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.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2007.
This is the fifty-eighth story in the Falling into College series.
Each carrying suitcases and dressed for a day in the sun, Tammy and Grace stopped at the door of their sorority house suite and Grace said, "Last chance; Tijuana is going to be fun, and the boys on the beaches down there…yum."
"I know Spanish, so I can translate for you," Tammy said. "After two years of high school and a year of college, I think I can do more than ask for directions to the bathroom and order a beer."
"Thanks guys, but I'm going to stay here," Quinn said. "Now that I have a job, I can't just take off for Spring Break."
"Tijuana, been there, done that," Fran said. "Though without the tequila, since I was there with my aunt and uncle."
"Don't worry, we'll still find plenty to do," Quinn said.
Tammy said, "Okay, but we'll take pictures so you know what you missed."
"Make sure you have your clothes on, okay?" Fran added just as Tammy closed the door. After a couple seconds, she said, "Okay, Quinn, what are you up to? I know you don't drink, but the rest of what they planned sounds like something you'd enjoy. Don't give me that work crap; you have your boss wrapped around your finger."
Quinn admitted, "I know, I just had other plans."
"Oh…plans. They must be real good."
"Um…you remember that guy I met on the plane when I went home for Christmas?"
Fran sat up straight. "You blew off a trip to the Baja beaches for one guy?"
Suddenly nervous, Quinn said, "That does sound a little weird, doesn't it?"
"Considering you met him once, three months ago, yes. You're interested in him."
"Well, he is interesting."
"That's not what I meant and you know it. You're getting romantic ideas about him."
"No. It's just that we've been too busy to get together and I said we would."
"Uh-huh, and you've been in regular e-mail contact. Do you want to borrow some of my cheesy romances?"
"No," Quinn said with emphasis. "It's just a date or two."
"Or two? You're thinking about a second date before you've gone on the first. This gets better all the time."
"Are you going to visit your aunt and uncle?" Quinn said, trying to change the subject.
Fran couldn't resist a friendly smirk. "I think I'll pass and stay around here to watch the fun."
"You're as bad as my sister, only in a totally different way."
Greetings from Camp Raptor,
Karen, we've arrived and I must say that this is the most God-forsaken piece of real estate imaginable. Dry, cold and isolated with mountains all around. Everyone is staying in squad tents until better billets can be set up. There are a couple of real buildings, all that's left of a small village. One bit of good news is that my promotion to Pfc went through. Can't write for long, there are only a couple of laptops and we only get five minutes each to send email. I'm thinking of you always and miss you.
"Be careful," Karen whispered. She reached over and gently touched a framed photo of herself and Derek that had been taken the week before he left. She wiped a tear from her eye and said, "I miss you, too."
Her thoughts were interrupted by a loud groan. Karen turned around and saw Jane stagger from her room.
One eye barely open and holding her head in pain, Jane slowly made her way toward the kitchen. "Daria, tell your furball not to eat so loudly."
Bump looked up from her Sunday morning mahi-mahi fillet and meowed.
"Ah! She did that on purpose," Jane said, clearly in agony.
Pouring a cup of coffee, Daria thoughtfully kept her voice down as she said, "You're the one who wanted to celebrate your twenty-first birthday with a bottle."
"Daria, I wouldn't feel like this if it was only one bottle."
Daria pulled a glass from the cupboard and filled it with water before offering it to Jane. "Either way, it's still not the cat's fault. Here, drink this."
"Will it help?"
"Maybe; if not, it'll keep you busy for a while."
"I'd rather have coffee."
"Rehydrate first, then caffeine."
Jane drank deeply. "Mmm, water good."
Daria sipped from her coffee before setting it back down on the counter. She then took a box of cereal from an open shelf and poured some into a bowl. "I hope Nell doesn't get into too much trouble with her landlord for hosting the party."
Both hands huddled around her glass, Jane said, "I'll call later. CC said she was staying to help pick things up."
Daria went to the refrigerator for a bottle of milk. "If anyone knows how to clean up after college students, she does. BFAC doesn't pay her enough."
Holding onto the door frame, Mack said, "I smell coffee."
Daria poured a glass of water and gave it to him. "Water, then coffee."
He accepted and said, "Do you have a spare bottle of aspirin?"
Daria shook her head at her hung-over friends. "I would've left you over there, but I don't have a grudge against Nell."
Jane asked, "How did you get us back here?"
"Michael pushing and Karen pulling on a horse lead."
"You're kidding," Mack said.
Karen lifted the leather lead from one of the dining set chair backs.
"Do you prefer 5 by 7 or 8 by 10 glossies?" Daria asked. She picked up her bowl of cereal and stepped past Mike. "I'll let you two discuss what you may or may not remember of the evening while I eat breakfast."
"If those show up on the Internet…" Mack said to Jane.
"Don't worry," she replied. "Daria will milk plenty of blackmail from us before that ever happens."
"Oh, now that was encouraging."
Jane fumbled on the shelf over the coffee pot to bring down a pair of mugs. She filled each and handed one to Mack. "Drink up. I want to get in a practice run today. The marathon's only a few weeks away."
"You can't be serious," Mack said, knowing his stomach wouldn't tolerate the exercise.
"Running always makes me feel better."
"Even for hangovers?"
"Um, I don't know, but there's only one way to find out."
Karen joined Daria at the table. "You're leaving me alone with those two?"
"Sorry, but Michael's trip to Bromwell only includes one room with one bed."
"I'll sleep on a couch."
"Bromwell people get a little bent out of shape over things like that, sorry. Don't worry, Jane's in training mode, so you know her mind will be somewhere else most of the week."
"Do you think you'll run into your old boyfriend?"
"There are a couple thousand students on campus and I won't be looking for him, so the odds are rather low."
Karen nodded. "Okay, so you expect life to throw you another one and he'll show up."
"I hate it when you do that."
Perched on a stool, Fran leaned against the bar of Pacific Coast Smoothie and waved to the waiter, saying, "Another Raspberry Supershooter, please."
"Coming right up, Fran," the curly-haired young man said as he started to collect the ingredients.
Also at the bar, Quinn asked, "Why don't you just order two at the start?"
"Because, the second one always starts to melt and get mushy. Besides, it looks weird to have two smoothies at the same time. You're one to talk, Miss 'tiny slice of lemon, please.'"
Quinn sipped from her drink. "Touché."
Fran looked out at the sunlit street outside filled with cafés, small boutiques and other businesses that depend upon commerce from Pepperhill students. The crowd was thin when compared to the usual while classes were in session. "Quinn, can I ask you something?"
"Sure, what's up?"
"How would you feel if your parents had another kid?"
"It's not something that's gonna happen since Mom went through menopause."
"What about before? What would you have thought?"
Wondering what her friend was up to, Quinn said, "I probably would've freaked out back in high school."
"Here you go," the waiter said, placing the fresh drink next to Fran.
She smiled and said, "Thanks."
Quinn asked, "Why do you ask?"
Fran took a long drink from her glass. "Aunt Beth was hinting that she and Uncle David were thinking about it."
"Aren't they a little old?"
"They're only thirty-five," Fran said. "I think they feel a little short-changed since I was with them for only eight years."
"When I think about it, Mom and Dad were thirty-one and thirty-two when I was born." Quinn turned her stool to face Fran. "How do you feel about it?"
"Weird. Kind of like they want to start a new life…without me."
Quinn mentally filled in the blanks about her friend's concerns. "I know that they won't forget you."
"I'm sure you're right. I guess it's a little leftover fear of losing them."
Quinn giggled and said, "Mom and Dad barely survived me and my sister. I don't even want to think about what a third child would've done to them."
That caused Fran to join the laugh. "I guess my aunt and uncle are a couple of masochists. I used to joke with them that I arrived housebroken. Maybe they want the whole childrearing experience, including diapers."
"Diapers? Eww. Fran, can we change the subject now?"
Daria gritted her teeth and banged her head against the side window of Michael's car as he drove along the interstate. In her lap was a stack of student papers from her intern teaching. "What madness overwhelmed me to think teaching would be a good second major?"
Attempting to be helpful, he said, "You're good at it?"
"I can't tell by these essays. I think I'm beginning to understand what happened to Mr. DeMartino."
"That was the teacher with the eye, right?"
"Are they really that bad?"
Daria shook her head. "No, not all of them, but too many are bad."
"Are they getting better?"
"I think so."
"Then you are good at it."
"But some of these are still painful to read. As much as some of it was bloated beyond belief, I miss reading stuff at the U Press."
"I'm sorry you haven't been able to find a new job."
Daria tried to cheer herself. "Hey, I've had time to write and submit two short stories."
Looking up to reply, Daria noticed how closely they were following the car in front of them. She reflexively grabbed the overhead handle and said, "Um…could you back off from that car?"
"Oops, sorry," he said, easing off of the gas until the distance between cars had widened.
Daria said, "Some things really don't rub off from parent to child."
Michael replied, "Hey, I learned to drive from Dad."
"Okay, but I don't have your mom's nerves."
"You haven't killed me and she didn't, so things look a bit even from this direction."
"She held off killing you for a lot longer than I have."
"I think I better stop while I'm behind."
A dusty, red VW Beetle rolled through the quiet campus of Pepperhill with its blond-haired driver alternately looking around through wraparound sunglasses and consulting a small map. Quinn Gilstad grumbled, "God, what kind of drunken idiot do they find to lay out college campuses?"
Lost, he tossed the map into the back of the car and pulled up next to a skateboarder on the sidewalk. He leaned across the car, rolled down the window and called, "Excuse me."
The boarder spun his board into a turn and dropped the back edge to bring it to a stop. "Dude, what's up?"
"Where's the Theta-Theta-Theta house?"
"Man, you gotta turn around and go past the volleyball field. Hang the first right, that's Sorority Row. The Tri-Theta's are like the fourth one on the left."
"Something like that."
"If she's a Tri-Theta, don't piss her off. Those chicks stick together."
"I'll remember that."
The boarder waved and pushed off, yelling, "Good luck, dude," as he rolled away.
Quinn made a U-turn and followed the directions, eventually pulling into the guest parking of the sorority house. He stepped out and gazed at the tall front columns. "Wow, Tara." He then shrugged and jogged to the entrance and stepped inside, lifting his sunglasses at the same time.
In the large entry foyer, Quinn Morgendorffer sat on one of the overstuffed sofas while waiting. Seeing the young man enter, she poked Fran and said, "There he is."
She appraised him and said, "Up to your usual standards, though that looks more like a work tan than a beach tan and his clothes are a little below par."
Quinn stood and waved. "Quinn, over here."
He swerved and marched to them as Fran stood up. She said, "You know, this name business is going to get confusing real quick. Hey, do you have a middle name I can use?"
"I hate it," he said.
The red-headed woman said, "Don't even try it, Fran."
Fran thought for a moment and then said to him, "I've called her Quinn for a while now, so I'm used to it. How about if I call you Q?"
"If it was good enough for an Ian Fleming character, it's good enough for me."
Daria read the bumper sticker on the back of Michael's car, "'Indiana Jones was a grave robber.' I'm sure it'll be popular with Bromwell's archeology department, but I'd still keep it away from the movie fanboys."
"Eh, they're old movies and there aren't that many fans left in the wild."
"Unless there's another sequel."
"I wouldn't hold my breath." Michael added, "Let's go find where we're staying."
"Probably better than most hotels you've stayed in," Daria said. "I visited here…just about three years ago. It doesn't look like a leaf has moved."
"You stayed at the guest apartments?"
"No, I was with Tom and his mother. We stayed at the Royal Ambassador Inn down the road. The suites were larger than my apartment and we each had one to ourselves."
Michael asked, "Parental paranoia?"
"Mrs. Sloane slept in the middle one."
Carrying a suitcase each, they walked across one corner of campus feeling slightly out of place. It was a subtle difference in the way the students looked and held themselves: more confident, but a little colder. Daria squeezed Michael's hand and again felt that Bromwell's rejection was the better outcome for her.
Michael looked at the campus map, pointed and said, "Over there."
"Good. This thing is getting heavy."
"This is a nice-looking campus. Almost spotless."
"With how much they charge for tuition, I should hope that they can find space in the budget for upkeep."
At the guest house, Michael said to the student attendant behind the front desk, "Hello, Prof. Daniels reserved a room for me. My name is Michael Fulton."
The attendant checked a wide reservation book and said, "Right here, Mr. Fulton and one guest. Please sign in." As Michael signed the register, the attendant ran a pair of key cards through a reader and separately presented them to Michael and Daria. "You'll be in room 104, just down the hall to your right. Once you've settled, you can find a light supper at the Grandtleigh Café or a full menu at the Franklin Dining Hall."
"Supper might be a good idea," Michael said in agreement. "What do you think, Daria?"
"After we drop off our luggage, it sounds like a plan."
The room was only a short distance down the hall. It was comfortably appointed in the genteel, traditional colonial style that permeated Bromwell, with a window that looked out over the carefully manicured, though still winter brown, grounds. Michael said, "Okay, it's a little bigger than a dorm room. After everything else, I guess I was expecting more."
Daria dropped her suitcase on a low table. "Why do you think Mrs. Sloane took us to a hotel?"
"Still, it's not bad," he said, setting his suitcase down.
"Especially since you're not paying for it."
"Although, it would've been nice to stay at the bed and breakfast like last year."
Daria slipped her arms around his waist and said, "I still think about that week," as she rested her head on his chest.
He very softly held her and stroked her hair. "I'd like to think our honeymoon will at least be like that."
She whispered, "You're not really in a hurry to go out for dinner, are you?"
Seeing Quinn pause after stepping out of his car, Q asked, "Do you have a problem with sushi?"
"It's safe to eat, right?" she asked, remembering her father's experience with Tokyo Toby's.
"I'm sure the health department would shut them down if it wasn't," he joked.
"Are you sure you can't get worms and stuff?"
"I suppose, if you have a dishonest place that doesn't do things right. But then, you can get food poisoning from any kind of restaurant. If you're nervous, get something that's not so exotic, like a California roll. It's cucumber, avocado and imitation crab wrapped in nori and rice. It's a good starter."
"That doesn't sound too bad. Do they have a diet version?"
"No, but it's pretty low fat anyway."
"You've really never had sushi?"
"There wasn't any where I used to live in Texas, and if there was, they would probably put barbeque sauce on it."
Q chuckled and said, "Good one."
"And the one sushi place in Lawndale, well, my dad did get a wormy thing in his throat. It was very traumatic…and really, eww."
"Go with the California roll. The imitation crab is cooked during processing, so there's no chance of parasites. There are usually some vegetarian choices, too."
Inexperienced with chopsticks, Quinn slowly grasped a section of roll. "It made so much sense, I worked out this kind of dual major thingy between marketing and professional makeup."
Enjoying his maguro, or tuna, Q said, "That's an amazingly creative mix, and a great way to address a situation that nobody really thinks about."
"I guess I needed the right inspiration. Fran's been a really good friend that way."
"You two are pretty close, aren't you? You get along with her a lot better than I did with any of my undergrad roommates."
"Not really, they were just there. But you two seem like you'll really stand up for each other."
Quinn smirked, "We do."
"Heh, a guy that I asked directions from…"
"You asked for directions? Wow."
"Yes, I asked for directions, I was lost. Anyway, when he heard I was looking for the Tri-Theta house, he said something about not getting you mad and that Tri-Thetas stick together. That reminded me of this kind of urban legend I heard about involving Tri-Theta."
"Something about them pulling off that whole Lysistrata thing on an entire campus because some guy was a jerk to one of them."
Quinn slyly smiled and daintily took a small drink from her cup of green tea. "That's not an urban legend, though technically, Fran wasn't a member at the time and I was only a pledge."
"Wait a minute. That was you and Fran?"
Playful, Quinn said, "Yes."
"And you did it at Pepperhill?"
"Damn, I'm impressed."
"If I'm going to hang around, I better learn not to make you angry."
Inwardly surprised at how hopeful she felt, Quinn asked, "You want to hang around?"
"Yeah. Someone smart and gutsy enough to pull that off is someone I want to know better. You have to tell me everything about it."
Q walked Quinn back to the Tri-Theta house and said, "I'm sorry about the movie. I'd heard that it was supposed to be good."
Quinn squeezed his hand. "Don't worry; I've sat through a lot worse. Besides, I had fun."
"In that case, how about dinner Wednesday night?"
"Pick me up at seven o'clock?"
He held her hand with both of his. "I'll see you then. Good-bye, for now."
He waved and went to his car as she entered the building. He climbed in and fastened his belt. It dawned on him that they didn't even try to kiss during their date, and that it seemed right. "I like that."
Reading a story on her favorite Buffy fan site, Fran made a face and said, "Eww, that's bad. That's really bad. There should be a law against shipping those two. And damn, do some spell checking, dude."
She continued reading before hitting another section that made her sit back in her chair. "Goths are nothing like that. Sheesh, get a clue."
When she heard the door close, Fran logged off and stepped out of her room to the hallway. She saw Quinn and asked, "So, how did the test drive of the new boyfriend go?"
"Quinn's not my boyfriend, but we had a good time. We had sushi for lunch…"
"Wait a minute. Sushi? We've been trying all year to get you to try sushi and he convinces you on the first date?"
"He was convincing."
"And what else did he convince you to do?" Fran said with a raised eyebrow and a faux leer.
"Fran!" Quinn said in surprise.
"Just checking. You never know how smooth these older guys can be."
"Only three years older."
Knowing her friend and thoroughly enjoying the conversation, Fran said, "He's a grad student, which means he's halfway over to the dark side."
"He's really nice and smart."
"I bet he's one of those teaching assistants that torture undergrads before breakfast."
Still on the defense, Quinn said, "He hasn't done any teaching, yet."
"He sticks pins in bugs…wait a minute, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Okay, let's change tracks: what kind of goodie did he buy for you?"
"Nothing, we had lunch, saw a movie and talked about stuff."
"Talked? What kind of stuff?"
"Our majors, our plans for the future, what kind of silly professors we've had. He was actually impressed by what I'm trying to do with my majors."
"Okay…now, how much did he run around doing stuff for you?"
"He didn't. We just had a nice day together. Fran, what's gotten into you?"
"Quinn, he's not acting like your other dates and you're defending him. It's cute."
"He's not my boyfriend."
"But you wouldn't complain if he was."
Quinn shook her head and started to go to her room. "Fran…"
Dropping her amusement and becoming serious, Fran stepped in front of Quinn. "I'm your friend and I think I need to ask you something."
Taken aback by Fran's change in mood, Quinn stopped and asked, "What?"
"Are you scared?"
"Scared of what?"
"A real relationship with a guy."
"What do you mean? I'm always going out."
"Yeah, you date guys, you accept gifts and you can get almost any one of them to do things for you. But, you don't have relationships with any of them."
"Yes, I do."
Fran pressed. "No, you don't. You have fun, you dance, you see movies. But, you don't let any of them get close to you…except Q." Her eyes flashed in realization. "And you don't know what to do."
Quinn forced a laugh. "Oh Fran, please. I don't know what to do with a boy?"
Fran crossed her arms. "This time, I don't think so. I have another question. How much did he comment about your looks?"
"He, um, uh…he said I looked nice."
"But he talked about your majors and, let me guess, how challenging they are."
"That's what happened; don't you get it?"
"He saw that you're not just drop-dead cute, but that you have a brain."
Quinn stepped past and tried to brush off the comment, "You make me sound like a mirror image of my sister."
Fran watched for a second and then turned back to her room. She shook her long, black hair, smiled and quietly stated, "You said it, not me."
I'm spending spring break working full-time at the zoo and getting a lot of good experience with the staff vet. Everyone else is off doing their own thing, too. Jane's practicing for the Boston Marathon again, and Mike's here this week to help. Daria's gone down to New Jersey with Michael to visit Bromwell and the bigwig archeologist he started working for. My brother sent a new video of my nephew, the little guy's really learned to get around now.
I hope you get better quarters soon and my prayers are with you.
Derek smiled and saved the e-mail. He wondered how soldiers of years before held on while waiting for physical mail to arrive from home.
"Adler!" a voice boomed behind him.
Derek turned to see his squad leader. "Yes, Sergeant?"
"How's the shoulder?"
He rotated his stiff, left shoulder and made a face. "Hurts like hell and the bruise is turning all kinds of colors."
"I've scrounged up some new body armor for you. I know a lot of soldiers get spooked at wearing something that's already stopped a bullet."
"Thanks, Sarge, but I'll keep mine. It feels lucky."
"Your call, soldier."
After the sergeant walked away, Derek clicked "reply" and typed.
Thanks for the news, it means a lot to hear about even the little things. We had our first patrol today and it really sunk in that this is all for real and hearing bullets is just as scary as you imagined. Everyone in the platoon came back safe, and we hope that will continue. Take care of yourself and remember that every night, I look forward to seeing you again.
Karen touched the screen of her monitor and whispered, "You can't fool me. I can tell you had a close call. Please be careful; I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."
Prof. Daniels' lab was smaller than what Michael had expected, but the smooth, hand-finished plaster walls and wood accents gave the room itself a feeling of history. The walls were filled with shelves and cabinets holding a vast array of books, papers and equipment for cleaning and examining archeological finds. Michael sat at a bench examining site plans for several of the upgrade/repair sites along Boston's Freedom Trail and referencing them to published finds from the same areas.
The white-haired professor looked over his shoulder and said, "Good work. You have a good eye for matching the reports with the plan."
"Thanks, I've had a lot of practice reading maps for surveying with my dad."
The professor looked over the plans before pointing to a mark Michael had made on a site plan. "What's this?"
"Rough location of new recycling bins. The Park Service put them in about three months ago."
Michael said, "Trust me; I've picked up trash along the entire trail and know every trash can and recycle bin. It's just something I remembered."
The professor let out a good-natured snort. "We have some brilliant students in the department, but like many Bromwell students, none of them have that kind of practical, real work experience. You may have been picking up trash, but you learned the area and you have a good eye for details and location. I don't think some of our undergrads can make it across campus without a GPS unit."
"I'm sure they're not that bad."
Prof. Daniels crossed the room to a coffee pot placed on a desk. "Never underestimate the inability of a freshman class."
"My fiancée would like that quote."
"Oh yes, I hope your young lady is comfortable with our accommodations."
"She is, and Daria's spending today at the library. She'll be busy for hours."
"Just a minute!" CC called to whoever had knocked on her door. Balancing a sheet of gold leaf on a soft brush, she held her breath while gently lowering it onto a sheet of vellum. Once it had caught on the size, she tamped the leaf down with the brush and released her breath. The blue-haired girl pushed her glasses up, rose, went to the door and said out of habit, "How can I help you?"
Karen said, "Spare a few minutes to talk?"
"Yeah, yeah, come on in. I was afraid you were one of the dorm beasts complaining about something broken." CC gestured for Karen to have a seat. "So, what's on your mind?"
Karen accepted and said, "Derek arrived in Afghanistan and he's…things are already happening."
Sitting on her bed, CC said, "Let's hear it for modern communication, but all in all, I suppose it's better than the waiting, without knowing, like it was before."
"That would drive me crazy. I don't know how my grandmother could stand it."
"Don't think I'm trying to push you off, but she would probably be somebody who understands what you're going through."
"Actually, I have talked to Grandma. She's a lot tougher than I think I'll ever be."
"I grew up around army brats and wives. You're tougher than you think."
"I wish I had your confidence. I'm scared to death for him."
"You're scared because you care for Derek. You're tough because you're facing the fear instead of pretending it's not there or running away."
Walking down the marble steps of the building, Daria said, "I'll admit that this library is one thing I regret about not going to Bromwell."
"Book junkie," Michael said, teasing. "It's like a crack house for you."
"Like you can talk, history boy."
"Got me. I'm starting to get hungry. Why don't we wander around and see what Newtown has to offer for food?"
Daria nodded. "Yeah, I am, too. How about Chinese? Something of the non-buffet variety."
"We have a goal."
They walked across the campus to the visitor parking lot. Daria asked, "How was your day?"
"We made a lot of progress today. At the rate we're going, things should be tied up tomorrow. How was yours?"
"I wish we could transplant the library. Not to say that Raft's is bad or anything, but Bromwell's is just in a whole different league of funding."
"Must be all of those rich legacies. I swear that every building and wing around here is named for a donor."
"They are, and I got to hear about each one of them during my infamous tour."
Joining the line to be seated at a cozy-looking place not far from Bromwell, Daria said, "With a line like this, the food must be good, or cheap."
At the front of the line, Tom Sloane turned around at the sound of her voice. "Daria?"
"Oh, God," Daria said under her breath. Conversationally, she said, "Hi, Tom. This is a surprise."
"I'll say it is," he replied. "Hello, Michael. What brings you two to Newtown?"
Michael said, "I'm working on a project with Prof. Daniels of the archeology department."
An attractive redhead with Tom said, "That's the girl your mother keeps going on about?"
Faintly embarrassed, he said to her, "Yes, she is. Jessica, this is Daria and her fiancé, Michael. Daria, Michael, this is my girlfriend, Jessica. Now that we've been introduced, are there any objections to us getting a table together, and um, clearing the air?"
"Awkwardness for all concerned? Why not?" Daria said.
"What's a few skeletons in the closet?" Michael said.
Daria nudged him and said, "You're off the job, so no skeletons."
Accepting the consensus, Jessica said, "I'm in."
Tom motioned Daria and Michael forward and said to the hostess, "Correction, party of four, please."
The matronly oriental woman selected two more menus from a rack and said, "Follow me, please," and led them to a table for four. She placed the menus at each setting and said, "Your server will be with you shortly. I hope you enjoy your meal."
After the hostess left, Daria said, "Tom, how did you find out that we were engaged?"
Tom chuckled. "Pretty easy. Mom read the engagement announcement that Helen put in the Lawndale newspaper and then made sure that I was informed in short order."
"Of course; I should've guessed. Kay never misses a detail about social events," Daria said.
Jessica said, "No, she doesn't. That's what I don't get. From what Tom's told me, you were never much for social events, but you're the ex-girlfriend that Kay keeps comparing everyone to. How did you do that?"
Daria shrugged and said, "I…have no idea."
The two couples continued conversing over dinner. Daria was inwardly amused and slightly surprised at Jessica, a jaded daughter of wealth who was, in many ways, much like Tom. Daria said, "At Amy's wedding, Kay had a few choice words about some of the people Tom had dated."
Jessica said, "Oh, yes. Kay told us about your aunt's wedding in excruciating detail, including your dress, Daria."
"Not something I ever really pictured you wearing," Tom said. Noticing Michael clear his throat and rub his eyes in reaction, he added, "One of the reasons things didn't work between Daria and me. To be honest, I didn't have the romantic streak she needed and you have."
Defending herself, Daria said, "It's not like I go out of my way to wear that kind of stuff. I much prefer comfort to fashion."
"But when you dress up for those rare special occasions, you're beautiful," Michael said.
Jessica smirked at Daria's warm response to Michael and explained, "Growing up, my parents poured me into these cute, overpriced dresses and paraded me in front of their friends at every social event on the calendar. I learned that 'beautiful' is a polite, programmed response that only acknowledges a girl's existence. You could trot out a pig in a tutu and if they thought it was someone's daughter, those society elders and their horny offspring would say it looked beautiful. And then all of those stuck-up boys would try to get my attention with every cheap romance trick in the book. God, I hated those dresses and hated those attitudes and I'm glad I found someone who hates them just as much as I do."
"No offense intended, I can see where Tom would appreciate your attitude," Daria said. "Tom, am I right that you thought I, and come to think of it, Jane, were like that?"
Daria slowly nodded her head. "I was right; we were from different worlds. Jane and I were close, in our different ways, but it sounds like someone like Jessica was who you were looking for. Jessica, I grew up with a cute sister that I felt I could never compete against, appearance wise, so I stopped trying. However, deep inside, I secretly wanted someone to see through the hard shell I put forward. Someone finally did. Jessica, you grew up hearing people say you were beautiful so often, that it became meaningless and all the empty posturing made you distrust most romance. Tom, with his background, was finally someone who could understand, right?"
Jessica agreed, saying, "Pretty close. But, it still doesn't explain why Kay keeps comparing me to you."
Tom dropped his head on the table as he connected the information in his head. "Mom saw through to Daria and wanted me to see it, too."
"So, she holds it against me," Jessica said.
Tom said, "Mom's a romantic and I'm not. I bet she thought Daria would bring that out in me."
"She has the effect," Michael said.
"If you give Daria the chance," Tom said. "You did and I didn't."
Shaking her head, Jessica said, "Meanwhile, Kay just doesn't get that I'm attracted to Tom for that very reason."
Daria asked, "Jessica, have you met Tom's sister, Elsie?"
Jessica chuckled at the name. "At Christmas. Heh, she's driving Kay and Angier crazy with her plans for the family business. What does she have to do with it?"
"Her experience was a lot like yours and she's also breaking out of the traditional Sloane role in a way Kay doesn't want," Daria took a breath to settle her nerves. "I have to admit that if Tom had been more of a romantic, I could've been vulnerable to the things you and Elsie have rejected, and I bet Kay saw that."
"Even so, you still would've shaken things up; just look at the influence you had on Elsie," Michael said, feeling a little weird about the direction of the conversation.
Tom said, "You know, Mom hasn't really been as upset with Elsie as you'd expect. She doesn't entirely agree with Elsie's methods, but I think she's quietly encouraging my sister to shake things up. I bet she thought you'd do the same."
Jessica said, "I bet. Daria, if you don't mind, I just realized that Kay must see you as a safer kind of girl to break the Sloane mold."
"I agree," Daria said. "And, that would've caused problems in the long run. I'm not completely the woman Kay thinks I am. You don't need her guidance to survive high society politics like I would've, because of my inexperience. Jessica, I think that makes you a better match for Tom than me."
Jessica pondered for a second, and then said, "Because Kay's a romantic, I bet she sees your romantic streak as something that would've made Tom happier."
"You'll just have to prove Mrs. Sloane wrong," Michael said, "and show that you two can be happy the way you are."
Jessica gave Tom a sly smile. "That sounds like a challenge I can accept."
The restaurant was a small, cozy place with simple décor and fresh, tasteful meals. After their meal, Quinn and Q were seated at a table for two, next to a window overlooking a Malibu side street. One candle within a clear, hand-blown globe lit the table, casting a glow on the face of each. Quinn waited with trepidation to hear Q's response to hearing about her days in the Fashion Club.
He said, "I know you didn't get into Pepperhill by being a just a fashionista, though I'm sure you made anything look good. You can tell me; did you win any awards in high school?"
"Actually…I won the academic award for the school's honor society for graduating seniors. It's kind of funny, but that was the second year of the awards. My sister won the academic award for the first year. A lot of people were surprised when I won."
"Brains and beauty are a tempting combination. You and your sister must've made an imposing pair back then."
"We, um, didn't exactly work together in high school. The whole sisterly rivalry thing, but we get along better, now."
"Ah, I get it. You started getting along once you weren't living in the same house."
"Yeah, too bad we're on opposite sides of the country."
Their waitress stopped at the table and held a small folder with the bill. "Your check."
Quinn placed her purse on the table and took out her credit card, handing it to the waitress while saying to Q, "Let me get this one."
Across the table, Q smiled and said, "As a grad student, I'm obligated to accept when someone else pays for food."
Quinn giggled and said, "That's funny."
"It's a universal, unwritten code. It's also a good way to get us to show up for seminars."
After dinner, Quinn and Q took a barefoot stroll along the beach. Holding Q's hand as they walked, Quinn said, "Can I ask you something?"
"Hmm, how do I say this? I, uh, I know that I'm cute and stuff and, I, oh, this sounds bad…since guys always see that I'm cute, I've used it to get them to do things for me. You're different. How?"
"We're in southern California. Cute girls are a dime a dozen and too many of them have some teenage dream of being an actress or a model or just marrying some rich guy. Quinn, you're pretty, but you're also smart and you have a real plan for your life. When a guy grows up and stops looking for arm candy, that's damn attractive."
Quinn stopped him, placed her hands on his cheeks and gave him a kiss.
Q slowly put his arms around her waist. "I must've said something right."
Back home, Daria dropped her suitcase in her room and sat on the bed next to Bump to pet the feline. "Yes, I'm back. Did you keep your other humans in line while I was gone?"
At the door, Karen said, "Oh, yeah, she really cracked the whip. We couldn't get away with anything."
Jane stepped up behind Karen. "By the way, Daria, you owe Mack for a shirt cleaning. Her Greatness gifted him with a hairball."
Daria looked down at her cat. "What have I told you about editorial comments?"
Bump half rolled onto her back and rubbed her head against Daria's hand, who shook her head and said to Jane, "Ask Mike if he prefers payment by check, credit, money order or small, unmarked bills."
"Now for the next bit of business: when did you run into your old boyfriend?" Karen asked.
"Tuesday night," Daria said.
Karen held one palm out to Jane. "Pay up."
Jane sighed and said, "Morgendorffer, I'm going to get you for starting me on this gambling habit. Now, since I've paid for it, what happened?"
"We ran into Tom and his new girlfriend and talked over dinner. There was a little Sloane family dysfunction, but sorry, no catfights or explosions."
Jane held her hand out to Karen. "Pay up."
"Dammit," Karen said.
"Did you two do anything while I was gone besides bet on me and my ex-boyfriend?"
"I got Mack to run a half-marathon with me for training," Jane said. "Chasing him is good incentive."
Karen's smile faded. "I heard from Derek; he's now in Afghanistan and they didn't waste any time sending him out on patrol."
Daria's mood also cooled. "Sorry, that can't be a great way to spend Spring Break."
"I'll make it. I have to, for him."
Daria said, "Karen, you're a lot stronger than I am."
Laughing, Tammy and Grace came into the suite, leaning against each other for support. Grace called, "Hey kids, we're home!"
From the couch, Fran looked up and said, "Hey, guys. Tammy, is that a police badge you're wearing?"
"Oh, this? It's from a really cute Federale we met one night."
"She met," Grace said. "Left me out in the cold, until I met this scrumptious musician. So, what kind of fun did you kids have?"
Talking on her cell phone, Quinn said, "I'm sorry, Jimmy, I can't make it. I, um, have a prior commitment. Okay, okay, yeah, see you in class."
"Jimmy? As in, the tall, dark rich boy that's in your economics class?" Tammy asked.
Quinn said, "Yeah."
"You turned down a date from a cute guy?" Grace incredulously asked.
Quinn answered, "Um…I guess I did."
Tammy said, "Do you have a fever?"
"No, it just didn't feel like the right thing to do."
Fran flashed a victor's grin. "So Q is your boyfriend."
On a fast impulse, Quinn said, "No." However, she stood, going over the confusing conflict of excitement and fear in her own mind before softly admitting, "I don't know."
"Q? Who's that?" Tammy asked.
Grace said, "Like in the Star Trek character?"
Fran said, "She won't admit it, but he's Quinn's new boyfriend."
"Quinn?" Tammy said.
Grace said, "Boyfriend?"
Quinn mentally continued to balance her mind when she briefly thought of Daria, her sister's old fear of being close and how happy she's been with Michael. That allowed the redhead to force down the fear and look at her three friends. "Um, yeah. Boyfriend."
Tammy looked at Grace. "You know, I think we missed something."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.