Of Inhuman Bonding

by Kristen Bealer

o O o

"God forbid I should count on anyone!" Jake raged at no one in particular, furious that Helen had backed out of going to the Eatertainment Conference with him. "Little Jakey has to learn to be self-sufficient. It's weak to depend on other people!"

As Jake continued ranting, Quinn added another layer to the chorus of aggravating voices by passing through as she chattered away on the phone. Daria tried to tune them out by turning on Sick, Sad World, but it was no use. At last either sympathy or desperation-she wasn't completely sure which-won out and she made her decision. "Um, Dad," she began. "I'd-"

Jake stopped his weeping and looked at her in surprise. "Good point, Daria!" he exclaimed out of nowhere. "I'm not doing myself any favors just sitting here feeling sorry for myself. I need to go talk to Helen!"

With that, he got up and walked away, leaving Daria alone with her unspoken offer to go with him to the conference.

o O o

"Helen?"

Looking up from her file, Helen saw Jake approach her at the kitchen table with a nervous look. Bracing herself for a fresh outburst about her abandoning him in favor of work, she sighed. "Yes, Jake?"

He pulled out a chair and sat down next to her. "I get that the firm is important to you, but this conference is important to me. It would really mean a lot if you came along and supported me on this."

Helen was so shocked by his calm tone that she dropped the papers she was holding and they scattered across the table. "I understand, Jake, but-"

Jake held up a hand. "I'm not asking you to just drop everything," he assured her, "but don't you think we could find a way to make this work?"

Thinking his words over, Helen slowly nodded. "This must be important," she said. "I've never seen you so..." She stopped herself from saying "rational" just in time. "...serious."

Jake grinned. "I practiced in front of a mirror for half an hour!" Then he frowned. "Oh. Uh, I wasn't going to tell you that part."

She chuckled and leaned over to kiss him. "You did well, anyway." Pulling out her phone and dialing, she said, "I'll call Eric back and see if we can push the new hearing back a few days. I can't make any promises, but...Eric? It's Helen. Listen, is there-what? They decided to settle after all? That's excellent! I'm so glad to hear it. All right, see you next week." She hung up and frowned suspiciously at the phone. "And just how long were they planning on waiting before they told me that bit of news?"

"Who cares?" Jake whooped. "Does that mean you can go after all?"

Helen smiled. "It does."

Daria had come into the kitchen for a soda just in time to hear the end of the conversation. She glanced over her shoulder at Quinn, who was babbling excitedly into the phone about manicures and supermodel reality shows. "I think I just missed out on the lesser of two evils."

o O o

"I love business class!" Jake said, eyes wide and staring as he sat next to Helen on the plane. "Complimentary cocktails, arm rests you can really get a grip on." He chuckled nervously. "We're all gonna die!" He held out his glass to the nearest flight attendant. "How about a refill here?"

"No more alcohol, Jake!" Helen snapped.

"But, Helen!" he whined.

"The last thing we need is you drunk on an airplane," she shot back, snatching the glass out of his hand and giving it to the flight attendant.

"Better than you drunk at a wedding reception," he muttered.

"What was that?!"

o O o

Daria was trying to watch TV, but Quinn kept blocking her view as she flitted about the living room setting out copious platters of reduced-fat carrot sticks. "You do realize that your friends are sleeping over for one night, not bunkering down for months?"

"I want this sleepover to be perfect, Daria!" Quinn insisted, straightening and then re-straightening a couch cushion.

"Then you need a new guest list."

Quinn stopped and glared at Daria. "Or just one less gate-crasher."

"Reminder: contrary to what you've told everyone at school, I live here."

"So do I." Quinn crossed her arms. "And I'm not making you stay here while my friends come over, you know."

Daria remembered Jane saying something very similar the day before: "It's a big, wide world out there."

Before Daria could reply, Quinn continued, "Anyway, just because your friend got a boyfriend and blew you off is no reason to mope around the house ruining my time with my friends."

Daria's comeback abruptly died at those words. Anger welled up, and she could hear her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. She told herself it was because of Quinn's insult and not the truth behind it. "Actually," she said evenly and without a trace of the bitterness she felt, "I was just thinking it was time to expand my circle of friends. And what better opportunity than a sleepover to do it?"

All of the color fled from Quinn's face. "You wouldn't."

"Oh, yes I would."

With a frustrated growl, Quinn reached into her pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. "How much?"

The idea of forcing a hefty bribe was tempting, but Daria's temper overpowered her greed. I refuse to give Quinn the satisfaction. "No deal."

The sisters glared at each other until the sound of the doorbell broke the silence.

o O o

"So one embarrassing incident just cancels out every single one of your many, many drunken rants?" Helen demanded. Her indignation at Jake's veiled insult, combined with the memory of her anger at Erin's wedding, had driven the fact that they were in a public place from her thoughts.

"And I suppose you've been keeping track of all of them," Jake complained, pounding his fist on the armrest, "just so you can throw them in my face!"

"I'm not the one who clings to grudges like a worn-out teddy bear!"

"Of course not! You're too busy burying yourself under a pile of work so you never have to pay attention to your family!"

A man in a business suit sitting across the aisle tugged on the flight attendant's sleeve. "Can I please change seats?" he asked. "Next to that screaming baby would be fine."

The flight attendant smiled apologetically at him. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. However, we'll be preparing to land in just a few minutes."

Jake, hearing that, snapped out of the argument. "We will?" He grinned. "Hey, I was so distracted I forgot to feel nervous!"

Helen, relieved that their fight had been interrupted, just smiled. "That's my brave Jakey!"

"Yeah!" Jake winked seductively at his wife and quietly said, "So, do you think a few minutes is enough time to join the Mile High Club?"

o O o

The sound of giggling and gossiping was audible throughout the entire house, but reached almost ear-shattering levels as Daria passed Quinn's room on the way to her own. Just as she walked by Quinn's open door, she heard Sandi call out, "Quinn's live-in maid or whatever? Could you come in here?"

She almost ignored the summons, but noticed the look of terror on Quinn's face and immediately changed course to enter. "I think you mean parole officer."

"What?" Sandi looked confused, but also a little curious.

"She's just kidding!" Quinn stepped in. "And she was also just passing by."

"Oh, but Quinn," Sandi replied, her voice dripping with mock sweetness, "I'm sure she wouldn't want to miss her chance for a makeover!" Turning to Daria, she added, "And that would give us lots of time to chat, wouldn't it?"

Daria almost turned and left on the spot, grudge against Quinn be damned. After a moment's thought, though, she came up with a better plan. "Unfortunately, I'm clearly a lost cause."

Stacy and Tiffany just nodded their agreement. Quinn, unsure of where Daria was going with this, kept still and waited.

"Instead, it might be a good idea for me to see your skills in action. You could practice on someone who desperately needs improvement." Daria looked from face to face, looking for the easiest victim. "Someone like...Stacy."

"Me?" Stacy squeaked. "But I don't need a makeover!" She looked at everyone pleadingly. "Do I?"

"Yes," answered both Daria and Sandi at the same time.

Sandi immediately got to work on Stacy with some foundation while Quinn and Tiffany stood by, ready to pass her a mascara wand or tube of lip gloss at a moment's notice. "So," Sandi said as she frowned at a tiny freckle on Stacy's nose, "tell us more about your, ahem, relationship with Quinn."

"As our live-in maid!" Quinn added quickly.

"Sure," Daria said. "You wouldn't believe the variety of messes Quinn is capable of making around here. You should see the bathroom in the morning after she finishes her hour-long daily transformation from sleep-deprived zombie to fashionable zombie."

"An hour?" Sandi asked in amusement. "It really takes her that long?"

"Hey!" Quinn said angrily.

Daria looked at Sandi's annoyingly smug expression and decided that there was no reason why Quinn should get all of her attention. "Please, Sandi," she said, "tell us how long you take each morning."

Sandi hesitated, eyebrow pencil hovering in front of Stacy's face. As Daria had predicted, she was uneasy about putting forward a time frame that might be seen as either too long or too short. "Exactly as long as I need to," she finally said.

"So you need to spend time and effort on your appearance?" Daria persisted, eyebrow raised.

"I-that is, um..."

"Duhhhhh," Tiffany interjected. Every head turned to look at her. "If we didn't, then we wouldn't look cute."

Glad for the interruption, Sandi let out a sigh of relief. "Thank you, Tiffany."

"...espeeeecially Saaaandi."

Sandi gritted her teeth. "Thank you, Tiffany."

o O o

"What do you mean, you don't have it?" Jake demanded at the hotel check-in desk. "One room, king-sized bed. Morgendorffer. 'M' as in-"

"I've got this, Jake," Helen said, stepping forward and gently guiding Jake to the side. "Excuse me," she said to the clerk. "This is the Gold Crown Hotel, correct?"

"That's right."

"The same Gold Crown Hotel that was sued last year in that bed bug scandal?" Helen made no attempt to lower her voice, which carried throughout the lobby and began to attract attention.

The clerk blinked nervously. "Um, that was-we were-I should-"

Helen narrowed her eyes. "Perhaps you would consider checking your records just one more time."

Nodding, the clerk frantically tapped keys on his computer. "Oh, we just had a cancellation in one of the penthouse suites. Would that be acceptable?"

Helen smiled. "More than."

"Jake?" The Morgendorffers turned to see Andrew and Michele Landon approach the front desk. "Jake and Helen Morgendorffer! How you doing, big guy?"

As Jake and Andrew shook hands, Helen turned to Michele. "Lovely to see you again, Michele. I'm so glad you could make it!"

"Why should it be a surprise that I'm here?" Michele demanded.

Helen could already feel the usual Michele-induced headache approaching. The muscles in her neck tensed as she braced for another no-win confrontation. "Not a surprise at all! Just...very nice to see you."

"Hmm." Michele, not seeing an immediate reason to be offended, simply nodded a greeting.

"Mr. and Mrs. Morgendorffer?" the clerk asked, holding out a key card. "You'll be in the tower, penthouse 'B.'"

"Hey, right next to us!" Andrew said cheerfully. "Guess we'll be seeing you around, then."

"How wonderful," Helen said, almost managing to not sound sarcastic.

o O o

"So...how do I look?" Stacy was wearing eyeshadow so thick it appeared to be weighing her eyelids down, a shade of lipstick usually accompanied by fishnets and leather bustiers, and enough blush to make her look extremely embarrassed. Then again, thought Daria, that might not be the blush.

"You look fantastic!" Quinn exclaimed without sincerity, unwilling to either criticize Sandi's work or upset Stacy.

"Definitely a massive improvement," Sandi added.

"Wowwwww," Tiffany said without inflection.

"'Wow' is right," Daria replied. "Because, congratulations! You could not look more ridiculous if you tried."

Stacy's face fell, although it was hard to tell through the make-up. A few tears slipped out, smearing her mascara in thick, dark lines down her cheeks.

"I stand corrected."

"Okay, so that was fun but I think we should do something else for a while what does everyone else think?" Quinn's words tumbled out in a desperate attempt to change the subject.

"The only thing I want to do," Daria said, "is watch TV."

Quinn smiled and she waved her sister toward the door. "Sounds good, have fun!"

"An excellent suggestion!" Sandi said, standing up and darting a crafty smile in Quinn's direction. "Let's all go watch television together. Before They Were Supermodels is on tonight and-"

"-no way," Daria cut in. "I can't stop you from watching TV with me, but I get to decide what we watch."

"But-" Stacy started to argue as everyone headed out of Quinn's room.

"Hey, I had to sit here and watch Sandi turn you into the love child of a crack whore and a circus clown, so now it's my turn." She turned around on her way down the stairs to punctuate her statement with a glare.

"Sorry!" Stacy squeaked. "So...what do you want to watch?"

Reaching the living room, Daria picked up the remote and pressed the power button. "What do you use when your squirt gun fight needs some extra oomph?" the TV blared. "The shotgun wetting, next on Sick, Sad World!"

"Hmm. I suspect that joke would probably make more sense in print than in a visual medium," Daria said as the other girls looked warily at each other but sat down anyway.

o O o

I don't know, Jake," Andrew was saying at the reception. "Most of the companies here look a little on the small fry side for me, but there's no reason why you shouldn't drum up some business!"

Helen, insulted on Jake's behalf by the blatant insult, bit back her response; Michele was listening to her every word.

"Oh, look, Terry Perry Barlow!" Andrew said, pointing to a sleazy-looking man who'd just entered.

As Jake and Andrew continued to discuss Barlow, Helen turned back to Michele. "How are your children doing? Evan must be getting so big!"

"We're at a business convention and all you want to talk about is my children?" Michele asked, glaring.

"Er," Helen backtracked quickly. "Would you like to share some stories from your time at US World?"

Michele snorted. "Don't bother trying to pretend you're interested."

"Andrew Landon!" Terry Perry Barlow said, approaching the group. "How the hell are you?"

"Doubling my net worth every six months."

"If ya done it, it ain't bragging!"

Still laughing, Andrew said, "Well, look who I'm talking to. Have you met my wife, Michele?"

Wearing a thin but professional smile, Michele said, "Former Senior VP at US World."

"Impressive!" Barlow said. "Who you with now?"

Seeing Michele bristle, Helen impulsively cut in, "In fact, Michele was just telling me about some of her work during her time there, weren't you?"

A flicker of surprise appeared on Michele's face before she quickly replied, "Yes, as I was about to tell Helen, one of my proudest moments was developing the strategic plan that ultimately increased US World's profits by fifteen percent."

"Nice!" Barlow replied, eyebrows raised in admiration. Michele just smiled.

Jake, who had been trying for several minutes to get a word in, finally saw his chance. "And this is my wife, Helen!"

Helen shook Barlow's hand. "Corporate lawyer at Vitale, Horowitz, Riordan, Schrecter, Schrecter, and Schrecter."

"Lawyer?" Barlow snorted. "You mean bloodsucker. I've been on the wrong end of more than my share of you legal types. All you want to do is make it more complicated for honest businessmen like me to make a buck!" He turned back to Andrew, and the two men resumed congratulating each other on their successes.

"What a jerk," Helen said in a low voice, then braced herself for Michele's defensive reply to her comment.

"No kidding."

Almost dizzy with shock, Helen felt as if a giant invisible hand had released her and she could breathe again. She took a few steps away from the men so she'd be out of earshot, and Michele followed. "I'm amazed he has time to eat or sleep with his heavy schedule of boasting."

"Why would he need to eat?" Michele asked, a rare smile appearing on her face. "He's so full of himself, he couldn't possibly eat another bite!"

"Good point. I'll bet that frees up all kinds of time for him to belittle other people."

"Only if he can find the strength to pull himself away from the mirror every morning."

Helen almost giggled, feeling the joy of meeting a kindred spirit. "And I can't remember the last time I met anyone so undeservedly arrogant."

"I can," Michele said with a snort. "Linda Griffin."

"Yes!" Helen practically shouted, resisting the urge to jump up and down. "I can't stand her!"

Michele looked at Helen as if she'd never really seen her before. "You, too? She was gunning for my spot on the board of the Lawndale Businesswoman's Alliance for years. If I hadn't had to step down when I left US World, she'd never have slithered in." She glared. "Not as long as I had anything to say about it."

Helen was almost ready to hug Michele, and settled for linking arms with her. "Come on, let's head over to the bar. We have a lot to discuss."

o O o

"Ewwwwwww!" The combined chorus of all four members of the Fashion Club was so shrill, Daria was pretty sure there were dogs cowering for miles around.

"Well, what did you think Sick, Sad World was talking about when they mentioned fashion victims?" Daria asked. "It was a segment on a knitting needle-wielding serial killer!"

The episode ended, to the relief of eighty percent of the people in the room. Daria hit the "off" button on the remote.

"Shall we head back to my room and listen to the new Boyz R Guyz album?" Quinn asked. "Daria, I know that's not really your style, so feel free to stay here."

"But Quinn," Sandi said, "there's a perfectly good stereo system right here in the living room."

"That's true, Sandi," Quinn said through a smile and gritted teeth, "but my CDs are upstairs!"

"That's no problem," Sandi said. "Stacy, why don't you just run up and get them for us?"

"Me? But I don't know where-"

"Staaaacy!"

"Be right back!"

"I don't remember agreeing to listen to shallow marketing gimmicks pretending to be musicians." Daria crossed her arms.

"I totally agree, Daria!" Quinn said. "You'd probably be much happier in your room. Alone. As usual." As soon as she said the last part, it was obvious that Quinn regretted it. But it was too late.

Daria felt warm all over. The comment stung even harder than the earlier one because Quinn was insulting her in front of others. "Oh, I'll be happy to stick around here," she said icily. "I was only suggesting that we think of something more enjoyable to do. Like getting stabbed to death with knitting needles."

Tiffany finally looked up from her nails. "Ewwww."

Stacy was coming back downstairs with her hands full of CDs. "But you got to pick the last thing we did!" she protested.

"Only because I'd just wasted the better part of an hour watching your transformation into a funhouse mirror version of Tammy Faye Bakker."

Stacy winced and put the CDs on a coffee table. Quinn picked one up and began putting it into the CD player. "You're welcome to leave any time," she reminded Daria.

Daria's reply was cut short by the...music...that suddenly emerged from the speakers. Autotuned voices accompanied by a synthesizer crooned, "Baby, oh baby, oh, oh, ohhhh! You're Juliet to my Romeooo!"

"So is this song going to end with a murder-suicide pact?" Daria asked.

All four Fashion Club members turned her way. "Shhhh!"

Daria smiled and crossed her arms. "Nope."

o O o

"...and no one told her! She did the entire interview with a giant hunk of spinach wedged between her teeth!"

Helen was almost bent over with laughter. "I can't imagine why she's never mentioned that part of her precious Rosalynn Carter interview!"

"You'll have to ask her about it next time she brings it up."

"But, Michele," Helen asked in mock concern. "What if she doesn't bring the subject up again?"

The women watched each other, lips quivering, as they waited to see which would break first. They had to declare a tie when they both started laughing at the same time.

"Can we break up the gossiping for a moment?" Terry Perry Barlow interrupted, oozing his way into the conversation like the unwanted snake he was.

Michele's good mood vanished instantly. "And just what do you mean by-"

"Ha, ha!" Andrew, trailing as always in Barlow's wake, laughed loudly to cover up his wife's response. Quietly into her ear, he said, "Not now! I'm working an angle and the last thing I need is you screwing the whole thing up!"

"So I'm just supposed to bite my tongue and play the submissive wife?" she shot back.

"It's better than playing the nagging harpy like you usually do!"

The Landons were keeping their voices down, but Helen could still hear them plainly. She exchanged a knowing look with Jake, who had finally caught up with the others.

Thank God we're never that bad, Helen thought.

I wonder if they have any more of those cheddar cheese biscotti things, Jake thought.

o O o

"So baby I'm begging, please come back! Without you my life is out of whack!" The last song on the CD finally ended, leaving four girls feeling lovestruck and one feeling pure relief.

"But in the previous song they were complaining that she wasn't treating him right," Daria pointed out. "They need to make up their minds about this girlfriend they're all apparently sharing."

"But it's so...so...romantic," Stacy breathed, gazing at the CD player with adoration.

"Yes, there's nothing more romantic than talentless pretty boys selected through focus groups to croon generic song lyrics marketed to brainless teenage girls."

"Who should we listen to next?" Quinn asked, ignoring her. "I've got The Backyard Boys here, or we could put on Boys from the Street. Unless you'd rather hear Boys in Suits?"

"It's my turn to pick the music," Daria said. "I'll be right back." She went up to her room and returned with a CD in her hand. Gingerly taking the Boyz R Guyz out of the player with two fingers, she set it aside with undisguised disdain and replaced it with her own.

"This isn't going to be something...weird, is it?" Quinn asked with concern.

"It's a boy band. Of sorts." Daria tossed the empty CD case to her sister, and the Fashion Club gathered around curiously.

"Oh, they're kind of cute!" Stacy exclaimed. "At least that one is. And that one."

"Yeahhhh," Tiffany agreed.

"Hmm." Sandi appraised the photograph and finally nodded. "Their fashion choices are questionable, but I declare them just attractive enough for us to listen to."

Daria had already hit the "play" button and the music began. "As lashes close, I see my woes spread out like a carpet of bugs. In absence of light pass visions of night and shallow graves left halfway dug."

"Ewwww," Tiffany said, wrinkling her nose.

"What is this?" Sandi demanded. "It sounds like...ugh...grunge!"

"With a name like Mystik Spiral," Daria said, rolling her eyes, "what did you expect?"

Stacy, still holding the CD case, stared sadly down at the photo of the band on it. "But...so pretty..." she whimpered.

"I'll be sure to pass that message along," Daria told her. "It'll probably horrify them."

The phone rang. "No one answer it," Quinn ordered. "We're supposed to be unavailable. Yes, even you, Daria!"

The answering machine picked up, and soon a boy began to speak. "Hi, Quinn, it's Scott. We were hoping to see you at Ricky's but you're not here. Hope everything's okay!" In the background Quinn's fan club could be heard interjecting their own comments, but the Fashion Club had stopped paying attention.

"Why is Scott calling you?" Sandi demanded. "I thought he liked me."

"I find that hard to believe," Daria said.

"Ricky's having a party?" Stacy said, close to tears. "I can't believe he didn't invite me. I thought he thought I was cute!"

"Yes, I've heard that uncontrollable mood swings and codependence are real turn-ons," Daria said. After a moment's thought, she added, "Just ask my parents."

Sandi forgot all about Scott as her head whipped around to look at Daria. "Your parents?" she asked eagerly. "Tell us more!"

"No!" Quinn was unplugging the phone. "I mean, that's boring. We should definitely talk about something else." The last word was hissed threateningly in Daria's direction.

"Sure," Daria agreed with a malicious smirk in Sandi's direction. "Let's talk about Scott. And Ricky's party."

Stacy let out an anguished sob. "Why?" she beseeched the ceiling. "Why didn't they invite me?"

"It's not really a party, Stacy!" Quinn said, exasperated.

Daria nodded. "Yeah. It's not a party until the bitchy mean girls and the basket case show up."

"Shut UP!" Stacy screamed at her.

In the silence that followed, even Tiffany was paying attention.

Red-faced and panting, Stacy pointed a shaking finger at Quinn, then at Sandi, and finally at Daria. "Just shut your goddamn mouths for, like, five freaking seconds or I swear I will slap every single one of you!" Still seething, she looked at them all for a few more moments before lurching from her seat and running upstairs. Everyone jumped slightly at the sound of a door slamming.

"Soooo...can I still taaaaalk?" Tiffany asked.

o O o

"These conferences are dull as dirt," Barlow was telling Andrew. "Let's sneak off tomorrow morning for a spin in my balloon. We can be back in time for the keynote address!"

"Sure, we'd be glad to!" Andrew said immediately.

"Excuse me?" Michele snapped. "Since when do you get to make my decisions for me?"

"Now, don't be a killjoy," Andrew said with a chuckle.

"And don't you be a condescending jerk!"

"Dammit, Michele, Why do you always do this?"

Jake eyed the couple warily and leaned in to speak to Helen. "Honey? This could be a really good opportunity for me. Can we go? Please?"

Helen didn't like the idea of being trapped with Barlow in a small space with no escape, but she was also hesitant to get into a competing argument alongside the Landons. "If it really means that much to you..." she said reluctantly.

"It does!" Jake turned to Barlow. "We'll take you up on that balloon ride!"

Barlow looked at Jake and Helen, and then at the still-bickering Landons. "Eh, why the hell not? Meet me out front at 5:00 A.M."

"So much for relaxing by the pool," Helen sighed.

o O o

Quinn, Sandi, and Tiffany were huddled together, either expressing their concern about Stacy or-more likely-gossiping about her in whispers. Daria, having tired of messing with the other girls' heads, decided to spend the rest of the evening reading.

Daria crept warily past Quinn's door and opened her own to find Stacy standing in the middle of her room. Stacy whirled around to see Daria and squeaked nervously. "I got confused and ran into the wrong room," she admitted. "And then I was too embarrassed to come back out." Pulling herself up straight, she said, "I'll leave now, so you can find someone else to push around."

"I believe you're confusing me with Sandi," Daria said, stepping aside to let Stacy pass.

Stacy stopped and looked at her. "No, I'm not," she said matter-of-factly, with no trace of her usual fear. "You insult me like Sandi, you order me around like Sandi, and you look down your nose at me. Just. Like. Sandi." With that, she strode out of the room.

Daria watched her go, for once at a loss for a snarky comeback. Part of her wanted to drag Stacy back in and shake her until she took it back. The other part of her wanted to know why it bothered her so much to hear it. Finally she decided to try to ignore it entirely. I mean, seriously? She thinks I'm just like that self-centered, judgmental little bitch downstairs? I can't wait to see Jane's face when I tell her.

Thinking of Jane made her again remember Jane's "big, wide, world" comment. Although it had sounded like a joke at the time, Daria had noticed just a bit of an edge in Jane's voice. The same edge Jane always got when she was getting frustrated with her. Like when I gave her a hard time about going to Brittany's party. And blew off her being upset when Tommy Sherman died. And mocked her for trying to join the cheerleading squad. And got pissy with her about dating Evan...and now again with Tom.

She numbly sat down on the edge of her bed. Her brain was screaming against it, but she was beginning to recognize just a glimmer of how Stacy saw her.

Yeah, I give people a hard time when they do stupid things. But that's who I am. I'm just honest. "And I have absolutely nothing in common with Sandi," she said out loud.

As she started to get ready for bed, Daria hoped that if she said it enough times, she'd start to believe it.

o O o

"There we go! The alarm is set for 4:30," Jake said after almost twenty minutes of wrestling with the bedside clock. He frowned in doubt. "Just in case, do you think I should ask the hotel staff for a wake-up call?"

"Why? Wake-up calls have never gotten through to you before," Helen muttered as she changed into her nightgown.

"What was that, honey?" Jake asked suspiciously.

Helen sighed. "I don't know if I want to go on this ballooning trip."

"You can't change your mind!" Jake protested. "I need you to be there!"

Remembering Jake's fear of heights, Helen put a sympathetic hand on his arm. "But, Jake, ballooning really isn't my thing. And getting up at 4:30 in the morning? I was sort of hoping I could relax a little on this trip."

"Oh, I get it," Jake said, his tone turning angry. "It's not too early when you're working on a big case, but when it's your husband asking you for help then it's just not going to happen!"

Helen felt that flicker of frustration again. "Jake," she groaned. "I'm just reminding you that while I agreed to come along with you on this trip, I never agreed to go high up in the air with a man I wouldn't trust to tie his own shoes properly, let alone operate a hot-air balloon!"

"So the truth comes out at last!" Jake cried. "You don't trust me!"

Helen finally lost her temper. "I was talking about Terry Perry Barlow! But sometimes I do wonder-"

The argument ended abruptly at a loud knock on the door. Jake opened it to find an angry man in a robe. "Would you keep it down?" he snarled. "Some of us are trying to sleep!"

"I'm so sorry," Helen said, embarrassed. "We're done arguing now. Right, Jake?"

Jake also looked embarrassed. "Right." The man nodded and left. Jake shut the door.

Helen sighed. "Forget it, Jake. I'll go with you tomorrow, but promise me you won't make any more crazy plans with that Barlow idiot, all right?"

"You got it, honey!" Jake began to change into his pajamas.

Glad to have ended the argument, even if she still didn't want to go ballooning, Helen regarded her husband as he undressed. "Oh, Jakey," she cooed. "How would you like to trigger a few more noise complaints?"

Jake looked at her in confusion. "But I thought we were done arguing?" Helen just raised an eyebrow. "Oh!"

o O o

The Fashion Club was settling into their sleeping bags (or, in Sandi's case, the bed). No one had spoken above a quiet murmur since they'd come into the room, and no one had spoken directly to Stacy at all. Stacy said nothing, but the viciousness with which she was punching her pillow left no question about how she felt. The rest of the girls said a few quick good-nights to each other before turning off the light.

Meanwhile, Daria had already fallen asleep.

"Hey, Daria," Jane said cheerfully. "The literary magazine is looking for artists and I was thinking I might sign up. What do you think?"

"Gee, Jane," Daria said derisively, "I didn't know you were so eager to sell out to a low-quality publication devoted to showcasing shallow poetry and sappy romance stories."

"Oh." Jane ducked her head slightly, ashamed. "I guess you have a point."

Daria rolled her eyes. "Duh. Of course I do. Now let's watch Sick, Sad World and make fun of people like we always do."

"Sure thing, Daria!" Jane replied, nodding eagerly in agreement. She reached for her paintbrush.

"You aren't going to work on your lame artwork again, are you?" Daria asked, rolling her eyes. "You do know you're never going to be able to make a living doing that, right?"

Jane stepped sadly away from her easel. "Yeah...you're probably right, Daria."

"About time you realized it." Daria reached for the remote, not noticing as Jane crumpled miserably into a ball on the floor.

Waking with a start, Daria sat upright in her bed and gasped in horror. The whole thing had felt so real, she even had tears in her eyes. Still shaking, she pulled the sheets more snugly around herself and tried to go back to sleep.

o O o

It was morning, and Stacy was sitting down at the table when her mother came in. Except it wasn't her mother. Wearing her mother's old blue bathrobe and holding her mother's favorite coffee mug, Sandi scowled at her as she slammed Stacy's breakfast down in front of her. "Late for breakfast again," she sneered.

"Sorry!" was all Stacy could say. She gulped down her cereal as fast as she could and ran out the door for school. She skidded into her first class just as the bell rang, sinking into her seat with a sigh.

Her teacher turned around, tossing back her long brown hair. "Gee, Stacy," Sandi said. "I guess it's too much to ask for you to get to class on time."

Stacy winced. "Sorry!"

Sandi looked pointedly at Stacy's empty desktop. "I suppose you didn't bother to bring your textbook, either?"

Stacy gasped, realizing that she'd forgotten her backpack. She leaned over to ask the person sitting next to her if she could borrow their book, but recoiled when she saw that she was sitting next to Sandi. She leaned the other way and saw Sandi again. Her head whipped around in every direction as she looked at her classmates-each and every one was Sandi Griffin, staring back at her with disgust, annoyance, and frustration.

"Sorry!" she said again, unable to say anything else, no matter how hard she tried. "Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!"

"Sorry!" she squeaked out loud, eyes opening wide with fear as she woke up. Seeing that the rest of the Fashion Club was still asleep, she hugged her knees and tried not to cry too loudly.

o O o

Early-too early-the next morning, Jake and Helen were chatting with Barlow while his assistant Arno prepared the balloon for launch. Jake was chatting, anyway. Barlow had picked up bragging where he'd left off the previous night and Helen was mostly yawning.

"Where is the crew?" Arno finally asked. "It is time for the get go."

"You're looking at them, Arno," Barlow replied. "My new compadres...Jake and Helen Mogendavid."

"Morgendorffer," both Jake and Helen corrected.

Arno looked at them with obvious skepticism. "You'd put our lives in the hands of a couple of sleepy and confused amateurs?"

Jake let out an angry "Hey!" but Helen just shrugged.

Arno continued, "Also, I do not like the looks of those cumulus. No, no flight today."

Barlow immediately began arguing, and Helen wearily leaned against the basket as she waited to find out whether or not she'd be going back to bed soon. At last the fight ended with Arno storming off in a huff.

"Well, let's get cracking," Barlow told the Morgendorffers as he entered the balloon. "Jake, get into the gondola and man the burner."

"You can't mean that we're going up without an expert!" Helen exclaimed.

"Now, don't be nervous," Barlow said in what he probably thought was a comforting tone but in reality was just patronizing. "I've done this plenty of times! We're not nervous, are we, Jake?"

Jake, who had been slowly edging away from the balloon, immediately stopped and said, "Uhh...right!" He took a deep breath and climbed into the balloon. "Everything'll be great, Helen!"

"No way," Helen said firmly. "Not only is this dangerous, but a lawsuit waiting to happen." She glared at Barlow. "You haven't forgotten that I'm a lawyer, have you? Or are you looking for an excuse to spend even more time losing money in a courtroom?"

Barlow stared at her, wide-eyed, as he recalled his past bad experiences with the legal profession. "Aw, forget it," he finally said. "If I never see the inside of another courtroom it'll be too soon." He hopped back out of the balloon and strode away.

"Oh well," Jake said, sounding not at all sorry. "No ballooning today, darn it!" He started to climb out as well, but on his way he accidentally freed the tether rope.

As the balloon began to move, Helen-who was still leaning against the basket-lost her balance and fell in beside her husband. "Jake," she growled as she got back on her feet and saw the ground receding, "give me one good reason why I shouldn't toss you overboard right now."

o O o

Daria sat groggily at the kitchen table, staring into her mostly-untouched mug of coffee. She'd slept fitfully at best after her nightmare before finally giving up and going downstairs. She took a sip and winced, finding that it had gotten cold while she was zoning out.

She got up and turned to put it into the microwave, but stopped when she saw Stacy standing in the doorway. "Eep!" she said, then cursed her sleep-deprived brain for coming up with the lamest possible reaction.

The two girls just eyed each other warily, neither one eager to break the awkward silence. At last they both took deep breaths and said, "Listen, I-"

Ding-dong!

Daria jumped at the unexpected sound of the doorbell, but was relieved to have an excuse to get away. She slid quickly past Stacy to the front door and opened it. Outside she saw Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie huddled on the doorstep with eager expressions.

"Sorry to bother you, uh...you," Jamie said, "but we were worried about Quinn."

"Nobody's seen her all weekend," Joey added. "Did she elope or something?"

"Please say no," Jeffy pleaded.

"Like we'd ever be so lucky," Daria replied. She turned to yell up the stairs for Quinn, but saw Stacy come in.

"I'll go get her," Stacy offered, hurrying upstairs.

Daria turned back to the boys. "I'd invite you in," she told them, "but I don't want to."

"What about me?" asked a voice from the back. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie all stepped aside to reveal Jane. Daria let her friend come in and, after a small sigh, nodded to the boys to do the same.

"You're up early," Daria commented.

"Or late," Jane said with a wink.

Daria remembered that Jane had been out with Tom and his friends last night, worked out the possible directions that conversation might go if she asked any follow-up questions, and decided it would be best to change the subject. "So you came straight over to rescue me from my torture?" she asked. Joey, Jeffy, and Jamie were milling around in the living room, so she led Jane to the kitchen to talk.

"It seemed like the humane thing to do," Jane said. "Although I kind of figured you'd have turned the tables and become the torturer by now."

"Mmmm." Daria, thinking of Stacy's accusations the night before, didn't answer right away.

Jane had clearly been expecting a sarcastic reply, and the sudden silence took her by surprise. "Wow, they must have done a number on you," she joked.

Daria sat down at the table, avoiding Jane's gaze.

"Okay, what's up?" Jane, now serious, sat down across from her.

"Jane..." Daria began slowly, still not looking up. "Does it bother you when I give you a hard time about things?"

There was a pause before Jane replied. "What kind of things?"

Daria shrugged. "Like whenever you try something new. The track team, guys, going to parties, stuff like that."

"What the hell did the Fashion Twits do to you last night?" Jane asked jokingly.

"Never mind. Please tell me."

"They really did break you, didn't they?" Jane shook her head in mock sorrow. "I knew I should have called in a violation of the Geneva Convention, but-"

"Jane, just answer the question!"

"Yes!" Dropping every trace of humor, Jane brought both fists down on the table with a bang. "You piss me off on a regular basis. Including right now." Seeing the look on Daria's face, she sighed and dropped into the chair opposite her. "But I know for a fact that I piss you off all the time, too. It's part of being friends, right?"

"But do friends give you crap for doing something they don't agree with? Do they get judgmental and insult you when you stray from their personal standards for acceptable behavior?"

"Well, jeez, when you put it like that," Jane started, trying to bring humor back into the conversation. "You've convinced me. I'll just walk away from the closest friendship I've ever had." She made to get up and leave.

Ever since her nightmare, Daria had envisioned Jane making that decision over and over in her mind. "Jane," she said in a hoarse voice, "don't even joke about that."

For a moment Jane just looked at her friend. "Not kidding this time," she finally said. "What. Did. They. Do?"

Daria glanced back toward the living room, where the boys were still waiting for the Fashion Club to come downstairs. Looking back at Jane, she took a deep breath and let out the whole story, from her snarking at the other girls all night to Stacy's accusation to the nightmare. Her hands were shaking as she spoke, but her voice was steady and calm.

When she'd finished, Jane sat in silence to think. When at last she spoke again, her tone was quiet and completely serious. "The truth is that sometimes it does bother me when you don't support me in something I want to do. But here's the difference between me and Stacy: I go and do it anyway."

"In spite of my bitchiness," Daria pointed out.

"Yeah, you tend to be sarcastic and insulting. If you weren't, we probably wouldn't be friends in the first place."

Daria finally smiled slightly in spite of herself. Still, she felt she had to see things through to the end. "But what about the next time you want to do something that I don't like? Do I give you my honest opinion about it or try to be supportive?"

Jane looked thoughtfully at her friend. "Why not both?"

o O o

"Wow, Helen! It's beautiful up here!" Jake said, staring in awe at the view.

Helen, meanwhile, had noticed that they were directly on course to crash into a tree. Panicking, she began doing everything she could think of to change course. Fortunately, one of those random actions was to pull on the trigger for the blast valve, opening it wide and lifting the balloon higher, out of reach of the tree branches.

"Gah!" Jake clutched the side of the basket at the sudden increase in elevation. "Did we really have to go that high?" he asked nervously.

Helen crossed her arms. "Unless you wanted to end this trip with a visit to the hospital," she said. "And you're welcome for saving us from the mess you caused, by the way."

"Me?" Jake cried out defensively. He paused, trying to think of a way to argue that the situation wasn't his fault, but ultimately had to fall back on repeating "Me?" in an even more offended tone of voice.

"Yes, you!" Helen glared at her husband. "Who dragged me along on this conference? Who talked me into going up in a ridiculous balloon? Whose clumsiness trapped us up here with no hope of rescue?"

Jake just sputtered for a moment before something behind Helen caught his eye. He lunged forward and opened the blast valve again, raising the balloon just in time to avoid hitting the edge of the hotel's roof. "And who distracted us both until we nearly got killed? And who just saved our lives?" He crossed his arms and glared back. "You're welcome."

Helen was about to reply when she realized that they were still rising. "This has to stop," she said, the anger leaving her voice.

"Which part?" Jake asked, also losing the edge in his voice. "The yelling or the balloon ride?"

"Both." Helen sighed. "It seems like we've spent almost the whole trip arguing with each other."

"Except for last night," Jake pointed out. "Remember when we-"

"Yes, sometimes there's that," Helen quickly said. "But we keep coming back to one fight or another, and right now it's putting us in a lot of danger."

Jake thought about it. "You're right," he finally said. "If we don't figure this out, we'll be stuck in the air forever."

"Or at least until we crash." Helen shook off the thought. "One of us needs to keep an eye out for trouble, while the other figures out a way to land."

"Okay," Jake agreed. "You keep a lookout and I'll-"

"No, I'll figure out how to land while you watch for obstacles," Helen said.

"What, you still don't trust me?" Jake complained.

Helen, about to retort, stopped herself. "I do trust you," she said, switching gears. "I'm sorry; it was a knee-jerk reaction."

Jake shrugged guiltily. "You don't have to apologize," he admitted. "I let you down all the time."

"Not all the time," Helen argued half-heartedly. "It's just, well, I wish you'd stop letting your past get in the way. If you had even a little more confidence in yourself..." She trailed off. "Or if I had a little more confidence in you...?"

Smiling, Jake took her hand in his. "You've been more supportive of me than anyone else I've ever known," he told her. "And that's on top of everything else you do at home and at work."

"At work, anyway," Helen pointed out. "I'm hardly ever home, and when I am I'm usually on the phone dealing with cases."

"Maybe that's why I complain so much," Jake said. "It's the only way I've ever known how to get attention from my lousy excuse for a fath-uh, never mind."

"And maybe that's why I work so hard," Helen said. "Because it's the only way I've ever known how to deal with problems."

The two of the gazed at each other with new understanding until both of them realized that they still weren't paying attention to their path. Turning to look, they saw that they were directly on a collision course with a set of power lines.

Helen and Jake stared at the oncoming power lines for just one second before they frantically began pulling, pushing, turning, and hitting everything in the balloon they could find. Just in time, they both reached the vent and opened it together, releasing hot air and lowering the balloon to drift safely under the power lines. Their relief was short-lived, however, as they realized that they were now falling too quickly.

Without a word, Jake opened the blast valve and the balloon began to rise again. He closed it again and nodded to Helen, still at the vent, who opened it slightly. The balloon slowed its ascent. "A little more," he suggested to Helen. She did, and the balloon began to descend.

"Watch out for that Cluster Burger sign," Helen said. She closed the vent a little while Jake opened the valve, allowing the balloon to sail just over the sign.

Jake pointed. "Let's try to avoid that flock of geese." Still working together, the pair operated the balloon to drop below the flying birds. Avoiding one obstacle after another, they maneuvered the balloon into a slow descent until at last it settled gently on solid ground.

"We did it!" Helen cheered, so limp with relief that she almost fell over as she climbed out of the basket. Jake, following, grabbed her in a tight embrace. When they came up again for air a few minutes later, they realized that they had landed in the middle of a busy sidewalk and were being watched by a growing audience.

Helen forced a smile on her face and gave everyone a slight bow, nudging Jake until he did the same. The crowd slowly began applauding, assuming the whole thing was some kind of publicity stunt. "We'll be here all week!" Jake called out, waving enthusiastically.

"No, we won't," Helen said with a chuckle, pulling Jake into the nearest building to get away from the curious onlookers.

"Welcome to the Museum of Medical Oddities," a man said as the door closed behind them.

Helen and Jake looked around and saw display cases full of oversized tumors, photos of grotesque medical conditions, and a few things that they couldn't immediately identify-and didn't really want to find out. They looked at each other and said just one word: "Daria." Then they turned to the man who had greeted them.

"Where is your gift shop?" Jake asked.

"And does it sell skull crushers?" Helen added.

o O o

Daria waved as Jane left for her own house and, more importantly, her bed. She was about to close the door when a group of chattering girls and reluctant boys streamed past her, talking about a trip to the mall. Sighing with relief that she now had the house to herself, she shut the door behind them.

When she turned around, Stacy was standing in the middle of the living room.

"Gah!" Daria cried, fighting a sudden urge to run away. "Er," she quickly added, "I mean..."

Stacy just shook her head. "It's all right."

Daria, finally gathering her wits together, came over and sat down. "It's not, actually."

Stiffening, Stacy looked at her with wide, frightened eyes. "Why? What happened? Should I-"

Daria's initial reaction was to snap sarcastically at the girl, but reined herself in at the last second. "Not you," she said. "Me."

Stacy relaxed a little and sat down nearby. "Okay...?"

"You might-might-have had a point about me being a little...um..."

"Bitchy?" Stacy clapped both hands over her mouth. "Oh-my-god-I'm-so-sorry-please-don't-"

Daria held up a hand to stop the avalanche of panicky words. "Yes. That's one way to put it."

Stacy stopped in mid-grovel, blinking in surprise. "So you're not upset about what I said last night?"

"I'd be lying if I said that," Daria said, "and I don't, as a rule, tell lies. Not only that, but I try to appreciate it when other people are honest with me. Much as I hate to admit it, nothing you said to me was untrue." She took a deep breath, willing herself to continue. "I apologize for how I treated you last night."

"Thanks," Stacy said quietly, staring at her feet.

Daria considered for a moment, then decided to go for it. "What I want to know is why you haven't been honest with Sandi. I mean, now that we both know you have it in you."

"Sandi? Oh, no, I couldn't even imagine telling her..." Stacy trailed off, shuddering at the thought.

"But you could tell me," Daria pointed out. "Please tell me you aren't saying Sandi Griffin is more intimidating than I am?"

Stacy giggled. "Oh, you're definitely scary, Daria."

"What's so funny?"

"I was just remembering this one time when Sandi and your sister-"

"Sister? Not cousin?"

Stacy rolled her eyes. "Duh. Everyone knows you're Quinn's sister. Sandi just likes to hold it over Quinn's head as if she's the only one who knows the truth and everyone else just kind of plays along."

"So you're not actually as stupid as I thought," Daria said, then cringed. "Uh, sorry."

"Don't apologize. That's probably the nicest thing you've ever said to me."

Daria hesitated, unsure how to respond to that, but then saw Stacy's tiny smirk. "You know," she said slowly, "I might be able to help you with your problem with Sandi."

o O o

By the time Helen and Jake got back to the hotel, they'd missed not only the keynote address but most of the morning seminars and workshops as well. "I'm so sorry, Jakey," Helen said as they walked into their room. "I know you were really looking forward to going."

Jake did feel a brief twinge of anger and disappointment, but he shook it off before it could grow into anything more. "You've still got plenty of time to sit by the pool before our flight back," he suggested. "At least one of us should make the most out of this trip."

Helen's eyes lit up and she rummaged through her suitcase before pulling out a swimsuit. She smiled at him. "Care to join me?"

Jake sadly shook his head. "I forgot to pack a suit," he admitted.

Disappointed, Helen sighed and let out an exasperated, "Jake..." out of habit before stopping herself. "Sorry," she said.

The sad expression on Jake's face twitched, and he suddenly grinned and reached into the Museum of Medical Oddities shopping bag. Pulling out a pair of souvenir swim trunks with a picture of the world's third largest bedsore, he held them up. "I bought them while you were distracted by the twenty-foot-long tapeworm," he explained.

Helen couldn't help chuckling a little as she stepped closer to Jake and gave him a hug. "That is both the most spontaneously romantic and disgusting thing I've ever heard," she informed him with a kiss.

A few minutes later, they walked out of the room with towels and sunglasses in hand and came face to face with Andrew and Michele Landon approaching from the other direction. Or they would have been face-to-face if the Landons hadn't been too busy glaring at each other to notice them.

"I just can't believe you'd have the nerve to say that to the lecturer, and right in front of my colleagues!" Andrew was saying.

"And I can't believe you just sat there and let him belittle me in front of the whole room!"

"He referred to you as the former VP of US World! Last time I checked, that was accurate!"

"If you cared about anyone besides yourself then you would have-" Michele cut off in mid-sentence when she spotted the Morgendorffers. "Er, hello," she said awkwardly.

"Good morning," Helen and Jake cheerfully replied, breezing past them without a second glance. As soon as they were out of earshot, Helen leaned into Jake to murmur, "I think I know two people who could use some couple's therapy."

"Or a hot-air balloon ride," Jake whispered back.

They laughed all the way to the pool.

o O o

"Staaaaay-ceee!" Sandi called out as she led the others back into the Morgendorffer house. "Where have you been? We had to carry our own shopping bags!" Realizing that had sounded rude even by her own standards, she quickly added, "And we were so worried about you when we realized you were missing!"

Stacy bowed her head and slumped her shoulders out of habit until Daria gave her a small nudge. She straightened her back and looked innocently at Sandi. "You must have been worried. After all, you were at the mall for almost two hours before you noticed I wasn't there."

Sandi, who had been expecting a much different response, faltered at this. "I, uh...that is, we..."

Glancing briefly at Daria's encouraging nod, Stacy continued, "Fortunately, you had Joey, Jeffy, and the other one as back-up so you didn't have to endure a shopping trip without your own personal pack mule."

Now completely baffled by the turn things had taken, Sandi's brain appeared to shut down and reboot. "Um, sure. Yeah. Whatever." She turned to Quinn and quickly changed the subject. "Wasn't that outfit I got at Cashman's cute?"

"Which one? The cute one or that other cute one?"

"No, I mean the cute cute one."

As the other girls became engrossed in clothes-related chatter, Stacy pulled Daria aside. "Thank you soooo much!" she said in hushed glee.

"Don't mention it," Daria said. "The look on Sandi's face was payment enough."

"Okay, but I'd love to be able to return the favor somehow. Maybe I could give you some help, like with your hair or clothes or make-up or-"

"-Or you could just choose the merciful option and shoot me in the head right now."

For just a moment Stacy was taken aback at the sarcasm, but then she relaxed and smiled. "And ruin your complexion? Never."

o O o

Thanks to RLobinske for beta reading.