but Blair's still, you know, kinda –"

"Insane," suggested Natalie.

"Yeah, insane," Jo agreed, "when it comes to Boots. Dammit. We don't need a scene at Tootie's party."

"I'll take care of her," offered Mona. "She and I have a sort of bond, since that terrible night at the Fever. And since she saved my neck at the trial. Sol and I can steer her back into the house."

"We can?" asked Sol.

"We can," said Mona.

"Your wish, my dear Mona, is my command," Sol said gallantly.

"Honestly, why should we have to steer Boots anywhere?" asked Natalie. "That whole thing with you is ancient history now," Nat said to Jo. "And Boots helped save Blair's life, and she saved Gramma from the electric chair. Or the noose. Or whatever. It's ridiculous Boots can't drop by to congratulate Tootie."

"I ain't disagreein," said Jo. "You're kinda preachin to the choir on this one. But, bein practical about it, all I can tell ya is if Blair sees her, this could get real ugly real fast. And Tootie don't deserve a knock-down, drag-out on her special day. Look, I'll do it. I'll just lead Boots out of here, and –"

"Oh, yeah, that's a brilliant idea!" said Nat. "You and Boots going off somewhere together. Alone."

"Oh. True," said Jo.

Sol's forehead creased. "I don't understand," he said. "Did Blair and this Boots girl have some sort of disagreement?"

"Uh, yeah. Disagreement," said Natalie.

Mona slipped her arm through Sol's. "I'll explain it to you later, dear. The important thing now is to keep those two apart."

"Keep who apart?" asked Boots.

Everyone jumped a little bit, startled. While the quintet had been debating the best way to get rid of Boots, she had quietly crossed the lawn to join them.

Up close, Boots looked even more different than she had across the lawn in the twilight. She had always been thin but now she looked haggard. Her skin was so very pale, her eyes like raccoon's eyes, lashes thick and smoky with mascara. It was strange to see her wearing a ripped black T-shirt with a skull on it, rather than an expensive argyle sweater. For some reason there was a safety pin dangling from one of her ears. Boots smelled of a strong scent – patchouli, thought Jo. One of her old friends back in the Bronx had used it to mask the smell of pot when she was toking up …

Boots didn't look toked up. Her large, doe-like eyes were clear. The young woman looked at Jo, and smiled sadly. Jo bit her lip and glanced away.

Ah, thought Sol. It was so clear – it was like reading a book. Mona wouldn't have to explain anything to him …

"I won't stay long," Boots said quietly. "I just want to wish Tootie a happy graduation."

"You drove a hell of a long way just to tell Tootie 'congratulations'," said Jo. "There's this thing called a phone, maybe you heard of it? Prob'ly shoulda used that."

Boots' smile deepened, growing even more regretful.

"You're funny, Jo."

"Yeah, barrel of laughs. That's me."

"I won't bother Blair," Boots said. "I won't even talk to her. I'll just see Tootie for a minute, and then I'll be on my way."

"Sure, that sounds simple," said Natalie, "but Blair's standing right next to Tootie."

"Oh." Boots peered past Jo, squinting against the sunset. "So I see."

"How are you doing, my dear?" Mona asked Boots.

Boots smiled down at the little old lady. "I'm very well, Gramma Green – thank you for inquiring."

"I understand that you and your friend Mizu are living in the Village."

"We are."

"And are you happy, my dear?"

"We are."

"You're sure?" Mona pinched one of Boots' pale, hollow cheeks. "You're skin and bones, my dear – skin and bones!"

"Gramma thinks everyone is skin and bones," Natalie told Boots. "She thinks I'm skin and bones!"

"We're economizing a little bit," Boots said. "On groceries. We're waiting for Mizu's check, you see. She has a new billboard. In Times Square."

"Times Square – wow!" said Natalie. "That's impressive."

"It is," Boots said, sounding proud. "It's for Yves St. Laurent. Mizu looks beautiful in the proofs. She's had little billboards before, but nothing, you know, too grand. And it's not steady, modeling. It's not like a regular job. But this is going to be a big billboard, gravy, a really big billboard. It goes up next week, and the check will be coming soon but until then we're, you know –"

"Economizing," Jo said kindly. "Got it."

"Well, there's no need to economize here," Mona said firmly, taking one of Boots' arms. "There's a whole table full of good food over there, and you're going to eat something, my child. No! Not a word! You're going to eat something now!"

Mona and Sol steered Boots toward the buffet table – directly into Blair's line of sight.

Jo hastily made the sign of the cross.

You happen to be tuned into our station tonight, God? Cause I got a favor to ask. Please keep Blair from causin a scene, or killin Boots, or killin me, for that matter …

"Why is Boots dressed like that?" wondered Natalie. "Are times that tough?"

"She's gone punk," said Snake. "It's this whole pissed-off angry rebel thing, been brewin in the city for a while now, but it's finally takin off. Coupla years, you'll see housewives in Jersey dressin that way. Lotta girls in my neighborhood dress like that."

"Huhn." Natalie touched her own hair. "I wonder how I would look, with a little purple streak?"

"You'd look ridiculous," said Snake. "You're a nice girl, Natalie. Call me conservative, but I like that about ya. Don't go gettin some dumb streak or puttin a safety pin in your shirt for me."

"No?" asked Natalie.

"No," he said.

Jo snorted. "Jeez, Nat, whipped much or what?"

Natalie shot Jo a glare, but then it transformed into a smirk.

"Being whipped – you wouldn't know anything about that – would you?" Natalie asked, looking meaningfully over Jo's shoulder.

Jo turned slowly. And there was Blair, striding toward Jo with angry eyes and a toothy, glued-on smile.

"Shit," said Jo.

"It's about to hit the fan," Snake agreed. "Nice knowin ya, Bronx."

"Thanks," Jo said drily.

"What should we put on your tombstone?" asked Nat.

"How 'bout, 'She loved well, but not wisely,'" said Jo.

Snake and Natalie laughed.

"Yeah, it's real freakin hilarious," said Jo. "My imminent freakin doom."

"Come on, Jo," said Nat. "It's not like Blair will actually kill you. Well – probably not."

"I'm gonna remember this," Jo told Natalie. "I'm gonna remember this when you're in the line of fire some day."

"You might not be around for that day," said Nat.

"Darling," Blair said tightly, reaching Jo and putting a hand on Jo's arm – a hand that looked, but only looked, friendly; Blair subtly tightened her fingers and dug them deep into Jo's bicep. "Boots is here. Did you see her? Isn't that lovely?"

"Ow," said Jo. "And … ow. Babe, you're kinda cuttin off my circulation there."

"Am I? That's terrible." Blair tightened her grip.

"Look, I didn't invite her," said Jo. "It was Boots' own brilliant idea. She wants to congratulate Tootie. And we ain't gonna do anythin to screw up Tootie's party – right?"

"Of course not," said Blair. She dug her fingers even deeper into Jo's arm.

Christ, thought Jo, little more pressure and she's gonna hit bone! Well … two can play at that game.

Jo took Blair's free arm. It looked like a friendly grip, but Jo pressed with her fingertips, hitting nerve points she'd learned about when she was training with the Lions.

Blair hissed in pain. She glared.

"Everythin all right?" Jo asked innocently.

Blair released Jo's arm. Jo released Blair. They gazed at each other for a moment, Blair looking completely pissed off, except for the toothy, phony smile, Jo looking cranky and annoyed.

"Someday," Jo said, "you gotta let this go, Blair."

"She still likes you," said Blair.

"Yeah. She does."

"And you still find her attractive."

"Yeah. I do. I'm gonna find other people attractive sometimes, Blair. So are you."

"Ha!"

"Who was droolin over Demi Moore in 'St. Elmo's Fire'?" Jo asked. "That wasn't me."

Blair flushed. "I was not 'droolin' over anybody. Demi Moore is a talented actress."

"Yeah, she is, but that wasn't what was gettin your motor all revved up."

Snake laughed. Blair shot him a venomous look. His laughter died abruptly.

"If you insist on discussing it," Blair told Jo in low, angry tones, "which apparently you do, Demi Moore reminds me of you, darling. I have a sort of thing for beautiful brunettes with blue-green eyes."

"Her eyes are brown," Natalie objected.

Blair shot Natalie a venomous look.

"I'm just saying," said Nat, lifting her hands in a gesture of surrender. "They are brown."

"They sure are," said Jo.

"Well, she has, she has your features," Blair told Jo. "Strong, handsome features. And beautiful dark hair. She reminds me of your for some reason, who cares what it is?"

"Point is, she attracts you," said Jo. "Nothin to be ashamed of. Human nature, that's all. Some people are gonna float your boat, some people are gonna float my boat."

Blair gestured broadly. "Do you see Demi Moore at this gathering? Because I do not. And I seriously doubt that Miss Moore will be dropping in tonight."

"Good point," said Natalie.

Now Jo shot Nat a venomous look.

Natalie tugged Snake's sleeve. "How about we go to the buffet table," Natalie suggested to her boyfriend. "I'm feeling a little peckish."

"Me too," agreed Snake. He nodded at Jo and Blair. "Ladies. Try to keep it down to a dull roar, will ya? This is a civilized gatherin – you know?"

Blair stuck her tongue out at him as he and Natalie headed toward the food.

"Mature," Jo told Blair. "Real, real mature."

Blair stepped closer to Jo. Her eyes flashed.

"I know I'm being over-the-top," Blair told Jo. "I know it. That makes it worse. I know I'm being ridiculous but I can't seem to stop feeling what I'm feeling. Which is rage. Seeing-red, I'm-ready-for-a-cat-fight rage."

"Babe, it's just Boots. She's always been loopy. And annoying. But she's kinda sweet. She saved your life. She saved Mona."

"And I'm eternally grateful," said Blair, through gritted teeth. "But I still loathe what she did, making a move on you, betraying our friendship. Rightly or wrongly when I see her, I want to, to snap her in half like an underfed Barbie doll."

"You didn't rough her up at Petal's funeral last year."

"Because it was Petal's funeral, Jo. I was in shock. I was focused on Petal, on all the terrible things happening that year."

"So now it's Tootie's party," said Jo. "So focus on Tootie. On how proud we are of her. Look, Boots isn't an idiot – well, not a complete idiot. She's only gonna stay a little while. She's just gonna say 'Congrats' to Toot and then she's gonna clear out."

Blair looked over at the buffet table, where Mona was helping Boots to pile a plate high with cucumber sandwiches and tiny pastry treats.

"She's gathering enough food to feed an army," Blair observed. "She doesn't look like she's going to clear out in a minute."

"Mona's makin her eat," Jo explained. "You haven't seen Boots up close; she looks all malnourished. She and Mizu, sounds like money's real tight. I don't think she's eaten in awhile."

"And here we go!" Blair threw up her hands in disgust. "Here it comes – the 'poor Boots' show. How does she do it? How does she always do it?"

"Babe, c'mon – get a grip," said Jo. "People are gonna start lookin over here."

"Let them look. It's not like no one's ever seen us fight before. We've been fighting for years!"

"Er, yeah, but, you know, all due respect, babe, the way you're goin at me right now –"

"Going at you?"

"Yeah. The way you're goin at me, it must really, really look like a lover's spat."

"Lover's spat? Lover's spat?"

"Babe … You gonna repeat everything I say?"

"This," said Blair, "is not a lover's spat. This is a lover's spat." She drew her hand back, preparatory to slapping Jo, to slapping that maddening, confident, reasonable look on Jo's beautiful face.

Jo sensed it coming. She and Blair rarely got physical with each other – not in anger, that is – but once in awhile, when Blair got really wound up, she was like a spoiled child, and the claws came out.

Jo caught Blair's hand before it connected with her face. They struggled briefly. Blair was strong, much stronger than people realized, after years of swimming, skiing and equestrian sports. But Jo, the exceptional athlete, was still stronger.

In a moment Jo had pressed Blair's hand down by her waist.

"Happy now?" Jo muttered. "Everyone's lookin. This is a fine how-d'you-do for Toot."

"Just get rid of Boots," Blair said through her teeth.

She pulled away from Jo, pushed past the brunette, and stormed toward the house …

Jo stood miserably for a moment. Everyone was looking. Everyone had stopped mid-conversation and was looking toward Blair storming toward the house and Jo looking after her.

"Bravo!" Alec yelled suddenly, clapping. "Or, should I say, 'Brava'! Well done, you two! Well done!"

Everyone looked confused as hell.

Tootie caught on first. When they had performed together in Italy, she and Alec had developed something of the sixth-sense that entertainment partners share.

"Brava!" called Tootie. She started clapping. "That was perfect!"

No one understood what was going on, but it started to sink in that they had just seen a performance of some kind. Everyone joined in the clapping, if somewhat tepidly.

"That's one of the things I love about River Rock," Alec said in his rich, deep voice, making sure that it carried to all of the guests. "We're like an arts collective here. It's culture, culture, culture from morning till night. Painting and music and singing and improvisational performance. Our Blair and Jo are going to audition for 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' next week – summer stock."

A ripple of relieved understanding flowed through the crowd. Everyone applauded harder. Summer stock … a performance … of course. It was what people wanted to believe. Because for a second, the intensity of the argument had made it look like, well, it was a preposterous thought, but …

Jo made a little bow to the guests. Good old Alec – and Tootie – pullin our fat outta the fire.

Justice Ramsey clapped too, but half-heartedly.

"Since when does Jo act?" she asked her daughter skeptically.

"Jo's caught the acting bug," Tootie told her mother. "Just one of those things. Like Alec said, that's what it's like here – culture, culture, culture."

"Hmm." Justice Ramsey shot a distinctly disapproving look at Alec, Lord Nethridge.

"'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'" mused Harrison. "That's a very ambitious production. What parts are they trying out for?"

"Maggie," Tootie fibbed easily. "They're both trying out for Maggie."

"Well – with acting like that, one of them is bound to get it," Harrison said.

Tootie turned to Mrs. Garrett. "Mrs. Garrett," she said, "tell us more about Los Angeles."

"Of course," Mrs. Garrett said hastily, as eager to turn the subject as Tootie and Alec. "Well, the set is going to be beautiful. Drake and I flying out tomorrow to see it in person. Drake and I will fly out there for six months every year and film all of the episodes of 'Edna's Edibles'. And then I'll have the rest of the year to spend back here, focusing on new recipes, and spending time with my girls!"

"It's a wonderful opportunity," said Drake. "You should see the set."

"I hope we will," said Tootie.

"Of course you will," Mrs. Garrett said with spirit. "We'll fly you girls out there for a week or two!"

"The Musketeers in Hollywood," said Tootie. "I like it! Count me in …"

"I'm sorry I'm causing so much trouble," Boots told Natalie. "I think I should wrap up my food and leave."

"Say 'hi' to Tootie first," said Natalie. "You've come this far, you've caused this much trouble, at least achieve your goal."

"I suppose," said Boots …

Jo found Blair in the kitchen, slicing a cold joint of mutton into slivers.

Jo hung back a bit, looking meaningfully at the knife winking in Blair's hand.

"I'm cutting some scraps for Blue," said Blair. "Don't be a baby."

Jo moved warily toward the butcher block table.

"I'm sorry I almost slapped you," Blair told Jo.

Jo put a hand to her ear. "Come again?"

"You heard me."

"Did you just say you were sorry?"

"Har-de-har-har."

"Babe, you gotta find a way to get over this thing about Boots. It ain't healthy. For either of us."

"As long as Miss St. Clair stays in the Village, there isn't any problem."

"She's friendly with Mona, babe. And Nat. And Tootie. And Portia. And once upon a time, she was kinda your friend, too."

"Jo … Look …" Blair sliced savagely at the mutton. Little scraps of meat flew up around the blade. "Boots and I have never been each other's biggest fans. And now … The incident with you, that just cemented things. I tried to be understanding. I really did! You remember. I cut her a lot of slack. I tried to talk with her. And we found her a girlfriend. But what Boots did, making a pass at you, when you were all asleep and helpless and vulnerable …"

"I know." Jo sighed. "Babe – I totally get it. You know I get it, right? I'm just tryin to find some mature way we can all kinda get past it. I ain't sayin let's start invitin Boots up every weekend, and let's all be palsy-walsy, but once in awhile she's gonna show up at a Musketeer wing-ding. And we gotta all … behave."

"I think I've behaved marvelously under the circumstances." More little shreds of mutton flew from Blair's flashing blade.

"Let's go back up to the suite for a bit," Jo suggested.

"Darling, I couldn't possibly make love right now."

"Who's sayin we're gonna make love? I still gotta recharge after this afternoon, babe. I just mean, let's go lie down a while. Let's talk. Let's, I don't know, you ain't read me any Forster in awhile. Read me some Forster. Or I'll read you some Keats."

Blair actually smiled. She laid down the knife.

"Well … I suppose these are enough scraps for Blue. For now."

"Babe, it'll be a week before he can finish all that. Just, you know, pop the grub into some Tupperware and we'll go upstairs for awhile."

Blair nodded. "All right. It feels … it feels like a retreat, but … all right. For Tootie's sake."

"Thanks, babe," Jo said earnestly ...

It began with Keats. Jo read 'Bright Star' to Blair while they sat companionably, side-by-side, on the sitting room sofa. Blue slept blissfully in his little basket.

Blair read a few pages of Forster to Jo, from "A Room with a View".

"Hmm," said Jo, lazily tracing Blair's arm with one finger, "that's kinda revvin my motor."

"Is it?" asked Blair.

"Yeah. Little bit."

"But I thought –"

"That's the beauty of bein barely twenty-two. My batteries recharge pretty fast. Real fast, matter of fact."

Blair set the book on the coffee table. She took Jo's hands. She rubbed her thumbs over Jo's palms. She looked intently at her lover.

"I thought you weren't in the mood," Jo teased.

"I wasn't."

"That's all it takes, huh? A little poetry, a little pretty prose?"

Blair leaned forward, kissed Jo deeply. "You know I'm a sucker," said Blair when she broke the kiss, "for pretty prose."

"Huh. Me too," said Jo. They kissed …

Blair made a sort of snarling sound deep in her throat. She pushed Jo back against the sofa. She tore open Jo's shirt, buttons flying in every direction.

Jo laughed, as much from surprise as delight.

"Babe – what the hell? That's one of my favorite shirts."

"We'll buy you a new one," Blair said, biting roughly at Jo's shoulder.

"Ow! Easy there, tiger. We can't afford another shirt. Not on our budget, babe."

"Then I'll sew the buttons back on," Blair panted.

"You can't sew."

"I'll learn. Now –" Blair leaned her weight on Jo, pulling roughly at the brunette's bra, "what about less talk and more action, darling?"

Blair could be rough sometimes. Jo liked it. Jo could be a little rough herself when the mood was on her.

But this was rougher than Jo had ever seen Blair. It took Jo a minute to realize what was happening, that Blair was channeling her jealousy, her frustration, her helplessness, into sex.

Jo let Blair have her way with her. Blair was always sexy and confident, particularly in the bedroom, but Jo had never seen the blonde this dominant, this wild.

Blair all but shredded Jo's bra and tossed it into a dark corner of the room.

She pulled down Jo's white silk slacks and pretty much tore off Jo's silk panties. Blair was breathing heavily, her color high. Her hands fumbled over Jo's breasts, her hips, her sex with a primal intensity.

Jo felt tingling, galvanized. She was instantly as damp and longing between her legs as if Blair had spent an hour delicately seducing her.

Blair bit at Jo's throat and breasts. She sucked hard – there would be some dark hickeys, Jo knew.

Jo thrust one hand into Blair's hair, pulled Blair's head lower, down her stomach, to the tangle of dark hair between her legs, to her wet nether lips.

"Please," Jo said intently.

Blair was more than happy to comply. She squeezed Jo's breasts hard, almost brutally, while her tongue drove into her lover, deep, questing, her lips working, her teeth nipping …

Blair never undressed.

She came, fully dressed, when Jo came.

Blair knelt on the floor, panting, her head resting against Jo's slick stomach.

When Blair's head cleared, she saw what she had done. The dark hickeys on Jo's throat and breasts, the faint bruises that were forming.

Blair covered her face.

"Hey." Jo reached down, gently tugged at Blair's shoulders, pulled the blonde up so that she lay across Jo's lap.

"Jo – I don't know what came over me. I'm sorry," said Blair. "I was like, like a beast."

"Someday, Blondie, you're gonna figure out I ain't a china doll."

Blair buried her face against Jo's shoulder.

Jo tenderly stroked Blair's hair. "You feel better babe?" Jo asked. "I do. I for sure do."

"I … I attacked you," said Blair.

Jo laughed. "Yeah – and I let you."

"I'm a monster. A coarse monster. I wasn't making love to you, I was …" Blair trailed off.

"I know," Jo said quietly.

"But we don't do that. Other people do that. Bourgeois, déclassé people."

"Well, welcome to the bourgeoisie, babe, cause apparently we do," Jo said mildly. "Blair – come on. It's OK. You claimed me, babe – you showed me I'm your woman. And I liked it. And maybe in a little while, I'll do it with you."

Blair sighed. "I did, didn't I? I just … I just claimed you."

"Ya did, Blair."

"Because you're my woman. My woman," Blair said intently, holding Jo tight.

"Yeah. I am. We definitely established that. And I always will be, Blair. Nobody's gonna ever come within a million miles of changin that."

"You're sure?"

"Very sure."

Blair lifted her head. She gingerly touched the hickeys and bruises on Jo's breasts. Even the morning after their very first time, when she and Jo had branded each other, it hadn't been this abandoned, this rough …

Jo continued to stroke Blair's hair. "It was like bein in the jaws of some force of nature," Jo said dreamily.

"Was it?"

"Uh-huh."

"Jo?"

"Yeah, babe?"

"I'm not a china doll either, you know."

"I know."

"You can … You don't have to hold back with me."

"I don't."

"Sometimes you do. A little bit. Sometimes … I can tell."

Without warning, Jo slid one hand into Blair's summery skirt, gliding straight into Blair's lacy lavender panties, tearing them off with the flick of a wrist.

Blair gasped.

"You OK, babe?" asked Jo, gazing earnestly at her lover.

"Yes. Yes, Jo. That was …"

Jo turned, so that she was on top of Blair, suddenly, palm cupping Blair's sex.

With her other hand, Jo tore open the front of Blair's dress. Within seconds, Jo shredded the filmy lace covering Blair's right breast, leaned down at sucked hungrily at the dark nipple.

"Jo," moaned Blair. "Joey – don't hold back."

"Don't worry," Jo growled against her breast, biting, nipping. "I'm just gettin started …"


Boots was long gone the next morning, when Jo and Blair came down to breakfast.

True to her word, Boots had congratulated Tootie, spoken briefly with the other guests she knew, and then departed for the Village in the little rust bucket that she and Mizu used for transportation.

Alec regarded Jo and Blair curiously in the morning light that flooded River Rock's quaint kitchen.

"What happened to you two?" he asked.

The two young women were freshly scrubbed and immaculately coiffed, Blair in jeans and a red silk shirt, Jo in jeans and a crisp white polo shirt.

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Blair said with dignity.

There was always hot coffee on the stove at River Rock – it was a house rule. Blair poured a cup for herself and one for Jo. They sat at the butcher block table and drank their coffee black.

"Something's different," Alec said thoughtfully.

"Agreed," said Natalie, studying her friends.

"Agreed," said Tootie, chewing absently at a piece of toast while she examined the two older girls.

"Eh, we don't know what you're talkin about," said Jo. "It's just us, you know, like you seen us a million other Sunday mornins." She opened the Peekskill Telegraph, leafed through it, found the sports section and extracted it for herself, handed the rest of the paper to Blair.

"No, there's something different," Natalie insisted. Her blue eyes narrowed. "It's almost … huh."

Alec sipped thoughtfully at his Irish coffee.

"If I didn't know any better," he said, "if I didn't know that you two already spend every waking moment ravishing each other, I'd almost say that you …" He shook his head. "No. It doesn't make sense."

"Oh," said Tootie. "I get it. You mean it looks like they lost their virginity."

Blair blushed. Jo blushed.

Natalie held up her hands. "You know what? Whatever happened, I don't think I want to know."

"Me either," said Tootie. "Whatever it is, I'm too young to hear about it."

"Whatever it is, I think I'm too young to hear about it," said Alec. "Ye gods and little fishes – what have you two been up to?"

"None of your damn business," snapped Jo. "For cryin out loud! Our private business is our freakin private business. What we do in the privacy of our freakin rooms –"

"So – you did do something in your rooms," Alec pounced.

"Get bent!" Jo held the sports section in front of her face, walling out her three friends.

"Jo and I merely … reaffirmed our love," Blair said, calmly enough, but blushing an even richer hue of pink.

"So – no more insane jealousy?" Natalie asked Blair.

Blair smiled an enigmatic little smile.

"Boots can camp on the front lawn, for all I care," she said. "Jo is my woman."

"And Blair is my woman," Jo said smugly from behind the baseball box scores.

"Did you two goddesses discover the Kama Sutra?" Alec asked curiously.

"Of course not," said Blair, rolling her eyes disdainfully. But that's a very interesting idea, she thought. A very interesting idea …

"Well whatever happened, at least you're not arguing anymore," said Tootie. "Because guys, that was a really ugly scene. I can't stand seeing you two that way."

"I'm sorry," Blair told her sincerely. "I'm sorry I caused a scene at your party."

"Never mind that," Tootie said dismissively. "What's a Tootie Ramsey party without a little drama – right? But I can't stand seeing you two mad at each other. It's terrible."

"I'll second that," said Natalie.

"So, Tootie," said Blair, turning the subject, "how do you feel this morning, now that you're an Eastland graduate. Do you feel any different?"

"Actually, I do," said Tootie. "I feel – it's hard to explain. You know how you have a birthday, and everyone asks if you feel older? And some birthdays you do, and some birthdays you don't? Well I feel almost like I just had a birthday. Older – definitely older."

"You seem a little older," said Jo from behind her newspaper.

"Really? I do?"

"You do," said Jo.

"Huhn." Tootie buffed her fingernails on her bathrobe lapel. "Well, what do you know? Finally a little respect around here. Finally some acknowledgement I'm growing up."

"I just said you seem a little older," said Jo. "Let's not go nuts."

The moss green princess phone near the sink rang.

Natalie groaned. "It's bad news," she said. "I can feel it in my bones."

"What bones?" teased Tootie, eyeing her friend's plump frame.

"Laugh if you must," said Natalie, "but I'm telling you, this is going to be bad news. Everything went well yesterday. Well – almost everything. And everything's going well today. Even Jo and Blair made up their stupid fight. We're angering the Fates, people. We're angering the Fates!"

"You really do have a tad bit of Woody Allen in you," Alec observed.

Tootie climbed off of her kitchen stool. The phone continued to ring.

"It's probably more good news," Tootie said cheerfully. "I probably won another drama scholarship. Young Tootie Ramsey, ladies and gentleman – future starlet on the move!"

"Why is she saying that?" Nat asked the kitchen at large. "Why is she challenging the Fates?"

Tootie scooped up the receiver. She held it to her ear.

"Good morning, this is River Rock," she said brightly. "Lay some good news on us!"

Natalie rolled her eyes.

"Oh," Tootie said into the phone. Her smiled faded. Her face fell. "Oh. I see. I see."

Jo cast the sports section aside.

"For cryin out freakin loud," she complained. "Now what? What the hell could it be now?"

"I told you," Natalie said a trifle smugly. "The Fates are cruel."

"Very well," Tootie said into the phone. "I'll get her." She looked to Blair. "Blair – it's for you."

"Who is it?" Blair asked.

"Our summer tuition check prob'ly bounced," said Jo. "But it ain't a problem. I'm fixin a corvette engine this afternoon, gonna be some decent coin. Tell the bursar to keep her wig on, Tootie. Tell her we're sendin the balance tomorrow."

Tootie shook her head. "It's not Peekskill College."

"Then who is it?" asked Blair. She slipped off of her kitchen stool, walked toward Tootie and the phone. "Is it –" she felt suddenly cold – "it isn't Chestnut – is it?"

"I should imagine even a brilliant horse like Chestnut can't use the telephone," said Alec.

"She means, is Chestnut OK, dunce," Jo snapped at Alec.

"I know, Artemis, dear. Just trying to break the tension."

"Well, don't."

Blair reached Tootie, put her hand out to take the phone.

"Tootie – who is it?" Blair asked quietly. "Is it Eduardo? Is something wrong?"

Tootie shook her head. She handed the phone to her friend. "Blair – it's your mother."


June, 1986. Manhattan. The Palm Court, the Plaza Hotel.

"She's not coming," said Blair, glancing around the elegant room.

"She's comin," said Jo. Jo snapped a breadstick in half, put one part on her plate, started to gnaw at the other half. "She's just bein fashionably late, Blair. She's a Warner – right?"

Blair sighed.

They hadn't been at the Plaza in, literally, a couple of years. They couldn't afford it, and it brought back painful as well as good memories. Jo had proposed to Blair here, not long after they started dating. And they had spent what had begun as a beautiful Valentine's Day weekend here. But it was also at the Plaza that Devon had stalked them, under Dina Becker's mad direction …

If Becker hadn't ruined the Warners, if Blair's inheritance had gone through properly when she'd turned twenty-one, she would have owned twenty-percent of the Plaza. Instead, she and Jo could hardly afford a glass of lemonade here. So, they had simply stopped going there …

Mr. Johnson, the longtime doorman and a notable fixture at the Plaza, welcomed them warmly. There were tears in his eyes.

"Miss Warner," he said, "it's lovely to see you again. Lovely. We were all so very sorry to learn about what that BZ Becker did to your family. Seeing you again, does that mean …"

He trailed off hopefully.

Blair embraced him briefly, gave him a sad smile. "I'm afraid not, Mr. Johnson. The Warners are still poor as church mice. Mother's treating my friend and me to luncheon – although I don't understand how she can afford it. We might be washing dishes in the kitchen later."

Mr. Johnson tipped his cap to Jo. "Miss Polniaczek," he said respectfully. He had been instrumental in helping Jo to surprise Blair with the Valentine's trip to the Plaza two years before. Two years – more like two and a half years, thought Jo. Seems like a million freakin years …

Although it wasn't done, Jo heartily shook Mr. Johnson's hand.

"Good to see you again," she said. "And lemme tell you, Blair isn't kiddin about washin dishes. You don't see us come out this door again in a coupla hours, come look for us, would ya? Spring us if we've been conscripted to hard labor."

Mr. Johnson laughed. "You can count on it," he said …

The Palm Court looked precisely the same as Jo remembered it, and she remarked as much to Blair.

"The Palm Court never changes," said Blair. "That is, in part, what makes it the Palm Court."

They ordered inexpensive glasses of wine; the wait staff brought the wine along with a basket of superb bread sticks. They waited. And waited. And waited. Jo snapped breadsticks in half as if she wished they were Monica Warner …

"Are you sure it was your mother?" Jo asked finally. "I mean, it wasn't some crank, was it? Someone playin a hoax? The whole world knows how the Warners got screwed outta their fortune and your Pop took off to Tokyo and your mother took off to Zurich. Maybe someone's havin a little creepy fun."

Blair shrugged. "Maybe. That would almost be … well …"

"I know," Jo agreed. "I'd almost rather no one shows up. Two and a half years. Christ. Two and a half years. What the hell is Monica gonna say to you? What can she say?"

"'I'm sorry,' would be a nice start," Blair said drily. "But apologies aren't really mother's style."

"Well I'll tell ya one thing," said Jo, "I'm getting surf and turf. And a big slice of chocolate cake. And one of those frou-frou chocolaty coffees. I'm gonna pig out, Miss Warner, on your mother's dime."

"The very least she can do is treat us to a fancy luncheon," Blair agreed. "All I ask, darling, is that you use the right utensils."

"Piece of cake," Jo said confidently. "I really do pay attention when you tell me stuff."

"I know you do, darling."

Blair and Jo smiled at each other across the table.

"Well … Isn't this nauseating," said Monica Warner. Her impeccably well-bred voice was icy with disdain.

Blair and Jo turned.

Blair's mother had approached the table from behind the young women, footsteps masked by the faint murmur of conversation from distant tables, the faint clatter of fine dishes and faint clinking of silverware, and, most of all, by the Palm Court's ethereal harp music accompanied by cello and violin.

Monica Warner had brushed past the maitre d', who was (as decorously as possible, of course), hurrying to catch up with her.

Monica had gone blonde sometime in the last couple of years, her brown locks now almost platinum and cut in a severely elegant bob.

Her makeup was perfect, and she looked younger than Jo remembered her. A little plastic surgery in ye old Switzerland, prob'ly, Jo thought wryly.

Mother's had work done, thought Blair.

But beyond her beautiful, younger face, and her platinum bob, the most striking thing about Monica Warner was that she was wearing a heavy, floor-length silver fox fur that enveloped her from shoulder to heel.

Jeez – looks like she's bein swallowed by a polar bear! thought Jo.

"Mother," Blair said coolly, inclining her head. I can't believe I was nervous about seeing her again! Same old mother; same old Monica Warner – lifting conspicuous consumption to an art form! How could she afford the surgery – let alone this insane silver fox? And who wears a coat like this in June?

The maitre d', slightly out of breath, finally reached Monica and made a little bow.

"Mrs. Warner, it is lovely to see you again. If I might …" He extended his hands, and divested her of her enormous coat. "I will see that this is placed safely in the cloak room," he told her. He pulled out one of the chairs. "Please, if you will be seated, I –"

He broke off abruptly. Perfectly trained as he was, his eyes widened and his mouth opened in a discrete but unmistakable expression of shock.

But his expression was nothing compared to Jo's, or Blair's, as their jaws dropped and they stared at Monica Warner's belly.

Because within her fabulously expensive, exceptionally tasteful black dress, Monica Warner was very, very pregnant.

"Congratulations, Blair," Monica told her daughter. "You're going to have a half-sibling."


May 1, 2012. Central Park West.

Blair shrieked again.

She squeezed Jo's hand so tightly Jo felt – and thought she heard – one of the finer bones crack.

They were in the back of an ambulance, Blair lying on the gurney, Jo sitting next to her holding her hand, a paramedic sitting on Blair's other side.

The paramedic was a no-nonsense young woman with a crew cut; she had a stethoscope pressed to Blair's belly and appeared to be listening intently, although Jo didn't know what she could possibly hear over the wail of the ambulance siren.

Blair shrieked again.

"Jo – oh, Jo, darling – I really think it's coming this time!"

Beads of sweat stood out on Blair's forehead. Her face was flushed, contorted with pain.

Jo smiled her crooked smile. She smoothed Blair's damp forehead.

"You think it's really coming, huh? What gave it away? The blinding pain? The violent contractions?"

"Stop …" Blair drew a deep breath … "stop … trying to be … funny, Senator."

"Sorry – can't help it," said Jo, beaming at her wife.

Blair closed her eyes, shrieked again.

Jo looked at the paramedic. "This is normal – right?" Jo asked the woman. "The pain and the yelling?"

"Only if she's having a baby," the paramedic said soberly.

Jo couldn't tell if the woman was joking in a deadpan way, or if she was one of those people who had absolutely no sense of humor.

"How's the heart beat?" Jo asked.

"Baby's heart beat is good," the woman said somberly. "Your wife's heart beat is elevated."

Jo smoothed Blair's forehead again, stroking her wife's close-cropped silvery locks. "Try to keep calm, OK, babe? Everything's great. We're going to be at the hospital in just a few –"

Blair shrieked again. Jo shivered, but managed, heroically, to keep a cheerful smile on her face.

"You go ahead and let it out," Jo told Blair. "Let it out, babe. Couple of hours from now, it's going to be our little bundle of joy screaming. Now's your turn."

"This is her first child?" the paramedic asked Jo.

"Our first child," Jo said.

"And she's fifty?"

"Forty-eight," said Jo.

"Well," the paramedic wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Blair's upper arm, "usually the first child takes hours to be born. Twenty-four hours, sometimes – even more."

Holy hell! thought Jo. Blair can't go through this pain for twenty-four hours!

"However," the paramedic continued, squeezing the bulb of the sphygmomanometer, "given the frequency of the contractions, even given your wife's age, and that it's your first child, I don't think you'll be waiting long. I think this baby is coming now."

"What does my … age … have to … do with … anything?" Blair asked indignantly, breathing coming in fast, ragged gasps.

"No offense intended," the paramedic said, shrugging. She read the dial of the sphygmomanometer. "Ma'am, your blood pressure is a little higher than I'd like. You need to try to relax," she told Blair.

"Ma'am?" Blair asked. "Ma'am?"

"See, calling her 'ma'am' isn't going to relax her," Jo told the paramedic.

"No offense intended. I was raised to call my elders 'sir' and 'ma'am'."

"Elders?" Blair squeaked, before giving vent to another hearty shriek.

"What you want to call her," Jo said calmly, "is 'your grace' or Mrs. Polniaczek. Either of those is fine."

"'Your grace'?" asked the paramedic.

"It's the traditional way to address a bishop or archbishop."

The young woman's eyebrows rose. "She's a bishop? No kidding?"

"No kidding."

"She's a gay bishop, married to a senator?"

"Who is also gay. Yes."

The paramedic nodded. "This is why I love New York," she said seriously. "This is why I got the hell out of Des Moines."

Ah, thought Jo. Des Moines. That explains the Midwestern gravity.

"Iowa doesn't have too many gay bishops, huh?" laughed Jo.

"Not many," said the young woman. "But it has good universities."

"You went to Drake," guessed Jo.

"Sure. You know Iowa?"

"Little bit. Have some friends there."

Blair squeezed Jo's hand so hard that Jo swore she really did hear a bone crack this time.

"Ow!"

"I'm sorry … darling," said Blair. "I hope I didn't … hurt you. Or … interrupt … your kibitzing … while … I'm … lying here … in agonizing pain having … our … child."

Jo laughed. She kissed Blair's damp cheek, put a gentle hand on her wife's belly.

"I think maybe I just I can't quite wrap my head around it yet," said Jo. "That you're actually having the kid. Right now. On May first. On time. I thought it was going to be fashionably late, like you, babe. But instead, it takes after me."

"Ha … ha," Blair managed through gritted teeth.

The ambulance took a wild corner. Jo was almost thrown off her narrow bench seat. The driver, she decided, was not from the stoic, laconic Midwest. He was burning rubber like a South Bronx speed-freak.

"If, ah, perhaps we could get to the hospital in one piece?" Jo told the paramedic.

"Don't worry – nobody drives like Fitzie," said the young woman.

"That's kind of what I'm worried about," said Jo. And anyhow, I used to drive like Fitzie. Christ – I still remember driving me and Blair off that bluff, in the snow … "We must be close to the hospital by now," Jo continued. "We don't need to break any land speed records here …"

Much to Jo's surprise, they arrived at Manhattan Memorial without crashing.

Jo ran alongside the gurney as Blair was pushed to the delivery room.

"Baby's coming any minute now," the paramedic told the doctors when she handed off Blair. "This little baby has the need for speed!"

"Like … 'Top … Gun'. It … does … take after … you," Blair told Jo, clutching the sides of the gurney so tightly that her knuckles were white.

Jo grinned like a complete idiot. "Wow. A little 'Top Gun' baby. Go figure ..."

In the delivery room the nurses and doctors hooked Blair to an IV and put monitors over her heart and on her belly and took her temperature and her pulse and generally crowded out Jo, who sank into the comfy, squashy little sofa they kept on hand for those inconvenient creatures – the spouses.

Jo felt dazed – in a really good way. She couldn't seem to stop smiling.

Jo gazed lovingly at her wife, who was sitting up in the hospital bed, and, in between contractions, asking questions and delivering imperious little orders to the battalion of medical personnel ministering to her. Blair looked sweaty and frowzy and glowy and beautiful.

She's having our baby. In a few minutes … we're going to be parents. Blair and me – moms!

Jo's cell phone chirped in her pocket. Jo opened it.

"Senator Polniaczek," she said cheerfully.

"What the hell is happening?" Natalie asked frantically.

"Oh. Hey, Nat," said Jo.

"'Oh, hey, Nat'? 'Oh, hey, Nat'? Jo – is Blair all right? Are you at the hospital? What is happening?"

Jo laughed. "Jeez, Nat – Blair's having a baby."

"I know. I know she's having a baby, Polniaczek. I'm the one who called the ambulance after Blair's water broke at my 'welcome home' dinner, remember? And you can tell her again, thanks for the timing!"

"Hey, I told you not to plan anything for May first."

"For crying out loud, Jo – since when has Blair done anything on time?"

"Yeah, sure, but the baby's in the driver's seat for this one – and I guess the baby takes after me." Jo felt a little lightheaded, ridiculously joyful and pleased with herself.

"So, is Blair OK? Are they giving her an epidural? What are her vitals? Are you at the hospital?"

"Yes, we're at the hospital. I don't know anything else except she's fine and they're fussing over her and she looks freaking gorgeous. Even her hair is glowing."

"Oh, terrific – glowing hair! Sounds like everything is peachy keen!"

"It is, Nat. Why do you always have to worry?"

"As Lady Gaga would say, I was just born that way. Thanks for picking up your phone and letting me know you made it to the hospital, by the way. Are you ever going to remember to call me during a crisis?"

"As I think I've made pretty clear over the years, no," chuckled Jo. "But I really am sorry I left you hanging, Nat. Did you go on with the dinner?"

"Are you kidding? After Archbishop Blair Polniaczek went into labor in the middle of Alain Ducasse? I grabbed Brenda and Syd and we got the hell out of there before a waitress called the media and there were news trucks all over the place. The Musketeers are now banned from yet another restaurant!"

"So where are you now?"

"On the way to the hospital. I'm like, two minutes away. Tops."

Jo groaned. "Nat, you know how I feel about people talking on their cell phone while they're driving. I even sponsored a bill –"

"Now it's your turn to calm down, Senator. I'm using my Bluetooth – one-hundred percent hands-free gabbing. So there's no need to get all holier-than-thou. Listen, I'm pulling into the parking garage. Which delivery room are you in?"

Jo looked around. It was a large room, painted a cheerful yellow. The squashy sofa on which she was sitting was an earthy burnt umber. There were daisies in a blue vase on the table next to Blair's bed.

"It's a nice room," said Jo.

"Well that narrows it down!"

"I didn't exactly get the room number when we rushed into it."

"You rushed into it? Why? What was the rush? Is Blair OK? Are there complications?"

"It's not that there are complications," Jo explained, "it's just, like I said, the kid seems to be in a big hurry to meet us. Speaking of which, I'm wrapping this up – don't want to miss my own child's birth."

"Jo, do you even know what floor you're on?"

"Third – or fourth. I think."

"You think?"

Gotta go, Nat."

"Wait! Did you call Alec yet? Do I call Alec? I can call him on the way up."

"Yeah, call Alec, would you? Tell him he's going to be an uncle again. Thank a mil, Nat."

"Wait – Jo –"

But Jo snapped her phone shut, slid it into her blazer pocket.

"Nat's on the way," Jo told Blair.

Blair grimaced – not at the news that Natalie was en route, but in response to the massive contraction that wracked her. "The … baby's … on the way … too."

"You're beautiful," Jo told Blair.

Blair rolled her eyes.

"Oh, I'm … sure," Blair said. "I hope … you have … 'Town and Country' … standing by!"

"Yeah, their photographers are right out there in the hall," Jo teased. "But no kidding Blair. You're beautiful."

"Ha!"

Once all of the IVs and monitors and gizmos had finally been affixed to Blair, most of the medical personnel began clearing away from her bed.

"It's only a matter of moments," the doctor told Blair and Jo.

Blair lifted a sardonic eyebrow. "Thank you for the … newsflash … doctor."

"Hey, now, he's just doing his job," laughed Jo. "No need to be snarky."

She stood up, went to Blair's bedside, took one of Blair's hands. "Just think, babe – we're going to be moms. Moms!"

"Yes … darling. That's … the … general idea."

Blair squeezed Jo's hand so hard Jo had to bite back a yelp.

"The contractions getting stronger?" Jo asked solicitously.

Blair nodded. She took a deep breath, squeezed Jo's hand again.

With her free hand, Jo brushed a damp strand of hair out of Blair's eyes.

"Babe … I kind of have a confession to make," Jo said quietly.

Blair drew another deep breath. She glared up at her wife.

"Jo, if you're … having … a, a cheesy … movie-of-the-week … affair with some … little … staffer … in skinny jeans … I … swear … to God –"

"Please – I think you know me better than that, Blair," said Jo, blue-green eyes amused. "It's just, you know how we decided to wait to find out? I mean, if it's a boy or girl? Well …"

"You couldn't … wait?" guessed Blair.

"I couldn't wait," Jo admitted. "But I know you wanted it to be a surprise, so I – hey, what's so funny?"

Blair was smiling through the pain and shaking her head.

"You've got to be … kidding," laughed Blair.

"Nope – totally serious, babe. But how come you're laughing? How come you're not P.O.'d?"

"Because … darling … I … I couldn't wait … either."

Jo's eyebrows lifted. "No kidding?"

"No … kidding."

"So you know, too?"

"I … know too, darling."

"But that's great!" Grinning her million-watt grin, Jo leaned down and kissed her wife's damp cheek. "So you already know we're going to have a –"

"What did I miss?" Natalie demanded, flying into the room. She tossed her sensible maroon purse onto the sofa, already shrugging out of her light spring blazer and into a white doctor's coat. "What are Blair's vitals?" she asked the nearest doctor. "Are you giving her an epidural? Who's the attending?"

"Her vitals are strong," said the doctor, not usually one to blurt out patient details to a complete stranger, but startled by Natalie's tornado-like invasion of the delivery room. "And I'm the attending."

"Well I'm Dr. Natalie Green," said Natalie. "And I have privileges here. I'll be riding shotgun."

"You'll be doing what?" asked the attending.

"I'll be riding shotgun," Natalie repeated, fastening her white coat. "Just in case you need back-up. Which, probably you won't, but just in case, I'll be right here."

Blair's doctor looked around the room, crowded with physicians and nurses.

"Uh … I think we're covered," the doctor told Natalie carefully, speaking in the diplomatic manner that one uses with someone who's quite probably a dangerous lunatic.

"Sure you are," Natalie said cheerfully. She reached for one of Blair's wrists, began taking her friend's pulse. "You're completely covered – especially now that I'm here." Nat glanced at Jo. "Alec's on the way," she said. "When I got ahold of him, he said your assistant already called his assistant. Now, I'm just going by the screeching tires I heard in the background, but it sounds like Alec's really taking advantage of his diplomatic immunity, blasting through traffic like a blow torch."

Blair's doctor looked to Jo for guidance. Surely the Senator would be able to explain this highly unusual situation and this mysterious doctor who wouldn't stop talking.

Jo just shrugged. "I wouldn't fight it, doc," said Jo. "Like she said, she's Doctor Green – you know, the Doctor Green – the founder of the Bronx Free Neuro Clinic."

"Oh!" The OBGYN was startled and not a little impressed. The Bronx Free Neuro Clinic –where the impoverished residents of the Bronx were treated for any type of cranial injury, no questions asked, no payment required. "That Dr. Green. Well, ah, that's very impressive, but your wife doesn't seem to have any neurological issues."

"Or so we hope," said Natalie, shining a laser-bright pencil flashlight in Blair's eyes.

"Hey!" objected Blair, squinting against the light that seemed to pierce her eyes like a needle. "Don't blind me, Nat! I … want to … see the baby … when it's … born."

"Pupils are normal," Nat reported to the room, nodding in a satisfied manner and slipping the pencil-light back into the breast pocket of her white coat.

"Why wouldn't they be?" wondered Blair.

"It's just as well to be sure," Natalie said sagely. "You never can tell."

Blair's doctor sighed. "Doctor Green, honored as we are to have you here, I'm going to have to ask you to step aside. The bishop is having a baby – not brain surgery."

"Now, let's not be hasty," said Jo, stroking her chin. "Maybe we could get a two-fer deal." She grinned mischievously at Blair. "Babe, what do you think? You know how I'm always saying you're a little crazy? Maybe we could get that fixed, too, while you're having the kid."

Blair bit back a smile. Another contraction wracked her – she cried out, sat up suddenly, then collapsed back against the pillows.

"Babe!" Jo slid an arm around her wife's shoulders. "Babe – you OK?"

"The baby's … coming," Blair said through gritted teeth.

"All hands on deck!" Natalie said, clapping her hands smartly. "Let's look alive, doctors! As my soul sister would say if she were here: It's show time!"

Jo helped Blair ease back against the pillows.

God, thought Jo, she's in so much pain! They say it's the worst pain in the world, and I guess for once 'they' are right. It hurt Tootie so much when she had Lexi, I forgot how much it can hurt. And now Blair's feeling the pain … and I feel so helpless …

"Hang in there babe," Jo whispered to her wife. "Squeeze my hand, squeeze it as hard as you need to. Break it if you need to. You're going to be all right. You and the baby are going to be all right."

Blair drew a deep shuddering breath. She squeezed Jo's hand so hard it felt to Jo as if the bones were ground to a fine powder.

"Tell you … what …" Blair said tightly, through clenched jaw, "let's … switch. You have … the baby, and … I'll … dis … dispense … the condescending … plat … plat … platitudes."

Blair screamed.

Jo pulled Blair tight against her, kissed the silver hair.

Put the pain on me, thought Jo. Come on, God – I can take it. Put the pain on me!

Hans and Dagmar, Jo's ever-present body guards, were suddenly in the room, dark suits incongruous among the sea of white coats.

"Everything OK?" Hans asked tersely. "We heard a scream."

"Sure," said Jo. She spoke to her body guards but her eyes were locked on Blair. "Just part of the damn, insanely painful miracle of birth."

"Oh, Jo," murmured Blair, "it hurts so much."

"I know, babe, but it's almost over." Jo looked at Blair's doctor, who had moved into position at the foot of the bed, and was peering under the green privacy cloth draped over Blair's lower half. "It is almost over – right doc?"

The doctor nodded. "The baby … it's already crowning," the doctor said.

"That means the head is popping out," Natalie told Jo helpfully.

"Yeah, I know about crowning," said Jo. "I got to experience that first-hand when Lexi was born."

The doctor turned to the medical team. "Everything at the ready? It's coming fast."

"Yes, doctor," said a male nurse. Everyone nodded.

Alec burst into the room, breathless, digital camera in hand.

He skidded to an abrupt halt, tuxedo coattails flapping, almost hip-checking Blair's doctor across the room. The doctor glared – but Alec, raised by his icy mother, was immune to glares.

"God's teeth!" he exclaimed, panting. "Did I, did I make it, Artemis? Is baby Jo-Blair still in utero?"

"It's crowning," Natalie told him. "You just made it."

"I'm sorry sir," said Blair's doctor, "but there are too many people in here as it is. You're going to have to –"

"Never mind about booting the ambassador," Jo told the doctor sternly, "you just focus on my wife and baby."

My wife and baby … my wife and baby … Christ, it was a long time coming, but it feels so great to say it … my wife and baby!

"I'm sorry," said the doctor, feathers finally ruffled, "but this is my delivery room, and –"

"Oh, I shan't be in the way," Alec said cheerfully. "Now, I need to get a better angle. Jacqueline has sworn she shall consign me to the depths of the Angledun oubliettes if I don't capture this historic Musketeer moment."

Alex interposed himself between the doctor and the bed, angling his camera under the green privacy sheet.

"Alec, get that … damned … camera … out from … between my legs!" panted Blair.

"It will be a very tasteful shot," Alec assured her. "But Jack insisted that we capture –"

"Jack can kiss my ass," Jo said bluntly. "Alec, get that goddamned camera away from Blair's unmentionables before I put it where the sun doesn't shine!"

Alec sighed – but after almost three decades, he knew Jo's tones, when she was blowing off steam and when she was deadly serious. He stepped back and raised the camera.

"Very well," he said. "I'll film Blair's lovely visage as she brings forth new life."

"Don't … you … dare!" gritted Blair. "If you … so … much as … Aaaaaaahhhhh!"

The next few minutes were a complete blur to Jo. She would remember only fragments. She felt suddenly drunk – drunk with joy – lightheaded and disconnected. Tears slipped down her cheeks, and she was grinning so hard her face hurt.

One minute Blair was screaming that horrible scream, and the next thing, there was something squirmy and bloody in the doctor's arms, and it was handed off quickly to the other medical professionals, and then it was squalling with vigor, this new little life with a fluffy cap of dark hair.

Someone was cleaning the baby and someone was checking its heart beat and someone was counting its fingers and toes – that was Natalie; "Ten and ten – perfect!" she told Jo excitedly.

And then someone was handing Jo a gleaming silver instrument, and telling her she could cut the umbilical cord, which looked, in Jo's hazy vision, like something out of a horror film; she was only too happy to cut it away.

And then the new little creature was swaddled in a white blanket, and placed in Jo's arms.

Jo hardly noticed, and didn't care, that Alec and his digital camera were practically in their faces.

"It looks just like you," Alec said. "Great Scott, Artemis. It looks like you and it looks like Blair. It's absolutely uncanny!"

"Hi, there," Jo said softly to her child. "Hi, there. I'm your mom."

"I'm a mom too," Blair called weakly.

Jo turned to her wife. Blair's doctor and Natalie had been tending to Blair while everyone else was focused on the baby.

Blair was sweaty and tousled and exhausted and absolutely beautiful. She extended her plump arms.

"She's beautiful, babe," said Jo, going to her wife. "See? She's got your dark eyes. Like milk chocolate. And your adorable nose."

"She's, she's got your hair," said Blair, taking the baby as Jo handed her over. "Oh, she's beautiful. She's so beautiful. She has your chin, Jo."

"Hold her up," called Alec. "I can't see her face, the way you're holding her."

"Get bent," Jo told him absently.

"I say, Artemis, is that any way to talk to your video chronologist? Baby Jo-Blair will be watching this someday; do you want her to hear you telling her beloved Uncle Alec to 'get bent'?"

"Why not?" asked Jo. "She'll be hearing it in person all the time."

"Touché," Alec chuckled. "You have me there, Jo …"

Jo sat next to the bed, lost in the wonder of her wife, who had just pushed forth new life, and the new life itself, their little daughter.

Jo held one of Blair's hands, absently kissing it from time to time.

"You had a baby," Jo finally said to her wife, in a rather dazed voice. "Blair – you had a baby."

"Yes, darling," Blair said calmly, gently touching their child's minute, tip-tilted bud of a nose. "I had a baby."

"I mean, we knew you were going to do it," Jo said, "but … I mean … you did it. You had a baby!"

Blair looked to Alec. "Milord, were you this imbecilic after Petal was born?"

He smiled. "More or less. In a way, you see, it's more of a shock for the one who hasn't been carrying the child. It's already been real for the mother; it's been real for nine long months. For us, well, it doesn't become manifestly real until the wee creature is right under our noses."

"You had a baby," Jo repeated, wonderingly. "Babe – you really did it."

"Yes, darling." Blair patted Jo's cheek. "Alec – how long does this daze last?"

He shrugged. "Hours. Days. Weeks, possibly. And, thanks to this," he lifted his little camera, "Jo's delightful stupor can be replayed forever."

Natalie sat down on the other side of Blair's bed, plump face beaming, blue eyes sparkling. A tear slid down one cheek.

"Honestly?" said Nat. "I haven't been this moved since my kids were born. Blair … Jo … you did good, ladies. You did real, real good."

The four of them sat quietly for a moment. In the background, Hans and Dagmar slipped back out into the hall, and the medical personnel bustled about doing medical personnel things.

"Tootie's going to kick herself for not being here," Nat said finally, breaking the silence.

"Eh, childbirth isn't exactly Tootie's idea of a good time," said Jo. "Toot didn't even want to be around when Lexi was born – but as the mother, there wasn't much she could do about it."

A shadow flitted across Alec's face. "I always wish …" he began quietly. "Well … water under bridges, milk that has been spilled, all that."

Jo put a comforting hand on his arm. "If you'd know, you would've been there," she said. "If Tootie had told you, you would've moved heaven and earth to be there when Lex was born."

"I would have," he agreed.

"What are you going to name her?" Natalie asked Jo and Blair. "You must have something picked out – since you both knew you were going to have a girl."

"I have some ideas," said Blair.

"Me too," said Jo.

"Just promise me it won't be impossibly twee," begged Alec. "Please tell me you aren't naming the poor child some combination of your names – like 'Jair'. Or – ye gods, the horror! – 'Blo'."

"What do you think, we're crack-heads, or something?" asked Jo. "She's going to have a cool name."

"Such as?" prompted Natalie.

"I was thinking, you know, maybe we'd call her 'Fonda'," said Jo. "Like Peter Fonda, in 'Easy Rider'. Or we could call her 'Brando' – like, for Marlon Brando."

Blair shook her head. "We won't be doing that," she said firmly.

"Well, we're not calling her 'Monica'," said Jo. "We're not naming her after your mother."

"No argument here," said Blair.

"We could call her 'Meg'," mused Jo. "Your sister's really cool. Plus, it's good luck to be named after a nun."

"Where did you hear that?" Nat asked curiously.

"She read it in a book," teased Alec. "One of those books that says 'Don't walk under a ladder' and 'Dropping a mirror gives you seven years bad luck'."

"It's not a superstition," Jo insisted. "Naming a baby after a holy person is good luck."

"Then name her 'Blair'," said Alec. "An archbishop trumps a nun any day. Although now that Meg is a Mother Superior …"

"Name her 'Dali Lama'," chuckled Natalie. "Or 'Mother Teresa'. Mother Teresa trumps everybody."

"We could name her 'Rose'," Jo said thoughtfully, "after Ma. If she turned out kind of formal, like you, babe, 'Rose' is a good, classy, serious name. And if she turns out more down-to-earth like me, we can call her 'Rosie'."

"I don't know," said Alec. "I foresee playground jokes about 'Rosie the Riveter'."

"For crying out loud," said Jo, "where is this playground – 1945? Kids on the playground today don't know who the hell 'Rosie the Riveter' was. Plus, 'Rosie the Riveter' was cool, not lame. Plus, anyone calls our daughter anything mean, they're gonna get their butt kicked."

"Are you going to follow your child to school?" laughed Alec. "Lurk about, with your trademark glare, and rush in if anyone looks at her sideways?"

"I won't have to," said Jo. "Our daughter's going to know how to take care of herself. I'm going to teach her boxing and self-defense."

Blair rolled her eyes. "Perfect. I always knew it. 'Gang warfare for toddlers'."

"What – you don't want her to be able to take care of herself?" Jo asked her wife.

"Of course I do, Jo – but not on the pre-school playground. Where do you think we're sending her to be educated – your old neighborhood?"

"For those of us who work in the Bronx – ouch!" said Natalie.

"Double-ouch," said Jo, "for those of us who grew up in the Bronx."

"I'm not trying to be a snob," Blair began.

"You never have had to try, Aphrodite," teased Alec. "It just flows. Very naturally."

"All I'm saying is, I don't plan to send our daughter to a playground where she needs to know how to box," said Blair.

Jo nodded. "OK. OK, fair enough."

"Still," said Alec, "a little boxing, a little jujitsu – it couldn't hurt."

"I can teach her Krav Maga," offered Natalie.

"Sure," said Jo, "now we're talking. Krav Maga, that's really useful stuff."

"Not," said Blair, "at Dalton."

"Why don't you name her after Mrs. Garrett?" asked Nat. "Name her 'Edna'?"

"Eh, I mean, we love Mrs. G, but, well, that's a pretty old-fashioned name," said Jo. "Maybe 'Edna' could be a middle name."

"You should definitely name her after someone meaningful," said Natalie. "I named Brenda for my sister, and Syd for my Dad, and I've never regretted it."

"Tootie named Alexis after me," said Alec. "And Jack and I named Petal in honor of, well …" He trailed off; they were all silent for a moment, remembering their long-lost friend.

"I think we should give her Blair's middle name," Jo said, breaking the grave silence with a mischievous waggle of her eyebrows.

"What is Blair's middle name?" Alec asked curiously.

"Yes, Blair – what is your middle name?" asked Natalie.

"That's immaterial," Blair said brusquely, "because we aren't naming our daughter that."

"It is pretty awful," said Jo. "I only found out, finally, because she had to put it on our marriage paperwork."

"That's how much I love you, Jo. I almost didn't marry you because it meant revealing my middle name."

"Well I'm glad you bit the bullet, Blondie. I hope marrying me was worth it."

"We'll see," Blair demurred. "The jury is still out, Senator."

"Never mind the witty repartee," complained Natalie. "What are you going to name this little cutie?"

"Yes, Senator," Alec pointed his camera lens at Jo, "what are you going to name her?"

"Bite me," Jo told the camera.

Alec turned his camera to Blair.

"Aphrodite, you wear the pants in this family – metaphorically speaking, of course. What do you plan to name your daughter?"

"We're going to name her Charlotte," Blair said.

"Charlotte?" asked Jo. "Hmm. Charlotte. Charlotte. It's a pretty name, babe, but I have to ask, why would we – oh." Her face cleared as she understood. Her breath caught in her throat. Charlotte.

"If she tends to the formal, like me," said Blair, "we'll call her Charlotte. If she's more, shall we say, casual, like you, darling, we'll call her –"

"Charlie," Jo said huskily, thinking of her father.

"Charlie," Blair agreed. "And for a middle name, I think, Dane."

"Dane?" Jo, Natalie and Alec asked together.

"You, ah, do get that our kid is a girl, right, babe?" asked Jo.

"Yes, darling – I did manage to grasp that essential concept."

"Just checking."

Blair kissed the infinitesimal tip of their child's minute nose. "D is for Dorothy," Blair explained patiently. "A is for Alec; N is for Natalie. E is for Edna and Eduardo. 'Dane'. An elegantly simple tribute to our closest friends and beloved mentors."

"Huhn. 'Dane'." Jo chewed on that.

"I like it," said Alec.

Jo snorted. "Of course you like it – it involves you. Anything involving you, you like."

"That is one of my rules of thumb," Alec agreed. "I find it makes life more enjoyable."

"I like it too," said Natalie. "I like being given a kind of hidden tribute. I like being the 'n' in 'Dane'."

"Well, I remain skeptical," said Jo. "Charlotte Dane? I just don't know. The sentiment is right, but 'Dane' is just too weird of a name for a girl."

"Darling, with a surname like 'Polniaczek', a simple, single-syllable middle name is just what our child needs."

"Charlotte Dane Polniaczek," said Jo. "Charlotte Dane Polniaczek. Well … It does kind of flow," she admitted grudgingly.

"It flows beautifully," said Blair. "Charlotte Dane Polniaczek."

"What about her other middle names?" asked Alec.

Blair yawned. "Oh, I'm too tired to think about those now," she said. "Jo and I can discuss them tomorrow."

"What other middle names?" asked Jo. "One middle name is plenty. You richies and your bazillion middle names!"

Alec shook his head. "Jo, despite years of polish, at heart you remain the delightful barbarian I first saw tearing across the field at dear old Langley."

"I'll take that as a compliment," said Jo.

"You should, Artemis, because it is. That said, however, your daughter does require more middle names."

Jo looked to Natalie. "Do you believe this guff?"

Natalie held up her hands. "Oh, no – I'm not getting sucked into this battle. I was here to make sure your baby was born A-OK – and she was. My job here is done."

Blair gently kissed Charlotte's fluffy dark hair. Jo tentatively touched the tiny silken hand.

"She's so … little," Jo said wonderingly.

"Babies are funny like that," Natalie joked.

"Hello, Charlotte," Jo said, eyes glistening with happy tears. "Hey, Charlie. I'm one of your moms. We've been waiting a long time for you."

Blair closed her eyes. She lay back against the pillows, holding her daughter.

"Aphrodite, dear, if you're going to fall asleep, I'd love to hold my niece," said Alec.

Jo shook her head. "Blair isn't sleeping – she's praying."

"What is she praying for?" Alec asked curiously.

"I'm not praying for anything," Blair murmured. "I'm just saying 'thanks'."

"'Thanks' – that hardly seems adequate," mused Alec, gazing at his tiny niece. "It's such a mystery, isn't it? I mean, they don't exist … and then they do."

"It's just biology, Alec," said Natalie. "Simple biology."

"Not simple," Jo objected, voice thick with emotion. "Anything but simple …"

A few moments later, Blair did fall asleep. Jo curled up beside her wife and daughter on the bed. Natalie went home to her children. Alec fell asleep in the chair.

Part 2

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