Turnabout Confusion II: All the KIng's Horses

by Dennis

Monday:

Later on, Daria decided it was appropriate, given how many tears were shed before the end, that it all began in tears as well—Brittany's tears to be exact. It was Daria herself who came upon Brittany sobbing her eyes out in an in empty classroom on an otherwise quiet Monday morning two months after that fateful confrontation-filled Friday.

"Brittany," she said, with some hesitation. Daria was not generally comfortable around emotions, other people's or her own, but Brittany was good people, or at least not bad people, which counted for a lot in Lawndale High these days. Besides, she and Quinn had talked about Brittany as a possible wedge.

"Oh, Daria," Brittany said and threw herself on the other girl with a fresh storm of weeping.

Daria, unaccustomed to being used as a human handkerchief, took a minute to find her voice again. "Uh, what's the matter?" she said, trying for and failing at a sympathetic tone.

A flow of unintelligible verbiage and more tears greeted the question. Daria let the storm continue for another minute or two before putting an end to it. Empathy's not my thing, but short, sharp shocks? That I can I do.

"Brittany," she barked, "Pull yourself together and tell me what happened."

The tears dried up, and Brittany let go of Daria. "How can you," she started to say, shooting the other girl a shocked, angry look.

"I can't help you," Daria interrupted, unperturbed, "if I don't know what's wrong."

Tears began to well in Brittany's eyes again, but she mastered herself enough to reply. "I'm not... captain of the squad, anymore." A sob wracked her body but she bit back more. "Dawn threw me off."

"Threw you off? You're still wearing the uniform."

"Only f-f-for today," Brittany squeaked. "Dawn says if I don't turn it all my stuff t-t-t-tomorrow morning, she'll make sure I get d-d-dentention." With that, Brittany dropped to the floor, the dam breaking anew.

Daria patted Brittany awkwardly on the head, muttering nonsense. Inside, Daria's mind was seething. Okay, gotta find someone to calm Brittany down. And gotta let Quinn know. And she's not going to want to wait until the end of the day.

"Listen, Brittany," she finally said. "Can you stay here until homeroom? I'll see if I can find Jodie for you."

Brittany, still weeping, but more quietly, nodded.

"Good," Daria said and sped from the room, mind divided. Part of her was annoyed that her morning had been interrupted, and part of her was angry enough to break Dawn's jaw. But underneath that, an unaccustomed excitement was rising. Dawn bringing down Brittany was exactly the sort of change they were waiting for. Change brings opportunity, and this might be ours, Daria thought as she scanned the halls for Jodie.

For Dawn, it was just another bright Monday. Everything was wonderful in her world. True, dispensing with Brittany had shown a little bit more of the iron fist than she might otherwise wish—she preferred where possible, to show only the velvet glove—but Brittany was not someone she could readily control. Dawn didn't like things or people she couldn't control. Besides, breaking Brittany had been fun. And there was no one to challenge her anyway.

Angie, joining her at her locker disagreed. "I don't think that was a good idea, Dawn."

"What? The lip gloss? I'll be back to raspberry tomorrow." Dawn gave Angie a glib smile.

"Wow, you're wearing a new color today? I didn't even notice. Let me..." As she started to lean in to better see Dawn's lips and the purported new gloss, Angie suddenly frowned. "Wait a minute," she said in an accusatory tone. "That's not what I was talking about. I was talking about Brittany."

Dawn sighed. Angie was often dumb enough to be diverted by simple tricks, but every so often her mind would jump back on the rails. "What about Brittany?" she said, allowing a slight edge to creep into her voice.

"Well, don't you think she was a useful, you know, thing you put out front?" Angie asked, pretty face twisted with the unaccustomed effort of thought.

"Figurehead?"

Angie nodded. Relieved.

"No," Dawn snapped. "That was the entire point. Brittany is not a good figurehead because doesn't take orders. She's too dumb to listen and to nice to everyone to be really effective."

"Oh." Sudden understanding caused Angie to draw out the syllable. "So you're not going to bother with a figure-thingy."

"No," Dawn nodded emphatically. "If Brittany could do it, fine. But I'm not going to bother setting up someone else. I'm in charge, so let everyone can see I'm in charge." She turned at the sound of a step behind them. "Right Zoe?"

Zoe, under the sudden force of Dawn's attention, was forced to nod. "Right, Dawn."

Angie, hearing confirmation, looked relieved. Zoe, under Dawn's eye, as she'd been for the last two months, looked resigned. Dawn, seeing both expressions, looked pleased. That's right, Zoe. I'll keep you right under my thumb. And if you can't enjoy my ascension, well, I'll enjoy your suffering.

Together, the three girls headed off to class.

Brittany's sudden expulsion from the cheerleading team was the talk of the school by second period—even those who didn't expect to profit from it were lining up to enjoy the show, with only a few exceptions. Taylor was one of them. He regarded the machinations of the popularity game with a very jaundiced eye, having gained little from trying to game the system, and even less from trying to live within it. Sure, very little of the mud from a couple of months before had spattered him, and he could have maintained a solid level of popularity with little difficulty, but since his ill-fated liaison with Daria, he'd simply dropped out. His sole interest became getting decent grades so he could leave high school, and Lawndale, far behind.

A flash of green drew his eye involuntarily. He thought it might be Daria and for a long second his heart burned with the need to follow her, but he let the feeling pass. No hope there. His mind went back to her words on that fateful Friday. "I will never, ever forgive you," she'd said, and if he hadn't known Daria well, he'd known her enough to see that she only said what she meant.

With a certain black humor, he thought of the play at whose auditions they'd first spoken. The Lion in Winter had been an unmitigated disaster. Daria had been cast as Eleanor, but had dropped out on the very day she'd been cast. He'd chosen to stick it out, but his mind and heart hadn't been in it, especially since one of the cheerleaders—not Zoe, thank God—had been forced into the role to replace Daria. Adrian hadn't been able to remember any of her lines, and the school had a disaster to match Quinn's legendary turn in The Canterbury Tales, if without the food fight. I'll bet that was a learning experience for Dawn, he thought. Li's perfectly willing to let cliques dominate the students, but she expects obedience in turn. And she's got a far fouler sense of humor than even Dawn.

As he reached his locker, a squeaky male voice assaulted his ears. "Hey, Taylor," Corey said, his usual smirk firmly in place. Taylor ignored him.

"What's the matter, man? I thought you'd be excited. This has got to be the first time someone's spoken to you in a month." Corey's smirk grew even more unpleasant. He'd undergone a significant rise on the food chain, thanks to his dimness and his willingness to to anything to curry favor with Dawn or Skylar.

"Nope," Taylor shrugged, as he opened his locker and grabbed some books. "I'm comfortable with my social leprosy. Too comfortable, or I never would have left the bell in my locker after homeroom."

"Pity," said Corey. "After all, there are probably going to be some spaces opening up in the inner circle, what with Brittany taking the tumble."

"What''s that got to do with you, moron?" Taylor closed his locker. "Or are you planning on going out for the squad?" The though of Corey decked out in yellow and blue brought a chuckle to Taylor's lips.

"Ha, ha," Corey said. "If Dawn's pushing Brittany out, there's going to be major shakeups all over the school. A guy with an in could do well." He leered and made to nudge Taylor with an elbow. "Move up the class of girls he nails."

Taylor, having none of it, grabbed Corey's elbow and swung him around. "Look, idiot," he snapped, "Dawn dumping Brittany just means Dawn wants all the spotlight for herself. If you want to stick you neck out, fine. I'll enjoy watching you get your head handed to you. But you're beginning to piss me off," he gritted, the words coming through clenched teeth. "And you don't want to do that. Let's see you crawl in and out of the cheerleaders' beds with two broken legs."

"Fine," Corey snapped, pulling out of Taylor's grasp, and in doing so, banging his elbow against the wall of lockers. "You try to do a guy a favor," he said, rubbing his injured arm, "extend a hand—"

A feral grin lit Taylor's features. "Extend me another hand, and I'll bite it off."

Unsettled, Corey walked off a little hastily. Taylor had no soon settled into his peaceful isolation when a voice broke through. "Thanks for the show," it said in a rough growl.

Taylor whirled around to find Andrea leaning against the lockers behind him, as the halls quickly emptied. "What do you want?" he snapped.

"Nothing," she said, cracking the knuckles of one fishnetted hand. "Just surprised you had so much to say."

"I could say the same about you," he retorted, suddenly curious. Andrea never talked to anyone except the blond burnout, and occasionally another goth girl, a redhead one.

"Yeah, well," she said, "I usually don't have anything to say. But this time I have a word to the wise, if you'll take it."

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"The dumbass was right about one thing," she said, leaning in and lowering her voice. "Brittany getting dropped is a big deal. Dawn may not think so, but I'll bet a year's supply of black eyeliner that a shakeup is coming."

"And you know this because?" he said, doubt etching his voice. "You're not part of any clique."

"Gives me lots of time to watch," she replied, unruffled. "A lot of people don't like the shit Dawn pulled, and now she's put herself out in the open. I'd be shocked if someone doesn't try to take her down. And if that someone has someone smart on her side, she just might do it."

"Who?" he asked, in a whisper, as suspicion rose within him.

"Sorry, Giggles," she said. "You don't get that. Not yet, anyway."

Before he could say another word, she was gone.

Mack knew he needed some quiet time to talk to Jodie, and third period Study Hall seemed like the best time to get it. Not in the Study Hall, of course—too many of their classmates made a point of training their ears on other people's conversations as a means of seeking intelligence, whether for advantage in popularity politics or out of sheer mischief. He gave Jodie their signal for "escape together," and then asked for a bathroom pass. A bored Mrs. Bennett gave it to him no problem.

Instead of making his way to the Men's Room, though, he found his way to an empty classroom, where he was joined by Jodie a few minutes later. Study hall was ideal for quiet chats because very few of the teachers cared if you disappeared for half the period, something they were not so tolerant of during their regular classes.

Jodie wore a curious look as she entered. "What's up, Mack?" she asked without preamble.

"Just wanted to talk about... things." Now that they were together, he found himself reluctant to get to the meat of the matter.

"What things?" Jodie asked. Her Type A personality made her uncomfortable with waffling.

"You know, things. Stuff. Like Brittany getting kicked off the cheerleading squad. That was really nice of you to comfort her." Even to his own ears, he sounded inane.

Jodie sighed, impatience in every line of her body. "I'll been taking care of Brittany for years. Besides, it was Daria that tipped me off, this time, so if you want to thank someone, thank Daria. She needs it more than I do, anyway."

"Yeah, Daria." Mack nodded. "That's sort of what I wanted to talk about, too." Come on, Mack. If you waffle any more, you could open a breakfast place.

Jodie, expression fairly screaming, 'I thought so,' nodded. "Let me guess. You're uncomfortable getting involved in popularity games. Our respective positions and our skin color have protected us from the worst of it, provided we stayed out of it, and you're not sure it's worth tossing that away to get mixed up in this."

A pause followed Jodie's words. "Something like that," Mack finally said, a little sulky. Or exactly like that. How does she do that to me?

"We did talk about this," Jodie's tone was reproving, "when Daria and Quinn recruited us last month. We both thought it was a good idea."

"Yeah, well, I was a little madder, then, and more willing to listen. But now, with Brittany going down, I'm pretty sure Quinn's going to move this week, and I'm not so sure it's worth it anymore. In the end, it's just more popularity games. The Fashion Club puts one over on the cheerleaders, and Quinn puts one over on Sandi. Why should we involve ourselves in this?"

"That's not what we're getting involved in, Mack," Jodie said, a little sharply. "Remember, Quinn said she's out to break Lawndale's clique system, and that is something that's worth getting our hands dirty."

"You're right, Jodie," he said, keeping his voice even. "Breaking the whole rancid system would make things better for everyone, but is that what we'll be doing?" He caught her eye and held it. "I mean, when have you ever known Quinn Morgendorffer to keep her word? I've had time to think about it, and I don't want to be used as a pawn in someone's power play. We both know that being a black kid at a nearly all-white high school is tough enough without going out of your way to make enemies. I'd rather not do it to ensure that a redheaded popularity freak will have an endless supply of diet sodas with crushed ice for the rest of her high school years."

This time it was Jodie's turn for a long silence. As she lowered her head to think, a small smile crept onto her face. It wasn't a happy smile, but it was an understanding one, acknowledging this shared reality that only they understood. It stayed there as she looked up to meet his face anew. "I understand, Mack," she said, voice soft. "I don't want to be played for a fool either, but you have to remember, we're not trusting Quinn."

"Oh?"

"We're trusting Daria. And that's something I think we can both do."

Mack nodded, after a moment. "I think you're right. Daria's not going to let herself, or us, be used by Quinn." With a smile of his own, he added, "Thanks. I feel better about this now."

"Good," Jodie said, and slid her arms around his neck as she lowered her voice, seductively. "You have anywhere to be for the next little while?"

"Can't think of any," he said and leaned forward. "Anything you'd like to do?"

"Oh, I'll think of something," she said and pressed her lips to his.

Sandi contemplated her situation with a degree of vexation. This was nothing new. She'd spent the last two months in a constant state of vexation, since Quinn's little gambit had gone so disastrously wrong. Today, however, had added to her omnipresent irritation; she knew that Dawn's move against Brittany might provide an opening for her, but she had no idea how to exploit it. And for someone who'd made her high school career on exploiting the weaknesses of others, such an admission was a really good reason for vexation, irritation, annoyance—in fact, any negative emotion up to and including homicidal rage.

Quinn. Fucking Quinn, she snarled mentally. Stick me in this mess. I hope you burn.

Her mood was not improved by the approach of other Clubbies. Tiffany's utter vapidity was no use to her in the current situation, and Kelly's mere presence was a constant irritation—a reminder that Sandi Griffin was no longer the top of the heap, that she danced to someone else's tune. Consequently, she didn't bother to greet them when they arrived at her locker.

"Hey, Sandi," Kelly asked, not catching, or just ignoring, the cold shoulder. "What're we gonna do about Brittany?"

"What about Brittany?" Tiffany asked, and Kelly attempted to explain. Sandi ignored them both, hoping the diversion would allow her to escape, but no such luck. As she turned to go, Kelly met her eye with a challenging stare. "Well?"

"Well, what?" Sandi snapped. She didn't like discussing plans with Kelly. After all, Dawn had put her in the Fashion Club, not Sandi, and Sandi deeply hated the idea of having minions with divided loyalties.

"What are you going to do about Brittany?"

"There's nothing to do about Brittany, Kelly dear." Sandi used her faux friendly tone. "Dawn's taken care of it."

"And opened herself up." The other girl's response was quick. "There's all sorts of things we could do."

Sandi affected puzzlement "Why should we do anything?" And more importantly, why would I tell you about it, when I know you'll run right to Dawn.

The other girl seemed to deflate. "Whatever," she said with a shrug and disappeared. Tiffany followed moments later. Sandi herself was about to go when a familiar voice sounded behind her.

"Quite an interesting conversation," said Stacy Rowe, a neutral expression on her face.

"Eavesdropping, Stacy?" Sandi said. "That's a nasty habit."

"I've got lots of bad habits," Stacy said matter-of-factly. "Some good ones, too."

"Not to seem rude," Sandi's tone belied her words, "but we've got less than a minute to get to class and you haven't said word one to me in two months. What do you want?"

"To mend some fences," Stacy said. "Dates have been pretty thin on the ground since I left the Fashion Club."

"Left?" Sandi quirked an eyebrow.

"Left, got kicked out. It's all the same. I was mad for awhile, but I've calmed down. The old order came down and I was one of the casualties. I don't have any hard feelings." To Sandi's ears, Stacy hardly sounded like the same girl. She still had the pigtails, but they were hard to reconcile with the world-weary cynicism in her words. "But I don't like being stuck on the outside. I don't expect to be back in the Fashion Club, but I want to be useful. If I'm back under your wing, and you're still under Dawn's, I'm back in the food chain." With a wistful sigh, she added, "I know it really doesn't mean shit, but I miss being popular."

The wheels in Sandi's mind began to turn, and she regarded Stacy carefully. A tool to my hand just when I need one. She might be a thin reed, but she's smarter than Tiff and more loyal than Kelly. I might be able to do something with this. "I'll have to think about this, Stacy, but I'm certainly interested. Who knows?" she added with a predatory smile. "There might be room in the Fashion Club soon." She strode off as the bell rang.

Stacy watched her retreating form for a long moment. "I hope this is worth it," she whispered, almost like a prayer. Then she too headed off, to a class she was already late for.

Meanwhile, the young lady in the center of the spiderweb was finding her perch less than pleasant. Quinn sat at an empty lunch table in the corner, as she had for the past two months, but no one was really alone when they had a full-blown moral crisis to keep them company.

Quinn knew that Brittany was the key she was waiting for to put her plan—well, ostensibly the plan belonged to both Morgendorffer sisters, but in reality, Daria deferred to Quinn's intimate knowledge of popularity politics more often than not—into effect. In point of fact, Quinn hadn't known beforehand that Brittany would be the tool that would fall to her hand, but she'd had enough suspicions that when Daria managed to get the word to her, she wasn't surprised. Nor was she surprised that Brittany's sudden fall was the talk of every class.

The problem was that now that Brittany was on the chessboard, Quinn was suddenly reluctant to play her. After all, Brittany was goodhearted, if a little stupid, and would likely end up getting hurt again as the game played out. Of course, they'd probably all get hurt, since taking not only Dawn, but the whole system down was not going to be easy. But unlike the others, Brittany hadn't volunteered, nor would she be able to.

Of course, events don't always take internal conflicts into account, and so it was that a red-eyed Brittany appeared, suddenly hovering over Quinn. The blonde's normally bubbly squeak was reduced to a raspy whisper, as she confronted the redhead. "How do you do it?" she asked.

"Do what?" Quinn asked, intrigued.

"Hold your head up," Brittany said, as she took the seat next to Quinn. "Surviving not being popular." Her voice, already ravaged by crying, seemed on the verge of cracking again. "I'm not a cheerleader anymore. I'm not going to be popular anymore. I might even lose Kevvy. What I am going to do?" The last word ended on a plaintive wail, as Brittany buried her face in her hands.

Look on the bright side. You'll be rid of Kevin. That's one benefit. Quinn could almost feel the words hitting the back of her teeth. I really have been spending too much time with Daria. The sisters were very careful to play up their continued loathing for the last two months, but they'd been thick as thieves when safely within the walls of Morgendorffer Home Base.

"It gets easier," Quinn said, putting an arm around Brittany. "You just have to find other things to care about."

A wet, gurgling sound that might have been the words, "But this is all I care about," emerged from under Brittany's pony tales.

"I know," Quinn said. "It was all I cared about, too. But you can find something else. Why not go out for a team, instead of cheering for them?"

Brittany looked up. Her expression might have been incredulous, except it was still twisted from crying.

"Maybe not," Quinn gave a hollow chuckle. "But we can come up with something."

"We?" Brittany asked, giving Quinn a hopeful look.

"Sure," Quinn said. "I'll be right here whenever you need me." And whenever I need you, she added mentally, with a sigh.

Seventh-period music was one of the few parts of the day Zoe actually looked forward to. For one thing, she liked music—not as much as she used to like cheerleading, but still it was fun, with all the different sounds they got to listen to. Also, it was an all-grades class, so she didn't have to look at all the same faces of all the same juniors from her other classes. And, best of all, Music was an elective—and Dawn didn't like music.

It was amazing, Zoe reflected as she slid into her seat, just how much influence Dawn wielded over the social scene at Lawndale High. The majority of students—at least among the popular and semipopular—were restricted to dating people within the narrow bands of their social strata. Admittedly, that was how it usually worked, but Dawn had made it official—with lists and records. And if Dawn controlled the in crowds, she dominated the cheerleaders, who she saw as her minions and tools. Getting away from that, even for an hour, was worth whatever the music professor threw at them.

Today's class wasn't a real lecture. Mr. Bell was playing some early twentieth century symphonies. The music gave Zoe the time to think, and to scan the room. She tried to meet the eyes of Brooke, three rows behind her, but the other girl just turned away.

The former social climber had not taken her defeat at the hands of Quinn well. Brooke had missed two weeks of school after that Friday, and when she came back, she seemed like a different person—morbid, antisocial, buried in a cloud of gloom. If she'd even gone all black, she could have kept some goth chic. As it was, she dressed in dull browns and grays and said little to anyone. If it wasn't for her plummeting grades, Zoe (and many others) would have said she was trying to give Daria Morgendorffer a run for her money.

At the thought of Daria, Zoe felt a familiar stab of guilt. She'd heard from other people—Taylor hadn't said word one to her in two months—that Daria's brief foray into popularity and socialization was long over. If anything, she was more impenetrable than ever. Even Jane Lane, also in this class, her desk in the far corner of the room, no longer hung out with Daria. Thanks to me, Zoe thought harshly. It was Dawn's idea, but I was the one who carried it out.

The music, by Aaron someone—Not Spelling. That's the TV guy. What's the composer's name?—contrasted Zoe's mood. It was surging, triumphant, and she was glum and guilty. All sorts of lives had been torn apart by Dawn's powerplay. She supposed Quinn had gotten what she deserved—after all, Brooke's savaging had been at Quinn's hands, not Dawn's. But Dawn knew what was going on. We could have stopped it, if Dawn had wanted to, but Brooke was a future obstacle to be taken down now.

And Quinn, Daria, and Brooke weren't the only people hurt. Tori Jericho had taken a big fall, and Stacy Rowe had spent weeks crying around school. Even Sandi and Tiffany had been more miserable lately. And a lot of good guys found their dating opportunities cut, while louses like Skylar Feldman and Bret Strand had the run of the school. Good guys like Taylor. Poor Taylor. I called him my friend, and look what I did to him. Now Brittany Taylor had taken a fall for no reason other than being in Dawn's way. Britt had been a great cheer captain as far as cheering was concerned. But now that the cheer squad was Lawndale High's very own KGB, Brittany was out, and it didn't matter if it broke her heart.

Her mind wandered these unhealthy paths for most of the rest of the class. So many people were miserable because of Dawn, and if she was honest, because of her, too. And she was in it, and couldn't get out. Dawn wouldn't let her quit the cheer squad. If she complained , she knew she was likely to get the "honor and glory of Lawwwwwwwndale High" speech from Li and then get thrown back to Dawn. And Dawn, as Zoe well knew, had ways of making the lives of her fellow cheerleaders miserable.

Maybe it's worth it, Zoe thought. Even if it's only high school politics, it's still about right and wrong. I've been on the side of wrong for too long. Maybe I have to suffer to be on the side of right. But where is the side of right? She let her eyes roam over the room again as she thought. So far as she knew, there was no opposition to Dawn. Even Quinn seemed to have broken. Not that Quinn's ever been on the side of the angels, or the side of anyone who isn't Quinn.

After a moment, her eyes lit on Jane again. True, Jane had overall benefited from the shake-up. She was back on the track team with rising popularity and a really dishy boyfriend. Zoe had tried Evan a time or two, but never kept his eye. But Evan, at least, was honest. Unlike Skylar, Bret, and some of Lawndale's other Don Juans, Evan didn't lie his way into girls' hearts or make promises he had no intention of keeping. And neither, from what little Zoe knew, did Jane—Jane, who had lost her best friend because of Dawn.

An idea suddenly formed in Zoe's mind. She wasn't sure it was a good or productive idea. After all, she and Jane hadn't talked to hear other once, in class or out, even before Zoe had given Jane cause to hate her. Now... Still... if there's an anti-Dawn resistance, Jane will know who's at the center. After all, she's one of the few people who can openly tell Dawn where to shove it.

As the music stopped, Zoe made her decision. When class ended, she grabbed Jane's arm before the lanky girl could leave the room. When Jane whirled with rage in her eyes, Zoe almost gave up then and there, but she steeled herself. "We need to talk," she whispered.

Jane's tone was icy. "You want to let me know which of your internal organs I should pull out first?"

Despite herself, Zoe blanched.

"I know what you did to Daria," Jane grated, "and the only reason I haven't taken your head off is that she asked me not to. But if you think I have to listen to you, you're out of your fucking mind."

"You're right," Zoe said, letting go of Jane's arm. "You have no reason to listen to me. But I have something to ask you."

"What you're going to ask me?" Jane laughed, a bitter bark. "You're one of Dawn's flunkies. You could ask me the time and I wouldn't tell you." She turned to go.

"Wait!" Zoe cried. "I know what I did was wrong, and I know I can't put it right, but I want to help."

"Help with what?" Jane snapped. Her body vibrated with the need to be gone, but she stayed for a moment nonetheless.

"I want to—" Zoe paused and looked around. Seeing no one in the room, she continued, but in a whisper. "I want to help take down Dawn."

"Take down Dawn?" Jane's voice rose with incredulity, even as Zoe's eyes went round with horror. "You must think I was born yesterday. A cheerleader, in the inner circle of the Pom-Pom Mafia, says she wants to help take down her glorious leader. Tell me another one."

"I'm serious," Zoe hissed. The rational part of her could understand Jane's scorn, but a more elemental part felt anger rising.

"So'm I," Jane said coldly. "You can go back and tell Dawn. There's no one trying to take her down."

"Fine," Zoe snapped. "I'll do it myself," she said, and stalked from the room.

Jane watched her go, a suddenly calculating look crossing her face. She wasn't sure what this little tet-a-tet really meant. But she was sure she had to tell Daria and Quinn.

Anthony DeMartino's eyes moved from face to face around the teacher's lounge table, before finally settling on Ms. Li's. It wasn't often that Li called impromptu staff meetings. Most of her staff meetings were very, very promptu indeed, with a podium set up in the auditorium and at least an hour long speech to be end. This time, however, all the teachers had gotten a note asking them to be in the lounge at 4:30. And now it was 4:30 and everyone was here, waiting to find out what was going on.

Without even a preamble, Ms. Li got right down to cases. "Samantha has an issue she wants to discuss with me. Since it impacts on," she cleared her throat meaningfully, "larger issues, I thought everyone should be here."

Ms. Morris rose, all six feet of her. DeMarino felt a slight pricking of anxiety. He didn't like Amazon women; he preferred them meek and docile. Morris was anything but. Not that she'd go for me, or any other guy, I'm sure. Between her and Barch. He shook his head slightly and focused on what she was saying.

"Angela," Morris said, "I don't think dropping Brittany from the cheer squad was a very good idea. Since it was your idea, I strongly urge you to consider reversing the decision."

Before Li could respond, Janet Barch roared to her feet. "That's what this is about," she snapped, her voice raised in a witch's shriek. "Those insipid pom-pom wavers? How dare you waste our time like this."

"Um, Janet," TImothy O'Neill said in his usually diffident voice. "I think we should hear everyone you."

"Timothy is quite correct," Li snapped. "Please sit down, Janet, while I explain why I'm going to ignore Ms. Morris' request." Barch subsided, as Morris half-rose again.

"Sit down, Samantha. I have it in mind," Li said, rising and beginning to pace the room, "to attach certain responsibilities to the position of head cheerleader, responsibilities Brittany Taylor does have the mental equipment to fulfill."

Another uneasy feeling rose in DeMartino, one that had nothing to do with misogyny and everything to do with Li's overtly fascistic tendencies. "Excuse me, Ms. Li," he said, his staccato emphasis giving his words a strange authority. "Exactly who will be replacing Brittany as head cheerleader?"

"I believe it was Dawn Wilkins, was it not?" Morris's voice was strangely brittle. Her obvious discomfort made Demartino's unease rise even higher.

"Yes," Li said, with affected calm. "Ms. Wilkins is a longtime member of the cheerleading squad and her organizational skills are far superior to Ms. Taylor. I feel those skills can be an asset to the school in many different ways."

"In other words," Demartino snarled, "you're going to use her because she won some stupid popularity game by showing a level of moral decay suitable to a Third World dictator or College Republican."

Li stopped her pacing long enough to confront him. "Mister DeMartin," she said, "please control yourself. I merely feel that Ms. Wilkins abilities can be used to maintain order among the students as a prerequisite for bringing honor and glory to Lawwwwwwndale High." Her drawn out pronunciation of the name of his purgatory brought the usual nausea to DeMartino's stomach.

An unexpected voice chimed in. "I don't think this is a good idea." Claire DeFoe never spoke during these meetings, except to defend art funding. "It seems too much like rewarding base cruelty."

"How do the rest of you feel?" Ms. Li asked.

Heads nodded, and several murmured, "I agree with Ms. Defoe's could be heard."

"Well, you're all overruled," Ms. Li snapped. "I will impose order on this school. Clearly, throwing surreptitious support behind that ridiculous Fashion Club wasn't enough, and Ms. Wilkins is perfectly willing to work with the administration to ensure harmony."

DeMartino's jaw dropped with shock, "Do you mean to tell me...," he blurted before he could stop himself. As he gathered himself, he noticed looks of shock on almost all the other faces, and a look of shame on Mrs. Bennett's. "that you instigated the bloodletting of a couple of months ago?" Some of his better students had been badly damaged by that fiasco.

"No," Li's smile was smug. "The little piranhas did that all by themselves. It did serve a purpose, though. It told me which one could be used to keep all the others in line." A crafty look, almost an evil one, came into her eyes. "And that's just what I intend to do."

Jane crept through the darkness along Glen Oaks Lane, carefully avoiding the light of the street lamps. Part of her reveled in the sheer artistry of her cloak and dagger antics, while her sensible side wondered if it were really necessary. Quinn had been adamant, though. Other people could fabricate reasons to visit Morgendorffer Home Base, but Jane was too well known as Daria's friend. If she had to come, she was to make sure no one saw her.

And since when do you listen to Quinn? One house away from her goal, Jane ducked behind a shrub to avoid a lone pair of headlights.

But that's the point, she thought in response to herself. The goals are Daria's, but the plan is Quinn's. So if this is going to work... Her thoughts trailed off as she reached her goal. She moved quickly along the side of house that was in shadow until she reached the back window, Daria's window. Some gravel gathered earlier and expertly thrown provided the needed rattling against the glass, and a light soon came up. At this prearranged signal, Jane slipped over to the back door.

After a moment, the door slid open and angry eyes under a mop of red hair glared at her. "You're late."

"Good to see you too, Quinn," Jane said, with a mocking half smile.

'Skip the small talk. Why were you delayed? Were you seen?" Behind Quinn, Jane could see Daria hovering, looking sleepy.

"I had a date with Evan, and you have no idea how stupid I felt asking him to drop me off halfway between my house and your house. Now let me in. I'm getting cold standing on the doorstep."

Quinn looked like she wanted to continue the interrogation, but Daria stepped forward, moving her sister out of the way so Jane could enter.

"Thanks, amiga," Jane smiled, as the three girls took seats around the kitchen table.

"So," Daria said. "What's so important that you had to cost Quinn her beauty sleep?" Quinn fixed her sister with a glare, which Daria ignored.

"Intelligence," Jane said. "A possible defector from the other side."

"And it couldn't have waited until tomorrow?" Quinn snapped. "You could have gotten me a note."

"I wanted to talk to you in person, since this is a pretty big fish. Besides, I figured you'd just ignore the note." She could see the suspicion growing in the faces of both sisters. "After all, it's not someone that's very popular with you right now."

Neither Daria nor Quinn said a word and both their faces were suddenly unreadable. The silence stretched as Jane decided how best deliver her news. Eventually, she settled on the simple approach. One word. "Zoe."

Sudden pain crossed Daria's face, making Jane regret her decision to come. The anger in Quinn's voice reinforced that feeling. "What were you thinking, Jane? She's going to run right to Dawn and there goes the element of surprise!"

"Give me some credit, Quinn." The sudden heat in Jane's voice matched Quinn's. "She approached me, not the other way around. And I blew her off."

"So why bother telling us? She was just spying."

"I don't think so." Jane paused to think. "She made sure no one was around before she talked to me. And you didn't hear her. She sounded pretty desperate."

Quinn waved a hand dismissively, but before she could speak, Daria interrupted, voice a whisper. "How desperate, Jane?"

"Like she was trapped in a situation she couldn't escape." Jane gave a smile. "I've seen the same expression on Nick's face after arguments with Max. Listen," she continued, serious again. "I know we think Zoe is Dawn's right hand because we never see the two apart, and because of what she did to Daria, but what if we're wrong? Maybe Dawn keeps Zoe under her eye because she doesn't trust her. Evan said she's not really enjoying the perks the way the other cheerleaders do. Nikki and Angie are vying for some of your old records, Quinn."

Quinn grimaced at the reminder of her old social status. Jane wasn't sure if the grimace was at the reminder of how shallow she'd been or at the lifestyle she'd been denied the past two months. "Whatever. It's a scam."

Daria looked thoughtful. "I don't know, Quinn. Another window into the other side can always be helpful. I think we can use Zoe."

"I don't believe it," Quinn gave her sister an incredulous stare. "You'll forgive Zoe after what she did to you?"

"I didn't say forgive, Quinn. I said use. That's a different thing altogether." As she spoke, her smile became predatory, as did her sister's after a moment.

Jane found the matching expressions on the two Morgendorffer girls suddenly frightening.

End Monday