Love's Labours in Ruins


A Daria fanfic by E. A. Smith



Legal Blather:  Daria and all associated characters are the property of MTV.  This story is my own.


Note:  This fic is the second in a planned trilogy.  Read the first installment, "Love's Labours Lost?", or this one won't make any sense.



On the night of our first date, James met me outside of my dorm one hour before the play was to begin, tickets in hand.  I was unpleasantly surprised to see him in fancy dress, not tuxedo or suit and tie, but a nicer outfit than his usual casual dress for class.  He seemed to be taking this outing pretty seriously, and I wasn't quite sure what to make of this new side of him.  Unfortunately for him, I'm not Quinn; I don't judge dates by their outfits, and I wondered why he thought I would prefer him this way.  Surely he knew me well enough to know that I would not expect it, and certainly would not be impressed by it.  So why go through the trouble?  At least there was no flower in his lapel.  Combined with James's red hair, that would have been a little too close to an Upchuck flashback for me to endure.


After an afternoon of torment, I had finally decided to listen to my inner Jane - or at least the voice in my head that took on that persona - and take this chance.  I had decided that I wasn't all that happy being the exact same Daria I had always been, retreating and nursing my wounds after every relational collision; that if college was a time of growing, maybe it was time I force myself to do some of my own.  What made the situation particularly sticky was that it had taken me several hours to come to this shaky resolution, and once enough of my mental powers were freed to think of anything beyond my own problems, I realized that James had probably not spent the time in joyous celebration.  The memory of his face as I had turned and walked away from him, with only a murmured and distressed farewell to acknowledge his continued presence, was enough to put another twist in the Gordian knot that was my stomach.  If I called on the phone to tell him of my choice, he might very well not answer; if I waited until our next class together, several days hence, my own determination would probably fade.  I had to tell him in person, and I had to tell him immediately.


James's dorm is on the east side of campus, a long walk through the cold night air from my own west side room.  That night, though, the temperature didn't register on my mind, which was far more concerned with perfecting my opening statement.  I had to convey acceptance without obligation, affection without commitment.  He had to know that, though we were friends, this date was on a purely trial basis, and that I could make no promises about how I might feel about him during or after.  After both Ted and Tom, I couldn't just jump into this relationship to see where it might take me; I couldn't make the same mistake a third time.  I was going into this one with eyes open and mind engaged.  I was taking a chance, but there was no reason to take it blindly.


Then I was standing at his door, my fist rapping upon the wood.  It was a simple, normal knock, but I fancied that it sounded uncertain and nervous.  Then he was standing there, his greeting dying on his lips.  The blood drained from his face so fast it was as if a tap had been plugged into his jugular and the spigot opened.  Neither of us moved.  I had thought it bad when my words had failed me on my Bromwell interview; that was nothing compared to the shroud that now descended on the speech centers of my brain.  Where were all of my carefully prepared sentences, the declarations that were to grant me total security and serenity in this encounter?


"I . . . I think we should go out," I stuttered out, after what seemed an eternity.  Very slick, Morgendorffer.  Mature and eloquent.  Why don't you just go all the way and ask him to go steady, maybe pass him a note in homeroom with a box to check yes or no?  James blinked twice in response.


"That sounds like a very good idea," he slowly said, his voice hoarse.  Though his face was still pale, and tinged with even a little bit of green, his mouth curled up in a smile.  He had to swallow before he could continue his reply.  "Tomorrow night, then?  There's a local theater troupe doing Troilus and Cressida within walking distance of here.  Um . . . we can have pizza afterwards."


"That sounds . . . good," I replied, brain still in neutral, and promptly ran out of new words to say.


"Well, great," he replied, just as briefly.


Goal achieved, and with no more words left in me, it was time to cut my losses and escape with some dignity intact.


"Well, bye then," I said.


"OK.  See you then, I guess."


My mind had made its decision, but my legs kept me still at his door, the two of us staring at each other across the threshold.  An increasingly uncomfortable silent minute passed, then finally I managed to stumble backwards, turn, and walk speedily away, already in the grip of doubt and anxiety.


Oh, yeah, this is off to a great start.


The next night, James and I left my dorm and moved towards the theater.  James was overflowing with information about the play, its history and cultural impact, slipping in details he had heard about this particular production.  His drawl was distinctly more rapid than usual, its pitch a couple of notches above normal.  Normally, such unceasing conversation would annoy me, bearing an unpleasant resemblance to Quinn's never-ending supper-table rambles, but his talk filled what would likely have been an uncomfortable silence, and so I was grateful for it.  Besides, even in the best of times, he loved to talk Shakespeare, and even though there was little that he said on that walk that I did not already know, after a while I began to sincerely enjoy his spirited dissertation.


Troilus and Cressida is a strange beast, one of the oddest of Shakespeare's plays.  It wasn't even performed until the mid-nineteenth century, both because of its demanding stage directions and because no one seemed quite sure what to make of it.  It starts off looking like a romance or a comedy, and ends up as something more closely resembling tragedy.  It even veers wildly between characters, like it can't make up its mind whose story it is actually telling.  It's not one of the Bard's best plays, but it is among his most interesting, in the same manner that a four-car pile up is interesting.  I'd read the play, of course, but never actually seen it performed live (outside of the movies, I'd never seen any of Shakespeare's works performed, and it was just as well - if the great acting talents of Lawndale High couldn't even handle O'Neill's bastardization of the Canterbury Tales, then I shudder to think what they would have done with Hamlet or Macbeth, or even Titus Andronicus - though Kevin would no doubt have loved all the severed limbs in that one).  I was starting to believe that this might actually be a tolerable evening after all.


And, for a while, it was.  When the lights went down and the play began, it suddenly was as if we had slipped back into Chemistry class, sitting in our adjacent seats, eyes forward, but low voices aimed towards each other, commenting on everything that passed before our eyes.  Habit dies hard, and in this case, that was a very good thing.  Even with a play like Troilus, this was still Shakespeare, so there was little we could say about the writing; but the editing, casting, acting, and direction were all suspect, and James and I had as much fun picking all of them apart as we would have viewing a competent production, maybe more.  All the awkwardness of the past day was gone, and we were once again two friends amusing ourselves the best way we knew how.  I thought that I could begin to understand what Jane was always seeking out with her boyfriends, the elusive idea of just having "fun".


Then I felt it, a light touch on my hand, followed by a full-fledged clasp.  Automatically, every muscle in my body stiffened, and without any conscious direction, my hand yanked itself out from under his, and flew into my lap.  I heard a sharp intake of breath, but I did not dare to move my eyes from the stage.  It took a few seconds for me to realize what had just happened, and once I realized it, I didn't know what to do next.  None of what I had just done was intentional, none of it was planned; if I had anticipated James's attempt to take my hand, I would not have felt comfortable with it - Ted had never so much as touched me, and despite our initial kiss, Tom hadn't even attempted a handholding on our first official date - but I would have told him my feelings in advance, and let him down as easy as I knew how.  Despite all of the uncertainty and frustration he had recently caused me, I had no desire to hurt him.  But the damage was done, and now that the action had been taken, my feelings followed suit; under no circumstances did I want James to touch me now, or even to acknowledge my existence.  I could feel myself withdrawing from him, even though there was a part of me that didn't want to, that wanted to laugh off this one unfortunate incident and continue on as before.  But a more basic instinct had taken over - he's gone too far, he's crossed the line, he's moved too fast, and now it's time to run and hide.  So I just sat there rigidly, to all outer appearances focused intently on the drama before us, while in reality internally roiling in fear of hearing James's voice in my ear, or feeling his touch on my arm.


Thankfully, James seemed to realize as much, and left me alone for the rest of the play.  No more camaraderie, no more shared smirks or quiet chuckles, just an impossibly tense silence filled only by the voices of the actors on the stage, which were now just an unintelligible drone in my ears.


Afterwards, we stood outside the box office, not quite able to look each other in the eye.  James was the first to speak.


"I guess I really screwed things up, didn't I?" he mumbled, head slightly bowed and his voice choked.  His adam's apple jumped up and down several times, and his breathing was heavy.


What could I say to a question like that?  There was a part of me that agreed with him, and was all for telling him so in no uncertain terms; he acted like an idiot, like the hormone-crazed teenaged boy that was almost all I knew at home and which I had so desperately hoped for him not to be, and he should suffer for it.  But my own damnable honesty, that conscience I had always so desperately denied and yet which still had an iron hold on me, made sure I knew that this was not so.  He had in ignorance hurt me, and I in reaction had hurt him.  The great relationship cycle had claimed another victim.  There really was nothing new under the sun, not for me anyway.


"It's not just you," I said, doing my best to look him in the eye.  But all I could see there were Trent's eyes.  Ted's.  Tom's.  And now I had another name to add to my list, another fellow hedgehog who had attempted to approach me, only to leave me pricked by his quills.  And him by mine, as well.  "It's me, too."  God, I never thought to hear such a clichˇ come out of my mouth, but it was all too true.


"I suppose dinner's off," James said, filling the quiet with the obvious.


No, I would love to savor this feeling over a good meal and a glass of wine.  I thought it, but I didn't say it.  It would have been like kicking a puppy, and I had no desire to take on the role of serial puppy kicker, not without Quinn around.  Since we were reduced to stating the obvious, I thought I would take the next turn.


"I think you should go now," I said, and watched as his face winced at the dismissal.  "I'll give you a five minute head start for the school, and then make my own way back."  The corner of his mouth twitched in a gallows smile.


"Doesn't seem proper to take a lady out and then not walk her home."  He intentionally broadened his South Carolina accent.   "My mother'll kill me when she finds out."  His attempt at a smile faded, and the forced humor left his voice.  "I'll see you in . . . I'll see you sometime."  With that, he turned and walked off, feet shuffling and head down.


And now he's out of sight, and I'm walking through the cold dark, alone, wondering how I could have ever thought that I was ready for this.  Maybe it's just not been enough time since Tom; maybe I'm not enough over that relationship to start a new one.  Or is it something deeper, something fundamental about my psyche that turns every attempt I make at a boyfriend into disaster and eventual pain?  My mother once told me that I judge people by too high a standard, one I couldn't always live up to myself.  Is that part of it?  Am I expecting every relationship I have to be perfect, and when it's not, I destroy it as unworthy?  If I had made more of an effort, could I have shaken off my discomfort, calmly told James that I was not yet ready for such an overt gesture of affection, and then moved on as though nothing had happened, trusting in his good will and good sense to hold him to it?  I gave up Ted after one mistake.  I tried to do the same over and over with Tom, and it was only his persistence and refusal to accept my rejection that kept us together.  James didn't even try, but I don't think I ever pushed Tom away with such severity as I just did to James tonight; what was he supposed to think?


It seems like guys always assume that it's the women who know what they're doing, that they're creatures of mystery, who know all the rules and are working behind the scenes, pulling all the strings and making the men dance to their will, in full control of the situation.  Bullshit.  I have no clue what I'm doing.  I've just broken something, and I have no idea how to fix it.  I'm going to walk into class next Tuesday, and maybe James will be in his usual seat.  Maybe he'll say hello.  Maybe I'll even say it back.  But that will be it.  No more jokes during lecture.  No more lunchtime conversations about whatever comes to mind.  No more weekend study sessions and general loitering.  Our relationship is as much in ruins as was Troilus and Cressida's, when he saw her in the arms of another man.  And it's my fault, I think, or at least more mine than his.  It's my mess, so I have to clean it up.


But how?