Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2007.
This is the fifty-fifth story in the Falling into College series.
Merry Freaking Christmas, Quinn thought as she inched her way along the crowded aisle of the airliner while scanning the seat numbers for hers. She glanced down at her carryon suitcase. Thirty freaking dollars worth of gift wrapping ruined. Did those security guys have to open everything? A malodorous man in an ill-fitting suit before her finished shoving his luggage into the overhead bin and squeezed past a young woman to sit heavily in the window seat. Quinn gave the woman a glance of sympathy as she stepped past and found her seat. The aisle seat was still empty, so she was able to easily duck in and take her place at the window, sliding the suitcase underneath.
She spent the next ten minutes watching the many different people on board, longing to ask some where they found such cute clothes and hoping that others would have a sudden attack of good taste. A young man with blond hair stopped and put a small suitcase into the overhead. A pair of wraparound sunglasses was perched on top of his head and he wore a buff-colored t-shirt that said, "American Entomology" above an image of a US flag formed from patterns of colored insects. Next, he nodded to Quinn and sat down next to her before removing a paperback book from his laptop case, which he then placed under the seat.
Quinn observed as he started reading the book, a recent spy thriller. Cute, with a nice tan. I like his hair, cool sunglasses, but that shirt is so weird. Seeing that he was absorbed in the book, she pulled the in-flight catalog from the seat pocket and started to browse while waiting.
After takeoff and tiring of the catalog, Quinn turned to the young man. "Oh, a spy story. Is it any good?"
He straightened and faced her, placing a worn marker in the book and letting it rest on the open tray table. "Not too bad, though it's a bit formulaic in places. The author's written better stuff, but also a lot worse."
"I see." Thinking of Daria's stories, Quinn asked, "Do you read the magazine, Literature in Action?"
"That hack rag?" He shook his head. "They stumble on a few good stories now and then, but most of what they publish is crap."
She quietly acknowledged, "Oh."
"You're not a regular reader, are you?"
"No, not really, but they published some of my sister's stories. Daria Morgendorffer, have you heard of her?"
He shrugged. "Doesn't ring a bell, sorry."
"No problem, I was just curious."
The pilot announced, "We have reached our cruising altitude. You may now use your portable electronic devices and are free to move around the cabin."
"Ah, good," the man said and reached under the seat. He took his computer from its case and set it on the tray table. "Excuse me, I'm hoping to get a little work done before we reach Salt Lake City."
Curious about the man's apparent immunity to her charm, Quinn spent a couple of seconds watching him start the computer before looking out of the window at the scenery far below. Moving on to another mystery, Quinn thought about the last couple of phone conversations she had with her sister. Daria seemed almost...excited...about something and was most insistent about arranging to pick Quinn up from the airport. Curiosity about what could have her in such a state made Quinn wish that the flight back east was almost over instead of barely beginning.
Quinn's attention was caught by a colorful orange and black pattern on her neighbor's computer monitor. "That's pretty. Is it some kind of tribal pattern?"
"Um, no. That's the markings on Acrocinus longimanus, the Harlequin Beetle."
"That's on a bug?" she said in surprise.
"So, why are you looking at it?"
'"It's what I study." He pointed to his shirt, where the smaller print read "Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting, San Diego. December, 2001," and said, "I started my master's this past semester."
He changed images on the monitor. "That's Aristobia approximator, another longhorn beetle. I'm on a project looking at the evolution of markings on that family of beetles."
As he flipped through more colorful images, Quinn was surprised that instead of repulsion, she was fascinated with the patterns. She said, "Some of these would look great on swim suits. Give them a wild and natural look."
The man chuckled. "That would be a great way to turn on all the young entomologists in the area. Could've sold a bunch at the meeting last week. I had a blast."
She said, "Did you spend some time sightseeing after the meeting?"
"No need; I'm local. I go to UC-Lakeside."
"I'm on the other side of LA in Malibu and go to Pepperhill. By the way, my name's Quinn."
Giggling, he said, "You're kidding."
Offended, she said, "No, I'm not kidding; my name's Quinn. What's so funny?"
He managed to stop laughing. "Hi, I'm Quinn Gilstad."
She looked directly into his blue eyes. "Your name is Quinn?
"That is funny."
"This should provide a nice story once I get to my grandparents'."
"You live with them?"
"Nah, just spending Christmas with them in Florida. My mom will meet me there, and after the holiday, it's back across the country to Redding, up at the north end of the Central Valley."
"Do you have any brothers or sisters?" she asked.
"I'm an only child."
"What about your dad? Will he be there?"
"I haven't seen him since I was 12. My parents had the classic nasty divorce, yelling, screaming, throwing things, police visits, restraining orders, the whole works. Their lawyers made a killing before it was over. After that, he hit the road and good riddance."
"Old news. So, are you on your way home?"
"Kind of, my parents live in Lawndale, Maryland."
"You mentioned a sister. Any others in your family?"
"Just her. I don't think Mom and Dad would've survived three kids."
He laughed. "I need to tell that to Mom. Is your sister still at home?"
"No, she goes to school in Boston, but plans to pick me up at the Baltimore-Washington International on her way to Mom and Dad's."
"Isn't it a pretty long drive from Boston to Maryland?"
"Six or seven hours."
"Boy, she must really like you."
"We've gotten better, but I also think she's up to something and wants to talk to me before she faces our parents."
"Hope it isn't bad news."
She shook her head. "No, Daria's excited, which is really strange for her."
Michael knocked on his supervisor's door and said, "Mr. Morrison?"
The older gentleman looked up from his desk. "Yes, Mr. Fulton?"
Michael held up a filled-out form. "I'm applying for the archeology site assistant position that was posted yesterday."
"Please put it in the box. You're a history major, right?"
Michael laid the form on top of the desk inbox. "Yes, and I'm planning on studying archeology in grad school."
"Then this should be right up your alley, though I must warn you, with Professor Daniels getting the grant to handle archeological oversight of the trail repair project, you're likely to have some tough competition."
"I know, but I can't pass up the chance."
"I like the idea of someone already acquainted with the trail being the on-site assistant, but you can bet that some of Prof. Daniels' students at Bromwell will apply. Since supervision will be split, he and I will have to agree on whoever is hired."
Michael stepped back to the door and said, "I added everything I could think of that would be relevant, and asked my fiancée to proofread it, so at least it won't have any embarrassing typos."
"I'm already off the clock and need to go. I hope you have a Merry Christmas."
"You too, Mr. Fulton."
Michael hurried away through the staff area to the rear entrance of the building, waving to a couple of his coworkers on the way out. Daria was waiting in the parking lot as he emerged, pulling his jacket closed against the cold wind. He jogged to the car and ducked in as quickly as possible. "My mother always said it wasn't safe to accept rides from strangers."
Daria leaned over and placed her hand over the back of his neck, drawing him into a kiss before asking, "Was that strange enough for you?"
"I'm not sure. We better try that again."
"Nice try," Daria said, giving him a quick kiss. "But we need to get going. You know the traffic between here and Logan is going to suck."
Seated on a snack bar stool at Logan International Airport, Michael glumly looked at the security checkpoint. "No respect for tradition. I'm asking you, what is this world coming to?"
At the next stool, Daria looked past the screeners in an attempt to glimpse the small eatery where they had said their Christmas goodbyes the two previous years. "I guess both of us will have to fly next year."
"That could work." He rotated the seat and reached out to gently lift Daria's necklace. Parts of the chain and the edges of the mount were dull where the gold plating had worn away, but the polished malachite stone still shone like new. He said, "It means a lot that you still wear it."
"In many ways, it means as much to me as the ring," she said, stroking his cheek with her left hand as light glinted from the emerald setting. "My life changed the moment I opened the package. I didn't realize it at the time, but Jane said something when she picked me up at the airport. 'Happiness looks good on you.' In many ways, you're not the kind of man I expected, but that happiness tells me that you're the one I was lucky to find."
"Leave me speechless, why don't you?"
She placed a package wrapped with blue paper and a white ribbon in his hands. "Since you're not talking, you can open this."
Very curious about the size and shape, he peeled the tape loose and slipped a familiar style ring box from the paper. Daria said with a sly smile, "If you're going to mark your territory, so am I."
When he opened it, Michael found a gold man's ring set with a single square-cut emerald. With a silent nod, he put the ring on, forcing to get it past the knuckle. He whispered, "Thank you."
Enjoying having him off-guard, Daria said, "I figured that would be more dignified than spraying your leg."
That broke his surprise. He teased back while tugging on the ring, "And it's appreciated. Though I think I should have this resized, it's a little tight."
"You must have fat fingers."
"Then I'll go on a diet." Michael removed a thin, envelope-like package from his suitcase and gave it to Daria. "Your turn."
"I'm almost afraid to open it," Daria said. "A proposal's a hard act to follow."
"I didn't try, and I certainly can't top what you just gave me. It's a little different and I hope it works."
Inside the red and green paper, Daria found an envelope containing four certificates. Each was for a one-hour horse ride for two at a stable west of Boston.
Michael explained, "I got the idea when I gave you that picture I took down in Georgia when we were riding with Karen and Derek."
She leaned over and kissed him. "That's one of the reasons I love you. You manage to make things special. Thanks."
He stood and softly embraced her. "You're welcome."
Daria did the same. They stayed together and basked in the closeness. After a minute, they parted, but continued to hold hands.
"Good luck with asking your parents," Michael said.
"Thanks. Are you still comfortable with the idea?"
"After your explanation, it makes perfect sense. I can't see why your parents would say, 'no.'"
"I hope you're right." Daria looked at her watch and said, "You should probably get in line for security; it looks long."
He sighed. "I'm starting to hate this saying goodbye routine."
"I'm not too fond of it myself."
"I'm looking forward to when we won't go our separate ways for the holidays."
"We're sounding almost hopeful."
"It's your fault. I'm the misery chick."
"I'll be miserable without you." They hugged once again and Michael said, "Please have a safe drive."
"And you have a safe flight."
They had a last, lingering kiss before whispering, "Goodbye," together, parting and backing away. As the crowd filled the space between them, they turned and walked in opposite directions - desperately wishing that they weren't.
In the passenger lounge at Salt Lake City Airport, Quinn watched her new acquaintance disappear onto the boarding ramp to his connecting flight. Feeling very odd, she went to the window and found a new seat that allowed her a clear view of the plane. She waited patiently and when it pulled away, she stood and leaned against the window to watch the departing aircraft. Several windows behind the wing, she caught sight of him and waved. He looked pleasantly surprised and waved back as the aircraft rolled away. After it was lost from sight, she slowly started the walk to her boarding gate and the couple hour wait. Without thinking, she reached up and brushed a tear from her cheek.
"Hey Goofball, over here!" Gina called out to her brother.
Michael weaved through the crowd toward the dark brunette. Once in range of a normal voice, he said, "Just as ladylike as ever, I see."
"Lighten up," she said, giving him a quick, sisterly hug.
"I'll think about it," he said in return. "How are you?"
As they started walking toward the baggage claim area, Gina said, "I'm great. Damn, it's nice to be a senior."
"Ah, I remember those heady days."
Teasing, she said, "I thought you were trying to forget them."
"And you still can't pick up on sarcasm," he said, giving her a light push with his left hand.
She grabbed it and looked at the ring. "Jewelry? When did you start wearing jewelry?"
"Christmas present from Daria."
Gina punched her brother's arm. "You're the one who's supposed to give her a ring, Goofball."
Gina stopped and slowly turned. "Whoa. Did you say what I think you just said and does it mean what I think it means?"
"Yes and yes."
"Yes!" she shouted, causing those nearby to look at them.
He laughed and said, "I'm glad you approve."
"Of course I approve. You finally showed that you're not as dumb as you look. Now come on, I want the whole story."
"The whole story...are you sure?"
"I suppose it started when Daria was born on November..."
She pushed his arm. "Not that far back."
"You said you wanted the whole story."
"Okay, start with how you decided to ask Daria...this time."
"Ahhh, I see."
When Gina stopped the car in front of the Fulton house, Michael sternly said, "Don't go running into the house blurting the news to Mom and Dad. Let me tell them."
"I'm not that dense," Gina replied. "But give me a minute to grab my camera. I promise that I'll be discreet and not tip them off."
"You owe me."
"Someday, the tables will be turned."
Michael stepped out and went to the back while Gina opened the truck using the underseat control. "See you inside."
"Give me a minute."
After Gina trotted to the door, Michael lifted his suitcase from the trunk and placed it on the ground beside his carryon. He closed the trunk and paused, looking at his ring. "I hope your drive to BWI is going okay, Daria. I'll make sure my mom doesn't call yours and spoil the surprise."
He lifted both pieces of luggage and said, "Okay Michael, here goes nothing."
His parents were waiting at the door to grab him into a hug. Samantha said, "Welcome home," while Ron said, "Good to see you, son."
"Mom, Dad, great to see you." When he stepped back, he caught sight of Gina sneaking down the stairs with her camera. He waited for her to get closer and said, "I have something I need to tell you."
"Michael, what is it?" Samantha worriedly said.
He saw Gina stop with her camera at the ready, took a deep breath and said, "Daria and I are engaged."
After the long drive, Daria opted to stand rather than sit on one of the barstools next to her table. She leaned against it and nursed her coffee while watching the arrival concourse for Quinn. Finally, she saw her sister's short, bright red and immensely cute hair through the crowd. Daria started to stretch her back but thought better of it. She drained the remaining, lukewarm liquid and fought her way through the crowd, finally calling, "Quinn, over here."
"Daria!" Quinn said, waving and changing direction. "I'm so glad to see you, the flight was murder."
Keeping her left hand out of sight, Daria reached Quinn. "My drive wasn't much better, between the snow and the freezing rain. At least you got to relax."
"Relax? Yeah, right, while the plane was jumping up and down like a roller coaster. And eww, that little bag wasn't big enough for the guy sitting next to me."
"Okay, we both had sucky trips," Daria said. She motioned with her head and started walking, keeping to Quinn's left. "Let's pick up your bags and get out of here. We'll have to walk; they're not allowing curbside parking."
"That's what skycaps are for. The trip wasn't all bad: my first flight was nice and the layover was fun."
"I never imagined you associating Salt Lake City with fun."
"It was the company."
Daria chuckled and rolled her eyes. "You've spread your corruption over the nice young men of that city. Is there no limit to your evil?"
"No. I met a nice guy on the flight and we stopped at the coffee shop to talk."
"You, in a coffee shop?"
"I had a decaf skim-milk cappuccino with Splenda. I'm not letting myself go, if that's what you're worried about."
"It was either that or the alien implants are working. Hold on, you said guy. Singular. You spent your entire layover talking to only one male of the species?"
"Ha-ha, Daria. Talking to Quinn was so much fun that we hardly noticed the time go by."
"Since when you have you started referring to yourself in the third person?"
"His name was Quinn, silly."
"I can see where this could get confusing. But still, you spent several hours talking to only one guy? Even you have to admit that is unusual."
Quinn shrugged. "Hey, isn't college about new experiences?"
"Point taken, Quinn."
"So, what's on your mind that you insisted on making the long trip instead of just letting me take a cab to Mom and Dad's? Don't try any of your tricks, just tell me."
"It can wait until we're out of the crowd."
"Okay, but this had better be good."
Quinn gave the skycap a tip, smiled sweetly and said, "Oh, thank you."
He said, "My pleasure, I hope you fly again soon."
"I'll be back in a week."
"I'll look for you."
Closing her trunk, Daria said, "I see you still have the magic touch. Now let's get out of this damn cold."
"Okay, Daria, and then you better start talking," Quinn said, opening the passenger door of Daria's car and sitting down.
Daria took her seat behind the wheel and closed the door. "How about if I show you?"
Puzzled, Quinn said, "Show? What could you..." Seeing the ring as Daria slowly lifted her hand, she exclaimed, "Oh my God! Is that really...did he...did you...?"
Daria nodded with each question. "Yes, yes and yes."
Quinn dove across the seat to hug Daria. "Wow, that's great! Do you have a date yet?"
Looking down at her sister, Daria said, "Not exactly..."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Quinn said as she sat back upright.
Daria started her car. "There's still an important detail I want to run past Mom and Dad."
Quinn started to carefully ask, "Um, you're not..."
"No, I'm not pregnant."
Standing with the aid of a walker, Helen said to her hovering husband, "I'm fine, Jake. Quinn called to say that they'll be here soon and after going to California and back last month, I'll be damned if I'm going to greet our girls sitting down."
"Yes, dear," Jake said. He peered out of the small arched window near the door at the lighted driveway and was soon able to say, "They're here."
Jake opened the front door and waved. "Daria! Quinn! Glad you're back!"
Quinn looked up at the window of her old room. "It feels good to be back, Daddy."
Daria said, "Hi Dad. How's Mom?"
"She's waiting inside." He beckoned with the sweep of one arm. "Come in, I can get your bags later."
Quinn looked at Daria, who looked back and then they both shrugged. Daria said, "I can be talked into letting Dad do the grunt work tonight."
"Me, too," Quinn replied.
Daria was pleased to see her mother looking stronger and happier. Though still a little uneven, the smile on Helen's face was broad and sincere as she said, "Welcome home," while Daria and Quinn were removing their winter coats.
"Mom," Daria said before carefully embracing her mother. "You're looking good."
"So are you, sweetie."
"Yeah, Daria," Quinn said. "Now that you have the jacket off, I can see that you've lost weight. You do look good."
Ignoring her slight irritation, Daria said, "Appearance isn't the reason I lost weight, but, um, thanks."
Jake said, "You look great, kiddo. How's the old cholesterol thing going?"
"I had a follow-up test last week. I'm getting there, but still need to keep working on it."
"Keep it up," he encouraged, hugging her while Quinn greeted Helen.
"I've had a really long day; can we adjourn all of this to the sofa, where I can sit down in comfort and take my boots off?" Daria said, already going in that direction.
"That sounds great," Quinn said. She winked to Daria and said, "Give me a moment."
Helen watched her daughters with mild suspicion, knowing that they were planning something. Thinking that she would just have to wait for things to play out, Helen followed Daria to the middle sofa, where her daughter patted the seat, inviting her to sit.
Jake sat on the next section and Quinn walked around with her camera. "Okay everybody, I want a picture. Smile."
Thanks, Quinn, Daria thought as she faintly smiled.
"Great," Quinn said after snapping the picture. She sat down on the remaining sofa with the camera in her lap.
Jake said, "Don't you want a picture with you in it?"
"In a minute, Daddy."
Helen's eyes darted between daughters as she resisted the temptation to ask what they were up to. With Daria sitting beside her and Quinn nonchalantly holding the camera on the other sofa, Helen deduced that Daria was behind it all. She inquired, "What's new with you, Daria?"
"Since you asked," Daria said, raising her left hand. "Michael and I are engaged."
Quinn swiftly raised the camera and captured Jake and Helen's look of surprise and glee, along with Daria's satisfied smirk.
Starting to cry, Helen hugged Daria tight. "Sweetie."
"That's great, Kiddo! Who's the lucky guy?" Jake said.
Everyone turned to face him as Jake's face broke into a silly grin. Helen sighed and said, "Your father has rediscovered his sense of humor." Helen looked at the ring and said, "That's beautiful and I'm very happy for you."
Helen turned a little more to face Daria. "You're not rushing into this, are you?"
"I'm not pregnant."
Helen shook her head. "That's not what I meant."
"I know my stroke has affected you in a lot of ways."
Nodding, Daria said, "It has."
"I'm recovering very well and should be able to return to work after the holiday."
Quinn asked, "What's that have to do with Daria and Michael getting married?"
Helen said, "I'm hoping that they're not rushing because they're afraid something else might happen. You can't live your life that way."
Daria said, "Actually Mom, we're thinking about waiting until after graduation, so you have a year and a half to prepare."
Helen visibly relaxed and then suddenly said, "Oh my, a year and a half? We have to start planning!"
Excited, Quinn said, "Tell me about it. I got so many good ideas from helping Lindy, and wow, the stuff that Amy did at her wedding..."
"Mom, you and Dad prepared for your wedding in less time," Daria said.
"You're my daughter and that changes everything."
Quinn said, "Daria, you're going to be surprised at all the things you'll have to worry about. Mom, what do you think about using the reception hall at Le Grande?
Jake reached over to place a hand on Daria's shoulder. "I have the newspaper over on the table."
She looked at Helen and Quinn already deep in conversation. "Dibs on the Arts section."
As both stood up, Jake said, "It's already by your chair."
"Any time, Kiddo."
Walking through the kitchen, Daria asked, "What do you think?"
"I'm happier than you can imagine," Jake said. He sat at the table and politely handed the Arts section to Daria before withdrawing his hand to rub tears from his eyes.
"Sorry Daria, it's...oh, you don't want to hear it."
"Yes, I do."
"It's only a little piece of my heart breaking."
Sitting in the kitchen, Michael enthusiastically asked over the phone, "How did it go?"
Lying on the bed in her old room, Daria said, "Everyone's happy for us. Mom and Quinn are already putting together creative concepts for the ceremony."
"I suppose that if they're busy, they won't be underfoot. What about your dad?"
"He gave me a glimpse of how much he really cares about me and he's probably happier than anyone else."
"I like your dad. He probably has one of his silly grins on right now."
"Or something like that. How did your family take it?"
"They're cool, and my mom's been itching to get on the phone with yours to start the plotting."
"Mom and Quinn are on Quinn's laptop looking at bridal websites. I hope they remember that we have final say on the matter."
"I'm sure you can bring them around. So, what did your parents say about the date?"
She stammered, "Um...I haven't asked yet."
"Everything, uh, happened so fast that I didn't have a chance. Don't worry, I'll ask tomorrow."
"If your family acted anything like mine, I can believe it. By the way, the word's already on its way out. Inside of five minutes after we got home, Gina was on the phone to Natalie with the news."
"As soon as Quinn has a chance, I'm sure she'll tell all of her friends around here. We can't hide anything now."
"Dammit, I guess we're stuck."
Smiling warmly, Daria said, "Yeah, I guess we are."
In the converted first floor dining room, Helen sat on her bed after therapy exercises and spoke on her cell phone, "Samantha, I'm sure you've heard the good news."
Seated in the kitchen, she said, "Yes, Michael could hardly wait until he was through the door. Oh, and Helen, he said that you're making a fantastic recovery."
Feeling her sore muscles, Helen said, "That's what everyone is saying, but from my point of view, this is taking forever. I'll be glad to return to work next month."
"Next month? That is impressive, Helen."
"Thank you. How are you doing, Samantha?"
"Oh, I lose a few pounds, I gain a few back. But so far this year, I'm at a net loss. Let's hope I can keep it up over the holidays."
Daria stopped by the door. "Mom, I'm going over to Trent and Lindy's. Jane finally made it in; she and Mack stayed at his folks' last night."
"Excuse me a moment," Helen said to the phone. To Daria, she asked, "There's a package for Trent and Lindy under the tree. Can you drop it off for your father and me, please?"
"No problem, Mom. I'll be back sometime this afternoon."
"Have fun," Helen said and waved. Back to the phone, she said, "That was Daria going to see Jane's family. They've really been a help to Jake and me these past couple of months."
Walking through the kitchen, Daria looked back over her shoulder. I'm probably going to regret leaving them unsupervised.
Trent opened the door and saw her outside. "Hey Daria. Congratulations."
"Thanks, Trent. Did Jane tell you first, or did Quinn call Lindy?"
Trent chuckled. "Quinn called Lindy last night."
Stepping inside, Daria said, "Any great advice?"
"Make sure you have someone wake you up on time."
Daria gently laughed. "I don't think that'll be a problem."
Closing the door, Trent said, "Yeah, Lindy was kinda excited when she woke me up for ours."
Jogging down the stairs, Jane said, "Hey, there."
Daria asked, "How's Mack?"
Jane grinned. "Excellent, always excellent."
"I meant his general well-being."
"Oh, that's good, too."
"Guess it's a little too late to play big brother," Trent said.
Jane playfully kicked his rear. "You know better than that."
"Big Brother is sleeping," Daria said. "Not exactly what Orwell had in mind."
"I can use that," Jane said.
Lindy walked in from the kitchen. "Jane, you know that only I'm allowed to abuse Trent like that. Hi, Daria, I'm really happy for you."
"I have a good idea of what you felt like."
"Feels good, doesn't it?"
Daria nodded, faintly embarrassed.
"Jeez, Daria," Jane said. "Don't tell me you're turning into one of those girls that can only talk about her wedding."
"No, but I've already learned that questions are unavoidable, so I preemptively give some basic information. However, I'm not interested in dwelling on it; that's why I agreed to follow you today. When I left, Mom was on the phone with Mrs. Fulton and Quinn was on her way to Books by the Ton to buy the wedding planning section."
Lindy said, "Don't worry, Daria, it only gets worse."
"I think I'm going to regret this long engagement."
Jane said, "You could always elope."
Daria briefly smiled, and then was thoughtful for a moment before quietly saying, "I couldn't do that to Dad."
"Your dad's really a nice guy," Lindy said. "He might be goofy and clumsy, but he's really been there for your mom or made sure that Marianne, Trent or I filled in. And if you get him started on you or Quinn, he'll talk your ear off."
"I'm sure." Daria then admitted, "It's taken me a long time, but I've learned a lot from Mom and Dad about...stuff like that." Daria handed her parents' gift to Lindy. "This is from Mom and Dad. And I also want to say thanks for helping them."
Lindy said, "Aw, they didn't have to do anything."
Jane looked at her watch and then tugged on Daria's sleeve. "You're getting mushy around the edges, Morgendorffer. Come on, I don't want to be late."
"That's the first time I think I've ever heard that about going to Lawndale High. Mushy, huh? Do you want me to describe how you and Karen acted when I told you?"
"Come on Daria, we really have to go. Bye, Trent. Bye, Lindy."
Daria stared at the familiar brick buildings. "Lawndale High. I can't believe that I've willingly returned."
"Don't give me that 'willingly' crap, Daria. You're here because it's the best excuse you could find to run away from your family."
"We could've found better things to do, like investigate what's really behind the dumpster at Good Time Chinese."
"Remember, Daria, we're visitors, not inmates. Oh, and I survived a year and a half more of this place than you did."
"Got me. Okay, lead on McLane."
Inside the school, Daria observed, "This place is eerie when the students are gone."
"Trust me, Daria, the quiet is golden to the teachers."
"I can believe it after my experiences this last fall with the mentor teachers."
Claire DeFoe was in the front office when they arrived. Somehow, she managed to exude the same feeling of creativity and freedom as before while wearing a business style dress. "Jane, Daria, please come in."
"Hi, Ms. DeFoe," Daria said.
"Please call me Claire; you're no longer a student."
"How bad is the crop this year?" Jane asked while following Claire to her office.
"About the usual: a few good, a few bad, and the rest trying to make it through as best they can."
"That's what I'm starting to learn," Daria said. "I had three hours a week as an intern this semester and in the spring; I get monitored responsibility for a class five hours a week."
"That's right; I remember that you were also majoring in Education. How do you like it so far? I know Jane still loves working with the children at the hospital."
Daria took a seat and said, "There are times I want to bash my head against the wall more than I did when I was a student here. But other times, I can even understand why Mr. DeMartino keeps going."
"Don't let her fool you Claire. She's getting hooked on teaching," Jane said.
Claire rolled her chair around the desk so that it faced the other two in the room without obstruction. Sitting, she said, "You either get hooked or burn out in a year or two."
"Speaking of burnout, I hear you got rid of the bomb-sniffing dogs," Daria said.
Claire replied, "It was so hard finding good homes for them."
Jane asked, "You didn't end up with any of them, did you?"
"No. A teacher from Oakwood has one of them and Anthony took the other."
"Somehow, that seems fitting," Daria said as she took a seat.
Laughing, Claire said, "There's a young man in the sophomore class that reminds me of you. His name is Link. He takes particular delight in teasing Timothy Barch."
Jane said, "Huh? Oh, that's right. He changed his name after they were married. Still a scary thought that they have a kid."
"It's mellowed Janet out, so I'm not complaining on that end. But I swear that Timothy has gotten worse."
"I didn't think that was possible," Daria said. "This Link, does he have dark hair and glasses?"
"Yes, but he has contacts now. Do you know him?"
"We're both survivors of OK to Cry Corral summer camp. I was volunteered to be a counselor the year before I graduated."
"So that's how Link knew Timothy."
Daria asked, "How is Link doing? We exchanged e-mails for a while, but we lost contact with each other."
"I understand that he and his mother spent several months living in a shelter after she left his father during the beginning of his freshman year."
"That would be his stepfather, actually," Daria corrected. "Living in a shelter would explain why e-mails started bouncing."
"I'll have to mention that I saw you. He seems to have recovered though and he's getting good grades."
"Can I borrow some paper? I'll write down my e-mail address for him."
"Sure." Clair took a pack of sticky-notes from her desk and handed them to Daria. "That's a lovely ring."
Jane said, "Somebody's engaged."
Claire cooed, "Oh, congratulations."
Daria glared at Jane. "I was hoping to have one conversation this week without that being the topic."
Finally home after being hauled around Lawndale all day by Jane, taking in such things as lunch at Pizza Prince, last-minute gift shopping on Dega Street and a stop to make faces at the trendy coffee chain where the old coffee house had been, Daria stopped in the kitchen. Jake was finishing a dinner that smelled rather appealing and Helen was already seated at the table. Daria said, 'Hey, I'm back."
"How's good ol' Jane doing these days?" Jake asked.
"Up to her usual tricks." Thinking this might be a good time to bring up what she wanted to ask, Daria said, "Mom, Dad, do you have a minute?"
"Of course, Daria, have a seat. After you left this morning, Samantha and I had a wonderful conversation. Now that you're here, I'd like to talk to you about some of the ideas we worked out."
Jake said, "Dinner won't be ready for another half an hour, and besides, Quinn is upstairs. You and Helen have plenty of time, Daria."
Daria stopped at the refrigerator for a glass of water before reluctantly sitting at the table. "Okay Mom, what do you have?"
Helen opened a notebook. "Daria, I know you don't want anything over the top."
Relaxing, Daria said, 'Thank you."
Pointing to a printed webpage, Helen said, "You'd look good in something like Amy's wedding dress, but in your own style. I think this would fit the bill, and it's only $3,500."
Daria choked on her water and clamped her hand over her nose and mouth to keep any from escaping. When she was able to breathe, she said, "$3,500?"
Hearing her sister, Quinn rushed down the stairs with a paper bag full of books and magazines. "Daria! Look at all of the bridal stuff I found for us to look at!"
Sitting in his room and talking on the phone, Michael said in agreement, "We've created monsters."
Also in her room, Daria said, "It was bad enough that Quinn found someplace that actually makes glass slippers, but what I really couldn't believe was that she brought out a Veronica's Secret Bridal Catalog and that Mom not only didn't bat an eye, but had some suggestions!"
"What did your dad say?"
"That's when he turned red and ran away, telling us how to finish dinner. Which I handled because Mom and Quinn were still talking."
"You win; it's not that bad here. Mom's only bouncing off of the walls and Dad said that if I can survive the engagement, I can survive anything. Meanwhile, Gina and Natalie are talking and giggling. Oh, by the way, Gina wants to know if there's a bridesmaid slot open. I told her that we don't even have a clue yet and she said that she was staking out her claim early."
"This is going to spin completely out of control if we let it, but I don't want to clamp down too hard since I'm going to be asking for a big favor from Mom and Dad."
"Going to? That sounds like you haven't asked yet."
"No, I haven't. It's not something that's easy to ask and with everything flying at me, I haven't had a chance."
He joked, "Just try to find time before you head home, okay?"
"I hope so."
"Do you want me to call and ask for you?"
"Michael Fulton, you're not making things easier."
"Ouch, pulling out the last name. I get the hint."
It was Daria's turn to tease. "I thought you were smarter than the average bear, which must be why I like you."
"Thanks. But let me tell you, living this far from the woods does make things uncomfortable at times."
"That was too much information. If you don't mind, I want to do some reading before I go to sleep tonight, so I'm going to call it early tonight. I'll do my best to ask tomorrow."
"I should probably get around to wrapping the rest of my presents for tomorrow. Good luck and I love you."
"I love you. Good night."
Daria turned her cell phone off and placed it on the nightstand. From beside it, she carefully picked up an old volume marked "1936" and sat back on her bed while gently skimming the yellowed, handwritten pages. "Theresa, I had a feeling that bringing this volume to read was a good idea."
As I write tonight, I can barely keep my eyes off of the ring on my finger. Yes, a ring, Mark asked me to marry him and I said, "Yes." Even though the diamond is small, I don't know how he could afford it. He said not to worry. Silly man, of course I'll worry. Mr. Roosevelt may have promised to make things better, but we haven't seen any changes yet. Neither my family nor his can afford much for a wedding. Since everything will be simple, we saw no reason to wait very long. On July 14, I'll become Mrs. Blaine.
Daria flipped forward in the diary.
Mom finished my dress today. Aunt Alice even gave her a small piece of white silk for the collar. The whole family's been so helpful and generous. I don't care what I thought as a little girl about some big wedding. This means so much more than anyone could buy with money. The whole congregation at church is excited and I've had so many people offer covered dishes for the reception, I don't think we'll need to buy anything. Mark's mother wants to bake the cake for us.
"I hope Dad doesn't offer to bake the cake," Daria said with a light chuckle.
I'm so nervous that I've hardly been able to eat all day. I keep having this nightmare of tripping over my gown on the way down the aisle. Dad promised to catch me if that happens. Everything is ready and all I can do is wait and worry about what might go wrong. Oh, listen to me. Nothing is going to go wrong and tomorrow will be perfect. I only have to keep telling myself that.
Sorry I didn't have time to write yesterday, but Mark and I were just so busy. Our wedding was delightful. I think keeping it simple was the right answer. Reverend Tyler was a bundle of laughs before we started and helped to calm my nerves. Much to my relief, I didn't trip over my dress on the way down the aisle. I don't think I've seen Dad so thrilled in my life, or that Mom would ever stop crying.
Daria slowly closed the volume and said, "A short engagement isn't in the cards for Michael and me, but you've given me more good reasons to keep things simple. Thanks once again, Theresa."
The next morning was Christmas. By mid-morning the Morgendorffers were gathered around the coffee table, which was cluttered with opened presents along with empty mugs of coffee and hot chocolate. Meanwhile, paper, ribbons and bows littered the carpet around the sofas. Jake and Helen sat together in the center with their daughters on either side. Daria wetted her lips and looked around. "Now that the paper carnage is over, there are a couple things I'd like to discuss with you."
Jake said, "Go ahead, Daria, what's on your mind?"
"Well, it's my engagement, or more like, the planning for my wedding. Mom, Quinn, I know you're excited for me and have a lot of ideas. Please don't take this wrong, but Michael and I were hoping for something small and simple."
Helen said, "Are you sure, Daria? It's your big day."
"Mom, you and Dad had a simple wedding and it was beautiful. We don't want a duplicate, but Michael and I would like something similar."
"Sweetie, we kept it simple because Jake and I didn't have much choice. Is it too much for us to wish for our daughter to have more of a choice than what we had?"
"Mom, Dad, I appreciate it, but can you understand if we opt for something smaller?" Daria swung her head toward her sister and winked. "I'm sure that once Quinn finds someone, she'll make up the difference with the social event of the season. With my blessing."
"Thanks, Daria," Quinn said.
Daria quickly said, "That doesn't mean I don't want your help; I know I'm going to need a lot. Plus, your help will mean more to us than spending a lot of money on stuff that's really not needed."
Helen slowly nodded. "It's your day, Daria."
Daria shuffled her feet. "There's one more thing and it's very personal."
"What is it?"
Daria took a deep breath. "Michael and I have a particular date in mind that means a lot to us, but...we want to make sure that it's okay with you and Dad."
Helen said, "I don't care what the date is; we will make time for your wedding." Hurt, she asked, "How could you think otherwise?"
"Mom, whether or not you had other plans wasn't what concerned us."
"Then what date could you possibly worry about?"
Hope in her eyes, Daria said, "June 26."
Jake said, "Hey! That sounds familiar."
Helen completely missed her husband's comment as she searched for what to say.
"Wait a minute, that's our anniversary," Jake said. "That will be real easy to remember!"
Helen carefully said, "I'm not saying no, but I'm wondering why. Wouldn't you prefer a day of your own?"
One small, uncharacteristic tear in her eye, Daria said, "It's a thank-you. If I hadn't heard from you and Dad how you first got together, I never would've started dating Michael. I haven't told you this before, but it was on my way home from your silver anniversary that I finally accepted that I loved him."
Helen reached for Jake's hand and swallowed back her emotions while looking into his eyes. When he nodded, she turned back to Daria. "We're honored. Thank you."
New Year's Eve and finally home, Daria sat cross-legged on the couch with Bump comfortably purring on her lap. She said, "I know you were not neglected, that's why I picked that boarding cattery. You didn't even miss fish day."
Bump half rolled to look up while rubbing the side of her face against Daria.
"Oh, all right, I missed you, too."
After a knock, Michael unlocked the front door and cracked it open. "It's me. Sorry it took so long; traffic was miserable."
"Pardon me if I don't get up. I'm on the sofa doing penance."
He closed and locked the door. "I can hear Bump from here. You must be doing a good job."
"At least adequate."
Michael stopped behind the sofa and put his arms around Daria while kissing the side of her neck. "I missed you."
She closed her eyes as he continued. "Hmm. I think someone else was just telling me that."
"Should I be jealous?"
"No," Daria murmured. "She can't do anything like that."
"Good." After a moment, he gazed down at the feline. "Has she made any suggestions about what we should do for our wedding?"
"She's deemed you acceptable and granted permission. We should expect nothing more."
Michael nodded to the cat. "Thank you." To Daria, he said, "Oh, my parents thought the date was sweet, but made one request in return."
"To have our first child on their anniversary."
Daria groaned. "Did you explain to them that is an option to be decided far, far in the future?"
"Yes, but they said that they can be patient."
Daria tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling. "You realize that we're going to have to put up with this kind of crap until the wedding, don't you? Grandma Tess is pulling in all her old contacts from Erin's wedding. Something that's scarier is that Grandma Ruth is cooperating with her. But even more frightening was Amy's evil laugh."
"Maybe Nietzsche had engagements in mind when he said, 'That which does not destroy us, makes us strong.'"
Daria rolled her head to the side to nibble on his neck. "Sweet talker."
At the top of the stairs, Helen took a moment to rest before going to the large, arched window that dominated the front of the house. Beside her, Jake followed and said, "Honey?"
"I'm fine, Jake. No, I'm great," Helen said as she looked out at the snow-covered yard. "I'm beating the effects of my stroke and you're doing great on your cholesterol. Daria's engaged and happier than she's ever been in her life, while Quinn is growing as a bright young woman. There's one more thing I'd like to accomplish before the end of the year tonight."
"I want to move back into our bedroom."
Firm, Helen said, "Yes. That's our room and nothing is going to keep us from it."
"I can call Trent and see if his friends can come over to help."
Helen very softly drew her fingertips along his arm. "I have a great idea on how to celebrate midnight."
Jake broke into a huge grin. "You're on! I'll make a big pot of chili to convince them!"
Helen smiled and leaned against his chest. "I better call Lindy and warn her."
Prone on her bed, Fran looked up at Quinn standing just inside the door of her room. "Engaged, huh? So that's the reason your sister wanted to pick you up at the airport."
"So, have you been tapped for bridesmaid duty again?"
"Daria hasn't decided on anything like that yet. I think she's still enjoying the glow and not worrying yet."
"Tell her I'm jealous."
"I'll pass it on." Quinn slipped one of Fran's books from the shelf. "Do you mind? I feel like reading something a little different."
"That's one of my cheesy romances."
"Yeah, I know."
"Ah-ha. Your sister got to you."
Quinn faintly smiled and thought of the blond-haired man on the plane. "That's part of it."
Thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.