In the end, winter comes, and with it the championship games, the college Bowl season, and eventually the Super Bowl. The footballs are finally put away, as cold and snows come, bringing winter sports and a breathing space for those who follow the path of the pigskin. Some are forced to surrender their place, while others continue the cycle, focusing on the battles to come. Still others find a space outside football, to lessen its hold make the eventual transition easier. But like with other addictions, the hold is still strong…

Chapter 1: Clipping

Daria hurried to the library. She was bundled up against the Indiana January, with heavy coat, scarf, hat, and gloves, but still the cold wind cut right through her. Classes had begun only a few days ago, but between her work and helping Kevin, she felt like she'd already fallen behind.

On this chilly Friday, the library offered a needed haven, both from the cold and the chaos. Kevin was on his last round of revisions, thanks to a heroic effort on both their parts, which meant she had a day or two to herself to catch up. She yanked the door open, struggling against the wind, and all but leaped inside.

"Hey, stranger," a friendly voice said, as she was stripping off her hat, scarf, gloves.

"Hey, Colleen," Daria said, turning to greet her friend. "Sorry, I haven't been around much."

The taller redhead smiled. "Busy with the Boy Wonder. I know how it is. How's it going?"

"Let's find a place to sit before I get into details," Daria sighed. "I'd like to have a table to bang my head against if I need it."

"Careful," Colleen chuckled. "With that hard head of yours, you'll get kicked out for making too much noise."

"Remind me again why I'm friends with you."

"You like abuse, and you want my overflow guys."

"Or I'm planning to use you as a surrogate and pull out every strand of red hair that my mom wouldn't let me yank from Quinn's head."

Colleen chuckled soundlessly and led the way to a quiet table in a niche among the shelves. "So before we crack the books," she said as she sat, "tell me about your adventures in moron-sitting."

Daria was silent for a long moment, and Colleen scanned her friend's face for telltale signs of anger. All she found was bone-deep weariness. Finally, Daria sighed and spoke. "He's not saying as much stupid stuff. And I can't even be mad at him, because he's really trying. It's just that it's exhausting. I have to explain every concept three or four times, and usually tie it back into football." Daria's voice began to rise, and her face took on an almost comical frustration. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to match football metaphors to Great Expectations? Without mentioning South Park?"

The last was too much for Colleen, who again began to giggle.

Daria sighed. "And the worst part is, I'm so tired after dealing with Kevin that I can barely do my own work."

"C'mon, Daria. You pulled straight As last semester. I'm sure you'll do fine."

"I also slept occasionally last semester."

"True," Colleen said, and opened the massive textbook in front of her. "Well, we'd better get to work on this problem set, or you'll never get caught up."

Daria opened her own, and the two friends were soon hard at work. They were halfway though, when a familiar form crossed the edge of Daria's vision. "Shit," she muttered, and put her face in her hands.

"What?" Colleen started to say before she noticed Kevin at the other end of the aisle. "Maybe he won't see you."

"I promise you, Colleen," Daria said from between her hands, "I've never been that lucky."

Sure enough, Kevin started over. "Hey, Daria," he said. "Uh, are you okay? You look upset," he added, noticing her posture.

"I'm fine," she said, still not looking up. "I'm meditating. It's something brains do."

"Is it something I should know about? I mean, now that I'm getting smarter?" Noticing Colleen for the first time, he gave her a winning smile. "Hey, babe. Good to see you again."

"Hey, Kevin," the redhead replied in a throaty voice. "It's good to see you too." Daria was torn between gratitude that her friend had deflected Kevin, if even for a moment, and shock that she seemed to be showing interest in the big goof.

"So," he said, momentarily having forgotten Daria, "maybe you and me could go out tonight, babe. I know a great place off campus."

Colleen lowered her eyebrows seductively, ignoring Daria's eyeroll. "That sounds wonderful, but I hear you've got homework." She raised a hand to forestall his protests. "You're not going to try to get out of homework in front of the teacher, are you?"

Kevin jumped, suddenly remembering Daria's presence. "Oh, hey, uh, I'm, that is, Daria." He tried to sputter apologies until she cut him off.

"Is it too much to ask why you're here, if it's not to interrupt my already very limited study time?"

He winced at the acid in her tone. "Sorry, Daria. I just came by to check some references and grab a dictionary. I don't have net access in my dorm room."

"Makes sense." Daria felt foolish for snapping at him, and then angry at herself and him. I will not apologize to Kevin Thompson, she snarled at herself. "The reference section is on the other side of those shelves. Ask the reference librarian if you need help getting on the computers."

He bobbed his head by way of thanks, and then gave Colleen another smile. "See you later, babe."

As soon as she was gone, Daria rounded on her friend. "And what do you think you were doing?"

"Finding something out," Colleen said.

"You're not seriously attracted to him, are you? Because if you are, I might have to find a new friend."

"Daria, when am I ever serious about anything?"

Daria conceded the point, but her friend's Cheshire Cat grin was disconcerting, to say the least. Attempts to get back to work failed. Kevin's interruption had derailed her, and Colleen's secret amusement kept her from getting back on track. Finally, she gave a huge sigh, closed her book, and stood. "I'm going to head back to the dorm," she said. "I'm not getting anything done here."

"You okay?" Colleen asked.

"Yes," Daria said, a wry tilt to her mouth. "I just want to get out of here before I catch whatever brain-eating disease has caused you to start putting the moves on Kevin Thompson." She gathered up her stuff and headed out, Colleen's laughter fading behind her.

After the weirdness of Friday, Daria decided to take to her door room over the weekend. She ignored phone calls from Colleen, their friends Jerry and Gina, and even Jane, in favor of getting at least somewhat caught up on her own reading, before drowning in the last wave of the tsunami known as Kevin Thompson.

She'd blocked out time for him on Sunday and Monday night so she could review his papers before he handed them in on Tuesday. She wasn't actually sure he'd get them done, but he showed up right on schedule Sunday night, clutching what looked like a wad of crinkled waste paper.

"Are you sure that's your paper?" Daria said as she opened the door to let Kevin in the room. "And not something you used to clean up after the last keg party?"

"Of course not, Daria," he said, either ignoring or missing the sarcasm as he tried to smooth out the pages. "This is the final draft, just like you told me."

"Of course it is," she said with a sigh. "Good night, Kevin," she added as she took the mass of paper, and set it on her desk for later attention. When she turned, Kevin was still there, looking confused. "Uh, Daria...," he started, but she cut him off.

"Editing is not a spectator sport, Kevin. Believe me, you'd find it even duller watching me work than I'm going to find it actually doing the work. It'll be better for both of us if you just go away."

"Oh, okay," Kevin said. A look of mingled understanding and relief crossed his features. "Good night, Daria," he added and smiled.

"Good night, Kevin," Daria said firmly.

It took her awhile to finally work up the nerve to look at his paper. She saw he'd finally given it a title, and his choice, "The Playbook for Great Expectations," nearly made her give up then and there. But a promise was a promise, even if it was made to Kevin Thompson, so she gritted her teeth and got started.

Even though she'd worked with him through a couple of drafts, she was worried that his final output would be unreadable, but to her surprise, it wasn't as bad as she'd feared. Most of his grammar was sound, if elementary: short sentences, few adjectives, and almost no use of dependent or independent clauses. But very few words were misused, and despite the title, the football references were limited. His spelling was appalling, but she could solve that by reminding him to run the spell check.

It took her about two hours to correct the eight-page paper, but she felt a glow of satisfaction when she was done. The paper wasn't the height of lit crit or anything, but Kevin seemed to have a grasp of the basics of the book—enough to get him the C he needed to pass the class, anyway.

She returned the edited Lit paper to Kevin on Monday morning before class. To her surprise, he tracked her down in the early afternoon with his other paper. This one was for a class called "The History of Television," which apparently existed for the sole purpose of giving student athletes at least one easy course a semester. Kevin's work was similar in style to the Lit paper, but Daria had reminded him in the morning to run the spell checker and give her an electronic copy of the file, so her work went much faster.

She considered emailing the file to Kevin, but decided giving him the hard copy in person would reduce the possibility of disaster. She felt weird about calling Kevin, which contributed to her short temper on the phone. "Get your ass over here if you want your damn paper," was probably not the friendliest thing she could have said, but Kevin took it with good grace, and was there in fifteen minutes.

"So I'm all set?" he said when she opened the door.

"That depends on whether you want to pass second semester," she said.

"Harsh, Daria. I meant for first semester." He gave her an earnest, almost pleading look.

An involuntary half-smile crossed her lips, as she handed him the printout and disk. "I can't see any reason why you won't pass either class." Annoyed at herself for smiling, she added, "Especially since one of them is History of Television."

Undeterred, he plowed on. "I know I've got to hit the books again soon, but for now, I want to celebrate. I think I'm going to ask your hot friend out. Kelly, right?"

"Colleen," she said with a sigh.

"Right, Colleen! She's really something." A thought seemed to cross his mind. "It's okay with you, Daria?"

"Why would I care? Colleen's old enough to make her own bad decisions. Besides," she said, "even though she seems to have caught a brain-eating virus over the last week, I still don't think you have a shot."

He laughed, as if he actually got the joke, which sort of worried Daria. "We'll see about that, Daria," he said with a smile. "And thanks again," he added as he turned to go.

Left alone, Daria could only shake her head and get back to her own work.

She spent the next day infected with morbid curiosity. She didn't see Kevin, which would normally be a cause for rejoicing, but she really wanted to know whether he'd asked Colleen out. Her other source on information on that front, Colleen herself, was also not around, leaving her to stew over the situation.

Her friends Jerry and Gina joined her for dinner. A couple, they were Daria's closest friends at Notre Dame after Colleen, who was still very much on Daria's mind. "Have you seen Colleen today?" she asked, as the two took seats across from her.

Gina, short and pleasingly plump with a pretty face and dirty blond hair, responded. "Nope. Why do you ask?"

Daria shrugged. "Just some weirdness. You know Colleen. She considers it a day wasted if she hasn't messed with someone's head."

"Ain't that the truth," said Jerry. He was something of a beanpole with jet black and a prominent Adam's apple under an otherwise unremarkable face. "I think mind games actually make her orgasm. Ouch!"

"Serves you right," Daria said, while Gina, who had kicked him under the table, just smiled.

"So what's the weirdness," Jerry asked. "Is it something to do with your tutoring gig?"

"What makes you say that?" Daria asked, raising an eyebrow.

It was Gina who answered. "Because everything about your tutoring job is weird."

Daria's expression soured. "Good to know I can always count on my friends for support."

"Hey," she said, turning to smile at Jerry. "We call 'em like we see 'em." Turning back to Daria, she added. "So what is it about your tutoring job that has you freaked? And how is Colleen involved?"

"I didn't say it was about Kevin," Daria snapped.

Gina caught Daria's eyes, while Jerry just shook his head and laughed. "Of course not," Gina said. "Colleen's been hitting on him, hasn't she?"

Daria blinked. "You know, I'm usually the one pulling things out of thin air to surprise other people," she said after a moment. "I'm not sure I like you stepping on my lines."

Gina laughed. "Come on, Daria. It's not that hard to figure out. You're you, and Colleen is Colleen. And your Kevin is a good-looking guy, even if he is an idiot."

"He's not my Kevin!"

"Sure," Gina said. "I'm going to guess that Colleen's been leading him on, and he's either going to ask her out or has asked her out." Before Daria could confirm or deny, she kept going. "All of which leaves me with just one question: Why do you care?"

"I'm concerned that Colleen's caught a brain-eating virus and I'm afraid it's contagious." Daria said.

Gina glanced at Jerry, who looked back at Gina. "Right," they said in unison, drawing the word out.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Daria demanded.

"It means that a cute guy wants to ask your hot friend out, and not you," Gina said. "And that's freaking you out." She raised a hand at Daria's outraged expression. "Hear me out," she said. "It's not that Colleen's into Kevin, but that you're afraid you may be getting interested in Kevin."

"Why do people think I'm into Kevin Thompson?" Daria nearly shouted. "My sister, my friend Jane, Kevin himself, now you!" Daria threw up her hands. "Yes, he's handsome! I admit it. But he's totally self-centered and only interested in football. And he's so dumb that he's routinely outsmarted by cheese! Is this is the type you guys think I fall for?!" Feeling heads turn toward her after her outburst, Daria now wanted nothing more than the sink through the floor.

Into the silence fell Jerry's voice. "Well, you did say he was handsome."

At that, something burst in Daria. Rising, she raked her friends with an angry glare. "You know what? Usually the company makes up for the food, but tonight the food doesn't make up for the company."

As she stalked from the dining hall, she failed to notice the twin smirks that her friends shared at her expense.

Chapter 2: False Start

Daria's anger blew over by bedtime, but her anxiety about Colleen and Kevin continued into the next day. No matter what Gina and Jerry said, she knew damn well that she wasn't attracted to Kevin Thompson. Leaving aside his obvious idiocy, the way he'd treated Brittany in High School was a permanent turnoff. And the fact that Brittany had treated him in much the same way didn't change that.

So where did Colleen fit? Even Daria couldn't help but notice how beautiful her friend was. Compared to Colleen, fellow redhead Quinn looked like Daria. But in the months they'd known each other, Daria couldn't recall her mentioning a boyfriend or begging off plans to go on a date. And now she was putting the moves on Kevin Thompson, who clearly and beyond the shadow of a doubt, did not know how to treat a woman.

Hearing her name shouted as she walked across the quad between afternoon classes only heightened her unsettled state. When she turned and saw Kevin striding toward her with an ear-to-ear grin, it was all she could do not to break into a run. Instead, she put on her most forbidding expression and held up a hand. "I don't have to see you until next week, so I don't have to listen to you until then. So whatever it is, I don't want to know."

Kevin's smile faded, but only a little. "I just wanted to tell you—"

"Ah, ah," she said and waved a finger. "No talking. I don't have time for you right now, so whatever it is will have to wait until next week."

"Fine," Kevin said and slouched off, leaving Daria to vent a relieved sigh.

"Wow," a voice behind her interrupted her moment of contentment. "You just blew off a football player."

"And tomorrow I'm going to juggle textbooks while riding a unicycle." She turned at the sound of chuckling to see a guy she recognized from one of her lit classes. She couldn't remember his name, though.

"Hey, Daria," he said with a shy smile on his otherwise plain face. "I didn't know you were funny."

"Neither did I," she said dryly, hoping he'd take the hint.

"I'm Eddie, by the way," he said, offering a hand. "You sit in front of me in The Modern Novel."

Somewhat reluctantly, she took it and they shook. "Listen, Eddie, I'm sorry, but I wasn't kidding when I told Kevin I have no time."

"That's OK, Daria," he said. "I'll catch up with you in class." Confused, Daria watched his retreating form for a moment before shrugging and heading off to class.

Colleen finally turned up at dinner. For once, Daria had chosen to eat in the dining hall in her own dorm, Farley Hall. She was surprised when halfway through the meal, Colleen slid into the empty seat opposite her.

"I heard you've been looking for me," she said with a suitable ominous deepening of her voice.

"From who?" Daria said, mildly. Now that Colleen was here, she decided to underplay things for all she was worth.

Colleen laughed. "No one, actually," she said in her normal tone of voice. "But I know you."

Daria looked down at the brownish lumpy thing on her plate that was supposed to be Salisbury steak. "I was going to ignore you for the food, but the moment of madness passed." She sighed. "Yes, I've been looking for you, Colleen. Kevin told me Monday that he was going to ask you out."

Colleen showed her Cheshire Cat grin again. "And?"

"And I wanted to find of years of therapy would be enough or if I should have you put down as a mercy to yourself and others around you."

"Careful, Daria. You might get lost in all that hyperbole and not be able to find your way to shore."

"I'll take that chance." Daria's eyes narrowed. "Now spill."

Colleen's smile faded. "Yes, Kevin did ask me out. We went out last night. Dinner off campus and he walked me back here."

Daria felt a stab of worry, but quickly covered it. "Then I'm sorry, but you're going to have to come with me. I can promise it will be quick and painless. Your next of kin will be notified immediately."

"Ha, ha." Colleen gave her a searching look. "Why does this bother you so much? It's just a date."

"It's never just a date with a guy like Kevin. Either he's trying to hook you in and make you his 'babe,'" she nearly spat the word, "or he's using you while he's cheating on some bimbo. Either way, you're being taken advantage of, and I don't like seeing it happen to anyone, much less a friend of mine. Especially when I know you're much smarter than the usual empty headed blowup dolls he goes after."

Daria wasn't sure what reaction she expected after her little rant, but peals of laughter wasn't it. "Care to share?" she said, irritation in every line of her face.

Her expression quickly sobered Colleen. "Sorry. I just don't know why this is freaking you out. One date is one date."

"It's one date with someone who treats women like shit."

"It's one date with someone who used to treat women like shit." Colleen's response was mild. "I know you know him better than I do, but right now, even with your help, he's still pretty scared and lonely. Besides," she added, a wicked grin again lighting her features, "it's fun to hear what you were like in high school from another perspective."

"Now I know you're crazy. There's no way Kevin Thompson had anything to say about me on his date."

"Au contraire, my dear Daria," Colleen said. "You were a major topic of conversation. And I didn't even have to bring you up." She winked. "Thought I admit I did turn the conversation back a couple of times, but you know me. I can't resist a good information source."

"So you are playing mind games," Daria said with a mixture of disgust and amusement.

"Oh, sure," Colleen said with a flip of her hair. "But who says I'm playing them with Kevin?"

"I still haven't given up on the idea of having you put down, you know."

"Oh, come on, Daria. It's just a date. Look, I know your breakup with whatshisname was rough. And you told me how that whole thing started, so I know that wasn't any easier. But that's just one situation. Most of the time, you go out with a guy, and you decide if you like him. If you do, you go out again and maybe something good comes of it. If not, you blow him off and that's the end of it."

"So are you going to blow Kevin off?" Daria asked.

"Haven't decided yet. Are you going to start dating again?"

The corner of Daria's mouth turned down. "Even if I wanted to, it's not like guys are lining up to ask me."

"Look around, Daria. I think you'll be surprised."

The next day, Colleen's words proved to be prophetic. The Modern Novel was her second class of the day, and when she got there, she found Eddie already waiting. He gave her a cordial hello, which she returned before settling in for fifty minutes of stultifying boredom. Modernism was not one of Daria's favorite literary styles to begin with, and Dr. Moscardones, a small birdlike woman with a droning voice that made Daria's sound animated, treated her freshman class with a mixture of contempt and indifference that Daria found difficult to swallow.

Halfway through class, she was roused from her near-somnolent state by a tap on her shoulder. Turning, she found Eddie leaning forward to whisper, "Can you hang around after class? I want to talk to you.

She nodded and tried to return to her torpor. Her mind was racing too quickly, though. Maybe he needs a study buddy. I hope not, though. I have enough on my plate with Kevin. Or maybe he just wants to look at my notes. Colleen's words about dating drifted through her mind more than once, but she squashed them. Guys don't want to date me. If they bother with me at all, it's because they want my help.

The last twenty minutes of the class finally dragged by. As the bell rang, Dr. Moscardones tried to get the class to finish The Sound and the Fury for Tuesday by insinuating that they wouldn't. Daria ignored the professor as she gathered her things. Once outside the classroom, she spotted Eddie and for the first time took a good look at him. He was relatively tall, with a long face, but not an ugly one, under short brown hair. His eyes were a deep brown and his shoulders were broad but he wasn't bulky. When he caught her eye, she noticed that his smile was very bright.

"Hey, Daria," he said. "Thanks for waiting."

"No problem," she said. "I'm not in as much of hurry today. So what can I help you with?"

"Well," he said, suddenly nervous, "it's, uh. I wanted to ask you..." He drifted into silence and began rubbing the back of his neck.

He can't be about to do what I think he's about to do, can he? Suddenly nervous, Daria took refuge in her oldest defense: sarcasm. "Yes, Eddie, I will support your effort to become the world's worst stand up comic. But not right now, if you don't mind. When I said I wasn't in as much of a hurry, I didn't mean I had no place to be."

For a second, Eddie's face fell, making Daria feel guilty, but then he laughed suddenly. "Sorry," he apologized. "I funked out for a second. Do you want to go out to dinner with me?"

Daria blinked, as for a moment the words didn't register. When they did, a sudden rush of painful memory swallowed her. She'd been so sure Tom's sudden distance a month into first semester had to do with schoolwork, sure enough to buy tickets to New Haven for the third weekend in October even though they hadn't spoken in two weeks. And then came the fateful phone call.

If she concentrated, she could still hear Tom's voice cutting through her, berating her for being clingy and self-centered, telling her they didn't have a future and had never had a future, and that no matter what she made of herself, she'd never be good enough for him. She'd hidden the pain and gotten through the semester, but three months later, she still wasn't eager to take the risk again. But here was Eddie, eyes brown and guileless, promising nothing more than a nice dinner. "Colleen, you bitch, I'm going to kill you," she muttered.

"I didn't catch that," Eddie said with a smile. "Was it a yes or a no?"

"Sorry. Just thinking out loud about something a friend said." For a second, she balanced on the knife edge of indecision, torn between old pain and new possibilities. Finally, she gave him a characteristic Mona Lisa smile. "I'm in. When would you like to go?"

"How about tonight, if you're not busy?" She could hear barely contained excitement in his voice.

"Sure thing," she said, wishing her own voice were more expressive. "Meet me in front of Farley Hall at seven?

His wide grin was all the answer she needed.

The problem, as Daria confessed to Colleen later on, wasn't that it was a bad date; it was that it wasn't really a good date. Oh, Eddie showed up on time, dressed reasonably well, and did all the holding doors and pulling out chairs that a well-mannered young man would do. And the restaurant itself was a nice place, intimate and cozy without being oppressive. The food and the service were both good. The only thing lacking was any kind of mental or emotional connection.

Things got off to a decent start, as they discussed the class they shared and their dislike of Dr. Moscardones. The newness of the college experience and of the Midwest—Eddie was from Washington State—was also fertile ground for conversation, but once they got to likes and dislikes, things began to unravel. In discussing his hobbies, Eddie uttered the fatal sentence, "I don't really read fur fun," and Daria's face closed. She didn't fare much better when she noted that her skill with electronics barely extended past on switches. Given his sudden frown, she wasn't surprised when she learned he was a born tinkerer.

They valiantly tried to recover, complimenting the food and each other's outfits: Eddie wore a blue shirt and black slacks, while Daria had on a form-fitting sweater in her customary forest green over a pair of tight jeans that showed off her legs to good effect. Still, it wasn't enough to fill the gap between them, and Eddie's fondness for gangsta rap, a genre Daria despised, made a fitting last straw for the evening.

The walk back together wasn't too unpleasant. By returning to the commonalities–their unpleasant Modern Novel professor—they managed to keep the conversation going until they arrived back at Daria's dorm. Unsure of what to say or do, Daria began fishing for her keys.

"So?" Eddie asked, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot.

"Oh," Daria said, having found her keys. "Sorry, Eddie. Thank you very much for dinner. And," she added after another awkward moment, "I guess I'll see you in class next week."

She could see his face fall slightly, but he took it in stride. "Cool. See you then." He turned to go as she let herself into the dorm building.

"So even after all that, he looked upset that we weren't going to be going out again." Daria sighed the next morning. "I don't understand it."

Colleen, sitting across from her at breakfast, shook her head in disbelief. "He's a guy, Daria!"

"So? We've got nothing in common and he knows it."

"Yeah, but he probably doesn't care. You're an attractive woman, so he'll probably go out with you as long as you let him."

"That doesn't make any sense. We're never going to be able to build a relationship when we have so little in common."

Colleen laughed. "Who said anything about building a relationship? Consciously, I'm sure he liked the idea of having a smart, pretty girl on his arm. Unconsciously, he's probably operating on the theory that if you go on enough dates, you'll end up sleeping together."

Daria regarded her redheaded friend in blank shock. "That's ridiculous!" she finally blurted.

"Of course it is," Colleen said. "But it's true just the same."

"So every guy is subconsciously looking to get in my pants?"

"Only the nice ones," Colleen chuckled. "A lot of guys know the number of dates they'll go on before they expect you to put out. And for some of them, that number is one."

"So, what's Kevin's number?" Daria had tried to make it a joke, but her voice took on a nasty edge.

Colleen's smile didn't change, but the tone of the conversation somehow did. "Careful, Daria. If you ask that question again, I just might answer it. And I'm not sure either of us could handle that."

Daria felt herself getting angry again, but unlike last week with Jerry and Gina, she chose not to give in. "You're probably right," she said, and forced a half-smile. "I'm sorry if I've been a little bitchy lately. My relaxing week hasn't turned out so relaxing."

"Look on the bright side. Soon it'll be over, and you won't have to worry about trying to relax, because you'll have no time."

Daria shot the still smiling Colleen a sour look. "You have no idea how much that comforts me, Colleen."

"Oh, I can guess."

Neither girl lingered over breakfast. Daria had morning classes and planned to spend the afternoon in the library. Since tutoring with Kevin was starting up again on Sunday, she wanted to get as far ahead in her own classwork as she could. Things went according to plan until close to dinnertime, when head down over a weighty history book, she began to have the unpleasant sensation of being watched.

Sure enough, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted two girls watching her with unfriendly looks. Wondering what she'd done to earn their enmity, she tried to concentrate on her book, but their eyes on her prevented her. After about ten minutes, she decided she could take no more and stood. "Is there a problem?" she asked, as she walked over to their table.

The darker-haired of the two met her eyes. "No. There's no problem."

"Then why were you staring at me?"

"What makes you think we were staring at you?"

"Well, my first clue was when I caught you staring at me." Daria rolled her eyes. "Look, if I've done something to offend you, let me know and I'll stop if I can. If not, please leave me alone. I have a hell of a lot to do."

The dark-haired girl continued to glare, but her companion, a petite blonde with wide eyes blurted, "It just doesn't make sense!"

"What doesn't make sense?" Daria asked, as the larger girl turned her glare to the blonde.

Undaunted, the blonde continued. "I mean, you're not bad looking or anything, but you're not a hottie, and you don't dress fashionably, so why would a football player be interested in you?"

"Whoa, whoa!" Daria raised her hands as a terrible suspicion rose in her mind. "A football player interested in me? What gave you that idea?"

"Well, the first clue was when Kevin Thompson started spending all his free time with you." The dark-haired girl threw Daria's words back in her face.

"I don't believe this!" Daria barked, earning her a glare from several people around her. "It's like Lawndale, but worse," she continued, her voice lower but no less angry. "Do you seriously have nothing better to do at one of the better schools in the country than keep track of who a fourth-string quarterback dates?"

The two girls, taken aback at Daria's fierceness, could find no response.

"Kevin and I went to high school together, which is why I am tutoring him." Daria raked them both with a death glare. "So you can take that information back to whatever Gossip Hell you escaped from and leave me alone." Without another word, she turned and stalked back to her table.

Chapter 3: Too Many Men on the Field

The next two days were only slightly more productive than her library foray, so Daria was in what could charitably be called a foul mood when the wall buzzer heralded Kevin's arrival for his study session. She expressed her irritation by greeting him over the intercom with a hearty, "What the hell are you bothering me for?" His puzzled response, "Uh, to meet your for our tutoring session?" did nothing to reduce her annoyance, but rather than unleash a blistering string of profanities, she turned around and stalked from her room without further speech.

On her arrival at the check-in desk, Kevin gave her an attempt at a mollifying smile, but she chose not to accept it. Without even looking at him, she signed him in and turned back to the hallway with a grumbled, "Come on, dumbass."

Silence reigned until they reached her room. "I see you did follow me," she said as she unlocked the door. "Pity."

A soft touch on her shoulder shocked her, and she whirled to find Kevin looking concerned. "Something's the matter, isn't it?"

Raw anger surged through her but she struggled to channel it. Here was this man-child, this idiot who was the source of at least half her problems, asking if something was wrong. "No, Kevin," she growled, hoping sarcasm would provide an outlet for her rage. "Everything is fine. Why wouldn't it be fine? It's not like life has gotten even stupider than it was in Lawndale! Between you dating my best friend, me having no time to do my own work, and idiot girls stalking me for oppo purposes, things couldn't be better!"

"Come on, Daria," he said. "Even I can tell you're being sarcastic. How can I help?"

"You can get the hell out of my goddamn life is how you can help!" Daria was almost screaming. "You can go back to planet Football and get ready for your fulfilling adult life as a performing fucking monkey and let me get through college without killing you!" She was about to expound further on Kevin's stupidity and general uselessness when she read the pain in Kevin's eyes. She suddenly realized that she could hurt him, badly. Anger drained away, replaced with shame. "Kevin, I'm sorry," she said.

"For what?" he said, in that same little boy voice he'd used when all of this started. "You didn't say anything that wasn't true."

"Kevin...," she started to say, but he cut her off. "I won't waste any more of your time, Daria. And I'll stop bothering Colleen so you won't have to see me anymore."

"Kevin," she said again as he turned toward the door. "Please don't go." To her shock, she found that she meant it.

"Why not?"

"I had no right to speak to you like that," Daria sighed. "I keep forgetting that you have feelings, too, and I need to respect them."

"But all that stuff you said?"

"Was me taking out my frustrations on you after a bad week. All this stuff that's connected to you has been pissing me off, but none of it is your fault. You haven't said or done anything wrong since we got back."

"So, you're not going to yell at me anymore?" A smile once again grew on his face. Privately, she thought it suited him well.

"I can't promise that," she said and half-smiled in return. "But I won't blame you for things that aren't your fault, and I'll try not to be such a bitch to you while we work together." Before he could protest her word choice, she gave him a penetrating look over her glasses. "Shall we start with Chem 101?"

"That depends?" Kevin said. "You're not going to act like Mrs. Barch, are you?" Despite herself, Daria laughed.

After that, the session went very well. Daria didn't lose her temper once, and for the first time, Kevin felt like he'd learned at least a tiny little bit about science. That night in bed, he thought about how productive the day had been. He seemed to see Daria's eyes staring down at him, promising understanding and compassion. He'd never before realized how pretty they were.

Over the next few days, Daria's new, more positive outlook continued, to the relief not only of Kevin, but also her friends. Colleen, Jerry, and Gina all commented on it when the four were next together for lunch on Wednesday afternoon.

"Happy Daria is certainly an improvement, Gina said, "even if the food isn't."

"How would you know?" Daria said. "You've never seen Happy Daria. And the last person who did is buried along a lonely stretch of road in West Virginia."

"Well, I'll settle for less-unpleasant Daria," Colleen said with a smile. At Daria's mock frown, she added. "If only to rate a grave near a major highway."

"So what's got you in a better mood, Daria?" Jerry asked. He looked down sadly at his Sloppy Joe, which featured consistencies and colors that did not appear in nature.

"I'm betting she finally got laid," Gina said.

Daria fixed her with a death glare and defiantly ate a forkful of brownish salad.

"Gina! You've gone and made her try to kill herself!" Colleen remarked. "Besides, I can tell Daria hasn't had sex recently."

"Oh," Daria said, quirking an eyebrow, "I can't wait to hear this."

"Come on, Daria. We know you eat your mates after sex." Gina and Jerry laughed.

"Project much?" Daria said. "And you've got a little blood," she pointed to the corner of her mouth, "right there."

"She's got you there," Gina said with another laugh. Jerry and Colleen both joined in.

"So what has got you feeling better?" Jerry asked.

Daria shrugged and choked down another forkful of salad. "Dunno. I guess I decided to stop acting like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. I'm still too busy, but that's not anyone's fault. It's just because I'm in college and I'm me, so I won't take shortcuts."

"And Kevin?" Colleen asked, eyes suddenly piercing.

"We talked." Daria said. "And I decided to treat him like a human being, not a heavy bag." At Colleen's widening smile, she raised a forestalling hand. "But I'm still not interested in him, so you can keep doing," she waved her hand dismissively, "whatever it is you're doing with him."

Colleen chuckled. "So nice of you to give your consent."

"I have to go with Daria on this," Gina said. "I know Kevin Thompson is dishy, but I've heard about him from people besides Daria, and they all say he's dumber than a box of rocks."

"Hey, as long as we're having fun," Colleen said, "or at least I'm having fun."

As the chatter continued, Daria felt a sense of comfort and pleasure she'd rarely had since coming to Notre Dame. She was with friends who valued her and cared about her. She felt like she could handle anything college could throw at her. She only hoped, as she headed for her next class, that she could keep that feeling going.

Surprisingly, she was. Her chat with Kevin significantly improved their progress; he was no longer afraid of her, so he was less afraid of making mistakes, which meant that he made fewer. This in turn made it easier for her to keep her temper, creating a positive feedback loop.

The decrease in pressure associated with her tutoring also helped with her own work. While she still had a mound of reading and writing to get through, she was adjusting better to the workload and stressing less. Combined with the lessening of stress on the Kevin front, the situation made for a much more pleasant Daria. Her friends continued to be agog, and a few newcomers joined their little circle.

It was Colleen, of course, who summed up everyone's feelings with a well-turned one-liner on a warm March morning the carried the promise of spring. "Wow, Daria," she said as the two walked across the quad, "there are days when you're downright cheerful. Are you sure you haven't abducted by aliens."

"No," Daria laughed. "But let me know if you find a transponder on my neck. Quinn might be controlling me remotely."

"I thought you said your sister wasn't smart enough to do something like that."

"She's been getting smarter for the last two years. I'm not sure if I should be proud or terrified."

"I'd say 'yes,'" Colleen said and took a peek over her shoulder at the appreciative crowd of guys watching them. "Oh, look," she said airily, "we've got a fan club."

"You mean you've got a fan club," Daria said.

"Oh, no. I'm not letting you pull that crap. I know for a fact that are guys eyeing you. After all, I know for a fact you've been on a half-dozen more dates since you went out with Eddie."

"Four," Daria said. "And thank God none of them were double dates with you and Kevin."

"Don't change the subject, Daria. For someone who prides herself on being brutally honest, you lie to yourself about your looks all the time." She shook her head. "And it's not even for your benefit."

Daria shrugged. "It's just not a big deal. I'm not Quinn. I don't care whether guys are following me around."

Colleen smirked. "Well, I assure you, they are."

Before Daria could retort, a male voice broke in. "Excuse me, ladies. I was wondering if I could ask you something."

Turning, Daria saw a man of average height and medium build, with dark hair cut short and a face that dreams were made of. Piercing blue eyes drew her gaze immediately, and he gave her a dazzling smile. Not trusting herself to speak, Daria shrugged acquiescence and made to step aside for Colleen. To her shock, however, the movie star eyes lingered on her, as he extended a hand. "Daria, right?"

After a confused moment, she took it. "Yes, I mean, uh—." With a huge effort, she pulled herself together despite her hormones and the waves of smugness emanating from Colleen. "You have the advantage of me, sir."

He brought the hand to his lips. "I'm Bryce," he said. "Bryce Wilson."

"A pleasure to meet you, Bryce Wilson," she said, and meant it.

He answered her words first with a smile. Without releasing her hand, he continued. "I was wondering if you would like to dine together this evening."

A sudden vertigo blanked Daria's mind. This man. Classy. Confident. Urbane. Me. I don't get it. Once again, she strove to pull herself together. "I would like that very much," she finally said.

"Shall we say, eight o'clock then? I'll swing by your dorm and meet you."

"Farley Hall," she said, still unbelieving.

"I'll see you at eight, then," he said, finally releasing her hand. Her eyes tracked him as he headed off in the direction they had come from.

"Wow," Colleen said. "I didn't know you went for over-the-top."

"Neither did I," Daria said softly, eyes still following the path Bryce had taken.

"Oh, and Daria?"

"Yes?"

"I told you so."

"Shut up, Colleen."

Colleen laughed, and the two friends made their way to class.

Eight o'clock found Daria tenser that she'd been in a long time. Sure, she'd been out with a few different guys in the last month, and she'd dated Tom for close to a year, but she hadn't felt the raw pull of attraction this strongly since the first few times she met Trent. Then she hadn't been in position to act on her feelings; now she was.

In the back of her mind, though, she remembered how things with Tom had ended. She'd convinced herself that they were in love, that he would never hurt her intentionally—and she'd been horribly, painfully wrong. She wasn't ready to give her heart again.

She was, however, ready to doll herself up a little more than she had for her other dates. Part of that was that the weather had changed. The unseasonable warmth made wearing a sleeveless dress possible, and her wrap, a gift from Quinn, would cover her if the temperature dropped. Deep down, though, she simply wanted to look her best—to make a good impression and reassure herself that she wasn't out of her league.

The buzzer rang, signaling that someone was at the desk for her. She took a deep breath, gave herself a once-over, and headed down to the lobby. A sudden impulse toward theater, inspired no doubt by Quinn's influence, led her to pause in the stairway, heightening the anticipation. When she finally walked out after another minute, she was rewarded with a sudden indrawn breath, which she met with her characteristic half-smile.

"You look lovely, Daria," Bryce said after a moment.

"Why thank you, Bryce," she said as she walked over. "You're looking very handsome yourself." Which he was, in a silk shirt with banded collar that set off his blue eyes, and immaculately creased pants. "Shall we go?" she added, offering her arm.

Ironically, he took her to the same restaurant Eddie had over a month ago. But this time, the conversation sparkled. They laughed over modern poetry and jousted over their preferred playwrights—Daria was a Shakespeare girl, while Bryce preferred Marlowe and Jonson. Talk turned to contemporary politics, and Daria was pleased to note how easily Bryce kept up. Most of her other dates weren't interested in much beyond getting their degree so they could get a job at a start-up and rake in the dot-com bucks. Bryce wanted to study law and was suspicious of the internet economy. "At the end of the day, they don't sell anything, so they have no way to generate revenue. It's going to end badly, and probably pretty soon." Daria agreed.

Only one thing marred her perfect evening. As they were waiting to pay the bill, she mentioned her hometown high school.

"Lawndale," he said, suddenly curious. "Doesn't that mean you went to school with Kevin Thompson?"

A sudden creeping suspicion assaulted her. "Quarterbacks of any kind aren't my favorite topic of conversation." Her eyes narrowed. "Why do you want to know?"

He shrugged, smile getting a little worried. "Sorry, Daria. I just figured, Notre Dame, people care about football. You might have wanted to do a little bragging."

"I don't think so," she said. "As a matter of fact, I didn't even realize this school was a football factory until I found out Kevin was coming here, too."

Before the chill at the table could get worse, the bill came and they made a show of arguing over who would pay. By the time he prevailed, she no longer felt angry. "Fine. I'll let you pay this time," she said and he smiled.

"Does this mean you'll go out with me again?"

"I'll think about it," she said, but her smile and wide eyes gave her away. They left the restaurant as they had arrived—arm in arm.

Chapter 4: Illegal Motion

The next day, Daria swore she could still feel the touch of Bryce's lips on hers. They'd only shared the one, chaste kiss outside her dorm, after making plans to see each other again on Friday night, but that had been enough to set her tingling. Getting her head back in shape for class was hard enough, but she also had tutoring with Kevin that night.

She'd spent most of the day with her subconscious chittering about Bryce in counterpoint to her lectures and other conversations, but by the time Kevin arrived, she'd been able to bury the mental noise. A silly smile kept threatening to break out on her face, though.

It was the smile that Kevin noticed when he arrived. "Whoa, Daria! What's got you in such a good mood?"

Daria buried the smile and affected her flattest monotone. "What are you talking about, Kevin?"

"Well, now you look more like Daria, but you were just smiling there. I've never seem you smile like that, not even when we lived through that hurricane in junior year."

"Don't worry, Kevin," Daria deadpanned. "I promise you'll never see it again."

"Why not?" Kevin asked. "You're so much prettier when you smile." He winced as he realized what he'd just said. "Sorry, Daria. Please don't yell at me."

Daria tried a glower, but failed. "Fine," she said, "but I'm saving it up for next time. Now, where were we in Chemistry?"

"The different valiant levels?" Kevin asked.

Daria sighed, mostly from habit. "Valence levels, Kevin."

"Yeah, that."

Daria mustered the will not to laugh.

The next day when they met up, Bryce had a surprise for her. "Instead of going out to another restaurant, why don't we take in the new exhibit at the art museum?"

"The Snite?" Daria said. "Cool, I've been meaning to check it out, but somehow, I've never found the time."

"Someone special been keeping you busy, huh?" As her eyes narrowed, he added. "I mean someone who's short-bus special. Or at least that's what I've heard."

Even though she was still annoyed, Daria couldn't help but laugh. "He's not that bad," she said. "He's close, though."

Bryce laughed. "Oh, the stories you could tell."

"Well," Daria said, with her half-smile. "If you're good and don't mention football while we're at the art museum, I may be moved to share a couple of Kevin stories."

Bryce chuckled and took her hand. "I'll see what I can do."

The Snite Museum of Art was impressive, Daria had to admit. Since it was just a campus museum, she'd expected a couple of small exhibits and some crap by "rising stars" from the school itself. In fact, there was a breadth of types and styles that would have impressed Jane. There was some crap, of course. She and Bryce had fun ridiculing those. One exhibit, a looped film of people slamming doors earned the mocking title, "The Illusion of Depth," from Bryce, which in turn earned him a wide smile from Daria. Mostly, though, she found visually arresting, inventive work that thanks to her years of knowing Jane, she could identify with on more than a superficial level.

One oddly shaped sculpture was so much like something Jane would do that Daria was struck with nearly dizzying wave of homesickness. She was suddenly very conscious of how very far away Jane was, and how very much she missed her.

Noticing her distress, Bryce asked, "Is anything wrong? Are you feeling sick?"

"No," Daria said, getting control of herself. "It's just," she paused for a breath. "My best friend back in Lawndale was an artist, and this piece reminded me how much I miss her."

"Oh," he said. "If it bothers you, we can go."

"That's probably a good idea," Daria said. "After all, we've been here a couple of hours already."

"Well, how about we go get some dessert, then." Bryce said. "You can tell me about your friend. If you want."

Daria half-smiled. "And maybe some of the other idiots I went to high school with?"

"Well," he said, drawing the word out. "Only if you want to."

It turned out she did want to. The campus had a TCBY, and soon they were sucking down ice-cream substitute and swapping stories of their high school years.

"...so he finally bashed the door open with his head," Daria reminisced.

Bryce laughed. "How'd you get down from the roof?"

"I've gotta say, I'm a little embarrassed. Turns out that the door wasn't locked. Kevin just hadn't pushed on the latch when he tried to open the door. Jane and I didn't bother checking ourselves."

At her sheepish expression, Bryce laughed all the harder.

"Hey," Daria tried to look annoyed. "Would you think anyone could be that stupid?"

"Well, no," Bryce said. "But then I didn't have the level of experience you did. Didn't you just tell me about your whole science project fiasco?"

"Yeah. I think I would have done better if I could have put Kevin in the maze and worked with the mouse." Bryce laughed again and looked at his watch. "Think we should get out of here?"

"Yes," Daria nodded, hiding a thrill of... something as she looked around. "I think it's closing time and they're going to enforce it by beating us with mop handles if we don't go."

He laughed and rose. "Walk you back?"

"Of course," Daria said. They walked hand-in-hand back to Farley Hall, not saying much. Daria used the time to examine her emotions. The something she'd felt was desire, certainly, and the possibility that the night might involve some form of deep physical intimacy. Anxiety was there too, or even fear, that intimacy would only lead to pain.

She and Tom had started having sex over the previous summer, after they'd decided to make a go of it in college. With the clarity of hindsight, she couldn't help but wonder if that was the only reason he'd asked her, and she had no desire to be used like that again. Overlaying all was the practical concern that she didn't want to get in the habit of giving it up on the second date.

"Well, here we are," said Bryce, shattering her reverie. The familiar sight of Finley Hall bulked over them.

"Yes," she said, suddenly not sure what to say. "Here we are."

"So," he said, also awkward.

"So," she agreed, starting to feel ridiculous. "I should go to bed. It's hard to work up enthusiasm for wild Friday nights when you have to spend the weekend tutoring the brain-dead."

"I can see that," he said. "When will I see you again?"

"How about Monday?" she smiled.

Rather than replying, he leaned forward and placed his lips on hers. Whether it was intended to be innocent she would never know, because a sudden passion came over her and she pulled him close. They shared a deep, slow, wet kiss, and when they separated, she said in a breathless voice totally unlike her, "Monday it is."

Monday was a classical concert at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, which Bryce enjoyed more that Daria did, and Thursday, a pleasantly warm day, was a picnic on one of the greens followed by a long walk around campus and a not-quite-but-almost-public make out session that had Daria questioning her sanity. She mentioned it to Colleen the next day, but the redhead laughed off her concerns.

"I don't see why this bothers you. So you made out with a guy somewhere that someone might have seen you."

"It's not the sort of thing I do," Daria said stiffly.

"You afraid you might join the human race after all?" Colleen's grin was impish.

"Sometimes I wonder why I'm friends with you."

"Only sometimes?"

"Yeah, on days ending in 'y.'" For a second, Daria looked thoughtful. "Actually, Jane said almost the same thing."

Colleen grinned. "Jane is a wise and observant woman. I hope I get to meet her."

Daria gave Colleen a mock-ferocious glare. "I used to wonder why I was friends with Jane, too."

Despite Colleen's none too gentle mocking and the urgings of her own body, Daria was reluctant to advance the physical nature of her relationship with Bryce. Whether it was lingering resentment over feeling used by Tom or her naturally cautious nature asserting herself, she kept her hormones under control and her clothes mostly on for the next few weeks. Bryce for his part was a gentleman about it: he respected her boundaries and tried to put as little pressure on her as possible.

Kevin, oddly enough, seemed very interested in her relationship with Bryce. After one chem lesson, she started to put her books away only to find him hovering over the table where they'd worked.

"Yes?" she asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Daria, I need to ask you something," he said.

"Wait a second. Isn't this how I got into this in the first place?" She made sure to smile to take the sting out of her words, but he seemed not to notice.

"Nothing like that," he said, and paused struggling for more words, while her expression darkened. Finally, as she was about to say something cutting, he blurted, "So what's up with you and this Bryce guy?"

Totally unprepared for that question, Daria managed only an incredulous, "What?"

"I heard you're seeing a guy named Bryce," he said.

Daria, her initial shock over, rose to face him. "And what does that have to do with you?" she asked in a sharp tone.

Looking away from her ice-cold eyes, he rubbed his neck nervously and tried to answer. "Well, I uh, that is, don't you think, um. You know," he attempted a smile. "I'm just asking."

Not satisfied, Daria continued to glare. "It's none of your goddamn business, Kevin. Just like it's none of my business what you do with Colleen."

"I don't do anything with Colleen," he said, and the fear in his voice was replaced with disappointment. "We haven't seen each other in over two weeks."

"Wait, what?" For the second time, Daria's mind blanked with shock.

"We're not seeing each other anymore," he said, and then gave her a curious look. "I figured Colleen would have told you."

Daria gave Kevin a prim look. "Who Colleen dates isn't my business." With a grimace, she added, "Especially if it's you."

He shot her a hurt look. "That wasn't fair, Daria."

She sighed. "You're right, Kevin. It wasn't." Her face hardened. "But it wasn't fair of you to ask me about my dating, either. We've known each other a long time, and we may even be friends now, but that doesn't give you the right to stick your nose into my business."

"Sorry," he said with the same hangdog expression that had accompanied his infrequent apologies in high school. "Hey," he added, the frown suddenly replaced by his normal goofy grin, "do you mean it about us being friends?"

Seeing the familiar exaggerated expressions play over his face, Daria felt an unaccountable wave of fondness sweep over her. With a laugh, she said, "I guess so, Kevin, God help me."

"Cool!" Finally, he gathered up his stuff to go. At the door he turned, slight disappointment on his face. "Man, it's a shame we won't see as much of each other after next week."

Daria racked her brains for a moment before remembering. "That's right. You start spring practice, so we're down to one day a week." At his nod, she gave him a half-smile. "I guess we'll both have to try to survive."

He grinned again and gave her a cheery wave. As the door shut behind him, she threw herself on the bed and started to laugh uncontrollably.

She was still amused when she told the story to Bryce over dinner that Friday. Bryce was suitably impressed. "So am I gonna have a football player try to disassemble me now?"

Daria gave him a sardonic look over her burger. "As long as you stay off the direct line between Kevin's dorm and the football field, you should be okay. Otherwise, he's not likely to find you."

Bryce chucked. "What puzzles me," he said, suddenly sounding curious, "is how someone that dumb could play quarterback. I don't have a very high opinion of football players in general, but I know enough about the sport to know that quarterback is a pretty complicated job."

"He's an idiot savant. With emphasis on the idiot." Daria said. After a thoughtful pause, she added, "That's not really fair. Once he got good at football, it was the only thing he learned about. So he had about a fourth grade education and all of his reasoning and deductive skills are football focused." She sighed. "It's weird."

"You're probably the first person in years to care about Kevin as a person instead of a football player." He looked down at his food for a moment, as if he was nervous or ashamed. "Does he like you, Daria?"

A cold prickling started on Daria's neck. "What do you mean, like?"

Bryce's eyes met hers. "You know what I mean," he said softly.

"Yes," Daria said, "but I don't see why you care!" Her temper flared. "Do you honestly think, even if Kevin was interested in me that I'd even consider a romantic relationship with him? We've been dating for over a month, and you should know what I value! And it's not skill at a game played by and for musclebound freaks!"

"Yeah, I know." Bryce said. "It's just..."

"Just what?" Daria snapped eyes flashing.

"Listen, I should go." And before she try to stop him or say a word, he was gone, leaving only a twenty-dollar bill in his wake.

"At least he didn't leave me with the bill," Daria muttered as silent tears began to stream down her face. It was a long time before she could bring herself to leave.

Chapter 5: Delay of Game

Over the next few days, Daria spoke to virtually no one. She tried calling Bryce, but had gotten neither answer nor callback. After messages on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, she gave up. She wanted to talk to her friends, but she felt that if she did, she would have to explain what happened, and she simply had no idea. Everything had been going smoothly, until one awkward conversation derailed the whole thing, and Daria, even after racking her brains for days, couldn't see why.

And now she had to deal with Kevin again. This Wednesday was the first of his once-a-week tutoring sessions. He was due to arrive at nine, and she expected to hear a lot about football, whether she wanted to or not. She did not, however, expect a phone call at eight-thirty.

"Hello," she said, voice flat and impatient.

"Hello, Daria," said Bryce's voice, sounding both unsure and uncomfortable.

"Hello, Bryce." She ignored the impulse toward conciliation. If anything, her voice was even flatter. "To what do I owe this call?"

"Come on, Daria," he said. "You know why I called."

"Not really, at least not any more than I what happened on Friday or why you haven't called before this."

"I had a lot to think about."

"You had a lot to think about. That makes everything clear. Did the dog eat your homework too?"

"That's not fair, Daria," he said, anger finally touching his voice.

Part of her felt she'd let him suffer enough and it was time to forgive and forget. That wasn't the part she listened to, though. "Look, you're the one who ditched me without explanation on Friday, left me feeling like a fool, and didn't respond to my messages for five fucking days. If there's anyone who should be complaining about unfairness in this conversation, it's not you."

"Well, if you're going to be a bitch about it," he snapped, and she furiously stabbed the end button, not waiting for the rest of his statement. Throwing herself on the bed, she waited for the tears, but they wouldn't come.

It wasn't until the buzzer rang that she remembered Kevin. For a moment, she was tempted to tell him she was sick, but she decided that work, any kind of work, was better than the deadness she felt inside. She dragged herself off the bed, took a minute to check her face for obvious signs of distress, and went downstairs.

"...and coach really liked my long throws. Of course, we didn't get to seven-on-sevens or anything, I mean it's just first week of practice, but I'm really feeling better about this year..." Daria flung her door open as Kevin nattered on in footballese, a language Daria still barely spoke.

She let him babble while she got her notes and books out, and then drew his attention to their work. Within five minutes, she knew she was making a mess of the lesson. Within ten, she was praying Kevin wouldn't notice. In the end, her only comfort was that it took him almost twenty.

"Um, Daria?" Kevin said, after she referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson as a translationist, instead of a transcendentalist, for the third time. "Is something the matter?"

"Nothing's the matter," she said and hated the dead tone in which she said it.

"Are you sure? Because even I know that Emerson wasn't a translationist. He wrote in English."

"Thank you, Kevin," she said, some life returning to her voice. "You're absolutely right. Now if we could focus on what Emerson wrote, instead of what language he wrote in, we can actually get some work done."

"It's about that Bryce guy, isn't it?" Kevin's eyes held a sudden and unusual shrewdness.

Daria's own eyes narrowed, and her voice went icy cold. "I thought we agreed you weren't going to talk about my love life."

"I know, I know, and I'm really sorry. But Daria, I heard stuff about this guy that I think you need to know." She shot him a quelling look, but he plowed onward. "He went to high school with a couple of the guys on the team back in California. He used to follow the football players around to hit on their sloppy seconds. From what they said, he figured that any girl who hung out with a football player must be easy, so he'd have no trouble talking in them into bed after a couple of dates."

"Sure you don't have him mixed up with someone else?" Daria said, as nastily as she could.

"Like me, you mean?" Kevin asked with raised eyebrow, surprising her with his perception. "Look, I've never been the most faithful guy, and I was a bastard to Brittany any number of times, but she gave as good as she got. And I've always been honest. Everyone knew Brit and I were dating and no one gave a shit, because I was the QB." He gave Daria a bitter smile. "Just like none of the guys gave a shit that the head cheerleader had a boyfriend when they got with her."

"Uh-huh," she said, trying to sound disbelieving. "And this makes you better than you say Bryce is?"

He shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe it doesn't. And I don't want to tell you what to do, Daria. But I don't want you to get taken advantage of."

"Thank you, Kevin, but as I said before, I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself." Her tart voice belied the confusion roiling within her. Looking at Kevin, she realized she couldn't deal with him in her current state. "You know what, Kevin? Let's call it a night," she paused, waiving an arm aimlessly. "I'm not feeling well all of a sudden. I'll see you next week?"

"Sure thing, Daria," he said, a knowing expression on his face. "But if you need anything–"

"Just go," she said. "I have a pounding headache." By the time she finished speaking, she wasn't lying.

She lay on her bed after that, trying to sort the welter of her emotions. She couldn't reconcile the picture Kevin had given her with the urbane, witty, and considerate man she'd spend so much time with over the last few weeks. But she couldn't reconcile that person with the Bryce who'd thrown such ugly, hateful words at her tonight either. Nor could she understand why Kevin, of all people, was suddenly inserting himself into her personal life. Sleep was a long time coming.

Over the next few days, Daria tried to put the Bryce disaster, as she termed it, behind her. She went to her classes, lunched with her friends, and tried very hard to pretend nothing was wrong. She knew she wasn't fooling everyone—Colleen at least had that look in her eyes that said, "We will talk, and talk soon. Oh, yes."—but as long as she wasn't challenged, she felt she could keep it together. The problem, she reflected, was that she was full of shit. She was not 'keeping it together,' so much as denying her emotions. There was something with Bryce that had to be resolved, but she didn't trust herself to do it. So she ignored her emotions and pretended nothing was wrong while secretly she waited for his call.

She was hunched over a textbook when it finally came, around 8:30. She tried very hard to ignore the thrill of emotions that poured through her, allowing herself only a muttered, "If this is Quinn, I'm going to kill her," before picking up the receiver. It wasn't.

"Daria," Bryce said. "We need to talk."

Shoving down a dozen sarcastic remarks, she said, "I think you're right."

"How about now?" he asked. "We can meet in the library and find a quiet corner to talk."

"I think that'll be okay," Daria said, suddenly anxious for no reason she could name. "I can be there in about fifteen minutes."

"Sounds good," he said. "See you then."

She took a few minutes to pretty up, brushing out her hair, adding some lipstick, eye shadow, and blush, while pulling off her Notre Dame sweatshirt and pulling on a nice sweater, but her nerves continued to rattle. She thought he was too much of a gentleman to try anything inappropriate, but she heard Quinn's voice warning her that she was better safe than sorry, so she grabbed her purse, and the can of mace she carried there, and then called Colleen to ask her to meet at the library at 9:30.

The chill of the night did nothing to calm her, but seeing Bryce waiting in front of the library did help. He's just a guy, she thought, not a monster. "Hello, Bryce," she said, as she approached.

"Hi, Daria," he said, handsome face showing a determined expression in the light from the library's doorway. "Thanks for coming so quickly." He opened the door, and followed her in. It took them ten minutes to find a cubby where they could take without being overheard by anyone nearby.

"So what did you want to talk to me about?" Daria asked as they sat.

"Well, first I wanted to apologize for calling you a bitch on the phone. That was way out of line, and I wouldn't be surprised if you never wanted to talk to me again."

"Well, you're off to a good start," she said, and quirked a half-smile, even though part of her couldn't help but wait for the other shoe to drop.

"The other thing I wanted to talk to you about was Kevin Thompson," he said.

Of course, she thought but kept her face expressionless. "What about Kevin? I promise that I'm not now and never have gone out with Kevin Thompson. If I want to spend my time talking to something that doesn't understand me, I'll get a hamster."

He laughed at that, but it was a nervous laugh. "Of course not, Daria. If I'd stopped to think about it, I would have realized. It's just... you know football players, always with a line of bullshit, bragging about this girl and that, putting other guys down to make themselves look better..."

Something in her eyes must have unnerved him, because his words became more unsure as he spoke.

"I hope you're not telling me that someone's been bragging about me in locker rooms, Bryce," she said, and there was ice in her voice.

For a long moment, she could see him trying to say something and failing. Whether because the pressure of her eyes on his made it impossible or for some other reason, he wilted. "No. I haven't heard anything like that about you and Kevin."

"And why would you, anyway? I thought you hated football players." An ugly idea was forming in Daria's mind, one she hoped was born of paranoia and Kevin's stupidity.

Bryce's next words shattered that fancy. "Has Kevin ever said anything to you about me?"

"Why," she asked, and if her voice was ice before, it was a blizzard now, "would Kevin have any reason to talk to me about you?"

"No reason," he said, but the nervous laugh died in his throat.

"Spill," she said with the narrowed eyes that had always worked on Quinn, and sometimes on Jane and Colleen.

He sighed. "I had a reputation in High School as a hanger on. If you were friends with football players, you got to date girls who wouldn't look at you twice otherwise. One of the guys I went to High School with, it was a big prep school in California, he came to Notre Dame too, and he might have told some of the guys on the football team what I used to be like in High School."

"What you used to be like?"

"Yeah, Daria, I mean, we've all changed since High School. College is a whole new world, and we're whole new people."

"Uh-huh," she said, wishing she could trust him, but knowing deep down that she'd been had. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Tom Sloane was telling her off, but she ignored him. "So it was just a coincidence that you asked me out after it became common knowledge among the football crowd that Kevin and I were spending time together."

"Of course," he said quickly—too quickly. "I mean, okay, I know one of the second string cheerleaders, so I hear stuff about the football team, but I don't care about that."

"Of course not," she said as coldness radiated from her heart. "You just happened to run into me right after I had a staredown with two cheerleaders over my love life. What I don't understand," she continued, rolling right over his protests, "is why you went after me, and not Colleen. She actually went out with Kevin, you know."

"It wasn't Colleen I wanted," he said, pleading. "It was you."

"Because she's out of your league, right?"

He said nothing, only looked away.

"I think you should go, Bryce," she said, viciously monotone.

"No," he said, and met her eyes. "I really care about you, Daria. It's true, I didn't have the best of motives when I asked you out. I thought you were just another starfucker, but I was wrong. You're amazing, Daria, and I love being around you."

There was something in his voice that for a moment, just a moment, nearly reached through the ice in Daria's chest, but she remembered her mistakes, the faces of guys who had hurt her, all the way back to Trent telling her, "If you were a little older maybe I could take you out." The moment died, and the cold reasserted itself. "I think you should go, Bryce."

Defeated, he walked away, head hanging low. Daria just sat there, staring at nothing. She had no idea how long it was before Colleen found her.

"There you are," the redhead said. "I've been worried out of my mind looking for you."

Even though she'd been the one to call Colleen, Daria was suddenly annoyed at her overprotective friend. "I was right here all along."

Colleen frowned. "A corner cubby in the basement of the library behind the archived journals is hardly 'right there.' All you needed was a door with a sign saying "'Beware of the Leopard' to make you impossible to find."

"I'll have to get that for my dorm room one of these days." Daria said. "I'm fine, Colleen, so you can go if you want."

"The hell you are!" Colleen snapped. "You're as white as a sheet and you even sound monotone for you. I don't even know what you're doing here—" Daria could see the jolt of knowledge hit her friend's face. "You and Bryce broke up, didn't you."

Daria shrugged, trying to make it seem trivial. "Yeah."

"You broke up with him, right?"

Now it was Daria's turn for sudden knowledge. "You knew," she said, coldly accusing.

Unlike Bryce, Colleen didn't try to lie. "I did. But not right away."

"So this was your idea of getting me dating? To have some oily bastard break my heart?" Her voice cracked with anger.

"No!" Colleen said. "Daria, I swear to you that I didn't know anything about Bryce the day he asked you out. By the time I heard anything, you two were having so much fun that I thought the rumors must be lies."

"You should have told me!" Daria shouted.

"I tried, when you had that fight, but you weren't talking to me!" Tears formed in Colleen's eyes. "You weren't talking to anyone! I was worried, Daria, and I didn't know what to do!" Colleen was openly crying.

"You could have trusted me, Colleen." Daria said, feeling her own cheeks go wet. "You don't hide things from friends! Kevin was the only person who even tried to talk to me!"

"Kevin?" Colleen said, shocked.

"Kevin," Daria said, defiant. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go back to my dorm room and decide if I should ever forgive you."

"Daria, that's not fair!" Colleen wailed, but Daria simply brushed past her, saying nothing and thinking nothing until she reached the safety of her own bed. Then she put her head on her hands and wept.

Chapter 6: Holding

It was the buzz from the intercom that finally stirred Daria. She'd successfully ignored the phone for a day and a half, but the intercom was much louder, and indicated that someone had actually come all the way to her dorm to roust her. With a sigh, she dragged herself off the bed and pulled on a robe. She pondered trying to fix her hair, but decided against it. After a day and a half in bed, her semidoze occasionally interrupted by bursts of tears, she knew there was no way to make herself look good without a lot of effort, effort she wasn't about to put in. So she stomped down the stairs to drive off whoever had interrupted her.

Colleen was the prime suspect. She'd called at least three times yesterday, and probably more, but Daria had stopped looking at the caller ID after that. She had no desire to talk to Colleen anytime in the near future. Jerry or Gina were also possibilities, and she would have to be less unpleasant to them. She did not, however, expect to find Kevin waiting for at the sign-in desk.

"Hey, Daria," Kevin said, as he saw her. "You look like hell."

"Fuck you very much, Kevin," she growled. "I don't need insults or your company."

"Sorry, Daria," he said, sheepishly. "That was out of line. But you don't look very good. You look like you've been sick for a couple of days."

"I'm fine, Kevin," Daria said. "Please leave."

Ignoring her words, he moved next to her. "I thought you might like someone to talk to," he said, looking down at her red-rimmed eyes.

She gave him a black look. "Why would I want that? I've got four walls and a ceiling who are better conversationalists."

"Walls can't make you feel better," he said. "Friends can."

"Cut the after-school special crap, Kevin. Why are you here?"

"I'm worried about you, Daria." The earnest look on his face surprised Daria, but she tried to ignore it.

"There's a sentence I never expected to hear from Kevin Thompson," she said with massive sarcasm in her voice. "After all, I'm not the playbook, so there's no reason for you to notice me."

"That's not fair, Daria," he snapped. "I know I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I would like to look out for you. I would probably have come by even if Colleen hadn't asked me to."

She felt a sudden surge of anger at the name. "So Colleen sent you? Well, I'm sending you back. Tell Colleen I said she can take her worries and go fuck herself sideways."

"I'm not going to do that," he said. "I want to know what's wrong, and unless you want the rest of the dorm to know too, maybe we should go back to your room."

"Good. I've got a can of mace with your name on it."

"C'mon, Daria. I'm only trying to help."

"Fine," she said, heaving a massive sigh. "You can come and talk at me for fifteen minutes, if you promise to go away after that."

"Alright!" Despite herself, Daria quirked a half-smile at the look of satisfaction on his goofy face. Even angry as she was, something about Kevin made her want to mess with him.

Thus, because she knew it would drive him crazy, when they got back to her room, she sat on the bed, crossed her arms, and said, "So?"

"So what?" he asked, his face a portrait of confusion.

"You've got fifteen minutes to say what you came to say, and the clock is ticking."

"Oh, yeah." He scratched his head for moment, clearly disconcerted. "Well, I'm really worried about you."

"So you said." She wondered briefly if he really was that dumb or if she had that effect on him. "Why?"

He started to say something, voice uncertain, and she felt sure she could run out his fifteen minutes without difficulty—until, that is, the unexpected happened. She could clearly see the realization strike his face, confusion replaced by deep concern. "Colleen didn't tell me all the details, but she told me enough. You got very badly hurt, didn't you?" His gentle voice evaporated the distance she was cultivating, and her earlier anger returned.

"I dumped a guy," she snapped. "I didn't get a leg caught in a woodchipper."

"Come on, Daria. Believe it or not, I know how hard it is to stop dating someone." For a moment, he looked unutterably sad.

"Oh, right!" Daria was having none of it. "It must have hurt to tell Brittany you were trading up."

He looked away. "I just, you know, didn't want to draw it out. We were doing that whole make up/break up thing again, and I wanted it over. But I had such a rough first semester that I panicked when I got home for Christmas. If it wasn't for you, I probably wouldn't have realized how cruel I was."

"Me?" Daria blinked.

"Well, yeah. I mean, you told me off pretty good after Jodie's party, and it made me think. If I wanted to grow up, I had to stop trying to pull Britt back. That was really hard, but it was important."

"Well," Daria said slowly, "That's very mature of you, Kevin. But I still don't see what that has to do with me."

"I probably wouldn't have asked Britt out again if I had someone to talk to about it. So maybe if you talk to me, you won't do something dumb."

There was something in his face she'd never seen there before, something that urged her to silence, so despite her reflexes, she bit back on the obvious remark and replaced it with a question. "What kind of dumb thing?"

"I don't know, Daria. You're smarter than me, so it'd probably be something complicated."

Daria suddenly laughed, a short bitter bark. At Kevin's quizzical look, she said, "Sorry. I read somewhere that people of limited intelligence tend to make small mistakes, but to make a catastrophic mistake, you need real smarts."

"I guess," Kevin said, clearly confused. "I just—" he paused, groping for the words. "I know you're hurting, but I don't want you to hurt yourself more to forget what hurt you in the first place."

"I know," Daria said. "Thank you, Kevin." A tide of emotion seemed to rise in her, sweeping everything forward, gratitude and rage and bone-deep pain. "I just wish people were honest," she blurted. "Everyone lies. Bryce lied to me, even Colleen lied to me, and she's my best friend, except for Jane. And even Jane used to lie to me sometimes. Sometimes I think you're the only person who's never lied to me." Tears began to run down her cheeks. "And I know that's mostly because you never had a reason to before, but still, it means something to me."

Moved by her words and by her tears, Kevin put his arms around her. For a moment, she pulled away, but the comfort of his arms drew her in, and soon she was weeping softly on his shoulder. As he patted her back to comfort her, he was struck by how good she felt against him. The same thing occurred to her, and she looked up at his face, her skewed glasses revealing some of the deep green of her eyes. Something unspoken passed between them, and he gently slid the glasses from her face.

"You have beautiful eyes," he whispered, and put his lips to hers.

A part of her mind recoiled, but the response of her body overwhelmed it. She leaned into the kiss, setting both their pulses racing. When they broke, it was Kevin who looked alarmed, and Daria who pulled him back.

The next morning, Daria tried to come to grips with what had happened. First, she was shocked that she'd kissed Kevin Thompson. Then she wondered why she'd kissed Kevin. Then, she was shocked that she'd kissed Kevin Thompson. Then, she wondered why kissing Kevin had felt so natural. Then, she was shocked that she'd kissed Kevin Thompson. Eventually, she decided she wasn't getting anywhere and got out of bed.

Deciding coffee would be a logical next step, she filled the four-cup coffeemaker her mother had given her. While she waited for the coffee to brew, she hit the bathroom and noted that she looked even worse than yesterday. Clearly, some grooming was in order—well, after her first cup of coffee.

Forty-five minutes later, a groomed, dressed, and caffeinated Daria was forced to confront two unfortunate truths: first, last night had actually happened—she had kissed Kevin—and second, she had no idea what to think or how to feel about it. Fortunately, she found that unlike with the emotional turmoil of the last couple of days, this confusion wasn't all-consuming. So she sensibly shoved it to the back of her mind and went to class.

Both classes went smoothly, not that she expected anything else, and the midafternoon found her at the library catching up on the reading she normally would have done over the last couple of days. Buried in a badly written monograph on voting patterns in antebellum Kentucky, it took a moment to notice the person standing over her. Heart suddenly racing, she looked up... at the nervous face of Colleen O'Leary.

"Are you going to sit or just keep blocking my light?"

"I wasn't sure I would be welcome," Colleen said softly as she slid into the seat across from Daria.

"Yeah, about that," Daria looked away, face heating with embarrassment. "I overreacted. Especially since I was the one who called you."

"Yeah, well, I probably shouldn't have been keeping secrets from you. So are we good?"

"Yeah," Daria nodded. "We're good."

"Well, let me look at you, then," Colleen said. "I was so worried about you for the last couple of days."

"Afraid I'd grow another head and start trying to eat our fellow students?"

"Well, yeah, but you've still only got the two, so you're okay." She reached a hand to her friend. "Seriously, Daria. When you wouldn't answer your phone, I got so freaked out—"

"That you sent Kevin over." Daria quirked a half-smile. "You've had better ideas, you know."

"I don't know," Colleen said, her own smile now showing fully. "You're out, about, and talking to me. Something good must have happened."

"Well, I didn't kill him, if that's what you mean." Daria was sure she'd hidden the sudden thrill she'd felt at the mention of "something good," but something in her face must have changed, because Colleen's eyes lit with an unholy glee.

"Something did happen," she said, and laughed. "Don't try to deny it, Daria. You suck at lying."

"I could just take the Fifth," Daria said, strangely not displeased. "I don't have to say anything."

Colleen just laughed all the harder. "I knew it. I knew there was something between you two," she choked out between giggles.

"Anytime you'd like to shut up would be good," Daria growled.

"Come on, Daria. You have to admit, it's pretty funny."

"You know," Daria said, and there was frost in her voice. "I've been through emotional hell this week. It would be nice if my best friend could show something other than amusement."

"I'm sorry," Colleen said, though she didn't sound it. "So what now?"

Daria rolled her eyes. Colleen was just too irrepressible to stay angry at. And the ball of confused emotion about Kevin that she'd been ignoring all day sudden broke free and overwhelmed her. "I don't know," she said in a small voice. "I really don't know."

"Well," said Colleen, sounding serious. "You could consider the situation rationally from a number of angles and consider whether going out with Kevin is the best thing to do."

Daria raised an eyebrow. "Who are you and what have you done with Colleen O'Leary?"

"I said you could do that, not that you should. The better option would be to embrace the moment and see where it takes you."

A little ice crept back into Daria's voice. "Didn't I try that with Bryce?" And Tom, she added mentally.

If Colleen was ruffled, she didn't show it. "Actually, you didn't. You kept things slow and let him court you. Which," she raised a finger to forestall Daria's interruption, "was a good idea, since he turned out to be an asshole. But you know Kevin, and you know he's honest and he's not going to hurt you on purpose."

"But he might hurt me all the same." Tom did.

"That's the price you pay for living, Daria," Colleen said, and suddenly made a face. "And don't I sound like an after-school special. Feel free to shoot me now."

Daria's wonderment at her friend's changeable moods lasted only a moment because her eyes suddenly met wide brown ones. Kevin blinked first. "Uh, sorry, Daria," he stammered. "I didn't, huh, know you were— I wanted to— I'm just gonna go now." He turned and walked off, rather quickly, Daria noted.

"Listen, Colleen," she said, rising, "you're going to have to abuse me later. I have to talk to someone."

Colleen's reply, if there was one, was lost in Daria's rush to find Kevin. She fairly flew up the stairs, but didn't see him in the lobby. Guessing that he wouldn't hang around, she sped out the front doors, where she saw the usual crowds on the quad, but no Kevin. She took a moment to catch her breath and think. She knew he had no classes today, and although he wasn't the brightest light on the Christmas tree, she figured he was smart enough not to go directly back to his dorm. Besides, I can check there last if I don't find him. But knowing Kevin, where would he go if he was freaked out? A frisbee flew past her head, and she suddenly knew.

She'd strenuously avoided the athletic facilities since arriving at Notre Dame, but she knew where they were. It was hard not to, since they took up a large part of the campus. The enormous football stadium dominated, but there were also smaller structures for track and field, basketball, and other activities. The whole complex hummed with motion, as guys and girls who were obviously athletes strode purposefully between buildings, some carrying equipment bags or backpacks, some emptyhanded. Feeling something like an emigrant to a foreign country, she tried to wave down a hulking guy in a letter jacket, but he ignored her. She had better luck with a wiry girl almost a foot taller than her.

"Excuse me? Where do the football players practice?" she asked.

The taller girl shrugged. "In the stadium," she said.

That won't do at all, Daria thought. "What about the scout team?"

"Oh, that's right. They work out on the practice field over there." The girl gestured toward a long, low set of bleachers. "Probably no one there, though. Practice doesn't start for a couple hours, I think."

Good. Now if only he's there. "Thank you. You've been a big help," she said aloud, even as the other girl ambled off.

Daria headed in the direction of the bleachers and soon enough came around them to see a wide green field, empty except for one person and a bag of footballs. She watched for a moment, heart suddenly hammering, as the figure reached into the bag, pulled out a football, and threw it at a distant target. She heard the clank as the ball bounded off the metal man-shaped target. The next ball, though, disappeared through a small hole where she assumed a person's hands would be. Several more disappeared before another one clanked off the metal. The figure didn't react either way; he just kept throwing.

Finally, she worked up the nerve to walk over. He kept throwing, seemingly oblivious to her approach until she was close enough to touch his arm as he reached into the bag for another ball. Dropping the ball, he looked up with an angry expression, one that faded when he saw who had interrupted him. "Oh, hi, Daria," he said, trying for nonchalance and missing by miles. "Funny seeing you here."

With nerves overwhelming her, the sarcasm reflex took over. "I know. It's almost like I came looking for you or something."

He laughed nervously. "Why would you do that?"

"I don't know," she said. "Something about seeing you in the library and having you run off like I'm Typhoid Mary or something."

Instead of responding, he reached down into the bag of footballs again. This time, however, he didn't aim for target. Instead, with a growl, he heaved the ball the length of the practice field and over the bleachers. Daria could only watch in amazement.

When he finally spoke, his voice was raw. "I'm sorry, Daria, for being such a jerk. If it makes you feel better, you can't be madder at me than I am."

"What do you mean?" she asked. "I'm not mad at you. Well, except for the running away part. Chasing you down is no fun."

For a long moment warring expressions competed on Kevin's face: shock, confusion, disappointment, maybe even hope. Finally, he blurted, "Why?"

"Why am I not mad at you?"

He nodded, clearly still shocked.

"Why would I be mad at you?" Daria sighed. "As far as I could tell, what happened last night was mutual. If I thought you'd weaseled your way up to my rooms to put the moves on poor, broken Daria, I'd be mad, but we both know you didn't do that. So why should I be mad at you?"

"Well, we're friends, and friends aren't supposed to do that to friends."

"On the contrary, that's how some of the best relationships get started."

Completely wrongfooted yet again, Kevin blinked, several times before finally saying, "Relationships? We weren't talking about relationships, were we? Did I miss something?"

Daria sighed. "No, Kevin. We weren't talking about relationships." Coldness welled up in her. "Does the idea bother you?"

"No," Kevin said. "It's just that girls like you don't go out with guys like me."

Daria's mouth quirked and she could feel the sarcastic remark burning to escape, but to her everlasting shock, Kevin beat her to it. "I know that's the opposite of what I would have said in High School, but I've met enough college girls to know it's true. You're a smart, beautiful girl, Daria, and I'm just a dumb jock."

"Don't call yourself dumb, Kevin," she snapped, and then her expression softened. "You're also honest, Kevin. You're the only person I know who's always been honest with me. And that counts for a lot." A sense of possibility crept over Daria. She knew this could very well end in disaster, but it could also be a really, really good experience, something she'd never really opened herself fully to before. "So, if you want to, we can give this thing a try."

"Give this thing—" he stammered. "You…you want to go out with me?"

"If you want to go out with me," she said and smiled.

"Yes, yes!" He said, and threw his arms around her in a wild embrace. "I can't believe it. I can't believe you'll go out with me.

"I can't believe it either," she said, affecting a monotone, even as something inside her sang. "I mean, how the hell am I going to explain to Jane?"