PREVIOUSLY: Lawndale High is closed, every student and teacher's future is in question, and Daria has to deal with blame from the worst of sources: herself.


GOD SAVE THE ESTEEM

Episode 41: Is It Fun Yet?

The little car trundled gently down the suburban street, tasteful colours calming the hearts of the middle classes that beheld it. A vanity license plate spelt out "HIM3R1N".

Inside, a twenty four-year-old woman with a fashionable blouse and skirt to match, with sensible but snazzy shoes. To her right, a girl wearing a sombre field jacket and skirt, vegetating on… something.

"Now, Daria, I know it's not easy going out of your comfort zone like this."

"Lawndale's my comfort zone?"

"Ha, ha!" laughed Erin unconvincingly. "I just mean that, er… I don't know, it sounded cleverer in my head." Pause. "Wait, I figured it out!"

Daria turned the radio on. "Can't hear you."

Well, at least she was sarcastic.


"Hey, let's try a game! I Spy with my little eye, something beginning with… T!"

Silence.

"No? Nothing? Give up?"

"If I give up, can I stop having this stupid, boring conversation?"

Right, big guns time. "Daria, if we don't have a conversation, we'll have to listen to the radio." Dramatic pause. "And I pick the music."

"Fine. Truck."

"Correct! Okay, you go next?"

"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with P."

Erin sighed. "You can't spy 'Pointless Exercise', Daria – oh yes, I've been around your family long enough to pick some things up. Look, it's a long trip until we meet up with Aunt Amy, we can't sit in silence the whole time."

"There's nothing to talk about."


Quinn was outnumbered by half the Dirty Decade with only Burnout as her backup, and Burnout had just smoked a fat one a minute ago so she'd soon have no backup, but she met their eyes and showed no fear.

"Suck your turf, I go where I want! Cos that's how I roll!"

"Yo, we 'bout to roll you outta dis world," said Big Dee, the whitest guy who ever whited, before he fall over groaning because Hellion Wheels had kicked him in the crotch from behind.

"Hi Quinn! Your father and I needed a chat, and this can't really wait until you come home-" A glancing blow hit her in the ribs. "Do you mind? This is a private conversation, fuckhole!" Headbutt.

"Mu-uuuumm! You're interfering with my fight!"

"Oh, right, sorry sweetie."

One vicious battle later ("you did your best, man," said Jake, giving a bleeding Two Quarters a pat on the back) and after Burnout had slumped into a quiet sleep, the Morgendorffers settled down for a conversation.

"Now, Quinn, we're not trying to make you conform or anything here, but a few days ago we received your end-of-year report. We've been busy with Daria but now we've had a chance to discuss things, and, well…" Helen searched her brain for a correct way of putting it. "You're unlikely to get into college with them."

"Unless it's Middleton," said Jake cheerfully. "I hear they take anyone these days!"

"Snake, not helping."

"Huh." Quinn considered this. "But I could just not go to college, right?"

"That's an option, yes, but that means you'll need to go straight into a job after school and some careers will be barred to you. Now that's fine if you want to do it. Have you thought about a job?"

Quinn's face went blanker than a hypnotised frog.

"Have you thought about what to do after school?"

Quinn stayed blank. "That's, like, in the future," she eventually said. "I don't have to plan yet, do I?"

"She has a point," said Jake. "Two years is the future."

"I've only got two years left of school? All RIGHT!" Quinn punched the air, then stopped. "Oh wait, in two years I have to be a wage slave? SHIT! When did that happen? I figured that after school, I'd…" She trailed off and waved her hand about to symbolise 'stuff'.

"Ah." Helen headbutted Quinn. "Sorry, honey, but we need you to be incapacitated so we can safely tell you that you need to think about your future job opportunities and we're going to help you do it. And if you don't accept help, I'll have to headbutt you again."

"That sounds like we're forcing her to do it," said Jake dubiously.

"There's a moral grey area here, Snake, I'll tell you later."


DeMartino sat in his house, no lessons to play or homework to mark or Kevin to think about.

And sat.

And sat.

"I'M BORED."


Pennsylvania blurred past the car like generic scenery on a cartoon, but eventually, near the New York border, Erin had to stop for the night. The nearest Night Inn motel was picked and Daria was jollied out of the car against her will, being told: "We'll be meeting Amy tomorrow and there's somewhere that does pizza around here, I checked, and we should be able to get a good night's sleep with absolutely no problems whatsoever!"

In the very next place in the motel car park, two men were making a drug deal.

The dealers looked at them. They looked at the dealers.

Erin's inner saleswoman pushed her consciousness aside and said she had it: "Do you give a two-for-one deal?"

"No-"

"Alright, we might come back to you after we've shopped around-"

"Yes, we absolutely do that thing-"

"But we're not familiar with your product, I don't know if this will be worth the investment…"

By the end of it, Erin had bought a kilo of cocaine for fifteen dollars. "I didn't think that would work," she told Daria.

"Well, it did."

"Oh come on, Daria, not even a little bit of sarcasm?"

"It wasn't worth the effort. If you've been involved in one horrible situation that could kill or traumatise you, you've been in them all."

"Was that sarcasm? I can't tell."

"No."


DeMartino woke up at 5 AM and began to put his shirt on before he remembered he wasn't a teacher anymore.

"I DAMN WELL hope that everyone ELSE has this problem."


Tommy Sherman woke up at 5AM and started to get out of bed, before he remembered he wasn't a teacher anymore and that his bed had two hot ex-cheerleaders in it.

"Awwwww yeah."


The sun was rising when Jane arrived at Ashfield: rustic, remote, peaceful. Jane was mentally playing the Friday the 13th theme from the instant she saw it.

Daria would've got that joke. Ah well. Just a few weeks, Jane-oh, best make the most of it.

Ashfield's director, Violet O'Bloom – that was her actual name – wafted over to Jane with an atmosphere of great calm and late-night wacky baccy, and began to take her over to her cabin. On the way, she expressed great envy for Jane's mother's current project.

"Do I envy her in Death Valley."

"Can you believe there are some people who wouldn't want to go there in July?"

"I know."

Hrr. Daria, you are missed.

O'Bloom opened the cabin door and showed Jane a vision of… well, her first thought had been 'hipsters' but she guessed hipsters didn't wear all-black ensembles and trendy, multi-coloured haircuts. But they were acting hip and having a snarky conversation. Wasn't that what hipsters did? What was a hipster anyway? It was just a general term of abuse for snarky people someone didn't like, right? Oh god, was she and Daria a hipster? Tom, sure, she was always vaguely certain he was one, but she always thought Daria was just…

Jane realised that O'Bloom had gone and someone had spoken to her ten seconds ago.

"I'm not a hipster!" she blurted out.

"Anyway, colour is not something you just fling around like a dog marking its territory," said Someone, ignoring her comment.

"Oh sure," said Jane with relief, "you do need to have a plan, but-"

"Do you mind? We're talking."

And now I'm mentally playing "High School Never Ends" and that is not a song anyone should have to listen to outside of Hell.


Daria had sneaked out of the motel while Erin was still asleep and made her way to the car park. The dealer was back, with friends, and looked surprised to see her coming.

"Here." She put the cocaine brick on the ground and slid it over with her foot. "I knew you'd be back and, frankly, I wanted to shorten things for all concerned."

"Yeah? Well, that ain't good enough." He'd called in help and been pre-empted and, clearly, there was masculinity on the line here; he inflated as he spoke. "You owe me for that stunt-"

"Dude, please, you're trying to front with Velma. It's lame. Let's take the brick and go already."

He relented, the situation against him – and because he'd looked in the girl's eyes and saw no sign that she gave a shit about what was going on. She just looked tired. No one should look like that in a shakedown.

Daria walked away and returned to her room, and when Erin asked where she'd been she just said "out".


DeMartino logged off the Pigskin Channel Message Board with a sigh. "Even TROLLING is boring today."


Quinn lay asleep and peaceful in her bed, looking like a little cherub with green-black dyed hair, a long-chewed dinosaur plushie by her side. Her mother crept in, every so slowly and peacefully, and then said

"YOU FOUGHT THE LAW AND THE LAW WON!"

Quinn shot upright like a film vampire and screamed like a film vampire who'd heard it was getting a role in the next Twilight film.

"Tough love, Killer – when people work for other people, they have to be up during… weird hours. They also have to go to bed before midnight but we won't go that far, we don't want to cause any long-term damage."

"Workers have to get up? Fuck! Maybe I was wrong, I will study-" Helen gave Quinn a look and the girl sighed. "You coulda pretended you believed me."

Helen laughed. "Ha, you wish! We'll let you search for jobs yourself today, but I'll warn you now: we'll be scanning the police band, so if you don't go to the local shops we will know about it."


Meanwhile, in New York:

"I don't give a tinker's cuss what you think about federal agencies and cooperation," snarled ATF Special Agent Flemming, getting into the NYPD Commissioner's personal space. "If the X-5 supervirus is sold to any foreign power or terrorist group, you can-"

Wait, no, sorry.

Meanwhile, somewhere else in New York:

"And here we are!" Erin parked the car in a somewhat seedy part of the South Bronx (and being a seedy part of South Bronx is a challenge). "Aunt Amy said this was the best place to meet her."

Daria looked over at the dirt-brick club, with the sickly neon "Spanks For The Memories" sign and crude drawing of a woman with a whip.

Erin waited patiently for a sarcastic remark, and when none came she said: "Of course, it's the daytime, so only the hardcore crowd will be here." Pause. "And unemployed people." Pause. "Eh? Eh? Hardcore and unemployed oh forget it."

The sound of sleazy techno stalked throughout the club, and under the dim lights perved a collection of pervs, dirty rainmacks and gimp masks and women squeezing into things they were a size too big for and a prominent traditional-values politician. In the middle of it all sat Amy Barksdale, working on a laptop and talking to a dirty-blonde woman.

"-and that's why I'm not allowed back into Luxemburg. Daria, Erin! How's things?"

"Shit," said Daria.

"She's not lying," said Erin. "So-"

"Wait a second." Amy pointed to a couple. "Hey, Daria, is that man drinking wine from that woman's thong?"

"Yes."

Amy waited for sarcasm that never came. "You really are in a bad way," she said quietly. "Don't worry, we'll sort things out. You're among family." Amy nodded to the woman she was with. "See you around, Dallas."

"Oh I'd hope so," she smirked back.

Daria looked at Dallas. "Friend of yours?"

"Daria, ask no questions if you don't want the answer."

"Oh, she's a one night stand!" said Erin.

"Yes, Erin, thank you for that. C'mon girls, I've got a job to do filming a sewer-gator hunting party and guess who is assisting me!" Erin looked at her pleasantly. "It's you two."


Quinn entered the Junior 5 section of Cashman's and soon every security guard was flocking towards her.

"I want to ask about jobs," she told them.

"Come on," said the lead guard, "give us some credit."

Quinn sighed and left the shop. All across the mall, security guards were guarding every shop she'd been into or even looked at. At the shops where she hadn't been, guards were emerging as if summoned by a psychic signal (actually they'd been texted). Coming towards her were armed police from the LCPD.

"Hey Killer," said the lead cop.

"Fuck you, Fascist Pigdog," she said back.

"Do you mind leaving by your own steam this time? We're hoping to get an early lunch."

It went against everything she stood for but Quinn did what the policeman asked, because if she was arrested she couldn't keep looking for jobs and then her mother would do her cross headbutt. Still, things were going pretty well. She'd decided to look for work outside of Dega Street or anywhere that her parents had contacts, so she could prove that she was a hardcore mofo who didn't rely on anyone. And, of course, every normal shop thought she was going to break, burn, or steal something, proving she was a hardcore mofo that society couldn't handle. It was win-win!

Okay, it wasn't getting her a job application form or interview, but you had to pace yourself with these things.


The team were the embodiment of the Great White Hunters of late 19th century folklore, if those hunters had become fat and wore crap-covered Wellington boots and alright, they didn't look at all like Great White Hunters. But they did have shotguns, and they walked around the sewers like they'd been doing it for years. Because they had.

"And when was the last time you saw an alligator down here?" asked Amy, training her camera on the leader; Erin tottered behind her, trying to hold a boom mike and her nose at the same time.

"Well, I haven't seen one per say but I saw… something, two months ago. Something in the muck, dark and moving…"

Daria glanced at the muck and saw shadows.

"The gators are here, I know it. It may have been six years but I'll search another six if that's what it takes."

"And what will you do once you've shot one?"

"Shoot another one."

There was a splash up ahead and the hunters levelled their guns, but it was only a hunter falling in. By unspoken decree, he was sent downwind. That had been the most exciting thing that had happened in the last hour, but Amy said they'd do some editing and a soundtrack and that should sort it.

As Daria looked, the head of an alligator broke the scum. The rest of the animal followed, heading to the opposite 'bank' and emerging with a short snuffle. Pale white, blind, skinny and a mouth of razors.

Daria walked on and said to Amy: "Almost done?"

"Yeah. Damn it, I was so sure there'd be something down here."

"Mm."


"…and then the shopkeeper pointed a gun at me!" said Quinn with pride. "I'm just totally unemployable for those losers."

The Maleficent Eleven all cheered.

"Yeah, nobody's ever forcing us one of these facisto-capitalistic jobs, man!" said Shane. "No offence, Angel."

"It's cool," called out Angel, wearing the Pizza King uniform and cleaning the table next to the gang's.

"That doesn't count, pizza's punk," said Quinn.

"It is?" asked Andrea.

"We eat it, don't we?"

"ForGIVE me but wasn't the POINT of your MISadventure to FIND a job? So isn't this FAILURE actually a SIGN of FAILURE?"

"Ah—" Quinn's mouth stayed open as this hitherto unconsidered point hit her. "Oh. Hmmm. I guess. Shit, that makes it sound like… like the Man wins this way. Shit."

"Dude, why are you standing here anyway?" Scarlett asked DeMartino.

"I am so BORED that I thought I'd FIND some of my more IDIOTIC students, in a MISerable attempt to see if HATE and RANTing would give me some MEAGRE JOY. A FAILURE!"

"You should go headbutt some twatbag," said Quinn absently. "That's always a good pick-me-up."

DeMartino headbutted her.

"That WORKED!" he said, smiling. "THANK you, Ms Morgendorffer!"

"No big."


Jane's opinion of Ashfield had been quite high when Daniel Dotson unveiled his paper plates on sticks and began talking to them about his art. Then it plummeted like a broken plane full of fatties when she realised he wasn't trolling to see who was gullible, this really was one of his artworks.

"But what was I thinking when I created a work that seems to have turned out both seminal and semiotic?"

"I can't believe I'm getting away with this?" asked Jane.

"Very amusing," said Daniel, actually as amused as Queen Victoria hearing about the French.

"Excuse me, Mr. Dotson?" called out another student.

"Please... Paris, isn't it? Call me Daniel."

"Daniel," she simpered. "I just want to say, I think you're the greatest living artist of our time."

"And not-" Jane remembered that Daria wasn't next to her anymore and spoke quieter. "And not just because I have no taste."

"I was wondering," asked some guy, "where do you get your inspiration?"

"My alimony bills," came a low mutter, and Jane went "AAAA!" and leapt sideways.

There was a brief silence, which Dotson filled with something that was so rambling and boring and purple-as-a-people-eater – Jane's brain started to tune him out after he said "in the pain of an arthritic's hobble". Instead, she occupied herself with staring at the woman who'd spoken: self-made tattoos on her arms, tight black jeans and tank top which showed a sculpture's dream, dark hair sweeping down to her waist, a bemused expression.

"Well, that's enough of the old windbag's ramblings for today," said Daniel, making Jane happy. "We'll pick up here tomorrow," he continued, pissing on that happiness.

"I'm sorry," Jane told the woman, "for a second I thought my friend Daria had teleported next to me."

"You wish," she smirked, and held a hand out. "I'm Alison."

"Jane." She shook her hand.

"Not very impressed with our Mr Dotson? Look at it this way: at least we'll never have to worry about him intimidating us with his talent."

"I dunno, his talent for speaking bull has me beat. Maybe he's doing a class on it?"

"This is the class on it," said Alison, and Jane broke out into sniggers. Things were starting to look up.


It took a long shower but the taint of sewer was gone; Amy's footage was sent to the Sick, Sad Server; they'd had lunch in an authentic Irish pub run by eight-generation people who thought British soldiers were still occupying Dublin; now they were packing up Amy's stuff for the big trip.

Daria looked out the window. Black ATF vans had parked outside Amy's hotel and armed officers were massing at the door.

"See anything interesting out there?" asked Amy.

"No. Are we leaving now?"

"In a hurry, are we?" Amy smiled. "Nice to see you're getting into it. Oh, don't give me that blank face, missy, I've been seeing it since you were born. How's Tom, by the way?"

"We broke up."

Her aunt sighed. "Oh, honey. I know, things are getting close to rock bottom and you want to push your nearest and dearest away to punish yourself. You feel like you have to, right? It's what you deserve. And they're better off without you anyway. You're worthless. Right?"

Daria didn't respond.

"Been there. Erin has too. Thing is, there's a good chance they'll come back. Did he say that if you wanted to take things up again, he'd be there? Ah, I saw that minor tweak of the eye, I know your tics. I thought so. Well, hold onto that. C'mon, we'll talk more in the car."

The woman left their room and entered the hotel's lift. The lobby had boot prints all over it and there were a few dark vans outside, but Amy had other things to think about, Daria was refusing to get involved at all, and Erin was too busy thinking judas ju-daa-aaas judas ju-daa-aaas.


"Okay," said Andrea, going through the checklist. "So we need to find you a job where you can apply without being arrested; where they won't have a problem with you punching fuckers or drinking; where they won't have a problem with you headbutting fuckers; which will have at least a seven rating on the Looking Badass scale…"

"And where I don't have to do much hard work," said Quinn. "Or work."

"And can read porn," suggested Jackie.

"Oh yeah, good call. But where could we find something like that?"

Steve walked past with a pizza.

"Hey, Steve."

"Hey."

"Wait a minute!" Quinn leapt to her feet. "I was so fucking stupid! Duh! Steve! He has a job, he might know something about jobs!"


"We know you had the X-5 when you arrived in New York," growled Flemming. "So if you don't have it now, either you've made the drop – and we're damn sure you haven't – or you have an accomplice. Now why don't you be a good girl and tell us where it is?"

"You gonna charge me with anything?" asked Dallas Grimes, infamous arms dealer and suspect in five murders. "Mmm? I thought not. You wanna let me go now or wait 'til my lawyer files wrongful arrest?"

Flemming's face clenched. "Agent Hurley? Give her another cavity search."

"Oh, yum."

She knew Flemming's rep, she'd be there for as long as he could legally hold her (and there may be a third cavity search). It didn't matter. She'd placed a tracer on that Amy's car: wherever the patsy went, she could track it and sneak the X-5 back out of her handbag. Smooth as silk.


"Well, it's a goodbye to the Big Apple unless anyone can see something really interesting going on."

Daria looked out of the car window. Up on a rooftop, someone in bright spandex was having a fight with someone in dark black plastic.

"No-"

Amy's phone rang; it was Erin, going "Aunt Amy take a look at that roof over there!"

Shit, thought Daria.


Two hours, a lot of filming, a frenzied update to , and an even more frenzied attempt at a snappy pun later, and the girls were ready to leave again.

"I still don't understand, if the Black Balrog wants to take over organised crime in New York, why does he dress up in a costume and have a super-name so everyone will know who to target?" asked Erin.

"Because he's a thicko," said Amy.

"Ah. I thought it'd be something like that."


Meanwhile, in Lawndale:

Quinn staggered back into the house, confusion like a rash on her face.

"Mum? Dad? Do security guards count as The Man?"

Helen and Jake paused in the act of playing Scrabble – Jake had got "tosspot" on a triple word score – and began to think this over.

"I guess it would depend on what they were guarding," said Jake. "If someone was guarding a beer factory, they're protecting beer, so that'd be okay."

"Now that's being relativistic and that's one degree removed from a compromise!" snapped Helen. "Punks don't compromise!"

"But Hellion, if someone doesn't guard beer how will our beer be safe? It's a necessary evil!"

"Fine, but someone else would think it's a necessary evil for a bank or, or a senator to be guarded as well! And you'd have conceded ground to them!"

"Aha! Senators and banks are The Man, so if a security guard has to guard them… The Man is making them do it! So they can't be The Man themselves!"

"You're forgetting The Ascent of The Man, the evidence clearly shows that there are degrees of The Manhood going up in a hierarchy – a security guard would be at the lowest end but still-"

"Muuuuum daaaad you're giving me a headaaaaaache!"

"Quinn, it's rude to interrupt a philosophical debate."


The girls had finally left New York City proper and booked into a roadside motel. Amy had found that Rocky Horror was playing on the TV later, and an impromptu movie-and-snarky night was planned. ("But you know I'm not a virgin," said a confused Erin)

To Amy's amusement, her fling Dallas checked into the same motel shortly after.

"You're trying to get to DC? We're going there too! If you don't mind taking the long way round-"

"No, that suits me," said Dallas in a burst of honesty.

"Don't worry about rooms, Erin and I are heavy sleepers," said Daria.

"Was that- Daria! Did you just make a sarcastic quip?" Amy smiled. "I knew you couldn't hold back forever, even in depression!"

"I wasn't being sarcastic. We sleep through Mum and Dad all the time."

"And you and Tom," said Erin. "Ha ha, made you blush."

"Of course. I thought I was much better at it than that."

Amy snorted and held out her fist. "Knucks."


"Thank you, Greg." Helen hung up her phone. "Alright Jakey, I concede – if every Black Flag member agrees with you, then I will too. Security guards can sometimes be not-Man."

"Yeah! Go Snakey, go Snakey! Why did we talk about this again?"

"I had to check," said Quinn. "Steve said he could give me some work experience as a security guard if I gave him a slice of pizza." Her face fell like a miser doing tax returns. "Oh. He does do security work for Crewe Neck and that's full of rich people."

"No, no, this is a good thing," said Helen. "You've not only made a great step forward in identifying a career, you have an opportunity to gather intelligence on the enemy! I'm so proud of you, honey!"

"And it was only a cheeseless pizza!"


As sunlight crept over the gutter, a sodden figure mumbled and opened a bleary eye. Like some mad scientist's creation that had gained life and was trying to ignore it, DeMartino made a half-hearted lurch and then went back down. His head felt like a wrestling match was going on in the frontal lobes. What had happened? The last thing he remembered was headbutting people who annoyed him, and then…

"No one headbutts Tommy Sherman and gets away with it!" The jock took off one of his artificial legs. "Tommy Sherman's gonna kick you with his HANDS!"

Oh. Yeah.

"Hey. You okay?"

DeMartino looked up to see Trent Lane standing over him, sleepy concern on his face. (Had he ever actually graduated or had he just forgotten to turn up to school again?)

"Ah, mister LA-" His head screamed in pain at his scream. "Mister Lane. You are awake surprisingly early."

"Huh? No, I'm going to bed early. Have to get my sleep patterns sorted for a concert."

"You… you make money from your music? As I recall, it was very… acquired taste."

"Yeah," said Trent happily. "Mr Morgendorffer's business model helped make us, man. I always knew I'd make money by singing about my inner torment. That makes me happy."

The ex-teacher stared in shock. "How much money do you make from wailing about inner torment?"

Trent told him and deep within the old man, a young Judas Priest fanatic rattled the cages and screamed about how he should have pursued his dreams instead of getting a job. (Deep within a young Judas Priest fan, a younger neo-hippie was telling them both to calm down and was told to shut his fucking mouth)

"How hard is it to learn the guitar?"

"Learn?"


"Sick, Sad World has already done a Jersey Devil episode," said Daria. "Three times. And one of those times was a repeat but you redubbed the dates."

"You know that and I know that, but at least forty percent of the audience doesn't," said Amy. "We did a study."

"I don't see why I have to be bait."

"Well, I'm holding the camera and taser, Erin's holding the mike, and Dallas didn't want to come. Sorry, sprat."

And so Daria sighed her way through the forests of south New Jersey, a pork chop round her neck, muttering "wooo. Hello. I am dinner."

"Aunt Amy, what happens if the Jersey Devil comes after us instead?" asked Erin.

"We get eaten, I guess."

Meanwhile, behind them and carefully hidden, one of the ATF's finest hissed into a microphone: "No, pork chop. Pork chop. They have to be smuggling something in that."


"I don't know," said Jake, giving DeMartino an analytical once-over. "Is he really ready to be an opening act already?"

"Oh yeah," said Trent. "He has what it takes. He's got the passion, man."

"You've heard him play?"

"Well, not so much. Well, no. But he's got the passion, man."

Jake considered this a good point well made. "Hmmm. Maybe we should give you a stage name. Angry Ant, the Death-Martino-"

"MISTer Morgendorffer, do not EVEN bother to continue this INANITY, as if I'd actually DO what you SAY! You ARE NOT the BOSS of ME!"

Jake wiped the spit from his face. "You're hired!"

"Told you," said Trent proudly.

"I probably SHOULD learn to play-"

"Oh, don't be so old-fashioned," laughed Jake.


Things were going poorly with Quinn: she hadn't remembered to wear the spare security uniform and seemed confused on the very concept of it, and Steve had had to put a sticker saying "SECURITY" on her so everybody would know she was meant to be hanging around the mall. Then he had to stop her going "what you looking at" to a passing police officer.

"See, the police aren't going to arrest security guards."

"So they tell you," said Quinn darkly.

"And the beer is… Quinn, the beer. On duty. You don't see the problem here?"

Quinn didn't, so Steve took out a can, popped the tab, and slouched while sipping it.

"That's the correct position. Now you try. No, no, you're still doing it wrong, you're hunching over it and you should be slouching back, look, just copy this…."

It took ten minutes but Quinn got there in the end. It didn't bode well though.


"Two hours and nothing. I say nothing, the pork chop has been dripping down my shirt. That is certainly something."

"Ah, true. We'll just shoot more footage with the locals and splice that in."

"I don't mean to be rude," said Erin, "but does the Jersey Devil actually exist? Because if the show looked three times before-"

"Erin, don't kill Auntie's golden goose."

"It's strange, glimpses of the Devil were in an earlier episode," said Daria. "It looked just like the Mothman but coloured green."

"That's not strange, the crew at the time just faked- oh, right. Yeah yeah."

Behind them, in the shadow of the trees, Agent Noone called back into base: "Heading back now. I don't understand, they achieved nothing. What was this about?"

A noise came from above Noone and he looked up to see leathery wings and sharp teeth.

"What the-"

"Noone, report. Noone? Noone, what's your status? Noone, can you hear us, respond!"


And thus, on a day unlike any other, Jane faced a great and terrible threat: eating lunch with other human beings.

"I can't believe you talked me into this."

"You can't eat in your room forever," chided Alison. "Why go to an artists' colony if you're not going to mingle with your fellow artists?"

"That's like saying why go to a penal colony if you're not going to mingle with your fellow... I think I'll stop there."

"Come on, I know they'll warm up to you if you give them a chance."

Jane looked at Alison with a blank expression Daria would be proud of (but show no sign of such).

"And if I'm wrong, I'll buy dinner."

"You're on, sucker."

The two women recognised Paris, Jet, and Some Guy (they recognised his face anyway) from class, so they sat at that group's table. Stage One of Be Sociable had been completed, but Stage Two was going to the hard part: actual conversation. Alison went for the blunt trauma approach:

"How's everyone enjoying the colony?"

"I love it," said Jet. "It's so… freeing."

"And Daniel? That man is a genius," said Paris, going for a different sort of trauma. "He said my white-on-white painting was a stroke of genius."

Jane was about to ask how white-on-white could possibly work (and refer to imperial nudity in the process), when That Guy added, "I'll bet you two have explored all sorts of strokes together!".

Jet laughed, Paris blushed, Jane mentally redubbed everything the guy had said and ever would say in an Upchuck voice.

"Oh, well, I suppose genius does have its prerogatives feisty!" (he may not have actually said the last word)

"Well, I don't know if Daniel's a genius," said Jane.

The mood turned sour. "No offence, Jane," said Paris, in subtly offending tones, "but aren't you still in high school? How much can you know about art at this point?"

"Excuse me?"

"Paris, we all had to submit a portfolio to be accepted here," said Alison, playing peacekeeper. "I'd say Jane knows quite a bit about art."

"I'm sure you're right. I apologise." Paris turned to the others. "Are you guys ready to go?"

They agreed it was, and all three gave very insincere goodbyes ("feisty!"). Jane shrugged: "So, next time, how about we save time and just roll around in gravel?"

"I guess I owe you one," said Alison.

"You owe me dinner."


"I see him," said Steve into his walkie-talkie. "Quinn? See that guy over there? White male, hoodie, dye-blond. Got an eyeball that says he shoplifted. You want to try this?"

"Yeah, I got it." Quinn straightened up, ran over to the hoodie, and said: "Hey, Roland, it's Quinn from school! The pigs have seen you, leg it!"


The morgue was cold, but not as cold as Flemming as he stared down at the remains of another man he had been responsible for.

"One second," he whispered. "They got the drop on him and then they took him down in one second."

"Sir, we have confirmation that…" Bork looked away, unable to face the ice-cold rage and despair and regret of his leader. "Dallas Grimes was in town when it happened. This was someone else-"

"Or the three women in the woods."

"Sir?"

Flemming began to move, fast enough to almost outpace his guilt. "All three have been on the government radar for one reason or other. I want full recon of the senior Barksdale, find out if she had any illicit contacts in this state or any potential training; have someone, no, have Hurley contact ex-CIA officer Brian Danielson and get everything possible about his ex-fiancé…

"And inform Maryland's Superintendent Rawles that he's having a meeting with me ASAP."


"Oh, 'loitering threateningly', you want me to tell kids where they can and can't stand because you feel threatened by how they dress and speak and the switchblade knives they're comparing, get the fuck out before I twat you one!"

"Yeah, I don't think this is working out," Steve told Quinn after the shopkeeper had fled.

"Why not?"

"Hmmm. I'm not sure where to start with this one. Wait, no, got it: security guards do go and tell people where they can and can't stand. It's a way of guarding a place in a secure manner. That's why we're called security guards."

"I thought we just sat around doing nothing."

"Ideally, but if someone tells us to do our jobs we have to actually go and do them," explained Steve. "Otherwise we get fired and then have to work in a harder job. This is where I've seen guards get it wrong."

"But do we have to… to…Look, I just can't tell threatening teenagers to move along, that goes against everything I stand for!" said Quinn, her tone pleading and her eyes full of despair. "What if someone found out? That's my street rep and my soul down the crapper!"

Steve sighed. "I was trying to avoid this but now you're making me do the job, so I hope you at least view this rant as a significant metaphor-slash-allusion. But you came to me saying you wanted a job, one that you could use to support yourself even though your grades suck. You want to keep a job, you have to do the minimum. Because if you don't bother to hold down a job, you can't support yourself and what rep do you have then? Not a rep anyone's going to want."

Quinn was opening her mouth, so Steve quickly added: "And it's worse than being a sellout, because sellouts can buy their own beer and don't have to mooch off others."

Quinn shut her mouth. No one had ever said this to her before – nobody that mattered, or in a way that struck home. (She hated when Shane wouldn't buy his own) It was something vast and terrible, something that spoke of complications, something that required skills she had not bothered to practice. And it was why, for as long as she could remember, there'd be patches that could last a whole season where money was tight; and why there were many nights when her parents would be hunched over stacks of paper and many days where they were barely seen because they were seeking clients; and why her mother had studied as many fields of law as she could and why her father was always trying something new with his marketing; and why cousin Erin had been lodging with them at all, and why she still was.

And why Daria often looked tired or downright miserable from all the fighting and arguing and work she did, but kept doing it anyway.

"All right," she said softly, surrendering. "I don't want that rep."

"Okay then."

And that was why Quinn when up to a gang of wannabe-thugs playing with knives and said: "If you do that outside, we don't have to pay attention to you."

Good choice, thought Steve proudly.

"Yeah, and what if we don't?" said the leader before Quinn's knee made a quick visit to Mouthland.

"That," said Quinn. "But, y'know, a general beating, not just knees. That'd be stupid."


The ancient drive-in theatre outside of Lawndale had been left to decay but, aside from weeds and dust, it was in quite good shape. That didn't suit the feel of Spiral's Crap Future tour, so The Zon's anti-cleaners had been called in to spread some muck around and install a smog machine.

"We're going to play in a dump in our Mirage concert," Trent told DeMartino.

"That should be a FAMILIAR venue, surely."

"Uh, no, I mean an actual dump. It's cool, Mr Morgendorffer made sure we wouldn't break any health and safety laws. It's all legal. Uh, please don't tell anyone that. It'd spoil things for our fans."

DeMartino couldn't be arsed to think about this conversation, so instead he looked down at the guitar he was carrying. It was an old one, the paint fading, from that brief time when he'd first heard the Priest and decided he too could be hellbent for leather. Then he realised he'd have to learn how to play. (In his first year as a teacher, he thought his students were a case of narrative irony – by his second year, it was "fuck you irony")

He still knew vaguely how the guitar worked, much like his knowledge of nuclear reactors, but he wasn't sure it was going to work for an audience of hungry strangers. Problem was, every time he brought this up, either Trent Lane or Jake Morgendorffer or that bald guy on the drums would ignore him and blather about talent and passion. Timothy would've been proud to hear them, if he wasn't up to his eyeballs on sedatives in Brookside Care Home.

("N-N-N-N-N-Noooooo keeeeepwaaaaaayyyyyyy," shrieked O'Neill at the sight of a young person)

Still, if he caused a riot, it'd probably be good for Spiral's marketing plan.

"How LONG does this warm-up act HAVE to be?"

"Fifteen minutes. None of us have watches though, so we're taking you on trust here."


Superintendent Rawls of the Maryland State Police was a straight-backed, focused, respectful man now that he knew Flemming could see him. In the second before that, he'd been slouching around his office with a face like he was about to walk in dogshit.

"Agent," Rawls said, shaking his hand. "Always glad to give the Feds a helping hand."

"Cut the crap, Rawls, I've got the security of the free world at stake here and no time for bull."

"Oh, well, in that case, what I actually think is-"

"Daria Morgendorffer is involved in a bioweapon smuggling case, and if any foreign power gets the X-5 supervirus then the President intends to nuke them out once we know which. Understand? I need the Morgendorffer file."

Rawls handed over a weighty tome, bulging to escape its cardboard folder.

"We've been doing background research since Lawndale High was closed down," he said. "As far as we can make out, the little tyke's been responsible for forty percent of everything bad that happened there. Also various incidents in Lawndale, in Lawndale County, and one incident around Fremont. And then there's the information we got from Highland County in Texas."

"I've heard of Highland County."

"She was at the fringes there. I say 'was', she visited it a few weeks ago and oh lookie, a major gas leak that made everyone leave the north of the town and then someone set the whole place on fire. They're pretty sure it was one of her known associates but there's no witnesses or forensics. She obviously upped her game since then. Her parents are a bunch of fucknuts and you should see the sister, but the Dee here? Always just under the radar, until about five or six months into Lawndale."

"And you never took action?"

"It took us a while to realise what was happening, and even then there was not enough evidence that will stand up in court."

"From what I've heard, that never stopped you in Baltimore."

"High arrest stats meant high bonuses. The stakes are higher this time, though. We want a knockout blow. Course, it is too late. The Lawndale Incident Committee's scientific advisor has already told us we're either at or past the tipping point, and we should just try to direct the changes. The second advisor. The first one was taken away by some nice men in white coats after she investigated this Chinese restaurant and…"

"She encountered those strange energy fluctuations?" asked Flemming, curious. "What did she think was the cause?"

Rawls stared at him. "Huh."


The Hungry Palette was a licensed, law-abiding restaurant and would never allow a teenager to drink wine on its premises, so Jane had ordered some cranberry juice as a cover story. It was her first experience with the stuff – Alison had cajoled her – and it was alright, even if it did smell like the zombies of grapes.

"God, I envy you, Jane," said Alison. "To have all that talent and focus at your age."

Jane came close to blushing. "Oh, come on."

"I wish I could be in high school again, knowing what I know now."

"Hey, you wanna go to the high schools in my town, I'm happy to swap!"

"I'm tipsy, not brain-dead."

"But seriously, you're doing exactly what I want to, making it on your own as an artist."

Alison sighed. "Trying to, anyway."

"Hey, you'll do it."

"So will you." The two of them clinked glasses. "Little more?"

" Why not?"

Alison poured away. "You and your future, me and my so-called career, I guess we've each got something the other would love to have."

"Personally, I'd like the wine bottle," said Jane, who hadn't noticed the look Alison gave her.


The audience descended on the venue, like a great wind had blown through a particularly smelly rubbish dump. Piercings and dyed hair and leather and body odour abounded, and three friendly fights had already broken out.

And out went DeMartino onto the stage, seeing all the glass bottles in the front row and his mind screaming that he better get this right, he had only one shot at this-

The guitar sounded like a cat being exorcised.

"Oh FIDDLEsticks."


"The situation is graver than I ever thought." Flemming's composure was starting to slip. "Her acts of devastation have been escalating and now she's operating with professionals. It might not just be Dallas Grimes we have to worry about: at least she has profit as a motive and her foreign friends have military goals, but if this young harridan got her hands on the X-5…"

"Have you considered an extrajudicial killing?" asked Rawls.

"We want to track Dallas to her buyer, wrap up the whole ring – but I'll have to inform the cabinet just in case…" Flemming pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling more tired than he'd ever been. "We have to stay on this. We can't afford any more complications."


Jane could really get used to drinking wine. Maybe Trent would lend her his old fake ID when she got home. Wine, a friend, lounging around in friend's cabin looking at art – all she needed was junk food and Sick, Sad World. (Oh, Daria. I hope things look up soon.)

"These pastels are great."

"Thanks," said Alison. "I wish the galleries felt the same way."

"They're nuts."

"I knew you'd get what I'm trying to do." She held up the Grand Bottle of Temptation. "Top that off?"

"Nah, I'd better call it a night. I get cranky if I don't get my usual 12 hours."

"Come on, it's still early." Alison gave a small smile. "I'm sure we can find something to do to amuse ourselves."

"Well, that's where the whole sleeping thing factors in," said Jane, before the primordial ancestor of all yawns came out of her. "I rest my case."

She started to move but Alison gently took her by the arm. "Now I can't let you walk home in your condition. I'm going to have to insist that you lie down."

"So now you do want me to sleep."

Without Jane quite registering it, Alison's left arm had taken her by the shoulder and fingers had started to trace up her neck.

"I promise not to kick you out of bed in the morning." She smirked. "Well, unless you're snoring."

"Boy, are you in for-" And then words died on Jane's lips as she realised what was going on. "Oh god."


The situation was bad. It was very bad. Heart pounding like a jackhammer and vision going white and fingers gone spastic and the utter fear, and it was in the middle of it all that DeMartino recognised Shane in the front row, one of the worst students he'd ever had-

"Hey," said Jake, entering the venue, "I just got here, so how's Ant working ou-"

"ARRRG YOU TOTAL FUCKER LEARNING HISTORY YOU DON'T EVEN KNOW WHAT HAPPENED FIVE MINUTES AGO BECAUSE YOU'RE TOO STUPID TO LIIIIIIIIIVE"

There are moments and people that define a style, a time, a movement; to be there at the start, to see the dawn of an icon, is a priceless experience. As the guitar snarled like the chorus of nine hells and the madman on stage unleashed a rage that could shatter worlds, Jake was transported back to the very first time he'd heard the punk, the first song on the first LP that showed him what he'd been missing and what he needed to be. The first audiences for the Pistols, the Clash, the Ramones: this must have been how they felt.

"HOMEWORK HA AMAZED YOU COULD SPELL YOUR FUCKING NAME I WASTED MY LIFE ON YOUR WORTHLESS CORPSE" and then DeMartino just screamed "AAAAAAAAAA" for two minutes without stopping.

And every lighter was held up to light the night.


"You hear something?"

"Ah, it's Lawndale, it's always like this." The ATF man gave a satisfied nod and put the cash in his pocket; he handed the folder of photocopies to the larger man. "There you go. Your wife and her travelling partners, it's all in there. The amount you're paying extra, she must've pissed you off big."

"She certainly did get cute."

He'd taken most of the risks in getting the X-5 virus out of that army lab, and she'd run off with it the instant he fell asleep – slashed his tyres too. Cute. Muddy Grimes hadn't trusted Dallas to be loyal but he damn well trusted her to be afraid of ripping him off. She must have forgotten who he was. What he did to people who screwed him over.

"What the hell name is Morgendorffer?"


Things were getting very, very bad, and very, very fast, and the situation was nothing like Jane had ever had to deal with before. Her initial reaction was to run very fast and her second was to simply back away, but Alison's arm was still around her and either option would be rude. The wrong kind of rude. It was out of context, the first sight of the Spanish floating up to the Aztecs.

"What's the matter?" asked Alison. "I'm not your type?"

"Well, my type have penises, so unless you've been keeping a really big secret…" Sarcasm, at least, was still her friend.

Alison laughed. "Well, I haven't heard it phrased quite like that before, but… Oh. This is your first time with a girl? Well, no wonder you're nervous-"

"Alison, read my- Hold that thought." Jane turned her head so she was actually facing Alison. "Now read my lips. I like guys."

"And hanging out with bisexuals in their bedrooms after they buy you dinner," smirked Alison.

"Hey, I didn't know you were bi and now I say that I realise I should have known it long, long ago, if I put you in an identity parade and said 'pick up the one that looks stereotypically bisexual', you'd be picked over someone having a multi-gender threesome and that's pretty damn bi. Where was I? Oh yeah. Not gay or bi, and dinner was a bet."

Alison was still smirking, and something about that reaction rattled Jane. "Sorry baby, but I never hit on straight chicks."

"What, you smirk them into submission?"

The smile went away. "Okay. That was wrong of me. This is new and you hadn't admitted it to yourself yet."

"You really believe this," said Jane, and that made her feel slightly faint; they were past the point of a joke or a mistake, and Alison must have had experience with this and she wasn't show any hint of doubt. Could she still be wrong? Jane knew people did repress their sexualities, that people could go for decades before realising the truth. And then-

Well, she'd never really had success with a guy. A few brief flings like Pat. Months with Tom but it fizzled out, and they never became seriously intimate; compare that to him and Daria. It had been a while since she remembered searching for a fella. And then there was Daria; Jane's first words, almost, to her had been "let's make out" and wasn't that an odd joke to lead with? Wasn't she closer with Daria as a friend than she had been with Tom as a boyfriend?

And then there was Amy Barksdale who she only recently had been able to speak around and had been so obsessed with. And drawn pictures of. Dirty pictures, posted on Rule 34. Because the whim had struck her, she'd wanted to practice that sort of art and the idea had seemed funny. Or that's what she'd told herself.

So there was all that. And she recognised Alison was attractive, and they had been getting on so well and she had let her buy dinner and went back to her place, right? So it could be. But then why was Alison's close presence making her the wrong kind of nervous? And wasn't she an open-minded girl? Unconventional, experimental? That's how she prided herself. Surely she could admit to being bisexual or even gay. Surely. Or was she more 'normal' than she thought?

"Jane?"

A low groan came out of her mouth. "I have no idea right now."

"You're opening up," said Alison gently. "I can help."

"Yes, I can certainly tell you want to help."

"Okay, okay. We can go slowly."

"That's still too fast. I'm sorry, I'm just… This is going too fast. Can-"

Alison kissed her then; gently, but still a kiss, still a tongue brushing on hers.

Jane moved then, breaking free of her hold. "That's definitely too fast."

"Sorry, sorry!" Alison looked bashful. "I thought that might help relax you-"

"Yeah, no." Jane took a deep breath to calm herself. "I, look, can we come back to this when I'm not tired and half-drunk? I need time to think."

"Sure, baby."

Jane left Alison's cabin and walked back to hers, unsure if she wanted to walk or if she wanted to start running, feeling betrayed and not sure why.


When DeMartino woke up, he was in a derelict, condemned building.

"Hey man, you're at my house," said Trent's voice. "You okay? You've been out of it since performing."

"How did…" It hurt to think.

"Well, after forty minutes you passed out in mid-song, and then we went with some of our angrier songs to fit the mood you'd created, and then…." The sound of helicopters rumbled through the house. "Well, then we finished and this riot was going on, and Mr Morgendorffer told us to flee because the National Guard were imposing martial law again."

"Ah."

"Mr Morgendorffer wants to know if you'd like to become a headline act."


They'd been driving for a few hours, Amy saying something about a haunted house in Virginia or something. Daria hadn't listened.

"So," said Amy, her eyes on the road, "you get anything out of this trip, sprat? Or do you just go along with it because it gets you out of Lawndale? Be honest."

"The second one. But I always want to get out of Lawndale, so I wouldn't read too much into it."

"We all need to get away sometimes. You're improving though, even if you don't think so. Me and Erin, we've both noticed." Amy paused. "And we've also noticed you seem like you don't want us to run into anything. When you've been on trips with me before, you've always hoped to see something."

"I hear some uncool losers don't want to be eaten alive."

"Bull, sprat. It's not that." Daria wasn't talking. "Okay, let me know if I get this right. You've recently been through some really weird situations. The last one went very bad. You're afraid if anything else odd comes along, it'll go bad. I know how that feels; I've been there myself. I can tell you about it."

Daria stared out at nothing. "That's not it. I just don't want to deal with them anymore."

"Maybe you don't have to deal with."

"I always do. I always do, and look what happens. I can't do that anymore."

"We can stop the trip, Daria. We can go somewhere else. Somewhere more normal."

Daria closed her eyes. "Please."


They'd been driving for a few hours, following Amy's car. The radio filled the car, a huge finger pointing to the lack of conversation. By this point, however, neither Erin or Dallas would speak first because that would mean they'd lose.

Erin gave in first. "Nice weather."

"Yes," said Dallas.

Long, uncomfortable pause.

Desperate for something in common, Erin asked: "Do you like peanut butter sandwiches?"

"Not really."

Damn.


Daniel Dotson was talking again, and through the might of her Truth-Detection Powers, Jane realised it was something like "let's all talk about me!". She ignored it and carried on with her painting. It was turning out a mess – discord everywhere, no guiding thought.

She left the class late, the last person out with Alison. The older woman took her by the hand.

"Don't worry, nobody will see us. Feeling okay?"

Jane didn't actually feel anything from the contact. "I dunno."

"Aww. Come on, let's go talk somewhere. Just talk, I promise."

"Mmm."

Alison pulled her closer as they walked. Jane felt a vague sense of unease, and then confusion about why she felt only that. And then depression that she could only feel that.

She wrapped her arm around Alison's waist in the hope of feeling more.


"So, we're just going to fly to Washington and cut the road trip short?" Erin looked put out. "We could have done this from the start."

"It's the journey that counts," said Amy. "Anyway, we're in Virginia now, I know people who can watch our cars while we're away. Remember 'Auntie' Kelly? She can do it, as long as you don't mind leaving your keys behind."

"Oh, the person you know who has a normal job!" Erin started to smile. "I like Kelly!"

"Yeah, she has a normal job." Amy shook her head. "She could've been one of the greats of Fortean journalism, and now she works in a shop. Retail's gain is Bigfoot's loss." She emerged from the sadness and turned to Dallas: "Sorry, but unless you want to come to DC early-"

"Oh no, that's no trouble at all, hon."

"You're staying quiet, Daria," said Erin.

"I couldn't think of anything to say that was cutting sarcastic."


Kelly was a middle-aged, frizzy-haired blonde woman in quite sensible clothes, a normal look that was ruined when she high-fived Amy and they chanted "KEEP WATCHING THE FRIES!". A load of esoteric chat about the Good Old Days was held, which Daria avoided by lurking with Kelly's teenaged son:

"School sucks," grumbled the eighteen year old metalhead. "You?"

"School's closed."

"Cool."

It was a very unimportant and dull scene from Daria's POV. From Flemming's POV, it was quite important because he received a panicked phone call from his agents saying that their targets had swapped cars and had been lost.

"We may need to contact Homeland Security," said Agent Hurley.

"This is too important to risk them ballsing it up." Flemming sighed. "Unfortunately, you're still right. Make the call."


"I'm here for Brittany Taylor's party."

Quinn, sat outside Crewe Neck on a beanbag chair, looked up from her Muck & Rage mag. The girl before her did look suitably popular and attractive, but there was that little hint of caution in her eyes…

"Got a name?"

"Tiffany."

Quinn went with the standard-issue made-up surname. "Tiffany Duke?"

"Yeah."

"Fuck off."

'Tiffany' duly fucked off. After a minute, Steve – watching this whole affair from afar – slouched over to Quinn and tossed a beer can at her; Quinn caught it as it came down.

"You're really getting the hang of this," said Steve. "I'm gonna start putting you on bigger duties and I'll let you have the taser, as long as you remember to go 'kksh' into the radio before talking."


Daria had bought a cheap, trashy techno-thriller book and a red pen at the airport, so the first hour of the flight was great fun. In the second hour, she started to drift back into her private thoughts. To her surprise, she actually had some: she was vaguely irritated that Amy's casual fling was part of a road trip that was supposed to be about her.

For the last few weeks, her thoughts had been bleak and focused on her faults and pointlessness, and when they hadn't been about that there'd been nothing, her mind a blank void. Nihilism had been a comforting blanket. More and more, she was thinking about other things. She was missing Jane and Tom, really missing them, not just having a pain in her chest but thinking – when she bothered to think – that everyone around her had to go.

It was the lack of Lawndale. Erin had been right, getting out of town and away from all of the reminders of her screw-up was helping. She knew, however, that she'd be going back soon enough. And she knew that she could never trust herself to take any action ever again. She needed to detach. Avoid the world except for a few people, don't try to intervene or take a role.

That was not the way her parents had raised her but this was just another thing they'd gotten wrong.

For a brief second, Daria wondered if she should have done what Grandma Barksdale had wanted all along, but she squashed that thought simply out of sheer hate and nothing more.


Defending the nation from external and internal attack was a great responsibility, as Homeland Security Investigations never tired of telling people in obnoxiously loud voices. Their suits were designer labels, their computers had that new-keyboard gloss, their lips curled up when they saw an agent of somewhere that wasn't Homeland Security; Special Agent Loeb had a mullet and his whole manner and body language told you that he thought a mullet must be the height of male fashion because he had one.

Loeb's command and control room was dark, the lights dim to the point of being off and the main illumination came from the dozens of computer screens and the wall-spanning monitor that showed all current Homeland ops in the US. Every agent was getting severe eyestrain from this bad lighting but if it looked like that in the films, it was damn well going to look like that in real-life too.

"We know their flight, we know their hotel, we know all their potential contacts; the minute they land to the minute they hand it over, they're ours," smugged Loeb. "And then you guys can go back to chasing down moonshine or whatever it is you do."

"I wouldn't get overconfident," said Flemming, every facial muscle more tense than a cow at an Argentine barbeque. "This gang has already slipped surveillance twice and killed a good agent, and Ms Grimes alone-"

"Slipped your surveillance." Loeb yawned. "Don't worry, Flemming, daddy's here now. We'll even let you… Flemming, what is your woman doing?"

As Loeb had been talking, Agent Hurly had snapped a rubber glove onto her right hand. "My mind wondered for a second," she said, staring at Loeb's rectal area.

"Sir!" barked an interchangeable, steamed-cleaned-and-pressed Homeland agent. "Plane is landing; all TSA agents at Washington International have been informed of their target, we'll be aware of them asap!"


"We've got the updates on the watch list."

"Oh god, fifteen pages again. Cut it down to the Arabic names…"


"How you even kept this task is beyond me," sneered Loeb. "Oh wait, no it isn't, we all know how you're the Clinton's pet law enforcer-"

Agent Bork would not have believed it if he hadn't seen it: Flemming just standing there and taking crap. But that was Homeland for you. Yes, that was Homeland all over.

(Hurly seemed to be restraining her own hand for some reason)

"Well, it's in the proper hands now, Flemming."

"Sir! The targets are out of the airport, they somehow bypassed all our agents!"

The corners of Flemming's mouth twitched upwards.


"There sure were a lot of policemen about," said Erin, as the four women arrived at their hotel. "I wonder why?"

"The global summit starts tomorrow," said Dallas. "There's going to be a lot of foreign big-boys around."

"Oh, you follow politics?"

"I sometimes run into foreign politicians through work."

"There's a surveillance van outside the hotel," said Amy.

"How do you know?" asked Dallas, a slight tremor in her voice.

"I work in trashy TV tabloid journalism, I know the signs of a surveillance van. Look, I'll prove it-" She walked back to the van, banged on it, and yelled "PIZZA!"

The door opened and an eager man in a uniform came out. Once he realised what he'd done, he ran back in and the van sped off with loud swearing coming from the back.

"I got caught out like that, back when I was a young Turk and Sick, Sad World was following some banker around in case he was Illuminati. What was the name of the security guard who busted us? Reeve, Cleeve, something like that."


The useful thing about being betrayed by your own wife and partner in arms-dealing? Every contact she had was a contact of Muddy's too. He'd left a call with some of the usual suspects in Washington and lo and behold, she'd told them she was heading to DC early.

That was quite handy. Muddy had been planning to interrogate that Tom Sloane boy to find out where Ms Morgen-whatsit was. This would save him some time.

Rich dick would never know how close he'd come.


"Hotel One is compromised, and if they're aware we're onto them we can't expect anything useful from the bugs in their room." Loeb's voice was shaky; in one hour, the world had cut his feet out from under him. "We're going to need more plainclothes to track them than previously-"

"I can spare a few men," said Flemming.

"No!" Loeb calmed down. "No, this is our jurisdiction. You're only advisory."

"I'd advise that if you insist on ignoring us, at least contact the FBI or MPDC."

"We can handle this, thank you." At least Loeb sounded like Loeb believed that. "This Morgendorffer gang is a truly dangerous operation. This Daria hellion must have had some training. Interrogate her school principal, this O'Neill. He must have known something-"

"There's no point to-"

"You are not in command here, Flemming!"

And that was how a heavily armed team from Homeland Security raided a psychiatric home.


"And then, I'm not making this up, Ms Barch started to beat them up with her crutches. I'm pretty sure Daria hadn't planned that but it was one of the most epic things I have ever seen and ever will see."

Jane was back in Alison's hut. It just made sense, right?

"I think I saw that on YouTube," said Alison. "Someone had put a death metal soundtrack on it. And then another person put Mortal Kombat's theme song on it."

"Yeah, that was Tom. It's a good pick-me-up."

Jane was lying down, her head in Alison's lap. She'd been guided there. It had felt a bit weird but the wine had calmed her down.

"Don't take this the wrong way, sweetie, but you do talk about Daria and Tom a lot. How often do you think about your own desires?"

"I do? I haven't really noticed."

Alison had started to stroke Jane's hair, and Jane wasn't sure when she'd started it. "In your shoes, I'd look at this camp as your chance for me-time. Get to know what you want."

"No bias here!"

"Oh, I'm biased." Alison smirked, a little glint in her eye.

"I. Ah. Hmm." Jane took a deep breath and when that didn't work, she took a deep gulp of wine. "Okay."

"Okay?"

"I mean, okay, I'll try…" She waved her hand in a expression of vagueness. "Something. Nothing too far! But something. I dunno."

Alison took hold of Jane's hand and moved it elsewhere.

"I can think of something," she whispered.


And late into the night, in her hotel room, Daria stared at the news stories from CNN.

"…and a breaking news story from Maryland, we're being told Homeland Security have been viciously interrogating a patient in an insane asylum-"

"To be fair, he was on the no-fly list – no, that doesn't make sense. Hmm.

"Makes a change from hiring them. Yes, that works.

"As opposed to that touchy-feely New Age type of interrogation.

"And it turned out he did know more than them."

Daria smiled; a proud smile, a triumphant smile.


Jane woke and everything was messed up.


"When you said you wanted to visit the Smithsonian – not that I'm complaining, Daria, okay, I am," admitted Amy.

"The National Postal Museum is a Smithsonian museum."

"This is a trick in some way, isn't it?"

"I once bet Jane that a room full of stamps would be slightly more boring than our Maths class. I have ten bucks riding on this."

The Museum loomed before them: large, grey. Very grey. A grey that bleached into the soul.

"I love you very much," said Amy through gritted teeth. "Let's go."


Operational command was in chaos; Loeb and his senior men had never had a chance to sleep, not after Secretary Napolitano had personally come round to yell at them for beating up a crazy man. Flemming had slept, briefly, but remained around, tense and expectant. His entourage were helping the situation.

" 'Homeland Dick-curity', according to the Washington Mirror," said Hurly in a loud voice, holding the paper just at the right angle for everyone to see the front page.

"Baltimore Sun is going with Loonygate," said Bork.

"Play nice," said Flemming's voice, his eyes saying "DOOO HO HO HO".

"MOVEMENT!" barked a Homeland watcher. "The gang have dispersed – Morgendorffer and Barksdale are at the National Postal Museum, Grimes heading for the embassies, and Chambers at… Cashman's, apparently."

Bork's mouth gaped in shock. "There's a National Postal Museum?"

"Get strike teams to all – wait, no, we need to think…" Loeb was bloodshot and unshaven and hadn't showered (that had been true before the all-nighter, sadly). Thinking looked like it had left the building and was halfway down to Philly. "They want to divide our attention, that's why they've done this, so one must be trying to make a buy, the person least likely to… Tactical to Cashman's!"


The internet was alive with rumours of a great new musical talent, a paradigm shifting force that no company-made pap could stop. Jake had made sure of that, and then added even more bait to the overweighted hook by putting the first five seconds of DeMartino's set on Youtube. It was currently a top trending story on BBC, Al-Jazeera, CNN, and Russia Today (it was a really slow day for news).

DeMartino was fucking livid, because the internet was something students looked at instead of doing their fucking work. (Jake recorded the rant: "We have your first single!")

"The word's out, and the word is that the new big thing is happening tonight in Ashfield, opening the next Mystic Spiral gig! We'll have the hardcore from across the state! The media! The pigs! Maybe even people who live in Ashfield!" Jake paused, staring into space with a smile for a full twenty seconds before DeMartino coughed. "I'm saying nothing, fascist – oh, sorry D-Man, your cough reminded me of my old m… never mind."

Trent had been gently slumbering in the corner until the word "Ashfield" reached his frontal lobes. "That name sounds familiar. I think someone I know is there." The twin forces of narrative and basic human memory beat down on him, but failed: "Someone I know is there/Someone I used to care…"

"That is a REALLY annoying HAbit…"

Jake held up a hand for him to stop. "Hey man, don't tire yourself out so soon."


Homeland Security's finest (in holding big guns) stormed Cashman's with sound and fury, tearing through every inch in their attempt to find their target.

At the other end of the mall, a bag-laden Erin thought I wonder what that noise is? on her way out.


"I'm bored," said Daria, "but only a mild type of boredom, like the queue for cinema tickets. I was expecting a more depressing, embarrassing boredom: the type you get from bad action films trying to do dramatic, comedic, romantic, or indeed any scenes that don't involve exit wounds and how to cause them."

"I'm the angry type of bored, the one you get when queuing to pee," said Amy.

"Now if I had that attitude, I wouldn't be able to win this bet - hang on." Daria looked over at a sign for an exhibit on the Pony Express. "That says it compares 'Romance versus Reality'. I like where this is going."

"Didn't you want to be bored?"

"Aunt Amy, if I have to choose between money and being cynical, it's the cynicism every time."

"Ah, sticking with your ideals. How… romantic."

"Language."


There was a tight ball of sick deep within Jane's stomach. She could feel it every second, spreading through her guts and up into her throat. Her eyes stayed down, in case she might have to see another person looking at her.

This was not the way it was supposed to go. She'd heard of the first time being disappointing, quite loudly when her brother Wind's first wife had visited, and every so often in snatched whispers in the school locker room. Disappointment had been expected and prepared for. This was the same feeling she'd had back during the track team, once she realised what she'd been party to – that feeling of having made a mistake, an obvious one, one you were ashamed to be part of.

Jane hadn't felt it for long, not once she'd have to fight; defiance and rage took precedent then. They couldn't help her this time. Who would she be angry at? Alison? Herself? Surely not Alison. It had been Jane's own decision.

She felt unsure as she thought it, but that had to be ducking the issue. Her fuck up. No other target for the disappointment that made everything slow, heavy, and grey. (What would Daria say?)

She wanted to go home and have someone tell her things were okay.


Quinn had been up at an hour that normal human beings were up, and changed into her immaculate security uniform (or it had been immaculate until she'd stuck badges and safety pins over it and scribbled "DON'T MESS" on the chest). She was ready to go out and fuck cunts up, but this time for money!

"You don't get money, you're just on work experience," said Steve. "You get paid in, y'know, experience."

"Oh. Can I fuck cunts up anyway?"

"I guess."

Quinn seriously menaced anyone who looked like they were going to improperly park in her car park.

Her parents turned up after an hour of this, watching with approval and muttering to each other. Finally, Jake approached the two security guards.

"So Killer, thought about what you want to do after school?" he asked.

"Security guards are paid to beat up annoying people and drink beer!"

"Good thinking, kiddo! Well, your mother and I were talking, and since we need security for tonight's Ashfield gig, how would you and Steve like to do it? Get a taste for the harder stuff!"

"This is short notice," said Steve. "I can do it but I want compensation for all the porn I won't be masturbating to."

"Done. (Eww-www-www.)"

"You trust me to guard one of your gigs?" Quinn felt something deep inside, a sense of pride she hadn't felt since she'd won her first three-on-one fight. She wanted to speak, to thank her parents for this much trust, to thank them for seeing her do something and believing that she could do it.

But that would make her look wussy in front of people, so she punched her dad instead.

"Awwww, you're welcome, hon." He then hit her back.

Helen, watching the scene, wiped a tear away (and then had to hit everyone).


"We can't have lost- how did-" Agent Loeb was disintegrating before their eyes. "Chambers must have been the diversionary, trying to make us think the others were, yes, that's it, so where else is-"

"Sir! We've just eyeballed Grimes meeting with one of the Iranian embassy staff, this could be-"

"Tactical now!"

Flemming coughed. "Grimes won't have the X-5 on her at the first meet, it's likely with-"

"YOU ARE NOT IN COMMAND HERE!"

Flemming said nothing to Loeb, but gestured for Bork and Hurly. Out of earshot of others, he said: "Do we have anyone in DC that can be re-tasked?"

"Agent Nakahara came off the Senate moonshine case yesterday, sir."

"Contact her and have her watch Morgendorffer and Barksdale. One or both of them may retrieve the X-5 for Grimes. We'll inform Loeb once we have something – no, really, stop smirking, Hurly."


The camp was coming alive and it was harder to avoid people, but Jane had had practice at avoiding people. Eighteen years of being the outcast, what was a few hours? And maybe she deserved it this time. She'd done something stupid –

She heard someone talking. Alison.

Alison could help. She must have experience with this sort of thing. She could say why it had gone wrong. She could tell Jane what to do.

Another person talking. Daniel Dotson. Jane would wait until he'd gone away.

She looked and saw Dotson and Alison-

Oh.


Mr Nassiri had told Dallas he'd meet her in a public restaurant. To be fair to him, Pizza Forest was public and presumably counted as a restaurant. As soon as the two sat down, men and women in large squirrel costumes sang "Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream!" at them with vicious intent for a whole minute.

"It builds character," the Iranian told her. "I go here every day. A man who can stand this is a man who will not be afraid of death."

"I'm sure you're not afraid of anything," purred Dallas.

"Please take your foot off my genitals area."

"A man who likes to get straight into it, eh? I like that." Her eyes became even more heavy-lidded than normal. "The X-5 is in the city and up for sale. Give me a good enough bid, I won't even bother to ask the Chinese…"

"I'm authorised to give you three million dollars."

Someone pulled up a chair. "That sounds good," and Dallas's blood froze when she realised who was speaking. "Could sound better. Five million, maybe?"

"I didn't know you were in this deal, Mr Grimes. Who are your friends?"

Dallas allowed herself a quick glance and oh shit, Muddy had six men from the damn Blute mob. She knew the names of all six, knew a little too much about how two of them dealt with 'problems' and where they buried them. However pissed Muddy was, he still wouldn't do anything in this public a spot but he had her boxed in, she'd be leaving with them, and once they were away and she'd given up the X-5-

"Row row row your boat" sang the squirrels, killing the mood at point-blank range.

"Merrily, merrily, merrily-" sang Little Ricky, a man who nailed cats to doors as a 'bonus'. When Muddy stared at him, he protested: "Hey, man, they're just doin' their job."

The squirrels eventually slunk away, allowing the criminals to continue their thing.

"I can get you an extra million but that's as much as we can transfer without alerting your authorities," said Nassiri. "You'll just have to share."

"Not a problem," said Muddy, and Dallas tried to ignore the implications. "Half now, half on delivery."

"I'll begin the transfer to…. Whose account?"

"Mine."


The virus was still in Amy's handbag and only she knew that. He had to keep her alive until then. She had time to think of something…

"Jane!" Alison had her arms out for a hug but the teenager stepped back, confusion and anger and hurt fighting for control of her face.

"I saw you getting quote friendly unquote with Toulouse le Dreck, what's going on there? You don't like him, you know how many students he's gone through, so… I don't get it. Please, I don't get this."

Alison looked sympathetic, like she had before. "If things were different, I'd say he's not so bad really but, yeah, he is. But now he owes me one." She waited for a response. "A man who knows a few gallery owners owes me one."

"Oh. And you have to do it that way? Really? How long for, because I thought—I thought-"

"Come on, Jane. Don't take it so seriously." It took a second but Alison realised she'd said the wrong thing. "Let me-"

"No! No, I get it. I think I see how the art world works. I see some other things too."

There was a long, uncomfortable pause, broken by Alison throwing her hands out and accusing Jane of making a big deal over nothing. And that was that.


"Well," said Daria, "I'm glad to see that in real life, the riders did have to go through horrible weather and deprivation. It makes me happy."

"That's my girl."

Daria's phone rang; she checked it, frowned, mouthed 'Jane', and headed off to the side. Amy went back to looking at the exhibits with her eyes and mentally rerunning direct-to-DVD films in her head. Megashark was just about to take down Cobrasaurus—

That was a thump.

"Daria? What happened? Something fell-"

"Dropped my phone." There was something in her voice. "Aunt Amy, we need to get back to Maryland and I need to get to Ashfield before night."

"I'm happy to visit Jane but now is a bit short—"

Daria turned round and her eyes were hard, desperate. "Jane's in trouble. We go now. Call Erin."

"Sure, sprat. Sure."


"The transfer has taken place," said Nassiri. "Please get the X-5 within forty eight hours at the most. After that, it'll be difficult to remove."

"You can trust us," said Muddy.

Dallas's phone rang. "It's my bagman. I'll arrange the meet."

"Mr Grimes," said Nassiri, "I'm a foreign agent and you're selling me a fucking weaponised virus. The only thing I 'trust' is that you'll want more money for… whatever it is you spend your money on. You should spend it on new clothes and personal hygiene."

"I'll let that crack go—"

"He's telling the truth," said Little Nicky.

"Shut up. You can trust us, Nass. We'll get you the X5 and-"

"OH SHIT!"

The whole Pizza Forest screeched to a halt at Dallas' very family-unfriendly retort.

"The bagman is at the goddamn airport going back to Maryland with the virus and she only remembered to tell me now—"

Humiliated in front of the buyer, Muddy wanted to hurt someone. Badly. Anyone.

So it was a good thing for the Pizza Forest staff that a Homeland Security tactical team burst in through the door, armed and ready to take down a group of hostiles that was smaller than the group they actually faced.


The command base was in uproar, and phones were ringing as everyone in the chain of command wanted to know what in god's name was going on. Two agents were dead, the targets had fled; Morgendorffer and her relatives had vanished off the grid. As the screaming went on, Flemming sat unnoticed, talking quietly on his phone.

"Nakahara is on a short-haul flight to Maryland. All three 'missing' women are on it. He heard the name 'Ashfield'; Bork, track it down. We're heading out now."

"Do we inform Loeb—"

"I think that would be inadvisable at the moment."


Daria looked at the window but saw nothing. The angst, the doubt, the uncertainty, that was still within her but she wasn't listening right now.

Deep within her, embedded into her every genetic strand, was something loud and angry and discordant.


"Sir, we've got Homeland Security on the line—"

"Oh no," moaned Superintendent Rawls. "This is going to be something unbelievably boring."

He took the call.

He put it down, shaking.

"The feds are ordering us to convene the Lawndale Incident Committee and carry out… carry out Operation Last Resort."

TO BE CONTINUED.

NEXT: COMBAT ROCK


AUTHOR'S NOTES: The ATF guys, the Grimes, and the X-5 is from Beavis And Butt-head Do America – it started as an idle joke and then spiralled from there. Jane and Alison, sad to say, has been planned from the start.

Rule 34 art of Amy is an idea from Erin Mills; "Aunt" Kelly comes from Brian Taylor's Moving Pictures, where she's Amy's BFF. The Pony Express exhibit is real, so I had to bloody use it.

Stay tuned for Combat Rock, because it's all coming to a head there…


MEANWHILE, SIDEWAYS IN TIME...

Am I Fired Yet?

"Greetings, and welcome to the Okay to Cry Corral. I'm Uncle Timothy, and together, we're going to take a journey to the land of self-discovery. A land where it's okay to laugh, and it's okay... to cry."

"Is it okay to puke?" asked 'Dire' Daria Morgendorffer.

"And now, I'd like my co-counsellors, Aunt Daria and Uncle Anthony, to say a few words about what they hope to accomplish here."

Daria slouched forward. "My goal is to work off my community service and never, ever come back to this fucking hellhole."

O'Neill blanched. "Um, I meant your goal for the campers."

"Oh." She shrugged. "I got nothin'."


Daria approached her group. One kid was resting his head on his arms, uncaring; the other three backed away in blind terror.

"Whatever," said Daria. "Anyone want to ask shit before we got started?"

"Are you going to kill us?" whimpered one girl.

"No." She turned to the other kid. "Hey, mofo, if I can't sleep here, no onesleeps here."

He looked up, glaring. "Is it fall yet?"

"I wish."


"Now, I want each of you to think of the blue lanyard as representing how you feel on the inside, and the green as how you present yourself on the outside. Picture..."

"This is NOOOOO FUUUUUNNNNN-" Daria sang away to her iPod, before noticing everyone was looking at her. "Fuck off. NOOOOO FUUUUNNN—"

I am not going to last a whole summer. I'm gonna firebomb that judge's fucking car for this.


"So continue threading the blue with the green until you've finished…" Daria sighed. "Oh fuck this for a lark, I'm getting drunk." She took out her vodka bottle and took long, deep gulps.

"Are-are you allowed to do that?" asked a nervous kid.

"No. That's the fun part." She saw Link walking over. "Oh god, you don't need me to do something, do you?"

"Nope." He dumped a twisted, gnarled mess on her table. "All done."

She took one look and thrust the bottle at him. "That's it, you need a drink."

"I-what?"

"I'm the fucking counsellor here, you gotta do it. I think. Come on, it might make you puke on Uncle Timothy."

Link took the bottle asap.


On the third day, Daria had taken the vodka before arriving. And then when arriving. And then during O'Neill's talk. It was justabout helping. Maybe. She was close to passing out, anyway.

She'd be stuck at this fucking place the whole summer. She had to get kicked out. She hadto. Wheeling around the room in despair, she finally hit on a foolproof way:

"Josh, wha tha fuck painting is that?"

"My child within wants to be a winner," smarmed the kid. "Everyone knows football players are winners."

Daria headbutted the painting so hard her head went through it. "He lost."

Josh ran off crying, and O'Neill came over in horror: "Oh my gosh! Daria, what happened?"

"I headbutted a kid's painting, duh."

All the other kids began to cheer, which was honestly not what Daria had been expecting to happen.

"Josh is the worst bully at camp!"

"I hate his child within!"

"Hooray for Aunt Daria!"

"Oh fuck off!" said Aunt Daria.

Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Link was painting a picture of a punk Link headbutting an adult man.

Oh piss up a rope she thought. I've got to do something worse. ANYTHING. But what…?


"Now, everyone hold the hand of the person next to them while we all visualize the same word: "trust.""

Daria suddenly thought of a great way to get fired: "Fuck you and your emo-fascist regime, O'Neill! I'm busting out!" She threw her bottle through the window, then her chair, and then another chair for good measure. "See ya, asswipes!"

She was leaping out the window when, to her horror, she heard cheering kids ("we can go on a hike!") coming after her.

"NO, FUCK OFF YOU LITTLE BASTARDS!" she screamed. "I WASTED A WHOLE VODKA BOTTLE ON THIS DON'T SCREW IT UP!"

"Aunt Daria's funny!"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA"


"The building's on fire!" screamed O'Neill. "Oh no! What happened?"

There's no way I can get out of this,thought a happy Dire Daria. "Well-"

"Something went wrong with the wires!" said little Curtis, who Daria knew for a fact had seen her throw the petrol bomb.

"Yeah, it was totally an accident!"

"Don't worry Aunt Daria, we've got your back!" whispered one of the little traitors.

"Where the hell were you when I really needed you in Highland?" snarled Daria, storming off.


" Well, campers, before you go, let's take a moment to reflect on the valuable lessons we've learned about-"

" Let Aunt Daria!"

"Aunt Daria! She's cool!"

O'Neill broke down in tears and Dire Daria knew how he felt. She'd just found out that the school district was asking if she could do moreof her community service dealing with school kids: "the boost in self-esteem has been considerable."

One last go. "Okay, motherfuckers, here's a brief lesson: you aren't fucking precious snowflakes, you're the puke of the world and that world is a festering anus run by fascists and pigs. And fascist pigs. There's only two ways to not get bumraped to death in this world: the headbutt and glassing!" She headbutted and glassed O'Neill for an example. "STRAAAAN-GU-LAAA-SHUN!"


"Listen to this!" said a proud Helen, reading from the school board's letter. "Every primary school in the district is reporting greater confidence and go-getting by the Okay To Cry Corral alumni, as well as 80% reductions in bullying, a rise in self-defence and survival club attendance, and what appears to be early interest in politics and economics! They're extremely happy and want…. Daria, why are you headbutting the table again?"

THE END