It happens when Daria least expects it. She wishes she could be less cliché than that, but that's how it is, and you can't argue with the facts.
They're doing movie night at Jane's – 'they' these days being Jane, Daria, and Jane's new squeeze Tom. Trent has not made an appearance as Daria has hoped he would, and it is not lost on her that she has been reduced to pining for her ex-crush's presence, not out of some hopeless and misguided desire to be close to him, but rather simply for the sake of having someone to talk to who isn't one half of a lust-filled teenaged infatuation. If Daria sounds bitter, she decides through a mouthful of popcorn, it's because she is.
They're watching 'Welcome To The Dollhouse'. It's Tom's pick – he says his classmates have been raving about it – and as such is a predictably artsy independent film, rife with suburban stereotypes gone mad and actors who would never ever get a call-back in Hollywood. Daria has to admit that it's actually pretty good.
Or would be pretty good, if she could just be allowed to watch it in peace. But she can't, because every few minutes, every time, in fact, the bespectacled female protagonist is the butt of some joke or other humiliation, Tom shifts awkwardly in his seat, glancing at her over Jane's shoulders, and she can feel rather than see that obnoxious gaze linger on her for a second or two, before turning back to the movie.
Jane doesn't seem to notice, but Daria does, and it makes her blood boil. She knows why he's doing it of course: The superficial similarities between her own life and the character in the movie are glaring, to put it mildly, and he's obviously concerned about how she's taking it. Perhaps, she thinks, he's even worried she might suspect him of choosing it deliberately to discomfit her. Daria, though, unlike the poor child in the film, is not stupid and suspects no such thing, but the fact that Tom obviously sees her as someone so emotionally damaged as to be upset by some filmmaker's worst-case-scenario wet dream movie is infuriating. Especially when that first moment with the guitarist hits uncomfortably close to home.
Eventually, the movie draws to a close, and with it Daria's torment. Or so she thinks, for a handful of beautiful, golden moments before Jane, dear girl that she is, looks out of the window.
"Wow, it's really coming down out there," she comments, and the implication is clear: If Daria tries to walk home now, she'll get soaked and probably catch pneumonia, or tuberculosis, or something equally melodramatic. Maybe she'll even cough up blood.
In the past, such a situation would be easily resolved to the satisfaction of all by an invitation to spend the night on Jane's floor, but Tom is too quick for them:
"I'd be happy to give you a ride home, Daria," he offers liberally, his offensively handsome face all open and friendly. Daria thinks she would rather be coughing up blood.
"No, that's okay," she tries to decline, "I'm sure you two want to spend some quality time together once I've gone, so-"
"Well, actually, as much as I'd like that," and the glance he throws Jane as he says it makes Daria's skin crawl, "I really should be getting back to that History paper. Besides, if you try going out in this, you'll be wet to the bone before you get home."
Daria opens her mouth to protest and say that she likes getting wet to the bone, thank you very much, but Jane is too quick for her.
"Come on, Daria," she chimes in, no doubt seeing the possibility for some sort of ceasefire through a little one-on-one time in a confined space, "you've already made the required pro forma protests, and Tom doesn't mind, so live a little." Her tone is relaxed and disinterested, typical Jane, but Daria can hear the warning in it all the same, and knows that if she refuses again, Jane will take it as a personal slight to her boyfriend. Which, to be fair, it is. Still, the last thing Daria needs right now is to be fighting with Jane, and so she gives in without further argument.
"Great!" Tom kisses Jane goodbye as Daria grabs her jacket and discreetly slips into the hall to wait for him to escort her to the car.
"So, what did you think of the movie?" Tom keeps his eyes on the road as he speaks, and Daria considers her options: They've been making small talk for a little while now. Well, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Tom has been making small talk, while Daria has been acknowledging his attempts with as few words as basic politeness will allow, but still, she has to admit that it hasn't been terrible. Tom's a smart guy, or at least a well-educated one (no, her frankness forces her to admit, he really is smart), and Daria suspects that he honestly does mean well. It's at times like this when she is forced to consider how much of her dislike of him stems from Tom himself, and how much of it stems from her own jealousy over Jane's time and interest.
"Daria?" Realising that she has been silent for a few seconds too long, Daria shrugs.
"It was okay," she admits, and then, because she can't help feeling guilty all of a sudden and like she ought to be making more of an effort, cracks a joke: "It's amazing how well they know me."
At least, to Daria it is a joke. She thinks that, having spent the last 15 minutes sitting next to him completely without falling apart, he must have realised his mistake and be able to laugh with her. The flicker of horror that flits across his face at her words tells her instantly but too late, that she is wrong, and Daria wants to kick herself. What's done is done, though, and all she can do now is sit and watch him draw all the wrong conclusions about her earlier silence with a smile on her face.
"Hah, well, yeah," he offers nervously, seeing her smile and going with it, if not really believing it, "that's the great thing about well-made stereotypes, I guess: We call all see something of ourselves in them."
In spite of her annoyance with him, there's something like a tremor in Tom's voice that she can't help but pity, and it makes her oddly sympathetic for once: His reaction, she reasons, is maybe not so block-headed as she would like to think. The movie character, after all, does bear some undeniable resemblance to herself – the physical attributes, the prettier, more popular, more charismatic younger sister, the unrequited and hopelessly juvenile crush on the oblivious older musician. She supposes that, given the fact that he chose the film, coupled with her open dislike for him and his discomfort around her, it is not completely out of the realm of understanding that he might be a little touchy about the whole thing and be projecting onto her. Daria takes a deep internal breath, and tries to be flexible.
"True," she agrees, because it is. "Tell me Tom, which two-dimensional representation of Middle America did you relate to?" She's trying to be glib, and this time, thank God, he picks up on it.
"We-ell," he replies, with a chuckle that sounds suddenly more genuine. "I have to admit I did have moments of feeling an uncomfortably close bond with Mark. Pre-Jane, of course." They both laugh at that, not as much because it's funny as because it presents an excuse to laugh, and laughter breaks tension. Privately, Daria suspects that at that moment they would have laughed at a Benny Hill joke.
The tension effectively broken, they drive on in something like companionable silence for a bit. They're less than two blocks for her house, and Daria can almost begin to believe she is home-free, when Tom slows down.
"But seriously, Daria," he begins gravely, and Daria feels all her carefully nurtured hopes wither and die under a cloud of ghastly premonition. Tom does not disappoint: "You do know that you're nothing like Dawn, right?"
Daria has to count to ten inside her head and cling desperately to the knowledge that tearing Jane's boyfriend a new one would probably not be the best thing for their already somewhat strained friendship before she can answer.
"Right," she agrees, trying for levity through gritted teeth. "Tom, it was just a movie."
"Right!" He gives another one of those sharp, nervous laughs Daria is quickly learning to hate. "Because, even if she wasn't a complete stereotype, you have so much more going for you than she does, and, y'know, it's not like Trent thinks you're retarded or-"
But that tears it. The nervous babble dries up in his throat as he watches her face change. She can tell he knows he's say the wrong thing, the worst possible thing out of a number of bad things he could have said. She knows he's sorry, that he wishes he could take it back, even if he doesn't understand quite why. She also knows that she doesn't care; whatever desire might have felt to develop a rapport with this guy for Jane's sake died the minute he brought up that.
"It's not raining that much anymore," she tells him, not even trying to suppress the arctic coldness she can hear in her voice. "I think I'd like to walk."
"I-" For a moment, Tom looks like he wants to argue with her, point out how silly she's being, but a quick look at her tells him that this is not something that can be argued about.
"Um, sure," he agrees, subdued, pulling over. She answers his 'good night' with the barest threads of civility as she gets out, and then ignores him as he drives off.
Daria is right, and the rain has slowed to a drizzle by now. She welcomes the cool drops on her face as she sets off along the sleeping suburban street, pace brisk, boots hard against the wet concrete, trying to walk off some of the tension still gripping her body.
It takes her a moment to work out why she's so upset. It's not that she's still crushing on Trent – those feelings died months ago, when she began to realise exactly who he really was. Or, well, maybe not quite. Her crush died, any hope, realistic or not, of being with him romantically died, but the feelings that went with it didn't so much die as mutate. She doesn't want him anymore, doesn't harbour a secret hope that, one day, he may want her, but she can't deny that there is still a soft spot for him in her heart. She cares about him, a lot, for reasons she can't quite make sense of herself. Some of it is residue from a time when just the sight of those liquid brown eyes crinkled in a smile could leave her speechless, but it's more than that. Part of her wants to call it friendship, but that's not quite right, because they're not friends, not in any conventional sense. They may hang out together if they happen to be in the same vicinity, especially if Jane is there too, but the fact remains that they know each other through Jane, and Jane continues to be the focal point of their relationship. That, as far as Daria understands the term, is not a friendship.
But she trusts him, and that's really the key. Not trusts him in the sense of remembering appointments – even though, since the bitterness of the whole music fiasco has worn off, she can't help but remember all the times he's helped her and Jane, and wonder if that whole thing wasn't a little out of character, whatever Jane says – but, well, she trusts him with herself, whatever that means. All she knows is that she can talk to him in a way she can to few other people, save Jane. She can talk to him and he will see her for who she is and be interested in her, not because she's his student or sister or daughter or niece, but just because she's her. In her heart of hearts, Daria knows that, in a moment of true crisis, the first person she would run to after Jane is, not her parents or her sister or even her aunt, but Trent, a man she is not even friends with.
He's never done anything to deserve it, not really. Not unless you count being there for her at odd moments, pulling strings behind the scenes to get her and Jane back together when they've been on the outs, and not trampling on her feelings more than he could help when they were laid bare to him. Now that she thinks about it, she has to wonder whether trusting him to the extent she does is entirely sensible. Nevertheless, she can't help it, and, if she's honest with herself, isn't at all sure she wants to. Trust is not a thing she gives lightly, not in this sense – she can count on one hand the people she really trusts in this world, and removing Trent, or any of them, from that list would hurt more than she cares to admit.
Which, she supposes, is at least part of the reason why Tom's poorly judged but not unkindly meant comments managed to upset her so much. To hear him, him, of all people, who has stolen Jane from her and whom she doesn't even like, reduce what has somehow become one of the most precious – certainly the most complex – relationships in her life to a two-dimensional stereotype of modern suburban life is more than she can bear.
The other part, of course, is that, secretly, she's terrified that it's true. Not completely, of course, because no stereotype ever can be, but close enough that it stings. She can ignore it, tell herself she's being dramatic when it's only in her own head, but when someone, especially someone whose intellect she can't help but recognise, says it out loud, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to push aside. She tries anyway, reminding herself that, if nothing else, Trent is so far from being a Steve Rodgers that it's not even funny.
She's so wrapped up in trying to figure out her own head that she barely registers the car crawling up next to her. When the window rolls down, her immediate thought is that Tom is back, feeling guilty about leaving her in the rain, an expectation which makes the low rasp that finally comes from window all the more welcome.
"Daria?" He stops the car next to the curb and she turns to the window.
"What're you doing out?" She can't help but smile at the concern in his voice as she shrugs.
"Nothing special, just walking home after movie night."
"Oh." There is a pause, and then: "Isn't your house back that way?"
At this, Daria looks around her for the first time since she and Tom parted ways, and is mortified to find that he's right – she's walked right past the turning to her house and on in the opposite direction.
"I, um, didn't feel like going straight home," she mutters, feeling a blush rise to her cheeks.
"Oh." Trent sounds like he's been there, and Daria thinks that probably he has. "I'm not going straight home, if you wanna come with. The weather's kinda gross," he adds redundantly.
Daria's first impulse is to decline, quickly and decisively, just because he's asked. She checks her instincts, though, and forces herself to evaluate the situation objectively: She's wet and cold, and it's getting late. She's at least 20 minutes from home, even if she turns around right this instant. Trent's car looks warm and inviting, and he's not the sort of guy who would extend an offer without being serious about it – Daria slips round to the passenger side and gets in the car.
"Thanks," she says, as she fastens her seatbelt.
"No problem," he tells her, and she can't help but melt a little at the lazy half-smile he gives her, because, well, just look at him. He coughs into a closed fist and admits, somewhat unnervingly, "I could use the company, it helps stop me falling asleep at the wheel."
"Mmm," she agrees, and then, not wanting to dwell too much on the implications of that, "so, where're we going?"
"Gotta drop some sticks off at Max's place. He forgot them at practice and says he can't live without them, even for a night."
"Hey, a criminale needs his tools!" They both laugh at that, Trent for once managing not to go into a coughing fit. After that, quiet descends for a while, Daria letting the gentle hum of the warm car lull her into sleepiness, while Trent tries to remember the way to Max's in the dark. Through her doze, it occurs to her to marvel at how far they've come. Or she's come, anyway, because it's not as if Trent had anywhere to go. A year ago, if she had even been able to muster the courage to accept his offer, she would have spent the entire ride stiff as a board, either drowning in awkward silence or babbling helplessly in a fruitless attempt at relieving some of the tension pressing on her chest. She remembers feeling like this, she knows it to be true, but now it's almost impossible to imagine. Now, she feels wholly comfortable in his presence; comfortable enough that the silence which surrounds them is tranquil rather than deafening; comfortable enough that the thought of falling asleep in his car, with all physical and psychological vulnerabilities that entails, doesn't bother her more than to hope she doesn't drool on his seat. Now, she feels safe with him.
Suddenly, the car stops, and the rush of cold, wet air that fills the car as Trent gets out snaps her out of her haze. She blinks and looks around: They're in front of several large apartment complexes, one of which, Daria supposes, must be where Max lives. Moments later, Trent reappears sans drumsticks, which she chooses to take as confirmation. He seems a little out of breath as he hops back into the car, as though he's been running. Roughly, he scrubs a hand through his thick, ink black hair, in what appears to be an attempt at wringing some of the water out of it.
"Man, I can't believe Janey let you walk home in this," he mutters as he restarts the ignition, and Daria has to blush and look away.
"Um, she didn't, exactly," she confesses, and then, knowing that the question is coming anyway, "Tom drove me home, but I, um, asked him to drop me off before we got there."
"He was being a jerk." The words fly out with venomous intensity before she even realises that she's going to say them, and she claps a hand over her mouth as Trent laughs beside her.
"How come you hate the guy so much, Daria?" he asks after he's finished coughing. "Janey really cares about him."
"I know," she agrees, looking out of the window to avoid his deceptively languid dark eyes. "I don't know, it's just-" She turns back, wanting suddenly to look at him as she admits what she can't find the words to tell Jane.
"You know how jealousy can make you dislike someone through no fault of their own, right? Like, you're jealous of something the person has before you even meet them, and that alone makes you see everything they do once you do meet them in a negative light. And everyone can see you're jealous, and you know you're jealous, and that makes your dislike irrelevant, right? So, once you realise that the person is sticking around and you're going to have to deal with them, you start to think maybe you should re-evaluate the situation, and try to get over yourself, you know? Except that every time you try to see the person objectively, they do something to make you think you wouldn't like them even if you weren't jealous, but since you are jealous, you can't be sure because you don't know how far your jealousy has tainted you, and since no one else sees what you see-" She trails off, only to find Trent watching her with an odd intensity in his eyes. Somehow, she can't quite hold his gaze, and looks at the road instead as she finishes. "Since no one else sees what you see, you have no idea how much you can really trust yourself, you know?"
The question seems to snap Trent out of whatever he was in, and he gives her a small smile.
"No, I don't," he tells her quietly. "But I think I get it. What did he do?"
"Nothing much, I guess. We were watching this movie, and he might have made some connections between me and the main character which I didn't appreciate, and then he might have said some of them out loud, which I appreciated even less. And then I might have asked him to stop the car with the intention of walking the rest of the way home, only to get so worked up about it that I missed my turning and didn't even notice until you showed up." As she says it, she feels like she ought to be embarrassed, somehow, but the unexpected relief of saying it out drowns out all other feelings. Anyway, if there is reason for embarrassment, Trent does not appear to see it either.
"Oh," he says, and then, after a beat, "what movie was it?"
"'Welcome To The Dollhouse'." His blank face says it all, so Daria elaborates: "It's a dark satire on modern suburbia. Basically, there's this geeky girl who wears glasses, and she's the stereotypical nerd. At school, both the kids and teachers either hate her or treat her like she doesn't exist, and at home everyone likes her little sister better, because she's cuter and more of a crowd-pleaser."
"Pretty much." She trusts to Trent's usual obliviousness not to notice the blush that rises to her cheeks with the omission. For all the progress their relationship has made since the first the first time they met, she has never discussed her crush with him, or at least not explicitly. Even so, she somehow doubts that, if she starts talking about teenaged girls obsessing over cute older singer/guitarists who have no idea what their mere presence can inspire, even Trent's fairly prodigious powers of oblivion will be able to save them. And, as much as she really is over him, she doesn't think she could stand sitting there and listen to him letting her down gently.
Fortunately, Trent seems to have no intention of prodding at that particular can of worms.
"Oh," is all he says for a while. He seems to think about it for a while, before,
"Seems like kind of a stretch," he comments, and Daria is suddenly overwhelmingly grateful to him.
"Yeah," she agrees, unable to help the smile that takes over her face.
"I mean, I can see the glasses, but…"
That gets him a little laugh, which seems to satisfy him. He smiles as they drive on down the dark, wet streets of Lawndale.
"So," he asks after a little while, "you ready to go home yet?" There's no impatience there, nothing to make her feel pressured into saying yes. Everything about him says he would be quite happy to drive her aimlessly around Lawndale forever if she wanted, he's just looking for a status update. Daria, though, is beginning to feel the fact that it's almost midnight, and is happy to agree.
Trent swings the car back towards the Morgendorffer home, and they don't say anything more until they pull up in front of the detached red brink house.
"Thanks for the ride," she says as she undoes her seatbelt. "No problem," is the rasped reply, just as she knew it would be. She gathers her bag and reaches for the door handle.
"Yeah?" She turns back to face him, expecting a 'goodnight' or a 'see you later' or something equally banal.
"Just so you know, there's no way Quinn is prettier than you."
Daria's first thought is it's an off-hand comment, a kindly meant encouragement for his baby sister's insecure friend. God knows he's done it before, and there's no reason to think he means anything more now. The gleam in his dark eyes, the nervous catch in his voice, even the way the tension in the car is rapidly becoming unbearable, it all means nothing, she tells herself desperately, nothing more than it ever has.
And then he kisses her. From his side of the car, Trent Lane leans over and kisses her gently on the mouth. It's soft and chaste, but lingering, and the meaning is unmistakable. Daria sits frozen in her seat, not so much nervous as utterly bamboozled by this new development. His mouth is soft and warm, and she can just feel the prickle of his five o'clock shadow on her cheek, but Daria can't concentrate on any of that. All she can think about why he can possibly be doing this, it makes no sense, it has to be a mistake, what is he doing… With every passing second, she becomes more convinced that he'll break the kiss and either apologise or smile at her like it's no big deal, and she doesn't know which would be worse because, for all she's been studiously telling herself, she's not over him, oh, she's not…
Finally, after what seems like an eternity, he does pull back. His eyes flutter open, and he sits watching her with an unreadable expression on that beautiful face. Daria takes one look at him, has what she can only think of as a momentary internal freak-out, and comes back to reality.
"Thanks," she tells him, referring to his comment about Quinn simply for the sake of not giving him the chance to speak first. She gathers up her stuff again and opens the door, slipping out into the night. "G'night Trent."
If he replies, she doesn't hear him, as she makes her way up to the main door. Her mind has somehow gone oddly blank, and it's not until she reaches her room and has undressed for bed that she realises she is shaking.