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The sun filtered wanly through the windows as he stepped into the hall, his footsteps disturbing the dust, which rose in clouds and choked his old throat. He brought his fist to his mouth and broke the stillness with a fit of coughing like a bag of rocks hitting a wall. It echoed off the bare walls where the pictures had once hung and around the furniture in their dust sheets and in time it faded. Just like us all, he thought, sadly. Passing a hand over his face, he tried not to think about how much grey and how little brown was left in his beard and took a deep, steadying breath. He had to do this, no matter how little he wanted to. Lifting one heavy foot and then the other, he began to walk forwards, his old bones protesting quietly at the motions.

The old place just wasn’t what it used to be; it was so quiet now, and he hated quiet. Quiet meant something was being planned, or it meant that his wife had gotten up and he was alone in his bed, and eventually quiet had come to mean that she would never be there again. He stood in the empty kitchen and put a hand gently on the covered tabletop, remembering when she would reach across to clasp his during his rages. It was amazing how much you could miss something like that. She always had a way of making things better just by being there. The way she’d smile at him when he came in always brightened him up, no matter how lousy his day had been.

He walked unsteadily into the living room and looked at the old couch, remembering how he’d had to chase the kids off of it to do their homework. They never did listen to him, they’d just tire him out until their mother got wind of it. Then she’d tuck the kids away for the evening and snuggle up beside him on the couch and they’d just...exist together. He couldn’t find the word for it. It was so comfortable; so ingrained. Now it was a memory, far away and covered in dust. Untouchable. Drumming his fingers idly on the tabletop, he closed his eyes and imagined he could hear her. But he couldn’t. The room seemed so big now that no-one was there. Or was it just that time had made him smaller? Turning, he left the room and began to walk upstairs, his wrinkled hands gripping the banisters shakily.

He remembered each step as clearly as the first time, and chuckled to himself, recalling all those times he’d tripped going up and coming down. Only man in Texas to fall backwards up a stairs she’d said, and he’d laughed too, through the pain. When she was there, the laughter had made it better. Making it to the landing safely, he grinned in victory. Screw what the doctor said about his hip; if he couldn’t climb a stairs now what was the point of walking at all? He trailed his fingers along the walls as he moved along, using its presence for balance. The kids’ rooms were there, right where he’d left them. Though empty and quiet, they were still the brightest rooms in the house. All the brighter when his kids were there to greet him, he thought, silently regretting that it had taken him so long to see that. Be strong, he told himself; just one room to go. He glanced around one more time, then forced himself to move.

Suddenly there it was: a modest master bedroom, warmly coloured and with the empty double bed framed tastefully by the window. Even now, the weak sunlight fell through the panes and onto the bed just as it had every morning that he’d lain there. Then she’d grumble at him and poke him until he got up. Or those lazy weekends when he’d reach across to cup her sweet face in his weathered hands and gaze into those sparkling eyes before he kissed her. He felt himself starting to shake. He had to do this. She was gone; buried and far away. He couldn’t stay here in the quiet and the dust any more. He just couldn’t. Not without her to make him smile. He crossed hesitantly to the bed and looked down at the spot where she’d once laid her head. Sniffing, he raised a shaking hand to wipe away a tear and gathered his strength. As he opened his mouth, he heard the front door open again.

“Dad? Are you in here?”

He wanted to call out, but his voice just wasn’t there. He fought back the tears and tried to calm himself as the voice called out again. There was the sound of hurrying steps, and a middle aged man stepped into the room. For a brief moment, he looked frustrated, but that was quickly replaced by relief. He took one look at his father’s face and crossed the space to put his arms around the older man’s aged shoulders. After a moment, he returned the hug and they broke apart, both staring in silence at the bed.
“Dad,” the man said, quietly, “why didn’t you tell us where you were going?”

“I didn’t want to worry anyone,” he said, a little sheepishly, “you always make such a song and dance of these things.”

“I know. Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I..I’m glad you came. Want to help me say goodbye, Jake?”

“Sure, dad,” said Jake, putting a hand on his father’s shoulder.

Mad Ogden Morgendorffer squared his shoulders and turned back to the bed, his voice faltering. God, there was so much he wanted to say, so much he should have said. So much he’d never be able to tell her. What would she think if she could see him now? What could he possibly say or do now to make up for all the lost time? Jake sensed his father’s worry and smiled.

“Come on, dad,” Jake said, giving his dad another hug, “Helen’s worried sick, and you know how Matt and the twins get when they can’t see their grandpa.”

“Well,” Said Mad Dog, raising an eyebrow, “then Daria and Quinn will have to wait while I pay my dues to the other main lady in my life, won’t they?”

“Why here, dad? Why not at the funeral?”

He thought about that for a moment, wondering how to say it.

“The funeral was where she was dead,” he said, his voice cracking, “I wanted to say goodbye to her where she lived.”

“Hard to believe she won’t be there to give Helen a hard time about the living room anymore.”

“She wasn’t that bad.”

“You should hear Helen tell it.”

“I have,” Mad Dog said, shaking his head, “God help me, I have.”

He took another breath and looked down at the bed. It really had come to this.

“Goodbye, honey,” he said, smiling softly, “I love you. And...thanks. For not giving up on me when you really should have.”

He wiped at his eyes and turned back to Jake, clapping him on the shoulder.

“Alright son, get me out of this graveyard before the dust kills me.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jake, grinning.

Chapter Text

The building had been quite a find, Jake thought, standing by the window: tastefully decorated, prime location, private entrance and exit for his patients, and all he’d had to do was bring in a few bits and pieces and he was home. Below him, the streets of central Lawndale buzzed with activity. Even on a weekend, the town kept ticking over. It was comforting in its own little way, and a lot like life. From here, one so inclined could watch every twitch on the street below, the wall to wall windows spilling light into the office. He glanced at his reflection, or at least what he could see of it in the glass. A tall, slim man in his late forties looked back at him, brown eyes pensive and framed with laugh lines. There was more gray creeping into his close cut brown hair too, he noted, and into his short beard. When did that start happening? For a moment he saw his father looking back at him and sighed. All of that was in the past. But it still had a way of creeping up on him. He checked his watch, ears perked.

Meeting outside of normal hours was something he usually avoided. He loathed sacrificing what time he got to spend with his family. But he was in a new town, advertising himself to new patients and it was important to be open and helpful. No matter how much he hated it. It didn’t pay to wait or to lean on referrals. Besides, the man on the phone had been quite insistent, and in spite of himself, Jake’s curiosity was piqued. He just hoped that the hoarse-ish voice would be less irritating to listen to in person. Playing with the cherry wood fountain pen on his desk for a moment, he forced himself to stop and took a breath. Jitters, he thought; hard to believe he still got them before meeting a patient. He supposed it was a good thing, as fear kept you from being too smug, though to hear Helen and the kids say it he was too far gone for that. Smiling, he smoothed down the furniture one last time and glanced at the door. There was a brief knock and he crossed the room, opening the door gently.

“Doctor Morgendorffer?”

Outside was a slim man in his late thirties, smiling nervously. Jake took in the man’s appearance quickly. His sandy brown hair was well maintained, if a little out of style. He wore a pastel shirt and tan slacks, both in good shape but clearly not new and a pair of brown loafers that had seen better days. New age sensibilities and throbbing emotions, most likely, concerned with his appearance but even more concerned that his concern hadn’t borne fruit. He had the look of a dog scrounging for snacks. None had proved forthcoming so far, but he persisted in the hope that the snacks lurked just around the next chair leg.

“Timothy,” Jake said, extending his hand, “call me Jake. Please come in.”

“I prefer Doctor,” said Timothy O Neill, shaking the offered hand hesitantly, “but only if that’s alright with you of course!”

“If it makes you comfortable, Timothy, then it’s perfectly fine.”

O’Neill smiled and entered the office, looking around him as he did so. Jake stood back to give him some space; quietly shutting the door in the process. He took his time looking around, browsing the bookshelves and running a practiced eye over the furniture and the windows. Jake added serial patient to his assessment as O’Neill lingered by the antique writing desk against one wood paneled wall. It had been a spur of the moment purchase and one of the few pieces he’d brought with him from Highland. It stood in contrast to the warm creams of the other walls and the couch but it sat well as the warm center of the back wall. A small coffee table between the chairs completed the picture. Apparently satisfied, O’Neill sat down on the couch and Jake smiled.

“Lovely room, isn’t it?”

“Yes, I’m amazed you can afford it,” said O’Neill, “where do those doors lead?”

“It’s a buyer’s market,” Jake said, shrugging, “one on the left is the bathroom, the right is the exit.”

“Oh, okay. No secretary?”

“Not enough time to hire one. Not sure if I will yet. It always felt a little impersonal, especially with a small practise.”

“I understand,” O’Neill said, looking nervous, “I’m sorry for calling at such short notice, I just wanted to speak to you before the school week starts and this is the only time I had free.”

“Never apologise for coming to me, Timothy, I’m here to help,” said Jake, sitting down in his leather armchair. “So, how can I set your mind at ease?”

“Go back in time and convince me not to join that fraternity?”

“That bad, huh?”

“Not bad, just humiliating.”

There was a pause as O’Neill drummed his fingers nervously against the couch cushions. Jake decided to take the initiative.

“You’re a teacher, I take it?”

“At Lawndale High, I teach Language Arts.”

“Big job. All those eager young minds.”

Jake almost flinched at the enthusiastic way O’Neill leapt at the statement.

“I know! I can feel their thirst for education and I long to guide them down the waters of literary enlightenment! So few youths know the true joy of literature and expression! That’s...that’s sort of why I’m here.”

“Having problems relating to students?”

“Well...Our Principal, Angela Li, she’s spear headed a self esteem course at our High School. It’s an ongoing project of hers aimed at identifying troubled students and giving them a nurturing environment to guide them back into the murky waters of social interaction.”

“Sounds like a serious undertaking,” Jake said, setting aside the alarm bells ringing in his head, “does your school psychiatrist run it?”

“No,” O’Neill said, fidgeting slightly, “Miss Li says that would be an unconscionable waste of resources and a drain on our funding. She has me running it. But I...er...well, I was never really trained for this and frankly I feel like a bit of a parrot.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“I know, I worry that the class isn’t meeting their needs. I’m convinced at least one of the students has failed the course more than once! It’s a cry for help and I don’t know what to do about it!”

It sounded to Jake like someone was having a laugh at the school’s expense, but he kept his peace. O’Neill ranted on, oblivious.

“Now we’re starting a new course and I’m looking at the cue cards and I just can’t shake the feeling that I’m wasting my time and theirs. What should I do?”

“Time isn’t wasted if we use it to better ourselves, Timothy.”

“But how can I teach them when I don’t understand what any of it means? I’m terrified they’re going to catch on one of these days.”

“Well, at least you know the risks,” said Jake, scratching his chin thoughtfully. “Have you considered approaching the material as a student instead of as a teacher? Looking at the material with fresh eyes as it were?”

“You mean view my lack of understanding as a gateway to enlightenment? I never considered that!”

“Well, I wouldn’t...”

“By taking on the mindset of the student I can transcend the barriers that separate us and truly delve into the experiences that shape my charges! My lack of understanding is their lack of understanding and by tackling it as they would I can understand their thought processes! That’s an amazing insight, Doctor, thank you!”

“You’re...welcome?”

“I can already see that this is going to be the start of a long and productive relationship! Would I be able to schedule a regular appointment with you? Say Fridays after school?”

“Four o clock? That suits,” said Jake a little warily, “and I’m afraid that’s time.”

Standing, he shook O’Neill’s hand once more and guided him to the exit. Once he was gone, Jake sat at his desk and considered what to do. Ethically, it was unorthodox, but he had to remain objective and keep good documentation. There was always the option of referring him elsewhere should it get too complicated. Sighing, he opened his planner and began sorting out his week.

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The firm of Vitale, Davis, Horrowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter and Schrecter had a long and glorious, if murky history and an equally long, glorious and murky list of clients. Scoring a position with them was a major coup, especially for a woman. Not that they were some sort of boys club or anything, but the world of law was cut-throat and the higher one climbed the more slippery the ladder became and sadly women were few and far between up there. Helen Barksdale ran her fingers absently through her long, straight hair and tried to remind herself of this as Eric Schrecter droned on at her about how wonderful it was to have her on the team. She wished that reminding herself of this wasn’t such a chore, but such was the cost of being a successful new face; you were always the aggressor in a foreign land.

“Helen, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate this.”

“Yes, Eric, you’ve said so.”

“Such dedication from a new hire...”

“Yes, Eric. But you did say it was important.”

She’d looked around during the initial tour and admired the history of the firm as related to her by Eric, all the while trying to separate fact from posturing. The decoration was tasteful and elegant, if a little too modern art for her preference, while the layout spoke of ease of access and long use. The staff seemed efficient and competent too, which was a massive and welcome change from that cess pit in Texas. Honestly, a new millennium and they still treated progress as the difference between being asked and being told to carry the dead weight. She took a breath and put it from her mind, knowing it was unfair to paint all firms with that brush, but by the end of her stint there she hadn’t cared; anger was a hell of a focusing tool. She brought herself back to the present as Eric spoke again.

“Oh it is! Carter’s been lagging on the Daniels Class Action Suit for too long and its crucial we get on top of it before those bastards at Friel, Gardner and Skonn get up to speed.”

Then why did you let it slide this long?

She very carefully did not say that, smiling in a manner which had become somewhat glassy. She didn’t doubt Eric’s gratitude, or at least she hadn’t the second time he’d repeated it, but she really hoped he was just overworked and not as incompetent as some tried to paint him. That was never a good way to view a new boss. Waving him off with a promise to call him with an update, she turned to her desk and the pile, already a pile, of documents in her in tray. She’d done her homework, accepted advance calls, and reorganized her schedule so clients could contact her but still it all just piled up. Still, she comforted herself, at least it wasn’t Texas and she had a shot at making partner, even if that did mean sacrificing another weekend for work.

“Marianne, get me the case notes on the Daniels and Hamilton Suits! And make sure it’s the raw data, not the manicured crap they keep for the public! We’ll need to re-interview all the witnesses and recheck all the information! Dammit! How long has this been left hanging?! Where are we on my eleven o clock?”

“Working on it, Helen!”

“Good. God. Can nobody here keep a schedule?”

At least Jake understood how she felt. Jake was always supportive of her career. Hell, he’d even accepted up and moving his practice to Lawndale to help her chase her dream. God forbid he’d lift a finger to help with the medical insurance forms or speak to the teachers or organize the decorators, and he was always hanging out with that Neanderthal of a father of his. Of course Jake and old Mad Dog were all about the kids and the kids just lapped it up. But would they call their grandmother? Not a chance. Of course, she wouldn’t subject herself to mother Barksdale’s tender affections either if she could help it but if she had to suffer so would they, damn it! Plus the kids had none of her baggage and had no excuses for shirking their family duty. She shook her head as she began to tackle her in tray.

“Marianne, call my partner and tell him to get off his ass, would you? Medical insurance and decorators will only keep for so long.”

“Er..Helen he called about that on Thursday.”

“What?”

“Well he called to tell you that he’d finalized the insurance details and informed the school about your daughter’s situation but you were busy. Oh and he left a message earlier saying that the decorator’s are waiting on your sign off. There’s a mock up in your in tray.”

“Oh. Oh! Well...”

When had all that happened? She hadn’t been that busy. Last she checked all of that still had to be dealt with. She consulted her internal calendar. That was weeks ago. Momentarily derailed, she smiled in the absence of other thoughts.

“Thank you, Marianne, but please get on those case files.”

How had she missed that?

Chapter Text

“How come Grandpa isn’t driving us? You know that these levels of parental involvement scare us, right?”

Jake glanced over at his son in the passenger seat, smiling to himself. Behind them, Matt's younger sisters Daria and Quinn sat looking out either window, as far apart as the Lexus’ interior would allow. It was a rare lull in the ongoing war of words that was his daughters’ interactions. He had three beautiful children and he loved them to bits, but they could try the patience of a saint at times. He returned his attention to the question.

“Please, Sport, do you think I’d miss a chance to embarrass you in front of all your new classmates?”

Tall for his age and with an athletic build, Matthew was very much a Morgendorffer, with close cropped auburn hair and the same jaw-line as his father and grandfather. His mother’s influence was there too of course, Jake was proud to note, and the face was softer around the edges with the same intense eyes as his mother. Dressed in his usual attire of an ironic T-shirt, grey cargo pants and faded black boots, he cut quite the figure. He narrowed his eyes in faux suspicion as Jake finished speaking.

“Touché,” he said, glancing in the mirror at Daria and Quinn, “but I know they had something to do with this.”

Jake shook his head, concentrating on the road as Matt let his glare travel from one to the other. Daria simply smiled but Quinn began to fidget. Once again, Jake was struck by how almost comically different they appeared. Though physically identical, the twins seemed to have gone to inordinate lengths to look like two different people. Pale with a dyed black pixie crop, Daria looked almost boyish. Her dark green blouse, black camisole, jeans and heavy combat boots made for quite the look and she gazed out of the rear driver’s side window through thick framed glasses. Quinn was every bit the teen socialite, resplendent in a long sleeved slip dress and matching shoes; her fiery orange hair falling in bouncy waves past her shoulders. Jake had tried in vain to talk her out of wearing the dress to school, but she’d gone to her mother and made the usual song and dance about making a good impression. Jake hadn’t wanted an argument so he’d let it go after that.

“Alriiiiight! So I said that it was sad and stuff that we haven’t been spending much time together with the move and all,” Quinn exclaimed, cracking under the glare, “it’s not my fault that they respect my opinions! God! Can’t you just let anything go?!”

Matt and Daria grinned and Jake sighed in resignation. It was all Helen’s fault for starting it with that inquisitor’s stare of hers really. She should have known better than to give them ideas. Not that his mannerisms had had any effect on them. Nope. No-siree. He braced himself for the upcoming exchange, watching for his turn off.

“Congratulations, Quinn, that’s a new record.”

“God, Daria,” said Quinn, “could you be any geekier? Ugh! Having to share a face with you is humiliating enough! Do you have to ruin car rides too?”

“Those are rhetorical questions, right?”

“You’re just jealous, Quinn,” Daria said, sweetly, batting her eyelashes at her sister.

“Oh! Like I would ever! And like anyone would ever mistake me for you.”

“It would be hard for you to fake this much depth and class,” Daria said, rolling her eyes.

“I have such a sensitive and caring soul,” Quinn said beatifically, ignoring her, “people can sense it.”

“Is that why we had to get you those special shoes?”

“You know what I meant, Daria,” said Quinn, through gritted teeth.

“Girls, knock it off and Matt, stop encouraging them. It’s your first day in a new school, put your weapons away and play nice.”

“Yeah,” Quinn said, glaring at Daria, “I don’t want this to, like, mess up my image or something.”

“Quinn, I thought we were past this.”

“Dah-aaad!! What about my image? My social life?! My self esteem!! I want to at least make some friends before she scares them away!! She’s doing this on purpose!”

“Yes, it’s all a conspiracy to steal your spotlight,” deadpanned Daria.

“See?! She admits it!”

“Matt, help me out here.”

“Do I have to?”

He sighed at the stern look Jake gave him and shrugged, turning to look at the other two.

“Enough of this. Daria, release her!”

“As you wish,” she said, turning back to the window with a smirk, “but it will cost you.”

“And Quinn, keep the peace and I’ll do that sketch you wanted.”

A series of emotions ranging from surprise to hope and deep suspicion flitted across Quinn’s face, but she finally nodded, and Matt turned back to Jake as though to say; ‘happy now?’ before settling back into his seat. Jake rolled his eyes at the calculating expressions on the girls’ faces and shifted gears, seeing the high school up ahead. Sometimes he feared they had been trained too well. Slowing to a stop, he shifted into neutral and looked out at the front of Lawndale High. It had an impressive, if interesting, record, and he hoped it would be a better fit for the kids than that hole in Highland. Quinn hopped out almost as soon as the car stopped, jogging around to give her father a quick hug before heading to lay down the groundwork of her intended social life. Daria got out next, opting for a wave as she made a beeline for the doors, leaving Jake and Matt alone in the car.

“Keep an eye on your sisters.”

“Always do.”

“Stay out of trouble.”

“I will,” Matt said, hopping out of the car, “love you, dad.”

“Love you too, Sport,” Jake said, popping the trunk, “knock ‘em dead.”

“Hopefully not,” Matt said, grabbing his book and gear bags from the trunk. “See ya!”

Slamming it closed, he stepped clear and headed after Daria. Jake gave them one last lingering look as he started the car. They grow up so fast, he thought, pulling away from the school, and good luck to whoever has to deal with them.

---------------------------------

Quinn moved around the car, keeping her body language quiet. This wasn’t the moment she wanted them to notice, and if her mother had taught her anything, it was to choose your approach properly. It was just a shame she’d never taught her to resist that glare. Hugging her father tightly, she smiled and mentally prepared herself. It was more than an image. It was a way of life. That was what Daria would never understand. Think Cute and Popular, be Cute and Popular. She flicked her head so that her hair flew out in a fiery wave as she turned and strode towards the doors.

“Wow, you’re cool,” said a slender cute girl whose brown hair was in pigtails, “what’s your name?”

“Quinn Barksdale,” Quinn said, adjusting her hold on her bag.

“Cool name,” said a haughty looking brunette in a jade baby tee and jeans.

The brunette stepped forwards and Quinn bounced to a stop, letting her arms hang casually as she was inspected. She knew she didn’t have to worry about a thing; she’d had too much practise to fail now, but still the butterflies danced in her stomach. She reviewed herself mentally to keep herself on track. Her dress was cute and modestly alluring, hinting at more than it showed, her highlights shimmered in the sunshine and her accessories matched perfectly. She felt the thrill creep up over her again and for a moment it felt like every eye was on her and everyone wanted to be her. It was a good feeling. Not as good as when she put on a really cute dress or snatched that last pair of designer shoes on sale, but close. It was moments like this that she lived for; that pause in the clockwork when everything hung in the balance and she was deemed to be somebody. It was worth travelling with the other two just for this. Well, almost. She could taste the appreciation.

“Walk with me,” said the girl, nodding curtly.

“Sure.”

“Wow!”

“You’re cute!”

“Will you go out with me?”

Quinn preened quietly as she was accepted into the popular side of the world once again. She almost sighed. Life should have been made of moments like this. It was a shame that this moment was overshadowed by who lurked behind her, just waiting, WAITING, to pounce, but she could handle that too. She had before. She heard the car door opening and counted to three in her head.

“Hey, who’s that?”

This was from the girl with the pigtails, who was staring towards the car. Quinn didn’t turn around. She refused to show any weakness one her first day. It was too important. Besides, she was floating above the ground on their admiration. Daria couldn’t take that from her. Her sister passed by, all cold indifference and arrogance and in a flash all was back to normal. Noting a lingering look from some of the boys, she smiled and moved to regain momentum. After all, her secret weapon would be along any minute. She turned to the brunette girl.

“What’s your name?” she asked, drawing their eyes again.

“Sandi Griffin,” the girls said, proudly, drawing herself up, “I’m President of the...Fashion...Club.”

She trailed off and seemed to lose focus as the sound of approaching big brother soothed Quinn’s ruffled feathers. Grinning inwardly at the almost slack-jawed expressions that the two girls wore, she lamented that she couldn’t savour it longer. Affecting a nonchalant but puzzled expression, she glanced around to see what the fuss was about.

“Hmmm? Oh Sandi! That’s just by brother, Matthew,” she said, waving to Matt. “Matt? Come say hello to my new friend, Sandi!”

“Oh, sure,” Matt said, stopping and smiling with the barest flicker of his eyes towards Quinn, “good to meet you, Sandi. Any friend of Quinn’s is a friend of mine.”

“Uh...thanks,” Sandi managed, quietly.

Beside them, the girl with pigtails seemed to be having trouble breathing, while the boys who had asked her out cast calculating looks at the newcomer before backing up a little. Yes, Quinn thought, this would work out nicely. Matt stepped back and turned to continue.

“Have fun, Quinn,” he said, “I’ll see you inside.”

Waving, he shook his head at the politics and followed after Daria. Quinn let her smile widen as Sandi and the other girls shot envious glances at her brother’s retreating back. Siblings were so useful, she thought, or at least some of them were.

“Isn’t he sweet? He’s always looking out for me,” Quinn said, twisting the hook, “always around if I ever need anything.”

She giggled sweetly as though this was nothing.

“So Sandi, the Fashion Club? That sounds so important!”

---------------------------------

The doors shut behind him and Matt savoured the quiet moment before regaining his bearings. Lawndale High was no more inspiring on the inside than it had been outside, but at least in here he was out of earshot of Quinn and her admirers for a while. He rolled his eyes at the thought of his sister. If she put half the effort into her studies that she put into socializing, she’d be able to give Daria a run for her money. She persisted in dragging him into it too, despite his requests to the contrary. He didn’t understand it; he wasn’t that good looking, surely? He just wrote it off as those girls being easily distracted. He noticed Daria waiting for him with an amused expression on her face and crossed to where she leaned against the wall.

“Admiring the scenery, were you?” she asked, innocently.

“Quinn felt the need for a distraction,” he said with a shrug. “By the way, apparently the shoes she’d put out for today went missing. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“Nope. You know how scatter brained she is. She probably left them in the basement or something.”

“I’ll bet.”

He raised an eyebrow, which she met and then raised her a further eyebrow, but Daria remained unmoving. He could see the cracks in the defence though, and was about to dial up the glare from merely inquisitorial to baleful when the sound of hurrying footsteps cut him short. Daria gave him a look that said that this was far from over and they turned to see the source of the noise. The corridor was peppered with teenagers coming and going and preparing for classes, but as they watched, an Asian woman through the groups with all the confidence and purpose of an icebreaker. Dressed in a blue business suit and with her black hair parted oddly above the left temple, she looked like an administrator, but seemed to have an odd habit of shooting suspicious and furtive glances at everyone in a manner that seemed at odds with her confident exterior. She stopped just short of where they were standing and glared at them from behind her square glasses.

“I don’t know you two,” she said, as though this was some sort of offense. “What are your names?”

Matt looked at Daria, who shrugged.

“Matthew Morgendorffer,” he said, straightening. “This is my sister Daria.”

“Ah! Of course! Laaaawndale High welcomes new students with open arms,” she said, the fires of dreadful pride gleaming off her spectacles as she drew herself up. “We are especially welcoming of students with such excellent academic and athletic records!”

Her gaze seemed to stray into the distance for a moment and Matt shared another look with Daria. This was getting a little unsettling. Daria took a step back, putting Matt between her and Li. He swore under his breath and mustered a smile.

“You must be the principal,” he said, hoping that stating the obvious would make her go away.

“Yes,” she said, visibly swelling with pride, “I am Angela Li and I am sure you will bring honour and glory to Laaawndale High in the future. The very near future. Oh-ho yes.”
“Because that’s really comforting,” muttered Daria, behind him.

Miss Li finished chuckling at whatever glorious future she envisioned and looked about her quickly at the tide of students. Clapping her hands, she glared around and planted her hands on her hips.

“Come, students! Get to your classes! I will not tolerate tardiness! Morgendorffers! Go to the auditorium and wait for the other new students! Hey! Pick up that soda can you little vandal! Trash is anathema to the image of this school!”

"Which is exactly why he did it," deadpanned Daria.

Shaking her fist at the perpetrator, Li stalked away, leaving the two slightly confused teenagers in her wake. Spotting Quinn coming in with a gaggle of admirers, Matt shrugged and did his best Sheriff of Rottingham impression.

“Walk this way!”

---------------------------------

“Now, Quinn, tell me what you see here.”

They sat around a small laminate table that had clearly seen better days while the school psychiatrist, a severe looking woman with square glasses and greying hair, held up a cue card for inspection. On the card were two silhouettes of a man and a woman posing. Since it couldn’t really be misinterpreted, Matt could only assume it was to test their eyesight. He smiled inwardly at the rant his father would likely devolve into if he’d seen this. There was an awkward silence before Quinn held up her hand.

“Er, I’m over here,” she said, through gritted teeth, "and I’m not even supposed to be taking this test. I’m exempt.”

Matt glanced at Daria, who shrugged innocently at him as Manson did a double take. He’d seen them whispering during the tour and of course it was the old battle again. He returned his attention to Manson as she tried to regain her composure.

“You won’t be graded,” she said and Quinn visibly relaxed.

“Oh. Well it’s a man and a woman.”

“Can you tell me what they’re doing?”

“They’re probably on a date. I mean he’s clearly trying to impress her with how much he works out and all, but she’s having none of it. I mean really? All that free time and he couldn’t pick up a better outfit? And that’s not even mentioning his car...ugh,” Quinn shuddered, “how can he expect her to be seen with him if he’s not going to make an effort? If he wants them to go steady he’s got to accept that bare minimum is not the look he should be going for. I mean, come on, everyone knows who the prize is in the relationship and he’s got to respect her.”

“Very good, Quinn,” said Manson, trying to follow, “now, Dara...”

“Of course she would have been ready a lot sooner if somebody hadn’t hidden her shoes,” Quinn continued, glaring at Daria.

“Why are you looking at me?”

“You’re the only one evil enough to take two odd shoes; you know that messes me up!”

“I see,” Manson said, holding the card up to Daria, “can you tell me what they’re talking about?”

“Well, she’s talking to her brother about a book she was really looking forward to finishing but which has mysteriously gone missing. He suggests she borrow his copy but she says it just wouldn’t be the same. And thus she promises vengeance upon the shallow soul who stole the book. Then a pair of shoes went missing.”

“Very...good, Dara,” Manson said.

Or at least she tried to say it before Quinn piped up.

“I knew it! Give me back the shoes, Daria! They’re blameless in this!”

“Not until Paradise Lost shows up in my room unharmed. If it’s gone for much longer the other books will get lonely.”

Matt rolled his eyes and steeled himself to step in. Beside him, Quinn was starting to tremble. Daria wasn’t finished though.

“And then something drastic might happen. Pieces of those precious shoes might start appearing around the house...”

“You...you wouldn’t!” Quinn said, storming to her feet, fists clenched.

Matt immediately put both arms out to separate them.

“Girls, focus,” he said, “please?”

Quinn bristled, but returned to her seat, fuming and muttering vengeance under her breath, while Daria smirked and turned away. Manson squeezed the bridge of her nose and cast a pleading look at Matt. He responded with a look of carefully contrived innocence and shrugged.

“Can you tell me what they’re talking about, Matthew?”

“Dogs,” he said with barely a pause.

“Dogs?”

“Dogs,” said Matt, nodding, “you know? Cuz they’re fuzzy. They want to get one.”

Matt told himself to keep looking ahead. That was all. He had to keep looking ahead and concentrate on most definitely not laughing at that. Not laughing. It was very serious.

“And that’s...all they’re talking about?”

“That’s a whole conversation, miss. Getting a pet is big responsibility.”

---------------------------------

“I’m still peeved about that athletics jab,” said Matt, joining the throng of students in the hall afterwards, “it was one season.”

“A vile smear on your reputation,” said Daria, rolling her eyes, “though I’m sure the heroic way you made that woman cry makes up for it.”

“One season!”

“No-one would ever guess you were over it.”

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up, but you still owe me for that.”

“And you owe me for this morning.”

“It’s not the same thing!”

“Says you.”

“Did you see where Quinn went?”

“No and unless it was straight to hell I can live with not knowing.”

“Daria, come on, she’s not that bad.”

“Says you.”

“Hey, Mack Daddy, is that the new guy?”

“Probably,” said another, irritated voice, “and stop calling me that!”

Matt and Daria both stopped talking as two voices approached. Matt pretended not to notice and kept his attention focussed on his locker. Keeping his arms loose by his side, he remembered Helen's admonishments to give people a chance. He was all for chances, just not for trust. Glancing at Daria, who shrugged and began fiddling with her locker. What fresh hell was this?

“It is though, right? He looks quick.”

“Thrilling observation, Kevin,” said the first voice, “remind me again why it matters?”

“Hey its strategy, bro, like coach said. We’ve got to get like ahead of the other teams.”

“Your sudden competence is chilling.”

“That’s me, bro; I’m like, real deep.”

“Deeply troubled more like.”

“Yeah! I’m a bad boy!”

“Is that what his owner tells him or did he figure that out on his own?” whispered Daria.

Matt suppressed a laugh and turned around. Ahead of him, a thin boy with black hair and a goofy grin wearing a football jersey and what Matt hoped was padding was walking towards him next to an African American boy wearing a look of tired tolerance. Of a height with Matt and impressively built, he rolled his eyes and Matt gave him a sympathetic look. Of course, subject number one would not be dissuaded.

“Hey, you’re like, new here, right? I’m Kevin Thompson. I’m the QB and I...er...Mack Daddy what did coach say again?”

“Not to let you out of my sight unless you were with Brittany,” said the other, thinking for a moment then extending his hand to Matt. “I’m Mack, that’s Kevin.”

“Matt,” he said, shaking the proffered hand, “so what are you in for?”

“Being able to walk and talk at the same time. Come on, Kevin. See you in class, Matt.”

Mack dragged Kevin away and Matt shook his head, while Daria grinned. For a moment he felt the old siren call but shook the feeling off. After those idiots in Highland it’d be a while before he’d let himself get drawn in again. Even if it was like burying your head in ice cream. Behind him, Daria had started to sing.

“Matty the footballer packed his trunk and said goodbye to the circus.”

“Shut up.”

“The head of team was calling, far, far away...”

---------------------------------

Jake stood in his office and mentally cringed. Somehow he just knew his kids were busy making his life difficult. Granted, making parents grey before their time was what kids were for and the stories were usually good for a laugh, but he didn’t relish having to talk Helen down afterwards. He shook his head. Who knew, maybe this time his gut was wrong and the kids were behaving like well adjusted and well rounded human beings? He suppressed a laugh as he headed for the door, unable to convince himself of that even in his wildest fantasies.

Pausing a moment to calm himself, he opened the door and smiled. The brunette woman in the business suit before him had been standing there with her hand raised to knock, but composed herself and stepped past him with a curt greeting. Shutting the door, he watched as she marched across the room to take a seat and followed at a slightly more sedate pace.

“Sorry if I’m a little rushed,” she said, haughtily, “my schedule is very tight.”

“I’m glad you could fit me in then, Linda,” he said, sitting down.

She glanced sharply at him as though he’d accused her of something and he smiled disarmingly at her. It was nice to meet new people.

---------------------------------

Later, as they settled in for their first history class, Matt leaned back in his chair and tried to gauge the teacher. Mr DeMartino was a starved looking man with greying black hair, an angular face and bulging eyes, and when stressed he put a strain on certain words as though trying to force his brain out through his eyes. He glared at them all as though defying them to learn something.

CLASS! We have two new STUDENTS joining us today. Matthew and Daria Morgendorffer. PLEASE make sure they feel WELCOME to this WONDERFUL institution.”

There was a general murmuring and even the odd cheer. Daria didn’t respond, being in conversation with a raven haired girl behind her. Matt stood and waved, deciding to get it over with quickly.

“Well, Matthew, as long as you’re up,” said DeMartino, chuckling evilly, “last week we began a unit on Westward expansion. Perhaps you think it’s UNFAIR to be asked a question on your first day of class.”

Matthew said nothing and simply waited. DeMartino narrowed his eyes.

“Matthew, can you concisely and unemotionally sum up the doctrine of Manifest Destiny?”

“Sure. That was a slogan in the 1840s by settlers who thought it would be awesome to wipe out Native Americans and Mexicans so they could steal their land and their jobs and stuff. Things haven’t changed much since then.”

“Very good, Matthew,” DeMartino said, after the shock had worn off, “you can sit down now. Can anyone tell me which war Manifest Destiny was used to justify? ANYONE?

“Ooh, Mr D! Mr D! I know this one!” shouted Kevin, waving his hand in the air.

“Does anybody ELSE think they know? ANYONE at all? Daria? DARIA!

“Mexican American War,” she replied, barely turning back from her conversation.

DeMartino looked like he was about to explode when Kevin once again made what Matt hoped was an uncharacteristic attempt at suicide.

“No! It was the Vietnam War for sure!”

“I thought it was the Vietkong war, Kevvie?” asked a busty blonde in a cheerleader’s uniform, twirling a lock of hair around her little finger.

“Oh yeah! Thanks, babe!”

DeMartino’s eye twitched and words failed him. Matt leaned back in his chair. Ah, highschool, he thought, how I’ve missed you.

Chapter Text

“So Linda, what compelled you to fit me into your schedule?”

Linda Griffin took a sip of water and glared at him, almost willing him to back down. Jake met her gaze calmly and levelly, waiting. Helen was fond of using her glare as an interrogation and intimidation technique too and he was well versed in how to deal with it. Letting that gaze pass right through him, he took the time to observe her anew. A tall woman, her business suit was severely cut, but stylish, designed to remind people of her status, while she used her shoulder length brunette hair to frame her face. She felt tense and on edge, and for a moment Jake wondered if she ever relaxed or would know what to do if she tried. This was a power play, like so many others she had to get through. He would have to come to her, she was saying; she would not cede control, even here. Jake let the silence stretch.

“Isn’t it your job to find that out?”

She fired the question at him like a knife. Jake took it in his stride, showing no reaction to her decision to break the silence. It was clearly costing her, as he could see the irritation building up behind her eyes. She was going to lash out again to regain her balance.

“It’s my job to listen to whatever you have to say and to provide a safe place for you to say it Linda,” he said. “If you want to say nothing, I’ll listen to that too.”

“They said you were the best,” she said, “You should know, shouldn’t you?”

“I’m a therapist, not Sherlock Holmes; I can’t scan you for clues. Sooner or later you need to go halfway with me,” he said, smiling pleasantly.

“What a scam,” Linda said, crossing her arms.

Jake chuckled at that and settled back in his seat.

“It’s a good one though and amazingly enough it seems to work, so who am I to argue?”

“Are you making fun of me, doctor?”

“Please, call me Jake.”

“I prefer doctor.”

“I prefer Jake,” he said, “so, what’s wrong Linda?”

She tensed for a moment and then sat back, shrugging and mumbling something to herself. Jake continued to wait, watching her deliberate behind her walls while keeping an eye on the time. Finally she seemed to reach a decision.

“I’m having stomach pains,” she said, “and my doctor says it isn’t a physical problem. I’ve tried pills, I’ve tried changing my diet and my sleep patterns but nothing’s worked. She says I need to get assessed before I can get anything stronger.”

“That is a smart move.”

“So assess me.”

“I need your help with that.”

“Ugh, why am I even here? This is a waste of time!”

She got up to go and Jake put out a hand to forestall her.

“Linda, you’ve made the effort to come here, at least hear me out.”

She hesitated and sat back down, fidgeting with her jacket. Jake took a sip of water and let her settle down, wondering how to get his point across without scaring her away.

“Linda, I can’t do what you’re asking me to do in one session,” he said, “and I can’t do anything if you’re going to slam the door in my face every time I ask a question.”

“Can’t you just prescribe me something?”

“No. Not without knowing where your mind is at. Medication is a dangerous option. Too many people run and hide in a bottle of pills rather than dealing with their problems. It’s a last resort here. So these pains, when did they start?”

“About a month ago or so,” Linda said, refusing to look at him. “I don’t know why they happen. I’m just going through my day and I get this burning pain that just gets worse and then it fades for a while.”

“Just at work?”

“Lately they’ve been happening at home too.”

“And what do you do? Your job, I mean.”

“I’m head of marketing at KSBC,” she said, proudly.

“Sounds like a tough job.”

“It is. You have no idea how many people would kill to be where I am. But I’ve earned it.”

“I don’t doubt it. KSBC have been doing very well recently.”

“I just wish I could enjoy it,” Linda said, “but they need me on top of things so I just have to make sacrifices.”

“True words,” Jake said, leaning forwards, “Linda, pains like this aren’t uncommon but it is more often than not a symptom of something else going on in your life.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Maybe, but since we’re running out of time, I want you to keep track of when these pains happen and what you were doing for next week.”

“Next week?”

“Yes. I’ll need to see you for at least two more sessions to form an opinion on you and give you my professional recommendation.”

Linda narrowed her eyes at him and said nothing, simply rising and heading for the door, then grunting with irritation as Jake held open the exit door for her. He wished her good health and shut the door gently behind her, letting out a breath slowly. He really hoped she’d come back.

------------------------------------------

“Eric! I’ve finally nailed down those stray witnesses for the Hamilton case and we’ve got to... Eric?”

Helen strode into the office and sighed in frustration. Empty. Damn it, she thought, where was that man hiding? Honestly, it seemed like she had to be glued to the phone every second for that man but when she wanted to talk to him, poof! He was gone. Typical. Just typical. He was probably off golfing with the senior partners or something. Hob-nobbing with the powerful and laughing at her through that damned glass ceiling. She gritted her teeth at the thought and did some breathing exercises to calm down. It was not like Texas here; she wasn’t going to put herself through that again. No, Eric was probably hassling the other associates and forgot to check his damn phone, that was all. She took a moment to settle her appearance, wondering again why she’d let Jake convince her to keep her hair long, and then headed for the door. She almost jumped as it opened ahead of her and an older, greying woman stepped in.

“Karina,” Helen said, putting a hand to her heart to slow it down, “you scared to hell out of me. Where’s Eric? We’re supposed to be having a meeting.”

Karina Shrecter laughed bitterly and shut the door behind her. A thin and angular woman, she had a narrow face and quick eyes that seemed to take in every detail as easily as breathing. Of a height with Helen, she shook her head and crossed to stand beside the younger woman.

“Sorry, Helen, I was wondering what the noise was. No, that big baby fell off the wagon again.”

“He didn’t!”

“Sometimes I wonder why he even bothers coming back. I’m taking over his caseload while he’s at rehab,” Karina said, rolling her eyes, “we can’t expect the big three to step up now, can we?”

“Heaven forbid,” Helen said, laughing a trifle nervously.

Karina seemed to pick up on it.

“Relax, Helen, I’ve seen your work, it’s very impressive, and no I won’t call you at all hours. Some things will keep til morning.”

“I..er...oh good,” Helen said, shaking her head, “well I’ve put together plans of attack for three of our pending cases and nailed down some stray witnesses for proper interviews so hopefully we can make some goddamn headway there.”

“Sounds good, please,” she said, gesturing the door, “help me catch up. I’m being thrown in at the deep end here and I’m already up to my eyeballs.”

Laughing, Helen led the way out of the office. They talked about the various cases, where the problems were and what options were open to them. Karina was actually supportive of Helen’s ideas and promised her some more staff to help her clear the backlog. When they finally parted company Karina made Helen promise to come out for coffee later in the week and Helen returned to her office feeling more upbeat than she had since arriving at Lawndale.

------------------------------------------

“You know, I can see the appeal of the outdoors, Daria, I really can. It’s just not for me.”

Daria steadied herself and focussed the camera, zooming in on her target. The bergamot bloom loomed large in her shot, its petals heavy with moisture from the water she’d dribbled over it. Taking a moment to reassess her idea, she watched the droplets move and carefully snapped some pictures, scrolling back through the camera’s memory briefly before finally getting up, satisfied. Jumping to get the blood back in her legs, she glanced up at the heavy set Goth girl and smiled.

“Andrea, it’s important to get to know your locality. That way when you’re out to get someone, they’ll have nowhere to hide,” she said with a slightly sinister giggle.

Andrea raised an eyebrow and her usually surly expression changed into a begrudging smile.

“You’re alright, Morgendorffer.”

“No, I’m not; I’m half left.”

“What?”

“Sorry, old joke,” Daria said with a shrug, “my grandpa kept telling it and its bored its way into my head.”

“I suppose someone had to make the pilot hole for the tracking chip.”

“No, that’s in my left wrist. My head just has that remote chip from that time they tried to remove my sense of humour.”

“Tried?”

“They were mostly unsuccessful,” Daria said, taking a quick snapshot of Andrea.

“Gah!” She exclaimed, clawing at her eyes. “Warn me when you do that dammit!”

“But you look so cuuute when you’re surprised,” Daria said in her best Quinn imitation, “and frankly you look hilarious against a green background hissing at the sunlight.”

“We’re not that bad,” Andrea said, looking around, “we just don’t photosynthesize as easily as you humans.”

“Please, I can see you fanning the smoke whenever the sun hits you,” Daria said, then waved an admonishing finger, “but if you come for my blood I will stake you without hesitation.”

“That didn’t sound like much of a threat,” Andrea said, smiling.

“Stupid belligerent teens and your hard to scare ways...”

The afternoon had gone much like that. Andrea was surprisingly good company once you bashed through the facade with a mallet, and despite her obvious discomfort at physical exertion, she seemed to be enjoying this little jaunt. Daria was glad; she would have gone alone but company was always nice. She’d promised Amelia that she’d send pictures of Lawndale in all its horror and there was still a lot of horror to document. They filled in the time between by talking about local bands, hiding places and fast food joints and such, but Andrea’s curiosity would not keep still.

“So...I can’t help but notice that you and that near identical,” she said making air quotes, “girl that lives with you, are in different grades.”

“Smooth, Dre, real smooth.”

“I’m Dre now, am I? Do I get to be a doctor too?”

“No! Can’t have another unlicensed surgeon running around these parts, even if all you’d do is prescribe Jennifer more happy pills.”

“I think she’s happy enough,” Andrea muttered darkly, “but seriously, spill it.”

Daria looked up from her camera, having taken a quick snap of Lawndale in all its splendour and raised a weary eyebrow. Her sister was far from her favourite topic of conversation, but she supposed it was going to come up in conversation sooner or later. Why should she worry about talking to people? It wasn’t like she had anything to hide there.

“Yeah, I was doing too well in school so to punish me they wanted to put me in some sort of gifted class,” she said, flatly.

Andrea sensed the mood and moved to change the subject but Daria ploughed ahead before she could do more than take a breath.

“My mom was all for it, you know, like; Blah blah college blah achievement better than her sister blah. My dad freaked, kind of, saying that he didn’t want me labelled as a freak for the whole school to see. Not in those words, but eh; who’s keeping track?”

“I don’t blame him, have you seen those kids?”

“They do attract an interesting type of bully,” Daria said, wistfully, “but dear Quinn and I have never gotten along and Mom would not let go of the chance to get the teachers off their backs so she kept nagging dad and he eventually agreed to bump me up a grade.”

Daria smiled sweetly and gazed wistfully into the horizon.

“And I never looked back.”

“Geez, I’m sorry I asked.”

“What? **** happened and it was rather unpleasant.”

“Alright, I get it.”

“Forgive me if I give you the vanilla version.”

“I. Get. It. God! I’ll never ask about you again.”

“Nah, I’m just screwing with you, that’s all there is to it.”

Andrea cast a wary glance at her new friend and shook her head. Something told her that there was more to it but she let it go. It made her feel bad for having a mother who just nagged her about her weight every now and then, but if she had to suffer so would everyone else. She did notice that Matt got left out of the history but she said nothing for the moment lest she get her head bitten off again. She cleared her throat, drawing an amused look from Daria.

“So...pizza?”

“What? No horror stories from House Hecuba to share?”

“Nope, you gotta earn those.”

“Darn and here I thought my acerbic charm and cuteness would melt your icy heart.”

“Don’t flatter yourself,” Andrea said, grinning. “So seriously; pizza? I need my grease fix.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

------------------------------------------

Jake looked up from setting the table as Helen walked in with a rare smile on her face. She really did have a lovely smile, though she wouldn’t admit it. It lit up the room around it and when her eyes twinkled they transported him back to when they first said hi. She threw off her jacket and slid into a chair by the table, sighing with exhaustion. It would have been any other evening without the smile. Raising an eyebrow, he put the cutlery down and crossed to massage her shoulders.

“Hey honey, how was your day?”

“Refreshing,” she purred, leaning back into him, “we made a lot of headway today.”

“Want to talk about it?”

“God, yes! But you know I can’t, Jake.”

“I know,” he said softly, “but I have other ways to relieve tension.”

She chuckled and swatted him away playfully as he leaned in to kiss her.

“Not at the table! The kids might see!”

“They’ll recover,” he growled.

“Jake,” she said, reproachfully.

“Fine, spoil sport,” he said, throwing his hands up in mock frustration.

He stuck his tongue out at Helen, who rolled up a napkin and threw it at him. It might have escalated from there if the front door hadn’t banged open and a happy bark from the other room signalled that one of the girls was home, while a rather more reserved bark barely acknowledged the visitor. They both looked up as Daria came bounding in with her camera. Helen called out to her before she was out of sight.

“Daria! Get back there and make sure that door is shut! We don’t want rodents getting in!”

“No, we don’t want Marty throwing up on the rug again,” Daria snarked, heading back to the door with a miniature schnauzer bounding around her feet.

The dog in question yapped happily, his tail a blur as he nuzzled against Daria’s boots until she relented and knelt down to fuss over him. Jake and Helen shared a smile at the sight as Jake finished setting the table. Finally managing to sate Marty’s appetite for attention, she headed for the stairs again.

“Tell Matt and Quinn that dinner is almost ready, kiddo!” Jake yelled after her.

She yelled back an affirmative and Helen sighed, shaking her head.

“I wish she’d take off those ridiculous glasses.”

“You know teenagers, Helen, she’ll grow out of it eventually.”

“I hope so.”

There was a loud crash from outside and Helen passed a hand over her eyes.

“And I wish you’d tell your father to lay off those projects of his,” she said, making the word projects drip with irony.

“Better out in the garden than in here,” Jake said, shrugging as he returned to the kitchen.

------------------------------------------

Daria continued on her way upstairs, shaking her head at overly concerned mothers everywhere. She always closed the door after her, it was just common sense, but Quinn left it open one time and suddenly it was the door this and the door that. Couldn’t she see they were different? Daria fumed for a moment and took the camera from around her neck, looking down to smile at Marty. She stopped outside Quinn’s door and banged on it with her fist.

“Quinn! Dinner’s almost done!”

“Go away Daria! I’m on the phone! Guh-odd! Some of us have lives, you know!”

“And the rest of us have lives worth living.”

There was a thump as Quinn threw something at the door and Daria walked away smirking to herself. Getting a rise out of Quinn was one of life’s true pleasures, right up there with heavy metal and cheese fries, and she never missed an opportunity. God, she couldn’t believe anyone would ever compare her to that self absorbed flake. But still they persisted, she thought, frowning for a moment before moving on to Matt’s door. Putting on a smile of genuine warmth, she strode straight in without knocking and crossed to where her older brother was seated at his laptop with a wacom tablet.

“You know, in some societies it’s considered polite to announce one’s presence before barging in,” he said, saving the file, “rather than announcing it to someone else and hoping the other sibling hears it.”

“Alas that this isn’t that society then,” Daria said, punching him in the arm and leaning over him to see what he was working on. “Besides, Quinn’s probably in there alphabetising her shoes again and who else am I supposed to talk to?”

On the screen, a stylized poster image of Loki and Hawkeye locked in close combat was taking shape. Daria marvelled again at her brother’s talent as only someone could marvel whose ventures into that same medium fell short of mediocre. Still, it had gotten her into photography, so there was that. Matt took the opportunity to blindside her.

“You and Andrea hit it off then?” he asked, reaching down to scratch behind Marty’s ears. “Aren’t you recruiting for your fan club a little early?”

“I do not have a fan club!”

“Please, we all know you’re secretly the school darling. Just look at what happened at Camp Grizzly.”

“I am not a darling! God!” Daria said, stamping her foot. “I have a lot of friends who appreciate my unique outlook on life, that’s all. I do not have a club. I do not have fans.”

Marty yapped loudly, wanting to join in with the conversation and Matt shushed him.

“Tell Amelia I said hi.”

“UGH!”

“Love you too, sis.”

Daria groaned and stormed out of the room while Matt chuckled to himself and slammed the door shut after her. Every time. Every. Time. Ever since camp he kept insinuating that she was secretly a well adjusted socialite with her own cult. How come none of the dirt she had on him ever seemed to faze him? Lousy older siblings and their damn thick skins, she thought, resolving to find more ammo to use against him in future. At least he accepted her for who she was instead of distancing himself from her like some people.

Entering her room, she powered up her laptop and checked her email, smiling as she saw the message from Amelia. Well, she did promise her an update. Firing off a quick email with a few pictures, she opened up their blog and checked the latest comments. The adventures of Mel and Dee got some odd comments at times, which were always good for a laugh. Putting her thoughts in line, she opened a new post and began to type.

------------------------------------------

"So then I was asked to join the pep squad," Quinn giggled, "they said I didn't have to try out or anything! But I had to turn them down. They were sweet and everything but it seems like so much work. I mean, ugh!"

She all but vibrated with enthusiasm and importance at her good fortune, taking dainty bites out of her salad. Helen smiled indulgently at her. It was so refreshing to see her daughters flourishing in their new environment. She just wished Quinn would apply the same enthusiasm to her studies. She glanced over at Daria, who seemed to be talking schoolwork with Matt and felt herself tense up. She knew that Daria was a teenager and teenagers went through some strange phases and that it was nothing to get overly concerned about. After all, hadn't she driven her own parents crazy in her own teen years? Still, she couldn't help feeling slighted whenever she saw Daria's dyed hair and heard her call herself Morgendorffer. She just couldn't fathom why Daria would do that.

"That's nice, Quinn," Helen said, "so long as you have the option to apply again. Daria, how was your day?"

Daria heard the pleading note but opted not to respond. Her mother meant well, she knew, but intense parenting sessions over dinner every other day didn't exactly predispose her to revealling her innermost thoughts on a whim. That and she was a) a teenager and b) a very private person to begin with. Sometimes she wondered why that just went over her mother's head, the rest of the time she just wrote it off to Helen's competitive nature refusing to let go. She'd once tried using Quinn's tactic of offering too much information at every turn but that had just encouraged her and Matt...well, nothing he tried seemed to work.

"But Mo-om! I haven't even gotten to the part where I was made vice president of the fashion club!"

"And yet somehow, I think we've heard enough," smirked Daria from her seat, picking at her dinner.

"Screw you, Daria! Like you'd ever be asked to join anything important!"

"Oh, like you'd know!"

"Girls! Enough! Quinn, don't use that language about your sister and Daria, what did you do today?"

Daria didn't answer, glaring at Quinn who returned the look in kind. Helen frowned and Jake cleared his throat to forestall an Incident. Thankfully they were spared an argument by the sound of the back door slamming shut and a series of angry footsteps heralding the arrival of Mad Dog. It was sufficiently distracting that Quinn and Daria broke their glaring contest and Jake almost didn't see Matt slipping bites of his pork chops to the dogs. He shook his head at it and smiled at his father briefly and resumed eating while the peace persisted. Massaging his fingers and almost unfeasiby covered in dried in grease, he plodded to the table and flopped into a chair, muttering under his breath.

"Goddamn cheap fuses! Swear to god they blow at a sneeze, dammit!"

"Ogden, clean yourself up before you sit down for dinner!"

"I am clean, Helen! Dammit I scrubbed off twice! And its Mad Dog, you know I prefer that."

"I'm not calling you that."

He quailed under Helen's glare but held his ground, sliding into his seat. Jake sighed inwardly at the exchange; it was almost word for word the same argument they'd been having ever since the move. Part of him wondered if they enjoyed the routine too much to change it up. He decided to step in for the sake of his sanity.

"So I take it the project is going well."

"What? What project? Who said I was working on anything?"

He'd taken to sequestering himself in the shed for hours at a time and wouldn't let anyone else in there, carrying the keys with him wherever he went. He'd also begun making subtle queries about online shopping that became a lot less subtle when he was confronted with a computer. Jake recognized the signs but let it go; everyone needed a hobby after all. Besides, all they had to do was give it time and they'd find out in full whatever it was this time.

"You did, just now," Daria said.

"Damn kids and your insidious logic," he said, tucking into his dinner, "in my day, kids showed respect."

"I'm surprised you can remember your day at your age," Daria retorted with a grin.

Jake raised an eyebrow but Mad Dog waved him off, turning to fully face his granddaughter with an eerie smile.

"Laugh all you want but you are one of us, child, one day you too shall be like me!"

"As if."

"Ewww! You'll never catch me looking that unfashionable, ugh!"

"Oh won't I?"

Mad Dog began chanting 'one of us' at the girls and Jake smiled at Helen's horrified expression. He reached out to squeeze her hand and and put an arm around her, leaning in close.

"Don't worry, honey, I don't understand either."

"But what if he...?"

"He won't, Helen, he promised. No more prank explosions."

"I don't know..."

"Come on, we're in a new town."

"Well, alright, but I'll believe it when I see it."

She flashed him a grateful smile and then cleared her throat as though about to address a courtroom, commanding silence. The other three stopped, though Quinn continued muttering under her breath about anti wrinkle creams and other polysyllabic words that sailed past Jake. Settling herself, Helen turned her gaze back to Daria.

"You were telling me about your day?"

"Was I? I thought you were looking for a distraction?"

"Daria," Helen said, narrowing her eyes, "this is family time, where we share."

"And I object to that."

"Daria!"

"Oh! Who cares what she did, anyway? All she does is mope around and read those icky books! Ugh!"

"This from someone who finds waif a tough read."

Jake passed a hand over his eyes and turned to Matt, who was eating quietly, and flashed him a pleading expression.

"Matt, do you wanna share anything about your first day at Lawndale High?"

"I dunno, its a school," Matt said shrugging, "it was...very educational."

"If you like being coralled with holdovers from another time and place."

"Daria, don't say that about your teachers or your fellow students! And Matthew, it wouldn't kill you to be more enthusiastic about your schoolwork."

"It wouldn't not kill me either," Matt said with a half smile, "though I did meet some interesting idiots between classes."

"Matthew! You have to be patient with people, we don't want this being Highland all over again!"

"Hey! I liked it there."

"Honestly," Helen continued, "its no wonder Daria has such a low opinion of people!"

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Helen, Matt," Jake said warningly, "can we not do this?"

Jake looked from one to the other. Quinn had gone very quiet and had somehow contrived, without moving, to distance herself from the table, picking at her food. Jake was certain she was trembling. Mad Dog cut a piece out of his pork chop and glared at it.

"Why do I always get kids' portions, dammit? I'm a grown man! I want a real meal."

"Because the doctor said you had to watch your protein intake and you eat too much crap anyway," Helen said, without looking at him.

You don't have to get crabby, Helen."

"I'm not! And you," she said to Matthew," you should be setting a better example for your sisters."

"I do fine in school, I get along with people and I look out for them," Matt said coldly, "just because I don't work myself into the ground the way you do..."

"Like you got along with that quarterback?"

Matt put his fork down and sat up straight, staring straight at Helen, who glared back at him. They were steeling up for a prolonged offensive; the signs were all there. Not for the first time, Jake considered breaking up meal times to avoid these little talks, but he abandoned the idea as he had so many times before. That wouldn't solve the problem; it just delayed it. HE suppressed a sigh, planning things out in his head. Intervene now, separate them and talk to each later when they'd calmed down or intervene and talk sooner? There was a slight whine as Marty suddenly remembered some dog things he had to do at another end of the room.

"Lousy kiddie meals! Stupid doctors! Meat never killed anyone, dammit!" muttered Mad Dog, drawing smiles from around the table.

Bar two glaring exceptions. Jake took a breath and reached for Helen's arm, but she ignored him, glaring at Matt. Helen smiled grimly, pressing the point.

"You couldn't just talk to him, oh no, you had to be the big man about it and look where it got you!"

"It wasn't about me," Matt said, "you'd know that if you ever listened instead of pontificating from up there on mount pious."

"Its always about you! But what am I thinking? Of course you couldn't treat him like a human being!"

"I tried that. You ignored me. Dad ignored me. The school ignored me. So I tried something else and it worked."

"Please stop, you're upsetting the girls," Jake said, firmly.

It was true. Quinn was openly shaking now and even Daria was starting to look very uncomfortable. Mad Dog made another assay into impromtu comedy in an effort to break the tension but it had no effect. Jake steeled himself and forced himself to stay calm. He could not act the way they were acting, that would only make it worse. Nor could he yell. He had to be the voice of reason, whether he wanted to be or not.

"Matt..." he began.

"So it was ok to hospitalize him?" demanded Helen.

"I could have done worse."

Jake took a breath to speak again but thankfully the phone chose that particular moment to ring. It cut through the tension like a sharp knife, leaving Helen and Matt facing off for a moment before Helen broke the stare and crossed to answer. No sooner had she moved that Matt was out of his seat and out of the room, leaving his half eaten meal behind him. Daria and Quinn, Jake noted, watched him go with some concern. He shared a brief look with his father and sighed.

"Matt?!"

"I'm not hungry," he called back from upstairs, "I'm going for a run."

"Yes, this is Helen Barksdale."

"Matt!" Jake called out but got no answer, "damn it."

Swearing quietly to himself, Jake got up and went to head Matt off before he could leave. Helen rolled her eyes at the display and frowned, listening to the voice on the phone.

"I see. And is this something that requires parental involvement and if so is it something my assistant can handle? Uh-huh," she turned to look at the table, tapping her thigh with her free hand, "I'm afraid I'd have to talk to my partner about this it sounds very unorthodox. Well I'm sorry that you feel that way. No you can't press me for an answer! Oh you insist do you? Well then its no! And I'll be taking a very close interest in this, Mr O'Neill, you can bet on it!"

She hung up the phone and returned to the table, shaking her head.

"Honestly, the nerve of some people! Telling me how to school you girls! How anyone could think you girls had low self esteem..."

She stopped and looked at Quinn, who was shaking and looking in Matt's direction and Daria, who was suddenly very very intent on her meal and seemed to reconsider for a moment.

"Well, he still has no right!"

Chapter Text

“Matt!”

Matt ignored the shout and continued straight upstairs. He would not look back and he would not slam the door to his room. He would not give her the satisfaction; he was going to go for his run and that was going to be that. Tossing his shirt onto the bed, he reached for his running gear and swore under his breath when he couldn’t find them. Where in the hell could they have gone? The room wasn’t that big! His eyes alighted on the backpack sitting in the corner and for a moment his thoughts were quiet. It always had that effect on him; it was why he packed it, even though he promised himself he’d stop. He didn’t hear footsteps but he knew Jake was there. He shrugged, shaking his head at nothing.

“I can’t find my sneakers,” he said flatly.

“You didn’t need to storm out.”

“Dad, I need to go for my run. Can you see them anywhere?”

“No, and you’re going nowhere until you talk to me.”

“Dad, I have to...”

“Matt, come on.”

Matt turned around and looked his father in the eye. Jake was in the doorway, both hands on the frame. For such a slim man, it amazed Matt that he could project himself as well as he did, practically filling the space. He was always a giant in Matt’s eyes, no matter that Matt was taller by slowly growing margin. He recognized the look; no way was he bluffing his way past this. Lost for words, he shook his head. He had to keep calm; if he lost his head Jake would talk rings around him and who knew what he’d agree to?

“What was I supposed to do? Sit there and let her insult me? She’s always starting that crap with me!”

“That’s an exaggeration and you know it,” Jake said, calmly, “Helen’s worried about you, that’s all.”

“My ass she is! Dammit dad, you always do this! Why are you defending her?”

“Same reason I’m going to go back downstairs and defend you to her,” Jake stated matter-of-factly, “I love you both and I’d prefer if you got along.”

“Why is it my fault? Why am I the one who has to go fix it?”

“Because I didn’t raise her. But I did raise you and I know you know better than this. Now calm down.”

“I am calm!”

“Tell that to your face,” Jake said, levelly.

“Who the hell does she..?”

In one quick motion, Jake had crossed to him, suddenly and disconcertingly filling his vision and cutting him off mid sentence. Jake raised a finger warningly.

“Lower. Your. Voice. You want me on your side, remember?”

Matt frowned but took a breath to at least look like he was calming himself. He tried again.

“Was she there to stop Quinn sobbing at her locker every morning or talk Daria out of the stall she hid in?”

“Yes,” Jake said, “who do you think did it before you came along? What do you think a mother does exactly?”

“She is not my...”

“I did not say that,” Jake said, cutting him off again, “don’t start that, you’ll just get bitter.”

It was an old tactic, and Matt hated it, not only because Jake was that much better at it than he was, but it had a way of making what he was trying to say seem so petty. He tried to recapture his train of thought but it had deserted him, so he decided to plump for honesty.

“Nothing’s ever good enough for her. She’s never happy.”

“She just wants you to do your best. It’s what makes her so good at what she does. It works for her.”

“It didn’t work for Daria and Quinn.”

“And fighting with their mother is?” Jake asked, refusing to let that hang there. “You know I’m proud of you for standing up for them, right?”

Matt nodded, looking at the floor.

“We both are.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

“She went to bat for you, didn’t she? I don’t remember you thanking her.”

Matt didn’t have a comeback for that one. Jake pressed his advantage.

“I will talk to her,” he said, putting a hand on Matt’s shoulder, “but you have to go half-way with me here. Give me something. Give me something I can sell her. Not just sports.”

“No promises,” Matt said, sighing.

“Just try,” Jake said, turning to go. “Oh, your sneakers are over there.”

“Thanks,” Matt said, but Jake had already left the room.

God damn it all, he thought, as he finished changing. Go halfway! Like Helen would even try! She’d never liked him, and no matter what he did, she was always there to knock him. Maybe if she said no to overtime for once she might find out what her daughters were thinking, but no, it was all a conspiracy! He jogged downstairs and out into the early evening sun to start his warm up sprints. He knew he shouldn’t be mad at Jake for trying to mediate. He knew he shouldn’t be, but that kernel of resentment remained. Would he open his mouth whenever Helen started these arguments? He tried back there, said a small, annoying voice at the back of Matt’s mind. Had he? That still didn’t give Helen the right. Screw her and her uppity attitude, talking down to him from her pedestal. Who did she think she was? Well, she was the girls' mother, but that still didn’t excuse her lecturing him...about them... Or...

“@*$#!!”

He thumped the telephone pole in frustration, swearing under his breath repeatedly. Shaking his head to clear it, he slipped in his earphones and took a breath. He had a good long run planned and he had a time to beat. He had to stay focused. With one last look at the house, he set off, hoping the exercise would clear away the cobwebs.

---------------------------------------

It was a fine evening to go running. This was a very broad category as far as Jane Lane was concerned, as, short of a monsoon or some kind of natural disaster, there was no day or time of day when she wouldn’t go running. But today was an especially fine day to her thinking. The sun was shining brightly but it was a cool evening and there was no humidity in the air. Every step sent a jolt of tired satisfaction through her legs and every breath seemed to cleanse her anew. It was glorious. Running was glorious. It felt like she was flying, like she was floating above the road. It was freedom; pure and intoxicating, and Jane revelled in it. There was no feeling like it in the world as far as she was concerned. Not even painting came close to giving her that rush. When she ran, she could believe that she was the only one on earth. When she wasn’t running, she sometimes wished that was the case. It certainly seemed to be the case at home these days. She stumbled slightly and shook her head, trying to clear it. Now was not the time for thinking. She was on the home stretch, she needed to stay focussed and finish properly. Save the angst for later. She smiled at that and regained her pace.

It wasn’t that she needed the exercise. She’d always had good legs and between running and cheerleading she was toning up very nicely. No, but after listening to Brittany and those she’ come to think of as The Others, she needed some time stomping tarmac to realign her thoughts back to where they should be. Realign. That was a good word. Jane resolved to use it more often. Cheerleading. She still couldn’t believe she’d agreed to it and it still left a sour taste in her mouth to think of it...to think of herself as part of it. But she had to focus on the upsides, right? The other girls weren’t unpleasant. She had what, if she was forced to name them, she would have to describe as friends. She was looking at escape from the hell that was self esteem class once her probation period was over. Hell, she’d even been on a few dates that hadn’t sucked. It wasn’t a bad result, she supposed, but she still felt like a traitor whenever she pulled on the uniform.

“Even if I do look damn good in it,” she muttered with a wry smile.

Still, if it kept her occupied and out of the house it could only be for the good, right? Anything to keep from sitting in an empty house wondering why Trent... She stumbled again and angrily slapped her right cheek to wake herself up. She was not going to do this. She was seventeen not six! She wasn’t going to be the girl sobbing at the window wondering why her brother stayed out in the tent and left her to the wolves. She was dealing with this like an adult. You don’t like your situation, then make some changes. She had and then some. She just...she just wished she hadn’t had to. Still, it was a fine evening and she was running. All was right with the world. Or rather it had been.

She narrowed her eyes and let smiled a tight, predatory smile as the sound of approaching footfalls reached her ears. So another dared to claim the streets of Lawndale for their own, she thought, all doubts suddenly forgotten. Well that was just too cute. Jane Lane was the law on these streets and Jane Lane didn’t like upstarts trying to outdo her. Time for them to learn that the only prize they’d get was the sight of her fine behind disappearing into the distance and the taste of her dust. Playing it cool, she gauged the distance between herself and the competition, letting whomever it was draw nearer. You had to bait the hook and give them a little hope after all. It was easier to crush them if they had delusions of victory. She let her quarry have hope for a second or two longer and then she dug into her reserves and sprinted. There was a brief moment where all he muscles in her legs cursed her at once and then she was flying again. Take that other runner! It took her a second to notice that she wasn’t alone.

Jane didn’t look around lest she lose pace but ancient animal senses told her that someone was closing the distance. She watched in growing disbelief as a shadow began to overtake her, followed swiftly by its owner. Gritting her teeth, Jane pressed ahead, concentrating on keeping up the pace but it her opponent was having none of it. To her quiet horror, he - and she was certain it was a he - pulled ahead of her, muttering something under his breath and with barely a glance in her direction. She wasn’t sure which irked her more, that she was being outdone by this upstart or that he wasn’t deigning to notice her. She was about to congratulate her new nemesis on making it to the top of her list when he defied all plausibility and accelerated further, putting more and more distance between them, and Jane Lane, most unusually, was lost for words. Slowing back to her original pace, she set the receding figure on her mind’s eye as she turned onto Howard Drive, narrowing down the list of suspects. This would not be allowed to stand.

Alright, she thought, slowing to a brisk walk as Casa Lane came into view, he wasn’t on the track team; they went running out near Crewe Neck. She could also rule out the footballers she knew; they tended to have stamina but were more interested in free weights and treated running like on obstacle to bulking up. She wasn’t quite sure why, but in at least one case she suspected they thought a buff frame made up for a lack of personality. No it wasn’t one of them. She slowed to a stop outside her home and began stretching her tired muscles, keeping her breathing relaxed and even. If he was on a team she’d have seen him around before she was sure. One of the new kids then? She furrowed her brow, trying to remember. She’d heard something from Brittany, but of course Brittany hadn’t been paying attention when she was informed and was understandably informative when passing what she didn’t know on to her fellow cheerleaders. Still, she’s seen them in DeMArtino’s history class and her nemesis did resemble that guy. Morgendorffer...that was his name. Did she have time to hunt him down before school the next day? She glanced up at the ragged frontage of Casa Lane, slightly less ragged now that some repairs had been attempted and grinned. It beat Sick Sad World reruns.

Twenty minutes later she was showered and on the prowl. There couldn’t be that many Morgendorffers in Lawndale. Or if there were, they were doing a good job hiding. She briefly considered calling Nikki or Lisa for information, but that would be giving the game away. No, Jane Lane would hunt this upstart down and make him crawl! So, armed with an address she’d dug out of the phone book and a runner’s vague pigeon sense of Lawndale’s layout, she headed out into the still pleasant evening, back tracking from where she’d first encountered him. She banked on having some time yet before he swung back for home, but she still hurried from street to street, checking the names. It wasn’t one of the newer estates, she knew that much but Lower Orchard wasn’t ringing any bells immediately. After the first three dead ends Jane considered that the mighty hunter might want to ask for directions. Lawndale may not have been a huge town but it was composed of a lot of clusters of houses built en masse at different stages, so in places it was a maze of near identical streets with very well hidden signage. However, her hunter’s instincts came to her aid and she grabbed the first person to wander by.

“Hey, is Lower Orchard around here somewhere?”

Her catch, an auburn haired girl who couldn’t have been much older than Jane herself, physically jumped when Jane grabbed her and stared for a moment, her mouth opening and closing silently. She was pretty enough, Jane noticed absently, and well dressed, though she was trying to play down that fact. She smiled embarrassedly and tried to recompose herself, to Jane’s quiet amusement.

“Er...yes, it is,” said the girl, a slight southern accent twisting her words.

“Can you be any more specific than that?” Jane asked with a small smile.

“Just down the block there and to the left,” the girl answered, blushing slightly.

“Thanks! Sorry for giving you that heart attack!”

Waving, she jogged on in the indicated direction, amused and slightly puzzled. She hadn’t seen that girl around before either. Did she go to one of the private schools then? She looked a bit well dressed for Oakwood. Why would she be skulking around these streets? Bad enough someone was trying to poach her place as resident runner now someone was trying to take skulking from her too. Shaking her head, Jane began reading the mailboxes as she went. Come on, she thought, it had to be here some...aha! Three fifty-four, Lower Orchard. She whistled quietly, impressed. The Orchard wasn’t quite a gated community like Crewe Neck, but it was certainly on the upper end of the scale by anyone’s measure, and the house before her was very much in keeping with that. Not one to be put off by quiet respectability, she marched straight up the path, made for the door and had to all but dive out of the way as a briefcase wielding business suit came rushing out at her.

“Emergency meeting at the office! Yes, Karina, I’ve read the briefs and they haven’t a prayer!”

As Jane watched, slightly thrown, the woman, still talking on her cellphone, got into her car and sped off. Jane was fairly sure she hadn’t been spotted.

“Is there a reason you’re lurking in our garden,” asked a deadpan voice, “or is it just a hobby of yours?”

She recognized the girl with the hipster glasses and the pixie crop from DeMartino’s class. That was his sister, Daria. She seemed cool. Oh well, she thought, too late to put her game face back on now. She crossed to the door and drew herself up to her full height, hoping that the whole inch and half of difference would add to the intimidation factor.

“You’re not going to derail me with your fancy patter, missy,” she said, doing her best scowl, “that weasel of a brother of yours has insulted my honour and I demand satisfaction!”

Daria sighed and rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“Fine,” she said, “I’ll fetch his pistols.”

---------------------------------------

Matt returned from his run drenched in sweat and deeply regretting his decision to run angry. Stupid really. Yes he ran further but he also ran harder and often lost track of his pace. It played hell with his legs and it was no good for gauging his fitness. He shook his head as he went inside, resolving once again to never again make that mistake. For all that though, his head was clear and he felt well enough to face Helen and her barbed questions. Although, he thought, glancing outside, her car was gone, so maybe he was off the hook. There must have been another emergency at the firm. He hoped that it was a genuine emergency. It was cynical even by his standards, but he couldn’t help thinking that she often used that excuse to get out of awkward situations. He felt his anger briefly flare up again and stomped on it, feeling guilty from earlier. Jake was right, dammit, Daria and Quinn didn’t need to see him arguing with Helen. Whatever his feelings they deserved better. It was just so damned hard sometimes.

Pouring himself some water, he sipped it quietly and went to tell the dogs that he was home. They got in a huff if he didn’t. Ruth gave a lazy bark that he felt through the floor, rising from her spot in the corner to greet him. She was a bull mastiff, nearly as old as he was and almost blind. She’d moved in with them with Mad Dog. Matt always wondered whether she was named thus to annoy his wife or to remind him of her. He was always evasive on the subject. He scratched behind her ears and she, in gratitude, covered his face with all that was best in dog slobber, threatening to knock him over in the process. He laughed and half heartedly tried to fend her off, keeping his glass out of range. He’d known her all his life, and he still had fond memories of her taking Marty for a walk. Speaking of whom.

“Where’s Marty hiding, Ruth? Not like him to stay away.”

She gave him a soulful look and, with what he felt was well concealed disdain, padded away towards the back yard. He chuckled and finished his water, heading back to wipe the slobber off his face. If Marty was upstairs then Daria was doing something interesting. That was seldom good news for him. Quinn was weird about the dogs so it was unlikely to be her. Then he spotted the note. Or rather The Note. He assumed it was meant to be ominous and threatening but given that it had apparently been written under some duress it gave the impression of writing that was dying of some horrid disease. Morgendorffer, it read or rather scrawled, what do you see? She really had to stop this nonsense, he thought, tossing the note in the trash; it was in poor taste and it didn’t scare him. Sighing, he made two mugs of coffee, hoping that the gift of flavoured caffeine would calm the savage beast and put off whatever was going on.

Holding them in front of him like talismans, he advanced cautiously up the stairs, listening as he went. Quinn’s room was first and from the sounds of it a very in depth conversation was going on, though whether by phone or on Skype was anyone’s guess. So far so good. Daria’s room was next. Music was playing, but that could mean anything. He could hear no voices. He was about to try the door when some excited barking further down the hall put paid to that idea. He suppressed a smile and walked quietly to his own room, listening to the barking through the door. He loved Marty but, like two little sisters, that dog would sell you out in a heartbeat. There was another note stuck to the door, written slightly better than the first. Enter if you daer, he read, or at least looked at, resisting the urge to correct the spelling. Shaking his head, he eased open the door, praying that he didn’t clip the dog.

Inside, the curtains were drawn and the room was dark, with only the light from his PC monitor bathing the room in a mildly annoying blue-white that partly blinded him. As he stepped inside, the chair, which had been facing the monitor, swiveled around to face him. Thanks to the light from the monitor, the figure sitting there was shrouded in darkness. It was an impressive effect, ruined only by Marty lovingly scampering around his feet barking happily. He smiled pleasantly, unable to walk for fear of tripping and covering himself and Daria in scalding hot coffee. Slightly bereft of options, he decided to break the silence.

“The elusive Matthew Morgendorffer,” said an unfamiliar voice, “my, my, my.”

That wasn’t Daria, but he didn’t doubt that she was in on this. Play it cool, that was the trick. After all, any attack would likely result in coffee landing on his computer and that was a headache he didn’t need. Those things were expensive, and besides; Helen would just love for him to do something like that. He opted for broadening his smile.

“You...I might have known.”

There was a slight pause that suggested the chair had been thrown slightly by his words, but it recovered quickly. He thought he heard a giggle to his right, but it was hard to tell with Marty’s continued demands for attention.

“You thought you could be rid of me that easily? Never!”

“Rid of you? You are but an angry shadow playing hoopaloo with the wind! Why should one such as I fear one like you?”

The giggling was a little more obvious now and there was the definite sense that this little ambush had not gone according to plan. Still, Matt couldn’t have stopped himself now for any money.

“You think you can just poach on my turf and get away with it?!” demanded the chair.

“Aye! A thousand times aye! You have awakened a mighty beast within me that will devour all you possess!”

That definitely seemed to have thrown the chair and the giggles had now become a laughing fit. He considered going for the lights.

“Then...suffer my vengeance!”

He waited a moment but nothing else was forthcoming. He cleared his throat.

“Well?”

“Silence, impudent whelp! There’s no clock on my vengeance!”

“You haven’t thought this far ahead, have you?”

“I have too! I just can’t get this stupid gun to work.”

“Are you sure its loaded?”

“Yes, I’m sure it’s loaded! I’ll figure it out,” said the chair over the laughter.

“You have to pull the slide to cock it,” he said, helpfully.

There was another pause followed by a click.

“I knew that,” said the chair, sullenly, “now behold my vengeance!”

There was a thwock! and a nerf dart hit him in the chest. He waited another moment.

“Well...” he said, “consider me chastised.”

“Shut up.”

“No, seriously, I’m sure that one shot will cripple my ability to be an annoying thorn in your side.”

“I can’t breathe,” said Daria, between laughs.

“Just had to ruin it, didn’t you?”

“No, no,” said Matt, searching for the lights, “I’m sure that in time my can-do spunk would have failed before the might of your rhetoric.”

He hit the lights as gently as possible and turned back to smile as insolently as he could at the figure sitting in his chair. Tall, with a pale, heart shaped face framed by shoulder length, raven black tresses, the girl did her best to glare at him with her vivid blue eyes and tossed his nerf gun to the ground with a clatter. She was vaguely familiar but he couldn’t put a name to her just yet. Had he seen her around school or something? Probably. She looked about his age at any rate. Her glare having failed, she opted for pouting. A memory kicked a neuron in his head and he raised an eyebrow. He’d seen her while out running! That was it.

“You’re not still upset that I ran you into the dirt, are you?”

He’d barely paid her any attention, but it got the intended reaction. She threw her hands up and all but leapt out of the chair, to the immediate and full attention of Marty, who ran over and almost tripped her. She recovered, but just barely. Behind her, Daria was all but doubled over on his bed, wiping her eyes.

“Edging past me at the end of my run is not a fair contest!”

“But it is a win,” he said, smiling, “its not my fault you can’t keep up.”

“Oh, you’d like to think that wouldn’t you? You’re on my list, mister!”

“I’m shaking.”

“You owe me,” she stated, marching over and shaking a finger at him. “And I intend to collect.”

“At least put some thought into it this time.”

“Ugh!” she went to take a mock swing at him, which he dodged easily. “There will be a reckoning!”

“Cours, petit lapin, cours,” he said, quietly, smiling to show he was harmless.

There was another awkward pause and he winced inwardly.

"Means run away," he said, helpfully.

“Ah...Well... You haven’t heard the last of me!”

With that she stormed off. He waited until he heard the front door slam below and turned back to Daria.

“Who was that?”

Chapter Text

“Mighty beast.”

Matt said nothing. He’d said nothing for the entirety of the walk from their home. Of course a little detail like this wasn’t going to deter Daria. She was of the frame of mind that silence was further evidence of guilt. He had hoped that he wouldn’t have to relive the events of the previous evening until he ran into his stalker at school, but he should have known such a thing was impossible. After all, he wouldn’t have let it go; why would she? His only small consolation was that Quinn had witnessed none of it. Currently she was stomping regally ahead of them with her face set in a look of serene calm, as though she could erase them from existance if she just believed. Or, knowing Quinn, just one of them. He didn’t understand it. No, that was wrong, he did understand it, he just didn’t approve of it. But if it made Quinn happy, who was he to judge? He checked his pace and resumed ignoring Daria’s teasing.

“A mighty beast that will devour all she has? Dear brother, who’d have thought you had it in you?”

Say nothing; that was the trick. It was the only way to be sure. She was bound to get bored sooner or later. It stood to reason. It also stood to reason that later, at any given moment, was a long, long way off. Daria grinned and all but skipped along as she kept pace beside him. He kept his pace calm and measured. He would not speed up as it would only spur her on, nor would he respond, at least not until he had a suitably witty way to climb out of the hole he’d dug for himself.

“In school barely a day and already you have strange girls calling at all hours. What would mom say if she only knew?”

He had a very good idea of what Helen would say and could well imagine the tone she would use to say it. So did Daria. This was one of the reasons they had not and would not tell her. Besides, it wasn’t as if he’d invited her in. No, that was his dear sister at work. Some stranger shows up at the door demanding vengeance and she guides her to his room in search of amusement; he'd trained her well. Ahead of them, Quinn endeavoured to speed up again, which threatened to break her no sweating rule. It couldn’t have been easy to go that fast in those shoes, but footwear was a poor match for determination.

“I’m sure she’d like nothing better than devouring your mighty beast.”

He laughed at that. He had to; it was too terrible not to acknowledge it.

“Alright, that was just awful,” he said.

“Well, someone had to say it.”

“I really doubt that.”

“Please, I’m surprised you didn’t.”

“What can I say, I didn’t sleep well.”

“A likely story. I can’t wait to tell the girls...”

He rolled his eyes, preparing himself for another round of teasing.

“Ugh! Do you two ever stop! Stranger this and beast that! You’ll mess me up with my new friends!”

Quinn spun around mid step, clenching her fists and glaring at them.

“And stop following me Daria! Every day I tell you and you keep following me!”

“We go to the same school,” Daria said, reasonably, if a little stiffly.

“But we don’t have to go the same way.”

“So take a different route from now on and spare me the lecture.”

Matt took a deep breath and prepared himself to intervene. Happily, the argument was interrupted before it could get any farther by the sound of approaching footsteps. In fact, they were approaching at speed. Matt, swapped his grip on his bag and flexed his free arm, waiting. Daria and Quinn were too preoccupied to notice until they were upon them.

“Hi Quinn!” chorused three male voices.

Matt relaxed slightly as three boys around Quinn’s age ran up to them and began tripping over each other to speak to Quinn. It was an old game; one he’d seen her play before back in Highland, and he knew she was good at it. But he kept his eyes open all the same. Even though Quinn was all aflutter at the attention, he was certain only he saw the brief look of discomfort that crossed her face. She was good with people, but she needed time to prepare herself and she didn’t like to be surprised. He met her gaze and she quietly shook her head at him. Joey, Jeffy and Jamie were well known at Lawndale for being enthusiastic and mostly harmless to everyone but themselves, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

“Quinn, can I carry your books?”

“Can I carry your bag?”

“Can I carry your... Got anything else?”

“Guuuys!” Quinn said, giggling, “that’s so sweet of you to offer. But I already have Matt for that!”

They looked a bit thrown and glanced at Matt warily, as Quinn handed her bag to him. He accepted the bag and favoured them with a wintry smile, as Jamie’s eyes widened slightly in recognition. He tried to say something to the other two but they’d already copped it. They were on the football team as far as he knew, which meant that they knew what Mack and Kevin knew. So; word was getting around. He wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. Quinn decided to intervene again before much more could be said.

“I wouldn’t mind if you guys walked me to school though!”

“Err... Sure Quinn!”

“Whatever you want, Quinn!”

“Hey that girl looks like...”

“Don’t pry, Jerome,” Quinn said, leading them away.

The three formed a phalanx around her, occasionally casting a worried glance back his way as they went. Matt whistled under his breath and set off again. He noticed Daria watching him and raised an eyebrow in question. She took off her glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose, looking at the ground. Matt stayed quiet. It was amazing how well that worked. After a moment, she looked up at him.

“What did we ever do without you?”

“Well, get used to it,” Matt said, “I’m going nowhere.”

He gave her a brief hug and they hurried on after Quinn and her entourage. Daria smiled and looked sidelong at him.

“You’re telling me,” she said, playfully punching his arm. “Of course now I just need to find your stalker so we can commence Phase Two.”

He shook his head, glancing up as Lawndale High’s frontage came into view.

“Well commence it later, will you? I need to find the sign up sheets.”

------------------------------

“And she just marched up and demanded to see him?”

Daria pulled her math book from her locker and tucked it into her bag. Beside her, Andrea whistled as she leaned against the lockers. Daria wasn’t sure if that was meant to signal appreciation or apprehension. The older girl smiled wryly.

“I knew she was crazy but that’s a new one on me.”

Daria shut her locker, stopping to stare at her friend.

“Wait, you knew someone like that was around and you didn’t warn me?”

“No, nothing that bad. Jane’s harmless. Usually.”

“I swear, I could have had so much fun with that,” Daria said, then did a quick double take, “what do you mean, usually?”

“Nothing, I swear,” Andrea said far too quickly, “what did he do anyway?”

Daria narrowed her eyes at the change of subject but sadly she had not mastered the Glare as her mother and Matt had, so Andrea merely stared back, nonplussed. Daria tried focussing harder in the hopes that lack of skill could be compensated for by increasing effort. [/i]Break, damn you,[/i] she thought.

“Are your eyes ok?”

“Quiet, I’m breaking your spirit with my iron will. Now, what do you mean usually harmless?”

Andrea sighed and shrugged. Daria kept the spirit pressure on. No, she projected, I am not going to let this go, now spill forth your tasty secrets!

“She just has a reputation, that’s all.”

“And what does that mean, pray tell?”

“Funny, some stalker demanding access to your brother didn’t worry you before now.”

“What can I say? Matt owed me a show. Plus he can take care of himself. Now spill.”

“No, alright, I shouldn’t have brought it up!”

“Andrea...”

“Daria, no. I’ve had my share of rumours thrown my way, I’m not going to be one of those people spreading that crap. You wanna know, ask Lane. She’ll loooooooove to regale you with every detail.”

They walked on in silence for a moment. Daria wasn’t quite convinced but she couldn’t exactly argue with the logic. She opened her mouth to apologise when a voice cut through the chatter like a knife. They both stopped and turned to see Miss Li marching towards them. The principal stopped short of where they were standing and drew herself up, her bowl cut and glasses practically vibrating with righteous indignation. A few students paused to watch; Miss Li was usually good value for money.

“Miss Morgendorffer! School policy here at Laaawndale High prohibits wearing false glasses or any other item that may interfere with the facial recognit...I mean er, that conceal your facial features. Hand them over at once!”

“Miss Li...”

“No buts! This was all in the welcome pack you received, Miss Morgendorffer. You may pick them up from my office at the end of the day.”

Grumbling under her breath, Daria handed them over, noting a few curious glances from students as she straightened. Satisfied, Miss Li tucked the glasses away in her jacket and marched away to harass someone else. Daria stared after her.

“What the hell? She didn’t say anything about it yesterday.”

“Li moves in mysterious ways. Now bat your lashes at the nice teens.”

“Shut up. Let’s just get to class before O’Neill panics again.”

“Anything for the girl who feeds her siblings to Jane Lane.”

-------------------------

“Decided to join after all?”

Matt looked around, puzzled, to see the open, honest face of Mack looking back at him. He hefted his bag and straightened.

“What?”

“The football team? Jodie saw you picking up the forms.”

Jodie. Why did he know that name? He was fairly sure he shared classes with her but he knew little about her beyond that. Slim, decent height, pretty enough and with a working brain were all the adjectives his mind could conjure. To cover up this lack of information he smiled.

“Yes, the incessant nagging has finally worn away at my resolve. You’ve broken me, you bastards! I hope you’re happy,” he said with a grin.

Mack laughed, scratching the back of his head.

“Yeah, sorry about that. Football’s a big thing here so they get kind of full on at the drop of a hat.”

“Still, roaming in packs and cornering defenceless teens can’t be a good recruiting strategy.”

“That’s only in peak season,” said Mack, with a grin, “most days we roam in pairs.”

“Nice,” Matt said, setting off for class, “so what else did Jodie tell you?”

“That it was pants first, then shoes if I recall. That really was a time saver.”

“I know what you mean.”

“I only hope someone does the same thing for Kevin one day.”

“Hey wait up!”

“Speak of the devil,” muttered Mack under his breath.

Kevin jogged up to them, still in football gear and still, for some indecipherable reason, carrying a football. Matt presumed it was to ward off confusion about his hobbies. Either that or he lost his locker key and was too proud to ask for a new one. He liked that second idea. Aware that he’d missed something, he tuned back in to the conversation.

“Stop calling me that!”

“Hey Kevin. What’s up?”

“I just remembered, bro!” Kevin said, smiling brightly. “Like, you know how yesterday when I said that coach wanted us to get you on the team but I couldn’t remember why. Well now I can!”

“You didn’t set off any smoke alarms when you had this brainstorm, did you?”

Matt looked sidelong at Mack and smiled politely, mentally adjusting his mind to the world as seen by the socially gifted.

“No, but I couldn’t sleep, bro, it was bugging me all night.”

“I thought Brittany was a she not an it?” asked Matt, winking at Mack. “I’ve never heard anyone call it bugging before.”

“What? Oh. Ooooh,” said Kevin, giving him what he thought was a sly wink, “no, no, nothing that fun, dude. I just remembered; you’re Mad Dog!”

“I am?”

“Yeah, man! You were on Highland’s team last year when they won the state championship!” He said, suddenly looking apprehensive. “You don’t have like Aunt Kneesa or anything do you? Cos, like, if you do, its a good thing I’m here to remind you.”

“Yes, yes it is,” said Matt, “thanks for that.”

“Any time, bro, giving is what being QB is all about.”

“Mad Dog?” asked Mack, flatly.

“Matthew Douglas Morgendorffer. Matt Doug? They let my grandpa name me,” Matt said, shrugging.

“Well I think its awesome!” said Kevin, hitting his head with the football, “makes you sound fierce!”

“Try Michael Jordan Mackenzie on for size.”

“No thanks...Mick.”

--------------------------------

After History and Phys Ed, Art was Brittany’s favourite subject; it really was. Ms. Defoe was so nice and understanding, and she felt that drawing and painting allowed her to express her true passions so much better than words ever could. But that didn’t mean it was all gravy. Like, she loved the way Mr DeMartino tried to bring everything to life and the way he’d practically fall to his knees screaming at you to show he cared and she really wished Kevy would show some passion like that in their relationship, but no, his heart belonged to football. Wait, she’d been thinking about something else, hadn’t she? Paying attention was hard. Wait, that was it! Yeah, she loved the passion of History but the tests and dates and figures and...thingies...just made her head hurt. Not like when she was doing the splits in P.E and she fell forwards either, no, the bad kind that she couldn’t get at with an ice pack. She hoped there would be ice cream in the cafeteria today. Art could be like that too sometimes, painful, not ice cream; ice cream was amaaaazing and she loved it that time when Kevy used it one of their make-out sessions but then he’d gotten a little too enthusiastic and she’d had to hit him but she knew he didn’t mean it so that was ok. Even if she’d had to get a new cheer-leading uniform afterwards and throw out that underwear, which Kevy still owed her for. But she loved him so she’d let it slide. She wasn’t one to hold grudges.

She looked down at her exercise sheet and sighed, twirling her hair around her fingertip in frustration as she took in her many mangled attempts at cubes. She knew she had the dimensions right; the squares were all right and squarey but it just didn’t...didn’t... What was it Ms. Defoe called it? Blurt out of the picture place? It just looked flat and she didn’t want anything she had to look that flat, not like some girls. She picked up her pencil and made another stab at drawing the cube, but it just wasn’t working. Sighing again, she turned to look at her friend Jane, who never had any trouble when it came to Art. She did wonder why Jane’s cube was taking up three full sheets and had turned into a Jack-in-the-box making a rude gesture but it did blurt out of the picture place so that meant it was working, right? Jane was fun. Sure she made these weird little comments from time to time but she had the best ideas for punishing Kevy and her parents were never around so they could throw parties and her brothers were cute, but not cute in a way that made you want to date them. She really admired that Jane had suddenly decided to get involved in sports; she’d looked so lonely before and made Brittany sad to see her but she couldn’t do anything about it because Jane had been unpopular and if word had gotten out that she was hanging out with an unpopular person then she might have become unpopular and then she’d get kicked off the squad and that would be terrible. But now Jane was popular too so they could hang out whenever and be bestest pals! Plus it was easier to talk to Jane about some things than it was to talk to Nikki or Lisa. Jane was cool like that.

“Jane? Can you tell me how to do this?”

“Gee, Brittany, I’d love to, but I have to finish this and show that smug Morgendorffer what I think of him!”

“Wow, Jane! I’ve never known you to get this mad at someone,” said Brittany, casting another worried look at the evil Jack-in-the-box, “not even that time Skylar tried to cop a feel at that dance and you slapped him so hard that his-“

”-drink flew out of his hand and hit Kevin in the face and Kevin punched him,” said Jane with an evil grin, “that was a fun night.”

“I don’t get it, Jane, what did Matt do?”

Jane glared across the room at Matt, who stopped sketching long enough to smile and wave back at her.

“He mocks me, Brittany,” said Jane, “he mocks me and I shall have him! I’ll chase him around the Moons of Nibia and round the Antares Maelstrom and round Perdition’s flames before I give him up!”

“Wow. I don’t even know where those places are! But...don’t we just have the one moon?”

“Its a...” said Jane, before shaking her head, “that’s just what they want you to think. The Moons are tricksy like that.”

“Ohhhhh! I get it,” Brittany said.

She didn’t, but it sounded like it made sense.

“I know what you mean though,” she said, with sudden conviction, “Kevy is always making these really inappropriate jokes even when I tell him not to and the only way to stop him is to hit him really hard in the-“

“But I don’t want to hurt him, I want to break him!” Jane said, shaking her pencil at the paper. “He is seriously messing with my bouncity bounce.”

“That’s not good! No guy should mess with your bouncity bounce, no matter how cute you think he is!”

There was a thoughtful pause and Jane glanced at Brittany, smiling.

“So,” she said, slyly, “you think he’s cute, do you?”

“No! Why would you say that?”

“Well you said he was so you must think he is,” Jane said in that same tone.

“No! I mean yes I did say that but I was trying to say that you shouldn’t let him do that because you think he’s cute not because I think he’s cute!”

“There, you said it again.”

“But...but...just because I said he’s cute doesn’t mean I think that he’s cute. I’ve got Kevy and I love Kevy even if he hasn’t got eyes as nice as Teddy Wozniak or arms like Matt, but just because I think about doing those things with them it doesn’t mean I’d actually do those things with them and I just wanted to see what the Oakwood kids do when we’re not trashing them at sports and they don’t mean anything to me, I swear!”

“There, there, Brittany,” Jane said, “let it out.”

Brittany took a deep, calming breath and looked around. On the other side of her was Andrea. She didn’t usually talk much and she was kind of odd the way she wore black and dark make up all the time but Brittany like to think the best of everyone she met so she had to take the chance. Besides, her cubes were cubey and not messy at all. That had to count for something, right?

“Andrea? You’re good at drawing, can you show me how to do this?”

The goth girl glanced up at her with a weary expression. Brittany wondered if she got enough sleep at night. She seemed to think it over for a moment.

“What do I get in return? Cash is usually a good medium of exchange.”

“I don’t know about that, but I am having a party on Saturday night and I promised my friends that I wouldn’t invite any more really cute girls so I can invite you to come over!”

“Gee, you make it sound so appealing.”

“I know right?”

No response was forthcoming and she was getting desperate so she decided to sweeten the pot a little.

“Pleeeeease? You can even bring a friend?”

“Alright! God!” said Andrea, sighing, “if it’ll get you off my back.”

“Yay!”

“Ugh. So...you know how things seem really far away?”

“Like the weekend?”

“I...ugh...Daria, help me out here.”

She wasn’t sure she liked the explanation very much, especially when they tried to say she shopped at JJ Jeeters, but then they said something about a one-day sale at Cashmans and how she’d really want to be there and that was much better. It really helped her understand too and she returned to her cube, happy with finally being able to finish the assignment and get back to thinking about important things. She just hoped that Andrea’s friend wasn’t kind of cute like Daria, not that she thought about girls that way, but her friends might be really mad at her for that. She sighed in frustration. Being popular was hard. She glanced up as Jane, with a triumphant laugh turned her sheets towards Matt, who smiled and showed her his work, also across three sheets, of many smaller cubes cleverly shaded to take on the appearance of someone pulling a gross face. Snarling, Jane threw down her sheets just as Ms Defoe came over to calm things down. Brittany just hoped Jane didn’t find out about Matt trying out for the Football team until later. That could really make her mad.

------------------------------

Elsie Sloane shut her Spanish textbook for the sixth time, groaning with frustration and fighting the urge to wallop her head off the cafeteria table before opening the book for one more try. She wasn’t a bad student, at least not by her standards, but Spanish was, to her, a particularly hellish chore. The state of affairs wasn’t helped by the fact that she was fighting off a headache from a night of interrupted sleep and she wilfully blamed her current mental block on that. Who called you six times at three in the morning and expected you to hear them out? Sighing, she shut the book again and shoved it into her bag, cursing friends and their incessant desire to include you in their lives. As much as she needed to get that done, the mass of verbs, adverbs and assorted movable printed type were blurring together into one giant migraine-inducing mass. Putting a hand to her forehead, she reached for her water, hoping that hydration could replace sleep. Then a far too familiar voice called out to her from across the room and all hope of relief slipped away.

“Elsie! Thank God! I’ve been looking for you all morning!”

“Not very hard apparently,” Elsie muttered, then louder, “good morning, Erin. Sleep well?”

She laced those last two words with as much venom as she could muster but, as ever, Erin just breezed right past it and slid into a seat beside Elsie, brimming with excitement. Resplendent in her Fielding uniform, Erin Chambers cut an impressive figure, with a slender, pretty face and silky auburn hair that fell partway down her back and long, runner’s legs, she was well deserving of her Tops bracelet, as all the boys agreed. But the clincher was her eyes, intense and expressive, they twinkled with mischief. On reflex Elsie leaned back in case her enthusiasm was catching and mustered a sardonic smile.

“Like a log, Elsie! I was exhausted!” Erin said, indecently chipper as ever.

“I wonder what that feels like,” Elsie said, sarcastically, then raised an eyebrow, “and not with Young Thomas, I see. Not lost again, is he?”

“Oh, he’s just being a slouch,” giggled Erin, “he’ll be along.”

“Ah, so he’s forgotten where his locker is. I’ll get you a leash for him.”

“Elsie, really! You’re too hard on him!”

“I have to get my giggles somewhere, so bite me.”

“Please, I value the use of my teeth, thank you very much.”

Elsie rolled her eyes and glanced over towards the Tops table. They were drawing a few looks, but given Erin’s dalliances with Tom, her association with Elsie was...tolerated, was really the only word that suited. Elsie shot them a venomous look and returned her attention to Erin.

“So what drags you away from the land of milk and honey and into my lonely part of the world? Any chance it’s what prompted you to destroy my night’s sleep?”

“Oh Elsie! My phone was dead and by the time I got back I just had to smooth things over with Daphne, and by the time I finished with her I realised I still had to tell you! If I could have called earlier, I would have, but you know what Fielding’s new policy on cell phones is like. It’s positively medieval.”

“Save your platitudes! I prefer my apologies in cash form,” said Elsie with a grin.

She liked Erin. She disapproved of anybody that the Tops invited into their ranks on general principle and of her dear brother’s girlfriends even more so because frankly any girl who could stomach Tom’s unique brand of apathetic non-romance was clearly deranged. But it was hard not to like Erin and harder still to stay mad at her. Endlessly pleasant, outgoing and relentless in her desire to associate with people, she was like a puppy, so you forgave her for occasionally getting mud on your skirt. Besides, unlike a lot of the girls in Fielding, she was fun, and that trumped all in Elsie’s book. She held her grin and waited for Erin to stop fidgeting and get to the point.

“Hush, Elsie,” Erin said, smiling, “now, remember I said I was looking for my father?”

“Vaguely, go on.”

“Well, mother wouldn’t talk about him, but I remembered an argument she had with my grandmother once and I was going through some old photos-“

Elsie relaxed as the tide of words washed over her. That was another thing about Erin; she could talk for America when she put her mind to it. In fact, Elsie already knew about her long-time search in almost exhaustive detail, being one of the few people foolish enough to pay attention those times it came up in conversation. And it had been coming up more and more frequently. Still, Erin liked to set the scene and Elsie knew she was going to hear all of it again whether she wanted to or not, so why give Erin more work? She just had to wait for Erin to reach her level of understanding, so she just looked alert and interested, a skill every student had to learn. She tuned back in as Erin seemed to wind down.

”-and I think, I think, I’ve tracked him down. He’s living in Lawndale!”

“That’s great!”

While it was said with all the enthusiasm she could muster, she was more than a little worried about her friend’s obsession. Sure, it made her happy and it was slightly better than drugs, but she’d never heard of such a search that hadn’t ended in tears for somebody.

“Are you sure?” Elsie asked, for the look of the thing.

“I am! I mean, I think so at least. I’ve done as much checking as I can and I mean I looked hard. I even went by the house to see for myself.”

That gave Elsie pause. She frowned slightly and wondered what would be the least insulting way to phrase her concerns.

“Isn’t that a little...creepy?” she asked, giving up.

“You think so? No. No, I’m sure its not. Its not. I’m just being thorough, that’s all,” said Erin, dismissively.

“Ok.”

“And besides, nobody saw me and I’m sure he was there.”

“Alright,” said Elsie, making placating gestures, “relax.”

“Oh my God, should I have talked to them? I should have talked to them!”

“I...don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Just think about it. What if you’re wrong? You’ll be causing the world of trouble for some poor family and really embarrassing yourself. I don’t think it’s worth it.”

“But I might have a brother!”

“Take it from me, Erin, they’re over-rated. Aren’t you Thomas?”

They both looked up as Tom sauntered over. Erin’s face lit up, all doubt forgotten and she pulled Tom into a hug, threatening to send them both falling to the floor. They shared a brief kiss, much to Elsie’s horror and she averted her eyes, tutting in disapproval.

“We are in public, you know.”

“Oh, Elsie, don’t be such a prude!” giggled Erin.

“Yes, sis, you could always leave if we’re making you uncomfortable.”

“And give you the satisfaction? Never. Did you find your locker in the end?”

“I did. Who’d have thought it was right where I left it?”

“You guys are weird,” Erin said, “now stop it! I’m in a good mood and you’ll not ruin this for me.”

Elsie shook her head in resignation. It was going to be one of those days.

---------------------------------

“Oh Em Gee, Quinn! It’s going to be great having you in the fashion club,” Stacy gushed, “you’ll really enjoy it.”

Quinn maintained a confident smile as they walked to her locker, but inwardly she winced. This was far from the first platitude she’d received and she knew it wouldn’t be the last. Still, she couldn’t begrudge Stacy the role she’d chosen to play. The middleman was always nervous; always hungry, but if Stacy hoped to get some titbits of information this early in the game she was doomed to disappointment. But then, maybe Quinn was wrong; there was always the outside chance that Stacy was just being friendly. But it was an outside chance.

“Thanks, Stacy! Its really great to give back to the community you know? Well, the fashionable parts of it at least.”

“I know what you mean! The thought that the Fashion Club could be helping someone in stretch pants-“

“STAY-CEEEE! Don’t even say that!”

“Sorry, Quinn!”

“Just...ewww!”

“Sorry!”

“Some people just can’t be helped,” Quinn said, with finality, “and wisdom is knowing when to do nothing.”

“Wow, Quinn! That’s really deep!”

“Well, fashion isn’t just on the surface, Stacy,” Quinn said with a giggle.

“Where did you learn that?”

“One of those Top Model shows,” she replied, brusquely, “it just spoke to me, you know?”

“Wow.”

Stacy was looking at her with a kind of awe and Quinn took a small moment to bathe in it; it was what she lived for after all. In truth she’d spotted it on Matt’s desktop once and filed it away for future use. People thought depth was hard but the opposite was depressingly true. Besides, wasn’t it better for stuff like that to end up with attractive and popular people who could make proper use of it instead of it going to some brain? Daria probably knew all kinds of crap like that but what good did it do her? She just moped around with those...people...and drag Quinn’s good name and face through the mud. It could really, really mess with her inner peace if she let it. Not that she did. Inner balance and tranquillity was essential to looking good. Everyone knew that. If you couldn’t bounce from the inside, how could you bounce on the outside? It stood to reason. But what could a popular girl with bouncy hair do? Daria was just a menace and that was her cross to bear. No, Daria wasn’t the problem.

“Oh! I just remembered!” Stacy said, quickly, “Sandi’s called for an emergency meeting of the Fashion Club this evening!”

“Why?”

“She wants to coordinate strategy for Brittany’s party this weekend.”

She’d heard about that. It hadn’t been all that hard; given that it was all Tori and the rest could talk about, she’d be surprised if there was anyone who didn’t know about it. She intended to go, but she thought she’d have to work harder to get there. The way things were going here though all she’d have to do was stretch near one of the boys and sooner or later an invite would show up. But if Sandi had an in that would save her time, then so much the better. Sandi. Now there was a problem, and a prickly one at that. People like Sandi could smell threats a mile away. So she needed a distraction. Thankfully, she had the ultimate trump card. Matt was a sweetie like that and Sandi was sweet on Matt. She just had to figure out how to make that work for her.

“What strategy?”

“Well, the fashion club is, like, the first to be invited to all these parties and Sandi said we need to get ahead of things to show we’re elite.”

“That does make sense.”

Privately she was less certain. Yes, it was her duty, her responsibility as an emissary (She liked that word. Thank you, Matt.) of fashion, to spread the message of fashion whenever and wherever she got the chance. Fashion wasn’t a luxury; it was a necessity. Everyone needed to take that to heart. Popularity was a very different game. Every outing was a knife edge and push your advantage too often and it crumbled. Sandi would need to be careful; the Fashion Club didn’t have the numbers to take any big hits. Still, it was hard to argue with the results.

“And Tiffany says she’s got a real scoop for the accessories committee and I’m really looking forward to that! Aren’t you?”

She’d have to find a date for this too, or at least someone to fawn over her and make her look good, which amounted to the same thing. Ugh! Effort. She tucked her English book away and pulled her Math book out. She felt a twinge of discomfort. No, that wasn’t right. She put the Math book back and took it out again. Maybe Joey, Jeffy and Geronimo could cover for her? No, she couldn’t pick anybody yet. Damn it. She froze, looking at the row of books. Still not right. She replaced the book and removed it again.

“Quinn?”

“No,” she muttered, “no, no, no.”

“Er...Quinn?”

“It’s not right! It isn’t!”

She was aware that her voice was rising slightly. Soon she’d be shaking and it would start all over again. She counted the books, trying to calm herself and slow her breathing. No! She replaced the book and removed it again. She forced herself to stop, the book halfway out of the locker. She shut her eyes tightly and took a deep breath. It was easier if she couldn’t see it.

“Quinn? Are you ok?”

“Stacy could you please take this book out of my hand and shut my locker?”

“But Quinn I-“

“STACY! Take this book out of my hand and shut my locker!”

“Yes, Quinn,” Stacy said, rushing to comply.

She snatched the book from Quinn and all but slammed the locker closed, shaking with nerves. Quinn stood there for a moment, concentrating on breathing just like Jake had showed her. In and out. Calm. She let out one last, long breath, took out her compact and checked her make up. Everything was still in place. She ran a hand through her hair and was serene. She turned to Stacy, who was staring at her slightly wide-eyed.

“Thank you.”

“Really?” Stacy asked with almost unsettling joy.

“Yes,” Quinn said, holding out her hand for the book, “and tell Tiffany to hold off on the accessories for now.”

“But Sandi...?”

“Sandi would say that this is the first party of the season and the smart thing to do is observe,” Quinn said, beatifically. “If we go all out now we have nothing in reserve when the real threats show up.”

“If you say so, Quinn.”

“I do,” Quinn said, striding in the direction of class, “now come on or we’ll be late!”

“Sorry, Quinn!”

“Remember Stacy, we don’t need to show them that we’re on top. We are on top. Let the rest scamper for attention.”

Stacy was silent as Quinn lead the way. There was the sound of running feet and Joey, Jeffy and Jamie came running up to them.

“Quinn, do you want to-?“

“Guuuuys! Not now,” she said, sweetly, “the party is days away and you’ll need to try harder than that! But you can walk me to class!”

There was a moment of staring and then they were pushing one another to get ahead. It five minutes before they realized that Quinn and Stacy had already gone.

------------------------------------

As he and Mack waded through the end of day rush for the doors, Matt took a moment to savour the sense of freedom that came with it. There was a gratifying sense of community there too. For the second time every day every student was likely thinking the same thing; finally, it’s over. The end of the day could never come fast enough as far as Matt was concerned. Yes, there were some high points, most notably during history and biology, but for the most part it was a drawn out battle where teachers tried to draw him into a lot of nasty traps aimed at giving him more work than he needed. It was all part of the learning process really; if you fell in you learned to be quicker off the bat the next time, and Matt was very quick indeed. It was a skill Daria had yet to pick up, which surprised him no end. For someone as cynical as she was she got drawn in far too easily at times. The same could be said of his new companions, he supposed.

Mack could be surprisingly sharp when it suited him, but those last four words were very much the crux of the matter. The rest of the time he feigned ignorance like a pro and kept his head down. Matt approved whole-heartedly. Kevin was a very different matter and it had taken all of Matt’s self control not to send him off to find some sky hooks and a glass hammer. He wasn’t stupid, not exactly, he just directed all of his thoughts in a few very specific directions most of the time. So he was very very good at running through crowds of people, quoting football trivia, smiling pleasantly and chasing women, but a little at sea with everything else. Matt didn’t care because Kevin was, frankly, hilarious, even when he wasn’t pulling his sitcom act with Brittany. Daria often wondered why Matt tolerated football players but there was no real mystery to it. They were, mostly, genuine and straightforward, didn’t ask much of him and he didn’t have to try very hard to fit anyone’s image. All he had to do was shift his brain down a gear or two and exist; the rest tended to take care of itself. For the things that didn’t, well, he could always improvise.

“You sure Jodie’ll be able to help?” he asked, glancing at Mack.

“Yes, I am,” Mack said, a little exasperated, “for the third time. Jodie sees all the extra curricular stuff and she promised she’d try.”

“You’ll forgive me if I’m sceptical, Mick.”

His ongoing experiences with Helen had depleted his faith in schedules. No, that was unfair. He had all the faith in the world in schedules; schedules for everyone, he just had little faith that he’d come first in a contest with them. Cynical, perhaps, but it was in his job description. He noted the slight narrowing of his friend’s eyes at the name and smiled inwardly; Mack was far too touchy about that. You didn’t get to pick your nickname; everybody knew that. Arguing was pointless. But still Mack tried, and more power to him. Mack shook his head.

“I never thought I’d find a name I liked less than Mack Daddy.”

“Don’t let Kevin hear you say that,” Matt said, chuckling, “he’ll take that as an endorsement.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“Don’t remind you of what?” asked a familiar voice.

They both turned, Mack smiling broader than Matt had seen all day, as Jodie Landon, president of the student body and all round mode student approached at a brisk walk. She was pleasant but Matt always got the impression that she was in hurry to get to somewhere else. Such was life in the vicious world of volunteering, he supposed. He averted his gaze while she and Mack shared a quick kiss. They separated and Mack grinned, though Matt sensed tension. Perhaps they just didn’t go for the stranger ruining their routine.

“If I told you, that would be reminding me.”

Jodie raised an eyebrow and glanced at Matt, shaking her head.

“He’s a bad influence on you,” she said to Mack.

“Me? I just got here!” Matt protested, throwing his hands up in mock outrage. “Here two days and I’ve already got a rep. That’s got to be a record.”

“Maybe,” Jodie said, smiling ruefully, “sorry I didn’t have time to talk to you in class, I’m a bit busy with the start of the school year.”

From what Mack had told him, he was surprised she was able to squeeze eating and breathing into her day. He smiled sympathetically, though he felt nothing of the sort. That level of torture was self inflicted after all, even if her parents approved. Jodie may have been a genuinely pleasant person but nobody liked those people who’d been padding out their resumés since they were thirteen. It was just the way it was.

“No problem. Were you able to look into it?”

“Yes, but no real luck yet,” she said, “I won’t know until around Friday.”

So he’d have to wait. He wasn’t that keen on volunteering anyway but at least he could tell his dad he was trying. That had to get Helen off his back for a while anyway.

“Alright.”

“You should really talk to Tiffany though,” Jodie said, “she usually does the counselling. Get her on side and you’ll be doing well.”

“An particular Tiffany or should I just start asking at random?”

“Blum-Deckler, she’s with the Fashion Club.”

Matt raised an eyebrow at that one. Would Quinn be willing or able to help out there? He was uncertain if he could handle owing her another favour; and she would milk it for all it was worth. He was so busy gauging the potential cost that he almost missed what Jodie said next.

“Your best bet is to catch her at Brittany’s this Friday at the party.”

Mack looked puzzled.

“What’s this one for?”

“I think her parents are out of town or something.”

“Or something,” Mack agreed.

“Right, now I need to either engineer an invitation or crash it... What?”

“I’m pretty sure you’ll get an invite,” Jodie said, rolling her eyes, “Brittany and her friends like to check out the new meat up close.”

He stared at her for a moment, certain he must have misheard her but the look on her face said otherwise. Mack let out a low whistle and shook his head.

“I was going to make a joke but you’re serious, aren’t you?”

“No, she’s Jodie.”

“Quiet, Mick.”

Jodie smirked, Mack frowned and Matt chalked it up as a win.

“Yes, I’m serious,” Jodie said, glancing at her watch again. “Right I have to get going. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.”

“Sure, thanks again.”

“Always willing to help Mick’s cute friends.”

She headed off, leaving Mack to glare at Matt.

“I hate you.”

“And yet somehow, I think I’ll survive.”

“Jackass.”

“Love you too, Mick.”

“Ooh, scandal,” said the Nemesis, approaching from behind them. “Wait til the girls hear this.”

Matt smiled and turned to look at Jane while Mack, loyal friend that he was, made excuses and ran for home. Jane noticed this and let her evil grin stretch slightly.

“All alone, Morgendorffer?”

“Well, if it isn’t the Lawndale Snail. “

“Laugh it up, Big Foot, but I’m here for a rematch.”

“Not tonight, Lane, I have training.”

Jane did a mock double take and laughed.

“Chickening out? My, my, we’re going to need a new name for you.”

“You wish, now if you’ll excuse me I need to go work out and get kicked around a room for an hour.”

There was an awkward pause as he turned to walk away, then Jane called after him.

“You’re joking, right? Right?”

----------------------------------

Day Four in the new nest down and I’m no closer to finding sanity. Despite my best efforts not to get drawn in, the interesting collection of idiots and ne’er-do-wells fascinate me. No matter how much has changed, what strikes me is what has stayed the same. Halfway across the country, a world of promises and we’re almost back into the Routine. It’d be enough to ruin my faith in humanity, if I had any. Still, life goes on and I have found one bitter, miserable misogynist to keep me entertained. She’s promised to introduce me to others but I remain unconvinced.

Daria tapped her keyboard, looking over what she had typed. It didn’t read smoothly enough for her liking but she wasn’t sure how to say it better. She leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes, stretching. Why was expressing how much she loathed most of the world so difficult? Somewhere in the house Quinn was having an argument, she could tell by the vehement yelling. It was moments like this that reassured Daria that they were in fact related to Helen. Straightening, she tried to get her thoughts in order for a second assault on the language. Then an alert message popped up in the corner of her screen and saved the day.

“Let’s see what you’re trying to tell me,” she said, shaking her head.

She clicked on the notification and smiled as she read the chat request. Clicking accept, she saved her draft and waited for the video chat to load. There was a moment of silence as the computer fought valiantly for its freedom and then gave up and did what it was told. The window opened and a bespectacled face framed by mid-length brown hair came into focus. Amelia smiled and pulled back from the camera.

“Hi, Daria!”

“Hey, Amelia! How’s life in darkest Virginia?”

“Hellish! I keep forgetting how much I hate High School.”

They both laughed at that. Daria liked Amelia. Granted, she hadn’t liked her all that much when they first met at camp and it had taken them a long time to hit it off but Amelia was an easy person to talk to. Daria hadn’t realised how much she needed that and so they kept in touch and the rest just...happened. Now they Skyped every other day and co-wrote a blog, which, to Daria’s ongoing amazement, drew some decent numbers. She didn’t think it was that interesting but every day people kept telling her she was wrong about that. There were a lot of very bored people out there, clearly. She listened as Amelia gave her a run down of the disasters in her new school year, smiling sympathetically.

“So are you going to ask him out?” she asked, once the summary was complete.

“I don’t know, I need to figure out if he likes me first,” Amelia said, tapping her glasses thoughtfully. “But that’s for another time. What about you? How’s this Lawndale I’ve heard so much about?”

“Where to start? My mom waited all of a weekend before ploughing back into the oppressive parent role. Quinn still refuses to acknowledge me in public, Mad Dog one is threatening to blow up our shed, Mad Dog two has a stalker and Jake’s running himself ragged to keep us from each other’s throats. So, you know; same old, same old.”

“Matt has a Stalker?”

Daria raised an eyebrow and Amelia coloured slightly.

“Yeah, you’ve got competition.”

“I am not stalker. I just admire him.”

“From concealment. I think he’s around here somewhere,” Daria said, turning to look behind her, “I can get him for you if you want to ask him?”

“What? No!”

“Are you sure? He was out running, so chances are he’s wandering around without a shirt on.”

“Daria!”

“You’re right, I’ll just give him a call, Matt!” Daria shouted, turning to the door.

“No! God! Will you shut up?!”

Amelia was blushing furiously now, trying desperately to both hide from the camera and catch a glimpse of the elusive Matthew. Daria did her best not to smile. She shouldn’t have made fun of Amelia for crushing on Matt. Anxiety was a serious thing and being embarrassed as a teenager could be traumatic and life destroying. Still, she was so cute when she tried to crawl back into herself to hide. Daria just hoped no-one ever tried to use that against her was all. Figuring she’d had enough fun, she glanced back at the door and shrugged.

“No, I don’t think he can hear me, Mel.”

“Oh! Damn! I mean...good...” Amelia said, straightening up and composing herself.

“Smooth. Anyway, that’s not the worst part. I think I might have one of my own.”

“What? A stalker? How?”

“Yeah. I, er, I joined an extracurricular,” Daria said, hanging her head.

“You did? That’s great!”

“You don’t think I’m betraying my principles?”

Amelia leaned on her elbows and raised an eyebrow.

“I wasn’t aware you had any.”

“Gee, don’t I feel special,” Daria said, rolling her eyes, “so this girl I hang out with...”

“You made a friend?”

Daria sighed. Why was that what everyone focussed on? Besides that wasn’t what had happened and if Matt heard that he’d be insufferable. Socially adept indeed. She shook her head. She didn’t have friends, she did not have a fan club, she just had people she hated less than others and a lot of stalkers who couldn’t take a hint.

“Mel, I am a cynic and a dedicated misanthrope, I do not make friends,” she said, primly.

“So,” said Amelia, sitting back in her seat, “what does that make Cass and me?”

“Very dedicated stalkers.”

“So you met your not a friend at this extra curricular?”

“No, she convinced me to check it out and that’s where I saw my stalker.”

“So you have two friends? I’m confused.”

Daria passed a hand over her eyes and tried again. She wasn’t going to get pulled into this; it was bad enough trying to deal with Brittany’s convoluted logic. She didn’t need it from someone who really did know better, especially when she was certain that Amelia was just winding her up.

“So this girl I hang out with convinces me to go. It’s a poetry club. I don’t want to go but I’ve got nothing better to do, so I go anyway.”

Amelia’s brow furrowed.

“Don’t they have a photography club there?”

Daria rolled her eyes. How best to phrase it?

“Oh they do. They do. But the president is a perv and I’d rather set myself on fire than voluntarily share a space with him.”

“That’s...harsh.”

“Is it? I think its mild. So I go in and I sit through it. And there’s this girl there. Black hair, red fringe, kinda goth, you know? And. She. Stares. At. Me. For the whole thing. What the hell is that?”

“Are you sure she wasn’t just shy? You can be kind of scary.”

“No, no. This wasn’t, ooh she looks interesting, who is she? That’s a few glances. No this was straight up staring, Mel. I was really uncomfortable. I don’t know if I want to go back.”

“Daria, give her a chance to explain herself at least. It took me a while to get the courage to talk to you.”

“Was that before or after Skip pushed you into me on that hike?”

“Daria, please?”

“No! I’m gonna have to show up once or twice to shut my other stalker up but that’s it. She’s on her own.”

They chatted for a while longer but Daria’s heart wasn’t in it. She knew Amelia was disappointed but that was Amelia’s problem. She wasn’t a charity. Sighing, she closed her text file and shut down her computer, knowing she’d get little done in her current mood. She looked at her reflection in the blank screen for a minute, then pushed her chair out and headed to Matt’s room. He looked up from his computer at her knock, saving his work and slipping off his headphones.

“Hey, did you call me earlier?”

“Yeah, Amelia wanted to say hi. Listen, I’m in the mood for an awful film. You in?”

“Demolition Man or Kung Pow: Enter the Fist?”

“Demolition Man, please.”

Chapter Text

Elsie glanced out the window of the car at the house ahead of them, wondering once again why she let Erin talk her into these things. She could hear muffled, thumping music from inside and she cast a critical eye over the haphazardly parked cars. She opened her mouth to speak to Erin, but her friend was deep in conversation with their escorts, Skylar and Taylor. Elsie didn’t see why they couldn’t have stayed at that grunge club, but Erin insisted and, frankly, arguing with her was a waste of time. So now they were with two total strangers and going to a house party full of other total strangers and townies to boot. Skylar and Taylor got out of the car and Erin followed, leaving Elsie to pick up the rear.

“You know,” Elsie said, “when you said we were going out, this isn’t exactly what I pictured.”

“Don’t be rude, Elsie,” Erin said, “out is out. Besides, we’re having fun and we’ve got two cute boys on our arms; what more do you want?”

Elsie shook her head in resignation as Skylar rang the bell. She considered explaining but gave up. Erin wasn’t someone who saw the appeal of sticking with your own group, so why bother? She wondered, as they waited, if she could sneak away unnoticed. The boys probably wouldn’t miss her if the looks they were giving Erin were any indication, but Erin was just determined enough to track her down and drag her back. No; the only way out was forwards. And it was a little exciting, even if she wouldn’t give Erin the satisfaction of admitting it. After a moment or two, the door was opened by a bubbly blonde girl in a cheerleader outfit. She smiled pleasantly at the two boys, but her gaze became a question when she looked t Erin and Elsie.

“Skylar! Taylor! I’m so glad! But who are they?”

“They’re from out of town, Brittany,” Skylar said.

“Yeah,” chimed Taylor, “we promised to show them where the cool kids hang out.”

Elsie simply stared at Brittany, slightly transfixed. If she really was a cheerleader she must have had incredible balance. She was rather more... top heavy, than one usually saw. Brittany tilted her head to the side, twirling her hair around her pinky, seemingly considering. Skylar was about to say more when Erin beat him to it.

“Please, Brittany? The boys have told us all about how nice you were and that you throw the best parties!”

She flashed a smile so sunny that it practically lit up the front of the house and Brittany seemed to take a step back from the force of it.

“Well... I did sort of promise my friends that I wouldn’t invite any more really cute girls and you two are really cute but I don’t want to send you away after you’ve come all this way and you’re not from Lawndale so I suppose they can’t complain and I hate to disappoint people and oh god this is hard but...ok! Come in!”

Elsie was still trying to process the speech but Erin caught her hand and dragged her inside. Once the door had closed though she had a whole other set of things to occupy her thoughts. She wasn’t sure which one to be overwhelmed by first; the decor, the music or the people. She opted for the decor and edged away from the giant ceramic tigers flanking the door, lest they maul her. Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the conversation, lest she miss something.

“And that’s everything!” Brittany squeaked happily, “now if you’ll excuse me, I have to check on my other guests.”

On that prim note, she bounced away into the crowd, leaving three smiling teens and a very confused Elsie in her wake. Skylar rubbed his hands together and turned to the others.

“Alright, lets party.”

Elsie followed, somewhat reluctantly, as the boys lead the way in to where, she presumed, their friends were waiting. She hoped that was the case; trying to make small talk with Taylor was painful and she didn’t exactly like the way Erin and Skylar were talking to each other. She may not have gotten along with Tom, but he was her brother so she obligated to show a certain amount of loyalty to him. Someone waved to them and Skylar made a beeline in that direction. Elsie was having second thoughts.

“I’m going to get some food,” she said, “do you want anything?”

Erin was seemingly too involved in introductions to notice, so Elsie shrugged and ventured away into the house. Not for the first time, she wished she had the skill to navigate a crowd. As she dodged either enthusiastic or inebriated teens, she wondered why they were here. Yes there was the whole teenage fun and games angle but Erin was rarely this insistent without a goal in mind. Spotting someone leaving a room with a bowl of chips, she headed in that direction.

“Hey girl, partying hard or hardly partying?”

“In your dreams,” she said, ignoring the boy.

It had to be here somewhere and she clearly couldn’t stand still in case someone got ideas. Pausing, she took a moment to calm herself. It was just a party for goodness’ sake, what was she getting so worked up about? No, she was going to get a drink, grab some chips and find a comfortable seat while Erin worked off whatever urge it was that called her here. She might even try talking to the boys again. Yes, that was much better than wandering around. Nodding to herself, she rounded a corner and walked headlong into some boy, knocking a bowl of chips out of his hand. It clattered to the floor, spilling its contents far and wide as she hurried to pick it up.

“Oh god, I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you there!”

“That’s fine,” said a boy’s voice, “I didn’t really want them anyway.”

He knelt to help her and picked up the bowl, waving off her attempts to brush the chips aside.

“I wouldn’t bother, unless you want to get trodden on.”

She stood with him and went to thank him, then froze, looking up, then up again into his eyes. He turned away to bring the bowl back and someone caught her shoulder before she could say anything. She turned to find Taylor looking at her expectantly.

“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, “Erin wants to talk to you.”

“Yes, but that looked like...”

“That’s just Mad Dog, he’s nuts,” Taylor said, dismissively, “come on.”

Slightly stunned, she let herself be lead along as her mind processed what she’d just seen. That boy had looked remarkably like Erin. Almost suspiciously so, one might say. Didn’t Erin say something about that? Was that why she dragged Elsie out here? She felt her anger bubbling up at that thought. Had she no shame? Did she just ignore everything Elsie had said to her? No, she’d imagined it. She had to have imagined it. She’d taken a bad blow when she walked into him, that had to be it. Still, the voice of doubt nagged at the back of her mind. She was going to ask Erin about this. Oh, wasn’t she just?

“Elsie, there you are!”

Taylor lead her back to the group and Erin jumped up to drag her over to them, with Skylar eyeing her the whole way. With them were two other girls, one blond and one black with reddish hair cropped short, who Erin introduced as Tori and Shauna, and another boy, Corey, who seemed to be friends with Taylor. She greeted them politely and turned to Erin, leaning in to whisper to her.

“Why are we here? Because I just saw...”

“Elsie, not now!” Erin said, playfully, “all work and no play makes Elsie a dull girl! You are going to mingle if I have to stand over you the entire time! Tori, tell Elsie that story you just told me. It’s soooooo funny!”

Tori started speaking and Erin, rather predictably, departed with Skylar. Elsie cast a glance after them and noticed Tori and Shauna doing the same. She was going to have to have a whole different set of words with her friend once she got her alone and no mistake. She listened as Tori continued with her story, something about a date gone wrong. It seemed a bit tasteless to her, but she nodded and smiled and did her best to laugh in all the right places. That seemed to go down well. Buoyed by this, she decided to ruin Tom’s reputation while she was here and proceeded to tell them about his dance recital. That would draw them in, she hoped, and once she had them she’d find out who this Mad Dog boy was. Erin was not wriggling out of this one. She considered where she was and tried her best to unthink that, not wanting to deal with the mental image. Sadly, some things just could not be unthought.

----------------------------

Well, that was odd, Matt thought, dusting himself off. Surely he didn’t look that bad? Sure, all he’d done to prepare for this party was throw on some cologne and add a jacket to his usual ensemble, but still, it didn’t call for that kind of staring. Or did it? Maybe she had the same jacket or something. He shrugged, uncomfortably warm in the jacket but unwilling to take it off lest he lose it. It wasn’t cold out, per se, but he was thinking ahead for when Quinn or Daria inevitably complained of the cold on the walk home. That way he’d have a journey’s worth of entertainment watching them fight over it. Putting the empty and now cracked bowl down on the nearest solid surface, he glanced around for Mack and, not seeing him, headed for Jodie hoping that one would follow the other.

“Hey, Mad Dog!”

He turned as Kevin materialized from a patch of shadow and smiled pleasantly at him, watching as Jodie slipped out of his eye line once again. What was it with people here and refusing to stand still? He still had to find Tiffany and get in on this counselling racket and check up on Daria and Quinn. Quinn probably knew where Tiffany was. So if he followed the frantic boys he might find her. He glanced down at the red cup in Kevin’s hand, wondering if it was his imagination. Kevin smiled broadly and put one hand up in the air.

“Congrats, man; you made it! The Lawndale Lions! We are going to own the championship this year!”

He put a particular emphasis on the word Lions and took a sip of his drink as Matt high-fived him back. Matt’s smile became a little forced as his suspicions were confirmed. Whatever about Kevin’s confidence in the team, Matt was rather less certain of their chances. He hadn’t seen any of them in action beyond the odd gym class but they hadn’t won in a while as far as he knew. One new player wasn’t going to change that, especially if they all had Kevin’s habits. It wasn’t a very generous thought and he did his best to put it out of his mind. He’d know once they started practising properly but until then it was all speculation.

“I hope so, Q,” Matt said, “the team could use a win. Are you Drinking?”

He gestured to Kevin’s cup. Kevin looked puzzled for a second, then grinned, waggling his eyebrows in what he thought was an artful manner. One of the other guys called out to him and Kevin waved in return. Only Matt saw the looks they shot at them when Kevin turned away, doing a brief double take. Mick was Captain and Kevin was QB; both were juniors. That couldn’t have gone down well with the senior players, regardless of their skill. There were some particularly focussed glances reserved for Matt himself. He could feel the countdown in his head. Sooner or later someone was going to get notions into their heads and he would need to dissuade them. Kevin looked around conspiratorially.

“Yeah, man! You want a beer?”

“Nah, I don’t drink beer, Q, plus we’ve got a game next week.”

“Its Kevin, not Q,” Kevin said, missing the irony.

“Yeah but you’re the QB, so you get to be Q. Nicknames are awesome, man.”

Matt hated his but he owned it all the same. It was a fun name to live up to anyway in a no fun at all kind of way. Kevin frowned a little but soon forgot about it, calling out appreciatively to one of the girls that passed by. He was lucky that Brittany wasn’t around to see that; Matt had heard about Brittany’s legendary temper. Kevin chuckled, his eyes lingering on the girl a moment longer.

“Great party, huh?” Kevin asked, without looking up.

“Yeah, the two kinds of chips really seal the deal, Q.”

That got his attention. There was that frown again, but he recovered quickly.

“I know! Brittany was so worried about this, but I told her; it doesn’t matter what the house looks like. The most popular people with the best looking hair, now that’s what makes a good party.”

It was hard to argue with logic that persuasive, so Matt didn’t bother. Kevin took another sip, then seemed to remember something.

“Hey, there’s a championship replay on the pigskin channel in like half an hour. All the guys are gonna watch. You in?”

Matt didn’t want to say no to that expression of puppy dog hope but he had other things to look up first. He shrugged.

“Maybe, man, I’ll see how I am.”

“Cool.”

“Yeah, you see Mick around?”

Kevin looked puzzled for a moment and then started, looking around.

“Oh! You mean Mack Daddy,” he said, “no, I think I saw him with Jeffy earlier but that’s it, bro.”

Matt thanked him and returned to his search. Quinn wasn’t one to keep moving so she shouldn’t be too hard to find. He shot a feral grin at one of the guys who gave him a dirty look and turned away. Ah, high school, he thought, preparing you to deal with jerks the world over. Putting it from his mind, he carried on, though his search was hampered somewhat by having to say hello to everyone halfway popular who wanted to size up the new kid. He didn’t have to humour them, but this was the first party of the season so he opted to be polite. He thought he saw Daria and Andrea with Upchuck at one point, but he quickly lost sight of them so he wasn’t sure. Besides, even if that was accurate he could imagine with depressing ease the tone that conversation would take. No, Daria could look after herself. Spotting Quinn’s friend, Sandi, he made to cross the room but was stopped when one of the cheerleaders stepped in front of him. Blonde and svelte, she smiled invitingly and moved to corner him. He cast a wary eye at his surroundings, watching for the raven-haired menace who was surely lurking.

“Hi! Matthew? I’m Nikki!”

“Hey,” Matt said, “one of Brittany’s friends, right? Good to meet you.”

“Are you liking Lawndale so far? It must be a big change from...Texas, was it?”

“I guess, the people are much nicer, that’s for sure.”

“Even the cheerleaders?” she asked with a straight face.

He smiled, wryly.

“Barring one leggy, raven-haired exception,” he said, “you’re all delights.”

He still had yet to spot said exception, which had him on edge. On the one hand she was vindictive and evil and was clearly plotting his downfall so something was surely in the works. On the other hand she was vindictive and evil and he wouldn’t put it past her to do nothing just to make him paranoid. So he was going to be polite, laugh at their jokes and get the hell out of dodge when an opening presented itself. Nikki giggled as though this was the height of humour.

“Jane? She’s just competitive, don’t mind her.”

“Not like you, Nikki, huh?” said a voice to his left.

A brunette that he also recognized from the cheerleading squad was smiling at him, though Nikki briefly stared daggers at her. Matt was officially confused as to where this conversation was going and glanced around for an exit before a wall of cheerleaders blocked him off.

“Come on, Angie, I can’t help that I’m the best.”

“Please, you just want him all to yourself!”

It was said playfully but there was a hard edge to her tone. Matt was preparing to make his escape when another voice joined in.

“Can you blame her? If we let you get your claws in we’d never see him again.”

“Lisa!” Laughed Angie. “Honestly!”

Alarm bells were ringing in his head now as the three squared up. Spotting Joey, he seized his chance and struck out for freedom.

“Sorry girls, but I really need to find Quinn. I will be back though.”

Squeezing past them with some difficulty, he tapped Joey on the shoulder. The younger boy spun around, looking irritated but whatever he’d been about to say died on his lips when he saw that it was Matt. Not wanting to give the wrong impression, Matt smiled and jerked his head towards the three girls.

“Thank God, man, you cannot leave me alone with these girls.”

“Why not, dude? They’re hot!”

“Well yeah, but they’ll knife me if I breathe in the wrong direction. You seen Quinn?”

“She’s over there, I just gotta crush some ice for her.”

“I don’t want to know.”

-----------------------

“Dammit.”

Jane lowered her super soaker, watching dejectedly as Matt moved out of sight. With him gone, Angie, Nikki and Lisa glared at one another and started bickering. Jane shook her head sadly; so much for that plan. She cast another glance at Matt’s retreating back and frowned. Stand still you crafty prick, she thought, looking for an opening. He couldn’t run forever. She thought she saw one of the guys giving her the eye and smiled, considering putting her vengeance on hold. Some things were more important after all. She was about to cross the room to him when she saw that sister of Matt’s, Daria, duck behind a pot plant and cast a worried glance into the other room. Curious, Jane stealthily crept up behind her, following her gaze.

“Is there a game of hide and seek going on that I wasn’t told about?”

Daria jumped at her voice and put a hand to her chest when she saw that it was Jane. She briefly felt bad for scaring her; Daria seemed interesting enough, but she was connected to Matt and Jane refused to show any weakness where he was concerned. Although, if she were able to get Daria in on her plots it would be that much easier to get to Matt. Unaware of this internal argument, Daria shook her head and smiled weakly.

“Don’t do that! God, its bad enough I have to avoid her without having you ambush me too.”

There was a moment of reflective silence as Daria looked from Jane’s face to the super soaker she was holding, a question forming in her eyes. Then she glanced back into the other room and swore under her breath, ducking further back into the shadows. A girl with back hair and a dyed red fringe wandered past, clearly looking for someone and headed out of sight. Jane thought she recognized her from the current crop of sophomores but didn’t know much about her beyond that. Daria breathed a sigh of relief when she left. Jane raised an eyebrow.

“So, questions; how many players does this game have and why wasn’t I invited?”

Daria looked at her sharply, eyes smouldering and for a second Jane regretted the question, then her natural insouciance came to the rescue and she grinned. Daria shook her head.

“Hey, you don’t invite me to water fights, I don’t invite you to hide and seek.”

“Oh, this isn’t water,” Jane said, “that would be too easy.”

“You’ve got issues, Lane.”

“Your brother’s refusal to die is foremost among them,” Jane said, thinking, “I thought you came here with Andrea?”

Daria gave her a blank look and shrugged.

“I had to abandon her when she started talking to Upchuck.”

Jane chuckled and did her best imitation of Charles’ creepy growl, drawing an appreciative shudder from Daria. Upchuck was a very odd fish, it was true, but he didn’t deserve the rep he got saddled with really. Once you learned to bat his comments back at him he was actually kind of funny. Of course now that she was a cheerleader she wasn’t allowed to associate with people like him. It was nonsense, but she didn’t need the grief. She glanced around conspiratorially and leaned in close.

“Did he offer to give you the tour?”

She wagged her eyebrows and Daria’s mouth quirked up into an amused half smile.

“That’s not a euphemism, is it?”

“No, he just lacks conversation openers is all,” Jane said, shrugging, “honestly, Charles is harmless, he’s just a bit clueless when it comes to girls.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Jane rolled her eyes and grabbed Daria by the arm, pulling her out into the open.

“Come on, grasshopper, I’ll show you around. There’s bound to be someone here you can talk to besides the shrubberies.”

Daria looked sceptical but let herself be dragged along all the same.

“As long as they don’t open with; ‘Quinn, what are you wearing?’” she said, then frowned. “And what exactly will this introduction cost me?”

“Normally I’d ask for your firstborn child but I need a quicker turnaround,” Jane said, “so I might have to settle for a kidney or something.”

“Sorry, I already owe my mom those after I ordered that lifesize replica skeleton,” Daria said, with a smile, “do you take souls? I can probably find Quinn’s lying around in her shoe closet.”

“Oh, I’m sure we can work something out.”

They both laughed and Jane began mentally going through the list of guests for suitable conversations. Once you got past the spikes, Daria was surprisingly good company, snarking at the decor and the interesting collection of posers that kept showing up to these things. Unable to find anyone who fit the bill, she gave up and decided to give Daria the dime tour to buy time, while they discussed the benefits of black and white photography for contrast. It was fascinating and threatening to run into the inane when Daria changed the subject.

“I don’t get it, Jane, why did you want to be a cheerleader? No offence but seem to have more grey matter than the average pom-pommer.”

“Eh, I had to do something,” Jane said, a little more evasively than she’d intended, “plus, being on the squad is a big, shiney get out of jail free card, so I can have all kinds of fun.”

“I see,” Daria said, unconvinced.

“Yeah, you should join. It’d give you something to lord over Quinn.”

That got a laugh. Daria shook her head and they came to a stop by the laundry room.

“What? So you can use me to get to Matt? No deal, satan, but if I ever take leave of my senses, I’ll be sure to look you up.”

She glanced at the door.

“Hidden quasi-victorian breakfast bar?”

“Nah, its the laundry room but its doing double duty as the makeout room today,” Jane said, banging on the door, “mind the buttons, guys!”

“Piss off, Lane!” yelled a voice inside.

Daria did a double take at the sound, her mouth opening soundlessly as Jane steered her away.

“Was that Andrea?” she managed after a moment.

“Yup,” Jane said, smiling, “three guesses as to who she was in there with. The first two don’t count.”

They shared a look and shuddered in unison, laughing at the whole thing.

“Daria?”

The girl Daria had been trying to avoid smiled nervously at them and Jane gave an exaggerated yawn.

“Well, that’s my cue to disappear,” she said, walking away.

--------------------------

“He’s medium popular. He just got a new car so he’s more popular than he was so now he needs to go out with a slightly more popular girl to cement his status.”

Quinn sat on her hands and listened politely as Sandi ran through the popularity of the various party goers. The Fashion Club was one of the most exclusive groups at Lawndale High and everything they did had knock on effects to the popularity chain of the school. Quinn wasn’t sure if this was actually the case or if it was just what Sandi fondly imagined, but she didn’t feel like arguing the point. So she listened to the details of each person’s popularity as far as it affected them and tried not to think about the itching in her palms or the fact that she was surrounded by people all breathing at her... No! She pinched her thigh sharply to shake herself out of that line of thought and focussed again on what was being said. Stacy was still giving her the odd, unreadable looks she’d been using ever since the locker episode but Quinn ignored that completely. Stacy wasn’t a threat, but right now she couldn’t afford to show any weakness.

“She was just barely popular enough to be invited. I don’t know who that is but she’s cute so she’s at least popular enough to be here,” Sandi said, “plus she came with Skylar, which is a major bonus point. We may have to approach her.”

She indicated a tall, slim girl with auburn hair and Quinn simply nodded, unable to see her face. Beside her, Stacy and Tiffany nodded in understanding. Catching Skylar was a coup; his family had a boat and a summer house. Very must have. Sandi was right, for some unknown to just waltz in and snatch him up was unthinkable; it could not be allowed to stand. In due time though, if they rushed they would look desperate and that couldn’t be done either. She held her peace on that, since Sandi was still smarting over the accessories thing. She couldn’t argue with the logic but what she could do was shoot bitter looks at Quinn when she thought she couldn’t see. From out of the corner of her eye she saw Jupiter or Josiah or whatever his name was approaching fast with some crackers. He and his little friends were cute and all, but their...insistence (another fun word she picked up by lurking around Matt) was a little scary. Sure, she could use them but she was hard-put to come up with excuses for keeping them at arm’s length.

“Hi Quinn!” he said, his voice a strange mix of bass an breathy that she couldn’t quite place, “I brought you some crackers.”

“I like square crackers,” she said, smiling to soften the blow.

He looked at the cracker in his hand for a moment and then, to Quinn’s endless mortification, he began to bite off the sides into a roughly square shape. Done, he offered the rest to her. While she had to give him points for improvising, there was still only one response she could give.

“EEEWWWWW!”

He jumped and practically fled in the opposite direction but Quinn could hardly have cared less. She dug her painstakingly manicured nails into the seat and held on for dear life to avoid running to the bathroom and scrubbing herself raw. For the love of God a crumb had almost landed on her! She concentrated on her breathing and noticed Sandi smirking at her. Had any of that shown on her face? She felt her pulse quicken but kept quiet, preparing herself for the sparring that was going to come.

“That was soooo wrong,” drawled Tiffany. “Just Ewww.”

“Gee, Quinn,” Sandi said, putting particular emphasis on her name, “who knew the boys were so eager to ruin your hairdo?”

Her hand was twitching now. She would not flee to the bathroom. She would not.

“Saaan-diiiii! Don’t be silly! They just want to impress the Fashion Club, that’s all! Can you blame them for being a little star-struck? I mean, you are such a big name.”

That seemed to hit the mark and Quinn felt herself calming slightly as Sandi’s look turned to one of self satisfaction.

“Well I do try to reach out the poor things,” she said, mollified and tossing her hair back. “Its the least I can do.”

“Yeah,” added Tiffany, “they need help.”

Quinn breathed a silent sigh of relief. She was never sure if Tiffany was genuinely slow or if she just used the drawl as a shield. Whatever it was she seemed to weather whatever Sandi threw at her and come out smiling, so there had to be something there. Stacy practically hopped up and down in her seat with excitement.

“Oh my god, I can’t believe I forgot to tell you! Ronnie Floyd asked me out!”

“No waaay,” Tiffany said, “he’s cuuute.”

Stacy continued bubbling about him but Quinn and Sandi silently shared a look of agreement. Ronnie was nice and dependable and... well... boring. He was useful, but as the leaders in popularity they would get nowhere by playing it safe. Still, Stacy might enjoy the attention and at least with Ronnie they could be sure she wouldn’t have another breakdown for at least a week or two. That was kind of like winning, wasn’t it? Stacy was sweet but calming her down was a chore at the best of times. Tiffany looked at them for a moment and seemed to think of something.

“Brooke’s been asking to join us,” she said.

Quinn waited to see if any more was forthcoming, but it wasn’t. She stopped to think about this. The Fashion Club did need new members to help weather any potential popularity crises. If Highland had taught her anything it was that cuteness and personality were no match for having scapegoats you could throw to the sharks when things got bad. But Sandi was so intent on the club being exclusive that she’d pretty much alienated most of the school. Couldn’t she see the bigger picture? Perhaps that was something to work on then. Sandi’s expression sharpened.

“We cannot let every wannabe into the club,” she stated, flatly, “we have a rigid set of standards to maintain and Brooke falls short.”

Well, thought Quinn, that would have to change. But in the meantime, there were other girls who would better fit the bill. She glanced at Sandi thoughtfully.

“What about Tori and Shauna? They’re popular and if people see that we’re taking on new members they’ll be clamouring to join, which will make us even more popular.”

“Don’t you care about Ronnie?” Stacy asked quietly.

“Of course, we do, Stacy but you haven’t actually started dating him yet and when you do we’ll have a full prep session for you.”

“Really?!”

Stacy’s eyes lit up at the thought, while Sandi’s expression grew suspicious.

“Gee Quinn, if you’re so intent on speaking for me, maybe you should be President of the Fashion Club.”

Don’t tempt me.

“Sandi! Of course not! I’d never run for president ahead of you! But as secretary of the Fashion Club Stacy deserves our full attention for any date that could increase her popularity! It is our duty to help fellow club members at all times so that they are beacons of fashion to the world at large!”

Not to mention earning me some ally points in the process and making you look like a whiney kid.

“Wow! Thanks guys that’s so sweet of you!” gushed Stacy.

Sandi was quiet but she could hardly say no now without looking bad and that, Quinn thought happily, was how you won. Tiffany smiled pleasantly and started talking about jewellery, but Sandi gave Quinn a look that promised another conversation in the future. She acknowledged the look with a prim nod and gazed pleasantly and supportively at Stacy, who was almost in tears at the show of friendship. Yes, it was the little things that made all the difference really; like finding that one pair of hush puppies that were marked down to half price. She could handle Sandi. Although, she thought, smiling as a familiar face approached, help was always appreciated.

“Matthew!” she said, to the immediate and focussed attention of the other three.

The change in the Fashion Club was instantaneous and amazing; Sandi’s expression of deep suspicion vanished to be replaced by tentative interest, Stacy stopped gushing about Ronnie and began almost hyperventilating and Tiffany simply smiled. Jumping up, she pulled him into a hug and turned back to the other three. He met her gaze suspiciously but hid it well.

“Matthew, you know the Fashion Club, right? Sandi, Stacy, Tiffany, you know Matthew,” she said, gesturing to the Fashion club.

There was a chorus of heys and Quinn smiled sweetly. Now was the time to twist the knife.

“Sandi was just saying that we should bring in new members to help boost our image, what do you think?”

“New members are the lifeblood of any club,” Matt said, after the chorus of nervous greetings had died down. “That’s really clever of you, Sandi.”

She blushed at the compliment, stuck for words and Quinn smiled a little broader. In time this would cost her but for now she was flying again and she intended to make the most of it.

“Sandi is really smart about that! The Fashion Club was all her vision,” Quinn said, innocently.

There was a question in Matt’s eyes and Sandi was stunned, shifting between smug gratitude and being offended at Quinn’s forwardness. She couldn’t exactly argue with such high praise but at the same time she knew Quinn was backing her into a corner. Matt cleared his throat and looked to Tiffany, aware that all three sets of eyes were watching him intently.

“Actually, I did want to talk to Tiffany about that,” he said, seizing his chance, “do you have a moment?”

“Sure,” Tiffany said, smiling, “but can we talk outside? Its reeaally warm here.”

“It is,” Stacy agreed, to Quinn’s surprise. “I’ll come too.”

“Er...sure,” Matt said.

The other two rose quickly and lead the way. Quinn waved at him one last time and looked to Sandi.

“He is a sweetie, isn’t he?”

“Is that your, like, cousin or whatever?”

All victory forgotten, Quinn looked around in a panic. Sure enough, there was Daria talking to some other unpopular girl who had no reason to be there. What was she doing? She’d ruin everything!

“Why is she so pale? Is she even wearing any make up?”

“I... I have to go,” Quinn said, feeling her hands tense up again.

Fighting to keep them still, she practically ran for the bathroom. Alone at the table, Sandi leaned back in her seat and smiled a warm, genuinely satisfied smile for the first time that evening. She glanced up as Joey and Jamie came wandering over; the one with a soda and the other with square crackers that she hoped were ‘home made’, just to see Quinn’s expression again.

“Where’s Quinn?”

“Oh, you know, somewhere,” Sandi said, rolling her eyes, “you know how she is.”

------------------------

Jake leaned back in his chair, tapping his fingers on the wooden desk as he reread the e-mail in front of him. Middleton College was hosting a focus on mental health week for their freshman classes and wanted to know if he’d mind giving a few lectures. He didn’t mind, after all, it was Helen’s Alma Mater and she’d jump at the chance to show the girls around her old stomping grounds but there were other things to consider. He had a lot of new patients who were just settling in to therapy and a week’s gap could throw off their routine. He was going to have to face that sooner or later anyway; guest lecturing was something he was often invited to do and he enjoyed the breadth of views it exposed him to, but he could put it off for a while yet. Still, new move, new risks. He marked the e-mail as important and closed the browser, making a mental note to ask Helen about it at a later date.

Standing, he listened for a moment, wondering why the house was so quiet and suppressing a surge of panic. It had been a unique moment for him when he realized that the girls’ constant bickering, Helen’s aggressive phone conversations and Mad Dog’s experiments had become the background noise he needed to feel comfortable. Sometimes he felt that he should be more concerned about that, given his profession, but then if it wasn’t broken, why fix it? Generally quiet meant something had gone wrong or that someone was plotting and he'd be running double time to sort things out. This was the old fear talking, however, and it would not be so easily silenced. Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath and focused.

Having children had been the most frightening and the most rewarding thing he had ever done; that feeling of stark terror and mind blowing responsibility as he’d held them in his arms for the first time was one he’d take to his grave. But that fear, that overwhelming doubt that he could do this still came back to him now and again. Sometimes he’d wake up in a panic and he had to check that Matt was still there before he could relax enough to get back to sleep. Switching off the lights in the room, he stood in the hall and felt that same fear as he tried to remember where everyone was. Helen had an emergency meeting at the firm and the kids were at a party in Crewe Neck, that was it. So where was Mad Dog? He was pondering this when an inquisitive bark at his feet brought him back to the present.

“No barking,” he said, firmly, scratching Marty behind his ears. “I’m giving you your attention, you can give it a rest.”

Predictably, Marty ignored his words and kept on barking, nuzzling around Jake’s legs happily. Shaking his head, he stood and made his way downstairs as carefully as he could with Marty scampering around his feet. If you wanted to feel appreciated at all times, buy a dog. Old advice but still true. There was something intensely down to earth about dogs; something comforting. Perhaps it was the almost human expressiveness in their eyes. He remembered his dad’s old dog, Brian, and how he’d always been able to calm Jake down when things were bad. He’d taken Brian’s loss hard. Would Matt take Ruth’s loss as hard? Matt was strong but, well you just never knew. He crossed into the living room and was rather more sedately accosted by Ruth.

“You awake too, girl? Where’s dad?”

“Am I that predictable?”

Ruth padded away to her owner and Jake looked at his dad, taking in the wrinkles, the slant of his face and the slight bend to his frame. Age caught up with everyone sooner or later, but since the stroke it seemed to have been catching up with Mad Dog a lot faster. He just didn’t loom the way Jake remembered. Thinking back, it was possible that he never had. Still, it was a little strange seeing his lop-sided smile and the way he’d cradle his left arm in his right. His expression must have changed, because Mad Dog looked at him oddly.

“You alright, son?”

“Yeah just... feeling old, I guess.”

Mad Dog laughed at that one, limping over to the couch and lowering himself carefully onto the seat. Even that simple motion looked like a trial for him and Jake stayed alert in case he needed help. Ruth waited for him to settle and then padded over to sit his feet. He looked up at Jake.

“Tell me that again when you’re looking down the line at eighty.”

“Yeah. I didn’t think I’d be facing fifty in five years.”

“Time goes faster and faster. Makes you think, huh?”

Mad Dog smiled his lop-sided smile and raised an eyebrow. Jake shook his head.

“I’m the shrink, Dad, not you. Stop stealing my lines.”

Mad Dog looked around in mock horror and waved Jake away dismissively.

“I’m old, son, I’m allowed a little theft.”

“Says you,” Jake said, rolling his eyes, “you want a drink?”

“Scotch please. Neat.”

“You’ll get it on the rocks and like it, old man!”

“Young whippersnapper!”

They both laughed and Jake headed to the drinks cabinet. Taking down two tumblers, he poured out two fingers of whiskey into each and added some ice. Holding the cold glasses, he paused in the doorway for a moment and tried to remember how he’d once felt about his father, but he couldn't reconcile the frail man in front of him with the demon that had haunted his childhood. No; he’d put that behind him a long time ago and he was all the happier for it. Handing a glass to his father, he stepped over Marty, settled down beside him and took a sip, grimacing slightly at the taste. Scotch was not his drink, but he drank it with Mad Dog out of solidarity. They sat like that for a while, drinking in silence, then Mad Dog looked over at him.

“What’s on your mind, Jake?”

“How can you drink this? It tastes like dirt.”

“But it tastes like very refined dirt if it’s made well,” Mad Dog said, raising his glass, “besides, you complain about it every week and you still drink it. They must be doing something right.”

Jake nodded absently, flexing his right hand gently. Mad Dog gestured to it with his glass.

“They still bother you?”

“Its more the thought of it than anything else,” Jake said, shrugging, “sometimes I just wonder, what if, you know? What if I hadn’t broken my fingers in that door? Would I be a surgeon now?”

“What if she hadn’t run off on you? What if she hadn’t left you to raise Matt alone?”

Jake looked at the glass in his hands and nodded silently. It was true, he supposed, and the older Matt got the more he thought about it. He took another sip of his drink. Mad Dog shook his head.

“Jake, you know better than that. What if life was perfect? What if the sky was neon pink and it rained underpants at night? We can only live the life we have, not the one we wish we had.”

“I know.”

“But you’re still asking the question.”

“Yeah.”

“You have Matt, Helen and the girls, Jake,” Mad Dog said, “that’s more than a lot of people have.”

“I guess I haven’t done too badly.”

“You’ve been able to afford housing a freeloader like me for all this time.”

“Don’t remind me,” Jake said, rolling his eyes.

They drank in silence for a while and Mad Dog looked around at the room. He gave Jake a sidelong look and Jake braced himself for the question he knew was coming.

“When are you and Helen gonna stop fooling around and get married, Jake?”

“When we get around to it, dad.”

“Going on five years now. I would like to go to one of my kids’ weddings before I die, you know.”

“You have years yet to complain, dad.”

“I suppose I have,” he said, gesturing to the tv, “is there a game on or something? I’m sick of this depressing crap.”

Jake laughed and picked up the remote.

“Me too, dad. Me too.”

-------------------------

The evening was not going well for Daria, although in hindsight she couldn’t honestly say she had any great hopes for it to begin with. First Andrea had forced her into a confined space with Upchuck, then she’d abandoned Daria while she vanished into the make-out room with the aforementioned sleazeball, and then Jane Lane had lured out into the open where her stalker could easily find her. So in that regard it was living up to her expectations with depressing gusto. Sometimes she wondered if she was too cynical even by her own standards. She rounded one of the Taylor House’s endless corners and saw Quinn and her friend Sandi exchange words before Quinn fled the scene. She couldn’t even summon the sense of satisfaction she usually drew from seeing Quinn’s machinations ruined, that how much this had affected her.

“Was that Quinn?”

And there was the other reason she couldn’t quite relax. She was still kicking herself for not fleeing while she had the chance, but it had derailed her a little to see that her stalker was a quiet, mousey girl with a very good last-puppy-in-the-window expression. The conscience she refused to admit to having wouldn’t let her stomp on the girl so she did her best to ignore how uncomfortable she was whilst hoping Kirsten would get the message and leave her be. A boy she recognized from around school stepped into her path, cutting off her response.

“Hey, Quinn! Cool look! You really alternative!”

“Wrong sister!” she said, trying to get around him.

“Oh. Well, will you go out with me?”

“In your dreams,” she snarled, pushing past him, “excuse me.”

Ignoring his complaints, she saw Sandi smirk at her and kept walking before the urge to throttle her took control. All Sandi wanted was a reaction and Daria refused to give her the satisfaction, especially since Quinn had already done a sterling job of it already. What was it Jake was fond of saying? Mind over matter; Daria didn’t mind because Sandi didn’t matter. That was what she kept telling herself at least. Kirsten looked back at the boys in confusion.

“Wow,” she said, “does that happen a lot?”

“You’d be surprised,” Daria said, sighing, “look-“

“How could they confuse you two? You’re so different.”

“Look, I-“

“I mean, in terms of style alone...”

“Listen! Its sweet of you to say, but I’m used to it. Please, let it go.”

“I’m sorry! God, I’m saying all the wrong things, aren’t I? This is because I was staring at you, isn’t it? I didn’t mean to I just-”

“WILL YOU JUST STOP?”

She glared at the girl, who recoiled slightly at her tone, her lip trembling. What was it with this girl? Taking a deep breath, she forced herself to take a step back; this was not her and this was not what she wanted to do. Passing a hand over her eyes, she tried again.

“Look, I’m sorry, what is your name?”

“Kirsten,” she said, meekly.

“Kirsten. I got that you didn’t mean to but you did and you made me very very uncomfortable. You’re not making me any less uncomfortable by following me around and being all...”

She waved her hand around, unusually stuck for words.

”...this.”

“Sorry! Its just I’m a big fan of your writing and I didn’t know what to say and I panicked and... Why are you looking at me like that?”

Daria continued to stare at her blankly, her mind running ahead of the conversation. Matt would have a field day if he found out about this, she knew, but she might have been wrong. Kirsten fidgeted uncomfortably, unable to meet her gaze.

“My writing?” she asked, flatly.

She asked the question quietly but Kirsten almost jumped at the sound, still trying to back away from her without actually moving. It was an impressive attempt and one she’d only ever seen Quinn try whenever Helen got the credit card bill.

“Yes, The Adventures of Mel and Dee? I’m a huge fan!”

“You read my blog,” Daria said, just as flatly.

“Yes,” Kirsten said, uncertainly, “well, not just me, there’s a bunch of us, but-“

“A bunch of you? I have a fan club.”

Kirsten squirmed even more under Daria’s stare and shrugged.

“Well, I mean-“

“And you know I wrote it, how exactly?”

“One of the girls told me. She...said...she...checked?”

Daria had no idea what to do with this information and opted to continue staring while she tried to process it. Quite a few emotions were scrambling for recognition in her head or diving for the emergency exit. In the face of this, her sense of courtesy ran away and barricaded itself in a closet somewhere. She threw her hands up and shook her head.

“Nope!”

She walked off, still shaking her head and hoping this would jut go away. Sadly, reality was in no mood to oblige her.

“Daria, wait!”

“No!”

She spun around and jabbed a finger at Kirsten, almost knocking the younger girl off balance.

“Have you any idea how creepy all of this sounds?! You cyber-stalked me to Lawndale!”

“No, I didn’t-!”

“Just... leave me alone! I can’t deal with this right now!”

The anger fled as soon as it had come, leaving her cold, but she had to get out of there. This was just too strange, even by Lawndale’s standards. What kin of people did that and thought it was ok? Kirsten was silent for a moment and then all but ran away, but Daria hardly noticed. She needed to talk to someone...anyone for balance. Suddenly the room seemed too small, the people too close to her. Where was Matt? She felt herself tense up and she clawed at her collar. She needed to get out. She needed air.

“Daria?”

She made for the nearest door, fighting for breath and collapsed against the exterior wall. Deep breaths, she told herself, calm, deep breaths. She was fine, she just needed to keep breathing and calm down. It was all going to be fine.

“Daria, are you okay? You look awful.”

She looked up; Andrea was looking at her with a concerned expression. They stared at each other for a moment and Daria mustered a small smile.

“Just too warm is all, Andrea,” she said, “where did you go?”

---------------

Quinn looked at herself in the mirror and tried to concentrate on her breathing. She knew the exercises by rote but they were not helping. She just felt her hands start to shake more and more as her heart beat faster. She couldn’t stand this! Why did Daria have to ruin everything? Couldn’t she see that this was Quinn’s world and not hers? Couldn’t she let her have this? It was all going so well too. Was it fair of her to blame Daria? Helen would say it wasn’t. They always took her side! Why couldn’t they see what she was doing?! She was always like this: stealing her shoes, hiding her things, messing with her friends, arguing with the teachers... Why did she have to be so... so damned difficult about everything! If she hadn’t argued with the teachers... If she hadn’t argued with dad... She’d tried so hard to be perfect and it all just... No! She couldn’t think like that; it wasn’t healthy.

This is me breathing, she thought, it is nine pm, I am in Crewe Neck, Lawndale. My name is Quinn Barksdale, and I am fine.

It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was a comforting lie. Turning on the faucet, she took a deep breath and started washing her hands vigorously. It was a lot like popularity, she thought; nobody really like you, they just pretended to and hoped to get in on the act. God, it was so pathetic it made her want to scream. She looked up at her reflection in the mirror. Who was that girl? What was she thinking? Why was this place so filthy? You’d think with all their money the Taylors would at least get a proper cleaner in. She soaped her hands up and washed them again, feeling herself starting to tear up. Damn Sandi and her stupid, snotty attitude! Quinn wanted nothing better than to go back out there and slap her into next week. How dare she make little of Quinn’s plans! But...but what would that solve? That was what Jake would say. He’d ask her what that would get her? It would get her kicked out of the Fashion Club and then Helen would yell at her and she’d be alone. Daria would just love that. She sniffled and was starting to cry when someone hammered on the bathroom door.

“There are three bathrooms in this house, go find one of the others,” she shouted, “your bladder is not that small!”

She looked her reflection in the eye and focussed as hard as she could on that. She did not want to be in here like this. She was in control of this, not the other way around. Simple words, but harder to back up. She soaped up her hands and washed them again. This was ridiculous; her hands were as clean as they were ever going to get. She could scrub them raw and they’d get no cleaner, but she just couldn’t stop washing them. She was shaking now. She had to focus on the positive; that was the key. Daria had tried this before and it hadn’t stopped her from being popular. Sandi was just jealous and had no power but what Quinn gave her. She could fix this. Taking a deep, calming breath, she stepped back from the sink and held her arms down tight by her sides. She would check her make up, dry her hands and then she would go back outside and deal with Sandi. Her way. Five minutes later, she was ready. She unlocked the door and marched out, ignoring the line of irritated teens waiting to get in. Some things were more important than discomfort.

“Quinn! There you are!”

“We’ve been looking all over!”

“I got you your soda!”

“I got you your crackers!”

She looked at them for a moment, considering her options. People skills, she reminded herself; she was not allowed to yell at them. Not yet. Smiling gratefully, she accepted the glass and the plate as gently as she could, while the boys beamed. That was what Sandi and Daria couldn’t see; a little kindness could do a big job. It also bought her patience, which was a rare commodity with the popular crowd. A little time to think could mean the difference between success and failure. Something worth considering in other things too, she supposed. Holding her smile, she moved to walk past the boys, but they shuffled into a kind of chorus and blocked her path.

“So, Quinn, do you-?”

“Who do you-?”

“Will you go out with me?”

“Guys! That’s really sweet and that’s a really nice offer,” Quinn said, trying her best to step carefully and avoid a scene, “but its been a very trying night and I just can’t choose between you! You’re both too sweet! But thanks again for being so understanding.”

Smiling again at them, she moved on quickly before they could ask any more questions. That was the other trick of popularity; know when to move and when to stand still. She thought she heard them start arguing as she walked away, but that wasn’t her problem. Waiting until she was out of sight, she put the plate down on the nearest solid surface. She held onto the soda though; it could be useful. Sandi was right where Quinn left her, surprisingly, and Quinn smiled broadly as she approached.

“Sandi! You didn’t have to wait here for me! That’s so sweet!”

“Gee Quinn, as Vice President of the Fashion Club, I’d hope you’d take your responsibility seriously. All Fashion Club members must guard seating at parties for other Fashion Club Members. We have by-laws, you know.”

“I know that,” Quinn said, giggling, “I just thought that your friends would have come over to keep you company!”

That one hit home, and she saw it in Sandi’s eyes. Now she just had to keep Tiffany and Stacy occupied while Sandi stewed. She could use the time to get the other two on side and then, at the next meeting, she could bring up the topic of new members for a vote and bam! They’d have a club worth talking about. Plus, if Tori was in then Sandi would be too busy worrying about her to fight with Quinn. Everyone won. She put her soda down and clapped her hands together, as though remembering something.

“I’ll go find Tiffany and Stacy! As Vice President of the Fashion Club, I have to make sure that they haven’t stumbled into any fashion faux pas.”

She giggled pleasantly and left the room. It was petty of her, but nobody was perfect and besides it made her feel so much better. She had other problems now anyway. She had to find the other two and get the ball rolling before Sandi could poison things against her. Not the best option she could take , but if she kept the pressure up it just might work. Sandi wanted to be a face. She wanted to be seen, but she was trying too hard. People were already looking at them. The real trick was getting other people to do the hard work while you got the credit. That way you could focus on the important things in life.

Like reeling in the boys and enjoying the gifts.

Tiffany said that they were heading out for air, but what did that mean? Well, Quinn knew what it probably meant, and she would tease them about it relentlessly at a later date. More accurately, where would they go? She knew the garden was out of the question; too many people. And those cars and the dirt? Ugh! Just eyesores. She could have been lying, but there was too much foot traffic inside to make that viable either. There was a sort of balcony upstairs off the master bedroom, if she remembered Brittany’s description properly. Plus, if they were upstairs it would make it that much easier to corner them and convince them she was right. Humming to herself, she all but danced up the steps and smiled as she spotted them, her suspicions confirmed.

“Stacy! Tiffany!”

They paused at the sight of her, though Tiffany hid the shock better. She simply smiled, brushing a few stray hairs back into place, looking a little puzzled. Stacy was rather easier to read. She yelped and immediately snapped her hands down by her sides. Quinn smiled a little wider.

“Interesting talk?”

“Yeah,” Tiffany said, “he’s really sweeet.”

Stacy giggled before she could stop herself. Quinn glanced at her and tilted her head to one side.

“Still excited about Ronnie?”

“I...er...” Stacy said, suddenly panicking. “Ohmigodohmigodohmigod...”

“That’s okay, he won’t find out. Well, just so long as you’re willing to return the favour.”

“Well-“

“You are such a good friend, Stacy! Thank you.”

“Happy to help, Quinn,” Stacy said, a little dejectedly.

Quinn glanced at Tiffany, who was still smiling that pleasant, unreadable smile.

“How is Matthew? What did he want to talk about?”

“Counselling,” Tiffany said, “he’s full of ideas.”

Stacy giggled again, and jumped when Quinn looked at her. This was just too good. She really had to do something nice for Matthew in return. After she teased him about it of course. If all went well she might even tell Daria just to spread the joy around. She was giddy at the thought. Tiffany met her eye and her look was one of understanding. She’d be on side.

“Its so great that I’ve found you guys! Sandi’s agreed to let Tori and Shauna into the club, so we just have to tell them the good news.”

“Great,” Stacy said, unconvinced.

“Where is Matthew anyway?”

“Talking to Maaack.”

Tiffany pointed back down the hall. Quinn turned to look but a shout from downstairs distracted her. The three girls rushed to see what was going on. Below, Joey and Jeffy were having a full blown argument and it looked like punches were about to be thrown. Quinn threw up her hands in frustration and sighed.

“Thanks for not freaking out, man,” Mack said, from behind them.

“Yeah!” Jeffy chimed in.

“Fine, whatever,” Matt said, stopping beside Quinn. “What’s going on?”

“I think they’re fighting over me.”

“I’ll go talk to them,” Matt said, firmly.

“No! I can calm it down,” Quinn said, hurriedly. “Please let me try.”

“I’ll go with you anyway,” he said.

Quinn smiled gratefully and lead the way downstairs. She did notice the lingering looks that Tiffany and Stacy gave him and she was not going to let that go. Now she just had to get a handle on this before it really got out of control.

-------------------------

Jane downed her drink and raised her glass in triumph, trying not to think about how many brain cells she was probably killing. Setting the glass down with a thud, she bowed for the applause that was rightfully hers. She got it, if grudgingly, from the other cheerleaders, who sipped their drinks rather more sedately. As her throat burned and her eyes watered, Jane considered that there may have been some wisdom in that. She was a little angry that her attention span had won out over her lust for vengeance, but it had lead her to entertainment so it all worked out. Their earlier scuffle apparently forgotten, Angie, Nikki and Lisa consoled Brittany, who looked at her glass forlornly.

“No fair, you mixed them all into one glass!” Brittany said, twirling a lock of hair despondantly. “There are rules, you know!”

“Rules are for chumps,” Jane said, grinning, “oof! Remind me never to do that again.”

“You always say that,” Angie said, sipping her drink.

“And I always mean it too,” Jane said, stifling a groan.

She always paid the price too, but discomfort was the price of victory. They’d taken over one corner of the living room while the other kids danced. Brittany wanted to celebrate a successful party with style and had raided her parents’ liquor with that in mind. Jane questioned their taste. It may have been expensive but by God it was awful. She took a sip of soda to rinse her taste buds and listened to the ongoing debate over whether to get back out and dance or stay here and scope out the eye candy. Right now, Jane was firmly on the not moving side of the line and she needed to derail the conversation before moving was required.

“Why were you so worried before?” Jane asked innocently.

“I didn’t want people to judge me by my house! We got the jacuzzi in but I’m worried its not good enough and...”

Jane relaxed as the tide of words came in. If anything was going to buy her time it would be Brittany and her convoluted logic. She could explain for hours with the kind of pace and relentless emotion that forced you to listen to her tone rather than the actual words. Jane could listen forever. Hell, compared to a Mystik Spyral rehearsal, Brittany had the voice of an angel. She felt a brief stab of worry at that thought. How long had it been since the last rehearsal? Were they even playing any more? She realized with a shock that she didn’t know. She’d checked on them for a while after but between practise and the required socializing... God, that long? She brought herself out of her reverie, aware that Brittany was starting to wind down again.

“But nobody’s said anything about it so I guess it worked out!”

She bounced happily as she finished, drawing the immediate and focussed attention of two passing guys. They were so focussed in fact that neither saw the other and they collided rather loudly, spilling their drinks over one another. Jane and the girls almost fell off their seats laughing as the boys retreated, dripping soda. Jane raised an eyebrow at Brittany, whose eyes lingered on the departing boys. Winking at the girls, she leaned in towards Brittany and cleared her throat.

“Are you sure you should be browsing, Brittany?”

“Yeah,” Angie said, swirling her drink, “Kevin is in the next room.”

“Oh no!” Brittany squeaked, “I was looking at Zachary and Kevvy wouldn’t...”

“Brittany,” Jane said, cutting off the stream, “I’m joking. I’ve no idea where he is. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

“Oh! Then Zachary is looking really cute tonight!”

“And its not like any of his friends are hanging around too, right?”

“EEP!”

“Jane, be nice,” Nikki said, checking her phone.

“Oh no, I’m onto you girls. I saw you hitting on the new blood.”

Brittany perked up even further at that, which Jane had not thought possible. Nothing cheered Brittany up like good gossip; not even making out with Kevin. Jane had always considered that to be very telling but knowing those two they might have been doing something wrong. Brittany opened her mouth to speak and stopped, looking puzzled.

“But Angie,” she said, twirling her hair around her pinkie, “I thought you were going steady with Curtis?”

“Yeah,” said Nikki, looking up, “spill.”

“Him?” Angie asked, looking affronted. “Blech! He’s an ass! Plus he stood me up last week. We are through.”

Jane winced at the pronunciation of through; no syllables deserved to have that kind of stress. Angie smiled slyly.

“Besides, someone has to break Matt in.”

Her sly reveal was ruined slightly by Jane’s incredulous laughter, but Angie ignored it.

“Especially since Jane here is dragging her feet.”

“What?”

Jane sat up straight as a smile spread across four faces. She wasn’t sure what to make of Angie at the best of times. Nikki and Lisa were simple enough to figure out; popular girls who liked popular topics. She got along well enough with them, but there was a line you didn’t cross in conversation with them or they just tuned out. Angie was another matter. She played at popularity and could do air-headed with the best of them, but every now and then Jane got a glimpse of intelligence lurking. It was a worrying combination. Angie shrugged and glanced around at the crowd.

“Well, I don’t like to say,” Angie said, the picture of reluctance, “but...you know. Sneaking into his bedroom, chasing him around Lawndale. Crazy how these rumours get started.”

Lisa looked like she was going to chime in but she was beaten to it by Brittany. Turning in her seat so quickly she almost fell off, she leaned towards Jane, her eyes alight with triumph.

“You have a crush on Matt?! Why didn’t you say anything? I knew you thought he was cute.”

Jane gritted her teeth, forcing a laugh. She liked these conversations, she did; after all, wasn’t teasing and banter what friendship was all about? Still, she wasn’t about to let them back her into a corner. No sir. She was going to tough it out and turn the tables on them. No matter how uncomfortable it made her. She shook her head emphatically.

“I do not have a crush on Matt,” she said, firmly, “I think he is a pest and needs to be taken down...a peg. Besides, I wasn’t the one who got in a three way cat fight over him.”

“Oh no, no, no,” Angie said, waving a finger at Jane, “you’re not squirming out of this one.”

The dark looks Nikki and Lisa were giving Angie said otherwise. There was the opening she needed. Lisa tapped the tabletop thoughtfully.

“Aren’t you worried about pissing him off?” She asked. “I hear he, like, broke their QB’s face.”

“I heard he ran the length of the football field with a running back hanging off him,” Nikki said.

Jane rolled her eyes.

“And I heard he can get you free cable.”

“Really?” Brittany asked, wide eyed. “Wow.”

“I was joking, Brittany. That’s bullcrap. It has to be.”

It certainly sounded like it to Jane; she knew how these stories tended to grow in the telling. It was far more likely that he’d hauled off at some guy and gotten his ass handed to him, as far as she was concerned. Lisa was not one to let go of an interesting story without a fight though, and Jane braced herself for the next inane story. Angie, she noticed, was still watching her.

“Isn’t his dad, like, some kind of headshrink? I hear he gives him pills for the crazy.”

“Now that is bullcrap, and you know it,” Jane said.

“I dunno,” Nikki said, being easily swayed, “I saw him at practise this week, he looks tough.”

“Oh that’s why you were checking him out, was it?” Jane asked, steering for an exit.

“Isn’t his sister in the Fashion Club? Quinn?”

Angie smiled innocently, having neatly scuppered Jane’s out. Jane narrowed her eyes at her fellow cheerleader, unwilling to give ground. Brittany looked at her hands, clearly thinking.

“But, if she’s his sister why do they have different last names?”

“That is weird,” Nikki agreed, shrugging, “maybe its one of those pet name things.”

“Yeah,” Angie said, smiling at Jane, “what’s your pet name for Matt, Jane?”

“The Scourge,” Jane said, icily.

Angie clapped her hands together and did her best impression of a love-struck teen.

“Oh Scourge,” she said, mimicking Jane’s voice, “wrap me in your manly arms and take me away from these awful girls!”

She mock swooned and Jane frowned at the poor impersonation.

“I do not sound like that! And I have no interest in his arms!”

“Ah, so you’re a leg girl!” Lisa said, clapping.

“That would explain why he’s always ahead of her,” Angie said, sipping her drink in victory. “Eyes on the prize.”

Jane buried her head in her hands.

“I hate you all.”

Angie, Lisa and Nikki clinked their glasses together and laughed. Even Jane had to hand it to her; that was funny. Brittany leaned in and put a consoling hand on Jane’s shoulder.

“It’s okay, Jane, he’ll warm up to you eventually,” she said.

There was a moment of utter silence and the table erupted with laughter, startling some passersby. Brittany looked around in confusion, laughing nervously so as not to be left out. Angie wiped away a tear.

“How do you always know just what to say?”

Whatever answer Brittany had been about to give was lost in the shout and sudden commotion from across the room. It even drew the attention of the dancers for a moment, which was an impressive feat in itself. There was a brief, shared look between the girls and Jane sighed: moving it was. The others hopped up to get a look, with Jane following rather more sedately. As an afterthought, she grabbed the squirt-gun from where it had been resting against the side of her seat. Given the lunkheads that were gyrating nearby there was a fair chance that it’d go missing if she didn’t and besides; she’d brought the damned thing, she wanted to get some use out of it. Pushing their way through, they heard another crash and Angie strained to see over the heads of the onlookers.

“Oh,” she groaned, “Joey and John Snow are at it again.”

Like Angie had before her, Jane groaned in frustration at the sight of Joey and Jamie trading blows. For friends they seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time beating one another, though it was strange not to see Jeffy there. Jane spent a second looking around for this Jon Snow person before she got the joke. Jamie’s inexplicably unmemorable name, she thought, very droll.

“A fight? Awesome!”

Jane jumped and turned around at the sound of the voice. How did he always do that, she wondered, glancing at Kevin, who had managed to appear out of nowhere. He grinned his signature, goofy grin and recoiled as Brittany glared at him.

“Kevvy! They’ll break the furniture!”

“Oh...I...er... We should do something,” he said, as firmly as fear allowed.

“Ooh!”

“Owww! Babe!”

Jane shook her head at the old routine as Kevin hopped on one foot. How Kevin managed to get any action at all with that mouth of his was a constant puzzlement to Jane. Maybe they took pity on him. Ahead of them, Joey tried to tackle Jamie and missed, crashing into a cabinet. Jamie followed up with a haymaker, which Joey weathered, to scattered cheers. The cabinet creaked ominously as he pushed himself to a standing position once more. Had Brittany been looking, this might have alarmed her, but she was too busy berating Kevin to notice. Jane did, however, and felt some sort of action was required.

“Spray them with the hose,” she said, stepping past the love-birds, “it’s the only language they understand.”

“But Jane, that’ll take too long!”

“Then this’ll have to do,” she said, raising the squirt gun, “game over kids. Come on, break it up!”

She took aim and squeezed the trigger, dousing Joey’s face in black paint mid counter-attack. He staggered and Jane turned to do the same to Jamie. It was a wonderful idea, well thought out, and it would have worked too, Jane would later reflect, if someone hadn’t rushed to get between the two. Jane saw a flash of red hair, a stylish dress, and had a brief second to wonder who it was before things went wrong. Joey, blinded and disoriented by the paint, heard only the movement and lashed out on instinct before she had a chance to speak. It was the best punch she’d ever seen thrown at someone who had no way to defend against it, and it collided with a soft sound that echoed all the louder in the sudden, deafening silence. The girl staggered back, clutching at her face.

Oh, God, it’s Quinn, Jane thought.

Aware that something had gone very wrong, Joey opened his mouth to speak and the suddenly he wasn’t there any more. He was barrelling backwards and the space he had occupied was taken up by Matt’s knee, followed swiftly by the rest of him. Whatever the fight had been about, Jamie was not about to let anybody else beat up his friend. As Matt stepped forwards, Jamie caught him by the shoulder and got an elbow to his face for the trouble. He staggered and Matt followed up with another elbow and caught Jamie’s arm as he flailed. It was frightening, Matt looked almost bored. He extended Jamie’s arm and levered him around in one motion, stomped on the back of Jamie’s knee and spun back, driving Jamie’s face into the tabletop. Jamie fell and Matt turned back to deal with Joey, who had clawed his way upright again, clutching his ribs.

“Matt, stop! He didn’t mean it,” Quinn said, stepping in front of him.

Matt looked past her at Joey, his face blank.

“He still hit you,” Matt said, quietly.

“Matt, I want to go home,” Quinn said. “Please?”

He stared at Joey for a long moment and finally, slowly, he nodded. Glancing around at the crowd, he followed Quinn out of the room.

“That was cool!”

“Kevvy!”

“Owwww! Baaabe!”

---------------------------

It had come as something of a shock to Matt when he learned that Hollywood had been lying to him about endings all his life. In the movies the hero generally got to walk away unmolested and being able to defend yourself earned you respect and personal space. Reality, it turned out, was a lot less considerate. For starters, the same crowd that gathered to watch your Big Moment got in the way when you tried to leave. And as much as he felt sorry for Joey and Jamie, he regretted even more that he hadn’t gone further. If you wanted to be left alone you had to crush the first fool to step to you and live with the rep. TV tended to gloss over that.

Pushing past a group of goggle-eyed freshmen, he grabbed some ice from the kitchen and knotted a towel around it. He felt strangely detached, as though he were floating above it all. He liked that feeling. Nobody could bother him there. A passing herd of girls blocked his path and he swore under his breath, dodging around them. He’d give Quinn the damn ice, take her home, and vent his frustration on a canvas or a sketchbook. Except, he couldn’t go home yet; he had to find Daria too. If he showed up at home with Quinn nursing her jaw and Daria in the wind, Helen would have a field day. He had his hand on the door when a slender shadow detached itself from a ceramic tiger.

“Slipping away, are we?” Asked Jane, raising an eyebrow. “Not going to wait for the guys to hoist you onto their shoulders and bring in the keg?”

Of course. Now his evening was complete. Forcing himself to unclench, he shoved his irritation to one side and smiled as politely as he could manage. Just two teens having a chat, right? Who cared that they were blocking the door or that he had to get the ice to Quinn?

“Did you just come out here to poke me?”

Jane took a step back at his tone and he bit his tongue, reining himself in. It was hardly her fault that she was a pain in the ass. Taking a deep breath, he tried to look like he had a hold of himself.

“I’m sorry, I just...”

“Poke,” Jane said, prodding him in the chest.

“Stop that.”

“Public safety; I want to make sure you won’t flip out if you’re poked enough. Poke, Poke, Poke.”

“Keep it up and we’ll find out.”

“Had to be done,” she said. “Jeez, crack a smile would you? You try to play nice with your enemies and look what it gets you. Are you alright?”

He blinked, uncertain whether she was just messing with him or if she was genuinely concerned. Frankly, one was as unsettling as the other. Aware that he was staring, Matt searched for something to say and came up blank. Jane smiled at his expression.

“What? A girl can’t check on her nemesis now and then? Just because I have a great ass doesn’t mean I am one.”

He laughed; that line was just too awful for anything else. Jane frowned and went to poke him again and he dodged back, keeping his hands up to fend her off.

“I just...How long were you waiting to use that?”

“Most of the afternoon,” she said, “now promise me that a gang of angry jocks isn’t going to kill you before I have the chance to do it myself.”

That sounded more like the Jane that refused to leave him alone, even if it was a little forced. He smiled, glancing each way. There were still teens coming and going, but they were either uninterested in them or very good at pretending.

“Awww, you really do care. I’m touched,” Matt said, chuckling, “but, you keep dragging your feet and someone’s bound to get there ahead of you.”

“Fine, be that way,” Jane said, jabbing a finger at him. “But I am not through with you. Lawndale Mini Marathon. You and me. Winner takes all.”

“All of what? It’s a charity race,” he said, one hand on the door handle.

“Victory, that’s what,” Jane said, “now begone so I can plot your downfall.”

“Downfall, my ass,” he said, pulling the door open, “and by the way? You’ve got nothing on this.”

He slapped his butt for emphasis and dodged the punch she threw at him. She was seriously overestimating her ass. Stepping out into the cool freedom of the driveway, he shut the door behind him and stretched, looking for Quinn, but she was nowhere to be seen. He was about to go back in when someone poked him from behind, making him jump.

“Well, it’s about time,” Quinn said, taking the, now rather damp, towel from him. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear your frenemy was more important to you than your sister. You’re breaking my heart, Matt.”

“You’re awfully chipper for someone who was sobbing a few minutes ago,” he said, narrowing his eyes at her.

“Never underestimate what a girl will go through to tease her brother,” Quinn said, airily. “It’s a calling.”

She half-grinned at him, wincing slightly, and turned to go. Matt held back a moment before following.

“You’re glad he hit you.”

It wasn’t a question. Quinn did not look like someone distraught. She cast him a questioning glance and he took a step forwards, suddenly certain. No, she wasn’t distraught; she was planning.

“That’s ridiculous,” she said, waving him off.

“You are.”

“Don’t be silly,” Quinn said, giggling, “I would never dream of using an accident like that to get my way. And if I was that sort of girl, Joey would never give me rides or buy me gifts just to apologise!”

Her expression was all wide-eyed innocence and good intentions, and it would be easy to believe her because it sounded a lot better than the alternative. Still, the damned moralising voice in the back of his head wouldn’t shut up. On the one hand he felt obliged to tell her off for what he suspected, but on the other hand, it would be incredibly entertaining to watch.

“You’re good,” he said. “You’re very good.”

“Of course I am,” Quinn said, brightly, “but I do not know what you are implying.”

Arguing with her was pointless. Quinn would scheme regardless of what he did, so the question was; what was she after and how long would it take to clear the blast zone. Some angry shouting drifted to them from the direction of the security gate, signalling that it was time to go. If things weren’t winding down already then they would be soon. He wanted to be away before he was nipple deep in aimless teens again.

“Where’s Daria?”

“Oh, who cares? Maybe a passing animal control van saw her and decided to do us all a favour,” Quinn said, turning to go once more.

“Ouch. What the hell brought that on?”

“What? Fine! She’s probably with that little friend of hers or something, being miserable.”

Shaking his head, he took out his phone to call her. He wasn't surprised at the insults; hell, Quinn and Daria had been at various stages of sibling warfare for as long as he could remember, but he was a little shocked by the venom. He wanted to chalk it up to the move and general teething but he wasn't so certain. The phone was ringing out and he was aware of Quinn tapping her foot impatiently. Matt was about to respond when Daria picked up. Quinn was joking about that; she had to be.

"Hey! We're going home. Where are you? With who? Right, see you later," he said, hanging up. "She got a ride with Andrea."

"See? Never doubt me."

"Right," Matt said, rolling his eyes.

-------------------------------------

The night air was a welcome change after the noise and heat of the party and Erin stretched, enjoying the cool breeze while she could. She liked night-time; it was so quiet and it was easier to just...be. With the Tops and with school she was under so much pressure to be this society girl. Hell, even with Tom she had an image to uphold. There was so much artifice by day, but at night you could see things for what they were; just lonely and scared. Sometimes Erin thought that the world would have a lot less problems if people acknowledged that more often.

Beside her, Elsie was being her usual taciturn self and Erin did feel a little guilty for dragging her out. She’d thank her in the end though. Elsie was genuine, through and through, even if she did hide behind that sour persona. Still, Elsie was easy to talk to, so Erin put up with the indifference, the sarcasm and the back talk and in return she got what, if she was forced to put a name on it, almost looked like friendship. Her mother and grandmother were very big on friendship. They weren’t big on Elsie. Friends helped you build a life, they said; friends helped you get places. The Tops were the best of friends that way, but was that enough? Sometimes she’d watch her mother and her grandmother and they just seemed so... Alone. As though society was all that they had. Erin wanted more than that; she wanted real friends, she wanted family.

“Split a cab?” asked Elsie, startling her out of her reverie, “you know, since we’re abandoning our ride?”

“Who? Skylar? Forget him, Els, he was all hands,” Erin said, dismissively.

In truth, she’d put Skylar out of her mind as soon as she could. He’d been pleasant enough, as long as he thought he was getting somewhere, but his mind was on one thing. Erin knew the type all too well; Fielding was full of them. No, she’d had to let him go. He’d bounce back like a trooper and besides; she had other things on her mind. One of those things had just made mince meat of two jocks and wandered off with a very familiar looking girl. The girl was occupying the rest of her thoughts. Unaware of the internal monologue, Elsie took out her phone and started dialling, humming to herself.

“Had a good night did we?” Erin asked, stifling a smile.

Elsie raised an eyebrow, chatting to the cab company and rolled her eyes at Erin. Some things didn’t change, and what sort of friend would she be if she left Elsie to her own devices? A considerate one, chimed an annoying voice in her head, which she quashed ruthlessly. Who wanted to be remembered for being considerate? Certainly not the residents of Crewe Neck, she thought, as they neared the security booth. As they passed, a balding man in his fifties clad in a ridiculous dressing gown was demanding that the security guard do something about the party. No, Erin would much rather be remembered for being interesting and gorgeous. If that meant earning her friend’s ire every now and again so be it. Elsie ended the call and rubbed her arms, shivering slightly.

“Shouldn’t be long,” she said. “When did it get so cold?”

“You’re such a wimp, Els.”

“No, I just dislike hypothermia.”

“And a drama queen.”

“Thank God I’m getting some use out of that class,” Elsie dead-panned, “but at least I don’t drag my friends across town on false pretences.”

“Friend,” Erin corrected, “unless someone else sprung up when I wasn’t looking. And what do you mean ‘false pretences’? We were going out. This is out.”

“And why here exactly?”

“Because that club was giving me a migraine.”

“Is that all? Because I ran into somebody back there who sounds remarkably like someone you’ve been obsessing over.”

Erin kept her expression neutral, which, she belatedly realized, was a dead give-away in itself. She considered denying everything but abandoned the thought quickly. She wanted friendship and that implied trust. She had to trust Elsie, even if that meant trusting her to be a smart-ass any chance she got. Besides, it wasn’t as if she’d planned this. She’d wanted to go out and spend a night doing whatever the other kids did and if her target happened to be out too, well then that was a bonus. She said as much to Elsie, who looked nonplussed.

“Erin, come on, really?”

“What? How else am I supposed to find out? You’re the one who said I shouldn’t talk to them and you were right.”

Elsie did quite a dramatic double take and put a hand to her heart, smiling serenely. Erin rolled her eyes and did her best to ignore the display. If Elsie liked anything more than snarking, it was gloating. Normally Erin wouldn’t encourage her but she looked like she needed cheering up. Besides, it was true, and Erin was suddenly very, very glad she hadn’t ignored Elsie’s warnings like she usually did. Elsie gave a mock shiver and smiled.

“What was that?” She asked, dreamily. “I didn’t quite catch it?”

“Yes you did, Els.”

“Please? It’s just so good to hear it.”

“God, you’re an ass.”

“Yes dear, that’s why you love me,” Elsie said, waving dismissively. “Carry on.”

“Alright,” Erin said, lining up her thoughts, “that girl he was with? I’m pretty sure she was my cousin, Quinn or Daria.”

She wasn’t one hundred percent certain, after all, she’d only ever seen photos of them, but a suspicion was reason enough to stop and think. There was more noise from the security booth and the guard wandered off in the direction of the party. It seemed they’d picked the right time to get out. Elsie shot her a questioning glance and Erin shrugged.

“They’re twins.”

Elsie looked, if possible, even more nonplussed than before.

“Since when do you not know that your cousins live a stone’s throw from school?”

“It’s... Complicated,” Erin said, looking at the ground, “my mom and my aunt don’t exactly get along.”

It was true. Elsie might have had her share of issues with Tom and her parents but Erin was willing to bet she’d never seen the kind of bitter, decades-old animosity that the Barksdales could bring to the table. Erin had lived with it her entire life and it scared her senseless. She didn’t understand any of it and she didn’t want to; she just knew she didn’t want to end up the same. The last time she’d seen Helen was at her grandmother’s years ago and that mess was still imprinted deeply in her memory. So if she just showed up out of the blue and if she was right... No, that was a whole other disaster that she didn’t know how to manage. This would require some thought.

“I don’t like that look,” Elsie said, “you’re planning something.”

“I am not,” Erin lied, “I’m just imagining you and Taylor making out.”

“Blech! Him?! I dozed off as soon as he spoke!”

“I hope not, or we’ll have to get you tested. Besides, that means nothing; you doze off as soon as you stop moving.”

“Oh no, you’re not going to divert me, little miss. What about you and Skylar? I assume fun was had?”

There was a hook in there, but Elsie was an inexperienced angler, especially compared to Rita and Grandma Barksdale. Elsie was more protective of Tom than she’d ever admit, so she bore the accusation with grace and tried not to be too offended. Still, Elsie was going to pay for that in the future. How dare she think that she’d risk what she had with Tom! Like she would ever! Just because some of the Tops played it that way did not mean the game had to be played like that.

“Nothing. Happened,” she said, tensely. “Frankly, I’d be surprised if anything ever did for him.”

“Right,” Elsie said, sounding unconvinced.

Erin gave up and crossed her arms as they waited for the cab, letting the silence stretch. If she didn’t want to believe her, fine, she thought, putting it out of her mind. So how would one get around Helen? More importantly, how would one stop Helen putting two and two together? Elsie saw it right off, after all. True, Helen hadn’t seen her in an age but why take the chance? Erin cast a sidelong look at Elsie and let out a breath.

“Do you think I should dye my hair?”

Chapter Text

For once, Jake felt that Monday could not have come quickly enough. Between Helen’s newest work episode and the kids just being themselves, he’d barely had time to breathe. Not that he was a stranger to that feeling, but he had hoped that he’d put that kind of stress far behind him. Far, far behind him. But life, of course, had different ideas. Still, it was the start of a new school week, so Daria and Quinn [i]had[/i] to come out of their rooms and talk to someone now. God, he had a headache now just thinking about it. An optimistic man would hope that some time out of the house would lift their spirits. Knowing his luck, they’d probably spend every second inventing cruel and unusual ways to drive him grey before his time. Letting out a breath, he focussed on his notes and tried to put it all out of his mind. This would blow over in time; it always did. He just had to ride it out.

Outside, the morning rush hour had begun in earnest and Jake winced at the onslaught of noise. Putting his notes down, he mentally reviewed his schedule and crossed to the window. Shutting it firmly, he thanked his stars that he had an hour yet before his first appointment. He preferred to use the time to review and refresh his memory, and he accomplished that best when he wasn’t beset by angry drivers and surly teens. He didn’t strictly need the notes; he had a very good memory, but it was good practise and it helped him spot connections he might have otherwise missed. He poured himself a cup of coffee and returned to his seat. He wanted to be clear-headed and bright-eyed for today. People could sense discomfort and pounced on any sign of weakness. He’d settled his glasses on his nose when the office buzzer rang. Glancing at his watch in confusion, he checked himself in the mirror and opened the door.

“Linda,” he said, smiling broadly, “good morning. Please, come in.”

Standing back to let her in, he stamped on any surprise and irritation. Yes, this was a breach of etiquette and he didn’t doubt that Linda intended it as such, but there was always a reason. Linda masked her own feelings well, he noted, taking in her attire as she passed. New, severely cut skirt suit and blouse. New season Louis Vuitton purse and coordinated shoes. Very chic, he thought, and her posture was all assertive confidence too. Quinn would have applauded. He shut the office door and kept his smile as she looked around, letting her settle.

“I hope I’m not imposing, doctor,” she said, curtly. “I had a last minute schedule conflict.”

“Jake,” he corrected, “and no, it’s unusual but not unheard of. I do have a twenty-four hour cancellations and rescheduling policy.”

“Oh,” she said, moving to sit down, “I didn’t know.”

“And walk-ins are more expensive,” he continued, “but I’ll let it slide this once.”

She paused and looked at him sharply, but he simply smiled back. She couldn’t have been surprised by this information; she’d have done her research. No, this was all a dance, he thought, waiting for her to sit down. Closer to, he could see the cracks. She was well made up, but there were dark circles under her eyes and she was fidgeting with her hands, though she was trying to hide it. Poor night’s sleep, he wagered, coupled with stomach pain, to judge by her slightly strained expression. Sitting down, he cleared his throat and glanced at his notes.

“Well, I’m glad you decided to come back,” he said, “we finished rather abruptly last week.”

“And who’s fault was that?” she said, staring daggers at him.

“Can I get you some coffee?” he asked, ignoring the barbs. “I could use a refill.”

“Er...”

He was already up and at the coffee machine before she could answer. It was interesting to see her become more agitated as he took the reins of the situation. He really shouldn’t have pushed, but nothing ventured, nothing gained. She probably took hers black to taste the beans, he thought. It was important that she be able to remark on the quality to others. He had to ask anyway for the look of the thing.

“Cream?”

“Black, no sugar,” Linda said, more firmly, “I like to taste the beans.”

He smiled to himself and brought the mug back over to her, suspicions confirmed. Deciding to let her off the hook for a minute, he handed her the mug and sat down once again. She approached the coffee as though it was a military operation, savouring the aroma, shifting the mug from hand to hand, and surreptitiously watching his reaction. He sipped his own gently and smiled pleasantly, waiting.

“Aren’t you going to ask me anything?” she demanded, still holding the steaming mug.

He made a quick note and raised both eyebrows, looking puzzled.

“Pardon?”

“Isn’t that how this works? You ask me questions and I answer them? You were [i]very[/i] chatty last week,” she said.

“And what am I supposed to ask you, Linda?”

“Shrink Questions! I don’t know! God, I ‘d hate to think I was paying through the nose to get stared at.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, the staring is pro bono,” Jake said, noting what she’d focussed on. “But just for you, I’ll throw in the odd blink.”

“Are you taking this seriously, [i]Jake?[/i]”

“Very,” he said, honestly, “I wish I could say the same about you.”

“I [i]am[/i] taking this seriously,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “You’re just asking all the wrong questions.”

“So I should be asking shrink questions instead?”

“YES!”

“And those are?”

She threw her free hand in the air and grimaced as she gripped the scalding mug too tightly.

“I don’t know! Ask how I’m feeling or what my family was like or something!”

“And would that make you more comfortable? If I did what you expect me to do?”

“What?”

She stared at him in confusion and he sipped his coffee, wondering how best to broach this.

“I’m hearing an awful lot about your expectations,” he said, after a moment, “and what you feel you’re paying. We had this conversation last week, Linda, I’m a therapist, not a mechanic.”

“So? You both provide a service.”

“True, but mine requires more input from you to be of any help.”

“But you haven’t asked me anything!”

“I asked you to do something for me last week. Did you?”

She glared at him, clearly still confused, and he made another note, putting his mug down on a side-table.

“I’ll take that as a no,” he said, still smiling. “In fact I’ve been asking you things since you came in and I’ve been taking note of your answers.”

“Oh? And what have I been saying?”

He ignored the sarcasm and gestured to her outfit.

“You show up unannounced, in a new power suit, ready to kill,” he said, “and demanding I do what you want me to do. You’re telling me that we’ll do this on your terms, when you’re ready and if you disagree you’ll keep me at arm’s length like that coffee there. No matter how much it pains you.”

She narrowed her eyes and then looked away for a moment. Jake shrugged.

“It’s a shame to let it go cold,” he said, sipping his, “it really is quite good.”

Shaking her head, she put the mug down and scoffed, crossing her arms. Jake followed her gaze to his bookshelf.

“So, how do you feel?”

“Tired,” she said, without looking at him, “irritated. I haven’t been sleeping. There, are you happy?”

“This isn’t about making me happy.”

“Then what is it about?”

“Whatever you want it to be about, Linda,” he said, “this is a safe place. We can talk about or not talk about whatever you want.”

“I want to talk about getting medication.”

“Well, we’ve been over this and any doctor will say the same,” he said, clearing his throat, “sudden onset ulcers can be a symptom of many things going on in your body and mind and if you aren’t willing to face them, then medicating will only exacerbate the problem.”

“Then I want to talk about seeing another doctor.”

“Have you talked to your partner about it?”

She gave him a Look that had a lot to say about the reliability of certain people and looked away again. Jake sipped his coffee.

“Have you told anybody?”

“Just you,” she said, as though that were a capital crime, “though I think Tom suspects.”

“Tom is your husband?”

“Yes, obviously.”

“How long have you been together?”

“Eighteen years last March.”

Jake made sure to look suitably impressed.

“Long time,” he said, simply, “he can’t be all bad.”

“He has his moments,” Linda conceded, “not many, but he has them.”

“So, why haven’t you told him?”

There was a change in her expression and she looked away again.

“Should I have asked why he hasn’t asked you?”

“I have enough problems,” Linda said, firmly, “and so does he. I don’t need him fretting over me like a child.”

“Don’t need or don’t want?”

“Is there a difference?”

There it was again, that note of challenge in her voice. She was extremely, even proactivey, defensive. He could only imagine the hell she put her competition through. Finishing his coffee, he sat back and looked thoughtful.

“Eighteen years,” he said, at last. “Any children?”

Whatever she had been expecting, that clearly wasn’t it.

“Three,” she asked, thrown, “a girl and two boys.”

There was something in her tone, he felt, which demanded investigation.

“Kids can be very demanding,” he said, “must have been tough to raise them and keep on top of your career.”

“Sam and Chris do need a lot of attention, it’s true,” she said, “but I have Tom to help with them.”

“But not with your daughter?”

Linda gave him a very patronising smile and leaned back.

“There are some things,” she said, “for which men are just not suited. My Sandi needs a very firm hand. She has [i]quite[/i] the wild streak.”

“You sound proud.”

“Maybe I am a little.”

She smiled the first genuine smile he’d seen her wear at that. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, but he chalked that one in the win column and braced himself for the question.

“Do you have kids, Jake?”

“What would it mean if I did?”

“You do,” she said, firmly, “a woman can tell.”

“But what would it mean?”

“You understand,” she said, in an odd tone. “Having children changes you. It opens your eyes.”

“It can, certainly.”

“No, it does,” Linda said, sitting forwards, “and you’re never ready, you know?”

“I can imagine.”

He had a question lined up but Linda kept on talking and he stuffed it away for later.

“Like this woman I used to work with, Alice,” she said. “She and her husband were trying to have kids for five years. She finally gets knocked up and Garry couldn’t deal with her hormones. Next thing you know its one fight after another.”

“That’s awful.”

“Oh, it gets worse,” she said, with what sounded suspiciously like glee. “He leaves her over this. Well, she can’t cope and she actually ends up giving the baby away.”

“Its a bad situation to be in,” Jake said, “harder still to watch a friend go through it.”

“I was her boss not her friend.”

“That does still come with certain social obligation, Linda.”

“Perhaps, but I’ve never believed that.”

“Still, watching someone’s life unravel close to,” he said, musingly. “Its hard not to wonder what if?”

She gave him a look that should have pinned him to the seat.

“I could never do that to Sandi.”

“And the boys?”

“Them too,” she said, after a moment.

“Do you still see Alice?”

“No,” Linda said, with some finality. “Some things are best left alone.”

“I suppose they are.”

-----------------------------------------

It was rare these days that Helen got to see the kids off in the morning, although was it really seeing them off if they hadn’t left yet? She mulled this over for a bit as she sipped her coffee, fighting the urge to gulp it down like she usually did. She had time now and she would savour it, even if savouring it now seemed like a waste of time. It wasn’t that she hadn’t earned the time off, quite the opposite, but she was at a complete loss about what to do with herself. She’d gotten by this long with a strict work ethic and it was something she found hard to ignore. She enjoyed her job; it was a constant challenge, it kept her sharp and it let her show those damned boys clubs that a woman in the workplace was a force to be reckoned with. She swallowed and mustered a bright smile as she looked around the breakfast nook.

“Can I get anyone any breakfast? Daria, would you like some pancakes?”

It wasn’t the first time she’d asked the question and it wouldn’t be the last, but it was either that or dwell on the work she could be missing. Frankly, it seemed like the lesser of two evils. Daria’s answer was another non-committal grunt as she ate her oatmeal. Typical, Helen thought, sighing, just typical; she tried to be there for her girls and this was her thank you. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered at all, but Helen Barksdale would not be so easily deterred. Even if this was having an untold impact on negotiations she couldn’t tell them about. Dammit, she was not going to do this to herself!

“I wouldn’t mind some Pancakes,” said Mad Dog, looking up hopefully.

She rolled her eyes.

“Ogden, you know you can’t have any. Doctor’s orders,” Helen said, wearily. “Besides, you’ll end up giving yours to the dog, anyway, and she can’t have any either.”

Ruth’s ears perked up and a similar look of crafty hope crossed her face, although Helen was sure she must have imagined it.

“Dammit Helen,” he whined, “one pancake isn’t going to kill me.”

“And missing out won’t either.”

“You don’t know that!”

Ruth barked helpfully and Helen shook her head as Mad Dog shook his fist in mock rage and pottered away, grumbling. It was a familiar routine and she knew better than to be taken in by it. Besides, it was for their own good and they knew that. Yes, even Ruth, for all her grumbling and dark looks, and Helen was not imagining those. A yawn and a dainty step heralded Quinn’s arrival, and she put Ogden from her mind for the moment. This was her chance to bond with her girls and she wasn’t going to waste it.

“Quinn!” she said, more brightly than she felt, “can I get you some breakfast, sweetie?”

“Pancakes? Ugh! Mo-om,” Quinn said, with a sharp glance at Daria, “those are so fattening.”

Quinn crossed to the fridge and began rummaging around. Helen shrugged and glanced at Daria, fancying that she saw a flicker of a smile. That was rarely a good sign, she thought, watching Quinn throw some yoghurt, muesli and strawberries into a bowl. There was also a certain tension in how Quinn held herself, she noticed, taking another sip. She was carrying her concentration with her.

“Perhaps just some coffee then,” Helen said, to break the tension.

“Coffee, caffeine, dark circles,” Quinn said, crossing to sit at the table. “No way. Green tea, please.”

Shuddering inwardly at the thought of mornings with no coffee, Helen switched on the kettle and took down a mug. No sign of Matt yet, she noted, which was odd, but he was probably out running. She felt a brief twinge of irritation at the thought but stuffed it away; if he wanted to put exercise ahead of family time, then that was his business. She didn’t like it, but that was hardly his concern was? God forbid he’d consider her feelings before running headlong at things, and she swore Daria was acting more and more the same. Well, that had to stop, she thought, squeezing some lemon juice into the steaming mug.

“Isn’t this nice?” She said, placing the mug down beside Quinn. “Having breakfast with my girls.”

“Mmmm.”

“Mmmm.”

She could have been doing follow up on the Harrison Suit, she thought to herself, sipping her coffee. She could have been doing something productive. She’d seen the state of the case files at the office before she’d arrived and she was not going to let some hack get their grubby little fingers all over her hard work. God, it made her shudder just thinking about it... But she wasn’t going to let it distract her. She wasn’t.

“You know, I’ve really missed this,” Helen said, trying again, “I haven’t had time to catch up with you two since the move. Daria, what are your plans for the week? Daria?”

“Mmmm.”

Alright, there was dour and then there was this, she thought, watching Daria. Usually there’d be a sarcastic comment or a barb for her to ignore. Maybe she was just tired and over-thinking things, but she was suddenly concerned. Quinn cast another dark glance at Daria and finished her breakfast, sipping her tea. Helen wasn’t going to let it distract her though.

“Daria, come on, any plans for the week?”

“Don’t you want to know what plans I have for the week?”

“Of course, I do, Quinn,” Helen said, “but-“

But there was no stopping Quinn once she got started, which, if she was honest about it, Helen was rather proud of. It wasn’t that she approved of Quinn’s ability to turn any conversation back to herself, but the confidence would stand her in good stead in later life. She only wished she’d apply it to less... frivolous... things, she considered, bracing herself for the onslaught.

“Well, the Fashion Club is having a special ceremony to welcome our new members,” Quinn said, “and we’ll be spending the rest of the week going over their new duties and their new make overs. That’s why I took so long to get ready, see as Vice President, I have to provide a fitting example for them to follow. Even if they’re not my first choice to join.”

“Well, that’s-“

“I would have been down sooner, but somebody put oatmeal in my shoes and I had to scrub them clean and reorganize my entire outfit to find something that matched.”

She glared at Daria, as she said it and for a brief moment, Helen was struck by how alike her daughters were. It seemed like only yesterday that they’d been practically one and the same girl, united in all things. Now, as she watched Quinn rally herself for a further assault, it was hard to imagine them ever having been that close. Not that individuality was a bad thing, but neither was wanting them to get along better., she thought, preparing to step in.

“Have you nothing to say for yourself?” Quinn demanded, glaring at Daria. “Nothing at all?”

It was, Helen felt, uncharacteristically blunt of Quinn; she was seldom so direct in her dealings. Daria, like her aunt Amy before her, was too experienced in pushing her sister’s buttons to react to that. She simply weathered the onslaught, chewing her oatmeal thoughtfully and looking into the distance. Did this happen every morning? It couldn’t, could it? No, Helen thought, it had be Daria just preoccupied with whatever was bothering her.

“You know, I think I will have some pancakes,” Daria said, rising.

So much for that idea, Helen thought, moving to forestall any potential violence as Daria left a seething Quinn in her wake.

“Quinn, is that new eye-shadow?”

She’d asked the question just to break the tension, but the effect it had on Quinn was immediate and a little worrying. The anger vanished in an instant to be replaced by a hunted look that Helen knew all too well. She was hiding something.

“Do you think this make-up means something? Because it doesn’t!”

“Oh, I just-“

“Can’t I try out something new if I want to?!”

“Quinn-“

“Oops, lost track of time, gotta go,” Quinn said, “early meeting!”

“Oh, er, bye!” Helen said, looking after Quinn suspiciously. “Have a nice day sweetie.”

Where did she get that habit? Helen was certain that she had never talked over anyone like that. She was still curious to know what Quinn was hiding, but that could wait; Quinn seldom kept secrets for long. No, she thought, flipping a second pancake onto a plate for Daria, she had to focus on the harder battle.

“Well, I suppose that leaves us more time to talk then,” Helen said, turning around. “How are you Daria?”

“I think my earlier answer speaks for itself.”

Sprinkling some sugar and lemon onto them, Helen switched off the stove, cursing herself for not anticipating the sarcasm. She was losing her edge. No, it was like any deposition, she told herself; just be patient and keep chipping away at the wall. Sooner or later something would fall loose; teenagers tended to forget that parents weren’t going anywhere.

“Daria,” she said, keeping the weariness from her voice, “come on, I just want to catch up with you.”

“But we have caught up,” Daria said, “see? Now we’re both at the counter.”

“I hear you’re making friends already, sweetie,” Helen said, ignoring the comment, “and I think that’s wondeful! When are we going to meet them?”

“Never, if I can get away with it,” Daria replied, around a mouthful of pancakes.

Helen could see she’d rattled her, which was a lot more satisfying than it should have been. Daria’s eyes narrowed and Helen could see the wheels turning behind her eyes, as she tried to guess what Helen knew and where she heard it. This was good, now she had to take advantage of the confusion before she could put her walls back up.

“Oh, Daria, don’t be silly. Its great that you’re adapting to your new school so well,” Helen said. “Why, I can’t remember you making friends this quickly back in Highland.”

To Helen’s knowledge, Daria hadn’t made friends back in Highland at all, although something in Daria’s expression hinted that she may have been wrong on that score. The only friend she was sure of was that girl, Amelia, she was always talking to on the computer, and that one continued to surprise her. Still, she entertained a wonderful warm feeling inside at the thought that Daria was finally letting people in. Now if she could only convince her to get involved in sports or something, then her college applications would just breeze through.

“Were you listening outside my door?”

“I don’t need to, sweetie,” Helen said, sipping her coffee, “I trust you.”

Besides, Daria was very like her sister in that she tended to forget that the phone was right there by her head. Helen didn’t have to listen at the door because Daria spoke loudly enough to be heard through several closed doors. Not that she’d ever do that, of course; she wasn’t that kind of parent. The answer did little to calm Daria, though, and Helen put her coffee down, concerned.

“Daria, Jake tells me you went to a party on Saturday,” she ventured, “is this going to be the first of many?”

A sudden change in Daria’s expression, reminiscent of Quinn’s, cut Helen’s thoughts short. She’d noticed the twinges of discomfort before, but she’d put it down teenagers being teenagers. It was funny in a way; Daria made a big song and dance out of being an individual, but under pressure she had the same nervous quirks as Quinn. The difference was that she hid them better. Close to, Helen wondered what else was going on.

“Daria, are you alright?”

“Yes,” Daria said, pushing her plate away, “sorry. I just remembered an assignment I forgot to do.”

“Odd, its not like you to forget an assignment.”

“I know, but I got caught up writing and it just slipped my mind. That’s all.”

“Well, I’m sure your teacher will give you more time,” Helen said, unconvinced.

She didn’t buy that story for a second and made a mental note to ask Jake about it. While she was loathe to ask for help conversing with her children, there was no way he couldn’t have noticed the change in demeanour. Unaware of the internal musing, Daria picked up her things and made to leave.

“Do you have to rush off, sweetie? I could drive you to school.”

“No thanks, mom, I prefer to walk.”

“Well, maybe we could go for a hike sometime like we used to.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Daria, please.”

“Alright, fine!” Daria said, throwing her hands up in frustration. “If it’ll get you off my back.”

Helen watched her go and waited until she heard the front door slam shut, before smiling a crafty little smile and pumping her fist in celebration of small victories.

“Yes!”

A happy bark greeted the word and she looked down to see Marty panting happily as he watched her, narrowing her eyes at him.

“You didn’t hear that.”

“I did,” came Mad Dog’s voice, from the other room.

“You don’t count!”

------------------------------------------

For Matt, Monday was a slightly less pleasant affair than it usually was. He’d risen early to get a run in and his muscles were already taking him to task over it, but it was preferable to dwelling on the events of the weekend. Besides, much like Daria and Quinn, muscles always complained when asked to do something new, and like his sisters; they would give in eventually. Aware that his thoughts were taking a worryingly Machiavellian turn for this hour of the morning, he focused on his pace as he entered the final approach. This had seemed like a marvellous idea the night before, but just now, as Lawndale High came into view, the logistics of it seemed to say otherwise, and he pushed those thoughts away just as he had the others. It didn’t work, of course, thoughts being stubborn things, but he knew that if he was serious about this challenge then pain and inconvenience were the smallest prices he would have to pay for victory. More importantly, a very primal part of him was screaming that it would be a cold day in hell before he let Lane walk all over him.

Slowing to a quick walk, he retrieved his bags and made a beeline for the locker-room, refusing to look left or right as he went. Time was at a premium, and while he revelled in his masculinity as much as the next knuckle-dragging male, he had no intention of sitting through class stinking to high heaven, Standards were important, he thought, stepping into the shower, and kept civilisation from degenerating into Kevin. Thinking of Q and his antics brought his mind back to the weekend, and he grimaced, showering quickly. There were going to be consequences, no matter that the Jays were tools, but if the entire team shared their attitude... At least he could be confident that Mick was on side, he supposed, towelling off; two heavily armed men in a bunker, fighting extradition, perhaps that would be enough.

Daria and Quinn too, he thought, dressing; what was going on there? Quinn had her schemes just as the trees had leaves, but the consensus seemed to be that Sandi could be a nasty piece of work when so inclined, and power popularity was ruthless. He’d have to keep his ears open. Daria was a different problem; she’d been even more withdrawn than usual over the weekend, and while he was certain that something had happened, he knew he’d get nothing out of her until she was ready. Sometimes he really hated being conscientious.

Unwilling to show even an ounce of weakness to Jane, he took a moment to smooth out his appearance before he joined the morning crowd. If she got wind that he was working harder to beat her she’d be insufferable. Not that he cared what she thought, he corrected himself, not even the slightest bit. All he cared about was winning. Yes, winning. He was halfway to Home room when a voice called out to him, and he turned, slightly frustrated at being derailed but holding a smile all the same to see Kevin approaching at a jog. He hadn’t seen him since Brittany’s shindig, and as he recalled, he hadn’t even seen him much at that, given he’d spent most of it making out with...Tori? He wasn’t sure of the details, but as he understood things it was a Big Deal, so he did his best to look enthusiastic. He’d never understand why Kevin cheated on Brittany, but Q was always good for a laugh, so he let it go; how people ruined their lives was their business.

“Yo, Mad Dog!”

“Hey Q,” he said, “still psyched you hooked up at the party?”

Kevin made a noise as though that was obvious, but his eyes narrowed again at Matt’s use of the nickname. Yes, Matt conceded, it was a dick move, but friends weren’t friends that didn’t wind one another up. More importantly, if he had to be Mad Dog, and Mick had to be Mack Daddy, then Kevin could take one for the team in the name of karma. Unaware of the internal dialogue, Kevin straightened and changed his grip on the football he was, once again, holding. Perhaps he used it to meditate, Matt thought, aware that there was probably some significance in Kevin’s refusal to remove his gear.

“Well, duh, Mad Dog,” he said, “I mean; it’s Tori, she’s hot right now. And it’s Kevin, not Q.”

“I know, dude,” Matt said, imitating Kevin’s off hand shrug, “but Q is shorter.”

He smiled his most charming, clueless smile as Kevin’s brows drew down in concentration. It was fascinating to watch him think, but after a moment Kevin did what he always seemed to do with things he didn’t quite grasp; he ignored them. Grinning again, he pounded his hand against the football, all but bouncing on the spot.

“So anyway, are you pumped for the game this week? I know I am!”

Matt opened his mouth to respond, but Kevin ran on, punctuating each word by pounding the football against his head.

“First Game of the Season!” He said. “Can’t wait.”

He’d seen displays like that almost daily since he joined the team back at Highland, and every time he saw them, he died a little inside, knowing he’d officially joined the dark side. Still, an answer was required, so he grinned evilly.

“We’ll crush the pricks,” he said, “first time every time.”

Privately he was rather less certain, but the comment had the desired effect, and Kevin practically glowed with pride, smiling his signature, toothy smile and high fiving Matt with gusto. Of course he immediately spoiled the moment by speaking.

“And if you’re half as Vicious as you were at the party, Mad Dog,” he said, “they won’t know what hit’em!”

Matt’s smile faltered a little bit at that, and he chuckled uneasily. It wasn’t that he was ashamed of it by any means, but he was dimly aware of having promised to stay out of trouble, and he was not looking forward to the inevitable conversation with his dad. Thankfully, Kevin didn’t seem to notice the pause, so Matt laughed it off.

“Yeah, right? Though I better check Joey and Jamie aren’t too beat to play.”

“Awww, they’ll be fine,” Kevin said, snorting derisively, “they do that all the time!”

Matt did a double take at that comment. He couldn’t be serious, could he? The team at Highland had been a ravenous pack of dicks but at the end of the day they were a team. That had to count for something.

“What?”

“Yeah, Mad Dog; they always find some new girl to fight over,” Kevin said, nodding sagely, “it’s like, you know, a rendition! The competition keeps them fierce!”

There was a moment of silence and then Kevin seemed to remember whom he was speaking with.

“Er...I mean... Not that anyone should, like, hit your sister or anything.”

Matt continued staring.

“I mean I’d never...”

“You’re telling me the guys regularly kick lumps out of each other over nothing?”

“No, no,” Kevin said, shaking his head. “For Girls, Bro.”

Ah, Matt thought; because that changed everything. Here, Kevin leaned in conspiratorially, glancing around, and Matt, against all logic, leaned in as well. That was the problem with idiocy; it could be highly contagious.

“I mean, I’ve had to take them on a few times, you know? For macking on Brittany. It’s no big thing.”

Matt quietly, and mentally, compared Kevin’s slender, wiry frame to the rather more... robust... builds of the other players, and made a mental note to keep a close eye on him. Idiot he may have been, but he was still the QB.

“But,” he tried again, “Bros before Hoes, dude. A team’s supposed to look out for each other.”

“Yeah,” Kevin agreed, loudly, “just so long as they don’t mack on my girl.”

There was nothing Matt could really say to that, so he let it go, moving again as the bell rang.

“So,” he said, grasping for normality, “do we have O’Neill first, or what?”

“Ummm yeah,” Kevin said, after a moment, “Britt was really excited about it.”

“Seriously?”

Something had to be very wrong with the world if anyone was excited about what Timothy O’Neill was doing, aside of course, from O’Neill himself, who was excited to be doing everything. Matt could barely hear him, most of the time, and left every class with a migraine from the strain. It didn’t help that O’Neill was one of those people with “Do Not Disturb” stamped in large, friendly letters on his face. Matt was happy to oblige; the man was disturbed enough as it was.

“Yeah,” Kevin said, his expression suddenly falling, “it’s cuz we’re doing that Shakespeare dude! I can’t take him, Mad Dog, I just can’t!”

“He’s a nerd, Q, I’m pretty sure you’d floor him,” Matt said, with a straight face.

“What? Naaaw,” Kevin said, waving him off, “I mean, like, he’s a total chick writer, dude. Why should I care about anything he says?”

“Yeah,” Matt said, “but chicks are all over him.”

“That’s what I said.”

Matt sincerely hoped that Kevin thanked whatever demon had granted him his football skills, otherwise Matt had a horrible suspicion that Kevin would die a virgin. Taking a breath, he tried again.

“What I mean is; you get up on that stuff, dude, and you’ll be up to your tits in their tits, you know?”

“But...I didn’t need any of that to get Brittany, Mad Dog,” Kevin Reasoned.

Which explained why she’d apparently seen the back seat of every footballer’s car for some miles in every direction, Matt thought, ungenerously, but he let it go all the same. It simply wasn’t worth the Aneurysm. They had gone ten feet when Kevin glanced at him slyly, or at least what passed for sly with him.

“Is that how you got Jane, dude?”

“I did not ‘get’ Jane,” Matt said, flatly, “there’s nothing going on there.”

“Yeah, Yeah,” Kevin said, “now tell me what’s really going on.”

“Yes, Kevin, you’ve found me out,” Matt said, rolling his eyes. “I chased her around Lawndale quoting sonnets at her while she rejected my ceaseless, iambic propositions.”

Kevin seemed to mull that one over for a bit, and then shook his head.

“Nah, I think I’d have heard about that.”

“Lets just get to class, Q.”

“But I need to know your secret!”

“Never!”

Laughing, Matt took off at a sprint, leaving Kevin little choice but to run after him.

“MISTER MORGENDORFFER! NO RUNNING IN THE HALLS!”

Miss Li’s voice hit him like a harpoon, and he stopped so quickly that Kevin ran headlong into him. Glaring at them both, Miss Li passed a hand over her eyes and pointed to Kevin.

“Mister Thompson, pick yourself up and get to class,” she said, “Mister Morgendorffer, my office, now.”

Kevin scooted off, glancing back worriedly and Matt straightened as he followed Miss Li. Well, it had been a good morning, at least.

----------------------------

It should have gone without saying that Daria did not like Mondays, but, then; did anyone? Did anyone out there spend their entire weekend thinking ‘I can’t wait for this to be over! Bring on Monday!’? She let that question distract her as she made her way to English, as it was far less threatening to her sanity than spending any amount of time with O’Neill. It wasn’t that anything he did or said was inappropriate, per se, but the whole was greater than the some of its parts. So, instead, she kept her attention on Jane, who was in rare form, despite her stated aversion to mornings, and lamenting her body’s inability to keep up with her rigorous demands.

“How dare my legs betray me?!”

“Alright, settle down, M Bison,” Daria said, rolling her eyes, “lest they do so again.”

“They wouldn’t dare!”

“You never know, but on the bright side,” Daria said, “medical science isn’t far from giving you the cyborg super legs you’ve always wanted.”

As difficult as it was for Daria to admit, she liked Jane, even if the girl was a bit high strung at times. There was a passion to her that she poured into damned near everything she did, which, paradoxically, she managed to pair with mind-blowing cynicism. It was Daria’s good luck that Jane was currently pouring all of that energy into hating Matt. Well, she thought, as Jane wound up for the next part of the conversation; she said hating.

“Oh, no, Morgendorffer,” she said, wagging a finger, “when the history of this conflict is written, I will not have it said that Jane Lane needed science’s help to defeat her vile foe!”

“Vile?”

“You’re right... Nefarious sounds sooo much better.”

“It does have a ring to it,” Daria admitted, “just promise me you won’t fire any shots.”

“I promise NOTHING!”

With a final blown raspberry and a twirl for effect, Jane ducked into the room and the popular seats, leaving Daria to pick up the rear with increasing sarcasm. She resolutely did not look at the teacher’s over-eager face, or the flow chart of disjointed concepts he’d scrawled across the white-board in cursive. Him, she realized; he probably looked forward to another week of ‘enlightening’ young minds, which sounded far more sinister than it really should have. The only upside was that he didn’t try to be trendy, which wasn’t much of an upside. ‘Hey, kids! Don’t call me, “Mr O Neill”, call me “Timothy”.’ She shuddered.

Speaking of sinister, she thought, how had she let Helen ambush her earlier? She frowned, still not looking at O’Neill, and covered the expression by rooting for stationary. Show no weakness and he could ask you no questions. She’d been too preoccupied with needling Quinn, that was all; she wasn’t getting soft, she’d just been distracted and allowed Helen to find an opening. So now, she berated herself, she had to organize a walk and put together a list of safe topics for conversation, because the alternative was an aimless, endless, open-ended interrogation about her life. Her life was aimless enough, thank you, and she intended to keep it that way.

“Well,” said Andrea, “if it isn’t the mysterious, vanishing teen.”

Daria rolled her eyes as Andrea took her seat, not being in the mood to discuss the weekend’s events, but her friend would not be deterred.

“And so visible, too! Can I assume you’ll remain so for the rest of the class?”

Daria opened her mouth to retort, but before she could even mouth ‘hush’, O’Neill swung his lizard-like gaze their way and cleared his throat, somehow achieving a sound equally breathy to his normal mode of speech. Of course, any attempt at authority and confidence was undermined by his quick glance at the seating chart.

“Now, Andrea,” he said, looking at Daria, “’catching up’ with friends is important, but please; save conversations for free periods.”

Daria let her gaze travel to the words ‘Believe to Achieve!’ scrawled on the board, and debated correcting him, then thought better of it. He’d already spent the better part of the last week calling her Quinn and politely asking if she wasn’t in the wrong class. She gave him bonus points for never asking how she’d changed her hair and clothes so quickly, but by those imposing standards, this was a vast improvement. Not really waiting for a response from her, he resumed taking attendance, and Andrea resumed her assault.

“Nothing, Andrea? No explanation,” she asked, smirking mischievously, “or snappy comeback? Was I wrong about you?”

“Who are we missing?”

Once more oblivious, O’Neill was doing a second count and looking through the seating chart. Daria shrugged noncommittally, not wanting to rise to the bait twice in one morning. If she got pulled into this, she’d have to think about the party, and that, she thought, hands clenching, did not bear thinking about. At least, not until she knew what to do with it. But, then again, she couldn’t just let Andrea go on, either; she had a reputation to uphold. Why was she over-thinking this?

“I’ll explain that,” she said, “when you explain Upchuck. The mental image alone...”

“Well, when a boy reaches a certain age he starts going through these...changes...”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, and you can do better.”

“Says the girl who blew off a night with her friend so she could blow off some guy.”

“What?”

Daria took some satisfaction in the look of confusion spreading across Andrea’s face, and used the petty triumph to recompose herself. It was going to be a long day, and she had to remain in command of it if she was going to come out ahead. She schooled her expression in time for O’Neill to approach awareness once more.

“We’re missing Kevin and Matthew,” he said, “oh dear.”

Daria glanced around, suddenly curious; Matt usually waited until mid-week at least to skip class, and she couldn’t see him spending any more time with Kevin than necessary, so something must have been up. His friend Michael was there, of course, as was Jodie, neither of them looking too worried. Brittany, on the other hand, was looking very curious, having been so absorbed in her conversation with Jane that she’d failed to notice Kevin’s absence, and Jane simply flashed Daria an evil smile, which Andrea did not miss.

“Another vanishing Teen? And what’s this; Daria making friends on the squad?”

“Do you ever stop?”

“Sorry I’m late!”

Smiling goofily, and dressed as inappropriately as ever, Kevin ducked in and waved to the class for some bizarre reason. More bizarrely, some of them even cheered in response. Lawndale, she thought, was very odd.

“It’s...alright, Kevin,” O’Neill said, “please be seated.”

Already halfway to his seat, Kevin paused, looking confused.

“Is that, like, when someone asks you something?”

Now it was O’Neill’s turn to look confused. Daria did not dare look at Andrea; she could see her shoulders shaking out of the corner of her eye.

“Or is that the tree?”

“I think you mean besee...never mind,” O’Neill said, giving up, “just sit down.”

“Okay!”

“Have you seen Matthew?”

Brightening up at the prospect of a question he could answer, Kevin nodded, sliding into his seat.

“Yeah!”

No other answer seemed to be forthcoming, and Kevin simply stared right back at O’ Neill with that winning, slightly unfocused, smile of his. Not content with that, O’Neill waved to indicate he should continue, which only seemed to confuse Kevin more. Daria could only look on in a kind of horrified fascination as it went on.

“Awww!” he said, turning to Brittany. “We have to bow now?”

“We do?!”

“You don’t need to bow, Kevin,” O’ Neill said, ignoring the sniggering, “I just...”

“Cool.”

The silence after that seemed to stretch, and Mr O’Neill decided that discretion, in this case, was the greater part of valor, returning to the board in defeat. Andrea wiped a tear from her eye.

“I needed that,” she said, catching her breath. “Now, where were we?”

“Not talking about this,” Daria said, finally looking at her. “Please.”

Andrea let her hang for a moment, tapping her fingers on the desk while O Neil spoke.

“I’m your friend, Daria,” she said, “so...no.”

She couldn’t even hear O’Neill over the sound of her head hitting the desk.

-------------------------

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same; that was Jace’s opinion, or, at least, it would have been if anyone had bothered to ask for it. Surprise, surprise, though, he thought, adding some more shading to his sketch, nobody had, and that suited him just fine. He gripped his pencil a little tighter, fudging one of the edges, and swore, moving to fix it. Yep, they could go on ignoring him, and he could stay under the radar, rubbing their stuck up faces in it. His grip tightened again, and he stopped himself before he did any more damage to the sketch, sitting back with a sigh. It was meant to be a deconstruction of the office, but somewhere along the way, it had turned into a depiction of a bomb blast, and, now, even that was in danger of slipping away. He did not do well without his mandatory twelve hours of sleep.

Not wanting to throw away another perfectly passable sketch, he pinched the bridge of his nose and put the pencil down, looking around the anteroom to clear his head. It hadn’t changed much since he’d last seen it, maybe some new plants in the corners to replace the one’s he’d killed, but it left him with the distinct impression that Ms Li had elevated boredom to an art form. Did she get a kick out of making people wait? No, he was not going to think about that, because he had a fair idea of the answer and it was just...ick. He was about to attack the sketch again, when a voice from without indicated that the waiting was done.

“In here, please, Mr Morgendorffer.”

That was Li’s voice, Jace thought, which was so far, so obvious, but he didn’t recognize the other name. It wasn’t that he cared, but maintaining his outcast status required careful monitoring of, and screwing with, the balance of power. Keeping them off their game was the only way to stay safe. Was it someone new? Had Jane mentioned anyone? Come to think of it, when had he last spoken to Jane? Not since he’d been suspended, he realised with a start. He wasn’t even sure what she was doing. Typical, he thought, slumping further in his seat to aggravate Li; he needed something and little Jace Lane was all by his lonesome. Some family. The door opened, and Ms Li entered without even sparing him a glance, followed by whom he presumed was this Morgendorffer person.

Well, Jace thought, he was new. Tall, obviously athletic, probably a jock, not unattractive; Jace would have written him off entirely had it not been for the way he scanned the room. No hurry there, just taking in the details, and then those eyes locked with his, and he realised why he’d paid attention. There was danger there, and a look that said he knew Jace was measuring him up. Jace shrugged further into his hoodie, making his disinterest obvious, but even so, that gaze lingered a moment longer than was comfortable before following Li into her inner sanctum. What was that about?

---------------------------------------------------------------------

What the hell was his problem? Matt pondered this as he closed the office door behind him. This being Lawndale, and High School, it could literally have been almost anything, but Matt was a cynic through and through, and he knew what being sized up felt like. Which, he thought, watching Ms Li take her seat behind the desk, this almost certainly was. He’d been here a week now, and she’d had all that time to get her crap together, so why now? The party, he assumed, running over what he could remember of that. No horrendous damage done that he could recall, which was a plus, but still, he wasn’t going to say anything about that if he could avoid it. The office itself was the usual mixed bag of offices everywhere; stock furnishings, some personal knick-knacks and... what seemed to be an awful lot of surveillance how to books and counter-terrorism treatises in a range of friendly colours. Apart from the walls full of unimpressive awards from the district, the only other stand out item was the gilt picture frame on her desk, but at least there were no visible firearms, either unlike in Highland. Not that those were needed. After a moment of self-important fidgeting, she gestured for him to sit, which he did with little fuss.

“So, Mr Morgendorffer,” she said, once he was seated, “how are you finding things here at Lawndale High?”

“Easily enough,” he said, “they’re not hidden or anything.”

Well, it worked for Kevin, didn’t it? There was a slight pause, but Ms Lie would not be deterred.

“I mean,” she said, “how are you settling in?”

“Well enough, I suppose,” he said, shrugging, “plus, everything’s easy to find, so that saves time.”

He had the distinct feeling that this was heading somewhere, and, as a long time student of Helen’s, he wasn’t going be backed into a corner this early. Say nothing for long enough and she had to show her hand, and unless one of the Js said something, which was unlikely given their predisposition towards mindless violence, she had nothing. If that was what this was even about. It was unlikely that Quinn or Daria had gotten up to much, and it had been a reasonably quiet week, so that narrowed things down. Whether she wasn’t listening or had just chosen to ignore the content of what he was saying, Ms Li smiled brightly and carried on.

“Good, good,” she said, “transitioning to a new school can be difficult, after all, and I’d hate to think that any student was being... less than welcoming.”

There was a hook there, he felt, and a prime opportunity for a biting comment, but he let it go, content to see where this was going.

“Not that I’ve seen, no,” he said, keeping his expression neutral.

That said, he probably did need to get his eyes tested.

“Wonderful,” Ms Li said, relishing the syllables, “we take great pride in our school here.”

“You mentioned that, yes,” Matt said, more to put her off her stride than anything else.

She looked irritated by the interruption, which he took as a win, her eyes narrowing, and quickly tried to regain momentum. Spotting his opportunity, he pressed the attack.

“At the Introduction,” he supplied, helpfully.

“Yes… well, it bears repeating.”

This was said quickly, her features harsh, but they soon smoothed out into her previous expression of serene plotting. It was a fascinating transformation to watch, and he continued to do so as she settled back in her seat, regarding him.

“Congratulations on making the football team.”

“Thank you.”

Again, he thought, that decision hadn’t really been made yet, and everyone acting like it was a sure thing did nothing to ease his concerns. Yes, the tryouts had gone well, and yes, he was cautiously optimistic, but there was more going on than that. Of course, that was only one way to interpret what she was saying. She could have been drawing attention to the fact that his place wasn’t assured to underline some kind of threat, or she could simply have been needling him. Or not.

“The Lawndale Lions are an important feather in our cap,” she said, ignoring him.

“Are they?” He asked, not at all sarcastically.

Once again, she carried on as though he had not spoken.

“They bring great honour to the school,” she said, “and are an inspiration to the other students. Something to aspire to.”

He let his mind flash back to Kevin, both earlier that day, and their conversations the previous week, then let it wander to what he’d seen of the team so far. Sure, he thought; inspirational was a word one could use to describe them, although several, less flattering, adjectives also presented themselves.

“Are they?”

She stopped again, eyes narrowing to glare at him, and he smiled as helpfully and in no way insolently as he could.

“Yes,” she said, flatly, “and while individual effort is praised , it is the team that wins or loses, isn’t it?”

Which meant that, by some long and winding path, she was approaching the point. She stared at him, clearly waiting for some kind of response, but he simply stared back, unwilling to concede an inch.

“So,” she said, aware that he was the better starer, “any friction between team members would be to the detriment of the team, wouldn’t it?”

He once again cast his mind back to Kevin and the Js’ casual attitude to conflict, thinking it at odds with the sentiment, no matter how he agreed with it. Sadly, once you got enough testosterone in one place, things tended to go a certain way regardless. Again, she waited for a response, and again he said nothing.

“Is there anything you’d like to say?”

“Should there be?”

There it was again, he thought; that twinge of irritation. Clearly, this had been well-rehearsed, but it was not going according to the script. He hated when that happened too, but that didn’t mean that he was going to help her here. Clearing her throat, Ms Li rifled through her paperwork and pulled out a file.

“Well,” she said, opening it, “you do have a… history… of conflict with your team-mates.”

Team-mate, he corrected, but mentally, because if he got sucked into this argument he would need a cargo crane to pull himself out of it. Gradually, he felt his hands begin to tense and ball into fists, and gripped the edges of the chair carefully, staring ahead to distract himself. Ms Li, in full speech mode, ploughed on.

“Quite publicly too,” she said, skimming through, “during a game too. Inappropriate language, struck a team mate, had to be pulled off of him by your coach, struck other players when they tried to intervene. Five boys injured, one seriously; frankly, it’s a wonder that charges weren’t pressed.”

The plastic of the chair cracked slightly as his grip tightened further, but he kept his face blank. He could not react, because that would be handing the victory to her on a platter. Charges had been pressed, and then withdrawn, once Helen had gotten involved, albeit begrudgingly. Frankly, it was their own damned fault for leaping to that ass’ defense. Nobody else had felt inclined to stick their necks out for a lump like Harris, and afterwards it had been doubly so. Ms Li arched an eyebrow.

“Would you disagree?”

“Only in that the one,” Matt said, before he could stop himself, “was not injured seriously enough.”

He felt his grip tighten further, and he focused on his breathing, because looking into her eyes would only egg the feeling on. Still, he had hit something there, he could tell, and even though that smirk was taunting him, there was a hesitation there that said he had once again gone off script. She knew why the charges had been withdrawn too. No school wanted to be dragged to court over failing to protect female students, after all, and nobody wanted a nasty court case hanging over them when they aspired to certain careers. It was another moment or so before she found her voice.

“You would have gone further?”

“Now I’ll never know,” he said, flatly.

Alright, even he had to admit that that was a little dodgy, but it was out now and it was too late to reign it back in. Back on point, Ms Li leaned forwards.

“Well, it’s interesting that you should say that,” she mused. “I’m no stranger to footballers trading blows. Hoho! Why, just this weekend, three of the team were involved in an altercation with each other!”

“Were they? That’s unfortunate,” Matt said.

“Oh, yes,” Ms Li said, with apparent relish, “nothing serious, thankfully, but, had it gone further…”

She let that hang there, smirking, and he said nothing; it was the safer option. She was just needling him now, and looking for a rise.

“Of course, if rumour is to be believed,” she said, “there were mitigating circumstances.”

Oh, he thought, well, what a relief that was. Ms Li regarded him for a moment, quizzically.

“The team,” she said, matter-of-factly, “needs shaking up. According to your record, you get results. Continue to do so, and we will remain on good terms. Otherwise, your… indiscretions… will not go unnoticed.”

“And those are…?”

She sat back in her seat, steepling her fingers, and he gritted his teeth.

“You may ask,” she said; “I couldn’t possibly comment. You may go.”

He rose, turning to leave, and she spoke again, clearly toying with him.

“Oh, and please send in Mr Lane on your way.”

Working his jaw, he took a breath, stomped on the urge to respond, and left.

-------------------------

As soon as the door shut behind him, Angela allowed herself a satisfied smile, running a hand over the picture frame on her desk and admiring the way Kevin Spacey’s eyes caught the light. That could have gone better, she thought, but with enough practise, she could surely master this. Primadonnas, she thought, they were all the same.

Oh, Mr Underwood, she thought, you’re entitled to everything I have.

Schooling her expression to calm, she repositioned herself, and smiled as the door opened.

“Ah, Mr Lane,” she said, “welcome back.”

-------------------------

Sometimes, not always, but sometimes, it was important that everyone saw your triumph and spread the word. Whether it was a new top, or shoes, or a must have accessory, or maybe you finally snagged that one guy with the beach house and the convertible before anyone else, there were some victories that simply had to be advertised. As Sandi went through the motions of accepting Tori and Shauna, Quinn remained unconvinced that this was a victory, but she knew that everyone needed to see it. Not that Sandi agreed with her, of course, but some things simply had to be endured. Like Daria.

"As Members of the Fashion Club," Sandi continued, unaware of the internal monologue, "we are beacons of style and composure, both at school and in the greater community."

They’d all scrubbed up well enough too, which was another win; they already drew eyes, of course, but now they practically glowed. Tori and Shauna, not having been given the memo, were dressed normally, which only exacerbated the effect. On the one hand, she supposed it could be taken as a little condescending to them, but then it wasn’t for them. Sandi had claimed the entire table for this, despite the boys’ ongoing efforts to sit with them, so they were the center of attention without preening too much, and their audience would take in what was happening, and later gossip about it. Some, like the boys, were there to score brownie points with the popular girls, popularity hounds looking for an easy in, some were even friends of Tori and Shauna, while the rest were just background noise. Still, they all saw, and they would all talk.

“And so, as President of the Fashion Club,” Sandi said, emphasizing the words, “I hereby welcome our two newest members into our family. Tori, Shauna, welcome.”

"Congratulations!"

"Yeah!"

On cue, Quinn applauded politely, joined by Stacy and Tiffany. Now, of course, there was the issue of the mandatory make-overs to consider, not that any real candidate for the Fashion Club really needed one, but they had to represent something just that bit better than the average. It was expected, and while she may have disagreed with Sandi on some things, she knew that they could not let standards slip. Not there at least. Where to do it though? The illusion of seamlessness was vital, so not at school, obviously, but Shauna's skin tone was very different to any of theirs, so they'd have to raid her make up supply and do the best they could, or go and buy her better make up. Actually, that wasn't a bad plan, she thought; she'd have to put it on the agenda for the Mall outing.

"Quinn, dear? Are we boring you?"

She smiled at Sandi's tone of faux concern, giggling a little to underline her insouciance. Of course it couldn't be that easy, could it?

"Of course not, Sandi," she said, waving her off, "but there's so much to do! As Vice-President, anything I can do to make it easier on you is a bonus!"

Sandi looked like she had more to say, but, thankfully, Tori spoke up, saving Quinn the trouble of setting up an out for herself. Taking advantage of the distraction, she whispered the words 'Make Over' to Stacy, who nodded slightly, taking notes.

"So, like, is that all?"

"For the moment," Sandi said, indignant at being interrupted, "unless Quinn has any more daydreams to share with us."

"Actually, Sandi," Stacy said, "there is the issue of their Make Overs to consider."

Distracted again from her attempted assault, Sandi glared at Stacy, who coughed nervously, but held her ground. Tori and Shauna, previously only passably interested, perked up considerably at the mention of it, as did Tiffany, who had been watching proceedings with an idle interest completely at odds with her typical demeanor. Thus caught, Sandi recovered and looked thoughtful.

"That will require some consideration," she said, "but we will need to go over your outfits and your make up, to bring you up to standard."

"Are you saying we're not?"

Shauna's eyes narrowed and Quinn moved quickly to intervene before anything kicked off.

"Of course not, Shauna," she said, as though the very idea was ludicrous, "we just need to give you that little boost to make everyone else extra jelly."

"That would slay," Tori said, clearly with someone in mind, "but what I meant was, like, do we have jobs or something? Or do we just hang around and look hot? I'm good either way."

She'd considered this, as had Sandi, no doubt, but she couldn't make it look like it was her idea or Sandi would just shut down. As it was, Sandi seemed to be gearing up to respond properly to Tori's casual tone, and if that started... She could feel her hands clenching slightly at the thought of it; all that arguing... No, she was fine.

"You know, that is a good point, Sandi," she said, "I mean, you're President, I'm Vice President, Stacy is Secretary and Tiffany is Treasurer and Head of the Accessories Committee, so it wouldn't be fair if Tori and Shauna weren't involved too."

"Gee, Quinn," Sandi said, "since you're so full of ideas, why don't you be President?"

"Don't be silly, Sandi," she said, "I could never be as good a president as you! But it has been proven that a needless workload is not good for the skin. Besides, they want to help-"

"Not what I said."

"-so why not let them?"

Sandi opened her mouth to retort, but as quick as she was, Stacy was quicker. Quinn didn't need to react; she knew she had her, and that knowledge made it that much easier to ignore Tori's little jabs.

"OMG, yes! Sandi, they could be the Accessories Committee! I mean, if Tiffany is okay with it," she finished, laughing nervously.

Quinn kept the surprise from her face, though Tori and Shauna certainly didn't. It was a good suggestion, but she'd been working to get Sandi to broach the idea and thus end the argument before it started. It wasn't that the committee was anything more than an idea, either, as Quinn had no idea what it was supposed to stand for, and she could see the wheels moving in Sandi's eyes. Giving them a job kept them busy and let Sandi keep tabs on their progress, and if they were busy, they would have less time to plot any kind of coup. Not one to be left out of a conversation for long, Tori spoke up.

"I'm lost here," she said.

"Well, it.."

“Stacy!” Sandi said, cutting her off, “I think that’s something we should discuss as a club before we start throwing out nominations.”

There was a certain lowering of the temperature at the table, Quinn felt, and while Stacy murmured apologies, Tiffany piped up.

“Buuut... we are discussing it...”

Quinn debated saying something, but thought better of it; too much involvement now could tip things entirely the wrong way, and that could spell disaster. Granted, she did like seeing Sandi step in it , but still; bigger issues here. Tori frowned, crossing her arms, while Stacy, sensing conflict, hid behind her notebook. Tiffany was Tiffany, and as unreadable as ever.

“Yeah,” Shauna said, scoffing, “we’re members too. Don’t we get a say?”

“Well, I...”

“What? We’re not good enough?”

“That is not what I meant,” Sandi said, backpedalling quickly, “I just don’t want to pile too much on right here at the start.”

“But that’s not what you said,” Tori said, quirking an eyebrow. “You said ‘discuss it as a club’, right?”

“That’s what I heard,” Shauna said.

“Well, that’s what I meant.”

“How considerate of you,” Tori said, blandly.

Shauna simply set her mouth and met the glare head on.

“It is bad for the skin,” Quinn reminded them, “and members don’t let members stress about the little things. It’s in our bylaws.”

It probably wasn’t, and, in fact, Quinn was convinced that Sandi made up most of the laws and bylaws on the spot to suit her mood, but it was authentic sounding and it effectively derailed them. Three sets of eyes turned questioning glares at her, but she simply smiled sweetly, hands balled into fists in her lap. Floundering for a moment, Sandi rallied like a champ, and Quinn remarked how strange it was to see her on the back foot.

“Well,” she said, “since the topic has been raised-“

That last was said with a glare for Stacy, who laughed nervously and tried ineffectually to back away. Quinn did not flinch, but she did have to force her hands to relax.

“-the Accessories Committee is responsible for reviewing and identifying trends,” Sandi said, switching to a scholarly tone, “to spot winning combinations that could make or break an outfit.”

“Sure,” Tori said, shrugging, “we can do that.”

------------------------------------

“I miss anything?”

“Hmm?”

Kirsten looked around, a paprika potato chip halfway to her mouth, and shook her head, grinning as Jace slid into the seat beside her. The young Lane wasn’t someone she would ever have envisioned herself hanging out with when she first met him, but he could be funny when he put his mind to it, and watching him blunder through argument after argument was just too funny to pass up. Scooching over to give him space, she returned her attention to the little tableau at the popular table.

“Nothing much,” she said, “just the rise and fall of civilization, you know? All of that.”

“Ha ha,” he said, drily.

“When the hell did you blow back in?”

He shrugged, counting on his fingers. Shaking her head again, she popped the chip into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully; as if she didn’t know. Maybe General Li had finally found away to wash the paint off, though Kirsten suspected she’d never get rid of the smell.

“Yeah, today, and I got the whole spiel.”

“Bully for you.”

He shrugged, pulling out a sketchbook and a pencil. She glanced at him again, aware that something was bothering him, and scoffed another chip. With a certain amount of care that he showed in no other area of his life, he began sketching, and Kirsten resisted the urge to roll her eyes.

“Good weekend?”

“Not much happened,” he said, rolling his eyes.

“Jacking it, eh? You wanna be careful there; sudden blindness isn’t great for the old art, I hear.”

“Ha.”

“Seriously, though,” she said, noting the shape the sketch was taking, “keep that up and she’ll castrate you.”

Jace, of course, ignored her, stretching out in his seat in the most annoying way possible. Just for that, Kirsten prepared to spray crumbs all over his wonderful sketch. Spotting her intent, Jace leapt back protectively, holding his pencil out like a talisman.

“Do not,” he said, “please.”

“Fine! Geez, spoilsport...”

He sighed, turning to look at her. It was an old game, but it was a good one, so they kept playing. She’d always found it hilarious that he had a crush on someone, because, try as she might, she simply could not imagine him pining, or longing. She imagined him, at most, fervently wishing destruction on something. He was very like his sister in that regard. Well, except that Jane was better looking and seemed to have real friends.

“Fine, fine,” he said, “how was your weekend, then?”

“Oh, a bit of a mixed bag.”

“You met her then? How’d that go?”

“Not too bad, and then very bad.”

He grinned, adding some slight shading to the hair, while the conversation across the way finally settled down.

“Told ya so.”

“Shut up.”

----------------------------

When she first attended Fielding, Erin had mixed feelings about the school and its policies. On the one hand, she was against everything her grandmother approved of on general principle, and Grandmother Barksdale was very pro Fielding and pro prep school traditions, which meant that Erin was very anti that. Still, as she danced back and forth across her half of the tennis court, mind focused on the arc of the ball as Daphne sent it back her way, she was glad that Fielding had forced her to get involved with sports. She enjoyed the activity, she found it centred her wonderfully, and it mystified her grandmother, who felt that ordering drinks was the height of physical exertion. More than that, though; it was hers. It wasn’t a family tradition, it wasn’t a dream of her mother’s or her grandmother’s, it was her choice and her skill, and she damned well owned it. She looked damned good in her outfit too, but that was beside the point.

Reaching the shot easily, she volleyed it back to Daphne’s court, but her friend reached it easily and backhanded the shot back at her. The pace was frantic, but Erin didn’t mind, and in fact, she found that the harder it was, the better it felt. With her muscles moving and her mind in the moment, it was easier to think; easier to know what she wanted, and she needed that clarity after that party. It was easy to write off Elsie as just being contrary, and she was, most of the time, but she did have a point. Yes, this was a serious situation, and yes, there were going to be consequences, but how could she not see what this meant to her? Maybe she could, but knowing and understanding, as someone had once put it, were two different things.

Batting the ball back at Daphne, she steadied her breathing as they settled into a steady back and forth; if she let herself get worked up, she’d miss it. She was not going to give her friend the satisfaction. She’d always wondered about her father; her mother never talked about him, and she wouldn’t dare bring it up with her grandmother, but she knew that something had to have happened to create this state of affairs. Over time, she just accepted that this was the way things were; that her mother would just run from relationship to relationship, while she was left to carry the weight of her grandmother’s expectations. Perhaps that was unfair, but being shipped off to every proper camp under the sun when she wasn’t being shipped away to prep school or trotted out for some social occasion made her feel like a prize pony. That wasn’t to say that she wasn’t loved, far from it; her mother was always happy to see her and full of praise, but it hardly made up for things, and every call and visit left her wanting.

Now, though, now she had a different problem, and she was torn between being angry and overjoyed. Her father wasn’t just some idea now, not just some dream, he was real, and he was so close. More than that, and this was the real kicker for her, he had been that close her entire life, and nobody was going to tell her. She remembered finding the pictures, hearing the arguments, and then, and she hadn’t told Elsie this, finding the documents. She hadn’t been meant to see them, she was sure of it, and it was only part of the story, but it said enough. Her mother had known, for how long, she wasn’t sure, but her mother had known. Known, and kept it from her. Was she ever going to have been told? By the way, sweetie, your dad and your brother live just over there. Surprise! She’d wanted a steady family for as long as she could remember, but now it felt like the only constant in her life was that lie, and that made her blood boil. She’d managed to avoid the subject with her mother, because, frankly, she was at a loss about what to say, but she knew she would need to eventually.

She looked to Daphne, watching her friend moved with increasing strain as she tried to counter Erin’s shots. A father and a brother, she thought; what would that have been like? She wasn’t naïve enough to think that it would have been all sunshine and roses, but still she wondered. Would they have been happy? Would they have been allies? Enemies? Would she quarrel incessantly with them the way Elsie did with Tom? Did they know of her the way she knew of them? Did they long for the same… the same real connection that she did? Would they even care? She’d come so close to knocking on their door, and being out in Lawndale, hoping to see them, fearing to see them, and almost bumping into him at that ridiculous party… It was all too much, and she’d barely been able to sit still all weekend for thinking, but she couldn’t go back to sleep; not now. Daphne returned the shot, but over extended herself, and Erin moved in, smashing the ball past her for the match, and leaving her friend gasping and grinning sheepishly just as the whistle blew for time.

“I almost had you, there,” she said, wagging a finger. “You’re losing your touch, Erin.”

“As if,” Erin said, waving dismissively. “You’ll have to get up earlier than that to get one up on me.”

“I’m up early enough,” Daphne said, somewhat begrudgingly.

Erin had to laugh at that one, knowing Daphne’s well-advertised distaste for early starts, or indeed, the very concept of there being more than one seven o clock in a day, but it was a fond laugh, because she liked Daphne. Well, that was putting it mildly, Daphne was her oldest friend, and while they disagreed on certain things, she could never stay mad at her for any length of time. How could she? They had too much history together.

“Awww! Who’s cranky after her nap?”

“I’m not cranky,” Daphne responded, crossing her arms, “but I might complain to customer service.”

“Who would that even be?”

“At the moment? You, Nat and Evie.”

Shaking her head at that, Erin stretched and lead the way to the changing rooms. Natalie and Evangeline made up the other half of their little quartet, and were equally responsible for securing her sanity in the otherwise unbearable world of upper crust nonsense. They’d come from the same place, more or less, and had the same issues, sort of, and even if Elsie despised them, Erin wouldn’t have traded them for the world. Yes, they were a little obsessed with the popular scene, but she didn’t mind; they were popular enough to get invited to the fun parties, but not popular enough to be political, which was a damned good balance. Hell, without them she would have fallen apart before her first week was out, and she’d never have worked up the nerve to ask Tom out, because waiting for him to ask her out was like waiting for the sun to give out. It made it that much harder to keep a secret from them, but she had to, at least until everything was perfect. They meant well, but they saw things differently, and until then, Elsie was a safer option.

Showering and changing in the age-old Fielding tradition of bitter, grudging silence, she tried not to think about how little of the astronomically high fees paid to the school went towards the upkeep of the actual facilities. It went without saying that old money didn’t get old by getting spent, but surely what they saved in maintenance, they lost in repairs. The parts on display, of course, like the quad and the core buildings, were pristine, but look too closely and you could see the cracks. There was a comment there on the whole culture, she felt, but she was far too showered to consider it. Of course, it wasn’t only rising and tennis that she did better than her friend, so she had finished, towelled off, dressed and was brushing her hair vacantly when Daphne found her again, and she narrowed her eyes at the mischievous grin on Daphne’s face.

“So,” she said, in a kind of sing-song, “how was your weekend?”

The downside, of course, of having friends that dabbled in popularity, was that news travelled very quickly in those circles, but in this case she doubted it. Daphne had a lousy poker face at the best of times, and while she could easily have been fishing for information, the glint in her eyes was knowing. Erin considered playing it cool, but realised that her pause would have been taken as evidence of guilt, which would only make things worse. So, Daphne knew something, but the real question was; how much? Finishing her hair, she shrugged.

“Same old, same old,” she said, “yours?”

“Oh dreadfully boring,” Daphne said, “until a little birdie flew into Lawndale with another, very boring, bird, whose name rhyme’s with Chelsea. Imagine that?”

Shrugging again, Erin picked up her bag, waiting for Daphne to finish getting ready.

“Who told you?”

“Never you mind.”

“I really think I should.”

Of course, she should have known something was up. The weather was good, classes hadn’t been too taxing, nobody was being an intolerable, overbearing lummox, and she had a whole free period ahead of her, ostensibly for study. Yes, it was all clear now; the world was out to get her. Why else would Daphne be asking about that now? As if to compound those suspicions, Daphne breezed past her concerns like they were nothing.

“Nope,” Daphne said, “nope, nope, nope. You shall tell me what drove you to the wilds of Lawndale, of all places, without telling your good friends, and thoroughly unburdened by Tom, and then I shall decide whether to forgive you or impose sanctions.”

A number of trite responses crossed Erin’s mind in response to that one, but she pushed them away. Daphne was not like Elsie, she reminded herself, and those kinds of comments could go down the wrong way, and secondly, she had just handed her an out from her dilemma. That had to be worth a little leniency in the short term, hadn’t it?

“I thought you were going to stop doing that?”

“Pointing out that Tom is barely worth your time? No, why would I want to do that?”

“Because I like him, and because I asked you to,” Erin said, standing suddenly. “We’ve had this talk.”

“And you’re not changing the subject.”

Damn, Erin thought; it had been such a valiant effort too.

“Why? Can’t I feel like a change of scenery?”

“Not when you’re clearly trying to hide it from us, and when you bring Elsie, dull as dishwater, Sloane, but not your boyfriend…well it begs the question.”

It was times like this she wished that her mother had trained her better in the art of making things up on the spot, but now she was here, and not having thought this far ahead, she opted for annoying vagueness in the hopes that it would serve her where imagination had failed. Daphne was more creative that way, than she was, so maybe her imagination would do the work?

“What question? Maybe I wanted to see how the other half lived? Get some ideas? You’re always saying that I should broaden my horizons.”

Daphne’s grin grew almost indecent at the thought, and she stood to follow Erin out into the sunshine, mixing with the rest of the girls, but keeping her voice low enough to avoid attention.

“So, were your… horizons… broadened?”

Erin paused long enough to build interest, making a non-committal gesture with her free hand. By those creeps, she wanted to say, but couldn’t for fear of giving away too much. Skylar wasn’t bad looking, of course, and he had his moments, but bragging seemed to be his only real skill, and that got old when one was talking to a Fielding Legacy. She got enough of that from the Lax boys to last a lifetime. Once that was dealt with, and the jokes were done, he really had nothing, and neither did his friend, but there had been a stroke of luck too, so now she had something solid to think about.

“A little,” she said, truthfully, “but not nearly enough.”

“Really?”

She had to laugh at Daphne’s suggestive tone, putting a hand to her mouth.

“Seriously though,” she said, “I just wanted to try something different, you know? Tom isn’t big on change, and I wanted to get a few ideas-“

“-without him being a complete downer about it?”

“No…yes… I don’t know.”

She wasn’t sure if Daphne was buying any of it, but it seemed plausible enough, and she decided to drive the point home, smiling hopefully.

“Actually, I was sort of hoping you could help me change up my look a bit,” she said.

“Tres Edgy,” Daphne said, blithely, “but it could be fun. Nat’ll love it.”

“What? What will Nat love?”

They both turned to see the girl herself, grinning and her expression all eager curiosity. Where Daphne was on the shorter side of average, and a little curvy, Natasha was tall, svelte and blonde in contrast to Daphne’s darker locks. There the differences more or less ended though, and as they exchanged greetings, Daphne clapped her hands together, looking coy.

“Well,” she said, “Erin would like our help. Desperately.”

This time, Erin did not need to act scandalised, as it was all genuine. The other two simply laughed, but she was not going to be brow beaten here.

“I am not desperate,” she said.

Nat shrugged.

“Scoping Lawndale for talent? I beg to differ.”

It took a moment for Erin’s mental sunrise to happen with that one, but when it did, her reaction was swift.

“How do you know?”

“Small school.”

“Intuition.”

She looked from one to the other, crossing her arms.

“You snuck out too, didn’t you?”

“Whaaat? Us?”

“No!”

Erin threw her hands up, wondering how she could have missed that one, and did her best to glare at their matching expressions of faux innocence. That only made things worse though, and she gave up when Daphne started giggling.

“Still,” Nat said, “the alternative look would draw the eye around here.”

“Naturally,” Daphne said, nodding sagely, “the right amount of danger without going overboard.”

“Hang on,” Erin said, aware that the conversation was getting away from her, “can we just circle back to where you two were stalking me?”

“Oh, not just us,” Nat supplied, helpfully, “though that’s an exaggeration.”

“Look, the important thing,” Daphne said, “is that we all made it back unscathed, isn’t it?”

It didn’t really seem that way to Erin, but there was nothing to be done about it now, and Daphne and Nat’s enthusiasm was infectious, so she let it go, steering the conversation back to safer ground. By the time she managed to extricate herself from the rapidly evolving discussion of styles and colours, appointments of a sort had been made and things were in motion. It was frightening, in some ways, but in others, a relief. She would be doing a lot more of this, she knew, and she needed to commit. When she found Elsie in the library, her mind was made up, and she could tell by the look on Elsie’s face that she knew it too.

-------------------------

It wasn’t often that clients had him feeling nervous before an introduction, but this was a fairly unique situation, and he was honestly curious about it. Straightening his clothes, Jake took a calming breath,checked his watch one last time, and opened the doors, smiling politely. Across the waiting room, the patrolman looked up briefly, making eye contact with Jake, but returned his attention to the young man sitting there after a moment. Jake didn’t pause there, but he did pause, mentally at least, when he laid eyes on the young woman and young man waiting there.

Aside from a certain intensity of expression and a decidedly Aryan shade of blonde hair, Brian Taylor appeared unremarkable, but his step-mother, Ashley Amber, was a different matter. She had sounded young on the phone, but to see her, she could hardly be more than thirty, and the similarities between herself and Brian were too many not to be unsettling. She looked uncomfortable too, but being in a small room with a police officer would do that to a person. She looked up at the sound of the door opening, one hand clutching her cell-phone, and Jake met her gaze openly.

“Ms Taylor,” he said, “please, come in.”

After a moment, she gathered herself by tucking her phone away and stood, striding past Jake with a poise that spoke of long practise. Closing the door quietly, Jake watched as she crossed the room and followed at an easy pace. She paused by his desk, a hand half-reaching to touch it, before she remembered herself and turned back to look at him. He gestured to the couch, noting how her eyes strayed to take in all the details, and sat when she did.

“Thank you for coming,” he said, “I know this isn’t exactly convenient.”

“It's fine,” she said, “but I really don’t know how much help I can be.”

“That’s understandable,” Jake said, “but the important thing is that you’re here for Brian. Do you have any questions or concerns before we begin?”

“Will I need to be here for all of these?”

“I really can’t say,” Jake said, “if it is felt that there are details only you can provide, you may be asked to come in again. For now, I just want to focus on some basic details and get a general impression.”

“But what does that mean? You have the report; I just don’t see the... the need for all of this.”

“Well, yes,” Jake said, “but the whole point of this is to give a second, professional opinion. That's moot if I just take what's written there as gospel.”

That didn’t seem to do much to put her at ease, and Jake glanced down at his notes, clearing his throat. It was a difficult situation all around, which was putting it mildly, and he did need as much information as he could get. With Mr Taylor proving uncooperative, intentionally or otherwise, right now, Ashley-Amber was all he had to go on other than Brian himself.

“Again, this is just a very brief introduction,” he said, “to get a picture of Brian’s behaviour and decide whether and what ongoing treatment would help him most effectively.”

Jake knew that many institutions, and people, could be quick to cast blame, but his job was to help people, if they could be helped. He was a little proud of that, if he was honest, even if it wasn’t always a success. That did seem to settle her, but with how she held herself it was difficult to really say; on the one hand, nobody was happy to be in the situation she was in, so it was completely natural, but it could equally have been something more serious. In fact, it was the very reason for this interview, and however she presented herself, it was difficult to believe that she was not aware of that.

“I suppose we should start at the beginning, then” Jake said. “You’re Brian’s stepmother, is that correct? How long have you been a part of the family?”

“I am, yes,” she said, “I’ve been married to Steve for almost four years now.”

“Congratulations. Any plans to celebrate?”

“Not really,” she said, “usually we might take a week or so, you know? Keep it loose.”

“I know what you mean,” Jake said, “so, overall, do you feel things are going well?

“Well enough, I think,” she said, sounding a little confused, “I mean, nobody’s perfect, but we do okay.”

“Is there anything you feel isn’t going well?”

“This?”

“I suppose this would qualify, yes. But, I mean, in general?”

“Not really. I mean, Steve travels a lot, and the kids are pretty much grown, so there isn’t much to worry about.”

There was a certain edge to her expression that crept in whenever Steve Taylor was mentioned, Jake felt, deciding to venture a question.

“That’s for his job? Did it take much getting used to?”

She seemed to think about that one for a moment, fidgeting with her hands.

“A little, yeah,” she said, “but he calls often, you know? That helped.”

Jake noted the past tense, but said nothing, nodding to show he understood.

“Was that how you both met? Through work?”

“Er, yes, it is. Sorry, isn’t this in the file?”

“No, it wouldn’t have been key to the investigation.”

“Then why do you need to know?”

“Well, as I said; I need to get a picture of Brian’s home life. Knowing a few details about yourself and Mr Taylor, and how you all interact is very helpful.”

Making a short note, he settled back, a little surprised by her reluctance, and she shifted in her seat, not quite looking at him. There was something there, though he doubted it was as big as she felt it was, and he cleared his throat, deciding to change the subject and backtrack a little.

“Are you from Lawndale, yourself?”

Whatever she had been expecting to hear, that wasn’t it, and she fumbled a moment, before shaking her head.

“No. Oakwood, actually,” she said, mustering a cheerful chuckle, “born and bred.”

“Ah, the old enemy,” Jake said, with a smile to show he was being facetious, “or so I’m told. Do you cheer in secret, or fly your colours proudly?”

“In secret,” she said, “Brittany is head cheerleader for Lawndale High, so I have to look supportive, you know?”

“I do, and well. Sounds like she’s doing well there.”

“Yeah, she’s really good at it,” she said, with something sounding like actual enthusiasm, “but I try to help out where I can with routines and cheers.”

“Oh, you were a cheerleader too?”

“Lettered all four years!”

“You and Brittany must get along well then,” he said, “with so much in common.”

“We do now, but not always,” she said, straightening, “I do have to be mom from time to time too.”

He noted the unease that crept in at the end there, and smiled, leaning forwards.

“Kids can be frustrating like that,” he said; “everyone’s a friend until you say no. I can’t imagine it lasted for very long.”

“No, no,” Ashley Amber said, giggling, “I mean, Brittany has a temper, but she’s sweet and she’s never held a grudge like that.”

“And Brian?”

“Well, boys are different,” she said, “he just needs to blow off some steam and he’s fine.”

“Do you feel he’s doing well in school?”

She seemed to realise what she’d said almost as soon as it left her mouth, but she couldn’t exactly backtrack on it now, not that Jake had pressed on. It was curious to see the indecision playing across her face.

“He seems to be,” she said, “I mean, I don’t think he’s failing or anything.”

Noting the use of words, Jake nodded.

“Do you feel that he has many friends?”

“I don’t know. I think so? I mean, he has friends, but I don’t know that much about them.”

“Alright,” Jake said, “and how do you feel about this situation?”

“I think it’s silly,” she said, a little uncomfortably. “I mean, sure he’s a little wild, but boys do that, don’t they? I don’t understand what’s so bad?”

“Ms Taylor,” he said, “I’ve read the report, and what’s implied here is very serious, with serious long term implications for Brian. Has he ever done anything like this before to your knowledge?”

“No! I mean, I don’t think so,” she said, “he just runs off now and then is all.”

Jake nodded, though he was quite sceptical; what was described seemed too…steady to have been a first attempt, and at that age some signs were hard to hide. He could understand her surprise, and he didn’t envy her having to hear it, but it was vital that someone take this seriously. Fighting the system tooth and nail over that was an ongoing migraine for all involved, in his experience.

“This assessment is a court order,” Jake said, “not an optional decision, and Brian will need all of your love and support throughout this process. Right now, the best we can do is look at him, and his behaviour, honestly to determine the best course action for him. I’m not looking to cast blame; this doesn’t work like that, but I do need you to be as forthcoming as you can be, because as inconvenient as this is, omissions might hurt you, but will definitely hurt him.”

She was silent at that, and he leaned forwards, his expression sympathetic.

“Do you understand what I mean?”

Again, there was that sense of discomfort, and though she nodded, Jake remained slightly unconvinced. Nodding in return, he stood, hoping he was wrong about that.

“Thank you for your time, Ms Taylor,” he said. “I’ll talk to Brian now.”

Waiting for her to stand and follow him to the door, he let her exit ahead of her, looking over the other occupants of the waiting room in the process. The scene had changed little; the officer was still waiting, albeit jadedly, and Brian was where they had left him, legs kicking in the classic display of boredom. Jake had thought previously that Brian was unremarkable, and that was true, but looking with a more critical eye, he could see the thread of nervous energy that seemed to vibrate through him. It wasn’t unusual by any means, and he didn’t think much more of it, at least not until Brian caught sight of them, and that energy began to ramp up.

How he knew something was coming was difficult to pin down, but Brian looked first to him, then to Ashley-Amber, who seemed to tense at the unspoken communication, and Jake just knew. Perhaps Brian sensed that his stepmother was upset, or perhaps he had been planning this for the entire time he had been waiting; Jake was inclined to believe the latter. Brian’s face screwed up, his shoulders began to heave and he shook his head in a short, but surprisingly vehement motion.

“No! I’m not doing this! I won’t!”

“Brian...”

“Don’t do that! Don’t baby me!”

He stormed to his feet, focusing his ire on Ashley-Amber, and Jake signalled to the officer, who had taken a surreptitious step forward, to hold back for the moment.

“You promised.”

“This is unfair! Why do I have to do this?! Brittany does dumb stuff all the time and you do nothing!”

“This isn’t about-“

“Brian,” Jake said, stepping forwards, “I’m Jake. It’s good to see you.”

“AAAHHHH!” Brian yelled, stamping his foot and running past Jake. “AAAAAHHHH!”

The officer began to move again and Jake held up a hand to forestall him, moving to follow after Brian into the office at a more sedate pace, and shutting the door behind him. He wanted to reassure Ms Taylor, but Brian needed to be the focus of his attention right then.

“Brian,” he said, “what’s wrong?”

Keeping his hands up and out to signal for calm, he took another step forwards, watching the way Brian moved. He was casting about, clearly looking for something, and when Jake spoke, Brian picked up a small vase and threw it at him, still yelling. It missed, but the impact was enough to break it, and Jake let his hands fall slightly, raising an eyebrow.

“Why that one?”

“What?”
Jake nodded to the table behind Brian, where another three vases rested.

“You could have thrown any of them,” he said, “but you threw that one.”

“So?”

“So, I’m curious,” Jake said. “How do you feel?”

The initial rush gone, Brian was panting now, clearly confused, and Jake put a hand to his own chest, patting it for emphasis.

“What?”

“Anger is powerful stuff,” Jake said, “it feels good. When it goes though, it can drain you. How do you feel?”

“This is stupid,” Brian said, staring him down, “why do I have to do this?”

“Because people are worried about you, Brian. They’re worried about your behaviour.”

“They never cared before!”

“This is different, Brian,” Jake said, evenly, “and I think you know that.”

“How?”

“Well, you’ve never killed a neighbour’s pet before, have you?”

“That was an accident!”

“And you threatened a boy with a BB gun, according to the police.”

“That’s not how it happened,” Brian said, reaching for another vase.

“Brian, I’m on your side here, okay? Can we talk?”

Brian didn’t look at him, fidgetting and breathing hard, one hand on a vase.

“Brian, please? This is important.”

“This is dumb.”

“I thought it was stupid?”

“It’s that too.”

It was said with an edge, but he’d hit something there, he knew it, and after a moment, Brian turned back to face him, letting the vases live to see another day. Smiling as disarmingly as he could, Jake gestured to the couch, and after a tense moment, Brian relented, scowling his way into a seat. Jake followed suit, settling in and leaning forwards to keep the momentum going.

“Thank you,” he said. “You said it was an accident. Please, tell me what happened.”