Daria awoke to the gentle nudging of her father. She blinked a few times, trying to squeeze the sleep from her eyes.
"Hey dad. What's going on?"
"We're about to land, kiddo." Jake said, his voice just audible above the roar of the 747's jet engines.
Daria sat up and quickly folded the blanket she found on herself. She guessed her father had gotten it for her after she fell asleep. That was his style. Clueless in everything but being kind and considerate.
Daria looked up the isle to where her mother sat, alone. Helen had wanted to sit with her daughters, but Quinn had maneuvered Jake into the seat. Daria hadn't thought it would be any problem, but had then seen Helen's hurt expression. Another in a long list lately. Helen was becoming something more of a cold, distant disciplinarian than she was a mother. Daria suspected she was stressed from her workaholic lifestyle and her recognition that Daria was on her way out the door to college.
Quinn stared excitedly out of the window to Daria's left. She was the one who convinced their mother to spend the money and time on a weeklong European vacation instead of their usual foray into the countryside or trip to the beach. Her argument sounded like she was concerned that Daria would be graduating this coming year, and that they wouldn't be seeing much of her after that, what with her promising college career. Daria suspected that in reality it was just a convenient, if powerful argument to squeeze yet more out of Helen and Jake. After all, how much concern for Daria's presence could Quinn have when she still referred to her sister as her cousin?
Daria lamented the fact she couldn't find a way to bring her best friend along. She was only ten hours into the trip, five of which she slept through, and she already missed Jane. Daria had even been willing to spend her "Montana Cabin Fund" to buy Jane airfare and hotel rooms, but Helen wasn't willing to take on the responsibility for her safety and well being. Leave it to a lawyer to consider liability over happiness.
A stewardess came by and took the blanket and pillow Daria had been sleeping on, and cleared the miniature bottle and cup from in front of Jake. Daria stretched in her seat, still trying to come completely awake.
"This is going to be so great! I can't wait to tell Sandi what a great time we had in Europe!" Quinn gushed, still looking at the approaching landscape out the window.
"Yes, Quinn. That's what I like about you – you focus on what's important, like rubbing your good fortune into other people's faces. Why bother with things like learning new cultures and seeing historic places when you can gloat?" Daria quipped at her sister.
"Exactly!" Quinn said, either missing the point or expertly dodging it, Daria wasn't sure anymore.
Quinn jumped when the wing flaps started to extend. Daria suspected Quinn feared flying, and was mildly impressed by her ability to control her fear.
"Greetings, passengers of Trans-World Air flight 972. Please return your seats and tray tables to their upright positions. Please remain seated for the remainder of the flight, with your seatbelts fastened securely. We will be landing momentarily." A pleasing male voice said over the P.A. Daria liked the deep, soft purr of the voice since it reminded her of the subject of her crush, Trent Lane.
She sighed at the thought. She definitely liked the older, scrawny musician. A lifetime of repressed emotions made it difficult for her to sort out exactly what she felt for him, though. She knew she'd have to find out for sure, and soon, lest he find another girl to love and she always wonder what she let slip by.
Thoughts of Trent gave way to thoughts of Jane, who she was far more certain of as far as emotions went. She started lamenting Jane's absence again, then scolded herself for dwelling on something she could not change.
The jet began a steep descent as they approached the airport. Quinn clutched the arms of her seat mightily, but her face appeared serene. Daria went ahead and patted her sister's hand, trying to comfort her. For all the animosity they displayed to each other, Daria still loved Quinn as a sister, seeing all the ignored potential she had.
Quinn looked at Daria and gave her a diminutive smile, apparently thankful for the minor reassurance.
Neither Quinn nor Daria noticed the broad smile on Jake's face as he leaned back into his seat, turning back from seeing their brief display of familial warmth.
Daria hauled her duffel bag over her shoulder. The customs agent had been thorough about checking her luggage. Daria was annoyed when Quinn, with her five bags of clothes, had smiled and flirted her way out of the inspection. Daria wasn't sure if it was the principle that irritated her, or if she was just jealous that she didn't have that effect on men.
Daria looked at the large airport while she waited for her father to stop irritating the customs agents. The place had a very different feel to it, quite unlike anywhere she'd been in America. It wasn't just the Spanish being spoken, it was the architecture, the manner and dress of the people, and a certain smell in the air – nothing unpleasant, just different enough to notice.
Daria closed her eyes and listened to the people for a moment. She had taken a crash course in Spanish before they left, but it was now painfully obvious it would be woefully inadequate for anything more than finding a bathroom or ordering a simple meal.
"Is this exciting? I'm glad Quinn had this idea, I've always wanted to see Europe!" Helen said, breaking Daria's reverie.
"Yeah. I can't wait to see how pollution has begun to dissolve the irreplaceable art and architecture of historical Europe." As Daria said it, she regretted it. Her sarcasm had gotten a little out of control lately, probably from the pressures of school and finding a college. Too often, Helen was the one catching the brunt of her sharp wit.
"Oh, Daria." Helen said, discouraged.
Jake rushed by, carrying not only his and Helen's luggage, but most of Quinn's as well. Daria had no idea how he was managing to bear that sort of load. Quinn followed with one carry-on bag in her left hand and one makeup kit in her right.
Daria rushed after her father, intending to take some of the suitcases from him. He was her dad, not a pack mule.
"Jake! Get a skycap to do that!" Helen called after him.
Daria carefully took two bags from each of his hands.
"Thanks kiddo." Jake said, a small sigh of relief escaping his lips.
"You should let a skycap help, dad. There's no use in tempting a hernia."
"It's Ok, I've got it." Jake said in his usual exaggeratedly cheerful way.
Dara gave him a sidelong look. She suspected he was again merely trying to prove to himself that he wasn't weak. Grandpa Morgendorffer had been such a terror that Jake was still in battle with him, years after grandpa died. Jake would still occasionally slip into loud rants about his poor treatment as a child. Daria was glad that Jake had managed not to end up emulating "Mad Dog Morgendorffer" and his poor fathering technique. A clueless, sometimes oblivious father beat a tyrannical, abusive father any way you sliced it.
Getting a ride to the hotel was easy, and Helen was pleased that they could haggle with the driver over the cost. Helen did so love to argue, and she was good at it. Even with the mild language barrier, she managed to get the cost of the ride down so low that the driver almost cried.
Daria sat up front with the driver. When she tried a little Spanish on him, he tried to help her with some pronunciation and grammar, and told her about the local dialect's more interesting quirks.
Dara silently praised Europe's higher education standards. It was unlikely she would need to user her lousy Spanish, seeing as a vast portion of the population would speak English just fine – they probably had a better command of English than most of her schoolmates had. She wished she had paid more attention in French class, a second language suddenly seemed important.
The hotel wasn't what Daria had expected. Instead of the low-cost, medium-quality flop she had expected her mother to choose, it was a magnificent example of Madrid's beautiful architecture and grace. Daria let one of her trademark Mona-Lisa smiles drift onto her face.
Quinn squealed with delight when the taxi turned into the hotel's drive, scaring the driver.
"Oh! Mom! This is great! Sandi's never going to beat this!" She squirmed in her seat, ready to explode with the thrill.
Daria noticed the strange look the driver was giving Quinn through his rearview mirror.
"Mi hermana es tonto." Daria said, eliciting a laugh from their driver.
They untied and unloaded their luggage as Helen went to the front desk to check in. Jake paid the driver, and gave him a hefty tip, probably trying to make up for Helen's ruthless haggling.
Helen returned with two bellhops and a set of keycards.
"Ok girls, here's the first surprise of the vacation. I got a great deal on these rooms, so I got you two your own, right across the hall from your father and I." She said, smiling broadly.
Helen handed Quinn her room keycard. "This does not mean you can come and go as you please, Quinn. I want to know where you are at all times, I just thought you'd appreciate the privacy."
Quinn took the key and pocketed it. "Ok, mom. Thanks!"
"Daria, the same goes for you – except that if you do want to explore something on your own, you just need to tell us."
Daria almost fell over from shock. "Did I just hear you correctly? You're trusting me to go off on my own, in a country foreign to me, just so long as I let you know I'm going to do it?"
Helen just smiled her 'I'm a good mother, and you're a good daughter' smile.
"That's not fair!" Quinn yelled.
Daria knew it was coming. Quinn refused to let Daria get anything without a minimum of a matching concession, preferably a greater concession.
"Now, Quinn. Daria is older, and it's time she learned to handle herself."
Quinn just fumed, glaring at Helen.
Helen sighed. "I'll buy you a new dress." She said, flatly.
"Complete outfit." Quinn said.
"Dress and one accessory."
Daria rolled her eyes at the 'parenting by bribe' technique Helen tended to use. She wondered if Helen would ever make the connection between her bribery and Quinn's materialism. Daria wondered why she herself hadn't gone the material route, then wondered if she hadn't but just managed to hide it better. She worried for a moment then told her self to stop – that way lies insanity.
They arrived at their rooms, and Daria helped the bellhop unload his cart. She only had the duffel and the one empty case – she brought it along to carry back the gifts she intended to buy for her friends – but she felt guilty for the incredible collection the rest of her family had brought. Even though she carried her own luggage into her room, she gave the bellhop who had pushed her cart up a small tip.
"Gracías." She said.
"De Nada." He answered, pocketing the tip and bowing slightly.
Daria set her watch by the clock on the wall, three in the afternoon. She was dead tired, her body not being used to the time zone. She had read that it was best to take the first day easy, but stay awake, to force your body into the groove.
She almost turned on the television, but decided it would be an incredible waste to sit in Madrid, Spain and do as she would in Lawndale. Instead, she unpacked and started to read through the brochures that were arranged on the table. Most of them were tourist trap crap, but two seemed interesting, especially the list of museums. Using the map in the telephone book, she discovered one museum was within easy walking distance. To make it more tempting, it had a good collection of Picasso's early work.
Jake knocked on her open door. "Honey? In an hour, your Mom wants us to go get something to eat. One of her lawyer friends recommended a place for real Spanish food near here. I hope they serve tacos." He said, dreamily.
"Uh, dad – tacos are more a part of Mexican cuisine."
"Oh." Jake looked disappointed.
"But I hear Spanish seafood is some of the best in the world." Daria added, knowing how much he liked fish.
"Oh!" Jake said, more excitedly. "Well, see you in an hour."
Daria closed the door behind her father, and decided to take a shower. Knowing how they helped her wake up, she hoped one would help her remain awake against jetlag. Besides, sitting for hours on an airplane tended to make one feel grimy anyway.
Daria dressed in black jeans and a dark green short sleeved shirt and her requisite boots. She hadn't packed her usual outfits, reserving them for school. After three years, her black skirts, mustard tee shirts, and green jackets were getting a little threadbare and she wanted to be sure they'd make it through her last year of high school.
She killed a little time by trying out some of the colorful scarves her mom had packed for her. She had gotten into a fight with Helen over them, but now she noticed she did like the way the bright colors were set off by her dark shirt. She set the scarves down, finding she was afraid of acting like her sister.
She picked a red scarf up and tied it around her neck. She decided it was just a stupid to let Quinn define her by being her opposite as it was by imitation. She liked the red scarf, and damn it she was going to wear it – or maybe the yellow one.
A soft knock took her away from her styling deliberations. Peering though the peephole, she saw her mother and father, so she opened the door.
"How about dinner?" Helen asked.
"Sure. Can we stop in the lobby, I want to buy a map of the city."
"Of course, kiddo!" Jake said.
"Wow, Daria, you look almost nice." Quinn conceded as she stepped out of her room.
"Gee, I 'almost' thank you for that 'almost' compliment, Quinn."
The restaurant was near the museum Daria wanted to see, and she decided she'd go after dinner. She hoped Helen would let her go alone, there was something too distracting about having Quinn around when she wanted to enjoy art. Daria never could define exactly what it was.
"I don't know what this is." Jake whispered to Daria, pointing to the menu.
"Clams in lobster sauce." Daria whispered back, hoping she hadn't blown the translation.
"Wow. The waiters are all so foreign. I wonder if they speak French?" Quinn said, admiring the behind of one particular waiter.
"Actually, Quinn, I'll bet they speak Spanish, seeing as we're in Spain. Which reminds me, we're the ones who are foreign, seeing as they live here and we don't." Daria said, indicating the waiters.
"You're such a… brain!" Quinn spat. "I'm not foreign!"
Daria bit back a scathing reply, not willing to turn their first meal in Europe into a stupid sibling squabble.
"Your sister's right, here we are the foreigners."
Quinn glared at Daria, unwilling to concede the point.
They ordered, Daria selecting a simple vegetable and fish dish, not being all that hungry. Jake ordered the clams in lobster sauce, which turned out, to Jake's extreme pleasure, to be muscles in lobster sauce. Helen had a steak, and Quinn seemed to order by price, her meal accounting for a full third of the bill.
Jake ordered a carafe of house wine, and the waiter set wineglasses in front of everyone and proceeded to fill them.
Daria, curious, lifted her glass and looked at her mother.
"May I?" She asked.
"Sure, honey. But just one glass."
Daria nodded and took a sip. It had an odd flavor that she didn't much like, but the feel of the liquid in her throat was pleasant. She decided she probably wouldn't drink the whole contents of the one glass much less want a second.
Quinn lifted her glass to her lips, only to have Helen snatch it away.
"Not for you, Quinn. You're still too young."
"But mo-om! That's not…"
"Hush!" Helen said, with a warning glare.
"It's OK, Quinn, its not that good anyway." Daria said, trying to placate her sister before she got out of control.
"What? Of course it's good, I've had wine before and…" Quinn closed her eyes and bowed her head, knowing she had let slip something better kept secret.
"You what?" Helen barked, glaring at Quinn.
"Mom? Quinn? Can this wait until we're where we won't advance the 'obnoxious American' stereotype?" Daria asked, indicating the stares they were starting to get, and wishing she could leave.
Helen and Quinn immediately calmed down, being sensitive to appearances. Jake didn't seem to notice any of the goings on.
Daria wished she could be as oblivious as her father acted.
The remainder of dinner went well, Helen and Jake discussing their planned forays into Germany, France and Portugal. Quinn looked excited at the idea of France, unimpressed by Germany and had to be told where Portugal was.
Daria mentioned the museum as they polished off their meals, and she sighed with relief when Helen said she was too tired to go with her. Quinn wasn't interested in doing a museum, and Jake was happy to be wherever Helen was.
"You'll be Ok walking back?" Helen said as she handed Daria a few pesetas.
"Sure, mom. Madrid's a fairly safe city, so the statistics say."
Daria sat on a bench in front of Picasso's painting, "The Lovers", and tried not to fall asleep. Jetlag was catching up to her.
She pondered that it looked so incomplete, and it reminded her of Trent. In the virtual privacy of a museum full of people she'd never see again, she examined her feelings.
Trent was older by five years. He was handsome, in his scruffy sort of way, and decidedly attractive to her, physically speaking. He felt safe - she had assumed there was a certain safety in having a crush on him, being that he was Jane's brother.
She was also certain, for reasons unknown, that he didn't harbor any real attraction for her. Her body was unimpressive and maybe even a little ugly in its underdeveloped state. She knew he liked her mind, and that was significant consolation, but without a physical attraction, she knew her crush could evolve only into friendship – at best.
Still there was something more about Trent, a sort of soft touch about him. A definite…
Daria jumped and looked at the person who had effectively voiced her thoughts for her.
A strikingly beautiful woman stood near her, looking at the painting. She was tall and shapely, with raven black hair, pale skin and full breasts. She represented the American ideal for female beauty in most respects, and she held herself proudly, almost arrogantly.
"Sorry?" Daria asked.
"Picasso's work here is all about tenderness. It's not even necessarily love, really. They could just be lusting after each other, except for that tenderness. If a man shows a woman his tender side then there is a little love there, it's merely a matter of knowing how much. Men don't expose themselves easily."
Daria looked at the painting, and thought about Trent in the light of what the woman just said.
The woman sat beside her.
"I had a crush on an older man, once when I was your age, so very long ago. I let him go, thinking there was no way he could feel for me. I rationalized it in any number of different ways, but my primary excuse was that I was not pretty enough for him to notice me."
Daria looked at her in surprise. The woman was turning the heads of almost every man in the museum, how could she ever think she wasn't pretty enough for anyone?
"It is amazing, child, what people will believe. Humanity has been busy squashing the self-confidence of it's female half for thousands of years. It's probably just habit now, an out of control meme, but no weaker a repression for it. Even those silly American supermodels of yours aren't sure if they are pretty or attractive. Your problem is no different."
Daria was uncomfortable with a stranger looking into her life with such clarity.
"My name is Amanda Belal." She said, offering Daria her hand.
"Daria Morgendorffer." She said, shaking Amanda's hand.
"Hmm. You have a good, solid handshake, Daria. I think it wouldn't take a great deal of effort to make you see reasons to be confident. Your self-image could use a little work, that's all."
"I just don't want to get stuck in the vanity rut." Daria protested, looking back at the painting.
"I don't mean your manner of dress, or your use of makeup. I mean your view of yourself." Amanda put a finger under Daria's chin and turned her head so they faced one another. "You see, you are quite beautiful. You've just learned to ignore that fact. I see evidence of a lifetime of shielding yourself from the pain of existence. Where I won't tell you that's a bad thing, I will tell you it's had a negative impact on your view of yourself, and that is a bad thing."
Daria looked down, feeling a little ashamed.
"No, dear. I think the world is full of fools, too. I just don't let myself become one of them. Look up at me, it's Ok to be pretty as it is Ok to be ugly. It's Ok to carefully pick out your clothes. None of that makes you any less or any more who you are."
"I don't follow."
"Sure you do." Amanda said, a wry smile on her face. "Just admit it. You had the very thought when you were trying on that scarf."
Daria looked shocked. "How can you know what…"
"…you were thinking? It's amazing what's plain to see, when you know how to look."
"I can be just as controlled by being the opposite of what I dislike as when I imitate it." Daria said, returning to the subject at hand.
"Exactly. Would you like to go get some Branelli with me? My treat! There's a vendor just up the street."
"What's a Branelli?"
"'Branelli' is Italian for 'beads'. It's an interesting variation on ice cream, it's flash frozen, and comes out in these little pellets. It ads a creamy texture to it the traditional freezing method lacks."
"Not to be rude, but why treat a perfect stranger?"
"Because I was you, once. I had to learn some things alone and I hated my life for too long. If I failed to at least try and make you see beyond the things you dislike about yourself, I'd never forgive myself. I wish someone had done so for me."
Daria thought for a while. "Then let me treat you, instead."
"Wonderful!" Amanda said, and stood.
There was a vendor at the corner as Amanda had said. The ice cream was very good, too. Daria wondered why she hadn't seen it in America yet.
"Because Americans are too frightened of change right now."
Daria stared openly at Amanda for a moment. "How do you do that?"
Amanda shrugged. "I have no idea, I've always been able to tell what people were thinking. Sometimes I call it 'being psychic'. Daria, I know you think that's a bunch of flimflam, but I've seen a lot that's outside of science's present understanding of the universe."
Daria noticed her phrasing. "Not 'unexplainable'?"
"Nothing is unexplainable, Daria. You know that. Either we're mistaken in our perceptions, or we haven't managed to understand it yet. That's the only real definition of a mystery."
"Yeah. I suppose so." Daria said, thoughtful.
"Want to see some magic?"
Daria looked incredulous.
"No, not prestidigitation. I mean the real thing." She said as he handed Daria her spoon from the ice cream. "Hold this up for me."
Daria held it in front of her, doing the magician's assistant routine with a smirk.
"Ok, Daria. Think of something you'd like this to be – something you can hold easily, but nothing I could slip from my sleeves."
"Um, ok. How about an Oxford English Dictionary?" Daria suggested, knowing Amanda would try to suggest something more do-able.
"Ok, better use both hands, though."
Surprised that she had agreed, Daria let Amanda put her other hand beneath the spoon. Amanda uttered a long incantation, her hands dancing in front of her, as if she were writing in the air. Daria sensed a sort of electrical charge, but dismissed the sensation as a result of getting into the mood of the illusion.
Amanda touched the spoon lightly with the tip of her finger, then stood back.
The spoon writhed in Daria's hands, growing and changing. Daria nearly dropped it when it settled into the form of a full, compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.
"Oh my god!" Daria exclaimed. "How did you do that?"
"It's a fairly basic transmogrification spell, child. I told you, there's much Science does not yet understand."
Amanda took the dictionary set from Daria's hands and set it on the sidewalk in front of her. She took Daria's unfinished ice cream and uttered more words that were arcane. The treat metamorphosed into a sixteen-ounce gold ingot.
"Here, consider this my contribution to your college fund. I see a bright future for you, Daria, so long as you don't try too hard not to be things you dislike. Your efforts should be about things you like. Question everything, but remember accept that which is proven to your satisfaction." Amanda smiled, picked up the dictionary and started to walk, motioning Daria to follow.
"So, Daria, do you believe in magic now?"
Daria was holding the ingot, bemused for a moment. "I… I don't know."
"Good! There is no use in believing just because you saw it, to much risk in being deceived. You are a smart one."
Amanda turned a corner and Daria followed blindly, not wanting to let her go just yet. Amanda stopped in front of a small house.
"Home. Would you join me for some tea and further conversation?"
Daria thought about it – worried what Helen would say. She decided to stay for a while, but head back to the hotel in a half-hour.
Amanda looked at the sleeping form of Daria Morgendorffer on her sofa. The poor girl was exhausted from her travels, and fell asleep almost upon sitting down.
Amanda considered for a moment. This girl was everything perfect in an experimental subject. She was smart, emotionally strong – if a bit sensitive, and she wanted many of the same things Amanda wanted. More so, Daria reminded her of her youth, intelligent and inquisitive, but distant and lacking confidence. Amanda could see images of her friends in Daria's mind. They were wise, far wiser than their ages would suggest. A new look would do much to shatter Daria's false self-image. Her friends would help her put a better one together.
Amanda opened her notes. Her latest experiment on long-term, gradual transmutation had been successful. The last experiment left was to try it on an unsuspecting ephemeral. She pondered for a moment that success would probably be as rewarding for Daria as it was for her, but failure would probably cost Daria her life.
Of course, this ephemeral's life would hardly be the first she had risked for her spell-work.
Making her decision, she uttered an incantation and touched Daria's sleeping form, then began to undress the girl.
Daria woke with a yelp. She had a terrible dream about dying by heart attack. As she became aware of being awake, she panicked – she had never headed back to the hotel! Helen would be livid.
She stood and opened the curtains. Sunlight flooded the room and she was surprised to find she was in her hotel room, after all. The dictionary and gold ingot were on the table, with a note.
After you fell asleep on my couch, I decided you would not mind being magically enhanced. Experimentation with Sorcery is what I do. You made the perfect subject for an unexpected gradual transmutation. As I expected, you came though quite well. The dream you had about the heart attack was the pain of being temporarily dislocated from reality. That may happen again, just ride it out, it's nothing to worry about.
I don't want to spoil the fun of discovery, but a few things you will notice right away and some things you need to know I will tell you about.
First, your body is now preternaturally durable and strong. You will notice how difficult it is to cut yourself now, and how much more you can lift. Disease is a thing of the past for you. (You will believe that one-year from now, when you realize you've made it through your first winter without so much as a sniffle.) The next gift you will find quite useful while you are on vacation – all of human language is available to you. Relax your mind, and the particular tongue you need to speak, hear, read or write will come to you.
Finally, your body is self-supporting now. You will find no urge to eat, though you may occasionally become thirsty. Eat and drink is pure pleasure now, Daria, as sustenance is no longer a concern.
I leave the other gifts for you to discover over time, many of which will manifest over time. I hope you enjoy them.
As with all things, there will be drawbacks. I cannot predict them all, but one I know will happen. Sometime in the future you will re-experience the pain of the disassociation with reality as is required for these changes. Try not to be afraid, it will pass.
P.S. Tell Trent how you feel, before he falls in love with another. Discover what that relationship truly is and what it can truly be so it will never be an empty hole in your heart.
Daria boggled at the letter. It made her a little uneasy. Though, he had seen Amanda do some amazing things with the Branelli – the evidence sat on the table before her – she wondered if everything in the note wasn't simply fantasy.
Looking at the gold, she decided to hide the ingot in her duffel bag. Perhaps later she would exchange it for currency and buy her friends some gifts.
"Lassen Sie mich das rote sehen, bitte." Daria said to the man.
He handed her the red figure, a fantastic representation of German doll making.
"Es ist schön!" Daria complimented, and decided it was the perfect gift for Jane.
"Schön und nur achtzig Marks." The shopkeeper said, smiling.
Daria handed him eighty Marks to make her purchase.
"Danke!" Daria said as she turned to see what her family was up to,
Jake and Helen had been standing behind her.
"Daria! When did you learn all these languages? I mean, all of a sudden you're conversing in Spanish, French, Portuguese, and now German!" Helen gushed.
Daria hadn't realized she was speaking German – the new languages always snuck up on her.
"Uh, I guess I'm just getting into the European spirit." Daria said.
Surprisingly, that seemed to be enough explanation for Helen and Jake.
"I'm so proud of you, Daria." Jake said, giving her a hug.
Quinn picked up one of the figurines that Daria had been looking at.
"How much for this?" She asked the shopkeeper.
"Two hundred Marks, little girl."
Daria was astonished.
"Irritierende Amerikaner erhalten aufluden wenig mehr." He explained.
"Wenn Sie sie kannten, wie ich sie kenne, würden Sie sogar mehr aufladen." Daria replied.
The shopkeeper laughed.
"What? What's so funny?" Quinn asked, smiling.
Daria sat in a café in Paris, drinking a latte and watching the people go by as she wrote an essay comparing her experiences in Europe to her life in America.
"Bonjour, enfant. Aviez-vous apprécié l'Europe?" Daria heard a woman say.
She looked up from her essay and saw Amanda Belal.
"Ainsi, vous n'étiez pas un rêve. Reposez-vous s'il vous plaît." Daria said, motioning to another chair at her table.
Amanda sat and motioned to a waiter.
Daria produced the note Amanda had left for her.
"I don't understand this fully."
"Not true, Daria. You understand it perfectly. You don't accept it fully."
Amanda ordered an espresso.
"Ok. What are these changes that are supposed to manifest themselves over time, then?"
"Just some small changes in your appearance and your mind – enhancements. You'll like them, I found the fantasy in your own mind to model them after."
Daria played with her pencil for a while.
"Well, I can't be angry. Being able to speak all these languages has really improved this vacation. I guess I should thank you. Merci beaucoup."
"Vous êtes bienvenu." Amanda smiled. "And thank you for being the first ephemeral polite enough to appreciate the gifts."
"Adiós, Europa! Usted ha ganado mi corazón." Daria said under her breath. She helped her father and the cab driver load the taxi with their luggage, now grown from their purchases.
On the way to the airport, Daria and the driver bantered on about what she had seen on her vacation. The driver seemed happy to finally speak to an American tourist who wasn't so stuck up – and spoke his language so well.
Helen and Jake quietly watched and held one another's hands. Quinn glared out the window, her arms crossed.
"Daria, aren't those your friends?" Helen asked, pointing out a couple of people waiting in the terminal.
Daria looked up from watching for her luggage and saw Jane and Trent wandering around looking for someone.
"I'll be right back." Dara said.
Daria walked up behind the siblings, who were reading the flight information screens intently.
"I heard they'd let anyone in here. Now I know it's true." Daria joked.
Jane spun around and gave Daria a hug. Daria was momentarily taken aback, but she had missed Jane at least as much, and so hugged her back.
"I missed you, partner-in-crime." Jane said as the broke their embrace.
"I told you to get those sights fixed." Daria quipped.
"Hey Daria." Trent purred.
"Hey Trent." Daria said, still blushing even after two years of knowing him.
On impulse, she reached over and hugged him. She smiled when, without hesitation, he hugged her right back.
Jane smiled brightly.
"We missed you, Daria." He said as they stepped away.
"I really missed you too, the both of you. A week with Quinn was distilled suffering."
"I can only imagine – and if it's Ok, I'd like to keep it imaginary." Jane replied.
Trent was looking intently at Daria, who began to blush under the scrutiny.
"You look different." Trent said, once he noticed Daria's uneasiness.
"Yeah." Jane agreed. "Your hair is darker."
"And your skin color is lighter."
"Hey, you're right, Trent. Damn it, girl, you don't do anything the usual way, do you?" Jane teased with a wry smile on her face.
"Hello Jane, Kent." Helen said.
"That's 'Trent', mom." Daria corrected.
"Oh, sorry Trent." Helen said, not in the least bit embarrassed by her error. "Dear, we're going to go, would you like to go home with your little friends?"
"No, mom. I'd like to go home with my normal-sized friends. They deserve attention just as much as the dwarves I hang around with." Daria shot her mom an irritated glance.
Helen glared at the sarcasm.
"Of course dear." She said as she turned to leave.
"Um, you don't mind if I ride with you? I should have asked first."
"Hey, Mi car es su car." Trent said.
"Gracias, Trent. Usted es tan bueno con mí." Daria said. "Pero, se llama un 'coche'."
"Woah! We got ourselves a Spanish speaker here! Bienvenidos a la asociación." Jane said, an impressed smile on her face.
Daria blushed. "Uh, yeah. I picked up a little while I was there."
"This is for you…" Quinn handed another small gift-wrapped box to Jake.
Helen had already opened her gift from Quinn and was smiling broadly. It was ironic that they were so pleased with their daughters 'loving kindness' considering Jake and Helen were paying the cost.
Daria was tearing though her closet, trying to find the gift she had bought for Helen. She was desperate to find it, being the most important one. The rift between her and her mother was widening, and she wanted to give her something special to catalyst some reconcilement. She didn't want to whine about her parents, bitter at 46, like Helen did.
"Damn it!" Daria cried. "I never went back to pick it up!"
She remembered, days and miles too late, that the engraver had needed several hours to complete the task. Daria had gone to see the Louvre and she had been caught up in the splendor of it – forgetting to return to the engravers.
She returned downstairs and gave Quinn her earrings and Jake his cufflinks. She looked at her mother sadly.
"I'm sorry, mom I forgot to…"
Helen stood with a mixture of anger and total disappointment on her face. She glared at Daria for a short moment, then left for the kitchen.
Daria watched her leave, not having any idea what to say. Jake engrossed himself in studying his cufflinks.
"God, Daria…" Quinn started.
Daria shot her a warning glare, then made her face expressionless, unwilling to show her sister her despair.
Jane and Trent were looking over their gifts.
"This is so cool!" Jane said, admiring her figurine. "What craftsmanship. The face is stunning." She complimented the piece, her artistic side engrossed in the beauty of the doll.
"Thanks for the stein. I've always wanted one of these." Trent said, smiling broadly.
"So, you really did think of us, huh?" Jane teased.
"Of course I did. You two are my friends, remember?"
Jane just smiled. Trent continued to study the pictures on the stein.
Daria sighed. "I'm bummed, though. I had ordered this nice fountain pen for my mother, and like a dork, I forgot to pick it up."
"Yeah, she was hurt when I didn't have something to give her. I even had a gift for Quinn."
Daria sighed and shuffled her feet.
"The worst part is, she won't let me explain."
Daria awoke with a shock. Her chest felt like it was being ripped open and dynamic black flowers obscured her vision.
"Mom!" Daria cried out as she grasped her chest while trying to figure out what was wrong.
Amanda's letter echoed in her mind: "you will re-experience the pain of the disassociation with reality". Was this what she meant?
"MOM!" She shouted again, the pain was intensifying, and she was starting to panic.
She half-crawled, half-fell out of her bed, trying to get to her door.
She was halfway there when the pain exploded into indescribable agony. Daria heard herself scream as she drifted into a numb blackness.
Daria opened her eyes. Everything was bright.
"Hey. Welcome back to consciousness."
"Dr. Phillips?" Daria looked around and found she was in the local hospital. "How did I get here?"
"By ambulance, actually. Do you remember last night? We're at a loss, and I'm hoping you can give us a lead."
Daria thought for a moment.
"Some of it. I woke up because my chest hurt. And I mean hurt. Like it was being ripped open. It was hard to see, black spots floated over my vision. I tried to make it out the door, to get help, but the pain became incredibly intense… and, well, here I am."
"Hmm." Dr. Phillips scribbled some notes onto her chart. "Well, I want to admit you. There's quite a battery of tests I really feel the need to put you through."
"This is probably like last time."
"I doubt it, Daria. A mystery rash is one thing, chest pains intense enough to make you loose consciousness is quite another."
Daria didn't like the worried look that was on the normally serene doctor's face.
"This is serious, isn't it?"
"Too soon to know, but I'm going to treat it as serious, just to be safe."
The doctor paused for a moment.
"One last set of questions before I go on rounds. How long have you been so pale?"
"Pale? Well, Jane mentioned I looked lighter when I got back from Europe."
"Ok. This one may make you mad, Daria, please bare with me. Have you been vomiting up your meals? Deliberately, I mean?"
Daria smiled slightly. "No, Doctor. I enjoy my food, I enjoy eating it, and digesting it. I don't think bulimia is the problem here."
"So, you're not worried about your weight?"
"Sure I am, I think I'm a little too thin."
"Oh. Well, you're not too thin or too fat. You're at a very healthy weight."
"I meant around my ches… uh… never mind." Daria blushed with her accidental disclosure.
"I see." The doctor flushed as well. "I've got to go, I'll stop by later, Ok?" The doctor said, smiling broadly.
"Um, yeah. See you." Daria said, still blushing.
"Ow!" Daria said, trying to keep her arm still.
"Sorry! You skin is so tough, I can't get this needle through." The phlebotomist said.
"What's wrong?" Dr. Phillips said, coming in for his usual rounds.
"It's her skin, Doctor – it's really tough."
The doctor moved the technician to the side.
"Let me have a go."
Phillips reset the tourniquet, and opened a new needle. He started to insert the needle, then really gave it a shove.
"Damn… Daria, your skin is strong!" He said, filling the first vial.
Daria turned off the TV as Helen and Jake entered her room.
"How's it going, kiddo?" Jake asked with his usual exaggerated cheerfulness.
"Fine, dad. Once again, I get to be the crash test dummy and they get a new supply of my blood to play with."
"I can't find your doctor, Daria. What have they said?" Helen asked, her tone icy.
"Doctor Phillips says he's not sure what it is yet, though he's certain it wasn't pulmonary. He's looking into gastric and cardiac causes now."
"This is ridiculous. They should know by now!" Helen barked. "This is getting expensive! And further costs remain unpredictable. It's so frustrating."
Daria found she was hurt by Helen's concern for the costs rather than her well being. Her face went expressionless, her usual mechanism to protect herself taking over.
"You're right, mom. Better to have the predictable expense. Say that of a five thousand dollar funeral – and my college fund made available to redecorate your new home office." Daria said in a strained monotone.
Helen was shocked.
"Daria, I didn't mean that…"
"Right, sure. Mom, dad, I'm really tired. I need to get some sleep. Now." She waved her hand at her parents with a dismissive gesture.
Jake guided Helen out of the room. As they walked to the nurse's station to ask after Dr. Phillips, they could hear Daria's TV come back on, tuned to her favorite show.
Jane located the room number the clerk had given her. When she went in, the bed was empty.
"Uh-oh. I must have missed her."
Jane was about to leave when the bathroom door opened, the sound of a flushing toilet filling the room. A very ill looking Daria trudged out toward the bed.
"Hey Jane." Daria said.
"Oh my god! What's wrong? You look like hell."
"I'm sick from the barium. It'll go away in a while. They did a gastronomical exam of some kind, and I had to drink a barium solution."
"I assure you, it will not be served at your finer establishments." Daria said as she crawled back into the hospital bed.
"Jell-O?" Daria offered.
"No, Thanks. Berry flavored pig fat isn't my thing."
"Nor mine. Come to think of it, the barium tasted better."
Jane looked her friend over.
"So, I see no rash, and you say the nausea will go away. Further observation reveals no outward sign of illness, unless you count the fact you're kind of pale. What has you gracing Ms. Sullivan's room this time?"
"Same as last time – no one has any idea." Daria closed her eyes tightly, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
Jane walked up to her friend and put her hand on her shoulder.
"You Ok?" She said softly.
"I had a fight with my mom."
"She was so concerned with the money she was spending on this hospital visit. I got mad at her for not caring more about…" Daria trailed off, suddenly feeling selfish.
Jane squeezed her friends shoulder.
"That's got to hurt. Hey, if it makes you feel any better: Trent and I are worried. Trent's been asking about you daily – well, when he's awake anyway."
Daria gave her friend a small smile.
Dr. Phillips entered the room.
"Hello Daria. Hi Jane."
"You remember me?" Jane looked honestly surprised.
"Sure, I remember anyone who doesn't work against my patients with their mere presence." He smiled.
"So, give it to her straight: For whom does that bell toll?" Jane asked.
Phillips laughed. "For no one I'm taking care of, thank goodness." Still smiling, he turned to Daria. "Daria, Your parents should be here soon. I'm releasing you. My colleagues and myself believe what you had was a stress induced angina attack. In a seventeen year old woman, the chances of a recurrence are minimal."
"And if it does recur?"
"Well, we find the pattern, and you get to carry sublingual nitroglycerine tablets. It's very treatable. Still, I don't think it's going to be a problem. A few adjustments to your lifestyle will probably be all you need."
"Like no more exposure to Quinn, right Doc?" Jane chimed in.
Phillips chuckled. "Actually I was going to suggest a little more aerobic exercise. But less exposure to stress is a good idea, too."
"Hey, I guess you should come running with me, huh?"
"Running would be good." Phillips agreed.
"What is this? Gang up on me, will you?" Daria said, the news abating her fears.
Jane walked around the grass, sipping water and panting.
"Damn! I love that." She said as she mopped her brow. She looked at Daria. "Hey – you don't look pooped. What's up with that?"
"I don't know. Last time I tried this with you, I had to collapse before you even got started. This time…" Daria shrugged. "I'm not even winded yet. I kind of enjoyed running, too."
Jane looked at her friend for a long while.
"I can't get over your hair, Daria. It's much darker now than it was when you got back from Europe, pretty much black. It almost has a blue sheen to it. It's very pretty."
"Thanks. Mom keeps accusing me of coloring it. I haven't changed the way I take care of it at all, though."
"Weird. Cool, but weird."
Daria sat down on the grass.
"Jane? It's kind of crazy sounding, but I think I know why it's happening. Look at this."
Daria produced Amanda's note and handed it to Jane.
Jane looked at it for a quick moment.
Jane looked at Daria blankly for a moment.
"I don't read this language, whatever it is."
Daria looked surprised and took the note back. Daria hadn't previously realized that the note wasn't in English.
"Damn it." Daria cursed and put the note away. "Jane, I met someone my first day in Madrid. Her name was Amanda, and she could do… things."
Jane raised her eyebrows.
"This sounds so stupid. She was a Sorceress."
"You're joking, right?"
"No. She conjured that Oxford dictionary I showed you. She also conjured a bar of gold. That's why I had the money to buy those gifts for you and Trent, and why I've been buying the pizza and movies since I got back."
Jane started to look worried.
"She did something to me. It's changing me, improving my body. I don't have to eat, my stamina is as good as infinite, I don't sleep but about an hour every twenty-four, I can speak and read every language I've come across so far, I'm really strong, and my skin doesn't cut at all easily anymore."
"That does sound a little crazy, Daria."
"The hell it does. It sounds a very great deal crazy. However, I can prove some of it empirically. Ask my parents about the languages. I spoke French, Spanish and German – fluently! We met a Japanese couple in Bonn, and I talked to them about their camera, in Japanese."
Daria pulled a steak knife out of her backpack and held it against her wrist.
"I knew you wouldn't believe me without direct proof, so…"
Jane was too far away to stop her. Daria drug the serrated knife-edge across her wrist several times, in a sawing motion. Jane tackled her, taking the knife away. She stared at Daria's wrist.
"It didn't cut!"
"I told you." Daria said, sitting back up.
Jane felt the knife-edge, accidentally cutting her finger.
"Damn it. It's plenty sharp."
Daria offered her arm.
"Go to town."
Jane was tempted, but was afraid of hurting her friend. Daria grew impatient and grabbed Jane's hand, stabbing the knife at her own arm. When Jane felt the pressure, she was sure it would pierce, but it left the barest little scratch.
"Ok! Holy cow, Daria. This is too much!"
"Do you believe me now?"
Daria stood and picked up her friend, holding a startled Jane over her head.
"Hey!" Jane yelled.
"I'll put you down when you believe me." Daria smirked. "I've always wanted to do this."
"Ok! I believe you! Uncle! Uncle!"
Daria set her friend down gently.
"The note says there will be other changes later. It also warned of the pain attack I had."
Jane could see the well-hidden fear on her best friend's face.
"I need you to help me though this, Jane. It's scaring me half to death."
"You know I'm there for you, amiga."
The Morgendorffer clan sat at their table, having dinner. Quinn was prattling on about some sale at some shopping center. Daria was removing her glasses and looking at Quinn, then putting her glasses back on and looking at Quinn.
"Daria, stop that!" Quinn complained.
"Huh? Oh, sorry Quinn." Daria looked a little embarrassed. "Mom? I think I need my prescription adjusted. My glasses seem to be making my vision worse lately." Daria put her glasses in her pocket.
"I'll set up an appointment for you tomorrow." She said, sounding angry.
"What?" Daria asked, looking inquisitively at her mother.
"Nothing." Helen said.
"It's the money, isn't it. You don't want to spend the money on new glasses."
Helen blushed, failing to hide the fact her daughter had hit on the fact.
"Fine. Never mind. I'll figure out how to get new glasses on my own." Daria growled, and stormed away from the table.
Daria sat on Jane's bed writing on a pad of paper as Jane daubed paint onto a canvas. Daria was wearing a much smaller and obviously far cheaper pair of glasses, and the lenses looked nearly flat.
"So your vision improved? What're the chances of that?" Jane said.
"Less than none, according to my optometrist. Yet, the prescription isn't even one quarter as corrective as my last pair of glasses." Daria wrote another few words. "Jane? I made him swear not to tell anyone this, but I have to tell someone or I'll explode. I can trust you to keep this secret, right?"
"Jeez, Daria. I've managed to keep your 'sorceress' friend a secret, right? Speak to me."
"My optometrist said my iris color is changing."
"Worse, he says they're turning purple."
"Oh, that is too cool! I am jealous." Jane had a happy smirk on her face. "You know, you're not going to be able to keep that a secret for long."
"Yeah. I just want a little time to settle with the idea first. Want to get some Pizza?"
"I would, Daria. But, Tom and I are going to a movie."
Daria sighed. "Ok. I'm starved, so I'm going to go home and raid the refrigerator. See you tomorrow."
"Daira - you don't get hungry anymore." Jane said, smirkling at her freind.
"Ok, ok. Just trying to be nice about my exit. Have fun with Tom. Wear protection." Daria returned the smirk.
"Daria? Did you shorten that skirt?" Helen asked, a tone of accusation in her voice.
"What?" Daria said, stopping on her way out the front door. "Why would I want to do that?"
"Well, it is fitting you shorter, dear."
Daria looked at it. "You know, it fits me a little tight, too. I thought it was just too much pizza with Jane."
Helen brightened. "Come with me, just for a moment."
Helen led her to the doorway that had their last 'height marks' on it, which Helen and Jake had insisted on just after they moved from Highland.
"Oh, mom." Daria was already resisting.
"No, dear. I won't be marking your height, I just want to compare."
Daria sighed and stood against the doorframe.
"Daria, you've grown!"
"What?" Daria said, turning to look at the mark.
"A good inch and a half!" Helen beamed. "We'll have to get you some new clothes. We can finally get rid of that awful outfit…" Helen's face dropped as she said it, knowing it was a mistake.
Daria glared, then rushed out the door.
Daria moved her book further away, then brought it closer.
"I can't believe this." Daria grumbled quietly, not wanting to disturb the other library patrons.
Daria removed her glasses and inspected them for smudges.
Looking beyond them, she found she could read the pages without them.
"Damn it. I've barely had them for a few weeks and now I don't even need them."
"New wardrobe time, eh? I heard that some women finish their growing in one big 'spurt', Daria, but you sure do take the cake. Five inches in six weeks! Are you sure you don't have a rack in your room? Or am I 'stretching' it a bit?" Jane laughed.
"Gee, thanks Lane. This is my mom's opportunity to turn me into Quinn and you're making bad Torquemada jokes. I'm hating this."
"No, no." Jane protested. "You can't let yourself think that way. This isn't when you have to question your identity, Daria – this is an opportunity to refine its expression. At your parents expense, of course."
Daria looked at Jane thoughtfully and appreciatively.
"You are one smart cookie, Jane Lane."
"I know!" Jane said, with much mock modesty.
Daria came out of the dressing rooms wearing a mid-length black pleated skirt and a slate colored, short sleeved blouse that hung nicely and a little loosely on her new, fuller torso.
"Oh, yes." Jane said.
"Oh, no!" Helen said.
"Two yes votes. It's a keeper." Daria said, deadpan.
"Daria! All those dark colors… Are you sure that's how you want to be seen?" Helen said, being ever conscious of personal appearance.
"No, mom. This is how I avoid being seen. We've gone over this before."
"Come on, Mrs. Morgendorffer, you have to admit, it's pretty good looking with her new hair color." Jane offered.
Helen looked again. "I suppose. But what about when you decide to stop coloring it?"
"Mom! I'm not coloring my hair! Just like I'm not taking growth hormones, nor wearing colored contact lenses!" Daria was shaking with anger, her hands rolled tightly into fists.
Helen looked rebuked. "Dear, it's just that I can't understand how all these changes could be happening on their own."
"How do you think I feel? I'm the one who has to see a complete stranger looking back at her from the mirror every morning. I'm the one who has to buy a whole new set of clothes. I'm the one who has to replace her favorite boots. I'm the one who has to buy new braziers. Any more changes and I'll be unidentifiable! You want to know about being confused? Try it from my angle!" She yelled, tears streaming from her eyes.
Daria stormed back into the dressing area.
"I don't know why she has to get mad at me."
"Because you questioned her integrity – again. Fifth time today." Jane answered.
"Excuse me?" Helen shot a warning look at Jane.
"I'm serious, Mrs. Morgendorffer. She says she's not making these changes herself, yet you repeatedly accuse her of it. You know what her word means to her."
Helen thought about that for a while.
"Well, how else could this be happening?"
"Who cares? Isn't that beside the point? It is happening, Ms. Morgendorffer, and it's scaring the hell out of her. Daria needs you to support her, not cross examine her."
Helen sighed. "I don't like your attitude toward me right now, Jane – but you have a point."
"Those have to be contacts!" Quinn snapped. "You can't have purple eyes!"
Daria sighed as she cut out another piece of lasagna for Quinn.
"Quinn, I don't wear contacts. I don't even wear glasses anymore. I don't want purple eyes, I was happy with my brown eyes. I don't want black hair, I was happy with my brown hair. So, lay off!" Daria slopped the lasagna onto Quinn's plate, spattering her with tomato sauce.
"Daria!" Quinn whined, wiping at the sauce on her tee shirt.
"Girls! Stop it." Helen ordered. "Quinn, we don't know what's going on with your sister's appearance. The doctors don't think it's anything threatening, several even suggested perfectly natural causes, like recessive genetics. I think we need to be happy for Daria."
Daria looked at her mother in surprise.
"We do?" Daria asked.
"Of course dear. I apologize for questioning you before, sweetie. I'm just a little scared, and I wanted there to be an explanation I could understand."
Daria smiled one of her Mona-Lisa smiles. "Thanks, mom."
"But it's not fair!"
Daria rolled her eyes.
"She gets to have purple eyes and she doesn't even appreciate them! She's such a… a… rotten little geek!" Quinn stomped a foot on the ground.
"Quinn! Apologize right now!" Helen ordered.
Quinn glared at Helen. "No."
"Quinn Morgendorffer, you are crossing a dangerous line, young lady." Helen warned.
"Honey, Daria can't help these changes." Jake offered. "No more than you could help having grown taller than her at first."
Quinn looked hurt.
"But now she's taller than me." She whined.
"Think of it as having a sister you can look up to." Jake offered.
Quinn stood and stormed from the room, crying.
"What? What did I say?" Jake asked, very confused.
"Hey Daria." Trent said after opening the door. "Come on in. Janey's out running, but she should be back soon."
Trent headed back to the basement.
"Can I talk to you for a moment?"
"Sure. Want to come with me to the basement? I'm just doing a little maintenance on my guitar."
Trent led the way down the stairs. Daria sat herself down in one of the motley chairs that populated the basement.
"You look great in those new clothes, Daria. I love the slate blouses."
Daria blushed. "Uh, thanks."
Trent set to work with a polishing cloth on the neck of his guitar.
"Trent? This isn't going to be easy for me to say…"
Trent stopped and looked up at Daria.
"You're in love with my sister, and want to ask for her hand in marriage, right?" He said with a smirk.
Daria found herself giggling. "I think we're straight, Trent."
"Sorry, just trying to lighten your mood."
"Actually, Trent, you weren't too far off." Daria said, attacking the subject from the side.
"I don't get it." Trent said, looking more apprehensive than confused.
"Um… I sort of… I kind of have a crush on you."
Trent smiled. "Yeah, I kind of noticed." He said as he set his guitar to the side.
"You knew? Why didn't you say… anything…" Daria trailed off, fearing the worst.
"Because I didn't want to rush you. Because I wanted to wait until you were over eighteen. For a long list of equally lame sounding reasons."
Daria was dumbfounded.
Trent leaned over to her and stroked her cheek. "I have to be honest with you. I can't really say it's more than a 'like' I have for you. I do miss you when you're not around. You understand me, and I like to think I understand you."
Daria kissed him lightly on the lips.
"Whoa." Trent said, smiling.
"Yeah." Daria said. "Sorry, I don't know what got into me."
"Don't apologize, Daria."
Daria began to stand.
"No, please don't leave. I'm Ok with the kiss."
Daria sat back down.
"I'm…" She began, but couldn't form the words.
"I know. I've had a crush or two myself, you know. It's good that you want to explore the feeling."
"You don't feel the same for me, do you."
Trent looked at his shoes.
"I'm sorry, Daria. I mean, I really dig your personality, and I do find you attractive and all. I've just never felt, you know, that way about you."
Dara was surprised that his admission was far more of a relief than a hurt.
"Why have you been watching me so much lately, then?" Daria asked.
"Like I said, I've always found you to be a very beautiful woman, Daria. Lately you've just been becoming even more beautiful. I couldn't help but admire your looks. I thought I had been hiding it better, though. Sorry."
Daria was flattered. "Don't be. Thanks for the compliment."
"Damn it." Jane said, standing at the top of the stairs. "This isn't what I had hoped for."
"Jane!" Daria and Trent complained.
"Hey! Don't get mad at me! You're the ones talking right under the heater so I can hear you everywhere else in the house."
Jane watched Daria, who was sitting on Jane's bed. She had stopped painting, completely distracted by Daria's reading. Daria had read three books in the time it took Jane to gesso her canvas. She would pick up a book, and leaf through the pages, one at a time, almost as quickly as she could turn them, then set the book down in another pile.
"Are you actually reading those? Or are you just looking them over?"
Daria set her book down.
"I've been meaning to test that, Jane. I think I've been reading them, but I'm a little worried that I'm just fooling myself." Daria said, staring at the floor.
Jane saw how serious Daria was.
"Ok, let's try something easy, to test."
Jane picked up a book from the 'read' pile and opened it to a random page.
"Tell me about what I'm going to read… 'I use the term culture to refer collectively to a society and its way of life or in reference to human culture as a whole. The Modern technical definition of culture, as socially patterned human thought and behavior, was originally proposed by the nineteenth-century British anthropologist, Edward Tyler.' Ok, Daria; hit me." Jane said.
Daria took a deep breath.
"This definition is an open-ended list, which has been extended considerably since Tyler first proposed it. Some researchers have attempted to create exhaustive universal lists of the content of culture, usually as guides for further research. Others have listed and mapped all the culture traits of particular geographic areas. A committee of the British Association undertook the first inventory of cultural categories in 1872 for the Advancement of Science, which was assisted by Tyler. The committee prepared an anthropological field manual that listed seventy-six culture topics, in no particular order, including such diverse items as cannibalism and language. The most exhaustive such list is the 'Outline of Cultural Materials,' first published in 1938 and still used as a guide for cataloging great masses of worldwide cultural data for cross-cultural surveys. Like the table of contents of a giant encyclopedia, the outline lists 79 major divisions and 637 subdivisions. For example, 'Food Quest' is a major division with such subdivisions as collecting, hunting, and fishing."
"Ok! Ok… Jeez Daria, that was word-for-word."
Daria knocked on the Lane's door again. A gentle breeze dawdled through her long, raven black hair, which she had gotten into the habit of putting into a ponytail. She was wearing her new black skirt and slate blouse, with black knee-high slip on boots. Her usual backpack was slung over her shoulder.
The door opened to display a sleepy, but otherwise ready looking Jane.
"I don't want it to be school time already. Go home and let's pretend it's still July."
"Just keep reminding yourself that this is the last year, Jane. Nine months left in our sentence, then 'Poof!' we're out of there."
Jane locked the door behind her.
"Well, the faster we get started…"
"…the more likely we are to have Jodie try to recruit us?"
"You are not helping my resolve any, Daria."
Charles "Upchuck" Ruttheimer the third approached Daria and Jane, his lecherous smile in full gear.
"Greetings! I don't believe we've met before, Miss…" He started, looking at Daria.
"Morgendorffer. Upchuck, it's me, Daria. And, no, I'm still not interested."
Upchuck's eyes grew wide at the sound of her voice.
"Great Scott! It is you, Daria." He regained his 'composure'. "This past summer has been very, very good to you." He said, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Buzz off, creep." Jane said, giving Upchuck a little shove.
"Mrrrower! Feisty!" He exclaimed as he turned to leave. "We shall meet again, my sweets."
Daria shook her head.
"It's is an infinitesimal consolation that Upchuck, at least, won't be treating me much differently."
Daria closed her locker and prepared to head for her homeroom with Jane.
"Excuse me, Miss. You should be with the new students at orientation…" Mrs. Li said from behind them, looking at Daria.
Daria turned around and faced Ms. Li.
"Why? Have I forgotten where everything is?"
Ms. Li stared, overwhelmed. "Miss Morgendorffer?"
"I… I… um…" Ms. Li stammered.
Daria and Jane smirked, entertained by Ms. Li's reaction.
Ms. Li, still unsure what to say, turned and left.
"Ms. Li, struck speechless. Surely that has made this all worth it." Jane commented.
"Good morning, class! I see we have a new student today." Mr. O'Neil said, indicating Daria.
"This is going to wear thin very quickly." Daria said.
"Miss? Please stand up and introduce yourself to the class."
Daria sighed, and Jane gave her an apologetic look.
Standing, Daria looked at the class for a moment. No one seemed to recognize her.
"No one knows me?" She asked.
A few students murmured at each other.
"Come on, I wasn't invisible, people. Jane and I did that poster we had to ruin to save it from Ms. Li. I wrote that 'Melody Powers' story the football team liked so much." Daria pleaded, a tear forming in her eye.
No one commented.
"Kevin, I helped you pass the behavioral science experiment, with the mouse? Remember?"
Brittany stabbed her finger at Kevin.
"You know her? Have you been going out behind my back?"
"Brittany! I helped you in art class, you invited me to your party, remember?" Daria implored.
"No. I think that was Daria." Brittany said, twisting a ponytail and looking vacant.
Daria began to cry, and ran from the room.
"Oh dear! I have to tell Ms. Li… what was the new girl's name again?" Mr. O'Neil asked.
"Mr. O'Neil, that was Daria. There were no new students in the senior class this year." Jane scolded. "If you will pardon me, I've got to go be her friend."
O'Neil quickly filled out two hall passes and handed them to Jane, his eyes tearing.
"Please tell Daria that I'm sorry."
"That was Daria?" Kevin said, astounded. "Wow, what a fox! OW! Babe! Stop poking me!"
Jane entered the bathroom, hoping to find Daria in her usual hide-from-the-world spot.
"Daria?" She called.
She could hear Daria's quiet weeping coming from her usual stall.
"Daria?" Jane smirked. "Talking toilet?"
She heard a chuckle slip out between the soft sobs.
"I'm sorry, Jane. I freaked out."
"Yeah, it's kind of rough on the old sense of self, isn't it?"
The stall door opened and Daria headed to the sinks to wash off her tears.
"I didn't think I was so hung up on my appearance."
"Well, I don't think you are."
"I think you're not concerned with your appearance, Daria. I think you're reacting to not being recognized – A real identity crisis. I mean, if you had modified your appearance willingly, then this all would have been funny. But you weren't ready for this."
Daria looked at herself in the mirror.
"Am I who I think I am? Am I who I appear to be?"
"You are who you decide to be. Rest assured you are still the Daria I know and love. Cynical, sarcastic, maniacal, and just a touch of megalomania for flavor." Jane smirked. "You just have a different package now."
"Wow! Daria! What a change!" Jodie exclaimed as she sat down at the cafeteria table.
"I heard something about purple eyes?" Mack said, obviously trying to get a look at Daria's new irises. "I've never heard of that color before."
"It's rare, Mack. Very, very rare – One in several billion rare." Daria said, leaning forward and looking Mack in the eye.
"Well, it's pretty." Mack said, embarrassed at his pushiness.
"So, any idea what caused all the changes?" Jodie asked, and bit into her sandwich.
"Near as the doctors can tell, one long stream of random and probably recessive genes."
"So, something like this could happen to Quinn?" Mack asked.
"Maybe. Science really doesn't know all that much about genetics yet." Daria covered.
"It's all I've heard today. Daria this, Daria that." Sandi complained. "How can a brain possibly become so popular?"
"Yeah. It's so wrong." Tiffany said, ever the sycophant.
"I think it's neat. I saw Daria today and she's really pretty now. She doesn't even need makeup!" Stacy said, dreamily and mildly envious.
Quinn, Sandi and Tiffany shot Stacy a dirty look, quieting her.
"Well, I see only one course of action that will restore the balance of popularity."
"What would that be?" Quinn asked, looking nervous.
"We have to get her to join the Fashion Club. Otherwise we risk her influencing the fashion sense of the rest of the student body without our guidance."
"Good idea." Tiffany said protractedly.
"Quinn, since she's your cousin, or whatever, you should ask her."
Quinn fidgeted, tormenting the paper she was holding.
"Guys? I have to admit to something."
"Go ahead, we're all friends here, right?" Sandi said.
Quinn mumbled something.
"What did you say?" Stacy asked.
"She's my… sister." Quinn said, staring at the floor.
"You've been lying to us?" Sandi said, feigning surprise and outrage.
Daria and Trent leaned against one another as they sat, supporting each other. Since their talk in the Lane's basement, they had become closer friends. She stared into the beautiful terrain outside of Lawndale while Trent strummed his guitar. He was working on some new lyrics and Daria was writing an essay for Mr. O'Neil – in Arabic. It was her new way of torturing the oversensitive teacher. Each assignment was written in a different language. So far, he was too afraid to ask her for the English versions. Daria was impressed with his resourcefulness. Thus far, he had managed to get every one translated.
Tom finished assembling another sandwich and handed it to Jane, then settled back to watch her paint the landscape. That she was adding hints of faces to the rocks and trees in her painting amused Tom.
Daria took a sip from her cola and pondered. Even with the support she was getting from Jane, Trent and Tom she was having a hard time adapting to the way people were reacting to her.
The first quarter's grades came out, and soon after Jodie was as good as gone – she was redoubling her efforts to attain valedictorian. Daria was far ahead of her, her improved memory, substantially reduced need for sleep, and incredible reading rate serving her exceptionally well. Mack blamed her for suddenly finding himself effectively without a girlfriend, and Daria was worried that Jodie would work herself to death. Even now, on a Sunday morning, Jodie was at home, studying. Daria vowed to figure out how to bring that fiasco to an end.
Sandi was no longer disdainful around Daria, but instead was pestering her to join the Fashion Club via notes and messengers. Daria had expected some hostility from Sandi, but she was proving to be more conniving than that. At last, Quinn was admitting to being her sister now that she was 'worthy' of the Fashion Club. Rumor had it she has nearly been kicked off for lying about it for so long. Daria suspected Sandi had really known the whole time, and was now simply using it as leverage against Quinn.
Upchuck's infatuation with her was reaching new heights, or depths depending on your point of view. She was certain he would do something stupid pretty soon. What it would be remained to be seen, but she hoped it would be something they could both live down.
She had accidentally achieved popularity. Even turning up the heat under her sarcasm, insulting people viciously, and glaring at everyone hadn't stemmed the tide. The 'shallow' crowd was judging her by her looks alone and finding her popular. It disgusted her.
She had taken to spending every minute she could with Trent, Jane and Tom on these little 'double dates', as Jane liked to call them. She knew they were her friends because they liked her, not because she was the new raven-haired, purple eyed, big-busted, 'alluring babe' on campus. In that, she found solace.
"What're you thinking, Daria?"
"Just appreciating true friends, Trent."
"No." Daria answered, trying to get around Sandi.
Jane looked worried at the conflict's escalation. Tiffany looked ready to bolt.
"Listen to me! I am not interested in you or your stupid little club!"
"But…" Sandi was intimidated by Daria, she hadn't expected her to be so tall, but persisted.
"My new appearance means nothing to me, Ok? I'm not trying to be popular – people are only taken in by the sudden change."
"But everyone wants to be popular!" Sandi insisted.
"No, Sandi. You know that's not so." Daria said. "Some of us like to be left alone."
Sandi looked confused. Tiffany took her by the arm and guided her out of the hallway.
"I think you're causing a few identity crises, Daria." Jane commented as they continued on to class.
Daria was pulling her textbooks out of her locker, ready to go home for the day. Jane was hovering by her, looking forward to the run she was going to share with her best friend after school.
Jane moaned in exasperation. Daria didn't bother to turn around.
"Go away, Upchuck. I'd rather chew off my leg than go on a date with you. Please get that through your inflated ego."
Daria blinked and turned around.
"Did you just say 'please'?"
"Look, I know what a pain I can be." He fidgeted and sighed. "The fact is, I've never really tried to go out with anyone. It's just an act, sort of a defense mechanism – according to my counselor."
Jane and Daria looked surprised at the admission.
"The truth is, I've always been interested in you. Never mind your improved looks. Not that you needed improvement."
He pointed to the grade charts that still hung on the bulletin boards.
"See, I may not be as smart as you and Jodie are, but I'm close…"
Which was true, he was a close third.
"…and I've always admired brains. Jodie has Mack, and I was hoping that…" He shrugged and looked at her pleadingly – his usual arrogant smile amazingly absent from his face.
Daria didn't know what to do. She couldn't push aside her view of Charles so easily, yet she could sense sincerity.
"Upchuck, I'll make you a deal. You drop the super-suave ladies-man act for a good, long while and I'll consider a date with you. If that pseudo-amorous, lecherous jerk isn't the real you, then let me find out who the real you is. Maybe I'll like him."
"No one could possibly willingly date the love child of James Bond and Jerry Lewis, anyway." Jane gibed.
"Ok, deal. I'll show you mine, and you show me yours." He said, grinning.
"You are not off to a great start, Upchuck." Daria said, disgusted at his phrasing.
Daria and Jane were running along the outskirts of High Hills Park. They didn't speak while running, mostly because Jane used the time to think and be creative. They both wore portable tape players and listened to their favorite music or book-on-tape instead.
As they rounded another corner, Daria came to a sudden, sliding halt. Jane nearly tripped trying to stop, looking at her friend, who stared at a woman in a park bench.
The woman stood. Jane thought she was some sort of model, her looks were damn near perfect. She had raven-black hair, dark eyes and pale skin. She carried herself with authority and pride.
"Amanda Belal?" Daria asked after taking off her headphones.
"Greetings child. I came to check up on my latest experiment. Are things going well?"
"I guess so. It's messing with my identity, but still…"
"Don't worry so much about your identity, Daria. You will get used to the changes soon enough and settle back into yourself. I chose you because you were strong, remember? And because of her." She said, pointing to Jane.
"You're very wise, Jane. Daria had nothing but the greatest respect and love for you. The bond of friendship between you two seems neigh unbreakable."
Jane looked at Daria and smiled.
"So this is your sorceress?" Jane asked as they cooled down from their run.
"Pretty woman. I think she likes black hair." Jane smirked.
"Whatever gave you that idea?" Amanda asked, chuckling.
"Just a wild guess." Jane said, smiling a little.
"You are mildly jealous of Daria." Amanda said, suddenly serious. "You've managed to hide it, but I can see it."
"Right. Sure." Jane said, incredulous.
"You told Trent."
Jane glanced at Daria, then looked at the ground.
"Uh. Well, maybe a little."
"I give you a minute to consider accepting a gift from me to even the field. In the meantime, let me borrow Daria for a moment."
She motioned to Daria and started to walk away. Jane looked befuddled, remembering the stories Daria had told her about the spells and their affects – and adverse reactions.
Daria and Amanda were just out of earshot of the stunned Jane, walking toward the high school.
"Here, you had forgotten this." Amanda handed her a small package.
"The pen! Oh, thank you Amanda!" Daria said, pleased that she could now fix that part of the chasm between her and her mother.
"Think nothing of it. Tell me of Trent."
"Well, uh…" Daria began, embarrassed.
"You told him. Good."
"Yeah, but we're just friends now."
"As most crushes turn out to be, when confronted. I'm sure you feel better about him now, more comfortable."
"I do. It was a relief when he told me he thought of me only as a friend."
"Are you comfortable with me enchanting your friend?"
"Actually, the only thing I'd be worried about is the pain."
"Then hold her, I hear it helps."
Amanda turned and headed back toward Jane, who was sitting on the park bench, looking toward them.
"She will say yes. I can only give her basic enhancements. She will never be fully satisfied with changing her appearance because she is a true artist. She will alter herself many times, as her caprice tells her."
Jane looked up at them as they approached. Amanda motioned Daria to sit beside her friend.
"Um, Jane – this really hurts. Remember when I was in the hospital?"
"Yeah, I remember you telling me, Daria. Honestly, I don't know weather to believe any of this or not even seeing your changes, but letting her dance around and say nonsense words is a small price to pay for living a fantasy for a moment. If it's true… I want it."
Amanda had begun her spell, not bothering to ask the question for which she already had the answer.
Daria could sense that electric charge again, and put her arm around Jane.
When Amanda touched her, Jane screamed and began to writhe in agony. Daria held on to her, telling her it would be over soon. In moments, Jane was unconscious. Daria wiped away a tear. The sight of her friend in agony was almost more than she could sustain.
Amanda was already gone.
Daria kicked open the door of the Lane household. She carried Jane up to her room and placed her on her bed. She knew it would be a while before she would have the strength to wake up.
Jane's hair was the only obvious outer change she could see. It now had that blue sheen that Jane had admired in both Daria's new hair and Amanda's. The effect was so subtle that Daria doubted that most people would notice the change.
Daria sat on the floor beside her friend's bed and pulled paper and pencil from her backpack. In a careful hand, she began to write a note apologizing for the pain, and explaining what she could about the enhancements Amanda had given her. She wrote it in Chinese, so that Jane could experience the interesting sensation of realizing she could read what were previously only pretty and mysterious characters.
She left the note where Jane would be sure to find it, and decided to go try and start fixing the damage her own changes had done to her environment.
"Mom?" Daria tried to get her attention.
Helen had buried the kitchen table in papers, and was working furiously. She normally hated to be disturbed when she was hiding in her work.
"Yes?" Helen said, not even looking up.
Daria placed the box in front of Helen.
"I found this at the bottom of my duffel bag. I hadn't forgotten it after all."
Helen opened the box. A gold fountain pen with an inscription sat before her.
"For my mother, because I too often forget to tell her I love her. Signed Daria." Helen read aloud, her voice trebling with emotion.
Helen looked up, but Daria had already left.
Daria knocked on the Landon's door again. She was certain they were home, she could hear Evan crying.
The door opened and Rachel greeted her.
"Hi Rachel. Is Jodie in?"
"Sure. Come on, she's in her room."
Rachel led Daria through the luxurious house. She pointed to a door.
"She's studying, so don't expect a happy-happy joy-joy greeting." Rachel said, then walked off.
Daria sighed, then knocked on the door.
"What!?" She heard from inside.
"Jodie? It's Daria. I need to talk to you."
The door flew opened, and a haggard, tired Jodie glared.
Daria was aghast. She had never expected to see the normally cheery Jodie Landon act this way or look this way.
"Jodie, whatever it is that I did to deserve being treated like this, I apologize."
Jodie offered her chair to Daria, then sat on her bed.
"Jodie, I'm very worried about you. I don't see you around school, and people say you've been acting curt with your friends. Not to mention the extra Advanced Placement course load. You look terrible, Jodie – overworked, dangerously stressed."
Jodie looked at the floor.
"I have to graduate top of the class, Daria."
"Why? Because your dad says so?"
Jodie fidgeted, not wanting to answer.
"Look, I'll get a 'B' in my math class or something. I'm not going to be the reason Jodie Landon had a stroke at age eighteen."
"No, Daria. That's not fair to you."
"And knowing that I'm killing you is fair? Jodie, this isn't worth it. Nothing is worth destroying yourself. If you need valedictorian, then I'll give it to you. I'm happy just graduating. I took on the advanced placement classes and extra credit so I could get into the college I want, I'm not interested in the awards."
Jodie looked at Daria then broke into tears.
"I'm sorry." Jodie said, trying to get herself under control.
"It's Ok, Jodie. When was the last time you ate some junk food and relaxed?"
Jodie shrugged as she dried off her tears.
"Let's go get Jane, then go get pizza or a burger and blow the rest of the day being frivolous."
Daria stared at the blank page in front of her. The spring air frittered by, smelling of fresh flowers and new leaves. She sat back in the park bench and tried to calm down.
She looked back at the past year and shuddered. Even with all the support she was getting from Jane and Trent, she still felt like her true self was slipping away. She no longer had the same effect on people in general, and they no longer treated her as she was accustomed.
Daria looked up.
Andrea sat herself beside Daria and relaxed.
"What're you thinking?"
"Uh-huh. You always cry when you're thinking random things?"
Daria wiped at her cheek. She hadn't realized she had been crying.
"Damn tear ducts."
"I know you're not crying because you're going to miss school. I know you're not crying because of your new looks. I sure wouldn't."
Daria raised an eyebrow at Andrea.
"So, why are you crying?"
Daria looked back to her blank page.
"Identity crisis." Daria said, almost to quiet to hear.
Andrea laughed loudly.
"You? That's a riot. No way I'd have ever thought you, of all people, would freak over a surface change."
"What do you mean?" Daria said, glaring at her mirth.
"Damn, Daria. The world changes all the freaking time – on the surface. So do people, although usually a bit slower than you did. You are nevertheless you. I see you using your acid sarcasm, your realistic insight, and all that crap that everyone has come to identify as being so much a part of you. Never mind the raven-black hair and the too-god-damned-cool purple eyes. It's like this: You can decide how you're going to deal with being treated differently, right? But, that's not the same thing as deciding how you're going to be redefined by everyone. Got it?"
The point struck home. She had been so busy redefining herself that she had never considered that she didn't need to. Like Jodie realizing she no longer needed to kill herself to get valedictorian, Daria felt a ton of weight lift from her shoulders.
"Very smart and observant, Andrea. Why aren't you graduating as valedictorian?"
"Ha! Who the hell needs that pressure? Hell, have you seen Jodie lately? Damn!"
Jane was sketching furiously. Daria had never seen her so enthralled in her work.
"This is too cool." Jane exclaimed. "I can see so much more detail."
"So it was worth it, then?" Daria asked.
"Every second. I've never felt so… full of ideas! So charged with energy!"
Jane stood and fetched a knife to hone her pencil.
"Even my grades have improved, Daria, and I didn't even have to put more effort into it. The pressure to graduate is off, like I've already got my diploma." Jane sighed and stretched. "So, what're you writing?"
"My salutatorian speech."
"I thought you'd be valedictorian? You were practically there before you could read like the wind."
"It was killing Jodie. Her father is preposterously demanding. Once she saw how far ahead I was after the first quarter, she tripled her workload and began a life of pure scholastics."
"Damn. No wonder I hadn't seen her in so long."
"Yeah. So, last weekend I went to see her at her home. She was past spent, Jane. That conscience I always deny got to me again. I decided to cut a point off my grade, just enough to nudge her ahead. We were going to get you and go get pizza, but you were out with Tom."
"So that's what Trent meant. He had mentioned you were over, and he said that you were with some anorexic looking girl. Jeez, was she really that bad?"
"Well, emaciated would be going too far, definitely a bit haggard."
"Her father pushes her that hard? Why doesn't that seem worth it?"
"Because it's not."
"Quinn! Your date is here!" Jake yelled up the stairs in his habitual manner.
Quinn ran to the stairs, the stopped.
She ran back to her room.
"Sorry, son. You know how girls can be."
"Actually, Mr. Morgendorffer, I'm here to pick up Daria." Charles said.
Jake stared blankly for a moment.
"Oh. Well, come in. Let's have a chat."
"No, dad." Daria said from the top of the stairs. "We're cutting the start of the movie too close as it is." She explained as she came down the stairs.
Daria was wearing her usual slate-and-black outfit, with the addition of a purple scarf around her neck. The splash of color transformed the entire outfit and made her unusual eye color visible even from a distance.
"Daria, you are truly stunning." Charles said.
"Thanks, Upch… um… Charles."
Jake took his daughter's hand. Daria felt paper in it – he was trying to discreetly hand her some money.
"You have a good time, Daria." He turned to Charles. "Please have her back by…"
"Eleven. " Daria said as she pocketed the money. "That's the plan."
Charles nodded his head.
"Fear not, Mr. Morgendorffer. Daria will be treated like the lady she is, and returned home at a reasonable hour. That or Daria kills me." Charles said, giving Daria a wry smile.
They headed to Charles' car, Jake closing the door behind them.
"Thanks, Daria, for this opportunity."
"Opportunity?" Daria said, still suspicious of his motives.
"Yes, opportunity to demonstrate that I'm not what I seem."
"Ah. Well, we shall see."
"What would you like to see? I was thinking 'The Bone Collector' myself."
"Astonishingly, that is the very movie I was going to suggest."
Charles started the car and pulled onto the road.
They said nearly nothing to each other on the drive, primarily since Charles was concentrating on the drive.
Charles paid for everything, and Daria had become a little annoyed. She didn't want to end up owing Charles anything. Charles dismissed her arguments, claiming he owed her for all his silly irritations anyway.
They had both enjoyed the movie, and Daria was surprised to discover that Charles had a real interest in forensics. He commented expertly on the movie, pointing out its inaccuracies and it's strengths.
"We have a couple of hours, may I treat you to a snack?" Charles offered.
"Sure." Daria found herself saying.
Charles took her to a nice little restaurant, less than fancy but more than a greasy spoon. They both ordered a slice of pie and coffee.
"I have to admit, Chuck, you are a much more interesting person when you're not trying to be James Bond."
Charles blushed, and said nothing.
Daria stirred her coffee, cooling it.
"Daria, I must thank you. The past few weeks of trying to just be me has really opened the old eyeballs."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, as I shed the old super-suave persona, I've started to really meet people. As an example, I had a conversation with Andrea! It was brief, but for once it didn't end in her taking a swing at my head."
"She's an interesting character, isn't she?"
"Oh, yes. She's very feisty, very smart. I kick myself for not doing this earlier. Who knows what I blew off with that act?"
Daria shrugged. "No use worrying about it. An act can become a substitute for identity. I know."
"Bye Charles." Daria said, waving at him from the front door.
Daria was impressed by his transformation. In a mere matter of weeks, he had shed that nearly misogynist treatment of women for a truly suave and gentlemanly approach. If they held a few more things in common, she'd probably really start to like him, romantically speaking. As it was, she was starting to consider him something of a friend.
She opened the door, noting Charles had returned her home fifteen minutes early.
"Daria?" Helen called from the couch.
"Would you come talk with me for a while?"
Daria fidgeted for a moment.
Daria sat on the loveseat.
"Daria, I've been treating you very poorly lately."
"No kidding." Daria covered her eyes and shook her head. "I'm sorry. That wasn't fair."
"I deserved it. I have been putting a lot ahead of you, at the worst times."
Daria shrugged, not knowing how to reply.
Helen held up her new fountain pen.
"This is the most wonderful gift I've ever received. Not only because of the inscription, but because it reminded me to love my daughter." Helen sighed.
"You've made me very proud. I know I complain about a lot of things and forget to say that. I wanted to make sure you avoided all the mistakes I made, and ended up trying to live my life though you. After you gave me the pen, I thought about you a lot. You have avoided most of the mistakes I made, and the biggest one you avoided was trying to emulate other people in lieu of being yourself."
Helen looked at her daughter lovingly.
"In an age where being 'one in a million' means there are five thousand others like you, you've managed to be unique. I realize I should be proud of that, and I am."
Helen smiled pleadingly, and Daria couldn't help but give Helen one of her Mona-Lisa smiles.
"I know you don't like to be hugged, so…"
Daria stood and walked over to her mother. Taking her hand, she guided her to her feet and gave her a good, solid hug.
"Thanks, mom. I love you, too."
Daria stepped up to the podium. She set her notes down and looked over the audience. Her robes were decorated with 'honor chords' and ribbons, signifying her unusually active and highly successful academic year. Behind her, Jodie and the faculty of Lawndale high waited for her to begin the ceremony.
Daria reached up and adjusted the microphone slightly, her face as deadpan as usual.
"Who the heck are you people?" She yelled, making almost everyone jump.
"If there's one lesson I've learned this past year, it's a lesson of identity. I have, with the help of the wonderful friends I am so fortunate to have, learned to know who I am and to disregard what I appear to be.
Something changed this year. The change caused many of my fellow students to question who they were and where they stood. Jodie, our friendly neighborhood Valedictorian, wondered if she was still the intelligent, outgoing super-student she had tried to be. Mack wondered if he was still her beau. The Fashion Club wondered if they needed to have a 'brain' in their club. Daria wondered if she was still Daria.
The wonderful artist who created the mural that graces our stage, Jane, was one of the few who wasn't panicked by the change, and threw her being into keeping everything from spinning out of control.
Slowly things began to reach equilibrium. The Fashion Club learned that they weren't actually affected and could be their usual selves. Jodie learned she was the intelligent, outgoing super-student she tried to be. Mack was still her beau.
And Daria – it took the intervention of one of the most interesting students in the senior class to snap Daria back into reality. I'd mention her name, but I was promised I'd never see another sunrise if I did, so you all get to guess.
Her lesson is the most important. She reminded me, and now I remind you, that identity is a matter of choice – your choice. Choose to be yourself, or choose to be whom others expect you to be – it's still your choice.
So, I stand here now, looking out at the dull expressions of my classmates – especially you, Kevin. Have I mentioned he's the 'QB'? He will if I don't. – Looking out at the beaming face of my mother, the bored face of my sister and what looks like the sleeping face of my father, I feel prepared to graduate knowing that I have three things that will get me through my life.
I have my basic education. With four more years of work, that may mean something.
I have my friends. They already mean everything, and for that I hope I never loose them.
And I have my identity. So long as I have that, I can keep my friends and guide my education.
So, without further delay, let's begin to hand out those little slips of paper that let us know we have finally made it out of the madhouse and into bedlam."