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. 2009.
This is the sixty-eighth story in the Falling into College series.
Seated on the sill of the kitchen window and looking out at the orange tabby sitting in the window across the snow-covered alley, Bump called, "Mrow, rwoar."
Though no sound made it through the glass, she could see the other cat also meowing back at her.
A click at the door told Bump that one of her humans was home. Daria quickly entered and closed the door. Shrugging off a heavy coat, she said, "Talking to the neighbors?"
Bump hopped down and walked over to Daria, waiting patiently as the young woman removed her snow-stained boots. Once they were free, Bump rubbed against Daria's ankles and purred.
Daria scratched the cat's head and said, "I bet you're hungry again, aren't you?"
Walking slowly as Bump continued to rub against her ankles, Daria went to a kitchen cabinet and removed a bag of cat food. When she poured some of the food into the bowl, Bump's attention switched to the food and she began to eat.
"You'd think I was starving you." Daria put the food away and opened the refrigerator to find some dinner for herself. "Looks like we're on our own tonight."
Not feeling that energetic after work, she heated up a bowl of leftover pasta in the microwave and sat on their small sofa to eat. After she was through eating, Bump joined Daria on the sofa and curled up for a nap on her lap. When her cell phone rang, Daria shifted on the sofa and reached to the coffee table to grab it while not disturbing the cat. After noticing the caller ID, she flipped it open and said, "Hi, Quinn."
"Hi, Daria. I thought I'd call and see how you and Michael were settling in."
"We haven't killed each other yet, though if he leaves the toilet seat up one more time, all bets are off."
"Oh, come on, sis. Even I don't worry about that with Q."
Daria lifted an eyebrow and said, "Somehow, I don't think guys are allowed to stay in the sorority house overnight."
"Um, well, no."
Daria indulged in an evil smile. "So you've stayed at his place."
"Okay, so I've stayed at his place. You know, for a bachelor's place, it's really pretty nice."
"I'm not surprised. So, it sounds like you two are still doing well."
"We're having fun. What are you and Michael up to tonight?"
"'We're not up to anything. He's on the way back from Newtown after meeting with Prof. Daniels and probably won't be home until after eleven."
"Eleven? Doesn't he have class in the morning?"
"Oh, he's not going to be happy waking up, but at least he's getting paid for travel time."
Quinn said, "God, Daria. You're starting to sound all grown up and stuff. You're still in college, you know."
"We thought about becoming career undergrads, but with how much Raft charges for tuition, we realized that moving on to grad school would probably be cheaper."
"You weren't even giving us enough support; what makes you think you can support another invasion?" Derek bitterly said to the television news.
Seated at the other end of the sofa, Karen set her textbook aside and said, "Maybe having the news on while studying is a bad idea."
He dropped his head back and looked at the ceiling. "No, leave it on."
"You're still getting back into studying and I thought…"
"You thought wrong. I can't ignore it."
"I don't want you to ignore it, just not let it get in the way."
"Okay," Karen said, unconvinced.
Jane had a bright smile on her face as she trotted up the stairs to her apartment. BFAC's annual "Ice Tea Party" was coming soon and she had a great idea for her project. Nell was planning on entering again and CC had already pledged whatever support she could give to both – short of actually standing around outside in subfreezing weather for long periods of time.
"Hey kids, I'm home," she said and tossed her coat on the back of a chair.
Practicing dance moves on a portable pole in her room, CC said, "You've got a letter from the dean's office on the table."
"Dean's office?" Jane said, looking around the random assortment of stuff on the table.
Nell was sitting on a worn, but serviceable, recliner. "What did you do this time?”
"Nothing. Ah, here it is." She opened the letter and read:
Dear Ms. Jane Lane,
It gives us great pleasure to inform you that the faculty of Boston Fine Arts College has nominated you to be a Senior class judge of the annual Boston Ice Tea Party in recognition of your artistic talent and knowledge. If you choose to accept this invitation, you will have the opportunity to work with some of the most prestigious artists, critics and faculty of the greater Boston area.
We look forward to hearing from you.
"Whoa," she said in an amazing imitation of her brother.
"What's up?" Nell asked.
"They want me to be a judge?"
"What kind of judge?"
"For the Ice Tea Party."
"Jane!" CC said, quickly coming out of her room. "You're kidding!"
She handed over the letter and shook her head. CC quickly read and said, "Damn, girl. You've hit the big time."
"Yeah," Nell said. "You get to hobnob with all the art royalty in the area. Think of the connections you can make to show your work. Go for it."
When Jane didn't make a reply, CC said, "Think of the great munchies you'll get."
"If we put baggies in your pockets, you could snag enough free food for a day or two," Nell said.
Jane sat down and said, "I hope you don't mind, but I need to think about this.”
Something woke Karen and she rolled over to notice that Derek was sitting upright. "Again?" she asked.
"It's okay," he said.
She sat up and held him. "No, it's not. You need the rest."
"I got by on less overseas."
"You're not there any more and you're still recovering."
He sighed. "Honey, I'm trying. But I hear things and wake up, ready for anything. You don't just go back to sleep after that."
"I’m going to get you some ear plugs."
"At least I stopped sleeping with the knife under my pillow."
"That's because I kept bumping it in the middle of the night and you moved it to your nightstand."
Holding him against her chest, Karen laid back down. "Now, show me some more progress and get some sleep."
"Hmm, you are comfortable."
Stroking his hair, she said, "That's the idea."
Barely keeping one eye open, Michael alternated between spooning cream of wheat into his mouth and slurping coffee from a mug.
Putting her breakfast dishes in the sink, Daria said, "Hurry up or we'll miss the 7:45 on the T."
"I'm getting there," he mumbled. "You know I didn't get to bed until after midnight."
"Is there anything I can do to speed up the process?"
"Um, yeah. Can you dump the stuff out of my backpack?"
She walked over to the sofa and picked it up. "Normally I'd spend a day or two studying before attempting such a complicated operation, but here goes," she said before upending the bag and depositing the contents on the sofa.
"There's also stuff in the zipper pocket," Michael said.
Daria opened the pocket and removed two neat packets of paper and a softbound book. When she read the top page of one of the packets, she said, "What's this?"
"I picked up applications to the graduate school while I was at Bromwell yesterday. I know Prof. Daniels would put in a good word for me and I'm sure you won't have a problem with your grades, GRE scores and work experience."
Daria's face clouded and she dropped the applications onto the rest of the bag contents. "We'll talk about this later."
"Okay…" he said, recognizing the tone in Daria's voice and knowing from experience not to go any further on the subject.
As soon as she arrived at work, Jane went to her boss's office and knocked on the open door. "'Bel?"
The older woman looked up from the paperwork on her desk. "Yes, Jane?"
"You remember my plans for the contest this year?"
"How could I forget?"
"I've run into a complication."
"What would that be?"
"I've been asked to be a judge."
"Congratulations," 'Bel enthusiastically said. "Way to go!"
"Thanks, but, well, if I judge, I can't enter."
'Bel leaned back in her chair and thought for several seconds. "I think we can work with this. What do you think about letting the children vote and see how well they stack up against your judging team?"
"I like it," Jane said. "I like it a lot. If Karen can webcam her ceremony to Derek's buddies in Afghanistan, then we can webcam the contest to here."
"I'll run it by Public Information for you."
"That would be great."
"Oh, and Jane."
"Let's hope there are no surprise entries this year."
"You can bet on a lot of politics this time, but, yeah. Public Information would have a fit if I showed something, um, not safe for work, to the kids."
Nell grumbled, "Nope…nope…not close…dammit…nope…" as she plucked tea-tinted ice cubes from a tray and then tossed them into the kitchen sink in disappointment. Almost done with the tray, she found one and said, "Whoa. Hey, CC, come check this one out!"
CC jogged into the kitchen from the living room and said, "Whatcha got?"
Nell held up a golden-colored ice cube. "What do you think? Is that the right color?"
"Hmm, I think you've got it."
"Yes!" Nell shouted.
"So you're still planning on going through with it."
"As long as you're okay with it."
CC got a little misty-eyed and said, "You know I am."
Michael slowly and carefully sliced an onion while Daria poured olive oil into a skillet and tossed in a heaping spoonful of minced garlic. Though they still bumped into each other from time to time, they had learned to work together in the small kitchen, though his tendency to carefully follow recipes to the letter conflicted with Daria's to simply hit close to the mark with whatever was on hand, following Karen's often-used description of "add to taste."
He said, "This morning, you said you wanted to talk about the Bromwell applications I picked up. How about now?"
"While we both have ready access to sharp knives?"
"Okay, what possessed you to pick up grad school applications? We're still trying to put a list of schools together that have good programs for both of us."
"Prof. Daniels had an unexpected visitor and I had some time to kill. I figured that since I was already on campus, I'd run by the admissions office and pick stuff up. Maybe save us some time and effort later."
As she started to sauté the garlic, Daria said, "I know you meant well, but in the future, could you ask first before doing something like this?"
"Uh, sure. Okay," Michael said, knowing that something was still wrong.
Derek stretched out on the sofa and used his right hand to massage the sore muscles in his leg after the day's physical therapy session. His left hand held a cordless phone to his ear. "I'm still in, Nell," he said. "I can swing by your place after class tomorrow. It'll be interesting to see what you've done to Karen's old room."
He listened to Nell and then said, "I can bring that, too. Not a problem."
After another question, he said, "Yes, I really am okay with it. Besides, my psychiatrist says it will do me some good."
Having finished a quick sandwich on the way to the bus stop, Michael caught the 14C bus for the trip to work. After finding a seat halfway to the back, he searched the memory of his cell phone and hit enter to dial a number.
Quinn was still in a comfortable pair of pajamas and quietly eating a bowl of cereal when she heard the cell phone ring. "Hello, Michael," she said after checking the caller ID.
"Hi, Quinn," Michael said. "Do you have time to answer a question or two?"
Without hesitation, she said, "You're in the doghouse, aren't you?"
"And I'm trying to figure out why."
"Why don't you start at the beginning? What did you say to get her mad?"
"I didn't say anything."
"All I did was pick up some applications for grad school."
"From Bromwell? Daria said you had to go there yesterday."
"Yeah. I know her old boyfriend goes to school there, but he'll probably be done before next fall, so I don't see why she would be upset."
"Michael, Michael, Michael…"
"That means I'm getting close."
"Did you know that Daria was turned down by Bromwell?"
"She’s mentioned that, but so was I, and also by Crestmore and Hlaford."
"I'm sure that you've noticed she's a little touchy about…failure."
"That's because she hardly ever does, unlike me, who's fallen on his face more times than I can count." After a couple seconds of silence, he said, "I get it."
"See, you're not that clueless."
She gently laughed and said, "The things I do for my sister. Bye."
Feeling more comfortable after talking with her boss, Jane trotted up the stairs to the apartment and breezed in through the door. "Whoa," she said, seeing Derek in the living room, putting on his jacket while beside him, CC was doing the same. "Um, guys – what's up?" Jane asked.
Derek picked up a garment bag and said, "Posing."
"For CC?" Jane said.
"Not me," CC replied. "I was posing, too."
"They're both part of my evil plan," Nell said, coming from her room.
Nell wagged her finger. "No. No prying, you're a judge."
Jane pointed her finger at CC, saying, "You're including…" then switched it toward Derek, "and… Okay, no prying. It's going to take that long to wrap my head around the idea that you managed to work them into one piece."
"Why, thank you," Nell said with a gleeful smirk.
Derek said, "I appreciate what Nell's doing. It's probably going to raise a few eyebrows, but hey, it's needed."
"Raise them in a good way," CC said. “Though it's probably going to go right over some people's heads."
"If it does, I know it was a good idea," Nell said.
Jane sat down at one of the dining room chairs. "Oh, dammit."
"What's wrong?" CC said.
Jane waved her hand toward everybody. "One honkin' big conflict of interest. One of my roommates is entering the contest and the other is posing for her, along with the husband of an ex-roommate."
"Oh," Nell said. "Um…does anybody have any ideas?"
When Derek got home, he found Karen sprawled on the sofa and looking worn out. He risked asking, "Bad day?"
She opened her eyes and barely lifted her head. "Constipated buffalo."
"Bad," he said, going toward the bedroom to hang the garment bag.
"How did your test go?"
When Derek returned, he said, "Do you want to risk my cooking or call out for delivery?"
"Pizza," she said. "Three cheese King of the Jungle, and I don't care if it adds an inch or two to my ass."
Derek leaned over the back of the sofa and kissed her. "I'll call."
Karen sniffed and said, "Perfume?"
"I was over at your old place posing for Nell," he said. "For their ice sculpture thingy."
"Oh, yeah. I forgot you were going over there."
He smirked. "You'd never recognize your old room."
"I'd be suspicious, but since you know that I know how to neuter you, I'm not worried."
"Gimpy combat vet vs. country girl vet student…I better order some garlic bread to make sure I stay on your good side."
She kissed him back. "Flattery will get you a lot of places. So, how are the girls doing?"
"Okay, as far as I can tell, though Jane's having a bit of an ethical quandary."
"Jane in an ethical quandary? This I've got to hear."
Who could that be? Michael wondered when he heard a knock on the door. I hope this doesn't take long. He answered it and said, "Jane?"
"Hey, Michael," she said, walking past him. "I hope you don't mind, but I need to borrow Daria for an hour or two."
To her back disappearing around the corner into the library, he said, "Like I could stop you?"
Daria swiveled her desk chair and said, "What's going on?"
Jane pulled Daria out of the chair and said, "I need coffee, cookie dough and someone to talk to."
"Well, I'm willing to talk and we have coffee…"
Jane continued pulling Daria out of the room. "I know a coffee shop that sells cookie dough by the tube."
Halfway across the living room, Daria said, "Jane, can I get my coat? It's twenty-four degrees out there."
"Oh, yeah. Grab a coat."
Daria looked apologetically at Michael. "I'll be back…sometime."
"I'll be here," he said.
Jane grabbed Daria again and ushered her through the door while saying, "Thanks," over her shoulder to Michael.
Michael looked at the door for a minute and then sat on the couch. Bump yawned, stretched and crossed the sofa back to crawl down his chest and sit in his lap.
He started to scratch the bridge of her nose while saying, "Looks like it's the two of us tonight. What do you think about going to Bromwell?"
"Okay, so what do you think?" Jane said before taking a bite out of a tube of chocolate chip cookie dough.
Rolling a coffee cup between her hands, Daria said, "The art world tends to be comparatively small and, after a while, you tend to know many of those in the business, maybe even socially, correct?"
"So artists tend to know the judges at big, professional shows."
"It looks like you're getting a jump on real life by learning to deal with conflicts of interest now."
Jane shook her head and took another bite. After swallowing, she said, "You know, I've always hated having to grow up too fast."
"I know you have," Daria said with warm support in her voice. "But this time, it's a good thing."
"Pretty insightful, for a spoiled brat who never had to really worry about money."
"Something I preferred learning from others, though I anticipate five to six years of grad school will change that."
"Okay, if this is such a learning moment, what am I supposed to learn?"
"We can never get rid of our unconscious biases, but we can learn to control our conscious ones. Do your best to judge Nell's project as you would anyone else's."
"A lot easier said than done," Jane said.
Daria took the cookie dough from Jane. "The good stuff is never easy."
"Did you come up with any ideas?" Nell asked when Jane arrived home.
"Yeah," CC said. "Any brilliant insights?"
Jane nodded. "I think I just might have."
CC clinked a glass of soda against one Nell held. "Good, I hate trying to figure out moral quandaries."
Wearing a warm nightgown that still had an admittedly low cut neckline, Karen walked out of the bathroom and prepared to crawl into bed. Derek was seated on the other side and looking oddly at the knife he kept on the nightstand. "Deep thoughts before bed?" she asked.
"Maybe not so deep," he said. "But different."
Derek picked up the sheathed knife and quickly walked to the closet. "I'm going to try to leave something behind," he said before attaching the knife to his worn combat gear.
"Are you sure?" Karen said when he came back to bed.
"As much as I can. Why don't we see how I'm doing in the morning?"
"In the meantime, let's see if we can keep your mind on something else," she said while opening a button on her gown.
Michael was sprawled on the sofa with Bump lying on him, contently purring. He was watching old science fiction reruns and munching on popcorn. "I can really see one of your descendents acting like that if given a couple million years on a spaceship."
"I'm back," Daria said, coming through the door.
"How's Jane?" he said.
Shedding a wool cap and her winter coat, she said, "We had a nice long talk and she's doing better."
"We had a nice conversation, too."
"As long as you scratch behind her ears, she's a great listener."
Daria lifted his legs and sat down on the sofa. "Look, I know we'd planned on an evening together, but Jane's my friend."
"I'd be very worried if you didn't help her. That's not what I want to talk about."
"So what do you want to talk about?"
He sat up, displacing Bump to the space between them and said, "Bromwell."
Daria frowned and crossed her arms. "That's not a good subject."
"I know, but necessary. I know that you were hurt by their rejection, but that was four years ago. I was rejected, too. In hindsight, I'm glad I went to Raft."
A smile escaped along Daria's lips. "I'm glad, too."
"You should've asked before picking up those applications."
"Daria, I didn't do anything wrong. That's your old hurt talking. Look, we can look at what Bromwell has to offer and decide if we want to apply. I don't know yet because I haven't really looked at the catalog in any detail and neither have you. Besides, we agreed that if a school doesn't accept both of us, it's out of the question. That still holds. All I did was think of a way to save a little time."
We can never get rid of our unconscious biases, but we can learn to control our conscious ones. Daria relaxed her arms and looked at him, mumbling, "Okay, you're right."
Michael moved an arm around her and said, "Besides, wouldn't it feel good to be accepted into the graduate school after the undergraduate program turned you down?”
"There would be a certain quiet satisfaction."
Bump looked from one to the other, gave them a brief meow, hopped down onto the floor, and walked away toward the kitchen, pointedly ignoring them.
While Nell and CC watched, Daria examined Nell's ice sculpture, along with Michael, Karen and Derek. All of them were bundled against the cold of Boston's winter. Daria finally said, "Now that says something."
The sculpture was the only one in the contest at ground level without a pedestal or other artifice to raise it higher. In the center was a simple military tombstone that was inscribed,
"Yeah, and it took guts for them to pose," Michael said.
"More like appreciation," CC said. "It meant a lot to me and that made it easy."
"It gave me the chance to let something go," Derek said, holding Karen's hand.
Daria nodded and said, "With all the noise in the news lately, I hope somebody thinks about things like this. You've said more than I think I could've said, no matter how many words I used."
"Thanks," Nell said. "I hope the judges think so."
Jane detached herself from a group of a dozen student and faculty judges and joined her friends. "My work is done."
"Was it as bad as you feared?" Daria said.
"I missed being out here in the courtyard working all week, but hey; I picked up some real juicy school dirt in the process."
"Later, we'll talk," CC said in good humor.
Jane started turning everyone toward a fixed podium. "They're about to announce the winners."
Half an hour later, the president of BFAC flipped to the next index card and said, "In second place, the judges selected, 'The Price They Paid' by Nell Girard."
"Oh, my God!" Nell jumped and almost lost her footing on pavement slick with ice and trodden snow. Only the combined effort of Derek, Michael and Karen prevented a fall.
Nell quickly thanked them and went to the podium, saying,"Thank you," as she accepted the award ribbon and a prize check. She slipped both into her satchel-like purse and went back to her friends, smiling the whole way.
"Congratulations," Jane was the first to say, followed by the others.
Nell took out the ribbon and said, "Jane, I know it was still worrying you. Did you vote the way you truly believed?"
Jane nodded. "I did."
"Then I'm happy. I got what my work deserved and not something it didn't."
"It deserved it." Joking, Jane said, "But my idea would've won."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer and Ipswichfan for beta reading.