"She's so cool."

Too cool for you. The whisper was a tiny voice.

"I don't care. We're happy."

You haven't been happy together for a month. Tiny, but insistent.

"But Jane is so perfect. She funny, smart, beautiful…"

But not right for you. Not like Daria…

"Dammit! Where did that come from?!" Tom Sloane banged his hand down on the silver bathroom vanity. "And why am I arguing with my mirror?" He sighed heavily. I can't believe this is happening.

With another sigh, he covered his face with lather. He usually didn't shave on Sundays, but he was going over to Jane's and he wanted to look his best. To make Jane happy. To hide the fact that I don't make Jane happy. "Shut up! Shut up, dammit!"

"Tom?" His mother's voice sounded concerned.

"I'm fine, Mom." Tom rolled his eyes. Parental interference was not what he needed right now.

"Okay." Kay Sloane's voice held relief. There are some benefits to living in a repressed household, Tom thought with an ironic smile. As he went back to his toiletries, though, his mother's voice sounded again from the bottom of the stairs. "You'll, uh, let me know if there's a problem, won't you, Tom?"

Tom blinked. Acknowledging emotions, even one as basic as parental worry, was not something the Sloanes did. "I will, Mom," he said, and was surprised to find that he meant it.

After getting dressed, he idled away an hour in front of the television. Jane had said to be over promptly at two, and after last week's lateness fiasco, he was going to arrive at Casa Lane with no more than five seconds to spare either way. He'd totally lost track of time that day. Talking to Daria. You never lose track of time talking to Jane. The stray thoughts made him antsy, so he headed out the Rustbucket and drove off.

Still early, he drove around for a while, letting the sameness of the streets blend into a mosaic of trees, stucco, asphalt, and brick, wondering what the big surprise Jane had for him was. And whether the car would finally give up the ghost. "If you do, I'm a dead man," he said to the Rustbucket. "But then I've always been a risk-taker." The deep blue of the paint was mottled with rust from years of neglect, but he had a deep wellspring of fondness for the car. It was one thing that belonged to Tom Sloane. Not to Angier's boy. Not wanting to retrace those well-worn mental trails, Tom began to give more attention to his surroundings. He suddenly noticed the block he was on looked familiar, as did the red brick house he was almost involuntarily slowing down in front of. Daria's house.

"Dammit!" Tom slammed his foot on the gas. This is bad, he thought. All roads lead to Daria. In my mind and in my car. He chuckled almost involuntarily when he realized his accidental reference. He'd gone on a retro kick to annoy Elsie, and surprised himself by liking some of it. After checking the time, he made a quick left and began tracing the route to the Lane's.

"Two PM on the dot." With a smug smile, he knocked on the door of Casa Lane. After a moment, the door opened to reveal Trent. "Oh, hey Tom. Janey's upstairs." Trent let him past and then ambled off. To where, Tom had no idea, and suspected that Trent didn't either. He's really not all there, Tom thought, as he climbed the stairs. At least with Jane his heart's in the right place. He paused at the top of the stairs. But what about yours, the little voice whispered. He'd almost swear that it came from outside him this time.

As he stood there, indecisive, the door swung open. "Ah, on time and unharmed I see." Jane's voice was faintly mocking. "Rustbucket didn't explode?"

Tom bowed with a flourish as Jane stood aside. "My humble chariot, as do I, lives but to serve you. Now what's the big surprise?"

Jane directed him over to the easel by her bed. On it was a good-sized canvas, covered with a self-portrait: Jane in jungle setting with yellow stripes in her hair. The stripes served to highlight the feline qualities of Jane's angular face, and the lush greenery hiding her body added to her mystery and allure.

"So, what do you think?" Jane asked.

Overcome by a rush of desire, Tom pulled her close. "It's beautiful and so are you." He began planting small kisses on her face and neck, ignoring her small protests, which faded soon enough, and the voice telling him how wrong this was, which was drowned out in the rush of sensation. Her scent was about him and he tasted her lips for a timeless moment that lasted no time or an eternity through a knock at Jane's door that neither of them heard, ending when the door creaked open and an involuntary "Oh!" escaped Daria's lips.

"Oops!" Tom tried to smile, but as they broke the clinch, he could see the spasm of anger cross Jane's face. Her muttered "Boy!" didn't sound amused, either. He could only hope that he'd done a better job hiding the tiny thrill that shot through him, just as it did every time he saw Daria. Dammit! Why is this happening?

Daria stayed in the doorway. "Sorry about that," she said awkwardly. Tom's heart began to thump. She looked so vulnerable, standing there, wondering whether she should stay or go.

Fortunately, Jane jumped into the breach before he could say something stupid. "That's OK. You had to learn about kissing sometime." Before he could say something stupid, anyway.

Keeping a smile plastered on, he added. "I saw Jane's work and I just got carried away by the talent." Which is true enough, I suppose.

"Ta da!" Jane turned the easel so Daria could get a good look at the painting.

"Very nice," Daria deadpanned. "Or is it a cry for help?"

"I'd have to say… both," Tom said, the old reflex of sarcasm taking him over the same way it did Daria and Jane. That's not helping. He had a sudden wish to run, to fly to anywhere but here, to be gone from these two women who confused him so badly.

"—the Lady or the Tiger. Now you don't have to choose." Jane had been saying something. He hoped he wasn't supposed to respond.

"Does this mean you'll be ordering the pizza with entrails?" Daria's peculiar half-smile appeared. Seeing it was a rare treat for him, first experienced at the spring homecoming parade a month or so ago, and he hoped that it signaled a lessening of the tension.

"This is going to be my new look," Jane pointed first at the picture and then at Daria. "And you're assisting in the procedure."

As Daria's face fell, Tom sighed inwardly. Why do I think this is a really bad idea?

Daria's expression clearly said that she, at least, though this was a really bad idea, too, but Jane seemed oblivious. "Come on, Daria. We'd better go now. It's Sunday and the drug store closes at 4." She gave Tom a toothy smile. "I'll see you later, loverboy. Be prepared for the Tiger Lady."

To Tom, she looked very catlike in that moment, mysterious and sensual, but also wickedly clawed and vicious. He could only hope that he could somehow avoid those claws. And keep Daria from them, he mentally added as he followed the partners in crime down the stairs.

The day dragged by for Tom. He'd headed over to the bookstore for a while. There was supposed to be a new biography about Stalin coming out, but the store didn't have it yet. And, as usual, the clerk had given him a look when he asked about it. Bad enough to be thought a freak for being interested in history, but Tom had an interest in history's villains: Genghis Khan, Tamurlane, Caligula and Commodus, Hitler and Mao, but most of all, Stalin. It wasn't like he wanted to be like them. They just fascinated him. Daria was the only one who didn't seem to care. Heck, she'd seemed interested too, dropping a reference to Pol Pot at the parade. Now, there was a character. He briefly wondered why the U.S. government had felt the need to slander Pol Pot after the Khmer Rouge fell. It's like accusing the Devil of kicking puppies.

After the bookstore, he'd headed home and endured a tiresome dinner. He hadn't really tasted the food, his mind being on Daria and Jane. His parents were indifferent and Elsie was snide. At least his parents weren't bothered by his interest in the dark side of history. Of course not. They'd have to find out an interest of mine, thus breaking Sloane's First Rule: Never emote.

Watching television and reading hadn't helped. His mind was whirling too hard to concentrate on reading and the numbing effect of the tube simply wasn't working. Why does Jane want to dye her hair anyway? And why would she have Daria do it? I'm willing to bet that Daria's never even used makeup, much less hair dye. Briefly the Bugs Bunny joke shot through his head, and he smiled slightly. The endless possibilities for disaster spinning through his mind, each in its own horrendous scenario, washed away the mild amusement, though.

He'd just dozed off with the television still on when the phone rang. His eyes snapped open and his heart began to pound. Calm yourself. No reason to think there's anything wrong. After taking a deep breath and letting it ring three times, he picked up the phone. A flood of unintelligible shrieks greeted him.

"You BASTARD! You PLANNED this!"

"Jane, I—"

"With HER! Why do you hate me?!"

"Jane, what are you—"

"You WANTED this to happen! You let her WRECK my LIFE! Well, I hope you're happy with her. The two of you can just—"

Tom's temper finally got the best of him. "Jane," he said into the receiver sharply, "What the hell are you talking about?"

"How can you ask me that?!" At least Jane sounded a little less hysterical.

"Easily." He paused to calm himself, before continuing in a more even tone. "I haven't seen you since this afternoon. Now, calm down and tell me what happened. Slowly," he added, before Jane could slide into rant mode.

It seemed to work. A deep tearing breath sounded over the phone before Jane spoke. "Daria ruined my hair on purpose."


"My hair…" Jane sounded like she was choking back tears. "My hair looks awful! There are all these orange splotches. I don't look like a tiger! I look like your car."

Tom couldn't resist a chuckle. "You say that like it's—"

"IT'S NOT FUNNY, YOU BASTARD!" Jane's shriek was like a knife-edge. "HOW CAN YOU LAUGH AT ME?"

"I'm sorry, Jane. I shouldn't have laughed. But why do you think Daria did it on purpose? She's your best friend." The hiss of indrawn breath told him that he'd said the wrong thing. Oh shit, he thought, bracing himself for another onslaught.

He was not disappointed. "She's trying to take you away from me! And you're defending her! You BASTARD!" Her screaming was bordering on incoherence. "Well you can have her! I hope you're happy together. In HELL!"

Tom felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. He'd had an idea that Jane was getting jealous, but nothing like this. How could she accuse him of this? How can she be so close to the mark… "Dammit!"

Fortunately, Jane was too caught up in her ranting to hear. Tom let it flow over him for another minute, an almost calming tide to wash away the self-doubt, before cutting sharply through her ravings. "Jane, you're being hysterical. Calm down and we'll talk about this."

"HYSTERICAL?!" It was almost a wail. "FUCK YOU—" The click of the phone disconnecting was clearly audible. Nice one, Sloane.

Another click brought the hum of the dial tone. He listened for a few more seconds before hitting the speed dial for Jane's house. Letting the phone ring fifteen times was something he didn't usually do, especially at one in the morning, but he knew that Trent and Jane had the house to themselves. The phone had a better chance of waking Barbarossa by his table than Trent Lane, and Jane… well, he hoped against hope that Jane would pick up so they could fix things. Finally, he gave up, and went to bed, knowing that sleep was impossible.

The next day reflected his lack of sleep. He went through it in a haze. Returning to Fielding after a weekend was never easy; the professors all had this idea that teenage minds couldn't hold a fact for more than twenty-four hours straight, and Mondays were traditionally reserved for bullying the students into remembering. Tom could only remember the events of the last twenty-four hours and what led up to them. When had he first noticed Daria? Was it at the parade? She'd looked so vulnerable, covered in paint and misery. So young and sad. And beautiful…

"Mister Sloane!" Patrician tones, washed in acid, cut through his reverie. "If you'd like to join us, I'd appreciate the answer to my question." Professor Milton was never noted for his patience at the best of times, which these certainly were not.

"Uh…, er…"

"The Wars of the Roses, Thomas. Specifically the results of Richard III's model parliament in 1484."

"Oh, uh, the elimination of the forced extortion called benefices that Edward IV used to refill the English treasury and the advancement of rights for the merchant classes." Richard III didn't really interest him. Once he'd found out that Richard was an honest king and a devoted family man, and that the whole depraved hunchback was a carefully crafted calumny on the part of his Tudor successors, Tom had mentally consigned Richard to the "Bin of Normal History." Even the Princes in the Tower didn't seem so hideous. If he'd even done it at all. Daria hadn't seemed convinced the one time they'd discussed it, with Jane napping next to them.

"Well, Mr. Sloane, since you did such an effective job with the Model Parliament of 1484, perhaps you'd like to discuss the Princes in the Tower."

Tom, lost in thought, shrugged his shoulders. "Well, Daria doesn't think Richard did it at all. Bishop Stillington was known for being unbribable and Richard had no reason to kill his nephews after Edward V's very legal deposition…" Wait a minute… why could he hear muffled laughter from around the classroom?

Professor Milton's pale, pinched features were unreadable, but his voice held a twinge of something unfamiliar, something… could it be… amusement? "While I am interested in Daria's opinion, as she seems very well informed on the issue, I must confess that Paul Murray Kendall's interpretation is much more germane to the discussion, since his biography of Richard was your assigned reading for the week."

Oh shit! Laughter cascaded around him as his fellow students could no longer restrain themselves. Shit! Shit! Shitshitshitshit! What is wrong with me?! "Professor Milton…"

"No, Mr. Sloane, you may not be excused." The old man ignored Tom's imploring look, but did silence the class. "To continue… Henry Tudor was a much different King than the Yorkists who had preceeded him…" Professor Milton's voice soon blended into the sound of his blood pounding in his ears and muffled laughter of his nearest classmates, creating an unpleasant cacophony of anxiety and embarrassment that did nothing to relieve his torture. The last fifteen minutes of the class dragged on for what seemed like three days. Only seven more classes to go. Tom filed mechanically out of the classroom and to his locker. At this rate, I'll be a basket case by lunchtime. Maybe even crazy enough to eat the lunchroom food, in hopes that it will put me out of my misery.

"So… Daria?" The voice was faintly mocking, but good-natured. "That's Jane's friend, right?"

"Oh, hey Dave." Tom stowed the Kendall book in his locker and replaced it with his Physics text. "I'd really rather not talk about it."

"C'mon, man. Don't hold out on your buddy." Dave gave a cheerful leer. "I mean, if she's available…"

BANG! The slam of Tom's locker was like the crack of a pistol. "I DON'T want to talk about it!" Tom snarled, fixing his friend with an icy eye. "Don't push me on this. I'm not in the mood." With that, he stalked off, leaving a confused and worried Dave in his wake.

The rest of the day followed a similar pattern. School continued around him, while he drifted along in a haze. Worry about Jane collided with desire for Daria and exploded in kaleidoscopes of guilt, fear, sadness, and lust. There were no more outbursts like in History, but neither could he concentrate on the tasks of the day. Art class, the last of the day, ended with him, head between his hands, staring at drawing paper that was as white and clean as when the period began.

Walking out of the school towards his car, he didn't hear a voice behind him calling for him to wait. He did, however, see a form beside him when Dave caught up with him after a minute. "Oh. Hey, Dave. Listen. I'm sorry about before."

Dave smiled. "No sweat, dude. I was just surprised. You know, emotion from the heir of Grace, Vulcan, and Page."

Tom chuckled. It sounded halfhearted, even to him. "You just caught me at a bad time."

"Anything I can help with?" Dave asked, just as Tom caught sight of the Rustbucket across the parking lot.

"Nah. It's something I have to work out for myself." Tom fell silent and Dave knew when not to press. They walked together in silence to the Rustbucket. Dave's car was parked a little further on. Tom unlocked the driver's side door and, as he slid himself into the seat, looked up at his friend, who still hovered over him. "Hey, Dave…" Tom flashed a genuine smile. "Thanks." With that, he started the car and headed off.

He knew his parents wouldn't be home when he got there, and he hoped his sister would be out of the house as well. He needed time alone to think, something that would be unlikely if Elsie was looking for someone to spar with. Despite the size of the Sloane house, which was almost a mansion, as befit a partner in Grace, Sloane, and Page, Elsie had an absolute genius for finding Tom when she wanted to. Since Elsie usually only wanted him when she needed someone to fight with, Tom was understandably grateful to arrive home and find the house empty.

He headed up to his room. He knew he had to call Jane as soon as he could. But first, I have to figure out what the hell I want to say. Tom threw himself on his bed. What did he want to say? Goodbye? Their relationship had been on the rocks a month. Besides the obvious lack of common interests, they fought frequently, and when they did it was always Celebrity Deathmatch. He'd sworn he could almost hear Mills Lane rasp, "Let's get it on," when Jane caught him with a mouth full of gummy bears. Art supplies? How the hell was I supposed to know they were are supplies? They're freakin' gummy bears. In a freakin' bowl on the freakin' kitchen table. They'd fought for hours. At least the "Jane Cam" fiasco had been short. He'd just told her off for invading his privacy and left. Of course, we did fight for an hour after I got that letter. If she hadn't thought it was funny, I might not have overreacted so badly. He supposed he could see the humor. Snake's letter had been rather charming. Heh. Even a triple-murderer serving a life sentence just wants a little love. At the time, though, he'd been terrified, and Jane laughing, when it was her stupid webcam that he'd unknowingly wiggled his butt for, was too much to take.

Staring at the ceiling, he let his mind drift back over the good times. Meeting Jane had been like a breath of fresh air in his life. Fielding was co-ed, but the ratio of students skewed three to one towards boys. And the ladies of Fielding knew it. Tom's family made him a worthy catch, but his dates had all followed the same pattern: Expensive dinner, unbearable conversation, and a peck on the cheek, to be followed by three days of flat stares at school, after which he would be consigned to the "Undateables" caste and ignored. Until Jane.

Jane was different, in so many ways. Her unconventional beauty had caught his eye at the Zen, but there were so many other facets to her. She was funny and vibrant and a true artist. How else could you describe someone who saw gummy bears as a medium for expression? Tom himself was lucky he could draw a stick figure. Which, he supposed, was the crux of the problem. We just don't have enough in common.

The phone's insistent bleat disturbed his thoughts. He heaved himself off his bed and grabbed the receiver. "Hello." He hoped it was Jane. Do I?

"Uh, Tom?" Not Jane, Daria.

"Daria?" He tried to control the thrill of something—elation, disappointment, confusion?—that shot through him. "To what do I owe the pleasure?" His voice remained even, but a small smile played across his lips.

"Have you heard from Jane?" He could hear the concern in her voice. Jane's irrational anger of the night before came back to him.

"Sort of." He kept his voice neutral. "Why?"

"It's about that striping job."

"Uh oh."

"Yeah." Daria's voice sounded heavy. "I really, um, kinda botched it, big time, and she didn't come to school, and she's not answering the phone, so I just wanted to make sure she was all right."

"Well, she was all right enough to call me late last night yelling stuff I didn't understand and making freaky accusations." Anger began to well up, and he missed the sadness and concern in Daria's answering, "Oh."

"I'm really getting tired of this, Daria, you know?" His voice grew sharper. How dare she put her best friend through this! How dare she put me through this! "It's like we talked about at the parade—"

Daria cut him off. "I think I'm going to go over there and see how she's doing."

"Oh." Tom brought his litany to a halt. "Oh, yeah. Good idea." Way to go, concerned boyfriend.

"Yeah. Gotta go. Bye." Was that disgust in her voice, or was he imagining things?

After she hung up, he held the phone for a long moment. "Bye," he said softly. That didn't go well. Instead of helping Daria cope with her worry, he'd tried to dump his problems on her. And totally ignored the fact that I'm worried about Jane, too.

He sat for a moment, wondering whether he should call Jane. Not that she's likely to answer. Before he could, though, Elsie shouted up the stairs, "Dinner, Tom. Mom's waiting."

Dinner was interminable. The food was good, lemon broiled sole, medallion potatoes, and three different vegetables, but the conversation was stultifying. If his mother wasn't prattling on about the latest goings on at Winged Tree country club, Elsie was belittling everyone and everything she could think of, most especially him. The breaking point came when Elsie made a crack about "that art chick." Tom stood and headed out the door without giving his mother a chance to stop him.

He hopped into the Rustbucket and just drove. Now that it was May, there was still an hour or so of light left, and Tom wasted it all driving and thinking. His thoughts slid down familiar trails. What's wrong between me and Jane? We were so good together. It was clear that they weren't good together any more, but what had changed failed to make itself clear to him. Not long after the sun had set, he found himself taking a familiar turn and approaching that red brick house again. Daria's house. Maybe she has some answers. If not about Jane then about me.

Parking the car at the end of the walk, he hesitated. He wasn't sure this was a good idea. I should be talking to Jane, not to Daria. But he couldn't bring himself to leave. Twice, his hand even moved towards the gear shift to get into drive and cajole the Rustbucket to take him to Casa Lane, but he just couldn't leave. Finally, he squared his shoulders and left the car.

The knock on the door had produced unexpected results. A red-headed girl, obviously older than Elsie but likely a year or two younger than Tom, answered the door. She was remarkably pretty, or at least she would have been if her face hadn't been covered with enough blush to embarrass a mime. "Um, hi. I'm Tom. Is Daria here?"

She gave him an appraising glance. "Daria? Um, no. I think she's with her art friend." Discomfort tinged her voice, as if Daria was not someone she was happy to be discussing.

Something about her struck him as familiar. Oh, this must be the famous Quinn. Didn't I see her on that parade float? "Any idea when she'll be back?" Looking over his shoulder, he thought he saw three other girls in the Morgendorffer living room.

Quinn lowered her eyebrows demurely. "I'm sorry, but no. You can wait if you want. She should be back soon." Her tone of voice was diffident, but Tom felt a prickling on the back of his neck. Angier Sloane's boy had seen enough predators to know when he was being sized up.

He was looking for a way to politely decline, when he heard a sudden noise from the living room. Quinn turned and he got a clearer look. A brown haired girl with pigtails was sitting on the floor in the lotus position while two other dark haired girls were rubbing something on her face. It sounded like the sitting girl was meowing like a cat, while the two girls working on her honked like geese. Unsettled, Tom turned tail and all but ran out the door, ignoring Quinn's pleas to wait.

Climbing back into the car, he sighed. He really didn't know what he was doing here. He wanted to talk to Daria, but he wasn't sure about what. It was becoming clear to him how deeply he was attracted to her, and he thought she might return the feeling, but any discussion should be postponed until he'd sorted out his feelings for Jane. But when I go to start the car, all I see are wise eyes and a Mona Lisa smile.

He saw her walking up before she noticed the car. She wasn't beautiful, like Jane. No, she's beautiful in her own way. And why am I so nervous? I had no problem asking Jane out. But Daria wasn't like Jane. She wasn't like anyone else he'd ever met. And he had no idea what the hell he was going to say to her.

She stopped in front of the car. Better say something. "Hey." Smooth.

"What are you doing here?" Her tone was not friendly, but stopped short of openly hostile.

He smiled, trying both to reassure her and calm himself. "I wanted to talk to you. Your sister said you weren't home, so I figured I'd wait out here."

"Do you want to come inside?"

"No." He raised his hand in a warding gesture as his eyes widened in mock-fear. "There are these girls in there, rubbing stuff on each other's cheeks and making animal noises. I got kinda scared."

Daria didn't miss a beat. "That's just the opening rites of the Blushathon. At least you got out before the rhythmic chanting." He really liked that. She matched him quip for quip, and her sense of humor was even drier than his.

"Oh yeah. I think I saw that on the Discovery channel." He paused for a moment, surprised at the sudden terror he felt. Playtime is over, young Thomas. "Why don't you get in the car?"

Silently she opened the door and slid into the passenger seat. When she spoke, her voice was soft with worry. "Do you want to talk about Jane?" Though almost facing him, she wouldn't quite meet his eyes.

"No," he replied, mind suddenly becoming clear. He knew what he was going to say and damn the consequences.

"Oh," she said. "Then what." It sounded to Tom like she was afraid to hear the answer.

"About our situation…" That was a safe way to start.

Her voice sharpened. "I don't know what you mean! We have no situation. Leave me alone, I've gotta go."

Or not. "Wait!" He put his hand on her shoulder. "Why is everyone so mad at me?" Surely you have some idea, Young Thomas… He needed to hear her say it, though.

"Why?" The anger and pain in her voice were almost shocking. "Why? Because I moved to this town and I knew I'd be total outcast. And in the one moment of good luck I had in my entire life, I met another outcast who I could really be friends with and not have to feel completely alone. And then you came along and screwed the whole thing up."

He felt his own anger rising. "All I did was meet a girl I thought was cool, and we went out with each other for a while. We started to get bored with each other." The last key fell into place. I've gotten bored with Jane. We just don't have enough in common. "It happens all the time. It's no one's fault."

"Oh yeah? Would you still be bored with her if I weren't around?" Her tone was acid.

"Probably." She's sick of me too. "And more to the point, she'd be bored with me." He felt calmer. I think I came to the right place tonight. He should his head. "It's got nothing to do with you."

"Good." She obviously hadn't calmed down. She turned her back on him, but he could still feel the anger… and something else. "Because I'm not interested in you! And I'd be stabbing my friend in the back if I even considered it."

He faced forward, so he wouldn't have to stare at the back of her head. And cope with how much I like her hair. "Exactly," he said, trying to recapture the calm of a moment ago and failing. "And what kind of a jerk would that make me?"


"All right, then."


Tension crackled. It was too much. Desire exploded in his brain like a white-hot fire. He leaned over, put a hand on either shoulder, pulled her close and kissed her on the lips. Does she like it? I like it. He'd closed his eyes, and hoped she had too. After a long moment, she pulled away, but he was still enveloped in a pleasant haze. Some idiot part of him babbled with joy. I kissed her!

"Dammit!" Daria's voice was an angry bark. "Dammit! Dammit! Dammit!"

Oh crap. Oh shit. Oh fuck. He put his hand to his head as the pleasant haze dissipated in a wave of fear and self-loathing, but all his idiot mouth could come up with was, "I liked it too."

"That's not funny!" She was really angry now. He could tell.

"I know," he said softly and surprised himself but leaning in for another kiss. What surprised him even more was that she responded, pulling him towards her with both hands. The second kiss was longer and richer. The same idiot part was overwhelmed. She kissed me back.

Suddenly she pulled back and stared in him in shock and horror. And longing, dare I hope?

His wiseass mouth had the last laugh though. "That definitely wasn't funny."

"I gotta go." She bolted from the car.

After the sense of her diminished, his brain started to whirl in shock and horror, but he ruthlessly quashed it. Don't think. Drive home.

The drive home was slow, and the night passed even more slowly. After a couple of hours, he gave up on sleep and roamed the house like an unquiet spirit for the rest of the night. I have to talk to Jane. I have to tell her.

Five-thirty rolled around while Tom was trying self-induced lobotomy using the blunt trauma that was Major League II. It wasn't working. Damn movie stations! You'd think they'd get the brain dead crap out of their systems during the day and show something decent like Fellini, or at least the Coen brothers, at night. But no. They've gotta show the shit that was too awful even for the daytime. Caught up in his anger at the movie, the cable companies, and the world in general, he failed to notice his father's entrance.

"Good morning, Tom." Angier Sloane's voice was even and pleasant. Long of face and body, he wore his usual suit-and-tie office attire. His features were, as always, a pleasant mask. He looked down at Tom on the couch. "Up early today."

Tom shrugged. "Couldn't sleep. Not feeling well." He didn't feel like talking.

Angier nodded. "Sorry to hear. Have to be in the office by seven today. See you." His expression never changed. Angier's poker face was legendary, Tom knew. Sloanes don't emote. He watched his father head off and sighed. Except for me.

Coming to a decision, Tom retreated to his room. No school today. I just can't do it. He climbed back into bed and pulled the covers over his head. Maybe he was finally tired enough to sleep. Mom won't mind if I miss school. And I can call Jane this afternoon.

It seemed like years later when he heard his mother's voice call up the stairs. "Tom! School!" Tom simply ignored her, hoping she'd go away.

Kay's voice called again, more insistant. "Thomas Sloane, I hope you're getting ready up there."

This required an answer. "I don't feel well, Mom."

Rather than a vocal response, Tom heard his mother's shoes on the stairs. I don't need this. After a moment, the door to his bedroom opened, framing Kay in the doorway. "Tom? Are you okay?"

He sat up and nodded. "Yeah, Mom. It's nothing serious. Just an upset stomach, but it kept me up."

Kay nodded, but Tom could see the worry in her eyes. "Oh. Should I have the cook bring up some tea and toast?"

Tom gave his mother a game smile. "That's OK, Mom. This too shall pass."

"Well, try and get some sleep." Kay turned to go, but stopped in the doorway and looked over her shoulder at her son. "And if you need to talk…."

"Thanks, Mom. I'll be fine." With a sad smile for her son, she turned and left. Wow. Empathy from Mom. What's next? Dad doing a jig? He lay back and drifted into a light doze.

Awakening for the fifth time that morning, Tom looked at his clock. Ten-thirty. He crawled out of bed and stumbled over the mirror. One look at his seedy reflection made him decide to take a shower. His eyes were red and puffy and his hair stood up in all directions. Even his skin seemed raw, almost ill fitting. A shower is definitely needed. Feeling like a human being would be nice. A pity that won't happen until I talk to Jane.

After an eternity, or at least twenty minutes, of soap and scalding water, Tom emerged from the shower dripping and feeling at least a little better. He dried himself off and got dressed. Khaki slacks and a pullover sweater. The ol' school uniform. It was odd. Had he gone to Lawndale, his usual outfits would have marked him a preppy. Conventional. But at Fielding, with the trust fund blazer-and-tie crowd, he was something of a free spirit. Maybe that's why Jane attracted me so much. He sighed, knowing it was over. Even if he hadn't kissed Daria, it was time to move on.

He ambled downstairs and raided the fridge. The Sloanes' cook, a portly woman of middle age and pleasant demeanor, gave Tom an indulgent smile, which he returned. Tom assembled a roast beef sandwich in short order. It's nice to have a cook who doesn't treat every attempt to use the kitchen as a personal insult. He smiled again at the cook and took a healthy bite before heading off to find a book.

Fifteen minutes later, he was stretched out on the living room couch, paging through The Worm Ouroborous. Only crumbs were left of the sandwich, and the book was helping him calm down. This archaic writing is a bitch, but the Witches are just fun Suddenly, the doorbell rang, sounding shockingly loud in the silent house.

Putting down his book, Tom walked over to the door. Who could that be? Everyone I know is at school and everyone else is at work. Fighting down sudden misgivings he opened to door to reveal Jane, a pleasant expression pasted to her face. This is bad. "Oh, hi." He tried to keep his tone calm, even while his heart started to hammer.

"Oh, hi," Jane replied and for just a split second Tom had hopes that this could proceed calmly and smoothly before her eyes narrowed and her lips peeled back with rage. "Go to hell," she snarled and began pounding him with her closed fists.

"Hey! Stop! Ow!" Tom tried to calm her, but she backed him into the house, the tattoo of her fists against his chest and the hate-filled stare with which she met his eyes stopping him from speaking and making him back away.

After a moment, she stopped hitting and glared at him, putting her hands on her hips. "How COULD you?! How could you?!"

No need to ask what she's talking about. Even as he thought it, Tom cringed away from her. "I didn't mean it. It just happened."

"How could SHE?!"

"She didn't do anything. It was all my fault."

"Oh, don't give me that!" She crossed her arms and turned away, as if the very sight of him sickened her.

"She didn't want any part of this," Tom pled, hoping Jane would listen. "I screwed everything up."

She turned, looking like she was about to let him have it with both barrels, when suddenly all the rage drained out of her. "Now what?" she asked, her voice heavy.

Tom thought for a moment, then shrugged. "I don't know." I've never done this before.

They stared at each other for a long moment. Do something, dumbass! "Uh, we need to talk."

"So talk." Jane obviously wasn't going to make this easy. It's not like she should.

"Not here. Let's talk by the swings." She gave him an odd look, but followed him through the house and out the back door. They walked mostly in silence across the well-tended property.

Halfway between the house and the woods that marked the boundaries of the Sloane property, there was a little swingset surrounded by trees. Tom had played there often as a child. Now he took a seat on one of the swings, his legs stretched out in front of him and his eyes never leaving Jane. "Shouldn't you be in school?"

She gave him the look that had always told him they were about to have a fight. "Shouldn't you?"

"I ditched." He sighed and turned away. "I knew I wasn't going to be any use until I talked to you."

Jane looked down. "She told me in the hall, and I just couldn't stay there. I had to get away…" Her voice trailed off and the silence stretched.

"I'm a real idiot. No question about that."

"Who's arguing?"

"We should have just broken up, and I never should have dragged Daria into it."

She turned, blue eyes again ice-hard. "What do you mean we should have just broken up?"

He turned back to face her. "Come on," he said, sadly. "We weren't going anywhere. We were about to break up." And if I'd figured this out after the gummi bears, I could have spared the three of us a lot of pain.

"Yeah." Now it was Jane's turn to look away. "So now what? You going to go out with her?" For a moment she again met his eye, before looking away. "I guess I gotta get a new best friend."

"What are you talking about?" Tom's heart skipped a beat. Oh, please don't let me ruin their friendship.

"What I am going to do? Tag along on your dates? Forget it. That's too weird for me."

"Yeah." Tom wondered if the irony was lost on Jane. Probably not. In her own way, she's smarter than I am. He said it anyway, though. "I don't know why we expected her to do it."

A mordant chuckle, devoid of humor, escaped Jane. "You're gonna have just a super time dating Daria." Her tone tried to be mocking, and she twirled her finger in a fake "whoopee!" gesture, but to Tom's ear and eye it lacked bite. "She loves to have fun."

Watching Jane try to ridicule her best friend caused a wave of self-loathing to rise up in Tom. "I didn't say I was going to date her." I don't deserve her. Unable to say it, he added instead. "I know how antisocial she is." Another wave of disgust rose up in him. I'm really the prince of slime.

"Hey, she's all right. Give her a chance."

"What are you talking about?" Confusion warred with bitter amusement. Even now, she's defending her friend. "Do you want me to go out with her?"

"Of course not!" Jane barked and her blue eyes flashed, before fading. "I mean… I don't know." Her eyes dropped and Tom winced at the pain in her voice. "Just... Look... All that time, were you going out with me, just to get to her?"

What the…? "Are you crazy?!"

"I don't know. Am I?"

"I really like you, Jane," he said with a reassuring smile, and surprised himself by how much he meant it. "You're smart, you're funny, you have a great attitude, and you do everything on your own terms." He let a little of the old tenderness creep into his voice. "You're like... from a cooler world."

She didn't smile, but the corners of her mouth didn't sag and the pain left her voice. "I am, aren't I?"

"You really are." Thanks for letting me in.

"Too bad you're such a dork," she added almost as an afterthought.

"I know." He smiled, but there was nothing else to say. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes more, before Jane stood and walked herself out. Tom could only watch.

After she was gone, he sat for a long time. What do I do now? He knew he wanted to be with Daria, but he didn't know if he could bring himself to ask her. After all, she might not have me after how I treated her best friend. His mind moved over the many possibilities, finding a number of ways that he, Daria, and Jane could all be hurt more, and precious few happy endings. Maybe he'd be better off forgetting that he'd ever met Daria Morgendorffer.

When he finally headed back into the house, he'd made up his mind not to call Daria. I've done enough damage. Stopping to pick up The Worm Ouroborous, he headed to his room to read in peace. Once there, though, he found he still couldn't concentrate and put the book aside to lay back and contemplate the ceiling. I can't believe I cheated on a girlfriend. What was I thinking?

The self-recrimination continued unabated until several sharp raps at his bedroom door disturbed his concentration. Pushing aside the lethargy that had gripped him since Jane left, he opened the door and was confronted with an angry Elsie, looking put upon as only an irritated fourteen-year-old could. "Have you gone deaf, Tom? I must have yelled up ten times."

"Your concern touches me as always, Elsie." Tom gave his sister a flat look. "Now what was it you wanted?" Tom found himself oddly grateful to his sister. The irritation that Elsie always seemed to rouse in him was a welcome change from the torpor of the last several hours.

"The phone is for you. Your dork-boy friend." She gave him snide little smile. "If you want, I'll tell him you're too alienated to come to the phone."

"Or you could go back to acting like you're too good for the world and leave me in peace." Tom pushed past her and headed down the hall to library, which contained the upstairs phone. You'd think at seventeen, I'd rate my own phone. He picked up the receiver, shouting, "Hang it up, Elsie." An evil laugh floated up from downstairs. "Hang it up or Mom finds out about your driving experiences." He put the phone to his ear and was satisfied with the click of the other extension being hung up.

"Hey, Tom." Dave's voice held a note of concern. "Missed you at school today."

"I had some stuff to think about."

"Like Jane and that other chick? Daria, right?" Tom would have bet any amount of money that Dave was smirking when he said that.

"And this is your business why?" Tom snapped.

"Because I'm a friend, no? You haven't been yourself in a while."

A pang of guilt struck Tom. "You're right. I shouldn't have barked at you."

"Hey, no problem. I know things haven't been going well with you and Jane for a while, so I wondered if you wanted to talk about it."

"Nothing to talk about. We broke up." A simple statement, without inflection.

"Whoa! I didn't think things were that bad."

"Shows what you know," Tom chuckled ruefully.

"Hey!" Dave laughed. "You should know by now that I never know what I'm talking about. So what happened?"

"We got bored with each other. It just took us a month to figure it out." Tom hoped that Dave didn't hear the discomfort in his voice.

No such luck. "And?"

"And what? I told her it was over; she agreed. End of story."

"You, my friend, are full of shit! And don't hang up either, Sloane." Tom gave a guilty start, because that was what he'd just been about to do. "How does Daria figure into this?"

An uncomfortable pause followed. Damn Dave, anyway! Why's he have to be so perceptive. "Um…"

"Give, Sloane."

"I, um, sort of... kissed her."

Dave whistled, long and low. "You don't mess around, do you?"

"It wasn't like that," Tom said, defensive. "I went to talk to her, because she's smart and perceptive, and I thought she could help."

"Uh huh." Dave sounded less than convinced.

"Well, I thought that's why I went."

"So, what are you going to do now?"

Another uncomfortable pause stretched out. The million-dollar question. "I, uh..."

"No clue, huh?"

"Well, I like Daria, but it's complicated."

"Not really. Gonna go for her?"

"Oh yeah. Piece of cake." Tom's voice was bitter. "Hey, Daria, now that I've helped make your best friend hate you, we're going to Disneyland! That'll fly."

"Look, Tom, all that other stuff is bullshit." Dave sighed. "There's only one question here. Do you want to be with her? If you do, ask her out."

"Dave, you don't get it. Jane and Daria were the most important people in each other's lives, and that's over now, because of me."

"No, Tom. You don't get it." Dave's voice was unusually serious. "Even though you said it yourself."

"What did I say?"

"It's over. You can't put things back the way they were. All you can do is go forward. If you like Daria, ask her out. And if she says yes, then help her patch things up with Jane. But remember," Dave's warning rode over Tom's attempt to interrupt, "you running away isn't going to fix things between Jane and Daria."

"I suppose not." Tom paused. "I'm gonna go. You've given me a lot to think about."

"'swhat I'm here for." Dave laughed. "To sow confusion and chaos in my wake."

"Yeah. And thanks." With that, Tom hung up. He looked at the phone for a long minute. She's home by now. He thought about Jane, how they'd been so right and then gone so wrong. His mind shifted to Daria, how much she'd hated him and how far they'd come since then. He thought about what Dave said, and he picked up the phone.





Click. "Hello?" Her voice.

"Daria? It's Tom..."