A Daria fanfic by E. A. Smith
Timeline: this fic takes place late in the third season
"Oh, Daria, can I speak with you for a minute?"
The halting, effeminate voice stopped Daria dead in her tracks, even as it gave her feet the urge to dash forward. Dammit, I almost made it out. She looked to her side and saw O'Neill beckoning to her, even as the rest of the class rushed out the door. Seeing the smiling face and vacant eyes, she could feel her shoulders slump as she resigned herself to the inevitable interaction.
"Hey, Daria," said Jane, standing at her side, "were you making paper airplanes in class again? You promised me we would work on the nuclear-tipped ones together." The jibe gave Daria's spirits a brief uplift.
"Not yet. I've still got the uranium purifying. Our clients deserve only the best."
"Well, just remember to use the good stuff. We don't want those Libyan terrorists coming after us again." Jane hiked her bookbag higher up on her shoulder. "See you after math class. Remember, don't look him directly in the eyes!" This last was a parting shot as she walked out the door, leaving Daria alone with their English teacher. He pulled out a brochure from his desk drawer as Daria approached.
"Daria, I'm so glad we have the chance to talk," O'Neill began, his voice vibrating with what Daria assumed was the closest his hourly dose of lithium would allow him to get to excitement. "I've just found out about a wonderful opportunity for you to further develop your writing skills, a chance for you to travel higher on the road to literary excellence in both an academic and a collaborative environment." He handed her the brochure, upon which was printed Young Writers Conference and Seminar, Baltimore, MD. "It's a chance for you to learn from many of the top writers of our area, as well as to meet many of your fellow young writers. You can listen to real published authors talk about their road to success, as well as have your own work heard and critiqued – but not too harshly! – by other authors your own age. Doesn't it just sound fantastic?!"
Taking a cursory scan of the paper, Daria had to concede that the idea had potential. She recognized many of the listed speakers as actually good authors from in and around the Baltimore area, some of whom she personally enjoyed. And she wasn't so arrogant as to believe she was the only good student writer around; the idea of having her work appraised by other talented writers was very appealing, since her work was usually only appreciated by Jane, and not always by her. It didn't look like such a bad way to spend a Saturday. Nevertheless, she did her best to hide her interest. No reason to let O'Neill think he might have actually hit upon a good idea. That will just encourage him.
"I suppose I could borrow Dad's car for a Saturday," she said in monotone.
"Oh, no, Daria," O'Neill replied. "This is a school-sponsored event. You have to be accompanied by an approved educational sponsor." The warm flush of interest drained from Daria's body.
"You mean, you would have to take me." Her voice was now not just monotone, but dead flat.
"Yes, Daria. Isn't it great?! I want to take you, along with my other most promising writer. To join you both in your great journey of inward discovery and development. Won't that be fun? A special experience just for the three of us!"
Other promising writer? Oh, dear god, don't let it be Quinn! "Don't most male teachers get ten to twenty for having special experiences with their female students?" Daria grinned inwardly as O'Neill's face turned five different shades of red in as many seconds.
"Oh . . . ah . . . well . . . um . . . that's not really the kind of special experience I mean . . ."
Daria let him stammer on for a few more seconds before her conscience got the better of her.
"It's fine, Mr. O'Neill. I know what you meant." She didn't know whether to feel relieved or even guiltier at his own massive sigh of relief.
"Oh, that's good, because you know I would never make any unwelcome advances, Daria. I fully respect your body and your personhood and your right to define your own personal space and would never think of violating it. But, you know that if anyone else ever disrespected you in such a fashion, that you could come to me and -- "
"Yes, I know," Daria butted in, hoping that she would never again hear the words I fully respect your body come out of any teacher's mouth. "About this -- " she continued, waving the brochure. "I don't know. I'm usually really busy on Saturdays with schoolwork."
"Oh, please, think about it. It would be such a great growth opportunity for you."
"I'll think about it," she said. It did still sound like a great idea, if she could manage to ditch O'Neill and this other student. O'Neill almost bounced up and down with joy.
"That's so great, Daria, really! I just know you won't regret it if you go. Maybe we can even make this a yearly event for us. The student writer and her mentor, studying annually at the feet of the masters."
"I just hope they've been washed," Daria replied. The likelihood of her accepting the offer had taken another big step downward. "I have to be off to my next class now. DeMartino hates it when we're late." Daria exited quickly, sliding the brochure into her jacket pocket. I don't know if I could take a day with O'Neill, but still . . . it might be fun.
* * * * *
"I think you should go for it," Jane said as they trudged home from school.
"Are you sure?" Daria replied, raising an eyebrow. "It means a day with O'Neill, not to mention whatever other Lawndale High student he's pegged as having 'potential'. Remember, this is the same man who gave Quinn an 'A' for 'Academic Imprisonment'."
"Just do what I did that time we had to ride home with him from the theater – jump in the back seat and pretend you can't hear him. If you're lucky, the other student will be riding shotgun, and O'Neill will spend the whole time pestering him."
"Jane, when am I ever lucky?"
"Then you'll still just have to deal with one nitwit, not two. Maybe the other rider will be a cute senior." Jane's grin was evil.
"Riding with cute boys in the backseat is more Quinn's life than mine." A nagging worry in the back of Daria's mind surfaced again. "This other writer had better not be Quinn. That essay still haunts me."
"Why would it be? She hasn't done anything brainy since then." Jane shrugged. "I'd say you scared her back into the fashion fold pretty thoroughly."
"You make it sound like a bad thing."
"You put Quinn in her place, regained your status as the brain of the school, and all was right with the world. Works for me. But if you're so worried that it was Quinn, why didn't you just ask?"
"I should have, but I decided instead to take the perfect opportunity to make him squirm instead."
"Good opportunities should never be wasted."
"Well, it backfired on me a bit, but it was still worth it." Even with the aftermath, though, Daria still relished the memory. "But you're right, it wouldn't be Quinn. Even if he asked her, she would never say yes, and waste an entire Saturday on something as geeky as a writer's conference."
"Whereas you, on the other hand, have nothing better to do on a Saturday. You might as well spend it at a writer's conference, rather than in your room plotting world domination, or watching Sick, Sad World at my place."
"Getting tired of my company?"
"Not until something better comes along, which it hasn't. But seriously, I really think this would be good for you. I've told you before, I believe in a community of artists, and you aren't going to get that here in Lawndale. In fact, I might be spending this summer at an artist's colony myself."
"You're going away for the summer? Who's going to hold me back when I finally go after my family with an axe?" Daria wasn't certain to what extent she was kidding. Now that she had her, the idea of a summer without Jane was appalling.
"I don't know," Jane replied, looking a little guilty. "Maybe. I haven't been accepted yet. And you're right, a whole summer is a very long time. But if I do go, it won't be to get away from you, but to bask in the glow of my fellow artists. A whole summer of talking art with people who don't look at me sideways when they see my work." Jane's lips turned up slightly at the corners. "It's a great feeling, believe me. This is your chance to get the same thing, even if it's just for a day. You're always saying how you can't wait to get out of this town and around some people who actually appreciate intelligence. I can't believe you're not jumping at this chance."
"You're starting to sound like O'Neill." Daria smirked, to let Jane no that no real insult was intended.
"Except that he's excited just on general principles. I, on the other hand, know what I'm talking about. Go, mingle, learn. Ditch O'Neill and the other student if you can, and if you can't, have some fun messing with their minds between lectures. Or find someone more interesting to spend time with. It shouldn't be hard. You know you want to."
She's right. I really do want to go. Why should I let O'Neill scare me away from doing something I might actually enjoy? I've never been taught writing by someone who actually knew what he was talking about. Here's my chance to learn and improve my craft. I shouldn't pass it up.
"OK, you've convinced me. My plans for world domination will have to wait. I'll tell him tomorrow that I'm going."
"That's great, Daria," Jane said with genuine enthusiasm. "I don't think you'll regret it."
"But if that other student turns out to be Brittany," Daria said, "you're paying my therapy bills."
* * * * *
The chilly Saturday morning air rushed Daria from the front door of her home into the back door of O'Neill's car, her face and eyes lowered against the wind. She dropped herself into the empty seat and faced forward, quickly noticing that the only occupied place in the front of the car was behind the steering wheel, where O'Neill was glancing at her through the rear-view mirror, his mouth already assuming a vacuous smile of welcome. She could feel a presence beside her, and knew that she had not been so lucky as to be the first on O'Neill's route, to claim the rear for herself. She turned to ascertain the identity of her so-far silent fellow passenger.
"Stacy?" Daria blinked in surprise. "Stacy Rowe?"
"Oh, hi . . . Daria," Stacy replied hesitantly, eyes wide. She bit her lower lip. "Um, Quinn's . . . cousin, right?"
"Something like that," Daria said, not able to keep the sneer completely out of her voice. Of all the people . . . I would never have guessed her. Isn't there some Fashion Club meeting she's missing, or something? Just how low are O'Neill's standards, anyway? Do I really want to know? This conference suddenly seems a whole lot less appealing.
"You two already know each other?" said O'Neill from the front. "That's fantastic! My two favorite writers are already simpatico! Are you ready to begin your voyage into a whole new world of self-discovery?"
I'm going to be getting it from both sides today, aren't I? I don't think I can take this. Rats, the car is already moving; no getting out now.
"I'm sorry, I can't hear you." Daria raised her voice for that extra bit of verisimilitude. "It's too noisy back here!" Hopefully that will keep him quiet for the rest of the trip. But what about her . . .
"I just want to tell you that I loved the story you read at the coffeehouse last year." Stacy's earnest comment caught Daria off-guard. Of all the things she had expected to hear from Quinn's pig-tailed friend, that was the lowest on the list. She was so surprised that, for a few seconds, she was speechless. Stacy looked at her a little funny.
"Oh . . . ah . . . thank you," she finally stammered out, in her uncertainty going with the safe and expected reply.
"It's too bad that all those jocks rioted and the place got shut down. Sometimes, jocks can just be so . . . stupid, you know?"
Should I tell her that was the reaction I was hoping for, and really freak her out? The idea had a sadistic appeal, but she had heard Quinn talk about Stacy in a panic, and she didn't think she was prepared to deal with a hysterical teenage girl. Besides, she was complimenting my work. How big of a jerk would I be if I took a potshot at her for that? And she did say jocks are stupid, so maybe she's not all bad.
"Are you going to read another story today?" Stacy went on. "They're supposed to have workshops where we read our stories to each other. I brought some of mine." She held up the notebook she had been clutching in her lap, it's dark blue cover bejeweled with sequins and little red hearts. Cute. All it needs is a unicorn standing under a rainbow. As a matter of fact, Daria had brought "In the Cards", the story she had written for O'Neill near the end of the last school year. Despite a certain sentimental tone, it was still one of her favorites; she hoped to get some advice on how to reduce the sentimentality while keeping the kernel of the story alive. "I hope they like them," Stacy went on, her expression darkening. "It would be horrible if everyone told me that my stories were awful and I had no talent." Now tears started to form. "What if they do, Daria? What if everybody laughs at me, like Sandi does when I wear sandals with the wrong dress? What if I'm no good, Daria? I really, really want to be good at something . . ." Her cheeks were now coated in salty tracks, and her voice choked. She buried her face in her notebook.
And the decent into hell begins.
* * * * *
It took most of the trip to get Stacy calmed down, Daria awkwardly patting her on the back and offering half-hearted assurances that everything would be alright, with O'Neill providing what support he could from the front seat. Eventually the tears stopped flowing, by which time her mascara was running and her makeup smeared, leaving Stacy looking like some demented clown. The only way they could calm her down then was to pull over and let her in the front, where she could meticulously fix herself up by the visor mirror. Finally left blissfully alone in the back, Daria spent the rest of the drive into Baltimore perusing the schedule of talks in the brochure, mentally checking off the ones which seemed the most interesting and useful, planning out her day.
When they arrived at the convention center, O'Neill went to sign them in, leaving Daria and Stacy standing briefly alone in the enormous, high-ceilinged room, only partly filled with milling high school students. Stacy edged slightly closer to Daria, a nervous expression on her face as she looked around at the room filled with strangers. Daria had to fight an urge to edge away; she didn't want to set the girl off again.
"I didn't know there were so many young writers around," she told Daria in a small voice. "I don't know anyone else who writes. Well, except for you, of course, and that weird goth girl from the coffeehouse."
"The rocks we all live under are in the unfashionable part of town," Daria replied. "We only come out into the light for conferences, coffeehouses, and alcohol binges. Don't worry; as soon as this is over, we'll all go scurrying back under cover again."
"You don't really go on drinking binges, do you?" Stacy's eyes were wide. "I mean, you're unfashionable, but you always seemed to be pretty together." Is that actually concern in her voice, or did I just freak her out? Daria sighed.
"No, Stacy. I was joking. I don't drink or do drugs. Nancy Reagan would be so proud." Please don't ask me who that is.
"I'm glad to hear that," Stacy said, and it seemed to be sincere.
O'Neill chose that increasingly uncomfortable moment to make a reappearance, two rectangular pieces of paper stuck to his left hand.
"I've got both of you registered, and here are your nametags . . ." He waved the pieces of paper at them, and peeled one of them off his left hand with his right. For a split second, he made as if to place the tag on Daria's chest, but then his hand froze as he realized where it was headed. He swallowed heavily, and looked uncertain. Before she had to deal with yet another breakdown, Daria yanked the sticky square off his fingers and slapped it on her left breast, noticing that it was emblazoned with the name "Dora". Now, what shall we name the other one? she thought. Stacy did something similar, but with a good bit more grace. Her name, Daria noted, was technically correct, but spelled "Stacie".
"Now, we're all ready!" O'Neill said, waving to his own cartouche. "There's so many interesting talks to choose from. It's all so exciting! Oh, look, they've got Honeytree Jones talking on "Finding Your Inner Poet". I just love her books; they're so inspiring."
"Then go, be inspired," Daria said, not daring to hope that getting rid of him could be that easy. O'Neill looked off to the side, then back to Daria and Stacy, and repeated the motion several times, his face drawn.
"But I don't want either of you to feel abandoned. The loss of an authority figure can be such a traumatic event in the life of a young woman. I would hate to be the cause of some later neurosis."
"Don't think of it as abandoning us," Daria replied, feeling the muscles in her eyes wanting to roll. "Think of it as pushing us out of the nest so we can learn how to fly, like a mother eagle." Daria had to fight hard to keep the sarcasm out of her voice, and she didn't think she was fully successful.
"Oh, Daria, that was so beautiful!" O'Neill gushed. "I can see you've already found your inner poet, so you free me to find mine. I feel much better about it now. I'll see both of you later today." With a cheerful wave, he was off.
"Daria, that was so smart," Stacy said. "You knew just what to say to make him feel better."
"Really? Because I was going for just enough to make him leave." One down, one to go.
"So," Stacy said, looking over Daria's shoulder at the schedule, "where are we going first?"
We?! "Uh, Stacy, you know we don't have to stick together."
"I know, but I'd like to. You're a great writer. I'm sure you'll pick out some interesting speakers."
What is wrong with this girl? Can't she tell that I don't want her around? Can't she just decide where she wants to go on her own? The answer was all too obvious. She couldn't, or didn't want to, decide. She wanted someone else to decide for her. Oh, god, I've become her new Sandi, at least for now. I'm not Sandi, goddammit! But Daria couldn't think of any way to get rid of her without absolutely crushing her, and she knew she couldn't bring herself to be so deliberately cruel. So I guess I'm stuck with her for the day. God, I hope she doesn't like to talk during class.
* * * * *
Daria's prediction proved all too true. At each lecture Daria attended – "Constructing Characters", "Science Fiction and other Fantastic Writing", "Getting Published", "Humor and Story", and others – Stacy was right there beside her. Daria took every opportunity she could to suggest that Stacy might find lectures of her own choosing to be more interesting, but each time Stacy demurred, stating that she trusted Daria's choices more than her own, her abdication of responsibility adding yet another level of discomfort to Daria's situation. Several times, Daria wondered if Stacy had ever made a single decision on her own in her entire life, or if she had always just attached herself to the nearest stronger personality to do her thinking for her – first Sandi, and now, under these circumstances, Daria. She wondered if Stacy were ever trapped alone on a desert island, if she would do anything at all. A part of her really wanted to try the experiment.
Still, it could have been worse. While she harassed Daria between classes with her constant babbling, during the lectures she was very focused, paying close attention and taking numerous notes. And the whole time, she never said a single word about fashion, cuteness, or popularity, spending all her words instead on the various writers she enjoyed – never had Daria heard so much discourse on Judy Blume – and requests to Daria to clarify various aspects of the lecture they had just attended. Requests Daria felt honor-bound to answer, though she tried to do so as curtly as possible to discourage further questions. Daria couldn't deny, though, feeling a certain amount of satisfaction in the attention; a member of the school's precious Fashion Club was looking to her, the unpopular girl, for guidance. It was a victory of sorts over the shallow values of Lawndale High life as usual. And once she began to get used to the constant stream of verbiage, the attention just felt good, though she hated to admit it to herself. That didn't mean that the situation was in any way ideal, but there was a distinct silver lining she would not have predicted, especially since they were able to avoid O'Neill for the rest of the day.
Finally, at the end of the day, came the final workshop, the lynchpin of the entire conference. All the students were divided in groups of four and five, and each student was to read a short work to be evaluated and critiqued by the other members of their group. Daria had originally been looking forward to this, to both giving and receiving real criticism with other writers, but as her day with Stacy had wore on, she had begun to dread it. She would be forced to listen to some doubtlessly dreadful piece of writing from her – "A Day at Cashman's", perhaps, or "The Day My Boyfriend Broke Up With Me" – and be forced to one of two choices, to either lie to preserve the girl's feelings and ensure a pleasant ride home, or tell the truth and crush her. This was still Stacy, after all, and even though she had not proven to be as odious a companion as she had feared, this was still the girl who would spend hours talking to Quinn about scrunchies and sundresses. So, as Daria and Stacy took their places in the circle of four, Daria felt a twinge of real resentment towards her companion, for spoiling an experience Daria had been anticipating, even if Stacy had no idea what she had done. She noted that Stacy was apparently even more nervous about the workshop, though; her face was white and her eyes wide as they took their places. She locked her gaze with Daria's in a plea for silent support, making Daria feel about ten inches tall. How am I supposed to be honest to that? But if I just tell her what she wants to hear, what's the point of all of this? Damn you, Stacy, I never asked for a follower!
Since Stacy was on the verge of a breakdown, and Daria was still trying to decide how to handle the situation, the other two members of the group presented their stories first. A smartly-dressed, bespectacled girl named Bethany read a poem about love of nature, and a geeky-looking, rather scruffy boy whose nametag proclaimed him to be David read a sci-fi story. Neither were bad, though neither were brilliant either, and the other members of the group spent about half an hour making suggestions for improvement. Daria made a point of toning down her usual sarcasm, more for Stacy's sake than for the others, and she was relieved to see that as the discussion went on, Stacy slowly regained her usual color, and even gained enough confidence to participate, though she never said anything that was not positive. Still, Daria was encouraged that she did not react badly to hearing the gentle criticisms offered by the other members of the group. Hearing it about others isn't the same thing as hearing it about your own work, though.
Next was Daria's turn, and she spent about 10 minutes reading "In the Cards", to a very positive response. David and Bethany thought that the story was touching, which was doubly reassuring to Daria, since they had no personal experience with her family. Stacy was the most effusive of all in her praise, which was coupled with a wistful smile that Daria thought probably had less to do with the story and more to do with the portrayal of Quinn's future within. The other two agreed with her that the tone of the story was a bit sentimental, and suggested that it may have been better to not portray the future as so perfect, but as a whole, it was a success.
It was now Stacy's turn, and all the ease she had gained over the past 45 minutes or so vanished. She opened up her notebook with trembling hands, that colorfully-decorated cover doing nothing to alleviate Daria's fears, and took a few breaths.
"I'd – I'd – I'd like to read a story called . . . um, 'Sisters'." She paused to steady her voice. "I wrote it about . . . well, I was going through . . . um, that doesn't really matter, I suppose." She was clearly terrified, and Bethany reached out and touched her knee in a soothing gesture. Stacy smiled shyly. "Anyway, here it is." Here it comes. Daria braced herself, not reassured by what already sounded like an overly-treacly intro.
But, as Stacy read, Daria was shocked to discover that her fears were almost completely unjustified. Stacy's style was engaging and personal, drawing the reader in like an old friend, and her vocabulary was surprisingly strong for someone who willingly spent time with Tiffany Blum-Deckler. Daria had to acknowledge that, in terms of style, Stacy might very well be her superior; she easily drew emotion from the reader that Daria had to fight for. Even more important, the story itself was powerful, and Daria could feel it tugging at the heartstrings she thought she had cut long ago. She told of two sisters where the younger was always looking up to the older, seeking guidance and advice, while the older simply used the younger for her own ends. Daria couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't derived from Stacy's own experiences with Sandi, and if so, if Stacy knew it. It was a sad, lonely tale.
The story was not without its flaws, however. In Daria's opinion, it veered too often into melodrama, sacrificing believability for even more emotion. It also had a tendency to wander and lose focus, diluting some of its emotional power, and the pacing felt a bit off. Daria knew that these were areas in which she excelled, so she felt confident in her judgment, if not in how to let Stacy know. Maybe I'll be lucky, and the others will say it for me. I might still have to deal with a weeping Stacy all the way home, but at least my own conscience will be clear of it.
By the time Stacy was finished, Bethany was in tears, though David seemed a bit bored. Stacy had gained confidence as she had read, becoming absorbed in her own work, but as soon as she was done she clutched her notebook to her chest and looked at each of them, her eyes begging for approval.
"Oh, Stacy, that was beautiful," Bethany gushed through her tears. "That's one of the best, saddest things I've ever heard. They should make a movie out of it." Stacy nearly lept out of her seat to embrace the other girl.
"Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!" she said. "No one's ever told me anything like that about one of my stories before! I mean, Sandi always laughed at me for trying, and my parents are always telling me that I'll never make any money writing. And O'Neill always told me I was good, but he says that to everybody. Thank you!" They broke the embrace after a few more seconds, and Stacy turned to David and Daria for their opinions, her mouth twitching between a delighted smile and a worried frown.
"It was OK, I guess," David said, still sounding bored. Stacy's mouth began to twitch faster, and he quickly amended his statement. "I'm sorry, but it just sounded like a chick story to me. I don't mean that it's bad; I just don't feel qualified to comment because I just can't relate. But I think your writing was good." Stacy nodded, seeming to accept this, and turned to Daria. She was biting her bottom lip and her knuckles were white from clutching her notebook, even more so than she had been for the others. Oh, great, it's my turn. And she obviously values my opinion. What to say? At least I can start with the positive; at least there's positive to start with.
"I think it was good, overall," Daria began, and Stacy's expression immediately relaxed. "Your style is easy to hear, and I imagine is probably easy to read. You clearly know how to tell a story. I think that, on the whole, based on what I've heard, you're a good writer, Stacy." A huge grin split Stacy's face, and she made to jump up and embrace Daria as well, but Daria held out her hand. She sat back down, and waited expectantly.
So, do I tell her the truth? I think I have to. It wouldn't be right to hold back; that's the reason she's here, after all. She's already been told by two of us that she's a good writer; hopefully, she'll be able to handle a little criticism now. I have to be as gentle as possible, though.
"That being said, there are a few things that could be improved upon." Stacy visibly gulped, but otherwise controlled herself. "You know how to tell a story well, but you seem a bit fuzzy on how to put one together." She went on to outline, as dispassionately as she could, the flaws she had seen, and gave a few off-the-cuff ideas on how to improve them. To her credit, Stacy accepted the criticism in silence, with no hysteria or tears, even jotting down a few notes. Daria went on for a few minutes, and by the time she was done, it was time for the workshop – and the conference – to be over. Daria and Stacy said goodbye to Bethany and David, Stacy and Bethany exchanging email addresses, then walked out to the main foyer to look for Mr. O'Neill.
* * * * *
For much of the ride home, Stacy was uncharacteristically silent, looking out her window as Daria sat next to her, going over her notes from the various sessions. Shortly before reaching Lawndale, she turned her gaze over to Daria.
"Daria, can I ask you something?" Her voice squeaked slightly. Her face was so serious that Daria surpressed her usual sarcastic reply to such an inquiry, and gave a simple affirmative. "All those things you told me that I could do better in my stories . . . you're really good at those, I can tell. I've . . . um, always wanted to write a story with someone else. It seems like it would be a really fun thing to do, especially if the other person is a really good writer. Would you write a story with me? You could help me do everything right. I think we could make something really great."
"Stacy, I don't know if that would be such a good idea . . ." One day with her wasn't that bad, but I don't want to always have to be watching what I say so I don't freak her out. And I have the feeling we really don't write the same kind of stories. Still, the idea of being a mentor did have its appeal. And she knew that, if Stacy could learn from her, she could also learn a few things from Stacy as well. But that wasn't enough of a reason to put herself through a collaboration.
"Daria, please! I could learn so much from you. I really want to be a good writer. Sandi's always telling me that it's a waste of time, that I should just worry about being cute, and that no cool boys will like a girl who writes, but there were a lot of cute girls there today and some cute boys too, so that may not be true. And I'm not really that good at fashion, I know, but I think I could be good as a writer. Please, help me, Daria."
Daria almost turned her down a second time, but then something switched in her brain, showing her the situation in a completely new light. That just may work.
"Sure, Stacy, I'll do it."
* * * * *
Daria lay sprawled on Jane's bed, remote in hand, idly flipping through channels; Jane knelt close by, making a few finishing touches on a sculpture, electric drill buzzing.
"So, you're writing a story with Stacy Rowe," Jane said during a lull in her drilling. She craned her neck ostentatiously to glare at Daria's neck. "Well, I don't see any implants. Turn over, and let me check your other side."
"Just walk out to the sand dune out back and all will be explained."
"I don't know if that's possible." Jane abandoned her work, and came to sit by Daria on the bed. "Is this the result of spending too much time with O'Neill? Sudden burst of optimism and a sunny view of fashion drones?"
"It's shocking, I know, but Stacy's not that bad." Jane cocked an eyebrow. "She's no Steinbeck or anything, and her tastes are a bit melodramatic for me, but she's much better than I would have ever given her credit for being. And she wants to get better, so she asked me to help her improve. And, to be painfully honest, the learning wouldn't be completely one way; there are even some things she could teach me."
"Wow. The hidden depths of shallow sycophants. Next on Sick, Sad World. But I'm surprised that you're even bothering. Why go through the trouble? Is she really that promising?"
"No," Daria admitted hesitantly. "There is something else."
"A-ha! The hidden agenda comes out. This is all just a plot to irritate Quinn, isn't it?"
"That would be a nice side effect, but it wasn't what I was thinking." Daria paused. She had yet to speak this idea out loud, and was concerned that it could make her sound like either a nut with a messianic complex or just a complete dick. But if anyone would give her the benefit of the doubt, it would be Jane. "I think this is my chance to deprogram a member of the Fashion Club." Jane's eyebrow now climbed almost to her hairline.
"I thought you gave up on deprogramming after your second night of babysitting for the Guptys?"
"That was a setback, true, but compared to this, the Guptys were just practice." Daria's voice rose ever so slightly as she began to warm to her subject. "After spending a day with her, I don't think Stacy really fits with the rest of the Fashion Club. Most likely, she was looking for some group to identify with, and Sandi was the strongest personality around. She's with Sandi because she thinks she needs her and that group, but I think she's denying who she really is. If I can turn her into a good writer, she might have the confidence to go it alone. Imagine what it would do for Stacy if I could break her away from Sandi's grip, show her all the other things out there besides clothes, make-up, and boys. There might be a real person down there, hidden underneath the fashion drone. She might find that she could be herself, and not just a clone." Jane looked suitably impressed, if not entirely convinced.
"I've never known you to be the crusading type. What's with all the sudden altruism?" The question took Daria aback, and she looked a bit guilty.
"What you said about Quinn a few days ago made me think. Quinn's sudden supposed brainy-ness bothered me because it was fake. My whole identity was just another fad for her. But Stacy . . . she's not trying to be smart or creative for the sake of an image. She just has the natural potential, which could develop under the right guidance. If I'm going to stop Quinn from being a fake brain, it just seems fair that I help Stacy along to being a real one."
"So what you told me about you learning from her was just a front? That's uncharacteristically sneaky of you, Daria." Jane's tone was light, but Daria could detect a real disapproval underneath.
"No, there are things I can learn from her," Daria hastened to reassure her. "But she has much more to learn from me."
* * * * *
That next Saturday morning, giving Daria the least amount of time possible to wake and shower and shake off the last few remnants of unconsciousness, Stacy arrived, cute notebook in hand, eager to begin. Daria motioned for her to sit on the bed, as she took the desk. Stacy sat, but it seemed an impermanent gesture; she looked ready to jump back up again at a moment's notice, her gleeful energy too great to be satisfied with such a stationary condition. They sat in silent for a few seconds as they looked at each other, Stacy bright-eyed and Daria a little bit wary. Stacy's eyes then dimmed a bit, and she leaned in as close as she could get.
"Daria, do you think Quinn knows I'm here?" Her eyes darted quickly to the door, then to the wall that separated Daria's domain from her sister's. "You didn't tell her anything, did you?" The eager eyes were now rimmed with anxiety.
"That would require me to willingly converse with her," Daria replied wryly. "Don't worry; this will never get back to the Fashion Club. My room is a fashion-free zone. You're still in good standing with Sandi the queen bee." Stacy looked doubtful.
"I'm never really in good standing with Sandi." Her gaze was now completely downcast. "There are just so many ways to mess up. Nothing's ever good enough for her."
If I'm good enough, you won't have to worry about that much longer, Daria thought with secret satisfaction. But we'd better get started, before she loses it completely and the whole morning is a waste.
"Did you bring any stories to work on?" Daria asked. Almost immediately, Stacy brightened up and flipped to the back of her notebook.
"Yes, I've got all sorts of ideas," she said, handing it over. "Whenever I get an idea for a new story, I write it down here. Most of them, I never do anything with, but a few really inspire me."
Daria looked over the list of hastily scribbled story seeds. As Stacy said, most of them weren't that great, but a few looked promising. I can work with this.
"Do you have an outline for any of these?" Stacy just blinked in surprise.
"No. Do I need one?" Now it was Daria's turn to react with amazement.
"Yes. How do you expect to know where you are going without an outline to follow?"
"I don't. I just start writing and see where it takes me. I like to be surprised by where the story goes."
Daria could feel her neck muscles wanting to shake her head back and forth. She has so much to learn. I came along just in time, it seems.
"That certainly explains a lot," she said, trying not to let her amazement show through too clearly. "Stacy, that's why those stories you gave me to read are so unfocused. When you don't have a clear plan, you can't organize around central themes, you can't foreshadow later events, you can't tie everything together. You just wander from scene to scene."
"But . . . that story I read at the conference, the one everyone said they liked . . . that's how I wrote it." Stacy's breath quickened. "Were they lying to me? Did everybody really hate it? Were they all laughing at me behind my back?!" Her eyes widened to saucers, and her breath began to catch.
"No, Stacy!" Daria felt a bit of panic herself, not knowing if she could deal with this. "That story was good. Everyone really did like it. No one was laughing at you."
"Are . . . you . . . sure?"
"I'm sure, and I don't lie. You wrote a good story."
That seemed to do the trick. Stacy's breath slowed and the color diffused back into her cheeks. She took a few more moments to compose herself.
"So it really was a good story?"
"Yes, Stacy, it was." God, is this what Quinn has to deal with all the time? I never thought I would feel sympathy for her.
"But I wrote it without an outline."
"You got lucky," Daria said. "It still wanders a bit, though, and it would probably have been better had you thought it out beforehand. A good story is one that has been gone over with a fine-toothed comb, all the unnecessary material cut out to emphasize what's important. You can't get that by just going with whatever you feel at the time."
"But . . ." Stacy's voice was tentative, and she was starting to slouch down into her seat. "I enjoy seeing where the story is going to take me. I like to be surprised. That's the fun of writing. At least . . . it is for me." This last was barely audible.
"Fun?" Daria said. "Writing isn't about fun." If she doesn't take this seriously, I don't know if I can help her. Stacy looked simply dumbfounded.
"You don't think writing is fun? Why do you do it?"
The question caught Daria off-guard. She had always just been a writer. It came naturally to her. She had to think to disentangle and verbalize her feelings on the matter.
"There's a real satisfaction in the completed work. I enjoy the feeling of having created something, of having contributed to the world of literature. I like the idea of something that will live on after me." Yes, I think that sums it up pretty nicely. "But the actual writing process itself is hard work. If you treat it as just a game, something to have fun with, then you'll never produce anything great."
"I don't know that I want to write something 'great'," Stacy said with a demure shrug. "I just want to be good, and write stories that people will like. I've always thought I could do that and have fun, too."
"Maybe someday you will," Daria said, relying heavily on what patience she had. "Maybe, when you are good enough, you'll be able to write good stuff easily enough to enjoy it. I haven't reached that point yet, but I won't deny that it exists. But you'll never reach it if you're concentrating on just having fun. Writing is hard, but if you're willing to put the work in, I think you can become 'good', though I would hope you wouldn't be content with stopping there." No wonder she's so content to stay in Sandi's shadow. I think there's still hope, but I'm going to have to push her. Damn it, she's really going to make me work. "So, are you willing to work, and be serious about it?"
"Yes, I am, Daria," Stacy replied, squaring her shoulders like a soldier preparing for battle. "I promise I'll try to be more serious." She put on a solemn face so ludicrous that, even in the middle of her frustration, Daria almost smiled.
Stacy, time for your reformation to begin.
* * * * *
In the hall outside, Quinn stood with her ear to the door, listening in to the remarkable event of her sister and Stacy willingly meeting together.
* * * * *
"So, amiga, I haven't seen much of you the past few days," Jane said to Daria as the two walked home from school. "How goes the emancipation of Stacy Rowe?" Daria just groaned in response. "That bad, huh?"
"It's like the girl has no clue how to construct a realistic story," Daria said in a strained tone. "Not only did she have some crazy idea that we could just start writing and 'see where it takes us', but she doesn't seem to see the importance of character or continuity. I keep trying to steer her towards a straightforward, character-driven plot for the sake of simplicity, so she can learn how to really perfect a basic story before she tries something complex, and she keeps throwing in all these off-the-wall developments. She wants people to act out of character for the sake of melodrama, and is always asking me what we are going to do for a plot twist. She puts excitement above all else. I keep having to remind her that stories are about more than just cheap thrills, that the ones that really last are those where the characters and situations are consistent and believable."
"But weren't you telling me a few days ago about how promising she is, and how good that one story was?"
"It was, and a lot of her ideas have real potential, if she learns how to use them correctly. But she has no discretion, no clue as to when an idea will work and when it needs to be kept out for the sake of the overall story." Daria shook her head "She just wants to throw a bunch of plot elements at the wall and see which ones stick. It's chaotic. So far, I've been pretty patient about it and haven't challenged her on some of them, but I'm nearing my limits. I think I'm going to have to be tough on her for her own good."
"What are you planning to do?" Jane asked, her voice strangely monotone.
"I've already started," Daria replied, absorbed in her own difficulties and oblivious to her friend's changing tone. "I lent her my copy of Aristotle's Poetics, as a beginning towards teaching her about proper story structure." Jane's eyebrows climbed.
"Isn't that a bit heavy for her? Or for anyone?"
"Stacy needs to expand her horizons. Not just for the sake of her writing, but so she can start to see there's more to the world than Sandi's dictates."
"Maybe that's not what Stacy wants, even deep down," Jane replied. "All she asked you to do was to help her write a good story."
"Jane, even with all her problems, Stacy really is talented, reasonably intelligent, and an overall decent person. She wants out of the Fashion Club, away from the shallow and self-absorbed. I know that she does, even if she doesn't know it yet."
Jane was quiet for a few minutes, and now that she was thinking about the writing situation, Daria didn't feel like talking. They walked on in not-quite-companionable silence for a bit, before Jane spoke up again.
"So, when's your next writing session?"
"This afternoon at four, after her Fashion Club meeting." Jane had never before heard Daria put so much scorn into a single name.
"Do you mind if I sit in? I'm curious to watch the deprogramming process at work." Daria looked at Jane in mild surprise.
"Sure, if you want. I think you'll be bored, though."
"I'll bring along my sketch pad. I've never drawn artists in the process of creation before. Maybe I can even illustrate your story once it's done."
"Come along then. I can always use an ally in the fight against fashion."
* * * * *
The hands on Stacy's watch ticked inexorably towards four, but with just a few minutes to spare, Sandi and Quinn were still heavily involved in their debate over strappies and strapless dresses in relation to the upcoming spring season, with no signs of stopping. Stacy found herself bouncing in her seat, body torn between jumping up and running off to Daria, or staying put until the official end of the meeting, when she could leave without suspicion.
Oh, why can't they just shut up about it, she thought. Daria really doesn't like it when I'm late, and I can already tell that I'm getting on her nerves. But Sandi hates it when I leave early, and if she gets too mad at me, she'll make me organize her lip glosses again. Or kick me out of the club altogether, and then no one will like me anymore. I wish Quinn were president. But she would think me writing with her sister was too brainy, too. Oh, I really need to go. Maybe they'll just think I need to use the little girl's room. She giggled, and immediately Sandi turned to her with scorn on her face.
"Stacy," Sandi said in her deep, almost lisping voice, "do you find something funny about the upcoming spring dress line?"
"Oh, no, Sandi," she replied, the words coming out as a squeak as she hurried to repair whatever additional damage she had caused, "not at all. It's really important. I was just thinking about something else, that was all." She knew as soon as the words were out of her mouth that her explanation was a mistake.
"Stacy, as Fashion Club Secretary, it is your duty to treat all subjects as serious and record them with the proper gravity. Also, letting your mind wander during an important debate is simply unacceptable. If you do not begin to treat your duties with the proper amount of respect, then we will be forced to put your membership on probationary status until such time as you have proven yourself worthy of the dignity of your position. Is that clear?"
Stacy had to catch her breath before answering, as she had lost nearly all of it during this diatribe.
"Of course, Sandi, whatever you say." She nodded jerkily several times to reinforce her acceptance. "Um . . . the thing is . . . um, I really need to go right now." Oh, god, she's going to kill me. But if I'm much later, Daria will kill me.
Indeed, it appeared that Stacy's prediction was about to come true. Sandi's eyes narrowed and her mouth tightened into the expression that always sent fear straight through Stacy's heart and into her very gut. She squeaked again and was about to back down, no matter what the later consequences, when help arrived from an unexpected quarter.
"Oh, Sandi, I forgot to tell you," Quinn said breezily. "There's a sale on moisturizer at the mall, and I asked Stacy to run down and get me some before they were all sold out. You know how it gets after rush hour; all the moisturizer will be gone in an hour or so. Stacy needs to hurry to make sure she gets there well in advance." Stacy just stared at Quinn in open-mouthed shock until Quinn nudged her with her foot; then, Stacy jumped up.
"Oh, yes, that's why I have to go," she said. "And I need to leave right now."
"Very well, then," Sandi said with an imperious wave. "As Quinn is your superior Fashion Club officer, this can be considered official business. But you will need to get enough for everyone. And come see me tonight to find out what discussion you missed out on."
"OK, great," Stacy said. With one more curious glance at Quinn, she raced out of the door, mind already switching to writing mode.
* * * * *
In short order, Stacy bounded into Daria's room, her eyes alight with the creative energy that Daria had quickly learned to dread.
"Hey, Daria!" she began, nearly breathless. "I had this great new idea walking over here. I think we should have Diane turn out to be Angela's long-lost sister! That way, when Jim finds out about them —"
"Stacy!" Daria exclaimed, cutting her stream-of-consciousness off in mid-thought. That's it, she thought. I can't take any more. Time for a talk. Stacy immediately choked back her words, staring at Daria with wide, nervous eyes. Daria took a breath, resisting the urge to massage her aching forehead. "I think it's time we had a talk about plot direction."
"Um, sure, Daria," she replied, considerably subdued. "Whatever you say. So, what do you want to talk about?"
"Stacy, you know as well as I do that this story just isn't working out right now. Writing a good story takes careful planning, and the self-awareness to know which ideas work and which ones just aren't believable. We agreed to outline this from the very beginning, with all of the plot developments laid out well in advance, because that's the only way to keep things from becoming confused. But every time we talk, you bring up more and more crazy ideas, ones that don't make any sense in the context of the characters or the storyline we already agreed on."
"But," Stacy replied, her lip trembling, "I'm just trying to make the story more fun. People like surprises. What's the point of writing if it's like working a math problem?"
"Yeah, Daria," Jane butted in. "What's wrong with being a little out-there every now and then? You know, like Melody Powers."
Daria cocked an eyebrow at Jane in surprise. What is she trying to do? I thought she was on my side.
"The problem is that it doesn't work. My Melody Powers stories are just satire, more exercises than anything else. But the story we're writing now is more serious. Stacy, remember that was the big problem with all of your earlier stories -- they didn't have any focus."
"But . . . you told me you thought I was a good writer. I did the outline like you wanted. I've tried to be serious. I even tried to read that book you gave me, though I didn't make it very far. What else do you need me to do?" The lip tremor was bigger now.
"I think you show a lot of promise, Stacy. But if you don't learn some discipline, your stories are never going to be any more than just melodramatic fluff pieces. That means more than just making an outline, though that's a start. You have to treat every aspect of the story with the same gravity and consideration. You asked me to teach you, but I can only do that if you're willing to do what I say. Can you do that, Stacy?"
Stacy looked down for a moment, her eyes perusing the sheets of paper she had brought with her, sheets covered with her own handwriting, furious scribbles of all the ideas her fertile mind had generated in just the last few hours, between classes at school and even during the Fashion Club meeting. Her hands tightened, wrinkling the paper slightly, as she bit down on her lip. Jane's eyes, on the other hand, were boring into Daria.
"Stacy," Jane broke in, "you don't have --"
"Sure, Daria," Stacy said, her voice as resolute as she could make it. "Whatever you say."
Jane shook her head, slowly.
* * * * *
Daria and Stacy worked together for a couple of more hours. Or rather, Daria worked, outlining plot ideas and sketching out sections of dialogue, while Stacy mainly took notes, jotting down shorthand versions of Daria's ideas for later reference. Every now and again, she would speak up, offering her own variations on Daria's themes, but such times were few and far between. In the meantime, Jane watched, occasionally sketching in the pad she always carried with her, her face unreadable. Finally, Stacy said that she had to go; she was already late to a meeting with Sandi and she had to stop by the mall first.
"Very well, then," Daria replied, a little short. "You can't afford to anger the queen bee, I suppose. But I'll see you back here tomorrow, right after school. Now that we've gotten our kinks worked out, I want to get to actual writing as soon as possible. We don't want to lose our momentum."
"Of course, Daria," Stacy answered. "But, um, I don't suppose you could think a bit about some of the things I talked about? I really think we could do something interesting with Jeremy."
"I'll think about it, Stacy," Daria said, with the air of giving a concession. "Adding anything to the overall outline will affect the entire work, but it might be possible to make a few small, reasonable changes. I'll sleep on it and let you know my final thoughts tomorrow. Go on, now, before Sandi makes you alphabetize her lip gloss collection again." Stacy's eyes widened, and she left the room in a hasty walk that bordered on a sprint. After she left, Daria began to gather up the sheets of paper now scattered all over her desk, when Jane cleared her throat rather forcefully.
"Interesting definition of 'instruction' you have there, Morgendorffer. Or was Stacy's position downgraded to gopher when I wasn't looking?"
"Jane," Daria said, the sound more an explosive exhalation of breath than a word, "I don't need to hear this from you. Obviously, you think I should go easier on her, and I wish that I could, but that would do Stacy more harm than good in the end."
"Really?" Jane replied, her voice dry. "Because from what I remember, the whole point of this project was to teach Stacy how to be herself, and not to find her identity in some other group. Don't you think that the message might come across a little more strongly if you used ideas that Stacy came up with herself?"
"Jane," Daria said in exasperation, "the ultimate goal is for Stacy to find her own individuality, true, but it's a process, and we're still in the very early stages. Before Stacy can discover who she really is, she has to have the confidence to leave the Fashion Club and Sandi behind; and the way for her to get that confidence is to feel she has something to offer outside of that little group. When she's finally learned how to be a truly good writer, then she will have that confidence, but she will only learn that if she listens to what I have to say."
"And you think the best way to give her confidence is to toss aside all her ideas and dictate to her what her own story should be?" Jane set down her pencil and crossed her arms, pad held to her chest. "And what about all that you said about learning from her? Is she no longer worthy of instructing the great Morgendorffer?"
"I know what you're implying, Jane, and it's not true." Daria's voice was hard, and she met Jane's crossed arms with her own. "I plan to give Stacy a lot more free rein once we're actually writing and not just planning. Stacy's strength is in her prose, which can be very . . . evocative. But good prose is nothing without a good story, and that's where my strength comes in. She needs to learn to rely on my guidance in the areas where we both know I am her superior."
Jane's eyebrows rose as far as her forehead would let them. "You know, Daria, I've heard you be sarcastic plenty of times. I've heard you be a smartass. I've even heard you be incredibly perceptive, on occasion. But until now, I don't think I've ever heard you be out-and-out arrogant. Despite what some may think, it really doesn't suit you."
Daria's lips tightened, and she glanced down at the papers on her desk as she gathered her thoughts. "Jane," she said slowly, her tone indistinguishable from both anger and hurt, "I really do have the best of intentions here. I'm not off on some ego trip. I think I can really help Stacy, both as a writer and as a person. And if I have to be a little tough on her now for the greater good in the long run, that's what I'll do."
Jane tapped her pad on her palm as she gazed at Daria a few moments longer. "Alright, then, amiga," she finally replied. "There's a well-known saying about good intentions, but you do what you think is best. But I want you to think about one more question: do you want to deprogram Stacy, or to reprogram her?" Dropping her pad on Daria's bed, she stood and left without another word.
For a few moments, Daria just stared at the door, caught off-guard by this unexpected withdrawal. Then, remembering Jane's sketching pad, she picked it up off the bed, intending to stow it away somewhere safe until she could return it.
On the pad was a drawing of her. Her and Stacy. Daria was the queen bee, and Stacy a drone. Daria dropped the pad back onto her bed and sat back down at her desk with a frustrated drop.
* * * * *
Stacy walked home slowly, heart and mind in turmoil. She doesn't have to trash all of my ideas, she thought. I mean, is her way so much better? It's just like she puts characters and situations into a computer program and lets it run. No surprises at all. She doesn't even believe in having fun when she's writing. Maybe she does make all these great serious works of art, but I don't know that. I've only heard two stories from her, and one was just as silly as anything I've ever thought of. What makes her so sure she's right and I'm wrong?
But she is really smart. She's the smartest person in our school, even smarter than Jodie. She's even smarter than the teachers. Who am I to say that she doesn't know what she's doing? I'm lucky she even agreed to work with me at all. She could be using all her time to hang out with her friend Jane, but instead, she's spending it helping me. And I know I'm annoying and silly. Sandi tells me that all the time. I should just be glad for whatever help she gives me and not complain about a few hurt feelings here and there. After all, she's trying to help me. Isn't that the most important thing?
* * * * *
Daria joined up with Jane on her walk to school the next morning, and handed over the sketch pad without comment, face unreadable. Jane cocked an eyebrow, her mouth set in a mischievous grin as she flipped through the pages, her motions broad, trying to provoke a reaction.
"So, amiga, anything in here in particular catch your eye?" Daria rolled her eyes.
"Jane, you're about as subtle as Vegas neon. Yes, I saw it. You know I saw it. You made it impossible to miss. Your message came through loud and clear."
"The pen is mightier than the sword," Jane intoned, "though sometimes you have to swing it like a sledgehammer."
"What exactly does that mean?"
"I don't know," Jane shrugged. "It sounded good as I was saying it. But the real question is, what are you going to do about it?" Daria sighed.
"Jane," she began with exasperation, "I know you think I should go easier on her. I didn't need a Jane Lane original to tell me that."
"So that's all you got out of it?" Jane sounded surprised.
"Yes, of course. What else was there?"
"Oh, nothing." The tone of Jane's voice clearly said otherwise, but Daria didn't much feel like pressing the issue. If Jane was trying to tell her something else, she could just come out and say it in the open. "So," Jane continued, "what are you going to do about it?"
"Nothing," Daria said, maybe a bit harsher than she intended. She tried to tone down her frustration as she continued. "Just because you want me to do something doesn't mean I am automatically going to follow. It doesn't mean you're automatically right. I'm sorry if you think I'm a harsh taskmaster, but I'm doing things the best way I know how."
"If you won't do it for Stacy's sake, do it for mine," Jane replied. "I really hate to see you act this way, Daria. I don't like this side of you. As a favor for a friend, go easy on her." Daria looked sidelong at Jane, the corners of her mouth turned down.
"You're really pulling out the big guns on this one, aren't you?" A part of Daria resented Jane for the guilt trip, even though she knew that Jane also believed she was doing the right thing. "Is it really that important to you?"
"Yes, it is," Jane said simply.
"Then how exactly would you have me handle the situation?" Daria asked, not convinced but sincerely wanting to hear the answer.
"If you really want Stacy to have the confidence to be herself, to be an individual, you have to treat her as an individual."
"What are you talking about? I know Stacy's an individual. I'm trying to get her to the point where she has enough of a spine to show it."
"By insisting that she do everything just like you?"
"I'm not insisting that she be just like me," Daria protested with a scowl. "I'm trying to teach her the proper principles of writing. Then she can write whatever stories she wants, and they'll be good ones."
"Is it really all-important that her stories be absolutely perfect? If you want to give her confidence, isn't it more important that she be comfortable with her stories? If she's always worrying about whether or not she's living up to your standards, she'll never have any confidence of her own."
"Jane, I can't believe you said that. That's the worst touchy-feely new age bullshit. 'It doesn't matter if it's good, as long as we feel good about it.' Have you been listening to Mr. O'Neill? Should I tell her to stand up and proudly proclaim 'I am'?"
"Them's fighting words, Daria," Jane replied with a smirk. "Fortunately, challenging you to a duel just wouldn't be worth it. I'm just saying that you're shooting yourself in the foot by missing the forest for the trees."
"Would you care to unravel that tangled metaphor for me?"
"I'm saying that if your ultimate goal is to give Stacy the confidence to express her individuality, you're not doing yourself any favors by undermining what individuality she already has. Don't insist that she write just like another Daria. Let Stacy be herself, and give her confidence in that. Figure out how she can produce a good story using her own methods, not yours. Who knows, maybe you'll learn something as well."
"Jane, there's a difference between different writing techniques and just plain bad habits."
"Daria, maybe you're right. I'm not a writer. Maybe, despite the fact that she managed to produce a story that you liked, Stacy really is filled with bad habits. But I heard what you said yesterday, and I saw how Stacy reacted, and I do know that it really bothered me. I hate to think of it happening again. Please, Daria, as a favor, try it my way."
"Oh, fine, then," Daria said, more out of exasperation than agreement. "For your sake, I'll see what I can do, though I don't know exactly how I'm going to handle it. I'll try to be more lenient, but she still wants me to help her improve. I'm supposed to be guiding her. What if she's adamant about an idea that I think is horrible?"
"You'll just have to use some discretion. Plus, there's always a certain unbiased third party that can be consulted . . ." Jane preened.
"Jane, I've seen that pile of Harlequins under your bed." The edges of Daria's lips curled ever-so-slightly upwards. "You're not getting anywhere near this story."
"Daria, you really have no sense of romance whatsoever," Jane retorted, as they turned the corner towards Lawndale High. "And I thought we swore a blood oath to never speak of those again . . ."
* * * * *
"Stacy, sit down. I have something I need to say to you."
Stacy took her usual place on Daria's bed, as Daria sat across from her at the desk. As she sat there, ever-present notebook in lap, Daria thought she looked eager to please, but she couldn't help but wonder if there was an undercurrent of anxiety there. Stacy wouldn't quite meet her gaze, keeping her eyes down in what Daria could not shake the feeling was a submissive posture. The thought made her intensely uncomfortable. Maybe there was something in what Jane was saying. Not a lot, but something.
"What do you want, Daria?" Stacy asked placidly.
Daria took a deep breath and plunged in.
"Stacy, I think I might have been a bit too hard on you yesterday. Maybe since before yesterday. I don't think I've been treating you with the same respect I would treat a friend. I may have even been a little rude. I'm . . . I'm sorry. I promise that, from now on, I will treat your ideas and feelings with more respect. I . . . want to hear all your thoughts on the story, even if I don't agree with them, and I won't insist that my way be the only way."
Is that enough? Daria thought. Apparently it was, for Stacy immediately brightened and met her eyes once more.
"Thank you, Daria," she said emphatically. "That was very nice of you to say. I promise that I'll do my best to think up good ideas, too."
"So, I guess we should get to work now."
They did, and for a while, Daria felt good about it. She had kept her promise to Jane, and it didn't look as though it would be a disaster. The first few suggestions Stacy had were pretty good, and with a little adaptation, Daria felt certain that they would work with the story. Stacy listened carefully to Daria's advice, and they were able to resolve her objections to the satisfaction of both. She even had Stacy give her a few pointers on punching up her writing, giving her style a little oomph without resorting to sarcasm. To Daria, this was what she had wanted when she had first agreed to this arrangement in the first place. She felt her lingering resentment towards Jane fade.
Then Stacy made a suggestion that didn't sound quite so good to Daria. They talked about it, but in the end, it wasn't quite how she wanted it. Some of her objections were not answered to her satisfaction. Feeling as though Jane were looking over her shoulder, Daria didn't press the issue. She felt a twinge of annoyance, but pushed it down. This is what Jane was talking about, after all. I can't always have things my own way. Try to produce a good story using Stacy's methods, not mine. But for all her efforts to convince herself that Stacy's methods could be just as valid as her own, the dissatisfaction remained. Then, a few minutes later, it happened again. Another substandard idea, another unsatisfactory turnout. The annoyance was a little bit bigger this time, but Daria once again shoved it to the back of her mind. She didn't notice how her grip on her pen was a little tighter, her posture a little stiffer. Every few minutes, the process would repeat itself, and the knot of irritation grew. Daria began to feel restless, and an ache began behind her eyes. She pushed back that restlessness as well, concentrating on her promise to Jane as a guard against the temptation to object too vigorously to Stacy's ideas. Then, Stacy proposed an idea that Daria found truly egregious, and Daria's control slipped just a little.
"Writing for Michael Bay now, are we?" she said snidely. It felt good, like lancing the boil of her frustration, but Stacy looked at her in bewilderment, then lowered her eyes again. Damn, Daria thought. She may not have understood it, but she knew what I was getting at, I think. I can't say things like that if I'm going to keep my promise. But a few minutes later, another sarcastic remark spilled out, almost like a reflex to her annoyance. This one was a bit more obvious, and Stacy's head dipped lower. Daria once again reprimanded herself, but it was becoming harder and harder to suppress her sarcasm. How can I have respect for ideas that I find ridiculous? I told Jane that I wouldn't outright dismiss her ideas, so it's either stuff it all in and get a headache, or let it out with sarcasm. Well, maybe I can be a bit more subtle about it.
For about half an hour, Stacy made no more frustrating suggestions, and Daria began to believe that the worst was over with. Then, out of the blue, she had what to Daria was her worst idea yet, which caught her completely off-guard.
"You should really send that one in to Dan Brown," Daria snipped, almost without thinking. "He could always use fodder for his next bestseller." For a second or two, Stacy just stared at Daria, making Daria think that she had gotten away with it. Then Stacy started to sniff, and Daria remembered that just a couple of days ago, she had held up Brown as the worst example of popular but bad writing that she could think of. She had forgotten that conversation, but Stacy obviously had not. Stacy's sniffles grew, and Daria had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"I'm . . . I'm sorry, Daria," Stacy said in between wheezing breaths that grew larger and larger. "I'm such a failure. I've wasted your time. I can't ever write as good as you. I'm hopeless. Sandi was right all along. I can't do anything right. I don't know why I ever thought I could."
Her breath quickened and her hands shook. Then, as though a switch had been turned on, an anguished howl shrieked from her mouth, and her eyes spat tears. Her nose ran. She gulped in great gasps of air in between wails that would shame a banshee, and buried her head in her hands. Daria sat in shock for a few moments, appalled at herself for what she had done, completely at a loss for what to do to make it better. She made an abortive attempt to place a hand on Stacy's shoulder, but before her hesitant motion could reach its destination, Stacy bolted up from the bed and out of the door, the sound of her cries reverberating down the hall. Daria just sat in her chair, trapped by remorse and astonishment.
"Stacy! Stacy!" Quinn's voice sounded from out in the hall, right before Daria heard the front door slam shut. In the ringing silence that followed, Quinn appeared in the entrance to Daria's room, face like a thundercloud before a hurricane.
"Daria, what did you do?" Quinn said, her voice an accusation, not a question. Daria had to gather her thoughts to respond.
"Well, um, Stacy and I were working together on . . ." Daria's heard her voice, small and breathless. She paused to gather herself again, but Quinn interrupted.
"Yes, I know what you were working on."
"You . . . knew?" Shocking information was coming at Daria too fast for her to process, her mind still playing Stacy's reaction over and over in her head.
"I've known all along, Daria. I overheard the two of you the first day you were here. I've even been covering for her with the rest of the Fashion Club."
"What?" Daria wondered if the world could become any more bizarre. "Why?"
"You may think you know Stacy, Daria," Quinn said, her voice surprisingly solemn, "but I'm the one who sees how Sandi treats her every day. Sandi's my friend, and she's really good with fashion tips and being president and all, but I know she's not perfect, and I know she's not good for Stacy. I do my best to help Stacy feel better when I can, and I thought working with you would be good for her. You know, something a little bit different, something to get her away from Sandi a bit, even if you were doing brain stuff." She advanced into Daria's room, finally standing before her, towering over her seated sister. Daria felt an urge to dive underneath the desk. "But I've been listening in to you when I can, to see how she was doing, and I've heard what you've been saying to her. And now she's running away crying." To Daria's shock, Quinn looked less angry than hurt. "I know you can be annoying, and you're way too brainy, and you can be stuck-up, but I've never thought you were outright cruel. I thought you would be better for her than Sandi. But I was wrong. You're no better for her at all. In fact, you're just like Sandi. Now I have to go find my friend and make her feel better. Again." With that, Quinn pivoted and walked out.
Daria just sat there, stunned. She couldn't believe what had just happened. Stacy's wails echoed in her ears. She wanted to sink deep into the floor below her. She had failed everyone, most of all the one she had hoped to save, and she hadn't even seen it coming.
How did this happen?
* * * * *
The hive was abuzz with activity, little yellow-and-black-striped drones flying to and fro, each one with its brown hair in two cute braids, each one with an earnestly friendly face, each one pounding away on a typewriter, their ephemeral wings beating furiously to hold the heavy tool afloat. In the center of the fluttery cloud sat a fat queen, whip in hand and thick glasses on head, barking out orders.
"Write! Write! Write! Haven't I told you enough? Are you not listening to me? Our honey will taste foul if you don't follow my recipe exactly! You're just drones; you don't have minds of your own! I'm the brains of this operation! I'm the queen, dammit! Write what I tell you, you empty-headed slaves! That's all you're good for!"
And every drone that protested she stung, and with the sting, a bizarre transformation took place. The braids unwound, the face became solemn, and thick glasses appeared. The drones flew on as carbon copies of the queen.
"But, my queen, I thought that if we --"
"You thought?! I didn't lay your egg so you could think! I created you, and you have to do what I say!" Sting!
"But it might work better if --"
"Another question? None of you have time for questions! Get busy doing what I say!" Sting!
"If I could please just make a suggestion –" Sting!
Finally came one drone that did not transform with the sting. Enraged, the queen kept stinging her over and over, as the drone's cute little face screamed and screamed and screamed and --
* * * * *
Daria bolted upright in bed, sucking in air as though her lungs had become a vacuum, her heart thudding, her ears still ringing with the cries of the poor Stacy-drone. Her hand pounced on her glasses, and nearly dropped them twice before she managed to set the frames on her ears and nose, placing them gently with weak, trembling fingers. Her bedroom snapped into focus, but in the dark she could still see the hive and the drones and the grotesque queen ruling over all. As the cries of the tortured insect faded back into her subconscious, a more civilized but no less accusing voice rose up to take its place.
The queen bee . . . Her derisive term for Sandi to Stacy a couple of days before. It had been just an off-the-cuff comment, quickly forgotten, but Jane had picked up on it and drawn a piece of art whose full meaning was only now becoming apparent to Daria, reawakened by Quinn's disturbing accusation. Still, her mind recoiled in protest.
I'm not like Sandi, no matter what Quinn may say. Sandi doesn't care for Stacy. She just uses her to boost her own ego. I screwed up, I admit that, but I never meant anything but the best. I really did want to help Stacy.
Her own voice seemed to answer back at her, echoing through her head and out into the dark.
Who's to say that Sandi doesn't feel the same way? You can't read her mind. All you can do is see her actions, and how are they any different than yours?
They're different. They have to be. I'm not like that. I respect individuality. I encourage it. I'm always fighting against conformity. Sandi wants to make everyone like her. She's the one who sees people as drones, not me.
Individuality? Like the freedom to choose sports over academics, popularity over isolation, fashion over apathy? That kind of individuality?
But . . . but . . . but those are bad choices! I just want to help them see that. Daria shook her head, trying to clear out the cobwebs, trying to silence the doubts her nightmare and exhaustion had brought on. God, I can't believe I'm having this argument with myself like this. Shouldn't I at least have a mirror to look into, or something? Though I make it a point not to keep a mirror in here.
You don't have a mirror. That's your choice. Others do have a mirror. That's their choice. You want to write a logical, well-planned story. Stacy wants to go where her muse takes her and have some fun. What gives you the final say on which choice is the better one?
Because I know my way is better! I've read books, studied up on how the greats have done their work. Daria really wished this nagging voice of uncertainty would just go away and leave her in peace already. Most of them agree with me. I'm sure I'm right. Mostly sure. Well, it works for me, and Stacy wanted me to teach her how to write like I do. But the argument felt weak, to set a simple story, and her own certainty of correctness, against another's emotional well-being. After all, isn't that what Sandi does every day? Puts her arbitrary standards above the happiness of her friends, and just about everyone else she meets? From hearing Quinn talk, they even believe they're doing everyone a favor, helping them out to be better people. They want to remake everyone in their own image because they believe everyone will be better off that way. Oh, God, that sounds way too familiar.
Daria put her head in her hands. The cobwebs were gone now, driven away by this unhappy revelation. She had no desire left to sleep -- she was even a little frightened of it -- but being awake was no better, if this problem was still hanging over her head.
What can I do now? Stacy already ran out of here in tears. I doubt she'll ever want to work with me now, no matter how much I promise to give her an equal voice. Fool me twice, shame on me, and all that. Of course, the first time, my heart wasn't really in it; I just wanted to keep my word to Jane. But even if I did promise her that I would be better, and really mean it this time, I can't guarantee it. I lost my temper once. I could do it again. So, what is there left to do?
The answer came to her in a flash of desperation. She knew the only option left to her to make things right with Stacy. It would be hard, a sacrifice of her ego, and maybe even an offense against literature, if Daria's writing instincts really were trustworthy. But that didn't seem quite so important as it had before, and there was one shining hope. It would be something that, as far as she knew, Sandi had never done. That thought gave Daria enough peace to lie back and fall to sleep once more.
* * * * *
Once again, Daria caught Stacy outside of Math class. Her hands were sweating, moistening the sheaf of papers in her hands; absurdly, she hoped Stacy wouldn't mind. She felt short of breath, nervous, not sure of how this conversation would go. Stacy might just throw it back in my face; well, maybe not, but she could just give me the cold shoulder and walk away. Daria felt a brief flash of indignation at the thought -- how dare Stacy refuse her sincere apology! -- but she couldn't deny that Stacy would be within her rights to do so. I have to make the effort, whatever Stacy does. This is just as much for me as for her.
"Um, Stacy . . . can I talk to you?" There was a slight quiver in her voice, and she despised it.
Stacy's eyes widened, and she drew her books up to her chest. Daria thought she was going to turn and run, but instead she merely nodded silently and followed Daria off to the side. They both stood there for a couple of minutes without a word, shifting their weight from side to side, neither one quite attempting eye contact. After a bit, Daria started to feel absurd, and her doubts crowded in, whispering to her that this would do no good, that nothing she could do would make things right so why try, that she didn't really need to do anything at all since the sentiment is the point anyway right? Daria realized that, if she didn't do something soon, nothing would ever get done -- the bell would ring for classes, and her chance would be gone, and she didn't know if she would get up the courage for this again. She had never realized that admitting you were wrong could be so hard. She didn't know how to begin, so she simply held out the papers in her hand, pushing them in Stacy's direction.
"Here, take them." She hadn't intended to be so blunt -- it certainly didn't fit her conciliatory intent -- but that was how it came out. Slowly, Stacy reached out to take the crumpled sheets of notebook paper and flipped through them.
"Daria," she said, her voice rising in surprise, "these are all our story notes. Everything we talked about." For the first time, she caught Daria's gaze with her own. "I don't understand."
"I want you to take all the ideas we discussed, yours and mine," Daria replied. Now that the first gesture was made, the words came easier. "They're yours. Rightfully, they always were. I'm sorry that I tried to take over. Do whatever you want with them, with my blessing. I'm done."
"Daria, please!" Stacy exclaimed. "I know that I'm hard to work with, and that I'm not as smart as you, and I know that I get on your nerves sometimes. I'm sorry. I'll try to do better. I want us to work together."
"And so do I, maybe one day. But not now. I'm not ready."
"But a lot of these ideas are yours," Stacy protested, once again flipping through the sheets. "I can't just take credit for them."
"Then put my name on it along with yours. Whatever you think is best. I don't care." But I do care! They're my ideas! I don't want them used in a bad story! Daria squelched the selfish cry from inside her. Let go! "I would really like to see this story written, but I don't think I'm ready to help you with it. I'm sorry I acted like it was 'my way or the highway'. Just because you work differently than I do doesn't make your way wrong. I'm still learning that, and I don't know how to practice it yet. I think I showed that yesterday. My fault, not yours. I shouldn't have treated you like a piece of clay to be molded to my will. And no one else should either." She wanted to say more, to be more blunt, but she felt she had abrogated her right to advise her about Sandi. "Please, use whichever of my ideas you want, along with yours. I really want to see what you'll do with them. I look forward to reading the final product."
Stacy's eyes were shining now.
"Do you really mean that, Daria?"
A part of Daria rose up in protest. You can't do this! She'll ruin it! And if she puts your name on it, everyone who reads it will think all her bad ideas are yours! She isn't ready! But she beat it back into submission. She knew she had to do this. She had to let it go, let Stacy be herself with her own story. It was the only thing her conscience would allow. She even had to let Stacy be herself within the Fashion Club; if she ever left it, it had to be her decision, not Daria's. She took a deep breath.
"Yes, Stacy, I really mean that. The story is all yours. I trust you with it."
Stacy's wide grin lit up the hallway.
"I'll make you proud, Daria! I promise! You'll see. I'll write the best story ever! Thank you thank you thank you!" Daria stiffened as Stacy threw her arms around her, but the embrace was fortunately cut short as the warning bell rang.
As Stacy ran off to class, Daria felt curiously light. Light and free.
Maybe there really is something to that butterfly saying after all.
* * * * *
A few weeks later, Daria was closing her locker door as Jane walked up, Lawndale Lowdown in hand.
"So did you see Stacy's story in the paper?" Jane inquired with a sly grin. Daria gave her one in return.
"Yeah. It's not the way I would have written it . . . but it's not that bad." The admission didn't even sting. In fact, it felt pretty good.
"Our fellow students certainly seem to be enjoying it."
"Enjoying it?" Daria responded with a snort. "I haven't heard this much commotion over a piece of fiction since 'Academic Imprisonment'."
"I especially like the little note Stacy put at the beginning."
"The one thanking me for all my help and 'inspiration'?" Daria shook her head in astonishment. "It's amazing. She even still wanted to work with me after all I put her through. Stacy never holds a grudge." Her shoulders slumped. "Not even against Sandi."
"You're not Sandi."
"I'm not?" Even after a few weeks, the memory of that nightmare -- and Jane's drawing, and Quinn's accusation -- still stung. The uncertainty of the whole question still kept her awake some nights. She hadn't even had the courage to discuss it with Jane, afraid of what she might say.
"No. You were just acting like her."
"Thanks a lot, Jane." Daria's growl was teasing, but she couldn't keep a real edge of annoyance, and fear, out of it. She couldn't just shrug it off as a joke. Jane just shrugged broadly.
"Hey, I call 'em as I see 'em. But seriously, you apologized, and did what you could to make up for it. That already puts you one huge step ahead of Sandi."
"Maybe so, but I want there to be more differences between her and me than just my own delayed guilt. I don't want to be that rigid, so sure that my way is the only way. I don't like the way that looks in her, and I sure as hell don't like it in me. I don't want the only difference between me and the Fashion Club to be the amount of time we spend on our hair."
"Y'know, I learned something today . . ." Jane began.
"Thank you, Stan."
"Hey, if I'm Stan, does that make you Kyle? Or Cartman?" Jane grinned mischievously.
"Screw you, Jane, I'm going home."
"Or you could come with me to hear the Spiral at the Zen tonight. They're debuting a new song, something about Mr. Normal. I've been hearing them working on it all week."
"Was what I did really that bad?"
"So much for being less judgmental."
"There are limits to everything, Jane."
"And the Spiral not only pushes those limits, they fly right over them! So, tonight at 8? We can stay for both sets."
"Eight it is."
Legal Blather: Daria and all associated characters belong to MTV. This story is my own.
Author's Note: This fic started out as an entry in Angelboy's "Fandemonium" project on the PPMB. The idea was that, if we're writing fanfic about Daria, what kind of show might Daria and Co. be watching and writing about? In a way, it was the ultimate in-joke, in that various Daria fans were to be used as characters in the show. Most entries revolved around the show Fandemonium itself, but some were about the Daria characters watching it or talking about it. atimnie made a post about Daria and Stacy collaborating on a Fandemonium fanfic, which sparked my imagination, leading to the first version of this fic. It was originally intended as a satire of the various arguments on the PPMB concerning the writing and direction of fanfic, but took on a life of its own when I realized how it could be used to explore the idea of "Daria as Sandi", which has been brought up by several fanfic writers. When I finished the "Fandemonium" story, I decided to adapt it into a standalone work, and take the opportunity to add a bit more depth to the story and improve some things that hadn't worked as well the first time. The result is the fic you've just read. I hope you enjoyed it.
Thanks to Angelboy for the "Fandemonium" project that first housed this story, and to atimnie for making the post that inspired it. Thanks also to RLobinske, who pointed out a major out-of-character moment for Daria in the first draft, leading to revisions which (I hope) vastly improved the story. Finally, a big thanks to the creators of Daria, for giving us characters complex enough to dig deep into, and that we can love even if we don't always like what we find.