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Stealing from Steinbeck

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Blair’s gaze skimmed over the top of her magazine, eyes focused not on the quiz promising to help her find her perfect man but instead on the girl lounging at a table 10 feet away. She was wearing ragged blue jeans, obviously well loved and well worn, and her dark hair was scraped back into a ponytail, revealing the high cut of sharp cheekbones. A sudden noise, and the girl’s eyes were staring right at her, a rich, vibrant shade of… green.

“Do you know her?”

Snapping her head to the side, nearly dropping the magazine, Blair scowled. “Know who?”

“That girl you’ve been staring at,” Tootie pointed out, literally, and Blair brought the magazine back up to her face with a groan.

Flicking a page with careful disinterest, Blair replied airily, “Warners do not stare. And no, I do not know this cretin at whom you gesture.”

Tilting her head to the side speculatively, Tootie said slowly, “But you were staring…”

“Off into space,” Blair broke in, sighing in frustration. “Thinking, Tootie. This quiz promises to help me find my perfect man. That’s not something to be taken lightly, now is it?”

Brows scrunched as she squinted, not even bothering to pretend as if she were doing anything but staring, Tootie said thoughtfully, “She looks kind of like Jo, don’t you think.”

Huffing, snapping her magazine closed, Blair said, “No, I do not think.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“…and then Allen Rossburg totally dumped Mindy Meeks after the football game last weekend because he said he caught her underneath the bleachers with Marcus Fillingen, but I heard Mindy telling Suzie Sommers that she never even talks to Marcus, much less meets him under the bleachers, but that Allen loved to talk about Marcus and his ‘glorious’ wardrobe and recount in detail how many crunches and lat pulldowns he’d do at the gym and…. Blair? Are you even listening to me?”

“Of course, Natalie,” Blair said haughtily.

Frowning slightly, following the line of Blair’s vision which seemed to skip right over the top of her left shoulder, she searched for whatever it was that could have so thoroughly captivated her companion. All she saw was a relatively non-descript looking girl sitting under a tree reading a book, light brown hair falling carelessly over bright blue eyes.

Cocking a brow in irritation, Natalie sighed. “Do you know her or something?”

“Pardon me?” Blair asked blithely, shooting Natalie a bored glare. “Does she look like someone I would know?"

“Actually,” Natalie said speculatively, head tilting to the side, “she kind of looks like Jo. I mean, the hair’s all wrong, but with the eyes and the nose, they could almost be sisters.”

Laughing airily, sliding shut the notebook she had open in her lap, Blair muttered, “Hardly. They don’t look anything alike. You’re imagining things, again.”

Watching as Jo stood up, lips pursed in a slight frown, Natalie shook her head in confusion. “Is something wrong with you, Blair?”

“No,” the other girl snapped. “I just don’t like being accused of staring when I most definitely was not staring!”

Snorting to herself in amusement as Blair spun on her heels in a huff, stalking off across the quad, Natalie murmured, “Whatever you say.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“Hey Nat, come and look at this.”

Tootie’s hands were perched on the edge of the counter lining the sink as she strained up on tip-toes, eyes squinting slightly against the sunlight streaming in through the window. She moved over an inch for Natalie, but didn’t give up her prime viewing position.

“What’s Jo doing?” Natalie asked, lazily chewing the last of her piece of toast.

“Mrs. G wanted her to line the edge of the flowerbed with bricks."

“And this is interesting how?” Natalie grumped, on the verge of heading back to her seat and her morning journal notation.

Frowning, not believing that Natalie hadn’t already noticed the interesting part of the picture for herself, Tootie huffed, “Jo isn’t the one you should be looking at.”

Narrowing her eyes, trying to see past the glare of the sun bouncing off of the glass, Natalie scanned the yard for the earth-shattering happening that had been important enough to prompt Tootie to rouse her from her morning ritual.

“Oh.”

“Yeah, oh,” Tootie confirmed.

“Is Blair staring at Jo’s butt?”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, wow,” Tootie confirmed for a second time.

“Have you noticed…”

“…that Blair’s been acting kind of weird lately? Yeah, I’ve noticed.”

Natalie smirked, a hint of mischievous glee glinting in her eyes.

“I think it’s time to initiate a project.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“Hey, look! It’s Jo!”

Natalie nearly snickered as she watched Blair attempt to appear only mildly interested, though her head snapped up and her eyes scavenged the horizon, decimating the ruse.

After a moment, Blair's eyes settled on the girl in question, and she scowled. “Natalie, that’s not Jo,” she huffed, rolling her eyes. “That girl doesn’t even look a thing like her.”

“Of course she does… what about her eyes?”

“They may be blue, but Jo’s eyes are the color of the ocean. That,” she gestured with an annoyed flip of her hair, “is more the color of dirty dishwater.”

Struggling to keep a straight face, Natalie nodded. “Well, maybe, but you have to admit that they have the same hair.”

“Absolutely not,” Blair replied, voice on the edge of disbelief. “I don’t think that girl has ever seen a good conditioning in her life. Look at her! Jo’s hair has such gorgeous high gloss, which has to be completely natural because I know for a fact she’s never bothered to listen to me when I take the time to graciously explain appropriate hair care. But even then, she’s certainly never looked anything but…”

Blair’s jaw set with a resolute scowl, her words ending abruptly.

Barely able to keep from laughing, Natalie prodded, “She’s never looked anything but what?”

Natalie watched Blair’s jaw tick for a moment before the blonde coalesced into the very picture of haughtiness. “Barely presentable,” she snapped, then turned and stomped away.

XXXXXXXXXX

“Jo, that sweater looks amazing on you.”

Jo looked from her sweater to Natalie and then back again, clearly at a loss for words. “I wear it all the time.”

“That doesn’t mean it can’t look amazing on you, does it Blair?”

Blair had been rather studiously focusing on her magazine, but at the sound of Natalie’s question, snapped her head up guiltily. “What was that?”

“I was telling Jo that her sweater looks amazing on her. Don’t you agree?” Natalie said brightly, smile so wide it was threatening to crack her cheeks.

Blair blushed, then scowled, then sighed. “It doesn’t look hideous.”

Looking down at the sweater once again, unsure when it had transformed into an article of sartorial beauty, Jo again muttered, “I wear this sweater all the time.”

“But I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how it brings out your eyes,” Natalie said earnestly, her face the picture of innocence. “Don’t you agree, Blair?”

Shooting Natalie an irritated glare, making a grand production of flicking the page of her magazine, Blair murmured, “It is relatively complimentary.”

“Oh, come on, Blair,” Natalie wheedled. “You were just saying how you thought that Jo had eyes the color of the ocean. Don’t you think they’re even prettier when she wears that sweater?”

The look on Jo’s face morphed from slight confusion to utter, abject confusion as she shifted her gaze from an entirely too hyper Natalie to a completely mortified Blair. “What’d’ya mean, my eyes look like the ocean?”

“I never said…”

“Yes, you did,” Natalie countered. “Just today, you said that Jo’s eyes reminded you of the ocean.”

“Actually, I believe I said that Jo’s eyes reminded me of dirty dishwater.”

“Dishwater?” Jo echoed incredulously, confusion falling by the wayside as she began to get a good foothold on a head full of anger.

“Actually,” Natalie chimed in, consciously copying Blair, “that’s not what you said at all. You said the other girl’s eyes were the color of dishwater. I specifically remember you saying that Jo’s eyes were the color of the ocean.”

“I… no…” Blair paused, glaring, voice distinctly defensive. “You were the one who said that entirely awful girl looked like Jo. You were the one who said they had the same eyes, and I merely pointed out that Jo’s eyes were more the color of the ocean and that that girl’s eyes were more the color of dirty dishwater.”

“Then why did you just say that you didn’t say that Jo’s eyes looked like the ocean?” Natalie asked slyly.

“I didn’t mean…”

“Enough,” Jo barked, and Natalie noticed that she looked tense and uneasy. “I don’t even want to wear the sweater anyway.”

XXXXXXXXXX

“She’s stubborn.”

“Or stupid.”

“Nat!”

Natalie sighed, then rolled her eyes. “Well…”

“Stubborn.”

“Fine. We’ll go with stubborn if it makes you feel better.”

Tootie nodded decisively. “Do you think Jo really hasn’t noticed?”

Natalie drummed her fingers against the table, head propped in her hand as she thought. “I haven’t noticed her noticing. She’s not usually this dense.”

“Well then,” Tootie said reasonably, “maybe she hasn’t noticed because she doesn’t want to notice. Have you considered the possibility that this is a one-sided attraction?”

Natalie shrugged carelessly. “Not really.”

“Maybe it is.”

Shaking her head in disagreement, Natalie murmured, “I’m not wrong. Not this time.”

“Have you considered the possibility that they need to work this out for themselves?” Tootie pressed.

“I doubt we can trust them to do that.”

“Have you considered the possibility that this could turn into one big, huge messy… mess? Tootie pointed out, and considered herself quite rational for doing so.

Natalie pondered the point for a moment, then smiled wryly. “That one would probably be inevitable, even if we did leave them alone. That means it doesn’t count.”

"I bet Jo will think it counts, when she finds out about all of this.”

Sighing in exasperation, Natalie poked Tootie playfully in the shoulder. “Are you going to help me or not?”

XXXXXXXXXX

“I can see what Blair was talking about.”

Jo looked up from her position on the floor with a glare, highly irritated at having her alone time compromised. “What are you talking about?” she grunted, tugging hard at the handle of a recalcitrant wrench.

Tootie swallowed hard, cursed Natalie silently, and tried to think of something to say. “Uh… the other day,” she stumbled, tugging at her ear nervously. “Blair said you looked sexy when you worked on your motorcycle.”

Jo’s movements stopped abruptly, and she looked up at Tootie in shocked disbelief. Tootie, in return, tried to look like she wasn’t seriously considering running away. She’d told Natalie that she didn’t want to be involved in the plan and that she wasn’t at all convinced that she could pull it off.

She’d been right.

“She said what?”

The scowl on Jo’s face made Tootie feel a little queasy. “She said…” she paused, took a deep breath, and said the next part as quickly as possible, “that you look sexy when you work on your motorcycle.”

Jo scoffed and rolled up so that she was sitting, arms wrapped loosely around her bent knees. “Blair said that?”

Thoroughly embroiled in the lie now, Tootie could do nothing less than nod in the affirmative.

“About me?”

Tootie nodded again, then nearly jumped a foot in the air when Jo laughed.

“You couldn’t have thought of something better?” she asked, and Tootie started to edge closer to the door, convinced she’d been found out and was mere seconds away from something very, very horrible.

Noticing the other girl’s nervousness, Jo’s face softened slightly. “It’s okay, Tootie. Really. You’re not… I mean, it’s okay to have thoughts or feelings about another girl. You don’t have to lie about it with me. You can talk to me any time you want, okay. I’ll keep it between us.”

Mortified, Tootie could only nod again.

XXXXXXXXXX

Natalie was waiting on her anxiously, pen tapping out an impatient rhythm against the cover of her closed journal.

“So,” she asked breathlessly as Tootie rushed into the kitchen and closed the door tightly behind her, “how did it go?”

Tootie groaned in response, sinking down into a nearby chair. “She thinks I’m gay.”

“You?”

“She was pretty great about it, actually,” Tootie had to admit, though the memory of the interlude and her deception still left her quite nauseated.

Confused, Natalie wondered aloud, “Great about what?”

“Me being gay,” Tootie said with a wobbly smile. “She said I could talk to her about it any time I wanted.”

"But you’re not gay,” Natalie pointed out, then paused. “Are you?”

“I don’t think so.”

Natalie shook her head in disbelief. “Where did you go wrong?”

“When I agreed to this stupid plan.”

“I thought we had a ban on the use of the word stupid.”

“I’m reinstating it's use. It’s the only word that can accurately describe what you’ve conned me into doing.”

XXXXXXXXXX

Natalie took a deep breath, looking around at the three other girls all sitting at the table, each busy with homework, and tried for nonchalant as she said, “I heard a rumor.”

Tootie glared up at her, but a swift kick to the shin and a sigh later, said, “Oh yeah? What was it?”

Shooting her friend an aggrieved look, not entirely pleased with the other girl’s wooden delivery, Natalie continued, “I heard that Joey Johnson has a crush on Jo.”

Natalie tried not to laugh at the way the tip of Blair’s pencil snapped off onto her paper, but was unable to stop the escape of at least one errant giggle.

Jo looked up from her notepad, eyes flashing darkly beneath lowered brows. “What’s so funny?"

“Nothing’s funny,” Tootie broke in hastily, shooting Natalie another glare.

“Joey Johnson… is he that football player?” Blair tried to ask politely, though the tight clench of her jaw made the delivery a little tight.

Jo rolled her eyes. “Uh, no. He’s not just that football player. He’s the quarterback, and he sure as hell doesn’t have a crush on me.”

Natalie frowned slightly. “How do you know?”

“Cause I do.”

Blair attempted a laugh, but it came out as strangled more so than anything. “Well, of course he doesn’t. Regardless, that would be ridiculous. You couldn’t date someone named Joey. Jo and Joey? That’s absolutely absurd.”

“I don’t know,” Tootie said with a giggle, “Joey and Jo Johnson does have a special ring to it.”

“Why is that so absurd?” Jo’s scowl was firmly fixed on Blair, earning a protracted, quite dramatic sigh in return.

“It just is,” Jo pronounced.

“What,” Jo scoffed. “Because I’m not you? Because there’s no possible way that anyone could have a crush on someone other than you?”

“I didn’t say that,” Blair replied snottily, her tone clearly conveying that while she might not have said it, she didn’t disagree with it.

Jo slapped her notebook shut, the force of her action sending a shiver through the table and Tootie both. “Yeah, well, I hope you know those boys you go out with want to get into your trust fund just as much as they want to get into your panties. Does it ever bother you, wondering how much more they want your money compared to how much they claim to want you?”

Blair’s eyes filled with tears as Tootie shot Natalie another, more vicious glare, well aware that the pain currently being suffered by her hapless roommate was all the other girl’s fault.

“That’s enough,” Tootie said, pushing back so that her chair legs scraped against the floor. “I’m through with this, Nat. You’re playing with people’s lives, our friend’s lives, and it isn’t right.”

Glaring mulishly from beneath dark bangs, unwilling to admit that what she’d just said was completely inappropriate, Jo instead latched on to Tootie’s pronouncement. “What’re you talking about?”

“Tootie…” Natalie said warningly, a look of panic flicking over her face.

Tootie stomped her foot in frustration. “Don’t Tootie me. I’m telling them.”

“Telling us what?”

Tootie ignored Natalie’s frantic hand gestures, Blair’s tears, and Jo’s anger. “She is totally into you,” Tootie declared forcefully, pointing first to Blair and then to Jo, “and you just hurt her feelings. Badly. Natalie had this stupid idea that we could get you two together by playing secret matchmaker, but I’ve had enough. You need to talk this out or work this out or fight this out, but I’m not participating any more.”

Blair’s shocked gasp was followed by a moment of silence from all involved, and then Natalie moaned. “Tootie.”

“Is that true?” Jo asked gruffly, face still pinched, eyes flicking nervously over the room’s other three occupants in a random pattern.

Blair froze, features set in a rictus of desperation. And then, without warning, she burst into tears. Burying her face in her hands, she ran blindly from the room, the sound of her footsteps racing up the stairs echoing through the suddenly silent kitchen.

Jo glared first at Natalie and then at her accomplice. “As soon as I fix this, you two are dead.”

“I told you this was a bad idea,” Tootie muttered, glaring at Natalie. “Now Jo’s going to kill us.”

“Only because you ruined the plan,” Natalie shot back. “Things were going fine.”

“No they weren’t,” Tootie scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Things were only getting worse. At least this way, the cycle of destruction has ground to a halt.”

With that, Tootie stomped out of the room, head held high.

“Please… cycle of destruction?” Natalie grumbled, watching her friend’s retreat. “I’m the writer here. Respect, people.”

“I heard that.”

Despite herself, Natalie ducked her head in fright.

******

“Blair, wait.”

Jo had chased Jo up the stairs and into their room, where Blair had rather melodramatically pulled out a suitcase and started haphazardly packing it.

“I can’t stay here,” she said, voice warbling slightly, and Jo took in a deep breath to steady herself against the scene to come.

Catching Blair halfway between her frantic path from closet to bed, Jo grabbed her firmly by the shoulders, bringing her around until they were eye to eye. Feeling it best to start out with an apology, Jo said softly, “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings.”

The tears that were already welling in Blair’s eyes spilled over. “It’s okay,” she sniffled, suddenly shy.

“No, it’s not. It was a horrible thing to say.”

Blair’s lip quivered, and Jo tensed in response. “You’re probably right,” she muttered forlornly, eyes dropping.

“Of course I’m not,” Jo murmured, ducking her head so that she caught Blair’s gaze again. “Anybody who’s with you is lucky to have you, Blair. I mean it.”

The compliment sounded heartfelt, and Blair certainly felt her heart warm a little in response, but was loathe to fully believe it. “Do you really?” she asked guardedly, needing to hear confirmation.

“I do,” Jo said firmly.

Blair wondered for a moment if she should leave it there, but it simply wasn’t in her nature. She couldn’t ignore the obvious opening laid bare before her, and so she took a minute step forward, bringing herself closer to Jo. “What about you?”

“What about me?” Jo asked quickly, nervously, suddenly so close to Blair that she could feel the brush of the other girl’s clothes against her own.

“Do you want to get lucky?” Blair asked hopefully, then frowned, murmuring in consternation, “That didn’t come out exactly the way I planned it.”

Too nervous to even chuckle at the verbal misstep, Jo began, voice an uneven squeak, “Do you… That is, are you trying to say that Tootie was right?”

Feeling suddenly coy, Blair said demurely, “Tootie said a number of things. You’ll have to be more specific.”

Had it not been for the twinkle of anticipation in Blair’s eyes, Jo would have immediately removed herself from the game. She didn’t like being teased, much less when she felt so intensely vulnerable. But, Blair felt vulnerable too. She could see it in the guarded hope on the other girl’s face, in the tense line of her shoulders.

“Come on, Blair. Tell me,” Jo demanded sternly.

Lips compressed into a flat line, struggling to keep herself from smiling, Blair simply nodded her head no.

“You’ve got three seconds,” Jo warned with a low growl, slight smirk teasing at her lips as she looped her fingers through the beltloops of Blair’s fancy jeans, tugging her close.

Yelping in surprise, caught up in the bright blue of Jo’s eyes, Blair asked breathlessly, hopefully, “Until what?”

Jo chose not to answer. “Three…"

Blair felt her breath quicken further as Jo gave another tug, pulling their bodies together tightly, her fingers freeing themselves to allow her arms to wrap around Blair’s waist.

“Two…”

Blair’s eyes started to flutter shut in anticipation, her tongue flicking out unconsciously, moistening suddenly dry lips.

“One…”

Straining forward, waiting desperately for the kiss she knew was coming, Blair felt as if she were hung in suspension, each millisecond an eternity.

Jo stared down at the face just inches below hers. She’d been planning on teasing Blair, on holding herself just out of reach for long enough to ascertain the veracity of the other girl’s words, but she couldn’t ignore the look of anticipation on Blair's face. Blair’s lips were slightly parted, pink and enticing and just waiting for her, and any plans Jo might have had flew directly out of the window.

The first touch of their lips together elicited a whimper from Blair, and she surged forward, deepening the kiss as she dug her fingers into Jo’s sides, pulling her closer. The sudden move startled Jo for a moment. No matter how clearly she thought she’d been interpreting the situation, some part of her had still expected Blair to push her away in horror, to slap her and run screaming from the room as soon as their lips met.

Instead, she felt herself being propelled backwards, landing with a oomph when her knees hit the edge of her bed and sent her tumbling ingloriously downward.

She looked up with a glare, the reaction instinctive, but Blair was trying to hide a chuckle behind her hand and, contrary to her own expectations, Jo found she wasn’t mad at all.

“I’m so sorry,” Blair said earnestly, sitting down primly beside Jo on the bed. “I think I got a little carried away.”

Jo would have agreed, had her brain been working properly. Instead, Blair’s fingers wrapped around her own as searched for something to say, the move again erasing any words she might have been forming.

“Is this okay?” Blair asked, looking down at their hands, fingers tightening slightly.

Jo gave it a moment’s thought, wiggling her own fingers before settling into the embrace. “Yeah,” she said with a soft smile, “I think it is.”