Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged. Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2009. Details of Daria, Michael, Jane, CC and Nell's Spring Break trip to Las Vegas will be told in Martin J. Pollard's story, "What Happens in Vegas."
This is the seventieth story in the Falling into College series.
Seated on the coffee table, Bump idly batted a paw at one of the loose stacks of university brochures and catalogs also occupying the table. With each hit, the pile shifted and teetered, threatening to fall.
Both looking tired and frazzled, Daria and Michael worked around the cat while comparing different graduate programs.
She said, "Are we sure we want to do this?"
"Subject ourselves to another four or five more years of school?" Michael said. "Why not? We're gluttons for punishment."
"Years of trying to live on graduate stipends in the hopes of beating the one-in-fifty or less odds of landing a faculty job for one of us, let alone both. I can hardly wait," Daria said.
"We'll have a good starting buffer with what's left of your grandmother's money for school. Enough for us to move, find a place to live, and eat until we get paid."
"If we can find a place with graduate advisors both of us can stand," Daria said with a sigh.
"We already found one with advisors that neither of us could stand," Michael said.
Daria lightly laughed and said, "At least the rest of last week's Spring Break trip worked out better."
"What happens in Vegas," Michael said with a good laugh. "I'm glad you let Jane talk you into it."
"Yeah, I really had to twist her arm. I wish Karen and Derek could've made it, but considering what was going on, I can understand why they didn't."
"Iraq," Michael said, somberly.
Not wanting to continue the subject, both went back to their prior task. Daria pulled a brochure from the table and flipped it open. "Have you heard from Everglades University yet?"
He rifled through a stack of papers until he found the right one. "The only professor down there accepting new students wants someone who can also identify snails and mussels in the Native American diet."
"Seminole escargot seems awfully specialized, even to me."
"So we can skip that idea."
The pile of catalogs slid and then fell off the table as Bump stepped back. She looked up at Daria and Michael and innocently meowed.
"Don't worry," Daria said, scratching the cat's nose. "It was the reject pile."
Michael tossed the letter to the fallen stack and said, "Like all the rest."
Karen angrily shouted into the telephone, "Don't give me any crap about not being patriotic, you whiney-assed, testicularly-challenged pile of road-kill opossum that a starving pig wouldn't touch! You feeling threatened by a woman speaking the truth on stage doesn't make her wrong. It shows how much of a useless excuse of a Y chromosome you are."
Coming through the door holding the mail, Derek heard the DJ's reply on the radio, "Well now, little missy. I've hit a nerve. Maybe if you associated with real men instead of those prissy college boys, you'd know something about how we feel about defending our country."
He squeezed his eyes shut and said, "Oh, boy."
She growled, "When you show me that you can think and stand up for what you believe in instead of what your candy-assed buddies tell you to do, you will have the right to talk to me about that. Until then, go crawl back under your mommy's skirt until you're old enough to run with the big dogs. You don't have the stamina or the stomach to keep up with me for one day at work as a veterinary assistant, let alone what my husband experienced in Afghanistan."
"Afghanistan?" the DJ said, his voice having lost its bombastic tone.
"Yeah. You know, the other place the Army sent real men to fight for our country."
"Wow, how time flies. Time for a word from our sponsor!" the DJ quickly said and cut to a commercial.
Derek sat down, leaned over the sofa back and said, "You enjoyed that way too much."
"You don't say bad things about my husband and you don't badmouth the Dixie Chicks. Hi, honey. How was your day?"
"A few aches and pains, but nothing bad. I'm impressed that I still rate that high." He held up a large envelope and said, "You've got some mail from the Vet School."
Karen rolled over the back of the sofa, taking the envelope from his hand in the process. She ripped the top off and pulled out the contents. She read the cover letter, threw the brochures and catalog aside and wrapped her arms around Derek's neck. "I'm in!"
"Congratulations!" he said, kissing her.
"God, I've been on pins and needles waiting to hear if I'd been accepted. We won't have to move and you won't have to change colleges."
"I guess this is our lucky day," he said.
She pulled him closer and said, "And it's about to get luckier."
'Bel looked into the activity room of Boston Children's Hospital and watched Jane sitting on a table in the middle of a group of children working on some project. Jane spun around to help each child and was completely absorbed in them. 'Bel went over and said, "Aren't you running a little late?"
After a check of the wall clock told her it was well past the end of her shift, Jane said, "Wow. No wonder I'm getting hungry."
"Speaking of food, the floor nurses would like their patients back in time for dinner."
"Okay, kids," Jane said. "It's time to eat, so let's get everything cleaned up and we'll start again tomorrow."
"Okay, Miss Jane," one of the girls said.
A little boy frowned and grudgingly said, "Okay."
"Yeah, I'm not too thrilled about hospital food either," Jane told him. "But it beats school food."
The boy laughed and went about cleaning up his stuff.
When they were done escorting the patients back to their rooms, 'Bel said, "Jane, you have a real gift."
"Thanks, 'Bel. I've always loved art."
"I meant about working with children."
"You mean taking those art education classes paid off?" Jane jokingly said.
"What you have is more than that."
"A few things must've rubbed off babysitting my sister's kids."
'Bel stopped at her office. "While you're planning on being an artist, we both know that until you hit the big time, you'll need a day job to pay the bills."
"Probably..." Jane said, curious about what was going on.
'Bel took a folder from her desk and gave it to Jane.
She opened it and said, "What's this?"
"It's a Position Description Form. I'd like you to finish filling it out."
Jane read the completed portion. "You're making my position full-time?"
"Trying. I'll have to get it past the Board of Directors. That's why I need a great job description and nobody knows it better than you."
"Um, thanks." Jane closed the folder and said, "I'll see what I can do."
After a check of the peephole, Daria opened the door and said with pleasant surprise, "Amy?"
Holding a paper bag, Amy said, "Hey, Daria. How was the trip?"
Daria motioned her aunt inside and said, "You came all the way to Boston to ask me about our trip?"
"It made a good excuse."
Hearing the voices, Michael came in from the library and said, "Hi, Amy. What brings you here?"
"Prurient curiosity," she said.
"But not about our trip," Daria said. "Come on, give. You're here alone."
"Okay, then." Amy set the bag between stacks on the coffee table and took out a six-pack of bottled ginger beer and an opener. "Grab a bottle and tell me all about your plans."
Michael lifted one from the carton, sat on the sofa and said, "What plans?"
"For your future. Together."
"That's what this mess is about," Daria said as she also sat down on the sofa and opened a bottle.
"Grad school. I don't think I'll ever forget that," Amy said after scanning the catalogs. "That's why I came here."
"Oh?" Daria said.
Amy took a drink from her bottle and said, "Do you remember when we talked before your parents' Silver Anniversary?"
"And what I said about the two-body problem?"
Daria nodded. "Yes, we know things are going to be a challenge, but we haven't even started grad school yet."
Amy wrapped both hands around the bottle. "If anything, the last couple of years of watching graduate students have made me more wary for you."
"Can you fill me in?" Michael asked.
"I've watched a lot of grad student couples break up and after they finish their degrees, things get even harder for academic couples. It's almost impossible for both to find a faculty slot and when one does and the other doesn't...well, I lost someone that way."
"You're worried about us," Michael said.
Amy said, "I'm a little protective of my nieces."
Daria said, "Any advice?"
"Be sure and be honest about what you want to do."
Michael said, "That's good advice for life in general."
Amy nodded. "Michael, the odds are that one of you will feel like you've missed out on your potential. That's a lot of resentment. From what Daria's told me, you already experienced some of that when you turned down going to Rome."
"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, suspicious.
"Stuff like that is going to happen again."
"And you think I'm going to hold a grudge."
Amy sighed. "I don't think that's your intent, but these things can build up."
"Amy," Michael said. "I don't regret my choice. Being with Daria is what's important to me."
"But can you keep saying that ten years from now? Can you say that when the money runs short and you've eaten nothing but ramen noodles for the last month?"
"Yes," he angrily said, standing and leaving his drink on the table. "I'm sorry that you had some crappy experiences, but don't project them onto me. Daria's fond of you, so I'll go back to my homework before I say something that I'm going to regret."
After Michael had left the room, Amy said, "That could've gone better."
"He's still a little sensitive," Daria said.
"I noticed." Amy carefully said, "Do you believe him?"
Amy nodded. "That's good."
"We have a lot standing in our way, but what other choice do we have? We have to try. One or both of us giving up now would be even worse than what you're worried about." Daria narrowed her eyes. "Something else is bothering you. This time, can we get to the point?"
Amy nodded again. "Reese."
"You're worried about him flying over Iraq."
Another nod. "That's what I get for marrying a part-time fighter pilot."
Though Daria's tone sounded sarcastic, the hand she placed on Amy's showed concern. "So in Barksdale family tradition, you project your worries onto your relatives."
Amy was forced to quickly laugh. "You know us too well."
"Growing up with Mom taught me a few things."
"I'd be terrified. I don't know how Karen survived."
"I'm hoping to see her later, but I thought I would see my favorite niece first." Amy picked up Michael's bottle and stood. "I owe him an apology."
Daria said, "Thanks for being worried about us."
"I figure it's good practice for when the girls get older."
The empty bottles clanked together as Michael dumped them into the recycle bin after Amy had left. "I've been thinking."
"Whenever somebody says that, I get worried because it means that they've been thinking about something I'm not going to like," Daria said.
"Amy had some good points. We're really going to be going out on a limb."
"My mom and dad survived getting graduate degrees and we can, too."
"But they didn't get them at the same time."
"No, they didn't, but that..." Daria moved over to Michael. "You're not thinking..."
Michael said, "I already have over thirty grand in student loans. We really need to consider all of our options, including me working while you go to school."
Firm, Daria said, "You are not going to abandon your dream. That's even worse than what Amy was worried about."
"Not abandoning, postponing."
"I don't like it."
"I don't, either, but it's something we need to consider. We've only looked at one overall option so far."
Daria softly said, "We'll look at our options, okay?"
"All of them."
She nodded. "Okay, all of them."
Michael pulled Daria into a hug. "We're going to make it. Whatever we choose."
Jane sat at the table, worrying over filling out the job description. Pushing back, she said, "I think that's it. Hopefully I can get Daria to give it a once-over and fix all my straight C English."
Nell said from the sofa, "She'll do it. And after that, you'll have a real full-time gig with bennies when you graduate. Go for it, Jane."
"It would be the responsible thing to do," Jane said.
"What a way to break from family tradition," Jane's other roommate, CC, said from the kitchen.
"Eh, Trent beat me to it by taking care of Lindy and their kid."
Nell said, "If you can land a full-time job after graduation, we can mooch off of you for a couple months while we try to find something."
"Yeah," CC said. "Stripping brings in nice money, but I really don't want to do it full-time when I graduate."
"Ah, no pressure," Jane said.
"What are friends for?" Nell replied.
Contemplative, CC said, "You know, it could give us time to get a studio going."
Nell said, "Hmm."
Jane stopped. "Yeah, hmm."
"Or a gallery. Screw trying to get our stuff into someone else's gallery when we have our own."
"I like your thinking," Nell said. "Jane?"
"I like it, but do you have any idea of how to start one?"
CC shrugged. "No, but we have a couple months left to figure it out."
"A couple months," Jane said. "A couple months. Have we really been here for four years?"
"Hard to imagine, but yeah," Nell said.
Daria was seated at her computer while she talked on the phone. "I got it, Jane," she said while reading over the scanned job description.
"I really, really appreciate this, Daria. I owe you."
"Don't worry about it. Friends and all that stuff."
"You proofread for a living. This is too much like work for you."
"Okay, if I ever need some custom artwork, I'll call you. Okay?"
"I can send it back tomorrow."
"That's great, but you don't need to drop everything just for me."
"Trust me, Lane. Michael and I have been looking at schools and talking finances all night. I want to do something different."
"Still at it, huh?"
"Yeah, though it doesn't feel like we've made any progress. If anything, maybe a bit backwards."
"Michael offered to work while I go to grad school and then go himself after I land a job."
"Kind of makes sense."
"And almost guarantees that he'll get the short end of the stick. He would probably have to go to grad school wherever I end up and, because a lot of schools have no-incest rules, he couldn't get a faculty job where he went to grad school. So, unless he can find a job within some kind of reasonable commuting distance, he'll have wasted his time."
"I see. So talk him out of it."
"You know that he's almost as stubborn as I am about some things."
"Almost is the key," Jane said.
Daria sighed. "Maybe both of us just going into the working world will be better off all the way around."
"No, you don't, Daria. You know that I'm more stubborn than you are."
"You think you are."
"I know I am."
"If you don't go to grad school, I'm going to move back in with you."
"That's not stubborn, that's a threat."
"So? It works, right?"
"Yes, it works."
Jane grinned. "I've still got it."
Enjoying her visit, Amy said, "The horse and buggy was a cool touch."
"Though Karen had to drive the thing; I didn't have a clue," Derek said.
"You'll learn. Eventually. Just like I'm going to teach you to drive a stick shift."
"You're in the Army and don't know how?" Amy said.
"I was a ground-pounder. Besides, I do know how to drive a manual."
"In theory," Karen said. "But you have a deep-seated hatred of clutches."
Amy's cell phone rang and she knew who it was by the ring tone. "Excuse me," she said. She then answered, "Hi, Paula."
Her good friend, Brig. Gen. Paula Trainor, said, "Hi, Amy. Where are you?"
"In Boston. What's going on that you're calling at this hour?"
"Amy, I just was briefed myself. There's a friendly-fire situation with Reese."
Amy's skin went white and she said, "Tell me."
"He's not hurt," Paula quickly explained.
Amy massively relaxed and said, "Thank God. But what's going on?"
"We're still investigating how it happened, but Reese got a target lock on what he believed was an Iraqi aircraft trying to make a run for Iran like they did in ninety-one and downed it with an AAMRAM. The other plane turned out to be a TR-1 surveillance plane. The pilot ejected and a parachute visually confirmed, but he has either not activated his recovery beacon or it is not working."
"I remember you telling me that the Air Force used radio transponders to avoid that kind of situation."
"We do. The lost plane reportedly wasn't running one."
"It wasn't an Air Force vehicle."
"Then whose was it?"
"Can't say. Amy, this hasn't gone out on any press briefings."
The hint wasn't lost on Amy. "I understand."
"Until the investigation is complete, Reese is grounded."
Though knowing it was a disappointment for her husband and a threat to his military career, Amy couldn't help but feel a wave of relief that Reese would be out of combat for a while. "Is there anything I need to do?"
"Nothing you can do, but as your friend, I wanted you to know."
"Because otherwise, I wouldn't hear a thing."
"I'll keep you updated."
"Of course, Amy. I need to go. Good night."
Karen asked, "Amy?"
"He's okay, but Reese had a close call."
Derek said, "Oh, man. Glad he's all right."
"Me, too," Amy said.
As she and Derek settled into their bed, Karen said, "Something about that phone call is still bothering Amy."
"Army wife intuition?" he asked.
"Either that, or too much time hanging around Daria."
"Come to think of it, something does feel off."
"What are you picking up on?"
"It's really weird for Pentagon brass like Gen. Trainor to get individual information on one guy in combat. Even weirder for said brass to contact a family member with the information."
"Amy and Paula are good friends."
"True, but that doesn't explain Paula getting a special briefing on Reese. I have to wonder if something really classified got buggered up and Reese was sucked in."
"No idea, but from my experience, I don't want to know."
"And to be on the safe side, we better not tell anyone."
Karen nodded, and pulled herself closer. "I'm glad you're only a sergeant and won't be sent back there."
"There's something to be said for being a grunt."
Staying in a top floor suite of one of the Wyatt family's hotels, Amy used her laptop to check her e-mail. Only a very brief message was waiting for her from Reese.
I'm going to be busy with paperwork for the next several days and won't be able to write to you much. Hope you have fun in Boston.
She closed the program and crawled over onto the king-sized bed. "Reese, what happened out there?"
Jane pumped her fist in the air and said, "Daria, you rock," when she saw the e-mailed, edited file.
Still groggy from just waking up, CC grumbled, "What are you carrying on about?"
Jane jumped from her chair and went to the door of CC's room. "Daria made sense out of what I wrote and the job description looks great."
"Wonderful. Now, can I go back to sleep?" CC's alarm rang and she glared at it. "Oh, shut the hell up."
"Alarms suck, don't they?"
"Yeah. Wait a minute, what are you doing up already?"
"Working on plans, CC. Working on plans."
"They better be damn good this early in the morning."
Lt. Col. Reese Wyatt sat on his bunk and stared at his hands. "They won't even say if they found the pilot or not."
His wingman, Maj. Lyle Wallister, was seated on the opposite bunk in the squadron's temporary quarters. "They had to have found him. There weren't any fedayeen in the area and we both saw the chute."
"Then why not tell us?"
"Look, Reese," Lyle said. "Somebody really screwed the pooch and they're trying to figure out how to cover it up before they tell us anything."
Reese sighed. "Someone screwed the pooch is right."
"It wasn't your fault. The target had no IFF, the combat commander had no intel of other friendlies and you were given the order to fire."
"I know, but I'm still the one that pulled the trigger."
Gen. Trainor stared across her desk at the man wearing a fine, imported Italian suit. "What did you just say?"
He calmly said, "You are not cleared to know the details of the mission."
She glanced out of her window at the Pentagon's inner courtyard. "You are aware of my security clearance, aren't you?"
"Fully. However, the mission details are need-to-know and you don't qualify."
"I need to know to complete this investigation."
"Lt. Col. Wyatt is not someone that you can plow under."
"We are aware of his family connections."
"You seem to have everything covered."
"Almost. General, this is what we recommend doing..."
Jane happily placed the packet on 'Bel's desk and said, "There you go."
Pleased, 'Bel said, "That was fast."
"I have good people working for me."
'Bel read the form and said, "I'd say you do. This is very good. Very professional."
"So, do you think it has a chance?"
"The best chance we're ever going to get."
Daria read the e-mail reply from a prospective faculty advisor and said, "To borrow a word from my sister, 'Eww.'"
"That bad?" Michael asked.
"Oh, yeah. Another one that looked good on paper, but is a creep via e-mail. I'd hate to meet him face-to-face."
He rolled his computer chair back and stared up at the ceiling. "Why didn't anyone tell us that finding a good advisor was as hard as trying to find someone you'd want within ten feet on a low-rent internet dating site?"
"How would you know about low-rent internet dating sites?"
He teased, "I had to do something before I met you..."
"Oh, so I'm what you decided to try after the internet dating failed," she teased back.
"Well, I got tired of sitting around in my underwear and eating Cheetos."
"I see," she said. "You got tired of orange stains everywhere."
"They really are a bitch to clean up. Besides, taking a chance on asking you out paid off."
Daria rolled her chair over to his and wrapped her hands around his. "Taking a chance by saying 'yes,' paid off, too. In more ways than one."
"You're right," Michael said. "You're absolutely right. You have to take a chance before it will pay off."
"You're not talking about our first date anymore."
"We're still waiting to hear from potential advisors at one more university. If that doesn't pan out, we keep looking. We may not make it, but following both of our dreams is the right choice, because we won't make it any other way."
"I thought you'd come around to my way of thinking," Daria said before reaching around his head and pulling him forward into a kiss.
Reese answered a knock at his billet's door and found a man wearing what the other pilots had come to call "civvie chic": cargo pants, expensive hiking boots and a pocketed vest. He had arrived on base earlier in the day to investigate the shoot-down and Reese had been expecting a visit.
The man said, "Lt. Col. Maurice Wyatt." It was a statement, not a question.
The man entered, closed the door and said, "We've completed our investigation. Maj. Wallister is also being informed."
Immediately suspicious, Reese said, "That was fast. You haven't even interviewed me."
"We try to be efficient. You're free to return to duty."
"Just like that?'"
"Yes, sir. You and your wingman are valuable pilots."
"Didn't I shoot down a friendly aircraft?"
The man firmly said, "Lt. Col. Wyatt. Our investigation found no official records of other coalition aircraft in the area. You've been exonerated."
"Then whose aircraft did I shoot down?"
The man lowered his voice. "I'm sure you understand that we don't need any unnecessary international incidents."
Reese slowly nodded. "I see. So, what do I record in my combat log for firing a missile?"
"The Air Force will credit you with the destruction of one unidentified Iraqi aircraft, with details classified for operational reasons."
"I got it. What happened to the pilot?"
"He has been accounted for. Thank you for your current and future cooperation."
After the man left, Reese sat back down on his bunk.
Reese scanned the radar screen of his F-15C and found the fleeting return of a ground-hugging aircraft. He called his wingman, "Bolt, I've finally got the bogie. Do you see it?"
Lyle replied, "Copy that, Gumball."
"He's good," Reese said, commenting on the unknown pilot's low-level flying ability. "Mosquitohawk, this is Daywalker Lead. I confirm the bogie on radar. No squawk and he's heading for the Iranian border at 400 knots. Over."
Reese thought that the bogie was a little slow, but plenty fast considering its altitude. His target was a lot better than the average Iraqi pilot.
The combat director in Mosquitohawk, an E-3 Sentry, had checked with intel and was told that any other aircraft in the area would be hostile and possibly carrying a package or passenger. Therefore, nothing could be allowed to cross the border. He said, "Daywalker Flight, you are cleared to engage. Over."
"Roger that, Mosquitohawk.," Reese said. "Daywalkers engaging. Switching to Slammers. Bolt, I've got lock. Fox Three."
The AAMRAM missile left the rail and trailed smoke toward the target. The target tried to evade by maneuvering and dropping chaff, but without luck.
Reese said, "Mosquitohawk - splash one. Going in for visual confirmation. Over."
Lyle said, "Copy that, Gumball."
"Roger, Daywalker Leader. Over," Mosquitohawk said.
At near-supersonic military speed, it took only seconds to reach the target area. Reese throttled back to cruise and said, "Mosquitohawk, I have a visual on a parachute. Over."
Lyle said, "Mosquitohawk, Daywalker Two. Parachute is confirmed. I also see a ground impact with smoke and fire. Over."
Given new information, the suddenly sober combat director said, "Daywalker Flight – return to base. Possible friendly in your vicinity. Over."
Reese watched the parachuting pilot as he flew by and his stomach knotted. He swallowed hard and said, "Do we have blue-on-blue? Over."
"Confirm, Daywalker Lead. Blue-on-blue. Return to base. Over."
Friendly fire. One of a pilot's worst nightmares. "Shouldn't we stay around until Sierra Romeo arrives? Over." Reese said. He wanted to make sure that the Search and Rescue team found the downed pilot.
"Negative, Daywalker Lead. Return to base. Now. Over."
"Roger, Mosquitohawk," Reese said. "Daywalker Flight returning to base. Over."
Reese looked at the area map on the wall and said, "What was a high-flyer doing on the deck evading radar and why was he heading toward Iran?"
Lying down, he gazed at the ceiling. "Damn spooks."
An airman knocked on the door and said, "Sir, group briefing in fifteen minutes."
When Michael got home from work, Daria was sprawled on the sofa and watching television. On the screen, a familiar announcer said, "Flying until they drop. The latest animal-rights outrage, drag racing dragonflies. Next, on Sick, Sad World!"
"Is it me, or are they getting preachy?" He said while locking the door.
"Bad day?" he said.
Michael sat on the edge of the sofa and gave her a hug. "Do you need me to make dinner?"
She returned the effort and said, "I nuked the leftover lasagna. There's still some left."
"I can do lasagna. Thanks."
She patted his arm and said, "Go eat."
Michael went to their small kitchen and grabbed the baking dish and a fork, not bothering with a plate. "Is Amy still planning on dropping by before going home?"
"She should be here soon."
"Was there anything interesting in the mail?"
"On the counter; I didn't bother to look."
He set the dish on the counter and ate as he sorted through the stack. "Junk...junk...junk...utility bill...oh, this looks promising."
"Well?" Daria said after she didn't hear anything from him.
"Two letters from Williamstown University."
She rolled to look over the sofa at the letters. "Hmm, thin and small. Not good."
"Take a chance," Michael said, unfolding his letter and handing hers to Daria.
A smile formed on his face as he read. Looking beyond the letter, he saw a matching smile on Daria's face. "I've been offered a full research assistantship in the Archeology Department."
"They're offering me a teaching assistantship in the English Department."
"Prof. Arlen has been doing some fascinating work with early colonial Virginia and he seems like a good guy to work for."
"I thought Prof. Karalis had some great insights about the practical aspects of modern writing. I'm looking forward to working with her."
"We're not going to get rich on the stipend, but we won't starve."
"We won't even have to live on ramen noodles."
He lowered the letter. "We did it."
"We need to celebrate."
"Amy's going to be here soon."
"She can join us...for a little while."
The waiter refilled all three Champagne glasses as Amy said, "One of the perks of my new situation is no limit on spending money to help my nieces celebrate."
"Thanks, Amy," Daria said.
"I hope to be able to do this for Quinn and Erin sometime, too."
"Have you seen Erin, lately?" Daria asked. "It's embarrassing, but with all that's been going on, I've hardly talked to her."
"I made sure to say 'hi' while I was in town. She's been busy putting her new life together, but things are looking up."
"We know why we're celebrating; why are you?" Michael asked.
Amy remembered the e-mail she'd received from Reese just before leaving the hotel and also a call from Paula.
"Amy," Paula said. "Reese is in the clear."
"Already?" Amy said.
"Believe it or not, some things actually move fast in the military."
"Almost too fast."
"It all depends on the reason."
Amy said, "And that would be?"
"Something I can't talk about."
"That worries me."
"It'll worry other people. Reese's part is done. Don't worry about it." Paula finished by saying, "Trust me," in a way that told Amy to permanently drop the subject.
"Reese's unit is coming home."
"That's great," Michael said.
Daria said, "The future's looking good all the way around, then. We're going to Williamstown, Jane's got a shot at making her current job full-time, Karen's been accepted to vet school at Raft and Reese is coming home."
"Unless," Michael joked, "One or both of our advisors turn out to be asses. Then, we're going to be up the creek."
Daria and Amy turned to face him and Daria said, "Thanks, we needed a little reality injected."
Amy said, "You've trained him well."
The small Iraqi flag painted just below the canopy on his aircraft fueled a hollow feeling in Reese's stomach. As he climbed up the boarding ladder, he instead focused on the nose art just forward of the kill mark. There was a picture of Amy, one hand on her hip and the other pulling her glasses down on her nose while she glared over the top of them. To the side was written in a flowing, red script, "Amy's Attitude."
Lyle stood at the bottom of the ladder and said, "See you in Germany. I'm looking forward to a couple of real beers before we cross the pond."
"See you there, Lyle," Reese said. "I may pass on the beers this time. If I'm going to fly back across the Atlantic, I need to pick up a box of chocolates for Amy."
Lyle loudly laughed and said, "I warned you that chocolate and women will always lead you astray."
"That's what I'm hoping."
Lyle laughed again. "She's got you."
Lyle looked around and, lowering his voice, said, "We haven't seen squat for Iraqi aircraft since we got here and now they decide that air patrols aren't needed. Don't you find the timing of our reassignment a little too convenient?"
"My guess is that someone wasn't happy with how closely we were watching that airspace." After Lyle grunted, Reese said, "If you want my advice, keep quiet."
"Yeah, I am. I just needed to mention it to someone before we left." Lyle's gaze passed around the air base. "We're never going to fly combat again, are we?"
Reese pulled himself up and over the sill and sat down in the cockpit. "Not with what we know, even if we don't know what it means."
Lyle climbed back down to the tarmac and then trotted back to his aircraft. Reese donned his flight helmet and went through his pre-flight checklist. I'm coming home, Amy. Sorry I'm bringing some baggage I'll never be able to talk about.
After she cleared the workroom of children, Jane stopped by her boss's office. "Any word?"
Sadly, 'Bel said, "I'm sorry, Jane. I couldn't get the board's approval."
Jane silently accepted the news and said, "I understand."
"I don't, but then, I've rarely understood the board."
Jane shrugged. "We knew it wasn't a sure thing. I'm kind of used to stuff like this."
"Jane, you're good and I don't want to lose you, but you're going to graduate and you need to take care of yourself. I hope you made an alternative plan."
"I'm working on it with a couple of friends."
"If there's anything I can do to help, ask."
"Do you know anything about doing a business plan?"
Details of Daria, Michael, Jane, CC and Nell's trip to Las Vegas will be told in Martin J. Pollard's story, "What Happens in Vegas."
Thanks to Brother Grimace and psychotol for feedback on the air combat details and thanks to Louise Lobinske, Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.