Nemo Blank


For your reading pleasure,


The end of an era.

Characters belong to MTV. I stole them, and I'm a baaaad man, but fortunately pretty much bullet-proof, lawsuit wise. Used without permission. This story is copyright 7/2001 by Nemo Blank and is not to be sold or profited from. It may however be copied, distributed and posted freely in unaltered form, so long as the author's name and email address remain on the work.




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Special thanks to my trusty beta readers. You guys really helped.




     "Hey, Big Kevin Thompson!" Sam Stagg, QB for the Oakwood Tigers, walked up and winked at Brittany.

     "Sam-The-Man! Wazzup?" Kevin eyed Sam's cheerleader, then gave her a smile. He'd nailed her a couple of times, but he couldn't think of her name.

     "Hi Sam! Hi Lela!" Brittany managed a smile at Sam.

     Lela smiled back. "Hey, guys!" The Mall of the Millennium was cool like that. You met everyone there.

     Sam whipped out a five-dollar bill. "Why don't you ladies head over to the Food Court and get yourselves a couple of sodas? I need to talk to the Kev-man, QB to QB."

     Brittany and Lela took the money and went off to gossip, head cheerleader to head cheerleader.

     "Say, Kevin, you coming out to the Dogfight this year?" Sam smirked. He would beat them all, this time. He had the ugliest chick in creation all lined up. She was in her twenties and butt ugly. She was a sure winner, so he was anxious to make sure that the annual event came off, this year. It had been canceled the year before because of too much pressure.

     Kevin grimaced and started toward the Food Court. "No way, Sammy. Brit is acting kind of weird, lately. She'd really lose her-

     "Whipped!" Sam crowed, following. Kevin was worth a hundred bucks to him. "Are you gonna let some chick worry you? Hey son, you're the QB! Act like it!" Sam gave a disgusted headshake. He was proud of his hard-heartedness. Coach said that only losers cried over spilt blood. Plus, winning the dogfight was worth at least five thousand bucks. Everybody had to put up a hundred and it was winner take all.

     Kevin had always been spoon-fed a similar philosophy, separating the world into the quick and the dead. Football coaches usually spouted an ethos that Hitler would have rejected as inhuman. "Who's gonna hold the stakes?" Kevin stalled, looking for an out.

     Brittany would kill him if she found out about it. Really kill him. She was a black belt and liked to break bricks in her backyard. She was getting physical with him in more ways than one, these days.

     "We got that bookie, Mark Campbell, this year, so there won't be any more problems. He knows the terms and he'll pay off the winner." Sam clapped him on the shoulder. "See, we got nothing to worry about!"

     Looking at Brittany, Kevin made a decision that astonished Sam. "No."

     Sam stared, nonplused, then shrugged. "That's too bad, dude." He thought for a minute. "You got plenty of ugly chicks at Lawndale. That one, Andrea, with all the piercing and shit on her face-."

     Kevin frowned heavily, stopping in the middle of the food court. "I already took Andrea." She'd cried. Kevin still felt pretty bad about it.

     Brittany overheard and squeezed her eyes shut, trying to contain her automatic rage at the memory. There was something almost deadly about Lela's babble... What was she on about?

     Lela was talking about Sam, her favorite subject. "And with the Firebird you get a pretty big back seat. Not like Kevin's Jeep, with all those stupid switches under the seat. I accidentally kicked under there once and turned on that electric cooler he's got. It ran out the car battery and we got stuck way out in Clarke County-

     "What!" Brittany felt faint. Kevin had just installed the cooler, with its under-seat switch arrangement a month ago. Flushing, she realized that he'd cheated again. Abandoning Lela in mid-word, Brittany turned and walked over to the two football stars.

     "Kevin? Can we go? I'm not... feeling good." She was trying to hold her temper. The whole situation was exacerbated by the fact that she was trying to ration her drug supply. It just wasn't working.

     Kevin scowled, still stinging from Sam's expert needling. "Again? Awww, Babe, we just got here!"

     Brittany's fist's clenched and her features hardened into an all too familiar mask of rage. "You big jerk!" It came out as a scream of pure hatred.

     Kevin backpedaled, eyes widening. "Oh, shit! Babe-

     She moved so fast that he never even glimpsed the blow that felled him.

     Daria sat in the car with Tom, scowling. He'd done it again, jumping in to refuse his mother's offer of tickets to a dance. He hadn't even bothered to consult her.

     "C'mon, Daria. Those dances are... no fun." It was the simple truth. He hated them, like a dental appointment. He looked at her, and winced. When was he going to learn? She didn't like him making decisions for her, without asking her. He'd blown it again. Daria wouldn't be taken for granted.

     "How would I know? I've never been to one." They'd never really been anywhere in his world, formally. Was he ashamed to be seen with her or something? Daria felt a terrible pang of self-consciousness as she looked down at her drab outfit and shapeless jacket.

     She flushed and with an iron will pulled herself out of an anxiety attack. It distressed her that he could get past all of her defenses and hurt her so easily. What made it so much worse was that it wasn't even deliberate. What could he do if he was angry? It didn't even bear thinking about.

     "I'm sorry." He sighed. "I'm not exactly a whiz at this relationship thing, either. Do you really want to go to the dance?"

     She glared at him. What did he mean by either? "With you? Sorry, I'm going to be polishing my spoon collection."

     He swallowed. He was in deep do-do. "I never told you when it was."

     "It's a huge collection." Daria folded her arms and looked away, out of the side window. She didn't want to be with him, if he was ashamed of her. She needed to get away and deal with her feelings before she lashed out or did something really stupid. Daria relished her integrity, gritty as it was, and he was threatening it.

     They pulled up to her house.

     "Daria wait- Tom winced as Daria left without a word.

     Tom drove home, upset. He often got mad at her, but he could never stay that way. All he could think of was the way that she smiled, a secret, shockingly attractive and wholly unexpected smile that only came out for him.

     Turning into his street he sighed. It all disgusted him, in a way. He'd never groveled before in his life, until he'd met Daria, but now he might as well just buy some kneepads. Where had his self respect gone? Why was he so... obsequious? What had happened to him? What if she didn't come around? Acid churned in his stomach and he groaned.

     Quinn Morgendorffer sat at her makeup table, brushing her hair, thinking. She was the epitome of elegance and beauty, as near to perfect as it was possible to get, physically, but that wasn't the problem. She sighed, wondering what David was doing. She missed him. He'd talked to her about things and made her summer so interesting. She fought back tears, once again meeting her reflection's hurt looking eyes. "All dressed up and no place to go."

     She sat down her coarse brush and picked up her fine hairbrush. David had jinxed her, opening her eyes to the world beyond high school and to a different type of relationship not based on status. All of her usual dates were so pointless and boring, now. Why hadn't she ever noticed how stupid they really were?

     If Quinn heard one more football story, she'd have to kill someone. She looked into her own eyes, in the mirror and wondered how Daria coped. Depth just made you crazy. Ever since David referred to her friends as losers, she just couldn't see them as anything else. Quinn hated the thought of being a loser among losers. Every day, Sandi and Tiffany were a little more irritating and irrelevant to everything that mattered. And Stacy... well, she didn't even want to go there.

     Quinn cocked her head, considering. Sure, she liked to look good. It was a way to get what she wanted. Her looks were her personal power and she liked having a lot of that sort of power.

     Frowning at her reflection, she set her brush down. That was the problem. She had power and no one to use it for. Who was she supposed to go out with? Lawndale didn't have very many good guys. Daria was just too lucky.

     Plucking an errant eyebrow hair, Quinn sighed. Daria wasn't exactly popular, but she could see that Daria wasn't a loser. Not by David's definition, anyway. Daria's bewilderingly bad attitude was beginning to make a chilling sort of sense. Quinn swallowed, willing tears away. She couldn't bear to be less than perfect, and this was like suddenly discovering a hideous blemish on your nose that everyone has been laughing at, all along.

     The phone rang and Quinn picked it up, happy to have something to distract her from her ongoing identity crisis. "Hello?"

     "Hello, is that Quinn? This is Jodie Landon." Jodie rolled her eyes. She wanted to talk to Daria, and now she had to go through the whole cousin's au pair's slave-girl rigmarole. Sometimes she just wanted to slap the cosmetics right off of Quinn's painted little head.

     "Hi, Jodie." Quinn leaned back. Jodie was different. She seemed to mix easily with every clique, even the really exclusive ones, without really being in one. Maybe she could learn something, here.

     Jodie suppressed a sigh. "Is Daria there? I need her help and its kind of an emergency."

     Quinn looked in the mirror, inwardly debating. "Sorry, Jodie. She went somewhere with Tom. Maybe I can help. What's the matter?"

     Jodie raised her eyebrows in shock. "You? Help? Okay, then. We have a study buddy program with the Lawndale middle school, for grade school students who need a little help. The trouble is that our original tutors were all football players picking up extra credit, and they were doing more harm than good. The middle school ended the program when they discovered that Ms. Li was just using it as a way to help the most academically deficient players maintain their eligibility. The kids were left in the lurch and now we want to make amends."

     Quinn shrugged. Her dating possibilities were pretty limited, so she had plenty of time, even with her intensive studying. David was supervising her by email, and she desperately wanted to impress him. "I'll help, for the credit." Quinn needed the credit. She had plans.

     Jodie coughed, to cover her gasp. "That's a little bit... different for you, Quinn. It's an hour or more after school, three days a week. These kids need help with academic subjects, not fashion advice."

     Quinn laughed. "Well, I'll just have to give them both. Look, I'm no pedagogue, but I got a tutor and worked really hard, all summer. I can do this, Jodie."

     "Alright," Jodie said, doubtfully. "I'll sign you up. We start Monday, after school, with an orientation for our study buddies. Do you think that you can get Daria?"

     Quinn smiled. "I doubt it. My sister's busy with Tom. Besides, she already has a middle school study buddy. This kid named Link comes over and hangs around all the time. But I'll ask."

     "Really? Well, I'll put her down. If she's already doing it, she might as well get the credit." Jodie smiled, pleased. Quinn seemed to be emerging from the brat pack, finally admitting that Daria was her sister. Maybe she would turn into someone worth knowing.

     Tom Sloane nervously reread the research material that he'd collected. He knew that Inland Biotronics was going places. His father, the current managing director of Grace, Sloane and Page -- the current legal form of the old Sloane Foundation -- had assigned him the task of investigating the world of biotechnology. Over the last year, his youth and his apparent lack of guile had enabled him to make contact with most of the major scientific players, using the pretence of soliciting guidance in the task of selecting a biotech career. Each contact had led to another and now he had an insider's view of the state of the industry. They had all been bursting with the suppressed desire to spill their secrets, and most had dropped hints that he could put together. Combining his interviews with extensive reading, he had glimpsed an enormous opportunity for profit.

     Tom gathered his material. He was presenting to the full committee and would be recommending heavy investment in several emerging companies. It wasn't his first time at bat before the full committee, but he was nervous. It was silly, consisting as it did of his father, his uncle, Solly and nine directors that handled Sloane money. He had been working with most of them since he was ten years old and respected them all, save for his uncle. Straightening his tie, he stood, heading to the boardroom.

     "Biotech is the future, Tom, but that's a little too far out there. It's a matter of timing. We're looking for a five-year horizon for returns. Right now computer technology is still where the smart money goes." Angier smiled at his son. "That doesn't mean that we should stop watching, though. I agree that we need to start investing, but I just don't think we should enter the field on that scale, yet."

     Thorton Sloane jumped in with his usual blather. "Tom, you're a nice kid, but still wet behind the ears. The Asian stock market is where it's at, now! China's the place to invest. It's got a billion consumers that-

     Angier halted his idiot brother's runaway train of thought. "Thorton, Tom's youth isn't the question here and we aren't talking about the Asian stock market right now." Or ever, so long as he had his way, thought Angier.

     "Oh. All right. Well, I'm against it." Thorton, his brilliance once more ignored by his stodgy brother and the plodding hirelings of the board went back to planning the eviction of his old mistress so that he could install his new mistress in the convenient downtown apartment. He liked it there because it was so close to his club.

     Tom couldn't help his angry flush. They weren't listening to what he said, only reacting to his youth. He knew that he was right.

     Angier looked around the table. His brother wasn't paying much attention, but that was normal. "What do you gentlemen think? Reese?"

     Reese Winters, a technology analyst, shook his head. "I disagree, Angier. Tom's nailed it. One of these companies is the Microsoft of the twenty-first century. I'm buying in personally, no matter what the Sloane Foundation does."

     Angier nodded, thoughtfully. "Solly?"

     Solomon Gold, overseas portfolio director and senior fund manager for the big-ten firm of Berkshire-Morton nodded his agreement. "I think that we should throw some mad money into this, Angier. Tom has what amounts to inside information, gathered legally. We'd be fools to ignore it."

     Angier nodded. He had a terrible headache, and it was hard to think clearly. "Thank you, Solly." He looked at the newest member of the board. "Martin?"

     Martin Lords, a Wall Street toiler of similar eminence was of a similar opinion. In the end, Angier and Thorton were the only holdouts. Visibly shaken by the fact that he'd agreed with his brother, Angier passed the boards resolution to put one hundred thousand dollars into biotechnology.

     At the end of the meeting, Solly held Tom back until the others had left. "We have to go with our own instinct sometimes, Tom." He glanced after Angier and Thorton. "I just hope this doesn't turn into a problem for you. It's too bad that your father doesn't get along with your uncle."

     Tom shrugged. His uncle was an idiot, but at least he had some idea that that was the case. He always voted with Angier. If it wasn't for his great-grandfather's carefully constructed Sloane Foundation requiring that all direct male descendents serve on the board once they married, Thorton Sloane wouldn't have been allowed within fifty yards of a board meeting.

     Tom trusted Solly, but didn't like speaking of family divisions before outsiders, even those as close as Solly. "It'll be alright, Solly. My father is just having a bad day." He smiled. "His anniversary is coming up next month and he still doesn't know what to get my mother."

     Solly smiled warmly, sensing the evasion. He wished that his son Levi was as deftly intelligent as Tom. "Kay is indeed a lucky woman." He cleared his throat. "That was an excellent presentation and fine work. It reminded me of your grandfather, Drummond."

     Tom smiled with real pleasure. "Thanks, Solly. I just hope that I can be as half as good as he was, someday."

     Solly raised his eyebrows. "Does this mean that you've decided to make a career in finance after all?" Tom had been lukewarm about it since he'd started at the age of thirteen.

     Tom took a breath. "Yes. I think so. I like it well enough. I plan to work at one of the big brokerage firms for a while though, after college." He wasn't hot about it, but someone had to do it. He was the only Sloane other than his father that had any aptitude to handle the family money. If the foundation ever went broke, it wouldn't be pretty to see the Sloanes trying to find work.

     Solly nodded. "That sounds like a fine plan, but as far as I'm concerned you've already earned your spurs. You're young, but you've spent years apprenticed to the best in the world. What can a college professor teach you? Call me if you ever get tired of wasting your time in school and want to start with Berkshire-Morton." Solly never hesitated to poach talent when he could, and Tom Sloane had a superabundance of talent.

     Tom blushed. "Thanks, Solly. I'll keep it in mind. I'd better go make sure that Dad doesn't kill uncle Thorton while they wait for their drivers."

     Solly watched him go and fervently hoped that he wouldn't end up with the competition. He would be taking Tom's analysis straight back to his own company's research department. Being an outside director for the small but prestigious Sloane Foundation had its perks.

     Janet Barch sat across from Timothy O'Neill and smiled at him. The small Italian restaurant was a reasonably priced family place, but had several intimate nooks. They usually ate there on Saturdays.

     "Janet..." O'Neill swallowed, and froze again.

     "Spit it out, Skinny!" Janet gave him a fond look. He was passive to the point of being a jellyfish, but after being married to a completely evil Neanderthal, he was just what the doctor ordered.

     "Well." He twisted his napkin, nervous to the point of fainting. "It's just that I've been staying at your house for a long time now..."

     He was leaving. Janet felt a pang of dread. "Go on," She said, tightly.

     "I..." O'Neill turned a bluish color.

     "Tell me!" Janet felt sick, then managed a smile. If she shouted again, he might run.

     "I just... want to pay some share of the household expenses." O'Neill looked like a man standing on the plank, with sharks on one side and pirates on the other.

     Janet sat, mouth open, totally shocked. Once again, he'd surprised her with his atypical behavior. Men were supposed to be leeches, living off of the woman's toil.

     Timothy looked at her, anxiously. "Please, Janet, I'm not trying to take over your house, I just- He gasped as she whipped over to his side of the booth and squeezed the breath out of him.

     "Great! We'll shut your apartment down next Friday! How much time do you have left on the lease?" She looked at him, intently.

     O'Neill tried to inhale, but couldn't. She had shocked him to the core. Janet finally slapped him on the back, freeing his lungs.

     "Ah." He wheezed, then swallowed. "Six months."

     "We'll have to see if we can sublet it." Barch smiled at him, and decided on a spring wedding, with a honeymoon in Venice.

     Jane stood, gazing at her canvas. She was good. She was ten times better than the best of the poseurs that she'd met at the art colony. The trouble was the lack of any real appreciation for art out there in six-pack land. The whole thing was controlled by a handful of rich snobs and art dealers, out to get laid.

     She sighed and plied her brush. Realism sucked. She was turning into Daria. Her goal was as unreasonable as Trent's. The unpleasant truth was that the art world was as big a scam as the music industry. Unless she was willing to put out, in plenty, or had an uncle somewhere with an influential gallery, she could pretty much forget about being a famous artist. She would probably end up as an art teacher, doing life in some lame suburban high school somewhere, just like Defoe.

     Jane threw down her brush, sat on her bed and put her head down between her knees trying to deal with her intense nausea. She wished that Trent were still around to talk to. Even her mother would be good at this point. Jane had never been left on her own for so long before and the isolation was depressing her.

     Trent had always been there for her, day in and day out, but now that she had turned eighteen, he was spending more and more time on the road, sleeping in his car and taking every paying gig that he could get.

     It never occurred to Jane to wish for her father's presence. Vincent was a stranger. She shivered, wondering if this was what a nervous breakdown felt like.

     There was a knock at the door. Jane staggered over, feeling nausea combine with relief, and stuck her head out of the window. "Come on in, Dar- Urrrp!" Jane collapsed across the windowsill, eyes closed, groaning, unable to believe what she'd just done. She shivered and pried her eyes open, but Daria was nowhere in sight.

     Daria had jumped away just in time to avoid the rain of vomit. "Jane!" She pushed through the door and took the steps, two at a time.

     Jane rose to her feet as Daria entered the room. "God, I'm sorry. It just happened-

     Daria touched the back of her hand to Jane's forehead. "Jane, you're burning up. Do you want to go to the doctor?"

     "No." Jane collapsed back onto the edge of her bed. "I was fine, this morning."

     "Well, you're not fine now." Daria looked around the room and began capping paint tubes and cleaning up the mess. From what she'd seen, the whole house was unbelievably filthy. It looked like Jane had been sleeping on the couch, downstairs. "You need to get to bed, Jane."

     "Uhhhh. God, I feel awful." Jane swallowed, gestured helplessly at the mess, then lurched off for the bathroom at a run.

     Daria cleaned the room up, excavating the junk piled up on the bed and putting all of Jane's work back into its usual places. She went to the bathroom door and heard the shower running. Shaking her head, Daria found the linen closet and dug out some clean sheets. After making the bed, she found a vacuum cleaner and removed the smaller debris.

     Wondering if it could be food poisoning, Daria went into the kitchen and looked around. The place was filthy, the mess obviously abandoned for a while. There was nothing in the refrigerator but a jug of brackish looking water, an open can of pork-and-beans with a spoon dug into it and a paper sack with half of a fast-food hamburger inside.

     "Of course. Jane has no car." Daria pursed her lips. Jane had probably been running to Burger World for dinner, every day.

     Jane finally emerged from the bathroom and saw the clean room. "Thanks" She gratefully slipped into the freshly excavated bed.

     "Hey, are you feeling any better?" Daria dragged a chair up next to the bed and sat.

     "I think that I just threw up my spleen." Jane turned on to her side. "I must not have needed it, because I am feeling a bit less miserable."

     Daria shook her head. "Hey, do you mind some company for a while?" She didn't want to come out and say it, but she was worried about Jane being alone. Daria felt bad about neglecting her friend.

     Jane smiled. "Thanks." She frowned. "I don't think that there's a whole lot left to eat. I've been making do with burgers and beans."

     Daria shrugged. "Pizza. My treat." She cleared her throat. "Where's Trent?"

     Jane closed her eyes. "On the road, Daria. I haven't seen him in weeks." Her eyes fluttered back open and she sighed.

     Daria sat with her friend, thinking viciously unkind things about Trent and Tom, until Jane finally dropped off.

     After a tense internal dialog with her sense of justice, Daria finally had to blame herself. She had been neglecting her best friend because of a lingering sense of uneasiness about Tom. He was perilously close to strike three and she didn't want to talk to Jane about it, because Tom was such a sore subject.

     Straightening resolutely, Daria put her troubles out of her mind and went to work.

     When Jane woke up, she heard the vacuum cleaner going downstairs and wondered if her mother was home. Then she remembered Daria. She sat up and saw a glass of ice water on the nightstand.

     "Well. Where did she get ice?" Jane hadn't filled the ice trays in a while. Last that she'd seen them, they were under a huge pile of dirty dishes. She drank it all, then her stomach growled. She noted the afternoon sun and then looked at the clock.

     "Hmm." She got up and headed back to the bathroom. She felt a lot better, for the nap. Almost completely well.

     Daria heard Jane moving around and made a call. About ten minutes later, Jane came down the stairs, ravenous, smelling the newly delivered pizza.

     "Hey, that was fast work!" Jane looked around, marveling. The whole place was clean and looked like it had been dusted. Even the dirty dishes were gone.

     Daria stared. "Fast work?"

     Jane gestured around, bewildered. "The whole house is clean. How did you do it? I was only out for an hour or two, at most."

     Daria laughed. "Jane, its Sunday. You've been asleep for about twenty-six hours. How do you feel?"

     Jane sat down at the table, stunned. "Pretty good, actually." She shrugged. "Hungry."

     Daria opened the pizza box. "Well, dig in."

     They ate and Jane considered. "Thank you, Daria."

     Daria shrugged. "You'd do the same for me." She looked uncomfortable. "I should have come over here more often."

     Jane shrugged. "Young Thomas can take up a lot of time. Last year, it was you on your own."

     "Not quite. I was still afflicted by my family." Daria felt the same futile dread rising up in her that had driven her away from Jane and threatened their friendship. She couldn't talk about Tom because it brought up bad memories for Jane, but Tom was such a major part of her life now that it left her with precious little to say. "I'm thinking about dropping him anyway."

     "Drop Tom?" Jane flushed, angrily. Tom was a friend too, and she didn't want to see Daria crush him. Especially after Jane had made such a tremendous effort to forgive. Daria could be monumentally cold at times. "Don't do it. Not without a solid reason and not without at least talking to him about it, first."

     Daria opened her mouth to respond and was cut off by the sound of Trent coming through the front door.

     "Trent!" Jane bounced over and hugged him, shocking him. "When did you get back? How was the tour?"

     He hugged her back, then shrugged, smiling. "The tour was okay. Really, okay. No one throws bottles at us, any more. It's getting better." He grinned, crookedly. "I even heard about another band, covering some of our songs." He had some money in his pocket, at least. He hugged her again, hard. "I missed you, Janey. I got you a present. Oh, hey, Daria!" He beamed at them both. "Come on out and take a look!"

     They trailed him out of the house and halted in shock.

     Jane stared at the new-ish minivan, astonished. "What happened to your trusty old beater? Did you and Monique decide to get married or something?"

     Trent shuddered. "No way, Jane. That contract she had us sign... She pretty much owns me anyway." Monique was Mystik Spiral's manager-agent.

     Daria smirked. "I hope you looked it over first. You could end up as her towel-boy."

     Jane nodded. "He's already her towel boy. She just wanted the option of selling his body for spare parts."

     Trent nodded, ruefully. He'd only thought that she had him by the balls, before. They were the property of Monique Martin Productions until the sun burned out.

     "Monique has really changed, since she started that business college. She wears a suit and treats us like we're retards, now. She gets us plenty of gigs though." Trent sighed.

     "That'll teach you to sign contracts without reading them first." Daria smirked at him. His clothes were nicer and his hair had been trimmed. Monique was obviously doing her best for them.

     He smiled and nodded at the minivan. "It was a real trip, driving that thing back. I didn't get pulled over once. I do still have the old Iron Horse. It's a lucky car." He smirked at Daria, waiting for the inevitable cheap shot.

     Daria laughed aloud, passing it up. She smiled at Trent, knowing exactly what he was thinking and what was coming. "It's perfect."

     "Perfectly weird. You gonna start wearing a suit and tie on stage now?" Jane couldn't believe it. Trent, driving a minivan?

     Trent smiled. "I swapped an amp for it, Janey. I got it for you. It's all yours."

     Jane blinked, shocked silent. "What?"

     "Yours. Happy... whatever." Trent gestured. "You need a car. There you are."

     Jane laughed, unbelieving. "But... Trent! Thank you, so much. This will really change things. Now... I can get places." She made to hug him again but he ducked behind Daria, laughing.

     Daria walked over and opened the passenger door. "This is really pretty nice. You say a musician owned this?" Under the mess that Trent had made it was very clean.

     Trent shrugged. "Not really. His wife owned it."

     "Ex-wife, by now." Jane had opened the driver's side door and gotten a look at the beautifully maintained interior. "Someone really liked this thing. Wow... Trent. It's not exactly sporty, but damn, it's so nice."

     Jane went around to the back and opened the door. The back seats were folded down and it was crammed to the roof with gear. "Look at all this room! I could load up some art and some of mom's ceramic rejects and take it all down to the swap meet, or even the starving artists market down in Lafayette! Maybe even get a job, if worse comes to worse."

     Daria nodded. "It's got a trailer hitch. You could move a lot of merchandise with this thing." She looked at the dark green paint. "Love the color."

     Jane climbed in. "Can I take it for a spin?"

     Trent looked uncomfortable. "It's already in your name, Janey, but you might want to hold off. It needs to be registered and it's not exactly insured yet."

     He winced as both girls pinned him with their eyes. He'd driven it a long way uninsured. "Hey, I'm a musician. What are they gonna do, sue me?"

     Jane started it up and then adjusted the seat, mirrors and steering column. She sank back into the seat, sighed with bliss and then turned on the stereo.

     Grinning, she rolled down the window and leaned out. "That's okay, Trent. I like it better than everything else I have, put together."

     Daria smiled. "You're in luck. My dad just spent a week tracking down the cheapest insurance on the planet."

     Jane was almost hugging the steering wheel, listening to the smooth hum of the engine. "I can get a shift at the Burger Barn if I can't con mom into getting dad to pay." She turned it off, got out and opened the hood, peering inside. "I'm gonna buy a book for this and really learn how to take care of it."

     Trent scowled and pulled a couple of gear cases out of the cargo area. "I had it lubed and serviced in Ashland, so you're good for a couple of thousand miles." He stalked angrily toward the house with his burden.

     Noticing that Jane was oblivious to Trent's sudden anger, Daria grabbed a bag at random and followed. She caught up with him in the Lane living room.

     "Trent! What's wrong?"

     Trent shrugged. "It's just... my dad always paid for everyone else's first car, insurance and stuff like that. It pisses me off the way that he's just abandoned her. I had a car when I was sixteen. So did my brother and my sisters. All of us did, except for Janey."

     Daria followed him down the stairs to dump off the gear. "Well, at least you look after her."

     Trent nodded tightly, unsuccessfully attempting to hide his mounting fury. "I try. I don't do a very good job."

     Daria stopped him. "I'd dispute that. There are plenty of screwed up people with both parents at home. You've done pretty well, Trent. It's cost you though, hasn't it?"

     Trent sighed and nodded. "They never come home. If I hadn't been here she'd have been pretty much alone since she was fifteen." He smiled at her. "It's a good thing that you're here."

     Daria made a joke to cover her pang of guilt. "Aww, Trent, Don't worry. Our little girl is all grown up now."

     It fell flat. Trent shrugged, uneasily. He clearly didn't agree. "One thing is certain. It's all happening, Daria. We're getting better gigs, but I've lost a lot of time. I've only got about three more years to make it, but it is starting to happen."

     "I know. I heard Headlights of Darkness on the KBUZ Indy Spin, last week." She nodded at him. "You guys won the call in vote. There's no doubt about it Trent, you're getting good!" She had called and voted for him four times, each time using a different Morgendorffer phone number.

     "Really?" Trent smiled, happily. "I didn't even know!" He thought for a minute. "KBUZ? Is that a new one?" He wondered how they got a hold of the MS CD. They sold them at gigs and Monique had placed a few of them in some local music stores, but aside from MP3 samples from Nick's girlfriend's website and buying them at gigs, there was just no reliable way to get them.

     Daria nodded. "Geared to the younger, alternative crowd."

     "Alright! This calls for a drink!" He went back out and got an ice chest from the van, brought it into the kitchen and set it on the counter. He looked around, unloading soda-pop and road snacks into the empty fridge.

     "A drink?" Daria wondered when he'd started drinking.

     Trent smirked. "You'll see. Where did Janey go? Did you see her come in?"

     Daria shrugged. "No. She was crawling around under her hood the last time that I saw her. Maybe it swallowed her."

     Daria put the cold pizza into the oven to warm, glanced after Trent and called for more. When she hung up, she saw Trent come back in with a couple of duffel bags and start unloading wine and liquor bottles, all wrapped up in tablecloths and bar towels.

     "So when did you start drinking?" Daria watched him push expensive looking bottles into an empty pantry.

     Trent shook his head. "I don't, usually. One of the nightclubs that we played went broke and the owner didn't have enough to pay us. He told us to take whatever we wanted, then left. We stripped the place pretty bare."

     "So you got a bunch of bottles that you can't use?" Daria shook her head.

     "I'm going to see if I can sell this stuff to some local bars." Trent blew some dust off of a bottle of Crown Royal. "If I drank all of this my liver would melt."

     Daria caught a bottle of Canadian Mist as it rolled out of his bag and off of the counter. "Careful. My dad dropped a gin bottle once and you can still smell it in the kitchen."

     Trent smirked. "Yeah. Max didn't wrap his bottles and some of them broke. He has to do a drunk test every time he gets pulled over now."

     "It can only be an improvement." Daria smiled at him, realizing that she had really missed talking to Trent.

     Trent coughed, then pulled out a neon beer sign. "Want this?"

     Daria shook her head, amused. "No thanks. It would clash with the decor of my padded cell."

     Trent chuckle-coughed, nodding. "How about a pinball machine?" He knew that Jesse would never get it into his mother's house.

     Daria laughed. "No thanks. I am a pinball, Trent. Life is the machine."

     Trent halted. "Hey! Can I have that?"

     Daria shrugged. "Sure."

     "You have to write some lyrics for me, someday." He beamed at her, then went for another bag.

     Daria flushed a little, then got a distracted look.

     Trent came back in with the last of his loot, also looking distracted. Removing a bunch of heavily wrapped glassware, he sat it on the sideboard, then threw the empty bags down the basement stairs. Walking back over to the sink, he selected three huge Champagne glasses from the pile and rinsed them out.

     "Hmm." He sang, "I'm just a shiny steel pinball in the big machine, bouncing all around, what the hell does it all mean... He halted, stuck.

     A smooth feminine alto suddenly shocked him with its presence. The next thing you know, it's Flipper hello, a grinnin' Grim Reaper playin' high and low, so learn to bounce back and the next thing you see, you're bouncin' off the bumper and scoring with me.

     So keep it flat on the ground, don't tilt me around, ya wanna be with me ya can't bounce my heart around, cause I don't want to get hard and cold like steel, to make it through life, I want to be able to feel. Daria ran out of lyrics and opened her eyes. "Eep!"

     Trent was staring, awed. "WOAH! Daria! Did you just make that all up?"

     Daria nodded, blushing. "Guilty."

     Trent had his pad open and was scribbling it down. It was a little bit country, but could be adapted. "You're pretty good. Hey, you want to come over and hang out with the band sometime? We could really use some help with our lyrics."

     Daria's blush returned. "I don't think that Tom would understand."

     "Okay." Masking his disappointment, he reached into his ice-chest and pulled out a magnum of expensive French champagne.

     "Do you like champagne, Daria?" He poured himself a glass.

     Daria nodded, reluctantly. "It's about the only kind of liquor that I can stand."

     "Good! Want some?" Trent had wrapped a napkin around the bottle, like a waiter.

     Daria hesitated and then nodded, hoping that the glass was clean.

     She sipped and then looked surprised. "This is good!"

     "It's expensive." Trent refilled her glass, then called his sister.

     "Janey!" Trent listened, then shrugged. "Where did she go?"

     Daria laughed, drinking more champagne. "She was under the hood fondling her new motor so she probably got a little bit greasy. My guess is that she went up to shower again."

     "Let's see." Trent grabbed the handle of the kitchen tap and turned on the hot water for a few seconds. A faint shriek echoed from upstairs.

     "Yup, she's in the shower alright," he informed Daria, solemnly.

     Daria giggled. "That was nasty." She did it to Quinn, fairly often.

     "Janey likes doing that to me. You know what they say about payback." Trent smirked and led the way into the living room. They sat down companionably on opposite ends of the sofa.

     "So, what's going on? How's it going with Tom?" Trent looked at her over the rim of his glass.

     Daria shrugged, smile fading. "He keeps... I don't know, acting like he has to keep me hidden." She looked at him, closely. "Honestly, would you say that there's anything... well, wrong with me, Trent?"

     Trent was dumbstruck. It was a no-win situation. He cleared his throat and flushed. "You? No, Daria. Don't worry about it. You're one of the beautiful people." He quickly took another drink, trying to think of a plausible reason to run for it.

     "Thanks." She flushed a little from the embarrassment of having asked and then calmed down. It was just Trent, after all. "I don't exactly get a whole lot of compliments."

     Trent shook his head, bemused. He didn't think that Tom was that stupid. "Okay then, speaking as a guy, I have to say that you have about the prettiest face that I've ever seen in my entire life. I mean, those eyes..." He went on, "You have a great figure. I've seen you without that baggy jacket. You have really nice legs, and an a- like I said, you're really cool." He smiled at her, crookedly. "If you ever get tired of Tom..."

     "Ohhh! Does this mean that Tommy-Boy has been dumped?" Jane came into the room, wearing a robe and drying her hair.

     "Almost." Daria squirmed in pleased embarrassment. "He didn't invite me to one of the country club dances again and I wanted an unbiased male opinion of my looks."

     "Yeah. Well... We were just celebrating winning that KBUZ call in poll." Trent shot his sister a warning look. "Join us?"

     "Sure." Jane looked at them both with raised eyebrows. Daria must be even blinder emotionally than she was physically if she thought Trent was unbiased.

     "So, young Thomas is pulling his 'let's not go out anywhere where anyone can see you,' routine." She went into the kitchen and came out with another glass and the bottle, in a bucket of ice.

     "What does that mean?" Daria moved down to the center of the couch as Jane motioned her over and sat, putting the bucket on the table.

     "I went through that whole thing. He finally took me to one of those country club deals and he got totally swamped in hopeful debutantes, all scheming to acquire an option on the Sloane Foundation." Jane frowned. "I couldn't get within ten feet. Tom is a prime target for acquisition and some of the Muffys can be pretty vicious to the competition. More to the point, his fellow proto-oligarchs like a new face." She grinned. "Access to their incestuous little functions are strictly controlled by the elder beasts of the herd. I got swarmed and Tom didn't like it one bit."

     "So you think its just jealousy?" Daria looked a trifle less upset. Now she knew why Kay kept pushing those tickets.

     Jane nodded. "That and over-protectiveness. You'd think the boy would learn." She smirked. Anyone who tried to cross verbal swords with Daria would get diced into Muffy-chunks.

     "Hopeful Debutantes? Instant Debutantes? Drooling Oligarchs?" Trent frowned, trying to change the subject. He was still a little upset with Sloane. "Nah, the debutante thing has been done." He hadn't given up his quest to find a better name than Mystik Spiral.

     Jane and Daria stared at him, then laughed.

     "Phoenix Rising," proposed Daria.

     "Raw Spam," came Jane's rejoinder.

     "Lost Decade," Daria countered.

     "The Billdodgers," Jane shot back.

     "The Sandman's Band," Daria said, thoughtfully.

     "Wasted Space," Jane trumped her.

     "You win," acknowledged Daria.

     "Tin Men," Jane continued, on a roll.

     "It's been done," said Trent, who was scrawling them all down on a pizza coupon.

     "Sonic Stun," sniped Daria, giving him a smile.

     "Bombing Run," Trent grinned back at her.

     "That's IT! STOP IT NOW! NO MORE RHYMES!" Jane had seen this kind of thing get out of hand before. Daria and Trent could shoot rhymes back and forth forever. She'd have to break it up before they got out of hand, or things would be absolutely unbearable.

     "Good times," said Trent, foolishly.

     Jane leaned forward and punched him hard on the shoulder.

     "OW!" Trent rubbed his shoulder. "C'mon Jane, that hurt. You've got those bony little fists." He pouted, hoping for sympathy.

     "Wimp." Jane looked at Daria, eyes narrowed. "I owed you for the shower thing, anyway."

     Daria opened her mouth and subsided under Jane's look. "Damn. Now... I'm... thinking in rhyme."

     Jane poured them all drinks. "Drink up, it'll make you stupid and help you get over it!"

     Trent opened his mouth, then shut it, at her warning look.

     "I'd better call home while my head is clear and tell them that I'll be... here. If I drink all that in one day, I'll have... to... stay. " Daria clamped her mouth shut, gave Jane an apologetic look and went into the kitchen to use the phone.

     Trent watched her walk away, through the door.

     "See something you like?" Jane looked at him, curiously.

     Tent shrugged. "Well... yes. Do me a favor, Janey?"

     "Tell you when she's finally ready to drop kick Tom to the curb? Sure." Jane frowned, uncertainly. "She will, eventually. Tommy boy's got a roving eye. He'll do a 180 and go with some Muffy that can maintain the family manse and be presentable at cocktail parties, just like his mommy. He's pretty much got his whole life scheduled out already and Daria doesn't just go along with anybody's plan without a lot of persuading."

     Trent shrugged, watching Daria's reflection in the kitchen window-glass. It was true that keeping her happy would be a full time job. "I don't know, Janey. From what she told me, they didn't exactly want to fall for each other. He just couldn't help it."

     "I guess." Jane didn't sound happy about it.

     "Hey, it's early days yet. I just want to keep track. It wouldn't work out now, anyway, me being broke and on the road all the time, but who knows? Since we got Mark on keyboard, things are really looking up." He took a drink. "She could be a great songwriter and I really like her, but I don't know if we could be together that way. It's good to see her going out with someone that's not a complete jerk, though."

     Jane scowled. "He can be a huge jerk. An immense jerk. The Lord High Emperor of all the jerks."

     Trent laughed. "Me too, but she's really opened up since she got over that crush. Daria's ultra-cool." Trent blinked, whipped out his notebook and started a new song, jotting down a lyric that had come to him, then trying it out.

"A gleam of shiny gold, in a world of dross,
She wears that baggy green jacket, like Jesus on the cross,
She's so cool...
Ultra cool...
High school, cool."

     Jane shrugged dubiously, then went to get dressed.

     Trent heard the doorbell ring. He looked out of the window and saw the lunatic Artie outside with a pizza. He smirked, then slipped on a pair of dark glasses before opening the door.

     Artie handed over the pizza. "That'll be twelve fifty, please."

     Trent put the pizza down and dug for his wallet. "Right. So how is the new skin working out for you, Artie? Any shrinkage?"

     "Wh- what?" Artie looked around, wondering how he could have known about the aliens and their fiendish experiments. He didn't remember the house and Trent didn't look the same with a mustache and a full goatee.

     Trent let his smile slip. "Does it fit okay? I hope it's not too tight, because we can always take you up and make a few quick adjustments-

     "Artie! There you are! Ready to go?" Jane asked. She and Daria had walked up behind Trent.

     "Aaaaaaaah! Heeeeelp! SPACE BABES!" Artie spun and ran for it, knowing that the psychiatrist was wrong. They were real and they were after him.

     "My, that was fairly evil." Daria stared after him. "But then, twelve bucks is twelve bucks. Call it tough love. Pizza, anyone?"

     Trent started laughing. "Cool."

     Kevin limped down the hall at LHS on Monday, before the first bell, desperately trying to look nonchalant. His face was badly bruised and he had a shiner under his left eye. "So, Mack Daddy, you going to take anyone to the Howl?"

     Michael Jordan Mackenzie, Team captain and defensive lineman, gritted his teeth and reminded himself again that his promised athletic scholarship depended on him being able to deliver Kevin to State U unharmed. Kevin wasn't talking, but he'd clearly suffered one hell of a beating. Kevin was a classic idiot savant, magic on the gridiron and absolutely useless off of it. Mack considered Kevin his personal curse, the result of bad karma.

     Kevin said that the bruising on his face was because of an accident, but Mack didn't believe it.

     "No, Kevin. Don't you remember Andrea? Do you remember how bad she felt?"

     Kevin swallowed. "Nah, she forgot all that, already."

     Mack rolled his eyes. If only he could show a little more hustle, maybe the colleges would be more interested in him for his own sake... "Look, Kevin. First, whoever you con into going with you might find out. That's cruel and dangerous, Man."

     Kevin sulked. "Well, it wasn't my fault! If she hadn't wore all that shit on her face and that weird vampire makeup, she wouldn't have won. I mean, I get her to go on a date, she shows up looking like Draculette and then gets mad because it's a Dog Fight? It was all Jodie's fault, for telling her."

     Mack turned his reflexive punch into a friendly tag on the shoulder that Kevin's pads mostly absorbed. Jodie still didn't know that Andrea had been the victim and Mack wasn't about to let her find out that she had been the one that had let the cat out of the bag. "Just stay away from those assholes, Kevin. Besides, what would Brittany say?"

     "Brittany... She's not... She's.... um, we broke up." Kevin scowled and turned to his locker. It wouldn't be long before that story got around. She'd snapped and beaten him to a pulp, right in front of Sam Stagg. He didn't want to talk about Brittany right now. He'd had enough of her constantly yelling and beating on him. Her casual kicks and punches had escalated to the point that he was a little bit afraid of her. It didn't help that she was a blackbelt in karate and could demolish him anytime that she really wanted. Everybody laughed at him for wearing his pads, but he had a damn good reason. In fact, he was thinking about wearing his helmet, too.

     "Uhm, right." Mack spun to hide his grin and rapidly strode away, bumping into Upchuck. He was desperately trying not to laugh. Being the sole voice of reason in Kevinworld was a thankless task, but there could be moments of true enjoyment. She must have really pounded him, this time. Brittany had been taking karate classes since she was five years old and Mack knew that he wouldn't last ten seconds against her either, but it was still funny. He couldn't wait to tell DeMartino.

     Charles glowered at the oblivious quarterback as he made his way to his own locker. He'd overheard most of it. So that was why he couldn't get the time of day out of Andrea. Charles loved women. They were such perfect creatures. Being cruel to one was a concept so alien to him that he just couldn't encompass it. He shook his head and then smirked. At least the bountiful Brittany was back on the market.

     Kevin tried his combination over and over, until he got it. He was thinking. 'Why are they all so... mean? I mean, what's the big deal? Why not just... be a sport about things?' "Say, Mack Da- He looked around, but Mack was gone.

     Kevin hauled out the unread books that he'd dropped off on Friday afternoon. He was thinking, hard. After Brittany had knocked him out, she'd screamed at Stagg and then stamped away. When he'd finally woke up and Stagg had quit laughing, he'd accepted the Dog-Fight challenge. Being brutally beaten unconscious by his date had caused him to lose way too much face. 'I gotta bring a date or Sam will think I'm weak... Can't show weakness... Shoulder hurts, good thing I wear pads... why doesn't everybody wear them? ...not someone like Andrea... I really thought she didn't care with that makeup... Damn, I'm thirsty... I could lose the hundred bucks... So what? Without her, I'll have some money for once... What am I gonna do? Why not bring a girl that's kind of cute but just not... a... a... like a... Goth? She'd never win and never know! He froze, smiling, leaning up against the locker next to his. He had a solution! And on his own, too.

     "Excuse me." Daria, hung over and loaded with books, frowned when Kevin just beamed at her instead of moving.

     "Hey, Daria! Want to go to the Howl with me, Saturday?" Kevin smiled maniacally at her. It was as good as done. How could a girl like Daria resist the QB?

     "Excuse me?" Daria shook her head, throwing off the apathy of her hangover, wondering if she had heard right and hoping that she hadn't.

     "On a date!" He stepped away from the locker and she put away her books.

     "What happened, did Brittany finally spring a leak?" Daria got out her notebook and closed her locker door.

     "What... no. Don't worry about her. Its just like, you're the only girl left in my grade that I haven't dated. So, you know, it's like, your turn." Kevin realized with a start that it was true, if you didn't count the science project.

     "What, you already forgot about our passionate affair of last year? In a short and succinct word, that you should really try hard to understand, NO." Daria walked rapidly away, toward her class.

     Kevin stood, puzzling over 'succinct,' then ran off after her. "Wait! Wait, Daria! That was school stuff! I meant a real date! Want to go?"

     "Only if my boyfriend can come along. Besides, Kevin, a deal is a deal. I swapped you to Brittany for a rat, remember?"

     "You don't have to pretend with me, Daria. I don't mind." He put his hand over his stomach. "Cross my heart!"

     "What the hell are you talking about? Never mind, just stop talking." Daria rolled her eyes and made for the sanctuary of the A-V room. Barch was there and would flame Kevin if he kept following.

     Stacy sat in class, peering cautiously at DeMartino over the top of her Waif magazine, as usual. She glanced nervously back at Sandi, who was totally engrossed in her magazine and then at Quinn, who was paying close attention, taking careful notes.

     Seeing her looking, Quinn smiled.

     Swallowing and keeping her back immobile so Sandi wouldn't see, Stacy opened her notebook and began taking notes. It was easier than doing it from memory in the toilet stall after class.

     When the bell rang, Sandi, who was aware of everything, cut Stacy off. "Taking notes? Gee, Stacy, are you turning into a brain, like Quinn?"

     Stacy froze and started making little fishlike gasps.

     Quinn laughed. "Oh, Sandi, Taking a few notes doesn't make you a savant or anything. She's just taking notes for all of us, if we want to read them. It's her job. She is the secretary, after all."

     Stacy straightened in excitement. Maybe now she could take notes, openly. "Uh huh! You can look at them any time!"

     Sandi scowled. She had to go get the new pocket dictionary hidden in her locker and look up savant, now. "Why don't you just let us look at your notes?

     Quinn smirked. It would be a very cold day in hell when Sandi got a look at her notes. "Oh, you probably wouldn't be able to learn anything from my notes. Stacy's the real professional. Just look at how well she does with the minutes from the club!"

     Sandi frowned, petulantly. "Is that true, Stacy?"

     "Whaaat's a saavaant?" Tiffany blinked at them, then fixed her eyes on Jeffy, who was staring at Quinn. A lovesick expression flickered over her normally placid features and she started primping.

     Stacy looked like she was going to hyperventilate. "Um, sure! That's it!"

     "I'll... be right back." Quinn shook her head and walked toward her locker, more to get away from them than anything else. Losers, she thought, viciously.

     Jeffy launched himself after her like a hunting dog, quickly followed by Jamie and Joey. Tiffany stared after Jeffy, then sighed. She must be too fat or something. It was time to get serious about her diet.

     Andrea was in the bathroom stall when she heard Daria and Jane come in, talking.

     "So it started this morning?" Jane shook her head. "What do you suppose got into his head that makes him think that he has a prayer?"

     "A bee? The pea shaking loose? Without a PhD in abnormal psychology, who can say? All I know is that every time I step into the hall, Kevin's there, begging me for a date." Daria felt the urge to vomit. "He wants me to go to 'the Howl' with him, Saturday."

     "Why?" Jane frowned. "He only goes for the jockettes."

     Daria smirked. "Believe it or not, he says it's my 'turn.' He said that he dated all the other girls in his grade- Daria's eyes widened. "Did he ever date you?"

     Jane nodded. "In fifth grade he asked me to a birthday party. He 'forgot' to bring a present and then he clogged up their toilet by trying to flush a bar of soap that he'd accidentally dropped in. We decided that we weren't right for each other after they threw him out."

     Andrea stepped out of the stall. "That was soap? That toilet still doesn't work right."

     Jane shrugged, still embarrassed. "Hi, Andrea."

     "Hey." Daria looked curiously at the enigmatic Goth.

     "So, Punkinhead's going to take you to the Howl?" Andrea swallowed, remembering the pain.

     "Not unless he turns out to be Jesus, in disguise. Why did you ever invite a moron like him to your birthday party?" Daria had never seen them interact.

     "We were born in the same hospital, went to the same daycare, and we've been in the same classes since pre-school. Believe it or not, he begged me to marry him about a hundred times, back when we were both twelve." Andrea looked at Daria. "Look, can you guys keep your mouths shut?"

     Daria nodded and so did Jane.

     Andrea took a deep breath. "The Howl is a dogfight."

     Daria swallowed, paling. "Wh... what?"

     Andrea winced, looking a bit haggard. "Yes, it's exactly what you think. An ugly contest. I won two years ago."

     Daria made a shocked little noise and sagged against the sink.

     "That stupid bastard." Jane was PISSED.

     Charles took a careful look around the lunchroom. He'd cut his calculus class to take lunch early. No teachers were present, so he slipped away from his cover and unobtrusively sidled up to Quinn.

     "So we meet again, my gamine little toaster-tart. What's with your sister? Are the rumors true?"

     "Ewww! Don't talk to me!" Quinn looked around, but the three J's, who ordinarily would have bludgeoned him into a pulp at the merest crook of her finger, were unaccountably absent along with nearly everyone else. How had he managed it?

     "What do you mean? What rumors?" She took a pad out of her bag and jotted down 'gamine.' If it was dirty, Upchuck was so dead.

     Charles smirked, watching her search for her missing lackeys. He'd waited until Quinn ditched them all to get in some PSAT practice testing in the library, as she often did on Mondays. When the anxious masses were milling around trying to puzzle out the latest of her mysterious disappearances, he'd let some of them overhear him talking on a dead cell phone, saying that Quinn went up to the gym roof every Monday for nude sunbathing. Unless he missed his guess, they were all currently hiding behind a ventilator watching the towel and bottle of suntan lotion that he'd put up there, still unaware that they were trapped.

     "Come, my exquisitely erudite flower, surely you know? Why, she's your sister, after all." Charles settled in for a good match. He had played this game before, trying to extort a date out of the most popular girl in Lawndale High. She had a slippery intelligence that immediately moved to thwart him, no matter how good a net he had around her. "The Three Stooges are stuck up on the gym roof, so don't bother looking around for them." He sighed, theatrically. "Is a beauty such as yours only worthy of such as they? Do they really deserve you? Is it you who they're really after? Who knows, maybe Cupid will strike! They spend so much time together, already..."

     Quinn involuntarily giggled, then guffawed. He was funny, sometimes. "I wouldn't be all that surprised. So what's your game, Upchuck? Forget about a date." She eyed him, smiling. What would he try next?

     "Ah, what a smile. You wound me, Quinn. Not even if I took you to... A ball at the Lawndale Country Club?" Charles fanned out two tickets and took his obligatory shot, while she was in range.

     Quinn was briefly tempted. That was an exclusive one. She could meet some really rich guys there. "No, not even then. Why don't you try Sandi?"

     Charles shrugged. He'd have to promote her on his list. Getting them laughing was half of the battle. "Sandi is just a little too quick on the trigger, if you know what I mean."

     Quinn looked at him, thoughtfully. Most of Sandi's problems stemmed from the fact that she was desperately lonely. Quinn had once caught her staring at him.

     "Bennet says that there's no reward without a risk, Charles. You really ought to think about it." Quinn gave him a significant look.

     "Ah, my poor lonely heart goes 'thumpity thump' with rapture, the fickle goddess of beauty deigns to call me by my right name." Charles sighed theatrically and spread his arms in the posture of a man receiving a blessing.

     "God! Quit it!" Quinn laughed helplessly, her head on the table to cover her red face.

     Charles watched her laugh, grinning, and when she had run down said, "How about Daria, then? Why is Kevin Thompson chasing her? Is she available, now?"

     "Daria?" Quinn looked up at him, curiously. "Kevin is chasing Daria? But... she's going out with Tom Sloane!" Not to mention that Daria despised Kevin anyway.

     "Sloane? Ah, yes, an old... acquaintance from my dark days at prep school." He remembered some upper formers throwing them both out of the same second story window. Sloane had been caught in a big net. He'd been caught in a big thorn bush, just to the right of the net. He'd had an irrational dislike of Sloane, ever since.

     "You went to school with Tom?" Quinn was eaten with curiosity about her sister's boyfriend.

     "Yes, right up until that fateful day that I saw a woman." Charles smirked. "I passed out from testosterone poisoning. When I woke up I knew that a boys academy, no matter how upper crust, just wasn't for me."

     Quinn laughed. "What's it like, there?" She took control of the conversation, interrogating him about the Sloanes, wondering why he wanted her to know about Kevin chasing Daria.

     She suddenly realized that Brittany was his target and that he wanted her to spread the rumor for him. She smiled. She'd willingly play her part to keep him off of her tail for a while. He deserved a break anyway, for making sure that the Fashion Club wasn't around. She could use some intelligent conversation. Tiffany was morose, Stacy was being extra-clingy and even Sandi was being very saccharine, trying to keep her in the club.

     "Oh, no! I think it locked behind us!" Stacy tugged at the door. "We're stuck up here on the gym roof!" She almost started crying.

     Sandi scowled. "Calm down Stacy! Quinn had better know how to get down. Let's go find her."

     Carrying towels, tanning oil, a radio and dressed in PE clothes, they walked to the other side of the roof. A towel lay spread out in a spot next to the low wall. It was a perfectly concealed spot for sunbathing, right where Missy had told them that Quinn would be, behind the covered roof door and some ducts. The place was hidden where a sunbather would hear the door slam and have plenty of time to slip on shorts and shirt before anyone could approach through the tangle of ducts.

     "This must be the place." Sandi gazed around at the deserted roof, then shrugged. "Quinn's probably downstairs, maybe in the bathroom." Sandi scowled, and delicately drove another wedge between Quinn and the Fashion Club. "She really has some nerve, leaving us out of a beauty enhancement scheme."

     "Yeaaaah." Tiffany looked around, blankly. She was weak with hunger.

     Sandi spread her towel next to Quinn's, then motioned Stacy and Tiffany to do the same. "Well, come on, then. Let's catch up with Quinn. We'll show her what we think of her efforts to show up our tan lines."

     Stacy looked around. "But... are we sure the roof is empty?"

     Sandi frowned. "We'd better check. Let's each take a side."

     They each walked to one of the other three sides, looking. Stacy hammered and tugged at the door of the little wooden storage shack, but it was locked. She shrugged and went back to the towels, on the other side of the roof, behind the cluster of ventilators.

     "Is she gone?" Jeffy was holding the door closed.

     Half a dozen voices hissed, "Shut the fuck up!" The shack was completely filled with guys. There were twelve of them, in a space designed for four.

     With difficulty, Jamie pulled his eye from the empty nail hole that he'd found in the wall. "They're all back over there. We can get out, now. You guys better remember to shut up and keep down. I'll toss the guy that fucks up and gets us caught right off of the roof."

     "Open the door!" Bill Nordlinger, the center, was getting claustrophobic.

     "I can't!" Jeffy tried to push back, but the pressure had him plastered against the inward-opening door.

     "Fuck! We got it closed, so we gotta be able to get it open." Joey looked up. "Some a you guys, hang from the rafters. That'll make room."

     The little building trembled and groaned, but Jeffy got the door open.

     "They're behind those ventilator stacks," Jamie hissed. "Just barely peek over, and don't move around. The guy who gives us away is goin' for a short flight, I swear." Jamie glared at each of them, then led the silent little troop to the vent stacks. He stopped and gave a hand signal to halt them and make them drop.

     Jamie crawled up and peeked over the cooling stack, frowning in disappointment when he saw that Quinn wasn't there. Looking back at the crowd behind him, he felt relief cancel his disappointment. He motioned them forward, five at a time, pointing out places to hide. They stealthily followed his lead, taking up positions behind the stacks, jamming the roof turbolators and peering at the unsuspecting girls through the stilled blades.

     Sandi looked at the sky, then shrugged. "Rain clouds are blowing in fast, from the east. If we're going to get any sun, we'd better get it now." She stripped off her gym clothes, exposing the bikini that she was wearing under them. "When Quinn comes back, I'll take the rest off." She lay down flat and unstrapped the top, letting the strings flop to the sides.

     Tiffany followed suit. "Whyyyy did those... those... whirly things, quiiit mooooving?"

     Sandi gave her a censorious look. "Do I appear to be some sort of an engineer or something? Maybe they don't go all the time."

     Stacy shrugged and took another look around. It was quiet and kind of peaceful, up on the roof. She stripped to her bikini and sat down on her towel. "I'll sit up and keep watch."

     Sandi didn't answer. The humming ducts were putting her right to sleep.

     Stacy anxiously wondered if she'd said anything wrong. Yawning, she untied her top, took it off and had a long, back-arching stretch, instantly becoming the most popular girl in Lawndale High. She folded her clothes, sat back down on her towel and began a series of graceful seated stretching exercises, yoga moves that Quinn had showed her. Then she applied tanning lotion to her front.

     Twelve guys simultaneously sucked in a breath and swallowed.

     "God in heaven," someone whispered, hoarsely. "I never saw anything that turned me on so much in my whole life."

     The riveted male mass stared, dry mouthed, as the sight seared itself into their brains.

     "She's got some big tits," someone whispered back.

     Tiffany sat up, and put on some lotion, followed by Sandi.

     "Stacy's got the best legs, too," an answer came. "She's... hot. Really hot. Much hotter than Sandi and Tiffany. C'mon, Stacy baby, show us some bush!"

     "Bush, bush, bush..." came the low chant, until Jamie angrily waved them to silence.

     "All right!" Even Jamie said it, this time. Everyone flattened as Sandi sat up and took a careful look around.

     "Oooh, God," There another gasp came as Stacy rubbed tanning oil on Sandi's back, then Tiffany's. Tiffany did the honors for her.

     "It's too bad that Sandi's such a mega-bitch. Witches should be ugly." Duane said, regretfully. There was a general murmur of agreement.

     "Tiffany's pretty hot, I guess. I never really noticed before." Jeffy blinked, then flushed. He'd betrayed Quinn.

     "She's too bony. Besides, she's as dumb as cowflop." Jamie looked at him. Jeffy was no Einstein, either. "But that shouldn't hold you back, dude. Go for it."

     "Go to hell," Jeffy snarled. Jamie was going to get hurt.

     Stacy stretched again.

     "Did anyone think to bring a camera?" Ted demanded. He wanted that picture, blown up to poster size.

     "Fuck!" The expletive came in ten voices.

     "Shut up, assheads!" Jamie hissed back at them.

     After half an hour of staring, The door behind them slammed. Fortunately, it faced away from their area, which was on a lower level and concealed by machinery. "Oh, shit!" Jamie hissed. "That's got to be Quinn! Everybody, back in the shack!"

     The horde pelted quietly back and piled into the plywood storage shack, forcing the door closed behind them once again.

     Behind the stacks, the three girls rapidly dressed.

     Mrs. Li, in search of her AWOL students, trudged around the roof and found the girls in their gym clothes, sitting on the towels. "Ladies, this area is off limits! Gather your things and come down off the roof, this instant! I'll keep this incident in mind when I review the Fashion Club's funding this week!"

     Stacy whined, "But Ms. Li, there's no sign and the door's not locked-

     "No buts! The door was locked. What would you do if the building caught on fire? Move, move, move!" Ms. Li shepherded them to the door, took a last look around and unlocked it. Impatiently shooing the girls through, she locked it again from the inside, making a note to have the door fixed so that it couldn't trap people on the roof anymore.

     Li wagged a finger at them, when they reached the gym floor. "The gym roof is off limits! There's a very delicate rubber membrane underlay, up there. That roof is not designed for a lot of people to walk on!" She glared at them, then impatiently gestured at them. "Go on, but I won't forget this incident. Don't you ever let me catch you up on that roof again, Ms. Blum-Deckler, Ms. Rowe and Ms. Griffin!"

     "Yes, Ms. Li," they chorused, then beat a hasty retreat into the locker room.

     Li, still looking for the missing men, uttered a chillingly obscene curse that she'd picked up from her boyfriend. Stamping angrily away, she went looking for a flashlight to check the steam tunnels behind the boiler room.

     Up on the roof, all was silence. Then the tool shack groaned, trembled and collapsed. An instant later, the heavens opened and it began to rain on the heap of wreckage and splinter pierced voyeurs.

     As the groaning mass extracted itself from the wreckage, a timer in the schools comms closet clicked. Upchuck's music selection, piped through the PA speaker on the corner of the roof, began.

     Devo's Jocko Homo started to play, loud and clear, in an endless loop. Upchuck had thoughtfully turned the speaker around on it's pole so that they would be able to hear every word.

     "No Kevin. No means no. No way. Never." Daria stomped ahead of him, angrily trying to lose him. "You can just forget it."

     Kevin couldn't believe it. No chick could resist him. Only a.... The not so blinding light of realization hit him. "Ohhh! Sorry about that, Daria. I should have realized." He caught her shoulder, halting her. "I won't try anything, I promise. I just need a new girl for this one date. Jane can come, too. Look, I'll even pay for a romantic dinner for two at Dibs on Ribs. It'll help keep people from knowing that you two are lesbians, just like with that dweeb brother of yours, Tom!"

     Brooke and Tori, just coming out of the lounge, froze, gaping in shock.

     Daria smacked his hand away. "I'm not a lesbian, I'm just not attracted to idiots of any gender. Don't talk to me again." She raked all present with a glare and then strode away.

     Mack gaped from his position at the end of the hall. Daria's eyes had speared him, burning like twin peepholes into hell. He wouldn't want to be in Kevin's shoes right now. Daria was a person that worked at revenge.

     Hurrying away, he tried to put the whole thing out of his mind. Kevin had asked for it, and he was done cleaning up behind the moronic QB. He frowned, mind returning to his search. "Hey, Upchuck. Have you seen the football team?"

     Charles nodded. "Do you mean lately?" He smirked. He'd netted all of Quinn's hangers on and unofficial bodyguards.

     Mack nodded. "Most of the offense, anyway. We can't find them anywhere and their cars are all still in the lot. Ms. Li's going batshit and dumping all over Jodie because of it."

     Charles briefly considered the benefits of leaving them up there or letting them off of the roof himself. There was no upside in it for him, so he might as well get a little credit with Mack. "Have you tried the gym roof, Mack Daddy?" Charles grinned and started to walk away, bound to slip a note into Brittany's locker.

     Mack frowned, massively. "Don't call me Mack Daddy, Upch... Sorry, Charles." He grimaced and nodded his thanks. Upchuck... no, Charles had a point. Mack headed for the gym.

     Charles' machinations were typically murky and untraceable, but he always had the same old goal. Idly, Mack wondered which girl was in the Ruttheimer crosshairs this week and why trapping a bunch of idiots up on the roof was necessary. Ruttheimer's plans often had a Wile E Coyote meets the Cold-War feel to them.

     Stacy rapidly showered and then anxiously looked at the clock. It was almost time for math class. The others had ditched her again, while she was putting the radio away. Fighting down waves of anxiety, Stacy dressed, rapidly applied her makeup and then stepped out of the locker room, searching for the Fashion Club.

     "Hey, Stacy." Duane Bourn, a fairly popular tackle, came up smiling. "Can I carry your books?"

     "Um... hi, Duane. Well, sure." She blushed, prettily. He'd never looked twice before.

     "Stacy!" Ted DeWit Clinton jogged up with a soda. "I got you a soda, the orange kind that you like. Want to go out to dinner at Chez Pierre, Saturday?" He exchanged a belligerent look with Duane. As a blackbelt he had no worries at all about being able to mop the walls with the hulk.

     "What? Thanks." Stacy accepted the soda, smiling radiantly. She just didn't know what to make of it. "Well... okay, Ted." He was kind of cool, now.

     "Excellent!" Ted roughly elbowed Duane aside and relieved him of the responsibility of carrying her books.

     "What are you doing Friday, Stace?" Duane stretched and flexed his large biceps, sneering at Ted. Ted was a geek, but a pumped-up ass-kicking karate geek with a short fuse. Caution was in order. Maybe a really hard sucker punch, right in the back of the head...


     "Hey, Stacy! Wanna come for a ride in my new Porsche after school? I'll drop you off at home!" Harry Bright came up with a big smile, smoothly cutting between her and an increasingly homicidal Duane.

     "Um, sure, Harry. Why are all of you guys so wet?" Stacy asked, as more and more guys clustered around her, glowering at each other and following her to class. In the excitement of becoming the absolute center of so much male attention, she completely forgot about having to find Sandi before class.

     Angela Ms. Li was in her office, brushing the cobwebs from her jacket, having given up on the mysterious missing students. Clearly, they'd left the campus. Ms. Li scowled, then decided not to press the issue. She would have them watched tomorrow.

     The phone rang and she answered it, shortly. "Principal Li."

     "What are you wearing?"

     Li giggled, all of her problems forgotten. "Buck! Where are you?"

     She had met Buck Conroy the previous year, when he'd come to Lawndale High to recruit mercenaries. Ms. Li suspected Daria Morgendorffer of being the one that had invited Buck to Lawndale, but subsequent events, notably Bucks extreme charm offensive and terrific stamina had made her forgive the girl her public embarrassment.

     Having to make up for voter mandated budget cuts, Ms. Li had allowed the New York Modeling Agency to recruit on campus, for a fee. Daria, angry because Quinn was a target of the modeling agency scam, was widely suspected of being the one that had contacted General Buck Conroy and offered the maniacal mercenary the very same deal. Of course, the media had also been called in and had been present when Conroy's little army had invaded Lawndale High.

     Buck laughed. "Now, Doll, you know that those NSA faggots listen in on my calls, so I can't say much. But let's just say that the war's over and I won, big-time. Me and my boys are bugging out of here in about fifteen minutes. I'll be coming in to the usual airstrip at the usual time and I want to be doing the usual to you by ten thirty, at the latest."

     Li flushed all over and hugged herself. "I think that can be arranged."

     "Groovy. Let's meet in our usual place. Well, I gotta get back ta work. See ya soon, Doll!"

     He hung up and turned back to the prisoner, the former minister of finance, a self-important man who was presently hanging by his heels from a chain hoist attached to the hangar ceiling.

     Buck walked over and cut away the man's blindfold and gag. "Well, ya got two choices, ya bastard. You can help us and get a little cut or else Marko here will give you your cut right now. Whaddaya say, Gomer?"

     Marko slowly drew his knife and grinned, his stainless steel Soviet-era dentistry gleaming in sharp counterpoint to the black-bladed combat knife in his hand.

     The minister swallowed, gray-faced. "Who do you think you are! This is an outrage, an act of piracy! You call me a murderer, yet you brutally slaughtered my entire bodyguard-

     Buck lashed out with a boot, silencing him. Buck knew that he was a stone cold killer but at least he wasn't a baby-eater like the minister and his boss.

     "Now what's the matter, Boy, you worried about your boss catching you? Let's ask him what he thinks." Buck spun the Minister of Finance around on his chain so that he could see the dictator.

     Someone had made a savage joke of the killing, propping the former dictator up in a chair in a casual attitude, sunglasses and a cowboy hat on his head, a lit cigarette in his mouth and a can of beer in his hand.

     "What? Impossible!" The minister goggled in shock.

     "Hey! Lookie here, everybody! It's the boss! Say, boss, you mind if your boy here helps us steal all of your money?" Buck feigned listening. "Ya don't? Swell!" Buck started the chain swinging. "So whaddaya say, Mr. Unemployed Henchman?"

     The Minister shook his head in disbelief. "But... No! It couldn't be!"

     Buch shook his head, in mock sympathy. "Yeah, I've had days like that. One day everything's fine, you're burnin' hootches and shootin' gooks. Then all the sudden there you are, watching that last chopper take off without ya." He grinned, savagely, the bright tinge of insanity shining through clearly. "But lemme tell ya, Boy, that's when the real fun starts."

     The minister tried to swallow, but his mouth was too dry.

     Buck suddenly drew his pistol and blew a hole through the corpse's torso. "Hey! You awake? Well, I don't think he's fakin', but I'm not a real expert. Hey, Marko's an expert! What do you say, Marko?"

     The Ukrainian mercenary grinned, his face a mask of pure evil. "I say cut off fat man's balls unless make wire transfer."

     "Sad to say that I agree with you, ya godless commie." Buck turned regretfully back to the minister. "Sorry, fella, but Marko here has gained himself a real appreciation for free enterprise since leaving the Spetznaz."

     "Da. Cash good." Marko smirked. "Knife sharp." Buck was the craziest and by far the most dangerous man that he'd ever seen, but he always got out alive with a ton of loot.

     The finance minister vomited, then spat out a tooth. "I will cooperate if you let me live."

     "See, Marko? I knew he'd do okay!" Buck grinned at the Minister. "The new boss'll just hang your sorry ass anyway if we don't take you with us. This way you get out alive with a shitload of money! Ain't that great?"

     "What of my family?" The minister swallowed as they lowered him. He could care less about them, but he would have a better chance of surviving if his family came with him. He'd married Soiza because she was the dictator's niece, not because he found her attractive.

     "Tell ya what, son, you make us all really rich and we'll get 'em out for ya." Buck nodded and Marko brought the minister's computer over, and a telephone.

     The former Minister of Finance exhaled in defeat. "I will-

     "Better got on with it." Buck didn't really care. It didn't matter anyway. None of the local gomers would be around for much longer, whatever they did. Family or not, Marko and the boys would probably wait until they cleared the land and then throw the minister out of the airplane for laughs, unless he was a fast talker.

     Everyone knew that dead men told no tales, and he would be too busy flying the plane to interfere. The barrels of uncut diamonds, bales of cash and bags of gold coins stolen from the dead dictator were already loaded onto the plane, but the boys wanted to squeeze out every last cent.

     Buck took a deep breath, breathing in the old familiar smell of battle. The taint of blood, gasoline, gun-smoke and terror always brought back happy memories.

     Looking around at the shattered remnants of the presidential guard, huddling under the guns of his men, he smirked.

     "God, I love war. I'm sure gonna miss all this." Buck showed a prisoner how to operate his camera and forced the man to take some pictures. Buck took a pose with the dictator, grinning, clinking beer cans in a friendly-seeming toast while holding up two fingers behind the head of the dead dictator.

     Buck straightened and looked at his grinning men. "Okay, boys, who else wants their picture took with the Great Leader?" It would be a pity to end his brilliant career, but he was far too rich to be a mercenary now. Maybe the oil cartel that had hired him could help him get started in politics.

     Tom knocked at the Morgendorffer door.

     Quinn answered. "Oh, Hi, Tom."

     Tom smiled. "Hi, Quinn. Is Daria in?"

     Quinn stepped aside, noticing his car. "That's a Jag, isn't it? Daria's in the shower. Come in, if you want to wait."

     He stepped in. "Yes, it's a Jag. It's pretty old though. It belonged to my grandmother, so I doubt if it rates more than a four." He grinned at her. Daria had shown him Quinn's date rating system. He was secretly rather impressed with the sophisticated weighted averaging system that she used.

     "It looks nice." Quinn led him to the couch and sat down next to him.

     "Thanks." He'd gotten rid of his Pinto when he'd started to date Daria. Unlike Jane, who appreciated the irony, Daria was more of a materialist. Or else she didn't like the idea of riding in a car with a reputation for exploding. He'd had the rusting Jag fixed up and painted when he'd seen her grimace at a rust spot. It looked pretty good, now.

     Helen walked by, on the phone. She smiled at Tom, waved and continued into the kitchen, arguing with Eric.

     Quinn was getting over her shock. The only way that he could know about her rating system was if Daria talked about her on their dates. She certainly never talked about Daria on hers.

     Quinn frowned, wondering if she was being shallow again, then covered it with a quick smile. "It's a six. The folding tables in the back seat are worth two extra points. So, what are you and Daria going to do tonight?"

     He shrugged. "I'm going to grovel and Daria's going to yell. She's mad at me again."

     Quinn wondered what her sister's problem was. She had a rich hottie on her line, and all she had to do was play him until the time came to reel him in. "Why? What did you do?"

     He shrugged. "I didn't take her to a dance. My mom offered us a couple of tickets. Daria hates it when I don't ask her what she wants, first. I just didn't think when I said no."

     "I'd hate that, too. What dance are you talking about?" Quinn was interested. She'd assumed that Daria would rather go in for a root canal than go to a formal dance.

     "The Harvest Moon dance, at the country club." He sighed. "I can't stand those things."

     Quinn briefly conceived and discarded a plan to extract the tickets from him. "Well, Daria probably thinks you're ashamed to be seen with her." She shuddered. "I know that I am sometimes, with the way she dresses."

     Tom was literally struck dumb for a moment. Such a thing wouldn't have occurred to him in a million years. "Bu... Really? You think that's what the problem is? But I love the way she looks! Daria looks great. I mean, she's just so pretty."

     Quinn nodded. "But she doesn't know it, Tom. She doesn't feel pretty. Of course she is pretty. I mean, she's my sister, after all, so she couldn't be like, plain. It's just not genec-tic-ally possible. But she dresses like such a freak and wears those hideous goggles all the time. I mean, God! The punk look is out! You have to look past all that to really see her. She probably thinks that you're afraid that all your rich friends will laugh at you or something for bringing her."

     Tom scowled. "I don't have any rich friends, Quinn." He thought. "Jane is a friend now, I guess."

     Quinn nodded, sadly. "That's one more than me. It sounds like you're a popular guy, just like I'm a popular girl." She smirked. "I wouldn't depend on Jane, if I were you."

     He shrugged. "How should I fix things up with Daria?"

     Quinn thought about it. "Give her lots of presents, treat her like a queen and take her to every single dance, event or whatever whenever they happen."

     "It's not really that bad, just boring and stupid." He sighed in frustration. "Every guy there will hit on her while their dates hit on me. She'll hate it."

     Quinn nodded. "Yes, she will. But she'll also figure out why you really don't want to go."

     He grinned. "You're okay, Quinn. You should meet my sister. You'd be a good influence."

     She smiled back, wishing that she could meet his brother, instead. "I love dances like that. I got asked to that one. Maybe I'll go after all."

     "Oh?" Tom cocked his head. She would cut a swath. He made a mental note to start sending her the unused tickets that he got in the mail. "With who?"

     "Up- Charles Ruttheimer." She smiled. "Your old school chum."

     He frowned. "Ruttheimer. That guy is nuts. He nearly wrecked my school, trying to get thrown out of there." Tom leaned back, thoughtfully. He kind of admired Ruttheimer. In his quest for expulsion, Ruttheimer had blown the head off of a plaster bust of the founder with a remotely detonated M-80, during morning chapel. When the laughter subsided the headmaster had demanded a confession. Ruttheimer had stood up and denounced them all as heathens and idolaters, loudly proclaiming that God had done it, in a fit of divine wrath over the graven image in the chapel.

     Tom snorted at the memory. "He never liked me, because-

     "The thorn bush. He told me all about it." Quinn shook her head. "What's with all that? Why do they let you guys treat each other like that?"

     Tom shrugged, guiltily. He'd been on both sides of hazing. "The hazing? The institutionalized sadism? It's an old boarding school tradition. My theory is that it's to harden us up, so that the big scary world doesn't eat us pampered overprivileged types alive. It also keeps us from trusting each other enough to band together against the administration. That's the effect, anyway. We're all 'good old boys,' when we graduate, though. It's a network." He grimaced, his anger coming through clearly. "Thank God I'm a day student. Some of those poor guys have been stuck there for eleven years."

     Quinn nodded, marveling. A whole school full of sex-starved rich boys, just waiting to be conquered.

     Daria came down the stairs. "Tom!" She walked over, leaned down and kissed him, thoroughly. She'd been listening for a while and Quinn wasn't far off in her speculations.

     "Wow!" He smiled, happily. "Am I forgiven?"

     Daria feigned deep thought. "Provisionally. She glanced at Quinn. "Tom, do you want to come upstairs for a minute? You've never seen my cell."

     "Sure, if you don't want me hanging around with your very cute little sister." He smiled warmly at Quinn, then followed her up.

     Quinn sighed, smiling dreamily after him, then shook her head, alarmed. I gotta get more sleep, she thought, firmly fixing her attention back onto the TV.

     Staring, flabbergasted, he gasped. "My God! It is a cell!"

     Daria smirked. "Ma and Pa are kinda' strict. They keep the bullwhip and leg-irons down in the basement."

     He laughed. "So what's the story, here?"

     She waved him to a place on the foot of her bed, then flopped down next to him. "Later. How about a kiss? We've got about ninety seconds before Mamasaurus Rex comes charging through that door to make sure that she doesn't become a grandma today."

     Tom blushed, grabbed her, passionately kissed her for eighty seven seconds, then leapt theatrically into the desk chair, eyes on her clock. His expression dissolved into shock when the door opened.

     Helen entered. "Hello, Tom, Daria. How are you kids, today?"

     "Fine, Mom." Daria, flushed and still breathing hard, beamed at her. Helen was so very predictable.

     "Hi, Mrs. Morgendorffer. I was just asking Daria who her decorator was." Tom smiled.

     Helen rolled her eyes, noting his mussed hair. Hair only got mussed like that one way, when a hand was run through it while kissing. "Terrible, isn't it? That's how it was when we bought the house. Daria won't let us touch it." Helen sighed. She longed to gut the place and have it decorated.

     "And rightfully so. I mean, look at this place. It's even got a hand rail." He frowned. "I don't like the window, though."

     Helen wrinkled her nose. "The sawn off bars? Me either."

     Tom shook his head. "I mean the lack of an emergency exit. If there was fire in the stairwell, Daria could be trapped in here."

     Helen looked at him, thoughtfully. "Quinn too. But what could we do?"

     "All of our upper floor bedrooms have rope ladders under the beds. In case of emergency, you hook it over the windowsill and you can get out." Tom looked at the window again. "As it is, she'd have to jump."

     Helen nodded. They'd already had one fire and Jake wasn't getting any smarter. "Where do you get these ladders?"

     Tom shrugged. "I'll find out and let you know."

     "Thank, you, Tom. I would be grateful." Helen looked them over. Daria was flushed, absolutely bubbling with good humor and Tom was in a similar state. She'd give them a bit of time. "Will you two be staying for dinner?"

     "Will we?" He looked at Daria, inquiringly. They usually ate at the country club.

     "Yes." Daria looked at Helen. "That country club can really put on the pounds." She was in no mood to run into Kay Sloane, and she suspected that the club staff called Kay whenever Daria was there.

     "Well, it's Chinese takeout tonight, so think of what you want. I'll order in about an hour." Helen was in no mood to cook and it would be impolitic to feed Jake's ghastly stew to Daria's boyfriend. "You kids have fun." She walked out, leaving the door conspicuously open. She didn't want them having too much fun.

     "Are you really that worried about me, Safety Boy?" Daria smirked at him.

     Tom shrugged. "Well, Rapunzel," He smiled, wickedly, "maybe you'll want to let down your hair, someday."

     Daria smirked. "If I was Rapunzel, I would have just dropped cinderblocks until I could climb down and rob the prince's body."

     Tom nodded. "That's why I don't go in for storming the tower. I like to skulk in through the back door.

     Daria smiled at him, then said, "It's wide open, for some people. I need your help, Tom."

     Tom sat up. "Really? You have it of course, but why?"

     "Have you ever heard of a dogfight?" Daria looked at him, carefully.

     Tom frowned. "You mean with pit bulls?"

     Daria shook her head. "No, with girls."

     Tom raised his eyebrows, then frowned. "I saw a movie once, where this army guy takes a girl to this contest where-

     "I got invited to one and publicly branded as a lesbian, all in one sentence." Daria swallowed, feeling another rush of humiliation.

     Tom stared, then the blood drained from his face. "W... who? Who did that to you?" No wonder she was so touchy.

     Daria sighed, grimly. "Remember the village idiots?"

     He nodded, flushing angrily. "Of course. The QB strikes again. He must be as blind as he is stupid. Do you want me to beat him up?"

     Daria hung her head. "No. Well, yes, but it wouldn't help, so don't. He wanted a plain girl to take and he sweetened the deal by offering to pay for a nice romantic date for Jane and I. Of course he had to say it in front of two of the biggest gossips in the whole school."

     "I'll start coming over there for lunch. That'll end any stupid lesbian rumors." Tom got up, pushed the door closed, sat down next to her on the bed and took her glasses off. "Let me tell you right now that you, Daria, are absolutely beautiful and I mean that, on my honor."

     He kissed her to silence her sarcastic reply and they commenced some serious making out.

     Quinn climbed the stairs and went into her room to do her homework. She sat down at the immaculate student desk that had replaced her makeup table as the most useful piece of furniture in the room and turned on her new desk lamp, briefly fiddling with it's ten luminance settings.

     Unlocking the solid cover of her bookshelf, she smiled in satisfaction at the immaculate new textbooks that she'd acquired. Quinn didn't want to lug home the dirty old used books that she had at school.

     Quinn took a lot of care to not appear to be a brain, but she was adamant about her schoolwork coming first. If she worked really hard, and brought her grade point average up to where Daria's was, she could be a freshman at Princeton during David's senior year. Quinn had never given up on anything in her entire life.

     Selecting her chemistry book, she opened it to the assigned reading and opened her class notes next to it, as David had advised in his last email. She went through the notes first, skimming for the topics emphasized in class. Then she started hi-lighting them in her text.

     "Damn!" Her yellow first pass hi-lighter was dry. Suspiciously, she examined it. It was almost new. As she suspected, someone had chewed on the cap and split it, drying the marker out. This wasn't her marker.

     "Daria!" Quinn stood and angrily went to retrieve her hi-lighter. Daria used up school supplies quickly and had raided her for supplies before.

     In high dudgeon, Quinn knocked on Daria's door and pushed her way in.

     "Daria, If you're going to take- Eww! Daria! Ga-od!" Quinn halted in shock. Tom was a pretty fast worker. He'd gotten past second base and was well on his way to third.

     Daria pushed herself away from Tom, red-faced. "Nice timing, Quinn," she gasped, shrugging back into her shirt.

     Quinn flushed. "Sorry. Never mind, I'll um, just use my orange hi-lighter." She turned to go.

     Daria got up, deeply embarrassed, straightening her clothes. "Wait." She got the hi-lighter and handed it to Quinn. "Silence is golden, Quinn."

     Quinn smirked. "How golden?"

     Tom grinned. "How'd you like some dance tickets?"

     "How'd you like to die?" Daria was flame red.

     Quinn raised an eyebrow, ignoring Daria completely. "Aren't you and Daria going?"

     Tom shrugged, eyeing her appealingly. "We always get extras."

     Quinn nodded. "Nah. I'd have to ask some guy, and I nev- almost never do that. Don't worry about it, Tom. I'd never tell Mom about something like this. The payback would be too bad." She smiled at them, shook her head in bemusement and went back into her room. Now at least, she knew that the lesbian rumor wasn't true. It was too bad that she was going to have to tell everyone, but it was better than having that stupid rumor going around.

     Tom looked after her, curiously. "She's a lot nicer than Elsie. The little brat would be up on the roof with a megaphone by now."

     "She won't deliberately talk, but it'll slip out. She talks constantly and everything comes out, eventually." Daria sighed. "Oh well, maybe they'll miss it in the usual flood of verbiage."

     Tom looked at the open door then at her, longingly.

     Daria shook her head. "Things were getting out of hand, Tom." She looked at him and swallowed. "N-not here."

     The muffled sound of Quinn's laughter floated in through the door.

     Tom smiled. If not here, then where? "So, want to go for a drive, then?"

     Daria sat at her desk, still red. "Uhm, yes, but... I don't think we... should, yet." Things had gotten awfully intense in the little padded cell. Hormones were raging, nearly out of control.

     Tom nodded, crestfallen. "I guess you're right." He wanted to do better than the backseat of a car for her, anyway.

     Daria stood, then sat down next to him again. "I can't believe that I was so mad at you Friday, for nothing. You really get to me sometimes, Tom Sloane."

     Tom embraced her, careful not to let his hands wander. "Daria, the truth is that I love you." He kissed her, then looked into her stricken eyes. "I think about you all the time. I really wanted to date around and keep things light until after college, but... you know."

     Daria felt a tear start. "I... I love you too, Tom, more than I can say." She sighed. "I've been fighting it, coming up with all kinds of stupid reasons to run, but no more. I'm afraid that you'll hurt me, but... it's too late." She sighed, looking like a prisoner who was on her way to the firing squad.

     Tom released her, got a Kleenex and wiped her eyes, then his.

     "I think that I probably will, Daria, but not on purpose. You'll hurt me too, you know. You can twist me up so bad sometimes that I think that I'm going to die. I'm pretty much helpless. I can't defend myself from you, and I won't try any more. I'd never have believed that anyone could do that to me, and that I'd still think about them every few minutes."

     Daria looked at him, guiltily. "I'm sorry. I get scared and I just don't know how to control it without lashing out." She sighed, bitterly. "I'm an emotional basket case. You deserve better than me. I can't show emotion, unless it's negative. You should- "

     She gasped, yowled and curled her toes as Tom slid his hands over places that no man had gone before. "Huuuuuh... Tom. Oh, God!"

     "That was emotion." He smiled. "Quit believing your own propaganda, Daria. You're a firecracker, and I'm your match. It doesn't matter that you can hurt me. I know you love me, and that you don't really mean it. I never mean to hurt you. When I do, talk to me. I'll always be there for you."

     Daria smiled, and he swallowed. That smile was what had hooked him.


     "Yes, Daria?"

     "Let's go for that ride, now." Daria gave him a scorching look.

     "Daria!" Tom blushed and got his keys. "What about your mom?"

     Daria thought about it. "I'll tell her that we're going to the club after all, then to the Zon."

     He nodded, blushing. "It'll be a few minutes before I can stand up."

     Daria showered, blushing as Tom joined her. "Well, I guess we'll make some more noise after all."

     Tom laughed. "I doubt if whoever that was in the next room will care at all. They were making as much racket as we were. I'm just glad that we got the room on the end."

     Daria blushed even redder, as he began to soap her up. "Tom! I have to go to school." She giggled. "It was pretty funny, though."

     Tom nodded. "I thought they were going to drive the headboard right through the wall."

     Daria smirked. "And your competitive instincts just got the better of you?"

     Tom shrugged, pouring shampoo onto her hair. "I wasn't even thinking of them, Daria."

     Presently, they dressed and made to discreetly exit the motel room. Daria stepped out and bumped into one of the people who had come out of the next room.

     "Daria!" Angela Ms. Li gaped at her, paling.

     Daria, gasping, thought that she was going to have a heart attack. "I didn't see you, you didn't see me, we never talk about this again."

     "Deal." Ms. Li sagged in relief. She noticed Tom. "Ah, Mr. Sloane..."

     "The same goes for me." He snaked an arm around Daria's waist. "Well, we should be getting on to breakfast. We-

     "Howdy, son!" Buck stepped out and grabbed his woman. "Looks like both of these fillies have been rode hard and put away wet!" He slapped Tom on the back, almost knocking him over. "Yippie ky yay, cowboy!"

     Buck turned to Li. "C'mon, woman, I wanna go get me some chow and unload the plane." He dragged the terminally embarrassed but unresisting Ms. Li off by the arm.

     "Er, nice to meet you." Tom looked over at Daria and they ducked back into the room for a good long laugh.

     Brittany opened her eyes and sighed. Things looked just as bad after sleeping on it. Not that she'd gotten much sleep. She'd spent days in her room alternately weeping and raging. She hadn't been able to get her prescriptions filled.

     Her temper was totally out of control and Kevin had finally dumped her for good.

     She got up and obsessively checked her pill stash. "Oh! Damn that little... geek!" Her brother... Half brother, Brian, had dumped them out and put them back in the wrong bottles. He was always messing with her stuff. Someone had taught him how to pick locks back when he'd been incarcerated at the boy's ranch for arson.

     Brittany separated the pills, counted them and refilled her pill bottles, then looked in the mirror. It was time to put on her face and go back to school.

     "Hey, Britty-Honey. Good morning!" Ashley-Amber stood at the foot of the stairs with the same blank expression that she always had. Maybe she had some pills. Brittany had checked before, but if Amber-Ashley had a stash, it was well hidden.

     "Good morning." Brittany tried to put some life into her voice, but she couldn't quite manage it.

     "What's the matter, Sweetheart? Still feeling bad?" Steve Taylor came out of the weight room with a towel around his shoulders.

     Brittany looked up, irritated. "Nothing." It was his fault. Him and his damn doctor friend. They'd used their connections to hush everything up. That was fine, but she didn't even get any help with her problem. "Why?"

     Steve shrugged. "Nothing, honey. Why aren't you wearing your uniform?"

     Brittany gritted her teeth and shrieked, "Because it's stupid to wear a cheerleading uniform all the time!"

     As everyone gaped at her in shock, Brian shot past with Steve's autographed football. "Woooh! Hey, do me, I'm the QB!"

     "Dammit! YOU LITTLE TURD! That ball was autographed by Joe Namath!" Steve shot off in hot pursuit.

     Brittany slipped away and drove herself to school, not wanting to have to beg a ride. She'd had enough of home for a while.

     Pulling into the student parking lot, Brittany swallowed down her nausea and wished that she still had her prescriptions. It wasn't fair. Popping her last Seconal, along with seven 10mg Ritalin pills, she entered the building.

     Brittany hid out in the bathroom until the first bell rang and then ran for her homeroom. She slid into her desk and grimaced as Kevin came in, late as usual..

     "Hey, Babe." He gave her his best smile, the one that she'd always thought so cute. He still needed her help.

     "Don't call me 'Babe' when you don't mean it. My name is Brittany." Brittany looked away from him. He was just so... irritating.

     Kevin's grin slipped a little. He'd wanted to cool her off and then pick her up again when she was back to normal, but it wasn't going according to plan. "Awww, Babe, I-

     "Do I have to report you to Barch for sexual harassment?" Brittany gave him a look of withering scorn.

     "Ewww, I don't want to be harassed by Barch." Kevin flinched at the look in her eyes, then swallowed, edging back. She was still way out of her gourd.

     "God!" Brittany glared at him, feeling her murderous rage building. She put up her hand. "Mr. O'Neill, Can I change seats?" It was either move now or claw his eyes right out, on the spot.

     "Why, of course, Brittany." O'Neill indicated an empty seat next to Jane. "You can move right there, if you like."

     Andrea looked at Kevin's back and scowled. Since dinglebelle was moving he'd want to cheat off of her, now. She leaned sideways, so that O'Neill could see her. "Can I change seats too?"

     O'Neill brightened. "Why, yes! That's a rather good idea, Andrea. I often miss you, hidden back there behind Kevin. You can have Brittany's old seat!"

     Andrea blanched. "But-

     "I think that you really should, Andrea. Please move to your new seat." O'Neill beamed and changed the seating chart. Now Brittany wouldn't be able to move back, when they got over their tiff. With any luck, the academically proficient Andrea would be a good influence on Kevin. Maybe Andrea could be induced to participate in the classroom discussions if she was more visible.

     Andrea groaned and moved. Shooting a look over at sarcasm central, she saw Daria and Jane smirking knowingly at her. She glared back at them.

     Brittany sat stewing all through O'Neill's lecture. She didn't have her usual Valium to go with the uppers and the nausea was making her swallow. Five minute before the class was to end she suddenly stood and bolted for the restroom.

     Jodie asked permission and followed, to find Brittany retching helplessly into a toilet.

     "Brittany!" Jodie swallowed, feeling sick at the sight. "Are you pregnant or something?"

     Brittany gagged and shook her head. "Sick... Withdrawal." She was violently sick again.

     "What?" Jodie stared in amazement. Had she heard right?

     Brittany stumbled to the sink and rinsed her mouth. "Ugh." She looked at Jodie, uncaring. "My doctor got arrested and they just cut me off, cold, Jodie." She shivered again, uncontrollably. "Cold..."

     The school had launched a prescription policy that mandated that each student have their prescriptions on file with the school, so that drug abuse could be more easily detected.

     When Brittany filed her prescriptions, her doctor had been arrested. Ever since, she had been unable to get the prescriptions honored.

     She'd gone to a new doctor, a younger man who'd taken one look at her old prescriptions and brought additional charges, but had done nothing else to help her. Her old doctor was very influential and insisted that she was fine.

     Brittany moaned. The pills had made her life blur by in a happy haze of mental silence. Amphetamines and barbiturates in the morning, which gave her intense energy while putting her in a, loopy, drunken state. Prozac at noon to mellow her out and extend it, then more barbiturates in the evening to counteract the uppers and get her to sleep.

     Her chemical lifestyle had been great, like a constant high-energy bender. Now her brain just wouldn't leave her alone. She hadn't been able to be depressed since she was ten and it was all crashing down on her at once.

     Jodie gaped at her. "No!"

     "I've been high for years." Brittany shrugged and walked out, trembling. She'd been rationing, so she wasn't as bad off as she would have been, but cold turkey day was fast approaching. She had to get her pills. But... how?

     Stacy, blushing and smiling, was again the center of a large knot of boys. Quinn came next, amused at the situation, surrounded by her usual entourage.

     Sandi was not amused at all, trailing along behind them with an equally disgruntled Tiffany.

     They entered their homeroom and Quinn dismissed her entourage with a smile.

     Watching closely, Stacy dismissed her own followers in the exact same way, exchanging a delighted grin with Quinn.

     Sandi snorted, angrily. The situation was a disaster. "Will you like, bother to show up for the meeting today, Stacy?"

     Stacy was staring into space with a rapturous smile. She was really, really popular. She came back to reality with a jerk. "Um, did you say something, Sandi?"

     Sandi put a note of saccharin into her voice. "Gee, Stacy, is this newfound popularity of yours somehow affecting your hearing? I asked you if you were going to be able to resume your post as secretary, this afternoon."

     Stacy looked stressed, but not nearly as stressed as she should have looked. "Oh... sorry. I have a date this afternoon."

     Sandi scowled. "The meeting can be rescheduled for this evening, to accommodate dating activities."

     Stacy smiled. "I have another date this evening."

     Obviously outraged, Sandi opened her mouth to rake Stacy.

     Quinn jumped in. "Of course we understand, Stacy." She smiled at Sandi. "I have a couple of dates, too." She didn't, but she was tired of hearing Sandi bitch.

     Sandi gave them both an acid look. She hadn't had a date in weeks, and that one had been pretty bad. She'd dated all the popular guys, but they only seemed to date her once or twice, so suitable dates were becoming increasingly hard to find.

     She had to find some hideous fault with every boy in the school to excuse her dateless state. "Of course I understand, Stacy. The busy dating life of a Fashion Club member cannot be overemphasized." She gave a patently false smile, wondering how Stacy could be put back into her place.

     Brittany was in the hall, leaning on her locker, eyes closed.

     "Brittany? Are you alright?" Daria looked at her, concerned.

     Brittany opened her eyes. "I'm nauseous." She sagged. "No, I'm not alright, Daria. Not at all."

     Daria suppressed a grimace. Brittany had been there for her, more than once. Brittany wasn't a friend that she would have chosen, but she was still a friend.

     "Want to go get a coffee?"

     Brittany shrugged, then nodded, miserably. "I guess so. But what about class?"

     Daria smirked. "I don't think that Ms. Li will cause a problem. If she says anything, just make a cowboy reference."


     "Don't worry about it." Daria led the way.

     Brittany sighed and took a deep drink. The strong coffee was helping, a lot. "I don't know. I miss him, but I really want to kill him whenever I see him."

     Daria laughed. "That's not one of the usual signs of true love. So Kevin's a battered boyfriend?"

     "It's not funny." Brittany thought. "Well it is, but it shouldn't be. I started taking karate when I was just five, Daria. Kevin wouldn't have a chance against me in a real fight, even if he did fight back, which he never does. I just beat on him until I get tired."

     Daria controlled her reaction, managing not to laugh herself into a coma. The reason for Kevin's habitual wearing of his pads had just come to her. "Okay. So savage beatings aside, do you love him?"

     Brittany hung her head. "I don't even know what that word means."

     "If Kevin suddenly looked exactly like Upchuck and didn't have any athletic ability, would you still want him?" Daria knew that she'd still want Tom.

     Brittany frowned. "No. I guess it's not love, then. How do you know so much about it?"

     Daria had to think. "I've always had it around. For some unfathomable reason my parents really do love each other."

     Brittany gave a bitter laugh. "No one loves anyone, in my house."

     Daria frowned. "Your dad seemed to care. He got you that stupid glass megaphone."

     Brittany shook her head. "He did some really bad stuff to me and my mom. He just..." She paused, not wanting to talk about it. Her father was one of the five trustees that controlled her fortune.

     Her maternal grandfather, despairing of his wild daughter and her idiot boyfriend, had left Brittany everything. Steve and Vivian Taylor each got a substantial stipend, but they would be beholden to her in three years when she inherited. Brittany doubted if he would even keep her around if it weren't for the money.

     Brittany looked up. "Do you love Tom?"

     "Yes." Daria couldn't help the brilliant smile that went with the affirmative. "We fight sometimes, but I do love him."

     "Wow." Brittany sighed, enviously. "Did you ever have any other boyfriends?"

     Daria shrugged. "I had a huge crush on Jane's older brother, Trent. He was one of the musicians at your party. I guess I do love him, in a way. He's a great guy and a really good friend." She looked past Brittany, thoughtfully. "He's kind and gentle, but more like an older brother, I guess. I love him that way."

     "I know Trent. We met over at Jane's." Brittany stared at her, remembering some conversations that she'd overheard between Daria and Jane. She nodded, slowly. "He's cute." She had gone out of her way to hire his band for her party, but hadn't been able to talk to him. Stupid Kevin had been watching her like a hawk.

     Daria smiled. "Very. He's a few years older and he's got hundreds of girls throwing themselves at him, though. His band is getting pretty good."

     "Does he have a girlfriend?" asked Brittany, casually.

     "Trent? I doubt it. Not a steady one, at least. He's... Well, the Lanes aren't... No." Daria looked at the clock, not wanting to gossip about her friends. She'd come to the conclusion that even though Trent was a sensitive, caring man, he wasn't exactly a one-woman kind of guy. Women were drawn to his kindness like moths to a flame and he had trouble saying no. It was one of the reasons that he hid out in his room so much.

     "Well, look at the time. We'd better be getting back."

     Barch had just passed out a quiz when the two girls came in, fifteen minutes late. "Aha! Brittany and Daria! You're absent. Do either of you have a valid excuse?"

     Daria shrugged. "Man trouble."

     "Ha, ha! Babe's gonna get it," said Kevin, in a childish sing-song. He reached out and touched Brittany as he'd done since the day they met.

     Barch nodded. "Shut up, Kevin! Okay, girls, That sounds valid enough to-

     "Pig!" Brittany screamed, then slapped Kevin with a report like a pistol shot, snapping his head back like it was on a spring. "Don't you DARE touch me, or call me 'Babe,' ever again!" Daria had told her all about Kevin's magnanimous offer to take her to the dogfight and it had started a slow burn in her on the way back to school.

     There was a moment of shocked silence, and then the whole class laughed at the stunned QB.

     "Oooooh! I just can't look at your stupid face anymore!" Trembling with rage, Brittany stormed out, to find a place to weep.

     Kevin felt his jaw. "But... I... I..." In a daze, he got up.

     "Sexual harassment! I saw the whole thing! Where do you think you're going, Kevin? Kevin! Kevin Thompson!" Barch moved to block him and then squawked with outrage as the Quarterback walked right through her, absently brushing her aside.

     Daria swallowed. When she met Jodie's eyes, she looked away, vaguely ashamed.

     Kevin was soaked with sweat, running laps. He'd been at it all morning, letting the exercise push the bewildered hurt aside so that he could think.

     It took willpower to be an athlete. Pure refined willpower. Kevin knew that he was so good because he had the will to be good. He practiced all the time. They mocked him for carrying a football around, but he never fumbled a football. They wanted to be professors and stuff. Kevin wanted to get into the NFL. There were billions of professors, but only few really good quarterbacks in the whole NFL.

     If he'd ever wanted to be anything else, he'd have used his will to blow them all off the field. Mack had the better physique. Jamie was much faster. Neither could replace him. Neither understood the depths of commitment, the force of will that it took to become the QB as a freshman and to keep pushing such a lousy team so close to the state championship.

     Coach Gibson was no use. His constant shrill haranguing and stupid mind games just made it harder. Gibson didn't understand will. You couldn't make someone have it. All you could do was lead by example. They'd been second last year, second the year before, eighteenth before that.

     It was less than nothing to Kevin. Victory was all and will was what got you there. He'd passed through exhaustion after the first hour of running and his will was still pushing him along. Could they do that?

     Calmly, he considered Brittany. Why did she hit him? Was she mad about Daria? That couldn't be. She had forgiven him as many times as he had forgiven her. What was it?

     It suddenly came to him that he'd lost her for good. His stomach spasmed and he felt something tugging on his arm.


     It was Mack, running alongside. He suddenly felt his absolute exhaustion. Resolutely, he pushed it away and increased his speed.

     "Mack Daddy." Kevin liked to keep Mack off balance. He was QB. The Defense had to understand that Offense ruled the team. The QB was god. The Captain was dog.

     "Don't call- Mack growled. "Don't you think you've run enough? Gibson wants to talk to you."

     They always had something for him to do. Fuck Gibson. Fuck Mack, too. "Tell him I gotta go. I won't be at scrimmage." Kevin cut across the field and out of the gate. He ignored his Jeep and ran toward town, quickly losing Mack. Kevin knew that Mack, larger, stronger and faster though he was, lacked the willpower to keep up.

     Jane was eating her lunch, alone once again. Desultorily poking at the rock hard tater-tots, she sighed. Tom had come and picked Daria up, taking her to the knoll for a picnic lunch. Jane had gotten over Tom, but she still cursed the luck. She'd had to make out in the back of a Pinto, with a spring protruding through the thin seat and poking her in the butt. Daria got a comfy old Jaguar XJ6, complete with a large back seat, newly installed sheepskin seat covers, air conditioning and a really good stereo.

     Remembering the good eats from the bountiful Sloane refrigerator, Jane had almost horned in. That wouldn't be fair, though. Daria had carefully maintained her distance when Jane had been dating him and Jane would return the courtesy. It would just be too weird, anyway. She was jolted out of her musing when Brittany sat down across from her.

     "Still avoiding Kevin?" Jane was amused at the typical antics.

     "Uh, no. Well, yes. That is, I wanted to talk to you, Jane." Brittany wondered if Jane would buy it. She had a plan to get out of trouble, and Jane was the key. All she had to do was hold it all together for a little while longer.

     "So talk." Jane sighed. What an utterly pathetic waste of a brilliant young artist's precious time. She could almost feel the LHS environment sucking the creativity out of her, right through the pores.

     "I took painting as an elective again, this year." Brittany paused, waiting for a wisecrack, then continued. "I want to do better, this time. I want a tutor. You."

     Jane frowned. "I don't tutor."

     Brittany leaned forward. "You're the best artist in Lawndale. I'll pay you, Jane."

     Jane stopped bouncing her tatertot off of the imitation meat patty and focused on Brittany. The compliment had disarmed her. "So, what's your definition of top dollar?" Jane still needed insurance money.

     Brittany shrugged. "Ten a session?"

     Jane shook her head, motioning up.

     "Fifteen? Twenty?" It would only take a couple of hours anyway.

     When Brittany finally quit bidding at forty, Jane nodded. "Deal." Daria had taught her well. "Come over on Wednesday and I'll be ready."

     "Wednesday! Why not today?" Brittany wasn't happy with the delay.

     "I have a life, you know." Jane scowled, already regretting the deal. "I'll see you Wednesday." She got up and left, abandoning the disgusting food. When her van was insured, she'd just go out for lunch. Or eat in the van. She'd slept in it, last night.

     Brittany sat, eyes closed. It was rough, being her. With careful planning and lots of coffee, she could make it to Wednesday. Thursday would be the end of her.

     "Why... hello, Brittany." The voice almost seemed to gather around and caress her.

     "Go away, Upchuck." It was just too much of an effort to open her eyes and kill him. Upchuck was impossible to catch anyway, unless he let you.

     "What's the matter?" Charles sat down and looked at her, noting the stress. "Don't worry, Brittany. Kevin's not the only guy in the world. You might consider trying someone completely different. Say, a non-jock, for instance? I imagine that you could use a change, someone that can treat you like the sweet, beautiful goddess that you are."

     Charles saw her lack of reaction. It was much better than her usual putdowns, karate chops and outright murder attempts, so he kept on pressing his suit.

     Brittany sat, staring out of the window, letting the soothing voice wash over her while completely ignoring what he said. She could see Daria sitting outside on a knoll with Tom. They were laughing, staring into each other's eyes, feeding each other expensive looking tidbits. No one had ever looked at her the way that Tom was looking at Daria. Kevin had never loved her. He was so focused on football that he'd barely noticed her. She silently wished them the best of luck as the chemically triggered wave of depression crashed down on her.

     Sandi stalked down the hall on her way to the office to make an appointment to see Li. Due to their rooftop encounter with Ms. Li she was going to have to justify the Fashion Club's existence again.

     Sandi looked into the cafeteria and saw Charles, sitting with Brittany. She frowned, heavily. Trust that sleaze Charles to latch onto a slut like Brittany. She was just a football whore, but a popular one.

     She thought that Charles' popularity must be on the rise since he'd started filling out. Sandi had caught sight of him in the weight-room at her spa several times. He'd obviously started going so that he could ogle the girls, but they'd shamed him into exercising.

     Some of the freshman girls liked him, even though he didn't pay them much attention. Popularity could be contagious that way though. That's why she kept that lying little brat Quinn around. Reminded of her problems, Sandi carefully refrained from grinding her teeth.

     Angela Ms. Li watched Daria and Tom on the knoll and schemed. Daria had gone AWOL. It was Angela's job to punish such transgressions. She was prepared to lose some face, but opportunity knocked.

     Just after the bell rang, she sent for Daria's permanent records, then for Daria herself.

     Presently, the school secretary poked her head in the door. "Ms. Li, Daria Morgendorffer is here."

     Li narrowed her eyes, reading, then nodded. "Give me a minute, then send her in."

     "Yes, Ms. Li."

     Li arranged a chair for Daria and sat down at her desk. She took a file folder and shuffled out a letter, re-read it, then smiled. She had been meaning to get a handle on Daria and now she had one.

     "Hello, Ms. Morgendorffer." Ms. Li was all smiles. "I have a bone to pick with you."

     Daria swallowed. "I know that I never signed out, but Brittany needed some help. It won't happen again."

     "Really?" Ms. Li was tempted to ask why, but didn't. Brittany was just too messy a can of worms to open. "That's okay, then. We'll let it slide. Our other problem is your... friend. He's not a student here, and consequently shouldn't be permitted access to the grounds. He's trespassing."

     Daria looked stricken. "But... all kinds of visitors come on campus for..." Daria clamped her mouth shut and looked up, sharply. "What do you want?"

     "Just your cooperation." Ms. Li smiled, faintly. "It's for your own good after all."

     Daria stayed silent and poker faced. She could play the waiting game too.

     Impressed, Ms. Li dealt a card. "I'm inclined to give him permission to be on campus."

     Daria nodded, impassively waiting for the other shoe to drop.

     "But I have a problem, Daria." Ms. Li leaned forward. "And you know what it is."

     Daria had scored in the highest percentile on her PSAT's last year and had recently been named as finalist in the National Merit Foundation scholarship competitions. She was the only Lawndale student ever to bring back a perfect score. "The National Merit Foundation," Daria said, reluctantly.

     "Yes." Ms. Li smiled. "Any principal in the district would kill for a problem like that." Abruptly her smile faded. "You're in the semifinals. The rest depends on your performance, which is at its usual level of excellence and your non-academic record. Frankly, you just don't have one."

     Daria sat up, bristling. "I- She swallowed. "What do you want?"

     Li eyed her, then nodded. "First, your word. I want you to work with me on capturing this honor for yourself and for Laaawndale High. Will you?"

     Daria nodded. All Ms. Li had to do was call Helen and life would become utterly unbearable. Besides, she really wanted to be able to eat lunch with Tom everyday. "You have it."

     Li relaxed. "Good! We're going to go over your record with a fine-tooth comb. Then, we're going to... fix it."

     "Fix it?" Daria frowned.

     "Were going to make sure that every single extracurricular activity is represented to the fullest." Ms. Li frowned. "For instance, Mr. DeMartino has mentioned that you joined him and Mr. O'Neill as a mentor to a group of troubled youth, over the summer. He gave you full credit for an outstanding job."

     Daria nodded, coolly. She was rather proud of that. "I did, but that wasn't part-

     "It took place on the elementary school grounds, District property, under the direction of Lawndale faculty members. In fact, it was a school activity. Kudo's on your sterling record of community activism on behalf of poor unfortunate 'developmentally disabled' children, Ms. Morgendorffer." Ms. Li turned a page. "You also helped with the yearbook last year, according to Mr. O'Neill." She looked up, seeing how this would fly.

     Daria's eyes widened. "I did not! All I did was make sure that they didn't print my sister's picture twice, again." She'd proofread the yearbook, unsuccessfully lobbying to have the picture that Ted had taken of her and Tom at the homecoming parade removed and had caught several major mistakes. Now she was glad that the editorial board had overridden her. It was a great picture.

     "Exactly. You worked on the yearbook and saved the staff some considerable expense and embarrassment. I'm sure they won't object to your contribution becoming a part of the official record." Ms. Li moved on, smiling. She would make sure that they didn't object. "Now, about your essay, published in the Lowdown. The one that O'Neill sent to Val Magazine..." Ms. Li rapidly covered Daria's entry in the 'Dawn of The New Millennium' art contest, and her participation in O'Neill's coffee shop.

     The secretary came in and dropped off Daria's permanent record.

     "Ordinarily, you'd never get a look at this, but extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures." Ms. Li opened the record.

     Relentlessly, she forced Daria to admit to having been fashion editor in Highland, among other embarrassments.

     Daria sat, feeling less and less real as Ms. Li went on, tearing out unflattering pages and officially redefining her into a bespectacled version of Jodie Landon.

     Brittany was in the locker room, changing, when she saw them. Their guilty looks gave it away. She knew what was coming when her entire cheerleading squad approached her cautiously, in a group.

     "Brittany, we have to talk." Dawn was determined to get it over with as quickly as possible.

     "What?" Brittany was sullen.

     Dawn hoped that Brittany wouldn't become violent, but the whole squad should be able to handle her. "Kevin hasn't been to scrimmage. Lela Banners is saying that you knocked him out at the mall on Friday." Dawn paused, giving Brittany a hard look. "Is it true?"

     Brittany sighed. "Y-yes. I... I-

     "The other rumor is that you've been doing drugs. Is that also true?" Dawn was worried. That could cost them the whole squad.

     Serina glared, angrily. She had once had a drug problem and didn't associate with those that did drugs anymore.

     Brittany took in the hostile faces and just nodded, miserably. "Yes."

     Dawn relaxed. The captaincy was hers. "You know the rules, Brittany. I'm afraid that you're suspended for the rest of the year. We can't have you scaring the team." She smiled. "You can come back, next year."

     Everyone giggled. They all knew that Brittany had almost no chance of passing the exit test.

     "Get away from me before I tear your spine out, Dawn." Brittany was trying to control her rage, but it was really hard.

     "What! Why you b- Dawn met Brittany's eyes. "Eep!" She fled.

     Brittany, sobbing with rage, kicked her locker door and ran to hide out. She was so full of chemically powered hate that there was just no way to avoid hurting people.

     Half an hour after the last bell rang, Brittany emerged from the AV room, still sobbing, but no longer angry. She made her way to the parking lot and tried her car. It wouldn't start. She'd left her parking lights on.

     "Can I offer you a lift?" Charles stood there, a helpful smile on his face.

     She heaved a great sigh and nodded. She just didn't have the energy to beat him up on suspicion of sabotaging her car. What did she care who saw her with Upchuck, anyway? Her life was over.

     Charles led her to his pimpmobile and opened the door for her, with a flourish. "Entrée vous, goddess." He felt kind of ashamed for trying to take advantage, but luckily it only lasted for a minute.

     Wordlessly, Brittany entered.

     Daria crept through the front door, then made her way up the stairs.


     "Ahhh!" Daria hopped up in the air, shocked. "Quinn! Don't do that!

     Quinn smirked. "God, lighten up, Daria." She cleared her throat. "Anything, interesting happen to you last night?"

     Daria flushed, beet red. "None of your business."

     Quinn's jaw dropped. When Daria hadn't come home, Quinn had covered for her, but she hadn't really believed it until now. "You did it!"

     "It?" Daria pushed past, trying to breathe.

     "This is me, Daria. I know that you weren't at Jane's." Quinn smirked again, following. "I want details."

     "Pervert." Daria suddenly realized that she'd as good as admitted it. "Damn!"

     "Talk, Daria, or else I'll tell..." Quinn saw the growing truculence on her sister's face and played her hole card. "Jane."

     "Damn!" Daria could have dealt with Quinn telling Helen, or even Jake, but she was deathly afraid that Jane would want to compare notes. Tom had seemed pretty experienced.

     "So, where did you two go?" Quinn followed, relentlessly.

     "Gahh! Damn it, Quinn!" Daria had seen Stacy, peeking out of Quinn's door.

     "H- He said I was a... domix... dominixerator, or something!" Brittany bawled, long and loud.

     Charles swallowed, trying to clear his mind of a vision of Brittany in a chrome studded black leather bikini, cracking a whip. "Look, he never meant it. He just didn't think! He doesn't really know how!"

     Brittany just cried harder.

     Charles rolled his eyes. Brittany was wailing on his shoulder, soaking through his new silk shirt, her running makeup dripping on the Love Machine's perfect satin upholstery. It was proving to be more absorbent than seductive.

     "Buuuut how couuuld I be so mean! Always h-hitting and kicking, and beating him with sticks. Waaaaah!" Brittany went off again.

     Man, I'm gonna drown if I have to go through much more of this shit, thought Charles. He was deafened, tear-soaked and about as likely to score as he was to suddenly develop the power to fly. Worst of all, she obviously felt safe with him. It was so grossly humiliating that he felt like crying himself. His excellent plan to take her to Oak Park, get her steaming mad at Kevin and see if it lead to some steamy revenge sex had failed miserably, just like all of his plans did. Now she was talking crazy talk about not wanting to live. He had to cheer her up, somehow.

     Charles briefly subvocalized a small wish that involved Kevin and a meat grinder. "Hey, Brittany. It's not the end of the world, you know. I mean, look at you, you can have any guy you want. Just because it didn't work out with Kevin-

     "I miss him! Ooooh, my Keeevieee...." Brittany began bawling again, for all the wasted time.

     Desperately, Charles wondered how he could cheer her up so that he could get rid of her without having to worry. He suddenly got an idea. He started the car and pulled out, taking the curves fast, trying to shake the weeping girl free. She hung on like a limpet, gradually throttling him.

     Sandi and Linda were on their way to the salon when Charles roared by, passing them on a curve at high speed.

     "That idiot!" Linda was shaken. The huge Lincoln had come out of nowhere and the wind of it's passing had nearly blown her compact right off of the road. "Who was that, Sandra?"

     "It looked like Charles Rutthiemer and Brittany Taylor, out on a date." Sandi was dumbfounded. Brittany had been hanging all over him.

     "Well, I'm going to call his father!" Linda pursed her lips. "He must have been doing eighty! He's probably drunk, to be driving like that."

     "Charles doesn't drink." Sandi shook her head. "It couldn't be him. He's not popular enough to be out with her. She just like, dumped Kevin or something, today."

     Linda looked over at her, speculatively. "Why wouldn't he be popular? His family is very wealthy, you know."

     Sandi struggled to put it in words. She'd once had to chase away a horny tomcat that was after Fluffy, before they'd had her fixed. Charles had the exact same arrogant male swagger. Stumped, she finally just shrugged. "He's just... such a sleaze!"

     Linda looked concerned. "What did he do?"

     Sandi thought back to the audition. She'd been a little flattered at his eagerness, but then he'd ruined it by calling her 'toots' and dropping her on her butt. She'd pulled her kick a little because she could see how badly he'd really wanted to kiss her. "He called me 'toots.' He just is, okay?"

     Linda smiled. "Oh, he's his father's son, alright. But then, he's also his grandfathers grandson and that means a huge trust fund." Linda looked at Sandi, meaningfully. "When was the last time you had a date, Sandra?"

     Sandi frowned at her mother, angrily. Charles had never seemed that rich. She'd always thought of him as well off, but not among the trust fund crowd. After all, he went to a public school. "A not embarrassingly long while. Why do you ask?"

     Linda looked worried. "You know our deal. All I ask is that you have an activity and a normal dating life."

     "Mom, the Fashion Club-

     "Is a waste of time, considering your grades." Linda scowled. "You'd better think about what you really want, girl. Life is hard, especially when you aren't ready for it."

     Angier Sloane chewed his fish, roused himself from his apathy and surveyed his family. He focused on his son, first. "How was your day, Tom?"

     Tom smiled. "Not so bad." He couldn't help smiling. Daria had made him laugh helplessly for almost a solid hour by mock psychoanalyzing various LHS students in the area of their picnic. She was so funny.

     Elsie immediately shattered his mood. "I heard from Liz who heard from Mandy that Lisa and Holly saw you at the high school, with Daria today. Are you going to transfer?"

     He glared at her. He'd love to transfer, but that wasn't in the cards. "What's it to them?" Or you, he mentally added.

     Kay jumped in. "Of course he isn't transferring, Elsie. Were you at the high school, Tom?" Her eyes were wide with alarm.

     Tom sighed. "I brought a picnic basket over and we ate lunch on the lawn."

     Kay swallowed. "Oh? How... romantic."

     Elsie smirked. "Very romantic, according to Holly." Holly was the Mayor's daughter, so she had to go to the public school, as a freshman, at least until the elections were over.

     Kay pursed her lips. "You don't seem to want to share much about Daria, Tom. Why is that?"

     Tom put down his utensils and stared at her. "I don't want you inviting her family to bankrupt themselves again. They weren't born rich, you know."

     Kay looked dismayed. "Oh, dear. I never even thought."

     Tom scowled, knowing that his mother had thought. It was just one of her little tests to determine social status. "They're not poor, but they can't afford to spend a thousand dollars on an evening out, either. And Daria doesn't have a handmade silk ball gown."

     Elsie smirked. "Uh oh, Tom's in love with Cinderella! It's just too ironic!"

     "You see?" Tom shook his head. "How can I bring her here?"

     "Elsie!" Kay looked at her daughter, with a sinking feeling. She'd never realized that Elsie was such a snob. Was she right, though? Was her Tommy in love with that strange girl?

     Tom glared at Elsie. "And for your information, you little sack of vanity, Daria is a finalist for the National Merit Foundation award this year. She had a perfect score on her PSAT tests. That means that she's one of the smartest people of her age in the entire country, and that includes people like you, who go to private schools with good teachers." He gave them all a glare. "Excuse me." Tom pushed his chair back and left.

     Angier chewed, impassively. He liked Daria and well understood Tom's infatuation. Unlike his wife, Angier could understand Daria's wickedly deadpan jokes. The girl was clearly very, very bright, if somewhat lacking in polish. Tom was an extraordinarily intelligent boy, possessing an incisive intellect much like his grandfather's. Tom, like most genius level children, had never fit in well with ordinary people. He'd been lucky in that his family wealth had insured that he was often in the company of his peers. He was very well adjusted, for someone of his intelligence. Most of his intellectual peers, including Daria, suffered badly at the hands of the dull witted and ended up a bit scarred.

     Tom had been lucky enough to have a different experience. Educated at Fielding, with people that were at least in his league, he'd also had a bevy of breathtakingly beautiful girls and women pursuing him since puberty. Angier happened to know that Tom had let a good many of his pursuers catch him, but none of his son's pursuers had proven themselves endurable for even the short term. Daria had lasted much longer than any that he could remember. She was obviously a challenge.

     He had been the one that advised Tom to get a really lousy car and look for girls that way, but he hadn't expected him to do it so soon. The boy had been complaining about the country club predators that swarmed around him, attracted by the family money.

     He'd had the same problem, at Tom's age and had found the solution in college. Angier wondered if Kay remembered the old 48 Ford coup that he'd been driving when they met, at Cambridge. He'd laughed when he saw the Pinto. Underneath it all, the Sloanes were apparently Ford men.

     He'd discreetly had the Morgendorffer family checked out. They were ordinary middle class professionals. There wasn't a single objectionable thing about them. He'd even dropped Jake's name to some of the more useful supplicants that always swarmed around the firm. That would more than make up for the discomfort from Kay's thoughtlessness. Angier looked at his wife, fondly. She was just overprotective.

     Kay glared at her daughter. "I hope you realize that purse proud is not the way we are. We're lucky and the fastest way to change that luck is to start looking down on people like the Morgendorffers. They... What do they do, Angier?"

     "Jake Morgendorffer is a marketing consultant, with a small, reasonably successful firm of his own. Helen is a tax attorney." He looked up. "They're both solid, reputable people and quite well respected in their professions."

     Elsie sulked. "I didn't mean anything. It's just that-

     "Elsie, you can't look down on people." Angier felt a rush of futility as he met his daughter's eyes. "People like us can't let ourselves get isolated from real life. Life is uncertain. Your second cousin Mara can't even open a can. What would happen to her if she was ever thrown back on limited resources?"

     Kay noted the tortured look. Angier was having one of his days again. "Maybe you should find some sort of volunteer work for after school, Elsie." It wasn't a suggestion.

     "Oh NO!" Elsie shuddered. She was fourteen now and she didn't have time for that sort of thing.

     Angier went to lie down for a while. His head ached abominably.

     Daria escaped her sister's relentless questioning by seeking sanctuary elsewhere. Tom was busy so she decided to go and see Jane.

     When she got to the Lane house, she was surprised to see an enormous jumble of gear covering the driveway.

     "Jane?" Daria cautiously approached the open garage door. Jane had once told her that it hadn't been open in her memory.

     "Hey, Daria. Look what I found!" Jane wheeled out a dirt-bike.

     "Oh, look, an amusing way to die." Daria shook her head.

     "It ought to be worth a few hundred." Jane gestured around. "I'm having a yard sale, Friday and Saturday. Want to help?"

     Daria nodded. "As long as I don't have to ride that thing."

     "A daredevil act would draw a crowd." Jane handed her a pad. "Do me a favor and write me a good ad for the Sun-Times."

     Daria nodded, then started looking around at the junk. "Well, first we should take an inventory. Then we can- Hey, gas masks! Ought to be some potential rioters that'll want those."

     Jane picked one up. "Or a head shop." She dropped it and opened a large cardboard box. "Say, Daria, how much do you think a genuine IBM PC with 640K of RAM is worth these days?"

     "Not as much as these old comic books." Daria had opened a battered old suitcase. "You're probably looking at a couple of thousand dollars, right here." She pulled out a 1975 issue of Dr. Strange. "I wonder who's they were?"

     Jane looked through them. "Finders keepers!" She frowned, pulling out a black-light Wonder Woman poster. "This is cool. I'll bet that Upchuck would know where to get rid of these."

     Daria opened an old chest freezer, then slammed it shut, gagging. "Well, hello, Jimmy Hoffa. Let's just chain it shut and take it straight to the dump."

     Jane grinned. "It's empty. They all get like that. I'll just have Trent and Jesse move it out in the yard and open it up. A couple of days in the air will clear up most of that smell and it'll be fun to watch them when they open it."

     "Oh! They're so cute!" Brittany hugged the tiger cubs, tears drying.

     Charles nodded at the head zookeeper. "Thanks, Mr. Hemp, I'll put them back when we're done. I still have the key."

     Hemp smiled, sardonically. "Yer gonna come back to work with me next summer?" Ruttheimer had been an excellent zoo hand.

     Charles smirked. He would, just as soon as Satan ice skated to work. He'd shoveled enough elephant shit for one lifetime. "Sorry. My dad wants me to work at his import-export company."

     "That's too bad. It's hard to find a good hand." Hemp frowned, his staffing troubles in mind.

     "I'd looove to work here, Mr. Hemp!" Brittany was petting both ecstatic lion cubs.

     "Sorry, Miss. I need an experienced hand." Hemp shook his head. Animal lovers made bad zookeepers. You had to understand that they weren't pets, and this girl would never be able to do that.

     Brittany pouted. "Aww. What are their names, Charles?"

     Charles looked at Hemp, embarrassed. He hated animals and Hemp knew it. He made a wild guess. "Mick and Mack, but I just called them both Kitty."

     Hemp laughed. "That's what they answer to, Miss."

     Charles looked surprised. "Really?"

     Hemp shrugged. "Yeah. Be sure and lock up. Se ya 'round, Chuck." Hemp nodded at Charles and left. A bottle of bourbon called.

     "Later." Charles watched him walk away. Hemp was starting really early tonight. He and Lew, the night watchman, got drunk together most evenings.

     "So these are your kitties!" Brittany laughed as one of them licked her.

     "What? No! I, um, just took care of them for a while last summer." Charles sat down on a bail of hay to watch her play with the cats. It had been a fairly harsh punishment for running up a huge bill on his dad's gold card. His dad was on the zoo board and had collected what he was owed, right out of Charles' paycheck.

     Brittany stroked the purring cubs, then looked up. "Thanks for bringing me here."

     He exhaled. "It's my pleasure." "Are you going to be alright now, Brittany?"

     She nodded, "Thanks for everything. I'll get over him... it." She sighed, but didn't cry. "Do you remember back in second grade?"

     Charles nodded. "When you first came to Lawndale? Yes, I remember." His mother had died that year and he'd ended up boarding at Fielding after that.

     Brittany coughed. "It was all so much easier then. The girls hated the boys and the boys hated us back."

     Charles frowned. "I never hated girls." He'd been the only boy even remotely interested, back then.

     Brittany looked embarrassed. "I'm... sorry for calling you Upchuck." She'd been the first to come up with the awful nickname, when he'd wanted to play with them, instead of the boys.

     Charles shrugged. "Water under the bridge. Someone would have, anyway. I'm sorry for taking that picture and blackmailing you into filing all of my vintage porn, that time."

     Brittany smirked. "I saw Ashley Amber in one of those magazines. She was Miss September, 1992."

     Charles jerked like he'd been electrocuted. "So that's it! I knew that I'd seen her somewhere before!"

     Brittany laughed. "You've seen all of her. I'm surprised that you didn't hit on her at my party that time."

     "Heh-heh." Charles swallowed. "Well, you know, that wouldn't be very polite, hitting on a married woman."

     Brittany stared at him. "You did!" She started laughing.

     Charles flushed. "What can I say?"

     "You're so funny!" Brittany laughed for a long time.

     "That's me. Mr. Funny." Charles scowled and batted a cat away. "It'll really be funny someday when I just spontaneously combust from testosterone poisoning."

     Charles sat, glumly, as the blond bombshell laughed helplessly at him. Just when he thought the worst was over, one of the cubs walked up and sprayed him.

     Jane sat at a table in the arcade snack bar, finishing a hamburger. She was bored and feeling lost. Trent was mysteriously absent, much like the rest of her kin. She looked up and suppressed a groan. Quinn was coming.

     "Hi, Jane." Quinn took in her outfit, which was even more paint-stained than usual. "Where's Daria?"

     Jane looked at her watch. "Daria's either just outside the front door, or else she's out with Tom."

     Quinn looked at her, wondering how much Daria had told her. "Really? I thought that they had decided to take it easy." Daria had managed a pretty good disinformation campaign.

     Jane smirked. "It all depends on your definition of easy."

     Quinn sat down and giggled involuntarily. "Do you think they've like... done it?"

     Jane looked up, all innocence. "Why, that would be gossip, Quinn. Bad, bad gossip."

     Quinn smiled. "In other words, yes."

     Jane shook her head. "I won't confirm or deny a thing." She had no idea, but she was also leaning towards yes.

     Quinn nodded judiciously, then swallowed. "Do you think..."

     Jane frowned. "What is it, Quinn?"

     "I... Uh... I knocked her pillbox off of the bathroom counter last week, and forgot to tell her. I sure hope that I got them all back in the right order." Quinn swallowed again.

     "Ho-lee shit." Jane looked at her, admiringly. "Do you think that they'll name it after you? As a memorial, I mean."

     "That's not helping." Quinn looked at the door. "Oh, hell! She is up at the point." Quinn looked at Jane with big, scared eyes. "Do you think...?"

     Jane shrugged, playing it up. "She's sure happy these days. Heck, she was even singing in the shower after gym class. She laughed like hell at one of Upchuck's sick jokes. What do you think?"

     Quinn laughed uneasily. "So she got a few pills out of order. I mean, what harm could it do? I know that the doses are all different and that it's important to take them in order, but she was on the pill." Quinn swallowed, dry mouthed, babbling on. "Mom got us our prescriptions when we turned twelve because it helps with-

     "Poor Daria. You'd better tell her, Auntie Quinn." Jane shook her head, really laying it on thick.

     Quinn shuddered. "No way. She's either... you know... or not. Telling her won't help. She'd kill me before I got the last word out."

     Jane nodded. It was highly unlikely. "That's true. Either way, you'll know in about twenty one days."

     "I love your hair, Daria." Tom kissed her, then quickly leaned back to watch her smile.

     "So you're dating me for my hair?" Daria watched him shift gears. Tom knew how to spar.

     "Yep. That and the great sex." He looked at the clock on the dash and sighed. "Damn it, I have to go in early tonight. Tomorrow is another big day of filing earnings reports."

     Daria leaned against him, then sighed. "If your family is so rich, why do you still have to work?"

     Tom smiled. "Oh, I dunno. Something about staying rich."

     She shrugged. "Your dad should dip into the petty cash and hire a wage slave to file the earnings reports."

     Tom shook his head. "Why would my dad hire a wage slave when he has me? Rich people are cheap. Besides, that stuff is confidential." He cleared his throat. "The truth is, I do a lot more than the filing. It certainly cuts down on our making-out time, though."

     Daria nodded, glumly. "That's probably it."

     Tom swallowed. He'd said the wrong thing, again. Daria was firmly convinced that his family looked down on her. She almost never set foot in his house, any more. He kept trying to tell her that it wasn't so, especially after she'd been selected as a National Merit scholar, but she wouldn't listen. He wished that he could get her to spend more time at his house. It would calm her down if she could only see for herself that his family was as screwed up as hers.

     "My parents think you're great, Daria." Looking at her in a sidelong manner, he wondered what was going on between Daria and his mother. His mother had never paid much attention to his girlfriends, until Daria came along. Admittedly, she hadn't liked Jane, but that was nothing compared to her obsession with Daria. She questioned him about her all the time.

     Daria smirked. "I'll bet Jane shook them up a little."

     Tom nodded, smiling ruefully. His girlfriend being the best friend of his ex girlfriend was a weird situation. He knew that Daria and Jane compared notes. His smile died and he frowned, thinking about it. Daria had been an accident. He was still uneasy about it, like a man on a tightrope. She could really hurt him if he made a mistake. Seeing her face set, he kissed her on the neck, rolled his eyes and turned on the radio to distract her from unpleasant thoughts about his family.

     Daria pulled away from him. "They probably want to make sure- Hey, turn up the radio!"

     Tom turned up the volume, with relief.

     Daria glanced at Tom, her eyes alight with astonishment. "That's Trent on the radio! That song is about me and Jane!" It was Mystik Spiral, singing Freakin' Friends. She smiled, overjoyed to hear another sign of success from Trent.

     Tom, staring at her, swallowed. He reached out and took off her glasses. "Oh hell, Daria. You're absolutely beautiful."

     "And then I find out that she's sleeping with our supposed mentor, Daniel." Jane shuddered. "Art can be a dangerous field."

     "Ewwww!" Quinn grimaced. "If you promise not to tell anyone..." Quinn looked around, then leaned forward. "Deanna made a pass at me in the locker room last year."

     Jane raised her eyebrows. "When was this?"

     "Right before school ended." Quinn shrugged. "Her family was moving and I guess she just had nothing to lose."

     Jane blinked. "I remember Deanna."

     Quinn winced. "I wish I hadn't yelled at her. I mean, that girl Alison was totally out to get you drunk and take advantage, but you still managed to be nice. Poor Deanna just told me that she wanted to kiss me, and I like, totally dumped on her. I feel bad about it."

     Jane raised her cola. "To life. Let me tell you about life..."

     Quinn picked up her glass, looking confused. "What?"

     Jane looked nonplused. "Marvin the depressing robot, on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy."

     Quinn shook her head. "A TV show? I never saw it before."

     Jane shrugged. "I almost thought that I was talking to Daria there, for a while. You guys are really a lot alike."

     Quinn shuddered. "Please, Jane."

     Jane smiled. "Say no more. I too know of the tyrannical ways of an older sister. I..." She smirked at Quinn, "have two of them."

     Quinn winced. "Oh, ouch." Daria did do a fairly comprehensive job of oppressing her. She couldn't imagine life with two Darias.

     Brittany went to Jane's after school for tutoring and really tried to learn, but she was just too shaky to accomplish much. She produced a passable watercolor, which Jane thought had a little bit of potential. At least she finally mastered perspective.

     Brittany watched Jane paint and chose her moment well. "Thanks, Jane. I think I really learned something. I'll see myself out."

     Jane, engrossed in her own work, just grunted, never noticing Brittany's sly expression.

     Brittany left Jane's room, slipped off her shoes and padded down the hall. Her objective was close. Heart pounding, she knocked lightly at the door. "Trent?"

     She hoped that he remembered her. She'd seen him on stage occasionally and had caught herself thinking about him, ever since they'd met. He was a hottie and he'd obviously wanted her, back when she'd come over to do the economics project with Jane. Her selection of Mystik Spiral to play her party hadn't been an accident. Daria's talk at the coffee shop had just reminded her.

     She'd eavesdropped on Daria and Jane sometimes, when they were on the gym roof. Jane had said some things about Trent that made her hopeful. He knew people. Surely he could help her find what she needed, if he wanted to.

     Placing her ear to the door, she heard his snore in a brief moment of silence from the stereo. Swallowing, she opened the door and stepped into the darkened room.

     Trent was face-up on the bed, wearing only a set of boxers. The CD magazine loaded The Refreshments as she watched him sleep.

     Perfect, she thought. Heart pounding, Brittany slipped out of her clothes.

     Trent was sleeping, starting to toss and turn a little, as the dream intensified. He swum toward consciousness as Carefree started to play and then his eyes suddenly shot wide open, in confusion. "Monique? What the-

     Jane walked out of her front door and started her evening run. She got a few feet and stopped. Brittany's car was still parked in front of her house. Looking at the car, she shrugged. It was almost new but it must have broken down.

     "Woah." Trent was lounging in bed with Brittany. "My dad always said that nothing would ever just come to me while I was laying on my butt in this room. Boy, am I gonna throw this in the old bastards face when-

     Brittany kissed him. "God, you're good." She sighed. She could never go back to someone like Kevin, now.

     He started stroking the nape of her neck. "I just have to ask... Why me? A girl like you can have anyone."

     She scooted over, until she was straddling him, then stared into his eyes. "I thought about you a lot, ever since we met that time." She swallowed and dropped her eyes. "I really, really need your help, Trent." She gazed back into his eyes, appealingly.

     He nodded, knowing what she needed. She was just lucky that she'd come to him. "I'll do anything that I can for you, sweetheart." He could see that she was twitchy and wanting to score. He'd seen Monique get like that on muscle relaxants.

     She snuggled closer. "I almost feel good. Look, I really need some Valium. Can you help me?"

     He looked at her, closely, then sighed. He'd spent half of his life driving different girlfriends to rehab, it seemed. He knew what she needed. "I can help."

     She gave a shuddering sigh. "Oh, good. It hurts."

     "You're on barbiturates." Trent rolled over and scooted down until they were lying face to face. "That's a hard one to beat. You can die, trying to go cold turkey from that stuff, Brittany. You have to come down gradually. I can get you well tonight, but you have to beat this if you ever want a decent life. I'll take you down to rehab and get you signed up, tomorrow."

     He smiled, dazzling her. "Don't worry, I know just what to do. Everything will be alright." He stared into her eyes, willing her to believe. "Trust me."

     Brittany sucked in a breath, absolutely mesmerized, then slowly let it out. "O- okay."

     He smiled, lighting up the room. "You're just too pretty and too nice to be on that shit." And way too naive, he thought. She'd come to a bad end if she went that route.

     "Thank you," Brittany whispered. She was totally dazzled, caught by his eyes like a bird facing a snake. Her heart was pounding away like a jackhammer.

     Trent rolled over and picked up his phone. He still remembered Dr. F's number, from the time Monique had been using. Doctor F had an herbal remedies business that he used as a cover for his other, less kosher business.

     Dr. Feelgood's Herbal Nirvana was a popular place in Lawndale. Unlike most drug dealers, Doctor F was a true pharmacological genius. Being in the phonebook helped his business a lot.

     Trent sometimes went to him for herbal treatments for his asthma, instead of a real doctor. "Tell me all about it. What are you on?" He was careful not to let Brittany see the number that he dialed.

     Jane returned home and went for the shower. She yawned, went up the stairs and then saw Brittany come out of the bathroom, barely dressed in one of Trent's green shirts.

     "What the hell? " Viscerally shocked, Jane demanded in a rising tone, "Why are you still here?"

     Brittany smiled, happily. Trent had gotten her what she needed and she was on top of the world. "I um... dropped in on your brother." Her smile widened. "I'm going to be staying for a while!"

     Jane saw that the nervous scatterbrained energy and the childish slurred speech had returned to Brittany in full measure. "Trent!" Jane stormed past the blond and into her brother's room. "What the hell do you think that you're doing? Brittany? You must be kidding!"

     Trent was sitting on the bed, just getting off of the phone with a rehab councilor that he knew. He smiled at his sister. "Hey, Janey, look at her. I'm not made of stone you know."

     Brittany came in and giggled. "Could've fooled me!"

     "God!" Jane gagged furiously and marched back to her room. She grabbed her things and headed for Daria's. She wasn't going to stay there, with Brittany in residence.

     Brittany stared, blankly after Jane. "What's wrong with her?"

     Trent shrugged. "Nothing. She's just another nosey sister that wants to run my life." He smiled at her. "Eaten yet, Cupcake? I've got a gig tonight, and I need to start getting ready."

     Brittany gave him a mischievous smile. The excellent combination of Phenobarbital and Dexedrine that Trent had worked out for her with Monique's onetime drug connection had her going way too fast to sleep. "Yay, Trent! Let's go out!"

     Daria answered the door to find Jane standing there with a small bag. "What happened? Relatives back?"

     Jane sighed. "Worse. Brittany's staying there... with Trent."

     An expression of outraged betrayal flickered briefly over Daria's face. "Brittany and Trent? Ugh! How? Why?" She stepped back. "Um, never-mind why. You'd better come in."

     Jane sighed, walking past her friend into the house. "She met him when she was assigned to that economics project with me, last spring, and then she went out of her way to hire his band for that stupid party. She made up some story about wanting art lessons today and then sneaked away to pick my idiot brother off in about ten seconds flat. He's all over her, like white on rice."

     Daria nodded. "He is a guy, and she's... well, Brittany. I sometimes wonder about her. Brittany seems pretty stupid, especially when she's with Kevin, but she does manage to get what she wants. What will she be like with Trent?" Daria shuddered.

     Jane slapped her case against her leg, in frustration. "Dumb bimbo. God, I hate her." Jane scowled, but told the truth. "She did alright with the painting lesson. She didn't sound stupid at all, until after she bagged Trent."

     Daria frowned. "It's weird, but I can't quite put my finger on it. She has a disturbingly good grasp of tactics, for a truly stupid person. She came, she saw, she conquered."

     Jane clenched her jaw as she climbed the staircase. "More like, she saw, she came and she conquered. Of all the people in the world, the dammed bimbo had to latch onto Trent." She'd tried hard to set him up with Daria, but he'd slacked off until she'd caught Tom's eye. It wouldn't have worked out anyway. Trent was going to end up just like Wind, unless he actually succeeded in becoming a rock star.

     "And how was Tom today?" Helen beamed at her daughter. She had no worries. Daria couldn't have done better. She'd mysteriously begun picking up clients, clients not referred by Eric, once word of her supposed connection with the Sloanes had gotten out. Rumor had her as a relative of some kind, at the very least. She always told the truth to those that asked and then referred to the Sloanes by their first names.

     "Still rich." Daria glared, causing Helen to change topics.

     Jane looked at her plate, hiding a smile. Daria was still worried about her feelings. It was kind of cute, but she just didn't feel anything for Tom, now.

     "More antipasto, Jane-o?" Jake looked inquiringly at Jane, with serving spoon poised. He knew all about the situation with Tom.

     "Sure, Jake-o." Jane smiled. Jake had turned out to be a pretty good guy. He'd even bought some of her art for his office. They were friends, of sorts.

     "Painted anything good lately?" Jake smiled, conspiratorially.

     Jane shook her head. "I'm giving that up for a while."

     Jake was shocked. "But... why?"

     Jane squirmed, feeling put on the spot. "Well I spent the summer at an art colony..." She told them the sordid tale, including the lesbian pass by Alison.

     Jake shook his head as she spoke, angrily wondering what kind of fool would let a bright, impressionable young girl like Jane sojourn among the drug soaked heathens at an art colony. His commune had been kind like that. It was no place for a teen.

     When Jane finished her tale, Helen sighed. "Disillusionment is something that we all have to face, Jane. I saw myself on the Supreme Court by now, when I was your age." She looked sympathetically into Jane's sad face. "But you shouldn't give up before you start. You might not get to where you wanted to go, but you do get somewhere. There's always a way, if you just keep looking."

     Jake jumped in, anxious to help. "Sure! I hear what you're saying about those gallery owners, but you're thinking small. Art is marketing, just like every other industry. You have a product that sells and a public that wants to buy, so you just need to connect with them!"

     "What? Who wants to buy?" Jane didn't understand what he meant.

     "Ya know that art I bought from you? Well, I gave it all to clients who admired it. I paid a couple hundred bucks for five paintings and now they've brought me thousands in goodwill!" He waved his fork, enthusiastically. "Those commercial scenes you did really went over big with the businessmen. That one that you painted, The Docks... Well, I miss that one."

     "Really?" Jane's eyes shown.

     Jake nodded, enthused. "There are a lot of businessmen who want that kind of commercial art for their walls." He tapped his fingers on the table, caught up in a vision. "If we could round up some artists, we could start a catalog market for it. What a niche!"

     Jane shrugged. He was trying to help. "Sure, if you like. I can whip out a bunch of stuff like that." She liked to try and capture moods, and a commercial district just after rush hour was an excellent place.

     "Great! I'll get back to you with a plan, next week." Jake ate mechanically, eyes glowing as he put together his impromptu business plan. It could be a nice little catalog business that he could keep, on the side. Or even better, an e-business. That would be cheaper, and much more stylish. He could even write off his new digital camera.

     "I heard at school today that Brittany was popping pills." Quinn had been uncharacteristically silent during dinner, having overheard the cause of Jane's stay.

     Jane looked up, sharply. "What kind of pills?" She'd known that there was more to Brittany's move than just a sudden irresistible craving for her scrawny, tattooed brother.

     Quinn shrugged. "Sandi said that she heard Brittany talking to Jodie about it."

     "Just say no!" Jake waved his spoon at his daughters. "Drugs are bad! You shouldn't do drugs."

     Quinn rolled her eyes. "Mmm'kay."

     Daria and Jane looked at Quinn, in a second of shock, then sniggered.

     Jake opened his mouth to find out about this mysterious 'joke' and Helen cut him off.

     "So this pill thing is only a rumor, then, Quinn. You shouldn't spread rumors like that." Helen wondered if Brittany's mother knew.

     "I just mentioned it because Jodie confirmed it. I was over at the middle school today, getting a student." She looked at Daria. "Link says hi."

     "You saw Link?" Daria was a little troubled. She hadn't heard from him in a week. His stepfather was being a real ass.

     "He thought that you might volunteer." Quinn smiled. "He's got a huge crush on you."

     Jane smirked. "I'm telling Tom," she said, in a singsong voice.

     Daria sighed. "Did he get a tutor?"

     Quinn laughed. "God, Daria. No one had the nerve. He knows more than anyone from the high school, except for you. It was like some pathetic ball game, where the fat kid never gets picked to be on a team. No, he didn't get a tutor because he doesn't need a tutor. He was just hanging around in case you showed up."

     Daria stood. "Excuse me, I have to make a call." She went out into the living room.

     "Oh, she's a hard one." Jane exchanged a smirk with Quinn.

     Gazing after Daria, Helen turned to Quinn. "Did you get a student?"

     Quinn nodded. "Her name is Luanne. She's kind of neglected. Her mom is apparently Hitler's secretary and her dad doesn't live with them, any more."

     Helen looked upset. Marianne's daughter was named Luanne.

     Kevin was following Andrea down the hall. "And so like, this Romano guy was in another gang? So its about gangs?"

     "Read the play." Andrea trudged along, face set.

     "But who kills Romano?" Kevin hated the learning part of school.

     "Its Romeo, idiot! Read the fucking play!" Andrea increased her speed as he moved even closer.

     Kevin never gave up. Brittany had always done all the reading, while they made out. "Aww, Andrea, Babe, just tell me-

     "Eugh! Don't touch me!" Andrea shook his hand off and saw Brittany walking up the hall.

     Brittany was dressed in black leather pants and a black Mystik Spiral baby-T that she'd had made to show off her bellybutton. She wore crimson dagger earrings and hot pink motorcycle boots that matched the Metal lettering on the shirt.

     Andrea goggled, then shouted, "Hey! Get this stupid thing off of me!" She twisted away from Kevin and made for a safe haven.

     Brittany just walked right on by, a blissful expression on her face.

     Kevin stared after her, then ran after Andrea, cutting her off from the ladies room. "Come on! I could lose my football eligibility. Help me!"

     Andrea glared, readying a boot to the testicles. Wisely, Kevin didn't touch her. "Read the stupid book, you stupid lump of brawn!"

     Kevin looked terribly upset. He dropped his voice and almost whispered, "I can't."

     Andrea, almost away, heard a note in his voice that stopped her. She turned around. "What?"

     He looked around and lowered his voice. "I am stupid. I... can't read very well. I really try, but I can never finish in time."

     "What?" Andrea suddenly realized what he was saying. "But I see you reading those Ratboy comic books, all the time. And you went out for the play-

     Kevin shrugged. "I can follow along easier, when there's a picture. Plus those pages aren't all shimmery and white. I memorized some of the play, at home, so that it would look good and Ba- Brittany read me the rest."

     His woebegone face touched a chord in Andrea. She looked at him, reluctantly feeling pity. "Shimmery? Well, I guess that I could help. You're probably dyslexic. I'm dyslexic, too." She sighed. "Come on."

     "What's dyslexic?" Kevin trailed after her as she set off for the school library.

     Daria sat on the steps of LHS, waiting.

     "Hey, Daria." Jane sat down beside her. "It looks like Tom's a no-show, today."

     Daria nodded. "Probably. I'll just sit out here and wait, though, just in case."

     Jane handed her an apple. "Just in case not."

     Daria smiled at her and bit the apple. "Thanks. I could use a day off from eating, anyway. Those lunches that Tom brings are a little heavy sometimes."

     "I noticed that you skipped breakfast, too. You ought to start running with me. That way you can eat anything you want." Jane yawned and stretched. They'd stayed up late, talking about Trent, Tom and life in general.

     Daria swallowed a mouthful of apple. "I would, but I have a low threshold for self inflicted pain."

     Jane leaned back and looked up at the sky. "Maybe you ought to try running by yourself, then. Or even walking. It's a good time to think."

     Daria nodded. She wasn't fat, but she was feeling a little bit heavy. She usually didn't eat very much, but Tom seemed to like to feed her. "Did you talk to Brittany this morning?"

     Jane grunted, sourly. "Yes. She's wants to be 'just like one of the family.'"

     Daria laughed. "Then pack her suitcase and tell her to have a good trip."

     "I wish." Jane sighed. "I always wanted to hook you and Trent up. Then I'd have an in-law that I actually wanted to have around."

     Daria looked at her friend, seriously. "I'll always be around. I hope."

     Quinn stepped out of the door, looking harried. "Oh for- Yes, go get me a soda. And a glass. And ice, but only star shaped ice. And Upchuck's head on a stake. Just GO!"

     "Upchuck?" Jeffy looked at Joey. "He's mine!"

     Joey grabbed him. "No! I'll get him for you, Quinn! Him and Jeffy!" He brutally head-butted Jeffy and they started fighting.

     Jamie faded back and turned to hunt Upchuck. He would get Quinn what-

     "Get him!" Joey tackled Jamie and Jeffy kicked them both in the heads, on the way by.

     The two scrambled up, baying in pursuit of Jeffy, Upchuck and Quinn's favor.

     Quinn stared after them, looking ill. "God, they're pathetic. What the hell did I ever see in that?"

     Daria and Jane exchanged an eye-rolling look.

     "Quinn, aren't you being a little hard on Upchuck? He hasn't been that bad, so far this year. He's actually been fairly polite." Daria cleared her throat, embarrassed by their amazement. "He did give us that ride home."

     Quinn looked dismayed. "Oh, no. That just came out to get rid of them."

     "AwpoorUpchuck. Now, moving on to a more relevant topic," Jane narrowed her eyes at Quinn, "didn't you have something to tell Daria?"

     "Uh, gotta go!" Quinn retreated, at speed.

     "Okay, what's that all about?" Daria yawned.

     "She dumped out your birth control pills, when you left them in the bathroom, then put them back in the pillbox, out of order." Jane looked at Daria closely, to see if it mattered. She was curious about how far Daria had gone with Tom.

     "Huh?" Daria shook her head. "I use the kind in the sealed pouches, just like she does." Daria suddenly got wide eyed. "Oh, hell. We had a plumber in, and Mom moved all of her pills to the hall bathroom."

     Jane sucked a breath through her teeth. "Uh-oh. Do you think your parents' still..."

     "Ugh. All the damn time, Jane." Daria stood. "I'm going to go assuage my fears by watching Upchuck die."

     Jane nodded. "Now that's entertainment." She stayed behind, hoping to have a word with Tom if he came.

     Charles was sitting quietly, alone at his usual table, eating a box of animal crackers and re-reading How to Talk to Girls, when the three stooges burst in baying for his blood.

     "Upchuck! I'm gonna tear you a new - Jamie fell face down as Joey cannoned into him from the back.

     "No! He's mine!" Joey's fists rose and fell.

     Jeffy ran in and tripped on the rolling forms, lashing out at them both while absorbing his own share of punishment.

     Charles gaped at them, his open mouth dribbling crumbs, then looked around and saw that the exit was out of his reach. None of his friends were in the room. He jumped up, effortlessly dodging Jamie, tripping him and pushing him back into the other two.

     Jamie spun, punched Joey and then started after Charles again.

     "Hold it!" Charles easily evaded him and leapt onto the table, gaining a height advantage. He exaggeratedly cocked a foot, causing a long hesitation on the part of the exhausted, bleeding, running back. "What's the problem, White?"

     Jamie looked at him, then collapsed on the bench, shamed. "Nothing, really. Quinn wants your head bashed."

     "No! I'll get it!" Joey grabbed at Jamie.

     Charles lashed out, kicking Joey in the side of the head. He turned his foot at the last second to soften the blow.

     Joey went rubber-legged and sat, swaying. "Ugh."

     "We were talking, here." Charles turned his eyes to Jeffy, who hung back, just out of kicking range, warily eyeing them all. "So, all three of you are going to attack me at once? Maybe you should get a couple more guys."

     Jeffy looked embarrassed. "No! No, man. Look, there's nothing personal, but Quinn-

     "So what is it then, I have to fight the winner?" Charles smirked. They were pretty beat up and he thought that he had a good chance of winning outright if worse came to worse. Jeffy was the best fighter, so he'd jump him when Jamie went down, then deal with Joey, who was the dumbest. "You guys are so whipped."

     Charles climbed down on his side of the table and sat. "It's just pathetic. Well, you're all bigger than me. I guess if you have to beat me up, there's not much that I can do about it. Try not to bruise my face, please."

     "No, I'm not..." Jamie looked at the tittering crowd and blushed.

     "You realize of course that she just wanted to get rid of you guys." Charles shook his head. "If she really wanted to see me get a beating, she'd be here to watch. I guess the ol' Chuckster is a just a target of opportunity."

     DeMartino walked by, glared into the lunchroom, saw that Ruttheimer was the target and then moved on. Ruttheimer richly deserved anything that came his way.

     Jeffy looked around, then nodded. He sat, wincing. "Yeah, man. She's just like, playin' with us."

     "Hey, I'm real sorry for kickin' you in the nuts, Joey." Jamie swallowed blood and picked up a napkin to dab at the cuts on his face.

     "That's okay," Joey replied, in a high falsetto.

     Everyone at the table laughed.

     "You know, you're never going to get Quinn by running around like a bunch of slave boys. Do you really think that holding her purse while she talks to other guys impresses her? Two of you, maybe all of you, are shit out of luck." Charles smirked, watching their fighting spirit plummet. "Take it from the Chuckster, women like Quinn don't go for suck ups. You have to get into their cute little heads, find out what they want and then hook them." Charles shook his head at their stupidity.

     "Hey!" Joey took offense. "You don't even have a girlfriend! What do you know about it, Man?"

     Charles shrugged. "I've been shot down, I've been shot at and I've tried every single approach there is. Point to a woman in this school and I'll tell you how many times and ways I've hit on her. I've studied this stuff, guys."

     Joey and Jeffy exchanged a bewildered look. "So you get a lot?"

     Charles shook his head, like a parson in a saloon. "Did I say that? To get back to the business at hand, my man, the Chuckster's been shot down by the best and then by all the rest. I've been kicked, slapped, punched, mobbed, beaten savagely and left to drown, handcuffed, leg-cuffed, gagged, cried on and I was even pissed on once, by a tiger. I'm an expert on how not to get women. Take it from me, fetching and carrying gets you exactly two things, jack and shit."

     Jamie blinked. "Makes sense. You would know."

     Joey shrugged, then suddenly went still. "Uh, be right back, Dudes." He slipped away, then hurtled toward the soda machine to get a soda for Quinn.

     Jeffy yawned, stiffened, then jumped up and pounded off after him.

     Jamie stared after them, then turned back to Charles. "So what would you do?"

     "You want my help?" Charles never worked for free. "There's a price."

     Jamie thought of his thin wallet, then nodded. Anything for Quinn, he thought. "How much?"

     "It's not a matter of money." Charles frowned. "All I want is for you to stop calling me Upchuck."

     Jamie grinned. "It's cool... Chuck?"

     Charles shrugged. "Good enough. Now, what do you like about Quinn?"

     Jamie answered fast. "She's so hot." He thought for a second. "She's smart, too. She always knows what to say. I like that."

     "Good enough." Charles looked at him. "So what is it with you, running around with those guys?"

     Jamie frowned. "See, Quinn dates us all. She can't go steady on account a she can't choose between us." He paused to wiggle a loose tooth. "We've been wachin' her and each other ever since, to make sure that nobody gets a move in."

     Charles nodded. "So, she keeps the whole wolf pack at bay by throwing out a scrap every now and then. Three is a nice stable number. I'll bet you guys all knock yourselves out trying to one-up each other."

     Jamie frowned, wiggling another loose tooth. "More like knock each other out. I spend a goddamed fortune on her and so do they."

     "Women cost money, man. The better the woman the more she costs." Charles frowned and rubbed his chin. "Tricky. Okay, I'd break the equilibrium. Three is stable for Quinn, but two isn't. If you pull out, Joey will lay a beating on Jeffy and then rush Quinn. That'll get them both kicked to the curb fast and leave you a clear shot. You should pretend to lose interest and start going out with other girls."

     "Hmm." Jamie looked very thoughtful.

     Charles smirked. "Sandi is the one to go after, because she's Quinn's main rival. Quinn won't want to lose you to her."

     "What!" Jamie gaped at him. "Sandi? Ugh, she's such a... bitch. Why not Stacy? She's hot."

     Charles drew back slightly, his expression darkening. "Sandi's all right. Admittedly, she's a little high strung, but then, look at her lines. She's beautiful. As to her temper, well, all thoroughbreds are like that." Charles winced, remembering her kicking him in a sensitive spot. "Don't rush her, but just act like you notice her."

     "I noticed her. She's a real megabitch." Jamie scowled.

     "Lay off, man." Charles gave him a baleful glare. "She's just... I wouldn't mind dating her."

     "Go ahead." Jamie smirked and shook his head. "No one else wants to." All that Sandi ever did on a date was to complain and make sure that she was seen.

     Charles scowled. "I already blew it there. Look, you probably took her out and then talked about Quinn all night, right?"

     Jamie shrugged. "Yeah? So?"

     Charles shook his head. "So Quinn and Sandi are rivals. They'll fight, eventually. So let them fight over you. Besides, Stacy's just too popular, right now. Quinn likes her, and probably wouldn't get mad if you went after her."

     "Really?" Jamie got a thoughtful look.

     Charles leaned forward, to emphasize his point. "Think about it. Quinn's got a pack of clowns falling all over themselves to please her. They're what she has. She doesn't pay any attention to what she has. She'll only go out of her way to see what she can get."

     "Clowns!" Jamie swallowed. "But... What if she doesn't want me?"

     Charles shrugged. "Then you're screwed so you've got nothing at all to lose. You might as well quit beating your head up against a brick wall. Take it from the Chuckster. There's lots of luscious ladyfish out there in the sea of love."

     Jamie swallowed. "There's only one Quinn."

     Charles shrugged and then smiled at Daria, who had come in and was eyeing them from across the room. "Look, she doesn't hate you, which gives you a shot. Break it off and then lure her into your trap. Find out all about her, then use the information to make yourself a plan of attack."

     Charles leaned forward, deliberately pitching his voice so that it would carry to where Daria stood. Revenge was sweet. "Remember that time when Quinn started turning into a brain?"

     Daria's eyes widened in horror. She knew exactly what was coming. She beat a hasty retreat.

     Jamie nodded, slowly. It had worked that time when Quinn went all brainy and stopped dating. Her sister had told them to date her and Quinn had come running. According to Sandi, Quinn was turning brainy again.

     He winced, thinking about the snotty, possessive Sandi. She would be hard to get away from, once she got her hooks in. Maybe... He grinned. It could work for him alone, this time. Quinn couldn't stand it the time that they'd almost dated her sister. Jamie spotted Daria, exiting the room. "Thanks, Chuck, I-gotta-go." Jamie lunged away, after Daria.

     Charles went back to his book. "You're welcome." He smiled. "Quinn, Quinn, Quinn." Charles laughed softly, to himself. She had made a big mistake, setting her stooges on him, like that. Charles owed her one and Daria would see that she got it.

     Sandi was in the security office, fast-forwarding through surveillance tapes, still trying to make a case for the continued existence of the Fashion Club. She had been charged by Ms. Li to come up with three specific instances of community service preformed by the club so far in the school year. There hadn't been anything acceptable, so Sandi was reduced to trolling for pictures of club members spontaneously 'helping' the more fashion impaired. She had to be careful, though. Apparently there had been some complaints from the ungrateful clods.

     She scowled, watching a scene of Quinn, surrounded by an adoring crowd of boys. It was beyond belief the way that they all pursued her. Even Sandi, who was far from being a lesbian, couldn't help but notice how incredibly cute Quinn was. Her every gesture and move was calculated to be enticing. She had once caught Quinn with a video camera mounted on a tripod, practicing her walks.

     Sandi sighed. She had dealt with Quinn as best she could, immediately co-opting her into the Fashion Club and getting control over her but it was all coming apart. Quinn was uncontrollable now and didn't seem to be worried about breaking up the club. Without the club Sandi knew that she was finished, socially.

     It had been a hard battle for Sandi. When she'd been in Jr. High, she'd been a friendless loser. Vowing to remedy that, she'd talked with her mother, studied the high school and hatched a plan.

     She'd recruited Tiffany, another big loser and near shut-in, and together, they had carefully begun exploring the science of looking good. As a freshman, Sandi had resurrected the Fashion Club and snared Stacy, another friendless loser. Together they had ruled Lawndale, even edging out the cheerleaders for the best dates. But the true glory days had come with Quinn.

     Sandi shook her head. It was hard to be a leader, but that was what made her popular. It was so lonely.

     Sandi was jerked out of her introspection when she heard Quinn's name mentioned behind her, on a monitor. Sandi sat down at the unmanned control station and used a joystick to focus the lunchroom surveillance camera on the source.

     "Charles." She scowled and turned up the gain on the audio board to hear if the horny little rat was bragging about having his way with Brittany.

     "Sandi's all right. Admittedly, she's a little high strung, but then, look at her lines. She's beautiful. All thoroughbreds are like that. Don't rush her, but just act like you notice her."

     Sandi smiled.

     "I noticed her. She's a real bitch."

     Sandi gasped in horror. It was Jamie White.

     "Lay off, man. I wouldn't mind dating her."

     "Go ahead. No one else wants to."

     I already blew it there. Look, you probably took her out and then talked about Quinn all night, right?"

     "Yeah? So?"

     Sandi muted the volume, closed the door, and cried. Quinn had everything, and she had nothing. It wasn't fair.

     Jane was sorting through her old work, marking prices and watching Sick Sad World, when Daria knocked on her door.

     "Hey!" Jane motioned her in. "You're just in time for our favorite educational program."

     "Let me guess." Daria walked in and sat down. "Oh, it must be CSPAN again. Is that the congress?"

     Jane smirked. It was the rerun about the guano climbers. "Close."

     Daria looked at the paintings scattered around the room, in various stacks. "Organizing an exhibit?"

     Jane shook her head. "No, just putting things in chronological order." She nodded at the space where her easel was. "I'm going to put all this stuff up for sale and move my desk back over there."

     Daria slipped off her jacket. "Oh? Did you find a place with better light?"

     Jane shook her head. "I'm taking an art sabbatical. I think that I'd better bring my C average up to an A, or I'm gonna end up painting tiles all my life."

     Daria looked perturbed. "But... Jane, what about-

     "I saw how the art business works, Daria." Jane sighed, bitterly. "Brittany would do better than me. Raw talent is almost useless in the real world. I'd better develop some survival skills."

     Daria nodded. "I guess that Alison girl really got to you."

     Jane made a wry face. "Not quite, but she did teach me a whole lot about how it really works in the real world. Success in the art world depends solely on who you know."

     "Kind of like everything else." Daria grimaced.

     Jane slapped her on the shoulder. "Cheer up! You know Tom and I know you both. What happened to your lunch date, today?"

     "His Jag broke down. Apparently it has a worse engine than the one in his old Pinto." Daria smiled. "I'm surprised that you didn't know. Trent picked him up and took his revenge. He had the whole band in the car. They drove him around in circles and tortured him with their new lyrics while they scarfed down our lunch."

     Jane grimaced. "I'm not talking to Trent."

     Daria frowned. "Don't worry, Jane. Brittany will wander off, eventually. She's way too dumb to see what a great guy Trent is. Lighten up. He deserves some harmless fun."

     Jane nodded, grudgingly. "He's okay. He got a hold of my Dad, and he's gonna pay for my insurance. I'm just protesting Brittany."

     "Hey, great! Maybe we can take a road trip sometime." Daria smiled. "When are you going to get it all street legal?"

     Jane shrugged. She had no idea how to buy insurance. She was going to talk to Jake about it, after dinner. "I'm painting a mural on it, right now. Soon, I guess."

     Daria was happy to hear that Jane hadn't entirely given up on her art. "It'll be good advertising. Speaking of protesting, do you still have that old can of mace left?" Daria was out of pepper spray. She kept spraying the whole thing into Jake's stew to see what amusing color he would turn.

     Jane nodded. "I was saving it for Alison, but you can have it. It's illegal to carry now, you know. Although, if you want to spray Brittany down I certainly won't testify against you."

     Daria looked wrathful. "It's for Jamie White. He keeps begging me to date him so that Quinn will be jealous."

     "That makes a whole lot of sense." Jane shook her head. "Jamie and Link both now. Poor Tom, dating a such a popular girl."

     "Tom thinks it's funny. And it actually does make sense, if you have an IQ of seventy." Daria sighed. "Remember back when she went on that brain kick?"

     "Who could forget?" Jane shuddered.

     "Well, It annoyed me, so I turned it around by dressing up as Quinn. When my 'dates' showed up Quinn lost her nerve and gave up her intellectual pose." Daria smiled at the memory. "Now Jamie thinks that the same trick will work again. The trouble with his plan is that she just isn't posing this time."

     "You dressed as Quinn?" Jane smiled, inspired. Then her face fell. "Too bad. No more painting until I get an A."

     Daria cleared her throat. "Well, I can help, Jane."

     Jane looked up. "Damn right, you're going to help. It's either you or that other straight A genius friend of mine."

     Daria nodded. "Of course."

     "Thanks, Amiga." Jane picked up a painting then stopped. "Say, this isn't one of mine."

     Daria looked over. "I brought a couple over that I painted last year when you ran out of art supplies, last February. I figured that you could paint over it, or on the back, so that you wouldn't have to sacrifice one of yours. I stuck them in here and forgot to tell you."

     "Ah! That was you!" Jane smiled. "I found the paint you brought, but I never noticed the canvas. Of course this means that my paint fairy theory is shot to hell."

     Daria deadpanned, "Oh well, at least we still have the Grim Reaper left to believe in."

     Jane smirked, then went back to studying the painting. "Wow, Daria. I don't remember this from class."

     Daria shrugged. "I did it at home. I was going to use up some of the massive amount of paint that I had to buy for class, then I got interested in it."

     Jane pondered the style. "Realism? Ugh! Now I see it. More like Magic Realism but expressed in a very impersonal way. Minimal Magic Realism? Oh, it's glazed and scumbled!" Jane shook her head. It was viscerally disturbing, consisting of an almost photographically correct downtown scene, except for its eerily skewed perspective and off center composition. The whole thing had a curvature to it that suggested a tiny planet covered in city. An obviously deceased bag lady lay on the sidewalk, a small dog with a trailing leash anxiously peering at her while the rush hour traffic rumbled by, oblivious and uncaring.

     "What do you call it?" Jane swallowed, nauseated.

     Daria shrugged. "Five after five."

     "Ah. Getting off time." Jane put the work against the wall. "I'd never paint over that. That's art, Daria."

     "Gonna hang it on your wall?" Daria smirked.

     "Are you kidding? I've got to sleep in here." Jane shuddered.

     "I could give her a smiley face button." Daria blinked, thoughtfully. "I should have, anyway. And a hitch-hiking clown."

     "Art should induce an emotion in the beholder, but it shouldn't make them scream and run away." Jane turned the painting to catch the light. "Please, if you ever want to start painting professionally don't let my rank jealousy stop you."

     Daria shrugged. "I'm too happy to paint things like that now."

     Jane looked up, smiling. "You? Happy?"

     Daria nodded, eyes going a little moist. "Yep. The Misery Chick is singing in the shower, these days." She sighed. "I feel like I'm climbing a ladder. The higher I get, the nicer the view is, but it's a long way to fall, Jane."

     Tell me about it, Jane thought. "I was happy like that at first. Tom's such a nice guy, and sexy as hell, but we never really... fit together. I got really nervous, he got really stressed, we made each other mental and it all just fell apart." Jane flipped to another painting. "He just took up too much of my time. It's a relief to not have to worry about it anymore. Don't worry so much about me, Daria. I'm not carrying any kind of torch. I'm glad I split with Tom, but even when we were dating, I always knew that he was perfect for you. Be happy. Enjoy."

     Daria looked at her hands. "Thanks. I hope you're right and I hope that you find someone soon, Jane."

     Jane shook her head. "I'm in no hurry. I'd rather find someone right than someone soon. Tom was soon. Next time I'm following your example and taking it real slow. I'll run like hell at the first mention of Italian cinema."

     Daria smiled. "Believe me, it doesn't come up very often."

     Jane looked at her folded easel and her boxes of painting supplies stacked up against the wall. "Why don't you hang on to this stuff for me? We can take it over to your place tonight. I'm afraid that I'll backslide. Paint yourself some happy crap, while you can."

     Daria looked at her friend. "That doesn't sound like you."

     "Well, I'm a sadder but wiser Jane Lane." Jane looked at her, seriously. "Keep climbing the ladder, Daria. You're already up too high to avoid getting hurt."

     Daria nodded. "My thoughts, exactly. I'm rapidly approaching the point of no return."

     Jane packed the painting away with the others, then checked. "Hey! You can paint! So why did you mess up my hair so bad?"

     Daria flushed. "I just couldn't see, Jane. The fumes from that stuff made my eyes water. I got nervous, started sweating and my glasses kept fogging up. I couldn't wipe my eyes because I had all that poison on my hands."

     Jane laughed.

     "Son, it's our 21st wedding anniversary." Angier sighed, looking at his grown son. He was getting way too old. "Your mother wants you to bring a date to the party. Her sister and all of her friends will be there. They all want to meet Daria."

     Tom crossed his arms. "Great. I end up losing Daria because Mom wants another shot at her."

     Angier shook his head. "I doubt that. Listen, Tom. It's hard for a woman like your mother to let go. No mother likes her son's first... girlfriend. There's a certain element of jealousy, there."

     Tom scowled. "Daria's not my first girlfriend. Mom never carried on like this about Maddy, Lise, or even Kate. She didn't like Jane, but that was really Jane's fault."

     Maddy and Lise had been from his class, paraded in front of him like mares to a racehorse. They were near clones of each other that he'd dated to have someone to go to his mother's social functions with. Kate was a pro, three years older than she'd claimed, who'd marked him and was trying to get pregnant, after a piece of his family money. He'd been in a fool's paradise, until Angier had told him about her kid. Jane had really been his first honest girlfriend.

     Angier nodded. "And there's a dammed good reason that she didn't, Tom. They were just passing fancies. Daria is trouble on a grand scale as far as your mother is concerned."

     Tom smiled. "That's true. I knew that, ever since we first met."

     "I've seen you together. I seriously doubt if the girl will throw you over because you invited her to a party." Angier smiled at him. "Trust me."

     Tom swallowed. He was obligated to ask. "I'll ask her tonight. We're going to the movies." He was still feeling his way through her defenses. Daria might just give him a cold stare and tell him off.

     Angier nodded. "Good. I'd kind of like to get to know her too. Invite the whole family. Her parents can really network, there. Hey, I went through your report again this afternoon. I don't know what got into me at the meeting last Friday. That was very fine work, Tom. You were right."

     "Thanks." Tom hesitated, then plunged. "Are you feeling all right, Dad? I notice that you seem to be getting those migraines more and more often."

     Angier shrugged. "I'm fine, son. Doctor Smyth says it's just a tension headache. I need to start jogging again."

     The theatre lights dimmed.

     "Your parents anniversary?" Daria leaned in to him as he snaked his arm around her. "Sure. I'll come."

     Tom smiled in relief. "It's going to be quite an occasion. They're having it at the club. Just about every living Sloane, all the friends and their families, a million business friends and everyone else will be there, including the governor. There will be a live orchestra, dinner, dancing and of course, speeches. Your family is invited too. Everyone should just bring a card."

     "When is it?" Daria felt a sinking feeling, then sucked it in. She could do anything she set her mind on, even dance.

     "Ten days, on Saturday. Your family will be getting invitations soon. Don't bother with any gifts." Tom, aware that he was beginning to babble, shut up.

     "Shhhh!" The man behind them glared, not wanting to have to hear them make out.

     "Hey buddy, it's a popcorn commercial! Get real." Tom, glad for the distraction, turned back to Daria. "Want to move?"

     Daria liked it right where she was. "No. Let's just ignore him." She leaned in and whispered in his ear. "What should I wear?"

     He whispered back, "It's formal, but wear whatever you like."

     "Hmm." She looked at him. "What will you wear?"

     He shrugged. "A tux. Like I said, its formal." He knew better than to even hint that she didn't know how to dress for a formal occasion. She'd taken a big step tonight and he didn't want to give her an excuse to step back.

     "Oh, good. I'll polish my boots then." Daria frowned. She was going to need some expert help.

     Quinn sat on her bed, looking at a nervous Daria. She tapped her chin, thoughtfully, wondering if she should try to chisel something out of her. She decided that David would think that was shallow, though. It really was, now that she thought of it. She flushed with shame.

     "So what do you think?" Daria swallowed and waited for the deluge.

     Quinn collected herself and narrowed her eyes in concentration. "Teal satin slip dress, with shawl, matching strap sandals, my jade chrysanthemum earrings, my faux emerald choker and a nice handbag."

     Quinn considered what she would do with Daria's hair. She'd long known that the day would come. Daria had essentially the same coloration as she did anyway, so it wasn't hard throwing an outfit together. Quinn was a fashion whiz. "It'll cost about $400 and look as good as anything there, even the handmade designer stuff."

     Daria had enough. Poverty had spurred her to action. She'd re-launched her old essay writing business by tacking up a few 3x5 cards advertising her services at several area colleges. At fifty dollars an assignment, her 'Typing Service' was already making her more in a few hours than eight hours of minimum wage would bring in a day. And the upside was that much of her work could be recycled. Business was brisk. "Is there anything else that I need?" Daria knew better than to argue with Quinn over a matter of fashion.

     Quinn closed her math book and gave Daria her full attention. "Hair and skin, Daria. Green is your usual color, but it should be lighter than the shade that you usually wear. So all you need is a hairstyle, facial, makeup and contacts." She could hardly believe that Daria would do this, even for a guy like Tom.

     Daria gritted her teeth, then forced a smile. "Thank you. Where do I get this stuff?"

     "We get it at Duttons, in Calumet." Quinn smirked. "After letting that woman get away with pinning that tablecloth on you and calling it a bridesmaid's dress I think it's pretty clear that you need expert fitting advice."

     Daria sighed. "What's it going to cost me?"

     Quinn went into her 'Godfather' routine. "I will do this thing for you, but you will owe me a favor, that I will collect on, one day." Quinn saw the look in Daria's eyes. "Oh, wait, you never ratted on me for taking Dad's car that time. Call it payback."

     Daria nodded, relaxing. "Tom had better appreciate this."

     Quinn eyed her, knowingly. "Oh, he will. Believe me." She wondered how Daria would react to a push-up bra.

     Andrea hesitated on the sidewalk, in front of the Thompson house, wondering why she was doing this. She chewed her lip. The big doofus was kind of nice, in an utterly clueless, obnoxious sort of way. She felt sorry for him. She knew what it was like, though. Dyslexia wasn't easy to live with, especially when people told you that you were just stupid. She had been through her own travails.

     A woman opened the door and came over. "Excuse me, can I help you with something?"

     Andrea flushed. She'd been staring at the house for a minute too long. "Is that the Thompson residence?"

     Charline Thompson was taken aback. "Yes, it is. And you are?"

     Andrea flushed a deeper shade of red, feeling stupid. "I'm Andrea. I'm here to study with Kevin."

     Charline's jaw dropped. "Really?" She brightened. "Well I'm Charline Thompson, Kevin's mother. Please, do come in!" Charline shepherded her towards the door with little shooing motions and held the door wide, smiling at her.

     Andrea felt obligated to enter. "Uh, I was just going to drop this stuff off, for Kevin. Here-

     "Kevin and Doug are in the back yard. I'll go get him for you!" Charline was happy. Any girl that wasn't Brittany was perfect for Kevin, as far as Charline was concerned. Her boy deserved to go to college and have a chance to be somebody. An empty headed little tramp like Brittany Taylor was the one major stumbling block that would stick him in Lawndale forever and ruin his life. He needed to get away from his doting father and finally get a chance to grow up.

     Andrea shuffled, nervously. "Um- I"

     "Oh, it's no trouble at all." Charline practically ran for the back yard."

     Andrea trailed after her, not wanting a surprise encounter with any more Thompsons. She looked out the door, seeing Kevin toss a football to his dad.

     "Kevin! Andrea is here, for your study date!" Charline caroled it out loud enough for everyone in Lawndale to hear.

     Doug Thompson tossed the football back to Kevin and then gave his pride and joy a good natured punch on the shoulder as he jogged by. "New cheerleader on the squad, son?" He hoped the boy had a chance to enjoy life before he had to go to work in the business.

     Kevin staggered with the punch, then sped on. "Nah, we're really gonna study. She's cool!" Kevin had been pretty pumped to hear that he might not be a retard, like he'd always thought. "She's smart, but she's not like some brain."

     "What? Hold it, Son." Doug frowned. Kevin shouldn't waste his time, studying. Kevin had a good life ahead, working in the family contracting business. Doug already had Kevin's future mapped out, right here in Lawndale, when his football career ended. A lot of worthless book-learning wasn't as important as the leadership skills and celebrity status that came with being the QB. Kevin should concentrate on snagging a pretty wife and having himself plenty of fun. Being an all-American jock would get him a lot farther in life than wasting his time trying to match wits with some four-eyed eggheads. Kevin just didn't have the aptitude.

     Andrea stepped out of the sliding glass door, wincing. She feverently wished that she'd just walked on by.

     "Andrea!" Kevin smiled at her. "This is my dad."

     "Hello, Mr. Thompson." Andrea felt sick. She couldn't believe the way that her stomach had just lurched. This was Kevin.

     Doug swallowed, nervously. He had no idea what the Goth thing was all about. This was bad. Real bad. "Well... Hi." He shot a panic filled look at Charline. "Did that O'Neill send you? Look, Andrea... Say, what's your last name?"

     Andrea flushed. "Darling."

     Doug laughed. "Look, Andrea, Kevin's a great kid, but he's a little slow. There's just no need to ruin his eyes, reading. I know that that pansy O'Neill keeps pushing-

     Andrea's eyes ignited with outrage.

     "Dad!" Kevin grabbed her hand. "I'm real sorry. Come on, Andrea. Let's go somewhere."

     Andrea never got a chance to object as Kevin hustled her to his Jeep.

     Charline turned on Doug, angrily. "You leave them alone, Doug. I mean it."

     "Doll, c'mon. She was a freak! The boy needs to sow his wild oats, but not with-

     "And get that Brittany Taylor in a family way? That's what you want, isn't it?" Charline gritted her teeth. He had talked her out of an abortion when she was just a high school girl. It had taken her years to understand how his mind worked.

     Doug shrugged. "Hey, the QB's a man now, and she's rich. He can come in the business with me, when nature takes its course." Thompson and Thompson sounded fine to him.

     Charline glared at him and then pulled up a heavy tomato stake. Giving it an experimental swing, she advanced on him. "We'll see, you big jerk!"

     Andrea put a sheet of red tinted plastic over the page. "How's that?"

     Kevin's jaw dropped. "Hey! That keeps the white from shimmering around the letters!" He cleared his throat. "Romeny... Ah, Romeo... where-

     "Scotopic sensitivity." Andrea, not wanting to hear him read, put a tape in her cassette player and started rewinding. "You're definitely dyslexic, Kevin. Have you ever heard of books on tape?"

     Kevin looked up. He sat the book down, shocked. "Are they all on tape?"

     "All of the books that you have to read for school, are." Andrea smirked. "The Americans with Disabilities Act makes sure of it."

     He looked at the posters on her bedroom wall, not trusting himself to meet her eyes. "Wicked room, Andrea Darling." He felt a growing joy. He wasn't stupid! Why hadn't anyone ever told him about dyslexia? He smiled at Andrea and resisted the urge to dance around the room.

     Andrea hunched over. "Uh... I hate it when people call me that. It's such a weird name, for a Goth."

     Kevin grinned. "I think it's great. It's... skewed. But then, I like weird. I went out with Brittany for six years. Weird is my thing." He walked over to the window and looked out, to hide his eyes. He was afraid that tears might be showing.

     Andrea stared at him, outlined against the dormer window. He was really, really muscular, even with the pads. "Why do you wear the pads?"

     Kevin, watching her reflection in the glass, smirked. "For protection. People kick, punch and beat on me all the time. It's a football thing." Mack Mackenzie, his nearest rival for the QB slot, punched him in the shoulder the most often. Kevin waged a friendly campaign of psychological warfare against his closest rivals at all times. "Shouldn't that tape have started by now?"

     Andrea blinked, then lunged for the boom box. "Damn it! It's eating the tape!" She opened it and took the cassette out, unwinding even more tape from the cassette. Loops of red oxide tape were tangled in the works. "Oh, hell. That was a library tape." She sighed. "There went a hundred and fifty bucks."

     Kevin crouched down next to the player. "I think that I can fix it." He carefully unwound the tape from the cassette player mechanism, wound it back into the case, and then looked inside the player. "The pinch roller probably got some grease or something sticky on it."

     "You know how to fix tape players?" Andrea looked at him, surprised. She had two old boom boxes that were tape eaters.

     "Brittany's psycho little brother shoved a pop-tart into my Jeep's cassette player, once. All those Taylors are nuts. It took me a while, but I finally got it working again. We might have to get you a new roller, but I can fix it." Kevin smiled with pride. He could figure things out when there wasn't someone there to distract him. He just couldn't read, add, subtract or remember dates very well.

     Andrea frowned. "That won't help us in time for this stupid assignment." She sighed. "I don't want to have to read this stupid crap. Romeo was an asshole. This is the only cassette player in the house, though. My parents don't keep 'paleotechnology' around."

     Kevin blinked. "What?"

     "Old stuff." Andrea shook her head. She had a lot of cassettes, but they hadn't thought to offer her the old stereo before carting it off.

     "Hey, let's go use the one in my Jeep! We could go get my boom box, too." Kevin looked at her, anxiously. He didn't want to read.

     "We co-' Andrea heard her mother's car door slam. "Quick! Out the back way!" She snatched up the tapes and led the way at a run.

     "What's wrong?" Kevin jogged down the stairs behind her.

     Andrea hissed back at him, "We don't want to meet-

     "Andrea?" A woman opened the back door, just as they hit the bottom landing.

     Andrea halted. "Uh, Mom. What are you doing home?"

     "The second unit is filming now, so I have some time off. Well, who's your friend?" Drusilla Darling smiled quizzically at Kevin, who just looked back and forth between them, shocked.

     "Oh. This is Kevin. Kevin, this is my mom, Drusilla." Andrea grimaced. "She's an assistant producer."

     Kevin recovered. "Hi, Mrs. Darling." He'd forgotten how good she looked.

     Drusilla's eyes widened. "I'm pleased to meet you, Kevin. Andrea's never brought home a boyfriend, before."

     Kevin grinned. He could see why. Drusilla was an absolute knockout.

     Andrea looked ill. "Mom, Kevin's an old friend from grade school. You've-

     Kevin intervened. "Nice to meet you again too, Mrs. Darling. Come on, Babe, Let's go."

     "Kevin, could you give us a moment alone?" Drusilla looked at her daughter, curiously.

     "Uh, sure." Kevin went out to his Jeep, feeling Andrea glaring daggers at his back.

     Drusilla sat her purse on the coffee table. "Why is that boy wearing a football uniform?"

     "I used to think it was because he was stupid, but now I think it's... a protest." Andrea felt humiliated and sick. She hated to be seen with her mother.

     "A protest?" Drusilla raised an eyebrow.

     "You have to see his dad." Andrea shuddered. "He's the Quarterback on the football team."

     Drusilla smiled, admiringly. "The QB! Not bad, Andy. I'm glad to see that you're finally dating a suitable boy. Now if you want to wash off that fright mask, I can make you over and-

     "It's not a date, and quit calling me 'Andy!'" Andrea winced. Kevin was a fool, but he was still the QB. He could have his pick of all the girls. She knew better. "We're just studying."

     "Really?" Drusilla smiled. Andrea never liked to let on that she studied, unless forced.

     "Bye, Mom." Andrea went out the front door, red-faced. Smarting from the encounter with her mother, she stopped by the garage for a gym bag containing certain supplies before she left.

     Charles dug his spikes into the tree and tightened his strap. Bracing his camera, he waited for the enormous eagle to return to the top of the dead tree across the stream for feeding. He was in the top of a nearby tall tree, trying to get a good shot of the fledglings in the eagle's nest that he'd found. This would be quite the coup among the local birdwatchers. No one got pictures like his.

     Charles heard the piercing cry and raised his Nikon. The eagle circled his tree, then the other and landed. Charles was thrilled with his shots.

     He changed his film and started clicking away, catching the young birds feeding on bits of a hare. The mother sent a ferocious gaze his way every few seconds and hissed.

     Suddenly, something hit him a tremendous blow in the back. He grabbed the tree and dropped the Nikon. As he frantically recovered, he glimpsed the male eagle coming at him, talons spread. Screaming, trying to scare it off, he pulled his spikes free and slid around the tree. The other eagle promptly hit him from behind, knocking him right out of the tree. He hit a big limb on the way down and mercifully lost consciousness.

     Brittany put her clothes back on, folded the hospital robe, and sat down. Looking around the examination room, she shuddered. The exam had been relentlessly thorough.

     The doctor came back in. "Well, you don't seem to have taken any obvious permanent harm, Brittany, but it's good that you came in when you did."

     "It made me stupid." Brittany scowled. "I've been a complete airhead since I was ten, Doctor."

     The doctor smiled. "Call me Karin. I was speaking of organ damage, Brittany. You have to remember that you've been in a state akin to drunkenness for many years. I doubt if there was any permanent brain damage, but some developmental retardation is to be expected."

     "Retardation!" Brittany winced.

     The doctor smiled at the nervous blond. "Maybe I should have just said that your mental development has been somewhat delayed. Don't worry, Brittany, I suspect that you'll soon put that to rights."

     "But... how, Doctor Karin? I need those pills," Brittany whined, nervously wringing her hands at the thought of going without.

     Karin pulled a stool out from under the table and sat down across from her. "Brittany, the program really works for people like you. Involuntary medical addiction isn't as hard to overcome, because it's not the result of an addictive personality. We'll switch you to placeholder drugs, then gradually reduce the dosages. In a month you won't even feel a twinge."

     Brittany looked up, jittery. She had already surrendered all the pills and drugs that she had left. "Can I..."

     Karin sighed. "Sure." She handed Brittany a prescription. "You can fill this at the dispensary, downstairs. Be sure to follow the instructions. We'll talk again tomorrow, when you're feeling better."

     Brittany spent the rest of the day clinging tightly to Trent, who got out his acoustic guitar and sang to her, soothingly.

     Andrea lay back on the blanket and stole glimpses of Kevin out of the corner of her eye. He was lying flat on the grass, with his fingers laced behind his head. A long stem of straw protruded from his mouth as he lay staring into the blue sky, listening to her tape in his boom box.

     Kevin was caught up in the story. He could feel her eyes on him, and the parallel wasn't lost on him. Montague and Capulet, Jock and Goth. It was all there. They were in a shallow, grassy depression, just inside the tree line in Lawndale Park. There was a fire pit dug in one end, with a stack of wood that he'd gathered next to it. It was a place that he knew people didn't go very often. He and Brittany had gone there, so he had cleaned it up.

     Andrea caught his glance and scowled. "Do you want to go somewhere for a drink?" She didn't mean water.

     Kevin rolled up on his arm. "Sure! I mean, just a minute, I've got a cooler in the Jeep." He'd been wondering if she would like some beer.

     "Great." Andrea opened her bag and took out a fifth. "Southern Comfort usually needs a chaser."

     Kevin grinned. "I've got it covered. I'll be right back." He stopped the tape, then quickly fetched his cooler. It was full of beer and wine coolers. Kevin liked to party, even though Brittany didn't drink. Now that he was free of her, he could indulge himself.

     He halted, struck by his euphoric sense of freedom. Brittany had controlled his whole life. He felt like he'd finally gotten out of prison.

     He returned, with the cooler and another blanket. "Yeah! I got plenty of drink." Kevin grinned at her, opening the cooler for her inspection.

     Andrea selected a beer. "You're really equipped for a party."

     Kevin nodded, modestly. "Be prepared. I learned that in the Boy Scouts."

     Andrea laughed, took a swig of Southern Comfort and passed him the bottle. She chased it with the beer.

     "You're all right, Andrea." He laid out his blanket next to hers and took a swig.

     "I was a Girl Scout." She accepted the bottle from him. "I hated it, but my mom made me go anyway."

     Kevin nodded. His dad had forced him, too. "I remember. What did you learn?"

     Andrea drank, and passed the bottle back. "That you always have to pay for your cookies."

     Kevin sprayed a mouthful of beer out of his nose and laughed so hard that he almost dropped the bottle. It was like old times.

     The sun was just below the horizon when the last tape clicked to its end. Andrea jerked fully awake. "Thank God. I couldn't have stood much more of that stupid Romey-hole and Toile-ette."

     Kevin was sitting in the twilight, wet eyed, trying not to sniffle. The story had gripped him. "It was... all right." To cover himself, he got up and turned on the radio. "Want to go home?"

     "Just leave me here. I'm already too fucked up to go home when good old mommy's there." Andrea threw the empty bottle into the fire-pit and shivered.

     "Cool. I'm too drunk to drive anyway." He opened a beer, then started stacking branches in the fire pit. "We'll have a fire. Me and... I do it all the time. It's like camping out!" He smiled at her.

     Andrea got another beer and smiled back. "Just look out for 'ol bigfoot."

     Kevin snorted. "She ain't here. I can tell. Nobody's yellin' or poundin' on me."

     Andrea opened a beer. "No, sorry, just that ugly Goth chick from O'Neill's class."

     Kevin stopped stacking branches and spun to face her, his dismay evident. "Don't say that! You're cute as hell, Andrea."

     "Cute? Sure I'm cute" Andrea was drunk and her bitterness was rising to the surface. "Hey, I won the dogfight after all. Remember? Maybe you think I'm cute like a puppy is cute?"

     Kevin sighed. "I'm an idiot, Andrea. I'm really sorry that I did that to you. I didn't mean to hurt you, I just didn't think. I never do, you know. I never learned how. All I ever knew was football."

     Andrea sighed, deflating. "I know, Kevin. Remember when we were still kids?"

     "Yeah." He smiled. "Those were good times. How many times did I ask you to marry me?"

     Andrea laughed. "I quit counting. Remember that time at summer camp when I made you fish my skull and crossbones earring out of the outhouse?"

     Kevin grimaced. "Yeah. You avoided me for the rest of the summer and called me 'Stink-Boy' for months."

     Andrea nodded. "Well, I always felt kind of bad about that." She looked down. "I always treated you pretty bad, Stink-Boy." He'd been little more than a stooge, right up until sixth grade. Then he'd begun to grow and football had taken him out of her orbit.

     Kevin smiled, ruefully. "You don't know what bad is, Andrea. You never kicked me in the balls. You never slapped me around for fun or knocked me out cold. Compared to Brittany, you're like an angel."

     "I knew she hit you a few times, but so did I." Andrea frowned. "It just wasn't a big deal."

     He frowned, then bent forward, parting his hair. "Do you see that scar?"

     "Yes. It looks like a burn." Andrea swallowed. There was a small bald spot.

     "Someone gave me a cigar once and I was smoking it. That's where Brittany finally put it out." He was unaware of the intense hurt in his expression. "She used to beat the hell out of me and then get really turned on by it."

     "Why did you let her do that?" Andrea was shocked.

     He laughed. "I was used to taking a beating, Andrea. The sex was great and I really didn't notice the pattern at first. Later... well, you know."

     Andrea was angrier than ever. "You were thinking with the wrong head. She's going to get it."

     "Don't." He looked at her, warningly. "Brittany is a martial artist. She could really hurt you. She took me down with one kick, just last week."

     Andrea swallowed. She couldn't really fight, but she did own a stun gun. Brittany wouldn't look so good with all of that blond hair shaved off, and a suitable facial tattoo. "Well, if she pulls any of that shit again, she'll find out that this little dog can bite."

     "You're no dog. You're a very nice, very cute girl that I always liked." He drained his beer and threw the empty with the rest, next to the firepit. "How old are you now, Cutie?"

     "Eighteen, just like you." She looked at him, half challengingly. "Why?"

     "Just curious. Ask me questions, if you want." Kevin fished around and came up with the empty fifth, and the plastic cap. He looked at it, then at her. He hadn't realized how buzzed he was.

     "How many cheerleaders have you slept with?" Andrea felt a start of satisfaction as he flushed in the rapidly fading light.

     "Woah! I have to go get some kindling for this fire." Kevin was glad of the gloom.

     Andrea got up. "And I need to visit the ladies room, again."

     He took a small Maglite off of his key ring. "Here. Do you want me to walk with you?"

     "No thanks." The park service had a facility that they kept locked all the time. Luckily, Kevin had worked for them and still had the key. He'd unlocked it, earlier. She walked away, still steady on her feet, without turning on the light.

     Kevin went down to his Jeep, stowed the tapes, and then opened his hood. Turning on an inspection light mounted on the under side of the hood, he filled the liquor bottle with gasoline from the petcock of his milspec fuel filter.

     When she got back, he poured the gas on the wood and lit it, jumping back to avoid the twenty-foot fireball.

     "Now that's the right way to light a fire." Andrea sat, shielding her face from the heat, enjoying the lurid spectacle.

     Kevin threw the empty bottle well away from the fire. "Just like the scoutmaster taught us. You can light rocks, with enough gas."

     Andrea smiled. "Sounds like you got to do something, anyway. All we did was sell stupid cookies." She shifted, finding a more comfortable bit of ground. "Come on then, you never answered my question."

     Kevin sighed. "I slept with all the cheerleaders. Every last one."

     Andrea laughed. "Busy boy."

     "How about you?" He wondered if she was a virgin.

     "I've only slept with girls." Andrea enjoyed his shock.

     "Woah! You're a lesbian? Cool!" Kevin began to imagine the possibilities.

     "I don't... think so. Not exclusively. I'm mostly attracted to guys." Andrea frowned, happy that he couldn't see her flushing in the dimness. "Marsha moved last spring, but I... well, I was never as much into it as she was. She came on to me really strong, right after I tried to kill myself, so I said, 'what the hell' and just went with it. It was okay, but not really great."

     Kevin looked at her, bewildered. "Why did you try to kill yourself? How?" His face was warm and caring.

     Andrea shrugged, blushing. "I ate a bunch of sleeping pills, but I woke up. As to why..."

     She sang loudly: 'I was an ugly duckling, I became an ugly duck!

     Someday I'll make a million, and never give a fuck!'

     Kevin stared for an instant then laughed with her, drunkenly, until he choked and started coughing, red-faced. "Ha! That's funny! I like funny people. Brittany was about as funny as a heart attack. She use to punch me or kick me whenever I told a good joke."

     "My turn." She looked at him, and half in jest, asked him, "Did you ever think of killing yourself?" She was surprised by the long silence.

     "Yeah. If I don't get into college and at least get a shot at the NFL I'm gonna take out a bunch of insurance and roll the Jeep at that hairpin curve off of exit twenty-one." Kevin instantly wished he could take it back, but it was too late. He took a big drink of beer to hide his nervousness.

     Andrea gaped. "You! But you have everything!"

     He nodded. "Being QB is pretty sweet. I've got it all now, but what about later? I'll just be another local retard, getting fat, watching whichever nagging cheerleader I knock up get ugly, hanging drywall for my dad and bragging about high school for the next sixty-five years. I'd rather be dead now, while I'm still somebody."

     "Oh." Andrea was hit by a wave of depression. Even the successful people were miserable. "I... um, don't know what to say."

     Morosely, Kevin swigged. "Then have another wine cooler. You aren't ugly. You're pretty, Andrea, like your mom. I like the way you look, under all that warpaint. I like you. Don't kill yourself."

     "I won't if you won't." She laughed, not believing him. "How about an anti suicide pact? Oemor and Teiluj"

     "What?" He got it. "Romeo and Juliet, backward? Sure."

     "Besides, Oemor, you're dyslexic, not retarded." She sighed. "Did you know that Albert Einstein was dyslexic? He couldn't make change. So was Charles Darwin and Thomas Edison. George Washington is the most famous dyslexic person. He took a long time to learn to read and he got his speech mixed up when he was mad or excited, just like you do, Kevin. None of those guys did good in school, but do you think anyone would say that they're retards, because of it?" She lay back, looking up at the stars with her hands laced behind her head. "We can work on it. I have a bunch of stuff about it at home."

     "Cool." He'd even recognized a few of the names. If the dollar bill guy and the light-bulb guy were dyslexic, it meant that he had some hope. He scooted over next to her, on the blanket.

     "W- What are you doing?" Andrea went rigid, staring straight up, heart pounding. She didn't move a muscle as he rained kisses on her, then started unlacing her boots.

     "Showing you that you're not ugly." He pulled off her boots, kicked off his sneakers, then laid down next to her, where he could look into her eyes. He kissed her, watching her reaction in the firelight. "You make me feel good, so I'm going to make you feel good. How'd you like a boyfriend?"

     Andrea was silent. "Us? What would they say?"

     "Nothing. Who cares, anyway? I really like you a lot, Andrea. You're the only girl that ever like, talked to me. I told you more tonight than I ever told Brittany." Best of all, she wasn't a cheerleader.

     "We'll see what happens tomorrow, when we sober up, Stink-Boy." Reeling with amazement and drunkenness, she turned over, so that he could unsnap her bra.

     Charles woke up on a thick bed of moss. He carefully checked his limbs, but they were undamaged. His head was another story. He had a huge lump, his hair was bloody and the world was reeling.

     He carefully stood and steadied himself on the tree. "Fucking bird! Fuck you! Fuck all birds! Hooray for DDT!" Glaring up at the National Symbol, he shot it the one-fingered salute.

     The enormous bald eagle stood, raised its wings and hissed back, menacingly.

     Charles hastily ducked behind the tree, finding his undamaged camera. Unsteadily, he retreated back towards civilization. It was getting dark and it would be a moonless night. He had to move fast. Luckily, he had a penlight.

     Charles sat on the hard plastic hospital chair, flipping through an old copy of Electronics Now, trying to remain nonchalant. He was bruised and a little freaked out. The emergency room doctors had run him through a battery of tests, and were contemplating a CAT scan. He felt a little better but he had to stay in the waiting room for another hour. The doctors were worried about delayed swelling or bleeding from the trauma caused by the sudden deceleration and impact on his brain.

     He looked up, surreptitiously watching a family across the room. The boy had wrecked the father's car, and the mother was gushing over him and keeping the father from killing him, while the sisters good-naturedly egged them on.

     Charles wondered what it would be like to live like that, with people that cared about him. He shrugged, losing interest. He'd been on his own for most of his life. He was used to it. Besides, he might just have sisters somewhere. His dad was a real tomcat.

     Daria spun around. "Well?"

     Quinn looked at the dress, critically. She walked around Daria, inspecting the drape and looking for defects. "Well." She rubbed her chin. "I don't know."

     Daria scraped together her last bit of self-control. "What's wrong now?"

     Quinn shook her head. "I don't think that the hem is quite straight.

     Daria looked in the mirror. "Where?"

     "Stand straight." Quinn pulled the skirt tight. "Does it feel the same on each leg?"

     Daria thought about lying then decided that she had asked for advice, so she'd better take it. "No, it's a little higher on the left."

     Quinn nodded. "Shoddy work."

     The seamstress scowled. "What's an eighth of an inch?"

     "The difference between selling these dresses to us, and ever selling me or any of my friends anything at all, ever again." Quinn stated it calmly and as a matter of simple fact.

     "We can fix it." The woman looked at Quinn's face. "Right away."

     "No, you can go get a dress that has straight seams. This one will never drape right. Sell it to someone else." Quinn smiled at her, artificially. "I can try on a few things while we wait for you to find us a good one."

     Daria bit her tongue.

     After an interminable period of waiting, followed by many small fiddling alterations, Quinn pronounced herself satisfied with the dress. "Now we have to go get some shoes!"

     "Great. We can pick them up on the way home." Daria felt her mind begin to lift out of its numb state.

     Quinn smiled. Daria hated shopping so much. She would really blow her cork, now. "Well, we need to stop at a couple of places. We need more accessories." Just one dress wasn't going to be enough.

     Daria sighed, resigned to her suffering.

     Brittany lolled in her bed, painting her toenails. She felt pretty good about things. She blew on a little glitter, then put on her new halter-top.

     Ashley-Amber knocked and stuck her head in the room. "Britty, honey, do you have any lip gloss?"

     Brittany smiled. "Sure!" The maintenance drugs from the clinic were really helping. She didn't feel quite right, but it was tolerable.

     Ashley-Amber looked at her. "Oh, that's a new look for you. It's so cute!"

     "Do you like it? It's for my new boyfriend, Trent! He's a musician! He's gonna be a big star!" Brittany looked in the mirror. She was trying on all of her new outfits.

     "A musician? My, that sure takes me back." Ashley-Amber sparkled with excitement. She just loved clubbing. "Have you ever used body paint? The glow in the dark kind looks real cool in clubs!"

     Brittany smiled. "You even met him! He was the singer in the band that played here at my birthday party. Maybe you could like, show me about body paint, some time. We're going out Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. Come along!"

     "The cute one? Cool!" Ashley Amber sighed, despondently. "I have to go crash a party at the country club, with Steve. There's some big-deal guy there that he wants to meet." Living here with Steve was better than stripping, but sometimes it could be so boring.

     Brittany shrugged, a newfound vein of seriousness emerging from behind her usual bubbly mask. "Ashley, we're friends, right?"

     Ashley smiled. "Why, sure!"

     "Can I ask you a question?" Brittany was looking out of the window, pensively.

     "Go ahead, sugar." Ashley leaned forward, encouragingly.

     "Ashley, why did you marry daddy?"

     Ashley looked at her. "Why, Sugar, we fell in lo-

     Brittany cut her off. "If you don't want to say, just don't. He doesn't love you. You don't love him. So, why?"

     Ashley was wary. "Why do you want to know?"

     "Because I'm kind of like you." Brittany had always wondered why Ashley had married her father.

     Ashley thought, for a long time. "I was getting older. No one really wanted me around any more. All the parties were over. All of my friends had husbands and kids, and dancing just wasn't as much fun any more." She looked unbearably sad. "I was really lonely, Britty. They always wanted me, but I never stuck with any guy for long. Then I got older and I had to settle. Steve's all right."

     Brittany nodded, putting her hand on Ashley's shoulder. "Thanks. I'm so glad that you came to live here."

     "Sure, Honey. Thank you for saying that. It's good, having a friend." Ashley smiled, then went off, feeling a little subdued.

     Brittany finished dressing, then looked thoughtfully into the mirror. She was perfect. There was no way that she was going to be left behind, like Ashley. She smiled, a predator in her element. He wouldn't stand a chance.

     Checking her makeup one last time, Brittany considered the man that she wanted. He was such a perfect match for her. Trent needed lots of encouragement, unlike Kevin, who felt like everything was naturally his. Trent didn't have a very good attitude, and someone needed to help him. He was kind of like the QB of the band, up there on stage, but he didn't seem to understand that. A QB needed to stand out.

     Trent needed someone who would tell him that he was great. Brittany knew that she could really make him feel great and push him to be great. He needed a cheerleader and she was the best cheerleader ever.

     Jane sat at her desk and opened her math book. Without her easel, she had a lot more space. With a martyred sigh, she looked around.

     At least Brittany wasn't around to distract her. Brittany could get very squeaky indeed. Jane grimaced. She'd relented and moved back home after Trent had come to Daria's and promised to try and keep Brittany away from her. So far it hadn't worked at all. Brittany was always in her face, if she wasn't in Trent's bedroom, in his.

     Even worse, she'd taken to calling her 'Janey.' Not even Daria had ever dared to do that. That was Trent's pet name for her, and only he could use it with impunity.

     There was a knock. "Come in, unless you're an empty-headed plastic-boobed cheerleading bimbo!" Jane tried to disguise her barbs with humor, but it was a very thin disguise.

     Trent stuck his head in, smirking. Brittany was one hundred percent USDA choice. She just looked too good to be true.

     "Hey there, Janey. Prepare yourself." He stepped in, with a model's strut.

     "Well, look at that. It's the arch-traitor." Jane looked at his clothes and newly styled hair, unbelieving. "Oh, how cuuute. Going out tonight?"

     Trent shrugged, uncaring as a peacock in his swanky new white leather rock-star outfit. "Yeah. She likes to buy me things. What do you think? Too much?"

     "Well, it's not really grunge, but at least your big ass isn't hanging out so bad anymore, Mr. Gigolo." Jane gave him a sardonic stare. He really looked great. Spectacular, even. He was a real lady-killer. "It's... okay. You must be pretty good in the sack to weasel all that out of her. It looks like it must have cost a fortune."

     Trent laughed, uneasily. "I get no complaints, but I didn't weasel. I didn't even ask. We went over to the city a couple of days ago and she dragged me around to all these little tiny stores, where she bought a bunch of stuff for herself. She got me try on a few things, and I got measured." He shuddered at the memory of a grinning saleslady thoroughly groping him and asking him which way he wanted to 'dress.'

     "I never got any of the stuff that she got me to try on. I didn't even know that she'd bought anything for me until they delivered a ton of this stuff this morning. I never had a rich girlfriend, before." He smirked. "I think she put it all on her dad's tab."

     Jane scowled. Finance didn't interest her. Her brother was setting himself up for a big fall. "You do look great."

     Trent beamed and shook his head, marveling at a memory. "She moves like lightning when she gets an idea. She must have spent eight thousand dollars on me."

     Jane frowned. "She moves pretty fast, all right. A little too fast, if you ask me. She went from cheerleader to fly-girl in one day. Are you sure that you aren't just another fashion accessory to her? What if her style changes?"

     He sat down on her bed. "If I am, it won't be the first time. I'll survive."

     Jane sighed. "But still, what if-

     Trent flopped back, staring at the ceiling. "You've got to learn to live for the moment, Janey. Right now is what's real. The past is gone and who knows about tomorrow? Grab what you can when you can." He sighed, looking at her closed off expression. "I like her a lot. She... suits me, right now."

     "Yeah... in a clown suit." Jane was firing blind, her mind on what he'd said. Sometimes Trent surprised her with unexpected depths.

     Trent smiled and sat up. "I just hope you get over being mad pretty soon. I kind of miss talking with you."

     Jane sighed. "Okay, okay. I just wish that if you had to screw one of my classmates, you would have picked out one that's a little smarter. If she pops out a little niece or nephew of mine, it'll drop the average Lane family IQ by a good ten points."

     Trent shook his head. "She's at least smart as me, Janey." He lifted a hand to stop her incredulous retort. "It was the drugs. They really messed her up, but she's coming down now and she's going to be fine."

     Jane pursed her lips. "I know what you say, but I know Brittany."

     Trent shook his head. "Nobody knows Brittany."

     Jane threw her arms up in exasperation. "Jesus, Trent! Why her? Why not Daria? I know you like her. I saw you looking, more than once."

     Trent rocked back. "Woah!" He shrugged. "Brittany pretty much forced the issue, but... Do you remember when you did that project and I didn't write that music?"

     Jane nodded, angrily. "Our multimedia project."

     "Well, why do you suppose that I didn't just throw something on tape or just give her something that I already had?" Trent leaned forward, looking at her intently.

     Jane shrugged. "Because you were being an oblivious jerk and you just didn't give a damn?"

     Trent tightened his face, impatiently. "No. I cared. I cared a lot, but I just couldn't do it. Not for her."

     Jane was bewildered. "But... why?"

     Trent sat on her bed and drew his knees up, looking at the floor, a haunted look on his face. "I didn't really know, then. It took me a long time to understand. She's... strong. Stronger than me, Janey. I just couldn't let it get started. If you had asked, I would have had it all done for you by that evening. But not her. I knew that if I gave her that one thing, I wouldn't have been able to stop giving until I gave her everything. I would be just like her dad, Mr. Helen, stuck in some lousy career that she picked out for me." He shook his head. "A girl like Brittany would never do that to me."

     Jane stared at him. "What the hell is the matter with you?"

     Trent looked back at her, shocked at the anger. "What?"

     "You ran away? Because of Jake? What kind of an idiot are you?" Jane glared at him, acidly.

     Trent stiffened, angrily. "Janey, I know that she's special, but it wouldn't have worked out for either one of us. I was just the first guy to notice her, but that's beside the point. I live in the now. She lives in the future. Daria would have overpowered me and made me live in her world." He looked into his sister's eyes, searching for understanding. "Don't you see? I need to be able to hear myself, to hear the music. Being with Daria would be a full time job." He looked down. "I'd get lost. Daria deserves better, anyway. I'd just be deadweight to her."

     Jane had a sad look of realization on her face. "But..."

     He sighed, looking away. "I'm a nobody, Janey. I'll never get anywhere unless I'm free to move, and I couldn't do that with Daria. But when I saw Tom with her I... I had to go, for a while."

     Jane swallowed. She'd been so caught up in her own life that she hadn't noticed his silence. He hadn't really smiled or laughed in a very long time. He'd done both, regularly, since Brittany had so cleverly ambushed him.

     "I've been selfish. I guess I just don't want you to change." She sat down beside him and hugged him for a long time, until the tension finally left him and he hugged her back. If Brittany could help him, then Jane would try and get along with her.

     "Thanks. That really means a lot to me." He smiled at her. "Hey, how's the insurance thing going?"

     Jane smiled back. "I got the papers today. It's all street legal."

     "Cool!" Trent looked at her, searchingly, then asked, "Hey, could you drop me off at Brittany's? My old beater won't start sometimes, so we're taking her car."

     Jane looked at the clock. The final sealing coat that she'd sprayed on over the lacquer finish had been setting for two days now. It was time to show it off. She nodded and picked up her keys. "Sure. My van is your van."

     Trent started to open the garage door from the outside and froze, the door half open. "Woah! Janey, that's... amazing!" The van was covered in intricate, eye-catching fractal designs that seemed to yank his spirit right out of his body. There seemed to be some underlying design, full of hidden shapes and meaning, but he couldn't encompass it.

     Jane smiled self-consciously. "I finally finished it. It's still light enough to see. Open the door and I'll pull it out."

     Trent walked around, staring at the van. "This is awesome, Janey."

     Jane, watching him intently, laughed. "I started studying geometry, and it led me to fractals, infinitesimal and chaos theory. I tried to capture some of it."

     "God, this is amazing! It's like magic." He stared at her, awed, then back at the eye-twisting murals on the van. "You're amazing. You're really going to be a major, major artist someday, Janey."

     Jane smiled demurely, accepting the praise. "Let's take this show on the road, Trent."

     "Huh? Oh, yeah." He'd been lost in the strange, fractal not-patterns, wondering if he could use the idea in his music.

     Jane pulled up to the Taylor house, glowing from her encounter with the gate guard. He'd stared at the van for a few minutes, then gushing with admiration, waved her through, forgetting to ask why she was there.

     "Hey, want to come in?" Trent was a little nervous. Her dad had thrown a football at him the last time that he'd been there. The man actually thought that he was Kevin Thompson.

     "No, I'll pass." Jane was in too good a mood to have to feign politeness to Brittany right now. She'd finally developed a style of her own, one that blew people away, and she wanted to show it off around town.

     Brittany heard the doorbell and winced when Brian screamed, "I'll get it!"

     She pounded down the stairs in time to see the little toad telling Trent that he had the wrong house.

     "Brian!" Brittany almost hit him, but managed to control her temper. It was getting easier every day.

     Brian dodged away from her and ran off at top speed, yelling, "I'm telling Keeevin!"

     Brittany glared after him. "Go ahead, you little monster."

     Trent was staring at her, swallowing. She was wearing a tight white leather skirt, a matching leather top and sandals. She had a big red jewel in her navel. "H-hello, Brittany. You look..." He stared at her, almost drooling.

     Brittany was also staring. She'd known that he'd look good, in the outfit, but not this good. She controlled her urge to drag him upstairs and swallowed. "I... " She leaned forward and kissed him. "I'm really glad you came."

     "Me too. Ready to go?" Trent didn't know where they were going. She had asked him out, this time.

     "Sure." Brittany slid her arm around his waist, and they left for her car. She hoped that he'd let her teach him to dance. The designer outfits were way too cute to waste on some stupid grunge club. They looked like stars and Brittany wanted the proper environment to rub everyone's nose in it.

     Jane was sitting in her van, waiting to see what kind of welcome Trent got. She didn't want to strand him, although with that outfit on, he wouldn't have to hitchhike long.

     The door opened again, and Jane inhaled sharply. Her scrawny brother and the bimbo ex-cheerleader looked good together. Model good. Brittany had really outdone herself.

     Jane swallowed, then pulled away. It really irked her that they looked so right together.

     Andrea swum toward consciousness and groaned. The sun was too bright. She'd forgotten to close the shades. A multitude of things suddenly struck her. There was no blanket. The wind was blowing. She had to pee. The mattress was hard. She was laying on someone. Her eyes snapped open and focused on the male back that she was using as a pillow. She stared, rolled off, looked around and then shoved him over. "Oh! Oh no! Holy shit! Kevin, wake up!"

     Kevin opened his eyes and groaned. "Christ, I feel like I got hit by a train. I'm not drinkin' that- Hey, lookin' good, girl."

     Andrea gulped. He was naked and so was she. They were laying on the grass and there were no blankets or anything. "Um, do you happen to remember what happened to our clothes?" Her boots were there, and his cleats, but nothing else.

     Kevin sat up. "Oh, shit! My stuff! Someone stole our clothes!"

     "What!" Andrea looked around and shivered.

     "We were really drunk." Kevin pursed his lips. "Fucking bastards." He sprang to his feet and jammed his bare feet into his shoes. "Come on, there were some garbage bags back at the restrooms."

     Andrea put on her boots and trailed him, panicked. "But... won't they be all dirty?"

     "They always put a bunch of new bags in the bottom of the can, so they don't have to bring new ones when they collect the garbage." He moved confidently, unembarrassed, flushed with rage. "I'm gonna really kick some ass. They'll be no forgiving this. If it was one of my guys, he's off of the team. If it was-

     "How the hell will you find out!" Andrea was quietly freaking out.

     Kevin looked at her, darkly. "I'm gonna beat the living crap out of the first guy I see that laughs, then follow it all the way back to the source."

     Andrea considered. "That's a great idea. Call me when you find him. I'll kneecap the bastard."

     "Oh, but they are so fucked." Kevin's voice was low and deadly, all boyishness absent. "I'm just sorry that this had to happen to you, Andrea."

     Andrea smirked. "No, that's us. I don't blame you, but talk to me before you do anything. I want to really make them suffer."

     Kevin looked at her. "Fine. Me too." He cleared his throat. "You know that they'll tell everyone, no matter what we do."

     Andrea shrugged and mumbled, "My reputation is crap, anyway. What the heck."

     They reached the restroom garbage cans and Kevin dug out some clean black bags. He made a skirt-like arrangement for himself. He opened up a second bag, carefully ripped some armholes and then handed it to Andrea when she emerged from the restroom.

     Andrea put hers on. "Is this thing decent?"

     Kevin looked at her. She looked sexy as hell with a yellow pull string torn from another bag cinching the bag up around her waist. "Um, yes."

     Andrea shrugged, nervously. "What are you smiling for, then? You look pretty stupid too."

     "It never bothered me before." He took her hand. "You look fine. Trust me."

     Andrea gave him a confused look, then followed. She just didn't know what to think about anything. She'd kill him, but she needed a ride home. Home. She suddenly realized that she hadn't checked in at home. "Oh my God, my mother's home."

     Kevin winced. "We could go to school and get some gym clothes."

     Andrea nodded, uncertainly. "How do we get in without being seen?"

     Kevin thought. "The janitor gets in at six to unlock the place. No one else but the breakfast cart gets there until six thirty or so. I know him, he'll let us in."

     "Breakfast?" Andrea blinked at him.

     "Yeah, they serve breakfast there too, at the training table. It's not very good." They reached the Jeep.

     "Hey! Our stuff!" Kevin opened the Jeep's fabric door, and withdrew a bundle of clothing. "I'm still gonna kill 'em."

     "Well, that's fine." Andrea quickly put on her clothes. "Do you have your keys?"

     "Yeah, they're still in my pocket. I got a few spares wired under the chassis anyway." He pulled on his pants. "I got all my stuff. How about you?"

     Andrea nodded. "It all seems to be here. Aren't you afraid that someone will take a spare key and rip off your Jeep?"

     Kevin shook his head. "There's a kill switch under the seat. Let's go get some breakfast." He flipped the hidden switch and started his engine. Amidst the smell of raw gasoline, they made their way to the road.

     Daria woke up early, to the sound of breathing. She opened her eyes and rolled over, feeling something pressing into her skull. She yawned, then mumbled, "Tom?"

     The breathing faltered, then continued. Daria sat up and picked up the telephone that she'd slept on. She smiled, remembering. She'd been on the phone all night, finally breaking Quinn's record. The snoring was coming from the phone. "Tom, can you hear me?"

     The snore stopped, then went on, even stronger.

     Daria decided to do a little experiment in subliminal programming. "Tom, do you love me?"

     There was an unintelligible murmur.

     Daria smiled. "If you want to show me that you love me, bring me something sweet with lunch today."

     The murmur that broke through the snoring was agreeable.

     "And if you don't love her, bring her some Ho-ho's." Elsie laughed and hung up her phone. She'd been playing that game with them for the last half-hour. Some of the answers that she'd gotten were really interesting, and would make for some prime gossip. Everyone at the club wanted to know about her brother.

     Crimson faced, Daria hung up, dressed, went down the stairs and started digging around for breakfast as she fumed. She had an unaccountable urge for fried onions and pickled eggs. The little brat had gotten her good.

     Jane stumbled down the stairs and went straight to the coffeepot, drawn by the heavenly smell of liquid caffeine. Someone thrust a mug into her hands and she gratefully drank down the life-giving fluid.

     Jane blinked, savoring the ultra-strong Arabian super-brew. As her operating system chain-loaded, she finally calibrated her optical processors and took note of the brewer, who stood beaming at her. "Brittany!"

     "Hi, Jane!" Brittany was eye-hurtingly bright, sleek and cheerful in her skin-tight spandex workout suit. "I made some coffee!"

     Jane willed her face into a pleasant mask. Brittany had spent the night again. At least Trent had gotten the bimbo to stop calling her Janey. "Thanks." She reached into a cabinet and fished out a box of cereal. "Want some?"

     Brittany smiled, sweetly. "No, I already ate. Are you still mad at me for lying to you?"

     Jane shrugged. "A little. I was a lot madder at Trent." She sat down at the table and poured herself a bowl of cereal.

     "Why?" Brittany poured herself some coffee and sat down across from Jane, watching her eat.

     Jane shrugged. "I just... never mind."

     Brittany nodded. "You're just like me, when daddy married Lilly, before Ashley- Amber."

     Jane swallowed, then looked up. "Trent's not my father."

     "Where is your father then?" Brittany looked sad. "Trent is the one you go to with your problems, so it's kind of the same thing."

     Jane was shocked. "Trent talked to you about that?"

     Brittany nodded. "He's really, really lonely."

     "Oh, Christ." Jane frowned, tiredly. "You're going to hang on to him like a limpet, aren't you."

     Brittany didn't even blink. Her eyes were intense. "Yes. He's mine now. I'm going to marry him, someday."

     Jane spewed cereal all over the table."What! You barely know him!"

     Brittany twirled her braid. "I know enough to know that I love him. Daria was right."

     "Daria!" Jane rocked back, again. "What does she have to do with this mess?"

     "Oh, we were talking about guys, and she told me that Trent was one of the best guys around." Brittany smiled, beatifically, then sighed. "Daria is so smart. And such a good friend."

     "Oh yeah?" Jane was hot. "What are you two going to do for money? Cause, Brittany, Trent just isn't the nine to five type. You need to find a rich guy, like your dad or else learn to strip for dollar bills!"

     Brittany's implacable smile just widened. Her inheritance from her grandfather's immense fortune would take care of everyone nicely. "You're so jealous! It's cute. I need a nice guy, not a rich guy. I'm going to take really good care of Trent, because he takes such good care of me. So we might as well get along, Jane. Were going to be sisters in law someday, after all."

     Jane swallowed, feeling helpless. Brittany exuded an iron determination that filled her with a sense of utter futility.

     Jane whipped open the door. "You!"

     Daria stood, eyes wide, her fist still raised to knock. "Me?"

     Jane scowled. "Yes, you, Miss Big Mouth. My future sister in law just let me know that she decided to go after Trent, right after talking with you."

     "Oh, hell." Daria swallowed. Why did things like this always happen to her? "I don't suppose that a quick apology will fix everything?"

     "You have to help me get my brother away from that bimbo!" Jane was ready to explode.

     "Not gonna happen." Brittany stood behind Jane, twirling her keys and smiling an implacable smile. She could move like a ghost, when she wanted. "Do you guys want a ride to school? It's supposed to rain, today."

     "Um, sure." It only took Daria a second to notice the tremendous change that Brittany had undergone. "How's the rehab going?"

     Brittany gave her a bubbly smile of real happiness. "Great! Dr. Karin is the best! It's so nice to be able to think again."

     Daria nodded, cannily advancing up a new avenue of attack. "Maybe you ought to put off any big decisions until after you get out of rehab, Brittany."

     Brittany shook her head, stubbornly. "I know what I want." She smiled at Daria sunnily. "You can't keep all the boys for yourself, Daria. It's not legal."

     Jane snorted. "Wait till he goes back on the road. Trent's an industrial strength girl-magnet. You'll be pounding on him all day, every day."

     Brittany looked at her with monumental assurance. "I'll never hit him, no matter what. I don't own him." She grimaced. "If he ever does, I hope that I never find out, but I still wouldn't leave him. Besides, If he loves me, he won't, and I think that he's starting to."

     She knew that Trent would have to look long and hard to do better than her, and she was never going to let him out of her sight much anyway, once she graduated. Touring with his band sounded fun. Maybe she would buy him a bus. Or two busses, so that they could be alone.

     Jane sagged with defeat. Brittany was right. She could see it in his eyes.

     "There ain't no moral to this story at all.
     Anything I tell you very well could be a lie.
     I've been away from the living- I don't need to be forgiven.
     I'm just waiting for that coal black soul of mine... to come alive-

     Charles gulped when his earphones were torn away. He was casually thumbing through a film-history book, hiding out in the library.

     "I said, stop singing, Charles!" Sandi frowned at him and sat back down at the next desk, once again hidden behind the wooden partition. She hadn't really minded the singing. He had a nice voice. The lyrics had started to get to her, though.

     Charles grinned. He was supposed to be in the nurse's office, so that he could be fitted with electrodes and pickups for Barch's harassment sensitizing experiment. He'd elected to skip the whole thing when he'd found out where some of the sensors would be placed.

     Charles scooted his chair back to where he could see her. "Sorry, my sweet." He grinned at his 'ex.' The library was deserted. "What are you doing in a library?"

     Sandi sighed morosely. "I'm trying to save the Fashion Club. Ms. Li wants to give the money to the model UN for some stupid trip to the real UN."

     Charles looked around, then smiled, urbanely. "What a waste. Far better to spend that filthy lucre to decorate the fair flowers of the Fashion Club than to transport a busload of nerds to nerdville."

     Sandi shrugged, then surreptitiously wrote down 'lucre.' It must mean money, but she wasn't sure. Another dammed word to look up. That's what she got for hanging around with brains.

     Charles looked around again. "So, where are your lovely henchwomen?"

     "Henchwomen?" Sandi sagged, then suddenly spun away from him, going to an empty desk.

     Charles gathered her papers and followed. "What's the matter? Here, you left all your- He saw that she was in tears and put her papers down, along with his book, dismay on his face. "I- I'm sorry, Sandi. I didn't mean it." He didn't have a clue about what was bothering her.

     "W-why does everyone hate me?" She sniffled, then turned away from him. "I try so hard, and they just don't care." She gave a muffled sob.

     Charles swallowed. Every time he got near a girl lately, she cried. He hoped that she wouldn't get all hysterical, like Brittany and make him take her to the zoo. He'd had to throw his new silk shirt away after that debacle. Tiger piss had an unbelievable stench.

     His eyes narrowed. "They don't hate you. They resent you. It's because you aren't a nobody, like they are."

     "Nobody..." Sandi started crying harder.

     Charles walked to the front desk and brought back a bunch of Kleenex. "I don't hate you. Just the opposite, even though you committed an outrage against the Ruttheimer family jewels. I think you're a great girl, for an ex wife."

     Sandi dabbed at her eyes, hoping that her makeup hadn't run. "You're just saying that because I'm a woman and you'd say or do anything to get close to a woman. Besides, I only kicked you because you tried to kiss me."

     "Anything?" Charles thought of the tiger pissing on him. "Hmm. True, but then I was supposed to kiss you." He grinned, crookedly. "It was a wedding scene. We were supposed to be acting."

     She smirked through her tears. "You were overacting."

     He smiled, taking the smirk as a sign that she'd come out of her funk. "Hey, if I was getting hitched to a hot babe like you, that's just how I'd do it. Can I help it if I'm a method actor?"

     Sandi stopped crying and smiled a little.

     He shrugged. "Look, I didn't mean anything by that henchwoman remark. I just have a really weird since of humor that no one gets."

     Sandi smiled, bitterly. "Everyone does. We just don't like it." She sighed. "People act like I'm some kind of witch."

     "I don't think you're a witch. Would I ask you out if I hated you? Come out with me next weekend, my sweet!" Charles fanned out his tickets, leering comically, waggling his eyebrows in a parody of seductiveness and twirling an imaginary mustache, in an effort to cheer her up.

     "Ha!" Sandi laughed, then frowned. It wasn't like she was getting very many offers. She kept going farther afield to find dates, and they were all expecting her to put out, which she never did. "I don't know. Maybe."

     He started in shock, flashed his most overpowering grin and then elected to go with his best look of sincerity. "Why not? We could have some fun."

     Sandi mumbled something noncommittal.

     Charles was a natural salesman and he knew when a deal had to be closed. "Look, Sandi, about your friends. You have to expect a little resentment, being a leader. Do cows like cowboys?"

     Sandi tilted her head, considering his words. "Cowboys?"

     "You know, people that crack the whip and drive the lowing herd- Charles eyes widened and he started sweating. "Oh, shit! Barch!" He ducked behind the desk.

     "Is she looking for you, little dogie?" Sandi smirked, seeing Barch begin a careful search of the library.

     "Very funny. She wants me for some stupid research project." Charles quivered with outrage. "The bitch made me sign up in order to avoid having to go to her sexual harassment workshop again!"

     Sandi sniggered. "Oh, Charles. When will you ever learn?"

     He glared at Barch from around the edge of the desk. "Dammit! So I like girls! Is that a crime? I can't help being male! Besides, nobody's even complained this year."

     Sandi watched Barch prowling around, bit her lip and scooted her chair back. "Hide under here and don't make a sound."

     Charles looked at the enclosed wooden box that she would trap him in. Was it treachery? He wouldn't be able to evade Barch if she caught him in there. Feigning deafness and running was one thing, but he'd have to fight to get away if she got hold of him. He could end up expelled and packed off to military school by his dad.

     Charles looked her in the eye. "Are you sure? There's just no room-

     Sandi bit her lip and nodded. He was the only male that had said anything nice to her or about her at all, this year. She just wished that she wasn't wearing a skirt. "Hurry up. It's only for a minute. Just don't... try anything."

     "Thanks. I won't. Just... hide me from Barch." Charles slipped under the desk, tucking his knees up as best he could when she scooted her chair back in. He had to suppress a gasp when her knees parted, one to either side of his head, brushing his ears. Charles, eyes wide, started to sweat. This was going to be hard.

     Barch found the skin magazine that he'd left at the other desk. It was stolen from her makeshift lab, one of the magazines that she had planned to use as a stimulus source for her conditioning experiment. "Ah-ha! I know you're in here, Charles! You'd better come out, now!"

     "Fe, fi, fo, fum," Charles whispered.

     Sandi snorted with laughter and clenched his head with her thighs to shut him up.

     Barch knew her prey. He was a man, a walking stain on the earth, possessed of all the brutish male appetites, completely evil, just like her ex-husband. Like her husband, he wouldn't abandon Double D Magazine unless... her eyes found Sandi, red faced, sitting at the back of the library, at a cluster of desks that didn't have the privacy screen on the top.

     She walked over. "Sandi, have you seen that disgusting little pervert Ruttheimer around?"

     Sandi swallowed. "He was in here a little while ago, sitting right over there. I moved over here because of him."

     "Damn!" Barch gritted her teeth. Kevin had resisted and had finally told her to go suck a lemon, safe under Coach Gibson's protection. The hateful Mack Mackenzie had taken one look and run away into the rain, like a gazelle. She needed a good specimen for her clinical trials, and Charles was absolutely perfect, the king of sleaze. "Let me know if he shows his face in here."

     Sandi had to suppress hysterical laughter. "Okay, Ms. Barch." Sandi watched her walk away, heart pounding. Charles wasn't doing anything, but she still shivered, every time he exhaled. It was getting strangely hot in the library.

     "Is she gone?" Charles wanted OUT. It was a great view, but he was woozy, the half-healed contusions on his skull ached and his legs were going to sleep. Her thighs gripped his skull like a vice. Every time he moved, her grip tightened, inexorably.

     Sandi gasped with panic. "Oh, NO!" She hissed, "Here comes Quinn. She can't find you here! Shut up and don't move a muscle!"

     Charles was in agony. "I need out, Sandi." His bruised and softened skull began to flex slightly, along the direction of a contusion.

     Sandi's thighmaster-hardened muscles clenched convulsively, as she reacted to his efforts to extract his head.

     Quinn walked up and sat down next to her. "Hi, Sandi. Do you need some help? Tiffany said you did."

     Sandi swallowed. "Q-Quinn. Here, take some of these printouts about the past Fashion Club. I'm trying to come up with reasons to keep it open."

     "Yeah, it would really be a shame if Ms. Li closed it down." Quinn didn't really care, but Sandi looked really worried. "Oh, hi, Stacy."

     One after the other, the entire Fashion Club, including its three freshman prospects, spontaneously assembled to help their chief fight off Ms. Li's financial depredations. It would have been deeply appreciated as a stirring show of support if only Sandi wasn't being driven wild every time Charles exhaled.

     Under the table, Charles lost all feeling in his legs and started to hallucinate from the relentless pressure that was slowly crushing his skull. He pulled at her legs, but all he managed to do was to get drawn in deeper. Maintaining absolute silence, he briefly freed himself, then smothered a curse when her ankles locked together behind him. She had his neck, now.

     "S-Sandi?" He whispered, trying to get her to let go. He was willing to stick it out, but she was cutting off the blood supply to his brain.

     Sandi, gripped by a wild panic, coughed loudly to cover his racket, thankful that Quinn was still blathering on. Her face calm, she considered her options. He COULDN'T be discovered. She would be ruined. Steeling herself, she relaxed, then treacherously pulled him in to where he couldn't make a sound, locking him into place with tremendous, smothering force.

     "Hey, you. Girl." Dawn smirked at the Goth's obvious discomfort.

     "Ya, I girl. What you? Monkey? Goat? Burro?" Andrea waited for the inevitable.

     "What?" Dawn frowned. "Look, we need to talk, Goth-girl."

     "So talk, Bimbo." Andrea opened her locker and removed a long green nylon girl-scout sock. In it's nearly indestructible toe rested a still-wrapped bar of soap. Andrea believed in being prepared.

     "You have to stay away from Kevin." Dawn stepped forward, menacingly. "The team is going for the state championship, this year. Our boyfriends only have one chance to get athletic scholarships and that means we need Kevin. He's no good to us with some crazy Gothic thing like you getting him drunk and playing your sick little head games with him."

     Andrea smiled slightly and wrapped the end of her improvised sap around her hand. The only way that they could know about it was if they had heard about her and Kevin at the park. The only one who knew about it besides her and Kevin was the clothes thief. She was avoiding Kevin at school, waiting for someone to make a mistake and Dawn had stepped right into the trap.

     "Why don't you try and make me, you cheap slut?" Andrea reached out and pushed her.

     "And of course we can stress the historical aspect, you know, contact past members and get them to call Li..." Quinn looked up. "What's that?"

     "It sounds like screams." Kitty got up. "Can we go see?"

     Sandi could barely breath. Her legs were leaden, trembling from exhaustion. Charles wasn't fighting anymore, apparently happy where he was, but she wasn't letting up for an instant. "Yes, you can all go. We'll take this up later."

     Quinn stood, excitedly. "It sounds like those stupid cheerleaders. Maybe Brittany finally snapped or something!"

     "Oh! I don't want to miss that!" Stacy raced for the door, a half step ahead of the rest.

     Sandi watched them pass through the door and pushed herself back. "Yaaaaaa! Get off!" She slapped him away. "Charles! You perverted, evil-

     Her breath caught when he slumped to the floor, unconscious. "Charles?" She swallowed, looked around and then dragged him all the way out, rolling him flat on his back.

     "Charles, wake up!" She remembered squeezing until he stopped struggling. "Oh no! Like, I killed him!" Sandi tried to remember her first aid course. Was he breathing? She couldn't tell. Dragging him out of sight behind the table, she frantically applied mouth to mouth.

     Barch stalked in through the front doors as three screaming cheerleaders dashed by.

     "Aha!" She knew that her quarry was near. Barch saw Andrea approaching, wearing an unpleasant smirk.

     "Is Charles around here?" asked Barch, hopefully.

     "No." Andrea strode by, a lumpy sock full of soap-flakes in her hand, oblivious of the rain, intent on her quarry.

     Barch stared after her for a second and went back to the library. The sleazy devil's big sleazy car was out in the parking lot, the top now up. It had been down this morning, so he was still around. Maybe the cunning little rat had doubled back for the magazine.

     Sandi felt him gasping into her mouth, but she was a little reluctant to stop. The struggle under the table had been the most arousing thing that she'd ever experienced.

     "Sandi? Are you kissing Upchuck?" Stacy, her eyes as wide as the rest, had her hand over her mouth to hide her incredulous smile.

     Sandi jerked away from him and looked up, in shock. The whole club had managed to sneak up on her, somehow. It was all over. She was dead. She'd totally blown it.

     "Fuck!" Sandi yelled, angrily. "He wasn't breathing! I'm just... reviving him!"

     "Like, whyyyy?" Tiffany blinked, confused.

     "Why? Because he's a person!" Sandi looked down at him. Upchuck was really out of it. "Sort of. He's not so bad, sometimes."

     Quinn shook her head, smiling. "Come on Sandi, tell us the truth. You were kissing him."

     An exhilarating sense of freedom suddenly blossomed within her. It was truly over. She didn't have to be popular or a leader or anything, any more. She was all the way back to where she'd started from, in Loserville. It was like a giant weight had been lifted off of her back. "Well, okay. Yes." Her smile was without guile for the first time since the sixth grade.

     Quinn smiled back. "Cool!" Sandi was human after all.

     "Come back..." Charles mumbled, semiconsciously.

     "He's out cold! You must be a really good kisser, Sandi." Stacy wondered if he was all right as she loyally tried to support her chief.

     "Mommy..." Charles opened his eyes, but they didn't focus.

     "He thinks you're his mom? Ewww." Tiffany, not knowing what to make of it all, reverted to primping.

     "Ah, ha!" Barch strode in and grabbed Charles by the collar, vigorously shaking him. "Good work, ladies! Get up, Charles. It's time for your therapy!"

     "Listen to the music." Charles' head flopped and lolled as she tried to shake him awake. His eyes briefly focused. "You'll never turn me gay, Barch."

     "Whaat?" Barch looked at him closely. "You ladies beat him up a little too well. It might affect his reactions and skew the results!"

     "Don't know where, don't know wheeeen, but I swear we'll meet again..." Charles abruptly sat up. "Did you see that light? Where did it all go?"

     "Come on, Ruttheimer! You signed the form and you have to go through with it." Barch dragged him to his feet. "You've got a date with destiny!"

     "Fucking giant birds! Try to kill me, will you? I'm coming back with a BB gun!" A dazed Charles stumbled, and would have fallen if Sandi hadn't caught him.

     "Watch your mouth, young man!" Barch wasn't going to put up with that. She looked closely at him and frowned. His eyes were looking in different directions.

     "What are you going to do to him?" Sandi was unable to mask her concern. "Charles isn't gay!"

     "Nothing! It has nothing to do with that. It's just a little... experiment... in behavior modification." Barch grinned, excited by the prospect of real groundbreaking science. "It was inspired by Daria's excellent work in the field of behavior modification, last year. I wrote it up, and it'll be part of my doctoral thesis. If it works..."

     Her eyes glittered with untrammeled ambition. Timothy had shown her that it was physically possible to be both male and sensitive. If she could pioneer a method under which the evil impulses of embryonic brutes like Ruttheimer could be conditioned away, the world would become a paradise!

     "Uh oh." Quinn swallowed, remembering Daria's catatonic lab rat after it had been abused by Brittany's psychotic little brother.

     Sandi glared at Barch. "Can't you see he's had enough? Leave him alone, you-

     "I wanna be an airborne ranger, I wanna live a life of danger..." Charles sang, woozily. He was beginning to take note of his environment. His bleary eyes swept across the assembled women and came to rest on an open book. It was the film history book that he'd left on the table.

     "He wants to be a forest ranger? Like, ewww, there's just too many bugs in the forest." Tiffany was upset. Sandi was getting all weird again. Tiffany just hoped that Sandi didn't gain any weight this time.

     "And birds." Charles shuddered. "Those God-dammed eagles will tear you a new asshole if you mess with them at all."

     "Young man!" Barch shook him and then had to help Sandi catch him. "Has he been taking something?"

     Sandi blushed. "No. He... hit his head."

     Quinn had paged through the book on the table during the meeting and had left it open to a page containing a reprint of an old movie poster for a James Bond film, featuring an oddly named character.

     The caption caught Charles' eye and in the absence of any real cognitive functions, his mouth worked automatically. "Hey! Wow! Pussy Galore!"

     Sandi, reacting through pure reflex, slapped him straight back into dreamland.

     Daria sat in the backseat of Tom's Jag, eating her lunch off of one of the fold-down birch tables built into the seatbacks. The stereo was playing softly and the seat was very comfortable.

     "What are these?"

     "Crab cakes." Tom laid one on her tongue. "I got all seafood, today. Want to try some jalapeno smoked oysters?"

     "God, no." Daria giggled, shocking herself. "Anything sweet?"

     "Your lips." He dug into the hamper. "And these. I got a jug of honey today for some reason, and- what's so funny?" He spread some honey on a sliced bagel and handed it to her. He had a heater-cooler in his trunk, so the food was still warm.

     "Nothing, Tom. Just... keep your strength up." She'd heard that oysters were good for that sort of thing, and they were burning up a lot of energy, lately. Maybe she would try one.

     Tom smiled. "What are you doing after school?"

     Daria frowned. "I promised to help Jane with her stupid yard sale today and Mom wants me home for dinner. I have to talk to my rich grandma. Mom wants to tell her all about the National Merit thing."

     "Damn." Tom sighed. He still didn't feel welcome at Jane's, and wouldn't, until she got a serious love interest. "I ought to sell this thing and get us a van." Tom looked at her, longingly.

     Daria shook her head. "No, I like this car."

     Tom shrugged. It was amazing how much of his life she controlled. If something of his didn't get the Daria stamp of approval, it was gone. The strange part was that he liked it. "I suppose it-

     "Get the van and keep this, too!" She smiled at him, enthusiastically. "Just think, we could out for a quick-

     Someone knocked on the rain-slicked window. Tom pushed a button, lowering it.

     "Say, buddy, I'm lookin' for the HQ of this-here outfit." Buck stared at him, a very expensive suit peeking out from under his battered olive-drab rain-gear. "Hey, I know you!"

     "Um, hello again." Tom couldn't help smiling. "Sorry, Sir, I don't know my way around this school. Daria?"

     "Howdy, Miss!" Buck grinned. "Sorry to interrupt, but do you know where I can find that sweet little rice-burner a mine?"

     Daria was surprised at her complete lack of embarrassment. Conroy was just too over-the-top to worry about. She smiled. "Sure. Straight through the front doors and take a right. She'll be in the office at the end of the hall."

     Buck briefly frowned, then resumed his usual maniacal grin, nodding his thanks to them. That was a very familiar voice. "Thanks a bunch, ma'am, much obliged." He sketched a little salute and strode away, wondering how he knew her. He never forgot a name, a face or a voice.

     "What a nice guy." Tom closed the window.

     "Ma'am?" Daria blinked in shock. "He's a psychotic mass murderer."

     Tom shrugged. "It takes all kinds, Ma'am."

     Angela was in her office, enduring the wrath of coach Gibson. "You keep thait dyke away from mah players, Li, or I'll get rid a ya both." He thumped her desk. He loved being a football coach. He got the respect due a king, and almost all of the power.

     Angela glared, but had to face facts. A mere administrator like herself was far lower on the food chain than a football coach. Gibson could see her off with one phone call, whatever the organization chart said. His only redeeming characteristic was that he never showed up for his daytime work, preferring to save his energies for scrimmage.

     Li pasted on a false smile. "I'll have a word with her, Coach. Ms. Barch would be extremely hard to replace, what with the teacher's shortage-

     "Just hire the first bull-dyke ya meet!" Gibson smirked. "Or is Pansy O'Neill woman enough for the crazy- The door slammed open.

     "Who's that yellin' at my little woman?" Buck glanced at the pudgy coach and instantly dismissed him as a threat.

     Ms. Li smiled joyfully as his overpowering presence filled her office. "Buck!" Her face collapsed in remorse. "I can't leave the dammed school right now."

     "That's okay, Darlin'." He grinned. "I came here lookin' for a job! Now that I'm too rich to fight anymore, I need somethin' to do. I want to be here with you!"

     Angela gasped with happiness.

     Gibson sneered, having recovered from his initial fright. "She cain't hire nobody. The board of supervisors does all that."

     "Does he work here? It can't be too hard." Buck looked at the coach. "Hey there, Porky, whatcha do 'round here?"

     Gibson was shocked. He was a coach. People didn't talk to him, that way. "I'm the football coach, " he frostily declaimed.

     "There ya go! I could do that!" Buck grabbed Angela and swung her around happily, lifting her off of her feet. "I'll just take that job. Where do I find the head honcho of these supervisors?"

     "Oh! That's a good idea. I have a phone list with all the numbers you need." Ms. Li snuggled into the broad chest.

     Gibson gaped, his accent slipping. He was actually from Illinois. "You can't take my job!"

     Buck grinned and said softly, "You'd stain your drawers if ya knew what kinds of things I can do, Porky."

     In his experience, a subtle combination of money and sudden, shattering violence could solve all of life's little problems. He set Angela back on her feet and kissed her.

     Li beamed up at him and then handed him the district's phone sheet. She had perfect faith. Buck was the proverbial unstoppable force. "If they need grounds, he hasn't reported to work on time even once this year."

     "Okay, baby. See ya tonight!" Buck gave her a final, knee-weakening kiss, then strode away, grinning maniacally. The world was his to do with as he pleased, and football might be a fun replacement for war. And if it didn't work out, he could still run for the Senate. He was a great public speaker and he had enough cash in his Humvee toolbox alone to buy his way in.

     Gibson stared after him. "Gawd-dammit Li! Whut was-

     "Get out, Gibson." Ms. Li smiled at him, cold triumph in her eyes. "You've been nothing but a huge pain in the behind here for years, and you're finally going to get exactly what you deserve."

     Gibson blustered. "That big dummy can't do anything! The board loves me. They'll laugh themselves silly." He left, heading to his palatial office to make some calls. Buck had scared him.

     Li smirked. Gibson was toast. Buck would be such a joy to have around, and so helpful with discipline.

     After school, Daria waited for her ride, ambivalently. When it came, she swallowed before getting in.

     "Hello, Brittany. Where's Jane?"

     "She's still being a pain. Jane the pain, running in the rain." Brittany pulled out and headed for the Morgendorffer residence.

     "Oh." Daria frowned. "You know, Brittany, if you just backed off a little, Jane might come around."

     "Maybe. And maybe she could talk Trent into something stupid." Brittany glanced at her. "He really likes you, you know."

     Daria shrugged. "I hope so. We're good friends."

     "I'm glad. That means that we can be friends, too." Brittany sighed. "I don't have any other friends, anymore." She frowned. Maybe she had never had any friends, but had just been too drugged up to notice. "I'm just really glad that you have Tom."

     Daria coughed, disarmed. "Me too. Look, Brittany, you shouldn't move so fast. You're in a strange time in your life, looking for something to hold on to, and-

     "Yeah! And I found it so easy! Isn't that nice?" Brittany smiled, happily. "Tell me, how did you feel when you first met Trent?"

     Daria smiled. "Like I got hit by a bus. I couldn't even talk. I don't think that any flesh-and-blood guys had ever attracted me, before. I remember being relieved to realize that I wasn't totally frigid."

     Brittany gripped her steering wheel. Just a week ago, she would have been livid, bursting with drug-induced paranoia. "So what happened?"

     She shrugged. "We finally talked, and I realized that we weren't... Well, he's not..." Daria swallowed. Trent was still dangerously attractive, and on some level, she'd always known that he was hers for the taking. She did look, from time to time.

     "Could you see me in a mosh pit, enjoying it? Or driving him across country from gig to gig in some beat up van?" Daria shook her head. "I'd put up with it for awhile, but then I'd start making changes. He would resent me, and that would be it, forever." She shuddered. "We would end up just like my parents."

     Brittany smiled, dreamily, eyes sparkling. "I love mosh pits!" It gave her a chance to practice her jujitsu. "It all sounds so glamorous!"

     Brittany had always seen herself in college, marrying some QB and basking in his glory. Now, even thinking about it made her feel sick. She could easily see herself touring with Trent, though, helping him and being in his videos.

     Daria just stared at her, reevaluating the situation. Jane was in trouble.

     Jane jogged up to the telephone pole and stapled a new saran wrapped waterproof sign over the old one. She had strategically placed signs all over the area, directing passersby to her big yard sale.

     When Jane got home, Brittany pulled up and let Daria off, driving away down the street, with a wave.

     "Hey, Jane." Daria gave her an embarrassed look. "Sorry about missing you, but Brittany offered a ride home, then over here." They'd had a long talk about Trent.

     "She offers a lot of people rides." Jane glared. "Trent for one-

     "Janey!" Trent himself had come out, while she wasn't looking.

     Jane pursed her lips, then sighed with frustration. "Sorry."

     Trent nodded, accepting her reservations. "Sure you are. Just... lay off, okay? Brittany's hurting. She'll be okay in a month or so and everything will change. It always does."

     "That's what I'm afraid of," growled Jane.

     Trent looked past Jane at the approaching blonde. "Damn," he whispered. Brittany looked hot.

     Brittany walked up, fitting herself to Trent. "Hi, Trent!" She looked nervously at Jane. "I parked up the road, so you wouldn't have a parking problem."

     "Thanks a million," said Jane, sourly wishing that the bimbo had parked in Japan.

     "Hey, Cupcake. How was school?" Trent put his arm around her and smiled down at her in an affectionate way that vastly irritated both Jane and Daria.

     Brittany shrugged, beaming back. "I maintained, just like we talked about." She sighed, with a put upon expression. "I have a lot of homework."

     "That's okay. We have a few hours, before practice." He looked carefully into her eyes. "Have you taken your pills?"

     Brittany stared back for a long moment, then blushed. She dropped her eyes and smiled. "Yes, but I think I could get off of this stuff a lot faster than Dr. Karin wants." Brittany swallowed and then stiffened, defiantly, meeting his eyes again. "I can take it."

     Trent nodded. "Sure you can, but there's just no need to push it. We have all the time in the world. Come on, let's go get a snack." The doctor wanted Brittany to have some sort of sugary snack every four hours.

     Brittany almost melted into him. "Sure, but I'm not hungry for food."

     Jane watched them go. "Well, hell. I'll never get rid of her now."

     Daria, setting up a table, frowned. "Why do you say that?"

     Jane laughed, bitterly. "He takes care of people, Daria. Its what he does. Have you ever seen anyone in your life that was more in need of a little TLC than her?"

     "My cousin Erin." Daria shuddered. "She'll be over that drug thing in a while. Like Trent said, it'll be a whole new game then."

     "Bull. She's never gonna go." Jane began arranging old clothes on a makeshift rope hangar. "Trent takes care of people and avoids conflict. Brittany hangs on to people and makes sure that there's major conflict if they try to get away. Look at Kevin. She's just switching addictions."

     Daria shrugged. "She wasn't exactly faithful to Kevin. It might not last very long, once she sees a good-looking jock or something."

     Jane snorted. "Uh, huh. Pull the other one. You haven't seen him in the new clothes that she bought for him."

     "She bought him clothes?" Daria shook her head, helplessly. She couldn't continue the act. "Maybe you ought to make friends with her if you think she's going to be around for a while. The Brit-krieg approach to landing a man seems to be pretty effective."

     "If that bimbo gets pregnant to trap him, I'm gonna do something so evil to her that it'll make headlines all over the fucking planet." Jane glared up at Trent's window.

     "Let's just get this junk out on the tables." Daria looked at her watch and sighed. It was going to be a long afternoon. She wished that she could go see Tom.

     "-put it on him!"

     Charles abruptly snapped into consciousness. He was on an examination table in the nurse's office. A privacy screen had been erected around the table and he wasn't wearing his shirt. The bandages on his chest had been disturbed.

     "Forget it! I give out aspirins, and write out excuses. Besides, my shift is over. I'm going home."

     It sounded like Nurse Martin.

     Charles sat up, feeling a tender spot on his face. Had he been in some sort of accident? His head hurt and he wanted to go home. The last thing he remembered was getting up that morning. Maybe he should go see the doctor. He stood up and peaked around the privacy screen.

     Barch stood there, holding a plastic harness of some sort. Various wires and little electrodes dangled from it. "Look, help me out, here. It'll be a lot easier to get this on him while he's out."

     The nurse frowned. "You never told me how he got knocked out. Maybe he needs a doctor. That wound on his chest is pretty bad and when a person is unconscious like that-

     "Don't give me that crap! I know where Ms. Li found you, Martin. Besides, he's a male, not a person. I'll put everything else on him if you put the strain gauge on him. You have plenty of experience handling that sort of thing."

     "I'm not touching his Johnson." Martin glared at Barch. "That was uncalled for."

     "Well I'm certainly not!" Barch clenched her fists in frustration. "Look, Martin, this research is vital! Without the feedback harness-

     "Johnson?" Charles frowned, put on his shirt, swept the curtain aside and made for the door. "No way, Barch. Even I have some standards."

     "Ruttheimer! Get your skinny butt back here!" Barch gave chase, but the little pervert was as fast as greased lightning and twice as slippery.

     The two school district security officers were a little disgusted by the man's sniveling.

     "Three years, shot to hell." Gibson dumped a desk drawer into a cardboard box. His dreams of getting on as head coach at a college somewhere were shattered.

     "That stapler is marked 'district property.'" The security man took it back out and put it on the desk.

     "How could this happen? The guy just shows up and has my job, in three hours?" Gibson kicked the trashcan into the wall. "It's not fair! He's just a criminal renegade! A mercenary, for God's sake! How could the board do that to me?"

     "Hey, buddy- The guard stopped when the other guard shook his head. A dented trashcan was a small price to pay.

     "Money talks. It's amazing what a hat-full of Krugerands can do for your employment prospects." Buck walked in, grinning, a fully accredited and licensed teacher.

     "You!" Gibson considered socking him, but Buck had an aura about him that discouraged such things.

     "Move it or lose it, Porky. I want your fat ass out of my office, right now." Buck looked at the older guard. "He got all his stuff?"

     "Yes, Sir." Neither guard had taken his worried eyes off of Buck since he'd entered the room. The man radiated sudden death.

     "Well then, head 'em up and move 'em out." Buck grinned at the weakling. "Say there, Porky, don't take on, so. It ain't manly. Cheer up, I hear that Oakwood is hiring."

     Gibson stiffened. "What?"

     "I'm not completely heartless, old son." He handed Gibson an application form. "Coach Walthers elected to take early retirement this afternoon. The District arranged it, special-like. I hear that you'll be a shoe in for the job."

     Gibson stiffened, some of the fire returning to his eyes. "I'll get even, Conroy. I'll humiliate you this season."

     Buck chuckled. "It's good to see a man with a clear goal in his life. If I come across any more of your crap I'll send it right on over. Now take your friends and vamoose, Porky." He shoved Gibson's box into his hands, spun him around and then pushed him out into the hall, ushering the guards out and closing the door after them.

     Buck had some records to read through. He hated taking over a new unit with no idea of its capabilities. Until he had some idea of who the effectives on the team were, it was pointless to disrupt their established routine. There was also the school to consider. Angela would want him to pull his weight, so he'd need a list of kids in need of special exercise and physical training. He just knew that he could do them some good.

     Buck walked over to the window that overlooked the practice field, where the team was assembling. "Boy, this just might turn out to be a lot of fun."

     He'd always enjoyed his mercenary work, which was mostly turning poorly motivated native conscripts into razor sharp fanatics. His style of motivation and training could be adapted. It was just a matter of pushing them to their limits, and then proving to them that limits existed to be overcome.

     Suddenly, a red-headed blur shot through the crowd, dodging and weaving through them like so much smoke.

     Buck frowned in surprise, his sharp eyes briefly unable to focus on the movement. "What the-

     "Chaaarels! Get back here and put this on!" Barch pounded along after him, waving the harness, scattering linebackers like chaff. "It's for science!"

     Charles calculated his lead and then gauged his strength. He was very dizzy, exhausted and would have to stop soon. He decided to retrieve his less-than-reliable car later, making for the open road. "No way!"

     A small convertible stopped in his path and the door opened. "Get in!"

     Charles stopped, gaping. The ball-buster was talking to him?


     "Come on! I saw the book, so... I'm... sorry." Sandi saw Barch approaching fast. "Unless you want Barch to strip you down and put that thing on you right here, you'd better move it!"

     "Book?" Charles looked back, waved a languidly insolent goodbye, and then jumped in, wondering what she was talking about.

     Sandi peeled out, leaving a cursing Barch behind in the dust.

     When Charles caught his breath, he spoke. "Thanks for stopping, but why did you do it?"

     Sandi looked at him, in confusion. "We have a date tonight!"

     Charles looked shocked. "You have a date with me?"

     "Don't you remember?" Sandi looked over at him, worriedly.

     Charles blinked. "Um, sure. Where are we going, again?" He hoped that it wasn't too far. He felt like he might pass out again, really soon.

     Sandi eyed him. "You don't remember at all, do you."

     Charles shrugged, miserably. "I- I'm not feeling so good." He swallowed, feeling nauseous and faint. "Oh, man."

     "What's the matter?" Sandi grew concerned.

     "I got in a little accident last week." He winced. "I got my bell rung, pretty bad."

     Sandi pulled in to his driveway. "What kind of an accident?"

     "Oh, well, I guess it wasn't really an accident." Charles shrugged. "I got attacked by a bald eagle." He grimaced, showing a muted hatred. "Those fu- birds knocked me out of a tree. I was sixty feet up, taking pictures of their tree."

     Shocked, Sandi ran over his mailbox.

     Sandi walked behind Charles into the small mansion, still stunned by what he'd told her about his close call with the local ecology. She frowned at his back, wondering if the recent aggravation of his head injury was dangerous. "Maybe we should take you to the hospital."

     "No thanks, I'm feeling a lot better." He wobbled a little and she took his arm, helping him to a couch. The room was cluttered with debris, and there was a photo enlarger disassembled on the coffee table. The room was filthy.

     Sandi sat, gingerly. "You ought to hire a maid." He would obviously have to be civilized.

     Charles nodded, sheepishly. "They never want to stay around, so I just bring in a service whenever my Dad calls and says he's coming by. I only use a couple of rooms anyway, so I just take care of it myself."

     "Coming by? Doesn't he live here?" Sandi looked at him and winced. He'd collapsed into the couch like his strings had been cut. One pupil was huge, the other shrunk to a pinpoint. He was out, again.

     "Charles?" Sandi shook him by the shoulder and he slowly toppled over, right into her lap. She sat, worriedly watching for a while, occasionally trying to wake him up.

     She shook him, one last time. "Okay, Charles, you need to go to the hospital." Sandi got up and then sat him up on the couch. Squatting down in front of him, she wrapped his arms around her shoulders, stood and bent forward, lifting his feet off of the ground. Carrying him toward her car, she reflected that her time in the Girl Scouts hadn't been a total waste, after all.

     It had been a boring sale. Only a few people had stopped. The high point came when Jesse bought an old lava-lamp in the mistaken belief, fostered by Trent, that it was an electric bong. Watching him suck on the lamp switch had been pretty funny.

     Trent was going to the store and Daria had gotten a ride home from him. Daria hadn't said anything when they got in, but she couldn't hold back anymore

     "What happened to your car?"

     Trent shrugged. "Brittany borrowed it. It came back all fixed up and painted." He looked at her. "Are you going to beat up on me about this too?"

     Daria shrugged. "A little." She grinned. "Has Brittany started beating up on you, yet?"

     Trent smiled, uneasily. "No." He was embarrassed and stressed, two factors that usually made him babble. "If she ever does, send flowers to the funeral."

     "I guess she's pretty tough." Daria giggled. "Poor Kevin."

     Trent swallowed. "Have you ever seen Brittany at her karate class? She just charges in and mops the floor with her instructors until they give up. Last week, we went out to the Palace and-

     "You went to a dance club?" Daria smirked.

     Trent blushed. "Brittany wanted to go and she asked me. Anyway, this big ugly creep wanted to fight me and Brittany took him apart in about a second and a half. It was really brutal. No one else talked to me, all night."

     Daria laughed. "So big deal. Brittany can fight. Don't tell me you're all hung up on the old macho man routine."

     He grinned. "Not really. I was kind of happy about it, to tell you the truth. That guy would have kicked my ass." His grin faded. "If she ever does lose it, I'm going on a permanent European tour, just as soon as I get out of the hospital."

     Daria continued her needling. "She can afford to follow you anywhere, Trent. She beat the hell out of her last boyfriend, you know. Left him knocked out at the mall. The poor guy used to wear body armor, just because of her."

     "Is that so? Body armor?" Trent wasn't going to put up with that.

     Daria nodded. "Football padding. Better watch out for the groupies, Trent. Brittany is a little over-possessive for a ninja cheerleader. Her hand's are registered as deadly weapons."

     Trent winced, then rallied. "She's got deadlier weapons than her hands, but thanks for caring, Daria. By the way, someone that I know told me that she saw you at the Leander Motel last week. Another house-fire?"

     Daria swallowed. "Okay, a truce, then?"

     "Deal." Trent looked over. "Did you ever write me any more lyrics?"

     Daria nodded and put a spiral notebook on the dash. "I just about filled that up." She flushed. "Some of it's pretty old, so be kind. I'd appreciate it if you didn't look at it until I'm gone." She had debated tearing her crush-period stuff out, but it was just too good to waste.

     "Fine." Trent looked at her, evaluating. "So you and Tom are getting along pretty well then, I guess."

     Daria smiled, mysteriously. "You might say that."

     "Great. I'm... happy for you, Daria. You're a good friend." Trent smiled, philosophically. Life was an adventure, and Daria was a rose with some wicked thorns. He'd have never dreamed of asking someone like Brittany out before he got famous, but things happened for a reason. She was boundlessly cheerful, endlessly nice, very easy-going and she always tried her best to help. The alien feeling of someone actually trying, however ineffectually, to take care of him for a change was as addictive as heroin.

     Charles woke up, floating in a sea of pain. Focusing his eyes, he looked around, belatedly recognizing a hospital room. It was darkened, and strange looking. The perspective was off, like a carnival funhouse.

     Sitting up, he swung his feet out onto the floor. He let his legs take the weight gradually, then finally stood, swaying and clutching the bed frame. He gradually stabilized himself, then took a step toward the bathroom. The world swayed alarmingly, and he collapsed on the floor.

     "Okay, this is easier anyway." Charles crawled the rest of the way to the bathroom.

     "Subdural hematoma?" Charles propped up in bed, hoped that it wasn't as bad as it sounded.

     "A swelling of the brain tissues." The doctor peered at his chart. "You should never have been released."

     "How bad is it?" Charles swallowed.

     The doctor smiled, reassuringly. "There was no bleeding, and only a little swelling. We caught it in time. You'll be fine in a week. Just avoid new head injuries."

     Charles frowned. "Fat chance." He cleared his throat. "How did I get here?"

     The doctor smiled. "I think that I'll let your visitor explain that."

     Charles frowned. Someone was visiting him? He just hoped that it wouldn't be the cops again. All of the local policewomen were probably still mad at him. He'd demanded a kiss from each of them to refuse to testify before the police commission. Some humorless jerk in the crowd at the parade had filed police brutality charges after seeing some policewomen get a little upset with him, after his car stalled.

     Quinn sat on the beach, watching Jamie and Joey fight. She grimaced in irritation at the noise. It used to be flattering to see them fight so hard over her but lately it just bored her. She laid back down on the towel and closed her eyes.

     "Jeffy, could you get me another soda?" After a time, Quinn sat up and looked around when no soda was immediately forthcoming.

     Jeffy was over by Tiffany, helping her build a sandcastle. As she watched, shocked, the two exchanged a pair of open smiles.

     "But... Jeffy!" Quinn was surprised at the panic she felt. They were just toys, guys to date for now, right?

     "Yeah, Quinn?" Jeffy stood, smile abruptly gone, watching her cautiously.

     He'd been sitting next to her, watching the other two stooges fight over who got to sit on the other side of Quinn's towel, when Tiffany had caught his eye. He'd watched her singing to herself and building the sandcastle, when it had suddenly struck him. Tiffany was hot. And very, very nice. She was a lot like him, unlike Quinn, who had a heart of pure diamond.

     "Um, Jeffy, could you like, get me a soda?" Quinn swallowed, suddenly convinced that he might refuse. "I'm covered in lotion and I don't want to get any sand on me."

     Jeffy hesitated, then nodded. "Hey, Tiffany, can I bring you back anything?"

     Tiffany giggled, giddely. "I like Diet Sprite." She glanced at Quinn. "Um, wait, I'll go wiiith you."

     Jeffy grinned. "Cool! Come on." He held out a hand and helped Tiffany to her feet.

     "See ya, Quinn." Jeffy never even looked at Quinn, or asked her what kind of soda she wanted.

     Quinn gazed after them as Jeffy and Tiffany walked away down the beach toward the snack stand, hand in hand. She doubted if they would be back at all. Jeffy was gone. Quinn scowled at the other two, obliviously fighting away. Jamie had always been the best of the three, but he was showing signs of cracking too. Holding off two of them would be much harder than holding off three, but if the number dropped to one... Maybe it was time to let them all go, anyway. It would be the mature thing to do. She didn't really have time for casual dating anyway She had to work on her grades if she wanted to get into Yale.

     Kevin sat on the couch, watching his Best Games of the NFL tape, trying to learn some new moves from the greats. Gibson's departure had unsettled the team, but it wasn't like Gibson was worth much, anyway. The new guy had seemed a lot harder and stronger. Kevin had immediately recognized him as a man of unquestionable will.

     It had been a week since the change of leaders, and already things were different. Mack had at first been cut outright, then grudgingly reinstated, but not in his old position. Now he was the second-string quarterback.

     This was bad because Mack hated being number two. He was really practicing, badly shaken and thoroughly pissed off by whatever Conroy had said to him. Mack was ferociously angry and wouldn't talk about it. There was no more friendliness between them, just naked competition. Kevin was worried. Mack had found his will.

     Jeffy Young, the worst of the backs, had been moved to the defense and was helping them work on their blitz tactics.

     More surprisingly, Upchuck had been forced onto the team as a running back, replacing Jeffy. Ms. Li had given him a choice between joining or becoming Barch's new lab assistant. Upchuck hadn't hesitated, but now Kevin had to figure out how to use him. Upchuck was blindingly fast over short distances, but couldn't keep it up. No one could touch him until he got tired, and even then he was incredibly slippery. He was also inclined to lateral the ball away at the first opportunity, not caring who he threw it to.

     The one-on-one interview with Coach Conroy had been scary. The new coach had some pictures on his office walls that showed him as a real general. He'd asked Kevin all of the things that he'd expected, about his game and all that, but then he'd asked him a bunch of stuff about his grades and his goals.

     Kevin shuddered. Conroy wasn't going to get him a single by. He'd just grinned crazily at him and started talking about the strength of the human will, motivation and how good Mack could be, with a little practice. A leader of men had to be smarter than his men, said the General. Then he'd informed him that he'd be alternating them for a while. Kevin would start, but Mack would take every other offensive drive. It would be a duel to the death. Kevin gritted his teeth, furiously. Mack's death.

     "Hi." Andrea walked in, with his mother.

     Kevin bolted upright and swallowed. "Hey! Wow, Andrea, you look really good."

     Andrea flushed. "Thanks." She'd toned down her Goth look. After talking with him, she'd had a hunch that Kevin wasn't much impressed by artifice. He'd been up to his ears in tall blondes since he was fifteen, so she'd figured that she might be different enough to be considered exotic.

     Charline smiled at her, warmly. "Would you like a soda or something?" This was great.

     Andrea cleared her throat, nervously. "No thanks. I just came over to see if Kevin wanted to study a bit. We have an algebra test tomorrow."

     Kevin thought about Conroy. He might lose his eligibility, if he didn't study. "That's a good idea, Andrea. Would the kitchen table be alright?"

     Andrea blushed again, cursing herself. "Sure."

     "Oh good! Won't you stay for dinner tonight, Andrea? We're having roast beef and mashed potatoes." Charline smiled. At last, her son had a girlfriend that wasn't a complete idiot.

     Andrea shrugged. "Okay." Her mom wasn't home and she was getting tired of pizza.

     Charline's smile turned malignant as Doug emerged from his rec-room, gaping unhappily at the scene before him. Victory was sweet.

     "Hold still!" Quinn finished touching up Daria's makeup.

     "Thanks." Daria looked at her sister and swallowed, feeling a keen rush of affection.

     Quinn smiled. "You're really going to knock his socks off, Daria. Everyone will be looking at you."

     Daria flushed slightly. She didn't need to dress up to get Tom out of his socks. "Until you get there." She had to admit that Quinn was a total knockout.

     Quinn chortled. "Come on, I don't even have a date. I can't believe that I'm going to this thing with mom and dad."

     Daria smirked. "How long will it take you to get a date once you're there? Come on Quinn, If you really wanted a date, you could have twenty guys here in four minutes."

     Quinn smiled her acknowledgement. "True." She took a couple of steps back, turning them into dance steps. "Are you going to dance?"

     Daria nodded. "I was sentenced to dance camp the year before you went, remember? You tapped and twirled, I waltzed and tangoed."

     Quinn giggled. "I know you can, Daria. The question is, will you?"

     Daria shrugged. "I'll dance if Tom wants. I never really liked it, but then, I didn't have anyone to dance with before."

     A camera flashed.

     "Daad!" Quinn sighed, theatrically.

     Jake grinned. "Line up on the stairs, now!"

     Tom posed artistically, a girl on each arm, until Jake used up the last of his film.

     "Well, Daria, we'd better get going." Tom took her hand and walked with her to the door.

     "Are you sure that you don't want to slip in with us, Quinn?" Daria didn't want to embarrass her sister by advertising her dateless state.

     Quinn almost face-faulted. "Um, no, that's alright. I'll see you guys there." Quinn could hardly believe how naive her older sister was. Quinn intended to advertise that state, by making a big entrance. She was going to upgrade her stable of dates, tonight and she wanted to be noticed. It wouldn't do to intimidate them too much.

     Daria was bored. Tom had disappeared into a big knot of older men, talking business. The respectful way that they all listened to him impressed her, but she was still abandoned, fending off guys and feeling immensely sorry for herself.

     Quinn was surrounded by guys, three deep, all jostling each other and throwing their hearts at her feet. She was in her usual mode, stamping hearts and being glared at with hatred by Elsie and her cohorts, instead of Sandi and Tiffany.

     "Daria!" Kay Sloane appeared at her elbow.

     "Oh, hello, Mrs. Sloane." She smiled, politely.

     "I was just looking at your gift. Thank you, Daria." Kay had been touched and a little frightened by it.

     Daria smiled, this time for real. "You're welcome. I had a lot of fun painting it." It was a portrait of Tom, sitting on the knoll, smiling. She'd painted it from a picture that Jane had taken of them.

     "My Tom doesn't smile like that very often." Kay swallowed a pang of jealousy. "You're a very talented painter."

     "I'm more of an artisan than an artist. I painted most of it from a photo." Daria noted Kay's distress and tightened up.

     "You did a good job. When he was dating Jane, she painted a picture of a pillow made out of razorblades and tried to pass it off as some sort of a portrait of Tom." Kay grimaced.

     "Jane can get kind of strange about her art." Daria glanced after him and sighed. "She liked him a lot, but not as much as she likes her work."

     "Oh, well." Kay smiled a relieved smile. Jane had been wholly unsuitable. "It's her loss, then."

     Daria nodded, mirroring Kay's expression, her eyes seeking Tom.

     Kay followed her eyes. "What's he doing over there? Oh, wouldn't you know it?" She saw her son and husband holding court in the corner and smiled at Daria. "That's the hazard of dating a Sloane man. They talk business, all of the time. Well, maybe you would like to come into the lounge with me. It's really time that we had a nice long chat." Kay drew her prey after her, determinedly.

     Quinn was having a wonderful time. These guys were smoother than the ones that she was used too, but they didn't seem to be as tough. Only two of them had any real guts and they were already glaring at each other, fists clenched. She wanted another one, preferably another really rich one, and she'd be set. She looked up and stiffened in surprise. "Excuse me for a minute, guys."

     Quinn crossed the ballroom floor and reached the refreshment tables. "Sandi?"

     Sandi turned. "Quinn? What are you doing here?" She started to scowl, then relaxed, managing a weak smile. There just wasn't any point anymore. Quinn could destroy her with a word, if she hadn't already. Socially, she was toast anyway.

     Quinn shrugged, smiling. "Partying. Meeting guys. Who are you with?"

     Sandi swallowed, then firmed up. "Charles."

     Quinn didn't want to discourage Sandi. She was almost bearable, ever since Charles had started paying attention to her. "You're lucky, Sandi. I don't even have a date. My family only got invited because Daria is dating Tom Sloane."

     Sandi blinked in surprise. Quinn's sister was a dark horse indeed. "How many of these guys have asked you for your phone number?"

     Quinn smirked. "Forty eight."

     "Hello, Quinn. You look lovely tonight." Charles walked up and smiled at her, delighted to see a familiar face.

     "Hi, Charles." Quinn smiled back at him. He looked nice in his tux, and he was a lot more popular, now that he'd 'joined' the team.

     "Let's go dance. See you later, Quinn." Sandi whisked him away. Quinn was dangerous.

     Tom was enjoying himself. His father was in rare form, really hitting it off with Jake.

     Angier turned to his new friend. "What do you think, Jake? Recession or downturn?"

     Jake shook his head. "It's really too early to tell for sure, but I'm guessing recession."

     "Why?" Solomon Gold had the jitters.

     Jake sipped his drink. "I've got my ear pretty close to the ground, Solly. Some of my clients are truckers. When shippers start pulling in their horns, the smalltime truckers know first. All the small freight companies are going into hibernation, lucky to get a single run. The banks are starting to call their notes and they're all gonna go down like ninepins." Jake stared into the middle distance. He was lucky. Legal work always increased when there was blood in the water. Helen could carry them until his business came back.

     Solomon began to sweat. "Excuse me, I have to make a call."

     He wasn't the only one. Cell phones were beeping away, in seconds.

     "Damn, Jake, I think you've started a panic here." Angier looked at them all, with amusement. The Sloane holdings had been placed into shelter days ago. He agreed with Jake.

     Jake swallowed. The last time that anyone had said something like that to him was right after he'd exploded in rage and brutally thrashed an abusive Hell's Angel at the concert at Altamont. "Oh, I sure hope not."

     Tom looked around for Daria and noticed that Quinn had been cornered by his uncle. His uncle was a major sleaze. He slipped away from his father, to rescue her.

     Quinn's eyes started to glaze over. This old guy was putting the moves on her. She didn't know whether to laugh or be sick. He seemed to think that she would let him take dirty pictures of her for money.

     Thorton Sloane smiled urbanely and continued. "So my yacht will be cruising Australian waters all summer. You could fly in with me to Melbourne and take a models tour the South Pacific, as part of a sexy, all girl crew! You'd be a great asset to my calendar, Quinn, and I'm sure that you could use the money-

     "Hi, Quinn!" Tom smiled at her. "Sorry to interrupt, Uncle Thorton, but I promised Quinn a dance."

     Quinn smiled with relief. "Come on, Tom. Nice to meet you, Mr. Sloane, but I'm only fourteen."

     Thorton looked shocked. "F-fourteen?"

     Quinn put on a confused look and adopted Stacy's slightly breathless voice. "Well... in a few weeks. Don't worry. I'll ask my mom if I can go to Australia with you and become a model!"

     "Um, sorry Quinn, but now that I think of it, there's just no more room on the boat. Excuse me." Thorton made for the bar at maximum speed.

     Tom smiled. Quinn was wicked. "That was great, Quinn. If I wasn't in love with your sister..."

     Quinn smiled demurely genuinely flattered. "Thank you for saving me."

     Tom shrugged. "You're welcome, but I don't think that you'll ever really need saving."

     Quinn blushed.

     He smiled at her. "Believe me, it's no picnic, having an incredibly embarrassing uncle."

     Quinn nodded. "I know. My aunts are pretty embarrassing." She cleared her throat, wondering if she had misheard. "What did you say about Daria?"

     Tom shrugged. "I love her."

     Quinn's eyes widened. She was adept at detecting lies and her senses were telling her that Tom really meant it. "Oh, wow!" She smiled as she realized that he might be her brother in law, someday.

     Helen was trying to talk to Michele Landon, but as usual it was hard going.

     Michele glared at her, suspiciously. "What do you mean by that?"

     Helen tried to recall her exact wording, and failed. "What do you think I meant, Michele?" They had been talking about Michele's charity work.

     "I think that you said something that was both racist and stereotypical." Michele frowned, angrily.

     Helen's eyes tightened fractionally, but her lawyer's war-face never wavered from its neutrality. Michele Landon was a pain in the ass that could no longer be borne.

     "I'm sorry if I offended you, Michele, but you seem to take offence at virtually everything that I say. I assure you, I meant no insult. Perhaps it's better if we simply maintain a polite distance from now on."

     Michele glared. "I try to do that already."

     Helen glared back. "Very well. Excuse me." She caught sight of Kay Sloane and Daria on the other side of the room. They were looking at them, slightly aghast. Daria was projecting her embarrassment.

     Helen walked over, hoping that Kay wouldn't turn out to be as big a flake as Michele.

     Michele glared after her. Helen was a bitch, always talking about her trivial work. If she had stayed in the job market instead of becoming a full time mother, Michele knew that she would be light-years ahead of Helen by now. As it was, at least she'd done a better job with her kids. Her Jodie was the best student in- Michele caught sight of Daria and gritted her teeth, recalling that Daria was a National Merit scholar.

     "Michele!" Andrew hurried up, relieved to have finally gotten back in. A waiter had fallen on him during dinner and as the guest of a guest he'd had to do some fast-talking to get back in after going for a change of clothes. "Come on, let's get out there and mingle!" He rubbed his hands gleefully, already imagining himself out on the greens, hobnobbing with the really big dogs.

     He caught sight of Helen and Kay Sloane, talking in the corner, laughing. Searching further, he saw his daughter's friend, Darla or something, looking at them. He smiled and waved, taken slightly aback by her grave nod, in return.

     "Hey! Let's go talk to Helen!" He took a step, only to be brought up short by his wife.

     "That might not be such a good idea, Andrew. She made another racist remark, and we had... words." Michele swallowed. She might have overreacted a little.

     "What did she say?" Andrew looked at her, bewildered.

     "I was talking about my charity work with underprivileged children, and she said that she hoped that she would be in a position to be able to quote, 'Give back to the community,' someday." Michele scowled.

     Andrew blinked. "Help me here, Michele. I'm still not seeing it."

     "Don't you get it? Give back. As if I-We were some rags to riches ghetto success story! That was the implication!" Michele saw his jaw clench in anger and waited for him to denounce Helen.

     "What the hell is wrong with you, Michele," he snarled. "What's the poor woman supposed to say?" He huffed angrily. "Get a grip, woman!"

     "Why are you taking her side?" Michele was angry. "You hate the Morgendorffers!"

     Andrew was angrier. "No, Michele, I don't. You're just jealous of Helen's career and I didn't care enough to talk you out of it. They were our in to this place and you couldn't even be civil for ten minutes?"

     "Jealous!" Michele goggled at him, enraged. "If I didn't have to take care of Evan full time, I would be a senior vice president at corporate headquarters right now!"

     He sneered. "Ha! You were a junior loan officer when we met, Michele, and that's where you'd still be without me. I was the one that twisted their arms to get you promoted, so don't you lay that 'you ruined my fabulous career' nonsense on me!"

     Andrew had been getting sick and tired of her martyred act. It was his genius, guts and luck with his folding cup idea that had raised them up out of the muck, and she had agreed to be a full-time mother to his son when they'd married.

     "Whaaat!" Michele felt something give.

     Jodie was sitting out on the terrace with Mack, looking out at the moonlit beach. "Where do you see yourself in ten years, Mack?"

     Mack shifted, nervously. "In a career, making good money. Wife, kids, barbecue on Saturday, the whole thing, I guess." The truth was, his life was a blank after high school. He wasn't even sure of a good college, now that Coach 'totally insane' Conroy was around.

     Jodie shuddered. "Ever thought about travel, Mack?"

     "Excuse me." Daria walked up on them. "Jodie, you might want to go talk to your parents. They're having a big fight, right in the ballroom." She shrugged helplessly. "I know that your dad is up for membership, and they're not exactly making a great impression on the executive committee."

     "Oh God, not again. Thanks, Daria." Jodie sprang to her feet and raced for the ballroom.

     Mack started to follow, then thought better of it. "This is a job for somebody else."

     Daria smiled. "Very wise."

     He looked at her. "You look nice tonight, Daria."

     Daria blushed, slightly. "Thank you. Quinn has her uses. She picked it all out. I can't take any credit."

     "Sure you can. They're your looks." He picked up a soft drink and offered it to her. "I got it for Jodie, but I have my doubts if she'll be back anytime soon."

     Daria took it, looking out to sea. The moon's reflection glittered in the water, and the stars were out.

     "My, that's quite a view. If I can pry Tom loose from his father I'll have to bring him out here." The deck chairs scattered around were wide enough for two.

     Mack smiled an acknowledgement. "How are things going between you two?"

     She shrugged. "Pretty well, really. I started out despising him with every particle of my being and now..." She smiled, a long, languorous smile that said it all.

     Mack was entranced. He'd never seen Daria really smile. "Well, I'm happy for you."

     "Thank you. How about you and Jodie?" Daria raised a quizzical eyebrow.

     Mack hunched his shoulders and lost the smile. "I just don't know, Daria. I think that she's planning to drop me, after high school. She wants something... different."

     Daria looked at him, sadly. He was probably right. "Poor Mack. She'll be sorry if she does. You're just too good for her."

     "What?" Mack tried to process it, and failed.

     Daria winced. "She's always complaining about her mother, and about being stuck as a babysitter. She wants some romance and adventure in her life."

     "Hmmm." The more he thought about it the more sense it made

     Daria looked at him, seeing his face wrinkle with sorrow, wondering if she should have kept out of it.

     "You're Mr. Dependable, like her dad. It scares her. She sees you as a nine to five suit that could trap her, just like her mother is trapped." A thought struck her and Daria had to suppress a smirk. Jodie could fall for Trent like a ton of bricks if they ever met.

     Mack swallowed, instantly seeing how right she was. "What can I do?" He cleared his throat. "I love her, Daria."

     Daria nodded. "Go do something glamorous. Be a diplomat or something. You might have to let her go for a while but trust me, she'll be back. "

     Mack swallowed.

     Daria patted his shoulder, sympathetically. "If you squeeze her, she'll slip away even faster. Don't crowd her, Mack."

     "Glamorous." He thought about it. "Thanks for the advice, Daria."

     She shrugged. "It's worth what you paid."

     Tom looked around and disengaged himself from the conversation, scanning for Daria. Trailing around the club ballroom, he finally caught sight of her out on the terrace.

     "There you are!" Tom walked out of one of the doors, returning Daria's smile.

     "Here I are," Daria agreed. "All alone, except for Mack the Morose."

     Mack laughed. "It's the next best thing to actually being alone. Hello, Tom."

     "Hi, Mack." Tom looked around. "Where's Jodie?"

     "Inside, dealing with squabbling parents." Mack shook his head. The Landons were on the rocks, if he was any judge.

     Daria winced hoping that she wouldn't have to intervene in one of her parent's infamous tiffs before the night was over.

     Tom nodded an acknowledgement, then changed the subject. He put his arm around Daria. "Wow, look at that moon. What do you think, Daria?"

     Daria looked. In a robotic monotone she said, "A pockmarked silicate and iron ball, shining in the sky. Very romantic. It's our moon, all right."

     "God, I love it when you get all mushy like that. Were you expecting the Death Star?" Tom smirked at her.

     "Not tonight." Daria sighed and laid her head on his shoulder. "Helen Vader is in there, talking to Empress Kay."

     Mack cleared his throat, suddenly feeling like an intruder. "Well, I think that I'll go look for Jodie. By the way, there's a blanket on that deckchair down there, in the shadow. See you two later." Mack walked away quickly, his face a pensive mask. No one needed a third wheel.

     "Hey, thanks." Tom smiled and didn't notice a thing, but Daria just gazed sadly after him.

     "So, did my mom finally corner you?" Tom was worried.

     "Yes." Daria smiled. "She was actually pretty nice."

     "I guess so." Tom walked her to the deckchair then looked at her, gauging her mood. Daria seemed to be enjoying herself. "What did you talk about?"

     "SAT's, Elsie, Quinn, eye surgery and you." Daria sat next to him in the deckchair and laid her head on his shoulder.

     "Oh, yeah. Mom wore glasses for years. She loves to talk about her eye surgery." Tom said, in an ironic tone. He knew that to Daria's glasses were an important part of her identity.

     "I'm going to do it." Daria enjoyed his look of shock. "My grandma will probably pay for it but even if I have to pay, I'm still going to do it. It's two thousand an eye."

     Tom goggled. "But... why?"

     Daria kissed him. "Because my glasses fog up whenever you get close like this and I don't want to miss anything."

     "Where's Tom?" Kay looked around, annoyed. It was almost time to wrap things up and Tom should be out circulating.

     "Ha-hmm. I saw the boy out on the terrace, making time with his date." Thorton Sloane grinned, thinking of the good old days. He'd cut through the local sweeties like a wolf in a hen house when he'd been Tom's age. There was nothing like a cool car and fat trust fund to open a girl's legs. Thorton had never given a damn about their hearts.

     Kay rolled her eyes. "Honestly, the boy's only eighteen."

     Angier approached, having overheard. "Yes, Kay. The boy is actually a man, now. Legally, he's an adult." He'd talked with Daria several times and rather liked her sardonic sense of humor. The girl had a gritty sort of integrity that was attractive in its own right. That's why he worried about her.

     Jake and Helen walked up. "Has anyone seen Daria?"

     Angier smiled, politely. "We were just looking for Tom. The consensus is that they're out on the terrace."

     Jake shifted on his feet, uneasily. "Well, we're about to call it a night."

     Helen was already pulling him toward the plate glass windows on the eastside of the ballroom. "Oh, look at that moon!"

     The Sloanes guiltily followed the Morgendorffers over and they all scanned through the window, feigning interest in the view until Jake spotted Daria and Tom, a shadowed lump in a deck chair.

     "Oh, they look... comfortable." Angier swallowed. Kay looked like she was about to cry.

     "Too damn comfortable," echoed Jake, darkly.

     "Leave them alone, Jake." Helen was happy for her daughter. Very happy. She'd had nightmares about Trent.

     As they watched, a stray shaft of moonlight reflected from the sea illuminated the couple.

     Tom kissed Daria, then took off her glasses. He cleaned them with the blanket, then put them back on her face.

     Daria laughed, then took them off, shaking her hair so that it fell free, moving in closer and gazing into his eyes.

     Two voices said in perfect unison, "Oh, shit."

     Kay and Jake exchanged a startled glance, then as one, turned grim faces onto their offspring.

     "Say, Bimbo, why don't you just go home?" Monique sneered at the blonde.

     Brittany laughed. "Aww. Am I suppose to feel bad?" She would have totally wrecked Monique, but she was a friend of Trent's.

     Monique gave her an irritated glare. "If you really cared about Trent you'd quit leeching off of him and let him go."

     Brittany smiled. "Leeching? I don't follow your logic, Skank. If I like him, why should I let him go? It would be a lot more logical just to punt you into orbit and keep him forever. " Brittany was genuinely amused by Monique's jealousy. She walked closer to the stage.

     Monique followed, maneuvering around a few couples making out on the floor. She hated playing raves. "There's such a thing as an emotional leech, Blondie."

     Brittany smirked. "You'd know. Why don't you just shut up and mind your own business?"

     Monique hissed in frustration. "Mystik Spiral is my business! And it's finally making a profit! You are causing me big problems, girly."

     "Tough." Brittany hesitated, belatedly realizing that Monique wasn't that kind of a rival. She abruptly changed course away from the conversation-drowning din. "Okay then, how am I causing you problems?"

     "This!" Monique gestured at the venue. "This stupid, crappy rave! What a no-load worthless thing it is. Trent, the dumb-shit, won't leave the area now! He says that you're 'sick' and he has to stay around to take care of you!" Monique aggressively checked her out. "You look pretty damned healthy to me, you Bimbo."

     Brittany scowled at her. "I am sick."

     Monique calmed down. "Oh? In what way?"

     Brittany set her face. "I don't want to tell you."

     Monique smirked. "Pregnant? Of course you are. Any idea of who's it is?" Her face grew alarmed. "Oh, no."

     "I'm not pregnant." Brittany clenched her teeth, carefully holding her temper. "He's helping me get through rehab."

     "You?" Monique looked her over again, then dropped her eyes in shame. "I'm sorry. He did that for me, once."

     Brittany stared, getting the message. "H... He did?"

     "What, did you think that you were his first girlfriend?" Monique smiled and gestured at the stage. "Look around. He can take his pick or just have them all."

     Trent was really hamming it up in his new clothes, trying out a bunch of flashy 70's style rock-star moves. A crowd of women had gathered around the base of the stage, playing along with him, flashing their breasts, shrieking and carrying on like Mystik Spiral was a real super-band.

     Brittany swallowed, clamping down on her intense, mind warping jealousy. 'I don't own him, I don't own him, I don't own him, I don't own him... She mentally repeated the mantra until she calmed down.

     "Oh. I... never really thought about it." Brittany slowly got control, fighting down the massive surge of berserk fury generated by her intense jealousy.

     Monique sighed with frustration, rubbing her temples. "No one does. Trent is like a horse in more ways than one, Blon- Brittany. He's in a horserace for his career. He just doesn't have much of a shelf-life. He only has a few more years to make it."

     Brittany blushed. "Mmm." She didn't really care if he made it or not, so long as he was happy.

     Monique eyed the love-struck girl. She could tell that Brittany was going to stick to Trent like a barnacle. "Look, if you care for him, you need to-

     A really stoned guy walked up and slid his hands up under Monique's suit coat. "Come on, sweet thing, let's-

     Brittany jerked her aside, screamed, "Kiyaaah!" and then karate kicked him headfirst into a garbage can.

     Monique shrieked and stumbled back, looking at her with wide eyes.

     Brittany smirked. That was more fun than a mosh pit. It had really relaxed her. "What a loser!"

     Monique swallowed and cautiously backed away a few more steps. "Thanks." She eyed the girl, seriously. Brittany wasn't someone that she wanted as an enemy. "Look, if you really care for him, you need to help him."

     Brittany frowned. "How? What else can I do? I'd do anything for Trent." She'd been racking her atrophied brains, trying to figure out how to help.

     Monique looked at Trent's new clothes again. Brittany had been helping, and she obviously wasn't going to go away anytime soon. Her business professors always said that the best way to deal with a business problem was to make it into a business opportunity.

     "Come on, let's go talk." Monique led her outside to her car. "Step into my office."

     Brittany got in. "How come you drive a Lexus and Trent drives a junk pile?"

     Monique gripped the wheel. She'd sold her much-loved car to cover the band's last hotel bill. "It's rented. I have to look successful in order to be successful."

     "Oh. You mean like being popular?" Brittany sighed. She kind of missed being popular.

     "That's exactly right. Look, Brittany, Trent is close and the band is very good with the target demographic but they need national exposure to get a good deal. I really think that I can get them on a big tour opening for The Bananaheads, but he's blowing it." Monique sighed and rested her forehead on the wheel, looking haggard. She'd already turned down a major label because the deal just hadn't been good enough. The bloodsucking promoters were always trying to steal the band.

     Brittany stared at her. She was good at reading people and Monique exuded an odd mixture of triumph and desperation. Abandoning calculation, Brittany went with her instinct. "What do you need to make it all happen?"

     "What don't I need." Monique sighed. "I need Trent to get his head out of his ass. I need sleep. I need a dump-truck load of cash. I'd hoped to get the band some decent paying gigs over the next three months, to help cover some of our up-front costs for the tour, but it's just not looking good." She grimaced. "We have to pay to play, but I'm sure that the publicity would jump-start us."

     Brittany smiled. This was the perfect opportunity. "How would you like a silent partner? Really silent? I could put a lot of money into it, but I want more than half. Fifty one percent."

     Monique stared. "How much?"

     "What do you need?" Brittany was already calculating the amount that she could shake free of the trust.

     "Well, $30,000 would get us on the tour, then we'd have to come up with another ten for expenses." That was the base cost. Actually she only needed twenty thousand, but would have had to sign away the band to get it. The other $10,000 wasn't real, only existing as a tax loss basis for the promoters. That $10,000 would get them on the payola system and insure that MS got airtime.

     Brittany smiled. It was chicken feed. "I think that I could get it, but my accountants and lawyers would be part of the deal."

     Monique goggled. "For fifty one percent of Mystik Spiral's contract? Deal." With that kind of a publicity budget, she could drive a mercilessly tight bargain. If she could bank what was left, she might even be able to get a line of credit.

     "I don't want Trent to know. He's being silly about me buying him things." Brittany frowned at Monique uneasily. The leverage would go both ways.

     "Trent? He was never like that with me." Monique eyed her new business partner with a glimmer of respect. "When can I see some money?"

     "We can go see my lawyer and my accountant the day after tomorrow and make it all legal." She'd never tried to get any real money out of her accounts, but since turning eighteen, Brittany had gained one vote on the board of trustees. Her mother and father knew better than to ever vote against her. Together, they could override her uncles, the other two trustees. It didn't really matter. The whole thing would be hers in just three years anyway.

     Quinn walked toward the exit, surrounded by boys, expertly playing them. She was feeling sorry for herself, not enjoying it at all. It was time to go.

     "Can I talk to you for a minute? Alone?" Elsie swallowed nervously, hoping that her friends wouldn't see. They'd made a pact to cold-shoulder the hated interloper. Quinn had devastated their collective self-image by effortlessly captivating all of the best boys.

     "Sure, um... Elsie." Quinn dismissed the herd, then followed Elsie into a storage area behind the kitchens.

     "What can I do for you?" Quinn had met Elsie a few times, but they hadn't had much to say to each other. Elsie was only fourteen, after all.

     Elsie swallowed. "I... I want you to help me. There's a boy, and he's so cool." She blushed. "I'm not usually like this."

     "Let me guess. He doesn't know that you're alive, yadda yadda, you want a makeover." Quinn was agreeable, especially since Elsie could pay for expert help to do the actual work.

     "No..." Elsie looked at Quinn. "I want you to tell me how you do it."

     Quinn shrugged, then relented. "It's mostly gestures. Look."

     She tossed her hair, then dropped her eyes, demurely showing her neck and flicking her eyes sideways toward Elsie. "Like that, but there's about a million more. Guys can't help but notice them. It pushes their buttons."

     Elsie stared, wide eyed. "How did you find out about that?"

     Quinn frowned. "My mom is a lawyer. When I was just a little girl and she was still in law school, she used to read me bedtime stories. One night she decided that it would save time if she just read her assigned reading to me. One of the assignments was this book, How To Read Juries. It started off with specific examples of signals that people use. I tried some, and they worked on everyone."

     Quinn grimaced at the memory of her mother patiently teaching her how to read and mimic various expressions. It had turned into a game. "I've been working on it ever since, learning new ones, and how to use them."

     "Oh! That's cool! Do you think that I could learn?" Elsie was astounded.

     Quinn scowled. "Are you sure that you want to? I basically trick everyone. When you start playing everyone like that it's hard to stop. It kind of... sucks."

     The only one that could really see through the act anymore was Daria. It was something that Quinn was oddly grateful for.

     Elsie didn't listen. "But... look at all those guys!"

     Quinn bit her lip. "Okay, but remember, you were warned. First, you still walk like a kid." Quinn strutted along for a few steps. "That walk works for me but I spent a lot of time perfecting it. You have to find yours."

     Elsie tried imitating Quinn. "Like that?"

     "No, that's mine. Yours will be different." Quinn shrugged. "I have a lot of different walks. It all depends on what I want someone to feel."

     "So you're an actress." It was really complicated. Elsie wondered if she could learn.

     "Since I was just a little kid." Quinn stared at Elsie. "You probably couldn't learn it all now. I started learning at about the same time that I started walking." She smiled. "It didn't hurt that I was already really cute."

     Elsie dropped her eyes. Quinn was right. She was cute, but just not in Quinn's class. She couldn't ever be as good. "All I want is for Kenny to notice me. I think that I can learn enough for that."

     "Watch Daria." Quinn smiled. "She's your best teacher right now. She's really into your brother and believe me, she has no idea that she's sending out signals like that. Try a few on this Kenny guy and he'll follow you like a lamb."

     "That's a good idea." Elsie smiled. "Thanks, Quinn!"

     "Think nothing of it." Quinn wondered what had happened to Sandi. The whole conversation was the sort of thing that the Fashion Club lived for.

     Sandi stole a glance at Charles, in the passenger seat. He looked nervous. "Do you remember, yet?"

     Charles swallowed. He remembered, but just didn't believe it. "Sort of." He averted his eyes. "I remember something, but it's all very weird."

     "Good!" Sandi looked over at him and laughed. "Yes, that's exactly what happened."

     "Barch was chasing me." Charles eyed her. "You saved me from a horrible fate, but almost killed me. Why?"

     Sandi shrugged. "Why do you think?"

     Charles looked at her. "I don't now what to think. I mean, women naturally hate me, especially the really hot ones, like you. Is this some kind of a trick?" He kept expecting the punch line, followed by the punch.

     Sandi smiled. "Maybe it's a treat." An instant later, she internally cringed. She couldn't believe what she'd just said.

     "It was." He looked at her, seriously. He was beginning to realize that women were human, instead of the animated sex-machines that he'd always lusted after. "I had a really good time tonight."

     'Me too." She stole a glance at him and flushed. "You dance so well." She'd had to use her death-glare on several potential rivals. Charles looked pretty good in a tux.

     He laughed. "There was a Mexican lady that took care of me when I was five. She taught me to dance. Her sister was a dancing school instructor and she wanted to be one, too."

     Sandi pulled over. "Kiss me?"

     Charles froze "What?"

     "Kiss me." Sandi smiled at him.

     "I never kissed anyone, before." He sat, frozen with a strange dread.

     "You have, but you don't remember." Sandi leaned over and kissed him. "See? It's easy."

     Charles blinked, but didn't say anything.

     Sandi frowned. "What's the matter?'

     "Ah... I er." Charles couldn't speak. He just grinned, with glazed-over eyes, his mind in overload.

     Sandi smiled with satisfaction. Unpopular or not, she was going to have a great year.

     Jane had never run so well. She was halfway up Heartbreak Hill, tackling it from the steep side, smiling and letting her runners high take her to new levels.

     Jane was happy. With Daria's help, her grades were coming up very quickly. It looked like she might be able to get into a good school.

     Even better, her art career seemed to be taking off. She had been making good money duplicating her mural for the locals. It had even been featured on the news. She had high hopes.

     Her feelings were mixed about other things. Brittany had shown no inclination to back off and Trent seemed to like it that way. Luckily, Trent had been on the road for the last few months. Brittany wasn't hanging around the house all the time. The squeaky blonde would keep her awake no more.

     Jane felt her exhaustion recede and her smile grew wider. She was totally over Tom, able to hang around with Daria and Tom without feeling resentful. Her friendship with Daria was just as deep as ever.

     Jane slowed her breathing. She had recently learned how to breathe again and it was paying tremendous dividends. She had never been able to push herself like this before. Her body was a finely tuned machine, and it felt very good to use it to the limit. She crested the hill and put on an enormous burst of speed, electing to take the long way, instead of her usual short cut.

     Morris sat at the bottom of the hill in her car, gaping after the girl in total disbelief. What she'd witnessed so far had shocked her. Jane Lane was clearly a runner of near-Olympic caliber. Morris had spotted the girl near the MiniMart, and shocked by her speed, had followed in her car, shadowing her. Jane had been running for over an hour and was moving even faster now than when she'd started.

     When Morris pulled out and reached the top of the long steep grade, the girl was already out of sight. Morris pulled over and picked up her cell phone. Her old mentor had to know about this.

     Daria lay on her bed, staring at a framed picture of Tom, trying to come up with an excuse to call him. He had just dropped her off, and what would she say? She didn't want to sound like an idiot.

     The phone rang and she snatched it up. "Hello?"

     Tom smiled. "It's me. I just thought that I'd tell you that I got home."

     Daria smiled. "I was just about to call you."

     "What were you going to call him?" Elsie, on an extension, once again took up the task of making her brother's love life difficult.

     "Elsie!" Tom frowned. "Get off of the line!"

     "Why?" Elsie smirked. "I locked my door. What are you going to do about it?"

     Tom had a cordless phone, so he went to her door and pounded. "Elsie! I swear, if you don't get off of this line, I'll...

     "Kenny." Daria waited.

     "Eeek!" Elsie hung up, with a loud click.

     "Who's this Kenny character?" Tom's frown deepened.

     "According to Quinn, Kenny's a boy that she has a crush on." Daria chucked. "You have to learn to manipulate your sister better, Tom."

     "Elsie has a boyfriend?" Tom's frown turned glacial. "She's only fourteen!" He beat on the door. "Elsie! Open up! We need to talk."

     Daria laughed. "Simmer down, big brother. Quinn had boys chasing her at fourteen. Elsie's every bit as pretty as her, and just as smart."

     A gasp was heard on the line.

     "Elsie!" chorused Daria and Tom.

     Morris stared at the spectacle in front of her and cringed. "Oh my God." The twenty or so overweight boys in the school were drilling out on the practice field, and it wasn't a pretty sight. She wasn't happy about it because it would probably thin them down fast and then she'd have to think about some sort of program for the girls. The trouble was that girls weren't as easily intimidated as boys. She could see some grief in her future.

     "Evan?" Morris called the boy over from where he'd been doing wind-sprints.

     "Yes, Ms. Morris?" Evan smiled at her, careful to project the correct emotion, even though he wasn't feeling very sociable right now.

     "Do you still like Jane Lane?" Morris waited, seeing by his flush that he did.

     "It doesn't matter. She hates me." Evan looked away, ashamed. He'd acted like a selfish child, confident that he could split her from her waspish friend and draw her deeper into his circle. Over the intervening year he'd watched them, wondering if they were more than just friends. He had finally been forced to admit that they were just very close, closer than sisters. He'd arrogantly come between them and she'd rejected him and her talent because of it. He felt about an inch tall whenever he saw her.

     Morris nodded. "So you do like her. Why do you give up so easily?"

     Evan shrugged. Jane was even more beautiful now, her athletic frame curved in just the right places. "I was an asshole."

     Morris laughed. "All men are assholes, Evan, but we like them anyway." She took a sheet of paper off of her clipboard. "Quitters never get anywhere." She handed him a printout of a map, with a rout marked and an arrow pointing at the top of Heartbreak Hill. "That's where she runs. If you picked her up right there, fresh, you might be able to keep up with her for a while."

     Evan stared at the map, shocked. "She runs that?"

     Morris nodded. "I clocked her, yesterday. She should be training for the Olympics." Morris frowned. Maybe she was.

     "And you want me to get her back on the team." He started to crumple up the map, then stopped, smoothing it out again. "Forget it. I'm off of the team."

     Morris shrugged. She'd trade a hundred Evan's for one Jane. "If you think that'll help."

     Buck smiled with satisfaction. His chubby platoon was doing well, it's members already starting to compete. He made them weigh in every morning and had posted their weights up on a board in the locker room. Beyond making them drill, he was letting them set their own pace. So far they had been fairly brutal on themselves, much more so than he would have been. The group dynamic was just too strong to resist.

     Buck caught sight of Thompson throwing footballs to Ruttheimer and his smile widened. Thompson had halted his academic free-fall, and was starting to show true leadership potential. Thompson needed Ruttheimer, and had harassed him into becoming a decent back. The trick was to keep Ruttheimer from simply throwing the ball away.

     Buck had commanded men like Ruttheimer before. It was always difficult. They could be an insidious threat to unit pride unless thay were properly handled. He usually made them into corporals, where they could use their devious nature on behalf of the unit. He'd could have offered Thompson a lot of good advice, but had withheld it. He'd been delighted to hear of Thompson's latest solution, which was to have the whole team dogpile Ruttheimer whenever he showed insufficient enthusiasm. The two cordially despised each other, but had little choice. Both boys had great potential, if they could absorb each other's strengths. It seemed to be working. Ruttheimer was toughening up and Thompson was wising up.

     Buck laughed when Mack Mackenzie walked out and gave them a cold stare. Things were going very well. He was nearly as good an athlete as Thompson now, but he still hadn't learned to be as unflinchingly ruthless. He was closing the gap though.

     "Buck?" Angela walked up and somehow refrained from touching him. As principal, she had to set an example.

     "Howdy, Angel!" Buck grinned. He'd been so lucky to find her. She understood him and liked him anyway. He doubted if there was another woman on earth that would.

     "There are a couple of Federal Agents that want to talk to you. They're waiting in the office." Angela left unsaid that she had stalled them to give him time to run.

     "Thanks, Darlin'." He watched his fatboys for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. They drilled well and their newly instituted training table would soon modify their eating habits. He didn't mind paying for the food if it helped turn his men into winners.

     "Did they say what agency they were from?"

     "No." Angela swallowed. "Not really. Are you in trouble, Buck?"

     He laughed. "I'm always in trouble, Angel. It's probably just the CIA again." Sometimes they had questions. They were usually polite about it, though. If he was ever called into court he could spill a whole lot of beans. The administration might fall.

     Angela accepted a kiss and watched him go with worried eyes. Turning back to the practice field, she smiled. He was a superlative PE teacher. As she watched, the overweight boys surrounded Kevin Thompson and began beating him up. Angela quickly turned away, a smile on her face. Buck was fun.

     Charles watched with a grin, egging them on as they pounded Kevin into the field. He'd been encouraging Kevin to taunt them. Now he didn't have to run patterns anymore.

     "Ruttheimer!" Mack snapped the ball at him.

     Charles looked up and just managed to catch it. "Hey!"

     "Come on, we still have to practice." Mack was surprised at the force with which the ball came back, but that didn't stop him from making the fuming Ruttheimer run patterns until he dropped from exhaustion.

     Jane sat at her usual table picking at her food, morosely watching Tom and Daria. She snorted. Daria was literally eating out of his hand.

     "God, this is awful." Nauseated, Brittany didn't know which was worse, the food or the company.

     Jane scowled. "Take your pills, Brittany." Over the last week Jane had noticed that Brittany got really cranky and whiney if she forgot her noon pills.

     "Oh!" Brittany smiled, wanly. The going was a lot tougher than she had ever let on to Trent. "I left them in my locker. Thanks, Jane." She left, abandoning her food.

     Jane sighed, watching her go. Trent called the Bimbo every day. She couldn't believe how shallow he really was, staying with Brittany just because of her looks. Unless some girl really swept him off of his feet she was afraid that she might end up with the Bimbo as a sister in law.

     "Excuse me, Jane. Do you mind if I join you? I'd like to talk with you for a minute." Evan stood with his tray, waiting to be raked.

     Jane reflexively opened her mouth to blast him, then hesitated. It wasn't like anyone else was lining up to eat with her. "Why not? Sit, but I'm still not going to join the track team."

     Evan sat. "Thanks." He looked at her until she raised an eyebrow.

     "See something you like? Too bad." Jane had thought about it, and come to the conclusion that all concerned had been jerks.

     "I want to apologize." Even sighed. "I acted like a spoiled little kid. I'm deeply sorry for what I said and hope that you can bring yourself to forgive me."

     Jane chewed, ruminating. "You always were pretty smooth." Jane smiled. "Memorized any more feminist pick up lines?"

     He laughed. "I have a lot of them, but there aren't a lot of feminists around here."

     "That's true." Jane watched him, carefully noting the poorly concealed nervousness. She decided that he was sincere.

     "I quit the track team." Evan saw that he'd succeeded in startling her.

     "Why would you do that?" Jane was done eating, but she didn't leave.

     "Morris talked to me about you." He looked away. "She wanted me to get you back on the team."

     Jane's eyes flashed, then she looked puzzled. "And so you quit?"

     Evan looked at her, shamefaced. "I blew it, Jane. I think you're great, but all that team spirit brainwashing screwed it all up for me. Morris just made me realize that there was more to life than running."

     "Not much more, but you're right." Jane smiled. "There's art and there's friendship."

     "And love." Even blushed and wished that he'd kept his mouth shut.

     She looked down at the table and then gave him a boldly challenging stare. "Since you don't have anything to do after school, do you want to come running with me today?" She'd show him a real workout. If he could shut up and keep up she might just let him tag along with her again, sometime.

     "Yes." Evan smiled back at her, suddenly feeling good again. "I'd like that." The sense of excitement that had all but disappeared from his life came roaring back.

     Brittany swallowed her pills and immediately threw them back up into the bathroom sink. Clutching her belly, she groaned. She got her cell phone out and hit a speed dial.

     "Hello, Can I speak to Karin? No? Well, I need to make an appointment then." Brittany waited, swallowing whenever she heaved.

     Sandi was sitting high up in the bleachers, watching Charles practice. She had a Waif, but she wasn't reading it. Ever since Stacy and Quinn had started blowing off the meetings, the Fashion Club hadn't been doing much.

     She laughed as Charles caught Mack's pass and wove his way through the defense, cleverly varying his speed so that they never quite intercepted him. Occasionally, he'd tweak a defensive lineman's nose, in passing.

     He smiled up at her and waved, then was hit hard from the back by Bill Brock.

     "Oh!" Sandi stood up, gasping, then saw that he was climbing to his feet.

     Charles gave her an embarrassed grin and shrugged.

     Sandi shouted, "Charles, be careful!" She blushed when all of the assorted athletic persons looked up at her. She wished that he would quit trying to impress her. Maybe she shouldn't have come.

     "I'm okay!" He yelled, smiling up at her. 'We'll be done in half an hour."

     She nodded and sat down. The team broke for agility drills, and Sandi finally started reading her Waif. There was a meeting tomorrow, if anyone showed.

     Dawn nudged Tricia. "Look who's here again."

     Tricia looked, then did a double take. "Sandi Griffin?"

     Dawn nodded. "She's got a thing for Charles."

     "Really?" Trish shrugged. Being on the team made him okay. Being good made him almost cool. "Maybe we should go talk to her. We're still one body short."

     Dawn frowned. "She's the president of the Fashion Club."

     Trish smiled. "I heard that they were getting cut. Ms. Li's all pissed off at them for wrecking that building on the gym roof."

     "Good. That'll mean more for us." Dawn stood. "Let's go talk to her."

     Sandi was reading about the new 'wet look' multi-tone lipstick when she felt the bleacher vibrate. She looked up to see Dawn Harris and Trish McNair approaching. Ordinarily she wasn't at all interested in the comings and goings of athletic persons, but her perspective had recently changed on a lot of things.

     Dawn smiled at her. "Hi, Sandi. Do you mind if we sit up here with you?"

     Sandi smiled back, eyes narrowed. "No, Dawn. I don't mind at all." She closed the magazine and prepared to do battle.

     "Charles is doing well. It's really nice of you to come out and show your support for the team." Dawn sat next to her on one side.

     "Yeah. We all like to get together sometimes and talk about how to help them." Trish sat down next to her on the other side. "We're meeting at the gym tomorrow, after school, if you want to join us."

     Sandi thought about it. The last couple of Fashion Club meetings had been so boring. Tiffany and the three freshmen were just like puppets. Maybe it was time to move on. "Sure, Trish, I'd like that."

     "Good!" Dawn felt elated. Sandi was ready to join! What a coup for the squad! This would be the last nail in the Fashion Club's coffin. Sandi would be one of them, very soon. Everyone knew that Sandi Griffin was the Fashion Club.

     Stacy looked around in irritation when Sandi called her name. She knew that another snooty lecture about missed meetings was coming. Didn't Sandi know that she had a life? Stacy smiled at Harry, John, George, Bill and Martin, excusing herself. Quinn had taught her well.

     "What." Stacy didn't have much time for Miss Priss these days.

     Sandi cleared her throat. "Stacy... I'm quitting the Fashion Club."

     "What?" Stacy blinked in shock. This was bad. It might affect her popularity. "But... we need you!"

     Sandi smiled, forlornly. "No one comes to the meetings, and I just don't have the... time, to make it happen any more." The truth was that she just didn't seem to care anymore.

     Stacy chewed her lip. "Oh... What if I showed up at every meeting?"

     "You'll have to." Sandi took out a little art-deco ceramic badge that had been made in the 1950's. "You're the new president."

     "But... What about Quinn?" Stacy swallowed, feeling like she'd been kicked in the belly. This, she didn't need. Being popular was great. Sandi had shown her how being a leader could make you really unpopular.

     "Quinn declined. We both decided that you were the best choice now, being so popular. You should be able to overcome it."

     Stacy made a panicked little sound and then caught herself. "Oh, that's just... peachy."

     Sandi took her hand and pressed the old badge into her palm. "This meant a lot to me. I hope that you can save the club." She turned to go and Stacy caught her by the shoulder.

     "You'll always be a club member, Sandi." Stacy let go. "Come to the meetings whenever you want. I'll never kick you out." Quinn was another story, setting her up for this and making her look bad. Maybe she could pass it back, once Sandi got over it.

     Sandi wiped at her suddenly watery eyes. "That means a lot to me, Stacy."

     Stacy smiled, artificially. Sandi had really lost her edge. She probably wasn't Fashion Club material anymore anyway.

     "Come back when you feel ready, Sandi. This badge is yours to take back whenever you want it." Stacy already knew that Sandi was gone for good. Unless her color-sense was off, and it never was, that was a corner of a cheerleader's uniform skirt peaking out of the bag that Sandi was carrying.

     "T-thanks." Sandi had to run for the bathroom, to avoid embarrassing herself. Tears were not fashionable.

     Brittany sat on the examination table, pale and shaking. "W- what?" It was her tenth repetition.

     Karin sighed. "Pregnant. You're pregnant, Brittany. Pregnant. With child. Expecting. Knocked up. About twenty days. For your own future reference, the morning sickness is a dead giveaway."

     Brittany slumped. "Oh, no!" That was when she'd visited Trent in Toledo.

     "Oh yes, Brittany. I warned you." Karin sighed. Drug interactions had forced Brittany off of her birth control pills. "We'll have to accelerate your therapy if you decide to keep it. I want all of your pills back. Now."

     Numbly, Brittany fished the bottles out of her pack. "But I didn't think that just that one... time." She flushed. It had been more like twenty. She had just been so excited to see him that she hadn't even given it a thought.

     Karin shook her head. "One time is all it takes. What are you going to do?" Brittany had been doing so well, too. Now she would have to do without the placeholder drugs. Fortunately, she was near the end of the regime anyway.

     Brittany blanched. "I've got to talk to Trent."

     Karin nodded. "You do that. Then you get straight back to me. I'll be testing you three times a week, so don't even think about backsliding."

     Brittany's eyes hardened. "I could have quit last month, but Trent keeps telling me to follow the therapy. I'd never let my baby be exposed to drugs."

     Karin had heard it all before and had seen some tragic things. "That's good, because if you do, I'll see you locked up."

     Brittany nodded, shortly. "I'll come in whenever you want me to."

     Angier sat at his desk, feeling another sinus headache coming on. He sighed, rubbing his temple and reaching for his medication.

     Feeling a sudden blossoming of intense pain, Angier dropped the pill bottle. This was bad. This was much worse than a simple sinus problem. The doctor had been wrong.

     "Kay!" Angier stumbled back, knocking over his desk chair as he felt the overstressed blood vessel burst. Despairing, he tried to call out, but he couldn't seem to move his jaw. Golden light seemed to flood the office and he collapsed across the desk.

     It just wasn't fair. Not NOW! It was too early! He still had too many things to do. The foundation would fall into Thorton's hands if he... His last sight was of Kay's stricken face, as she called to him. He managed to smile a farewell to her.

     The phone rang. Daria sat up in bed, fumbled for her glasses and then picked up. "Hello?"

     Puzzled and alarmed, Daria listened to the sobbing on the other end. "Who is this?" It couldn't be Quinn. She was in her room. Jane would never cry like that, would she?

     "D-Daria?" Elsie finally got some control back.

     "Elsie? What's wrong? Do you need me to pick you up or something?" Daria's sense of alarm exploded into something approaching a full-blown panic. This was really bad.

     "Is Tom there?" Elsie started crying again, small hopeless sobs.

     "No. Now tell me." Daria took a deep breath.

     "H-he ran away. Daddy's d-dead." Elsie hung up.

     Daria slowly hung up, stared mutely at the phone and then opened her window. Taking the rolled up rope ladder from under her bed, she hooked it over the windowsill and dropped it. A few long minutes later, Tom climbed in, tears running freely down his cheeks.

     Wordlessly, Daria hugged him, feeling tears soaking into her shirt. "I'm so sorry."

     He just held her. "He's gone, Daria. Now what am I supposed to do?"

     "We." Daria guided him to her bed and sat down next to him. "We're going to mourn, say goodbye and then move on. I thought about this a lot, when Dad was in the hospital. It's all that we really can do."

     He sobbed, once. "I still have you, Daria."

     "Yes." She drew him back into her embrace, and they lay together for a long time.

     Helen was coming up the stairs with a glass of water, when she heard something. It almost sounded like crying. Frowning in puzzlement, she realized that it was a man. She could hear Jake snoring away. This was someone else.

     She stood, her skin crawling, utterly unnerved for a long moment. She stiffened and decided that invading burglars rarely cried. The sound was coming from Daria's room. Slowly, she walked up to her daughter's door, careful not to let the floor creak. She placed her ear to the door, hearing Daria crying too. Just as she was about to burst through, someone spoke. She immediately recognized the voice.

     "I'm sorry for doing this to you." Tom shook with half suppressed sobs.

     "God, I love you, Tom." Daria held him, rocking him. "Let it out."

     "What a day. My father... I was just going to tell him..." Tom sighed, wiping ineffectually at his tears.

     "You're not alone, Tom." That was Daria's secret fear. "I'm here for you."

     Helen stepped back away from the bedroom door when her water glass slipped in her trembling hand and poured out onto her feet. She almost burst in on them, then decided that this had to be dealt with a little more carefully. It sounded like she was going to be a young grandmother.

     Quietly, she padded into her room, and closed the door. A few seconds later, Jake's snoring was abruptly terminated as she punched him in the nose.

     Tom cried himself out in Daria's arms. After an hour, he started to think again. He'd been on automatic pilot and had no memory of how he'd gotten to her.

     "My father died, Daria." Tom hung his head, guiltily. His father was dead and he was thinking about money. It was all so awfully shameful. "Uncle Thorton will get control of the foundation."

     Daria kissed a stray tear away. "What does that mean?"

     "It means that my sister and I will be lucky to have enough left to make it through college." Tom sighed. "A lot of innocent people are going to lose their money and their jobs."

     "Why?" Daria sat up on an elbow, looking down into his eyes.

     "The Foundation is... huge. It's a gigantic amount of power. When a fool is left in control of power, innocent people get hurt." Tom swallowed. "It's all set up so that a male Sloane heir has to control it." Tom gritted his teeth, hating himself for having to pressure her. This wasn't how he wanted to do it. "As of now, my uncle is the only qualified Sloane candidate, so he's automatically the chairman."

     "What about you?" Daria got another Kleenex and dried his tears.

     "Under the terms of the trust, I have to be married to serve on the board. Only board members are eligible." He looked at her, mutely pleading, but too dreadfully ashamed to ask.

     Daria felt her heart hammering and her blood thundering in her ears. "If that's the case... Tom, will you marry me?"

     Tom gasped, took her hand, and kissed it. Hoarsely, he said, "God, yes. I'd be honored, Daria. I was going to ask you in a couple of months anyway. I wanted to be with you at college."

     "I'd kind of hoped..." Daria smiled, shyly. "Stay with me tonight?"

     Tom managed to smile back. "Always."

     Jane groaned and looked at her clock. It was five thirty. After peering at her new caller ID, she answered her phone. "This better be good, Daria."

     "I need you to ditch school and come with me today. At seven. Bring Trent." Daria swallowed. "Me and Tom are going to get married."

     Jane wondered how her dream had taken such a radically different turn. "What?"

     "Married. At the courthouse, when it opens." She shivered. "We need three witnesses."

     Jane couldn't get her mind around it. "What?"

     "Seven AM, Jane. Do you think Trent will be able to get up?" Daria chewed her lip. "I need three witnesses. They have to be over eighteen."

     "Trent's not here. He's in Cleveland, opening for the tour tonight." Jane woke up a little. "Did you really say that you were getting married?"

     "Yes. I need three witnesses that can keep their mouths shut." Daria chewed her nail, nervously.

     "Married? To who?" Jane was still firing on two cylinders.

     Daria sighed. This could take until six thirty. "Ill call you back, Jane."

     Quinn mumbled and weakly pushed at the offending hand. "I'mupmom..." Her words ended with a soft snore.

     Daria yanked off her blanket, pulled up her shirt, shouting softly into her ear, "Waahaahaa! Pink belly!"

     "Ahhhh!" Quinn bolted upright, then scrabbled away, falling out of the other side of the bed. "No! Dar-iiii-a! You swore that you'd never do that to me again!"

     "Okay, I won't then... Sis. I need your help." Daria sat on her sister's bed, wearing a strangely luminous smile.

     Quinn frowned, then put on her robe. She could see that it was pretty serious. "You have a real funny way of asking. What do you want?"

     "I need you to ditch school this morning and come down to the courthouse with me." Daria blushed. "It so happens that I'm getting married this fine morning. I... want you to be there."

     Quinn gaped. "Whaaaa?"

     Daria sighed. "Here's the quick version. Angier Sloane died yesterday and-

     "Oh, no! Poor Elsie." Quinn swallowed. She had thought a lot about death, when her father was in the hospital and she felt a lot of sympathy. "But why are-

     "That leads us to the Sloane Family Trust." Daria took a deep breath. "Tom's uncle Thorton-

     "Ewww. I met him." Quinn shuddered.

     Daria nodded. "Then you can understand the problem. Thorton is the only surviving married male Sloane. Tom's great grandfather believed that his family would only endure if it had a strong male patriarch. He set the trust up so that all family members got plenty of money, but were under the financial heel of the head of the family trust. Only a married Sloane male can be chairman, and the chairman has almost absolute power once elected by the board."

     "Then he can like... cut Tom off?" Quinn still didn't understand.

     "No, but he can take billions and speculate with them, Quinn. He can cause almost unbelievable chaos for thousands, maybe millions of people. He proclaimed his willingness to 'shake things up' before his brother was even cold. He's going to get rid of the old board as soon as they elect him and install all of his crook buddies." Daria sighed. "It'll be a disaster."

     "But if Tom's married..." Quinn sat up. "Okay, then. Let's tell mom and-

     Daria bit her lip. "Kay isn't in any shape for this. She's in the hospital, under sedation. It wouldn't be fair to her to have a real wedding now." Daria looked sad. "This is just a legal maneuver. A very secret legal maneuver. The next board meeting is scheduled for Friday, the day after the funeral. Tom has to be married today to have a chance." Daria swallowed. This could be very rough on everyone. "We'll have the real wedding as soon as we can."

     Quinn thought about it, then gasped in horror. "Oh my God! We have to start now!" She bounced out of her bed and threw her closet door open. "Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod! I only have an hour and a half to get you ready!" Her brow creased in fevered concentration. Her sister was going to be dressed for a wedding, whether she wanted to or not.

     Numbly, Tom put on his tux. He'd woken at six in Daria's bed with a feeling of deep contentment. Then he'd remembered.

     After talking with Quinn, he'd slipped out and made his way home to dress. She'd convinced him to shoot for one o clock so that Daria would have a chance to be ready. It was just selfish of him to let his grief make a mockery of her wedding day.

     "What are you doing?" Elsie stood at his door.

     "Elsie!" Tom felt a deep sense of guilt. He was supposed to be her big brother, yet he'd run sniveling to Daria when things got tough. "I'm so sorry for not being here for you."

     "That's alright. Great Aunt Mildred came over." Elsie sniffled. Tom had been much closer to her father than she had ever been.

     Tom walked over and held her until her sobbing diminished. "I'm here for you now, Elsie. How's Mom?"

     "She's still out cold, in the hospital." Elsie sighed, then looked again at the tux. "Where are you going?"

     "What do you know about the foundation?" Tom tied his bow tie, getting it lopsided, fighting back tears. His father had always tied it for him, before.

     "Oh." Elsie shuddered, stepping forward to retie the tie. "Uncle Thorton."

     "I went to Daria and explained the situation. She proposed and I accepted." Tom smiled a sad smile at her. "We're getting married today, Elsie. Friday, I'm taking the chairmanship and the Foundation away from Uncle Thorton."

     A muted gasp came from the door.

     Tom looked up, surprised. "Aunt Mildred?"

     "I want you to know that I wholeheartedly approve, Tom." Mildred, Tom's great aunt, walked in, shouldered Elsie aside, retied his still-lopsided tie and hugged him.

     "Thanks." Tom was feeling a little bitter as the weight began to settle on him.

     "I knew that you would think of something." She despised Thorton and had met Daria at the anniversary party. A lot of anxious Sloanes had been watching the girl. "That man will ruin us all if he gets control."

     Daria tried to resist being jerked bodily into the bridal boutique, but Quinn was proving herself to be an irresistible force.

     "This is supposed to be a secret wedding, Quinn!" Daria shut her mouth as every woman in the shop swiveled her head to look at her.

     "Secret or not it should be a real wedding." Quinn hustled her in.

     "Trish!" Quinn found her friend from the beauty shop.

     Trish looked up from the display that she was changing in the front window. "Hey, Quinn. What are you doing here?"

     "Trish, this is my sister, Daria. She's getting married at one o clock." Quinn almost exploded from her surging adrenaline. She had so much to do. "She needs a dress, a veil and all of the accessories." Quinn looked at the small display. "That one, right there. It'll fit, as is."

     Trish bit her lip. The displays were a little better than what they usually sold, and ordinarily a dress had to be ordered months in advance. "I don't know if-

     "You owe me, Trish. Cough it up, or else." Quinn glared, projecting her threat.

     Trish nodded, knowing that she didn't have any choice. "Alright, Quinn. I sure hope that I don't get fired." She cleared her throat. "It costs eight thousand dollars."

     "Is cash alright?" Quinn had a monstrous wad of bills that Tom had shoved into her hand.

     Trish nodded and reluctantly took the cash.

     Neither girl noticed a pole-axed Barch ducking back into a fitting room.

     Tom looked at the bank teller, exasperated. "Look, all I want is my money. Take me into the back room, count it out and I'll say good day." Tom needed more cash. This was the third bank that he'd visited.

     The bank employee frowned. Was it a drug deal? "That amount in cash is a rather unusual transaction, Mr. Sloane. I hope you can understand my concern-

     "I have a limited amount of time, Mr. Matheson," Tom read from his nametag. "I intend to make a rather substantial purchase. Please, get on with it."

     Ed Matheson blinked at the little snot, posing in a tuxedo. Who did he think he was? James Bond? "Very well. Please come with me."

     Ed completed the transaction and then smirking, watched the kid leave. He chuckled and turned to the other teller. "Milo, I'm gonna make a ton of money today."

     "How's that?" Milo had laid low while Ed messed with the kid.

     Ed picked up the phone. "I'm calling narcotics. They'll take that wad off of him and I'll get ten percent."

     "You'll also get fired. Maybe with real fire." Milo had considered letting the fool do it, but the kid wouldn't be in a forgiving mood. He might just get them all fired.

     "How's that?" Ed hung up,

     "That's a Sloane, stupid. Didn't you look at his account details? They own the bank. He'd swat you like a fly." Milo shook his head and smiled at a new customer.

     Tom handed the jeweler a card with Daria's ring size on it and pointed at an enormous triple-diamond ring with an emerald setting. "That one."

     "That's thirteen thousand, five hundred and sixty dollars. How will you be paying, sir?" The jeweler smiled, ingratiatingly.

     "Cash. Can you have it sized right now?" Tom watched him with hooded eyes.

     The jeweler knew who he was. "Certainly, sir. I'll be happy to do it at once. I'll close up get right to it. It'll take about twenty minutes." His eyes fell on Tom's hand. "Will you also need a ring, sir?"

     Tom flushed. He was almost tapped out. "I'm glad that you said that. What do you have for two hundred?"

     The jeweler shrugged. "Well, I have some rings that are rather evocative of plumbing fittings, but that won't be necessary. Your credit is always good here, Mr. Sloane." He took a tray full of very expensive men's rings out from beneath a counter and sat them on the counter top.

     Quinn was sitting in the Sloane living room, completely exhausted. "Okay, everyone has a dress. Now what?" Jane had called and said that she had elected to go with a tux.

     "The Riverside chapel has an opening at two thirty. I reserved it." Elsie had pulled herself together and was helping.

     "Good!" Quinn dropped the phone book and began pacing, looking exactly like Helen at work. "Now, we need-

     "I need to eat. Is anyone else hungry?" Elsie hadn't eaten since the day before.

     "God, no." Daria looked slightly green and Quinn just shook her head.

     Quinn nervously chewed her nail as Elsie left. "I guess that's all- A photographer!" She frowned and looked at Daria. "Who do we know that's a photographer and can keep his mouth shut?"

     "Nobody." Daria sat in her wedding dress, white-faced, vampire bat sized butterflies in her stomach. "I just wanted to stop by the courthouse. It could all be over with already," she whined.

     "No way!" Quinn was getting a little angry. "You're getting married, Daria. We already bought the license. All that's left is the... symbol. You need to do it right."

     "Right? How can I do it right? I don't have Dad to give me away. I don't have Mom..." Daria felt a tear slip free. "We have to do it this way. It wouldn't be fair to Kay, otherwise."

     "As right as possible, anyway." Quinn sat next to her, then abruptly hugged her sister. "God, Daria, calm down. If you don't like it, you can always just divorce him."

     "Quinn..." Daria relaxed slightly. "I do love him."

     "Then what's the problem?" Quinn smiled. "It'll all work out in the end. It's really no big deal."

     Daria gave her a shaky attempt at a smile. "Thanks." The day was stressing her out to an unbelievable degree.

     The doorbell rang.

     "That's probably Jane." Quinn stood, reflexively. Getting caught hugging Daria would be so un-cool. She looked down at her terrified sister and then sat back down and hugged her.

     Jane came into the room. "Hey, Quinn. Where's Daria?"

     "She's, uh, hiding behind the door." Quinn's eyes were bugged out at Jane's costume.

     Jane turned, then gaped at Daria in the wedding dress. "Oh, my God, it wasn't a dream at all! Do I get to give away the groom?"

     "You already did." Daria smiled for the first time all day. "Will maid of honor satisfy you?"

     "I suppose, but I always wanted to give someone away." Jane smirked. "After all, the whole idea is a little outré."

     "What, being given away like a goat?" Daria shuddered. "How about if we just give each other away?"

     Jane shook her head, mockingly. "Don't do that, Daria. You might get arrested."

     Daria laughed aloud. "Like your development?"

     "Oooh. That hurt." Jane pouted, then brightened. "Hey, how about if I give you away? After all, you two wouldn't be embracing the shackles of this unholy bondage if it weren't for me."

     "Thanks for putting it that way." Daria looked at her friend, sidelong. "Okay, sure."

     "What!" Jane jumped, athletically. "Alright! I'm gonna be a father!"

     Daria wrinkled her nose. "Not to put it too bluntly, but I don't think so. That miniskirt is a little revealing when you jump around like that."

     Jane bowed. "The next show will be in ten minutes."

     Quinn sniggered. "Where did you get that outfit?"

     Jane twirled around, showing it off. It was a low cut lime green tuxedo top with a matching mini skirt and a pink ribbon wrapped top hat. "Like it? Penny got it back when she was dancing in Vegas." Jane flourished the hat. "I brought a bridesmaid's dress, just in case you didn't like it."

     "No, Jane, wear it. It's absolutely perfect." Daria started laughing and Quinn stared at them in bemusement.

     Jane smiled as she watched her friend laugh. She had known that Daria was tense to the point of spontaneous combustion the minute that she'd called.

     Elsie came into the room, teary-eyed. She didn't want to be a wet blanket but she felt so alone. "Hi, Jane. Nice outfit."

     "Thanks." Jane walked over and hugged her. "I'm so sorry to hear about your father. I liked him. What an awful nightmare."

     Elsie sighed. "It feels like one. A terrible, terrible nightmare that's never going to end."

     Jane looked at her, closely. "Hey, how are you holding up?"

     Elsie shrugged. "I'm in a daze."

     "If there's any thing that I can do to help, please tell me." Jane had always liked Elsie. She was a bit snobbish, but had a good heart.

     "Thanks, Jane." Elsie choked back a sob. "There's nothing that anyone can do." She left, not wanting to cry in front of them.

     Jane stared after her, a little jealous. At least Elsie had known the man. Jane wondered if she would be able to cry convincingly at her own father's funeral.

     "Poor kid. How's Tom doing?"

     Daria shrugged. "Shattered. Barely moving." She sighed. "He'll be alright. He's strong."

     Quinn perked up. "Hey, Jane, can you take the wedding pictures?"

     Jane shook her head. "I don't have any good cameras anymore since Vince came by and collected them. Besides, I'm going to be busy giving Daria away."

     "Who do you know that's a photographer?" Quinn chewed her lip. "We don't want to hire anybody local. They might call the paper or something."

     "Well, Ted DeWitt Clinton is in the photography club, but he can't keep his mouth shut." Jane thought about it. "Upchuck is the best photographer that I know."

     "Upchuck?" Quinn pursed her lips, thoughtfully. "Forget it. He'd tell Sandi and she'd tell everyone else. I'll make some calls."

     Tom punched in the phone number, hoping that his old friend would be in. "Mike?"

     "Hey! Tom!" Mike Hammond grinned. "How are things with you, roomie?"

     Tom decided not to burden Mike with the news yet. "Hey, man, do you have a tux?"

     "Sure, but I don't think it would fit you, Tom." Mike was an extra-large extra-muscular guy.

     "I need you to put it on and come to my wedding. I'm getting married today and I'm short a best man." Tom still couldn't believe that she would do this for him.

     Mike looked up from his draftsman's bench and saw his father talking to a building engineer. They were on a building site in Oakdale. Mike was acting as his father's assistant, taking a year off from school to see what the world of commercial development was all about. "Hey, sure. I'm honored, Tom. Who's the bride? You lucky dog, are you eloping with Daria?"

     Tom smiled. "Sort of. Do you remember Jane Lane? Jane's the maid of honor."

     "Really?" Mike thought of Jane. He'd been attracted, but she was unavailable, then. "Where and when?"

     Tom looked at the directions that Elsie had dictated to him over the phone. "The Riverside Chapel, on fifth and main, at two thirty."

     "Hey, I'd better scoot if I'm going to make it. See ya later!" Mike hung up and wrote the address down.

     Tom hung up and turned to Solly. "I sure hope that I'm doing the right thing."

     "Life is not always so convenient, Tom." Solomon Gold blinked, sadly. The boy was too young to assume such a tremendous, crushing burden. He faced a life of virtual slavery, utterly trapped by his family's enormous wealth. His childhood was irrevocably over.

     "Uncle Thorton is a menace to the family." Tom took a deep breath, squared his shoulders and then relaxed.

     "He is a menace to many families." Solly tugged at his own bow tie. He hated wearing a tux. "The people that he wishes to bring onto the board are pure speculators, beneath contempt."

     "So is he." Tom shrugged. "I may have no choice, but I was going to marry Daria anyway."

     "It's not so bad, then. I know that Angier would heartily approve." Solly smiled. "Be confident!"

     Tom shrugged. "The board could still vote for uncle-

     Solly interrupted him with a chuckle. "Don't worry about that." He'd endured Thorton as had the rest of the board, but no one respected the fool enough to seriously consider handing him the financial equivalent of an atom bomb.

     The organist looked at her watch, stubbed out her smoke and went in to prepare for the two thirty ceremony. As she passed through the door, she saw the minister putting lettering on the signboard, announcing the Sloane-Morgendorffer wedding.

     Helen paced angrily, raving. "Damn that judge! First he gives a continuance, then announces a delay, then he just disappears. Duck-hunting my ass! This just isn't kosher."

     Marianne swallowed. "You suspect that he's deliberately helping the other side?"

     Helen shook her head. "I'm not suggesting anything. Just because he used to work for them doesn't mean a thing." She looked at her clock and picked up her coat. "We won't accomplish anything more today. You might as well take an early lunch- No, just go home, Marianne."

     "Thank you, Helen." Marianne grabbed her coat and left while the getting was good.

     Helen watched her go, then smiled in satisfaction. Marianne wouldn't be telling Luanne any more horror stories about her boss. Gathering her own things, Helen decided to drop in on Jake and take him out to lunch. She had to get him ready to face becoming a grandfather.

     Daria stood clutching her new husband in the Sloane living room, looking apprehensively at her mother in law.

     "Did you just say that you two got married?" Kay's hair hung lank, as dull and lifeless as her face.

     "Yes." Tom swallowed. "We had to, Mom. Well, I had to. Daria just happened to love me enough to go along with it." He sighed. "I have to keep the foundation out of Uncle Thorton's hands, mother. He'd destroy everything."

     "You did it for the stupid money?" Kay briefly wondered if it could be annulled, then thought of Angier. A wave of grief submerged her and she stumbled.

     Tom caught her. "No, I did it because I love Daria and because she loved me back enough to propose after I explained our family's dilemma." Tom could tell that this might go badly.

     "I'm so very sorry, Mrs. Sloane." Daria hung her head. "I wish that-

     Without heat, Kay said, "You got what you wanted, Daria. I just can't deal with this now. Please go."

     Daria winced as Kay turned her back and climbed the stairs, looking and moving like an old woman.

     "Mom!" Tom spun in outrage, but Daria stopped him.

     "She's entitled to be bitter." Daria sighed. "It's a lousy situation, Tom. No one is going to be really happy about it. I might end up sleeping at Jane's tonight, if Quinn blabbed."

     "No, you'll stay with me. We'll get a room somewhere." Tom kissed her, then sighed. "What a week."

     "Will you be alright?" Daria looked at him, worriedly.

     Tom shrugged. "If my head doesn't explode from the stress." He swallowed. "I'm going to have to fill his shoes, Daria." Tom looked up, his face etched with distress. The crushing weight of it all was inexorably settling on him. "My father had big, big shoes. I just don't know if I'm up to it." Incipient tears shown in his eyes.

     "You're up to it. You have big, stinky feet." Daria smiled at him and tried one of Trent's favorite lines. "Trust me, Tom. Everything will be all right. I know."

     "Thanks." Tom visibly relaxed. "I love you, Mrs. Sloane."

     Daria swallowed. It was still a shock to her system. "I love you too, um... guy that I just... married."

     At the head of the stairs, Kay turned away and headed for her bed, feeling marginally better. The girl wasn't so bad and everybody needed someone.

     Helen came in with a sack full of greasy takeout fried chicken "Helloooo, I'm home. I've got dinner!"

     Silence answered her.

     Helen frowned, dropped her burden on the table and then climbed the stairs. She knocked and opened a door. "Quinn?"

     Quinn spun quickly, concealing the bridesmaid's dress that she was hanging up. "Mom?"

     "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. What are you doing with that?" Helen had quickly marked the abortive attempt to hide the dress.

     Quinn smiled, sweetly. "I'm just trying to make some more room." It was the truth.

     "Oh, alright." Helen hesitated, her maternal radar alerted, but lacking a solid return. "Have you seen Daria?"

     "She's with Tom." Quinn cast her eyes down. "His father died."

     "Oh no! Poor Katharine." Helen sighed sorrowfully, her daylong fury at Daria instantly dissolving as understanding came. "When did it happen?"

     "Yesterday. He had a stroke." Quinn remembered the hopeless look in Elsie's eyes and sniffled. "Death just sucks."

     Helen sighed. "He was so young. How is Tom?"

     "Not good." Quinn slumped. "He's feeling pretty bad. Daria... helped him."

     Helen nodded wisely, the meaning of the overheard conversation of the previous night coming clear. "When is the funeral?"

     "Thursday." Quinn sniffled. It was all so awful. Tom and Elsie's dad died and everybody was going to totally freak when they found out about the marriage. It was even worse, because Quinn knew that she would really miss Daria.

     "Those poor children." Helen sighed, thinking of her own narrow escape. If anything ever happened to Jake, she'd just fall apart.

     Jake came through his front door, pumped. He'd managed to land another new client. He'd found a great little niche helping e-businesses downsize and was making a fortune. "And Morgendorffer scores! Hey, alright! Roast Garlic chicken!"

     Helen came out of the kitchen in a frilly apron, smiling. She walked up and tenderly kissed him, trilling, "Hello, dear."

     Jake was immediately suspicious. Helen was nice, but she was rarely spontaneously nice. It was really scary.

     "Hi, Helen. You look um, lovely, tonight." He kissed her back and took a careful look around. What had he forgotten? Was it their anniversary? No, he knew that one. Was it her birthday? Jake quickly ran through the roll call and came up blank. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow.

     "Thank you, sweetheart." Helen held his hands and smiled radiantly at him. He was still so very handsome.

     Jake swallowed, nervously. This was bad. He was clearly in the very deepest of kimchee. "Ha! Huh... Boy, that chicken smells great!"

     "It's heart healthy, too." Helen lovingly caressed his cheek and took his attaché case. "Sit down, dear. Have a little of this red wine, before dinner."

     Cold chills chased their way down Jake's back. "Um, great! A martini sounds better though!"

     Helen's soft smile turned adamantine. "Don't be silly, dear. All of that poison is gone, now. A man in your condition needs to watch his diet."

     "What? Gone! My... condition?" Jake slumped into the chair and wondered what she'd heard.

     "Your heart, Jakey." She sat down across from him, capturing his fidgeting hands on the table. "We're going to have to pay much closer attention to your health, darling."

     Jake swallowed. Helen had gone crazy. This was a disaster. "But the doctor said that all I had to do was exercise and watch my sodium intake!"

     "Oh, Jakey." Helen went all teary eyed. "What does he know? He was a kid! What if you died? What would I do? What would we do?" Her eyes grew steely, pulsing with the absolute determination that made her a widely feared competitor in the local legal arena. "We can do so much better than that doctor. We can keep you alive. I'm going to get us a nutritionist to design your new diet and to teach us to eat healthily. And from now on, you'll be joining me for my power walks!" She smiled, sweetly. "Think of all the quality time that we'll share!"

     "Oh, God." With a terrible sinking sensation, Jake realized that no matter what had happened, he was going to suffer for it, for the rest of his life. "What's wrong, Helen?"

     "Angier died, yesterday. A cerebral hemorrhage, I understand." Helen looked at him with a fierce possessiveness.

     "But... he was my age!" Jake swallowed, feeling his heart beating. He'd liked Angier. "Oh, damn. Poor Kay. And the kids..."

     "The funeral will be on Thursday." Helen wiped at a tear.

     Daria stared nervously at the house. "Well, I'm going in, Tom. Wish me luck."

     "It's your home, not an invasion beach." Tom smiled at his wife.

     "It's their home, not our home." She kissed him, glad to see him smile. "Call me before you go to bed?"

     "Sure. You can come back with me, you know. We only really need to keep this from my uncle." Tom was a little worried about some of his uncle's associates. They might be the type to take action if they saw their boy losing the race.

     Daria shook her head. "One battle at a time, Tom. When they find out, It's going to be brutal. You need to say goodbye to your father and try to save what you can before dealing with all of this other crap."

     Tom smiled in appreciation, then hung his head. "God, Daria, I don't like this. This is your wedding night and you're going to spend it alone."

     "I never do anything like other people. Why start now?" She smiled at him. "Your mother was right. I got exactly what I wanted. It's going to be okay, Tom."

     Tom nodded. "Me too." He looked at the house. "Okay, are you ready to resume your cover identity, Mrs. Sloane?"

     Daria smirked. "Call me double oh six sixty six, Mr. Sloane. See you."

     "The number of the best." Tom gave her a brief hug and watched her exit the car and walk to the front door, forcing down the urge to call her back and leave. Things were bad, but he'd manage.

     Daria cautiously opened the door, half expecting to see her bags packed in the hall. Curiously, everything seemed normal. Quinn was upstairs on the phone and her parents were on the couch... being affectionate.

     Daria walked by quickly, eyes averted. At least they had their clothes on, this time. "Hi, Mom, Dad. Me oh my, it's time for bed."

     Helen broke free from Jake. "Daria! How is Tom holding out?"

     Daria stopped and looked at them nervously. "He's grieving, but he'll be alright. I'm more concerned with Elsie."

     Jake shook his head. "Poor girl. We've sent our condolences. When is the funeral?"

     "Thursday." Daria sighed and headed up the stairs. The funeral was another ordeal to endure. The need for secrecy would end by Friday afternoon, after the scheduled board meeting. Tom would be chairman or not. Either way, she was going to start wearing her ring.

     Quinn sat yawning in class, trying to pay attention to DeMartino's ranting lecture. She had only gotten three hours of sleep and it was hard going. Daria hadn't been able to sleep either and they had sat out in the back yard talking late into the night. Daria had wisely decided to take a sick day.

     The PA crackled to life, ordering her to the office.

     "Hi Quinn."

     Quinn jerked awake. She'd fallen asleep on the office couch. "Sandi? What are you doing here?"

     Sandi flushed. "I got sent to the office for a PDA."

     Quinn laughed. "I hope it was worth it." Public displays of affection had been banned on school grounds, once Brittany had left Kevin.

     Sandi swallowed. "I wasn't... I pulled a muscle in my... leg and he was just rubbing it." Charles was an excellent masseur.

     Quinn smiled, knowingly. "That's what you get for becoming a cheerleader."

     Sandi nodded. "I blame Andrea."

     Quinn shook her head. "Dawn and Serena are all healed up and walking normally. You were the one that decided to turn jock."

     Sandi shrugged. "At least I don't have to hang around with Tiffany anymore."

     Quinn looked at her, pensively. "Stacy's been making her eat a big cheeseburger for lunch every day. She has her watched afterward so that she can't get rid of it. She was getting really thin."

     Sandi nodded. "I used to do that, sometimes. She's totally anorexic. You should have seen her back in grade school though. She was chubby and seemed to be a lot smarter." Sandi shuddered. "She freaks me out. She's crazy."

     Quinn shook her head. "Thin and dumb is the stereotype. She just did a better job of making herself into it than we ever did." She paused, thoughtfully. "Maybe she's really smarter than we are."

     Sandi shrugged. "She used to help me out with my math homework." She looked at Quinn, evaluating. "I guess that you were the first of us to break out of all that. What happened?"

     Quinn sighed. "Do you remember David?"

     Sandi ran through all the Davids that she knew and came up blank. "Which one?"

     "Our tutor." Quinn smiled, dreamily.

     "David the geek?" Sandi winced at Quinn's expression. "Sorry. Like I can talk."

     Quinn eyed her, frowning. "I kind of fell in love with him."

     Sandi sat up, shocked. "Really? Do you ever go out with him?"

     Quinn sighed. "No. I asked him out, but he thought that I was too shallow. He's at Princeton now." She brightened. "We write to each other a lot. He's still tutoring me and he thinks of me as a friend."

     "Just a friend?" Sandi suddenly felt sorry for Quinn. The last of her old resentment faded away.

     "We talk about everything." Quinn smiled, wickedly. "In two years I'm going to show up there as a freshman. I'll have a GPA like Daria's and a body like a supermodel's. He'll come around."

     Sandi spoke without thinking. "What if some other girl gets him first?"

     Quinn's eyes grew hard. "Then I'll take him back. I don't think it'll happen though. He had a girlfriend that he dated all through high school. She's nothing special, but she dumped him for a jock the minute that she lost some weight. I don't think that he's dated since."

     Sandi blinked. "How would you know?"

     Quinn smiled again. She arranged to bump into David's mother fairly often. "I have my sources."

     Li turned off the microphone and sat for a moment, thinking. She had heard a rumor from her hairdresser that Tom Sloane had gotten married. When Daria turned up absent, it hadn't taken her long to put it all together.

     She buzzed her secretary. "Send in Quinn Morgendorffer." It was time to find out what was going on with Daria.

     Brittany looked at the pile of loose parts and frowned. The exercise machine was fiendishly difficult to assemble. "Stupid abdominator!" She looked at the instructions again, then sighed. It was impossible. The thing was suppose to be good for exercise during pregnancy, so she'd bought it.

     Once again she wished that Trent wasn't on the road. She was trying to get up the guts to tell him, but it was hard going. She knew that she should call him and blurt it out but she was just dithering, terrified that he might dump her.

     "Britty-honey!" Ashley-Amber strode into the room, smiling. Come look at the car Stevie bought me! It's a restored 66 Mustang convertible!"

     "Cool! Let's go for a ride!" Brittany enthused, happy to get away from her worries. Ashley-Amber was still her best friend. She didn't mind her father spending money on her at all. The amount that she'd given him for his vote had enabled him to buy lots of new toys and expand the house.

     Brittany was riding with Ashley-Amber, laughing over the speeding ticket that they'd somehow avoided. The cop had spent ten minutes chatting, angling for a date instead.

     "Anyway, I got that abdominator and-

     "Ooh! You mean the one with the little wheel thingie?" Ashley surreptitiously felt her own taut belly, then smiled.

     "Yeah, but anyway, I can't figure out how to put it together." Brittany sighed. She wanted to look really good during and after her pregnancy.

     Ashley knitted her brows in concentration. "Oh, that's easy! Just get a man to do it for you!"

     Brittany looked at her, uncertainly. "Well... Um, Trent's not here and I really don't want to make him do stuff like that anyway." She didn't like to waste a lot of time when Trent was in town. There were much better things to do than stupid little chores.

     Ashley shrugged. "Get someone else to do it."

     Brittany looked thoughtful. Upchuck was probably the only guy that she knew who was smart enough to do it right.

     "Maybe. But I don't think it's right."

     "But... isn't that what they're for?" Ashley blinked.

     "What?" Brittany was lost.

     "Men." Ashley looked confused. "You know, we... do stuff, and they... do everything else."

     Brittany frowned. Had Ashley always been so dumb? "So how about us? What 'stuff' are we supposed to do?"

     Ashley giggled, her eyes wicked. "You know."

     Brittany closed her eyes. Ashley was fun to be around, but she was definitely an airhead. When she opened her eyes again, they were at a traffic light near the Pizza King. Looking through the glass windows, she saw Jane.

     "Ashley, I've got to talk to Jane. I'll see you at home." Brittany exited the car before Ashley could answer and ran for the restaurant.

     Ashley stared after her, then pulled away, wearing a vapid smile. It was funny how Brittany was turning into such a brain all of the sudden. Ashley just hoped that Brittany wouldn't have to start wearing glasses.

     Jane took a bite of pizza and then sat it down. Her stomach hurt. Daria was married, no one knew and all of this endless waiting for the fecal material to hit the rotating airfoil was driving her toward a nervous breakdown.


     "Ahh!" Jane lept halfway out of her seat and then sagged. "God, Brittany! What do you mean, sneaking up on me like that?"

     "S-Sorry." Brittany looked at her, uncertainly, a plate with a pizza slice in her hand. "Do you mind if I sit with you?"

     Jane shrugged. "Do whatever you like." Jane had promised Trent that she would try to be nice, but she wished that Brittany would take a damn hint.

     "I want to talk to you." She sat, then smiled. "What do you think of the Milwaukee show?"

     Jane scowled. "I don't think much of it at all. I haven't heard a single word from Trent since he left."

     "Really? He got some great reviews. Monique's getting them on the radio. I'll remind him to call and give you his phone numbers." Brittany was about to blurt out that he called her twice a day, when a new and alien thought struck her. Maybe she should keep her mouth shut.

     Jane shrugged then unwillingly said, "Thanks. I miss talking to him."

     "Um. I... well, I'm flying over to visit him this weekend." Brittany sighed. She was dreading telling him, but she wanted to see him. She got bored when he was away. She couldn't wait until school ended and she could be with Trent forever.

     Brittany cast around for conversation to fill the sudden silence. "How is Daria doing?"

     Jane thought about it and then shuddered. "Ask her for yourself. Here she comes."

     Daria walked up to the booth and sat. "Has anybody seen my sanity lately? I seem to have lost it."

     Jane shrugged. "Maybe it ran off with Brittany's common sense."

     "And Jane's good nature." Brittany smirked at their surprise. She was beginning to play on their level.

     Daria looked at the clock and swallowed. "T minus twenty and counting."

     "The funeral?" Jane looked grim.

     Daria nodded. "My parents are going and Kay will be there. She might say something. I'd rather put that off for as long as possible."

     Brittany opened her mouth to ask what was going on, then decided to listen, instead.

     Jane shrugged. "I'll bet that she doesn't."

     "Why?" Daria was quick to grab onto any scrap of hope.

     "Because she just won't care." Jane sighed. "Kay loved Angier, Daria. She'll barely be functioning, tomorrow."

     Daria looked down, eyes wet. "If it was Tom..."

     Jane sighed. Daria had lost it. "You must really love him."

     "I married him." Daria shrugged. "I wouldn't marry someone that I didn't love."

     Brittany gaped.

     "I know." Jane had always admired Daria's integrity.

     "You got married?" Brittany blinked, wondering if it was some elaborate joke.

     "Yesterday." Daria looked at her carefully. The new Brittany seemed to be a fairly solid person. "It's a secret, though."

     "I just hope it's worth it." Jane sighed. "So, how did he propose?"

     Daria eyed Brittany. She wanted to keep Trent in her life as a friend. Clearly, nothing short of a divine intervention or bimbocide on Jane's part was going to keep Brittany from landing Trent. That meant that Brittany was going to have to become a much closer friend.

     Daria took a breath. "He told me what was happening. I proposed to him."

     "Wow," breathed Brittany, her face going slack. Thoughts of a secret marriage to Trent were dancing through her mind. Maybe she could convince him when she flew in to see him.

     "Forget it. I'll rip off your head and spit down your neck if you do." Jane glared at her over the table. "Believe me, you'll never see it coming."

     Brittany started. Jane had read her mind! "Don't count on it... Sis." She smiled at the furious brunette. She just knew that Jane would come around. Besides, it was a little too late. Jane didn't really have anything to say about it.

     "Cut it out!" Daria blushed and looked around at the suddenly silent restaurant. "Please... don't stress me out. I'm afraid that my hair will start falling out in clumps if it gets any worse."

     Jane nodded grudgingly and changed the subject. "I went running with Evan today."

     Daria looked surprised. "Really? I thought that you hated him."

     Jane shrugged. "Hate, love... whatever. He runs really fast and looks really good."

     "Evan." Brittany smiled, teasingly. "He's a popular guy. Not as popular as a football jerk, but still pretty popular."

     "Oh, I'll take care of that."   Jane smirked. "I'll just work my art-chick voodoo on him, drag him down to the same level as the rest of us mortals, drain the husk and then discard him on the trash heap of his broken dreams."

     Daria smiled. "Same old Jane."

     Brittany laughed. "I hope you're ready, Jane."

     "What's that?" Jane looked puzzled.

     "Well, Trent's starting to get famous. You're going to be a celebrity's sister which makes you very cool." Brittany beamed at her. "You'll be really popular."

     "Great." Jane scowled. She didn't want Daria blowing an artery so she just shut up and ate her pizza.

     Brittany's smile winked out and she heaved. "Ugh! Oh, God! This pizza is too greasy! It's making me sick!" She ran for the bathroom.

     Jane watched her go, with a wrinkled brow. "She sure has been puking a lot, lately."

     Quinn sat at the dinner table and pushed food around on her plate. She didn't like keeping secrets and this was a BIG one.

     "How was school today, Dear?" Helen smiled and spooned more Brussels sprouts onto Jake's plate.

     Quinn shrugged. "Okay." She'd just woken up and was a little disoriented. "What are these things?"

     Helen smiled. "Brussels sprouts and salmon steaks. Try it, it's really heart-healthy."

     Jake stared at his plate. He hated fish. "These things look and taste like little green rubber balls. Can't we have some lasagna or something? Hey! I could heat up some stew!"

     Daria smothered a giggle and ate her fish. There were some things about home that she would miss.

     Helen glared at him. "Are you saying that you don't appreciate my cooking?"

     Jake blinked in alarm. "Why... no! I love these things!" He started gobbling down the undercooked vegetables.

     Helen gave him a martyred look then turned to Daria. "Are you feeling better?"

     Daria nodded. "I just had some cramps." She was still so stressed that she could barely keep a thought in her head.

     "I took the liberty of buying you both mourning outfits for the funeral tomorrow." Helen looked at Daria guiltily. "You didn't have anything really appropriate. I'm sorry if I overstepped-

     "Thanks, Mom." Daria methodically chewed her food, then looked up when the silence stretched out for too long. Helen and Jake were both staring at her, open-mouthed.

     "I... didn't have anything suitable, so thanks." Daria looked appealingly at Quinn, who winked and began chattering about her social life until she had driven Helen and Jake into a defensive stupor.

     When the table had been cleared, Daria retreated to her room for a quick round of nail biting, but was soon joined by Quinn.

     "Li knows." Quinn, tired of knocking, had simply entered and sat down on Daria's desk chair.

     Daria rolled over on her bed, removing her face from the pillow. "What?"

     "Someone saw us at the Wedding Boutique." Quinn sighed. "Li promised to keep quiet, but she wants to talk to you. She's really worried about that National Merit Scholar contest."

     Daria groaned. "Oh, God, more crap to worry about. Does it ever end?"

     Quinn smiled and shook her head. "I don't think so, Daria. Not until you die."

     Daria hung her head. "That could be soon. I should call Tom, but I just want to hide." The whole thing seemed unbelievable.

     Quinn nodded, unsurprised. "I'm going to go try on the black dress. You try on yours and call me when you have it on." She looked at her sister with a sad expression. "You're part of their family now. You need to look respectable for the funeral."

     Daria eyed her and then sighed. "Quinn, I'll always be your sister, you know."

     Quinn nodded and quickly left.

     Daria stared after her in shock. Quinn had looked almost like she was fighting back tears.

     Jane ran up the hill, trying to ignore the sound of Evan fading painfully behind her. She wanted to think, not talk. Evan had to learn how to take a hint.

     She was feeling pretty upset. The touching family scene at the Sloane mansion had filled her with a sense of futile shame. She'd been unable to keep herself from imagining her own future. Trent and probably Penny would find reasons to beg off and not even show up for Vincent's funeral.

     Jane couldn't decide if she would bother to show up herself. She'd done her dead-level best to imagine that it was Vincent lying in the funeral home, but she'd found herself largely indifferent to the prospect.

     Thinking about Daria, Jane hoped that things would work out for her, even though the odds against it were staggering. Not that it really mattered. Jane knew that Daria had never expected much in the way of happiness. It wouldn't take much to satisfy her. Just unflinching honesty and total devotion. Poor, poor Tom.

     Trent... was a lot like Vincent. Angered by her unwilling conclusion, Jane put on a burst of speed, ditching Evan. Her brother, whom she loved more than any other living being, was fatally flawed. He was a dreamer and a drifter, a man who could never be content with an ordinary life.

     His apparent drift was as inexorable as an icebreaker's passage. Trent would never give up on his music. Not for love and not for money. Not even if it meant a life of busking in a park somewhere.

     Jane ground her teeth and wished that he'd never played a note. Brittany was just another idiot's compromise in an idiot's life. He didn't want a girl that he could love more than his stupid band, so he'd passed over Daria for a simpleton like Brittany. She was good looking, nice, friendly and undemanding. He would spend the odd moments of his life not taken by his muse with someone that he was fond of, instead of someone that he really loved.

     Jane blew out a breath. What would she do? Trent had no more time to be with her. His life was getting more complicated, drawing him farther and farther away. Brittany was aggressively moving in to fill any gap, and Trent would...

     Jane halted, in shock. Brittany was right. She was blazingly jealous. Was she really so pitifully lonely that she couldn't bear to part from her brother? What would become of her?

     "God, Jane, I never saw anybody move like that in my life." Evan ran up and then jogged in place, grinning at her. "That was an awesome run. Thanks for waiting for me."

     Jane ran an appraising eye over him. "Eh. What the hell. Come on, slowpoke, My house is right over there. I'll buy you a glass of water."

     Quinn slipped on her robe and stepped out of her room. Glancing at the hall clock, she knocked at Daria's door. There was no answer, so she entered. Daria was deeply asleep.

     Quinn walked up to the bed and hesitated, then smiled. This would probably be the last time that she ever got an opportunity for revenge. Stealthily pulling the blanket away, Quinn struck.

     "Wahaahaaa! Pink belly attack!"

     Daria gave a bloodcurdling shriek and catapulted herself out of bed.

     "Good morning! That was your wake-up call." Quinn smiled, brightly and turned to go.


     Quinn stopped, and turned. "Yes?"

     "I will take revenge." Daria's voice was sepulchral.

     Quinn smiled back, evilly. "No you won't. You're not gonna be here."

     Daria looked shocked, but rapidly recovered her poise. "I'll think of something."

     "I don't think so, Daria. That was probably the last chance that either of us will ever have for that kind of revenge." Quinn smirked. "Just think, all those years of fighting, all over with after today."

     Daria looked slightly upset. "Wow."

     Quinn waited until it had sunk in. She chose her moment for maximum effect. "So guess what? I win!"

     Daria blinked, then launched herself after her sister, but the wily Quinn had snatched up her glasses and was easily able to evade Daria's blind charge.

     The service was relatively small, with only the immediate family and a few close friends in attendance. Jake and Helen felt out of place and stayed in the background. Quinn sat with Jane.

     Daria had also started to sit with Jane, but Tom had come for her. Wordlessly taking her hand, he'd led her to sit with the Sloane family. No one had commented. Daria was very grateful that she had the right dress for the occasion.

     A few reporters sniffed around, eyeing her, but it was a low-key affair. Angier Sloane had been well liked and no one wanted to cause a problem at his funeral.

     Thorton Sloane came late, left early and appeared somewhat inebriated. He smiled throughout the service and didn't notice a thing.

     Daria was standing with Tom, watching him accept condolences from various friends of the family. She was making appropriate noises and trying to look inconspicuous. They stood in the shade cast by a massive wall of flowers, arrangements sent by various Sloane business associates.

     Solomon Gold sadly shook his head. "I do not envy you at all, Tom. Angier was in the midst of some fairly complex transactions." He gave Daria a penetrating stare.

     Tom nodded, jerkily. "I've been looking through the books. We're in a really liquid hang-time situation. Everything is in short term accounts."

     Solly smiled. "I have great confidence in you." He turned to Daria. "And in you, Mrs. Sloane."

     Daria gave him a weak smile. "Please, call me Daria. I hope that I don't disappoint everyone. I don't know a thing about money."

     Solly nodded, seriously. "You have integrity and intelligence. The rest will inevitably follow." He cleared his throat. "Tom needs personal stability to carry this great burden. I have noticed your efforts to shield him from stress. Already you are proving to be quite the valiant wife, Daria. I'm sure that you're marriage will be a stable one."

     "God, I sure hope so." Tom smiled at her. "There was no prenup, you know."

     Daria blushed. "If you only knew how scared I am. I haven't even told my parents."

     Tom put his arm around her. "Later today, Daria. We might as well get all of the unpleasantness over with in one lousy day."

     Daria eyed him, thoughtfully. He didn't know her father very well. "I don't think so. Let's wait until after the board meeting. Dad's going to go insane and you don't need to deal with that right now."

     Solly's eyes widened. "Oh dear."

     Helen stepped out from behind the wall of flowers and fixed wide, shocked eyes on her daughter. "Daria, Tom, we need to talk. Now."

     Quinn, talking to Elsie, saw her mother's expression and decided to disappear for a good long while.

     "So I said yes. We got married the next day." Tom fidgeted uncomfortably on the Morgendorffer sofa.

     Helen hadn't blinked in ten minutes. Daria had just become legally entitled to half of all of Tom's future income and she was still counting. "But..." She held her head in her hands, her mixed feelings battling it out, then with visible effort, pulled herself together. "You'll have to have a real ceremony, very soon."

     Tom smiled. "Of course, Mrs. Morg-

     "Look, Boy, you might as well start calling us Mom and- Jake remembered Tom's bereavement at the last moment. "Jake." Jake sat, fury radiating from him like heat distortions off of molten steel.

     "Yes, sir." Tom swallowed, wondering if he was going to escape with his life. "I'm deeply, deeply sorry to have caused any-

     "It's done. Let it lie," grated Jake. He stood, jerkily holding out his hand and gritting his teeth in a horrible caricature of a smile. "Welcome to the family, Son."

     "Eep!" Daria hoped that she wasn't about to become a widow. Jake looked positively evil.

     Tom swallowed. "Thanks, um, Jake." He stood and with tremendous courage, allowed Jake to take a crushing grip on his hand. The only evidence of the pain was his white face.

     "If you break her heart, I'll break your legs." Jake said it as a matter of simple fact.

     "Dad!" Daria flushed and dragged Tom back out of range. "Come on, let's go."

     Tom gasped in relief. Jake's hands were making awful little ripping and tearing motions.

     "Um, bye!" Tom allowed Daria to yank him out of the house.

     "No, Jake." Helen stood in front of him. "Your heart-

     Jake scowled. "My heart is fine, Helen. My beautiful precious daughter, the apple of my eye, just eloped with thirteen billion dollars. I need a damn stiff drink, followed by lots more. Just give me some time alone to come to grips with it all."

     Helen bit her lip, feeling much the same urge. "Well, okay. But you take a cab." Tom and Daria had just left for the Sloane mansion, to visit Elsie, or so they said.

     Jake nodded and went to call his cab.

     Helen poured a cup of coffee and sat down at the kitchen table, her face solemn.

     Jake, seeing his cab pull up, walked by and kissed her goodbye. "Be strong. We'll get through this."

     "Yes, Dear." Helen watched him get into the cab, then jumped for the phone. She punched the pre-set for both of her sisters and her mother, setting up a conference. It was time for some major, major gloating. In your face, Rita! Helen thought, grinning. This was going to be so sweet.

     O'Neill and Barch sat at their table and tried to ignore the rowdies at the bar.

     "Maybe we should have gone to the Golden Wok instead." O'Neill winced at the loud laughter and occasional obscenities coming from the bar side of the lounge.

     Barch pursed her lips. "Are those pigs bothering you, Timmy?"

     O'Neill sighed. He hated being called Timmy. "No, Janet."

     "Well they're bothering me!" Barch sprang to her feet and headed for the bar. She hated the very idea of a gang of rogue males being free to inflict their odiousness on as refined a person as Timmy.

     DeMartino took aim and blew away another target. "Ha-ha! Eat lead, Dink!"

     Jake, in passing, leaned in and took a careful look. "Aren't those suppose to be Marines?"

     "Huh?" DeMartino looked closely at the video game. "Yaaa! They are! What kind of SICK game is this?"

     "'DOOM.'" Jake finished off another ten-ounce martini and signaled for another round. "What I don't get is all the devils and monsters."

     DeMartino stared at the screen, shrugged and then erupted into a frenzy of simulated gunplay. "Dung lai, Mr. Charley! It's time to rock and roll!"

     Barch walked up and put her hands on her hips. "Well, what do we have here? It's the poster boy for post traumatic stress syndrome and his pathetic sidekick, Mr. Helen Morgendorker."

     "What? Jake turned, looked at her, then grimaced. "Oh, It's you. The butch man hater that flunks all the boys, right? Well, bug off. I'm getting drunk here and my good friend Anthony is shooting Dinks. Or something."

     DeMartino cackled, crazily. "Mr. Morgendorffer, that word is usually spelled with an I."

     Jake thought it through and started laughing.

     Barch flushed, drew back a foot and then thought better of it. "Why you male-

     "Janet!" O'Neill had followed her in. "Good evening, Anthony. Mr. Morgendorffer."

     "Well, well, yet MORE colleagues." DeMartino grimaced in distaste.

     Barch jabbed a finger into his chest, making him grunt and back up. "Listen here, Mister 'forgets where he is and tries to call for an air strike on the PA system-'"

     "JANET, WILL YOU PLEASE JUST STOP IT!" O'Neill waved his arms ineffectually, terribly distressed. "I'm a man, Janet. You can't hate all males and still love me. It's just not possible. It means that you're either lying to yourself about who I am, or else you're lying to yourself about who you are!"

     Barch made a shocked little noise.

     He looked at her, sadly. "Janet, my love, when will you finally let go of this anger?"

     Barch was staring at him, swallowing. "You- She turned and ran out of the bar.

     O'Neill followed, then came back in, looking dejected. "She left."

     DeMartino laughed and waved at the bartender, pointing at O'Neill. "Good! Have a drink! Believe me, you're better off without her."

     O'Neill shook his head despondently. "Janet is a lovely woman. She's so nice when she's not angry. She's like a completely different person." He sat, absently taking a martini from the bartender. "What will I do?"

     "You only think that because she's so good in bed." DeMartino waved his arms expansively, indicating the wider world around them. "There's plenty of women, Timothy! Women without battle scars and mental problems!" He sat silently for a second and then brightened.

     "How about Ms. Defoe? Now there's a real woman!" DeMartino sighed and lowered his voice slightly from its usual harsh bellow. "She's got a sweet temper and she's so beautiful that I keep expecting birds to fly down and light on her fingers. Best of all, she hasn't got severe mental problems, like EVERBODY else that I know."

     O'Neill gaped at him. "Have you told her how you feel, Anthony?"

     "What?" DeMartino shook his head. "Wise up, Timothy. I'm fifty-one years old." Moodily he took a drink. "Besides, Barch is right. I'm a little bit dinky dau, from the war. I wouldn't inflict that on any woman, let alone a woman I actually cared about, like Claire."

     Jake was looking into his drink, grimacing. "Gah dammit! Enough touchy feelie girly shit! I just wanna kill Tom Sloane!"

     Anyone that had known Mad Dog Morgendorffer would have been running for the hills by now.

     O'Neill tore his worried face free from Anthony and looked at Jake. "Then it's true?"

     Jake growled, the homicidal gleam in his eyes making both men step back. "That filthy-rich little snot stole my baby! They're too young! He's going to break her heart! I'LL TEAR HIS EVIL BLACK HEART OUT AND EAT IT!"

     DeMartino's eyebrows lifted. "That kid did something to Daria?"

     "He married her. Yesterday." Jake's face was murderous. "They eloped."

     DeMartino slowly nodded. "I thought that he looked like a smart kid."

     "Not smart enough." Jake chuckled nastily. The more he drank, the more simple and elegantly logical the solution to his troubles seemed. All he had to do was rip the boy's head off. Then Daria would come home and everything would be back to normal.

     "Hey, don't kill your son in law." Buck stepped up to the bar, nodding a hello to Anthony. "He seems like a really nice kid to me."

     Unnoticed, Jake crushed the aluminum bar rail with his hand. "Really. And who might you be?"

     Buck smirked. "General Buck Conroy, at your service."

     "I remember you. The mercenary." Jake had a fixed smile on his face. Conroy sounded just like the Mad Dog.

     "I prefer veteran. I'm a football coach now." Buck looked closer and blinked. "Uh-oh."

     DeMartino ordered two extra drinks, some peanuts and then found a good seat to watch from. Gesturing at O'Neill to follow, he said, "I've got a twenty that says Jake will win."

     "You shouldn't gamble, Anthony." O'Neill looked back and shrugged. He was just too depressed to intervene.

     Jake's smile was a little scary now. "Still recruiting high school boys for your pathetic little army?"

     "What's it to you?" Buck grinned. It had been a long time since he'd had a good fight and he could tell that this one was going to be a real whopper.

     Jake shrugged and with massive self-control, reigned in his temper. "I don't really care. I only wish that you'd recruited Sloane."

     Buck smirked. He wanted a fight, too. He had aggressions to work off.

     "Well, at least he's taking mighty good care of your daughter." Buck caught Jake's eye in the mirror. "Real good care. All in all, considering the way that he's been boffing her on any horizontal surface that stayed still for more than a minute it's a damn good thing that they got hitched, Morgendorffer." He grinned at his victim. "What do you suppose they're doing, right about now, grandpa?"

     Jake's eyes both turned blood red. "The same thing that every two and four legged male in the state was doing to your crazy girlfriend last year, Sarge."

     Buck stood, grinning. "I'm gonna kick yer civilian ass, Morgendor-

     Jake leapt up and hit him so hard that Buck almost came out of his boots.

     "Die!" Jake, having gotten in the first devastating strike, pursued like a human torpedo, just like the Mad Dog had taught him.

     DeMartino started laughing like a maniac, while O'Neill stared in moonfaced horror.

     "Anthony! They'll kill each other! We've got to stop them!" O'Neill abruptly stiffened. "What did you mean, about Janet being... good in bed?"

     DeMartino shrugged, grinning. "Just a rumor. You've got nothing to worry about. Some things are better left unsaid."

     "What!" O'Neill, quivering in outrage, pushed him.

     DeMartino tumbled backward over his chair and a horrified O'Neill grabbed his leg to stop him from falling. DeMartino groaned as he felt his prosthetic limb come free.

     A second later, O'Neill was gaping down at DeMartino's shoe and first four inches of leg in his hand. "Anthony! I- I didn't know! Oh! I attacked a handicapped person! I'm so sorry!" He burst into tears.

     DeMartino, on the floor, glared at his spilled drinks in outrage. "Dammit! It'll take hours to open this place up again, and I'm too drunk to get to another bar!"

     A triumphant bellow came from the bar and O'Neill turned to look. He stepped on a loose bottle and fell, hitting his head on a chair and knocking himself out.

     "Hey! I won!" DeMartino gave an evil chuckle and tried to get up. After a few futile minutes, the inebriated history teacher gave up and lay back. "What the hell. Maybe they'll give me back my leg when they arrest me."

     Behind them, in a booth on the other side of the privacy screen, Claire Defoe sat rigidly, praying that she could slip out without being seen. She didn't want to embarrass DeMartino, and she certainly didn't want to confront him.

     Peeking over the wall, she saw a wave of policemen engulf Jake, who was dancing a wild 70's style victory boogie around an unconscious Buck.

     Looking down, she saw a shocked looking Anthony laying on his back, staring up at her.

     "You'd better clear out of here, Cl- Ms. Defoe. The cops are going to arrest everyone in sight." DeMartino suddenly looked at least ten years older than his fifty-one years, and rather helpless.

     Claire glanced up and then shook her head. "Maybe I can help." She pushed the screen aside, dragged him behind it, retrieved his leg and then set the screen back in place. "Here, sit down. Everything will be okay."

     "Thanks," he croaked. Hurriedly strapping the leg back on, he stood. "Well, goodnight, Ms. Defoe."

     Claire gave him an embarrassed look. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to embarrass you. I should have let you know that I was here."

     DeMartino began to recover. "It's perfectly alright," he said, stiffly, by rote. "I'm not ashamed of my foot. Not at all. I stepped on a mine in Vietnam. It's just something that happened to me."

     Claire nodded sympathetically. Clearly, he was dreadfully ashamed of it.

     "I have mental problems too, Mr. DeMartino." Claire blushed. She'd said it out of the blue.

     DeMartino chuckled. "Not like me. I'm the craziest person that I know, and I know Buck and Jake."

     "I'm here because I don't have anyplace else to go." Claire looked depressed. "I'm forty six years old and my college roommates are all still living with me. Right now they're sitting around my apartment naked, licking a poisonous frog to get high. Who are those people? I just can't get them to go away."

     DeMartino blinked in surprise. "Licking a frog? Can't you just tell them to go?"

     She sighed. "I can never seem to make it stick."

     He sat and thought about it. "How about if you just move?"

     "They always find me. As soon as the rent runs out, they show up and move in again." Claire looked haggard.

     DeMartino knotted his brow. "What if you got a room in a boarding house? That way the housekeeper would keep them out. Pretty soon, they'd wander off and forget about you."

     Claire brightened, then sighed. "There aren't any boarding houses in Lawndale. I've moved so many times that I know more about this market than the realtors."

     DeMartino blinked, then said, "I have a three bedroom house. I only use one. You could stay there, if you like."

     The truth was, he usually slept in a chair in front of his TV, if he slept at all.

     Claire looked very tempted. She was sick of never being able to keep food around, and of showering at truck stops. "I would pay you rent, of course. How about 600 a month?"

     "That's more than my mortgage payment." He considered. "I think 200 would be fair."

     She narrowed her eyes. Claire wouldn't dream of being like her roommates. "Three hundred and I pay half of the utilities and household expenses."

     DeMartino nodded. "Two fifty and it's a deal." He couldn't believe his luck.

     Claire thought about the scene that she'd fled from at her apartment. Dawn and Mohammed X had been having sex on the floor, covered in green body paint, trying to conceive a new green race. They were both Green party activists.

     Cheryl had been trying to climb the wall, convinced that she was turning into a lizard. Worst of all, there was a big slimy poisonous Brazillian frog living in the bathtub.

     "Okay," said Claire.

     Daria looked at the house, amused at the monumental bad taste. "I've heard of log cabins, but that's the only log mansion that I've ever seen anywhere."

     Tom chuckled. "My Great-Uncle Markus wasn't one to waste perfectly good trees. My dad always says that- Tom stopped and swallowed, grief stricken.

     Daria embraced him, tightly. "Go on, Tom. I don't mind."

     He looked at her and gave a shuddering sob. "I'm sorry. I don't think that this is going to be much of a honeymoon for you."

     "That's okay." Daria rubbed his back. "We have all the time in the world for that. We can just talk, tonight." She wanted him to sleep. He hadn't slept much since his father had died.

     Jake laid on the bunk, twitching and muttering. Seven other prisoners were huddled together on the other side of the small cell, casting nervous glances his way.

     "Okay, Morgendorffer, get up. You're out of here." The jailer opened the cell.

     Jake stood up and winced with pain. "Owww." He suddenly noticed the other prisoners. "Well, so long, fellas."

     "Yo man, you be cool." The soon to be three-time loser shuffled nervously. Jake was scary.

     Jake stepped out of the holding cell and came face to face with an equally battered looking Buck.

     "Damn, Jake, that was a great fight. You hit hard." Buck grinned and stuck out his hand. "Whaddaya say, no hard feelings?"

     Jake shrugged and shook his hand. "Sorry about... what I said."

     "No problem, Jake. You just wanted to fight. Me too." He looked at the turnkey. "Move it, boy, I got places to be."

     Jake walked along, worrying. "My wife is gonna rip me a new asshole."

     "Relax, Jake. Ol' Buck's got you covered." He smirked. "I just bought that joint we tore up. All the charges were dropped."

     Jake perked up. "Hey, that's great!"

     Buck looked at him. "Say, you're a consultant, right? I never ran a lounge before. So Jake, think you could run the place for me?"

     Jake frowned, doubtfully. "I don't know. I ran a bowling alley once that had a snack bar."

     "That's okay then! Hey, I even know a trained bookkeeper who'll also bus tables for you!" Buck grinned, mightily. Marko had spent days prying every last penny out of the former Minister of Finance. The man and his family were currently staying at a Motel 6 in Cottondale. Buck had no doubt that the Minister needed the work. He even knew a friendly CIA agent that might help him obtain a green card.

     Daria sat at her desk, blithely ignoring O'Neill's pathetic attempts to elicit classroom participation. She'd gone to school only because Tom had insisted. He wanted her in a safe place while he made his play for control of the Sloane Foundation.

     "Can anyone tell me what they think the true message behind 'Go Away Joe' was?"

     O'Neill sighed at the sea of blank faces. "Daria?"

     "Don't be an Indian." Daria wished that the irritating man would spontaneously combust. He'd spent a good portion of the morning trying to 'counsel' her.

     O'Neill swallowed. "Um...Daria, that's not quite what I was looking for. Want to try again?" He had been released from the county jail fifteen minutes before school started, so he was still feeling a little tense.

     "It was about an annoying, stupid, blundering, pushy man who wouldn't take a hint. Hence the title, Go Away Joe. Or in this case, it could be titled, Go Away, Mr. O-

     "Would you like to try, Brittany?" Desperately, he cast around for help. Daria was in a truly vicious mood and he didn't want her to start in on him again.

     Brittany looked up from her doodling. She'd actually read the book, this time. She could read and remember things better, now.

     "I think it had to do with travel. Joe traveled in the Marines and it changed him. He just didn't fit in on the reservation anymore, but he never fit in outside of the reservation either." Brittany twirled her hair and looked sad. "You can't really go home again, because you change so much when you're away that your home doesn't suit you any more." She knew the feeling well.

     O'Neill gasped and swayed. "Brittany! That's right! Oh, Brittany, I'm so proud of you!" He took out his grade book. "That was worth ten- no fifteen extra points!"

     "Woo-ho." Brittany quickly turned the page of her notebook as he approached. She'd been drawing babies and storks.

     "I can't begin to tell you how delighted I am with your recent efforts." He beamed at her. "I just knew that you had it in you!"

     "Thanks." Brittany almost burst out laughing. If he knew what she had in her, he'd probably faint.

     Daria was about to gag, when the PA crackled and Ms. Li came on. "Daria Morgendorffer, please report to the office."

     "Uh, oh, now you're in trouble." Jane grinned at her, having gotten the story of Jake's barroom blitzkrieg from O'Neill that morning.

     "Is everything alright, Daria?" O'Neill was hovering again.

     Daria snarled, then put her books away. "I'm fine." It was the sixth time that he'd asked.

     Quinn's hand shot up. "Mr. DeMartino, I need to go to the ladies room."

     DeMartino spun around glaring, saw that it was one of his good students, and nodded. He was actually in a pretty good mood. "Go."

     Quinn smiled at Stacy, indicating her notes and getting a nod back, then ran for the office. She'd heard the summons and she wanted to talk to Daria.

     Daria was ambling down the hall, taking her time, when Quinn ambushed her.

     "Daria!" Quinn clapped a hand on her shoulder from the back as she said it.

     "Ahhh!" Daria hopped up in the air. "Quinn, stop doing that!"

     "Sorry." Quinn fell in beside her. "How's Tom?"

     Daria shrugged. "Pretty broken up, but he's still moving." She was proud of him.

     "Elsie spent the night at our house last night." Quinn sighed. "Mom really surprised me. They talked for hours."

     "Her dad died when she was Elsie's age," said Daria, somberly. "She knows exactly how Elsie feels right now."

     "I was kind of jealous." Quinn looked at her sister. "Mom's really pretty good at that kind of thing."

     Daria shrugged. "I'm not surprised. I'm just glad it wasn't... I don't need any more grief in my life."

     "Why aren't you wearing your ring?" Quinn was curious.

     "I am." Daria pulled a necklace that was threaded through the ring out of her shirt and showed it to Quinn. "I just don't want to have to explain anything right now." Daria sighed. "I thought Dad was going to lose his mind."

     Quinn nodded. "That's such a beautiful ring. Do you know what happened to him? He never came home last night."

     Daria heard a familiar laugh and stopped in her tracks. "He's in there."

     Nonplussed, the two girls looked at the door. It was Conroy's office. Hesitantly, Daria knocked.

     "Jake! You got visitors!" A rather battered Buck ushered them in.

     "Hey! It's my girls!" Jake was bruised, but happy. He was standing at a whiteboard, his laptop open on a table next to it, the books from Buck's newly acquired Blue Parrot Lounge open on the desk.

     Jake smiled at them. "What do you girls like better, Breeze Inn, Jet Inn or Blow Inn?"

     "Blow Inn?" Quinn giggled. "That sounds like a gay bar."

     "Ugh!" Jake erased that choice as Buck laughed.

     "We're having a grand opening, Saturday night and we need a snappy name. I'm the new General Manager." Jake looked at Daria. "Any suggestions?"

     "General Buck's Country Bunker?" Daria instantly regretted saying it when both men's faces lit up.

     Buck looked at her, then snapped his fingers. "You're the one!"

     "Excuse me?" Daria didn't like the sound of that.

     "On the phone! I recognize your voice! You're the one that invited me here!" Buck laughed. "Hey, thanks!"

     "Do you still have that crazy magazine?" Daria was blushing.

     Buck shook his head, smiling. "Nah, I got a bunch of publicity out of that visit and finally sold it to Time Warner." It had paid for his last raid.

     "What happened to your face, Dad?" Daria wanted to change the subject.

     "Um, nothing. Just a little accident." Jake blushed, bringing his many bruises into sharp contrast.

     "Accident! I'd hate to see you when you got serious!" Buck chuckled at them. "We got in a little tussle at the bar, last night." He grinned at Quinn. "Yer old pop mopped the floor with me and then whupped six cops at once!"

     Jake winced. "Too bad there were seven."

     Quinn and Daria blanched.

     "Oh my God! Are you in trouble?" Quinn was worried that it would get out.

     Jake looked miserably embarrassed. "Buck bribed everybody involved and got us off."

     "Thanks." Daria smiled at Buck.

     "Them boys like a good fight too." Buck laughed. "Quit lookin' so worried, ladies. Yer old man is hell on wheels, and has to cut loose sometime, that's all. Hell, I'm the same way."

     Angela knocked, then entered. "Buck have you seen- Oh. Ms. Morgendorffer, or should I say Mrs. Sloane?"

     Daria glanced at Jake, shrugged, and said, "Sloane, but I'm keeping it quiet, for now."

     Jake flinched.

     Angela sized up the situation then addressed Quinn. "Ms. Morgendorffer, if you're done here, you need to get back to class. Ms. Sloane, please come with me. We have some administrative details to take care of. Mr. Morgendorffer," she noticed the bruises. "What's going on?"

     Buck opened his mouth, and Daria smoothly cut in. "My father and Mr. Conroy ran into some trouble at the bar they bought, last night. A rowdy element had to be removed and it got violent. The police were called in."

     Angela looked upset, scanning the whiteboard. "You bought the old Blue Parrot?"

     Buck nodded, eyeing Daria with considerable respect. "It'll give us a place to go after work, Angel. We need to get a really good chef, Jake."

     Charles sat in his math class, idly calculating the number of hours he'd wasted in school, waiting for the numbskulls around him to catch up.

     The bell rang and he clapped his books shut. It was lunchtime.

     Charles dumped his books at the locker and turned, smiling when someone tapped him on the shoulder. "Sand- Brittany?" He goggled. Brittany was radiant.

     Brittany smiled at him and indicated the box that she was holding. "Hi, Charles. Look, I hate to ask, but could you help me with something?"

     "Sure, but-

     "Charles! Come on, let's eat." Sandi had walked up and seen it all. Her glare was harshly accusing.

     Charles swallowed. "Sure, Sandi, Just a minute."

     Brittany stepped back away from him and smiled appealingly at Sandi. "I need some help. I got an Abdominator and I just can't figure out how it goes together. Charles is pretty smart, so I just thought that he might be willing to put it together for me."

     Sandi's eye's narrowed and then she relaxed, seeing no harm in it. She grabbed Charles firmly by the arm. "Why, sure, Brittany. We'll be glad to help."

     Brittany nodded understandingly, then smiled at Charles. "All the tools and parts are in here. When can you do it?"

     Charles shrugged, took the box and looked in it. "Right now. It shouldn't take very long if everything's here."

     Brittany smiled. "Oh, thanks. How come you have lunch this period, anyway?"

     Sandi smirked. "Because he scored six touchdowns last week. Ms. Li said he could if he did, and he did it."

     Brittany exhailed. "Wow! That's great, Charles. I haven't been paying attention to the team, lately." She looked around, then shrugged. Daria was in a walking trance and Jane was at best sullenly uncommunicative during lunch. "Do you mind if I eat with you?"

     Sandi smiled. "No. Let's go." She wanted to get some dirt on the rest of the squad and Brittany would probably have plenty.

     Charles was tugged into motion, still carrying the box. Looking down the hall, he met Jamie's eyes. Jamie grinned and made a little whipping motion, with appropriate sound effects.

     Sandi was interrogating Brittany about the squad while Charles put the machine together, on the tabletop.

     "So that means that Dawn only got to be captain because you... left. She was never elected or anything." Sandi narrowed her eyes, calculating.

     Brittany nodded. "She was out to get me from the start. I got to be captain because I was there longest and because I was the only one brave enough to stand on top of the pyramid."

     Sandi shuddered. "Dawn wants me do it now. I'm the lightest."

     "What!" Charles looked up, aghast. "No way! That's bullsh-

     Sandi shoved a homemade brownie into his mouth. "Don't be crude, Charles. Eat your lunch, before it gets cold."

     Silenced, Charles glowered and chewed.

     "Do you know how to fall?" Brittany looked worried. "I can teach you, if you want. That pyramid can be pretty dangerous. Five years ago Petal Jameson broke her leg in three places. Ms. Li only let me reinstate it because I showed her that I could fall and not get hurt."

     Charles was staring unbelievingly at the instructions. "Are you sure about falling, Brittany?"

     Brittany looked at him, curiously. "Sure? Why do you ask?"

     "Because this is the model ten Abdominator." He dropped his tone to a near whisper. "For pregnant women."

     Brittany flushed. "I don't have to fall myself to teach her, Charles."

     "Oh, my God, it's true." For a horribly paranoid second, Sandi wondered if Charles was the father.

     "I haven't even told my boyfriend yet." Brittany shuddered. "Please don't tell anyone."

     Charles nodded. "My lips are sealed, Brittany."

     Sandi stared at her, fascinated. "Wow, pregnancy is really good for your skin." She smiled. "I won't tell, either. And I would really appreciate it if you could teach me how to fall off of the pyramid and not get hurt." She was going to take the captaincy away from Dawn. The squad needed to learn some style.

     After school, Brittany went to the gym with Sandi. They got out some mats and two ladders so that Brittany could demonstrate the technique.

     "Are you sure that it will be okay?" Sandi watched worriedly as Brittany stood on top of the six-foot ladder.

     Brittany shrugged. "I think so."

     Sandi walked over and stood beneath her, in the way. "I think you need to come down, Brittany."

     Brittany grinned. "Sure." Effortlessly, she jumped over Sandi and fell on her back, slapping the mat, rolling with the impact and springing back to her feet. "There's nothing to it!"

     Sandi blinked, awed and trying not to show it. "I don't think that I can do that."

     Brittany smiled. "Anyone can learn to fall, Sandi. We'll start from a foot and work our way up."

     An hour later, Sandi jumped off of the ladder and rolled to her feet, unharmed.

     "Thanks!" She cleared her throat. "Look, Brittany, You're really good. If you want back on the squad-

     Brittany laughed. "I wouldn't go back to that unless Trent was on the team. Besides, a pregnant cheerleader would just gross everyone out."

     Sandi shrugged. "You look good right now. By the time you started showing, the season would almost be over anyway."

     "How long will that be?" Brittany swallowed. She'd been too shocked to ask Dr. Karin.

     Sandi looked at her, surprised. "I think that it takes at least three months. Gee, Brittany, why don't you like, go get a book on it or something?"

     Brittany nodded. "I think I will get a book, but I'll never be a cheerleader at Lawndale, again."

     Kevin sat in the library, laboriously reading his textbook. With Andrea's help he'd been able to overcome much of his reading problem. He would never be a big recreational reader, but at least he could get through a newspaper now.

     He turned the page, looked at his notes and then heard a gasp. Looking up, he was surprised to see Brittany.

     "What are you doing here?" Both of them said it at the same time.

     Flinching, Kevin indicated his books. "Studying. I can't, at home. My dad..." He trailed off. Brittany knew absolutely nothing about his family and would care even less, now. "What about you?"

     Brittany smiled, nervously. "I need to find out about something. Someone told me that this was the best place to look."

     Kevin hesitated. "I can show you how to use the computer. They have card catalogs, too. You look up the subject and they have all those books about that subject in one area, under a number. It's called the Dewey decimal system." He looked confused, having been reading a history book. "Why do you suppose that an admiral would invent something like that?"

     Brittany shrugged. "Could you show me how it works?"

     "Sure." Kevin led her to a computer and brought up a screen. "What subject?"

     Brittany blushed. "How about... guitars."

     Kevin gaped at her, then shrugged. He typed 'gitars' in the search field and hit 'enter.'

     "Nothing." Kevin scratched his head. "Why wouldn't they have any books about guitars?"

     "Probably because guitar is spelled with a U, Kevin." Brittany typed it in and hit 'enter.'

     Kevin looked very embarrassed. "Sorry. My spelling is pretty bad."

     Brittany took a breath and turned to him. "No, Kevin, I'm sorry. I was sick, on a lot of prescription drugs. I'm off of them now and I just want you to know that I'm really sorry for treating you the way that I did. You deserved better."

     Kevin held up his hands defensively and took a step back. He wasn't wearing his pads any more and this could get really painful really fast. "Look, Brittany, you look really, really hot, but I kind of love Andrea. Sorry, but-

     Brittany scowled. He was just so stupid. "Forget it, Kevin." The screen had popped up. "How do I find these books?"

     Kevin, happy to be on firmer ground, rapidly showed her the number labels on the shelves.

     Brittany picked up on it very quickly. "Thanks, Kevin." She walked rapidly away from him. "Stupid jerk," she muttered.

     Kevin watched her walk away, all of his internal alarms blaring away. Her posture told him that he'd had a hellishly narrow escape.

     "Loony psycho-bitch. Shit!" Kevin abandoned his text and rapidly retreated from the library when he realized that he'd said it aloud.

     Indifferently, Brittany watched him go and then went back to the computer. Getting the reference number that she really needed, she went to the proper shelf. Taking down a book, she started paging through it, then took it to a carrel to read.

     An hour passed. Brittany, pale and heaving, abandoned the book and left the library at a near-run. She had to get home and pack.

     Jodie stood up from the concealment of her own carrel and walked over to where Brittany had been sitting. Picking up the book, her eyes widened. The title was, So, You're Having a Baby.

     Tom took a deep breath and walked into the boardroom at the exact second that the meeting was scheduled to begin.

     Thorton Sloan, sitting at the head of the table, saw him come in. Rising, he smiled an artificial smile and said, "Tom, my boy. You shouldn't worry about things here right now. Go on home. I'll take care of everything."

     "That's what I'm worried about, Uncle Thorton." Tom squared his shoulders. "I have business here."

     Thorton's face assumed an ugly scowl. "Boy, you're through here. I don't have the time or the inclination to wet nurse you along like Angier did. Go home and come back when you're dry behind the ears."

     Tom gave him a cold stare. "I have business here, Thorton, but I'll keep what you say in mind." He turned to Solomon Gold and smiled, politely. "Good morning, Mr. Chairman. Shall we get started?"

     Thorton flushed angrily. "Now I'm Chairman here, boy, and you're not wanted. Hit the bricks."

     "Wait a moment, Tom." Solly tut-tutted, then nodded at the secretary. "Ms. White, would you be so kind as to ask Ms. Klein to step in here for a moment?"

     "What are you playing at, Gold?" Thorton had traded in his confident sneer for a wary glare.

     "I want to get a legal opinion from our corporate lawyers. By my reading of the bylaws, as the senior board member, it would appear to be my duty to chair this meeting, at least until the new Chairman is duly elected." Solomon Gold smiled gently at Thorton Sloane. "It would be for the best if all was in order, would it not? Tom has been a colleague for several years, and as a Sloane, I feel that he should be here as the reins of power are passed."

     Thorton wrinkled his brow, then reluctantly nodded. "Whatever. Forget the lawyer. Let's just get it all done." He smiled, envisioning their reaction when he dismissed them all. As a new broom, he intended to sweep clean.

     "No, I insist. Ms. Klein shall observe to make certain that every form is strictly adhered to." Solomon looked like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.

     "Oh, all right!" Thorton sat grumbling as Ms. Klein and an assistant entered and paid their respects to the board members. They both smiled at Tom.

     Tom sat quietly with his head bowed, avoiding eye contact with Thorton as Solly brought the meeting to order. When he saw that Thorton was no longer glowering at him, Tom slipped his wedding ring on, covering it with his other hand.

     It was much like any other meeting. The minutes were read, old business was discussed, loose ends were tied, and then the floor was opened for comment. First Solly, then the rest of the board in order of seniority, eulogized the great accomplishments and peerless wisdom of Angier Sloane. They all spoke of their confidence in the Foundation's future and their unflagging determination to aid the new Chairman in any way possible. Thorton just smirked unpleasantly at this gushing well of support and looked pointedly at the clock.

     Solly let it go on until Thorton's eyes were nicely glazed. Consulting the agenda, he said, "On to new business. First, on a happier note, I'm pleased to announce the ascension of young Thomas Sloane to the Board of Directors. Tom and his longtime girlfriend, Daria Morgendorffer, were recently married. Since all of the appropriate paperwork has been filed, I see no reason for any delay. On behalf of the board, I extend a warm welcome to Tom Sloane."

     Thorton jerked awake. "What was that?"

     "You don't have the floor, Thorton." Solly smiled at Tom. "Tom does."

     "What the fuck?" Thorton, having finally woken to his peril, jumped to his feet. "What the fuck is going on here? You Yid bastard! Are you trying to cheat me out of what's mine?"

     Solly smiled with infinite contempt. "I'm trying to conduct a meeting, Thorton. Please wait your turn. It would be most unpleasant to have you ejected from the room."

     Thorton turned blood red. "I won't stand for--" He froze, his eyes fixed on Tom's hand like a bird hypnotized by a snake. The wedding ring glinted ominously on Tom's finger. "No."

     Tom smiled at him coldly, trying to emulate his father. "Sit down, Thorton."

     Solly shivered at the tone. If he closed his eyes, he would swear that it was Drummond Sloane himself speaking. The ruthless old autocrat had ruled with an iron hand for fifty years. As a young man of very limited means, hired right out of a local business college to be Drummond's personal assistant, Solly had been in considerable awe and not a little fear of him.

     Thorton collapsed back in his chair, looking from face to face. "You're kidding. You bastards will never get away with it."

     Tom smiled, politely. "I don't kid, Thorton."

     Martin Lords looked at Thorton with undisguised contempt, then raised his hand. "May I have the floor?"

     Tom nodded back. "Certainly. I yield the floor."

     Solly smiled. "The chair recognizes Martin Lords."

     "Thank you, Solly." Martin looked at Thorton with the expression of a man discovering excrement on his carpet. "Mr. Chairman, I move that the floor be opened to nominations for the election of the new Chairman of The Board."

     "All in favor?" Solomon counted, took a quick look at a frozen Thorton and then smirked. "So moved."

     "I nominate Tom Sloane for the position of chairman of the board." Martin shot Tom a conspiratorial smile.

     "Second," echoed several other voices.

     "So noted." Solomon smiled cheerfully at Thorton. "The Chair recognizes Mr. Sloane." Thorton silently fumed, knowing that he couldn't nominate himself.

     "Thank you, gentlemen. In the spirit of conciliation and amity, I nominate Thorton Sloane." Tom didn't want his uncle to carry a grudge forever. The election had to be fair.

     Solly hesitated, then shrugged. He wouldn't have bothered at all, but the Sloanes had always been big on propriety. "Second. So noted."

     Thorton perked up. "I move that we vote immediately." Solly frowned. Thorton was out of order.

     "Move that we hold the vote for Chairman of the board at once." Tom wanted it to be over. He felt a bead of sweat roll down his back. Soon it would show through his shirt.

     "Second." Reese Winters looked troubled.

     Trent sat on the hotel room couch, eating potato chips and watching a PBS documentary on steam trains. Steam trains made him think about Brittany. Almost everything made him think about Brittany. He was as horny as hell and so bored that he was about to die.

     There was a knock at the door.

     Warily, Trent peered through the peephole. The groupies were getting more and more aggressive, and god only knew what kind of diseases they had.

     Grinning, he threw the door open and whooped. "Cupcake!"

     "Trent!" Brittany kicked her feet and squealed as he plucked her up and whisked her into the bedroom. "Wait a second, we have to talk!"

     "Later." Trent dropped her on the bed and hurriedly fought his way out of his clothes. Seeing that she wasn't following suit, he paused, wearing only a set of boxers. "Whatever it is, the answer is yes."

     Brittany sat up on her elbows and flushed, looking him up and down. She took a deep breath. "You might want to think about that, Trent. I've got some... news."

     Trent sat on the couch, nervously running his hand through his hair. "Damn, Brittany. I thought you were on the pill."

     Brittany shook her head, guiltily. "I had to stop for a while because of all the other stuff that I was taking."

     Trent winced. "You could have let me know."

     Brittany nodded, miserably. "It's all my fault. I'm so stupid."

     Trent sighed and pulled her close. "Don't say that, Cupcake. Never say anything like that again. You're not stupid and there's nothing wrong with you." He held her, deep in thought, then exhaled, nervously. "Oh, man, a baby. I never even had a dog."

     Brittany leaned into him. "You'll be a great father. Look how you take care of Jane."

     He shivered. "God, I could end up just like Vince. What if the kid hates my guts? I wish that this hadn't come so fast."

     Brittany shrank in on herself. "It's all my fault. I wasn't really thinking. I was just so afraid that you would just leave me back then if I..." She looked at her feet and took a deep breath. "I could, you know, get rid of it." He could just walk away from her over this and she needed him.

     Trent looked at her and then slid his hands up under her shirt, rubbing her belly. There was a little piece of him growing in there. He made his decision instantly, without conscious thought. "No, there's just no reason to do anything like that." He paused, uncertainly. "Unless you want to, or something."

     Brittany gasped and then sagged into him with relief. "I want to keep it." Brittany had always wanted a lot of kids.

     Trent nodded, having worked that out in the half second after she'd told him about the baby.

     "It would have probably happened someday anyway, and it's not like you need me to go out and get some stupid job or something." He looked at her and hurriedly added, "Not that I wouldn't if we had to, but everything's cool."

     He'd been a little bit worried about leaving Brittany behind while he toured. He wasn't really the jealous type, but it would be good if she didn't have so many guys hitting on her.

     "I'm not going back." Brittany held onto him.

     Trent laughed. "What about school? Don't you want to graduate? Touring is really hard work."

     Brittany shrugged. "I don't think it's doing me very much good. I'm not gonna go to college anyway. I think that I'll just stay with you." She looked down. "If you don't mind."

     "Hey, not a problem. Stay as long as you want." He would just have to figure something out.

     Daria paced back and forth, trying to keep calm.

     Jane smiled. "If you don't watch out you might accidentally get some exercise, Daria. Or else give me whiplash."

     Daria halted and stared at her. "What?"

     Jane shook her head. "Nothing. Look, Daria, even if he loses, it will be okay."

     Daria managed to relax a little. "Thanks. I needed someone to say that. Trent usually does the honors, though."

     Jane nodded, thoughtfully. "That's true." She picked up the phone and dialed the number that Brittany had emailed to her. "I'll tell you what. If it'll calm you down, you can hear it straight from the horse's ass."

     Daria sat on Jane's bed. "I'll tell him that you said that."

     Jane listened to the ringing at the far end. "He knows, Daria."

     Jane's smirk suddenly turned into a scowl. "Brittany! What are you doing there? Never mind, I don't want to know. Put my retarded brother on."

     Jane sat for a moment, then brightened. "Trent! How's tricks?" She stiffened, then hung up, her face blank.

     Daria looked at her, concerned. "What's the matter? Is Trent alright?"

     "Brittany's pregnant." Jane stood, like an automaton, stepping into her running shoes. "That bitch. God, poor Trent. He's trapped."

     "Wow. Talk about being one-upped." Daria swallowed. "I wondered, when she threw up at the Pizza King."

     "I'm going running, Daria." Jane bolted out of the room, blank-faced.

     "Jane, wait!" Daria watched her disappear so fast that it looked like teleportation. Chewing a nail, she picked up the phone and hit redial.

     Trent snatched up the phone. "Janey?"

     "This is Daria, Trent. Jane went running. So, are congratulations or commiseration's in order?"

     Trent glanced at Brittany, who was sitting on the bedroom chair, wringing her hands. "I'd say congratulations. You see, Daria, Jane can't seem to get it through her thick head that I actually do love Brittany."

     Brittany turned a rosy color, put on a radiant smile and almost fainted with sheer relief. He'd never just come out and said it like that, before.

     "Well, congratulations, then." Daria bit her lip.

     Trent smiled at Brittany. "Thanks, Daria. I gotta do what's right and this just feels right to me."

     "I know what you mean. I felt the same way." Daria sat on the bed. "Some times, you just have to go with your feelings."

     "What did you do?" Trent frowned, then raised his eyebrows at Brittany's sudden smirk.

     "Brittany hasn't told you?" Daria took a breath. "I married Tom."

     "W- woooooah." Trent swallowed. "Why? Are you-

     "No. I had my reasons. Mostly, I did it because I love him. His father died and he had to be legally married to salvage the family business." Daria blinked, suddenly struck by a thought. "That's going to change, though. No kid of mine is going to get stuck like that. And if I have a daughter, she'd better have an equal chance to take over."

     Trent flopped back on the bed. "What a trip. I wish that I could have been there."

     Daria sighed. "It was a quickie. We'll have a real wedding in a month or so, once Tom's mother starts to recover."

     Trent looked perturbed. "Is it really that important?"

     Daria frowned. "Quinn actually managed to convince me that it was, when she said that a wedding was a symbol and an announcement of your commitment. Symbols are important, Trent. We live and die by symbols. The money in your pocket and the flag over your head are just symbols. They have no intrinsic value or meaning, but where would we be without them?"

     Trent looked at Brittany. "Hmmm. I guess that a kid does kind of deserve to have a symbol. Nick never bothered, but I don't know if- Just a second, Daria."

     He glanced over at Brittany. "Hey there, Cupcake, you want to get married or something?"

     Daria slapped her forehead. "Jesus, Trent. That was really, really suave- Daria suddenly grimaced and pulled her ear away from the phone, deafened. A piercing ultrasonic squeal came from the receiver.

     "Aaaaagh!" Trent clapped his hands over his ears, dropping the phone as he flew off of the bed and hit the floor. "Ugh. Brittany! Are you alright?" She'd tackled him and shrieked until his skull almost popped.

     Cautiously, Daria listened as the noised resolved itself into a blubbering Brittany. "Hmm. I take it she agrees. We'll talk later, guys."

     Daria hung up and stared at the phone. "Oh, damn. Jane's probably going to blame me for this, too."

     Daria was walking home when a horn woke her up from her reverie. Tom pulled up, leaned over and opened the passenger door for her.

     "Hey, Baby, you look like a hot little tamale. I'm rich and I'm very cool. Wanna take a ride in my Jag?"

     Daria stood as if deep in thought. "Are you going to be in there?"

     Tom grinned. He'd already had her put onto his insurance policy. "You can drive, if you want."

     "Me? Drive?" She got in. "I married a rich guy. I don't really have to drive myself, do I?"

     Tom kissed her. "No, as a matter of fact." He looked at her and tried to look happy, failing miserably. "Well, I'm it. Chairman of the Board."

     Daria sighed. "God, I'm sorry, Tom."

     "I have meetings scheduled for the next ten years. Call one of my many overworked secretaries if you ever need to see me again. I have fifteen whole minutes free in 2019." He sighed. "I wish that I could just go to college and be a microbiologist. I could really make a difference, doing something like that."

     "You'll find a way. Your dad seemed to have plenty of free time." Daria stroked his cheek. "You'll get it all figured out. Trust me."

     He sighed, blinking back tears. "My dad was good, Daria. I'm just a kid."

     Daria pulled back, eyes narrowing. "I didn't marry some stupid kid. I married a man. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. If it's too hard to handle, just throw away some money. Trim the foundation down until it's easier to handle. Hire some more managers. Hell, put it in the bank. You aren't a slave."

     Tom stared at her and then grinned. "Wow, Daria. You're really good at thinking outside of the box. Solly will die laughing when I tell him what you just said." He would sooner have parted with his front teeth than lose a penny in growth. Like his father before him, he didn't trust hired managers at all.

     His plans were so graspingly ambitious that the board was getting a nosebleed from thinking about it. He was going to buy a major stake in the whole biotech industry while it was still possible. When it grew, he'd have the entire world by the throat.

     "Are you all cheered up? Good." Daria scooted back over against him.

     "Yes, pretty much." He looked at her. "Where to, ma'am?"

     "Home, Tom." Daria glanced at him, nervously.

     "Where is that?" He thought of her cell-like bedroom and then his own childhood room and frowned.

     Daria shook her head. "I was hoping that you knew."

     "Where do you want to live?" Tom was thoughtful. "We can go anywhere."

     Daria sighed. "As much as I hate to admit it, I want to stay in Lawndale for now. Almost everyone that I care about lives here." She shuddered. "That's just scary."

     Tom's breath whooshed out. "I'm really glad that you feel that way. I'd hate to leave Elsie alone."

     Daria nodded. "Want to go get something to eat and talk about it?" Daria's stomach was growling.

     Tom walked up to the Maitre d' at Chez Pierre. "Hi. I'm Tom Sloane. This is my wife, Daria. We'd like to dine."

     The Martre d' raised his eyebrows. They were both underdressed. "I'll have to see if there's an opening, sir."

     Tom smiled politely and handed him a couple of hundred-dollar bills. "Would you? It's been a rough day and a good meal would really hit the spot."

     Daria looked uncomfortable. To her, tipping was a city in China.

     The Maitre d' looked them over, then gave them an ingratiating smile. The young man had a certain smell, one that headwaiters everywhere quickly learned to identify. "One moment, Monsieur." Consulting a special list of the local barons, he brightened.

     "Welcome, Monsieur and Madame Sloane. Your table will be ready at once."

     "Très bon. Something secluded and away from the kitchen would be very nice." Tom offered Daria his arm.

     The Maitre d' grinned and snapped for a waiter, his judgement confirmed. Unlike the merely trendy who wanted to be seen, the very wealthy never wanted to be conspicuous.

     Tom ordered without looking at the menu. "Medium New York steak, garlic toast, fries and a Pepsi."

     "Oui, M'sieur." The waiter didn't even blink.

     "And bring a bottle of ketchup," added Tom.


     Daria looked at him in askance. "Tom, this is a French restaurant."

     Tom smiled, enjoying her company. "Hey, I ordered French fries. If it's a good restaurant, they won't quibble."

     Daria looked at the waiter, who gave her the smile of a man who expects an excellent tip.

     "Well, forget the garlic toast. Make it French bread."

     "Oui, Madame." The white-gloved waiter clicked his heels together. "I assure Madame that Chez Pierre is indeed a good restaurant. Would Madame care to order?"

     Daria suppressed her impulse to order chicken fried clams and chocolate-cherry Borscht. "Okay, if you're so good then surprise me."

     The waiter smiled with real pleasure. "Very well, Madame. We shall endeavor to please."

     Daria, expecting the mother of all snubs, was shocked when the food turned out to be very good.

     Tom sipped his Pepsi and watched her eat. The waiter brought her some ridiculously tiny treat every few minutes, causing Daria's eyes to widen with pleasure. He decided that it was cool to be married.

     "How about a condo?" Tom rattled his empty glass and the waiter materialized to fill it. "Those luxury towers over on Oak Hill are pretty close to everything."

     Daria looked up from her Beef Roulades. "But..." She delicately burped, then blushed. "Excuse me. What are we going to do about college?"

     Tom shrugged. "Go wherever you want, Daria. I can telecommute or fly in to work from anywhere. We even have a jet, stashed away somewhere."

     The waiter's eyes widened and he made a discreet gesture as he withdrew out of earshot. Another waiter arrived and took up station watching Tom, while the first concentrated solely on Daria.

     Daria smiled. "I have no clue where I'll go. I don't want to do anything, really. Maybe write, but no magazine or paper would ever print it."

     Tom shrugged. "Start your own paper then." He reached over and caught her hand. Looking into her eyes, he said, "Daria, there just aren't very many limits anymore. That's what 'super rich' means."

     Daria blinked. "Wow."

     "I'll have a secretary get us that condo tomorrow. We'll just stay in it when we're in town." Tom smiled, released her hand and nibbled his French bread.

     Daria nodded overwhelmed. "How about tonight?"

     Tom thought about it. "My mother's home and I don't want to bother her. We could check into a hotel or go back to the Log Mansion."

     Daria nodded. "Definitely a hotel. I think that they were expecting me home tonight, but... hey, I just got married. They'll understand."

     Tom smiled. "Do you think that your dad will flip out again?"

     Daria smirked. "Of course. It's okay, though. Machiavelli said that it's always better to traumatize your victims all at once. That way they're really grateful when you stop."

     Tom laughed. "I'll have to keep that in mind." He dropped an immense wad of cash on the table. "Ready to go?"

     Daria, feeling a bit overstuffed, nodded. "I think that's about an eight hundred percent tip, Tom."

     Tom shrugged. "It doesn't matter, Daria. We made about seven hundred thousand dollars in investment income while we ate dinner. All this means is that we'll always get great service here."

     Daria choked on her Perrier. "I can't believe that you're used to living this way."

     Tom shook his head, suddenly looking a lot less confidant. "I'm not. My family never throws money around. It sets a person too far apart." He looked at her, carefully. "I just wanted you to know. We rushed into this, Daria, and it's going to be a learning experience for both of us."

     "True." Daria tried to look confident, but she hadn't been sleeping well at all. It was all just so strange. Sometimes she just wanted to hide until it all went away.

     "I want you to understand what you're in for." Tom made a face. He hated climbers. "Being really rich is very nice, but it also brings a whole new set of problems. All kinds of very cool people will suddenly want to be your new best friend."

     Daria swallowed, uncomfortably. She hated new people. "Oh, God. I never thought of that. I don't think that you need to throw your money around anymore, Tom."

     Tom nodded. "Our money, Daria. Just keep in mind that no matter how you try and hide it, they'll know. Trust, but verify."

     Daria looked up, stricken. "I didn't know. And I never cared anyway when-

     "Daria." Tom laughed, fondly. "What makes you think that you're so cool? Besides, as I recall it, you wanted nothing more than my head on a stake when we first met. Generally you won't find many social climbers that take that attitude right at the start."

     "What makes you think that I changed my mind?" Daria tried to look stern, but had to smile at him.

     Tom smiled back. "That little yelping noise that you make when you get really excited was one clue. Then there's the thing with the-

     "Tom, they'll hear." Daria was red-faced.

     "Daria!" Helen gripped the phone. "Where are you?"

     Daria winked at Tom. "We're staying at the Hilton tonight, Mom."

     Helen squeezed her eyes shut. "Of course. Well. Have... fun? Oh, God!" Helen hung up and rushed for the liquor cabinet.

     "Oh, I sure will," said Daria to the dial tone. She laughed and hung up.




That's all, folks!

Quoth Nemo, nevermore...