Daria wandered toward her second favorite bookstore in Cranberry Commons while nibbling on the last few cashews from the bag she had purchased at the nut stand whose name she chose not to remember.
She reflected that she had finally gotten used to having all this time alone. Since Tom had come into Jane's life, she was without her partner-in-crime more often than not, and that had been a very painful transition. She lamented her near total lack of social skills. If she had more experience with having a friend, she would probably never have reacted to Tom's presence that way. At least she wouldn't have treated Jane so poorly.
Of course, now that she was thinking about it, she knew that if she had more experience with any sort of personal relationship she would probably know what to do about her most recent problem. For that matter, she probably wouldn't be having the problem.
Getting stuck at that idiotic homecoming parade had finally forced her to spend time with Tom after she had finally stopped hating him for taking up Jane's time. She had discovered why Jane liked him. That was a good thing.
The bad thing - the problem - was that the traits Jane admired were traits she admired. Tom had them in spades. Plus he was physically attractive.
Daria shook off that thought. It was too dangerous, and she had absolutely no idea how to deal with it.
Her first impulse was her usual: be such an ass that Tom would go away. Of course, that impulse had nearly destroyed her relationship with Jane and Daria was not willing to risk that again.
So, there had to be something else she could do. Self-denial was a good stopgap, and had worked out well the few times since the parade that she had spent time with Tom and Jane. It would be a perfectly acceptable long-term solution if it weren't for the fact he still looked at her. She didn't know for certain if those looks meant anything, but she wanted them to.
Daria crumpled the now empty bag in her hand and tossed it in a nearby trash receptacle. She paused to clean a few specs from her glasses, then turned around.
She yelped in surprise.
"Hi Daria." Tom said, smiling.
"Uh, hi Tom." Daria said as she felt her cheeks warm. "Where's Jane?"
"She's around somewhere. We took off for different stores when we got here. We're going to meet at the food court in about fifteen minutes. Want to join us?"
Daria silently damned his affability. Then she damned her answer.
"Great! Well, I'm headed over to the Reading Grove. Where are you off to?"
Daria swallowed, this was slowly turning into a nightmare. "I was headed there, myself."
Tom's smile broadened. "Hey, it's serendipity." Tom turned toward the bookstore, motioning for Daria to follow.
Daria quietly sighed and consigned herself to her fate by walking beside him.
She nearly fell over when she felt his hand briefly on the small of her back. He didn't seem to notice her discomfort.
"So what sort of book are you in the market for?" He asked.
"Philosophy. Kant in particular." She answered, wondering if Plato wouldn't be a better choice now.
"Cool. I was thinking about picking up a trashy romance novel."
Daria, surprised, looked incredulously at him. "Really?"
"No, just kidding." He chuckled, and Daria found herself chuckling also.
"I like to browse around, see if anything catches my eye." He explained. "Sometimes you come across some real gems that way."
"I'm sure. I'll bet you also dig up some real crap, too." Daria said as they entered the store.
"Oh, and how. Of course, they're usually at least good for a laugh, so I never feel like I wasted money."
With the confidence born of complete familiarity with the store, the two swiftly navigated the isles directly to the philosophy section.
They both scanned the shelves, Daria hunting for a couple of particular titles and Tom for anything interesting. Daria reached for the same book as Tom did, and their hands touched. Daria retracted her hand quickly, as if she touched the hot coils of a cooking stove.
"Sorry." She croaked.
Tom just smiled and pulled down the book. "Is this what you were looking for?"
Tom opened the book and read a random passage. "I can see what you like about this guy."
"Besides the bone-dry writing style?" Daria asked.
Tom looked up at her and simply smiled. Daria liked the feeling it gave her, but felt guilty about it.
"Come on, let's buy this and get to the food court. I'd hate to keep Jane waiting again."
Without waiting for her response, he promptly found the cashier and purchased the book. Daria immediately protested, but Tom heard none of it, claiming it was the least he could do for her.
When she continued to protest, he shoved the book into her hand and told her to shut up and accept the gift graciously.
That he was wearing a warm smile and had his hand on her shoulder did much to make Daria accept.
Her reaction to his touch also did much to make her reconsider joining Tom and Jane for lunch. The more sensible part of her mind was screaming for her to leave now, before she got herself into real trouble.
It was still screaming as she sat down with a tray of taquitos and guacamole across from a snuggling Tom and Jane.
"Daria! Cool!" Jane greeted her enthusiastically.
That more sensible part of her brain smacked its forehead in frustration.
As she bit into a taquito, Tom and Jane kissed. She found herself watching the kiss closely; wondering what it was like to kiss him.
Unfortunately, the ever-observant Jane noticed her scrutiny.
"Looking to pick up a few tips?" Jane joked.
"I... uh..." Daria couldn't answer, her throat was constricted with guilt.
"Oh, I'll bet Daria knows all she needs to know about kissing." Tom said, smiling. "I'll bet she's quite good at it."
Daria felt ready to explode with embarrassment.
Daria stared wide-eyed at Jane as she wondered who would clean up her remains from the surrounding walls.
Tom looked at his girlfriend questioningly. "Oh? How do you know?"
Jane smirked in a way that could only be described as 'evilly'. "We've kissed."
"Jane!" Daria hissed.
"See, we were both feeling really lonely. She'd just gotten over her crush on my brother, and I noted I hadn't dated anyone in well over a year, and we were lamenting these facts over a couple of cold sodas and some lousy TV. After a lull in the conversation, we both looked at each other and said 'if only you were a guy'."
Daria put her face in her hands, wondering where she could dump two bodies and not get caught.
"Well, one thing led to another and we sort of discovered we swing both ways." Jane finished, smiling at Tom, waiting for his reaction.
"So, just that once?" Tom finally said.
"No, several times since."
Tom looked thoughtfully at his sandwich.
Jane ate another spoonful of her chili, watching Tom and Daria.
"So, does that bother you, or something?" Jane asked.
"Well, no. But now I'm worried I've horned in on a whole different sort of relationship." Tom looked honestly guilty. "I mean, I felt OK expecting you to share your attention between a love and a friend, but..."
"Which segues nicely into something I've been meaning to talk to the two of you about." Jane interrupted, suddenly looking very serious.
Daria and Tom looked expectantly at Jane.
"I've been noticing a little flirting between the two of you." Jane's mouth twitched, she was suppressing a smile. "I hoped you two would warm up to each other, but jeez guys."
Daria's mouth went dry and her body went cold. Had she been so obvious even as she tried to deny it?
Tom glanced at her, his face displaying his stress.
"I'd really rather not have this turn into an episode of '90210'." Jane stirred her chili. "I suggest that we look at this uncomfortable situation with open minds and apply that intellect we're always claiming we have above our fellows."
"What?" Tom asked, confused.
"I mean, instead of getting all emotional and possessive, let's be smart about it." Jane smirked and ate another spoonful of her lunch. "Daria, be honest, what do you see?"
Daria didn't feel ready for this. If it were anyone else but Jane asking, then a few lies would make this situation go away. With Jane, however, lies would only serve to make everything crumble.
"Uh, well... We have you and Tom. Emotional and, I assume, sexual relationship."
Jane nodded confirmation. Daria felt herself blush.
"And we have you and I. Also emotional and physical if not sexual, though I don't think we've ever stressed the physical part that much."
"Don't minimize, girl."
Daria chose to ignore that. "And then there's Tom and I. No significant relationship, but an emotional and possibly physical attraction is there." Daria wished immediately that she hadn't said that. "I think."
"Yeah, it's there." Tom said in a hoarse whisper.
"Good!" Jane said, excited.
"Good?" Daria looked confused.
"Yes, good! I've had a solution since I first noticed you two flirting." Jane smiled. "All three of us can have, as Daria put it, an emotional and..." Jane smirked and looked self-satisfied. "...sexual relationship."
Daria blanched. Tom smiled; he appeared to like the idea.
"Jane, isn't that kind of..."
"What? Sick? Against all those social moral codes that you're always criticizing? Fun?"
"I, uh... well..."
"What about you, Jane? Are you sure you want to do this?" Tom asked.
"Hell yeah!" Jane said, almost too loud. "It's the best of all worlds. I get to have you and Daria."
Daria cocked an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I want to keep ya." Jane said to Daria, with a twisted smile.
"So, are you for it?" Jane asked Tom.
Tom looked hard at Jane, thinking and weighing options. "Well, yes. Yes."
"Daria?" Jane looked at her, almost pleadingly.
"I don't know." Daria said quietly, knowing she wanted it, but not sure if she should.
"Ok, tell you what: Trent's off at the Pasties and Spice club with a series of Mystic Spiral gigs. Mom's gone to a ceramics workshop in Arizona. For all I know, my dad is dead. So, Tom and I were going to make it a night of sweaty, sensual action." Jane said, elbowing her blushing boyfriend. "So, why don't you consider joining us?"
Daria blanched again.
"Look, I don't see the need for pressure." Tom explained. "If you show up, great. If not, well, we can return to status quo. I think we're all mature enough to make that promise, right?"
"Oh, definitely. I want to keep your friendship, Daria, so if you say no, I can respect it."
Oddly, Daria felt the pressure more acutely now.
"Yeah. I'm going home now." Daria said, standing. "I'll think about it."
Jane and Tom stood as well. They took their largely untouched meals to the trash bins and put away their trays. Daria looked at her two friends - her lover and potential lover - and nodded a good-bye.
Jane whispered something into Tom's ear.
"Are you sure?" Tom asked.
"Now, hesitant-boy." Jane jokingly ordered.
Tom walked over to Daria, placed his hands on her shoulders and kissed her.
Daria rested on her bed, looking at the ceiling as if it contained all her answers. She had to figure this out, and she had so little time in which to think.
That kiss had been wonderful.
Daria admonished herself to stay on topic. There were other aspects to be worried about besides the sensual. Of course, Daria realized, many of the issues she had with this were similar if not identical to the issues she first had the night after she had made love with Jane. Almost all of her guilt had been based on those very same social mores she wanted to be free of.
Jane's kisses were pretty wonderful, too.
Daria scowled, there should be more to this than sex and pleasure. She wasn't a hedonist, just a free thinker.
Daria thought freely about that. There really was more there than sex already. They all enjoyed many of the same things. Philosophy, literature, art, movies, bad TV, and laughing at the world. They had shared these things with each other already. Why not share this, as well?
Daria glanced at her clock, then stood and stretched. She picked up her knapsack and headed toward Jane's.
Each step made her a little more nervous. Every block made her more certain she shouldn't be doing this.
Eventually she found herself at the Lane's front door, frightened nearly out of her wits. She asked herself why. She had gone over her fears, and discarded each as unnecessary and unfounded. Why be afraid now?
Because Tom was a male. She had no experience with males. What if she was no good at it?
She heard Jane giggle inside as she passed by the door.
Daria thought about her. She didn't exactly have experience with females when she and Jane had experimented, and that had turned out fine. Besides, Jane was always so supportive.
"In for a penny, in for a pound." Daria whispered to herself.
She raised her fist to the door and rapped on it, prepared for an interesting adventure.