DISCLAIMER: The Facts of Life and its characters are the property of Columbia Pictures Television and Sony Pictures Television, no infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: First chapter of the series: Common Ground, which picks up where Beauty Crowds Me ended and spans season three of the television series.
THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta, assistance in story and character development, encouragement, and meticulous attention to detail.
MEDIA LINK: http://www.youtube.com/user/FactsOfLifeMinutes#p/p
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To FOLfan[at]ymail.com

Common Ground
1: Separation Pains

By Slave2Free


Seventeen-year-old Jo Polniaczek drove her motorcycle deep into the dimly lit parking garage seven blocks from her mother's apartment. The garage was reserved for residents of a much nicer apartment building than the one in which Jo's mother lived, but Jo knew of a spot on the lowest level that was always left vacant. Jo didn't dare park her bike in her own neighborhood, knowing that it would be stolen or dismantled within hours of being parked on the street.

After removing the key from her bike, Jo stared at the heart-shaped keychain surrounded by deep red stones. She closed her eyes and ran her thumb along the initials Blair had engraved on the arrowhead, but was startled by a noise coming from the other end of the garage.

'Geez Louise', thought Jo. 'I'd better get my head out of the clouds or I'm not gonna last one week around here, much less the entire summer.'

Jo threw her duffel bag over her shoulder and began walking purposefully through the parking garage, her reflexes on high alert for whoever might be lurking behind one of the cars.

Jo braced herself before unlocking her mother's apartment door. She had steadfastly refused to think about the summer break while she was still at Eastland, but now she was back in the Bronx and had no choice. Jo loved her mother and she liked her old neighborhood, but spending the past year at one of the most exclusive preparatory schools in the country had given Jo a glimpse of a brighter future than she could ever have imagined before leaving home.

The last thing Jo expected upon entering her mother's apartment was to see several of her favorite relatives waiting to greet her.

"Jo! Welcome home!"

"Uncle Sal, what in the world are you doin' here?"

"Give me a break. Did you think I would miss a chance to welcome my brilliant niece home?"

Jo's Aunt Evelyn stepped forward and wrapped Jo in her arms.

"Straight A's. We are so proud of you."

"Yeah, I'll bet Jo taught the girls at that hoity-toity school a few things this year."

Jo was both flattered and embarrassed. Neither of her parents had finished high school and Jo was not only attending one of the most respected schools in the nation, she was excelling. In addition to Aunt Evelyn and Uncle Sal, Jo's cousin Terry and a couple of her mother's friends from the apartment building were at the celebration. From the smell drifting from the kitchen, Jo knew that her Uncle Sal was making some of his famous spaghetti sauce. She was overwhelmed by all the effort her mother and extended family had gone to in order to surprise her.

On a table by the wall, Jo's mother had placed all of Jo's awards. In the center of the display was the plaque Jo received when she won "Best New Student" at Eastland Academy. Along with the plaque, Jo's grade report and athletic awards were prominently displayed. As she soaked up all the attention being lavished on her by her family, Jo couldn't help but think of how much her girlfriend Blair craved what was being given so freely to Jo. Jo quickly pushed Blair from her mind. Thoughts of the beautiful blonde heiress who had captured Jo's heart had no place in the gritty reality of Jo's neighborhood.

"You guys shouldn't have gone to so much trouble. It's not as if I've graduated or anything."

"Are you kidding? You've done us all proud, Jo. You went toe to toe with those rich girls and now you are first in your class."

Jo's Uncle Sal was beaming. He had been instrumental in convincing Jo's mother to allow Jo to attend Eastland so he felt particularly proud of how well she had adapted to her new environment.

Jo's mother finally came forward and embraced her daughter.

"Welcome home, sweetheart. I'm so proud of you. I hope you like your party."

"I love it. Thanks so much."

Everything was going well until Rose's friend, Mrs. Waldman, spoke to Jo.

"Well, at least you're not hanging out with those gang bangers anymore. You used to worry your mother to death."

Jo shifted a little uneasily. She had intended to give her mother the present she'd brought from Eastland once they were alone, but the snide comment from Rose Polniaczek's friend, Mrs. Waldman, caused Jo to change her mind. An awkward silence had fallen over the room after Mrs. Waldman's insult, so Jo figured it was the perfect time to rub her mother's gift in the older woman's arrogant face.

Ignoring Mrs. Waldman, Jo turned back to her mom.

"Hey, Mom, I've got a surprise for you, too."

Jo pulled the package from her duffel bag and gave it to her mother. Jo was almost bouncing on the balls of her feet in anticipation by the time her mother unwrapped the gift.

As soon as she saw the album and the message written on it, Rose placed her hand on her heart and stared at Jo in amazement. Rose held up her gift for all of their relatives to see, pointedly turning it in Mrs. Waldman's direction so that she couldn't miss the signature.

As awkward as Jo had felt when asking Blair for the favor, the look of joy on her mother's face was worth any embarrassment Jo had suffered at the time.

"What is it?" Terry asked, unable to see what the adults were viewing.

"It's an autographed Neil Diamond album."

"Read what it says."

"Rose, mutual friends tell me that you are a fan. This is my latest album, I hope you enjoy it. Please visit me backstage when I perform in New York this summer. Neil."

Aunt Evelyn took the album and ran her fingers lovingly over the autograph. Rose wasn't the only huge Neil Diamond fan in Jo's family. Neil Diamond's patriotic tunes struck a special chord within a family proud of their immigrant status.

Not to be outdone, Mrs. Waldman turned a skeptical eye toward Jo and asked, "How do you know it's really his signature? Anyone could have written on the album cover."

Jo's smile was smug as she replied.

"There's more. Open the card, Ma."

Rose's fingers were trembling as she opened the card that accompanied her gift. Inside were two VIP backstage passes to Neil Diamond's sold out summer concert along with another signed photograph of Neil Diamond flanked on one side by Blair Warner and on the other side by Blair's mother, Monica.

Rose looked over at her daughter in shock.

"Your friend Blair arranged this?"

Jo beamed at her mother before smirking at Mrs. Waldman.

"When I found out that Blair's mother and Neil Diamond were friends, I told her that you were a fan. When her mother told him about you, he signed an old photograph of the three of them for you. He also wanted you to have the album and the tickets. He sounds like a really nice guy."

Aunt Evelyn was in awe.

"Wow, that school must be even more upper crust than I thought. I can't imagine knowing people who are friends with celebrities."

Jo's mother cleared her voice and spoke softly, but clearly enough so that even Mrs. Waldman could hear.

"Jo's best friend is a celebrity."

Jo wasn't the only family member shocked to hear Rose Polniaczek's simple declaration. One of the problems between Jo's mother and father was that Charlie Polniaczek placed too high a value on money and status, while Jo's mother tended to shy away from both. Jo attributed much of her parents' marital problems to her father's "get rich quick" schemes and it left Jo with a negative attitude toward those who had the wealth and status her father had tried so desperately to attain.

Rose was normally not a woman to brag about anything other than her daughter's accomplishments, but if Myrna Waldman was determined to let her jealousy show, Rose would give her something to be jealous about.

Jo felt the blood rushing to her face before anyone else saw the blush. Jo never thought of Blair as a celebrity. She knew that her father had been impressed that her best friend was the only child of the Warner Textiles tycoon, but Jo never considered that her mother was even aware of Blair's social status.

For the first time, Mr. Balducci spoke up. He was normally a quiet man, but he was fascinated to learn that the gruff young girl who had been something of a troublemaker and bully only a year earlier was now rubbing elbows with the socially elite.

"Who is your friend, Jo?"

"Um, her name is Blair Warner. She's really just like anyone else. I didn't even realize who she was when we first met. A lot of the girls at Eastland come from well-known families."

"As in Warner Textiles?" Mrs. Waldman asked, finally impressed.

"Yeah, her father is David Warner."

Uncle Sal whistled softly.

"Whoa, you're traveling in some pretty fancy company there, Jo."

Jo wasn't sure how to respond. She had never expected her family to be so impressed by her friendship with Blair. 'Friendship', Jo thought, 'if only they knew'.

"Hey, Jo is pretty fancy herself," Aunt Evelyn proudly announced.

"Yeah," Terry added, "enough about the heiress, I'll bet Jo is starving and so am I."

Jo smiled gratefully at her younger cousin. Terry was a lot like Jo. Both girls grew up working in Terry's father's garage and both had picked up a lot of tomboyish behavior along the way.

Following the party, Jo whistled as she and her mother cleared the table. Jo had been anxious about returning to the Bronx for the summer, but she was beginning to relax. Jo was silently berating herself for having been so nervous when she heard the sound of a key in the door.

"Who has a key to our apartment?"

"Oh, that's just Jack. He had to work late today and that's why he missed your party."

Jo was stunned. When Jack had been absent at dinner, Jo had assumed that he was no longer living with her mother. She was not only surprised by Jack's presence, she was certain that he hadn't been working late. Jo knew that Jack never worked any more hours than were absolutely necessary. She suspected that Jack had stayed away from the dinner party because of the friction between Jack and Uncle Sal.

"Now, Jo, I don't want any trouble."

"You won't get any from me."

Jo glared at Jack as he entered the kitchen and she made her way to her bedroom. It was going to be a long, lonely summer.

Once in her room, Jo removed a package of photographs from her duffel bag. Jo had no respect for Jonathan Dutton as a person, but he was a brilliant photographer. Before selecting Tootie as the winner of the modeling contest the previous spring, Dutton had photographed all the finalists. Although Blair hadn't won the competition, the test photos Dutton had taken of the beautiful blonde were exquisite. When Jo had asked if she could have one of the photographs, Blair had smiled brilliantly and given Jo all of them. Looking at them now, it was difficult for Jo to believe that the girl in the pictures was her girlfriend.

Jo reached back into her duffel bag and pulled out the two charcoal drawings she had brought from Eastland. At school, Jo had pasted Blair's motorcycle drawings all over her side of their room. As she tacked two of Blair's latest pieces of artwork over her bed, it made Jo feel closer to the talented artist.

Jo wasn't surprised when she heard Jack and her mother yelling at one another about the dinner party. If it wasn't the party, something else would have ignited a confrontation. Jo squeezed her eyes shut and tried to block out the sounds. Eastland had changed Jo. She wasn't able to channel her anxiety into anger as she had once done so well. The knots in her stomach made her feel like she was a twelve-year-old child again and not a seventeen-year-old young woman.

Jo sifted through the photographs of Blair as she thought about how fragile a foothold she had acquired on the utopian life she had experienced at Eastland. Eastland challenged Jo's mind. It demanded that she cultivate interpersonal skills she hadn't realized she was capable of developing. At Eastland, Jo had learned to debate her classmates with words instead of attacking them with her fists. Most importantly, attending Eastland had given Jo something she had never had before: hope for the future. If she sometimes reverted to using her physical prowess to intimidate others, it was a choice, not the only option.

Jo hid the pictures of Blair between the pages of one of her textbooks and looked at her hands. She doubted that words alone would dissuade Jack from adding more bruises to her mother's arms. She doubted that words would dissuade the Young Diablos from trying to entice her back into their gang or from retaliating when she refused.

Jo searched her mind for options. She had to find a way to get through the summer without getting hurt or hurting anyone. Getting into trouble could potentially disqualify her as a scholarship recipient. Losing her scholarship at Eastland would not only compromise her education, it would mean losing Blair.

Six weeks later, Jo's shoulders slumped as she entered her mother's apartment. She was dead tired. She had spent the summer waitressing at a nearby diner and the dreary work was taking as much of a toll on her mind and spirit as it was on her body.

"Who's Blair?"

Despite her exhausted physical condition, every muscle in Jo's body grew tense upon hearing Jack's question. Jo looked over toward her mother's boyfriend who was relaxing on the sofa with a beer in one hand and a postcard in the other. Jo could see an image of the Eiffel Tower on the front of the postcard.

"A classmate," Jo shrugged, attempting to seem as uninterested as possible in the card.

"She must be a pretty good friend to send you a postcard all the way from Paris."

"Nah, you know those society types. She's just rubbing my nose in the fact that she gets to spend her summer in Paris while I have to work."

"A little hard work ain't gonna hurt ya."

"I know, but the girls at Eastland look down on hardworking folk like you and me."

Jo was trying not to upset Jack because she desperately wanted to see the card from Blair. Jack was mean enough to tear it up or keep it from Jo if he knew that it was important to her.

Jack was disappointed that the item he had intended to dangle in front of his girlfriend's surly daughter wasn't going to give him the leverage against her that he had hoped. He was pleased, however, that the arrogant bitch at least recognized that he worked as hard at his job as she did at hers. He flipped the card over toward Jo and she carelessly picked it up and crammed it into her pocket.

Jo headed for her bedroom, where she was spending almost all of her summer, when she wasn't working. Once alone in her room, she carefully removed the postcard from her pocket and pressed out the wrinkles as best she could. Her heart beat faster in her chest as she read the few sentences Blair had written.

"Hi, Jo. I hope that you are enjoying your summer. Mother and I are having a wonderful time in Paris. This trip is much better than the one to Monte Carlo. We are spending almost all of our time together, shopping and attending fashion shows. Everyone here rides motorbikes, but their bikes are nothing like your motorcycle. You would laugh at them and call them scooters. I can't wait to tell you, Tootie, and Natalie all about it when we return to school."

Jo knew that Blair wouldn't write anything more personal on a postcard. As soon as Jo discovered that Jack was still living in the apartment, she had written Blair and warned her not to assume that any letter she wrote to Jo would be private. Jo had a feeling that Jack wouldn't have any respect for her privacy. Noting that the postmark on the card was dated over four weeks earlier, she was certain that he was not only reading her mail, but also withholding some of it. She smiled as she read the card again before hiding it away in her textbook and opening her notebook.

Jo smiled as she wrote, picturing Blair's expression as she read Jo's note, wondering if her words would make her passionate girlfriend blush.

A few days later, Jessie smiled as she lined up another shot at the pool table.

"You're rusty, Jo. You should have stopped by the pool hall earlier."

"Maybe you're just gettin' better, now that you work here."

Jessie continued to clear the pool table of balls.

"It's not a bad job. I still get to spend a lot of time with my friends."

Jo nodded toward the group of Young Diablos hanging around one of the other pool tables.

"Your friends don't seem to like me very much."

Jessie laughed. She didn't have a lot to laugh about since dropping out of school, but she was happy to see Jo again. She wondered if Jo missed her half as much as she missed Jo.

"They don't have to like you, Jo. I like you. That's all that counts around here."

Jo looked over at the group and wondered if she had ever looked that tough. Some of the girls were no older than Tootie, but their eyes were hard and held no hint of emotion.

"I almost didn't recognize Sally; she aged a lot this past year. Do any of them have a problem with me hanging out with you?"

Jessie glanced over at the gang members playing pool at a nearby table.

"Don't worry. I told them that you can't afford to lose your scholarship by gettin' into any kind of trouble this summer. Most of them are happy for you, Jo, and the rest of them know that messing with you would piss me off. They may not like it, but they'll leave you alone."

"Um, thanks."

"Hey, you've got my back and I've got yours. That hasn't changed, has it?"

"No way. It's just been a while since my back needed watching."

Jessie's smile grew wide but changed dramatically when three young Asian men walked into the pool hall.

Jessie shouted at the three men.

"All our tables are taken. Go somewhere else."

The men looked around the room where three pool tables were available.

"They don't look taken to me," one of the men shot back at Jessie.

Jo was wishing that she had declined Jessie's invitation to visit her workplace and shoot a few games of pool. Jessie had been calling Jo daily, asking her to drop by Jessie's house or the pool hall. Jo felt like she owed Jessie. Jessie and her mother had taken care of Jo after Sam had knocked her around. Jo liked Jessie, but she always felt a little guilty for having left her friend behind when she'd been given the opportunity to attend Eastland. Jo didn't think Jessie had done her any favors by recruiting Jo into the Young Diablos, but she knew that Jessie saw it differently. Jo had agreed to the game of pool more as a way to get away from Jack than to spend time with Jessie. Compared to the three men glaring at Jessie, Jack suddenly didn't seem like much of a threat.

Several of the gang members who had been keeping their distance from Jessie and Jo started moving toward Jessie and the three young men. However, before the other members of the gang could get close enough to intervene, one of the men drew a knife and lunged toward Jessie. Jo instinctively propelled herself forward, pushing the arm holding the knife away from Jessie. Jo never saw the other knife coming as it sliced across her back.

Edna Garrett paced nervously back and forth in the police station. When Jo had been arrested for stealing the school van her first night in Peekskill, the headmaster had been able to pull strings in order to have the charges dropped. The girls were on probation at Eastland, but no formal police charges appeared on any of their records. Later, when Jo and her younger roommates were caught shoplifting, Edna made a point of letting Mr. Harrison, the department store owner, know that Jo, Natalie, and Tootie were Blair Warner's roommates. She hadn't liked using Blair's name as leverage, but she'd been well aware of how much money the wealthy heiress spent at Harrison's Department Store each year and hoped that Mr. Harrison would consider it in his best interest not to file charges against Blair's friends. In the end, Mr. Harrison agreed to allow Jo to work at his store in order to pay for the blouse Jo stole for Mrs. Garrett's birthday.

Mrs. Garrett looked around the dilapidated police station and wondered how she would be able to help Jo this time. Although officials in the town of Peekskill were accustomed to bending the rules for prominent Eastland students, Edna had no influence in the Bronx. She could see Jo sitting in a jail cell with several other girls on the other side of the room, but had not yet been given an opportunity to speak with Jo.

When Rose Polniaczek enrolled Jo at Eastland, she'd named Mrs. Garrett as Jo's guardian in case of an emergency. When the police had been unable to locate Jo's mother at the time of her arrest, they called Edna Garrett. Mrs. Garrett had been told that Jo had been injured, but that her injuries had been treated at the scene and did not require additional medical attention. Noting the amount of blood on the back of Jo's shirt and the length of the corresponding rip, Edna doubted the qualifications of whoever had treated Jo at the scene.

Mrs. Garrett folded her hands over the documents in her lap. She'd taken the time to retrieve a printout of Jo's academic performance and awards while at Eastland. She hoped the records might at least convince the officer in charge that Jo was no longer a member of the gang with whom she'd been arrested.

"Mrs. Garrett, I'm Detective Briscoe with the gang task force."

Mrs. Garrett looked up at the clean-cut detective standing in front of her. He looked like a fair man, so she smiled up at him hopefully.

"It's been almost a year since Jo was in a gang, Detective."

"Well, perhaps she can help us to clear this up. She's a minor so I can't talk to her without an adult. Would you be willing to sit down with us so that I can ask her a few questions?"

Mrs. Garrett considered asking for an attorney for Jo, but she doubted that any of the public defenders who would be assigned to the case would be able to watch after Jo's interests any better than she could. She also knew that it would be the next day before an attorney could be assigned and she didn't want Jo spending the night in the Bronx jail if she could prevent it.

"Yes. I'll let Jo talk with you as long as I'm allowed to be with her when she does."

Detective Briscoe seemed satisfied and led Mrs. Garrett into an interrogation room. The detective was looking forward to being transferred to a homicide unit at the end of the month. Lennie Briscoe didn't like being on the gang task force, the teenagers he often arrested reminded him too much of his own daughter.

A few minutes after Detective Briscoe and Mrs. Garrett entered the interrogation room, another officer brought Jo into the room. Jo could barely make eye contact with her guardian, but that didn't prevent Mrs. Garrett from noticing the young woman's pale appearance.

"Detective Briscoe, I was a registered nurse before I took over the responsibilities as dietician at Eastland Academy for Girls. May I take a look at Jo's injury?"

The detective seemed surprised by the request, but nodded affirmatively. To his credit, he turned away when Mrs. Garrett asked Jo to remove her shirt. Mrs. Garrett, however, felt that he needed to view the injury to Jo's back which had already soaked the carelessly applied bandage with blood.

"Detective, would you mind looking at the wound on Jo's back? I don't believe it takes a medical professional to see that it requires stitches."

Lennie Briscoe's face hardened when he saw the length and depth of the knife wound on the teenage girl's back. The Detective shook his head solemnly; sometimes officers saw so much violence and hatred that they became callous in the performance of their duties. Lennie Briscoe was not such an officer.

"I'm sorry about that, Mrs. Garrett. I'll arrange for transportation to the emergency room right away."

The detective left the room and returned after only a few minutes.

"It will take a while to get all the paperwork in order. May I ask a few questions while we wait?"

Mrs. Garrett looked over at Jo, who nodded.

The detective asked several questions and was impressed by the answers he was given. He leaned back in his chair. The girl sitting in front of him wasn't anything like the hoodlum the arresting officers had described. He was reviewing the arrest report when Mrs. Garrett handed him the records she had brought from Eastland.

"Detective, it may not be relevant, but these are Jo's records from this past school year. As you can see, she's an excellent student at Eastland. She attends on a scholarship and something like this could keep her out of school next year. I don't have to tell you how important it is that she be able to continue her studies away from her old neighborhood and gang influences."

Detective Briscoe looked over the excellent grade reports and the long list of awards.

"Joanna, can you tell me why you were with the Young Diablos tonight?"

"My friend Jessie invited me to play a few games of pool. She told me that she works at the pool hall, but she didn't tell me that it's where the gang members hang out. All I was doing was playing pool with Jessie. The other gang members didn't even come over to talk with me. The owner of the pool hall saw us and so did a beat cop who dropped in for a few minutes earlier tonight."

"So how did you wind up getting cut?"

"Three guys showed up wanting to play pool. Jessie told them that all the tables were taken, but they could see that it wasn't true. One of them drew a knife and lunged at Jessie. I stepped in to help her and that's when I was cut from behind."

"Were you carrying a knife tonight?"

"No, sir."

"We have six knives in our evidence lab. When we test them for prints, is there any reason why your prints should show up on any of those knives?"

Jo took a deep breath, grateful that she had lost her pocketknife the night she had rescued Blair from a nest of rattlesnakes.

"Not a chance."

Another officer interrupted the interrogation to tell the detective that arrangements had been made to take the suspect to the hospital for stitches.

"May I ride with her to the hospital?"

The officer was shaking his head when Detective Briscoe corrected him.

"Yes, you can ride along with her."

The detective then turned to face the other officer.

"I want the name of the officer who bandaged this wound and didn't see fit to send this girl for additional medical treatment. I also want you to find out which officer was walking a beat in that area a couple of hours prior to the assault so that I can find out whether or not he's ever seen this girl in that pool hall before."

After the other officer nodded and left to gather the information requested, the detective turned to Mrs. Garrett.

"Mrs. Garrett, if we discover that Joanna was only acting in self defense, would you be willing to take her with you? We still haven't been able to reach her mother."

"You can't find my mom?"

Jo turned frantic eyes toward Mrs. Garrett.

"We have to go look for her, Mrs. G. She would never stay out this late. Something must be wrong."

The detective was touched by the young girl's concern for her mother. Most of the teenagers he met were only interested in themselves.

"The only place you are going right now, young lady, is to the hospital. I'll make sure that a couple of officers are dispatched to your mother's apartment to see if they can find out why she isn't answering her phone."

"If you're willing to release Jo, I'll take her back to Peekskill with me tonight. I guarantee that she'll come back if you need to question her again."

Lennie Briscoe considered himself an excellent judge of character. Edna Garrett was definitely a woman he could trust to keep her word.

"Okay. I'll start the paperwork."

The detective directed his parting comments toward Jo.

"You are lucky to have someone like Mrs. Garrett watching after you, Joanna. If she hadn't shown up tonight you'd be in lockup and you'd find out that the Young Diablos aren't nearly as tough as some of the other women in there. You go back to school and keep your nose clean. I don't want to ever see you in my precinct again."

"Yes, sir. I won't be back."

Jessie Stivick barely acknowledged Jo as she and Mrs. Garrett walked past the jail cell Jo had occupied earlier. Jessie knew that the less interaction Jo had with Jessie and the other Young Diablos, the better for Jo.

"What makes her so special that she gets released while we have to sit in this dingy stink hole?"

Jessie glared at the young girl by her side.

"Shut up, asshole. Nobody asked you."

"What are you so mad at me for? She's all you've been talking about for weeks. You made me drag my ass down to that crappy garage every day to see if her bike was there. I don't see what makes her so special, but I'd love to get my hands on that bike."

Jessie turned on her young companion, shoving her forearm into the other girl's throat.

"Don't even think about touching that bike. Got it?"

Serena swallowed hard, glancing around the police station to see if any of the officers were paying attention to the young women in the jail cell.

"It was a joke. I didn't mean anything by it."

Releasing her fellow gang member, Jessie scanned the room as well.

"Jo practically built that bike herself. She's a genius."

"That's all I meant. It's a nice bike."

"American bikes are crap, Chink bikes are much better."

"I'm good with bikes, too."

Jessie smirked.

"Compared to Jo, you're a moron. She's so smart they sent her to a special school. She's living with some of the richest dimwits in the country. She's going to parties with guys whose fathers own oil companies or work on Wall Street."

"So why do you think she jumped in between that knife and you?"

Serena held her breath when Jessie smiled. The tough leader of their gang was always in a bad mood and Serena couldn't recall ever having seen Jessie smile. Jessie's eyes twinkled as she thought about Jo. She'd kissed Jo once. She'd seen how Jo sometimes looked at other girls and Jessie thought Jo would be receptive to her advances, but it had taken twice the amount of beer to loosen Jo up as it normally took Jessie to manipulate a girl into kissing her.

Jo had turned out to be more of a challenge than Jessie had expected, but she was sure that she could have made more headway with Jo if Eddie Brennan hadn't interfered with her plans. Shortly after Jo hooked up with Eddie, Rose Polniaczek had sent Jo to Eastland.

Eastland was Jo's ticket out of the gang and into the high life and Jessie didn't see any reason why Jo shouldn't take Jessie along for the ride.

"Jo and me, we've got something special. She'll never fit in with those snooty girls at that fancy prep school. I take care of Jo and she takes care of me. That's how it's always been and that's how it'll always be."

The first time the police called, Rose's boyfriend Jack told them that Rose wasn't home and that he didn't know when she would return. After that, he unplugged the telephone. When Rose found out that Jack had left Jo to fend for herself at the police station, she finally kicked him out of her apartment.

She fluffed Jo's pillow for the hundredth time as her daughter rested on the sofa in their apartment.

"Stop making such a fuss over me, I told ya that I'm fine."

"Mrs. Garrett, I can't tell you how grateful I am that you were able to get the charges against Jo dropped. I promise that I'll never let anything like that happen to her again."

"Hey, Mom, it wasn't your fault. I should never have gone to that pool hall with Jessie. Do you know what's going to happen to her?"

"They are charging her with carrying a concealed weapon, but they dropped the assault charges because the other man pulled out his knife first. She'll probably go to juvenile hall for a few weeks and then serve out the rest of her time on probation."

"Rose, perhaps Jo should stay with me for the rest of the summer so that things can calm down in the neighborhood."

"Oh, I couldn't put you out like that, Mrs. Garrett. You've already done so much for Jo."

"You wouldn't be putting me out at all. Jo is a big help around the house. I'd love to have her stay with me."

Jo sat quietly on the sofa. She loved her mother and she loved her neighborhood, but the stress of dealing with Jack had taken a lot out of the normally energetic girl. Although she realized that she wouldn't be able to assist Mrs. Garrett around the house as much as she normally did, Jo didn't want to stay to the Bronx.

"What about her motorcycle?"

Jo was quick to answer.

"Cousin Bud would be happy to drive it up to Peekskill for me and then take the train back to Uncle Sal's."

Rose seemed undecided.

"Ma. Some of the Young Diablos may not like it that they got punished and I didn't. Without Jessie around to keep them off of my back, the neighborhood might not be such a good place for me right now."

"You don't think they'd come after you like they did Sam, do you?"

Jo lowered her head, ashamed of the beating Sam had received at the hands of her gang.

"I don't know. I wouldn't want you to get hurt if they came after me."

"That settles it." Mrs. Garrett added forcefully. "Jo is going to spend the rest of the summer with me in Peekskill."

As soon as Jo was able to move around, she went down to the basement to retrieve her toolbox. She may not be able to pay Mrs. Garrett for room and board during the final weeks of the summer, but she could at least lend a hand by fixing some things around the house.

Upon opening her toolbox, Jo was shocked. Wrapped in an ultra soft cloth was a brand new socket wrench with every conceivable size socket and extension, including a breaker bar and universal joints. There wasn't a note in the box acknowledging who had given her the gift, but Jo didn't need a note. It had to be Blair. Who else would have known how much Jo needed a new wrench and who else would give her tools of such high quality?

Later that night, Jo tried to make her question sound as casual as possible.

"Have you heard from Natalie, Tootie, or Blair this summer?"

Mrs. Garrett beamed.

"I've heard from all three. Natalie has sent several postcards from the various states her family is visiting and Tootie sent me a letter from camp. Blair's mother had to attend a meeting at the Warner Foundation a few weeks ago and she and Blair flew back to New York for a couple of days. Since I wasn't here when Monica picked Blair up for the summer, they stopped by and treated me to lunch. Blair and her mother seemed to be getting along very well."

Jo nodded, her suspicions as to who had given her the wrench confirmed. Jo didn't like for Blair to spend money on expensive gifts, but she appreciated that Blair had given her something practical, as opposed to the frivolous gifts Blair often bought for others. Jo decided not to start an argument by telling Blair that she would one day pay her back for the tools, but Jo had every intention of treating the tools as a loan and not a gift.

When Mrs. Garrett left the room later that night, Jo opened her toolbox again to admire her gift and to place her keychain in the box for the evening. A day hadn't gone by since Blair had given Jo the keychain that Jo didn't caress their initials and think about her birthday surprise. Leaning back on the sofa, where Mrs. Garrett had set up a makeshift bed for Jo so that the injured teen wouldn't constantly be walking up and down the stairs, Jo allowed her mind to drift to some of her more memorable moments with Blair.

Jo sighed as she recalled her first date with Blair. Jo appreciated that Blair had selected the auto show, demonstrating that she'd been more concerned about doing something Jo would enjoy than in attending the type of event Blair liked. Jo closed her eyes, imagining how it felt to have Blair's arms wrapped tightly around her waist as they rode back to Mrs. Garrett's on Jo's motorcycle, the warmth from Blair's thighs as they snugly pressed against Jo's, shielding her from the cool night air.

Blair had played the part of the suitor throughout the day, but when Jo drove them home that evening the dynamic between the two girls changed dramatically. Until then, Blair had planned every detail of their date, but on the trip home Jo was the one determining which routes to take, deciding to extend the date by riding along some of the less traveled mountain roads that wound their way around Peekskill.

Once the girls returned to Mrs. Garrett's driveway, Jo helped Blair from the bike and pulled off her helmet before walking the motorcycle into Mrs. Garrett's garage. Jo had found it charming when she noticed Blair wiping her palms on the sides of her jeans, recognizing the gesture as a sign of Blair's nervousness. As Jo surreptitiously watched, she appreciated the snug fit of the designer jeans Blair had selected for their date in lieu of the skirts Blair normally wore.

Jo's mind continued to drift back in time, reliving an evening better than any dream her subconscious could fabricate.

"I'm glad you were able to fix your bike in time for us to ride it to the auto show, Jo."

"Yeah, the show was great. I guess this is the part of the evening when I ask you if you'd like to go out again sometime."

"Are you asking?"

Jo placed her hands on Blair's hips, pulling her closer and grinning.

"What do you think?"

"I think someone is expecting a good night kiss."

"On the first date? That's a little bold, don't ya think? I wouldn't want you to think I was being too forward."

Blair casually draped her arms over Jo's shoulders, licking her lips.

"If you were worried about that, I don't think you would have kissed me the first day we met."

"You kissed me first."

"I did not."

"Well, you touched me first."

Blair extended her lower lip as Jo pulled their bodies flush with one another from the waist down.

"I couldn't help it. You were so close I could hear your heart beating. I'd been staring at you all day and when you put your arm around me I had to know what it would feel like to touch you."

"I was trying to hold you still."

"Is that what you're doing now?"

Jo shook her head and leaned forward, bringing their lips into contact for a slow, wet, deep kiss. When Jo leaned back to gaze into Blair's eyes, Blair ran her fingers down Jo's arms, stopping to clasp Jo's hands. Jo watched as Blair closed her eyes and smiled, trembling slightly.

Fully understanding the gesture, Jo pressed her forehead to Blair's and whispered.

"I feel it, too, y'know. When we hold hands."

Blair's brilliant smile had lit up the entire garage. Jo was remembering that smile as she tossed back and forth on Mrs. Garrett's sofa, counting the days until Blair would return to Eastland.

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

Jo never ceased to marvel at Blair's organizational skills. On the final day of the Eastland reunion, she watched in awe as Blair solved one last minute crisis after the other, never once losing her composure. Throughout the day, Blair received telephone calls from the manager of the Highcrest Country Club related to everything from temperamental caterers to placement of flower arrangements. While coordinating the main banquet, she also fielded calls from the manager of the hotel she had purchased shortly after she and Jo moved back to Peekskill. Blair had reserved rooms for several of Bailey's former classmates at her hotel. She'd also arranged for transportation back and forth between the country club and hotel, entertainment for an after party in the hotel dining room, and spa treatments for the young women the following morning. In the midst of those preparations, she still managed to call the limo service she had hired to pick up Dorothy's husband and daughter at the airport to confirm that a driver would be waiting for Jeff and Beverly as soon as their flight arrived.

Even with Natalie and Dorothy visiting, the house seemed empty to Jo. Bailey had spent the previous night at the hotel with her friends, Blair had taken E.J. and her friend Marie to Uncle Sal's, and Garrett was spending the weekend with Jo's father. Jo continued reading the sports section of the newspaper while sipping her second cup of coffee. 'All I have to do is show up on time', thought the contented brunette. As Blair was engulfed in a blaze of activity, Jo was ecstatic that her only responsibility for the evening was to say a few words honoring Miss Gallagher, in whose memory the new library wing was being dedicated. She smiled as she thought about the announcement she planned to make during the latter part of the banquet, certain that Bailey was busy arranging the surprise they had planned for Blair.

After a leisurely breakfast, Jo strolled over to Mrs. G.'s house to check on Beverly Ann and Andy, who had arrived the day before. She wasn't surprised to see Dorothy talking excitedly with Beverly Ann. Of all the roommates, Dorothy had formed the strongest bond with Beverly Ann. Jo supposed it was because Dorothy was so much younger than the older girls, who considered themselves adults by the time Edna's sister had moved in with them.

Jo smiled broadly at the sight of so many of her loved ones gathered together. She even smiled at Alex Garrett, who was still lounging in his pajamas. Upon seeing Jo, Andy rose to greet his dear friend.

"Hi, Jo. Did you think we had kidnapped Tootie?"

Like Jo, Andy refused to address Dorothy by anything other than her childhood nickname.

"I'm sure she and Beverly Ann have been talking your ears off."

Andy laughed good-naturedly.

"Mom never runs out of stories. Sometimes I feel like I grew up in Appleton instead of Peekskill."

Jo and Andy briefly embraced and Andy directed Jo to sit in the chair he had occupied beside the sofa.

"I suppose Blair is preparing for tonight's banquet with her usual flair."

Jo nodded.

"You suppose correctly."

"I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to be escorting the two most fabulous women to the event. I'll be the envy of every man there when I walk in the room with Mom on one arm and Aunt Edna on the other."

Andy grinned at Beverly Ann and winked. Jo, on the other hand, turned her attention to Alex.

"Aren't you coming to the banquet with your mother, Alex?"

Alex, who had been daydreaming, shifted nervously in his chair.

"Didn't Nat tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"I, um, I'm going to the banquet with Nat."

Andy rose to his feet again as Edna Gains entered the den.

"That's great for me. I can't wait to rub my old friends' faces in the fact that I've got two dates for the evening. I have to protect my reputation as a ladies' man."

Mrs. G. tousled the young man's hair as Jo only half smiled, unhappy that Natalie had apparently decided to avoid an awkward conversation with Blair by not telling the disapproving blonde that she would be attending the banquet with Alex.

"Jo, make sure Blair calls me if she needs any help today."

"I will, Mrs. G. I only came over to remind Tootie that Jeff and Beverly should be arriving soon."

At the mention of her family, Dorothy's face brightened and she squeezed Beverly Ann's hand.

"You won't believe how much Beverly has grown. She's a young lady now."

Beverly Ann smiled at Andy as she replied.

"Oh, I can't wait. It looks like she's the closest thing to a grandchild I'm ever going to get. Andy doesn't seem to be in any hurry to have a child."

Dorothy and Jo could hear Andy groaning as they left Mrs. Gains' house.

When the limo carrying Jeff and Beverly arrived at Jo and Blair's home, there wasn't much time for socializing. Blair had arranged for Dorothy's daughter to be escorted to dinner and a movie by one of their stable hands and his wife. Jeff only had time to briefly introduce his daughter before she was swept away by the couple and their two teenage daughters.

As efficient as Blair was at planning events, she was incapable of getting dressed on time. The two limousines Blair had hired to take their guests to the banquet were parked in the driveway while Jo, Natalie, Alex, Dorothy, Jeff, Edna, Beverly Ann, and Andy waited for Blair. Jo was surprised when she and their friends had to wait less than fifteen minutes for her fashionable partner to appear. She whistled in appreciation as Blair descended the stairs wearing a black silk blouse and matching skirt. Jo, who was dressed entirely in white, loved the way her fair-skinned partner looked in black. As attractive as Blair's outfit was, Dorothy was surprised that the flamboyant heiress had selected such understated apparel for the huge event.

Blair had questioned her wardrobe selection until she saw Jo's eyes twinkle their approval. Knowing Jo's preference to avoid the spotlight, Blair had specifically tried to dress in a way that would not draw undue attention to herself. Although Jo would be speaking during the dedication, she and Blair were not officially hosting the banquet, providing them with the freedom to enjoy the evening with their close-knit group of friends without feeling as if they had to constantly mingle with all the other guests.

As the two women stood in front of one another, gazing into each other's eyes, the electricity between them was so intense that their friends remained mute, not wanting to interrupt the moment. The moment was, however, interrupted by the ringing of Jo's cell phone.

As the group listened to Jo's conversation, the series of expressions that flashed across Blair's face revealed much more about the nature of the call than the few words Jo uttered.

"No. I'm glad you called."

"Um, it's not a problem."

"Have you been officially booked?"

"What are the charges?"

"I'll be there shortly."

"Do you, um, have anywhere to stay?"

"It's fine. I don't mind. It's not a problem."

"Don't worry. I'll see you soon."

The longer Jo spoke, the more Blair fumed. By the time Jo finished talking, Blair's lips were pressed together so tight they were barely visible. Her normally dark eyes were flashing. Jo didn't have to look at Blair; she could feel the anger rolling toward her in silent waves.

"Blair, I'll meet you at the banquet. I have to run to town."

When Jo's statement was met with silence, she continued, her voice anxious.

"Everyone will be making small talk for the first hour anyway. I'm not scheduled to speak until after dinner."

Blair folded her arms across her chest and glared at Jo, prompting Jo to revise her earlier comment.

"I'll be there in time for dinner. One hour. That's all I need, Blair."

In contrast to her expression, Blair's voice was plaintive.

"Isn't there anyone else who could go? Why does it always have to be you?"

Jo hung her head, sounding defeated.

"Come on, Blair. It's Misty. She's been arrested again. She only gets one phone call and I'm the one she called."

Blair closed her eyes, still hugging her body tightly.

"Blair, she doesn't have anyone else. You know that. Don't be this way."

While everyone else had the good sense to remain quiet, Alex's curiosity got the better of him.

"Who's Misty?"

Blair's answer was instant.

"An incorrigible drug addict Jo thinks she can save."

Jo shook her head and contradicted Blair's description.

"A kid who has made some bad choices."

Blair furrowed her brow.

"You're not bringing her back here."

Jo sighed.

"I know. I'm going to ask Casey to let her stay at the Center tonight. Blair, she's barely seventeen. I can't let them put her in lockup tonight. She's scared out of her mind."

Jo glanced at her watch and then at the door, hesitating. Andy, seeing Jo's turmoil, jumped to the rescue.

"Now I'll have three lovely women on my arm tonight. I hope you hired a photographer, Blair. I can't wait to send the pictures back to Pippa. It serves her right for standing me up this weekend."

Blair smiled appreciatively at Andy. By the time she turned to say anything to Jo, the other woman had quietly left the room.

Jo was right about the first hour of the banquet. Attendees were given a little over an hour to socialize with former classmates and faculty members before being directed to their assigned tables. Jo was incorrect, however, as to how long her task would take. Blair's smile never faded as she circulated through the room, casually joking with those who questioned Jo's absence. Blair easily managed not to answer their questions without them realizing that she had deflected their attention. It helped that most of their fellow graduates of the class of 1982 were too busy gossiping about Cindy's date to notice that Jo was late for the banquet. Even Sue Ann was shocked when Cindy arrived on the arm of a young man at least fifteen years her junior. His chiseled jaw and perfect body shouted to the world that he was also a model.

Roger Butler practically laughed in Cindy's face when she introduced her date as a stock broker. While Blair and Nancy tried to cover for Roger's lack of manners, Cindy also displayed an equally appalling lack of manners herself by interrogating Blair about Jo's absence.

By the time everyone sat down to their meal, Jo's seat at the table was conspicuously unoccupied.

Blair attempted to break the awkward silence by reassuring her friends.

"Please don't look so glum. I don't plan to let Jo's little detour prevent me from enjoying the evening and neither should you."

Seeing nothing but uneasy expressions on her friends' faces, Blair rolled her eyes.

"You really shouldn't worry. Jo will be here soon. I'll torture her mercilessly for the duration of our meal. I'll forgive her shortly before she gives her speech, so she won't be nervous. Then we'll flirt with one another shamelessly for the rest of the evening."

Edna was the first to laugh. Blair's plan for the evening sounded so much like something the spoiled debutante would have said as a teenager that the tension around the table was broken. Before the laughter died down, Jo's amused voice signaled that she had also heard Blair's comments.

"Should I go back outside and wait until it's time for the dedication before returning? I'm not sure I like the idea of being tortured throughout dinner."

Blair sighed deeply and turned to greet her partner, only to gape at Jo in shock. Seeing Blair's reaction, Jo realized her plan to downplay her appearance probably wasn't going to work.

"It's barely noticeable, Blair. Isn't it?"

The front of Jo's white shirt and jacket were smeared with a dark substance that appeared to be grease. Dorothy, overcome with nostalgia, couldn't resist the setup.

"Somebody's in TROUBLE."

Although Dorothy's use of the expression she so often used as a student at Eastland drew laughter from everyone, including Blair and Jo, it was short-lived. Jo nervously glanced at her watch.

"Do you think I have time to go home and change?"

Jo knew the answer to her question, but couldn't think of anything else to say. Blair stood, opened Jo's jacket for a closer look at the shirt underneath and silently led Jo toward the rest room.

Once inside, Jo wrung her hands together as she paced.

"It's not gonna come out. I can't believe I did this. All I had to do was show up on time and look at me. Gail's parents are going to think I'm a jerk."

Jo didn't stop rambling until she noticed that Blair had unbuttoned her shirt.

"Why are you unbuttoning your shirt?"

Blair shook her head and pointed to Jo's shirt.

"Unbutton yours and take it off. Hurry."

"Blair, sweetheart, it isn't that I don't want to, but do you really think this is a good time for us to —?"

Blair glared at Jo.

"Stop acting like a Neanderthal and change shirts with me. My black blouse will look great with your white slacks and you can lose the jacket."

When Jo didn't react, Blair reached for her partner's shirt and began unbuttoning it.

Jo remained speechless as they switched tops. Blair was right; Jo looked great in Blair's blouse.

"Blair, we can't do this."

"Of course we can. Miss Gallagher's father told me how much she talked about her high hopes for you, Jo. You can't stand up there tonight looking like you didn't care enough about her to put on a clean shirt."

As a mature woman, Blair wasn't as vain as she had been as a teenager, but she still placed an inordinate value on her outward appearance. As she stood in front of the mirror, unsuccessfully attempting to arrange her jewelry in some way to help mask the stains, Jo embraced her from behind, tenderly kissing her on the neck.

"You must really love me, Blair Warner."

Blair stood back and appraised her appearance in the mirror before locking eyes with Jo.

"I must."

As much as Blair complained about Jo's sense of social responsibility, it was part of what made Jo the woman she loved so completely. Every time Jo looked into the eyes of a kid like Misty, she saw what her future might have been like if people like Eddie Brennan, Gail Gallagher, Edna Garrett, and Blair Warner had not intervened, or more accurately, interfered in her life. Although Blair thought Jo never gave herself enough credit for determining her own fate, she admired Jo's efforts to positively impact the lives of those less fortunate.

Standing beside Blair, Jo cocked her head as she surveyed their reflection in the mirror. Scanning her own clean, crisp appearance and her partner's wrinkled, stained image, Jo grinned.

"So this is what love looks like, huh?"

Blair stuck her tongue out at Jo and made a face, but Jo's expression turned serious as she gazed into Blair's eyes.

"You've never looked more beautiful."

Part 2

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