Retribution

The Final Chapter in the "Undone" Trilogy

by Diane Long

Chapter One

"There's No Place Like Home"

Daria set down the can of furniture polish on her desk and sighed, absently flicking her leg with the dust cloth. After a whole afternoon of cleaning, her office had started to look lived in again. A year's worth of dust wasn't easy to remove from hundreds of books and the process had left her very grimy; her skin crawled. She hated cleaning; a part of her selfishly wished that Trent had kept the place tidy in her absence. But then again, she was lucky he hadn't thrown it all away.

Daria looked at a framed photo on the shelf. In it, she and Trent laughed over espresso in a quaint French street side café. That was during the good times, before last year. Before Dominic. Guilt settled heavily on her shoulders. From her current perspective, at the end of it all, it was so clear that she had acted the fool, but at the time, her behavior had seemed rational. She leaned against the desk and ruminated. How could she have been capable of such coldness, such manipulation? Trent was, hands down, the most important person in her life, and she had unfairly discarded him the moment things got rough. Had the situation been reversed, he would have loyally stood by her to the end.

Daria turned around and looked back and through the door connecting her office to the hall, listening for signs of him. All was silent and the shadows stayed still, indicating her solitude. Biting her lips, she returned to her thoughts.

Beyond belief, she had stooped even lower in her liaison with Dominic Greyson. Broken hearted and cold, she had decided to use love as a weapon. If she couldn't be loved, she would fashion that emotion into a tool for survival. That it had backfired on her wasn't the point; it was the fact that she could ever be capable of such things that twisted her guts. She was a bad person. She had deserved everything that had happened to her.

She looked around her now gleaming office, many of the items here presents from those who loved her. Love she had never deserved. Why had she come back here to darken Trent's door? Who knew what she might do to hurt him next? She absently picked at the seams in her jeans. She shouldn't be here. She shouldn't be allowed to be happy again. But where would she go? Just today, in one trip, they had brought all of her things from her apartment and closed down the lease.

Ah, there it was. She was staying because she had nowhere else to go. She was using him, just like she had tried to use Dominic. That was her. A user. She looked towards the window. It was a long way down. And it would be so easy. Just push up the sash and jump. It would be like flying.

"You love me, right?" asked Trent from her doorway.

Daria started out of her reverie but didn't turn around. "Yes." The window glass caught the light of the lamp and reflected the room back at her.

"Then don't look at the window like that."

Daria shuddered and nodded, hugging herself, trying not to be tempted by the darkness that beckoned from behind the reflection.

She heard footsteps slowly approach, then felt a hand fall upon her shoulder with a feather soft touch. "I thought you'd been in here too long. Thinking?"

She nodded. "Too much."

"What did our therapist say about that?" he asked gently.

"To talk to you."

He slid his arms around her. "As an alternative to jumping out of the window, maybe?"

She nodded guiltily.

"So talk."

"It's the same story, Trent. I don't want to bore you."

"How many times do I have to tell you that it won't?"

"I'd rather not talk about it."

"That doesn't cut it anymore," he said patiently.

Daria looked over her shoulder at him, her eyes glassy with unshed tears. "I can't. I'll cry."

"No shame in that." He hugged her tighter.

It was almost as if he had squeezed some of the sorrow out of her. A steady fall of tears leaked out of her eyes as she pursed her lips and stared at the ceiling, willing the salty flow to stop.

"I'm a bad person," she whispered. "How can you not see that?"

Back behind Daria where she couldn't see it, Trent's face screwed into an angry scowl. Here were the invisible scars of Daria's entanglement with Dominic. "No, you are not," he said firmly. "I love you."

Daria cried harder. "And I don't deserve it."

"You deserve it more than anyone I know."

Daria just shook her head, denying him. Trent let go of her, and walked around to the front to the desk and knelt before her, taking her hands. "Morgendorffer, I'm not saying you didn't make some major mistakes."

Daria dropped her gaze from the ceiling and looked him in the eyes. That had gotten her attention.

Trent chaffed her hands a bit and bravely pushed forward. "But I am saying that mistakes don't take away your humanity."

Daria sniffed.

"So, as a human, you can fuck up and still deserved to be loved."

She cocked her head to one side and considered. "So you really do love me?"

"Oh, man, yeah." Trent's eyes were now glassy.

Daria wiped her eyes, her mood lifting. "Damn him, anyway. I wish he still couldn't hurt me so much." They both knew whom she was talking about.

"That's why we're in therapy, to get rid of all of that. Together." Trent kissed her hands.

"These moods come up so quickly," she said, getting to her feet. "I should have come to you before the worthlessness set in."

Trent sprang to his feet also. "Yeah. Um... maybe you should go back to stay at Janey's. Her highest window is only two stories high," Trent mused, only half-kidding.

Daria had been staying at Jane's for about a month now, as both she and Trent wanted to move slowly with getting their lives back together. Jane had accepted the news of Daria's struggle with little surprise and took over the first steps of nursing Daria back to health, both physically and mentally. She had been there for Daria in a way no one but a dear, deep friend could be, not even Trent. Daria had needed a break from the men in her life. Jane had given her refuge and solid advice. The therapist had been her idea.

"No," Daria said softly. "It's time to move on. Besides, Jane needs to finish healing herself, and she spent way too much time on that walker with me to fuss after."

Trent pulled Daria into a light embrace. "It's good to have you home."

"It's good to be home," she whispered into his shoulder. "I'm feeling better now. It's passed."

Trent drew back and looked at her. Their therapist had told them to expect these moods to come, often unexpectedly, and that talking them out would help them to lift. She had also told Trent in private that while Daria might think about suicide, it was unlikely she would carry it out. Still, Trent worried.

"Are you sure?" he asked, searching her eyes for shadows.

"Yes," she muttered, embarrassed. "New subject?"

Trent smiled. There she was, the Daria he remembered. "Well, I was just coming in to ask if you were ready for bed. It's late."

Daria smiled shyly. "Uh, yeah. Bed."

Trent took her hand and they left the office, shutting off the light as they went. They walked into the master bedroom, and Daria smiled to see things relatively unchanged. Her glance slid awkwardly over the bed and she blushed. They weren't going to see or do anything new no matter what happened tonight, but it had been so long, and so much had passed between them, that Daria felt acutely shy, like the awkward teenager she had been so many years before.

Trent smiled. "I'm gonna take a shower. Your things are still in the drawers." He looked as if he might say more, but decided against it. Instead, he walked into the master bath, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Daria was hot, sweaty, and coated in a year's worth of dust, dust that had collected over her things as her life disintegrated elsewhere. She longed for a shower, too. In the past, she might have just joined Trent in the shower, but not tonight. Not just now. Maybe it would be better to get changed.

She walked over to her dresser and pulled on the ornate knob of the top drawer. Folded neatly, just as she had left them, were her night things. She passed over the satin and lace numbers and selected a substantial linen nightgown that had a sweetheart neck and spaghetti straps. The gown went all the way to her ankles.

She slipped out of her clothing and quickly wiggled into her pajamas. She cast an uncertain glance on the double bed and walked over to her dressing table and picked up her favorite brush, another old friend. She rubbed her hands lovingly over the ash handle and soft boar bristles. Smiling softly, she began to brush her hair, the rhythmic movements soothing her. She brushed her hair until her scalp tingled and the sound of the shower in the bathroom stopped.

She replaced the brush to the table and faced the bed. It was time. She hurried over to it and threw back the duvet on the side she normally occupied and crawled between the sheets, drawing them up to her chin. There was no reason why this should be so difficult, yet it was. It was somehow like trying to bail the Titanic with a teacup: too much at once.

The bathroom door opened with a waft of steam and Trent emerged, wearing only a pair of plaid cotton boxers that rode low on his hips. An obvious concession to the strangeness of the situation; he usually went to bed bare. He ran a hand through his wet hair and smiled at her. He flipped off the overhead light and approached the bed. Daria watched his shadow, and felt, more then saw, him slip into bed beside her. Was it her imagination, or did he feel as stiff as she felt?

"Good night," he said in a strained voice.

"Night," she whispered back, feeling his warmth radiating out towards her. She turned away from him, her hair stretching out across the pillow behind her. There was a long moment of silence, with both of them listening closely for something neither could define. It was quiet tonight; not even the sounds of the busy streets below failed to reach them.

Trent stretched out, his foot brushing Daria's calf. "Oh, sorry," he said sheepishly, snatching it back as if it had been burned.

"Its okay," she said in a low voice.

"Really?"

"Yes, really. I've felt your feet before. You kick in your sleep, if I remember correctly."

Trent slid his foot back so it lightly rested against her calf. The connection relaxed both of them. Before long, Daria felt him carefully stroking her long hair. She sighed happily. This was a creature comfort she had done without for so long. Trent loved touching her hair, and she loved having him touch it. It was a soft, gentle expression of love. It warmed her aching heart.

"Hold me?" she asked quietly.

Her answer was the crisp sound of shifting bed linens as his warm body curled against her back, his arms draping around her as he nuzzled her neck.

"Welcome home," he whispered.

"Mmmm," she sighed, and let sleep overtake her.

Chapter Two

"Doctor, Doctor, Give Me the News"

The psychologist's office was decorated to lend an air of calm tranquility to the setting. Sunlight streamed in through the sheer drapes of the high windows. Bright pastel sketches of sunflowers and foxgloves decorated the walls that weren't already covered by tall bookcases. Comfortable chairs invited visitors to relax, and discrete boxes of tissues on every table invited them to cry. But as usual, the visitors to this place were far from happy.

Daria sunk deeper in to her chair and turned her face to the wall, carefully examining the exposed bricks. She hated coming here.

"Daria?" asked a calm voice.

Daria sighed but didn't look up.

"Daria, are you going to answer my question?"

"I really don't want to."

"Why not?" asked the voice.

"Because it makes me feel... badly."

"Badly? Can you explain that for me?"

Daria looked over at the middle-aged woman. She was plump and cheerful, her graying honey-colored hair tied into a ponytail. She wore loose fitting, yet elegant clothing in earth tones, a silver goddess pendant hung low against her breasts on a silver chain.

Daria smiled wryly. "How about you? You're the big therapist with a Ph.D."

In an identical chair next to hers, separated only by a rosewood end table, Trent snickered and caught Daria's eye and mouthed "good one" silently.

The woman chuckled warmly. "You know, Daria, you're very well defended."

"Excuse me?"

"Your sarcasm. You've really developed the art of keeping your soft spots hidden under your words. However, if you want those bruises to heal, you're going to have to take a risk." She said this in a kind, yet no-nonsense tone.

Daria didn't respond, but looked thoughtful. That had made sense.

"Let me rephrase," the psychologist said. "How does talking about Dominic make you feel?"

Daria interlaced her fingers and, still facing forward, slid her eyes over to Trent. "Cheap," she said shortly.

The woman looked encouraging. "Because?" she pushed.

"Dr. Vanta," Daria addressed the woman hesitantly. "He owned me. I let that happen."

Dr. Vanta jotted a note down on a legal pad she was balancing on her lap. "How did that come to be?"

Daria gently pulled a tissue free from the box that sat under a damask shaded lamp on the table next to her. She twisted it between her hands while she selected words.

"I was, well, it seemed like I was dead when I met him. Nothing really mattered anymore."

Trent made a sad sound in the back of his throat and looked at the floor.

"How long was this after you had left Trent?" asked Dr. Vanta.

"About six months. I was in trouble. My contracts were falling apart. I almost even asked Trent for help."

"What?" asked Trent loudly. "Why didn't you?"

"Because the last time I had seen you, were practically making out with Monique and a bottle of champagne," Daria snapped defensively. "I didn't like you very much."

Trent frowned. "That's fair, but why didn't you use me? To get back at me, ya know? It would have been safer."

"I was broke, my rent was due, I had no food, and I was trying to forget you as hard as I could. Did you think I was at all rational?" Daria asked tiredly. "And the night I tried to see you at the bar you played at, Monique was with you."

Trent swore.

A suspicious cast glazed Daria's eyes, and she ripped the tissue in half. "I'd forgotten about that. You really were seeing her after all, weren't you?" Daria started to rise.

"Sit," Dr. Vanta said firmly, pointing at Daria.

Trent stood up. "I've told you, I had a hard time getting her to sell her half of the musical. I had to meet with her." Now both of them were standing, glaring at each other with hurt eyes .

"Either you both sit, or the session is over," Dr. Vanta said, again in that calm yet firm voice. They both sat, quickly, like chastened children. Dr. Vanta thoughtfully tapped her pen against the note pad. "Trent, what are you so angry about?"

"Daria doesn't trust me," he answered sadly.

"Is that all?"

"It's just that, if Daria had asked me for help... maybe, maybe she wouldn't have been so hurt," Trent sighed with regret.

Daria flushed and held out her hand. "I'm sorry. I do trust you."

Trent took her hand and smiled, but also quirked an eyebrow at her.

"Well, more than I trust most people," she admitted.

Dr. Vanta looked at her watch and turned her note pad upside down. "I think that's enough for today. You two are doing great. This can be really tough work, so don't feel too bad when it makes you angry. It works that way."

Daria stood up and stretched. "I always feel worse when I leave then I did before I came here," she admitted.

Dr. Vanta opened the door and smiled, the crow's feet around her eyes deepening merrily. "That means we're doing some good work. If you wanted to feel good for the short term, you should have invested in a Caribbean cruise instead."

Daria and Trent chuckled ruefully and exited into the marbled hallway of the office building. The office door locked behind them with a soft click.

"Want to drown our sorrows in double cheese burgers and a milkshake?" Trent asked, taking Daria's hand as they walked down the staircase.

"Are you still trying to fatten me up?" she asked sourly, the funk of the session still cloying her thoughts.

Trent considered. "Let's see." He grabbed her under her arms and spun her around, lifting her off of her feet.

"Whew!" he grunted, setting her back down. "Let's make that a salad with light dressing instead."

"Hey!" she laughed in mock outrage, playfully punching his arm, her expression clearing.

"Well, what do you want for lunch, then?" he asked as he took her hand again and they exited the building.

Daria looked across the street and smiled. "A snow cone. A grape snow cone."

Trent followed her glance to the vendor and groaned. "For lunch?"

Daria snickered and pushed the walk button at the crosswalk. "And a hotdog with sauerkraut."

Trent looked ill. "Fine, but I'm making supper. A healthy supper, with real food," he kvetched, a smile tugging at his lips.

Daria smiled softly and squeezed his hand. "That's fair."

As the light changed, a man in threadbare clothing holding a large pickle bucket full of individually wrapped roses approached them. "Buy your lady a rose, sir?"

With the indifference of a jaded urban dweller, Trent shook his head and began to cross the street.

"Wait." Daria pulled her hand free from Trent's and faced the man, the old ache reflecting in her eyes. "How much?"

"Five dollars."

Daria pulled a ten from her pocket and handed it to the man. "Keep the change," she whispered, her voice thick.

The man smiled gratefully and angled the bucket at her. "What color would you like?"

Daria selected a purple rose and pulled it free with a rustle of plastic. "Thank you." She sniffed the rose and handed it to Trent. Trent smiled guiltily at the man as he accepted the rose, bobbing his head in acknowledgement. They waited for the light to change again, their earlier lightness dimmed.

Daria turned away from the intersection and headed back down the sidewalk. "I'm not hungry anymore."

The cellophane surrounding the rose rustled in Trent's hands as he followed her. "You sure?"

"Yeah." Daria looked over her shoulder and watched the hordes of New Yorkers pretending the rose seller didn't exist. "Life is so unfair."

Trent was silent. What could he say? He would never understand these things the way she would now. Would that cause them problems? He sighed and gripped the rose more tightly. Best to focus on today and tomorrow. Things would get better.

Chapter Three

"Good Times, Bad Times"

"You cheated!" Daria laughed.

"I did not!"

Daria took a sip of wine and examined the Scrabble game board. "I'm sorry, but 'in-inkable' is not a word!"

They sat on the floor in the living room, a Scrabble game set up between them on the coffee table. A half-empty bottle of wine and two filled glasses filled the rest of the table. A bright fire crackled and snapped, casting an orange light into the room and glinting cozily on the rims of the balloon goblets.

Trent frowned stubbornly and crossed his arms. Playing Scrabble with a wordsmith was painful.

"Don't make me get the dictionary," she warned, laughter in her voice.

He rolled his eyes. "Fine. I'll have to pass then," he said, retrieving his letters and exchanging them for a new set.

Her next move already plotted, Daria swiftly selected tiles from her rack and laid them down in front of Trent's earlier "chord," turning it into "harpsichord" and earning a triple word bonus.

"Damn, how can you do that?" he asked incredulously.

Daria raised an eyebrow and calculated her score, writing it on her note pad. She was slaughtering him. "It's a gift."

"I don't know why I play this with you. I always lose," he groused as he lay down his letters, spelling "undone."

"Because you're a glutton for punishment?" she asked, capturing the "e" of that word and spelling out "restore."

Trent rolled his eyes and took desperate action, moving an entire column of letters by two squares so he could illegally spell "pedant."

"Hey!" Daria sputtered. "You can't do that, and I am not!"

"Oh?" he asked about both.

She reached for the wooden letter tiles, and Trent stopped her. "Ah, ah, ah! That looks pretty there."

Daria tried to free her hand, but only succeeded in disturbing more tiles.

"Daria! You're messing up the game!" he laughed, holding firmly to her hand.

"I'm messing it up?" she shouted in a voice that warred between amused and annoyed tones.

"Stop that," he said deliberately, dragging her hand across the board and further disorganizing the words.

Daria chuckled and stopped struggling. His hands felt very warm upon her skin. She flexed her fingers and cast a shy smile his way. Trent smiled back, then, slowly and deliberately, traced her fingertips over the board and nudged the letters L O V E together to form a continuous, if crooked column. He met her eyes and got lost there.

Daria looked down at the word and back into his eyes. The fire light danced there, enhancing another fire burning with as much heat, only from within.

Her breath caught, and her heart made its impatience known by its sharp, stabbing beats. Not breaking eye or hand contact, she eased around to his side of the table and sat in his lap. She freed her hand and took his face between her palms, caressing the hinge of his jaws with her thumbs. She leaned in close, her breath coming in short puffs, tickling his lips.

"Trent," she breathed licking her lips. "Trent."

She pressed her lips against his and immediately both of their mouths opened, deepening the kiss. The first real kiss they had shared since she had moved back in.

Trent held her to him, kissing her back feverishly. "I've missed this," he rumbled between kisses, shifting to nibble on her neck. "So much." He continued kissing her for a long time; the only sounds coming from them were soft mutterings and little sighs.

Daria pulled away and grabbed two handfuls of his shirt's front and dragged him closer. She began to unbutton his shirt slowly. Her eyes, now unmasked, revealed an intense hunger. She pushed his shirt back over his shoulders and ran a slow hand over his chest. She toyed with a wisp of hair and looked at him slyly, the open invitation clearly communicated.

Trent eased her back against the couch and slid a hand up her leg, disturbing the folds of her pleated skirt. "It's been so long." He craned his head up and began kissing the base of her throat, working his way lower kiss by kiss.

Daria tilted her head back and sighed, grabbing a handful of his black hair. She settled into the couch as he pressed against her. "Too long," she agreed.

Trent scooped up a discarded Scrabble tile from the floor and brushed it against Daria's lips, tracing the outline of their inner contours. "Here, or the bedroom?"

Daria grabbed the wine bottle from the end table and took a long pull, not breaking eye contact with Trent. She swallowed some, then pulled Trent in for a kiss to share the rest.

Trent moaned and flipped her up onto the couch, reaching for the wine bottle himself. He tipped it forward as if he was going to pour some onto her, smiling wickedly...

The phone chose that moment to emit its shrill ring, and they both jumped, the mood shattering. "Damn," muttered Trent, eyeing the phone with distaste.

"You'd better get that. It might be your agent," Daria said, wiggling out from under him. Embarrassed, she straightened her clothing, not looking him in the eyes.

"Yeah, I guess," Trent said dejectedly, rubbing a hand over his bare chest. He picked up the phone while Daria started putting away the game. "'Lo?" Trent asked into the phone. It was indeed his agent. "Man, it's ten o'clock. This better be important." A pause. "Monique what? Awww, geez!"

Trent lowered his voice as Daria came into the living room to gather up the wine things. "What's the publication date?" Another pause. "Okay, can you come up with a strategy by then?" Pause. "Good. I'll tell Daria." Trent hung up the phone and sighed. The timing couldn't be worse.

He walked into the kitchen where Daria was using the vacuum pump to seal the unfinished wine for later consumption. She smiled awkwardly at him, the aborted passion from earlier unnerving her a little. "Hey."

"Daria, we have a problem."

Daria slid the wineglasses into the dishwasher. "Is Apollo 13 in trouble again?" she teased. She closed the door and leaned against the machine, then got serious when she saw the look on Trent's face. "You're not joking," she said, suddenly looking anxious. "Is Jane okay?"

"Yeah, Janey's fine. It's about Dominic and Monique. They aren't through with us yet, apparently."

Daria paled. This couldn't be good. "What are they up to?"

Trent massaged his temple. "A book deal with Simon & Schuster. They're collaborating on a 'tell-all' biography about you."

"Oh, my God." Daria's shoulders slumped.

"It's being ghost written, so it should be out fairly quickly. This isn't going to be pretty."

"What am I going to do?" Daria met his gaze with haunted eyes.

"Well, my agent is going to come up with a damage control plan."

Daria thought about all the things she had not yet built up the nerve to share with Trent. Would they come out? "Sounds good," she said shakily. Of course they'll come out; look at who's behind it.

"It sounds like we're already getting offers from talk shows, and the announcement just came out this morning."

"No way," Daria said clearly. "I'm not going on TV about this. I do hope to have a career again someday. This kind of sensationalism won't help."

Trent furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. "Hmmmm. Maybe."

Daria sighed and smiled at him. "I can see the wheels turning, but I don't want to use this publicity as a spring board. If I wanted to do that, I'd just pull a Darva Conger and pose in Playboy."

Trent grinned. "That can be arranged."

"Yeah, right. The angles and lines issue." Daria smirked.

"Hey, don't put yourself down." Trent walked over and took her hand. "You are beautiful." He slid another hand up to cup her chin. "Want to go back out to the living room?"

"I don't think so. I'm getting sleepy," Daria said, leaning away from him.

"Oh, okay." Trent bit his lip and hooded his eyes. "I'll, uh, I think I'm going to work on some stuff. I'll be in later."

Daria smiled sadly. "Good night, then." She turned and walked out of the room, leaving Trent to stare after her, wondering if Monique and Dominic would ever come out from between them.

Chapter Four

"Cat Scratch Fever"

Trent picked out a lazy blues tune on his acoustic guitar, while Daria sat propped up against a velvet beanbag on the floor of his music room typing away at her new laptop. He watched her as he played. Her thin rimmed wire glasses had slipped to the end of her nose, and a wisp of hair had escaped the ponytail that controlled the rest. This wisp curled gently around her chin, and without realizing it, Daria twined the lock around her fingers as she paused in her typing, obviously thinking. She twisted the wisp, then slipped it into her mouth and started chewing, causing Trent to chuckle.

Daria looked up. "What?" She pulled the hair out of her mouth. "Oh." She rolled her eyes. "Nervous habit."

"What are you nervous about?"

"Oh, this freelance piece for 'The Nation' on the practice of female genital mutilation in Muslim nations."

Trent shuddered. "I guess that would make me nervous, too."

"Well, the truth of that not withstanding, I'm more nervous about this getting accepted. If I can get in, I'll have a path to feature writer."

Trent smiled. It was good to see her hopeful again. Daria smiled back, free from shadows at the moment. "This would be the perfect forum for my work. Liberal, realistic, and so self-serving that they're free from corporate control."

"Sounds perfect. Do you have any copies of it around? I've never read it."

Daria scooted to her feet. "Yup. Hold on."

Trent tuned his high E string to a cleaner sound while he waited. She came back with a stack of thin magazines printed on poor quality paper. "Be gentle. They work on a shoestring budget, and the paper is likely to disintegrate."

Trent raised an eyebrow. "Can they afford to pay you for your work?"

Daria fiddled with the loose lock of hair again. "Well, not very much. But it... it's the right forum for my work. And you told me not to worry about the money, right?" she asked in a pleading whisper, hoping she had done the right thing.

"Right!" Trent said enthusiastically. "The royalties for the musical are more than enough for the two of us to live on." She was trusting him again after all this time, a turn that he never would have expected. Things were working out.

Reassured by his obvious approval, Daria continued. "I'd get lots of prestige from being a regular writer for them, which will pay off later with other freelance work. I'll earn my keep yet." She smirked.

Trent rolled his eyes and opened his mouth to say something when the doorbell rang. He closed his mouth and sprang to his feet. "Must be Jane, she's the only one the doorman lets by without calling up first. I'll get it." He sauntered out of the room.

Soon Daria could hear the sound of Jane chattering loudly in the foyer. Trent laughed at something she had said. There was a long silence, then some shuffling and suppressed laughter. "What are you two up to in there?" Daria called.

Jane poked her head around the doorway, her bobbed hair extending her movement. "Wouldn't you like to know."

"I'm not going to like this, am I?" Daria asked dryly.

Trent poked his head around the door, a little above Jane's head. "Oh, I think you'll like it."

"Oh, no," Daria said, sensing a plot. Her suspicions were confirmed when Trent slid his eyes downward to meet Jane's upward glance. They smirked, sharing a plot between siblings like they hadn't done for years.

"Out with it!" Daria laughed, half dreading what might be in store for her.

Jane stepped through a door holding a shoe box that had holes punched in it and a wide ribbon tied around the lid. Something in the box shifted. Jane placed the box in Daria's lap.

"What's this?" Daria asked, her mouth sliding into a frown. The box rustled. "You know I don't like animals."

Jane leaned against the doorjamb and crossed her arms. "Just open it, Daria."

Daria sighed and undid the ribbon. As she lifted off the lid, she found looking up at her was a tiny gray kitten with yellow eyes.

"Great. A cat," Daria said in an annoyed voice.

"Brrt," said the kitten.

Daria arched an eyebrow at it. "Excuse me?"

"Mew," it answered plaintively and put its paws up on the edge of the box.

"I don't recall asking your opinion," Daria retorted, her frown weakening.

"Mrrrow," the kitten shot back as it clambered clumsily out of the box and fell into her lap. Daria had to grab it to keep it from falling to the floor. "Oh... awwww," she said as it started to purr and knead her forearm with its little paws.

Jane and Trent exchanged a silent smile that said "mission accomplished" as Daria rubbed a fingertip over the kitten's soft fur and scratched its chin. The kitten twisted its head and bit her finger playfully.

"Hey!" Daria laughed, giving in. She cradled the kitten in the crook of her arm and looked up at a beaming Trent and Jane. "Okay, whose bright idea was this?"

"Mine!" crowed Jane. "I saw on 'Oprah' that caring for a weaker creature helps to heal broken hearts."

"Great. I'm being cured by pop psychology," Daria smirked. The kitten was reaching up and batting at Daria's loose strand of hair, making the corners of Daria's smirk fight against a smile.

Jane shrugged and brought more treats out from the hall. She handed Daria several furry mice and a toy that was made up of a cluster of feathers at the end of a string.

"Fine, I'll keep it for now. But I'm not making any promises," Daria warned as the kitten started grabbing for the feathers. "The first time it pees on the floor, it's history!"

Chapter Five

"I Just Called to Say I Loathe You"

Daria sat at her desk and typed quietly at her laptop. The muted light of a rainy afternoon seeped through the window's sheer drapes. It was a perfect day for quiet contemplation, and her muse was nicely settled in for the day. She paused as a gray form leapt lightly to the desktop. The little kitten sat and watched Daria's fingers as they flew across the keyboard.

"Hello, cat," Daria greeted, not minding the company. The cat opened its mouth in a silent meow and blinked at her. Daria chuckled and stopped typing to scratch the kitten's ears. "Plague, you look guilty. What have you been up to?" she asked, calling the cat by name. In response, Plague sneezed and cocked its head at her, licking its nose with a pink tongue.

"Ah, rooting behind the furniture again, eh? Just don't pee back there again, okay? It's hard to clean," Daria said fondly, fluttering her fingers around just above the cat's head so that it stood up on its haunches and batted at them.

"Heh. Be good. I've got to mail this submission out by three." Daria continued typing. The kitten stretched and crept across the top of the desk and down into Daria's lap. It curled into a soft, small ball, purring loudly as it drifted off to sleep. Daria smiled openly in the solitude of her office and continued with her work.

The phone rang, its trilling shattering the quiet of the day. Still typing with one hand, Daria picked up her cordless phone and depressed the talk button. "Yes?"

"Hi, is this Mrs. Lane?"

"I'm sorry, but she committed suicide," Daria said seriously, sensing a sales pitch. She hated that these people called when she was trying to write.

"Oh, I'm so sorry." The voice paused. "Who is this?"

"The mother-in-law who drove her to her death," Daria said dryly, still typing.

"Oh!" said the voice brightly. "Maybe I can interest you in life insurance?"

"Does it cover bail and related fees?" Daria asked.

"What?" the voice quavered.

"Bail for the murder of my daughter-in-law," Daria clarified helpfully. "I could use that."

"Uhhh...Igottagetmymanager..." Click.

"Sucker," Daria said with a smirk as she pressed the hangup button and went back to typing.

The phone rang again.

Daria frowned as she picked up the handset and pressed the talk button. "Yes?" she asked tersely. If this was another telemarketer, he or she was going to get it with both barrels.

"Well, well, well," said a nastily familiar voice.

Daria froze.

"So, now you're whoring it out with him again? Predictable."

Daria snaked a hand down to pet the kitten to calm herself. "How did you get this number?"

Dominic snickered. "Not so many Trent Lanes in New York City. It was easy to find. And very helpful for you to answer. I don't have to call the other six now."

"What do you want?"

"Daria, do you realize I know where you live now?" His voice held an amused and lazy menace.

Daria shuddered, feeling a phantom pain in her cheek. "You have two minutes before I hang up."

"Fine," he said casually. "If we don't finish, I'll just drop by." The sound of amusement was stronger now. "Won't that be nice?"

Daria held her silence, not willing to egg him on.

"Daria, Daria, Daria. I've missed you. I really want to see you again."

"Go to hell."

"Now, there I could take you. But I digress. You aren't being very nice to me, pet."

"One minute," Daria intoned dully.

"I'm trying to promote my new book, but you won't appear on any talk shows with me. Be fair, Daria. You can stand to make some money from this as well. I heard Barbara Walters offered you a nice sum to tell your side of the story. Last time I saw you, you needed some cash."

Daria willed herself to just hang up the phone, but somehow she couldn't. She was held in thrall. "Why would I want to help you?" she asked weakly.

"Insurance. That was a nice red sweater you were wearing today," he said darkly, and hung up the phone.

Daria took the receiver from her ear and stared blankly at it, hearing the dial tone buzzing faintly. Shit.

The kitten sensed her distress and stirred restlessly in her lap. Daria petted it soothingly. This was bad. Very bad.

She started as she heard the front door open. "Trent?" she called uncertainly, aware of how red her sweater was.

"Who else would it be?" asked Trent, sauntering into her office doorway.

"Oh, no one I guess," she tried to say lightly.

Trent picked up on her mood immediately. "You okay?"

"Yup." She picked up the cat and handed it to him. "Except this damn cat is distracting me. Can you watch it while I work?"

"Sure," he said, an uncertain note in his voice.

"Thanks, I have a deadline." Daria turned back to her computer and started typing.

Trent tucked the kitten onto his shoulder and backed out of the room, his brow crinkled in suspicion.

Chapter Six

"Restraining My Love for You"

Daria adjusted her woven produce bag so it sat more comfortably in the crook of her arm and examined the fruit on the produce stand. Outdoor Saturday market was the best way to get produce in this concrete jungle. She selected a cluster of black grapes and held them up to the light, looking for blemishes.

"Sour grapes?" asked Dominic from behind her.

Daria stiffened and didn't turn around. Her heart hammered violently with fear in her chest and she gulped. Calm down! she thought fiercely at herself. Don't give him the pleasure.

When she didn't turn, Dominic was more than happy to change his own position. He slid into her line of sight and leered at her. He looked scruffy in a weekend outfit of jeans and an old Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt. His copper hair was no longer so closely cropped, but was now rather shaggy. "What? No kiss?" he asked sarcastically.

Daria sat down the grapes and looked him in the eye. "Get lost."

"Or what?"

Daria dug in her pocket and pulled out a much-folded slip of paper. "This restraining order is still active," she replied, cursing the small quaver in her voice that belied her strong words.

"Ooo," he said in an unimpressed voice. "Like that bothers me. Just try to find a cop when you need one in this town."

Daria worriedly realized he had a point.

"Besides, that only helps if they can find the body," he joked darkly.

Daria paled and took a step backwards.

Dominic held out his hands. "Daria, wait. I'm sorry." Dominic stepped back so as to be as non-threatening as possible. "We're getting off on the wrong foot."

"There's a right foot?" she asked incredulously.

"Look at you, Daria. Well fed and getting nice and plump. Look at me, broke and skinny."

Daria said nothing.

"Once again, you have someone taking care of you. But who do I have, Daria?" Dominic contrived to look sad and forlorn. It didn't work.

Daria raised an eyebrow. "Your point?"

"You can afford to be kind to me. I lost everything."

But you deserved to, she thought.

"All I have is a stupid little book that I can try to fund my retirement on." He looked at her pleadingly, yet was unable to stop smirking completely.

Daria wasn't buying it. "Forget it."

"Just make one appearance with us, Daria. You can even pick the show." Dominic hulked over her again as he forgot his disguise of gentleness. "I lost everything because of you."

"No way. You deserve to be where you are today. It's your own fault," she quavered and turned to go.

"Oh yeah? Until you live on these streets on your own, not taken care of by wealthy musicians or publishers, don't judge me, little miss," Dominic's tones hardened.

Daria's cheeks burned with shame as she started walking.

Dominic grabbed her arm. "You do realize this isn't over, right?"

Daria looked down at his hand and back to his eyes. "Let go."

Dominique grinned when he saw the old fear lurking behind her eyes. "This time. Maybe next time you won't be so lucky." He let go with deliberate slowness and sauntered off in the opposite direction of her apartment.

Daria lost all of her interest in shopping and hurried home.

Back at the apartment, Trent adjusted the young girl's left hand over the frets of her electric guitar, a black and white low-end Fender Squire. "See, Ginny? You want to cup your hands around the neck. Try not to let your other fingers stand up in the air."

Ginny pursued her lips and nodded, concentrating on controlling her fingers. "It's hard," she noted.

"Yeah, but it gets easier," he comforted her. Trent loved to teach, even though he didn't have to anymore. Ginny was the daughter of a friend, and one of his select groups of students. "There! You've got it!"

Ginny smiled and went back to playing her variations on the pentatonic scale.

Trent looked up at a sharp rap on his the door to his office.

"Trent? It's me," called Daria.

Trent frowned, sensing a note of worry in her voice. "Keep at that for a minute. I'll be right back," he told Ginny as he slipped into the hall.

Daria stood before him, pale and frightened looking.

"What is it?" he asked, full of concern.

She looked at her shoes as if ashamed to say.

"Should I send Ginny home?" he asked, already planning to do so. Something was up.

Daria nodded. "I need a shower."

"Um... okay," Trent said as she hurried past him and into the master bedroom.

The bathroom was full of steam and the brisk scent of eucalyptus shower gel when Trent paused at the doorway.

"It's me. May I come in?" he asked loudly so as to be heard over the running water.

"Yes."

Trent entered and seated himself on the toilet. "What's up?"

"Am I fat?"

"What?" Trent asked, confusion clear in his voice.

"How much do I owe you for rent for this month?"

"What are you talking about?" Trent asked.

"How much? I need to keep a record so I can pay you back."

"What's gotten in to you? I thought we were way past this."

There was a long pause before she answered him.

"I saw Dominic at market today."

"Ah, hell."

For a moment the only sound was the running shower.

"And he called me last week, too."

"Here?" Trent asked incredulously.

"It's in the book. He got lucky."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Trent asked testily.

"Has Monique been calling you?"

"Um, yeah," he admitted, looking sheepish.

"Then I bet my reasons for not telling are the same as yours."

More silence.

"That's reasonable. You okay?" Trent strained to hear an answer. "Daria?"

The water turned off. Daria's hand reached out from behind the stripped shower curtain, and Trent handed her a towel. "Did he touch you?"

"I'm in the shower, aren't I?"

"Dammit!"

"It wasn't that bad. He just grabbed my arm. He's been dropping veiled and cheap threats so we'll do the 'Sally Jessie Rafael' show with him. It's nothing."

Daria opened the curtain and stepped out of the stall, her towel wrapped firmly about her torso.

"Nothing, my ass. Look at you. You're pale and shaking. Oh, Daria." He wrapped his arms around her and held her close.

"I'm fine," she sniffed.

"Uh, huh," he said, not buying a word of it, leading her into the bedroom and sitting her on the bed. "What did he say?"

Daria sat there in nothing but the generous bath sheet and frowned.

"Trent, am I a freeloader?" she asked in a voice dripping with self-doubt.

"What does this have to do with anything?"

"Am I?" Her voice took on a shrill edge.

Realization dawned upon Trent. "Don't let him play head games with you. Don't even go there."

"But I..."

"Daria, stop. He knows how to manipulate you. Don't let him."

"Right. Sorry." Daria picked at the nap of the towel and looked up at him sheepishly.

Plague, silently appearing from nowhere, jumped onto Daria's lap with a soft squeak and proceeded to lick the water out her wet hair. Daria smiled softly and stroked the animal.

"He blames me for his reversal of fortune," she said softly.

"You don't believe that, do you?"

"No, but he does. Trent... I'm scared."

"Me, too," Trent admitted. "Maybe we should just go on TV to get them off our backs."

"Trent, it wouldn't stop there and you know it."

Trent sighed. "You're right."

"And besides, I've been taking Aikido, remember?"

Trent looked alarmed. "You won't do anything rash, will you?"

"Which means I run away as fast as I can the next time I see him."

"Oh. Cool."

Daria set the kitten on the bed beside her and got to her feet. "What we need is a plan."

"A safe plan," Trent amended, voicing his niggling fear that Dominic might be capable of more than a few slaps.

"I'm going to call the police and report Dominic's violation of the restraining order. Maybe they'll have some ideas, " Daria said, reaching for the bedside phone.

"Sounds good."

"And then I'm going to go have lunch with Quinn, just like I was planning to do."

"Is that wise?" Trent asked with concern.

"I can't let him control me anymore, Trent."

Chapter Seven

"She Ain't Heavy, She's My Sister"

Trent sighed into the silence of the apartment and padded softly into the kitchen to make a snack. He pulled a box of Triscuits out of the cupboard and turned toward the refrigerator. He opened it up and peered inside.

He smiled softly. She had only been home a short while, but little hints of her existence were already scattered about. In the living room it might be a book, in the bathroom it was a toothbrush. But here in the fridge was even more evidence. When he had been alone, very little food had been stored here. Now there were signs of life. He selected a container of humus and another of pitted calamata olives.

Having her back was such a package of little and great things, he mused as he spread humus on the crackers and placed on olive on top of each cracker. There were the big things, like knowing she still loved him, and having her sharing his life again. And the small things, like having her musical selections filling the air and her mess scattered across the rooms for him to trip over. His eyes slid over to a pair of women's running shoes that had been carelessly kicked off in the exact middle of the doorway that lead from the kitchen to the living room. He has instinctively stepped over them on the way in. He smiled. It was these little things that made this feel real.

He munched a cracker and looked at a recent photograph held by a magnet to the refrigerator's surface. In it, Daria and Jane were sitting on a green park bench in Central Park, laughingly flipping off the cameraman (him); they wore sunglasses and their old combat boots. It was achingly sweet. Trent's brow furrowed as he noticed yet again how thin Daria was compared to Jane in that picture. It was a stark testament to how dark her days had been during the year that they had been apart. Most of that year was a mystery to him still. She had let very little slip about what had actually happened to her, about what she had done. He had a feeling that there was more to the story of her downfall. And he wasn't sure he even wanted to know. Knowing about Dominic was bad enough, and Daria deserved to keep her secrets. Except, maybe she was hiding something very bad from him. Something that could hurt her. Maybe after she got back from lunch with Quinn he should ask her. He had held himself back thus far, but it was starting to weigh on him. He stared blankly at the fridge, lost in unhappy, worried thoughts.

"That's a refrigerator. You keep food in it," said a familiar and unloved voice.

"Monique," he stated distastefully and turned slowly to face her, his eyes narrowed with extreme distaste. "How did you get in here?"

Monique crossed her arms, looking incredibly tawdry in a tight black conservative two piece suit with a ragged, self-made split going up the entire length of one side. She smirked and tapped a spiky three-inch-heeled black pump on the hardwood floor. "You really should have changed your locks."

"What the hell do you want?" Trent asked, holding his hand out for the key.

She dropped it into his hand revealing blood red nails to match her lipstick. "You didn't return my calls. I had to make sure you were okay."

Trent examined the edge of the key. "How many copies did you make?"

Her smirk turned predatory. "Just one for Nikki."

Trent's hand convulsed closed around the key. "Dominic? You didn't."

Her eyes twinkled in a sick perversion of playfulness. "Maybe. I certainly did give him your number. Did he call your precious yet?"

"She said that..."

"He got the number from the phone book?" Monique finished for him. "She really didn't believe that, did she? God, Trent, that stint in the ghetto addled her brains. Then again, she never was all there, was she?"

"Leave. Now." Trent pointed to the door, seething.

"I mean, Nikki and I are collaborating, after all. It just stands to reason he got the number from me."

Trent put his plate of crackers on the counter and advanced on Monique. "You either leave on your feet, or on your ass."

"Oh, I'm leaving. I just came to give you a friendly warning for old times sakes, darling."

Trent froze and quirked an eyebrow.

"Nikki is a crackpot. I wouldn't have done this if you hadn't completely screwed me, Trent." She paused awaiting a comment. When he didn't comply, she continued. "He scares even me. Your little china doll better help us out if she doesn't want to get broken."

"Is that a threat?"

An instant of true discomfort crossed her eyes. "To hear him talk, it's a promise."

"I suppose he talks in his sleep?" Trent asked nastily, sensing her manipulation.

"Why don't you ask Daria?" she asked smiling broadly at his pained wince. "Don't worry, I'll let myself out." She pulled an envelope out of her purse and tossed it on the counter. "Here's a complete listing of our promotional appearances. I suggest you pick one." She blew him a kiss and swung her hips in suggestive ellipses as she made her exit.

Trent sank to the floor, sitting Indian style and rubbing his head. This was getting nasty. Someone was going to get hurt. Someone named Daria.

And someone named Trent. He closed his eyes, trying to block out the images his mind conjured of Daria sharing Dominic's bed. They were so far from being over this. What were they going to do? He wanted their relationship to work, but this rehashing of old business couldn't help.

The phone rang, and he reached up and caught up the cordless phone from the counter. "Yeah?" he asked crankily.

"Hey, it's me," Daria said into her cell phone. "Lunch with Quinn is running late. I should be home no later than..." She looked over at Quinn, who was sitting across from her.

"Six!" Quinn interjected.

"Six? Dear God, she has some outing planned for after. I'll call if I'm going to be later than that," Daria promised.

Back at the apartment Trent's expression eased into a smile. "Six is good for me. See you then. Bye." He hung up the phone and looked thoughtful. She sounded annoyed, but happy. Daria was doing her best to be happy again. It wasn't fair to judge her for anything that had happened while they were separated, as he had kinda been to blame for that. The past belonged in the past, no matter what the therapist said. Maybe she wasn't helping, either. Maybe they should stop dragging up all of the old pain and just focus on the future.

He stood up and regarded the crackers, no longer hungry. He threw them away, deciding he wouldn't tell Daria about Monique's little visit. It would only worry her, and she had enough to worry about. He would let the lawyers handle Dominic and Monique. Tangling with them personally in anyway would just egg them on. That cleared away, he decided on figuring out a way to make Daria laugh when she got home.

Back at the restaurant, Quinn picked at her Caesar salad and snorted as Daria put away her phone. "I swear, if I knew what I know now about modeling, I wouldn't have gone in to it." She looked elegant in a cool summer linen dress, with her hair hanging long and loose, a mint green scarf draped around her neck. She looked as if she could be posing for the cover of Vogue, which she often did these days.

Daria raised a dubious eyebrow but kept her peace, mostly because her mouth was full of a large bite of cheeseburger. Daria was wearing one of the flattering outfits Quinn had gotten her for Christmas. It was a pair of black tights, and a deep green, short sleeved, mock turtleneck. The ensemble fit closely, emphasizing and flattering her angularity. The chunky open toed sandals pinched her toes a little, but were otherwise quite comfortable. Daria secretly liked wearing these outfits.

"I'm serious, Daria!" Quinn put her fork down and patted her lips with the cloth napkin. "They had me out on a Norwegian glacier in an evening gown! Everyone else got to wear parkas! I froze my ass off!"

Daria covered her mouth to keep bits of food from flying while she burst into to laughter. She swallowed her bite as soon as she could and chased it with a gulp of iced tea. "Ah, I can just see it."

"And I'm sure you remember the time the volcano started erupting while we were perched on the rim, for the Sports Illustrated Swim Suit Edition."

"I still have the picture you gave me. The expression on your face is classic. Too bad it never made it into the magazine"

"Sure," Quinn said dryly. "I bet even you would have been surprised at the first rumble. We had no warning, it was supposed to be stable."

"Didn't they make a really bad movie about that in the late 90s?"

"Several." Quinn grumpily speared a hunk of olive with her fork. "These media corporations don't value their models enough. They're always putting us at risk."

Daria's face turned sour as she remembered Dominic's machinations. "All professions have their predators, Quinn."

A thick silence fell between them.

"You mean that publisher jerk?" Quinn ventured. She had never felt brave enough to broach this on her own.

Daria started and looked uncomfortable. Of course Quinn had found out somehow.

"Jane told me."

"She would."

"Daria..." Quinn began.

"You're turning 29 soon, right? Sure all of this dissatisfaction with your industry isn't how you're coping with the natural end of your career?" Daria deflected.

"Yes, but don't change the subject. I know you don't want to talk about what happened but let me tell you something, okay?"

"Fine," Daria said tiredly, knowing there was no escape. She might as well let Quinn speak.

"After Jane told me what happened, I did what I could to protect other artists from that monster."

"How?" Daria was curious inspire of herself.

Quinn giggled, obviously proud of herself. "I told my hairdresser."

"Excuse me?"

"Daria!" Quinn exclaimed in exasperation, stretching the "ah" sound in her name like she used to do when they were younger. "Don't underestimate the gay community! Everyone knows everyone, particularly in the entertainment industries. He'll never work again."

Daria looked at Quinn, stunned. "Wow. So that's what happened to him. That was really smart."

Quinn preened. Daria didn't tell her that very often.

Daria selected a packet of sugar and started folding the edges. "And it was sweet of you, too. Thanks." Even if it had ended up causing further problems. A ruined Dominic was more dangerous than a successful one.

Quinn smiled. "Anytime, Sis."

"Actually, I'm really glad you said that."

"Oh?"

"Dominic is back, and looking for trouble." Daria quickly relayed the events of the past few days.

"How can I help?"

"Anything to soften the blow of this book would be great," Daria said sadly. "It's going to crush any hope I had of being a serious author again."

"Daria, no one remembers scandal. Let it blow over."

"That may work in your industry, but not mine. I'll never be taken seriously after this, unless I change genres and write stupid romances. And then I'll be taken even less seriously."

"Oh." Quinn looked thoughtful, an expression that still unnerved Daria a little bit. "Let me think about it, okay?"

"Sure," Daria said quietly. Any help in this arena was more than welcome.

Quinn twisted a lock of amber hair around a finger, a look of anger flashing across her face. She would have said more, but knew Daria would rather pass on the mush. It was time to distract her. "So! About the wedding," she exclaimed, burying her feelings under a bright smile.

Daria blanched. "You were joking earlier, right?"

Quinn shook her head ruefully. "I wish I was, Daria. Mom is really set on this."

"Me? A bridesmaid? I'll probably trip going down the aisle. I don't need this right now, Quinn."

"Don't be silly. It would mean a lot to Mom and Dad, seeing us be all sisterly."

"Quinn, do you remember how awful I looked in Erin's wedding? Do you really want me to ruin the wedding photos?" Daria prevaricated.

"Daria, it would mean a lot to me, too."

"Oh." Daria tilted her head questioningly, not sure if she believed it.

"We have really grown closer, Daria. It's important that you be a part of my wedding."

"Oh." Daria was defeated. There was no way out, not without causing some serious damage. "Okay, then."

Quinn brightened. "Thanks, Daria!"

"But it's going to cost you. Big time."

Playing along, Quinn reached into her bag and withdrew her wallet. "How much?"

"Lunch for starters, and you help me get Mom off my back about marrying Trent."

Quinn slapped her gold card down on the tab and dimpled at Daria. "What's so wrong about marrying Trent? You guys are as good as married anyway."

"So why change a good thing?"

"Um... lots of wedding presents?"

Daria shuddered. "You know my luck. I'd end up with truck loads of tacky knickknacks, not Waterford and China like you'll get."

Quinn signed the credit card slip and handed it back to the waiter. "Daria, you just need to register. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: it's all about knowing where to shop."

Daria stood up, brushing the crumbs from her lap. "Yes, you've beaten that one to death. What's next on today's bonding agenda?" she asked dryly.

Quinn grabbed Daria's arm to keep her from fleeing. "We have an appointment with Vera Wang. She's going to design the bridesmaid dresses, and she needs to get a feeling for your body type."

"Oh, God."

Chapter Eight

"Life is Like a Box of Stale Chocolates..."

Exhausted and demoralized, Daria came home at last. She carefully locked the door behind her and set her keys on the credenza.

"Hey Daria!" Trent shouted from the living room. "Come and see this!"

Not really in the mood for human contact, Daria dragged herself into the room. Before her was Trent humming the "Dance of the Knives" and juggling three brightly colored woven hackey sack balls. He paused his humming when she came into the room, but didn't take his eyes off of the sacks. Their flying parabolas were shaky, but he was managing to keep them in the air.

"Look at me! I'm doing it!" he shouted proudly, and resumed his humming, even louder than before.

Daria's frazzled nerves snapped, and she snatched one of the balls as he tossed in into he air and threw it out the open window.

"Hey!" he protested.

"Careful! You're next," she promised menacingly and marched out of the room.

She stormed into her office and shut the door. The lock snapped into place just as Trent tried the door.

"Daria, those balls cost twenty bucks each," he complained.

She snorted in a "you-think-I-care?" sort of way.

"And they came from England. Camden, even."

"Then go hop a plane and get some more. Take your time."

Trent rattled the handle. "What the hell is your problem?"

"What's yours?"

"Mine?" he asked incredulously. "You just threw my toy down twenty stories. You probably killed someone."

"One can only hope," she said dryly.

Trent took a deep breath and asked, "Is this about Dominic?"

After that, her radio came on, and he couldn't get a further response out of her. Sighing, he went back to the living room and looked out the window. Far below a group of children was playing hackey-sack with his ball. He sighed and decided to let it go; he didn't have the heart to ask them to give it up.

He drew his head back inside, reached for his acoustic guitar, and fretted a blues lick. Sometimes Daria was such a pain in the ass. She was regimented, inflexible, and the oddest things set her off. Working with her issues wore him out sometimes. Well, she was going to buy him another ball, that was for sure. She just couldn't go around throwing his stuff out the window. Maybe she should buy him two to make up for his pain and suffering.

Caught between Daria's swinging moods and the looming release of the new book, Trent wondered if he should take a cue from Daria and rent an isolated cabin in Montana and come out after everything had blown over. Then again, she might find someone else to live with. Just like before.

The phone rang. "Hey," he answered gloomily.

"Hi, Trent," Quinn's voice replied. "You sound awful. Is she behaving as badly as I expect she is?"

"What?"

"Is Daria taking her stress out on you?"

Trent looked towards the window. "Oh, yeah."

Quinn giggled. "Poor, poor Trent. I felt horrible about sending her home to you."

"Oh?" Trent sensed on-coming enlightenment.

"Better you than me, though. I couldn't take anymore."

A wry smile moved Trent's lips. "What did you do to her?"

"Beyond an entire childhood of sisterly abuse? I asked her to be my bridesmaid."

"Oh, man," Trent groaned. This would make his life more interesting. And he had thought he had already reached the ceiling for that these days.

"I know, I know," Quinn snickered. "She hates it."

Trent chuckled in spite of himself. "I bet."

"Fine, laugh at my pain," snapped Daria's voice over the line. She had been listening in on her extension.

"Oooops!" Quinn burst into laughter. "Daria, Vera loved you. You may have a modeling career in front of you yet!"

"Feh!" Daria snorted and hung up the phone with a loud click.

Trent sighed. "Thanks for making it worse, Quinn."

"No problem, future brother-in-law. When are you going to propose, anyway?"

"Quinn..." Trent said in a warning voice.

"Well, bye-bye!" Quinn said cheerily and hung up, escaping his reprimands.

Trent set the phone back in its cradle and put his head in his hands. Daria in a wedding, particularly right now. Forget Montana; maybe he should go to London and personally pick up some new juggling equipment. And stay there.

He tilted his head towards Daria's office as the music from her radio cut off. He wondered if she was ready to talk about it. He got to his feet and wandered towards her closed door, and raised a hand to knock. Inside he could hear her typing on her laptop. He paused, not sure if he should disturb her.

"I hear you breathing out there, you know," she stated calmly, still typing.

"Oh."

"I'll be out in a little bit, okay?" She sounded calmer now, the flash of her pique already faded.

"Sure. I'll be in the music room." Trent went into his own office, unsure which of the two of them was going to suffer the most in the oncoming months.

Later, Trent looked up from his transcriptions to see her standing in his doorway, two wine glasses laced through the fingers of one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.

"Join me in the garden?" she asked softly.

He set down his pencil and stretched. "Sounds good." He got up and followed her back to her office. She handed him the drink accoutrements and carefully climbed through the window. She reached back and reclaimed the items so Trent could also climb out. They carefully walked along the ledge to the wide spot that hosted their potted garden. This year it was sunflowers and scarlet snapdragons instead of Zinnias, and they were thriving. Their bright colors glowed richly in the dusk and the already-lit candles and purple velvet cushions gave the garden a magical, Moroccan flavor.

Daria settled on a cushion and leaned her back against the sun-warmed masonry of the building. Trent joined her and slipped an arm around her, accepting a glass of red wine.

"I'm sorry," she stated lowly. "I lost my cool. I was on the edge, and the humming pushed me over."

Trent kissed the crown of her head. "I can see that."

"I've already ordered you another ball. It's being FedExed. You should have it tomorrow," she stated guiltily. It seemed as if Quinn was still capable of bringing out her worst behaviors.

"Thanks," Trent said, and let it go.

"You're not mad?" she asked quietly. She deserved it if he was.

"Nah," Trent replied as he gave her shoulders a squeeze. He never stayed angry long. "You're under a lot of pressure these days."

Daria sighed. It was nice being in such an established relationship. It was safe to throw a fit because they understood each other so well. Little flare-ups passed quickly. And thanks to therapy, more and more she was able to open up with him, to tell him about her worries and doubts.

"You realize," she said matter-of-factly, "that this wedding and book business is pulling at all of my self-esteem problems. And it will most likely get worse."

"Yup." It was better to just let her talk when she decided to share something like this. The moment he started talking was the moment she stopped.

"I'm sorry in advance. I'll try to control myself." She cast her glance to the twinkling lights reflected in the river. "But I don't have too much hope," she added almost under her breath, then lapsed into silence.

"I can take it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. If worst comes to worst, I'll just sleep through the next six months."

Daria chuckled. "Good plan." She squinted into the sky, trying to find stars. All she found was the unrelieved orange glow cast upwards from the sodium vapor lights. "Or you could just live out here in peace."

Trent shifted. "No, thanks. You know this is a little too high for my liking."

She laughed silently. Boy, did she ever. The first time he had caught her out here he had nearly had a heart attack. She smiled as she remembered him leaning out the window, shaking with fear, telling her to stay put while he dialed the fire department. They had told him that the local ladder trucks didn't reach that high, and had offered to send a firefighter over to talk Daria back inside. By that time, Daria had calmly walked back over to the office window and gently pushed him aside and crawled back in. That had been the first time Trent had ever gotten seriously angry with her. He wouldn't speak to her for the rest of the day. It had taken months to lure him out here, and even to this day, he never suggested going out to the "garden." It was always her idea.

Daria shifted her weight, as the hard concrete beneath the cushions became uncomfortable. "I talked to Quinn about our problem."

"Yeah?"

"She thinks she can help. Somehow I don't doubt that she'll come up with something really good," Daria said with a touch of pride. Her little sister was certainly coming into her own.

"I wouldn't be surprised, either," said Trent.

Daria raised her eyebrow in query.

"Models are vicious. You want revenge, go to a model."

Daria remembered the story Quinn had told her - about a photo shoot in the desert where one of the models had switched everyone else's sunblock with coconut scented hand cream - and nodded.

"But, maybe we shouldn't take her up on it," he said quietly.

"Excuse me?"

"Listen, Daria, we don't want to encourage them. This could get out of hand."

"It isn't already?"

"I don't want you to get hurt. Let's leave this to the police and our lawyers."

She got up. "I can take care of myself."

Trent couldn't help himself. "Obviously," he muttered. The layers of meaning were deep and not very nice.

"What did THAT mean?" she asked, torn between anger and hurt.

"Nothing. I'm sorry. Look, we're both under a lot of stress right now. I suggest we call it a night."

"You can't drop a bomb like that and just back away," she said, sliding to her feet and stepping away from him.

Trent ran an agitated hand through his hair and muttered, "I didn't mean anything by it."

Daria leaned against the exterior wall and spread her arms out against it, in an unconscious warding gesture. "Oh, YES, you did."

A drawn out moment stretched between them, voicing all the questions neither dared ask the other. In the distance a baby wailed its distress.

Trent threw back the rest of his wine. "Did you sleep with him, Daria?" he asked angrily.

Daria opened her mouth and then closed it, hanging her head. "What do you think?"

"Jesus..." He threw his wineglass over the side of the building.

Daria looked up, her eyes bright and teary. "We need to see Dr. Vanta tomorrow, first thing."

"I dunno, Daria. Do you really think she can still help us?" he asked, not looking her in the eye.

"Well, we certainly need help. I'm sleeping on the couch." She turned around and stalked back to the window. Before Trent could say a word she was back inside, and he was left with his thoughts. Uncomfortable ones.

Chapter Nine

"Revelations"

Daria buried her face in her hands and wept as Trent paced back and forth across Dr. Vanta's office.

"You slept with that bastard! You slept with him! How could you do that?" He swung his arms around in agitation.

"I had to," she groaned miserably.

"Trent," Dr. Vanta said calmly, "you were separated for a year with no obvious hope of reconciliation. Don't you think you're being unfair?"

Trent leaned his head against the brick wall and didn't say anything.

Dr. Vanta went straight for the kill. "So you're telling us that you remained faithful last year?"

"Yes," Trent said bitterly.

Daria moaned into her hands.

He turned around, tears in his own eyes. "Why didn't you tell me, Daria?"

Still hiding, she whispered, "I... I thought you knew."

"How would I know that? I thought you were just going out with him!"

Daria lowered her hands and glared at him, her puffy face red and blotched from crying. "How can you stand there and say that? You met him. How can you imagine that he wouldn't get exactly what he wanted?"

Trent shook his head. "I didn't even think about that for one second."

Dr. Vanta held up a hand to halt further words from him. "That's what we in this business call denial, Trent."

Trent opened his mouth to speak, but Dr. Vanta stopped him cold with a look. "Before you say one more word, Mr. Lane, I want you to answer a question for me. What does sex mean to you?"

Trent looked at Daria and his mouth compressed into a thin slash that tilted into an angle of extreme anguish. "Love, joy, sharing... I don't know..." He trailed off, and shifted his eyes from Daria to the floor.

Dr. Vanta nodded, pleased. "I thought as much. That's a romantic's definition of sex."

Trent shrugged.

Dr. Vanta steepled her fingers. "But for the sake of argument, let's ask Daria what sex was like with Dominic," she said, and Trent covered his face.

Daria looked ill and hugged herself. "I don't really want to talk about that."

"Spill it," Dr. Vanta said firmly.

Daria sighed and massaged her temples. "Humiliating," she stated dully.

Trent looked up and peered over the tops of his fingertips.

Daria continued in a whisper, "He liked making me do things I didn't want to do." She said something else, but it was so softly said that the meaning fled the words.

"What?" asked Trent and Dr. Vanta in unison.

"It hurt," she hissed, her face crumpling again.

Guilt replaced the anger on Trent's face as he quickly went to sit in the chair beside Daria. "God, I'm sorry. So sorry. I had no idea." He tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder.

"It was awful... it was hateful..." she croaked through her tears.

Trent pulled her to him and hugged her across the chair. "Forgive me. Please forgive me for being an idiot."

Daria sniffed into his shoulder and nodded. "I'm sorry, too."

He kissed the top of her hair and soothed, "You don't need to apologize. I don't know what got into me."

"Sex was just another weapon," Dr. Vanta clarified, just in case either of them was feeling particularly dense. "And speaking of sex, are you two having it?"

They both froze for a moment, then turned scandalized looks upon her.

She chuckled quietly and made a note on her legal pad. "It's my job to ask. Are you?"

Daria bit her lip and looked uncertainly at Trent. He shrugged and glanced to the side evasively.

"I take that is a 'no'?" Dr. Vanta asked dryly.

They nodded.

"Why not?"

They shrugged.

"That's not good," Dr. Vanta said, concern lacing her voice. "It means you're still nervous with one another." She paused. "Are you sleeping in the same bed?"

"Usually," Trent said wryly, eliciting a weak chuckle from Daria.

"Good! That's a start. Well, now you have homework for your next session."

"You don't mean...?" Daria asked.

"Indeed I do. And I want a full report."

"You can't be serious?" Trent asked.

Dr. Vanta looked at her watch and smiled. "Time's up. See you next week."

Chapter Ten

"Revenge is a Dish Best Served with Bouncy Hair"

A young man with very short black hair that was bleached yellow at the very tips capered around Daria as she sat in a stylist's chair, running his hands through her long brown hair. His black clothes and silver eyebrow, nose, and ear piercing added an air of cheerful, if pretentious, sophistication.

The salon was hip and happening, with the walls decorated in bright shades of pomegranate and orange with large gilt mirrors reflecting the hordes of beautiful people that either worked here or came here for services. Large vases of white fresh cut flowers perfumed the air, and clients sipped glasses of wine as they waited for different chemicals to color or curl their hair.

"Quinnie! Look at her hair. So unblemished by chemicals. Healthy and strong and a perfect deep base color to highlight! What a treat!" the young man exclaimed dramatically, throwing his head back and laughing happily.

Daria squirmed beneath her protective cape and asked, "Unblemished? I don't have excema, if that's what you mean."

The stylist let go over her hair and frowned.

Quinn, who was perched in a pump chair in an adjacent styling station, giggled at his reaction. "She's joking, Slade. Remember what I told you about Daria's sense of humor?" Then for Daria's sake she added, "He means you haven't destroyed your hair with multiple bleaching like 99% of the female population."

"Oh." Daria paused to consider. "You mean like what he's done with his own hair?" She smirked. "And what he wants to do to mine?"

This time Slade smiled too. "Such a bad girl! You are just like Quinn told me."

"Quinn talks about me?" Daria asked with a little disbelief.

"All the time. Wish I had a big sister like you." Slade was gathering handfuls of Daria's hair and holding them at the top of her head experimentally.

Daria looked at Quinn via the mirror and raised her eyebrow, smiling softly. Quinn shrugged, embarrassed, but returned the smile before she dropped her eyes.

Slade wiggled as the salon's speakers stated playing an antique song by the Sex Pistols. "Johnny Rotten was such a doll," he mused as he clipped Daria's hair up.

"Please tell me you're joking," Daria asked.

"Sweetie, I'm talking before the drug rampage," Slade quipped as he considered the top of Daria's head. "So, Quinnie, the bridesmaid dresses are going to be black, long, with lots of exposed shoulder, right?"

"Yes, yes, and yes," Quinn asserted, flipping through a magazine, scanning for pictures of herself. "Typical Vera stuff."

"Then I think Daria's hair should be up, up, UP!"

"This doesn't involve flying, does it?" Daria asked, eyeing the vast array of styling implements and hair care products scattered about Slade's work center.

Slade rolled his eyes and clucked at her. "Don't worry, your feet will stay firmly on the ground," he smiled wickedly, "but a little volumizer and a curling iron will give you some bounce and drama for the big day." He grabbed a fat curling iron and applied it to a long lock of hair.

Daria paled but held her peace. This was for Quinn's big day, she reminded herself. Time to not even think about being selfish.

Quinn smiled. "You'll have bouncy hair after all, Daria."

Daria smiled thinly and tried not to yelp too loudly when the curling iron grazed her ear.

"You ARE tender," Slade commented with interest as he pulled the iron back a bit. "You know, Daria, you would look fabulous with a little highlighting. Let me put some golden strands in for you. It will make the deeper tones glow a rich chestnut."

"No, thanks."

"It won't look just fabulous, it would look absolutely fabulous. See?" He asked angling the light so it shone directly onto her head. "It already does that naturally. Come on, let's play!" he begged.

Daria glared.

Quinn cleared her throat. "Not today, Slade. We just have time to test drive the bridesmaid hairstyle. But while we're here, I was wondering if you had a chance to think about what I told you on the phone yesterday."

"About 'The Neanderthal Strikes Back'? Oh, yes."

Daria tilted her head in interest as she listened.

Slade corrected her head position. "Please try to keep still, or you will get burned again."

"Can we talk freely right now?" Quinn asked, eyeing a nearby woman who seemed to be engrossed in a cell phone conversation.

Slade shrugged. "I doubt anyone here even knows who the guy is, so it should be safe." He wrapped the curling iron around another strand of Daria's hair. "I talked to my partner about it, and he had some really good ideas. In fact, he called some of his friends, and they are willing to help."

Daria knew exactly what they were talking about. "Why would these people want to help me?"

"Because in the entertainment world of lies and glitter, your realistic writing entertains the entertainers. More people value you than you think. We don't want to see you get this kind of shit."

"Oh." Daria shifted with embarrassment.

"We think we can help. But Daria, you are going to have to go on TV." He smiled encouragingly in the mirror. "Your rebuttal needs to be as public as possible for this to work."

"For what to work?" Daria asked with dread. She just knew she wasn't going to like this.

"We can talk about that in a bit. But most importantly, if you are going on TV, PLEASE let me give you highlights so your hair doesn't look like a big ink spill," he begged aggrievedly.

Daria chuckled in spite of herself. "Okay. Only this once, and only if Quinn pays for it."

"Done," Quinn said quickly, not believing her good luck. Who would have EVER thought Daria would agree to this?

Slade smirked as he put he finishing touches on the style and swiveled Daria so she faced Quinn. "You like, Quinnie?"

"Oh, Slade, she looks beautiful!" Quinn exclaimed clasping her hands to her chest.

Daria scowled. "So what do I normally look like?"

"Like a cranky Crystal Gayle," Slade insulted in a teasing voice as he pulled the pins out of Daria's hair. "Lets go plot our revolution while we put you in foils."

Daria gulped. "How long will this take? I have to be at the dojo by seven."

Slade looked at his watch. "Oh, we'll have you done in plenty of time for you to play Kung Fu Theatre."

"It's not..." she began, but Slade had already dashed off to mix the hair color.

Chapter Eleven

"Getting the Spice Back Into Things"

Daria unlocked the apartment door and stepped inside, her flip flops slapping against the hard wood floor. She locked the door behind her and dropped her keys onto the credenza, dropped her gym bag on the floor, and kicked off her shoes. Barefoot, she glided down the darkened hallway, looking like a ghost in her white dogi. She approached the thin stream of light seeping out from under Trent's office door and knocked. Odd, it looked like the light in his office was unsteady and moving, from what she could see.

"Hang on," he said softly. She heard something rustle, then the thin clink of glass hitting glass before the door opened. He only opened it enough to peer out at her.

She immediately noticed he was wearing only his pajama bottoms, and that his hair was wet and slightly curly. He was smiling softly at her, and her stomach tightened.

"Trent?" she asked when he didn't say anything for a moment or two.

"Have a nice training session?"

"Yes."

"Sore?"

"For once, no." She looked at him questioningly. Where was he going with this?

"Good. Come in." He stepped back and, taking her hand, drew her into he room.

The flickering light she had noticed earlier came from the fifteen-odd candles that Trent had placed around the room. They provided a warm, golden illumination and spiced the air with scents of cinnamon. The smell teased her memory and quickened her heart.

"Have a seat," Trent said, motioning to his office futon which was now draped in a bright patchwork quilt.

Daria sat down, taking note of a bouquet of yellow Black Eyed Susans now at eye level, the exact same flower that had grown outside of the cabin.

"Connecticut?" she asked softly, watching how his body moved as he turned from her and worked with something on his desk.

He turned around holding two mugs and handed her one. "I couldn't find a way to get you to the cabin, so I tried to get the cabin to you."

Daria smiled, a faint trace of her old blushes crossing her cheeks. She looked into her mug. "Hot chocolate? But there wasn't any hot chocolate last time."

Trent looked serious. "That's because this is a different time. A new time."

Daria met his eyes and allowed him to see her longing. "A better time."

He smiled. "And so, I have a present for you." He pulled on his acoustic guitar, not realizing how tantalizing this made him look, dressed as he was. "This is one of your favorites, I believe?" He placed pick to string and began to recite to Daria a Shakespearean sonnet:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds Or bends with the remover to remove: O, no! It is an ever-fixed mark, That looks on tempests and is never shaken; It is the star to every wandering bard, Whose worth unknown, although his height be taken. Love's not time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks Within his sickles bending compass come; Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But it bears out even to the edge of doom. If this error and upon me proved, I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Daria had watched his eyes fondly watching her as he spoke, and heard the tones of his voice proclaiming the depth of his feeling. Events had not truly altered their love for each other. And the meaning of that sonnet was so fitting to this moment. They would work through this. It was going to heal.

"Daria, I love you more than I ever did." Trent slid out of the guitar and set it lightly on the desk. "We've both been hurt, and I promise to try harder to put it behind us."

He sat close by her on the futon and she could feel his heat radiating out to her. "Daria, I want to, to..."

Daria put a finger on his lips stopping him. "I love you, too. I never stopped. I just forgot how to feel it." She pulled his hand to the center of her chest and pressed it there. "You never left me."

Trent slid his hand to the lapel of her jacket and pulled her closer. "Let me show you," he whispered against her lips, and kissed her. It started as a full kiss, and grew increasingly fervent. They tilted backwards, lounging on the futon. Daria slid her arms around Trent as he fumbled with the knot of her belt.

He pulled out of the kiss and tugged ineffectively at the knot. "Why do you tie it like that?"

"Tradition," she said softly, batting his hands away and untying it for him.

"Hmmm." He slid the jacket over her shoulders and threw it on the floor.

Daria frowned when the cool air hit her wet tee shirt. "I'm all sweaty."

Trent grinned and kissed her briefly, his lips tugging at hers as they pulled apart. "I thought you might be. Come on." He got up and took her hand. Together they left the cabin illusion and went into the hall. Trent led her into the bathroom. Here there were also candles lit and a hot bath gently steamed into the dim light. Now the cabin reproduction was almost complete.

Trent caught her eyes with his and held them as he released her hand and untied the cotton drawstring of his pajama pants. He eased them over his legs and stepped out of them. He quirked an eyebrow in the approximation of "the look" he used to give her all the way back from her high school days and climbed into the tub.

The bubbles from the bath reached mid chest on him and his knees stuck out of the froth. He opened his arms to her. "Join me?"

Daria pulled her tee shirt over her head and smiled shyly. She was a little nervous, worrying that she would never be able to enjoy such close contact like she used to.

Trent caught her expression and understood. "Let's make better memories, Daria."

She was easing out of her pants when the kitten pounced into the room and perched on the toilet seat, watching them interestedly.

Daria laughed, her tension breaking. "Not with the damn cat watching!"

She scooped up Plague and gently deposited him outside the bathroom and shut the door behind him. She turned to Trent and smiled as she slipped out of the rest of her clothing.

"Trent, are you worried about the book?"

"Don't think about tomorrow. They can't hurt us anymore."

Daria tested the water with her big toe, then stepped the rest of the way in.

"Who?" she asked as she slid into the foam.

As Trent reached for her, they both forgot about the rest of the world, even the poor kitten who was crying piteously and sliding his paw under the bathroom door.

Chapter Twelve

"Release the Hounds!"

"Ow! You stuck it in my eye!" Daria shouted, pulling back and covering her eyes, the fat curlers in her hair bobbing about.

Slade put his hands in his hips, drew a deep breath, and counted to ten. As he did so, he watched Daria cringe in the studio make-up chair looking patently miserable and stressed out. This had to stop. He scanned the busy crowd in this area of the make up area and spotted a harried-looking production assistant.

"You," he snapped with real authority, catching the assistant's eye. "Bring her a Bacardi and Coke. Make it a double." The production assistant said something into her head set and looked at him curiously. "Before next week sweetie. Chop, chop!" Slade commanded. "If you don't hurry, I won't let you in on why that red hair makes you look like a rotten carrot."

The assistant blushed and scuttled away.

"I don't need a drink," Daria said sullenly.

"Well, I need for you to have one. Can we please continue?"

Daria puffed forth a long-suffering sigh and nodded. "I don't see why all of this is necessary."

"Look up at the ceiling and don't move this time," Slade instructed, and began to reapply the eyeliner. "We've been over this. This is TV, not real life. You need stage make-up if you don't want to look like the undead."

"Well, I feel like the undead, so why shouldn't I look the part?" Daria asked with a shadow of her usual acerbic tongue.

"Because your reputation is on the line. You should thank your lucky stars you have Quinn to look out for you, you know."

"And how's that? Not that I disagree."

"She knows how important appearance is in the public arena. You can bet Dominic and Monique know that, too. They will be trying to look their best. You need to look better."

The drink arrived promptly at Daria's elbow and she ignored it. "This isn't about looks. It's about the truth."

Slade handed her the drink and scowled at her until she took a sip. "What planet are you from?"

Daria sipped her drink and frowned.

Slade smiled wearily. "You do realize I'm not trying to give you a hard time, right?" he asked, filling a plump make-up brush with blusher and dusting it across her cheeks.

Daria raised an eyebrow, and while she didn't say anything, she looked slightly less put out.

Slade continued. "It's just that Quinn and I know how this business works. If you go out there looking scruffy, you will have no credibility at all. You might as well not do it."

"I look scruffy?" Daria asked with amusement, taking a bigger drink.

"Well, your natural look would look scruffy on TV," Slade said tactfully. "Why do you think that Nixon did so badly in the first televised presidential debates? TV isn't real life. It's a theatre production. He didn't realize that." Slade was now applying a deep mauve lip-gloss to Daria's lips.

"Thanks for your help, Slade. I know you didn't have to come here and help me."

"And leave Quinnie's sister in the hands of TV staff make-up artists? Please." He smiled at her. "I have some professional standards."

Daria finished the drink. "Well, thanks."

Slade brushed the curls from her brown locks, leaving in their place a mane of full-bodied hair that caught the light and framed her face in gentle waves. "Those highlights turned out very nicely. You should come see me regularly." He sprayed a light coat of hairspray onto his creation to hold it in place.

Daria smiled, hearing the invitation to friendship that lay behind those words. "I'll think about it."

Slade regarded her reflection. "Imagine all of this toned down by about 40%. That's what it will look like on TV."

"Oh. Good," Daria said with relief. She hadn't realized that.

The production assistant sidled up to Slade. "Ms. Morgendorffer is needed on the set in five."

"She'll be there." Slade looked Daria in the eyes. "Are you ready?"

Daria gulped. "As ready as I'll ever be."

Slade whisked the protective smock off of her and helped her out of the chair. "Let's see you, then."

Daria stood before him and smiled uncertainly. She was decked out in a costume of sorts that had been carefully put together by Quinn and Slade. She wore a simple deep green dress that was sleeveless and cut in the classic Jackie-O style, ending just above her knees. Her legs were covered in opaque black tights and her feet encased in black ballet flats with tick soles. A long golden chain draped down from her neck and ended in a golden key charm. Her hair floated freely around her face, framing her pale complexion beautifully.

Slade handed her some tortoise glasses with oval frames and regarded her as she put them on. "Beautiful! The serious writer. This is exactly what we need."

Daria smiled and allowed him to guide her towards the set. "Remember, they are going to be trashy. Your job is to stay cool and respectable."

Daria nodded, gulping as butterflies flailed wildly around her stomach.

Slade hugged her tightly as he saw the production assistant walking purposefully towards them. "It's now or never. Go show that bastard what you are made of."

"Let's go," said the production assistant, grabbing Daria and steering her towards the sound of applause. "That was your cue."

"My cue?" Daria asked confusedly.

The assistant tapped her headset and rolled her eyes. "Just walk through that door and take the seat next to Trent Lane."

Daria trembled as she approached the doorway. She could see the bright lights of the set and hear the audience. They were waiting for her. She took a deep breath and walked through. Immediately the stage lights blinded her, and she had to raise a hand to block their brilliance. The audience sighed sympathetically and Dominic snickered, both of which mortified her terribly.

There was a short flight of stairs down to the set, which she negotiated stiffly, her eyes still tearing from the brightness. She looked over to Trent and locked gazes with him as she stumbled towards him. He smiled encouragingly, his eyes aching for her. He knew what this was costing her.

Finally, she made it to her seat and took it gratefully. Instantly, Trent captured her hands in his and gave them a comforting squeeze.

"Welcome, Ms. Morgendorffer!" hailed the host heartily from her place behind a sturdy wooden desk just adjacent to the chairs.

While the crowed applauded its welcome, Daria risked a glance over at the chairs on the other side of the desk. There sat Monique and Dominic, smiling smugly at her. Slade had been correct. These two did look tacky. Monique was wearing a black sequined cocktail dress that showed way too much leg and had allowed the staff make-up artists to heavily coat her face in unnatural hues and poof up her hair to three times its natural size. Dominic was wearing a periwinkle blue suit and orange tie that clashed horribly with his hair. She supposed they were attempting to be hip, but were failing horribly. Suddenly, Daria realized the full value of Slade and Quinn's help.

"So, Daria... can I call you Daria?" the hostess asked with fake solicitude.

"I don't know. Can you?" Daria asked with a twist of her lip, falling into old habits to combat her terror. Trent squeezed her hand and shook his head slightly, reminding her that sarcasm was not on tonight's agenda. "I'm sorry. Please do," she amended.

The host brandished a book that had a gray scale picture of Daria looking sourly off into the distance as its cover illustration. Its title, "Bitter Pill," was emblazoned across the dust jacket in bright yellow letters. "Do you know what this is?"

"Unfortunately."

The hostess smiled. "We've just been talking about it with Trent Lane, your... er...?" She left it open, insinuating that Daria might be ashamed by her relationship with Trent.

"My partner," Daria said firmly.

"Yes. Your 'partner.' Well, what did you think about it?"

"Would a 'deceitful pile of lies and ego inflating confabulations' sum it up for you?" Daria asked venomously.

"Daria, no," Trent whispered in her ear, and in the first row of the audience Quinn shook her head and made "cut it out" motions with her hands. Beside her, Jane and Slade winced.

The hostess looked surprised. "You say this true story isn't so true?" The audience gasped.

Daria reminded herself to be civil and tried again. "I'm trying to say that the degree of falsehood in that book leaves Mr. Greyson open to charges of libel."

"Charges?" the hostess looked pleasantly scandalized. "Oh, dear. Have you filed such charges?"

Daria dropped bomb number one. "Yes. Today. My mother's law firm is coordinating it." Daria felt a small bit of satisfaction as she watched Dominic pale.

"That is serious. What do you have to say to that, Mr. Greyson?"

Dominic quickly regained his composure. His features quickly schooled themselves into an expression of disappointed sadness. "I'm not surprised to get this reaction, really." He looked out over the audience significantly. "What with her history of mental illness and all."

Again the crowd gasped. In the front row, Jane, Quinn, and Slade scowled darkly. That was low and dirty.

Monique patted Dominic's arm reassuringly and spoke up. "I know it hurts you to talk about this. Let me." She focused a pretend pleading look upon Daria. "I know you don't like to talk about this either, Daria, but when I first met you, you were so clinically depressed that you couldn't get out of bed for weeks."

The hostess turned patronizing eyes upon Daria. "Is this true?"

"Yes," Daria stated shortly. Damn.

Monique continued. "She just couldn't handle Trent's success in the face of her own failure. She left him on the most successful night of his life. She didn't even come to the show's opening. Poor Trent."

Daria's cheeks burned. So far, all of that was true.

"Daria? Would you like to say something? You look awfully red over there," the hostess commented.

Daria looked at Quinn for guidance. Quinn shook her head no. Their plan was to let Dominic and Monique spill as many lies as possible before trapping them with their own words.

"No," Daria said softly. The audience murmured again, taking this as an admission of truth.

"That's where I come in," Dominic said with contrived reluctance. "I met this young woman as she continued her spiral into despair."

"Yes?" encouraged the host eagerly.

"As a publisher, I take the welfare of all of my writers personally. I saw her career plummeting and stepped into help her."

"Is that when you fell in love with her?"

"Yes. And she used that love to draw me into her darkness."

Daria squeezed Trent's hand hard enough to elicit a wince from him. Dominic was a lying weasel. And was so good at it, unsurprisingly. So far, he was telling the truth, enough so that refuting it would be more difficult than she first thought. Trent pried his hands free from her grasp and gently held them. Daria didn't dare look in his eyes for fear she might start to cry. This would be over soon. Please let it be over soon.

The hostess motioned for Dominic to continue.

"I went so far as to rent her a small apartment so she wouldn't be on the street. It was strictly professional. But she wanted to stay with me all of the time. She was so sweet, so vulnerable. How could I say no?"

The hostess and members of the audience nodded sympathetically, but Daria and Trent stiffened hopefully. Outright lie number one.

"But being around her so much brought about a discovery of her darker side. She was a regular Dorothy Parker. I can't tell you how many suicide attempts I stopped during our times together. Just like that poem. 'Razors pain you,' eh, Daria?"

That was a mistake on his part. The audience muttered, offended at this outright assault on such an obviously vulnerable person.

"'Drugs cause cramp,'" Daria quoted back at him, "and so does the truth. What were you hoping to gain from this book, you two?"

Monique took over. "To tell your tragic story. To see such genius as yours drown in despair was the most powerful thing that had ever happened to me."

"Yes," Dominic chimed in. "This was a modern tragedy of the ruination of a sensitive mind. We couldn't keep it to ourselves."

Daria looked at him shrewdly. "And the fact that you both were flat broke with ruined careers didn't help?" The audience perked up, sensing an oncoming revelation.

Dominic raised his hands weakly. "Yes, I'll admit I threw my career away for you, Daria. I should have kept it business as usual. But I stepped in to intervene, and it looked like sexual harassment to my firm." He hung his head. "I did it all for you. And you went back to him." He pretended to cry.

"Oh, come on," Daria said impatiently. "Drop the act." She looked over to her advisors in the audience, who were grinning broadly and giving her the thumbs up. She stood up and walked over to Dominic and pulled his hands away, revealing his dry eyes to the cameras.

"And you," Daria sneered at Monique. "Still trying to get Trent back? You didn't really think he would believe any of this, do you?"

Daria walked over to the desk and hopped up onto its edge and faced the audience. "Many of you know my work, so I won't deny that I have a rather skewed view on the world. It's often a little depressing. But that's just who I am. Do you want to know the real story here?"

The audience applauded wildly, many of its members whistling and shouting the affirmative.

Daria crossed her ankles, and cleared her throat. "It's hard to be a writer these days. It's all about bloated profit margins, not art. Trent and I were having problems, problems that one" - she pointed to Monique - "was mixed up in. But that's another story. Today's story focuses on a man with the power to force his employees to do whatever he wanted."

"That's insane!" Dominic shouted, turning purple.

Daria faced him and continued coldly. "You didn't lease an apartment for me. My name is on that lease. You forced me to stay at your home as often as you could. I used what little money I had to buy an escape from you in the slums."

She faced the audience again. "Sexual harassment in the workplace is alive and well. Add to it a writer with a failing career, failing love life, and low self-esteem, and you have a recipe for disaster."

Dominic started to rise, but Monique grabbed his arm. "Sit. Don't make it worse!" She looked at Trent worriedly, but Trent, not trusting her, just looked away.

Daria pointed at Dominic. "That man had me convinced that he was the only thread holding my career together. And, truth be told, he was. But the price was way too high. Before I was able to release myself, this man owned me in every way. All in the name of my contract."

The audience was so silent that it was easy to forget their presence.

"Sexual harassment, you say?" asked the hostess quietly.

Daria's voice tremored. This was the hard part. "Yes. I became his mistress, in exchange for my career."

Dominic jumped to his feet. "Prove it!" he roared, all pretense gone.

Daria looked back at the hostess who nodded with a wink. She had been in on this from the start.

The hostess smiled darkly. "Lets ask these young ladies about that?" Telemonitors across the studio flickered to life, each featuring a different woman. The women stared at Dominic from their screens, vengeful smiles on their faces.

Daria's expression mirrored theirs. "We will all see you in court."

Dominic snarled and launched out of his seat, thundering towards Daria, his fist balled and ready.

"Shit!" Trent yelled, jumping up and trying to reach her in time.

For Daria, everything seemed to move in slow motion. While the others fought to help her, she knew that only she could help herself. Her body remembering its recent lessons in self-defense, Daria leapt to her feet and planted them firmly into the carpet, leaning forward slightly. As Dominic's right fist arced towards her face, she blocked it with her left hand, sliding her left foot forward and then swinging her right foot behind her in a half circle, letting him barrel past her harmlessly. Now behind him and still moving with him, she slid her left hand to his elbow and grabbed his wrist with her right hand. She twisted, hyper extending his arm, then she stepped forward, leveraging him with her hips. This brought his knees before her momentarily before crashing down on his face. She quickly knelt behind his head and twisted his arm up sharply, eliciting a yelp from him. Things quickly returned into normal speed and, suddenly, Trent was at her side, shaking like a leaf. She held Dominic's arm between her two arms and cranked a little harder, just to be safe.

"I'm not afraid of you anymore."

Her words were amplified by the sound system, and the previously silent audience erupted into cheers. Daria looked up and smiled at them. They all lurched to their feet and were clapping for her as security came and relieved Daria of her burden.

She got up and brushed her hair behind her ears. She slipped an arm around Trent and squeezed his shoulders. She looked at the audience again. "Like I was saying, sexual harassment can happen to anybody." She reached into the pocket of her dress and pulled out an old, cracked pair of glasses and put them on in place of the pair she was wearing. "And so can abuse. It doesn't matter how strong, smart, or savvy you are. It can sneak up on you and have you by the throat before you realize it."

The crowd grew silent again.

"It happened to me. Don't let it happen to you." Daria fixed the crowd with a piercing gaze, then turned with Trent and exited the stage as the audience began applauding again, even more wildly than before.

Backstage, Daria turned to Trent and hugged him tightly, hanging on for dear life. She started to tremble as the reaction to all that she had just done set in. Trent wrapped his arms around her and murmured softly to her.

"You were wonderful; you did it!"

They heard feet running toward them and Jane shouting, "Viva la Aikido! Wow! That was awesome! I need to start taking classes with you!"

Daria chuckled and looked up. Standing close by were Jane, Quinn, and Slade, all grinning broadly. "You kicked ass!" Jane shouted, obviously impressed. "I can't believe it!" Jane started making karate side effect sounds and slicing the air with her hands.

Daria chuckled again. "Um, Jane? That's not Aikido."

Jane shrugged. "Who cares? It's fun!" She did a little side-kick for emphasis.

"Thank you, everyone, for your support," Daria said sincerely, smiling at Jane.

Her friends smiled and opened their mouths to reply when everyone's cell phones started to ring. As they answered them their eyes flicked to Daria, and their eyes grew wider.

Quinn hung up first. "Don't worry about finding work again, Daria. That was my agent trying to find you."

Trent laughed. "That was my agent about the same thing. You guys, too?" Slade and Jane nodded with smiles so big it seemed their faces might crack. He hugged Daria excitedly.

Quinn giggled. "But don't you dare take any offers till after my wedding!"

Epilogue

"Always the Bridesmaid..."

Quinn whipped around excitedly, her long red hair fanning beautifully against the off-white of her dropped-shouldered wedding gown. At 29 she may be ready to retire from the runway, but her looks were still heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Her excitement for the day glowed on her cheeks and bounced in her step. She held her bouquet of gardenias and stephanotis close to her breast and smiled brightly.

"Who's ready to try to catch my bouquet?" she called laughingly. "I need all of the single women out on the dance floor... pronto!"

Quinn surveyed all of the damsels paying her court. The one she wanted stood way too far back. "Daria, how about at least staying in the same county?" Poor Daria had been through so much recently. The wedding had obviously worn down the last of her strength. Quinn just hoped Daria wouldn't strangle anyone before the day was out.

Her sister rolled her eyes, and after a long suffering sigh deigned to move in a little closer. It ought to be enough. Quinn spun around and squeezed her eyes shut. She kept her mind focused on where Daria was standing and threw the flowers over her head. Maybe it would cheer her up to catch the bouquet. She opened her eyes and turned to watch the flowers sail over Daria's head. Daria stood there with her arms crossed; she hadn't even tried. But wait... ooooo, this was going to be even better.

Daria smirked as she heard the flowers fall to the floor behind her. She knew Quinn would try to throw them to her. Almost as well as she knew she had no intention of catching them. Somehow she had been tricked into going along with all of this pageantry, but her own personal boundaries were clear. Daria Morgendorffer did not go chasing after the bridal bouquet. She stiffened as she saw a satisfied smile cross Quinn's lips. What was she up to?

Daria turned when she heard Trent quietly clear his throat behind her. He held the bouquet out to her politely. "I think this was intended for you," he said in a voice she had to strain to hear.

She took the bouquet with shaky fingers. She knew what it meant to catch the bridal bouquet. "Thank, you... I think," she choked out.

Trent parted his lips as if he might speak, but whatever he might have said was washed away by Jake's shouts.

"DARIA caught it? Gahh... two weddings in one year! We can't afford it, Helen! Agh! Does Daria think we're made of money? Couldn't she have waited a year or two?"

"Jake..."

The large crowd burst into laughter and Daria felt blood rush to her cheeks. She knew they weren't laughing at her, not exactly. Abstractly, this situation was hilarious. But not in person. At the moment, she was determined to never give them the satisfaction of getting married.

She looked down at the bouquet of delicate flowers, and her other hand reached over to snap the blooms off of their stems.

Trent guessed her intentions and swiftly relieved her of the flowers. "I'll carry these. I bet you're ready for a glass of wine," he said carefully, realizing belatedly she might be angry with him for presenting her with the bouquet.

"You have no idea," she muttered, marching straight towards the open bar. She ordered a double whisky and soda and took a calming breath.

"Soooo..." Trent floundered for a topic that wouldn't send her over the edge. "Your hair looks nice."

She scowled. Quinn had made her get her hair styled, and to Daria's pique it looked gorgeous. She rather fancied herself as a plain item and liked it that way. Her worth was on the inside. How annoying to be proven wrong in such a stunning way.

"Oh," Trent responded to her expression. "I think I'll just be quiet for now." He shoved his hands in the pockets of his black jeans and looked at the floor.

Daria took a long pull from her drink and relented. "Look... I don't mean to be snappy. This has been a tough day." She headed towards a bench on the edge of the dance floor.

Trent matched her stride and slipped an arm around her waist. "What's been so hard?" he asked, hoping she would tell him. She just might. She was getting better at that.

"Just look at me," she gestured to the dress, the pile of curls on her head, the makeup.

Trent looked, but was afraid to say anything. He had a feeling that any response would be the wrong one.

"I look like another person," she elaborated, "and all night, everyone has been rushing up to tell me how beautiful I look." Her look turned a shade darker as she remembered.

"This is bad?" he asked confusedly.

"Well... yeah. First, the amazement in their voices is obvious. Second, if I look so good today... how do I usually look?"

"Ummm." Trent scanned the room for an escape route; this was getting dangerous. He looked sideways and saw she was looking at him expectantly. He guessed. "You look like yourself?"

Her expression softened. "Exactly. And I like that look. So it's hard to have this one so applauded." She kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks for understanding."

Trent smiled and thanked lady luck for that one. "I like how you look, too. Everyday."

Daria actually smiled a little. Her humor was improving, so she unbent to tell him another indignity. "You know what else? When they were taking the wedding photos before everything got started... you know, the posed ones... they made me stand on a box."

"A box?"

"Yes, because of all of the giantess supermodels in the wedding party. It was irritating. And I'll probably still look short." Daria's mind eddied around memories of her growth shots and how ashamed she was of her shortness growing up.

Trent frowned. This conversation was the most he had ever heard Daria talk about her appearance in the entire time he had known her. Vanity wasn't her gig. She must be really hurting today. He tightened his grip on her waist in silent support.

Daria looked at everyone taking seats at their tables. She sighed wistfully as she walked Trent to his place setting. "I wish I could stay with you, but I'm needed with the bridal party."

Trent pulled his chair out a little further than necessary from the table. "Nah." He kept his hold on her as he sat and she was forced to sit in has lap to avoid falling. "Stay with me. You've been through enough. Quinn will understand."

Daria wiggled to get more comfortable and offered up a token protest. "Mom and Dad will freak."

"Let 'em." He nuzzled the tender hollow where her jawbone met her neck. "What are they gonna do?"

Daria leaned against him and decided she didn't really care. She smirked as she saw Helen looking around for her. Daria waved lazily to let her mom know she hadn't gotten lost.

Helen's eyes flashed and she started over, just as Quinn stood up and rapped her fork against her champagne flute.

"Thank you all for coming to this special day in my life. I know this wedding has been pretty traditional so far, but now Jasper and I would like to do something different."

Quinn picked up her glass of champagne and held it high. "I want to make a toast. Daria? Where are you?" She peered into the crowd and quickly found Daria perched on Trent's knee. "Oh, good. You look much more comfortable."

Of course, everyone else had followed Quinn's eyes and were now staring at Daria and Trent.

Quinn began. "That's my big, brainy sister. When we were growing up, I was into beauty and she was into books. As you might guess, we didn't get along very well. But our interests served us pretty well. We both found critical acclaim in our own ways." Quinn paused as her voice took on a teary note. "But what's even nicer is that the 'Brain' and the 'Brat' finally grew up. Grew into what sisters should be. We ask each other for advice, and trust the answers we get. Somehow we became friends, Daria. You have been through so much in the last few years, and I didn't help you enough. To see you putting up with being my bridesmaid, knowing what an awful time you must be having... makes me..." Quinn paused again to wipe a heartfelt tear from her eye. She sniffed and continued. "It makes me realize how much you love me, to put up with it so silently."

The crowd chuckled at this.

Quinn smiled. "Trust me, you all have no idea. So, Daria, thanks for putting up with everything. I love you too, Sis." Quinn raised her glass in toast.

Daria's hand shook as she raised her glass in response, and her eyes seemed suspiciously bright. She was so moved that she forgot to be embarrassed by having the eyes of the entire room upon her.

Quinn sipped, then continued. "And I have something for you in return." She motioned and two liveried attendants opened the double doors. "Get out of here; you've been through enough." She gestured towards the door and ignored the horrified look on her mother's face.

Daria slid to her feet, unable to believe her good fortune. This celebration had hours to go till it was all over. This was perfect. She grabbed Trent's hand and approached the main table. Without a word, she kissed Quinn on the cheek and left the hall to the sounds of thunderous applause.

"That was a sweet gesture," Trent commented as they rode up towards their room in the elevator.

Daria smiled as she slipped her high heels off and enjoyed the coolness of the marble against the soles of her feet. She was moved beyond words. Quinn couldn't have given her a more thoughtful gift. But even more touching was Quinn's understanding of how trying this had been for Daria. It was nice to be appreciated. It was nice to end up with a sister so thoughtful. A pleasant surprise, all in all.

The elevator stopped at their floor and they stepped out, Daria going barefoot, holding her shoes by the heels in her right hand and the bouquet of flowers in her left. As they approached the door to their room, Trent startled her by sweeping her off of her feet and into his arms.

"What the...?" she asked, her face squashed against his neck.

Trent fussed with the key card. "Humor me." He unlocked the door and swung her over the threshold, kicking the door shut behind him. "I want to see what this feels like."

"Well, this will be your only chance," she said irritably.

"I know, so let me enjoy it," he said, silencing her with a kiss.

Her arms snaked up around his neck as she kissed him back. He was such a hopeless romantic that he brought it out in her, too.

His kisses slid from her mouth to her jaw line to the tip of her earlobe, which he nibbled slightly. "Shall I throw you down on the bed, or set you on your feet?" he asked.

She sighed as the air from his speech tickled her ears. "Feet, please."

He kissed her one more time, deeply, then set her down. He stroked her cheek and looked at her longingly.

Daria carried the flowers to the dresser and set them down carefully. She was extra glad she hadn't destroyed them earlier. Not after what Quinn had said. Maybe she could press them. They would be very nice to keep.

She dropped her shoes and kicked them under the bed. It wouldn't break her heart if she forgot the damn purgatorial things when she left. She certainly never planned on wearing them again.

She looked up and noticed that someone - most likely Quinn - had let a bottle of Dom chilling in a silver bucket by the bed, and that the room's Jacuzzi was churning softly while eddies of steam played across the surface. Given the rigged bouquet toss, the early release, and the romantic set up, it seemed like her sister was hoping to prompt a proposal tonight. Daria looked over at Trent and wondered what he was thinking. They had been together for eight years. Was it time? Did she want it to be? Did things need to change?

Trent stood frozen where he had been standing and looked at her intensely. His eyes seemed to look deep inside of her. Her breath caught in her throat as her glance merged with his. She felt a warm flush creeping up her throat as she fought for breath. He looked so compelling and intense. Her knees felt weak as she waited for one of them to make a move.

Trent hooked a finger in his cummerbund and regarded her for a long moment. She looked stunning tonight, though telling her so would probably be a mistake. It was still his Daria standing there, just with all of her natural beauty coaxed forth and polished. He eyed the tumble of curls that crowned her head and longed to slowly pull the pins out, one by one, as she cuddled against him the warm skin of her back pressing against his chest. He swallowed hard and clenched his fingers. He loved her mind so much, and right now he wanted to love her body. Maybe all night. Maybe until they had to stop from exhaustion. He took a step towards her.

Daria saw the desire in his eyes and willed her knees to be firm. She was going to need all of her strength, balance included. She arched her back towards him and asked softly, "Do you think you could help me with these buttons?"

Trent stepped behind her and brushed a stray lock of hair from the dress's high collar and kissed the skin of her neck above it. "This button?" he whispered.

"Mmm-hmmmm..."

Trent slid a thumb between the fabric and her neck and untwisted the first of the tiny buttons that stretched down her back. He followed the action with a slow kiss to the newly exposed skin of her neck. "All of them?" he breathed against her neck.

A ragged breath escaped Daria's lips as she nodded and took a firm hold on the dresser.

Taking his time, Trent unbuttoned all thirty buttons, bestowing languorous kisses along her spine as he did so. Reaching the last button, he gently pushed the dress over her shoulders and let it slide away from her body. He wrapped his arms around her and held her from behind.

"Never doubt that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen." He swung her bare body into his arms and carried her over to the bed. He sat her down gently and eased onto his knees. When she reached for his bow tie, he gently batted her hands away. "No, this is all about you."

He reached into the curls at the top of her head and found a bobby pin and slowly, carefully, pulled it out. A long curl fell along her shoulders, making her shiver. He cuddled against her and slowly began searching for another while he kissed her shoulders.

Several hours later, Daria yawned as the pale light of morning spilled through the sheer drapes. She was so tired she could barely move. They had ended up in the hot tub and neither had felt inclined to leave it. She moved so a stream of hot water pulsed against a sore muscle in her back.

"You okay?" Trent murmured and slipped an arm around her shoulder, a little water splashing onto the floor.

"More than okay," she answered, reaching for the champagne in its now melted bucket of ice. She grabbed it around the neck and drank thirstily from the bottle, then set it on the rim of the tub when she was finished.

"Mmmm," he sighed into her hair.

"I caught the bouquet," she said quietly, "sort of."

"Yeah, " he said eyes closed, almost too tired to speak.

"That means you have to marry me."

His eyes popped open. "What?"

"Marry me, Trent?"

His other arm slid around her and held her tightly. "Are you serious?" he asked in a small, frightened voice.

"When am I not serious?"

"Daria, please don't tease me. Not like this," he said in that same forlorn voice.

She looked at his anxious expression and smiled. "What are you afraid of?"

"That this is a joke." He swallowed and coughed, looking away.

"This is no joke."

He looked back at her, a hopeful smile chasing away his fearful look. "You mean it?"

Daria sighed irritably. "Of course I mean it. But I'm not saying it again. You heard me the first time."

Trent's small smile grew into a hearty grin. She was serious. She meant it.

"Well?" she half shouted, starting to feel anxious that he had not answered her yet.

Trent whooped loudly and splashed the water in his excitement. "Vegas, here we come!"

"VEGAS?" Daria sputtered. "We are absolutely not getting married in Vegas!"

Trent looked thoughtful and grew silent.

"Oh, God," Daria moaned, remembering that Jesse Moreno did a killer Elvis impersonation. No, they wouldn't have to leave the state for her wedding to be stupid. She was screwed either way.

The End of the Continuum

Diane Long

Well. Here we are at the ending. Over a year ago I started writing Daria fanfiction, and 12 stories later I consider myself finished. Along the way I have met some very delightful and creative people who not only have helped me improve my writing, but who have also become special friends. You know who you are. I thank everyone for reading my little stories. Thanks for sticking with me all the way. You made this project meaningful. I may be inspired to write little Daria ficlets but the major works are completed. Because of my successes here in a genre I never thought I would write in (namely Romances), I am moving on to try to write completely original, publishable novels. I plan to keep the Diane Long pen name. Watch for me and keep your fingers crossed.

As far as this story goes, I would like to thank my partner in crime, Jon Kilner for his advice and feedback. Jon, writing with you has been a pleasure beyond describing. Thanks also go out to Paperpusher, Chad Page, and Martin J. Pollard for their help and feedback and editing. And Michelle, I put the Vegas bit in the end as a hello to your work as your fics were among the very first I loved. Smoooch!

Update 12/19/2010: Oi, I DID write all of this melodrama. Sheepish laugh. Was my Helen a major bitch or what?