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: Common Ground: Chapter 14. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 3, Episode 5, Front Page. FF spoiler, Season 5, Episode 10, Store Games.
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
14: The Bully

By Slave2Free


Blair Warner was fuming. 'How dare that sniveling Clark Kent caricature speak to my girlfriend that way? Who does he think he is, Walter Cronkite?'

Blair held her breath as the vein in Jo's neck appeared as if it might explode through her skin, but the brunette held her temper. In fact, Jo looked as if she wanted to cry, fueling Blair's anger toward their disrespectful teacher. After Blair had returned from visiting her mother in New York City, Natalie made a few cryptic remarks about Mr. Gideon's class, but Blair had not imagined that the conflict between Jo and the arrogant teacher had deteriorated to such an intolerable level.

Blair had intended to ask Miss Gallagher for advice much earlier, but she had pushed everything aside when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. The abrasive teacher's treatment of Jo bordered on abusive and Blair wasn't going to allow it to continue. She had promised Jo that she wouldn't complain to Mr. Parker or Mrs. Garrett about Mr. Gideon's behavior, but she was more determined than ever to enlist the aid of the one person Jo wouldn't expect Blair to approach, Gail Gallagher.

It wasn't that Blair disliked Miss Gallagher. The enthusiastic teacher was a favorite of all the students at Eastland, Blair included, but Blair realized she'd exhibited a few flashes of jealousy when Jo was too complimentary of their teacher. Blair had never complained about Jo's close friendship with the supportive teacher, but the heiress had always treated Gail with a formal politeness that even Blair herself recognized was a coping mechanism she used whenever she was uncomfortable with someone.

As soon as journalism class was over, Blair pretended to have forgotten something in her room and asked Jo if she'd like Blair to carry her notebook back to the room. The ploy was designed to allow Blair to get her hands on some of Jo's graded assignments. She returned to their room to look for some of Jo's older journalism papers. The determined blonde looked through the trash bin and any other place in the room where she thought she might find evidence of her journalism teacher's unfair grading practices and added those reports to the more recent assignments she'd removed from Jo's notebook.

She knew that Jo had been getting low scores in Mr. Gideon's class, but Blair had no idea that so many of them were failures. She located her own journalism papers and placed both sets of assignments in two separate folders. If she could convince Miss Gallagher to read them, she was certain that the teacher who thought so highly of Jo would intervene.

Blair knew that Jo wouldn't approve of her interference, but she would figure out how to deal with Jo later. Knowing how well Jo could read her, Blair was unusually quiet throughout their classes. Jo attributed her girlfriend's odd behavior to lingering anxiety related to Monica's surgery and tried to be supportive without smothering the anxious blonde. When Jo heard Blair ask Miss Gallagher if she could stay after class and ask some questions about one of her assignments from the week before, Jo had no reason to suspect any ulterior motives.

Gail Gallagher didn't know why Blair Warner had suddenly left school on the pretense of vacationing with her mother, but judging from the solemn expressions on the faces of the vivacious blonde's two roommates during Blair's absence, Gail suspected that there was more to the story than had been revealed. Since Jo had been reluctant to discuss her girlfriend's absence, Gail also deduced that whatever was happening within the Warner family was a private matter.

The compassionate teacher smiled reassuringly at the apprehensive girl pacing back and forth in front of her desk. Blair wasn't the type of student to worry over grades or assignments, so Gail began to wonder if Blair was there for personal guidance. Trusting her instincts, Gail busied herself by straightening her desk while her student built up enough courage to begin speaking.

"Miss Gallagher, are you friends with Mr. Gideon?"

Miss Gallagher frowned. She didn't like to hear students complain about other teachers and Blair's apprehensive behavior led Gail to believe that Blair was about to spread some gossip about Mr. Gideon. Gail had heard the rumors about some of the people Bob Gideon had been associating with in the nearby town of Woods Glen. She was disappointed in Miss Warner and wondered if the bright young girl who didn't always spend an adequate amount of time on her assignments might have received some bad marks in Bob's class.

"Are you having trouble in Mr. Gideon's class, Blair?"

The student appeared younger than usual, less sure of herself as she shuffled some papers in her hands before giving them to her teacher. Gail reluctantly accepted the papers and was about to caution Blair not to ask her to intervene on Blair's behalf when she noticed the excellent grade on the first assignment. Glancing through the other papers, Gail noted that Blair was performing exceptionally well in journalism. Perhaps Mr. Gideon had been able to draw something out of the intelligent, yet undisciplined student that Gail had not been able to evoke.

"These are excellent scores, Blair. I'm very proud of you."

"Um, thank you, Miss Gallagher. Would you mind, if you have time and it wouldn't be too much trouble . . . um, would you mind reading over those assignments and letting me know if you think I might write well enough to join the newspaper staff?"

"I think that's an excellent idea, Blair. I had no idea that you were so interested in journalism. Since Mr. Gideon is the Eastlander advisor, I don't think you'll need a recommendation from me in order to write for the paper."

Blair bit her lower lip nervously and dove in.

"Would you read just one? Choose the one page report I did right before I left for New York. It would mean a lot to me to know what you think."

Gail again thumbed through the papers, surprised to see that all of them were handwritten reports. She had assumed that Mr. Gideon would expect his students to type their formal assignments, as she did. Not only was the one page report not typed, Blair's handwriting was sloppy. Blair Warner's artistic abilities flowed seamlessly into all aspects of her personality, including her beautiful handwriting. The report in Gail's hand didn't at all resemble Blair's normal writing.

Blair anxiously watched Miss Gallagher's face as she read over the first paragraph. Blair had intentionally made three glaring grammatical errors in the introduction and misspelled several words within the body of the paper. There were numerous inaccuracies in her description of events that even a student Tootie's age could easily identify and Blair had neglected to punctuate the last sentence of the report.

The young teacher leaned forward in her chair and chose her words carefully.

"Are all of your papers like this?"

Blair nodded as her teacher thumbed through the remaining assignments, making sure she had properly identified the exemplary marks she thought she'd seen earlier. Gail felt sick to her stomach as her mind began clicking through all the possibilities. Blair had left school suddenly, almost secretively. Could Mr. Gideon have expected Blair to earn her grades outside of the classroom? Gail didn't want to lead the conversation, but she wanted her student to know that it was safe to confide in Gail. She got up from her desk and walked around to the other side, pointing at a student desk for Blair as she sat in the one next to it.

"Blair, do you feel comfortable telling me why you think Mr. Gideon is giving you such high marks for substandard work?"

Seeing the level of distress in Miss Gallagher's eyes, it dawned on Blair what her teacher was asking.

"Oh, he hasn't done or said anything . . . um, inappropriate. Well, not to me, anyway."

Gail's frown deepened.

"Blair, I know this isn't easy, but you gave me those reports for a reason. I'd like to help if I can."

Blair handed Miss Gallagher a second folder with Jo's graded assignments.

"Please don't tell Jo that I showed you these. You know how she is about fighting her own battles."

Gail felt her throat constrict. Blair had been smart to hand over her own papers first because Gail would have considered it an invasion of Jo's privacy to read her papers without Jo's knowledge. However, given the blatant disparity between the quality of Blair's reports and the grades Mr. Gideon had given the blonde, Gail felt justified in looking over Jo's work as well.

Despite her efforts to disguise her dismay, Gail gasped out loud when she saw the first failing grade. She glanced through all of the assignments in shock, reading through bits and pieces of each report to ensure that they were of the same high quality as the reports Jo prepared for her Literature class.

Gail wouldn't normally question another teacher, but both girls' scores were so outlandish that she couldn't think of any legitimate explanation. Once again, Blair Warner had surprised the young teacher by the way she had handled a tricky situation. Once again, Gail could see why Jo had fallen so hard for the heiress.

"Blair, were you trying to get a low score on your reports?"

"Not the first one, but after seeing Jo's scores and the way he bullies her in class, I —."

"Bullies her? How?"

"You name it, he does it. He picks out one person in each of his classes to bully. Jo just happens to be the unlucky one in our class."

Gail closed the folder and glanced at her watch. She didn't have much time before her next class.

"May I keep these?"

"Do you think Jo's scores are fair?"

"Give me some time to look into this, Blair. I don't want to make any snap judgments."

"But you will look into it, right?"

Gail smiled, happy that Jo's girlfriend cared enough to risk inciting Jo's temper in order to bring Mr. Gideon's gross transgression to her attention.

"Yes, Blair, but please be patient."

Blair frowned.

"It's not my patience I'm worried about."

The image of Neil Richards' battered and bruised face flashed across Gail's mind. Jo had worked very hard to control her temper, but Gail had heard rumors that Jo shoved Sue Ann the week before. If Mr. Gideon continued to push Jo or if he humiliated her in front of Blair, Gail worried about how Jo might retaliate. She placed the folders in her bag, planning to show them to her colleague, Mrs. Wallace, that evening.

If Blair had gone with Jo to the student center following Miss Gallagher's class, she would have immediately noticed the chilly attitude between her friends and Jo. When Jo passed the table where the most popular girls at Eastland always sat during their break, she didn't even glance in their direction. It wouldn't have mattered if she had, Nancy, Margo, Sue Ann, and Molly would have ignored Jo.

'It's for the best,' thought Margo as she watched Jo from the corner of her eye. Sue Ann was right. The Harvest Festival was only a few weeks away and if Blair had a shot of becoming the first Eastland student to ever win the Harvest Queen competition three years in a row, then the beautiful heiress would have to distance herself from Jo Polniaczek.

Jo was still popular with the general student population, but the socially elite had shunned the scholarship student since she'd pushed Sue Ann during a heated argument with her irritating classmate. If any of the girls were asked what the argument had been about, none of them would recall, but they were all certain that Jo had been the villain and Sue Ann had been the victim. It had been an easy decision to freeze Jo out of their group while Blair was away, but all of the debutante's friends were nervous about how Blair would react to the news. Therefore, the girls were relieved when Jo entered the student center with Natalie Greene and without Blair Warner.

After the third time Natalie apprehensively glanced toward the popular table, Jo grumbled.

"You don't have to sit with me, y'know. You're welcome to go over there and beg for a place in snobbo city."

Natalie made a face at her friend and dramatically shrugged her shoulders.

"You shouldn't have shoved Sue Ann."

"I barely nudged her."

"To you it was a nudge; to Sue Ann it was a body slam."

"Hey, she's the one who gave Blair a black eye two years ago. I ain't forgotten that for one minute. She's a hypocritical little bi—."

"You'd better start watching your language, Jo. Blair is going to flip out when she hears you drop the F word."

"I don't care what Jackie Onassis thinks."

Natalie chuckled good-naturedly. Her surly friend could boast about her independence all she wanted, but Natalie had noticed that Jo hadn't spoken one curse word in front of their older roommate.

"Jo, when are you going to stop pretending that you don't like Blair? Everyone knows that you're her best friend."

Jo stared at her hands, not daring to look over at the popular table to see if Blair was sitting with her stuck-up friends.

"Well, Blair's got plenty of other friends. Just because we happen to have the same classes and room over the cafeteria doesn't make us best friends."

Natalie stared in disbelief. 'Does Jo think I'm really that stupid?'

"You know, Jo, if I were a suspicious person, I'd wonder why you refuse to admit the obvious."

Jo squirmed in her seat and glared at her friend.

"If I were really a violent person, I'd kick your suspicious ass from one end of this campus to the other."

Natalie smirked, no longer intimidated by the same bullying attitude that had made her so uncomfortable the week before. Jo could huff and puff all day, but as long as Blair was there to witness Jo's behavior, there wouldn't be any more shoving matches involving the grumpy brunette.

As the two girls parted ways to go to their final class of the day, Natalie chanced a final glance toward Blair's more popular friends.

"Blair isn't here, Jo, but Tootie is. Why do you think Margo has been cozying up to Tootie?"

Jo glared in the direction of the young socialites who thought they ran Eastland Academy. She wasn't jealous of the attention Tootie had been receiving from the group, but she was concerned about her youngest roommate.

"Margo never does anything without a reason. I just hope Tootie wises up before she gets in too deep with that crowd. They're not very nice."

"Do you think Blair knows how much Tootie has been hanging around with them?"

Jo sighed.

"I think Blair has a lot of other things on her mind right now."

Jo slumped on the sofa in Mrs. Garrett's lounge. She was depressed and weary. Weary of constantly attempting to impress a teacher who seemed to hate her and depressed because her normally attentive girlfriend seemed to be avoiding her.

Jo had asked Blair to hike up to Cooper's Rock after classes and Blair had made a lame excuse that Jo didn't buy for one minute. Blair also declined Jo's invitation to go for a motorcycle ride after dinner. Jo's confidence had taken a beating in Mr. Gideon's class and she couldn't help but wonder if she had done something to upset her girlfriend. Blair had been distant all day and Jo was beginning to worry if the unresponsive blonde might regret having exposed so much of her innermost thoughts and feelings to Jo while they were in New York. Jo made one last attempt to gain Blair's attention before going upstairs to work on her journalism assignment, but Blair seemed more interested in helping Mrs. Garrett hem one of her skirts than in talking with Jo.

Once she was in her bedroom, Jo stared at the blank sheet of paper in Tootie's typewriter. Mrs. Garrett had repeatedly told Jo that she could earn her teacher's respect by continuing to do her best, but Jo doubted anything she could do would convince Mr. Gideon that her work was worthy of a passing grade. Embarrassed by how many failing grades she had received that semester, Jo had kept the lowest scores from her roommates, pretending that the reason she was working so hard was to bring up C's.

Jo took out her notes and reviewed them. Mrs. Garrett had catered a light dinner for the school board members during their most recent meeting and she had given Jo the inside scoop on their decision to redecorate the faculty lounge. Mr. Gideon might not like Jo's writing style, but he would have to be impressed by Jo's ability to gather the information before it was formally announced.

While Jo wrote and rewrote the story she was preparing for her condescending teacher, Blair remained downstairs, trying to avoid her perceptive girlfriend in hopes of keeping Jo in the dark about her visit with Miss Gallagher.

Readjusting to Eastland was difficult for the heiress. While in New York, she had grown accustomed to allowing herself to be less careful of watchful eyes around Jo. She'd forgotten how frustrating it was to always be surrounded by other students. She and Jo had been together all day, but being near Jo and being with Jo were two very different things and Blair found herself feeling terribly lonely. She longed to hold Jo's hand as they walked back and forth to their classes. She ached to embrace Jo and comfort her girlfriend after witnessing Mr. Gideon's brutish behavior that morning. Now, she berated herself for hurting Jo even more by rejecting the brunette's attempts to gain a private moment with her that afternoon and evening.

As she sat watching Mrs. Garrett thread a needle, Blair's anger toward Robert Gideon grew. It was his fault that she was in the lounge with Mrs. Garrett while Jo was upstairs alone. It was his fault that Jo was going to be angry with her for dragging Miss Gallagher into Jo's conflict with him.

Mrs. Garrett smiled encouragingly at the solemn blonde.

"Why don't you call your mother, Blair? I'm sure she'd love to hear from you."

Blair smiled, grateful that she didn't have to explain her sour mood to Mrs. Garrett, and called Elizabeth Cabot's number before going upstairs to bed.

By the time Blair returned to her bedroom, all three of her roommates appeared to be asleep. She carefully pulled down the covers from her bed without turning on the light, but the noise was enough to alert Jo to her presence.

"Hey, you're up late."

Blair got into bed and gazed across the short distance to Jo's bed. From Blair's perspective, they may as well have been separated by a million miles.

"I was catching up with Mrs. Garrett."

"You seemed a little down today. Is everything okay with your mom?"

"I called Elizabeth a little while ago and she said that Mother is up to her old tricks and that I shouldn't worry. I think that by the time Mother finishes recovering, Elizabeth may need to spend a few days recuperating as well."

Jo chuckled; it was nice to see Blair smiling.

"That's good. Well, uh . . . goodnight."

Despite the chuckle, Blair could hear a hint of sadness in Jo's voice. She wanted nothing more than to voice her undying love and admiration for her brilliant girlfriend, but she couldn't risk being overheard by her roommates.

Blair gave Jo a weak smile and inwardly cringed at the downcast expression on the beautiful brunette's face.



"Do you remember all those things I told you in New York?"


"I still mean them, more than ever. I . . . um, I know I've been acting a little weird today. I just, it's not because . . ."

Blair let the statement hang until Jo smiled back at her, an earnest smile, communicating her acceptance of Blair's apology for ignoring her, whether or not she understood the reasons.

For the first time that day, Jo finally relaxed. Reassured by Blair's words, she sank into her pillow and closed her eyes.

"Goodnight, Goofy."

"Goodnight, Grease Monkey."

Throughout the week and into the next, Jo continued to attempt to impress Gideon and he continued to ridicule her efforts.

'It's not right,' thought Blair. 'Jo is obsessed with Mr. Gideon's stupid journalism assignment. It doesn't matter what she does, he's going to fail her again.'

Jo hadn't taken time to eat breakfast that morning, choosing instead to continue typing her journalism report. Blair was irritated at Mr. Gideon, not Jo, but her efforts to get Jo to stop typing and to focus on something else, anything else, were failing miserably.

"In case you're interested, Jo, we are engaged in post-breakfast activities. Clearing the dishes, wiping the tables, sound familiar?"

Natalie tried to warn Blair not to interrupt Jo when the frustrated brunette was working on a journalism assignment. Jo's passionate pursuit of better journalism grades had been driving Natalie and Tootie crazy for over a week.

"Blair, don't bother her. She's dangerous when she's engrossed."

Tootie echoed Natalie's warning.

"Yeah, she types with the hunt and punch system."

As always, the ditsy blonde ignored the warnings. Blair bragged as she placed her hand over the paper in Jo's typewriter, intending to prevent Jo from continuing to type.

"Well, I'm not afraid of her."

Jo stopped typing long enough to glance up at her girlfriend and momentarily hold her gaze before dramatically pressing one of the typewriter keys, causing the mechanism to strike Blair's finger. Blair jerked her hand away from the typewriter in shock.

"Ouch, you chipped my nail!"

Jo continued typing while Blair complained to Mrs. Garrett. It was easy for the two girls to fall back into the routine of grumbling about one another to their mentor and mother figure. After Blair finished flaunting her non-existent fingernail injury in front of her unimpressed guardian, Mrs. Garrett turned her attention to the exasperated brunette.

"Mrs. Garrett, she has been buggin' me all morning and I gotta finish this story before journalism class."

Blair protested, irritated that her normally confident girlfriend was in such a frenzy over a simple journalism assignment.

"Why? All Mr. Gideon wants today is a subject for the story."

Jo frowned, discouraged.

"I've gotta do something to impress the guy. He's been giving me C's all semester."

Jo was the most honest person Blair had ever met and it tore at her heart to hear Jo whitewash her journalism grades. Blair had seen Jo's grades and knew that Jo had received more F's than C's. Realizing that she was making matters worse, Blair walked away, hoping that Mrs. Garrett would be able to help Jo gain perspective.

"You've been working really hard, Jo. I'm sure you'll do fine."

"It's not that simple, Mrs. G. See, Gideon and I have a kind of love/hate relationship. I love journalism and he hates me."

Blair mumbled to herself and took out her frustration on the table she was washing as Natalie defended Mr. Gideon. Later, Blair stopped her work to stare at her frazzled girlfriend when Jo continued to vent.

"He's got it in for me. Nothing I do impresses him. He gives me the same kind of look I used to get when I tried to cross 149th Street without the Bronx Barbarians' permission."

Blair felt her stomach lurch as Jo comically imitated a Bronx Barbarian. It was supposed to be funny, but Blair knew that Jo's reference to the Bronx meant that Jo was thinking about how she would have handled someone like Mr. Gideon when she lived in her old neighborhood. It was never a good sign when Jo spoke glowingly of the Bronx or her former gang affiliation. Blair suspected that Jo was beginning to employ the same defense mechanisms she had used as a Young Diablo and that could only mean that the volatile Bronx native had reached the end of her patience.

While Natalie and Mrs. Garrett were laughing at Jo's attempt at humor, the new delivery boy entered the cafeteria. Blair initially ignored the boy who had met her roommates while she was in New York, but he gained her full attention as soon as he began flirting with her girlfriend.

"She walks in beauty like the night."

"Take a hike, Roy."

Blair thought the sight of Jo Polniaczek rejecting the amorous advances of an ardent suitor was one of the sexiest things she'd ever seen, but she grew annoyed when Jo's rebuffs didn't deter the young man. Blair was also suspicious of the friendly banter between the stranger and her younger roommates. How could Roy have ingratiated himself with them in such a short period of time?

As Roy continued to pursue Jo, Blair no longer attempted to keep up the pretense of wiping off tables as she stood in the background and studied the interaction between her girlfriend and the new delivery boy.

The possessive blonde's mood continued to deteriorate as Roy lavished Jo with compliments, the type of compliments Blair didn't feel she was allowed to say to her girlfriend in public. Distancing herself from Jo the day before was the only way Blair could think of to keep the intuitive brunette from figuring out that Blair had taken it upon herself to seek Miss Gallagher's help. Watching Roy insert himself into Jo's personal space made it more difficult for Blair to continue the charade. Blair knew that Jo considered the boy a mere irritation, but she was jealous of his ability to court the object of her affection while she was denied the privilege.

"You're beautiful when you type."

Blair fumed in the background while Jo covered her face with her hands and almost pleaded with the pesky delivery boy to leave her alone.

"Roy, would ya give me a break? I've got enough problems with Gideon."

"Is some obnoxious creep giving you a hard time? Tell him to get lost."

"Get lost."

Despite her sour mood, Blair couldn't help but giggle at Jo's deadpan response to Roy's overtures. She didn't take her eyes off of Jo until Mrs. Garrett sent Roy from the room and insisted that everyone give Jo a chance to work on her report in peace.

Robert Gideon was fuming as he paced back and forth across his classroom. In less than five minutes, he would face his nemesis. He had been humiliated the day before when Mr. Parker had reprimanded him as if he were a mere schoolboy. It didn't take Robert long to figure out who had complained to the headmaster. He glanced at his watch again, four more minutes until he would have an opportunity to put the cocky brunette in her place.

Robert could trace all of his problems back to the former gang member who constantly glared at him. If he hadn't been so upset following Mr. Parker's admonitions of his grading practices the day before, he never would have gone to a party to blow off steam. The furious teacher closed his eyes, grateful that he'd had an opportunity to slip the small amount of cocaine he had been carrying the night before into the pocket of another unsuspecting party guest before the police crashed through the door.

The Woods Glen police would be sorry for the way they had treated the highly respected teacher, Robert would see to that. He had spent an entire hour at the local police station where officers had treated him no better than a common drug dealer. Jo Polniaczek had done her best to destroy his career, but he was more determined than ever to demonstrate his superiority over the overconfident gangster.

Blair was restless, she'd been uneasy the moment she stepped into journalism class. Mr. Gideon was in a weird mood. He had lavished praise on Annie Perkins when returning the stories his class had completed the week before, but then he had mercilessly criticized Sue Ann's report in front of the entire class. Blair watched Jo carefully, hoping her girlfriend would be able to control her temper for a few more days. The apprehensive blonde was certain that Miss Gallagher was making progress, but Mr. Parker was the type of man who would be reluctant to believe anything negative about one of his faculty members.

When Mr. Gideon asked the class to give him the title of a major news story due the following week, Blair was quick to raise her hand. She was trying her best to divert Mr. Gideon's attention away from Jo and if it meant humiliating herself in front of her peers, Blair was more than willing to make the sacrifice.


Blair stood, intent on giving one of her best 'dumb blonde' performances.

"You're going to love this, Mr. Gideon. I've decided to write an in-depth story defending Nancy Reagan's purchase of new White House china."

While some members of the class only snickered, others laughed openly at Blair's topic. Therefore, Blair wasn't the only one shocked by the normally austere teacher's reaction.

"I think that's a point of view that's worth exploring. Thank you, Blair."

Blair smiled, unsure of how she was supposed to respond to such undeserved praise. The attractive blonde hoped her smile would brighten her teacher's mood and prevent him from bullying Jo, but she was terribly mistaken.


Natalie nudged Jo's arm, encouraging Jo to share her topic. Jo licked her lips and swallowed hard before reluctantly raising her hand.

"Jo, do you have a subject?"

Jo stood, proudly holding her typed report.

"I've got more than that; three hundred words."

Instead of giving Jo the praise she deserved, Mr. Gideon's reply was curt.

"It's not due today."

"Oh, I know, but see, once I got started, I couldn't stop."

Blair could feel her heart pounding in her chest. Jo was babbling. Jo never babbled. It was like watching a train racing toward a broken section of tracks with no way of stopping the inevitable wreck.

"Go ahead, read me your lead."

Jo took a deep breath. She was trying so hard to follow Mrs. Garrett's advice and impress her teacher with her stellar report that it was breaking Blair's heart to watch.

"The Eastland School's board of directors voted eight to three last week to approve funds to redecorate the faculty lounge. Funds that —."

"Hold it, Jo."

Mr. Gideon didn't give Jo a chance to finish sharing her lead paragraph, stopping her in mid-sentence. He was almost drooling over the unexpected opportunity to blast the arrogant student who had prompted a visit from the school's headmaster. He was going to teach the overconfident troublemaker what happened to girls who ran to Mr. Parker every time they thought they didn't get as good a grade as they deserved.

"Where'd you get that?"

Jo grinned, thinking Mr. Gideon was finally going to recognize her extra efforts to get an exclusive story about something that would significantly impact the school she loved so dearly.

"I have my sources."

Mr. Gideon's voice was particularly condescending as he increased his assault.

"I see. Did your sources tell you that the teachers themselves met yesterday? We decided that the funds should be used elsewhere."

Mr. Gideon didn't mention that Miss Gallagher was the one who had rallied the other faculty members to reject the board's offer to redecorate the lounge, nor did he mention that he had vigorously argued against the popular English teacher's recommendation. Also relevant was that the faculty members had not yet approached the school board with their alternative proposal for the funds, meaning that, officially, the redecoration project had not been cancelled.

"No, but how was I supposed to know that?"

Mr. Gideon, who hadn't yet given Jo the courtesy of looking directly at her, whirled on the young girl, taking several steps in her direction as he continued, his voice vibrating with anger.

"It's your job to know!"

He waved his pencil up and down as he began to rant, almost shouting.

"You check! Then you double check! Then you check again!"

Finally, Mr. Gideon aggressively pointed at the board, where he had earlier written the letters F A C T.

"Tell me what those letters stand for."

Jo was so stunned that it took her a moment to catch her breath. The girl with the perfect memory was working so hard to control her temper that she stumbled over her answer.

"Fact, um, fast —."

The abusive teacher didn't give Jo a chance to complete her answer and continued his rampage. Blair, along with her other classmates, were shocked by the open hostility being heaped onto one of the brightest students at Eastland.

"Fast, accurate, concise, true! Now, a good reporter gets all four of them. How many did you get?"

Mr. Gideon hurled the question at Jo as if it were an accusation and Jo's cheeks burned with embarrassment.

"Look, I spent a lot of time doing —."

For the third time, the harsh teacher interrupted Jo in mid-sentence, further humiliating the student.

"Jo, time doesn't count. Find another story."

Jo slammed her report down on the desk as she sat down, causing Blair to fear that Mr. Gideon would send her mortified girlfriend to the headmaster's office, but Mr. Gideon ignored the affront. Blair had no way of knowing that Mr. Gideon couldn't send Jo to the headmaster's office without indicting himself for taking retribution on the student he thought had reported him for unfair grading practices.

Jo sat at her desk, trying to keep from crying as she felt the bile rising in her throat. It was the same feeling she used to get when she heard Sam beating her mother. Jo felt powerless. She had no more chance of winning a war of words against Gideon in his classroom than she had of winning a war of fists with Sam. Jo had allowed her rage to control her when confronted by Sam and she'd paid for it with a black eye and bloody nose. Eventually, she'd gotten rid of Sam and she'd rid herself of Gideon, too. Jo could be patient. Men like Gideon always slipped up and when he did, Jo would be there to exploit his weakness.

Jo spent the remainder of the class plotting her strategy for defeating Gideon. It was the only way she could prevent herself from drowning in her feelings of helplessness. Jo held herself to a strict code of conduct, but Gideon was trying to get her kicked out of Eastland. Jo couldn't allow him to succeed. She couldn't lose everything she'd worked so hard to gain. She couldn't lose Blair.

Blair tried to catch up with Jo after journalism class, but the humiliated brunette charged off as soon as she exited the classroom. Blair felt miserable. She had let her fear of Jo's anger create a wedge of secrecy between them and at a time when Jo needed her most, Blair felt as if she was the last person Jo would want to see.

Since Jo had already darted off toward the student center, Blair decided to pay a quick visit to Miss Gallagher's classroom.

Gail was greeting her students at the door when she noticed Blair pacing up and down the hallway outside her classroom. She walked over to the anxious blonde and pulled her aside.

"Blair, what are you doing here? Is something wrong?"

"Did you get a chance to talk with Mr. Parker? Is he going to fire Mr. Gideon?"

"I spoke with Mr. Parker last week, but this sort of thing takes time, Blair. Mr. Parker isn't going to fire a teacher without a substantial amount of evidence of wrongdoing. He'll also have to give Mr. Gideon an opportunity to explain his actions."

Blair chewed on her lower lip and wrung her hands.

"It's taking too long. Mr. Gideon ridiculed Jo in front of everyone today. She almost cried. I did cry. I've never seen anyone be so cruel."

Gail's jaw tightened and her eyes hardened.

"I can't believe Mr. Parker ignored my request and went to —."

Gail stopped suddenly, remembering that she was speaking to a student about her employer, but Blair had already filled in the blanks.

"Mr. Parker talked to Mr. Gideon about Jo's grades? No wonder he attacked her in class. I can't believe this. You were supposed to help."

Gail tried to explain, but Blair ran out of the building and Gail had a room full of students to teach. The emotionally exhausted teacher tried to focus her mind on the lesson she was teaching, but all she could think about was that she had to get to Mr. Parker and make sure that Robert Gideon didn't get another opportunity to antagonize the quick-tempered, yet emotionally vulnerable young scholarship student.

When Blair arrived at the student center, the senior break was almost over, but she arrived in time to note a significant change in seating arrangement. Jo was sitting with Natalie and some of their younger roommate's geeky friends who worked on the newspaper staff. Meanwhile, their youngest friend was sitting between Margo and Nancy, chatting with the senior girls as if they were best friends.

Always observant of her surroundings, Margo nudged Sue Ann and nodded toward Blair.

"I think it's time for us to get to class. Don't forget, Tootie, you're coming to my dorm room this afternoon to help me pick out an outfit to wear to the Harvest Ball."

Tootie glowed.

"Sure, Margo. Maybe I can stay and we can play Monopoly?"

Nancy restrained her snicker, but Sue Ann's mouth fell open and she was about to speak until she caught the daggers in Margo's eyes.

"We'll see, Tootie. I have a pretty busy schedule."

Tootie nodded agreeably, oblivious to the unspoken conversation taking place around her. While Nancy pulled Sue Ann and Tootie away from the table before Blair could get to them, Margo waited patiently, having prepared herself for a confrontation with her best friend.

Jo and Natalie, both observant for their ages, ignored the conversation at their own table to silently watch the unfolding drama across the room. Jo hadn't been participating in the conversation anyway; she'd been eerily subdued subsequent to Mr. Gideon's tantrum.

While Natalie openly gaped at Blair and Margo, Jo lowered her head and tried to watch surreptitiously. Although Jo hadn't shared her suspicions with Natalie, Jo had deduced that Tootie's newfound popularity had more to do with her roommate's race than with the party girl persona Margo was trying to paint. Jo also believed that it was a blatant ploy to gain the 'minority vote' for Blair to win Harvest Queen.

Jo had scoffed at Blair's earlier comparison of her social circle to Jo's former gang, but Jo couldn't deny the similarities. When Jessie had recruited Jo into the Young Diablos at age fourteen, they'd been among the older members. Jo's natural leadership ability and charisma made her stand out, but without Jessie to act as her enforcer, Jo never could have led the motley crew of misfits.

Jo hadn't wanted to admit that one of the reasons she had remained close to Jessie was that she felt guilty for having used her former best friend. Jessie didn't have Jo's sense of morals or her integrity. Jessie possessed much less desirable traits. Traits that allowed her to do things to help Jo that Jo would never do, or even knowingly allow Jessie to do for her.

The difference between Jo's relationship with Jessie and Blair's friendship with Margo was that Blair trusted Margo. Jo cared about Jessie and felt an obligation to her fiercely loyal friend, but Jo knew that Jessie was capable of turning on her and she believed that Margo was just as capable of turning on Blair. As viciously as Margo protected Blair's interest, there was a selfish component to her loyalty. Margo's popularity was intrinsically linked to Blair's, but if that dynamic ever changed, Jo worried about the emotional distress it would cause her girlfriend to be rejected by yet another person she trusted.

Jo was curious about whether or not Margo would admit her true motivation for befriending Tootie or try to deceive Blair. She temporarily swallowed her rage toward Robert Gideon to focus her attention on the fiery blonde across the room, her hands on her hips and her foot tapping impatiently, waiting for Margo to explain what was happening. Jo, like Natalie, assumed the conversation revolved around Tootie; both would have been surprised if they could have actually heard the scene they were so intently watching.

"Why is Jo sitting over there at the nerd table?"

"I thought you were above those types of stereotypical —."

"Margo, I am not in the mood for this."

Margo snickered.

"Hey, I suppose that watching Jo get her balls handed to her this morning must have —."


Margo shrugged. When she answered, she looked Blair square in the eyes, defying her more honorable friend to catch her in a lie.

"Jo was in a nasty mood while you were away. Sue Ann, as usual, said something completely inappropriate and Jo shoved her. Of course, to hear Sue Ann recount the event, you'd think Jo had punched her in the face."


"So, that was just one more straw on the camel's back, Blair. Do you have any idea of what would happen if people ever got wind of the fact that you are screwing that —?"


This time, Blair screamed at her friend so loudly that it drew the attention of everyone in the student center, making it impossible for them to continue their conversation without the risk of being overheard.

Margo grabbed Blair's arm and dragged her to the exit, while Blair cast an anxious look toward Jo, worried that her girlfriend might believe she was a willing party to Jo's ostracism. Blair caught Jo's eye for only a fraction of a second, but it was enough to let her know that Jo wasn't judging her for not joining Jo and Natalie in 'geeksville'.

"Calm down, Warner. It's only temporary. Your grungy girlfriend can sit with us again after you've been elected Harvest Queen for the third time. Come on, Blair, no one has ever done that. Don't you want to be a part of Eastland history?"

"That's what this is about? You think that being friends with Jo will hurt my chances to be voted Harvest Queen?"

"Look, Blair. You lost the student council election last spring. You're only president because Cynthia . . . well, you know. You can't just sit back and think everyone is going to vote for you again like they have in the past. You have some stiff competition this year."

Blair's vanity asserted itself long enough to distract her from her real objective. After her two year reign, the attractive blonde hadn't considered that any other student could be elected queen.


"Julie Sable."

"Julie Sable doesn't have a chance against me."

Margo snorted her disagreement.

"She didn't win the costume party contest because of her ridiculous imitation of Sophia Loren, Blair. She won because she's popular and she's actually been campaigning for the crown, unlike you."

Blair knew that if Margo considered Julie Sable a threat, she should take the warning seriously.

"How can being Jo's friend hurt me?"

Margo sighed.

"Jo is . . . well . . . common. Students want an aristocratic queen. Someone whose best friend is a classless jock does not meet the criteria."

"Margo, you're just using the competition as an excuse to break us up, but it's not going to happen. Jo and I are closer than ever and she is far more important to me than being Harvest Queen."

Margo pressed her hand to her forehead. Her best friend was in love with an ill-mannered nobody from the slums; it made her want to retch. Margo glanced around them to make sure no one was listening.

"Blair, it's only until after the Harvest Ball. You and Jo have been pretending to more or less hate one another since you met. How is this different?"

Blair considered the accusation. She and Jo had intentionally attempted to make people believe that they didn't get along, but this felt different. The couple had exaggerated their differences of opinion in order to protect one another. What Margo was proposing had nothing to do with protecting Jo and it made Blair feel sleazy.

"I'm not going to go along with this, Margo."

Margo wasn't giving up, but she knew better than to argue with Blair directly. Margo hadn't initiated her plan to separate Blair from Jo without having a Plan B. If either Plan A or Plan B worked, Jo Polniaczek would be out of Blair's life for good. She knew neither plan had a chance if Blair suspected the separation to be permanent, but Margo had no intention of allowing her friend to get tangled up with her image-killing girlfriend again if she was ever able to untangle them in the first place.

"Think about it, Blair. Think about how proud your mother will be. Think about how proud your grandmother would have been. They both distinguished themselves while at Eastland. Don't you want to do the same?"

Blair was thinking so hard that she found herself surprised to find that she was standing outside the doorway to her math class. Margo squeezed Blair's hand affectionately and softened her voice.

"We'll talk about this again when we have more time."

Blair nodded, feeling dazed.

"We'll talk about Tootie, too."

Margo held her breath while she smiled at her friend agreeably. It was going to be a long day for the manipulative socialite.

Blair couldn't decide if she should be relieved or worried by Jo's silence. Margo's ill-conceived plan to freeze Jo out of their social circle made it impossible for Blair to continue trying to avoid her girlfriend without giving Jo the idea that Blair was going along with the plan. Blair concluded that she no longer had a choice; she could no longer hide her solicitation of Miss Gallagher's assistance. The fact that her actions had only made matters worse made Blair feel more obligated to reveal her secret.

She had hoped to ask Jo to join her in a conference with Miss Gallagher after their Literature class, thinking that perhaps Miss Gallagher could deflect some of Jo's anger, but she'd been stunned to see a substitute at the front of the room when she'd entered the classroom.

If Blair had correctly identified the look of controlled rage on Miss Gallagher's face earlier that day, then she suspected that Mr. Parker was being raked over the coals by one of his most easygoing faculty members.

Jo's curiosity about Blair's odd behavior grew throughout the school day. To Jo's knowledge, the only class Gail had ever missed was the day she and Jo played hooky and went out for burgers. Jo smiled at the memory. She had been so discouraged after Blair left for Monte Carlo and the compassionate teacher had befriended her and given her hope. Jo watched her girlfriend abandon her lip and begin chewing on a fingernail, a sure sign that Blair was distressed – a sure sign that the nosy blonde knew something about Gail's absence, something she didn't want to share with Jo.

Blair could tell that Jo was suspicious, or else her own guilt was gnawing at her so badly that she was becoming paranoid. She'd worked tirelessly the day before to ensure that she and Jo did not have any time alone, but today she couldn't seem to find a single opportunity to pull Jo aside for a private conversation. Resigning herself to waiting until after dinner, Blair worried that Mr. Parker, or worse yet, Mr. Gideon, might seek Jo out before Blair had a chance to explain.

Gail Gallagher's knuckles were white as she clenched her hands, trying to control her temper as she listened to Mr. Parker.

"The man had a right to defend himself, Gail. I asked him to turn over his grade book, but I didn't tell him who had accused him of unfairly grading her assignments."

Gail took a deep breath and tried once again to explain.

"You didn't have to tell him. He'd have to be an idiot not to think it was Miss Polniaczek."

Mr. Parker sighed dramatically.

"Well, she should have known that there might be repercussions after making this type of accusation."

"That's just it, Mr. Parker; Jo is not the one who reported Mr. Gideon. Didn't you read the reports I gave you?"

"I saw enough to know that Miss Polniaczek shouldn't have received a failing grade on the assignments, if that's what you mean."

"Didn't you look at Miss Warner's papers?"

"Warner? Blair Warner?"

Gail closed her eyes. She knew Mr. Parker was distracted when she spoke to him the day before, but she'd thought he would at least read her formal complaint before contacting Mr. Gideon to get the journalism teacher's side of the story.

"Yes. Not only is Mr. Gideon grading some papers too low, he is grading other papers too high."

"Why would that be a problem?"

Gail blew out the breath she had been holding, close to losing her patience.

"Think about it, Mr. Parker. You are so concerned about protecting Mr. Gideon's reputation so that his behavior will not reflect poorly on the school that you haven't considered the consequences of NOT addressing the issue. I don't know why Mr. Gideon is inflating Miss Warner's grades, but I'm sure David Warner will have plenty of questions if it turns out that Robert's motives aren't entirely pure."

Mr. Parker swallowed hard. The headmaster felt lucky that he'd never met David Warner and would be very content if the billionaire tycoon never saw the need to visit Eastland.

"Well, there were some, uh, inconsistencies in his grade book."

"Related to Miss Warner?"

Mr. Parker cleared his throat.

"No. It seems that Annie Perkins has a perfect average in Mr. Gideon's class."

Gail finally sat down in the chair Mr. Parker had offered when she first entered his office. Annie Perkins was a nice girl from a wealthy family, but she was a below average student. It wasn't that Annie didn't apply herself; she simply struggled to grasp a great deal of the material.

Gail was still digesting the new information when Mr. Parker's secretary, Mrs. King, knocked on the door.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, Mr. Parker, but there's an officer from the Peekskill Police Dept. here to see you."

Mrs. King stood to the side and allowed the young officer to enter the office. Once the officer was inside, Mrs. King excused herself and closed the door.

"Is something wrong, Officer?"

"Dugan, Officer Dugan. I'm not sure how to answer that question, Mr. Parker. I received a call today from the Woods Glen Police Department about a young lady they brought in for questioning last night following a drug raid. The girl wasn't in possession of any drugs, so she wasn't arrested, but she gave them a phony ID. There was some sort of mix up and she was released and I'm checking with all the local schools to see if anyone can identify her."

The officer handed a photograph to Mr. Parker and the headmaster blanched.

"Yes, this is one of our students. Are you going to press charges?"

"Like I said, she wasn't in possession of any drugs, but I was hoping that perhaps you could put her on some type of academic probation. You know, to help her stay out of trouble. She shouldn't have been at a party like that in the first place, especially with an older man."

Mr. Parker handed the photograph of Annie Perkins to Gail Gallagher.

"Officer Dugan, can you tell us the name of the man who was with our student?"

Office Dugan pulled out a small notebook and reviewed the information.

"Yeah, we arrested the guy, but we couldn't hold him because he didn't have any drugs on him. If there was a law against being a pain in the ass, we could have put him away for life. His name was Gideon. Robert Michael Gideon."

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

Dorothy considered Natalie's assertion that she was jealous of Blair ridiculous, but she couldn't get the comment out of her mind. She watched Blair working the cash register at Edna's Edibles, determined not to be too critical of her outlandishly wealthy friend. It was the first time Dorothy had seen Blair and her family interact with other Peekskill residents and Dorothy's observations were enlightening.

As local business owners drifted in and out of the store, most began their conversations with Mrs. G. by inquiring after Jo, but they were all sure to stop by the cash register and say hello to 'Miss Warner', even if they didn't purchase anything.

Without exception, Blair treated each customer as if they were dear friends. Dorothy looked for snobbery, but wasn't able to witness any instances of it. In some ways, it saddened her that Blair had changed so much. The adult heiress was someone Dorothy would want as a friend, but not someone she felt she knew very well. The store in which they were working was an exact replica of Edna's Edibles of the 1980's, but the people working in it had grown up, and from Dorothy's perspective, they had grown apart.

When Mrs. G. gathered her workers into the kitchen for a short break prior to the onslaught of the lunch crowd, Dorothy noticed that Natalie and Alex seemed engrossed in their conversation with Bailey and that Edna and Blair also seemed to be in the middle of a private discussion. Remembering what Natalie had told her about Blair taking comfort in Mrs. G.'s presence on Monica's birthday, Dorothy sat at a table with E.J. and Garrett.

Dorothy smiled at Garrett as he began filling his plate.

"I don't know how Mrs. G. expects us to eat so soon after having such a huge breakfast."

"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

Not wanting to embarrass E.J., Dorothy refrained from laughing when the words she'd heard so often from Mrs. Gains came out of the young girl's mouth.

The words were pronounced crisply, as Edna Gains normally delivered the admonition and Dorothy was tempted to ask E.J. if her mother had taught her to be a ventriloquist, but the child was so serious that Dorothy kept her amusement to herself.

"Yes, it is. Do you and your family always eat such a hearty breakfast? I thought perhaps your mother was preparing more than usual because of her guests."

When E.J. didn't respond, Garrett took a break from engulfing his snack and joined the conversation.

"We always eat a big breakfast. Mom says that if we aren't hungry again by lunchtime then we aren't working hard enough."

Dorothy laughed; it wasn't difficult to imagine Jo saying those words. In fact, eating breakfast with the Polniaczek/Warner family had been one of the most enjoyable parts of Dorothy's visit. It was clear that breakfast was the one meal where the entire family always gathered together. Dorothy had been especially pleased at how all the morning activities revolved around Edna Gains. Edna sat on a stool in the center of the kitchen area while Garrett, E.J., and Bailey would stop and get the elderly woman's approval on whatever dish they were preparing before they placed the serving dishes on the table. Even Blair had held up the eggs she scrambled that morning for Edna's stamp of approval, much as she had done when she was a teenager cooking in the kitchen at Eastland.

"No one works harder than your mom."

E.J. and Garrett both smiled at Dorothy's compliment of their mom and the image tugged at Dorothy's heart. She wondered if Beverly reacted with such a blatant show of pride whenever someone complimented her mother.

Having been lost in her own thoughts, Dorothy was surprised to find Garrett looking at her with a perplexed expression.

"Aren't you going to eat your apple slices?"

Dorothy shook her head.

"No thank you, Garrett. I suppose I haven't been working hard enough, I'm not at all hungry."

Garrett seemed uncertain as to how to respond and E.J. looked shocked before once again repeating one of Mrs. Gains' favorite expressions.

"An apple a day keeps the doctor away."

Garrett nodded.

"It's not just something people say, Mrs. Williams. Apples are the best fruit you can eat and they're a good way to keep your sugar levels up during the day."

Dorothy quickly agreed to eat her apple slices and again made comparisons between Beverly and the Warner children. Obviously Mrs. G. was an integral part of their family and the children had been taught to respect and follow the older woman's advice. Dorothy wondered how much influence Jeff's mother and, more importantly, his Grandmother Rogers had had on Beverly.

Dorothy had wanted to send Beverly to a boarding school years earlier, but Jeff's family had insisted that they could care for the young girl while Dorothy was on tour. Listening to E.J. and Garrett mimic Mrs. G. planted a seed of understanding in Dorothy's mind as to where her daughter might be picking up some of the phrases Beverly had been using. The attitudes Dorothy had witnessed the night before when she had scolded Beverly about her behavior toward Blair and Jo's children could also easily be traced back to Jeff's domineering grandmother.

Dorothy had hoped that Beverly would behave differently away from the influence of her great-grandmother, but she was beginning to realize that Grandmother Rogers had instilled some of her prejudices deep within her grandson's daughter. Dorothy and Jeff had received numerous complaints from Beverly's teachers during the previous school year about Beverly's condescending attitude and Dorothy was certain that her attitude had been fueled by Jeff's grandmother's snobbery. One teacher had even accused Beverly of bullying another student.

Dorothy studied the quiet child sitting next to her. E. J. was an exceedingly sweet child and her small stature and shyness made her appear even more vulnerable than a typical nine-year-old. Dorothy couldn't fathom why her daughter would taunt such a gentle little girl. The more time she spent with E.J., the less satisfied Dorothy was with the apology Beverly had delivered earlier that morning.

"See, Edna, Dorothy doesn't want to spend any time with me. Why else would she choose to share a snack with E.J. and Garrett instead of joining us?"

"Blair, I think you're letting your imagination run away with you. Dorothy has spent very little time with E.J. and Garrett. It seems natural to me that she would want to get to know them better."

Blair frowned, growing more insecure about her friendship with Dorothy as each minute of the day passed. When Edna and her extended family returned to the front of the store after their snack, Blair had hoped to catch a few minutes with her younger friend to reminisce about the years they spent working side by side at Edna's Edibles, but Dorothy seemed more interested in talking with E.J. Once again, Blair felt excluded by one of her dearest friends.

Garrett, who considered the Hawaiian lei he was wearing an embarrassment, spent as much time as possible helping out in the kitchen where he wouldn't be seen by any of his friends who might drop by the store. Bailey was just the opposite, not only enjoying customer reactions to her costume, but also finding reasons to leave the store and run various errands so that she could show off her brightly colored shirt and shorts to as many friends as possible. With the two older Polniaczek/Warner children so often out of sight, Dorothy focused all of her energy on drawing out her friends' bashful, youngest daughter. Dorothy felt she was making a great deal of progress with the child until E.J. suddenly crossed her arms in a defensive gesture and began scanning the room.

"Have you seen my brother?"

Dorothy stuttered, caught off guard by the unexpected behavior.

"Garrett's in the kitchen. Is something wrong?"

E.J. nodded her head, but didn't look at Dorothy; she was concentrating on something in the distance. When Dorothy turned, she saw the reason for E.J.'s abrupt change in mood. Two men were talking to Blair. Both men were wearing faded coveralls and seemed to have effectively cornered Blair near one of the display shelves.

"Who are those men talking to your mother? One of them looks familiar, but I can't place him."

E.J. didn't answer, but continued to glare in her mother's direction.

Dorothy's attention was drawn away from E.J. when the bell over the door jingled, indicating that new customers had arrived. The nice looking young couple, however, quickly turned and left the store as soon as they entered, obviously trying to avoid the two men speaking with Blair. Dorothy didn't need to hear the conversation between Blair and the men to know that her friend was being harassed. Blair's back was against a shelf lined with canned goods and the younger of the two men was resting his hand on the shelf above Blair's head, his large body almost blocking Dorothy's view of her friend.

E.J. looked up at her mother's friend as if she were making a decision and then spoke softly.

"Can you stay here while I go find Garrett?"

Dorothy smiled reassuringly at the young girl while answering.

"Sure, I'll go see if I can help those two customers until you get back."

E.J. nodded and headed for the back of the store. Meanwhile, the irritated actress decided to introduce herself to the two men. No one was going to come into Mrs. G.'s store and harass her friends while Dorothy was on duty. As she approached the threesome, Dorothy was appalled by the topic of discussion. The older man's voice was as sweet as molasses, but Dorothy could hear the malice dripping from his tongue.

"It's inhumane to keep that old horse alive. You should have put him down years ago. My cousin will pay you top dollar when you decide to sell him to our glue factory."

"Buttercup will never, and I mean, NEVER be sent to a glue factory."

Dorothy had to touch the older man's elbow in order to edge between him and the younger man, whose body language was far too aggressive in Dorothy's opinion. She glared at the younger man when he finally looked in her direction.

"Haven't you ever heard of personal space?"

Both men glared at what they considered Dorothy's impertinence, but only the older man spoke.

"I knew I smelled something rotten in this store. I assume you're still rummaging through other people's garbage."

Dorothy's shoulders wiggled slightly as she straightened and lifted her chin in an attempt to elevate her diminutive height.

"I remember you. You tried to put Mrs. G. out of business the first year she opened her shop."

Pete Dawson towered over the much shorter woman.

"And I remember that you were in on the plot to sabotage MY business. I should have had all of you arrested when I had the chance."

"Yeah, and Mrs. G. should have let Jo break your knees like she wanted to do in the first place."

Seeing the tension escalate, Blair attempted to defuse the situation. Pete Dawson was spiteful enough to press charges against Jo for threatening him based on Dorothy's revelation.

"Dorothy's joking, of course, but it would be best if you left now, Mr. Dawson. Jo has asked you repeatedly not to come to our store."

Dorothy cringed at the older man's effort to mask his hatefulness with his homey accent.

"Aw, it wouldn't be neighborly of me not to drop by and wish you well, especially since I know that Jo is hanging around her biker club today."

'So that's it', thought Blair. 'He's only here because he thinks Jo will be at the motorcycle dealership all day.'

"Jo had to pick up some paperwork at the motorcycle shop, but we're expecting her to arrive any minute."

Pete straightened, trying to determine whether or not Blair was bluffing. He enjoyed watching the rich blonde squirm, but he kept his distance from her hoodlum partner. Former NYPD Detective Jo Polniaczek may have everyone else in Peekskill fooled, but in Pete's opinion, the aggressive brunette was the same hot-headed gangster he had met back in the 1980's.

Noticing the older man's discomfort with the idea of facing Jo, Dorothy confirmed Blair's assertion.

"That's right. When Jo gets here, I don't think she's going to be very happy to find the man who stole Mrs. G.'s recipes stirring up trouble."

The younger man finally spoke, almost spitting his words.

"You're a noisy little busybody, aren't ya?"

Dorothy's mother was an intimidating litigator and Dorothy tried to mimic her mother's most authoritative voice when she addressed the younger man.

"I'll have you know that I grew up working in this shop and I would do anything for Mrs. G. and my friends."

Dorothy looked sternly at the older man as she continued.

"If I was willing to dig through your garbage in order to keep you from sending Jo to jail when I was a teenager, just imagine what I'd do to protect my friends now that I'm an adult. Blair politely asked you to leave and I suggest you go."

Ignoring Dorothy's admonition, Pete grinned at his son and pointed his thumb in Dorothy's direction.

"See, this is the type of woman that club will attract. Before you know it, our town will be overrun with them."

Blair had tolerated as much of Pete's attitude as she could and was about to put him soundly in his place when Dorothy stepped closer to Pete Dawson, almost daring him to touch her.

"I don't know what kind of club you're talking about, but if it attracts women like me, it would definitely be an improvement for this hick town."

Blair knew that Pete Dawson, as hateful and bigoted a man as he was, was not a physical threat, but his sheer size intimidated most people. Blair was stunned to see Dorothy behave so recklessly, since her younger friend had no way of knowing that Mr. Dawson was all bark and no bite.

"There's no reason to get so riled up, girlie. Pete Junior and I were just trying to be sociable."

Blair started to respond, but was interrupted by Natalie, who was pushing her rail thin boyfriend out in front of her.

"I can't believe you have the nerve to show your face in this store, Pete Dawson."

Turning to Alex, the agitated news correspondent gave him a strong push forward.

"Alex, throw that computer hacking, recipe stealing, horse murdering lunatic out of our store."

Alex's appearance hadn't changed much over the years. He was still a small man, but he jutted his chest out as far as it would go when squeezing himself between Mr. Dawson and Blair.

"I think you should leave, Pete, before things get ugly."

Pete sized up Alex and gave the younger man a slow, relaxed smile.

"Are you going to croon us to death, Alex?"

Blair's temper finally sparked. It was one thing for Pete to try to taunt her, but Alex was truly intimidated. There had been a time when a man like Pete Dawson could intimidate Blair as well, but ever since The Warner Foundation had actively begun focusing its significant charitable dollars toward gay and lesbian causes, the heiress in charge of the foundation had learned to deal with much worse hate mongers than the owner of Pete's Deli.

Blair didn't raise her voice, but the degree of her agitation was evident.

"You're not supposed to be here, Mr. Dawson. Please leave before Jo arrives. You know she has a temper and I'd prefer that our children not have to see her toss you out of this store on your ass."

"Well, I never thought I'd hear that kind of gutter talk coming from such an angelic face, but I suppose it should be expected given the company you keep. I appreciate your concern for my welfare, sweetie, I really do, but I'd like to see Jo try to toss me anywhere."

Dorothy felt Natalie's hand pulling her backwards, but she had no intention of leaving Alex and Blair to deal with the rude hillbillies on their own. It wasn't until she heard Jo's voice that Dorothy realized why Natalie was retreating.

"What is it you'd like to see me try, Pete?"

Alex let out the breath he'd been holding, visibly relieved to hear Jo's voice. Blair locked eyes with Jo, instantly communicating that everything was under control.

"Mr. Dawson and his son were just leaving, Jo. I'm sure he doesn't want to make a scene while our children are in the store."

Jo scanned the room and didn't see her children, but deduced that they were nearby, probably in the kitchen with Mrs. G. Jo understood the message, but every fiber of her body wanted to lash out at Pete and his bigoted offspring.

"Goodbye, Pete. Like Blair says, this doesn't have to turn nasty."

"Oh, where did you get the idea that I would want to make a scene? There's no law against checking out the competition."

"Heh, heh. That's a good idea. I think I'll stroll on over to Pete's Deli and pay you a friendly visit."

Pete Dawson's jaw clenched, but he held his tongue. He had known that Jo would find out that he'd visited Edna's Edibles, but he figured Blair would sugarcoat their discussion in an effort to keep Jo from confronting Pete. It was unfortunate that Jo had shown up unexpectedly and Pete was uncertain as to how much of his conversation with the heiress had been overheard. Judging from the fire in Jo's eyes, Pete determined that his best course of action was to get out of the store as quickly and quietly as possible.

"Come on, Junior, we've intruded on these nice . . . girls . . . enough."

Pete's Deli had prospered greatly during the first several years after the original Edna's Edibles burned down, but the deli was currently floundering. As notorious as Pete Senior had been when he ran Pete's Deli, his son's ethics were worse. Junior, however, wasn't as intelligent as his father and he had single-handedly driven the deli into the ground. Instead of acknowledging the true reason for the downfall of their business, both men blamed the re-opening of Edna's Edibles for all of their financial problems.

Junior looked at his father in dismay.

"'Nice girls'?"

Pete scowled at his thick-headed son.

"It's time for us to go."

Jo stepped to the side, opening a path for the men to exit. While Pete lowered his head and quickly walked past the steaming brunette, his son couldn't resist taunting Jo.

"I hear your, uh . . . roommate's foundation is going to build one of those lesbian nightclubs in Peekskill. Is it true?"

Jo only grunted her disgust, but Blair answered the question from behind Junior.

"We're opening a counseling center where gay teenagers can get information, counseling, support, and advice. It is not a nightclub."

Junior didn't take his eyes off of Jo as Blair spoke. Then he addressed his response directly to Jo.

"A lot of people don't like it. You'll reconsider if you know what's good for you."

Jo's body appeared relaxed, but her facial muscles gave away her level of anger.

"Y'know, Blair. Junior has given me an idea. Why stop at opening the counseling center? We should consider opening more businesses. How would you feel about opening a deli? There's a vacant building right across the street."

Blair replied sweetly.

"That might be fun, Darling, but I'm more intrigued by Junior's idea. A gay nightclub would really spice things up around town."

Natalie, who was simply incapable of remaining quiet once the conversation turned humorous, joined it.

"Oh my God, what a brilliant idea. You could open a bar beside your hotel. You could reserve the Highcrest Golf Course one weekend and host the Dinah Shore Classic. The ladies could golf all day, party all night in the bar, and walk to the hotel afterward. Peekskill would be brimming with lesbians."

Junior glared at Jo and mumbled, almost to himself, but clear enough to be overheard.

"Stupid dykes should know better than to open that center."

Blair was normally able to hold her temper when confronted with bigotry, but hearing Junior spit out that word toward Jo enraged the blonde. As soon as the words tumbled out of her mouth, however, Blair knew that she shouldn't have said them.

"What are you going to do, Junior, send your wife over to scribble more homophobic graffiti on the walls?"

At first, Blair hoped that she hadn't voiced her thoughts because she didn't really want to hurt every member of the Dawson family, especially Kelly, but Junior's swift response brought Blair back to reality with a jolt as Pete Dawson Junior turned toward the heiress with his fists clenched tightly at his sides.

"I never hit a woman before."

Junior was furious, but Jo had the advantage of professional training and physical agility. She quickly stepped between Junior and Blair, blocking his path. Junior wasn't a man prone to violence, but he was particularly sensitive to comments about his wife. Jo and Blair, like their roommates, had befriended Kelly when she was a lonely teenager, but the girl had repaid their friendship by scrawling homophobic slurs on the outside walls of Edna's Edibles and blaming a non-existent gang for the crime. It wasn't the worst graffiti attack against the couple over the years, but it had been the first and the fact that it had been done by someone pretending to be their friend had made the sting more lasting.

Jo's voice was strained as she stood within inches of Junior.

"And you ain't gonna start now, are you, Junior?"

Junior's face was flushed, but he took a deep breath and turned toward the exit, still mumbling under his breath.

As family and friends got back to their regular duties and new customers began arriving, Jo caught Blair's eye and they gathered their children and took them into the storage room. Jo picked E.J. up and sat the child on top of a countertop and pointed to a stool for Garrett.

"Blair thinks . . . I mean, your mother and I both think . . . we just feel like we need to . . ."

Garrett Warner rolled his eyes dramatically and cleared his throat.

"You think too much."

Bailey was quick to add.

"Seriously, we don't need to have a family meeting every time some ignorant hillbilly says something offensive."

Blair smiled indulgently at her older children. If Monica Warner had one redeeming parental trait that Blair tried to emulate, it was the ability to communicate openly with her children about anything. Blair ruffled Garrett's hair and smiled at her easygoing son.

"We know how grown up you are, Garrett, but we also know that words can hurt."

When Garrett snickered at this mother's serious tone, Jo caught Blair's eye and pointed to her partner's head. Blair had forgotten that she was still wearing a hat with a stack of fruit on top. She hastily removed the hat and blushed as she realized she'd been wearing the silly thing during her entire confrontation with Mr. Dawson. Never a woman to be distracted from her purpose, Blair resumed her somber mood, turning to E.J., the child about whom she was most concerned.

"It's okay to admit that you feel bad if someone says something to hurt your feelings."

Bailey lifted herself onto the counter beside her younger sister and wrapped a protective arm around E.J. while Blair continued.

"We simply want all of you to feel comfortable talking with us about things like this. I'm sure some of your friends have said hurtful things to you and your mom and I just —."

Garrett shook his head.

"Wait. You want us to know that we should talk to you if anyone harasses us, for any reason. We've gone over this a hundred times. Pete Dawson is a jerk. Everyone knows that. As far as my friends go, they wouldn't be real friends if they said anything about you. You don't have to worry about E.J., either. I make sure no one teases her."

Jo leaned against the shelf and gazed thoughtfully at her son.

"If someone your own age teases you and you feel like you can handle the situation yourself, that's fine. Your mother and I want you to know that if an adult says something to you, then you should never try to deal with it on your own. In E.J.'s case, if anyone older, a teenager for example, tries to harass her because our family isn't like most families, then she should talk to us. If she tells you or Bailey, you should encourage her to talk to us."

Bailey's voice was soft with compassion for her parents. She and her siblings had sat through many family meetings during which Jo and Blair tried to lessen the sting of slurs from ignorant classmates.

"Look, everyone gets harassed. Everyone has something about them that makes them vulnerable. Sometimes it's their race, sometimes it's their clothing, sometimes it's a big bowl of fruit sitting on top of their head; anything can make you the object of ridicule. Yes, sometimes people have said hateful things to me because my parents are lesbians, but I wouldn't trade my family for any other family in the world."

Garrett nodded and E.J. also agreed with her sister.

"Me, too. I wasn't upset by what silly Pete Dawson said, I was . . . um, I think Mommy was upset."

Jo and Blair exchanged a lingering look, mutually agreeing.

Blair hopped onto the counter on the other side of E.J.

"E.J., sweetheart, sometimes people like Mr. Dawson do make me feel uncomfortable, but I don't want you to worry so much about my feelings. Like Bailey said, some people need a reason to hate and the easiest excuse is to hate someone of a different sex, or race, or belief. That's why the counseling centers your mom and I sponsor through our foundation are so important."

Jo reached out and took her partner's hand, symbolizing the end of a month-long battle they had waged. Blair and Jo had argued vehemently about the upcoming ribbon cutting ceremony at the Gay and Lesbian Counseling Center in Peekskill. The Warner Foundation always came under fire when it sponsored a counseling center, but the controversy over the center in Peekskill was hitting too close to home for Jo. There had been multiple bomb threats regarding the opening of the center and Jo worried about the safety of her high profile partner.

Jo picked up the conversation, repeating the words Blair had spoken to her earlier that week.

"E.J., our family has one another. We can always talk to one another if someone is bullying us, but some young people don't have anyone to defend them. They don't have anyone they can talk to without being judged or ridiculed. We're trying to help those girls and boys."

"I know. That's why I'm so proud of you."

Jo beamed at her partner, unashamed of the tears glistening in her eyes.

"Do you hear that, Blair? Our children are proud of us. That's a better legacy than any trust fund."

Blair giggled.

"I think we'd better end our family meeting due to the upcoming onslaught of mushiness."

Garrett groaned, pretending to be embarrassed by his parents' show of affection when in reality the bond between Jo and Blair gave the young man a strong sense of stability. Bailey jumped from the counter and held out her arms for her younger sister.

"Come on, E.J. Our parents are going to start making googly eyes at one another again."

E.J. giggled, sounding so much like Blair that Jo felt her heart swell. The young girl grinned at both parents as Bailey led her from the room.

"I like it when they do that."

Garrett moaned.

"Come on. Let's get out of here before the hand holding leads to kissing. Yuck."

Blair smiled at her partner as Jo lightly stroked her lover's fingers with her own.

"Well, they seem okay, don't they?"

"Blair, I think Garrett has a point. I know you worry about them, but our kids aren't going to fall apart every time they hear a homophobic comment. Besides, Mrs. G. kept them in the kitchen the entire time Pete was here."

"No, E.J. was in the store when he first arrived. She went to get Garrett and I suppose that's why Edna sent Alex out front and stayed in back with the children."

"What about you, Blair? If he made you the least bit uncomfortable, I'll —."

Blair surprised Jo by laughing.

"By the time Dorothy got finished with him, Pete was the one who was uncomfortable. Jo, you should have heard her. It reminded me of the time she coached Andy as to how he should play the leader of the Jets when he got a part in his school production of West Side Story. Pete Dawson didn't know what hit him. If Alex hadn't come in and taken over, I think Dorothy would have single-handedly thrown Pete and his cowardly son out the door."

"Did she really tell Pete Dawson that I wanted to break his kneecaps?"

"She said more than that. I swear, Jo, she was just like the girl I remember, filled with passion and righteous indignation."

Jo gently lifted Blair's fingers to her lips and placed a tender kiss on them.

"I'm sorry that I wasn't here earlier, Blair. I don't know what I was thinking. I should have known that —."

Blair shook her head, still smiling.

"None of that – remember? We have a deal. Like you said, Garrett was right, everyone knows that Mr. Dawson is a jerk and it's been years since he's approached either of us. It's the new counseling center that has everyone stirred up. I guess I should have expected it, but somehow I thought Peekskill would be different."

Jo clasped her lover's hands and smiled wistfully.

"Peekskill is better than most places, but it's not perfect. The Warner Foundation is making things better for a lot of people, Blair. Things have changed a lot since we were teenagers, but there's still a lot of work to be done. I know I've been giving you a hard time about making personal appearances at the grand openings for the centers you sponsor, but I'm very proud of you."

Blair lifted her eyebrows as she corrected her partner.

"I like to show up at the centers WE sponsor because my name is associated with the foundation. It shows the people who work in the centers that we are committing more than just money. You've always said that simply writing a check is a cop out."

Jo chuckled.

"Sometimes I say really stupid things."

Blair laughed and pulled her lover closer.

"I know you worry about the personal appearances, Joey. You understand why I feel like I have to attend them, don't you?"

Former Police Detective Polniaczek had placed herself in danger more times than she could count. Often for far less noble reasons than the construction of counseling centers her partner passionately pursued. Jo knew better than anyone how personal the cause was for Blair.

"I know, Princess. Helping those kids who need the center is important and in the larger scheme of things, it helps our kids, too. You've worked so hard to make sure that our kids know that they don't have to fight the bullies alone, it makes sense that you'd want to do the same thing for other kids."

Blair's smile softened as she released Jo's hand and stroked her partner's cheek.

"Didn't Garrett say something about hand holding leading to kissing?"

"Heh, heh. Why don't you put on that hat first? It's kinda turning me on."

Blair playfully punched Jo in the arm.

"I think it's your turn to wear the hat, since you didn't take time to change into an appropriate costume."

Jo grinned as she reached in her pocket and withdrew a lei, emulating her son's choice of attire.

"Oh, no. You're going to wear a real costume, Jo."

Jo Polniaczek rarely whined, but she hated dressing in costume.

"Aw, come on, you let Garrett wear a lei."

Blair groaned.

"Garrett is a fifteen-year-old boy; you are a forty-two-year-old woman. You should not be embarrassed about wearing a costume."

Jo looked at the hat and grimaced.

"It was bad enough when we had to do this in the eighties, but it's 2006 and I ain't wearing fruit on my head, Blair. I'll switch shirts with you if it will make Mrs. G. happy, but I ain't gonna look like a fool."

Jo realized it was a bad choice of words when Blair started tapping her foot.

"Sorry, Princess. You look beautiful, no matter what you wear, but not everyone can still look dignified wearing fruit. You, my gorgeous sweetheart, are the exception."

Blair giggled and performed one of her classic hair flips.

"I can make any outfit look appealing. Now, about what Garrett said? Something about kissing, if I recall correctly?"

"Heh, heh. Smart kid."

Jo took a step forward, but stopped in her tracks, shocked to see Blair unbuttoning her shirt.

"Blair, Princess, you know this storage room doesn't have a lock, right? Of course, if you're feeling that adventurous, I'm all —."

Blair stomped her foot, bringing Jo out of her daze.

"Give me a break. Is that all you think about? You said you would switch shirts with me, remember?"

"Heh, heh. Sorry, you know how hazy my mind gets any time I see you, uh, I mean, uh, geez, Blair, you're practically naked. What do you expect from me?"

Blair presented her lover with a brilliant smile.

"I suppose I would be flirting with danger if I put that fruit back on my head while I'm still in a state of semi-undress?"

Jo's grin turned lopsided as she forcefully pulled Blair into her arms.

"Give me five minutes, Princess. I'm sure Mrs. G. has asked me at some point over the past twenty years to put a lock on that door. Five minutes, that's all it'll take for me to make this place as private as our bedroom."

Part 15

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