PREVIOUSLY, ON DARIA: Thirteen years or so after high school, Our Heroine is a washed-up academic with a series of advanced degrees, failed relationships and irregularly successful writing efforts behind her. She left her cheating boyfriend and moved back to Boston, to live with her friend Jane Lane. Jane, now running an art shop specializing in custom movie and TV props, introduced her to a social circle featuring both old and new faces. Soon, friendship got the better of caution, and Daria found herself agreeing to cosplay Edward Elric at a science-fiction and fantasy convention.
At the convention, Daria finds herself out of place, but at just the right time to be a sympathetic listener for Saavik—a clerk, aspiring actor and Tom Sloane’s girlfriend. Their night takes a turn for the fantastical when a woman from Daria’s past arrives with a business proposal… from the Sandman, Dream of the Endless.
Content note: Frank discussion of physical intimacy. On-screen portrayal thereof at maybe a soft R. Brief violence. One instance of homophobic language. Adult 4chan Man.
Daria woke quietly.
She was in a bed, at the hotel, in the entertaining suite.
—A storm frozen over the sea—
She flexed her shoulders and felt her clothes on her body.
—The castle—towers and courtyards and a thousand hot lanterns in motion around and about—
Her arms and hands were under the thick blanket. She moved her thumbs across her palms. The skin was bare. Both the glove and the gauntlet were gone.
She wiggled her toes. The Post-Docs had vanished from her feet. It was as if she had slept unremarkably in her jeans, socks and sweater. With an impulsive motion, she pulled her hands out from beneath the bedclothes and stared at them.
“Nothing,” she whispered.
She realized from the general dim blurriness that her glasses were missing from her face and that the room was only being lit by the indirect light of early morning.
Still whispering, she reasoned to herself: “This is the part where I look over and find a token beside my bed which proves it wasn’t just a dream after all. A gold brick would do nicely.”
Daria’s fingers found her glasses, folded up beside the digital clock, where she habitually left them any time she stayed in a hotel. She put them on and, blinking, studied the space beside her mattress.
The clock. A lamp, with an electrical outlet in its base. Her phone charger. Her new telephone. Nothing unusual—
“Ow. I think I rolled onto something.”
Daria spun about. The mass of blanket on her other side was moving. Something was preparing to emerge. Out from under the edge, within arm’s reach from where her sleeping head had rested—there! Delicate fingers, a disarray of black hair, and—
Daria watched the other young woman in her bed fight back a yawn and then succumb to it.
The other woman in Daria’s bed held up a pendant on a thin silvery chain. “Spider,” she said, a little dulled with just-woken-up-ness. “Nice.”
Wordlessly, Daria took the metal jewel. She stared at it, because she was not sure whether staring at it or at her unexpected bedmate would be easier, and this choice seemed more polite.
“Uh. Sleep well?” she asked Saavik, still not looking at her.
“Mmygh. Pretty well, I guess.” Saavik propped herself halfway up on her elbows.
The khaki uniform dress was hanging from a hook on the bedroom door, next to Daria’s alchemist overcoat. Her Post-Docs were upright on the floor, the gauntlet posed finger-end-up against the wall beside them.
Daria fumbled for her voice. “Any dreams?”
“Maybe. Lemme think. Something about cherry trees in bloom, and swimming in a fountain and running out because of a thunderstorm, and… shit. There was more. I can’t remember. I must have dozed off in the movie room. Was the second movie about ghosts?” She sat up and rubbed her eyes. “Ah, that’s all I’ve got. Except for the bit which would be TMI.”
—Loss of lucidity. Dreaming regular. Which means that between us, I’m the only one who remembers that whole journey.
Daria enclosed the spider pendant in a loose fist.
Saavik said, “Thanks for staying with me last night.”
—How I’m wishing right now that you had stayed with me for the rest of it—
And then she looked up at her companion, looked closely for the first time since they had awoken.
Saavik was regarding her, levelly, a frank curiosity in her eyes.
Daria pulled her legs in and sat upright, her spine a ramrod.
“You’re not thinking—you don’t mean you want—” she sputtered.
The younger woman smiled, softly, the interest in her gaze undiminished.
“Why not? We’re already in bed together. In my experience, that’s often the hardest part.”
Daria coughed. But I’m straight and but you’re dating Tom warred for primacy within her, and then she opened her mouth to speak, and the victorious thought came out:
“You’re kidding!” And then a slight shift in Saavik’s features, concern creeping in, a signal that she was seeing now an inkling of just how Daria had been treating herself, for a very long time. “You’re kidding,” Saavik said again, more gently. “Let’s think. You’re funny. Honest. Wicked smart. And when your hair is mussed like that, you’re pretty cute.”
“Cute?” The word popped out.
“Mmm. Especially with the glasses. They make my heart go all, `Oh Professor, I’d do just anything to pass your class.'”
Daria forced herself to breathe deeply and deliberately. “Please,” she said, “don’t play around with me on this.” She closed her eyes, then opened them again when she felt fingertips brushing against her wrist.
“Hey,” Saavik said. “No joke.”
Daria realized that her friend was very close now, and that she was staring into Saavik’s face.
—We are on the edge of locking eyes.
This time, the words emerged correctly. “But… Tom.” —Most of the words, anyway.
“Open relationship,” Saavik replied, easily. “We talked a lot about it when we decided to get serious. It made sense for lots of reasons. But strangely enough, the option of acting on it never came up after that. Nobody else has really turned our heads.”
—OK. OK. That makes sense. In this brave new world of queerpolykink drama vortices, it sounds downright pedestrian.
—So. Tell her. I’m straight. Flattered, but very straight. Charmed, but—
“I’m…” Daria’s voice caught, and she swallowed and tried again. “I’m really flattered, but… Could we kiss to see if it works?”
Daria realized her hands were both balled into fists when Saavik’s enclosed them.
—This is getting serious. Thumbs are being rubbed along each other. My heart most definitely appears to be accelerating its beat. Tingles all over my face.
—And now a finger is brushing the periphery of my aforesaid face, and the nearness of her is—
“Who on Earth,” whispered Saavik, “could ever have told you that you weren’t adorable?”
—Myself, first of all, but is that really fair to—
And now two hands were voyaging into her hair, and she leaned forward, and—
Saavik pulled away for air first.
“Dammit,” Daria said. “Dammit. You got me turned on.”
Saavik’s touch was now exploring Daria’s sides, just below her ribs.
“You weren’t expecting that?”
“Not with a girl,” Daria admitted. “But it was very good. You should know. You were there.”
Her friend giggled. “Normally I have a rule that I wait a month after the first kiss to do anything more serious than kissing, but I’m willing to skip a step or two if you—”
“I’ve been tested,” Daria blurted out. “After I found out my boyfriend had been cheating on me. I got checked. I’m clean.”
“Well. Tom and I had full panels done when we got serious. And like I said, we’ve been monogamous since then. We’re both clean, too. And now that we’ve got that out of the way—I haven’t had any surgery yet. Long story. A lot of it is actually kind of dull. The important thing is, I don’t really like other people manipulating my leftover bits. All the other default erogenous zones are fair play.”
—I am in bed with a woman. One for whom sex is A Thing. An activity to be discussed, investigated, refined, improved. More than any question of gender, that is unprecedented—
“Daria? You OK?”
“Anything you want me to know?”
“I’m nervous.” Daria reached over to her phone and dropped the spider necklace onto the bedside table. Then, carefully, she put her arms around her friend.
The kiss grew deeper, slowly. Neither of them wanted to hurry.
* * *
Daria shut off the shower, leaned against the tile wall for a long moment, and then reached an arm outside her curtained bubble of steam to fumble for the towel hanging on its hook. “Mmm, plushy,” she thought aloud as she wrapped the towel about her head and set about scrabbling her hair dry.
—I can’t deal with this, she thought. —Last night had too much weird going down for me to process—if half—if any of that is true, it changes—it changes everything. —And with this morning on top of that, I don’t even have a frame of reference for normal, do I?
She finished drying herself to her satisfaction and stepped out of the shower stall, sandals slapping against the cold floor. —Boston in January, she thought. —I am prepared for this. Socks first, then everything else.
She found the pile of clothes she had left on the counter and sorted them by feel. She had pulled a shirt over her head and was about to fasten her black jeans when she realized one more thing that had gone horribly wrong. “Dammit, Quinn,” she deadpanned. “I turn to you in my darkest moment of crisis, and this is what I get? Why do my clothes all match? Why should my sweater go with my socks, dammit?”
—Boston. January, she thought again, and pulled on the forest-green cuddly jumper.
She sent her fingers out over the countertop, seeking her glasses. “Look around you,” she said. “Just look around you!” Unfolding the glasses: “Have you worked out what it is we’re looking for?” Sliding them onto her face: “Correct! The answer is…”
Staring at herself in the mirror.
Five minutes later, she trudged out into the center room, Doc Martens plomping against the hardwood floor. —Still quite the posh environment, she thought. She realized how quickly she had grown used to Late Converted Industrial with influences of Early Modern Stoner and Art Day-Glo…but bringing someone home to all that? Well, it hadn’t been exactly on her mind…
Saavik was at the bar, removing the cover from a room-service tray. She looked up and half-turned. Over her shoulder: “Did I tell you before? Those are some awesome boots.”
“They hide the fact that my socks match both each other and my sweater. Oops.”
“Breakfast burrito?” Saavik asked.
Saavik separated the two burrito plates and pushed one down the bar, to the spot before the stool beside her. “I just got two of the same thing. You don’t mind being a veggie-vore?”
“Are you the kind who considers bacon a vegetable?”
Saavik laughed, then tossed her head in the direction of the bedrooms. “Jane’s here. Got back while you were in the shower.”
The door to Jane’s bedroom was half-open. There was a new poster sticky-tacked to it, something which Jane had maybe taken in trade. It showed Jack Skellington and Sally the Rag-Doll taking advantage of their abilities for anatomical reassembly, and was not exactly inviting. Daria took a few steps across the room and craned her neck to glimpse inside. Jane was sprawled face-down atop the blankets. She still wore the bear jammies.
“Well, she should return to the living in three days at most,” Daria said. “And… Tom?”
“He’s still down at the con,” Saavik said, opening the refrigerator. “Jane said he’d be back later. Was mostly talking to her pillow, though, so I might have misunderstood.”
“Oh, um, Saavik?” Daria stood in the middle of the room and fidgeted. “If… if I said I revile cilantro, would you conclude that what happened earlier this morning was a mistake?”
Saavik looked at the burrito in her hands, then sniffed the ragged edge where she had bitten it off. “Be not afraid, amiga. You’re safe this time.”
—Gamine beauty, Daria thought. That’s the word for her.
They ate at the bar. Daria sat across from Saavik and looked mostly at her own plate. —It really is a good breakfast burrito, she reflected, despite the absence of crispy swine meat.
“Are you going back to the con today?” Daria asked. She looked up in time to see Saavik glance down.
She toyed with her fork as she replied, “I don’t know. I am missing half a pair of leather gloves. Maybe I’ll cruise the merchant hall and see if I can find any accessories which aren’t, you know, festooned with gears.”
“I’ll go with you, if you like,” Daria said. Saavik smiled, slightly but unmistakably. “Could always scope out the used books. I’ve always wanted to see where old Tom Clancy paperbacks go to die.”
“All right,” Saavik said. She rose and took her plate and fork to the sink.
“I just… need to make a phone call first, OK?”
“Sure,” Saavik said.
Daria clomped to the room where they had slept and done everything else, and she closed the door. The pile of blankets atop the memory-foam mattress didn’t look all that different from any other morning. —Says a lot for my housekeeping, she thought. She thought of her bedroom at home, still chiefly furnished with boxes she had yet to open. —I could impress her with my erudition, she thought, —if I unpack the working library of Doctor Morgendorffer. If I’m so stupid as to let this go that far.
—No sense delaying this, she told herself. —Other than, well, every reason.
Finding her phone at the end of its cable, thumbing her passcode into its faceplate. —Huh, he’s in my contacts, but she isn’t. —Well, isn’t that the least odd aspect of this entire situation?
Tom answered on the second ring. “Morning becomes Elektra!”
Daria listened to the background noise. Cups clinking into saucers, indistinct calls from baristas announcing drinks, the open vocal rumble of a hotel lobby beyond that. “How’s the con?”
“Well, it’s a science-fiction con, you know. Where you go when you want to be reminded that just because somebody likes a couple of the same TV shows you do, that doesn’t make them your spirit brother.”
“Treating me to more Morgendorffer eloquence?”
“Uh, Tom, I…”
Tom was silent.
She heard him take a sip of coffee. “You slept with Jane?”
“You king of all bastards—”
“It’s a feudal system, really, I’m only first among equals.”
“Daria,” he said, “Saavik told you that she and I have an open relationship, didn’t she?”
“And she explained why?”
“Not in… so many words?”
“Daria, I’m only in town one or two weeks every month, and Saavik is…going through a serious transition arc. We both really like each other. But neither of us want to hurt anyone because we can’t be one hundred percent for each other.”
“At least you can be sure you’re her one percent.” —Dammit.
“The experience really changed you, I can tell.”
“Listen, Daria,” he said. “Saavik and I agreed we’d try being open. We promised to be honest to each other about it. It’s a way in which we trust each other. And, well, neither of us had exercised the option until now. So I’m glad she found someone who I know I like and admire. And frankly, I’m happy that you found someone who might be able to help you get past your recent troubles.”
“Dammit, Tom,” Daria said.
“You’re doing it again. You’re using The Reasonable Voice.”
“It goes well with my Scary Shiny Glasses.”
“Are you going to be at the con much longer?”
“About two shots of espresso’s worth.”
“Saavik and I are headed that way to do some shopping. Maybe we’ll cross paths?”
“I’d like that. Give me a ring when you get downstairs, OK?”
“Sure. See you soon, Tom.”
“Be seeing you, Daria.”
—I should go get my jacket, she thought. —Instead I am standing here, staring at my boots.
She bent her left knee and regarded the stitches along the edge of the boot sole. Her eyes wandered up. —Fourteen holes. Plenty of time to think while lacing and un-lacing…
—Saavik is waiting for me.
—Hold on. Do these… I’ve been wearing sneakers for so long, I hadn’t even… Do these flatter my calves?
—Saavik is waiting. For me.
—Or, Morgendorffer, would you prefer the lacing to be squeezing down without the intermediary of your matching socks—
She pushed the thought down and plucked her jacket from atop her clothes pile.
“On my way,” she called.
* * *
They stared out the window while waiting for the elevator. “Huh, that must be that skyway over to the next building,” Saavik said, peering downwards. “I found it Friday afternoon while I was walking around. Coffee?”
“Hey, you know what’s in that convention center while Aletheia is happening next door? The annual New England auto show!”
An impersonal box, glass and brushed steel, guests entering every few floors as they descended, nobody paying the two of them any mind. Saavik looked at her with mild concern. Daria said nothing.
They stepped out of the elevator, emerging on the mezzanine above the lobby. A half-dozen people were buying day passes at the registration desk.
“I think the café is just downstairs,” Saavik said.
It was, and by all appearances, it was doing great business. They joined the end of the queue which bent around a rope barrier and curled between two of the round tables.
“I’ll let Tom know we’re here,” said Saavik, sifting through her purse for her phone.
“Mmm.” Daria noticed the ceiling speakers were playing something synthpoppy. A woman was singing over the interlocking beats.
… will you hide inside my mind sweet nothing …
It sounded familiar. She tried to place it.
… I need a consort
A friendly face
I must remember biological embrace
I need a lover
I have no trace!
Daria asked, in her normal speaking voice, “What kind of demented, parasitic sadist would inject Freezepop’s `I Need a Mate’ into my brain on this of all mornings?”
Half of the café swiveled to look at her.
Then the other half followed, looking to see what everyone else was staring at.
Daria waited, stock-still, until the first slurp of coffee led in the renewal of ordinary activity.
“Oh, you,” Saavik said through a lopsided smile. The phone in her hand chirped. “Oh! Tom says he’ll meet us here.”
They reached the register. Daria asked the cashier, “Has the wild peppermint been hunted to extinction? Then I’ll have a… large mocha.”
“Yes, please.” She gestured to Saavik. “And I owe this one a—”
Mildly surprised, Saavik finished, “Large iced coffee, a little room for milk and sugar.”
Paying for their drinks, Daria realized that the café’s background score was now Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and that Saavik was wincing.
—Yeah, I can see that.
“Milk and sugar?” Daria asked.
“I’ll get these if you’d rather wait out in the lobby.”
“Oh. Thanks. Yes. Thanks.”
—Poor girl, thought Daria.
She found Saavik in the lobby and saw that Tom had arrived just a moment before. They had claimed two chairs up against a column.
“Thanks,” Saavik said again, taking her coffee. She glowered. “Fucking song,” she muttered.
“Something the matter?” Tom asked.
Saavik seemed reluctant to speak, choosing to mash the ice about in her cup using the plastic straw.
“You know,” Daria said, “I just thought of a sequel for that song. `I Was Born This Way, but the Next Generation Will Have the Option of Bionic Implants.'”
Saavik smiled a little, and Tom, now filling in the pieces, took her hand and quickly pecked her cheek.
“Thanks, honey,” Saavik told him. She looked up at Daria. “And, um, honey-2?”
“I think of myself more as a wine jelly or a Marmalade Surprise,” Daria replied. “You know, something so off-putting, only the English could invent it.”
“You would,” Tom said.
Before Daria could add anything to that, her phone rang. She pulled it out of her jacket pocket. “Great Prairie State?” she asked aloud. “Why would my old job call me on a weekend? Excuse me.” She thumbed the “accept call” icon and held the phone to her ear. “Hello?”
A burred baritone said, “Hey, Daria.”
She sank into the empty chair beside Saavik. “Hi, Trent.”
“Well, you kind of caught me on a—a weird morning, but—what’s up? What are you doing in Illinois?”
“Gig in Evanston tonight. Spinning at some college club. Stopped by to check on things.”
“Ah, Trent, you did remember that I moved out of there?”
“‘Course I remember. Wanted to pick up your stuff from whazzisname’s apartment.”
“Oh. Thank you. I don’t think there was much there.”
—A lot of my fun-to-read books stayed with Jane, she thought. —Went with her to Providence instead of Brett and me to Chicago. What did I leave behind, anyway, except a week or so of business casual?
“Not a lot. He wasn’t there. His girlfriend let me in, gave me a couple boxes. She seemed the stay-at-home type.”
“She would,” Daria said.
“She said you might have left some things at your office. Oh, that reminds me.”
A moment of dead air.
“Yes?” Daria prompted.
A new voice chirped, “Hey, office-mate!”
“I can’t stay long, I’ve all sorts of places to be—you remember what Adjunct Hell is like—but you escaped! And I couldn’t resist the chance to hear your voice again.”
“I understand,” Daria said. “The Sirens contract me to wait out in the water and make ships run aground.”
She noticed that both Tom and Saavik were listening to her side of the conversation and trying not to laugh.
“And, Daria,” Trix went on, “where did you find a courier like that? He is your best friend’s brother, right? The long story you never got to tell me?”
“The very one.”
“Well, I had the stuff from your old cube in the hall closet, so we’ve loaded it into his here station wagon, and we’re taking it to the post office in a minute, before they close.”
“Um, thanks, Trix. I owe you.”
“Psssh. The books are going Media Mail—slow boat to Boston, eh? You can owe Trent the next time he visits you and that Jane character I’ve heard so much about.”
—Jane. Right. Zounds. After these two, gotta deal with—
“Still, you can extort a kindness out of me, too.”
“Fine, fine. And speaking of, here’s Trent again.”
A silent interlude.
“Janey doing all right?”
“I’m not at home right now, but she was fine the last I saw her. She’s been really kind.”
“You’re like family, Daria.”
“And—ahem—your part of the clan? How are Qiana and the little ones?”
Trent laughed. —Doesn’t lead into a cough any more. “They’re really good, Daria. Went into town this morning to see the museum with the T-rex.”
“The Field Museum? I bet the gremlins will love that.”
“Yeah. I’m starting to think they’ll grow up to be mad scientists. I’ll send you a picture. Sanaa loves the Legos and things you sent for Christmas. Little Daria does too.”
“Oh.” —And now Saavik and Tom will get to see me degrade into a floppy, sentimental—
“Would you like that?”
“Yes, yes. I would.”
“OK. Oh, Trix wants to talk to you again. Tell Janey that I said hello.”
“I will. I will. Take care of yourself, Trent.”
She heard Trix take the phone.
“Daria? We’re about to head out. I just wanted to say that—that you got a really raw deal. But you mean a lot to me, even though we kind of had to warm up to each other, and—and—I just wanted to give you my best wishes.”
“Same to you. See you around.”
“Bye, Daria. Good luck.”
Daria held her phone in her lap and stared at it for a moment. “Hey, you guys. You wanted to hit the merchant hall, right?” She directed the question to Saavik.
“Tom, would you go with her? I’d like to sit and think for a bit.”
“My pleasure.” They rose. Saavik leaned over, took Daria’s hand and squeezed briefly. She then linked arms with Tom, and the two of them headed for the stairs at the far end of the lobby.
“The worst part is,” she said as they walked away, “I kind of liked `Paparazzi.’ It had a beat and you could karaoke to it…”
—Daria the Younger. Off to see the T-rex.
—Mad scientist? No, evil genius.
Daria thumbed the unlock code into her phone and opened its web browser. “Damn lyric sites…” She found a notebook and a pen in her jacket, and she began to write.
* * *
“Three corset-makers and a Restraints-R-Us,” Saavik said, holding Tom’s hand, “but nobody selling gloves.”
“Not even with gears glued on,” Tom added.
Daria had her pen gripped in her teeth. She passed her notebook to Saavik, who took it with an eyebrow lifted in puzzlement.
“Evil Genius,” she read. “Oh, it’s in verse.” She scanned down the page, a smile twitching at her lips and growing wider as she read, until she began to sing:
I’ve the master plan
And soon you’ll bow before the
Rest assured your overlord
Is true to form to be an
Old school mastermind
For I won’t stop until the world is mine!
“I like it,” Tom said. “But then again, of course I would.” He looked from the notebook, up to Saavik, then over to—”Daria? Daria?”
Saavik regarded her with an expression that, Daria thought, blended amusement with just a touch of concern. “Daria?” she asked. “You… you look like you’re feeling a flush steal over your features.”
“Yeah,” Tom said. “Damn flush, tell it to give your features back.”
Daria swallowed. “It’s just that I’ve never… I’ve never slept with anyone who could be my collaborator.”
And now Saavik glanced down, avoiding eye contact for just a second, as if caught unawares by a shift to the serious. “Well,” she began.
Tom took her hand.
He said, “I think something nice happened for both of you this morning. And it’s something we’ll all have to talk about. But maybe today is too soon for—”
He broke off as a voice from across the lobby rose in anger.
“Well maybe I want a hero who doesn’t sound like a sodding racist uncle on Facebook!”
Daria, Tom and Saavik looked to the source of the disturbance.
A man in a leather jacket, with a guitar case at his feet and spiky hair on his head, was rising from his chair. He bellowed, “Or haven’t you grown up since you first burst your spots?”
“Oh no,” Daria whispered.
The man sitting across from the guitarist, the man who had apparently prompted the guitarist’s outburst, was rising now too. He wore a black cape, a black suit and a Guy Fawkes mask. He loomed over the musician, whose back was to Daria.
Then, the tall man in the Guy Fawkes mask growled a single word: “Fag.”
The musician replied, “Then smoke me.”
The tall man in the Guy Fawkes mask heaved back his shoulder and swung his fist at the punk musician.
The musician blocked the blow with a swift move of his left arm, and in a seeming continuation of that motion, smoothly stepped in and clipped the tall man in his solar plexus.
Now people were paying attention. Two security guards were stepping out from behind the hotel clerks’ counter.
The guitarist grabbed his crotch. “Remember, remember, the girth of my member!” He seized his guitar case, swung it onto his back, leapt over the fallen man and then over a planter box, and sprinted to the revolving door. Pushing his way into it, he turned to Daria, exactly to her, and called out, “She’ll be seeing you tonight!”
And then he was gone.
Tom asked, “Do we know that guy?”