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: Chapter 7 of the series, Common Ground. Quotes in italics are direct quotes from the Facts of Life Series, Season 3, Episode 2, Fear Strikes Back.
THANKS: To Stacey for the Beta, assistance in story and character development, encouragement, and painstaking 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
7: Hope Strikes Back

By Slave2Free


"ONE . . . TWO . . . THREE!"

Jo forcefully tossed a dart at the board hanging above her bed after shouting each number.

"Jo, what are you doing?"

"I'm counting! FOUR . . . FIVE! It helps me stay calm! SIX . . . SEVEN!"

Blair was careful to stay far away from Jo's side of their bedroom.

"If you keep throwing those darts so hard, they're going to go right through the board and into the wall."

"I . . EIGHT . . don't . . NINE . . care!"

Blair was becoming more concerned. She'd never seen Jo so agitated.

"Can't you count without throwing darts? You're making me nervous. I feel like I should duck under my bed."

Something in Blair's voice made Jo's fingers feel numb. She'd heard the same inflection in her mother's voice when Rose Polniaczek was trying to calm one of her abusive boyfriends. Jo closed her eyes, fighting a small surge of nausea. The realization that her attempts to cool her temper may have frightened Blair replaced Jo's anger with a more sickening feeling of guilt.

Jo immediately dropped the remaining darts beside her bed and walked over to Blair.

"I'm sorry, Blair. I didn't mean to scare you. I'm just mad at myself for leaving Natalie at that party."

Blair touched Jo's arm but the prickly brunette pulled away.

"I let her down, Blair. Taking my bike to the party was stupid. It was selfish. I wanted to look cool in my costume and didn't care that my friends would have to walk home from the party without me."

"Jo, we both left Natalie at the party. We had no way of knowing that she would try to walk home alone. What happened is not our fault."

"How can you say that? If we had all walked to the party together like we usually do, this never would have happened. I'm the one who insisted that we ride my bike."

Blair wanted to argue the point, but was trying not to fuel Jo's anger in the process.

"Natalie wouldn't have left with us if we had been walking, Jo. She was having too much fun at the party. You can't be with all four of us all the time and why should you? It's not your responsibility to watch over everyone."

Jo walked to the other side of the room, leaning up against Tootie and Natalie's bunk beds. She didn't want to upset Blair, but counting wasn't cooling her temper. Jo wanted to hit someone, preferably the jerk who had assaulted Natalie. She was trying to think of something, anything to keep herself from blowing a gasket. When she felt Blair's arms around her waist, Jo almost pushed her girlfriend away. Seconds later, she was pressing her face into Blair's neck, trying to hold back tears while Blair gently rubbed her back.

"Shhh, it's okay. Nat's going to be fine. The police should be finished interviewing her soon and you'll see for yourself. We'll take good care of her when she returns, Jo."

Jo snorted.

"I didn't do a good job of taking care of her earlier."

"Nothing happened, Jo. The guy ran away and Natalie is fine."

"Blair, if those people hadn't —."

"But they did. Please try not to blame yourself, Jo. You won't be any good to Natalie if you're having a temper tantrum."

Jo sniffled back her tears.

"I don't have tantrums."

Blair smiled.

"Of course you don't."

Jo shrugged out of Blair's embrace and paced.

"Miss Gallagher said I should count when I get upset. She said it would give me time to think before doing something stupid."

Once again, Blair reached out for Jo, this time holding Jo by the shoulders to stop her from pacing. When Jo responded by closing her eyes, Blair stepped closer. Taking Jo's face in her hands, Blair cautiously kissed her irate girlfriend's cheek.


Jo squirmed, but didn't pull away as Blair kissed the other cheek.


Jo kept her hands in her pockets, not wanting to touch Blair while she was in such a troubled state.

Blair moved to Jo's chin.


Blair's voice was soft and low, punctuating each kiss with another number. After spending several minutes giving Jo's neck the attention she felt it deserved, Blair began to nibble on Jo's ear.

"Nineteen . . . Twenty . . . Twenty-one."

Pressing her body close to Jo, Blair could feel her girlfriend's muscles begin to loosen. When she began kissing a trail along Jo's collarbone, Jo's need to focus on breathing helped her to put what remained of her anger aside.

"Thirty-four . . . Thirty-five."

Jo hadn't wanted to relax. She had tried to resist Blair's efforts to make her feel better. Jo wanted to find the guy who hurt Natalie and make him pay, but Blair's voice was soothing, her caresses calming, and her kisses comforting. Jo had fought valiantly to maintain her rage, but she had ultimately given in to Blair's tender ministrations.

Leaning into Blair's embrace, Jo whispered.

"How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"How do you make me feel better just by being you?"

Blair felt like her heart was expanding. She could feel the warmth of Jo's words in her heart as surely as she felt Jo's breath caressing her face.

"Do you feel better, Joey?"

Jo pressed her forehead to Blair's.

"If feeling crazy is better than feeling angry, then I feel better. You're driving me wild, Blair, in a good way."

Blair's response assured Jo that Blair was determined to drive her totally insane.

"Thirty-six . . . Thirty-seven."

Blair pushed Jo's denim jacket from the dazed brunette's shoulders.


Jo's sleeveless gray t-shirt gave Blair access to more skin and the passionate blonde took advantage, lightly running her nails up and down Jo's arms while she continued placing delicate kisses on Jo's neck and face.

"Fifty-six. Joey?"


"Would you mind taking your hands out of your pockets?"

Jo stared at her hands, surprised to find them jammed so deep into the pockets of her jeans. She moved them to Blair's hips and pulled her girlfriend into a more intimate embrace. The gesture encouraged Blair further.

"Sixty . . . Sixty-one."



"You can stop counting now."

Blair smiled into Jo's eyes, pleased that she was responsible for the dark green sparkles gazing back at her as Jo fought to control her breathing.

"That's good, because math is not my best subject. I don't do well with more than three digits."

Blair's unexpected jest prompted Jo to lift her surprised roommate about a foot into the air and throw the giggling debutante onto her bed, where Jo eagerly jumped on top of her, tickling an especially sensitive spot below Blair's ribs.

"You are a funny girl, Blair Warner."

"I made Jo Polniaczek smile!"

"Mission accomplished, Princess, you have successfully humored me out of my bad mood."

Blair lowered her eyes bashfully.

"Well, it was either that or . . . something more, um, drastic."

Jo rolled to Blair's side, resting her head on her hand as she gazed at Blair in wonder.

"Hm, you make something drastic sound appealing."

"Well, at the risk of sounding immodest, I think you would have found it more satisfying than throwing sharp objects."

Jo didn't chuckle, as Blair had expected, instead her brow furrowed in concern.

"I didn't scare you when I was throwing darts, did I?"

Blair leaned forward and kissed Jo on the lips.

"What do you think?"

Jo's expression remained serious.

"No one should be afraid in their own room."

Blair snuggled closer to Jo on the bed, nestling her head against Jo's chest.

"No, they shouldn't."

"Blair, why do you think my mother kept Sam around even after he . . . did what he did to her?"

"I don't know, Jo. Did what happened to Natalie tonight bring up bad memories?"

"Yeah. I don't know if Sam was worse than some of the other guys who moved in with us before, or if I wasn't old enough back then to understand what was happening in the room next to mine."

Blair ached for Jo, but was careful not to do or say anything that Jo might misinterpret as pity.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Jo slid her hands up and down the sleeves of Blair's silk blouse, undecided about how much she wanted to share.

"Maybe later, if that'd be okay with you?"

"I'd like that, Jo. Sometimes it helps to talk about things."

"I hope Natalie will feel like she can talk to us. I wish we could have stayed with her while the police interviewed her."

"The police said that too many people would make it more difficult for Natalie. Mrs. Garrett and Tootie are with her. Don't worry so much, Jo."

Jo pulled Blair closer, but before they could kiss again, they heard Mrs. Garrett and Tootie talking in the hallway outside their door. Jo groaned as she rolled off of the bed.

"I'd better put the darts away before Tootie and Nat come in. I don't want anyone to step on one and get hurt."

While Jo was putting away the darts, Tootie returned to the room. Her glittering Diana Ross costume was in stark contrast to the weary expression on the young girl's face.

"How is she?"

Tootie lowered her head.

"Not good. Mrs. Garrett took her into her room for a talk."

Jo wrapped her arm around Tootie's shoulder.

"How are you doing?"

Tootie smiled up at her protective friend.

"I'll be okay as long as Nat's okay."

"She'll be okay, Tootie. I'll make sure of it."

Blair was amazed by the change in Jo's demeanor. She continued to marvel at how easily Jo could project such total confidence when she was with someone who depended upon her. As much as Blair had complained that Jo wasn't responsible for keeping any of them safe, she knew that having Jo near made all of them feel safer and Jo's reassurance was what Tootie needed most at the moment.

Tootie's Diana Ross costume was so tight and long that it took both Jo and Blair to extract their youngest roommate from her clothes. Afterward, Blair sat beside Tootie's bunk bed and read a chapter from the novel she and Jo were studying. When she finished, she also went to bed, but pulled out a magazine instead of trying to sleep.

From her bunk bed, Tootie was comforted by the presence of her roommates. It seemed so normal to see Jo studying at her desk while Blair read a fashion magazine that Tootie was tempted to forget that it wasn't a normal night.

"Do you think Nat will stay with Mrs. Garrett all night?"

Jo thought about how soothing Mrs. Garrett's arms had been the night Harrison had tried to take advantage of Jo behind the Highcrest Country Club.

"I don't know, Tootie, but you don't have to worry about Nat. Mrs. G. will know exactly what to say to make her feel better."

Tootie didn't think that any words would make her friend feel better. She'd watched as Natalie recounted the events of the evening with Peekskill detectives and Natalie was so rattled she could barely provide them with her name, much less any details about her attacker.

By the time Mrs. Garrett walked Natalie back to her room, Tootie, emotionally and physically exhausted, was asleep. Jo was sitting at their desk, writing in her journal and Blair was still lying in bed reading a magazine.

Jo looked back and forth between her guardian and her friend.

"Hey, Nat."

Natalie didn't return Jo's greeting, but she nodded. Blair, seeing that Natalie was still very anxious, extended her arm, offering her stuffed bear to her friend.

"Natalie, would you like to cuddle Snuggle Bear tonight?"

Blair could see the relief wash over Natalie's face as her appreciative friend quickly crawled into Blair's bed and cradled the stuffed animal. Blair had been offering to loan Snuggle Bear to Natalie. She hadn't counted on Natalie assuming it was an invitation to sleep with her. Blair, however, decided that it was better to share her bed with Natalie than to toss and turn worrying about her roommate all night.

Jo closed her journal and walked to her own bed, feeling a little awkward seeing Natalie in the bed beside hers. Mrs. Garrett rewarded Blair with a smile, acknowledging Blair's kind gesture as she turned off Blair's bedside lamp and left Natalie in the care of her roommates.

As soon as Mrs. Garrett left the room, Jo turned the lamp back on.

"Jo, turn the light off."

"I thought Natalie might want the light on."

"There's plenty of moonlight coming in through the window. She can't sleep with the lamp light shining in her eyes."

Blair sighed deeply and leaned across Natalie to turn off the light. When she did, she noticed that Jo hadn't made any effort to get into bed. The anxious brunette was still sitting on the edge of her bed, facing Natalie and Blair.

"Don't worry, Jo. Natalie's fine."

Jo nodded and got into bed, feeling silly for reacting so strongly to seeing her friend sleeping so close to her girlfriend.

The next morning, upon returning from the shower, Jo found Tootie standing at the foot of Blair's bed, staring at their other roommates.

"Why's Natalie sleeping in Blair's bed?"

Jo pressed her finger to her lips, signaling Tootie to speak quietly.

"Be quiet. Nat had a bad dream last night and she needs to sleep."

Tootie whined.

"Why didn't she sleep with me? I'm her best friend, not Blair."

"Stop whining and go take your shower. You can sleep with Natalie tonight if she's still afraid."

Jo would also have preferred that Natalie sleep with Tootie, but she couldn't very well kick her frightened friend out of Blair's bed. She looked at the peaceful expression on Natalie's face, a little envious of her friend's position, wrapped securely in Blair's embrace, separated only by Blair's stuffed bear.

Jo continued to stand at the foot of Blair's bed, as Tootie had done, staring at her friends. They looked like little girls, each holding onto part of Blair's stuffed bear. When Blair began to stretch, Jo almost laughed. Blair always woke up with a smile on her face and this morning was no different. Her smile turned to shock, however, and she quickly retrieved her hand when she realized that the girl she'd begun to nuzzle wasn't Jo.

Natalie was excused from class and kitchen duty the day following the attack. Jo also altered her regular schedule. Although Jo normally did errands for Mrs. Muldoon in the library during their morning break while Blair socialized in the student center, she was too anxious to let Blair out of her sight. Jo felt even better about accompanying Blair to the student center when she saw that Tootie was also there. The three girls immediately gravitated to one another, distressed by what had happened the night before.

"Is Natalie okay?"

Margo's question, spoken softly, startled the three roommates. Margo couldn't have gotten their attention any faster if she had screamed at them. Blair locked eyes with Jo briefly, silently communicating, before Blair responded to Margo's question.

"Why wouldn't she be okay?"

Margo looked confused.

"You mean you don't know?"

Tootie was shocked that Margo had found out about the attack on Natalie so quickly.

"Who told you that Natalie was almost raped last night?"

Blair pinched Tootie's arm while Jo glared at their younger friend, but it was too late. From behind them, Jo and Blair heard Nancy gasp. Glancing again at Margo, Tootie realized that Margo was as shocked by the news as Nancy.

"Natalie was almost raped? What happened?"

Tootie looked back and forth between Margo and Nancy. She'd thought Margo already knew about Natalie and felt terrible for having blurted the truth. Jo took pity on her friend and tried to sound casual.

"It's okay, kid. It was bound to get out sooner or later."

"Well, are you going to tell us what happened or not?"

Jo sighed.

"Someone jumped Nat last night while she was walking home from the party, but someone else came along and he ran away before he could hurt her."

Nancy shook her head.

"Poor Natalie. She must have been scared out of her mind."

Blair nodded.

"She was, but she's fine now. She just needed to rest a little longer than usual this morning. It was a long night."

Nancy pressed her lips together and frowned.

"I thought the new security system was supposed to keep us safe."

Jo shook her head.

"I'm sure the new security precautions will help, but the best way to stay safe is to stick together."

Nancy considered Jo's advice and glanced at her watch, not wanting to walk to her next class alone.

"Sue Ann and I are in the same class, I'm going to catch up with her before she leaves."

As Nancy walked away, Tootie's friends came by and Tootie fell in with her classmates as they walked to their next class. Margo joined Blair and Jo as they walked toward their morning math class. Margo and Jo still didn't like one another, so the three girls walked in silence. When they were standing in the corridor outside their classroom, Blair placed her hand on Margo's arm to delay her.

"Margo, if you didn't know about what happened to Natalie last night, why did you ask if she was okay?"

Margo fidgeted.

"After you left the party, Harrison picked a fight with Natalie. He was angry with her for wearing the same costume he'd selected, as if she had any way of knowing what he planned to wear to the party. You know how Harrison is, he knew about what Jo did to Neil last year and he twisted it into a love triangle. He told the boy Natalie was dancing with that Jo was Natalie's girlfriend and that Jo was going to beat him up like she had beaten Neil. The poor kid was so scared he ran away."

"What did Natalie do?"

"I don't know how the argument ended. I've warned Harrison not to say anything about you or Jo, so when he started accusing Jo and Natalie of being a couple, I walked out on him."

"Are you breaking up with him?"

Margo shrugged.

"Look, Blair. Harrison and I are very compatible. He understands me. He's not always trying to get me to change my wicked ways and I like being accepted for who I am. When you and Jo aren't around, he's a lot of fun to be with."

"He's a bully."

Margo chuckled, amazed by Blair's constant determination to see the best in Margo.

"So am I."

"Blair, are you awake?"

Jo leaned up in bed and glared at Natalie. It was the fourth night in a row that Natalie had gone to Blair after waking up from a bad dream. Blair hadn't had a full night's sleep since Natalie was attacked and it was beginning to wear the debutante down. Jo had noticed Blair's head nodding sleepily forward in class a couple of times the day before as Blair fought to stay awake. Jo's level of irritation oozed from her voice.

"No, Natalie. Blair is not awake. Is there anything I can do for you?"

Natalie was sitting on the side of Blair's bed, nudging her sleeping friend's shoulder.

"That's okay, Jo. Blair's awake."

Natalie gave Blair a much stronger shove and the debutante popped up in bed.

"What happened? What's wrong?"

Natalie leaned forward and whispered, not wanting Jo to hear.

"I need to go to the bathroom."

Blair's brow furrowed in confusion.

"What do you want me to do, send out a press release?"

"No, I don't want to go alone."

In Blair's groggy condition, it took her a few seconds to remember why Natalie wouldn't want to walk to the bathroom alone.

"Oh, okay. I'll walk down the hall with you."

Jo shook her head in disbelief as Blair walked out of the room with Natalie. She hadn't realized that Tootie was also awake until the younger girl asked the question that was bothering Jo.

"Why didn't Nat just ask you to walk her to the bathroom?"

"How should I know?"

"If I was afraid of the dark, I'd rather have you with me than Blair. What could Blair do if someone attacked, talk them to death?"

"I don't know what to do for her, Tootie. Natalie's nightmares are getting worse."

"If I thought Blair Warner was the only thing between me and the bad guys, I'd have nightmares, too. I'll never understand why Natalie doesn't feel safe with us."

Jo groaned in frustration. She was becoming increasingly annoyed by her inability to help Natalie.

"Maybe it's like those animals that imprint on the first thing they see after they're born. If something happens to the real mother, sometimes they imprint on a different species and go through their whole lives thinking they're something they're not."

"What's that got to do with Natalie wanting to be around Blair all the time?"

"What do ya want from me, Tootie? It's two o'clock in the morning. I'm just pointing out that Blair was the first one Natalie bonded with after the attack and maybe that's why she's gotten so clingy with Blair."

Tootie and Jo stopped talking when they saw Blair stagger back into the room in a daze, absently falling onto her bed.

"Can I stay with you again tonight, Blair?"

Blair mumbled, already half asleep.

"Sure. Whatever."

Natalie slid under the covers and breathed easier, certain that she wouldn't have any more nightmares. She soon had the odd sensation, however, that she was being watched. She was sure she was being paranoid, but opened her eyes to scan the room anyway. What she found were cool green eyes, alert and attentive, watching her as she slept. At first, Natalie thought it was sweet of Jo to watch over her so protectively, but something in Jo's expression told her that Jo's motives weren't entirely geared toward protecting her.

Natalie rolled over, discomfited by Jo's stare. She knew she was behaving oddly, but couldn't help herself. The first night she'd slept with Blair, the affectionate blonde had cradled Natalie in her arms and whispered soothing words. Blair would sometimes rub her back and hum to her when she was restless and Natalie had come to depend on Blair's cuddling to lull her to sleep.

Mrs. Garrett was busy removing taco shells from the oven while Blair was resting her head on her hand at the counter, more asleep than awake.

"Blair, the taco shells are ready. Did you finish grating the cheese?"

Blair answered, but kept her eyes closed.

"Uh huh."

Mrs. Garrett picked up the un-grated block of cheese and held it in front of Blair.

"I might have liked it a little finer."

"Oh, I'm sorry, Mrs. Garrett. It's just that I can hardly keep my eyes open. I've been up almost every night with Natalie this week."

Mrs. Garrett patted Blair on the back while Jo explained.

"We've all been up with her. Those nightmares of hers are getting worse."

"Maybe she'll feel better once the man is caught."

Blair was hoping for anything that would enable her to get a good night's sleep, but Jo scoffed at her assumption that Natalie's attacker would ever be apprehended.

"Caught? The chances of finding that creep are zilch."

Mrs. Garrett shook her head disapprovingly at Jo.

"Jo, the police are doing everything they can."

Blair was concerned. If the police didn't catch the man who had assaulted Natalie and raped Mrs. King, Blair didn't think Natalie would ever be able to sleep through the night again.

"Mrs. Garrett, last night Natalie woke me up to walk her to the bathroom. That's just down the hall."

"Blair, a dark hallway can be very threatening after an experience like Natalie's."

Jo expressed her confusion. She still didn't understand Natalie's reaction to the attack.

"It's not just the dark she's afraid of, it's everything. Natalie just doesn't seem like Natalie anymore. She's lost her . . her —."

As Jo struggled for the correct words, Blair finished the sentence for Jo in French.

"Joie de vivre."

Jo nodded.

"Yeah, all the joie has gone out of her vivre."

Blair rolled her eyes as Jo mangled the French phrase and Mrs. Garrett wondered again how she had ever misinterpreted their teasing for dislike. She then tried to explain Natalie's fearful reaction to the attack to Jo, who had been exposed to violence all her life.

"Natalie has just realized how vulnerable she is. Up until now, she thought she had control over her life, that nothing could touch her, but something did and now she's afraid."

Jo frowned.

"Well if it were me, I'd be angry."

Mrs. Garrett nodded knowingly. Jo's response to the assault didn't surprise her.

"So is Natalie, inside."

Jo felt that it would be better for Natalie to express her anger.

"Y' know, when I was a little kid my dad said to me, he says, 'There are people in this world who get shoved around and there are people who do the shoving.' 'Jo' he says, 'you do the shoving.'"

Blair stared at Jo, once again reminded of the vast differences in their upbringing and the hard edge Jo's background had left on the sullen brunette.

"Words to live by."

It was Jo's turn to roll her eyes, as accustomed to Blair's idealistic view of the world as Blair was with Jo's skeptical one.

Blair had planned to save her surprise until later, but she couldn't wait. She smiled brightly as she pulled the tickets from her pocket.

"As it happens, I've come up with something guaranteed to lift Natalie's spirits. Four tickets to the Bruce Springsteen concert Saturday night."

Jo had been carrying a bowl of vegetables, but turned around and edged close to Blair, looking over the enthusiastic blonde's shoulder.

"Hey, how'd you do that? Oh no, don't tell me. Money talks."

Blair smiled, considering it a good sign that Jo had become comfortable enough with Blair's wealth to tease her girlfriend about the often sensitive topic.

"In this case it screamed. I figured the concert would take Natalie's mind off things."

Placing her hand on Blair's shoulder, Mrs. Garrett praised the generous heiress.

"That was very thoughtful of you, Blair."

"Yeah, thoughtful and generous. I hate it when you're noble. It almost makes me like you."

Jo leaned closer and gazed into Blair's eyes. She grinned as she teased her girlfriend and then made a face as if it had been distasteful for her to compliment Blair.

Blair responded to Jo's mockery by smiling, unable to pretend she wasn't aware of the sincerity of Jo's praise.

Mrs. Garrett didn't see Blair's telling smile, but the chemistry between the two was so powerful that she felt it. The older woman sighed, wondering just how close the two girls had become.

"Blair, wake up."

"Huh? Where am I?"

Jo leaned over and pressed her lips to Blair's forehead.

"Don't worry, you're with me. You fell asleep."

Blair sat up and gazed at the beautiful view from their perch high up on Cooper's Rock.

"That's impossible. I could never fall asleep while we were . . . Oh, Jo, please don't tell me that I fell asleep while —."

"Trust me, Princess, we were only cuddling. If I'd been doing anything more, you wouldn't have fallen asleep."

Blair groaned and fell backwards into Jo's arms.

"No kidding, Blair. I'm glad you fell asleep. I was kind of hoping that you would. I've been a little worried about you. You can't keep staying up with Nat every night."

"What else can I do? You saw how she reacted when I tried to give her those concert tickets. She's afraid of everything. Even the prospect of seeing Bruce Springsteen couldn't get her out of her room."

"I know. We've got to talk her into going to that concert with us. The least she could have done was thank you."

"She's not herself, Jo."

"I'm beginning to wonder if she'll ever be herself again. I don't think she'd feel safe going to the concert if King Kong were guarding her."

Jo's sarcasm gave Blair an idea.

"I've just had another one of my brilliant ideas."

Jo was cautious. Blair's brilliant ideas usually meant trouble for Jo, but Jo was willing to try anything that might get Natalie back to herself and out of Blair's bed.

Blair nervously batted her eyes at Jo.

"Um, do you remember asking me about the man who has been walking around campus with Mr. Parker?"

Jo's mood was darkening.

"Yeah, the one you said you didn't know."

"Don't get angry, but I did recognize him."

"Damn it, Blair. I thought we were past keeping secrets from one another."

Blair grabbed Jo's hand and held it firmly.

"We are, Jo. That man works for my daddy. He's here to help make sure that the new security precautions are adequate."

"Why did you pretend that you didn't know him?"

Blair lowered her head in embarrassment.

"He, um, sometimes he follows me around to make sure that nothing happens to me."

"He's a bodyguard?"

Jo was stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me earlier?"

"I didn't want you to know. He only follows me around during the summer. Eastland is supposed to be safe."

Jo's anger was doused by her concern. She didn't think Blair's father would hire a bodyguard without a good reason.

"Why would you need a bodyguard when you're not here?"

Blair shrugged. She had no idea why her father insisted that Blair sometimes be followed by a member of his security team. Even more baffling was her father's insistence that Monica continue to be guarded after their divorce.

"I don't know. Daddy's just overprotective."

"Why didn't you want me to know?"

Blair didn't usually have trouble expressing her feelings, but she felt extremely awkward when talking about her father's over protectiveness.

"I was embarrassed. It's just . . . one more example of something I have that I don't really need."

Seeing the depth of Blair's discomfort, Jo began to understand better why Blair had withheld the information.

"Blair, I don't resent you because of all the things you have."

"I know that."

"I worry that having so much isn't good for you, but that doesn't mean that I don't want you to have nice things."

"This is different."

Jo took a deep breath before continuing. Talking with Blair about some things was like walking through a minefield, for both of them.

"Because I was stabbed?"

Tears welled in Blair's eyes.

"How do you think I feel, Jo, knowing that someone was watching over me all summer when the worst thing that could have happened to me was that I might have overextended my credit card limit? A bodyguard was watching me shop while you were almost killed."

"Whoa, you can't think like that."

Jo pulled Blair closer, not sure that words would help Blair to feel better. If their situations had been reversed, Jo didn't think she would be able to handle it. She couldn't even allow herself to imagine Blair living with some of the dangers Jo had faced in the Bronx.

"Hey, I'm glad I know about this. For the first time, I'm beginning to think that your dad isn't such a bad guy. He just wants to keep you safe."

The sincerity in Blair's voice nearly broke Jo's heart.

"I am safe, Jo. I'm with you."

Jo quickly drew Blair into a passionate kiss, hoping her girlfriend didn't see how terrified she was by Blair's declaration. Jo had become very proficient in projecting an air of confidence and fearlessness, an ability that had saved her life more than once when she was in a gang, but her inability to protect her mother chipped away at her confidence daily.

"Of course you're safe, but what harm is there in having a little extra protection?"

Blair was stunned by Jo's declaration.

"You said it yourself, Jo. Fences don't keep people out, they lock people in. Eastland was the only place where I didn't feel fenced in by my father's security team."

Jo nodded. She'd hate the idea of being watched all the time, regardless of the reason.

"Um, you don't think he could have followed us up here, do you?"

"No, I talked with him. He's only here to work on the security system. He's not following me. Well, not yet anyway."

"What do you mean?"

Blair's mood brightened.

"Maybe Natalie really would feel safe enough to go to the concert if King Kong went along to guard her."

Blair raised her eyebrows and a grin began to replace Jo's frown as she gathered Blair's meaning. It wasn't a long term solution, but Natalie might agree to go to the concert if she had her own private bodyguard to escort her.

Jo bumped shoulders with Blair and laughed.

"Sometimes you have the most brilliant ideas, Miss Warner."

Blair giggled and pulled Jo's tie, drawing the brunette closer to her.

"I have lots of ideas, Jo."

Jo pressed Blair backwards and straddled her girlfriend.

"I have some pretty good ideas, too."

Blair continued to tug at Jo's tie, smiling provocatively. Jo allowed herself to be pulled downward until she rested intimately against Blair. When Blair shifted her weight in an attempt to roll Jo over onto her back, Jo shifted as well, making it easier for Blair to pin the much stronger brunette beneath her.

Blair giggled excitedly.

"Now I've got you."

Jo smiled shyly.

"Yeah, you've got me. So what are you going to do with me?"

Blair's brow furrowed in concentration as she considered Jo's question. Once she'd decided on an answer, the beautiful heiress pressed her lips to Jo's ear and whispered softly.


"Where do you think you're going?"

"I want to buy one of those bandanas to wear during the concert."

"Forget it. They're selling those things for a hundred times more than they're worth."

"I don't care, Jo. I want one."

As Blair extended her lower lip to pout, Jo shifted uncomfortably in her seat and glanced two seats over to make sure that Tootie and Natalie weren't paying attention. Reaching into her back pocket, Jo retrieved the bandana she had worn around her neck at the costume party and tied it around Blair's wrist. Blair was ecstatic, recognizing the article of clothing immediately.

When Blair leaned forward, Jo pulled back, afraid for a moment that Blair was going to try to kiss her right there in the middle of the concert hall. Instead, Blair pressed her cheek to Jo's and whispered in her ear.

"You are the most romantic person in the world, Jo Polniaczek. Does this mean that we're going steady?"

Jo rolled her eyes and tried to pretend she didn't notice Blair's eyes caressing every inch of her.

"It means whatever you want it to mean."

Blair's face glowed as she gave Jo her most brilliant smile.

"It means we're going steady."

Jo chuckled, unable to maintain the pretense of indifference. Lightly touching Blair's wrist, Jo winked at the giddy blonde.

"Thanks for getting these tickets, Blair. It was thoughtful of you to do so much to make Natalie feel better."

Blair gazed lovingly at the bandana on her wrist until the lights in the concert hall dimmed. Before her eyes were able to adjust to the change in light, Blair felt Jo's fingers intertwine with her own, squeezing her hand for several minutes before releasing it.

All three roommates often glanced at Natalie during the concert. The fragile teenager seemed anxious at first, but gradually began to enjoy herself. Natalie still had a long way to go, but for a brief period of time between Independence Day and Hungry Heart, Natalie was Natalie again, quipping jokes and bubbling over with excitement.

Donald Riff smiled as he watched the four young women skipping down the street, holding hands and swinging their arms like little children. It broke his heart to think that someone had shattered their sense of security and torn away a piece of their innocence.

It had been an unusual night for the bodyguard. Normally, he tried to be as inconspicuous as possible, especially when shadowing David Warner's daughter. Tonight, however, his instructions were to make sure that his client and anyone near her were aware of his presence. That wouldn't be difficult for the man whose physical presence alone would certainly intimidate any would-be assailant.

Donald shifted under the weight of his protective vest, which made his dominant height and broad chest even more impressive. It was an uncomfortable garment, but Donald's mentor had impressed upon him that his ability to protect his clients required him to remain uninjured himself. Although his current assignment was simply to make Miss Warner's friend feel safe and protected, Donald was the sort of man who was always prepared for the worst.

He was happy to see the four girls exit the concert in such high spirits. As he had sat behind them on the train ride from Peekskill to New York, he'd seen the apprehension in the face of the teenager who had recently been attacked. Unlike the walk from the train station to the concert hall, when the frightened girl had often glanced over her shoulder to make sure that Donald was nearby, the walk back to the train station was accentuated with laughter and excited chatter.

Donald scanned the streets as he followed Blair Warner and her three roommates from the Bruce Springsteen concert to the train station. After her incarceration at the clinic, Donald had feared that the playful girl he had watched grow up was forever lost. She had been replaced by a rude, dismissive, arrogant, condescending, unhappy young woman.

He was thrilled that the self-absorbed girl who had exited the clinic had morphed back into the sensitive child he had known before. The mere fact that she had requested his services in order to make her friend feel safe enough to attend the concert attested to the fact that the girl was becoming a compassionate young woman, despite her ordeal.

Once again, Donald studied the brunette. Although he attributed most of Miss Warner's improved attitude to the fiery nutritionist who had taken the teenager under her wing, he felt sure that it was the brunette who was primarily responsible for returning the brilliant smile to Blair Warner's face. Donald knew that he had done the right thing by honoring Miss Warner's privacy and not reporting her numerous outings with her roommate to his employer.

During the train ride back to Peekskill, Donald thumbed through the investigative reports in his folder and frowned. He had tried to convince David Warner to allow him to remain in Peekskill and assist in the investigation of the assault on Miss Warner's friend, but the executive had been assured by the school's headmaster that there was no longer any threat to any Eastland students. Peekskill police were convinced that the man who had attacked Mrs. King had left the area and Donald agreed. He disagreed, however, with the assumption that the same man who had attacked Mrs. King had also attacked Natalie Greene.

The man who had attacked Mrs. King was a vicious predator who had probably assaulted Mrs. King because she was a convenient target. Donald Riff believed that Natalie Greene had been specifically targeted. It didn't make sense to Donald that a typical rapist would increase the risk of being caught by entering a gated campus where security guards patrolled every walkway. No, Donald felt sure that whoever attacked Miss Greene was not the same calculating career criminal that had attacked Mrs. King. Miss Greene's attack looked more like the impulsive actions of someone with a grudge against the pleasant young girl.

Donald reluctantly put away his reports. He had made his opinion known to Peekskill police, but they were reluctant to accept the possibility that the teenager's attacker had not gotten past the new security gates, that he was instead someone with permission to be inside those gates, either a teacher or a student attending the prestigious Bates Academy. Regardless, Donald would have to rely on the Peekskill police to continue the investigation.

His attention was diverted when he heard the four girls who were sitting three rows ahead of him begin singing some of the songs they'd heard at the concert.

Miss Warner's traumatized friend didn't glance back at Donald during the train ride back to Peekskill, but the heiress did. He knew it was only his imagination because he and the teenager rarely spoke to one another, but Donald thought he saw gratitude, and perhaps even a glimmer of forgiveness, in the sparkling eyes of his client as she smiled back at him on more than one occasion.

Post Series Flash Forward: Tootie Returns to Peekskill

Jo, Blair, Edna, Beverly Ann, Dorothy, and Natalie were eating lunch on the pool deck when Jo's Uncle Sal walked up. Jo immediately rose to hug the man her children correctly called their grandfather.

"I hope you don't mind, Jo. I told E.J. and Marie that they could go on down to the stables."

Uncle Sal lowered his voice and winked at Jo.

"E.J. wants to show you how much she's improved. She can't wait for you to watch her ride this afternoon."

Jo caught Blair's eye and nodded. Blair always rode with E.J., but it had been several weeks since Jo had hung around the stables to watch her daughter ride. Roger would have to go to the golf course by himself that afternoon. Jo had more important things to do.

Beverly Ann, who was always a little giddy whenever Sal was around, invited him to join them for lunch. Sal, who was always a little nervous around Beverly Ann, politely declined. When Sal left, Natalie consoled Beverly Ann.

"It's not as if you could put him in your suitcase and take him back to Australia with you, Beverly Ann."

Edna's somewhat ditsy sister smiled.

"I didn't want to keep him. I just wanted to borrow him for a while."

Edna shook her head disapprovingly while the younger women laughed. The laughter came to an abrupt stop, however, when E.J. and her friend Marie came running toward the pool area, highly agitated and calling for Jo and Blair.

Alarmed, all of the women stood. Jo was the first to reach the children and she knelt before her anxious daughter.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?"

E.J. was sniffling too hard to answer, so her friend spoke for her.

"Buttercup is missing!"

Dorothy stepped forward and looked down at the little girl with E.J.; there was something unsettlingly familiar about the child.

Blair knelt before Marie and held the little girl's hand.

"I'm sure one of the stable hands took her for a walk. She needs her exercise."

Marie shook her head, her eyes wider than usual.

"E.J. thinks someone stole him."

Edna and Beverly Ann began clearing the dishes so that Jo and Blair could go to the stables with their daughter. Remembering Jo's comment to Ben about Buttercup being Bailey's horse, Dorothy smiled at the two anxious girls and attempted to reassure them.

"I'm sure no one took Bailey's horse."

Marie interrupted.

"She's my horse."

Dorothy looked down at Blair, surprised.

"Marie always rides Buttercup. They have a very special relationship."

Dorothy smiled at the wide-eyed little girl.

"I'll help you find your horse."

Marie looked at Dorothy carefully and then a grin filled her face.

"I know you! You're Tootie Ramsey, the actress."

Dorothy smiled, surprised to be recognized by a child so young and equally surprised by the child's use of her nickname and maiden name.

"That's me."

"My daddy took me to see you when you were in New York. He said that you were the best actress in the world and that he wasn't prejudiced just because you were his friend."

Dorothy's mind raced, trying to place the child. It hit her suddenly, almost like a blow to her midsection. She turned teary eyes toward Blair and Jo. It wasn't how they had wanted to introduce Marie, but Blair rose to stand beside Dorothy and smiled.

"Dorothy, I'd like for you to meet Marie Brennan, Eddie's daughter."

Dorothy knelt before the child, as Blair had done before. She couldn't resist touching the young girl's face.

"I'd know those eyes anywhere. I'm very pleased to meet you, Marie. Your daddy was a wonderful friend."

Marie beamed.

"He said that you'd know him, even though the nasty man at the door wouldn't let us in to see you."

"I'm sorry about that, Marie. If I had known you were there, I'd have made sure you had front row seats."

Marie had forgotten all about Buttercup, thrilled to meet the famous actress her father had often told her about. E.J., however, had not forgotten the missing horse.

"What are we going to do about Buttercup?"

Jo took E.J.'s hand and started walking toward the stables. When Marie held out her hand for Dorothy, the gesture seared the sentimental woman's heart. As the group of women approached the stables, they were met by Ben Brooks.

"I'm sorry, Miss Warner. We saddled some horses and took them out back to let them stretch out a bit before your ride. We didn't want any of them getting frisky since we didn't know how experienced the riders would be. When Randy and I heard E.J. calling for Buttercup, we looked for the horse, but haven't been able to find her."

"Perhaps Bailey took her?"

Ben shook his head.

"Bailey hasn't ridden Buttercup in months. She's as light as a feather, but you know how she feels about that old horse carrying too much weight."

Jo and Blair were still speaking with Ben when a rider approached the stables on Buttercup. Dorothy instantly recognized the rider as Beverly.

Although Blair had offered to loan Beverly one of Bailey's riding helmets for the day, she hadn't yet gone up to Bailey's room to get it. Therefore, it was easy to identify Beverly with her pigtails bouncing in the wind.

'I'm going to throttle her with my bare hands', thought the reckless girl's irate mother.

When Beverly realized she had an audience, she unexpectedly turned the horse toward a row of hurdles, causing Blair to gasp. Jo's frighteningly calm voice was more unsettling for Dorothy than Blair's gasp.

"Can Buttercup still jump hurdles, Blair?"

Blair's lower lip had disappeared into her mouth.

"No. He's much too frail."

"Will he stop short?"

Blair shook her head.

"No, he'll try to make the jump. He's been trained to trust his rider and he still has the heart of a champion."

Listening to Blair and Jo talk, Dorothy began to grasp how dangerous it would be for her daughter to attempt to jump the hurdles toward which she was racing. She was about to call out to Beverly when a shrill whistle rang across the field, causing the horse to stop abruptly and turn toward the stables. Blair sighed, relieved that Bailey had arrived in time to prevent either Beverly or Buttercup from being injured. Her relief, however, was short-lived when she saw the expression on her daughter's face. Blair rushed toward Bailey, hoping her daughter, whose temper could rival Jo's, wouldn't vent the full force of her anger onto Beverly, who was trying unsuccessfully to alter the horse's direction. It was useless, however, as Buttercup made his way to his master, who was sitting on the railing of a nearby fence.

"I don't recall giving you permission to ride my horse."

A little nervous about her lack of control over the horse, Beverly kept her comments to a minimum.

"That's because I didn't ask for your permission."

Bailey leapt from the railing and gently stroked the horse's nose.

"Are you going to get off of him, or would you prefer I have him throw you off?"

Beverly only hesitated because she wasn't certain the horse would obey the command; she had no doubt that the angry young woman in front of her would give it. Deciding to play it safe, Beverly quickly dismounted.

"Are you happy now?"

Bailey nuzzled her horse before answering.

"If you ever touch my horse again, I'll throw you through one of those hurdles."

"Buttercup, Buttercup!"

Marie called out to her friend as she ran toward the horse. When she was within reach, Bailey lifted the child onto the horse and smiled.

"I think he missed you, Marie."

Marie giggled, thrilled that the horse had missed her. Having made Marie happy, Bailey turned her attention to E.J.

"Would you like to ride to the stables with Marie?"

At E.J.'s enthusiastic nod, Bailey hoisted her little sister onto the horse. Bailey continued to hold the horse's bridle as she walked the horse back to his stall. The two younger girls waved at Blair and Dorothy as they happily rode toward the stables.

"Have you totally lost your mind? Why would you take that horse?"

Beverly was stunned by her mother's accusation.

"The stable hand told me that I could ride it. He said that it needed the exercise."

Turning toward Blair, she continued.

"I really did ask for permission. I thought it would be okay."

Blair sighed, suspicious because all of their ranch hands knew that no one was supposed to ride the fragile horse. Not wanting to aggravate the situation, Blair opted to pretend to believe Beverly's story.

"I wish you had told us that you wanted to start early, Beverly. Buttercup was a magnificent horse, in his day, but he's too old for a rigorous ride. Marie is small and inexperienced with horses, so she's content to sit on Buttercup while Bailey leads the horse. That's why Jo asked Ben not to saddle Buttercup for this afternoon's ride."

"I said I was sorry. I didn't know that I wasn't supposed to ride it. Why would anyone keep a horse they couldn't ride?"

"He's a wonderful horse, Beverly. We keep him here because we love him and we want to keep him healthy and comfortable as long as possible."

Dorothy waited expectantly for a better apology from her daughter, but Beverly simply shrugged.

"I'm sorry, Blair. It was an outrageous thing for Beverly to do and her father and I will discuss an appropriate punishment when Jeff returns tonight."

Beverly was shocked at what she considered her mother's betrayal and stomped toward the stables, where she ran straight into Jo Polniaczek.

When Dorothy started to follow Beverly, Natalie grabbed her elbow.

"Why don't you come back to the house with me, Dot? Beverly will be just fine with Jo."

Dorothy looked at Blair, uncertain of Jo's temper, but Blair smiled reassuringly.

"Natalie's right. Jo will be able to get through to Beverly better than I did. Jo spends a lot of time with teenagers at the center."

Dorothy had her doubts, but Natalie was insistent.

Jo had been waiting for Beverly by the fence near the gate. Jo looked deceptively relaxed, leaning her back against the fence with one foot tucked behind her on a lower railing. When Beverly, who didn't even realize that her mother wasn't chasing after her, reached Jo, the unhappy brunette pushed away from the fence and stood between Beverly and the gate.

"I suppose you want to lecture me, too."

Jo didn't answer at first, giving Beverly time to wonder why Jo was blocking her path.

"Buttercup needs a rubdown after your ride."


"So, you're going to brush him until he shines with pleasure."

Beverly rolled her eyes and moved to sidestep Jo, but Jo casually rested her arm across the gate, preventing the young girl from opening it.

"You can't keep me here against my will."

Jo remained silent until Beverly groaned and began stomping toward Buttercup's stall. When Beverly arrived, Bailey was already brushing the horse. Beverly turned to Jo, who was following closely behind her, and smirked.

"See, the horse doesn't need me."

Jo didn't say a word. She walked past Beverly and took the brush from Bailey and then handed it to the irritating teenager. Beverly smoldered when Jo gave her the brush and her temper grew worse when Bailey tossed her hair and giggled as she exited the stall.

Beverly brushed the horse halfheartedly for a few minutes before throwing the brush to the ground.

"There. I'm finished."

Jo stood with her arms crossed.

"No, you're not finished."

Beverly walked over to Jo, but took a step back when she saw the intensity of Jo's glare.

"I'm not afraid of you."

Jo didn't respond, choosing instead to point to the brush. Beverly was fuming, but she didn't dare challenge the former NYPD detective. She'd heard her mother tell stories about the fights the brunette bully had started when they were in school.

Beverly informed Jo that she had finished twice more before Jo agreed that the horse had been adequately tended. As Beverly walked past Jo to leave the stables, Jo finally spoke, her voice soft and low.

"You knew you weren't supposed to ride this horse."

Beverly turned, indignant.

"One of the ranch hands gave me permission to ride him. I told your . . . uh, Blair."

Jo stepped forward and stared into Beverly's eyes. The lanky girl had inherited her father's height and was as tall as Jo, but Jo's well-toned muscles and confident stance intimidated adversaries much taller.

"Don't ever lie to me again, Beverly."

Jo leaned forward when she spoke, causing the younger woman to stumble backwards before quickly leaving the stables.

Blair was waiting beside the gate when Beverly walked from the stables, her stride not as arrogant as it had been earlier.

"Did you and Jo have a nice chat?"

Beverly glared at Blair. She started to put the arrogant heiress in her place, but worried that Jo might be lurking nearby. Once again, Beverly was forced to fume in silence, hoping that she'd get a chance to retaliate later.

Blair stood by the gate and watched the young girl walk onto the porch and into Dorothy's arms. Blair had seen the effects of over-coddling firsthand and almost considered it a form of child abuse. Too many of Blair's childhood friends had been spoiled rotten, literally. She hoped her dear friend wasn't making the same mistake.

Shaking any misgivings from her mind, Blair went to check on Buttercup.

"How is he?"

Jo was glad she could give Blair good news. Blair's love and compassion for her horses was limitless.

"He's still a champ. Aren't you, big guy? It'll take more than a puny teenager to hurt you, won't it?"

Blair smiled at her partner. Jo might not like riding their horses, but she enjoyed talking to them as much or more than she did with people.

"Do you think Beverly meant to hurt Buttercup?"

Jo shook her head.

"No. Beverly's a pain in the ass, but it takes an exceptionally warped personality to enjoy inflicting harm on a helpless animal."

Blair smiled hopefully.

"You had a good talk then?"

Jo snorted.

"Hell, no. The only reason I know she didn't mean any real harm is that I think she truly intended to try to jump those hurdles. She wouldn't have put herself at risk like that if she'd known Buttercup was too frail to make the jump."

"Well, I'm sure that you scared some good sense into her."

Jo sighed.

"I'm not so sure, Blair. That kid's got a huge chip on her shoulder. I don't think she listened to anything I had to say."

Blair grinned.

"For someone who doesn't know you, you can appear very menacing, Jo."


"Yes, especially when you're wearing your cowboy ensemble."

Jo grunted.

"Cowboy ensemble? Boots and a hat don't constitute an ensemble, Blair. Even if they did, cowboys don't wear ensembles."

Blair playfully removed Jo's hat and placed it on her own head.

"Does it make me look more intimidating?"

Jo laughed.

"Yeah, I'm shaking in my boots."

Blair draped her arm over Jo's shoulder and smiled seductively.

"Good, I was afraid I was the only one who felt that way."

"Blair! What's gotten into you? Didn't you get enough of that this morning?"

Blair extended her lower lip, pouting.

"I can't help it. Seeing you dressed like this has the same effect on me as those field hockey shorts you used to wear when we attended Eastland."


Blair wore what Jo considered her partner's goofy expression, crossing her eyes and turning her head.


"You should have told me this earlier, Princess. I would have been spending a lot less time in the garage and a lot more time in the stables."

Blair giggled.

"Put your libido on hold, Jo. I'm not so excited that you're going to get lucky in a filthy horse stall."

"But you are hoping that you'll get lucky in our nice comfy bedroom when you go up to change into your riding outfit, uh, ensemble, aren't you?"

Blair swiveled her hips as she walked away from Jo.


Jo easily caught up with Blair.

"Don't play coy with me, Blair Warner. I know every play in your book."

"I have plays you can't even imagine, Joanna Marie. I'm very creative."

"Oh no, I hate it when you get creative. You're not going to ask me to do anything kinky, are you?"

"You should appreciate how much time I spend thinking of new ways to turn you on, you ungrateful barbarian."

"I've been turned on since the day we met. It's a wonder I haven't blown a fuse."

Jo stepped forward to open the door to their home for her partner.

"Thank you. Now, where was I?"

"You were telling me how you're going to seduce me."

"Don't make fun of me, Jo. It's important to add a little spice to our love life once in a while."

"Yeah, I know what you mean. That same old mind-blowing sex we normally have gets so boring."

Stopping outside their bedroom door, Blair smiled innocently at her lover.

"Wasn't I right when I told you that you'd like sprinkles on your ice cream? You kept saying you were perfectly happy with plain ice cream, but now you ask for sprinkles all the time."

Jo grinned and opened the door, eagerly following Blair inside.

"Am I gonna get sprinkles, Blair?"

Blair coyly twirled her hair.


Part 8

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