Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.

This is the twenty-eighth John Lane story

Richard Lobinske

Partners in Pain

Tightly grasping a rolled-up copy of the Lawndale Lowdown in one hand, Ms. Li addressed the assembled faculty. "Too often, our 'student couples' are working together on team exercises and activities." The agitated principal started to pace back and forth. "The idea of cooperative projects is to learn to work with other people. That's plural - people - as in not just learning to work with one other person. From now on, students are not allowed to choose partners for classroom activities. All classroom and extracurricular activity pairs and teams will be decided randomly."

Timidly, Mr. O'Neill raised his hand. "Ms. Li, does this have anything to do with…"

She barked, "That includes that school newspaper, dammit!"

"I'll be right back," Jodie told Mack as she hurried across the school corridor to Daria and John.

"I hope that they don't kill you," Mack said in reply.

Jodie stopped behind the couple. "Sorry guys, I have some bad news."

"We're in Lawndale High, Jodie. Everything's bad news," Daria said.

"This affects you directly. Ms. Li issued a pronouncement stating that any student teams must be random groupings, starting with the Lowdown. You two can't do any more collaborative efforts unless your assignment comes up by chance."

John said, "I'm getting the feeling that our last bit in the paper was over the top."

"Just a little," Jodie agreed.

As he joined them, Mack said, "But well worth a laugh."

Daria shook her head. "Some people just can't appreciate famous historical figures."

Jodie said, "Between the four of us, I think it was Ms. Li with the fiddle."

Mrs. Bennett swirled her hand in a bowl filled with small slips of paper. "In real-life situations, you often have to consider others when making financial decisions, so you will work with a random partner. Tonight, you will get together with your partner to decide upon a project from the list. "Okay, the first pair is…" She pulled two names out and read, "Mack MacKenzie and John Lane."

John looked over his shoulder and said, "Eh, I can work with him."

Mrs. Bennett read the next names. "Andrea Hecuba and Charles Ruttheimer."

"Aw, man," Andrea muttered while the rest of the girls in the room sighed in relief.

"Kevin Thompson and Jodie Landon."

"Aw, man," Kevin said.

"Trade ya," Andrea said.

Kevin asked, "'Why would I want you as a partner?"

The Goth girl slid down in her chair. "This better work off some serious bad karma."

"No trading," Mrs. Bennett said. "Next, we have Daria Morgendorffer and Brittany Taylor."

"Oooh, Daria, we're going to be partners!" Brittany squeaked. "Isn't that exciting?"

Holding back her frustration, Daria said, "Almost more than I can stand."

After class, John said to Mack, "I can add my blazing mediocrity in math to the project, what about you?"

The taller teen shrugged and said, "I'm overdrawn on my allowance since third grade."

"Hmm, bad math and bad credit; it looks like we're going to have an interesting time. In the Chinese proverb sort of way."

"Any preferences for what we do?"

John looked at the list Mrs. Bennett had given out to the class. "Whatever requires the least amount of work. How about buying a car? We can go down to Honest Herb's, haggle over the price, and report back on how much we would've been screwed over a lemon."

"Is that the voice of experience?"

"That's where Max bought the Tank."

Mack asked, "That's the van your brother's band uses, right?"

"The one and only."

"Somehow, I always figured someone had paid him to take it off of their hands."

"So, babe, what do you want to do tonight?" Kevin asked Jodie.

Restraining her temper, she said, "How about our assignment? We should figure out what project we're going to do."

"Yeah, yeah, we can get to that. Isn't kind of freaky that Mrs. Bennett's partner swap put Mack Daddy and John together? That's, you know, kinda…absonormal."

"Kevin," Jodie said very slowly, "Everyone is partnered only for the economics project. This doesn't affect our personal relationships. Mack is still my boyfriend. Brittany is your girlfriend. John is Daria's boyfriend."

Kevin scratched his head. "All six of us? I don't know…"

"Kevin!" Jodie snapped. "It's a school assignment. Like when you did that maze experiment with Daria last year."

"Oh…Oh! I get it now."

"Good," Jodie said with a heavy sigh.

"You've got the Pigskin Channel!"

Reading from Mrs. Bennett's list, Brittany said, "Oooh, I want to plan a wedding. Something white and formal and dreamy and…"

Sitting across the cafeteria table from the cheerleader, Daria said, "I'm pretty sure that white shotguns have to be custom ordered, but if you want formal, you might as well go whole hog."

"A whole hog? Ewww...that would be so icky at the reception."

"Easy to feed a lot of people though," Daria said, morbidly curious where the conversation would lead.

"No, something delicate, like pâté de foie gras."

Holding back her surprise at Brittany's correct pronunciation, Daria said, "I agree, nothing says 'I love you' like the ground up liver of a force-fed goose."

"But I hate liver."

"Then we can scratch the foie gras. On the whole, why don't we scratch the whole wedding idea?"

"But don't you ever want to get married?"

Caught off-guard while drinking her milk, Daria coughed and covered her mouth while trying to recover.


Raspy, Daria said, "I'm fine; just swallowed wrong." She reached over and took the list from Brittany, quickly scanning it. "Hmm, how about renting an apartment?"

"Oh, Daria! Being roommates will be so much fun!"

John and Mack sat in the Morgendorffer living room with the newspaper classified ads spread on the coffee table, along with a recent copy of Cars-4-Sale magazine and the Lawndale phone book, opened to the auto dealers.

Planning, John said, "So, you'll be the one actually looking for a car and we'll use the Bluebird of Haphazard as transportation."

A little down, Mack said, "I wish I was really looking for a car. Always depending on Jodie for a ride when we go out is getting old, but my folks really can't afford another car. Realistically, how many high school students with part-time jobs really cover all the costs of their car? I'd just end up owing my parents more money than I do already."

Feeling guilty, John mumbled, "Sorry."

Shrugging, Mack said, "Don't worry, it's probably better this way. I'm going to need a scholarship or two to pay for college. In the long run, keeping up with the football team and making passable grades will pay off more than having a car now."

"I suppose." John flipped through the magazine and asked, "Do we look for something realistic or not?"

Mack said. "If we're going to get frustrated, we might as well look at something interesting. But if we're going to learn anything, it should be realistic."

"Hey there!" Jake said, entering through the front door. "Mack, right?"

"Yes, Mr. Morgendorffer."

"Call me Jake."

"Sure, Jake."

"What's up?"

John said, "Economics project. Mack and I are learning about buying a car."

"Don't you and Daria usually do school projects together?" Starting to panic, Jake asked, "Is everything all right? Where's Daria?"

"Mrs. Bennett assigned partners. Daria's working with Brittany over at the Taylors'."

"Oh." Shifting his gaze, he said, "So, Mack, how's your gal doing?"

"Jodie's doing well, though this assignment may leave some scars…she's working with Kevin."

"Hey, how is Kevin doing?" Jake asked.

"As clueless as ever," John said.

Sitting at the elegant table of the Landons' dining room, Kevin complained, "You can't see the living room TV from here."

Through her teeth, Jodie said, "I know, Kevin. You don't need to see it from the dining room."

"Cool." He started looking around the room, including under the table, "So, um, where's the TV in here?"

"There isn't one."

"But how can we watch the Pigskin Channel?"

"We're not. We're working on the project for Mrs. Bennett's class."

"But you said this would be like working with Daria on the maze thing."

"That's right."

"So, where can I watch the Pigskin Channel? Oh, and is Rachel going to, like, get me sodas and cook steaks?"

Jodie coldly fixed Kevin in her sight. "Kevin, if my mother ever hears you say something like that…you'll wish to be in another one of Ms. Barch's experiments."

Kevin gulped. "Sorry."

"Okay, just don't do it again." Turning the assignment page to Kevin, Jodie asked, "Is there anything on here you'd really like to do? Otherwise, I'd like to get a small business loan."

"Ah, man, I thought you went to a bank for that."

"It's not a loan from a small business; it's a loan to start a small business."

Kevin nodded in faux understanding. "Ohhh, I get it."

Jodie asked, hopefully, "No objections, then?"

"No, but where are you going to get the money to loan out?"

Brittany sat on her bed and removed several glossy magazines from a plastic bag. "Look at all these cute ideas for decorating an apartment."

Also seated on the bed, Daria flipped through the Lawndale Rental Guide and said, "Brittany, since we're not really going to rent an apartment, we don't need to worry about decorating it."

Brittany tilted her head and twirled a lock of hair around one finger. "But Daria, don't you need furniture and stuff?"

Slowly lowering the magazine, Daria admitted, "If we don't find a furnished apartment, yes, we would."

"Then we do need to think about decorating it!" Brittany happily said.

"We could pose as college students and run by the used furniture store near Lawndale State."

"Eww, you mean, like, buy a used bed? That's like wearing someone else's…."

Daria cringed and said, "Don't finish that thought. Okay, we'll also look into basic furnishings for an apartment."


Daria sighed and rubbed her temples. "We're going to spend the rest of the evening defining 'basic', aren't we?"

Eyes glazed, Daria slumped against the doorframe of John's room. "It's gone. I couldn't stop it."

Looking up from reading a car magazine, John said, "What's gone?"

"My brain."

"Your brain?"

"Darwin wrong. Higher brain function lost. Ran away."
"What happened?"

"Brittany…talking…please, make it stop."

John quickly rolled off the bed and held Daria, stroking her hair. "It's over and you're home."

"Home? Home good."

"Maybe your brain got here first."

Daria reached around John and pulled herself closer, resting her head on his shoulder. "We'll look…later."

"Okay, I'm sure it'll catch up with you eventually."

"Hel-lo!" Quinn loudly said from the hallway. "I know you like getting all snuggly and stuff, but can I get a little help here?"

Daria tiredly turned her head. "Quinn, what is it?" Seeing what her sister was apparently doing, she became more alert and asked, "Is that a body?"

"It's one of those many-ken things from Cashman's."

John asked, "Why do you have a mannequin?"

Daria asked, "And how did you get it?"

"I ran into Tom."

Daria and John both said, "At Cashman's?"

"He drove his sister there to go shopping. Tom made a comment about his Mom and Dad really suggesting that he stay there with her and that when they act like that, he'd rather be at Cashman's. Or someplace called 'the Fourth Circle'; must be a cheesy teen club or something. Anyway, I was talking to him and said that sometimes it would be so much easier to put clothes on one of those…mandy-whatevers…so that you can step back and look."

Walking to her sister, Daria said, "He bought you one."

"Yeah. I think Tom did it to freak out Elsie."

"I bet," John said as he joined them. "How did you get it home?"

"In the back of Tom's car. It was a little creepy sitting next to it in the back seat, because Elsie absolutely refused and sat in the front seat."

"He just dropped you off to drag that into the house by yourself?" Daria asked.

"Um, I said I could handle it. If Mom and Dad saw Tom, you know that they would get ideas."

Scratching his head, John said, "So, you'd rather let them see you dragging what looks like a dead body upstairs."

Flustered, Quinn said, "Look, they were busy on the sofa and didn't see me. Now, are you going to help me or not?"

Faintly, they heard Helen say, "Oh, Jakey…"

Tails fluffed, Zachary and Taylor bolted up the stairs and past the teens to hide in Daria's room. The cats' retreat spurred Daria to order, "John, grab the legs. Quinn, grab that arm and I'll get this one."

Seated with the family for breakfast, Jake slathered his reduced fat, soy-protein sausage with "Brother Vernon's Fire and Brimstone" hot sauce and asked, "So kids, what's up for today?"

Resting her spoon on her cereal bowl, Quinn said, "The Fashion Club will hold a special meeting here tonight to work out the best ways to use a mannequin for ensemble decision making."

"That sounds great, Quinn," he said.

Daria eyed Jake's breakfast while he cut a section of sausage, saying, "Dad, don't you think that's a little too much hot sauce?"

"I'm fine, kiddo."

She shrugged and said, "Okay. After school today, Brittany and I will be working on our economics project again."

Helen entered and went to the refrigerator, grabbing a canned energy drink and a breakfast bar. "That sounds nice, Daria. What kind of project?"

"Mrs. Bennett assigned us to make a 'real world' economic decision. We're going to look at renting an apartment."

"That sounds exciting. What about you, John?" Helen asked.

"I'm working with…"

Helen suddenly saw the bottle in front of Jake's plate just as he was biting into his food and she exclaimed, "Oh my God! How much of that stuff did you use?"

Talking around the food in his mouth, Jake said, "Just the right amount."

Quinn and Daria joined Helen in gazing incredulously at Jake. John allowed a brief, knowing smirk in Jake's direction before continuing. "Anyway, Mack and I are going to look at used cars."

"Be careful," Jake warned. "Those used car salesmen can really talk fast." His fist clenched around his fork and he growled, "I remember trying to buy my first car. 'Driven only on Sundays by a little old lady from Pasadena, Jake.'" He started to shout, "At the Pasadena drag strip!"

"Jake," Helen cautioned, "Careful…"

"Oh, oh, yeah. Thanks, Helen," he sheepishly said.

While John was starting the car for the trip to school, Daria kept watching the house. "I keep expecting Dad's head to explode at any time. Did you see how much of the pyroclastic-cloud-in-a-bottle he put on his breakfast?"

"I saw."

Daria paused and watched her boyfriend. "You know something."

"I saw him cut the hot sauce with ketchup last night. It's nowhere near as lethal as it was."

"So he looks tougher than he is. Why?"

Twisting to look back while reversing down the driveway, John said, "So that people will back off a little? Hot spices are one of the few things he likes that aren't restricted on his new diet. If it makes him feel better and eat what he's supposed to, what's the big deal?"

"I guess I'm worried about when he inevitably forgets to dilute the hot sauce and pours some on full strength."

"He'll scream, jump up and down and guzzle the closest thing to drink. But it'll be his choice. One of the remaining things in his life that he feels he has a choice about."

She slowly nodded and said, "You're right. Thanks for standing up for him."

Shifting into drive, John said, "It's a guy thing; no problem."

Wearing clashing check patterns that would make a Jackson Pollack painting look tame, the salesman at Honest Herb's overeagerly shook John's hand and said, "Hello, young man. How can I help you today?"

Standing beside John, Mack lightly coughed and said, "I'm looking for a car."

Shifting between the young men without a moment's hesitation, the salesman grabbed Mack's hand and said, "So, what kind of car are you looking for?"

Mack returned the handshake and said, "Something basic and reliable."

Starting to lead John and Mack toward the used cars, the salesman said, "Are you sure? A tall, handsome young man like yourself? Don't you think something a little more…adventurous…would go over better with the ladies?"

"I have a girlfriend and would rather have something that reliably gets her home on time than something that looks flashy, but requires a lot of upkeep."

The salesman elbowed Mack and winked. "Gotcha; you've already got one high-maintenance girl and you don't need another one."

Noticing a glare that he'd previously only seen Mack give Kevin, John winced and thought, This is not going well.

"Come in and please have a seat," the bank's loan officer said to Jodie and Kevin as he started a cursory exam of the paperwork Jodie had given him. Addressing Kevin as the two settled into their chairs, the officer asked, "What can I help you with today?"

"Mrs. Bennett sent us here to get some money for class," Kevin answered.

"I'm afraid you've filled out the wrong application."

Jodie said, "Sir, Mrs. Bennett is our economics teacher. This is a class assignment."

"Okay, now I see." The loan officer read the application further and said, "Mr. Thompson…say, any relation to Doug Thompson of Thompson General Contractors?"

"That's my dad! Do you know him?"

"Yes, the little woman and I hired him to do the extension to the garage. I was worried when Immigration rounded up his work crew, but when he had a new one out the next day, I knew he was the man to get the job done."

Kevin laughed a little nervously and said, "Yeah, Dad can always find workers."

The officer nodded and turned to Jodie, who was doing a visible slow burn, and said, "Hello, you must be the power behind the man, Miss…"

"It doesn't matter," Jodie sharply interrupted as she stood. "I'm going to powder my nose while you men talk."

The rotund man swung the apartment door and held it open with his body. He leered down at Brittany as she squeezed past him and then turned to follow, leaving Daria in the hallway. She rolled her eyes and muttered, "Brittany's brain-busting breasts strike again."

The landlord waved his hand around the small living room. "What do you say? This is just the right size for a couple young and eager college students. Two bedrooms, double sinks in the bathroom, oversized shower."

Daria asked, "What about cable connection?"

He spun and said, "One here and one in each bedroom. You gotta make arrangements with Lawndale Cable yourself."

"That's fair," Daria said as the man once again started following Brittany around the apartment.

Feeling something creepy from the man, Daria followed them into one of the bedrooms. There, Brittany sighed as she opened the closet door. "Oh, the sacrifices we have to make to live on our own."

Deciding to play along, Daria said, "Don't worry, Brittany. You can use some of my closet space."

The blonde bounded over and hugged Daria. "Oh, that's nice of you!"

Daria noticed the landlord's grin widen and said, "Thank you, Brittany." She stepped away and looked at her watch. "Oh, look at the time. We need to get going to look at another place."

"We do?" Brittany asked.

"Yes, and we're running late," Daria said, letting a small amount of concern enter her voice.


Daria perfunctorily waved to the man and said, "Thanks. We'll get back with you."

"I'll be waiting," the landlord said. "But don't take too long."

On their way back to her car, Brittany said, "Daria, are you okay?"

"I'm sorry to cut it short, but the way that guy was looking at us made me nervous."

"Oh, Daria. He was only a looker, not a grabber."

"How can you be so certain?"

Brittany giggled and said, "Trust me; I've been out on dates with plenty of grabbers."

Daria shook her head. "Excuse me if I don't share your confidence. I didn't know what he might do."

"Don't worry," Brittany sweetly said before throwing a side kick that stopped about an inch short of a street sign. "I've taken karate lessons since I was twelve."

Stopped and with her head cocked to one side in surprise, Daria said, "That's…something good to know."

Mack looked out of the car window as John drove into the customer parking area. "'Honest Lee's New and Used Cars.' Why have I started to get a bad feeling whenever I see 'honest' in the name of a car dealership?"

John pulled into a space and stopped. "For the same reason it's a good idea to avoid self-proclaimed 'famous' restaurants?"

After a short laugh, Mack said, "It's easy to tell how much you hang around with Daria."

"I consider it a good thing."

Only moments after they started browsing the available cars, a bald salesman rushed out of the dealership to them. "Good afternoon, young men."

Both half-heartedly said, "Hi," and continued looking.

Addressing Mack, the salesman said, "What kind of car are you interested in?"

More at ease for being addressed first, Mack said, "Something basic and dependable."

Starting to gently move the teens toward the new, compact cars, the salesman said, "You strike me as a man who places a lot of importance on dependability."

"Yes, sir."

"Not to dismiss our quality used cars, but if you want dependability, you really should be looking at a new car."

"I'm afraid that a new car is beyond my budget."

"You only think it's beyond your budget. A new car is more reliable, so you won't have to drop a couple grand a year for repairs." Pointing to a new car, he said, "This little beauty is only sixteen grand. Say you drop only eight on a used car, but end up paying two a year for repairs. Four years later, you've paid the same as the new car, which, under our easy-loan plan, you would have paid off by then. Add it up and after four years; you come out ahead with the new car."

John said, "But, what about the interest costs?"

The salesman dismissively waved his hand. "Good point, but the additional cost is really nothing to worry about."

"Uh-huh." Looking back at Daria and John's car, Mack asked John, "How much have you paid in repairs for your car?"

"We've put about six or seven hundred into it. Trent wasn't the most diligent when it came to regular maintenance."

Mack shook his head at the salesman and pointed his thumb at the blue car. "If he can keep that thing on the road for less than two thousand a year, I think I'll stick with a used car."

Still trying to push the sale, the bald man said, "Don't make a big mistake, based on your friend's good luck. Over time, he's going to end up paying an average of a couple grand a year for that car."

"Only if I drop an engine or transmission every year," John answered.

The salesman glared at him.

Mack said, "Thank you, but I think we'll continue looking," as he turned around and walked back to the car.

After John caught up with him, Mack said, "No offense, but I'm little surprised you brought up the interest cost. I thought you were so-so at math."

"I am, but I've also witnessed the Morgendorffer family's cutthroat internal negotiations."

"They negotiate interest rates?"

Reaching the car, John said, "Trust me; with them, anything and everything is on the table."

"And I thought the Landons were weird."

John looked across the car roof. "I'm convinced all families are weird in some way or another."

A moment before they reached the next bank official's desk, Jodie quickly stepped forward and to the side, effectively cutting in front of Kevin. She extended her hand and said, "Thank you for meeting with us today. My name is Jodie Landon and this is…"

Eyes bright, the banker said, "You wouldn't happen to be Andrew Landon's daughter?"

"Yes, I am."

"Please, please, have a seat. What can we do for you today?"

Jodie politely smiled and stepped aside to her chair while Kevin came forward. He said, "Hi, I'm Kevin Thompson."

"Hi Kevin, sit down," the banker brusquely replied.

"Okay," the boy cheerfully said, not noticing the man's dismissive attitude.

The banker skimmed the application. "A consulting venture; I can tell that good business is in your blood."

Jodie said, "Thank you. I've prepared an extensive business plan, if you will look at the attachments."

The banker gave that a very brief look. "I'm sure that we can extend you a very flexible line of credit for your business."

Wary, Jodie said, "Thank you, sir."

"We believe in building on and supporting a winning team."

Excited, Kevin said, "Yeah!"

"Quiet please, young man," the banker warned. He then said, "Jodie, we can also offer excellent terms for family related businesses."

Fully alerted, Jodie said, "I'm sure you'd profit immensely from that."

"It would be mutually profitable."

Jodie stood. "How would you know? You haven't even looked at the business plan."

"Like I said…"

"I heard what you said, but what you mean is, 'I look forward to the commissions from bringing Mr. Andrew Landon's account to this bank.' I understand you perfectly well. Good day, sir."

Jodie turned and jerked Kevin from the chair. "Come on, Kevin."

The banker rose and desperately said, "Ms. Landon!"

The landlady was somewhere in her fifties, with black hair fading into silver. Carrying a black briefcase, she escorted Daria and Brittany into the apartment and said, "Please look around and ask if you have any questions."

Though small, the rooms were clean, if a bit worn around the edges. Daria nodded approvingly as she looked around. If she were actually moving out on her own, Daria thought the apartment would be a good choice. Seeing a round window in one bedroom, Daria said, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."

"You have good taste in books," the landlady said.

Daria shrugged. "I read it when I was eleven."

"Most people forget that it was written as a children's book."

Daria smirked. "Yeah, if you're the child of an Oxford English professor."

The woman laughed and said, "I like that. So, what kind of books do you read now?"

Examining a built-in bookshelf, Daria said, "A mix of almost anything that looks interesting. Currently, I'm reading Purgatorio."

"Ah, you want to see what happens next."

"I want to find out how long it takes Dante to throttle Virgil."

The woman stopped for moment before laughing again. "Yeah, it gets a little preachy."

Daria asked, "You seem to have a good taste in books, too."

Brittany entered and asked, "Wow, you already have shelves in the room. I can show off all of my stuffed animals!"

The landlady sarcastically said, "That shouldn't put any strain on the shelves."

"Okay!" Brittany said and wandered into the living room.

To Daria, the landlady said, "Back on topic, I'm rereading I Robot."

"There was a time when I felt a lot like Susan Calvin, and probably acted the same, too."

"Hey, when I was growing up, I appreciated have a smart woman as a heroine for a change. That's why I reread it every now and then. To remind me of how special it felt when I read it the first time."

"I know how you feel."

"Do you think that yellow curtains would work well in the living room?" Brittany said, interrupting.

"As long as you don't live like a pig and ruin the carpet," the landlady said, "I really don't care what you hang up."

Quietly, Brittany said, "Oh, okay," and walked to the kitchen.

Daria's eyes followed the usually cheery blonde. "This has been nice, but we should talk about what kind of lease options you have available."

The landlady opened her briefcase and extracted a contract. "You can choose semester or one year leases."


"I get a lot of college students. Makes things a lot easier to lease for a semester than to deal with the mess sublets tend to make filling in on a longer lease."

"Oh, I see."

"Why don't we walk over here and discuss the details. I don't think that we need to bother your companion with these details. You're clearly the brains of the outfit."

Daria looked back at the kitchen and saw Brittany watching them. She knew the look of sadness from exclusion and the sense that one was invisible all too well. How it felt to be left out because you didn't "get" the conversation. Suddenly uncomfortable, Daria muttered, "Yeah, the brains."

Walking through the parking lot of Pizza Prince, Kevin told Brittany, "I can drive, babe."

"I'm fine," she irritably replied. "I'll drive."


"Yes, I'm sure."

"Okay, I…Hey, Mack Daddy!" Kevin called, seeing John's car drive in.

After the car parked, Mack stepped out and said, "Hi, Kevin. Hi, Brittany."

John gave a weak wave and said, "Hey, folks. Are Daria and Jodie inside?"

Brittany briefly glared at Kevin and said, "They're waiting for you, unlike some people that can't wait."

Apologizing, Kevin said, "But Brit, I was hungry."

The blonde grabbed his hand and yanked him toward her car. "Come on, Kevin." She called to the others, "Bye!"

John and Mack waved and shook their heads as they went inside, stopping at the front counter to buy a slice each and a drink. Mack said, "I don't know why those two haven't killed each other."

"Outside of cheerleader and quarterback, and a lack of interest in studying that makes me look like a bookworm, they don't have much in common, do they?" John observed.

Walking to the booth occupied by Jodie and Daria, Mack suggested, "Maybe they stay together because of the sex."

Before John could answer, they heard Jodie angrily say to Daria, "I spent hours working on that business plan and he didn't even read it."

"But he said yes," Daria replied.

"Only because I'm Andrew Landon's daughter and he wanted an edge to get some business from Dad."

"You wanted to get the loan based on your work, not your father's name."

"Damn right. Do you know how often I've been called 'Andrew Landon's little girl?'"

Daria said, "I'm going to guess way too many."

"Trouble with the econ project?" Mack asked, sitting next to his girlfriend.

Jodie rested her head on his shoulder. "And the Landon shadow."

"Ah, that. I think I'd prefer businesses sucking up to trying to give me the shaft."

Daria asked, "It sounds like you two are also having wonderful 'real life' experiences in economics."

John sat and said, "Mack, you must admit that 'creative' only begins to describe some of the financing plans pitched at you today."

Daria asked, "How many wanted your soul as a down payment?"

"Souls don't seem to be worth what they used to, but organs seem popular," John said.

"My day sucked, your day sucked," Jodie said. "Daria, what about you?"

"I had an interesting conversation with the landlady of one apartment we looked at."

John put his arm around Daria. "Good, so somebody's day didn't suck."

She sighed and said, "Until I noticed that we were completely ignoring Brittany. Not just ignored, brushed her off. I…I remember too many times that's happened to me. It doesn't feel any better to be on the other side."

John mumbled, "Oh."

Mack said, "So that's why Brittany was in a bad mood."

"That, and Kevin ate her pizza between the counter and here," Jodie explained.

"That's justifiable homicide," John said.

Daria slowly took a drink through the straw of her soda before saying, "It bothers me how easily it happened. I didn't notice until too late."

Jodie said, "You know, once that banker knew my name, he treated Kevin like he was my houseboy or something. It was kinda rude."

Daria looked straight at Jodie. "We're feeling guilty for taking attention away from Kevin and Brittany."

Jodie replied, "Yeah, damn consciences."

Mack asked, "What are you going to do?"

"Change the conditions of the assignment," Daria replied.

Standing before Mrs. Bennett's class, John read from his notes, "Ultimately, we were more successful than Diogenes. We found a bank repo lot that would sell us a car for the amount owed…in cash."

Mack said, "In the end, our biggest lesson was, caveat emptor, let the buyer beware."

Seated at her desk, Mrs. Bennett completed some notes and said, "Thank you, John and Mack. Next, we have Charles and Andrea."

Scowling, Andrea walked to the front of the room. "My partner was unable to attend today due to an…accident, but I'm here to provide a full report. We were unable to decide upon a project, so we agreed to throw a dart at the list. It landed on elective surgery. Out of simplicity, we tried to find out about cosmetic surgery from a local practitioner, Dr. Franken…Shar."

Daria whispered, "This can only end badly."

Several minutes later, Andrea finished with, "So, once Dr. Shar found out we were only doing a class project and wouldn't actually spend $35,000 for her services, she had her goons, uh, security staff, escort us from the building. Upchuck's little accident happened when some 'samples' fell out of his pocket. Security guards never seem to have a sense of humor. Anyway, I definitely learned that you can spend a lot of money getting your face re-arranged by a doctor, or you can have it done for free by someone named Bruno."

Disturbed, Mrs. Bennett said, "Thank you, Andrea. I hope Charles feels better, soon. Jodie, Kevin, you're next."

Jodie led Kevin to the front of the class and stopped, holding her notes. Kevin stopped behind and to the side, dramatically standing with hand on his hips. While she talked, he occasionally shifted position, still trying to look important.

Jodie said, "Before we started the quest to finance a small business, we knew that we had to have everything lined up properly. Therefore, a detailed business plan was assembled, including projections for startup costs, operating expenses for two years and minimum sustainable revenues."

Jodie moved to the next page. "However, for people our age, this proved to be irrelevant. Like some kind of feudal financial system, who our parents were meant more than what we planned to do with the money, or even if we had a plan. When we hid our identities, our business plan was given a closer look. Even though it was consistently praised, we were just as consistently denied funding because of our age."

Moving the last page of notes, Jodie said, "All in all, the biggest thing that I learned was that if I want to start a business on my own merits, I'm going to have to go someplace that's never heard of the Landon Folding Coffee Cup."

Looking down, Mrs. Bennett said, "Um, thank you, Jodie and Kevin. Next are Daria and Brittany."

Brittany trotted up to the front of the class while Daria walked. Brittany waved and said, "Hi, everybody. We went looking for an apartment."
Daria reached the front and turned. "Specifically, we looked for a two bedroom apartment like college students rent. Therefore, we focused our attention on the student housing around Lawndale State University."

Brittany said, "Wow, those apartments were expensive. And they were so tiny; hardly any of them had a closet big enough for my clothes."

"In a classic example of supply and demand," Daria said, "Student-type apartments near the college were highly sought after; therefore, the owners were able to charge premium rents. In addition, many were small and supplied with only the most basic amenities."

"Some of the landpeople were really rude and didn't seem to care if we liked the place or not," Brittany said. "Some didn't even act like we were there."

Daria nodded and said, "Because of the high demand, property owners were not concerned about their ability to rent an apartment. The process was geared more toward selection of what the owner thought was a better tenant and not toward trying to convince a prospective renter to stay." She paused, and then looked at Brittany. "Some even hinted that one applicant or the other wasn't welcome."

"If you need a roommate, you should find someone like Daria. She was really good at figuring out those lease thingies."

Moving to the next note, Daria said, "Like Mack said earlier, 'Let the buyer beware.' Or in this case, let the renter beware. Once we found an apartment agreeable to both of us, we made sure to read the lease closely so that we knew what we were responsible for and what the owner was responsible for. And…if you want to live in something other than a dull box furnished with milk crates and futons, consider finding a roommate like Brittany."

Brittany said, "We made a great team."

"Yes, Brittany, I guess we did."

"Thank you, Daria and Brittany," Mrs. Bennett said. "We only have a couple minutes left before the bell. Any questions?"

John raised his hand and asked, "Is the business world of Lawndale as corrupt and incompetent as you expected us to find?"

Dropping into the passenger seat of the car, John threw his pack into the back seat and grumbled, "Boy, Mrs. Bennett sure got bent out of shape over my question."

Settling into the driver's seat, Daria said, "Maybe she was under the delusion that Lawndale was a bastion of honesty and integrity despite the fact that she works for Ms. Li."

"People who live in imaginary houses shouldn't send students out into the real world."

Daria smirked as she backed the car from the space and then pulled away from the school.

On the road, John asked, "Did you and Brittany actually find an apartment you could agree on?"

Daria said, "It took a little negotiation, but yes."

"Considering how different you two are, wow."

"We…had to learn to take each other's opinion into consideration. After that, Brittany and I were able to present a unified front so that neither of us would be ignored."

"A united front? With Brittany…"

Daria curtly snapped, "Don't say it."

"Okay, okay. Warning shot noted."

"Sorry, but I did learn that there's more to Brittany than her most famous assets. Something she feels she needs to keep quiet about, for now."

Brittany sat on her bed and twirled a pair of stage glasses in her hands. Daria had been right: the apartment owners treated her differently when they saw the glasses, just as they had treated Daria differently simply for undoing the top button on her shirt. They were only small changes, but instead of seeing the Brain and the Blonde, they saw two smart, cute women.

She gently placed the glasses on her nightstand and walked to the room door, making sure that it was locked. Reassured, Brittany went to her closet and used a small stool to reach the top shelf, where she retrieved a red, spiral-bound notebook. Taking a pink pen from her desk on the way, Brittany returned to her bed and sat with the notebook braced against her knees. Slowly, she read through the old poems until she found a blank page and started writing.

Not So Alone

Thanks to Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.

May-June 2007