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. 2005.

This is the twenty-fifth story in the Falling into College series.

Richard Lobinske

Freedom of Speech

Jane Lane shook her head at her best friend, Daria Morgendorffer, who was packing a black travel bag. "Come on, you can tell me. You're flying to Detroit in a couple hours to spend a four-day holiday weekend with Michael. You admitted to me that you almost said yes to his crazy marriage proposal last May. I've never seen you this happy. Do you love him?"

Daria looked at Jane and whispered, "Yes."

After a long pause, Jane said, "Does he know?"

"Jane. This isn't easy. What if I'm being premature? Or I'm just wrong?"

"It's a risk. You know he loves you."

"I know. I'm just..."

"Nervous?" Jane gave her a friendly smile. "You're almost as bad as when you had the crush on my brother."


Jane sat on the bed next to the travel bag. "Daria, you're tongue-tied."


"Try this: why does he affect you so much?"

Daria zipped the bag closed and thought before saying, "He…cares for all of me." Daria looked a little confused. "Did that make sense?"

Jane nodded. "Perfect sense. He cares for the person you show the world, and the one you keep hidden inside. How'd he get in?"

Daria sat back. "I let him. After Dad told me how scared he was the first time he asked Mom out, and Mom told me how she agreed. It made me realize I should give him a chance."

Jane watched intently. "He found that shy woman you've kept inside all these years?"

Daria nodded and blushed. "He held her hand and was happy with her."

"I bet he's happy she held his hand back."

"I know what you're up to. Okay, I promise to tell him this weekend. Are you happy?"

"I will be, if you do it."

The pilot's voice said, "Welcome to Detroit Metropolitan Airport. The outside temperature is eighty degrees and expected to reach eighty-three for the high. We hope you enjoy your stay in Detroit, or welcome home if you're a resident."

Daria retrieved her laptop from under the seat and waited patiently to depart the plane. She slightly smiled at the tall man struggling to extricate himself from the seat next to hers. There is one advantage to being small; airline seats aren't as cramped. She stood and followed the line out and down the exit concourse.

Daria saw a woman in her early forties, with her red hair pulled back into a bun and holding a card with "Daria" written on it. The woman's deep blue business suit was expertly cut to fit her somewhat heavy, 5'6" frame. Daria approached and said, "Mrs. Fulton?"

The woman smiled widely and hugged Daria. "Please, call me Samantha. My employees call me Mrs. Fulton. Daria, I want you to feel welcome in our home and family." She released her and looked at Daria. "That picture my son sent doesn't do you justice at all." She motioned for her to follow. "Let's rescue your bags and get out of this place."

"It was very kind of you to take off work to pick me up; I could have taken a cab."

"One advantage to being the boss: you approve your own leave. Besides, I have plenty to use. This isn't a problem."

"Still, thanks."

"It'll probably take a good forty-five minutes, what with traffic and road construction."

"Not much worse than my fight driving to Logan this morning."

Partway to the Fulton residence, Samantha pulled into a small fast-food restaurant. "I could use a cold drink."

Daria shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

They quickly had their drinks and settled into a booth. Samantha took a long swallow from the straw and spoke. "You've had quite an effect on my son."

The interrogation begins. Daria smiled and looked downward in mild embarrassment. "Thanks, I think."

"I'm thanking you."

Daria sat back and craned her neck forward some. "Oh?"

"He was lonely through high school and only had one friend. He never said anything, but I know he was teased a lot. I was worried about him."

Daria nodded. "I know a lot of how that feels. I really didn't have any friends until we moved to Lawndale early in my sophomore year. For a good chunk of high school, Jane was my only friend."

"When he got off the plane last December, I knew something special had happened to him."

Daria blushed. "Samantha, we had just started dating then."

"But, he was happy in a way I'd never seen before."

Daria looked directly at Samantha. "Everyone said the same about me. He's a very gentle and caring man. I think you had something to do with that."

Samantha nodded. "Well, we tried."

"I think you succeeded."

Samantha took another drink before saying, "I hope you didn't mind my interference in getting you back together with him."

Daria relaxed a bit and gave her a small smile. "It was a kind gesture. I should let you know that it only sped up the process by a couple days. I was planning on driving out here…"

"Helen thought you would; after planting the idea. But, we decided to take the most time-efficient route."

"You two really did plan that out."

Samantha reached across the table. "Daria, we knew why our children were unhappy, and wanted to do something as quickly as possible."

"Don't get me wrong, we really appreciated it."

"But, you would be more comfortable if we didn't make plotting together a regular concern."


"Deal. We'll do it only on an as-needed basis."

Daria studied the top of her cup as she drank from the straw. Now, to make sure you don't have a need.

The drive took them to St. Clair Shores and a modest gray and blue house along a canal that opened into Lake St. Clair. A small, open boathouse was visible in the back yard by the canal, with a boat suspended in slings. The landscaping had a slightly unruly look, indicating it was done by the residents as time permitted and not by an almost invisible lawn service like the one Daria's parents used.

Samantha ushered Daria into the house and began to go up the stairs. "You'll be staying in my daughter, Gina's, room. We have a sofa-bed in the living room for her to sleep on while you're here."

Daria gently shook her head. "The sofa-bed will be fine for me. Let Gina stay in her room."

Samantha replied, "Are you sure? You're our guest."

"Yes. Think of it as a goodwill gesture." Daria lifted her single bag. "I don't have a whole lot to store, and I can change in the bathroom. Don't worry; I don't wear anything revealing to sleep in."

A teenage girl with dark brown hair looked in from the kitchen, wearing cut-off jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt. "So this is the chick that has my brother going stupid."

Another brunette girl, about the same age and sporting glasses, peered around the first. "But then, that wouldn't take much."

Samantha gave each a brief, sharp look. "Daria, my daughter Gina, she's fifteen. The other one is her best friend, Natalie."

Daria said, "Hi, Gina, Natalie."

"This is Michael's girlfriend, Daria."

Both girls said, "Hi."

Samantha said, "I'm going to finish showing Daria around and then I'm taking you two to the mall for a while."

As they departed, Daria heard Natalie whisper, "How did that geek brother of yours get a girlfriend like her?"

"You got me."

Although only in his mid-forties, his premature gray hair and advanced pattern baldness made Ron Fulton look older. He parked in the driveway and turned to his son, Michael, seated next to him. "I rather conveniently have an errand to run and will be back in about half an hour."

Noting his father's grin, Michael muttered, "Thanks," and got out of the car. He waited for the car to back away before going to the front door. He stamped his work boots against the matt to clear the day's mud and dirt. Mom called that Daria got here okay and would be waiting. He inhaled and opened the door.

From the television came, "Fireflies in the Signal Corps. Bug-eyed draftees; next on Sick, Sad World."

Daria turned at the sound of the door. "Michael." She got up from the sofa and crossed the room to embrace him.

He said, "Daria, I'm so happy to see you."

"I've missed you." She wrapped her arms around his chest and he encircled her shoulders.

"I've missed you. Be careful, the plots we surveyed today were full of brambles and some are still stuck in my clothes."

"I don't care," Daria said as she softly pulled them together.

He quietly said, "I love you," before kissing her.

With an, "Ow," she backed slightly away and pulled a thorn from just below her collarbone. "I get the point."

Michael winced and said, "I'll go change. Dad won't be back for half an hour."

Daria smiled and caressed his cheek. "Your mother took Gina and her friend to the mall and won't be back for an hour."

After saying, "I'll grab a quick shower and be right back," he ran up the stairs.

Daria sat back down on the sofa and placed her hand on her chest. Whoa! My heart is pounding. I thought that crap only happened in cheap romances.

Daria closed her eyes and did some breathing exercises she'd learned in her summer theater class, to calm stage fright. She fingered the malachite pendant she wore. Okay, that was a powerful reaction. She looked up toward the stairs. "I love you."

She rubbed her face for a moment. It's getting easier to say. She sat back, sighed and whispered, "Now, to say it to him. I can do it. Just…not right away."

She looked around the living room. Such a different household. I can't believe that his parents went out of their way to give us time alone.

The sound of running water could be heard from upstairs. After a minute, Daria glanced up again and smiled. And, I'm really surprised I'm having thoughts like that.

Ron stopped his hand just as it was about the grab the doorknob. He redirected it to his pocket and removed a set of keys. After inserting one in the lock, he slowly and noisily turned it back and forth before opening the door.

He smiled at his son sitting on the sofa next to a petite girl with glasses. Her thick, auburn hair was slightly mussed and there was a faint pink blush to her cheeks. "Hi, you must be Daria. I'm Ron." As he walked over, he added, "Please, stay seated." He took her hand and gently shook it. "It's nice to finally meet you."

"Hi, Mr. Fulton."

"Ron, please."


He seated himself on a recliner. "How was your flight?"

"We hit some rough turbulence about halfway here, but otherwise fine."

He chuckled lightly and smiled at the two. "You don't have to maintain a hands-off policy while I'm around. I'm not so old I've forgotten what it's like."

Daria looked down slightly. "Well, um, thanks."

Michael placed his arm over her shoulder and she leaned over against him.

"You look more comfortable."

Daria hesitantly said, "Uh, yeah, we are."

After another chuckle, Ron said, "Good. Now, how badly did my wife grill you on the way home?"

Samantha opened the door to find Michael and Daria cuddled on the sofa. Across the room, Ron was stretched out on his recliner and saying, "Only the soon-to-be-dead call her Sam." He looked over upon hearing the door. "Hey, dear."

She went behind the chair and hugged his neck. After leaning over to kiss him, she asked, "Have you stayed out of trouble?"

"I rattled the key in the lock, like I promised."

Gina and Natalie followed, each carrying a bag. Gina made a face. "Gawd, synchronized smooching. Look at what we have to put up with this weekend."

Natalie looked away, "Sheesh."

Michael narrowed his eyes. "We?"

Natalie looked back. "Mom was called in to work extra shifts for the holiday weekend and asked if I could stay here."

Michael lightly shook his head. "Why not? You practically live here, anyway. So, you and Gina get to share the sofa?"

Gina started toward the stairs and said, "Nope, my room. Your girlfriend was actually cool enough to take the sofa."

Natalie followed, and said from the top of the stairs, "Sorry, lover boy. You'll have to sneak downstairs if you want to make out with her."

Samantha went to the base of the stairs. "Girls, you better behave around our guest!"

Michael massaged his temple. "You know how little sisters can be."

Daria looked up toward the stairs. "Oh, yes. I took a clue from my Aunt Amy and didn't want to force someone out of their room. I'm hoping it will help."

Samantha headed to the kitchen, rubbing her hands. "I prepped dinner beforehand, so we'll only need a little while for it to cook. I normally don't go to this much work, but I wanted to fix one of my specialties tonight."

Daria looked at the rapidly receding woman. "Thanks, Samantha."

"Lasagna," Daria said as she looked at the simply set dining table. Everyone else moved quickly to sit, bearing smiles and other signs of pleasure. She pushed on and sat next to Michael and directly across from Gina and Natalie.

Samantha started cutting into the lasagna. "I hope you don't mind that I'm using fat-free ricotta cheese and extra lean meat in this." She looked down at herself. "My doctor ordered me onto a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet."

Daria focused on the glass baking dish as the realization dawned. It wasn't frozen lasagna in a disposable aluminum dish. She looked up. "Oh, not at all. This is your recipe?"

"My grandmother's." She finished cutting and served a section each to Daria and Natalie, followed with servings of vegetables and a roll. "Our guests get served, the rest of you are on your own." She backed away, watched the food quickly get passed around, and dispatched to plates.

Michael immediately took a bite and savored it. "Hmm. Maybe I should convince Daria to come by more often if you're going to do this."

Natalie quipped, "If it gets me promoted to guest and served, I'll agree with you, for once."

Daria took a taste and opened her eyes in surprise. The pasta was at just the right firmness, the tomato sauce was flavorful, and the bite of crushed garlic was balanced by fresh herbs. "Wow."

Samantha smiled and said, "Thank you. You act like you've never had lasagna before."

The next morning, Michael stopped halfway down the stairs and looked over at Daria asleep on the open sofa-bed. She was on her side and facing toward him with faint smile visible on her auburn shrouded face. He had a mild start when he felt a hand on his shoulder. His father looked past, toward the sleeping woman and whispered, "I find myself watching your mother like this, too."

"She is so pretty."

"I can see why you'd be attracted to her."

Michael nodded. "I still can't believe she forgave me."

Ron looked at Michael's face and smiled. "Son, I don't know why your mother's put up with me. Don't look a gift-horse in the mouth."

"I guess I shouldn't."

Both watched the sleeping woman for a few moments before Michael added, "I love her, and just…wish I knew for certain she felt the same."

"Michael, she flew out here just to see you for a long weekend and agreed to put up with us. I think that should tell you something."

"I suppose. I told her how I felt back in April…"

"How long did it take you to build up the courage to tell her?"

Michael looked down. "Um…several months…and I didn't really get the courage; it kind of came out on its own."

Ron lightly chuckled. "Ever thought she might be nervous, too?"

Michael looked at him, slightly shaken. "What?"

"That she might be nervous?"

He looked back at Daria as the statement hit home. "I never thought of that. Should I ask?"

"No. Make her comfortable. If she feels the same, she will tell you, when she's ready."

Michael sighed. "Thanks."

"By the way, what has you up so early?"

"We wanted to arrive at the DIA when it opened. One of our first dates was to the Raft art galleries." Michael looked away. We also hoped to have a little time together this morning.

Ron winked and said, "Have a nice day, I'm going back to bed."

Ron went back upstairs as Michael descended and quietly moved next to Daria. Fair is fair, you got to wake me when I stayed at your folks. He knelt on the floor and watched her sleep for a few moments. He grinned and removed his glasses, placing them on an end table. He leaned over and lightly nibbled on her earlobe.

Still asleep, Daria murmured, "Michael," and let out a soft moan.

Starting just below her ear, he began a series of gentle kisses along her jaw line. At the moment he reached her lips and kissed them, Michael reached over and gently drew his fingertips along her back. She arched her back in pleasure and awoke.

Michael once again marveled at her deep, rich, brown eyes as they opened. "Good morning."

Waking to see his clear, green eyes was an unexpected joy. Daria smiled and returned the lingering kiss. "It certainly is."

"I thought I would repay the favor from two months ago."

"I'd say it was paid in full. Although, payment for future favors would be looked upon agreeably."

"I'll keep that in mind."

Daria put a hand behind his head and softly kissed him again. Michael stroked her hair and the side of her face as they continued to kiss.

"You weren't kidding. They're already at it." Natalie said with mild distaste.

Beside her, Gina said, "Way to go, big brother. Set a good example for us." Both teens were near the top of the stairs in long nightshirts, leaning on the rail.

"At least they have clothes on."

Michael turned and looked angrily at his sister. "Gina. You're pushing it."

Daria fumbled for her glasses and put them on.

Natalie snickered. "She blushes easy."

"Argh," Daria muttered as she sat up on the bed. "Natalie, do you have a younger sister?"

"I'm an only child. That's one of the reasons I come over here, so I can have a brother to annoy."

Michael retrieved his glasses and put them on. "How long have you two been watching?"

Gina pointed her thumb down the hall. "Since Dad went into his room."

Michael groaned in embarrassment and Daria rested her forehead on her hand, saying, "No good deed goes unpunished."

Gina looked at Natalie with a mischievous smirk. "Our work here is done. Let's go back to my room and leave the lovebirds alone. I want to get started on our Buffy marathon."

Natalie nodded and both headed back up.

Daria leaned against Michael. "Well, that was wonderfully embarrassing."

"Welcome to my world. At least Quinn is better behaved toward you."

Daria raised an eyebrow. "Now. In her own way, she was just as bad at fifteen." She rolled out of bed and stood. "Well, now that I'm awake, do you mind if I take a break to take care of certain needs?" She indicated her green t-shirt and white shorts. "And get into something more appropriate for a museum?"

"Uh, no. I'll try to find some breakfast."

By opening time, Daria and Michael were waiting outside the Detroit Institute of Arts. They slowly spent the morning going through the Robert Hudson Tannahill American Wing. As they strolled through the colonial art exhibits, Daria looked down at her hand in Michael's and remembered the first time they held hands, at the Raft student art galleries during one of their first dates the previous December. Seven months ago. Daria let out a short laugh.

Michael looked at her and asked, "Care to let me in on the joke?"

"Our first date was almost seven months ago."

"This is funny, how?"

"We, um, missed our six-month anniversary."

"Okay…I'm missing something here."

"I had a kind of blow-up with Tom over him not remembering our six month anniversary. After Quinn had to remind me of it."

"And, you forgot again."

Daria looked a little embarrassed. "Um, yeah. But, you didn't even think of it."

He shrugged. "Well, anniversary tends to imply annual, not semiannual."

"Smart aleck."

He turned her and grasped both her hands. "I promise to remember the anniversary of our first date." He grinned. "December third."

She took a moment to think. "Hey."

He grinned again. "I'm a history major; I'm good at remembering dates."

After completing their leisurely stroll through the gallery, Daria found herself waiting at a table while Michael picked up a small lunch for them.

She watched him at the counter and closed her hand, thinking of the warmth of his. This would be a good time to tell him. This feels so much like the date when I first kissed him. I know I can do it. All I have to do is…

"Here we go." Michael set a tray holding two hamburgers and a pair of drinks on the table.

Daria emerged from her reverie. "Huh? Oh, thanks."

He sat and said, "Thinking about something?"

"What? Oh, um…" Crap. "Uh, not much. I was kind of wondering about how laid back your parents were about us being together. After all of the paranoia from mine about us possibly having sex, yours seem almost unconcerned."

"Not unconcerned, realistic. They know that if we were determined, we could find the time and place to do something. However, if they give us some time alone, we will be less tempted. They've always trusted me and they're extending that to you. Also, Mom and Dad are a couple of perpetual romantics who've been more than thrilled at me finding someone."

"I'm just not used to that kind of attitude. It seems so…reasonable."

"They're probably mutants, but I'm not complaining."

Late in the afternoon, they were heading back from the museum in the same silver/gray sedan Michael had driven to Lawndale. Daria was in the passenger seat, holding up a t-shirt from the Contemporary Art gallery. "Jane's going to get a kick out of this one."

Michael briefly looked over at the abstract design. "If you say so. I always thought the Pollack style was overrated."

"Don't say that when she has a loaded glue gun in her hand."

"I'm sure there's a story behind that."

"Several, actually."

"Hmm. I'm sure I'm going to hear about them from her at some point."

"Only the ones that will embarrass me."

"It's going to be frightening to see you three together under one roof next fall."

"Speaking of which, what are your plans?"

"I'll be back in the dorms. I've been scanning the online apartment ads and everything is out of my price range. I don't know anyone in Boston I could split a place with, so it'll be back to Milton Hall and the roommate lottery."

"I'm sorry."

"Hopefully, this time I'll get one that understands the concept of hygiene. I would like to get my room deposit back."

"You lost your deposit?"

"Well, because I…uh…left early. Ken was the last one in the room and exerted his usual amount of effort at cleaning. Meaning, none at all. Because we both signed, we both were responsible for the summer cleaning."

"That sucks."

He looked away from her and said, "I kind of see it as paying for my rash behavior that week."

She rested a hand on his thigh. "You better not be tormenting yourself over that. We both made mistakes and apologized."

He rested his hand on hers. "I know. But, if I had stayed, the room would have been clean and I'd have my deposit."

"True, but I can tell you're still beating yourself up over the rest."

He released her hand and carefully watched the road. "Maybe."

"No maybes, you are."

Slightly peeved, he said, "Okay, I am."


"Don't tell me when to forgive myself."


"You're trying to convince me not to feel bad about what I did."

"Well, yes. We made mistakes. You forgave me, I forgave you."

"Thanks, I do appreciate you forgave me. But, I'm a little rougher on myself."

"Michael, don't you…"

"Daria, it's best to drop it."

Surprised, Daria said, "Um, sure. Okay."

The rest of the trip passed in silence until they reached the house and parked. Daria turned to him and said, "Michael, what's wrong?"

He gripped the steering wheel and sighed. "Look, remember when you told me I shouldn't make decisions for you?"


"The same applies here. Please don't tell me what to do on things like that."

"I only wanted…"

He turned and held her hand. "To help. This is something I have to work out myself. I know you understand holding yourself to a high standard and why I was upset."

"Yes. I've been there."

"And why you can't tell me to take it easy on myself?"

She clasped his hand with both of hers. "I also understand what I've put Jane through, watching me do what you are doing. I agree, I can't tell you want to do. But, can you agree that doing this is hard on those around you?"


"Can you also agree that you don't have to do it alone?"

He looked into her eyes and saw the concern. "I agree."

"Good. I…" Daria suddenly felt her throat tighten. "I… care for you." Dammit, that's not what I wanted to say.

Michael brought her hands up and kissed them. "I know you do; thanks."

Daria closed her eyes and turned her head away. Crap, I'll have to try again later. "I don't see your parents' car."

"They must have gone somewhere."

Daria looked at the house door. "I suppose we should head inside, before your sister starts to spy on us."

"If they were serious about a Buffy marathon, those two have been glued to the television all day."


"Big time."

"Good, then maybe they will leave us alone for a while."

"It'll be our best chance."

"Let's go."

Daria picked up the bags from the museum gift shop and followed Michael into the house. Inside, Gina and Natalie were lounging on the sofa, feet propped on a coffee table. An empty pizza box was between them and partially finished cans of Ultra Cola were on the end tables.

Michael looked at the two and said, "Have your brains fallen out yet?"

Gina fired back, "Why, haven't had dinner yet?"

"Where are Mom and Dad?"

"They went out to see a movie. That's why we came down here to watch."

"Any idea of when they'll be back?"

"Probably after ten. Gave me a twenty to order pizza. Looks like you two are on your own."

Daria looked at the empty box. "You two split a large pizza?"

After taking a drink, Natalie said, "One Grand Supremo with bread sticks. Sure was good."

"And I thought Jane, Karen and I were the only females that did things like that."

Michael walked into the kitchen and said, "Care if I fish for leftovers?"

"I'm kind of beat from being on my feet all day. I'd rather skip going out again if we can help it."

"Have a seat, I'll bring something out and we can go up to my room."

Daria sat in the recliner and began to watch. "Hmm, haven't seen this one. But then, I've missed most of this season."

"How come?" Natalie asked.

"No television in my dorm room."

"You're kidding. No TV?"

"We couldn't run cable in, so why bother?"

Gina scrutinized Daria and said, "Damn, my brother was right. You don't wear makeup."

Michael returned with a plate of leftover lasagna held in each hand, and two cans of soda, still in the six-pack rings, dangling from one finger. "Why cover up beauty?"

Natalie looked a little surprised. "When did Goof-Ball learn to talk like that?"

Gina leaned over and said, "I think he's been taping Dad."

Daria said, "On that wonderful note," and crawled out of the chair to go upstairs with Michael. Out of the corner of her eye, Daria noted that Natalie had looked over at them just before they walked out of sight, almost with a look of relief.

Michael left the door open about six inches. "If it's open, they won't be as curious. If we close it, you can bet their ears will be plastered to the outside within a minute."

Daria took a plate and a drink from Michael and sat on the bed. After taking a bite, said, "Oh, even cold this is so much better than all that frozen stuff I ate over the years."

Michael picked up Daria's feet and swiveled them up onto the bed. She looked at him and said, "What are you doing?"

As he unlaced her boots, he said, "Going to massage your feet. You said they were tired."

"You don't have to."

"I want to." He removed her boots and began to rub her feet.

"Ah…oh. That's nice."

"The day you first said yes to going out with me, my life changed. I haven't exaggerated when I've said being with you is the best thing that has happened to me."


"I almost threw it all away because I panicked and didn't think about you. I really hurt you because of that. I've never wanted you hurt."

"I know. I'm here for you."

"That helps a lot. I'm not used to facing things like this with someone."

Daria closed her eyes and enjoyed the tension releasing in her feet. "Michael, I…want to tell you…"

He watched her and continued the massage.

Daria felt the butterflies return and her tongue freeze. Argh! "I…um…" Why can't I do this?

Michael extended his massage up to her calves. "Relax and enjoy. You can tell me later." He felt his heart race as he remembered the numerous occasions butterflies had stopped him from saying anything. Almost.

Dressed in a nice Sunday dress, Samantha looked back through the open door. "I know it's not your custom, but you're welcome to come with us."

Daria said, "Thanks for the offer, but I'd feel out of place. I can spend the time writing; don't worry about me."

"Okay. We should be back in an hour and a half or so."

After Samantha walked toward Ron, Gina and Natalie waiting in the car, Michael stopped in front of Daria and encircled her waist with his arms. "See you in a bit. I know you're fine with this, but Mom insists on making sure."

"She wasn't pushy. I appreciate that. I'll warn you, Melody may be in the middle of deep trouble by the time you get back."

Michael gave her a kiss. "Nothing she can't get out of, I'm sure."

"You better get going. They're waiting."

"They can wait on me for a change." Michael kissed her again. "Bye, now."


Once the car had pulled away, Daria went to her laptop case and removed a spiral notebook and a small box. She removed a silver fountain pen from the box. Mrs. Blaine, this is still one of my most cherished gifts. Thank you. She sat on the recliner, crossed her legs to make a platform for the notebook, and began to write.

July 2, 2000

This is the first time I've had a chance to write this weekend. Michael and his family just left for church and I have a little time to myself. So far, I'm glad I made this trip. Samantha and Ron have been so accepting, almost treating me as another daughter. Gina is, well, a younger sister. Bound and determined to give us grief at every chance, but somehow, not as mean-spirited as Quinn was at 15. Her best friend, Natalie, is staying the weekend, also. The two of them together remind me a lot of what Jane and I were like the first summer I was in Lawndale. It makes me wonder what kind of family dynamic would have occurred if I had been the younger sibling.

We spent the entire day yesterday at the Detroit Institute of Arts and had a nice time. On the way home, we got into a disagreement. He's still blaming himself for our short breakup and he got mad when I told him he shouldn't. Kind of like how I kept blaming myself for hurting Jane long after she forgave me for kissing Tom the first time. Things look a lot different from the other side. At least he's letting me help.

Even in my diary, I'm putting off the most important part. Why can't I tell him I love him? Every time I've tried so far, I haven't been able to say it.

Daria looked off across the room for several minutes in thought, absent-mindedly sucking on the end of the pen. She sighed and wrote again.

In some ways, this is worse than my agonizing over whether to have sex with Tom. Then, the physical intimacy that scared me, but we became closer emotionally. This emotional intimacy's even more powerful. I now know why Michael had such a hard time telling me how he felt. I wonder how long he tried and failed before it snuck out on him at the Mystik Spiral concert? That was over three months ago. How much has he wondered about my feelings? Last night, after one of my stuttered, failed attempts, he said something interesting while massaging my feet (such a brave man, after they were in my boots for over ten hours). "Relax and enjoy. You can tell me later." I wonder if he knows what I'm trying to say?

This may be procrastinating again, but I'm not going to try today. Maybe if I give my nerves a break, it will go easier.

With her feet propped up on the recliner's footrest, Daria typed with well-honed speed and precision on her laptop computer.

Red tracers streaked past and struck the wing and engines as Melody dove out of the open rear ramp of the C-130 and into the night sky. With arms tucked close to her side, she streamlined herself to fall past the flight path of the rapidly closing MiG. Behind her, the steady stream of autocannon fire caused the wing of the Hercules to disintegrate and the aircraft to fold toward the failed wing as is burst into a fireball. With a distant roar, the pursuit plane banked away from the kill as she continued her dive toward the ground.

A gentle kiss on the cheek brought her back to reality. She turned as Michael said, "Hope we're not disturbing anything important."

Daria returned the kiss and said, "Well, Melody is in free-fall at twenty-thousand feet."

"I hope she remembered her parachute."

Daria gave him a slim, sly smile. "Well, she remembered a parachute, but it wasn't hers. The original owner didn't need it anyway."

"I knew there was a reason I liked her."

Ron approached and said, "Michael showed us the last story you'd published. Working on another?"

"Um, yeah. The two I had published I wrote last summer. I haven't had much chance to write since then."

"Good luck."

Daria closed the file and began the computer shutdown. "With everyone back, I suppose it would be rude to ignore you all and keep writing."

After lunch, Michael took Daria on a tour of his old haunts. Places like his high school, the park he would frequent for a little extra solitude, the local library, and his favorite used bookstore. They followed with a quiet dinner at a small, French café.

When the oriental waitress, clearly a family member of the owners, walked away, Daria asked Michael, "Vietnamese?"

"The grandparents learned when it was a French colony. They've been a fixture around here for over twenty years."

Daria reached over the table to hold his hands. "Thanks for showing me around today."

"My pleasure."

"Spending the day with Gina tomorrow is going to feel strange. But, I understand."

"Sorry I have to work. Hopefully, the property we have to survey won't be overgrown like Friday, and we can get done early."

Daria rubbed the small sore spot from the thorn. "And not be as painful."


Daria looked around the warm, friendly atmosphere of the café. "I wish there'd been someplace like this in Lawndale. The only French restaurant was very pricy and formal. Of course, Quinn, in her serial dating phase, ate there on a regular basis."

"I'm glad Gina hasn't done anything like that. She's been fairly picky about the boys she's gone out with."

Daria looked at him over her drinking glass. "Do I detect a little protectiveness for your little sister?"

"Yes. She can be a pain, but she is my sister."

Daria nodded and raised her glass. "I know what that's like."

Daria was just about to turn off the lamp next to the sofa bed when she heard Natalie quietly say from the stairs, "Can I talk with you?"

Daria put her glasses back on and said, "Sure."

Natalie came over and sat on the edge of the bed. "I kind of had my doubts, but it's been nice meeting you."

"It's been nice meeting you."

"And cool seeing you and Michael together."


"You two are so happy together, like Samantha and Ron. I can see that they're not entirely an exception."


"I don't remember my father. He left when I was a baby."

"I'm sorry."

"Mom's had a lot of bad luck with guys she's dated. I think she quit trying a couple years ago. She's also a cop and sees a lot of bad stuff. I'm sorry I made some bad assumptions about you at first."

Daria looked at the young teen, not sure of what to say.

"Gina's folks gave me hope before; now I feel better seeing you and Michael."

"Thanks again, but I should warn you we're not perfect."

"I know. But, look at you now. It's obvious how much you love each other. Mom said she'd let me start dating when I turn sixteen. I'm not as worried now."

Daria felt a light blush. "We're that obvious?"

"Well, duh. I better get going. Thanks."

"You're welcome?"

Natalie slipped off the bed and ran upstairs.


While Daria was finishing her bowl of breakfast cereal, Ron answered a knock at the front door. There waited a strongly built woman in her later thirties, wearing a police uniform. Ron said, "Morning, Wendy."

She gave him a tired smile. "Hey, Ron. How've you been?"

"I'm good. You look tired."

"It was a long night, and I'm glad I don't have to work again until Wednesday."

Natalie came down the stairs carrying a small, soft-side suitcase and her bags from the mall. Smiling, she moved quickly to embrace her mother and said, "Mom."

She returned the gesture and said, "Nat, have you been behaving for the Fultons?"

Samantha entered the living room from the kitchen. "She has."

Wendy said, "Samantha. Thanks so much, again, for letting her stay."

"It's our pleasure."

Wendy noticed Daria in the kitchen. "Who's your guest?"

"That's Daria, Michael's girlfriend. She's visiting for the weekend from Boston."

Wendy waved and said, "Hi."

Daria waved back and said, "You have a nice daughter."

"Why, thank you. I've tried." She looked around. "We won't keep you; good bye."

Amid a chorus of "Good bye," Wendy and Natalie left.

Samantha used another day of vacation to stay home with Daria and Gina. Through the morning, Daria and Samantha talked over coffee while Gina watched television. Daria learned that Samantha and Ron met in 1979, while she was a senior at Michigan State. He'd graduated from University of Michigan the year before. They dated through her senior year and married two months after her graduation.

Daria smiled. "That means your twentieth anniversary is at the end of the month. My parents renewed their vows on their twenty-fifth, last weekend."

"That's sweet."

Daria did a quick mental calculation. "You weren't married very long before you became pregnant with Michael."

"True. But, that's the way we wanted it. I wanted to have children while I was young enough to chase after them." She laughed and patted her round frame. "Could you see me trying to chase after small children like this?"

Daria wasn't sure how to answer.

Samantha continued. "Anyway, after Gina started preschool, I became a safety inspector for the factory and worked my way up to Supervisor. Ron's now the senior surveyor for his company. So, that's how we ended up like we are."

Daria told her about Highland and Lawndale. How she and Quinn had been such rivals and now were closer. She talked about how she met Jane and how important their friendship was. She finished by talking about Raft, meeting Karen, and finally getting to know Michael.

After a simple lunch of sandwiches, Samantha asked, "Daria, do you mind if I run out for a few things?"

"No problem. I guess I should spend some one-on-one time with Gina."

Gina looked in from the living room with a little concern.

Samantha picked up her purse from the table. "That's wonderful. I shouldn't be too long." On her way out, she said to Gina, "I do expect you to behave for Daria."

Once her mother was gone, Gina turned to Daria. "Okay, what's up?"

Daria pulled out a chair from the dining table. "Just a little conversation."

Gina came over and sat in it, with her hands folded.

"First off, by all indications, you haven't said anything about Saturday morning. I appreciate that."

"It was fun seeing how embarrassed you were. But, you haven't given me a reason to spill the beans. As a little sister, I have certain duties to keep my brother on his toes."

"I have a younger sister myself; I'm fully aware of your family obligations to annoy."

"But, you two are safe. Do you think I want Mom finding out we were spying on you?"

"I wondered."

"I really do love my brother. Even if he is a goof-ball, he's also been protective of me. I missed that while he was in Boston with you."

"It feels the same for me, too."

"Don't forget, you're still a target. Have to keep you on your toes, too," Gina said and winked.

With a faintly evil, narrow smile Daria said, "I know. But don't you forget. Michael and I work as a team."

Late that evening, Daria sat on Michael's bed. His room was unmistakably one that had belonged to the bearer of a Y-chromosome. The single bed had a plain blue sheet and bedspread. The nearby nightstand was unadorned and held only an alarm clock and a half-read book. His dresser had two drawers partially open, with the edges of several garments hanging over the sides. His computer desk was a complete disarray of papers and books. His wide interest in history was evident from the books in the case and the historical timeline posters on the walls. Daria smiled to notice his windows faced east, and remembered one of hers faced west.

Daria looked down at the faded image of Mark Twain on her nightshirt. She filled out the top more than she did at 17 and it was now a bit tighter around her hips. I guess some things have changed. I actually look female in this now, and I'm not paranoid of being seen in it.

Michael came in wearing shorts and a black t-shirt and sat next to her. "I haven't forgotten Jane's party. Spending the night next to you was a joy."

Daria leaned against him. "Neither have I." And I remember a little more than you do.

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and kissed her cheek. "I love you."

Daria put her near arm around him and rested her cheek against his chest, barely whispering, "I love you."

For a moment, Michael thought he heard something and very gently hugged her tighter and caressed her back. Did she? I don't want to ask and seem like I'm pushing.

Daria felt the slight change. He couldn't have heard; I could barely hear myself. When she tried again, the butterflies were back. She inwardly sighed and looked up. "I'm a little beat." She gave him a nice kiss and said, "Goodnight."

He released her and rose, offering his hands for her to pull herself up. "Goodnight."

He watched her go down the stairs. Should I just tell her I know? Do I know? Or, am I hoping?

Daria sat on the sofa bed and placed her glasses on the end table. She looked toward the stairs when she heard a door quietly close. She thought of how his embrace had shifted when she spoke and felt a change in her resolve. With certainty, she smiled and said, "Tomorrow."

For lunch, all five sat around a picnic table in the park Daria and Michael had visited before. The table was covered in a red and white checkered tablecloth and provisioned with fried chicken, potato salad, cole slaw, baked beans and dinner rolls from a local deli.

Michael finished a bite of food and asked, "Dad, can I take Daria out in the boat to watch the fireworks tonight?"

Gina said, "Gee, and miss Mom's company barbeque? That must have been a difficult choice to make."

Samantha looked at the two. "A couple of people in my office had been curious about Daria…" She gave a half smile, "…but if your Father trusts you with his toy, I guess my nosy coworkers can wait."

Ron also looked at them. "Hmmm. We will be losing our excuse to get away from the barbeque early to take Daria to the airport. But, it also means she won't run the risk of being late because we couldn't get away early. Okay, you can use it. But, you're paying for the gas."

Michael reached across the table and shook his hand. "Deal."

Next to the boathouse, Daria shook hands with Samantha, Ron and Gina. "Thanks for having me stay."

Samantha told her, "We enjoyed having you. Have a safe flight back to Boston."

"Thanks. Enjoy the barbeque."

Ron grinned. "We'll try. Enjoy the view from the lake. Until next time." He and Samantha both hugged Daria.

Samantha said, "Take care."

"I will," was Daria's response.

After Samantha and Ron headed for the car, Gina stood for a moment and smirked. "Behave yourself big brother. I like her."

He said, "I'm glad to hear that. Trust me; it's in my best interest to behave."

"Good. Daria, keep the Goof-Ball in line, will you?"

She turned slightly to look up at him. "I can do that."

"Great. Bye, then." She turned and waved as she walked fast to catch up with her parents.

"Bye," Daria and Michael said together. Daria looked at him; he shrugged and said, "Let's get this thing underway."

He stepped down into the boat and turned, holding his hand out for Daria.

Taking his hand and stepping into the boat, she said, "I should warn you the last boat I was on hit a garbage barge and sank."

"I'll try to avoid any collisions."

Michael cranked up the outboard engine and steered the red and white boat at idle speed down the canal toward Lake St. Clair. Once clear, he picked up speed, took the boat offshore about mile from town, and brought it to a stop. Several boats were already scattered widely in the area. Michael crawled onto the bow deck and tossed the anchor out. He went to the stern and set a second anchor. "Keep us from spinning," he explained before sliding a small cooler next to the rear facing pair of seats. "Now, we can sit and watch the town's fireworks."

Soon, the setting of the sun left them illuminated only by the mast light. Across the water, small points of light marked the location of other boats. The wind was light and sky clear as they waited.

The slow rocking with the waves made things seem that much more pleasant. Daria smiled as she leaned against Michael and pulled his arms a little closer around her waist.

Michael lightly leaned his head against hers. "Comfortable?"

"Hmm. Yes."

The fireworks started only slightly late. The view from the lake was spectacular: visually unobstructed and distant enough to soften the reports. As the show continued, Daria began to feel a slight disconnect as she became aware that her only sensation of touch was that of Michael. After several minutes, she gave him a very soft kiss and said, "I love you."

Michael was momentarily caught by surprise. That sounds so wonderful. He lovingly returned the kiss and she rested her head against his shoulder with a contented sigh. He said, "When I first told you I loved you, you had to ask if I meant it. I know I get impulsive at times, but you don't. I know you mean it."

"I'm sorry it took so long."

"Don't. I bet you wanted to be certain, because your honesty demands it."

"Thank you for being patient. I wanted to be sure. I didn't want to be wrong and hurt you."

"It was worth the wait." He kissed her again. "Well worth it."

Holding each other in peaceful contentment, they watched the rest of the fireworks. They passed blissful kisses and soft caresses between themselves and each felt the warmth and caring of the other.

After the show, they wordlessly rode back to the boathouse and tied up the boat. Holding hands, they went to Michael's car. Daria briefly looked in the back seat to make sure she'd remembered her luggage. "I hate to leave."

"You have a plane to catch."

"Plus, I have to go to work and class tomorrow."

She entered the car and he did the same. On impulse, she leaned over and gave him a deep kiss. "Thank you for everything."

"This weekend has been my pleasure."

The trip to the airport also passed in comparative silence as they held hands across the car seat. Neither wanted to break the mood with too much talking. After Michael parked the car, he insisted on carrying her luggage to check-in.

They cuddled together on a bench near her gate as they waited for her flight. When her row number was called for boarding, they both stood. Daria slid her hands around his waist as he wrapped his arms around her shoulders. After a warm kiss, they both said, "I love you," eliciting light laughs from each.

"Please have a good flight, and drive careful when you get home."

"I will. Damn I hate this. I don't want to leave you."

"I know the feeling." Michael smiled at Daria. "Now seems like a good time. My father agreed that I can stay in Boston for the summers from now on."

Daria's eyes opened wide.

Michael nodded. "We won't have to go through this again."

Daria rose up on her toes and kissed him. "You wonderful man. Knowing that will give me the patience to make it through the beginning of fall semester."

"You better get going."

"I suppose. I will be thinking about you."

"As will I. Tonight, you made me the happiest man alive."

Jane stumbled from her room and was instantly alert to the smell of coffee. Following her nose, she found Daria sitting at the table, a cup in her hands, and a glowing smile on her face. Jane grabbed a cup for herself and sat down. "You look awfully chipper for first thing in the morning and after a redeye flight back home."

Daria looked up in surprise. "Oh, you're awake."

Jane waved a hand in front of her friends face. "Earth calling Daria."

Daria continued to smile. "Sorry, just a little distracted."

Jane smirked. "I know you didn't get laid, so what's up?"

Daria completely let the comment go by. "I finally told him."

Jane raised her cup in a toast. "It's about damn time."

Thanks to Martin J. Pollard for detailed information on the Detroit area.

Thanks to Ipswichfan and Kristen Bealer for beta reading.

December 2004-January 2005.