Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2006.

This is the forty-seventh story in the Falling into College series.

Richard Lobinske

Melody of Life

In her cubicle at the editorial office of the Raft University Press, Daria leaned her left elbow on the desk, with her chin resting on that hand. Her right hand hovered on the edge of a computer keyboard and from time to time, one finger tapped the page down key to scroll the manuscript displayed on the monitor.

"What pretentious crap," she muttered, barely able to force herself to continue reading.

Her blond hair tied into a bun, Shelly Crause; peeked over from the next cubicle and said, "Sounds like you have a real winner today."

Daria turned and blinked her eyes to relieve the strain. "Another pompous ass that doesn't want clear writing to get in the way of showing off his vocabulary."

"Right now, I think I'd take that over all these formulas."

"Math text?"

"You'd think. No, it's an ecology book."

"They say that all science has math at its core."

"I'm starting to believe it. They don't show you this stuff on the TV nature shows."

"Formulas just aren't photogenic enough."

"Dr. Tinsdale's latest masterpiece?" Daria's boss said while looking over her shoulder at the monitor. "No wonder your interest is wandering. That old windbag can bore anyone to tears."

"Oh, hi Dr. Findlay," she replied.

"Daria, did you finish proofreading the Takara manuscript?"

"Friday. I dropped the Zip disk in the 'finished' basket on my way out."

"Can you please check to see if you accidentally left it on your desk? I can't find it."

Seeing his "don't argue with me" face, Daria said, "I'll check."

"Please bring it to my office when you find it."

"What if it's not on my desk?"

"You were the last one to handle it, so I expect you to find it."

"Yes, Dr. Findlay."

After the older man walked away, Shelly faintly whistled and said, "He's not happy."

Saving the current file on her computer, Daria said, "I know I handed that disc in for the subject editors."

"Better look anyway; you know how he gets."

Daria rolled her eyes before starting to search her cluttered desk.

Walking up the stairs to her apartment, Daria sorted the day's mail as a distraction. "Junk, junk for Jane, more junk, electric bill, junk for Karen, catalog for Jane, and..." The final item was a large, thick envelope. She hurriedly opened the door and rushed in, dropping the remaining mail on the dining table as she opened the large envelope.

Dear Ms. Morgendorffer,

Your latest manuscript, "Ides of Spring", has been accepted for publication, pending minor revision. Enclosed is your manuscript with the recommended edits, along with our standard publishing agreements and contracts. Please review the recommended edits and submit your revised manuscript and/or rebuttals within 30 days of receipt. Please sign and return the publishing agreements with your revised manuscript.

Thank you for choosing Literature in Action.

On a personal note, I'll miss Melody Powers. However, I understand that as a young author, you wish to move on to other things. Thank you for providing a proper end story for the character. I wish you the best in your future endeavors and hope this will not mean the end of contributions to our magazine.

Smiling, she sat down to start examining the papers. "The day has improved."

Stretched out on the sofa and pencil in hand, Daria closely examined the manuscript and the changes suggested by the editors.

"You're kidding me," Melody said to The Director. "My retirement starts in a week."

The Director ran his hands over his smoothly shaven head as if it still sported long-lost hair. "Then you have an incentive to complete the mission quickly."

Melody dropped down into a chair and said, "Give me the details."

"I think you recognize this man," The Director said, passing a dossier to Melody.

Her face darkened as she opened the folder to a portrait photograph. "Grigory Perchenko. So the bastard made it out of the Leopard Station. I'm sure an old hardline communist like him doesn't appreciate the new order in Russia."

"That's why you're going in. He's planning to take control of an ICBM launch facility and decapitate the new government. The communists plan to step in to the resultant power vacuum."

Melody shook her head and asked, "Isn't this really an internal Russian problem?"

"Yes, but our source in the KGB doesn't know who in the organization to trust with the information. So, he came to us for help."

"Does this source have a name?"

"Pyotr Demidov."

Melody felt a simultaneous cold chill as her heart started to race. "Pyotr..."

Hearing the door thump open, Daria looked up at the arrival of her roommate. Jane dragged herself inside and closed the door, leaning back against it. Her hair was a mop-like mess and numerous splashes, streaks and drips of paint covered her from head to foot.

Daria asked her roommate, "What happened to you?"

"Jackson Pollock Day. Boy, did the kids at the hospital have a blast."

"Am I safe in assuming that the room, the kids and all the staff within range look the same as you?"

"I covered the room with tarps, but, well, yeah, everyone came out rather colorful."

"How much trouble did you get into?"

"Next time, I have to give housekeeping 24 hours warning and provide coveralls for the nurses. Oh, and add tarps to the ceiling."

Jane checked her mail and saw the large envelope for Daria. "Hey, this looks like good news."

Daria held the pack of papers up. "Melody rides one last time."

"Doesn't it feel weird?"

"Yes, but writing Melody was becoming harder for me."

"You're not the same teenager that introduced Melody to a coffeehouse crowd."

"No, I'm not, just like you're not the same person who made Pottery Blam."

"Yeah, what was I thinking? My old bedroom wall was a lousy location." Jane picked up the To a Pulp Specialty Paper catalog and started thumbing through it. An ornate, white envelope fell out, addressed to Daria. "Hey, looks like you missed something."


Jane tossed the envelope to Daria, who fumbled and dropped it on her lap. She picked it up and saw that it was two identical envelopes that were stuck together. Daria tossed the second back to Jane. "This one's yours."

Jane caught the envelope as Daria opened hers and read the enclosed card. She said, "Ah, Aunt Amy's formal wedding invitations. Weekend after Labor Day."

"This looks like it's going to be some kind of fancy shindig and another trip into bridesmaid land for you. Think the world's trying to tell you something?"

"Considering what the guy she's marrying does for a living and that his family's fortune makes the Sloanes look middle class, it's telling me that anything can happen."

Jane laughed. "Yeah, he's more along the lines of someone I picture Melody going for."

The next afternoon, Daria held a book tight against a photocopier and watched the back and forth wash of green light as a copy was made. Only a third of the copier machines lined up along the library wall were occupied, far different from spring and fall semesters when all of them would be busy and a line formed to get the next free machine. She shifted the book to the next page and hit the copy button again. After seeing the copy feed into the receiver tray, Daria closed the book and stacked it on a nearby cart for reshelving. She then pushed the "eject" button and collected her copier card from the reader, mentally noting the credit left on it.

After a stop by the front desk to staple several articles together, Daria placed them in a notebook and that into her backpack. Once out of the library, she checked her watch and said, "I can still hit up the subject editors and have time to fight traffic over to Michael's place."

After the usual safari of finding a parking space near Michael's apartment building, Daria stepped out and slammed the door of her car. She clenched her fists and struggled to contain her frustration. "So, none of them have that miserable disk." Daria closed her eyes and measured her breathing, gaining control of the tension. "Don't let it spoil the evening."

After several minutes, Daria felt calm enough to head inside. As she neared the front of the building, Daria walked past a couple of other residents coming out of the door.

One of them turned his head as he walked past and said, "Nice legs."

His friend elbowed him and said in a harsh whisper, "Forget it, that's probably not even a girl."


"Hangs out with those guys in 203."


Daria stopped a couple steps up the stairs and clenched her teeth. "Your inability to recognize a female doesn't bode well for your future reproductive success. The rest of the human race will be eternally grateful." Without looking back, she continued up the stairs.

Michael's gentle embrace drained away Daria's frustration at the morons below as he whispered, "I love you."

"I love you," she whispered and accepted the comfort of his arms.

"Any luck with the missing file?"

"No. I'll deal with it tomorrow. You mentioned that you had something planned?"

He released Daria and swept his hand toward the kitchen. "This way."

Seeing dinner already prepared and placed on the simple, but neatly set table, Daria said, "You're really getting into cooking."

Hands around her waist, Michael leaned his head over Daria's shoulder to say, "It's surprisingly fun. Besides, I owe you for more than a few dinners."

The disk completely forgotten, she leaned back and kissed his cheek. "Come to think of it, you do."

"I'll take that as a request for payment."

"You can take your time."

Leading her to the table, Michael said, "Congratulations."

Daria took her seat and picked up the yellow carnation by her plate, smelling it. "Thank you."

Michael sat and said, "Somehow, I have the feeling you originally never pictured that twist to a Melody story."

"You can safely say that. My mood was quite different when I wrote 'Summer' two years ago."

"Pyotr," Melody carefully said to a handsome man seated in a small restaurant in Moscow.

He paused for a moment in surprise before rising and pulling the seat on the opposite side of the small table out for his guest. In Russian, he said, "Melody, please, be seated."

Back in his seat, Pyotr said, "I heard that you were no longer in the toy business."

"You know how rumors are," she answered while struggling not to betray the unease in her stomach.

"I'm pleasantly surprised to learn that they were misguided." The KGB agent picked up a menu and presented it to Melody. "I've not ordered yet. Please, join me. On my company's expense account."

She opened the menu and started to read, glad for the break in conversation.

Pyotr raised his, relieved at the chance to settle his nerves after Melody's surprise appearance.

Daria stopped typing and saved the file on her computer. The clock by her bed said 11:10. "Already? I better get to bed." Turning back to the computer, she read the last section and said, "Yes, very different from when I started writing about you," before closing the program and shutting down the computer.

Seeing Daria walk by, Shelly turned her chair and asked, "Was the disk at home?"

"No sign," Daria replied. She sat down and started her computer. "After I went to the library yesterday, I also asked the subject editors if they'd seen it, and nobody has. I'll have to make a copy from the working file on my hard disk. Dr. Findlay won't have the unaltered original, but all the proofreading corrections will be there."

"I hope looking for the stupid disk didn't spoil your evening Monday."

"No. An acceptance letter for one of my stories made the search tolerable."

"Oh, cool. Do anything to celebrate?"

"Michael made dinner last night."

"Oooh, that sounds like it was fun."

"As much as the law would allow."

Shelly laughed and went back to her work. "You kill me."

Daria refrained from another comment and logged in to her computer. While that was finishing, she took a blank disk from a box on her desk and inserted it into the drive. After pulling up the manager and looking through her files, Daria didn't see the one she was seeking. "Oh, crap."

"Huh?" Shelly asked.

"It's not here."

"Did you delete it?"

"No." Daria sank back in her seat. "Damn, I must've moved the file to the Zip disk instead of copying it."

"Oh man, that sucks."

"No kidding. Now I really have to find that stupid disk. You know that if we have to ask Dr. Takara for another copy of that manuscript, my ass is out on the sidewalk."

"But, where could it be?"

"Somebody had to have picked it up by mistake. It's just a matter of figuring out whom."

"That'll be simple. How many blue Zip disks are floating around here?"

"Too many. I hope I can find it before somebody decides to wipe it for their own use."

Dr. Findlay left his office and called while still halfway across the room, "Did you find it?"

"No, sir," Daria replied. "But, I'll keep looking."

"Do that, but don't neglect your other work. I expect both that Tinsdale manuscript and the Takara manuscript before you leave Friday, or don't bother showing up Monday."

After her boss returned to his office and the other employees pointedly went back to work, Shelly quietly said to Daria, "He's still working on the whole subtlety thing."

"But he's got the whole public humiliation thing down pat."

Kneeling beside his still body, the cool skin of their contact's wrist told Melody that she didn't need to check further for a pulse. A faint motion behind Pyotr confirmed to her that they'd entered a trap. Pistol in hand, Melody dropped, twisting and leaning forward to get a clear shot around her partner's crouching form. The sound of her gunshot seemed particularly long, until Melody realized that the sound of her gun melded into that of Pyotr's firing a fraction of a second later.

Melody's target gasped and collapsed forward, machine pistol clattering on the pavement. The thud of a body hitting the ground made her twist around to see Pyotr lowering his handgun and a second failed assassin bleeding behind her. Melody said, "I think we're now in each other's debt."

Pyotr looked back at Melody's target and said, "Our lives are each other's."

The many different implications of his statement caused her heart, already pounding from adrenaline, beat faster. Scanning the area for more threats and controlling her feelings, Melody said, "We'll have to get into the launch complex the old-fashioned way."

Unaccustomed sweat cooled his hand before Pyotr touched the shoulder of the unforgettable woman kneeling next to him. "The southwest approach will be the least expected."

Her breath caught a moment before she asked, "Why is that?" knowing she probably wouldn't like the answer.

"That is where the attack dogs are kenneled."

Daria stopped editing the story and took a couple steps over to her dresser to answer the ringing cell phone. "Hello."

On a matching cell phone her sister Quinn said, "Hey Sis, how are you?"

"Hi, Quinn. This week has me feeling like a bouncing ball."


"Well, my Melody story was accepted."

Quinn exclaimed, "Great!" and jumped a little, startling her friend Sandi, standing next to her, as well as the fifty-something gentleman standing in the middle of the small, open apartment all three occupied.

"But, if I don't find a missing computer disk by Friday, I'm unemployed."

"They'd fire you for losing one disk?"

"My old boss, probably not. The one I have now, without a moment's hesitation or regret."

"That sucks."

"No kidding. Now that we've discussed my life, what about yours? I'm sure there's a good reason for this call."

"I'm doing okay. But, yeah. I did have a reason."


"Um, Sandi found a really, really nice apartment. It's an efficiency close to Lawndale State, but she needs a little help."

"My job's hanging by a string right now..."

"Not that kind. She has the money. She just needs a reference that doesn't live with her."

"What about Stacy or Tiffany?"

"That's two. She needs three references. Since Sandi lives at Mom and Dad's, I can't be one."

Daria leaned forward against her dresser, thinking about what Sandi had been through in the previous year. "I'll do it."

"Thanks, Daria. We're at the apartment; do you want to talk to the guy now?"

"Won't he be a little suspicious?"

"Um, I already gave him your contact information. I hope you don't mind."

Daria sighed. "Next time, please ask first. Put him on."

The landlord gruffly asked, "Hey, you Miss Daria Morgendorffer?"


"You known Miss Griffin for long?"

"A little over four and half years."

"Does she have good character?"

"She's matured a lot in the time I've known her."

"She do any drugs or anything illegal like that?"

"Not to my knowledge. She's always taken good care of her body and drugs wouldn't fit into that."

"Hmm. Okay. Thank you, miss."

"You're welcome."

Sandi took the phone and said, "Um, like, thanks Daria."

"No problem. I hope you enjoy your apartment."

Quinn got on the phone and said, "Yeah, thanks Daria."

"It's the right thing to do. How are Mom and Dad?"

"Busy as ever. I swear: Mom's back to working just as hard as she did before she became partner."

"We knew it couldn't last. A part of me always thought she was happier working too hard, though I'd started to hope otherwise."

"Yeah. Anyway, congratulations on the story and good luck with the disk thing."

"Thanks, Quinn."

Feeling something rubbing against her ankle, Daria looked down at her cat, Bump. She said, "Somebody's telling me that it's their dinner time. I suppose I have been neglecting the poor little beast lately."

Quinn laughed and said, "Oh, the cat. At first, I thought you were talking about Michael."

"He's learning to cook for himself. The dinner he made for me to celebrate the story was nice."

"Does he try to make strange stuff like Dad?"

"Michael's staying with the basics. He hasn't gotten adventuresome, yet."

"Lucky you. Anyway, I'll let you feed the cat and talk to you later. Bye."

"Bye, Quinn." Daria closed the cell phone and reached down, picking up the black cat. Scratching Bump behind one ear, Daria said, "I know that missing disk isn't your problem. I'm sorry for being neglectful."

Bump meowed and rubbed her muzzle under Daria's chin.

Carrying her to the kitchen, Daria said to the cat, "Thanks, I needed that."

Happily purring, Bump half-slumbered on Daria's lap while she continued her story revision.

Wearing a dark gray, hooded coverall, Melody slowly crawled from a shallow ditch to the fence surrounding the kennel. Similarly clad, Pyotr crawled beside her, holding a small box. Moving with precision, she placed the small, ratchet-assisted cutters against the chain link fencing and held a rag around it as she worked. The cloth silenced the slight twang as the steel wire parted and she moved to the next section. Once a small hole was open in the fence, Pyotr placed the box against it and opened one end, allowing a perturbed tabby to escape. The two agents slid back to the ditch as the guard dogs started to loudly bark at the cat running alongside their cages.

A guard exited the blockhouse at the end of the kennel and looked around, rifle at the ready. The cat bolted past his feet and around the building. The guard grunted a laugh and rapped the kennel fencing with his rifle butt. "Shut up! It's only a cat, you stupid mongrels!"

The guard stepped back inside the building and closed the door. Melody started to rise up to sprint across the compound when she felt a kiss on her cheek.

"For luck," Pyotr said. "I saw that in an American movie."

Melody half-smirked and replied, "I better not find out that you're my brother."

"Daria?" Dr. Findlay asked, "What are you doing here? You don't usually work on Thursdays."

She looked up from her hands and knees. "I also don't normally crawl around on the floor. I'm checking to see if the missing disk was kicked under a desk or something."

Findlay rubbed his chin. "Hmm. Say, how bad is it under those desks? Has the cleaning crew been doing the job properly?"

Daria stood, brushing off her bare knees and old shorts. "Much to my misfortune if the disk had fallen down there, the custodians are doing their job."

The editor-in-chief motioned to his office door. Daria went in and Dr. Findlay said as he closed it, "Signing Dr. Takara away from Crestmore University Press was a big coup for us and I'm not looking forward to explaining to him, or the Board of Regents, that we lost his manuscript. They're going to want somebody's head, and I'm sorry Daria, but you were the last one to handle the manuscript."

Stopping at a guest chair, Daria said, "I understand, but I still can't figure out what happened to it. Not unless I start coming up with some conspiracy theories about someone stealing the disk to make us look bad."

Dr. Findlay walked around behind his desk. "I'd almost start believing them. My selection to lead the press office wasn't the most popular and losing an important contributor will provide ammunition to those who want me out."

"So I'm the sacrificial lamb."

"Daria, anyone in the editorial office would be terminated under the same circumstances. I really don't have a choice. If it's any comfort; one lamb may not be enough to appease the gods."

"If it's also your job on the line, why haven't you been helping?"

"I have. I've just been doing it quietly. I've literally torn this office apart after hours looking for the disk in case I was the guilty party and I've quietly checked in other places."

Daria narrowed her eyes. "You're starting to sound like you think somebody intentionally took the disk."

"It's a possibility I can no longer ignore."

"Just great. How am I supposed to find it now?"

On the back lawn of the house, Jane aimed the Super-Shooter water rifle at a canvas propped up in the middle of a large tarp. Streaks of orange paint hit the canvas and splashed with satisfactory effect. "Now if I can just figure a way to change colors faster."

Coming down the outside stairs and dressed in all black, Daria said, "Wish me luck?"

"What's with the 'Quinn the Brain' look?"

"I'm going to make one more search for the missing disk."

"Oooh. Gonna break into your boss's office?"

"Nothing so exciting. I'm going to check the dumpster behind the building to see if it was thrown out."

"And the get-up?"

"The campus police are bored and discourage dumpster diving. They don't want the overcharged students scamming a few freebies from the trash."

"Daria, is the job worth it?"

"So far," Daria replied. She opened her car door and added, "I still like the work itself and I get free previews of some good books. Seeing all kinds of different writing styles is fascinating and it gives me useful insights. And, all the proofreading has helped me to spot errors in my writing. Overall, it's great experience."

"But, your boss is a jerk."

"Okay, there's a big downside to the job."

"I really hope it's worth it."

"Me, too."

Pulling on long rubber gloves, Michael said, "I hope you realize that this absolutely proves that I love you."

Sitting on the curb beside a dumpster, Daria pulled heavy rubber over-boots on and said, "Nothing says love like dumpster diving under the summer moonlight."

Michael slid the side door open and looked inside the dumpster. "Ugh. If that disk went out with the trash last weekend, it's going to be at the bottom."

Daria joined him and said, "Good thing I don't work at the cafeteria."

Michael braced one foot on the lifting pocket of the dumpster and pulled himself up and crawled inside. "So you wouldn't recommend looking for dinner in here?"

Daria clumsily repeated the process, accepting Michael's help to get through the door. "If you'd rather graze locally than let me buy something later..."

He studied a piece of paper and said, "Eh, I probably have enough fiber in my diet."

Daria pulled the side door almost closed to hide them from casual observation and handed Michael a small flashlight. Faces twisted in disgust, they started digging through a week's worth of departmental trash.

Almost an hour later, Michael opened an envelope and pulled a blue Zip disk from inside. Shining his flashlight on it, he showed it to Daria. "Is this it?"

Barely able to restrain from shouting, Daria exclaimed, "Yes! Where was it?"

"It was inside some junk mail that was taped shut, and in a bag with a bunch of other junk mail."

"Crap." She exhaled hard and took the disk and envelope. "This wasn't an accident."

"Somebody really doesn't like your boss."

"No kidding, and I don't like being collateral damage."

He opened the side door and stooped down while locking his fingers together to form a step. "Let's get out of here."

She placed her foot on the hand cradle and wrapped her arms around his neck to give him a kiss. "Thank you."

"You're welcome, but can we save the rest until we're out of here, and maybe had a shower?"

Accepting the boost, Daria carefully crawled out and dropped to the ground. "Tell you what. I'll scrub your back and tell you how much I appreciate your help."

Scooping cereal from a bowl while reading edits to her story on the computer, Daria tried to make a little more progress on the story before going to work.

"Sorry, comrade. Those days are over," Pyotr said to the deceased guard as he pulled him out of sight. "And you're not bringing them back. Good riddance to the party and good riddance to you."

Stepping around Pyotr, Melody moved to the next door. She put up one hand when he returned, pointing to thin sliver of light under a door.

He moved to provide cover while Melody kept low and opened the door. She rolled inside the room and scanned the makeshift video studio. A tripod-mounted camera was still pointed at a plain desk with the hammer and sickle on the false wall behind it. Slumped forward onto the desktop was a man in a business suit with blood seeping away from his head.

Following a fast check for tripwires or other triggers, Melody stepped around the desk to see the man's face. "Grigory Perchenko," she said unemotionally.

Looking at the tape slot in the video recorder, Pyotr said, "Empty. It would appear that Mr. Perchenko was only a puppet. One that is no longer needed."

Melody pulled a bloodstained sheet of paper from Perchenko's hand and read it. "The best kind of scapegoat is one that you've made sure can no longer talk. If this is what was recorded, he was planning to destroy Moscow and then state that he would 'rescue Mother Russia from the fools that allowed it to happen.'"

Pyotr said, "So somebody else is planning on doing the 'rescuing'. I'm sure they'll report that Mr. Perchenko died a valiant death and that 'it is with great regret' that they have to step forward to take his place."

Moving to the door, Melody said, "We still have a missile launch to stop. We can worry about who was pulling Perchenko's strings later."

Behind his desk, Dr. Findlay looked at the disk and envelope inside a plastic bag. "Daria, I'm deeply in your debt."

Half-serious, Daria said, "Would this be a good time to ask for a raise?"

He pulled a form labeled "Personnel Action" from a tiered holder on his desk. "Unfortunately, you're maxed out on salary as a student employee."

"I was hoping..."

He started filling out the form. "Will you take benefits instead?"

"Dr. Findlay?"

"I'm making you half-time career service. You'll get health and dental insurance and accrue half the regular vacation and sick leave of full-time staff, one hour each per week. Plus, pro-rated holiday pay."

Daria stared at her boss in total surprise.

He completed the form, placed it in an inter-office envelope and put it in his outgoing mail. "I made the reclassification effective today."

Daria found her voice and got out, "Thank you."

"No, Daria. Thank you. I'm realistic enough to know that your motivation was primarily self-interest. But, you've gained an ally." He produced a rare smile. "Just don't expect any favoritism in the workplace."

"I...didn't expect any."

Findlay folded his fingers together and said, "Now to see if anyone comes sniffing around about the presumed missing manuscript."

"What can you do about it if someone does?"

"Right now? Nothing. But, I'll know who to watch."

"What about the police?"

"We only have your word that the disk was in that dumpster. Besides, if it doesn't involve money, grades, or sex, this is the kind of faculty politics the campus police have learned to avoid."

Visibly worried, Shelly asked, "Any luck?" as Daria arrived at her work cubicle.

Daria dropped into her chair and leaned back. "I got to play Melody Powers for the evening, but I found the disk and hope I never have to repeat the effort."

"You really went dumpster diving?"

"That's where I found it."

"No offense, but...eww."

"No offense in return, but can we talk about something else?"

"Sorry. How's the story revision coming along?"

"Almost done. Mainly just cleaning up the last scene." Daria looked down and admitted, "I'm going to miss Melody. We've come a long way together."

"But, no more sequels?"

"I want to give her story a clean finish."

Enjoying the noonday sun after a morning in the air-conditioned office, Daria sat on a bench in the Quad and unpacked her lunch. While eating her sandwich, she watched a mockingbird hunting for its lunch among the blades of grass. The gray and white bird hopped from place to place and froze, then after a second, spreading its wings to startle small insects. Focusing on the bird, she jumped a little when she heard her old supervisor say, "You seem to be taking things rather well."

Daria looked up and said, "Dean Killarny, what do you mean?"

"You were such a good proofreader at the Press. It's a pity you were caught up in Dr. Findlay's problems. I hope you can find something soon. Give me a call if you need a reference."

Despite the sun's warmth, Daria felt a chill as she remembered seeing Dr. Killarny in the office just as she was leaving on the day the disk disappeared. Faintly, she recalled him nodding to her and moving toward the completed work bin. Oh...crap. "Um, thanks, but I'm still at the Press and don't have any plans on leaving soon."

He looked momentarily surprised and then said, "Oh, that's good news. That should be a lesson to me not to listen to rumors."

"I guess so."

"Anyway, have a nice day."

"You, too."

Her hunger evaporated, Daria numbly looked at the sandwich as Dean Killarny walked away. This betrayal by a faculty member she admired was cold, calculated and really had nothing to do with her. Daria was a tool just as interchangeable and expendable as anyone else in the office. She wondered how much of the concern and how many of the pleasantries he'd shown before were as false as what she'd just endured. "Now I know what a pawn feels like."

In the mountains of Montana, Melody carried two cups of coffee onto the deck of a comfortable cabin and placed them on a table. She took a seat while Pyotr followed carrying two plates holding scrambled eggs. After setting both in place, he gazed around. "A beautiful view, Mel...Louise."

"It is, Steven," she replied, still also making an effort to remember their new identities.

He stepped behind, placing his arms around her shoulders and kissing her neck. "Even better with someone to share it with."

She sighed and raised one of his hands to her lips. "Someone you can trust."

"It's been so long since I'd felt it."

They spent a couple minutes like that, gazing at the peaceful morning scene. Finally, he reluctantly let go and stepped around to his chair.

Sitting, he reached for his cup and said, "I wonder now how many of our missions were real?"

Holding her cup in both hands, Melody/Louise said, "And how many of us died to protect our agencies' funding?"

"I've killed many out of a sense of duty, but my Bureau Chief was the first one that gave me a sense of justice."

"I'm sure we'll never hear an explanation of why my Director died beside him in a missile silo in Siberia. I think his death will be the only one I'll never regret."

Pyotr/Steven raised his cup in a toast. "Here's hoping the Cold War is truly over."

Melody/Louise raised hers. "And that nothing arises to replace it."

Tilting her head slightly forward away from the soft kisses and turning to face Michael, Daria asked, "Do you think it was too much to use our middle names?"

He looked at the screen and said, "Only a handful of people will ever know. Besides, I like being included in the story."

Leaning back against his shoulder, Daria said, "I wish I could've solved the disk mystery as cleanly."

"True, you can't kill Killarny and Findlay."

"This isn't going to be the last volley between them, either."

"It might be a good idea to find another job."

Sitting up and turning to face Michael, Daria said, "I could, but dammit, I don't like being driven away because of a couple overgrown kids fighting over the sandbox. Killarny tried to charm me and Findlay's trying to bribe me."

"So, what are you going to do?"

"Watch and listen. The black king and the white king are going to learn that there's a gray queen on the board."

Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.

June 2006