It was times like these, Darius reflected as he looked up from the puddle of mud he had landed face-down in at the young woman sitting backwards on his horse smiling back at him, that he regretted ever picking up Black Beauty.

He had first picked up the book years ago, sometime in the first or second grade, and had found it enjoyable enough to purchase his own copy using the small allowance he got each week. One day, however, his father Jake actually noticed him reading it, and (as Darius watched out of the corner of his eye) began fidgeting.

Darius, even at his young age, was able to interpret his parents' behavior rather easily, and so read Jake just as easily as he did the book in his hands. His father, upon spotting the book in his hands, connected it in his brain with the idea that it was more of a girl's book, something which made him uncomfortable given that Darius was a male. However, his fear and hatred of emulating grampa 'Mad Dog' made him want to suppress this discomfort and support his son. As usual, Jake would probably decide on some third, moderate, semi-insane course of action.

The next day, Darius' room was choked with cowboy paraphernelia.

This irritated Darius some, though not as much as it did Helen, his mom. She was very displeased that Jake had unilaterally spent a substantial sum of money (which their family couldn't necessarily spare) on a complete remodeling of Darius' room (which really should have been a decision Helen shared in - nevermind Darius' opinion, of course). Jake attempted to offer a combined explanation and apology, but it was mostly incoherent, except when he would interject a burst of vitriol against the 'Old Man', and Helen just told him to forget about it.

At first, Darius thought that would be the end of it, but (to his surprise), Jake actually began spending more time with him. Granted, this usually invovled dragging him to places he would rather not have gone (i.e. anywhere), but inwardly he was a little grateful that Queen Quinn was no longer getting the lion's share of attention.

Jake took Darius to his first rodeo a few weeks into the campaign. Darius was mostly unimpressed with the festivities; he sympathized more with the cattle than with the men tasked with roping them, as he suspected they wanted to be there no more than he did. However, something about the horse riding intrigued him. After the show, he attempted to remain quiet about this, but Jake eventually prodded it out of him.

Their next outing, the next weekend, was to a horse ranch. Darius got his first lessons on how to ride a horse.

He was very nervous of the animals up-close, at first. By the end of the day, however, he was exhausted and, for the first time, had experienced elation from something other than reading.

Over time, Darius grew to identify more and more with the cowboys Jake had initially shoved down his throat. Their stoicism and quiet competence, after all, reminded him very much of himself. As did the part where most of them were loners. One afternoon, Jake had taken him to see a matinee showing of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. That night, he wrote a short story featuring Malcolm Powell, a modern-day vigilante who used a six-shooter to eke out justice while staying one step ahead of the law in the American southwest. Another day, nearly a year later, Jake brought home a VCR (borrowed from a co-worker) and an unmarked tape. He swore Darius to secrecy that he would never reveal to Helen that Jake had shown him the picture (Helen being out of town that day). Jake was rewarded by hearing his son laugh out loud for the first time ever as Cleavon Little asked a group of toughs to clap for the Waco Kid.

As the years passed, Darius grew more and more adept at riding. This had its downsides: Helen would occasionally force him into showing off his riding skill at various venues. Darius reluctantly went along with this, especially after Helen threatened him with - the horror - band camp. He did win a few ribbons, though, and didn't object too loudly when Helen put them on prominent display in the living room.

The summer he turned thirteen, his parents made plans to go on an extended couples' retreat. At first, Darius held out a little hope that the retreat meant he would get to spend the summer with his cool Aunt Amy. (Quinn, unfortunately, would also be there...after all, every silver lining has a cloud). When Helen told him that wouldn't be the case, he was worried for a brief moment that he and Quinn would actually be shipped off to Aunt Rita's.

And then Helen revealed the two would be going to a summer camp. Camp Grizzly, they called it. Darius felt like throwing up.

The one consolation, he found out later, was that the camp held a small horse stable, and had extensive riding trails. He doubted they would be as rough as he was used to, being a kids' camp and not the Texan wilderness, but at least he wouldn't be completely bored.

The stables were the very first place he went after arriving at camp, even before dropping his pack off at his assigned cabin. "Evening, ladies," he said, introducing himself. (He had the foresight to check that they were all in fact ladies - no need to embarrass himself). He said a few words to each horse, gently stroking each of their manes, noticing which ones were placid and which ones were jittery and which ones had a bit of a wild streak. Not that that last amounted for much - he didn't expect to find any wild horses at a camp intended for children who'd probably never seen a horse before in their life.

He rode every day, for hours at a time, blowing off most of the scheduled camp activities. The camp's owner Mr. Potts didn't mind (actually thanking Darius for giving the horses a lot of exercise), but Skip Stevens, self-proclaimed king of camp and Darius' bunkmate, was put on edge by Darius' perceived 'disloyalty' to Camp Grizzly. Skip's response to this was the usual petty crap - short-sheeting his bed, the shaving cream plus feather trick, extra rocks in his backpack during hikes...basically, nothing original.

Finally, the day came when that day's activity was riding on the horses along the trails. Mr. Potts, who really was impressed with Darius' riding ability, actually assigned him to assist one of the counselors. The counselor, a bored young man earning enough money to make it through another semester of community college, shrugged and told Darius to hand out the horses himself. Darius suspected this was due to the funny-smelling smoke in the air, as well as the unusual way the counselor held one hand behind his back in a totally not conspicuous way at all.

Having had a few weeks to familiarize himself with the horses, he passed them out to the other waiting campers, making sure that the more nervous campers got the gentlest horses. (He may not have been fond of them, but horse safety had been drilled into him right from the start).

He gave Skip the rowdiest horse. He was sure Skip could handle it.

After helping some of the shorter kids up into their saddles, he turned around and saw Skip on a different horse than the one he had been assigned. "Skip, where's Applejack?"

Skip snorted. "What, that dumb horse? It didn't like me, so I traded with some girl who thought he was cute."

"All the horses are girls, you idiot," Darius chided as he scanned the clearing. "Where'd they go?"

Skip shrugged. "Beats me," he said, not volunteering to look for her or anything.

Darius scowled and mounted up on the horse he'd chosen for himself, mainly for speed (so that he could outrun idiots like Skip).

"Everybody wait here!" he called as he spurred the horse on. If something happened to that girl, it'd gnaw on the conscience he claimed he didn't have. And she had the roughest horse in camp. Which, as he kept reassuring himself, didn't mean much in a camp meant for kids whose only equine experience came from television. But still...he leaned forward, to decrease wind drag and increase speed. The gains were probably not enough to matter. But still.

After an hour (which was actually only a few minutes' time amplified by Darius' worrying gut), Darius finally caught sight of the other horse. "Faster!" he urged aloud to the horse. As they drew closer, Darius' worst fears were confirmed: Applejack was indeed out of control, and the girl was gripping her mane and screaming, trying her best not to fall off. Darius scanned his memory of this particular trail, and lightning-quick remembered that a river was just up ahead. He had to stop the horse before then, or else it might stop suddenly and throw her, or leap the river and throw her, or do any number of things with the end result of throwing her.

The horse he rode seemed to understand the situation, and redoubled its efforts. They were closing the gap, but Darius wasn't sure it was enough. Around one more corner, and there! The river was only a few hundred feet away.

He almost made it. He was almost close enough to touch Applejack when she reached the river and, without slowing down an inch, leapt clear over it. (It was not a wide river). The young woman's screaming jumped up two straight octaves and she lost both her grip on the mane and her balance on the saddle. She went tumbling through the air...

Darius grabbed her by the arm and, in an almost superhuman burst of strength, pulled her out of her fall and onto the saddle. His horse reared up as it came to a stop, but Darius had much more experience on horses than the unfortunate girl, now trembling against his body, and both he and she stayed on the saddle.

Once she realized she was no longer moving, the girl looked up into Darius' face. He also examined hers: framed by long, brown hair parted in the middle, wearing glasses (square frames, unlike Darius' round ones), and freckled cheeks which were still trembling and wet from her panic-tears. Darius was reminded of a mouse.

She fixed her glasses (having gone crooked during the wild ride) and opened her mouth for a moment before actually speaking. "You...you saved my life!"

Darius shrugged. "Nah...if you fell, you probably wouldn't have gotten anything worse than a few stitches."

"You saved my life!" The girl was more insistent now, and enthusiastic about the fact.

Abruptly, she leaned up and kissed Darius on the lips.

Darius was so taken aback that he jerked backwards, falling ass-over-teakettle out of the saddle, and landed facedown in a puddle of mud.

It was times like these, Darius reflected, that he regretted ever picking up Black Beauty.

XXXXXXXXXX

A few weeks back, I considered doing an AU fic where Daria was a stereotypical cowboy. This would have been played for laughs, though I don't know how much mileage I could have gotten, no matter how uproarious the idea of Daria carrying twin six-shooters through Lawndale challenging everybody who looked at her funny to a showdown might be.

Then it struck me to use a gender-swapped Daria, and everything else just kind of fell into place.

I have two more chapters in mind for this story, and I really look forward to writing them!

(One more thing...I don't fully like the name, so if somebody comes up with a better-sounding one, I'd love to hear it).