For the first time in a long time, Daria lacked direction. All of her relationships in the past six years had been professional or friendly, and none were very close, except one. Not that she was likely to ever see him again, given the circumstances. Making lots of friends in the Imperium was simply too risky- it was likely that you or your newfound friend might be dead in a few weeks or months. But it was peacetime here. Relationships were expected, but Daria simply had no experience for it. Her mother cried on her shoulder, but Daria was at a loss.


Well, I’m happy to see you too, Mom, she though to herself. Like that would sound sincere. What do I say?


Luckily, Jane was quick on her feet. She edged around the pair in the doorway and motioned inside, to the kitchen. Daria met her gaze and got the message.


“…Come on, Mom. Let’s sit down.” Daria put her arm around her mother’s shoulder and led her into the kitchen in the same way that soldiers lead wounded comrades. As much as she hated herself for thinking of it, that’s how it felt.


Just another shell-shocked recruit to cheer up. Aren’t I the caring daughter?


Helen also put her arm around Daria, for support.


Ugh, I hate this physical contact. All those damn close engagements. I could have broken her arm before. Hell, I almost did. Good thing these defensive reflexes come with self-discipline.


Helen was still sobbing when Daria sat her down at one of the chairs at the kitchen table. Jane first retrieved Daria’s things, and then went about making coffee, figuring that she should keep out of the way until the air was a bit clearer. Daria still held her mother’s hand but said nothing.


Helen was an island of disorganization in an otherwise spotless kitchen. Where her hair looked like a bird’s nest, her night gown was wrinkled, and her face glistening with tears, the kitchen had not a fork out of place. The oven shone, the knives were polished, and the toaster gleamed. Daria, despite her efforts to remain focused on the task at hand, was amazed. She’d never seen the kitchen this clean before. As she stole furtive glances at the room, Helen slowly regained a measure of coherency. Her speech was frantic, like she had volumes to speak but only seconds to say them.


“My God, Daria, I thought you were gone- I- I’d finally done it, driven you away for good, you just disappeared, poof, left, and it was our fault, my fault, I’m so sorry, I yelled and I thought you would understand but you left and I couldn’t find you and Eric and the school didn’t care and the police didn’t care and no one cared and I had to work and Jane- oh, Jane, I’m sorry, you were right and it was my fault…and…and…”


Helen collapsed into sobs. Hesitantly, Daria took her other hand.


“It- it’s OK, mom. I’m here.”


“I, I… I know. God, look at me! I’m such a horrible mother! You left, Quinn never talks to me, Jake treats me like a houseguest, your best friend hates me, and all I ever do is work! Why do I even try?” Helen looked at Daria, desperate for an answer that she knew Daria, of all people, could not give her.


“Mom… you’re not all that bad. It wasn’t your entire fault I... well, left. I had a lot of other things on my mind that week… I didn’t mean to stay away. I got…sidetracked. And then I couldn’t get back, till now.”


“But it’s still my fault! I should have paid more attention to you, listened… hell, cared about you! Where was I when you needed me? The office. Where was I when Quinn needed me, or Jake? The office.” Helen sat up in her chair and raised her hands to the ceiling. Her voice seemed to rise with them.


“I hate that place! I really do! I hate Eric, I hate my desk, I hate all my papers, I hate yelling at clients, I hate my cell phone! All of it! But you know why I hate it so much?- It’s all I have left. The only place where I matter anymore. The only thing I’m really good at. When you’re gone, when Quinn’s out avoiding me with her friends, when Jake’s given up on me, I still have the office. The f***ing office!” With that, Helen’s fervor peaked, and she slumped back down into her chair. She continued on in a whisper.


“Oh, Daria, can you ever forgive me? God, I’m so horrible. Please forgive me. Please.” Helen started crying again. Daria was reminded of a little girl she had seen on a battlefield once. The girl had pleaded desperately with the soldiers for the chance to see her mommy and daddy again. Although it pained her, Daria could not allow it. Daria wasn’t sure which pair of charred corpses were the girl’s parents, and Daria didn’t see a need to show the child any more death that day. The best she could do was find a sister from the local convent and put the girl in their care. Right now, Helen, despite the weariness in her eyes and the lines on her cheeks, could have been that girl. The desperation, the tiny glimmer of hope in her eyes, the tears. It was all there. Daria, despite her cynicism and her battle-hardened exterior, was moved. She had decided years ago that she’d forgive her parents if she ever saw them- but now that she was back, the immediacy of the situation had confused her. Things were clear again. If this woman had ever sinned against her, the torment that she had obviously endured was certainly penance enough.


“I do, mom. I forgive you. I’m here. It’s all right. Here. Have some coffee.” Daria studied her mother some more and though on her own words.


“Thanks,” muttered Helen, still holding back tears. She sipped at her coffee and looked despondent. Her eyes stared forward but saw nothing. She took another sip of coffee, but then looked down at the cup, and chuckled weakly.


Heh. I shouldn’t be drinking this. My doctor says it’s bad for me.” She put the cup on the table.


The doctor’s probably right, thought Daria. She studied her mother’s face. There were deep pockets under her eyes, and hard wrinkles on her face. Daria could tell that if she really needed anything right now, it was rest. She looked tired enough that even caffeine might not keep her awake.


Maybe she should lay off the caffeine. And I need to talk to Jane about this. I know she’s pissed at Helen, but how could she miss her being that close to breaking down? Like she just did?


“Mom, you look exhausted. Why don’t you leave that coffee here and go back to bed? Jane and I can wait here in the kitchen for everyone else to wake up.” Helen stared at Daria absently while she pondered this suggestion. It seemed to take her a moment to grasp the foreign concept of rest. A moment later, she nodded.


“Mm. That would be good.” She rose, her mind elsewhere, and headed for the stairs. Daria followed her into the living room and could see the weariness in her step as she padded up the stairs. Daria walked back in the kitchen and sat at the table opposite from Jane.


“Did you know she was like this?”


Jane put on a puzzled look. “Like what?”


“Overworked and neurotic. Or rather, more so than usual. On the brink of breaking down.”


“Well, not really…”


Daria screwed up her face in disbelief. “Come on! You didn’t notice that? Nothing at all? No warning signs? Holy emperor, the number of people I’ve seen in almost exactly the same state… hell, even I was like that when I was on the streets of that hiveworld. You’re lucky she didn’t snap violently. I’ve seen it happen, seen squads get taken apart when the stress gets to a soldier.”


“Daria, this is your Mom! She’s not some soldier out on a battlefield you can just send back to the infirmary! And no, I didn’t see any “warning signs.” They kicked me out, remember? I haven’t seen her in months. And even if I had, do you think I could have just told her to go get therapy for being neurotic? She would have told me to go to hell. Until just now, I was PNG here.”


Daria was embarrassed. It’s true. I was in “commander mode” there. Just... ugh. Everything’s gone to hell here. “I, um… Sorry. I overreacted.”


Jane was forgiving. “Don’t worry about it. Just tone down the Sgt. Hartman routine-” Jane froze and stared at the hallway behind her friend. Daria, sensing trouble, spun around and balanced low in a fighting stance, her right hand on the handle of her knife. Daria scanned the hallway, looking for threats, and found… Quinn. Quinn stood in the hallway, hair frazzled, in her pajamas. She looked shocked at the sudden movement, but her expression quickly turned to recognition, and then anger.


“You! What the hell are you doing here? Decided you’re not too good for us after all? Ugh!”


So much for “Welcome back”, though Daria.