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 Sixtieth story in the Falling into College series.
History and Theater
Excited by her news, Karen ran up the stairs to her apartment, barely slowing as she slung the door open and then pulled it shut. Inside, she had to swerve to avoid Jane and her boyfriend, who were apparently about to leave.
Jane said, "Whoa, girl. What's the rush?"
"I got a promotion to work with the zoo's vet. I'm going to stay in Boston for the summer," she said. "And it comes with a nice pay raise."
"Cool," Jane said, seeming subdued.
Mike "Mack" MacKenzie said, "Congratulations."
"Thanks. Hey, is Daria around?"
Jane pointed. "Getting ready for rehearsal. Mack and I were about to head out, so you have the place to yourself again."
Karen said, "Don't let me hold you up. Have fun."
"We'll try," Jane said.
Karen jogged down the hallway to Daria's room as Jane and Mack left. At the door, Karen said, "Hey, are you respectable in there?"
"No, but I'm dressed," Daria answered.
Karen went in and said, "I got the job with the zoo's vet. You'll have me to look at all summer."
Keeping a straight face, Daria said, "Damn, I'll have to cancel my plans for renting your bedroom at hourly rates."
Unfazed, Karen said, "No wonder my bed was a little sticky when I got back after last summer. Where's my cut?"
"Sorry, but it just covered your storage fees."
"Dammit," Karen joked in reply.
"Hey, joking aside, congratulations," Daria said. "How are you going to tell your old boss in Georgia that you won't be helping him this year?"
"Carefully, but I think he'll understand."
Daria sat on her bed and put on her boots. "That's good. Don't want to seem rude, but I'm due at rehearsal soon."
"I can use a little peace and quiet," Karen said. "Will Michael be there?"
"No, he's working on a project for his Historical Industrial Development class with his friend Clarice. It's basically their final exam and covers 30% of their total grade."
"Ah, I see. Well, have fun tonight."
"Thanks. Have you heard from Derek lately?"
"I'm expecting an e-mail from him tonight."
"Hope it's good news," Daria said as she finished tying her shoelaces and stood, grabbing some of her text books. "For between scenes," she explained.
"Yeah, I have some studying for the weekend, too."
Karen went to her room while Daria went to the door. Outside, she was surprised to find Jane standing alone on the landing, looking down at Mack's car driving away. Daria quietly said, "Jane?"
Jane shrugged and said, "Little argument, no big deal. We'll stew for a while, he'll come back, we'll get over it and have great makeup sex."
Daria started to say, "That's..." and then changed her mind. "I hope he comes back soon."
"Yeah, me too," Jane agreed.
Sitting on the back of one of the front row seats of the theater, Wendy said, "I need a hint more sultriness in your voice, Daria. The kind that just piques his interest so that he'll think it's his idea when he comes to you."
Up on the partially set stage, Daria sighed and said, "I'm trying, but it's not something that comes naturally. Sometimes I wonder why you picked me for the part. I'm nothing like this."
Wendy grinned. "That's why it's called 'acting,' Daria. I picked you because you look the part and I'm sure that once you get the knack for it, you'll be very convincing as a subtle seductress. Besides, think of the fun you can have with your fiancé afterwards." Wendy saw the very brief frown of disappointment on the face of the handsome, black-haired actor on stage with Daria. She waved her script and said, "Okay, Brian, let's take it from where Alex says, 'I don't know...'"
Daria and Brian repositioned themselves on the stage, with him seated at an office desk and Daria near a door. He said, "I don't know, Rachel. She seems so distracted lately."
Hitting just the tone Wendy was after, Daria said, "Well, maybe she is," and slowly stepped through the door before briefly looking back over her shoulder at him.
Wendy clapped and said, "Perfect."
Karen pushed the button on her computer's CD drive and grumbled, "Play, you sorry-assed excuse for a clay pigeon." Wearing earphones, she glanced at the wall between her room and Jane's. "I really don't want to listen to them tonight. Why can't they make up over a nice dinner instead?" The player program on her computer came up and she clicked the 'play' button. "Ah, relief. Thank you, Dixie Chicks."
Tapping her foot to the music, Karen checked her e-mail and was glad to see a sought-after address. She immediately opened it and read.
Thanks for the peanut brittle, it lasted for all of about five minutes! I hope you don't mind, but everyone in the squad shares any real food items we get in the mail. The mess hall may be a big step up from MREs, but it still doesn't compare to something from home. Check out the picture I attached. I got the idea from one you showed me of your grandfather. I hope you like it, it took some creative trading to pull it off.
Getting computer time is still tough, so I don't know when I'll be able to write you again. I know the end of the semester is coming up, good luck with everything.
Curious, Karen opened the attached file and then sat back in surprise. Derek stood next to the driver's door of a humvee. On the door was a replica of the nose art that was on her grandfather's B-17, a woman wearing a red bathing suit and holding a parasol over her head. However, it was Karen's face on the figure and written above and below were the words, "Southern Surprise". She bit her lip and hit the reply button for the e-mail.
That picture was certainly a surprise. Thank you.
Next time, I'll send a bigger batch of goodies so that you can share. Thanks for the best wishes about finals and stuff, I can always use them.
I have some good news -I got the job at the zoo! That way, I can stay in Boston. I'll miss my family, but it will be good to be close to yours while you're gone. Otherwise, things are about the same here. Daria's off at rehearsal again and Jane's with Mike. Sometimes, seeing everyone together makes me really miss you. I hope you can come back soon.
Take care of yourself, please.
I love you,
Clarice heard the squeak of a library cart and looked up from her note-taking, using her left hand to brush a lock of blond hair away from her hazel eyes. She joked, "Michael, a real man would've carried the books."
The red-headed man tapped his temple and said, "Thinking man has big brain and uses tools." A couple at a time, he started transferring books from a stack on the cart to a stack on the library work table. "Necessity may be the mother of invention, but laziness is the father."
"You are getting into this subject way too much."
Michael parked the cart against the wall next to a nearby copy machine and sat down across the table from Clarice. "That's the way I get 'A's."
"And that's why I grabbed you as a research partner. Michael Fulton does not get a 'B' in history classes."
"So I'm only a brain to you," he said.
Clarice smirked at him and said, "Since Daria gets your body, I'll have to settle for what's left."
"Hey," he said in defense, "she likes that, too."
Snapping her fingers in an "oh, shucks" motion, Clarice said, "Just my luck. Anyway, back to the mines."
Michael selected one book from the pile and opened it. "Got it right here; more than we'll probably ever want to know about coal mining in England."
"You are such a geek."
Book bag over one shoulder, Clarice stepped into her apartment and closed the door, turning to set two locks and a chain. Enjoying her good mood, she tossed the book bag on a worn armchair on her way to the futon in the center of the room and pulled it out to make her bed. From under the small end table that doubled as a night stand, she collected sheets and made the bed, setting the two decorative pillows that came with the piece of furniture as her sleeping pillows.
Whistling, Clarice grabbed a long, black nightshirt from the closet set into one wall of the room, stripped away her clothes, and tossed them into a plastic clothes basket on her way to the bathroom.
A couple of minutes later, she emerged wearing the nightshirt, which featured an impossibly cute cat looking up from reading a book, with the caption, "What?" Clarice set her alarm and then switched off the room light before climbing into bed. She said to herself, "I had a good time tonight. Michael's a lot of fun to work with, even for a geek girl like me." Starting to drift off to sleep, the blonde mumbled, "Too bad he's taken."
Early Sunday afternoon, Michael fidgeted on the sofa of Daria's apartment, wondering what could be up. Daria had been in her room with Isabelle, the play's costume director, for what seemed like an hour already. When the almost six-foot-tall blonde stepped out of the hallway, he asked, "So what's the big fuss?"
She had a Puck-like smirk as she said, "I need to see your reaction."
Confused, he said, "My reaction? I'm not exactly what you would call an expert about fashion. My sister used to say that she wondered how I even managed to dress myself."
"Irrelevant," Isabelle said with a dismissive wave of her hand. "What I'm looking for is reaction, not analysis. Okay, Daria, it's time to make your entrance."
"Give me a second; I'm not used to walking in these," Daria said from her room.
Isabelle leaned back to watch. "Be glad I didn't pick up the four-inch heels."
"Then I would've had to kill you with one," Daria replied as she unsteadily came into view, walking on black high heels. The slinky black dress fit her trim figure perfectly, showing just how much her daily walks and better diet had made a difference. An embroidered floral pattern started at the lower left hem and traveled up and around her body to end at the thin strap going over her right shoulder and also accenting the tantalizing V-neckline. From the right bottom hem, a slit rose up the skirt to just about mid-thigh, showing her toned leg with each step she took.
Isabelle's eye twinkled at the crash of surprise, attraction and hint of jealousy in Michael's face. "Bingo," she said. "Can I cook, or can I cook?"
Using the same voice she learned for the play, Daria seductively asked her fiancé, "Like what you see?"
Taking care with her steps, she walked over to Michael as he tried to say something. She stopped before him and said, "I'll take the inability to speak as a 'yes'," and kissed him.
Isabelle mussed his hair and said, "Smart move, big boy. Opening night, there's going to be a lot of disappointed guys out there when they hear she's off the market."
Daria reflexively gasped as Michael squeezed his car into a narrow gap between two others on the busy street as he shifted lanes. She said, "We don't have to be in that much of a hurry. The horses will be there and the prepaid riding time won't expire."
"Sorry," he said. "We haven't had much time together lately; I guess I'm a little impatient."
"A little impatient? You're driving almost like my dad."
"Come on, that's an exaggeration." When someone made almost the same maneuver to change lanes in front of him, he yelled, "Watch it, asshole!"
"No, I'm not," she said. "I'd like to get out of Boston in one piece."
"You're worrying....dammit!" Michael jerked his attention back forward as the car that just cut in front of them suddenly lurched under heavy braking as the line in front came to a stop. A fast sequence of metallic cracks rolled over them as the chain reaction swept back until they were thrown forward as the car hit and then were slammed backward as the airbags filled. Before the bags deflated, the two were pushed back once more as the car behind struck them.
"Are you okay?" he shouted as he turned to Daria and gently grasped her arm with his right hand. Her glasses were crooked on her face, which was a little red from the airbag fabric.
Dazed, she looked back and said, "I think so. You?"
"Yeah, I'm..." he said, reaching for his seat belt. When he tried to grab the buckle with his left hand, he felt a bone move in a way it shouldn't and pain flash up his arm. His voiced hissed and he said, "I think my hand's broken. It was right over the air bag."
Daria opened her seat belt and said, "Let me see." She looked at the bruised hand and carefully felt the back of it. "I think you're right."
"Help me get the ring off," he said.
"What?" Daria replied, looking at the ring she had given him to complement her engagement ring.
"If my hand starts swelling, they'll have to cut the ring off."
"But that could make your injury worse," Daria said.
"Only a little. Your ring is more important," he said, starting to slowly wiggle the ring from his finger. He ground his teeth tighter against the pain and abruptly let out his breath as it came free. "I'll put it back on as soon as I can."
"You'd better," Daria said.
Starting to become aware of things outside the car, Michael said, "That was close."
Daria also started to look around at the other cars and people starting to exit them. "Too close."
Walking away from the hospital and toward one of the "T" stations with his hand in a cast, Michael grumbled, "Broken hand, totaled car and a ticket. What a way to ruin the day. Stupid idiot cutting in front of me."
"If you had backed off a second or two so you weren't following too close, you could've avoided the ticket and maybe even the accident," Daria said, a little tired of his complaining.
"You're saying that this is my fault?"
"Partially, yes. If you hadn't been in such a hurry and backed off, we could've avoided all this and been horseback riding."
Michael angrily said, "The guy cut me off!"
"Yes, he did," Daria said. "But you didn't have to stay that close to him."
"I'd have thought I'd get a little sympathy."
"I have been sympathetic," she replied, "but you also need to realize that we could've been seriously hurt or killed in that crash."
"I know that!" he yelled.
"Good," Daria shot back. "Now maybe you'll listen when I say that you need to let up on the aggressive driving."
"You sound like my mother."
"She's a smart woman, unlike the way her son is acting right now."
"I think we should just go home separately tonight," Michael suggested, a hurt tone in his voice.
Daria said, "Good idea. When you calm down, we can talk."
"So you had a big fight," Jane said to her roommates, all gathered in the living room. "The bigger the fight, the better the make-up sex."
Karen threw a pillow at Jane. "I don't need to listen to that in stereo."
"And I'm not exactly feeling excited right now," Daria said.
Jane corrected, "You're supposed to be excited after you make up, silly."
"I don't care," Karen said. "I'm not getting any and I don't want to hear it."
"Heard anything more from Derek?" Daria asked.
Karen shook her head. "Not since the last time. He's out on some kind of mission."
"He can't be allowed to say things like that," Jane said.
"We worked out a little code before Derek left. Stuff that sounds innocent but lets him say more than they normally allow. A trick I learned from my grandmother," Karen answered.
Jane threw the pillow back at Karen. "Subversive."
"Guilty," Karen agreed. "So, Daria, what are you going to do about your addle-brained mate?"
"I'm going to wait for him to apologize," she said.
Jane said, "Getting tough, huh?"
"Michael promised to do better and didn't. It's time he ended this old rebellion against his parents. Besides, we really could've been killed. A couple of other people in that chain reaction were seriously hurt. It rattles me each time I think about it."
"He's the one with his hand in a cast," Karen said. "I'm sure he'll figure it out soon enough."
"I hope so. I don't like being angry at him."
Jane said, "But you still are."
Watching Michael rush from the door to his room, Lewis called to his roommate from the kitchen, "Another busy night?"
Michael shed his work uniform, tossed it aside and changed into jeans and a t-shirt. He said, "I need to finish off that history project tonight. It's due the day after tomorrow."
"Are you going to call Daria and apologize?"
"She keeps her phone turned off at rehearsal, so I can't. If she doesn't want to talk, I can wait until it's a little more convenient."
"You still sound mad."
Michael came out of his room. "I know we could've been killed. God, I was the one driving and it scares the hell out of me every time I think about it. I didn't need to be lectured like I was clueless. I was still trying to wrap my head around what had happened."
Lewis tilted his head and replied, "I thought I'd dated some drama queens."
Clarice found Michael at one of the library computers. Feeling a pang of worry at seeing the cast, she asked, "What did you do to your hand?"
He sighed and said, "Broke it while totaling my car. Daria and I were in a pileup yesterday."
"Is she all right?"
"Other than being mad about my driving, yes."
"Did you two have a fight?"
"Yeah, a real big one."
Gazing at his hand again, Clarice asked, "Did they have to cut your ring off?"
"No, I took it off," he explained.
Michael started pulling notes from his backpack. "I'd rather not talk about it. Let's get started."
She rolled a chair over to and sat next to him. "Um, okay."
Moving his chair aside, Michael held up his broken hand and asked, "Can you take over typing?"
When Daria came out of the dressing room after rehearsal, Wendy and Lorna, the play's producer, were waiting. Wendy said, "Daria, is anything wrong? You came off a little over the top and angry tonight."
Daria rested against the wall and admitted, "Still annoyed at Michael. I was concentrating on the dialog so I wouldn't think about him. I guess it came through."
"Loud and clear," Lorna said.
"Sorry, I'll work on it tomorrow," Daria said.
Brian and one of the other actors came out of the men's dressing room. He looked at his watch and said, "It's really late. Would you like us to walk you out to your cars?"
"We'll be fine," Wendy said, reaching for Lorna's hand. "Daria, the boys have a good point: the parking lot isn't the safest place this late at night."
Daria looked at the two and said, "Thank you. It's nice to have someone worry about my safety and well-being."
As the other three left, Wendy let out a soft whistle. "Boy, is she still pissed."
"We could've walked out with them," Lorna said.
"Let Daria get a little attention. For a college junior, well, senior by her credit hours, she's still sheltered. Brian and Jerry won't go too far, but they will let her know that she's a smart, attractive woman that guys would like to meet. Give her a little more confidence for her role."
"Isn't that a little too much method acting?"
"If this all blows up, you know you're going to be partly responsible," Lorna said.
"I know. But I don't think it'll come to that."
Going through the parking lot, Brian said, "Daria, you looked really good during dress rehearsal tonight."
"Thanks," she replied.
Laughing, Jerry said, "Yeah, I can see why Brian doesn't need any acting ability to look like he's being seduced by you."
While Daria was still looking at Jerry in surprise, Brian said, "No, but it takes acting ability to remember my lines at the same time."
Daria turned to him. "I hope you two are joking."
Brian held up his hands. "Apologies for our uncouth behavior. We only meant compliments."
"You have an odd way of complimenting someone."
Jerry said, "We're actors. What do you expect?"
"Daria, when you have parts like ours, we must completely trust each other," Brian said, "I give you my word that you can trust me."
Daria started to relax and resumed walking to her car. "Okay. I'm a little on edge tonight."
"But that doesn't preclude enjoying what we do," Brian said. They reached Daria's car and as she unlocked the door, he added, "And I will honestly tell you that I enjoy our time on stage, though that's all we will ever do."
Daria opened the door and sat in her car. "Thanks for walking me out, and Brian, um, thank you about what you said. Working with you isn't exactly torture, either."
Clarice got home that evening and prepared her room as if it were any other night. She opened her futon and made the bed and then changed into her nightshirt. She felt something different, something that she liked. The project was coming along without a hitch - she and Michael would have no problem with final edits the next night and turning it in the following morning. "Damn, I wish I could get him on more projects. I've never had one go so well."
She took care of a few small tasks around the house, cleaning and putting away some dishes from breakfast, writing a couple small bills, and watering her single houseplant in the kitchen window. Done, she went to the bathroom to finish preparing for bed. Clarice looked in the mirror, remembering part of the night's conversation.
"Did they have to cut your ring off?"
"No, I took it off."
She looked herself in the eyes and asked in a whisper, "Is it too much to wish?"
Pfc Derek Adler crawled onto his bunk, physically and mentally exhausted after sweeping a group of caves in the mountains. The rest of the squad followed suit, wordlessly shedding boots, gear and body armor before dropping into their racks, all still wearing their field-stained uniforms.
It felt like he'd barely dropped off to sleep before a brusque push on his shoulder woke him up. He was about to issue a rude remark when he opened his eyes and found he was facing his platoon sergeant. He groggily sat up and said, "Sergeant?"
"Adler, the L-T agreed with my suggestion and is moving you into Collins' spot in your squad."
"Yes, sergeant," he automatically said while involuntarily eyeing the nearby empty bunk with all signs of its previous occupant gone before they'd returned. "Thank you."
"You're a good soldier and the man for the job." To the squad, the sergeant then said, "Carry on, and get some rest, you earned it. After that, get some showers and hot food," before striding out.
The other soldiers solemnly congratulated Derek, while also giving a nod to the empty bunk and their lost comrade. After a couple moments, their squad leader said, "You heard the sergeant; get some sleep."
Derek closed his eyes and thought of Karen, their friends, and the small things that can seem so important. Small things that helped balance his mind against the reality of war.
The pretty bartender placed a glass of soda in front of Daria and said, "I can tell you're not a regular around here if you're drinking the hard stuff. Do you really know these guys, or did you just pick them up off of the streets?"
"I'm in a play with them," Daria replied. She nodded to Wendy seated nearby and added, "She corrupt...recruited me."
"Ah, Wendy's good at that, but what about the rest of this trash?"
Brian said, "Hey, that's trash with a capital 'T' to you."
"We had our first no-hitch full dress tonight. We kicked ass," Jerry said.
The bartender warned Daria, "Has anyone told you what these guys are like after they finish their regular beers and start on Carbombs?"
"No, but I can imagine," Daria said. "But I won't be around that long. I still have some studying to do tonight."
"Studying?" Wendy said. "Daria here has more brains that the rest of us put together."
Daria lifted her glass and took a sip. "Maybe because I haven't been killing my brain cells."
"You only kill the weak ones," Brian said. "Booze that doesn't kill us makes us smarter."
"Somehow, I don't think that Nietzsche would agree," Daria said, "although, alcohol would explain some of his ideas."
"Nice rock," the bartender said, pointing to Daria's ring. "Don't tell me you fell for one of them."
"No," Daria said.
The bartender teased, "Uh-huh. Does he know you're hanging around in bars with unrepentant theater bums?"
"Not directly, but he's busy tonight finishing up a class project. Hopefully, we'll see each other tomorrow," Daria said, her voice revealing sadness.
The bartender looked thoughtfully at Daria, examining her for information. "Hopefully? Is he one of those jealous guys that doesn't like his girlfriend in a play and you had a fight?"
"No, we had a different fight. I'd like to work things out tomorrow, if he'll apologize."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"I don't even know you."
The bartender said, "True, but I'm a good listener. Comes with the territory."
Finally got a chance to get back on the computer. I hope you haven't been too worried. I'm fine, though we did wonder about the mystery meat-like substance served in the chow hall. Our platoon sergeant said he'd seen better stuff come out of a C-ration can back in the old days. Otherwise, things here continue as always. Duty, eat, sleep, try to find something to do, even if the deck is short a card. We try not to let it bother us.
How are things back home? End of the semester getting as hectic as usual? How is Daria's play going? If you can send a DVD over, that would be great. We don't care if it's a far off-Broadway original, we'll watch it, and I bet Daria gets fan mail from some of the troops. Has Michael dug up anything interesting on the Trail? Oh, I just remembered, some more JPEGS of Jane's pictures would be great. These guys wouldn't know great art if it bit them on the ass, but her surreal works have become locally popular. I guess you have to be here to understand why.
I love you and think of you all the time. Please be well and I look forward to hearing from you.
Karen read the e-mail and whispered, "The deck is short a card." She paled and looked at Derek's picture on her computer desk. "I hope you don't lose any more."
After midnight, Clarice and Michael sat in a booth for two at the Buffet Raft, an all-night restaurant across the street from campus. Other students seeking food or coffee during their early-morning academic toil dotted the room, some reading, some taking notes and others focused on refueling.
Clarice raised her soda glass and said, "To an 'A' project."
"To an 'A'," Michael said, tapping her glass with his to complete the toast.
"I hope we can do this again."
"Yeah, I've had fun," Michael said. "You've been a remarkable partner."
Clarice leaned forward over the table, the motion accenting her form under her tight shirt. "Do you mean that?"
"You're not so bad yourself."
Slightly embarrassed, Michael rested his arms on the edge of the table, his broken hand cradled on the other. "Um, thanks."
"When I came here as a freshman, I was hoping to meet people like you."
"And our friends Jack and Sean..."
"But you're different."
Clarice learned forward more. "Under that plain exterior, you're smart, warm and kind. Some of us like that."
He smiled and said, "Underneath your somewhat flashy exterior, you're a lot like that, too."
That brought a bright smile to her face. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Michael said, pleased at Clarice's smile and finding himself relaxed in her presence.
Clarice glanced down at Michael's left hand and saw that the ring was still missing. She looked up directly into his green eyes and felt that things couldn't be better. Still fixed on his eyes, she leaned forward the last couple of inches between them and brought her lips up to his.
At the barest touch of their lips, Michael whispered, "No, I...Daria." That caused Clarice to gasp, "Oh, my God," as she turned away in response. Both sat back heavily, staring as they tried to grasp what had happened.
Michael started to say, "Clarice, I'm..." but she held up her hand, stopping him.
Fighting back tears, she grabbed some cash from her purse and set it on the table. "This should cover me," she said, standing. "I've got to go."
Before Michael had a chance to say anything, Clarice was running away, crying. In the laid-back atmosphere of the eatery, her exit caused only a couple of customers to momentarily look before going back to their business.
Michael looked down at the crumpled bills and thought about a few moments before. Now I know the meaning of temptation.
Rubbing her temples, Daria parked her black sedan behind her apartment. "How do people stand that much noise?" she asked to nobody in particular. Getting out, she continued, "Much less try to meet people. What a mess."
Going up the stairs, she finally said, "The bartender was right; I need to talk to Michael. We need to settle things instead of letting them fester any more and maybe getting worse."
Inside, the apartment was dark, so Daria assumed her roommates were asleep. However, on entering the hallway, she saw a light under Karen's door. Daria knocked and said, "You're up awfully late."
"You're coming in awfully late. Hanging around in bars with your theater friends?" Karen said, trying to tease but betraying worry.
Stepping in, Daria saw Karen seated at her computer desk and said, "For a while, yes, and I don't see how they do it on a regular basis. Now, what has you so worried that you're up late?"
"I got an e-mail from Derek. One of the guys that went over with him is dead."
"You're worried about him." Daria moved next to her friend.
"Terrified. He's going to be over there for up to nine more months. What if something happens to him?"
Daria quietly said, "I don't know, but you're not alone."
Karen hugged Daria, softly crying.
Scratching his back, Lewis stepped out of his room the next morning and tried to focus on Michael, who was seated at the kitchen table. "You look like hell this morning. Not enough sleep?"
"No sleep," Michael mumbled.
Going for the coffee pot, Lewis said, "That's not good."
"I need to see Daria first thing this morning. I decided staying up was better than setting my alarm early."
"I'm not going to ask," Lewis said. "But you look like you would've gotten drunk last night if you could've. You must've put your foot in it deeper or something."
"About neck deep."
"Early morning groveling?"
"Can't it wait a little while? Like, after you've gotten some sleep?"
"If there's one thing I've learned, it's not to withhold anything or try to decide what will be the best time for Daria to hear something. The sooner the better."
"That's going to take a few creative connections on the 'T' this early."
Noticing that Michael had the fingers of his left hand in a bowl of ice, Lewis asked, "Did you do something to your hand, on top of everything else?'
Taking his hand from the bowl, Michael said, "Trying to knock the swelling down so I can get my ring back on."
"Do you think that's a good idea?
Michael started to work the ring onto his finger. "It's something I have to do."
Watching, Lewis said, "That's got to hurt."
"No, my finger's numb from the ice."
Clad in undergarments and wading through her closet early in the morning, Karen called to her roommates when she heard the doorbell, "Is anyone dressed?"
Jane yelled, "Not me, I just got out of the shower!"
Leaving her room wearing a bathrobe, Daria said, "I'm not exactly dressed, but I'm covered enough to get the door."
She checked the spyglass in the door and said, "Oh." Outside, Michael nervously waited in the sun's first rays. Daria unlocked the door and opened it. "Hi."
Hands in pockets, Michael said, "Hi. Can we talk?"
The young woman pulled the robe a little tighter and stepped outside with Michael on the landing. "I think that's a good idea. We've let this go on for too long."
Michael gently grasped Daria's hands, rather awkwardly with his left. "I apologize. I was impatient and did something stupid that could've been far worse. At least I was the only one who was hurt in the accident. I'm not going to make a promise this time; I have to earn that back. Instead, I'm asking you to help me drive better. Remind me when I get impatient or reckless. Don't let me slide."
"Apology accepted, and believe me, I won't let you slide," Daria said, feeling much better.
Michael massaged his thumbs on the back of Daria's hands. "Now for the hard part."
"Hard part?" she said, suddenly worried.
"After...we finished the project last night, Clarice and I went to the Buffet Raft to celebrate."
"I actually went to a bar with some of the others from the play last night. I don't see a problem."
"I'm sure you didn't kiss anyone."
"No, I...What?!" Daria exclaimed.
"Well, more like almost kissed, or barely kissed or..."
Angry and confused, Daria said, "Almost? Barely? Are you talking about Clarice?"
"Uh, yes. Look, it was only a moment and I stopped. She stopped. We both stopped. But...it happened."
"It happened? How did it happen?" Daria demanded, her eyes burning as she watched for his response.
"We stopped for a bite to eat and to celebrate finishing the project. We were relaxing and talking and suddenly, we were about to kiss. Daria, I thought about you right away and couldn't go through with it. I said no and Clarice backed away. Couple seconds later, she ran out."
"You stopped. You really stopped?"
"Yes. Daria, I love you. I couldn't..."
Daria nodded. "You stopped." She appeared to settle down slightly and said, "Okay, Michael, this is going to take me a little while to digest."
"I understand. I'm really sorry. This is a lot to deal with first thing in the morning, but I knew that I had to tell you and I knew that I couldn't try for a better time, because there wouldn't be one. I have to be honest with you."
Daria looked up into his eyes for a couple seconds, then closed hers and bowed her head as the events of four years ago came back. She whispered, "Tom."
"What?" Michael asked.
She slowly lifted her head as the anger melted away. "I said, 'Tom.' I was remembering when I first kissed him. Now I know how Jane felt."
"Tom and I didn't stop; we kissed again. And then, I was the one that told Jane; he didn't." Still holding Michael's hands, Daria felt the ring. "You put it back on."
"I had to show where my heart lay."
Daria thought of how she and Jane were still close, despite what had happened with Tom. She also thought of a charming, tempting Air Force cadet at Amy's wedding, her polite refusal of his flirting and how well Michael reacted when she had told him later that night. Daria understood that she had succumbed to temptation and experienced forgiveness, but had also resisted temptation. Finally, she remembered Karen's fear for Derek the night before and Daria realized what to do. She released Michael's hands and wrapped her arms around his chest, holding tight. "I forgive you. But, we will never...ever let things go unsettled this long again."
Michael held her as tight and whispered, "Thank you."
"And from now on, I drive."
On his way out of class after turning in the final project, Michael was stopped by the professor. "Michael, where's your partner?"
"I don't know," he replied.
"While it's only required for one of you to turn in the project, I normally expect everyone to be in the final class of the semester."
Trying to think of an excuse, Michael said, "Maybe she overslept. We were up fairly late polishing up a few last details."
"That's not like her," the professor said. "I hope she's okay."
"Me, too, sir."
At the theater's side entrance, Daria waited under a sign that read:
Boston's own Lorna Kayukova presents,
A Premier Performance
The Window on the Bay
Behind her, Wendy asked, "He's not here, yet?"
"No, but he should be here soon. I trust Lewis to get him here on time."
"What about your other friends?"
"Karen, Jane and Mike are already seated."
Wendy said, "Too bad your folks couldn't make it."
"Friday's not a good night with Mom still getting back up to speed at work, but they will be here tomorrow in all their embarrassing parental glory."
"I can't wait. Well, I'm heading in to make sure everything's ready...one more time."
As Wendy left, Daria said, "I'll be a few more minutes."
A blonde figure stepped out of the shadows of the alley and said, "I'm sorry."
"Clarice?" Daria said.
The blonde looked tired and held her arms around her chest as if cold. "I'm sorry about what happened. I saw something that I wanted to be there, but wasn't. I didn't mean to hurt anybody."
Daria gave her a knowing, sad laugh. "You and Michael stopped. I was once in the same position and I didn't."
"Daria, I barely stopped, I wanted it so much. If it happened again, I don't know if I could. What does that make me?"
"I don't feel that way. Daria, tell Michael that I'm dropping my summer classes. I...I might be able to deal with being in the same department with him this fall. By then, I hope it won't hurt so much."
"I'm sorry, too," Daria answered. "I don't think anyone wanted this to happen."
Clarice wiped her eyes and said, "I've got to go. Oh, and...break a leg," before hurrying away down the alley.
Daria was still looking down the alley when Michael arrived several minutes later, carrying a bouquet of opening night roses. "Break a leg?"
She turned and saw the flowers. Accepting them, she said, "That's sweet, thank you."
He saw that something was bothering her and said, "My pleasure, but, what's wrong?"
"Clarice stopped by to wish me the same thing." Daria swung her head to indicate the way the other woman had gone. "She left a couple minutes ago."
He swallowed hard and said, "Oh?"
"She apologized for hoping that something was there between you that wasn't."
"You don't seem mad."
"I'm not. I can't."
"She's going to stay away for the summer and hope things are better in the fall."
Sadly, he said, "I broke her heart, didn't I? I should've seen what was happening and stopped it before..."
Wendy reappeared and said, "Hey, you finally showed up. Nice flowers. Daria, better come in; we're at five minutes to show time and we have reviewers in the audience. Michael, better grab your seat."
Daria said, "Give us a second." After Wendy went back inside, she turned to Michael. "Her heart's broken, but it's not all your fault," Daria told him. "Clarice is also responsible."
"You're right, but that doesn't make me feel any better."
"That's because you have a conscience." Daria kissed Michael and said, "Thank you for the flowers. They're beautiful. I know you're going to think about this a lot. Try not to let it overwhelm you and I'll see you right after the show."
"Okay, I'll be here. I'll always be here," he answered.
Daria went inside, leaving Michael alone. He looked down the alley and said, "Daria's forgiven me. I hope I can forgive myself for hurting both of you."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan, Mr. Orange and Martin Pollard for beta reading.